sent in by Scott Stahlecker
From as far back as I can remember (at age eight, lighting the candles on the alter of a Lutheran church), I have been fascinated by religion and all of its mystical qualities. I recall as well catching a city bus to a friend’s house at about the age of nine from my home in Pearl City, Hawaii, to a nearby suburb called Pacific Palisades. On the bus route was a church that I always made a point to look at as I made my journey. In a rather naive way, I would tell myself that one day that church would play a significant role in my life. What I was really telling myself was that I was intrigued by spirituality and I thought that organized religion was the means by which I would pursue my spiritual quest. Boys will be boys, though, and at that early age I certainly wasn’t fanatical about spirituality or religion.
In the summer before my eighth-grade year, I moved from Hawaii with my mother to Tucson, Arizona. I was not active in a church throughout my high school years, but that situation would change dramatically after I finished school. Shortly after turning eighteen, I caught a Greyhound bus to California and was for the first time out on my own. For a couple of years prior to my move I had been actively skating as a hobby, the kind of skating that is performed on vertical terrain, in empty swimming pools, and on wooden ramps. Skateboarding at that time was just beginning to take off, but as an offshoot of that sport some skaters were using specially adapted roller-skates to skate on the same kind of terrain. I was one of the forerunners of this sport and happened to place third in my first major contest. As a result of this contest, and with the help of a friend, I managed to get a job in Del Mar, California. For the first three months I slept under a picnic table near my friend’s trailer, but when he suddenly died of a heart attack while jogging in the desert nearby, I had to find different accommodations. The manager of the place where I worked knew of my situation and hired me as the night watchman. This amounted to getting paid ten dollars a night to sleep on a pool table in the arcade room. Other than the noise of the pinball machines and a burglar I had to scare off one evening, the accommodations were great. A few months later I bought a dinky trailer from a Filipino immigrant and parked it in the trailer park, which was also owned by the company for whom I worked. Several months passed and I invited two of my close friends who were living in Tucson, Arizona, at the time to come live with me. They both got a temporary job working at a nearby carwash. At the carwash was a man who shinned the shoes of the customers waiting for their cars to get cleaned. This man introduced my friends to religion, who in turn introduced religion to me.
I remember sitting with my friends into the late hours of the night studying Revelation in the Bible, without having a clue as to what any of it meant. Like in a science-fiction movie, the imagery and symbolism were fascinating and frightening. Although we did not yet know how a Christian should act, we began simplifying our lives and cutting out worldly activities. My skating career was beginning to take off. I had secured two major sponsors that provided me with my equipment plus a few perks. I had many opportunities to skate for skating magazines and newspapers, as well as television. But I was growing weary of the lifestyle and the frantic pace of California. What was really beginning to occur was that religion was beginning to consume me, affecting the way I perceived the world and my purpose in life. Through study of the Bible, and in particular the life of Jesus, I recognized that many aspects of my life contradicted the life of a good Christian. Within a year of moving to California, I abruptly ended my skating career and moved back to Tucson. My friends who had joined me in California also moved with me, because we were all interested in learning more about religion, specifically, the religion offered by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I started learning more about Adventism through Bible studies conducted by an elder in the church. My friends, along with several other individuals, studied with me. We needed to learn the key points of the faith in order to be baptized. The weekly studies were not enough for me, however, and I would often spend hours each day studying the Bible, making connections between different texts on important doctrines and learning everything I could about my church. Within the church I began meeting fascinating and devoted people whose friendships I still hold dear to this day. It seemed as if every day was spent studying or discussing God and His purpose for my life. I was enjoying every minute of the education, getting close to God and worshiping with my new Christian family. I worked hard at doing everything the church expected of me. The church had its own traditions and rituals that I learned and practiced, and I was becoming accustomed to the way in which the church orchestrated its worship services. In socializing with other church members, I learned how to conduct myself by adhering to their values and customs. In time, I became an old Adventist, although I was new to the faith, because I learned to act much like the old-timers did. The time of my baptism came, and I distinctly remember standing in the parking lot after changing into dry clothes, my hair still wet from the submersion, and feeling absolutely nothing other than the impression that I had done what I was supposed to do.
As I think back on this time, I remember that my goal was to change as quickly as possible into the person that the church expected me to become. I was only nineteen, and I put up no resistance to the information I was being provided and the expectations being placed on me. The most important thing I learned at this time was how to use my faith to work through any lingering questions that I had about my beliefs or my relationship to the church. For me, this translated into total compliance with the teachings of the elders and the long-held traditions of the church. No arguments or evidences were offered to counter what I was being taught, and indeed I was not even aware that what I was being taught might have been wrong. I simply trusted that the information the elders provided was the truth, although I did not quite understand everything, and exercised the greatest of faith in trusting that some questions could not be answered or might never be answered. And through this blind allegiance I completely altered the course of my life.
