Image by lincoln-log via FlickrSent in by Brian
I was raised Catholic though my parents were hardly devout. Looking back, I sometimes wonder why they brought us to church at all. I can only assume it was out of some kind of unspoken obligation to their parents. I received my first communion, was an altar boy and felt a certain degree of closeness toward God. At the very least I never questioned that He was real, even though I frequently got into trouble for acting out in Sunday school. My family attended church dutifully, if not faithfully, until I was confirmed in sixth grade, at which point we stopped going altogether.
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because of overbearing parents who left a bad impression of my religion. Even though I was initially “forced” into the church, when I started going back at the age of seventeen, it was entirely my decision. An easy one at that. Fear of Hell drove me into the pews. That’s the one thing Catholics (and later, I would realize, all Christians) are really good at—putting the fear of eternal damnation into you, just in case God’s love wasn’t enough. But once I came back, I was in all the way. I went to confession, received communion and prayed my Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s every single night. I met with my priest on several occasions. He was a good and saintly man, and he comforted and encouraged me in my faith while at the same time challenging me to go deeper.
I will always view that summer before college as the time when my faith was at its strongest, its most unshakeable. I read the Catechism. I stopped cursing. I received communion every week (sometimes several times) and went to confession as often as possible. As the ultimate act of devotion for a seventeen-year-old boy, I even gave up masturbation once I read it was a “mortal sin.” I had zero doubt I was on the right path and I couldn’t believe there were people in this world who didn’t believe in God.
Despite going to an incredibly liberal college in an incredibly liberal city, my faith remained strong, though I did begin to compromise on certain “social issues”. I drank, I cursed, I had gay friends. The masturbation thing went out the window after six months, as eventually did the no sex before marriage thing. By the time I graduated, you could probably have labeled me as just a general “theist.” Though I still identified myself as Catholic and continued to attend mass every Sunday, my general outlook on religion was that it didn’t matter which god you had faith in, so long as you had faith in something.
Then I met a girl. Her dad was an Evangelical preacher. Curious, I went to his church and was blown away by the service. The preaching. The music. The people. When Catholic Mass is all you’ve ever known, going to a church where the songs are fast, where the sermon is engaging, and where the people look genuinely happy to be there, is like a breath of fresh air. Of course, mixed in with all that came a whiff of sourness, since, according to my new girlfriend’s father, Jesus was the only way to God. The only way to Heaven. All other ways, by default, led to Hell. Throw in a couple of comments about the evils of homosexuality and I suddenly wondered if all that music and clapping were just pretty dressings on something otherwise ugly.
And yet, something in the way my future father-in-law preached a personal relationship with Jesus rang true to my soul. In the Catholic Church of my youth, God and Jesus were impersonal figures, entities you approached with solemnity via a priest or a pre-written prayer. The idea of going to God with boldness, with songs of praise, with a prayer you made up on the spot seemed somehow more… real. More true. I still couldn’t stomach the idea that so many people would be going to Hell simply because they’d picked the “wrong god”. But I was willing to table that feeling for the moment in order to figure out if Jesus really was “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” A few months later, I came up for my first altar call and asked Jesus into my heart.
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because the conviction of God made me run and hide in my own sin. When I became an Evangelical Christian, it was a conscious decision, something I did despite the parts that felt wrong. I recall having a conversation with a highly spiritual friend around this time who said I was becoming close-minded in my attitude toward religion. Even now, I tend to disagree. For the first time in my life my mind was opening to the possibility that maybe God really did only have one straight and narrow path. My friend said she refused to believe that any God would send people to Hell. To which I responded, “If God is an eternal and sovereign being, don’t you think He is who He is irrespective of what you think? Irrespective of whether or not you like it? Irrespective of whether or not it makes sense?”
I started reading the Bible for the first time in my life and the first thing I noticed was how wrong the Catholics had gotten it. Things like the divinity of Mary, the origin of the papacy, their theories concerning end times… none of it, as near as I could tell, was biblically based. The realizations were encouraging. Now that I was doing the work I could actually see results. At church I sang with feeling. I listened to sermons with rapt attention. When I prayed, I prayed with all my might. I spent a good deal of time online in Christian forums, asking questions and exploring my faith. A month before my wedding, I proved my commitment to Jesus by being baptized, and I looked forward to the day when the Holy Spirit Itself would baptize me, causing me to speak in tongues. I still had a hard time getting over the whole “Jesus or Hell” dogma, but I simply put faith in God and trusted that He would reveal the wisdom I needed when the time was right.
