Image via WikipediaI’ve not been a Christian now for over 20 years, since 1988. Church was not a very important part of my childhood, as my parents stopped going to church (they were Methodist) when I was about 4 years old. My mother in particular was rather cynical about organized religions, believing they were only in it for the money. Still, I was somewhat fascinated with Christianity as I grew up and kept reading the bible. I became enthralled with the stories of heaven, eternity, and biblical prophecies, and truly wanted to do what was right and good. By the time I was a teenager, I had accepted Jesus and Christianity and started going to different Protestant churches with friends. However, the seeds of doubt and skepticism started growing when I was in high school.
The more I read the bible, the more I began to question what it said. One sticking point for me involved passages from Romans 13, stating we must submit ourselves to the governing authorities, because God established all authorities, and that rulers hold no terror for those who do right. Oh really? Even rulers like Hilter, Pol Pot, Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, Richard III, Cesare Borgia, Idi Amin, Nero, and so on? I loved to study history and knew all about evil rulers, so this biblical teaching seemed insane or morally wrong if taken literally. Still, I accepted this as referring to authority in general, to maintain social order.
I also never understood the need for the sacrifice of Jesus. I was taught that if I simply accepted Jesus as my lord and savior I would be forgiven for all my sins and the sinful nature I was born with and rewarded with eternal life. I didn’t think I was that bad, but whatever. Well, if I could be forgiven so easily, then why did Jesus have to suffer and die? How did his one death pay the price for everyone’s sins? If God knew nothing else would suffice, why wasn’t Jesus sacrificed at the time of “the Fall of Man” for Adam and Eve? And if my sins could be so easily forgotten, were they really that bad to begin with? So bad that if I didn’t accept this so called gift of salvation by believing, I deserved damnation for all eternity? So many questions, but it all seemed strangely morally disturbing and outrageous. And I also never felt quite comfortable with the reasons given to explain why an almighty and all loving god couldn’t or wouldn’t stop or prevent all sorts of evil from happening in the first place. Still, I kept telling myself that God knew better.
I listened to some preachers say that, because of original sin, we deserved any evil that we suffer. This seemed unfair, cruel, and far from loving. And furthermore they taught that our goodness was not good enough to get us into heaven if we don’t believe; only faith will do, no matter how evil we’ve been. Again, it shows that my religious orientation was Protestant. So a lot of goodness from non-Christians means nothing, but a tiny bit of sincere faith from a serial killer before he or she dies (even when the choice to believe is made under duress with the threat of hell) is enough to do the trick? This sounded like a terrible game with absurd rules! And why was believing so important anyway? After all, God, who supposedly loves us, will send us to hell for not believing but is unwilling to reveal Himself to everyone like He did to Paul to get us to believe? These moral scales God was using seemed terribly unbalanced. Still, who was I to question the very word and preferences of God?
Besides the plan of salvation and the need for the crucifixion not making sense to me, I never quite understood the need for the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate a victory over death when we all supposedly have an eternal soul whether we are saved or damned. And for those souls who have gone to Heaven, I never could make sense of why they would need to come back to Earth at some point to be resurrected. Still, I believed God knew what He was doing.
The dreadful actions of God in both the old and new testaments bothered me too, whether it was God commending Abraham for being ready and willing to murder his son Isaac for Him, killing the first born of Egypt, slaughtering whole cultures in Canaan, threatening to send mere non-believers to hell, or wiping out over a third of humanity in Revelations. God sounded more like an angry prudish tyrant or a cruel mafia don. Still, I felt God was God, and ultimately deserved to do whatever He did or would do.
It also didn’t help when I studied how the bible itself was composed, and that some churches accepted and rejected certain books and passages as divine scripture. Was this the Word of God or wasn’t it? Why was it so easy to be interpreted by so many different denominations over the centuries? And why did so many translations seem different, even on little matters? And again, why didn’t God just reveal Himself to everyone all the time?
I had so many questions and rarely received any satisfying answers when I was confident enough to ask. Still, though confused by all of this, I remained faithful and simply believed that other Christians understood better than I did.
I didn’t stay active in a church during my college years, but was inspired to question my religious beliefs in a philosophy and reasoning class. Simple methods and concepts of critical thinking that were taught in the class resonated in my brain, allowing me to challenge or question the very ideas I had accepted on faith or taken for granted for years. Instead of accepting religious scripture or any supernatural claim as true and fascinating, I began to look upon them with greater skepticism and suspicion and found them to be quite lacking as anything trustworthy, logical, or real. The bible became a work that seemed to be more inaccurate and contradictory the more I read it, and nothing more special than Greek mythology, except perhaps for some of it’s moral instructions. All of the questions I had about the bible and Christianity seemed to make sense when I concluded Christianity was false. Jesus just became another mere mortal and teacher at best with a great deal of magical legends wrapped around him by his followers, just as Saint Nicholas eventually became known as a jolly joyful magical elf who lives at the North Pole and brings presents to good girls and boys the world over on a merry single night each year.
