Failing the Insider Test – My de-conversion story
“You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?” – Morpheus
I grew up as an hard-core fundamentalist, and have been slowing drifting secular since the beginning of high school. In sixth grade, my parents got rid of Aladdin due to Jasmine’s inappropriate garb. My church started playing contemporary music in the evening services, and as this form of music is displeasing to God, we changed churches largely for this reason. Together with being home schooled and highly gifted mathematically, I was not what you would call a normal child.
Although this may be barely believable to many of you unless you also have been brainwashed at an old enough age to know better, I followed along willingly. “It will be worth it all, When we see Christ.” In high school, I was not allowed to date. With most people, no dating means that the “courtship” model is the alternative, but in my case, no clear alternative was given. (My adolescence consisted of “enumerated powers.”) As a junior in high school, when cute girls noticed me, it was depressing more than anything, because I could do nothing about it. It’s only a slight hyperbole to say that I thought the F-word was flirt (that’s a sin too for kids that age, in case you didn’t know.) When I was a senior, God told me who I was to marry. *Pathetic story squelched.* A year later, she married another.
I should mention that although I frequently poke fun at home schooling culture, I’m very grateful to my parents for teaching me. It was without a doubt, the best possible environment for me to receive an excellent education. This came at the price of a great deal of my mother’s time for more than a decade.
But socially speaking, as I’m sure you could imagine, my freshman year at a public university was … interesting. Shortly before arriving, I had shaken off some of my crazier beliefs regarding moral standards regarding music and dating, but that didn’t stop me from asking questions like “who’s Jessica Simpson?” or having to go to urbandictionary.com to figure out if making out meant sex. I had been betrayed into living a miserably legalistic life with standards above and beyond the Bible. Much of my social dysfunction was suffering left over from trying to live a godly life in the way that other’s thought I should. At this point, it would have been rational for me to walk away from faith based on what it did to me. But no, that would be the easy way. My path was the hard one – one step at a time. It wasn’t Christianity that was to blame, but rather my legalistic upbringing. My parents were no longer the Disney-movie-banning type, which went a long way toward helping me laugh at my past without disowning my religion.
By my sophomore year, I had settled into a life as a fundamentalist where I was at peace. I outgrew some of my weirdnesses, and found friends (both Christian and not) who accepted the rest. But as I learned about theology and the Bible and discussed it with my friends, I began growing discontent. There was something wrong, but I found whatever it was to be elusive. What I couldn’t admit was that the Bible didn’t make sense to me. Paul kept on making logical arguments that didn’t work. For instance, why couldn’t he just say women aren’t supposed to teach men and leave it at that in I Timothy 2? I could accept that. Why must he give the reason that man was formed first – what did that have to do with anything? At this point, it would have been rational for me to walk away from faith based on the way it was clashing with reason. But no, that would be the easy way. My path was the hard one – one step at a time. It wasn’t the Bible that was to blame, I was trying to impose the reason of man on the Word of God. The Bible wasn’t wrong, I just needed to accept that it was true.
The summer after my sophomore year was spent with 13 other students working on a research project. I was the only Christian [according to my definition], and my roommate was an ex-Christian who knew the Bible better than me. He wasn’t obnoxious about it, but when I tried to convert him, he knew how to push back. There’s just something about explaining theological concepts to a hostile audience that reveals just how convoluted the arguments are. By the end of the summer, when I thought about religion, neither of us had to open our mouths for my faith to get stomped – the internal skeptic in me was stronger than the Christian in me. I spent a day as an agnostic, and that could have been the end. But no, that would be the easy way. My path was the hard one – one step at a time. I was caving in to social pressure and just rejecting the Bible for emotional reasons (if you didn’t follow that, then you are following me.) It was then that I had the most real religious experience of my life. However, I also knew even at the time that these feelings were indistinguishable from the ones that told me the one I was to marry. The human will to hope has great power over the mind, even when the hope is in vain.
When my junior year started, I considered myself to be on agnostic watch, and was depressed most of the time. But then I started coming back. I began taking an online theology class that switched me from presuppositional apologetics to evidential apologetics. You mean I don’t have to assume the Bible is true a priori, but there’s actual evidence for it? Hallelujah! As Sam Harris put it, “at these moments, religious believers appear like men and women in the desert of uncertainty given a cool drink of data.” I knew that my mind had outgrown fundamentalist Christianity, but at least I knew what I was growing into: evangelical Christianity. I had been de-constructed down to Jesus’ Resurrection and the historical accuracy of the Bible. Now it was time to rebuild. I cared not if my reconstructed theology was anything like what I started with – fundamentalism wasn’t working. I determined to follow the evidence wherever it led.
During the spring of my junior year, I was in for an unpleasant surprise. In order to affirm my beliefs in six-day creation, I began researching origins from all sides. What shocked me was not that there was evidence for evolution, or even more for evolution than other theories. What shocked was that it was not even close. By now, I knew my religious foundations lay in my relationship with God, the moral teachings of Jesus, and especially his Resurrection, but evolution was still a very tough pill to swallow. Among the three statements: evolution is true, Christianity is true, evolution and Christianity are incompatible, one of them had to give. At this point, it would have been rational for me to walk away from faith based on the way it was clashing with science. But no, that would be the easy way. My path was the hard one – one step at a time. It wasn’t the Bible or observations of reality that were wrong, I was trying to impose far more precision and clarity into the Bible than was actually present.