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because I refused to seek God where He was. As irony would have it, it was the very act of seeking a deeper knowledge of Him that eventually led me away from the faith. As I read my Bible, I would make notes about things that struck me, things that spoke to me, and things that confused me. Especially things that confused me. A pious man of God gave his daughters to an angry mob to be raped? God encouraged Hebrew warriors to slaughter every man, woman and child, but keep the virgins for themselves? David had how many wives? How many whores? How many egregious sins? And yet he was a man after God’s own heart?
But the most damaging passage of all came from the Gospel of Luke, where the writer gives the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam. To Adam! The first man. It didn’t take a math whiz to realize there weren’t enough generations between Jesus and Adam to account for all of human history. I’d always assumed the Bible never really mentioned anything about the origins of humankind beyond the account in Genesis. I figured, if anything, it was just a bunch of vague fables and symbolic allegories that you could never really prove or refute. Yet here they were, providing us with a definitive timeline that even a seventh grade Western Civ student could identify as false.
I asked several “seasoned Christians” about the passage and they gave me some answers that weren’t really answers: “there’s a gap between Genesis 1 and 2… a day to the Lord is as a thousand years… we don’t know how long Adam and Eve were in the garden.” And when I asked what I considered to be natural follow-up questions, they responded the way one might deal with a petulant child. They’d tell me with a huff that I just needed to have faith, or that questions of origins “had no bearing on salvation.” Which struck me as the worst kind of cop out. After all, if even one verse in the inerrant Word of God could be called into question, how could you trust any of it?
This happened a lot over the next few years. Especially with pastors and people who fancied themselves biblical scholars. If something confused me, I could get in perhaps three questions (four if they were really patient) before they’d throw up their hands, assume I was being willfully difficult and end the discussion by telling me to pray on it, or by recommending a book by a Christian author… which usually did no better a job of answering my question than they had.
Mind you, I was never the kind of person who needed every confusing thing spelled out in order to believe. I understood that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In a lot of cases, I found the questions to be kind of exciting. For instance, who were these “sons of God” who could supposedly impregnate human women? What did the prophecies really say about the timing of the Rapture? Why did Satan rebel against God in the first place? After all, no matter how much pride you have, nobody picks a fight unless they’re pretty sure they can win. Speculating on questions like these actually fueled my spiritual curiosity and encouraged me to dig deeper.
Still, it did bother me that the Bible disagreed externally with science and history. Evolution aside, the Old Testament writers certainly seemed to be saying the earth was flat and the sun arced around it. And wasn’t it worrisome that no contemporary writers even mentioned Jesus or any of the miracles that put Judea into such an uproar? How does raising Lazarus from the dead not catch the attention of at least one historian? For that matter, how did it not catch the attention of the other three gospel writers? Turns out, what bothered me most was how the Bible disagreed internally with itself. Explain it away however you want, the four Gospels do give differing accounts of the crucifixion. Follow the footnotes whenever Jesus fulfills a prophesy and you realize that, quite often, the prophetic verse had nothing to do in context with whatever Jesus did to fulfill it.
Those questions which “had no bearing on salvation” eventually gave way to questions that did. Because salvation, according to the brand of Christianity I was following, depended entirely on believing in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. But it’s hard to believe when the book you base your faith on seems like nothing more than a bunch of well-intentioned fairy tales… or worse, a pack of outright lies. Taken out of context, even the Adam and Eve story is little more than some Greek myth entitled, “How the Snake Lost its Legs.” Taken out of context, the story of Jonah sounds no less a kid’s fable than “Pinocchio.” If someone from another religion were to pass along a similar tale from their own holy book, we’d laugh that smug little Christian laugh and marvel at how blinded from the Truth they were.
The more I read the Bible, the more it pointed me toward one scary conclusion: my entire faith had been founded on bullshit. I tried desperately not to believe it. I tried to believe that these deeper nagging questions, the ones I didn’t dare ask out loud, were simply the work of the devil sowing seeds of doubt.
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because I didn’t know the Word of God. I knew it. Certainly not as well as others who can (and do) quote Scripture at will. But I knew enough to recognize it was severely damaging my ability to believe. I gradually turned all spiritual attention toward prayer and first-person experience.
A lot of Christians will tell you “God isn’t a feeling.” You can’t depend on your human senses to reveal eternal Truth. Mind you, these are often the same people who fall on the floor, speak in tongues and claim their prayers have been answered simply because it “felt right.” But that’s beside the point. When God’s own instruction manual is pushing you farther and farther from the faith, all you can rely on is God Himself to bring you back. Call it a “feeling.” Call it an “experience.” Call it a “revelation.” All I knew was I needed something. Anything.
While I tended to look with annoyance and suspicion upon people who spoke in tongues and who worshiped Jesus with vocal abandon, the truth is I envied them. They really did believe they were experiencing something. I wanted a taste of that. I wanted it so badly. And so I prayed. I begged God to reveal Himself to me the way he had to them. The best I can say is I occasionally felt a pleasant kind of buzzing during times of prayer, a mild euphoria during worship. But these weren’t any different than the things I can feel while hiking to a vista, singing along at a rock concert or watching “Field of Dreams”.
