Some readers at my personal blog have asked me why it took me so long to come to my senses about religion. I’ve given the question a lot of thought, and I think the title of this piece summarizes it best.
When I was a teen, most of my friends and I were apathetic believers in the Judeo-Christian version of god. We believed in a deity, but we weren’t the least bit interested in surrendering to him or finding his perfect will for our lives. In fact, as a preacher’s kid, I may have been more overtly anti-religious and rebellious than my peers. This was my basic attitude until I was sixteen years old, when I underwent two major life changes.
The first change took place over the summer, when I had an opportunity to travel with an evangelistic team for ten weeks. Even though my faith was apathetic, at best, I was enticed by the glamor of traveling with a group of teens and young adults and actually getting paid for the privilege! What a blast! And it was. The team consisted of eleven members, ten of whom were actually committed Christians. I was the odd person out. I didn’t let on that I wasn’t saved and, since I could easily talk the talk, I breezed through the summer and, to all outward appearances, fit right in with the rest of the group. I really liked these people: even though they were on fire for Jesus, they were friendly, fun and funny.
Notwithstanding the close relationships that developed in that ten weeks, had I simply returned home to my usual peer group of apatheists, I likely would have fit right back in with them too. The thing is – this is the second change – I never returned home. My parents had received “farewell orders” (Salvation Army-speak for a transfer) in the middle of the summer, and we moved in early September. I never even got to say goodbye to most of my old friends.
So, within the space of three months I had a) developed an important new peer group and b) been removed completely from the old peer group. Moreover, after the move I was able to maintain my connections with my new friends. Since they were all Christians, I wanted to be more like them. I wanted to fit in for real and not fake it anymore. So, at the age of sixteen, I got saved. At that point, my religious experience was primarily about belonging, about being like my friends.
Fast forward two years. My parents insisted that I spend at least one year at an evangelical Christian college. They promised that, if I really didn’t like it, I could transfer after the first year. You can guess what happened next. Moving 500 miles from home to attend college meant that, once again, I had to leave behind my peer group and establish an entirely new social network. Since we were in a Christian college, most of my new friends were Christians. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year, I had adjusted to the place and the people and was not eager to make yet another change. I had started dating the deacon too. Needless to say, I didn’t even think about transferring to another college.
By this time, my Christian faith was genuine. I honestly believed in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection and most of the typical conservative Christian doctrines. Moreover, I was being taught by very skilled biblical scholars, theologians and apologists. They seemed to have the answers to any questions one could raise about the content of Christian beliefs. This indoctrination was enhanced by being shared with a community of believers. Quite simply, by this point, virtually everyone I knew was a conservative Christian. It was easy to be one of them.
After the deacon and I finished that phase of our educations, we moved into full-time ministry. I only found out this past year that the deacon had already begun having serious questions about Christianity before we even finished school. But, he was married to an evangelical Christian; he couldn’t possibly share his severe doubts with me. Yep – it was that belonging thing again. As for me, I didn’t think much about my beliefs for well over a decade. Why would I have done so? I had a great husband and family, and even though life had its ups and downs, it was basically pretty good. Why would I question my beliefs?
And yet, somewhere along the line, I did start questioning them. It was a slow, erratic process, but, once the doors of my mind had cracked open, I had to keep pushing them farther and farther apart. After about ten years of questioning, shelving questions, coming back later to take questions off the shelves and dust them off for another look, I decided to settle the issue once and for all in the summer of 2007. Looking back now, I see that shedding the religious beliefs is the easy part of rejecting Christianity (don’t think for a moment that it’s a painless process; it hurts as much as the death of a family member or close friend does). The really tough thing about rejecting Christianity is the not-belongingness it entails. Now, when Christian friends and family members talk about how God is working in their lives or how God answers their prayers, I can only listen as an incredulous outsider. I know what it’s like to believe those things happen, but I no longer share the experiences of those beliefs and feelings (nor do I want to do so). I don’t belong to the fellowship of religious believers anymore. It’s okay, though; I got a good bargain when I traded the comfort of belonging for intellectual integrity and independence.
– the chaplain