Critical thinking gave me an epiphany, opening my eyes and allowing me to confidently see the world with a naturalistic and skeptically cautious outlook. Naturalism, which seems to be continually confirmed by science, made great sense to me, far more sense than any supernatural claims ever had. It finally seemed obvious to me that all the talk of divine miracles, supernatural events, spirits, angels, demons, hell, and even heaven were nothing more than imaginary tales and fictional ideas designed to make people obey, behave, and feel good, hopeful, and scared.
Furthermore, being exposed to different ideas, information, and opinions clearly showed me that Christianity (especially the version I was familiar with) was not the only game in town or the only way to play it. The classes I took in Philosophy, Comparative Religion, Anthropology, Earth Science, Astronomy, Human Sexuality, and Biology all seemed to contradict many ideas that the bible seemed to assert as true or original. The enlightenment that came with my higher education also made it very clear to me why “belief” is one of the most valued and essential parts of Christianity, as it helps to keep people loyal to the faith despite whatever they learn, and it makes them feel bad when they question the faith or consider not believing. Of course, it’s also a handy reason to convert others and increase the numbers of the faithful.
So time went by for me being an ex-Christian.
After four years of being a naturalist and an agnostic, I came to wonder if I had been too harsh and too quick to come to such a definite dismissal of Christianity. I came to wonder that maybe it was possible that it could be true, that God and heaven could exist. I have to admit that emotionally at the time I still desired to survive death and make it to someplace like heaven. As it turned out, I allowed myself to be persuaded by a girlfriend to give it another chance and dive back in, this time with a more liberal interpretation of the bible. I felt that perhaps the meaning behind the language was what was most important, that message being the value of love and forgiveness and living a “wholesome” life. I truly devoted myself to accepting the bible not as the only word of God but as one of many holy scriptures that was greatly inspired by God and worth living by.
I continued to live as a Christian for three years, even praying to Jesus, but the more I read the bible the more I realized it’s advice and teachings often made little sense. At times it seemed very unhealthy and reckless and inspired prejudice. And any part of it that seemed healthy and helpful certainly wasn’t something you would ONLY find taught and adhered to by Christians or any kind of theist. The whole plan of salvation still kept bothering me as something disturbing that didn’t seem to make any sense, whether it was professed by a fundamentalist, evangelical, or liberal Christian. And I had to admit that prayer was not changing my life one way or another, but served more as wishful thinking. Without Jesus being either a moral master worth following or God incarnate who is somehow necessary for salvation or able to improve my life or anyone else’s, my reasons for remaining a Christian were gone.
But at least my girlfriend stayed and became my wife, even though we disagreed religiously.
Even if I wanted to believe in a higher power or an afterlife, I knew this didn’t mean I had to only accept the narrow beliefs of Christianity. But I also came to believe that this life can be very fulfilling, whether a god or afterlife exists or not. The four gospels and letters of the new testament no longer persuaded me at all with their supernatural tales, warnings, and promises. Why should I let this collection of magical stories and questionable moral edicts decide or influence how I should live my life? Obviously many non-believers around the world led moral, productive, happy lives based on responsibility and loving kindness, as well at least as most Christians. The more I read and learned and thought, the more I was moved, intellectually and emotionally, to once again give up the Christian faith and embrace my agnosticism. My dedication to ~ and bondage in ~ Christianity was over for good. Since making that final decision back in 1988, I’ve gone on to truly enjoy my life free of religion, with neither shame nor fear nor regret.
But I truly respect anyone who has decided to be or stay a Christian, provided they show the same respect to me and others in return. That’s their choice and their life, and I happily accept the kindness behind their well wishes of “God bless you” and even “Jesus loves you.” But I do take offense when they insist I must believe as they do, that it’s wrong for me to share or bring up my disbelief, or that I’m lost, confused, foolish, selfish, untrustworthy, immoral, intolerant, hostile, or destined for hell simply because I reject Christianity. I’m happy to proclaim that I’m an ex-Christian when asked, whether they like it or not, because we all have the right to our own beliefs and finding our own way. Live and let live.
It’s also such a great comfort these days to see a growing community of former Christians and non-theists, and readily available information, publications, and groups that support those who are moving away from (or have already let go of) Christianity. It’s still a struggle for many of us, but it’s wonderful to find others waiting to help us once we’ve completed our journey.