I voluntarily gave up many habits and personal interests at this time, for I was led to believe that my personal interests were “of this world” and, as such, were either evil or stood in the way of being “in the likeness of Christ.” I’d already given up my skating career, which would have led into other profitable ventures. I was also interested in photography, but as there would be no use for photography in heaven, this interest became a waste of time. I also changed my diet, becoming a vegetarian. I cut my hair and began dressing more appropriately. My attitudes towards entertainment changed, and I got rid of the so-called evil music in my album collection. I stopped going to see movies. For a period of about seven years, I even refrained from watching television. But these were only a few of the things that come quickly to mind that I abstained from on my way to becoming a good Christian. These things are minor when compared to the overall attitude I had at the time: that I should completely disengage myself from the ways of other people in world. I was told that the world was an evil place that in a short period of time would be consumed by the wrath and fire of God. From this world I had to escape, and there was only one exception to my involvement with this wicked planet: I was required to save whomever I could, for this was my new duty and purpose in life.
Within a year after being baptized I was off to college in Keene, Texas, and studying for the ministry. My character is such that if I decide to do something I shoot for the largest goal to achieve. If I was going to be a disciple of Christ then my intention was to go all the way. After all, a person who considers himself to be a minister of God sets himself up to be God’s spokesperson. This is the highest possible position to strive for in any religion and carries with it the most respect from other believers. More importantly, if one can believe the biblical promises, the minister is also the most qualified to receive the awesome powers of God.
I did everything I was supposed to do and I did it all with humility and genuine Christian determination. I studied hard, learning virtually every nuance and argument of Christianity so that I could overwhelm my skeptical opponents with logical, persuasive arguments. I donated time and energy towards compassionate causes, helping as many people as I could to make their lives better. I prayed hard and I believed hard, asking God for the power to do His work and asking Him to work through me. Through it all I knew that my faith was the most important factor in my life, especially when I felt that God had let me down by not answering my prayers and not giving me the assistance that I was looking for to help Him preach His gospel. I did not feel at any time that God was obliged to pay me back for my efforts. My sincerity was genuine and I was willing to go through any experience and suffer any trial that God might want me to go through. However, I do remember being rather confused and disheartened during this period, because the powers that the Bible promised me as one of God’s servants never manifested themselves.
I often wonder what possesses a person to strive for such lofty goals. Is it the hope that they can actually become so close to God that God will use them for His cause? This would seem to be a noble desire to pursue. Was I motivated by selfish reasons, such as my desire that God would grant me with the special powers I had been promised in the Bible? Was I somehow born special, with the ability to perceive the supernatural aspects of life? Was I more compassionate towards the human predicament, and had I found in religion a way to exercise my compassion? Or was I quite the opposite, a pessimist, and believed there was no hope for humanity? For my religion claimed that mankind consisted mostly of misguided people doomed to destruction for being inherently evil, and that only by adhering to religion could I hope to escape the evils of the world and the wrath of God. Could it be that I was actually motivated by greed, wanting to obtain the riches of heaven, or simply motivated by fear, desiring to escape the wrath of God? These are all serious questions, and I relate them to you so that you will understand that my striving to be a minister was grounded in an honest attempt to do what I thought I should do.
Having said this, I do distinctly remember being arrogant concerning my religious ideologies, at least through the first few years of college. I use the word “arrogant” now, but at the time I would have considered my demeanor “dedicated.” There is no doubt, however, that a few of my professors and classmates might have considered my attitude fanatical. Why the distinction in terms? The differences arise between what I was taught my religion represented and the actual effect of my religion in the real world.
I believed then, and still believe to this day, that if a person is going to be a Christian, he or she must put forth an unqualified commitment. The Bible should be the Christian’s guidebook in all matters that pertain to life. If there are stipulations and requirements presented by the Bible for the believer, these requirements must be followed. If there are promises that the Bible has made to believers, then these promises should be claimed. If one is going to call himself or herself a Christian, then they must be willing to walk the kind of life that Jesus and his disciples walked.
As a dedicated believer of the word of God, I fully expected the other members of my church to be as dedicated as I was, but I quickly learned that few individuals were. This realization had a devastating effect on my faith. Not only were most of my fellow believers not following the Bible as I understood it should be followed, but they also appeared to me as lethargic and noncommittal. Within time I would understand why this situation was prevalent in my church and other churches. The realization was a painful one: I came to understand that the Bible had little power to change the inner nature of man, and none of its promises were coming to any kind of fruition. Hence, I was learning that however dedicated a newborn Christian is, that Christian cannot remain this way for too long when the biblical promises are not forthcoming and there is neither real change in one’s life nor evidence that a supernatural power is operating in this world.