During my senior year of college, I stabilized as moderate evangelical/emerging Christian. I began putting together a coherent picture of what I believed about evolution and the Bible. Whether or not they realize it, all Christians have some sort of distinction in their mind about what aspects of the Bible are due to God and what parts are due to man and which are both. In the case of inerrantists, this is writing style and not much else. To reconcile evolution with Christianity, I expanded which aspects I thought were due to man, now allowing for Moses to use myths to communicate spiritual truths.
I also painlessly let go of several other de facto Christian positions regarding politics. After seeing how easy it is to misunderstand the Bible, I wanted separation of church and state lest both be corrupted (or rather, corrupted further). I thought gay marriage was wrong, but should still be legal. But all things considered, I was a solid evangelical Christian in January 2007. I had just dodged a major bullet in accepting evolution and holding onto what I would still consider to be somewhat conservative theology. But then two things happened to me, both of my own doing, which permanently damaged my faith.
While surfing the web, I found the blog of a former Christian. After reading for several hours, I felt the Spirit leading me to e-mail him. Our religious backgrounds were vastly more similar than I thought possible. My first impression was that this made me one of the best possible people to talk to him – maybe he rejected God for a reason that I had successfully dealt with. The primary topics were anecdotal evidence, the origin of Jewish monotheism, and the genocide of the Midianites. I soon realized that this was two-way persuasion, and he was my better. I began to see that the ways of every god are justified in its believers’ eyes. What was worse, I started to see myself in him and that I just might be an agnostic/atheist in the making.
The second event was that I decided that my friends needed to hear that I had rejected creationism (I was kind of in the closet…) and why. I wrote a 20-page paper defending theistic evolution and posted it on facebook. I was a conservative evangelical living in the Bible belt. I knew that posting the paper would sacrifice my reputation, but someone had to stand up for truth. For the most part, my friends stuck by me and my acquaintances didn’t. In church, I sometimes felt like I was walking around with 666 tattooed on my forehead. I began to realize that unity in Christ is often unity through homogeneity of ideas and the squelching of dissent.
My conversations/debates with the agnostic compared favorably with any conversation/debate I had with a creationist in terms of respect, courtesy, making real arguments, and giving rebuttals that expressed an understanding of what I had said. Both most significantly – he had better arguments. At this point, it would have been rational for me to walk away from faith based on the way people of faith are wrong on the issue whose truth is most easily determined and based on the way that I got owned in debate. But no, that would be the easy way. My path was the hard one – one step at a time. Maybe most Christians are wrong about evolution because their relationship with God is so real that they forget about empirical evidence. Maybe I was losing my debate because I was simply over matched, and not because his position’s arguments actually were better.
When I graduated, each of the seniors in my campus ministry had a chance to give a closing word to the group of several hundred before leaving. My closing line was something like, “Half of me is excited for the opportunity to be a missionary into the spiritually dark world of graduate school. But the other half is just scared to death.” I don’t know how many people recognized that I wasn’t being humble, I was for real.
The summer after my graduation in 2007, I began the final stage of losing God. I was living away from home and my college town, so I was looking for a church or some form of spiritual support. Quite a few Saturday nights, I prayed that God would lead me to a church while looking online for somewhere to go the next morning. I kept showing up at different churches and feeling like they or I was faking something. This process repeated a couple times the next fall at graduate school. But Christianity is not based on feeling, so I persisted. (I have since found it interesting that many consider the strongest argument for faith to be their relationship with God, but when this relationship seems distant, they instead say it’s not based on feeling.)
I began to have a great deal of admiration for Mother Teresa’s ability to persist while in my state of feeling abandoned by God. When I say abandoned, I’m not referring to trying circumstances, but to the fact that no matter what I did, I felt like I was praying to the four walls around me.
I read the Bible, I studied the Bible, but this only discouraged me further. Fall 2007, I set up my schedule to read through the New Testament in a semester. I started with Matthew and for the first time, I decided to look up the context each time he quoted the Old Testament. This Bible study laid the foundation for one of my clearest reasons to disbelieve.
I tried to find where InterVarsity or some other campus ministry met. Their website gave their meeting location from 2006 and an out-of-date e-mail that did not respond. When I just showed up anyway, I found the Episcopal group. That was the closest thing I’d seen in a while to God’s leading, so I went with it, despite the fact that at times they were liberal enough that I was a bit uncomfortable. But they were all I had, and I was sick and tired of making theology-influenced friendship decisions. They loved God and they welcomed me – should I want more?
I tried re-reading works that had once spoken to me, from Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain” to Tozer’s “The Pursuit of God.” Nothing. “God, what do you want me to do?” Nothing. This seems like the kind of prayer that God would answer. At this point, it would have been rational for me to walk away from faith based on knowing that I had been seeking God will all my heart, soul, and mind, and yet I didn’t have a relationship with God. But no, that would be the easy way. My path was the hard one – one step at a time. By spring 2008, I began wondering if Christianity was true, but I just wasn’t one.
