My parents were never the crazy fundamentalist type that other people have talked about. I love them both dearly and have never doubted their love for me. Yet they were deeply religious. My Dad came from a Southern Baptist background and my mother had been Catholic but converted to Protestantism in college. I remember religion being an integral part of my childhood. We attended a relatively small church and so everyone was like family. Almost all my friends were from my Sunday school and I remember us playing games after church like Noah’s Ark We would pretend to be different animals and scurry under tables that were supposed to be the ark. We were completely oblivious to the fact that the rest of the animals and humans were drowning outside the ark. I sang in the kid’s choir and acted in the Christmas pageant.
When I reached school age my parents decided to homeschool me. I actually don’t hold this against my parents as much as you might think. I received an excellent personalized education that has served me well in my later studies. But all the books that we studied had a Christian slant to them. In history class we read books on missionaries, the spelling exercises often involved biblical stories and I would do math problem involving how many bibles could be distributed to x number of people. For me it was perfectly normal. After all if everyone in my world said that Jesus was true, then why would I doubt? I knew that a few people didn’t believe, but they were either bad people or just confused. And it was my job to set them straight. I can still remember distinctly “leading my first soul to Jesus”. I was probably all of six and playing with one of the three “unbelieving boys” in my neighborhood. I asked him if he wanted to go to heaven. He said sure and I told him he had to ask Jesus to save him. He said ok and I ran home absolutely thrilled at his conversion. I was convinced I had brought my cousin to the Lord as well after a long deeply theological conversation (at age ten). My agnostic aunt was quite upset when I proudly told her that I had turned her daughter into a Christian. I don’t think that any of these “conversions” lasted more than a day or two.
I can still remember one Christmas when my Dad decided to purge the house of all Santa paraphernalia because it distracted from the real meaning of Christmas. You’d think I would have been upset, but I eagerly joined in, almost throwing away my Mom’s heirloom 1950s Santa statue (she wasn’t as thrilled about the purge as my Dad, but who was she to question him).
Life continued on in this way up until high school and college. I kind of lost my fervor during high school when I stopped homeschooling. Partly because I was exposed to non-Christians who were actually good and cool people and partly because when we moved we didn’t really find a solid church to plug into. But I didn’t ever doubt that Christianity was true. I may have drifted away early during college if it wasn’t for the fact that I ended up rooming with a fellow Christian and living next door to two other Christians. And this was not the most religious of schools. I was convinced that this must have been God’s way of keeping me in the fold. We had bible studies together and prayed when life got stressful. We even got involved in the local Assemblies of God church. It was different than I was used to. People would sometimes prophecy or speak in tongues. I was a little wary of that as it wasn’t part of my background, but it was the only upbeat church that I could find and the people were extremely friendly. My roommates got really into it. One had been raised Catholic and she found the personalized religion of A of G much more appealing. The other roommate was from Africa and she firmly believed in the existence of devils and miracles and speaking in tongues. With her, life was always a struggle between the demons and Jesus.
They were extremely nice though and so much more genuine than many of the other people at my school and we quickly all became inseparable. We became well known at church as the foursome and often were invited to their houses. It felt like a community and I enjoyed it. I definitely had doubts but always managed to quickly shove them out of my head when they became uncomfortable.
My deconversion actually starts with a relationship that I had begun to develop with one of the young men at the church. He had come from a rough past. He used to be involved in drugs and crime, but he had gone through one of those religious programs and had found Jesus. He was now living on the straight and narrow. His conversion story was exciting and inspiring. And who doesn’t like a reformed bad boy? It adds a touch of danger and mystery. We began to sort of date. He talked enthusiastically about God and what he was doing in his life. I responded in kind, maybe a little more so than I would usually have done. I wanted to appear like a fervent Christian as well. I saw us together, on fire for Christ and making a difference in this world. It gave my life a feeling of satisfaction and purpose. But, as most of you probably can already guess, this guy was less than perfect. At one point he got massively drunk (apparently hadn’t quite gotten over those addiction problems) and tried to sleep with me. I went along with it further than I should have although we never actually had sex. A few weeks later he told me that he couldn’t continue to be in a relationship with me because of what we had done. He said he was disappointed in both of us. I apparently hadn’t done enough to stop him and save him from himself. All of our other experiences and conversations apparently meant nothing compared to that mistake. But his “guilt” didn’t stop him from starting to date a more “holy” girl from our church two weeks later. I have my suspicions as to whether or not things between them had already been going on even before he broke up with me. They got married less than a year later and are considered to be a model couple at our church. I still get sick every time I see them.