My attitude would gratefully change by the time I’d graduated, and I can describe this change in just a few short words. When I came to college I thought I knew everything, but by the time I left college I realized that I knew very little. My theological studies had introduced me to the areas of biblical criticism. In modern-day lingo biblical criticism might as well stand for “the study of Bible errors that renders all religious beliefs suspect.” Learning that the Bible was full of profound errors, and that some hard-to-believe stories could be easily dismissed as metaphors or allegories, would eventually erode my unchecked belief that this book had been inspired by God. To find errors in just one of its pages was unsettling, but after four years of biblical studies I discovered that there was little reason to trust any of its contents. This realization humbled me, and I knew that I could no longer be arrogant in promoting my beliefs to others as accurate when I no longer believed the Bible to be accurate.
Nevertheless, still willing to give my education and religion an honest shot, I graduated in December of 1985 and was one of the few ministerial graduates to get a position. The position I took was that of associate pastor in a church in Des Moines, Iowa. I lasted three months, due to my growing skepticism in the Bible and the authoritative role of the Christian church to indoctrinate the world with teachings that cannot be substantiated. I also felt that since I could not rightfully demand that others follow the Bible, I certainly could not justify getting financial compensation for preaching and teaching its contents.
For the next eight years or so I was still active in the church as a teacher and elder and often preached in local churches. Naturally, I was still trying to validate my beliefs through study and friendships, but my skepticism was becoming more profound. On a Saturday in 1992 while in church, I was counseled by other elders over a slight disagreement I had with them. My wife and I were planning to take some of the young people in the church for a ski trip, and the elders were giving me advice on how to “watch over” the youths, so that they did not ski on the Sabbath. The elders claimed it was my responsibility to ensure that the youths did not break the Sabbath. I was not willing to act as a religious patrol officer. For some reason, that small event triggered my desire to leave the church—although I had over the years already discovered enough inconsistencies within church doctrine to have left at an earlier time. I resigned my position the next week and have been to an Adventist church only a handful of times since then.
Anger and disillusionment quickly set in. I’d devoted over a third of my life to the church, and in my opinion it had failed me. Since I felt this was God’s church, I felt God had failed me as well. But to say that I was angry would not fully convey the emotions I was feeling. I was also feeling a tremendous amount of guilt. There must have been something that I had done wrong for God to leave me so abruptly. There was something I did not comprehend that was preventing me from being the good Christian that I had been taught to be. According to Christian thinking, I was “lost.” I had become an unbeliever and a sinner who just wanted to do his own thing. My religion had done a fantastic job of making me feel that I did not have the right to entertain my doubt and use my intelligence to find the truth. Religion made me feel that my inability to accept its teachings on blind faith were the cause of my mental anguish. This was an erroneous twist of logic that the church presented me with—for what I wanted to know was the truth!
Yet, the greatest injustice that religion inflicted on me was to make me angry with God. Was it not God who had led me to the church? Was it not God who was, at that moment, tormenting me because of my doubt and disbelief? Had I not been told that God would lead me through such troubled times and make me stronger and more faithful in the end? Was it not God who told me that I should never doubt and always have faith that what I was being taught originated from Him? No. These thoughts were not from God. These ideas were nothing but false concepts about God that my false religion had taught me. What I learned was that, from an historical standpoint, mankind has allowed religions to operate with too much authority in matters that pertain to God. And because we have given religions this authority, individuals are hard pressed to find the courage and the mental fortitude to realize that they have a responsibility to discover God on their own terms.
In time, the anger within me began to dissipate. Ever so slowly I began entertaining other ideas about the creation of the universe and interesting concepts about the nature of God offered by non-religious sources. I matured as well, learning more about the ups and downs of life, about different cultures, ideologies, and political institutions, about evolution, about the benefits and faults of science, about ancient history—about everything I could get my hands on that interested me. I also became a participant in life. I began viewing other individuals as equal to myself and no longer considered them evil simply because they believed differently than I did. I traveled and began to re-experience the world as a place of wonder, much like I had before my conversion. As my knowledge increased my anger towards God subsided, and I discovered that I could no longer imagine God to be the way religion described Him.
It’s wonderful now to be asked questions about my beliefs and to be able to answer people with a well-rounded perspective, or to admit that there are questions that I have yet to answer. It’s refreshing not to carry around an air of arrogance and intolerance towards individuals whose beliefs differ from my own. It’s great to be able to be a participant within humanity and not to have to consider other people as enemies of God and inherently evil. And it is the essence of true freedom to know that the responsibility to search for God begins and ends with me; and whether my journey is long or short, I will not shirk from this responsibility by letting others tell me what I should do and how I should think.
My hats off to XChristian.net for their efforts in helping individuals escape religion. Scott Stahlecker at www.escapereligion.com
Email Address: info at escapereligion dot com