My parents were “born again” when I was five years old. They quickly became zealots. They used our house for church gatherings and backyard bible study. People were constantly coming and going. My parents became extremely active in their zealotry, witnessing door to door and going to church three times a week. This was the mid-seventies, and I have nostalgic memories of the long-haired Jesus freaks coming over with their sandals and guitars. At this age I picked up and filtered the messages I was hearing at church: We are the best church. We are saved and others are not. We are good and they are bad. I was five when I formally accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. In elementary school, I was an active crusader, genuinely concerned about my schoolmates’ souls.
When I was about seven, my dad and two other guys from our church broke off and founded their own church, which rented out a space at a private school. It was exciting to me. After intense worship with the Jesus freaks on their guitars, the “elders” would gather after the sermon and have adamant theological discussions. Of course I was far too young to understand what they were talking about, but I imagined that they were spiritual explorers constantly testing the endless bounds of the universe in search of the ultimate truth. This was great, because, I never understood the concept of God. My parents taught me how to pray but I never felt like anything like “God” was out there. It seemed as foreign as learning the alphabet – a system that you are taught, rather than something innate that you are connecting to.
Around this age I developed a fascination with nature and especially animals. I picked up every book I could find about animals and learned as much as I could. One day in Sunday school when I was about 10 or 11, the teacher opened up a strange new kind of “animal” book. This book had nice illustrations but the concepts it was showing were very different from the animal books I had been reading. On top of that, it showed its arguments in a clumsy and artificial way. It was attempting to show that all of the animal species were “created” and couldn’t have “evolved.” I couldn’t accept this. It seemed contrived and dishonest. Because of that I began to be skeptical of the other concepts taught at that church. I paid close attention at the sermons. I became suspicious and would silently challenge the teachings of the “elders” in terms of logic. I gradually became horrified. These people weren’t spiritual explorers – they first decided what they wanted to believe in and then employed everything and anything to try to support their beliefs. Almost everything they said appeared to be circular. I can’t tell you how betrayed I felt. Not only were their beliefs defended with circular arguments but if anyone disagreed with their beliefs they lied, bullied, threatened and used anything in their power to overcome. Not only all of this, but I started to become aware of the dark side to the born-again experience. They seemed to prey on the emotionally weak. They had a systematic way of latching onto the unconverted and circling like vultures, waiting for a breakdown, which they helped set in motion by constantly telling them about their sins and guilt and how Jesus would forgive them if only they accepted him. They went to hospitals waiting for the alcoholic or severely depressed to give in, they would pile people in a van and drive to someone’s house who just reached “bottom” and have an “intervention”, and list goes on and on. Inevitably these broken people would show up weeks later completely “changed.” Endless testimonies were given about how people accepted Jesus.
There I was, an early adolescent, totally alone, estranged from my parent’s church, suspicious, distrustful and no one to turn to. My thoughts remained absolutely secret. You have to understand the terrible vulture mentality of this church. These people are finely tuned to a person’s demeanor. If they detect the slightest deviation they LOCK ON TO YOU. So I learned to be a spy behind enemy lines. I thought my parents would disown me if they knew the truth. This was such an unhealthy way to grow up. I learned great stuff – how to stuff my feelings, how to hate, how to be subversive, deviant, cynical, manipulative and angry. I learned how to reject religion and all things “spiritual” without learning how to adopt anything positive.
By High School I was a terror. I couldn’t hide my rebellion at this point. I took to punk rock like second nature. I loved the most destructive kids. I hated religion with a passion. I pretended to go to youth group on a Wednesday night but before the session began I would collect as many kids as I could and go to the park and hang out instead. I tried to convince these kids about the lie of Christianity.
My life went from bad to worse. By my junior year of High School I was drinking every day. I was always in trouble. My parents were convinced I was on drugs (and possessed by the Devil – I was fond of items deemed Satanic by the church- black T-shirts with skulls, skull rings, anything shocking!). In spite all of this I still managed to go to college. But after three semesters I dropped out and moved to a large city. There I drifted in and out of homelessness and disaster, in a complete alcoholic haze. To make another long story short, I eventually sobered up and went to AA.
A couple of months after sobering up I had an extremely intense experience. For as long as I can remember alcohol was all I could remember that I cared about. When it was suddenly taken away I had a terrifying, empty, scared feeling. I had no coping skills to speak of. At the place where I lived I knew these two girls who were hard-core Christians. One night we spent all night talking about my experiences with the church, alcohol and my sobering up. Afterwards by myself at 4 o’clock in the morning I had this sudden, intense feeling of total, unconditional love. Then I had this thought: What if I had been wrong about Christianity and who am I to say there is no God? It was absolutely crushing. My whole world changed.
