By Ian J. Carr
If I may paraphrase a famous Christian: Free at last, thank God I'm free at last!
I am a former Christian, early 40's, a previous true believer who worshipped mainly in Fundamentalist circles (though never able to tackle hard-line evangelist doctrine with any enthusiasm.)
My journey to freethought has taken five years, and I would now describe myself as an "open" nontheist. That is, I am happy to describe the human being as "spiritual", while realising that this impetus is a phenomenon manufactured within the psyche or society, and not imposed by an external God (especially not the white-bearded guy looking down from the clouds!) And I am willing to accept the positive, beautiful and poetic elements of any faith while resisting any attempts by organized religion to impose their dogmas on our (thankfully) secular society. My personal consolations are now the music of Bach, Mozart and Grainger, the poetry of Housman and Wilfred Owen, natural history from Darwin to Dawkins, the Ideal Palace of the Facteur Cheval, the comedy of Monty Python and Pete and Dud ---- these and much, much more ---- and the freedom of not filtering every word or thought through the doctrinal sieve of the Christian Fundamentals.
Nor am I a woolly-thinking New Ager, but a secular humanist and rationalist. No point in exchanging old for new in the religion department: freedom comes with the courage to expose your philosophies to the scrutiny of your own intellectual honesty.
I won't bore you with a lengthy treatise on my deconversion, except to cover a few salient points which might stop others from losing their way. My mother's church attendance as a "social" Methodist (that is, she attended for the fellowship and the choir rather than allegiance to the doctrine) meant I had several years of Sunday School exposure around the age of 10. I remember several attempts to read my New English Bible New Testament at that age, determined to tackle it in its entirety: but I couldn't get much past Matthew's genealogies.
We moved towns soon after, and Church was not a part of our new life. (This lack of consistency puzzled me.) The story of Eden and the Fall had left me with an indelible image of God as a big white-bearded guy standing on a cloud digging with a gardening fork, but it also left me with an abiding interest in Jesus and Christianity.
In my high school years, I became rather cynically anti-Christian despite having little contact with organized Church, though religion was daily grist to our conversational mill. (Do kids today even give it a thought?)
At age 20, several factors came together which converted me to a (still-thinking) Born-again: a Christian girlfriend, a Christian best friend, campus evangelism, attendance at an outwardly confident and joyous congregation, my own philosophical confusion, low self-esteem --- and the feeling, thanks presumably to Sunday School memories, of warm and comfortable familiarity!
After 20 years as a Christian and 2 as a post-Christian, I can say:
If my non-Christian friends had been able to tell me what I now know about the Bible and Christian History, I need never have embarked on the faith journey !!! This is why it is imperative for freethinkers to know not only why they don't believe, but also why the Bible is not and has never been the Word of God.
So what went wrong with my "faith"? Here follow some of my misgivings about institutional Christianity.
Too many hideously objectionable teachings e.g. the damnation of even unevangelised unbelievers.
Misrepresentation: Never say "Bible", say rather "Word of God", lest its authority be questioned. Yet never a word about biblical criticism or history.
I discovered the word "obedience" was used in sermons much more often than "love".
I met people whose fanatical obsession with the Lord had left them empty unthinking shells of human beings, devoid of personality.
The bloody-mindedness and intellectual suicide of Creationism and other forms of literalism. What a small, petty tribal god these people have conceived!
The failure of Christian apologists to place scripture into its historical and cultural settings, and their almost total ignorance of same.
I encountered the phenomenon of the modern Urban Myth and realized that it is human nature to want to see meaning in everything (like portraits of the Virgin in oddly-shaped breadrolls.) There must be "something more", (meaning supernatural), goes this vague argument. Not if you have the courage to look around you.
Political and social conservatism of the church and its laity: the selfish emphasis on "personal salvation" to the exclusion of building a better world. Christians excusing themselves for being rich and greedy.
The Church's fixation with sex--- would that it were paralleled by an interest in denouncing selfishness, greed and injustice!
Knowing the glories of the sacred music of Bach, Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis etc, I am dismayed by the awful Christian pop music schlock that has replaced the hymn in worship. If that stuff's playing in heaven, I wouldn't want to be there!
Televangelists. ( No further comment required.)
(I could go on.)
I began to read widely ("Satanic material" said my church elder father-in-law of Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar). I examined the Bible --closely-- for the first time since my conversion. I read liberal and radical theologians as well as conservative apologists, Church history, anti-Creationist treatises, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins on natural history and, finally, the stories of ex-Christians like Dan Barker. Initially, I approached every new idea fearfully, knowing my faith was being challenged to breaking point. It became obvious that an indefensible "faith" is not worth having: in fact, I doubt that faith is even a virtue. Once I had seen for myself the obvious "seams" in the putting together of the scriptures by the early writers, I could never again accept the Bible as the Holy inerrant Word of God.