But I don’t want you to think that I turned away from the church because of a personal vendetta or anything. Although that did keep me from going to that same church for a while. I felt so worthless after that experience. Not only did I feel rejected by him, I felt rejected by God. I was convinced that I was evil and that I was a hypocrite. I did everything I could to make up for it. I listened to sermons online, I prayed my heart out, and I read my Bible. But nothing helped. I didn’t feel closer to God. I felt angry that I had to go through all this to appease him. I also felt angry at thinking that this guy that I now despised was going to heaven just because he had said a little prayer while my good friends who were not Christian (but were just as moral and often nicer and more fun) would be going to hell. And for some reason, right then, the concept of hell became real in my mind. I had always believed in it in a theological sense but had never really thought about it. Now I pictured all my non-Christian friends literally burning forever in that place. That is an extremely frightening thought. And I couldn’t get over the fact that we as Christians were having potlucks and camping trips and reveling in our salvation if we really thought even one person was going to hell. Shouldn’t we all be in mourning all the time over this tragedy? I couldn’t see the purpose in life or the world if the vast majority of humans end up in such a terrible place. It would be better to die as a child before you reached the age of accountability than risk not believing and go to hell. And I wondered about my brother who has Autism and Down Syndrome. Did he get a free pass into heaven because he couldn’t understand about religion? I hoped so but at the same time it didn’t seem fair. I’d rather be born with mental problems as long as I was guaranteed an eternity in heaven afterwards. Things were starting to not make sense the more I looked at them. I spent hours on the internet looking for answers. I heard all the pat answers repeated a million times but none of them satisfied me. I developed severe depression. Every time I walked on the streets I pictured the people that I saw in hell. Not a fun way to spend your time but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I became mad at God for putting me through it and for not giving me comfort or explanation when I needed it.
I stumbled across this site and it opened possibilities I didn’t even know existed. I never considered not believing but the arguments on this site made sense and every story I read sounded like my own. I never thought I would find people who had gone through the exact same feelings as me but there they were. The atheism thing frightened me at first. I couldn’t be an atheist. It just wasn’t part of the package. And losing the illusion of heaven was a frightening concept as well. I still wanted to believe in Jesus and God but without the hell part. But I knew I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. I lived in limbo for a long time. I tried to tell my parents about my doubts. My mom would cry and my dad thought it was Satan’s influence. It was hard not being able to share my pain with them. My friends were the same way. They tried to give me answers but they didn’t really have any. After a while they just kind of ignored it. For a while I went along with still going to church but I felt awkward standing there and singing songs to a god that I was no longer sure existed and whenever the pastor spoke I just thought of ways to refute his argument. But I felt lonely. My friends did not ostracize me but I no longer felt part of the close little group because I couldn’t fully participate in the religious aspects that were such a part of our relationship. I began to get annoyed at them constantly singing gospel around the house and attributing everything to an act of God. I still can’t understand how people ask God to help them on a test when there are people in the world starving. If God cares more about my Econ midterm than a baby with cancer then I think there is a problem.
The last part of my story involved a mission trip to Africa that we took that summer. I was still very much in doubt, but this trip had been in the works for a year and they convinced me that I could do other things besides religious stuff. It was one of the most awkward things ever. I enjoyed the experience of traveling and I was able to teach English and do some other work but I was constantly surrounded by the most intense Christians that I had ever seen. Christianity in many places of Africa is extremely Pentecostal. They fully believed in tongues and miracles and shouting and being slain in the spirit. I had to sit through more than one all night prayer service. I went to a spirit soaking in which people waited to be filled with the spirit and then began to yell, cry, laugh, fall over, or whatever else struck their fancy when they believed the spirit had come. I just kept seeing it as more and more ridiculous but my roommates really got into it. They all came out of the summer so much more “on fire for God”. Since I was traveling with them everyone expected me to be a Christian too and I went along with it because it was easier than trying to explain the truth and listen to them try to bring me back into the fold. I hated being the wet blanket. For a while I tried to point out the flaws in logic to my roommates but after a while I just felt like I was alienating them and being the killjoy. I think the most poignant part of all the deconversion stories is the loss that you feel when you can’t connect with your old friends and family in the same way. Now I’m back and I have stopped going to church. Ironically the summer of missions, which was supposed to strengthen my faith has only left me more doubtful and confused. Now we are supposed to attend a session with the bible study at the church that helped partially support our trip and talk about what we learned. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to say the truth and alienate all my friends and church family, but I am tired of being hypocritical. I know that once I officially say something, it will drastically change the dynamics of my relationships with many people.