But this destroyed another set of reasons to believe: I thought what I had was real because people had told me that they saw a difference in my life – skeptic and Christian alike. The Bible says believe and you will be saved, and I believed, or at least I used to. Eventually, I realized that it was far easier to explain my past perceived relationship with God in the context of skepticism than it was to understand the difficulties I was having in the context of Christianity.
The death stroke against the argument for God based on others’ relationship with God was struck when I compared it with the practice of speaking in tongues. Pentecostals argue that the strengthening of their relationship with God through tongues as a private prayer language means tongues are for real, while cessationists like me had no trouble writing them off. To quote Jonathan MacArthur’s view of tongues as well as I can remember, “you don’t interpret the Bible based on experiences, you take your experiences to the Bible.” As a skeptic whose primary arguments are biblical, I am still following his advice.
C. S. Lewis once warned against an unbalanced leaning on apologetics, as one man he knew became so obsessed with studying the reasons to think it was true that he lost track of what it was that was true. With this story, I was content with my struggle for the final time. That must have been what happened to me.
But then my mind screamed back – that’s not how it happened! I studied theology out of “Lord, I want to know you!” I wanted to know what His Word said. I wanted to know why I believed so I could share a reason for the hope that was in me. I now merely wanted that hope. I lost my perceived relationship with God, not through neglect, but through wanting it to be more real than the fuzzy feelings I get while watching Rocky. The pouring of myself into apologetics did not cause this loss, but rather, I studied apologetics and the logical side of faith due to learning how weak and suggestible such a “relationship” can be.
While I had suspected I was losing my faith off and on for over three years, I didn’t think there was a chance I actually would, even up until the moment it happened. I sincerely believed it was true, and thus I believed that sincerely seeking the truth would lead me to God in some way.
On April 19, 2008, I went to see the movie “Expelled.” I was unsurprised to see ID propaganda, but what surprised me was how many arguments for atheism were presented and how good they looked when paired with Christianity’s most foolish tenants. As far as I was concerned, the movie ended when Dawkins was asked what he would say to God were he to meet him after death. Dawkins replied, “Why did you take such pains to conceal yourself?” This retort was crushing as I thought about my lack of a relationship with God.
There was but one piece left of my faith – my belief that there was evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. Several times, I had thought to myself that if resurrection apologetics were as bad as creationism apologetics, I might not know the difference. I had read plenty about the historical evidence for Jesus, but only from a Christian perspective. Out of fear of the truth, I had protected myself from learning what skeptics have to say. But finally, with only this left, I overturned the final stone. Just like with evolution, my shock was not that skeptics have a case, but that it’s not even close. At the age of 23, I de-converted on Sunday morning, April 20, sometime around 3-5am while reading this exchange.
When I finally de-converted, I could best describe it as the final scene in a mystery movie, where the detective has been following the bad guy for a while, and finds the smallest clue out of place. A montage follows as he remembers the dozens of times something was amiss, and one-by-one, puts the clues in the proper position and sees he has enough evidence to convict the real villain several times over. After I de-converted, my first thought was “Wow … What took me so long?”
But my second thought was that I had just lost something very dear to me. My identity and purpose for living have been ripped violently away. I have to completely reforge what I think about everything. “Why don’t I just kill myself” was a thought that went through my mind – not that I was actually suicidal, but why not? Instead of protecting myself socially from ungodly influences, I have to find a way to re-enter the world without God.
Several weeks later, I began relapsing back into Christianity. I found no answers to my problems with the Bible, and I had found no new reasons to believe. The problem was that I believed in hell as eternal conscience torment all the way until my last moment as a Christian, and I was thinking there was maybe a 25% chance Christianity was true, and hence a 25% chance I would burn for eternity. I grasped the full meaning of this and just couldn’t take it.
After a heart-wrenching 2-3 hour conversation with my brother, I was ready to be saved again. Like the victim of a brutal interrogation, I wanted to believe to stop the pain. I was already seeking God and trying to live my life for him, I just needed to believe. The next day, I even picked up the phone to call my brother back to say I believed again. But when I thought about what I would say, I couldn’t think of anything. I had given numerous reasons to not believe, and as much as I wanted them to go away, when I remembered what I said, they were really good reasons. They were not mere rationalizations – the only rationalization going on was my attempt to ignore them. I put the phone down. That night, I prayed, “God, if you’re there, and if you won’t show me the evidence or help me believe without it, please just kill me in my sleep. I think I believe in you now, but I’m not sure I ever will again.” The next morning, I woke up as normal. I never again wasted a breath on the great cosmic indifference.
“I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I just said it would be the truth.” – Morpheus
But the more I know about a secular view of the world, the better it gets. I no longer need a belief in a second life to make this first one precious. Far from being nihilistic, I care about humanity with a passion that I seldom had as a Christian. God isn’t helping us – the only peace and justice to be found in this world are the peace and justice we fight for. I’m finding in free thought more morality and purpose than I ever found in Christianity.