The final part of my journey into freethought took place as I assessed the damage that twenty years of Fundamental Christianity had done to my psychological wellbeing and to my closest relationships. I suffered a severe depression triggered by several factors, but due in large part to the constant mental juggling required to cling to my faith. [Inconsistency is depressogenic; some researchers have reported fundamentalists as being twice as likely to develop depression as the general population. "Some people have just enough religion to bug 'em rather than bless 'em" said one evangelist.]
Relationships with my family were initially strained as I tried to share the excitement of my discoveries with my wife, who was raised within a devout family. She has not joined me on this part of my spiritual journey yet, but I thank her for graciously accepting my new philosophies and defending my right to have them.
Perhaps my greatest anxieties were for the consequences of my thinking on my children, then aged five, ten and twelve years. Do we continue raising them in the faith, with me maintaining a silence on "spiritual" matters? The answer was obvious, if not easy: total honesty! The kids still attend church and Sunday School but get a wider view of its teachings as we discuss issues at home. No more do I have to feel guilty about introducing them to the scientific concepts such as evolution which are their intellectual birthright.
One of the hardest tasks of all was disappointing my church family who naturally had no indication of the long process of my turning away. I had even been seen as a natural heir to the current leadership. I sent a letter to the church board to officially resign my church membership, then a more personal explanation to each member. Only three members bothered to address my concerns! And I got the distinct feeling that my grasp of biblical scholarship and theological issues made the pastors feel threatened.
It is now two years since I found all the answers about Christianity that I sought. And in some sort of miracle of bad sportsmanship on His part, God has not allowed even one raw and over-keen street-preacher to approach me for the Lord. I am eagerly looking forward to the day this happens, so I will ask (and get no answers to):
If you hang your life on every syllable of the Word of God, then tell me how and when the Bible was finally compiled. [Council of Nicaea, 325AD]
How many Gospels exist? [Not just the four canonical gospels, but about twenty other early ones, including that called "Thomas", found complete only in 1945 and since largely ignored by the Church.]
Who wrote them? (And don't tell me Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)
Can you define concepts important to the study of ancient scriptures such as "midrash", "interpolation", "form criticism","source analysis" etc, etc. [Look them up!]
Why do Matthew and Luke tell two entirely different Nativity stories? (The story rolled out each December is very much a composite.) And were not the "wise men" really astrologers? Isn't astrology evil?
I'm going to have such fun!
If I was eighteen again, this is what I would need to hear:
Christians have no right at all to demand that you respond to their Good News. The so-called "evidence that demands a verdict" is flimsy hearsay, 2000 years old at that, and would be thrown out of any court of law.
Dogmatic nonsense like Creationism need not even be dignified by a response.
Don't wait for the Truth to come to you. Most of your teachers in life will be either still-confused seekers or rigid dogmatists. If you are like me, you will seek until you find that it is the journey that is important, not the destination.
Follow your passion and, therefore, be what you were meant to be...and with any luck, you will have found all the "meaning" you need without having to cope with sin, atonement, redemption, salvation or excommunication. Be yourself and ENJOY being yourself.
Live in the real world. Walk in forests, touch the earth, own a dog, read to your kids, learn to sing and play music. Help others: you - yes, YOU - are NEEDED! Don't dribble your life away in front of any cathode ray tube, be it TV, Net or video game: They have their (very limited) place, but the media moguls have a vested interest in keeping you there ---- RESIST!
If I may conclude with a couple of my favourite quotes, noted down in my search for wisdom:
On Fundamentalism: "The desire for certainty is a snare which will entrap the child in us all." [This quote grabbed from a radio broadcast: unfortunately, I cannot identify its source.]
And this one, ironically from a Church magazine: "Pray in a storm but keep on rowing." Or: Call to God by all means, but live your life as though he wasn't there anyway!
Perhaps I am richer for having experienced the religious version of the "peace that passeth all understanding." I have at least had an inside view of the believer's mind: but I feel I have a deeper peace now, not a nervous peace that is forever looking over its shoulder.
PO Box 118,
Taree NSW 2430
Responses from freethinkers or troubled Christians are welcome. Responses from evangelists unnecessary, thank you.
where_been: Churches of Christ, Australia
what_now: rational humanist, skeptic
why_joined: peer influence, superficial evangelist-guided bible study
why_left: unable to reconcile Christian doctrine with reality; read widely on religion, science, history etc.; did some real Bible study