Belonging

November 24, 2008 at 3:20 pm 14 comments

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

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From Tormented Soul to Freed Atheist – Part 3 of 3 How can the nontheist be thankful on Thanksgiving?

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Zeolite  |  November 24, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    I identify strongly with your last paragraph. The shelving and reanalyzing of of questions, the pain of the death of faith, the loss of community, and the sense of “knowing”-alienation with christian family and friends are all gut-wrenchingly familiar. Well said.

  • 2. SnugglyBuffalo  |  November 24, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    I think a big part of the rapidity of my de-conversion was due to the fact that I never really got that sense of belonging with Christianity. Even at my most devout, I felt like an outsider, even though I shared all their beliefs. Every single close friend I have or ever have had, even the devout Christian ones, have been met outside of church.

    So, when I gave up my beliefs, there wasn’t much of a sense of belonging to give up with it. I can only imagine the effect such a feeling would have had on my de-conversion.

  • 3. orDover  |  November 24, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    This sense of belonging is one of the reasons I can’t bring myself to tell my family I’m an atheist. I feel like I’ll be immediately excluded from them in some way…I’ll become an outsider to my own kin.

  • 4. Josh  |  November 24, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    De-converting while at Moody Bible Institute made me feel like an miserable outsider and heretic for a while (I guess I was). Once the initial shock cooled down, I have discovered that all my true friends are still sticking by me. I don’t feel like I “belong” like I used to, but its nice to know that many of them are still willing to be my friend even though I am openly against everything they hold dear. It is quite an experience. I liken it to peeling a band-aid off quickly as opposed to slowly. I’m the type who likes to rip it all off in one shot rather than over time. My de-conversion was super painful and a shock to all my friends and family but it was super quick. I guess I just wanted to be open and honest and get on with life – the only one I have.

    The following few months after my de-conversion (until recently) were extremely lonely and I completely lost the sense of belonging to just about any community – except this website. Just knowing that there was a group of people – no matter how small – who understood what I had gone through made a world of difference.

    At this point I feel like I am joining new communities, making new friends, and starting to understand how to face the real world. The sense of belonging is starting to come back and it is a wonderful feeling :)

  • 5. Postman  |  November 24, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Chaplain,
    But now you belong to the hip subculture of militant popular atheists. So it all evens out.

    I have always, even before I examined my beliefs enough to realize that I didn’t have any, had a great deal of respect for a guy I was at Abilene Christian University with. he was the first person I ever met who made no bones about being an atheist. There he was, in what I like to think of as the armpit of the bible belt, (the bible doesn’t make sense, why should my similes), and he had the intellectual curiosity to examine his belief system and state his position.
    Every once in a while I think of him and hope he’s doing well.

  • 6. Kristopia  |  November 24, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Deconversion for me was much the same – surrounded all my life by conservative Christians, it just came naturally. I think that the hardest part for me was giving up fear of hell – and realizing that the inner dialogue I’d had with “God” was really with myself – and that there was nobody out there. It was strange, and every day there were new thoughts. It took quite some time to stop fearing hell.

    But the hardest part has been the family thing. When you have spent your entire life with committed Christians, they are your social group, your friends, your family. Leaving that means leaving everyone sometimes. I didn’t tell my family for all that time – it has only been in the last month that I have told my mother that I’m not a believer anymore. And only because she pushed it with me until I just told her. I had kept from it for a long time because I didn’t want her to spend time crying and praying over me.

    But what can ya do? We’ll either work out a relationship in spite of this, or we won’t. I hope we can, but it’s kind of iffy right now, as I know the temptation for them will be to preach to me, try to convince me of my wrongs, try to tell me how much Jesus loves me, and wants me to return to “the fold,” etc. And the reality is, if that happens, it WILL make the relationships too awkward to remain close, because where is the fun in being browbeaten?

    I’m discovering that I have little to nothing left in common with these folks anymore, so unless we can avoid the topics of religion or politics (not likely), there will be tension. I’ve never liked tension, but I won’t hide from it.

    We’ll see. Oy.

  • 7. Kat  |  November 24, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Like SnugglyBuffalo, I never felt that I belonged to begin with. I wanted to belong but, at the same time, felt that I would close off a part of my identity if I did.

    Like orDover, I can’t tell my family or friends how I feel and think about beliefs to which they still hold very tightly. In particular, it would hurt my mother a lot.

    What’s really hard for me is that I work at a megachurch! By virtue of its size, nobody here knows that I no longer come on Sunday or attend weekly Bible study. Nobody here knows that I de-converted at my desk, reading articles on unbelief between every sermon transcript I edited.

    I’m trying to find another job because I’m going nuts here, but I get discouragement at every turn – articles about unemployment, friends telling me to be thankful (‘At least you have a job!’), family telling me to sit tight till things stabilize, etc. I wish I could tell them that it’s for my emotional and psychological well-being, but then they’d ask why, and then they’d find out the truth – that I just don’t see the point of advancing things that I no longer believe.