My prayer mantra became a quote from the book of Mark: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” A man says this prayer after Jesus tells him he can heal his daughter, “if only he believes.” This had always struck me as an amazingly honest prayer. What’s the point, after all, in lying to the Creator of the universe who knows your innermost thoughts anyway? If I was having trouble believing, surely God already knew that. And if there was any prayer that He would answer, certainly that would be it. And so I prayed over and over again, “I believe in you as much as my human self is able, Lord Jesus. But please God, you have to help me the rest of the way because I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because I never tried to have a personal relationship with Jesus. I cannot convey how much I wanted exactly that. It always amazed me how my fellow Christians could have such an abundant prayer life, such a close friendship with God. I don’t know if they were hearing back from Him in a way that I was not, but for me, the one-way pseudo-dialog had finally became too heartbreaking to continue.
Praying wasn’t working. The Bible wasn’t working. Talking to other Christians had proved fruitless years ago because they kept shoving increasingly useless books in my face and telling me to “just have more faith.” I know they meant well, but none of them could realize I’d reached a point where I had nothing to base my faith on. If I couldn’t base it on the Bible and I couldn’t base it on personal experience, was I to base my faith on faith? But how was I to know I was basing my faith on the right faith? Through faith? None of them could see the circular logic in that. Does one believe in something because they have faith? Or do they believe in it because it’s the Truth? And how do they know it’s the Truth? Faith?
Besides discussion forums on the internet, the only person I could talk to about these matters was my wife. Because, quite frankly, she was the only Christian I knew who wouldn’t play mental gymnastics with theology. If something didn’t make sense, she would come right out and admit, “Yeah, I don’t get that either.” It felt good to actually discuss these things, knowing I wouldn’t get a huffy “just pray on it” after asking one question too many. At the same time, I envied her the way I envied all Christians who were able to believe without question… or to believe in the face of questions.
I don’t think even I realized how close to the edge of unbelief I was. I can remember praying for several atheist friends one day and begging God to fill them with the Holy Spirit so they’d believe. I’d stopped asking Him to bless me with the gift of tongues long ago. After almost eight years, it felt like that prayer had been answered with a definitive “no.” Instead, I prayed, “Lord, I will never not believe in You. So please, bless my friends with that gift so that they might believe in You too.” I honestly believed that no matter how many questions I had, my faith was at least strong enough to survive all out atheism. The reality of God simply seemed more logical than the alternative.
Two months later, I followed a link to the following de-conversion story and everything unraveled. My only experience with atheists to that point involved people for whom religion had always been a patently crazy idea. But here was the story of somebody like me. His upbringing had been far more fundamentalist than mine, but the turmoil he experienced realizing he was losing his faith was identical. Tears sprung to my eyes and my entire body went numb as realization washed over me. “This is my story.” It put into words all the intangible fears and questions that had plagued my Christian faith since I first asked Jesus into my heart. After that, it was only a matter of time.
Fear of Hell was the only thing that kept me hanging on. Funny thing is, even when my faith was at its strongest, Hell never made sense to me. Christians would always say that Hell had to exist because “our God is just God and He can’t allow sin into His presence.” But sending somebody to Hell (or even “allowing them to choose Hell” as some Christians like to spin it) would be akin to a parent letting their three-year-old run away from home… then beating the shit out of them nonstop for the rest of their life and calling it “justice”. It simply doesn’t make sense, especially for a God who’s supposed to love us as a father loves his children. After all, what are we in the grand scheme of eternity but little kids who don’t know any better? But, as I’d said to my friend years before, God is who He is irrespective of what we think or whether or not it makes sense. And if it turned out that He was, in fact, willing to torture me for all eternity simply because I’d picked the wrong answer, well, didn’t I owe it to myself to give faith one more chance?
I waited until everyone in the house had gone to sleep, then got down on my knees and pleaded with God to pull me back from the brink. I begged him to be the Abba, Daddy, Father He claimed to be in the Bible. Because no father who loves his children would let them walk into a pit of fire. No matter how rotten my son had acted, no matter how rebellious, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he’d been even moments before, I would drop everything to save him. I would tackle him if necessary, wrap him in a bear hug and say, “I don’t care how much you hate me. I love you too much to let you do this.” It seems only reasonable to expect my eternal Father—who supposedly loves me more than anyone else in the whole universe—to do the same.