I carried this experience with me and at the time I think it was exactly what I needed. It helped me get over the initial hump of trying to get and stay sober. I was still extremely distrustful of organized Christianity. This time around I decided to do an experiment – I am not going to commit to a church. I am not going to surround myself with fundamentalists. The parts that I have trouble accepting, I’m just going to not question for now, and the parts that other Christians are telling me, I’m just going to try to keep an open mind and try to understand where they are coming from.
At that point I had a nominal belief in Jesus Christ and a vague belief in the God of the Bible. I’ve gotta say, this helped me incalculably for a couple of years. I tried never to let my mind question too much, but at the same time I did not associate with fundamentalists. My life got better – significantly better. I could keep a job, I went back to school, I became more responsible, my clarity of mind started coming back, my relationships with others got better, etc, etc. In essence I was “growing up.”
After about three years or so things started to bubble up. Internally I never really stopped questioning religious ideas. Somehow I began to realize that Christian beliefs were hard to maintain because there is a hard-to-ignore concept of “fooling yourself.” There are concepts in the religion that deep down I found extremely hard to accept –not because they are super-spiritual or fantastic, but because they seem so artificial. Anyway, about this time I became involved with a girl who was a hardcore Christian. It was a short, intense relationship. It bothered me how intolerant she was of anything not Christian, but was very quick to ascribe the most mundane events to the work of demons and angels. She was also a very fearful, unstable and unhappy person, filled with a lot of guilt.
Everything came to head around this time. I just couldn’t accept the concept of Hell. If God is an all loving, omnipotent being who only wants the best for all creatures, then why Hell? When I honestly and thoroughly thought about this, it just absolutely did not make any sense – nor could I ignore it. I don’t want to believe in a God who could do this to people. This began the quick work of the whole thing unraveling again. It wasn’t long before I was a non-believer. Not just Hell, but many other concepts seem to me to be artificial, disjointed, self-serving and obviously created by humans over time.
The difference in de-conversion this time, was that I had developed coping skills, I was stable and I had all my intellectual and emotional capacities intact. I didn’t feel like I had to belong to this religion or that religion. I began a journey of trial and error. I learned to just keep an open mind and that it’s okay to let life and spirituality just be an unfolding process and my beliefs never have to be set in stone. I feel this life is one of exploration and growth. I cannot stagnate in a crazy religion that seeks to limit a person to arbitrary boundaries unquestioningly. In fact I think that is absolutely the worse thing a person can do to themselves and others.
The intense experience that I had when I first sobered up, never said to me, “I am the Holy Spirit “, or “Now you have to believe in Christ.” It was simply a pure feeling of love, which opened me up to the possibilities of the universe. Even though I was not a Christian before this experience, I was as closed and narrow-minded as any fundamentalist. Christians think that the born-again experience is a trump card which proves their religion, but they don’t realize that it is also common to a variety of other religions, spiritual awakenings and even non-religious realizations.
I feel extremely lucky that I got away and found a path that seems appropriate for me. However, fundamentalist Christianity, my experiences with it and my getting away from it are the biggest issues in my life, sometimes eclipsing alcoholism. Because of the way I grew up and the fact that my whole entire family and extended family (excluding an atheist grandfather), are fundamentalist Christians, I feel as if the whole thing has left a huge scar that is healing slowly. Sometimes it’s no big deal and sometimes it hurts a lot. The same way some ex-Catholics have the famous “Catholic” guilt, I think that I suffer from some kind of ex-fundamentalist “you’re still going to Hell!” syndrome. Sometimes Christian propaganda is clumsy, but some of it really, really tries to burrow it’s way inside your brain and break you down. It feels sometimes like recovering from a disease.
Sometimes I want to tell all of those people off, and sometimes I feel sorry for them. If there’s one aspect of that religion I wish I could change it is the concept of the fact that they think there is only one path. I don’t care what people believe in. As far as I’m concerned, that’s for each person to decide for themselves and has nothing to do with me. The thing is, when people start believing that their way is the only way and others are damned, causing others to be damned and sabotaging eternal life, things get ugly. I can’t change that. This is what we as ex- or non-believers have to deal with.