  • 8. OneSmallStep  |  November 24, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    The really tough thing about rejecting Christianity is the not-belongingness it entails.

    I’ve never converted, so I can’t comment on what it’s like to switch groups like that. But I do have evangelcial friends, and there are days when it’s almost tempting to become a conservative Christian, because then I’d fully “belong.” There’s always a barrier, in terms of seeing God, seeing the rest of humanity, believing that Satan is influencing one’s life. Or even in terms of politics, and how our worldviews feed into our beliefs.

    The good thing about this — and I think this goes for many de-converts as well — is it that it can make us more aware of the assumptions we make. I think that people normally feel that “regular” people think/feel just as they do, since their viewpoint is the most logical one. And yet that is so clearly not the case, that it cautions me to not just blurt out what I think, but take the other person into the equation. Will this make them uncomfortable? Is this something they can relate to? Am I essentially calling the other person an idiot? And so forth.

  • 9. peridot  |  November 25, 2008 at 1:17 am

    Well said, chaplain.

    Like orDover and Kat, I still have not told my family, and am especially hesitant to tell my mother. And I have been an agnostic for over 15 years now.

    It’s just that I know what it feels like to believe that someone you love isn’t going to heaven. And I know the sense of responsibility/failure that goes along with that . . . feeling you must witness to them and pray for them . . . feeling like perhaps you are to partly to blame for failing to model the christian life better. I deconverted before I became a mother, but now that I am a mother I can’t imagine the pain of feeling this way about one’s own child.

    I don’t think I can do this to my mother. I just let her think I still believe, though it’s obvious I’m not zealous about it anymore. I sometimes wonder if I opened up to her in the right way if she would begin to question her beliefs. I doubt it, in part because she is even deeper into a circle of family and friends who are all believers. In other words, her “belongingness” in the church is even deeper than mine was. It is almost her entire world, and at her age (69) I don’t see how she could pull herself away and start again.

    I wish you the best, Kristopia, as you begin this new chapter in your life with your mother. I sometimes wonder if I am making a mistake by not taking the plunge you took.

  • 10. Richard  |  November 25, 2008 at 1:20 am

    chaplain — two things cross my mind as I read your post. One, it reminds me that people are people, and religion doesnt always define who we are (despite what many believers say). You wrote that the people in your evangelical group were funny and fun. I had the same experience. Many of my former churchgoers were good, kind, decent, and enjoyable people. I remember them with nothing but warmth.

    In fact, I now think that who we are is all about psychology, not religion. Kind, caring people who become religious will usually just become kind, caring religious people. Obnoxious people who become religious will become obnoxious religious people.

    Two, Robert Price somewhere quotes a sociologist, whose name escapes me, about the concept of a “plausibility structure”. The way certain ideas make more sense just because your peer group takes them seriously. Thats part of what happened to me, too. Not only were many of my new friends nonreligious, once I moved away, they were (gasp) *liberal* — and they were decent people! That wasnt supposed to happen! By the time I understood how in the world that *could* happen, I was no longer a fundamentalist.

  • 11. orDover  |  November 25, 2008 at 11:09 am

    “…certain ideas make more sense just because your peer group takes them seriously…”

    I certainly experienced that. I didn’t even think to question anything until I was in my late teens. Why should I? Everyone I knew believed the same thing. They couldn’t all be wrong, right? Argument ad populi is really useful for working out that cognitive dissonance. “Millions of people can’t be wrong.”

  • 12. SnugglyBuffalo  |  November 25, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Kristopia-

    And only because she pushed it with me until I just told her. I had kept from it for a long time because I didn’t want her to spend time crying and praying over me.

    That was exactly my experience. Maybe 3 or 4 months ago she finally pressed the issue and I revealed that I no longer believed, and the effect on her was more-or-less what I expected, at least in the short term. Longer-term, it seems like she’s finally realizing that she’s not going to be re-converting me, and I think she’s finally dropped the issue.

    I feel bad for my little brother though. I know he’s having his own doubts, and part of my parents’ reaction to my de-conversion is to start having a lot more family devotionals and the like, at least in part so my brother “doesn’t end up like [me].” In a couple of years he’ll start college, and hopefully he’ll then be able to deal with his doubts one way or the other without our parents breathing down his neck.

  • 13. Jason  |  November 25, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    I haven’t yet deconverted (are you guys tired of hearing that;). I think one reason is because I could never tell my family, my own wife and children and/or my simblings/parents. And since I don’t want to live a lie, it is easier to try to believe again / have confidence again in the truth of Christianity. Hasn’t happened yet.

  • 14. PsiCop  |  November 28, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    My own entanglement in fundamentalist Christianity was because I’d befriended a small group of fundies and wanted to remain connected to them. The need for belonging is, as you point out, compelling and relentless.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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