Christians will say I was testing God by demanding a sign. “Do you ask your own parents to prove they love you?” they ask rhetorically. No I don’t, but I have no doubt that they do, because they’ve shown me my entire life. I don’t want a sign from my Dad. I want a friggin’ hug! A real conversation. I want Him to tell me He loves me… and not via a “letter” He wrote and xeroxed to all His other “kids” before we were born.
Kneeling on the floor that night I squeezed my hands together and prayed: “I love you, Lord. I want to believe in you more than anything. I want to believe you love me too. Please, please help me. You say that a father will not give his son a rock when he asks for a piece of bread. Please don’t give me silence when all I need is comfort.”
The only response was my own voice reflecting off the walls.
A few months later, I read the popular Christian fiction book THE SHACK. In one scene, the lead character watches his dead daughter playing in a field of flowers in Heaven. Standing there next to him, God assures the man that they’ll be together again someday. It’s such a simple yet beautiful scene, and I suddenly found tears rolling down my face as the realization hit: it’s never going to happen. If something horrible happens to me or my family, there will be no comfort in Heaven, no joyous reunion in the clouds, no loving Father to wipe the tears from our eyes. It was at that moment I knew, without a doubt, I was no longer a Christian. No longer a believer. At least not in a God who cared one way or the other about me. It was, perhaps, the most hollow feeling of my entire life.
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because I wanted to. Losing faith broke my heart in ways I never thought possible. God had been such a constant throughout my life. He’d been a source of strength, comfort and hope. Knowing that all we see was just the prelude to something bigger and better encouraged and motivated me. I didn’t want to believe that this is all there was. I wanted to believe that once I was with my Father in Heaven, everything would be wonderful, amazing, perfect. But as I’d always known, as I’d always feared, God is who He is (or isn’t) irrespective of what I want.
Breaking the news to my wife wasn’t easy. But after the initial shock and kneejerk assumption that this would ruin our marriage and the lives of our children, she has been amazingly understanding, if not entirely empathetic. Not that I blame her. More than anything she feels genuinely sorry for me, for what I’ve lost. At the same time, I know she worries for my soul. I know because I used to worry the same way about friends and family who weren’t saved. Believing that your loved ones will be burned and tortured for all eternity, or even just believing you’ll never see them again after this life passes… it’s a gut-wrenching burden.
That’s why I don’t mind that she prays for me every day. Prays for me to come to my senses. Prays that God would reveal whatever it is I think I need in order to believe again. I’ve agreed to continue going to church and supporting our children’s Christian upbringing. At least for the time being. Our congregation doesn’t preach the kind of fire and brimstone you get at other churches. They don’t stand outside funeral homes chanting “God Hates Fags.” They’re refreshingly global with their missionary work, putting money into missions that do tangible good, as opposed to simply “spreading the message.” So I’m willing to play along at least until the kids are old enough to understand my decision and handle its emotional implications. Just like with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I have no interest in robbing them of their belief in magic and imaginary friends before they’re ready.
I tell you this so you’ll know, despite no longer believing in God, I understand how important belief is in people’s lives. I’m not on a crusade to convert others out of the faith. Nor, on the other hand, will I stand idly by while faith-based initiatives running counter to my ideals get pushed through Congress. My morals, my responsibilities, my sense of right and wrong no longer arise out of fear of divine retribution, but out of my own desire to make this world a better place. As Richard Dawkins once said: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” The same goes for Hell. As a Christian, I never had to fear the consequences of not being Muslim or not being Hindu, because I knew those beliefs to be false. Now I simply apply that mentality to the Hell of all religions, including the one I followed for thirty years.
Despite overcoming that mental hurdle, I know the road ahead won’t be easy. My de-conversion didn’t happen in a vacuum. I have a wife, children, family and friends. People I love very much. People who are going to worry themselves sick for as long as I walk “outside the light.” It’s not a matter of judgment or anger for them. They love and sincerely want the best for me, but it’s impossible not to feel a sense of dread when you believe someone so close to you will burn for all eternity. I will never fault them for that. If I thought it would do any good, I would pray comfort on their souls.
I tell you this so you’ll know, I didn’t de-convert because I had no good models of Christian living. Quite the contrary, despite the occasional personality conflict, the Christians I have known—Catholics and Evangelicals alike—were decent, intelligent, patently not crazy people. In their daily lives, they embodied the very model of Christ-like behavior that everyone else should emulate. They gave me a bed to sleep in when I had no money. They invited me to dinner when I was far from home. More often than not, they were friendly and compassionate, even to people they knew to be sinners. Their passion for God was infectious rather than off-putting. If anything, they are the reason I stuck with it as long as I did. But a story’s truth cannot exist on the strength of its storytellers alone. And as much as I hate breaking the hearts of the people I love, I simply cannot bring myself to believe their fairy tale, however well-intentioned, any longer.