A Silent Departure (my de-Converstion story)
I have been reading articles here for awhile now, intending to share my own de-conversion story eventually. I must say, I’ve been impressed with the tone of this site. It seems like a great place for thoughtful interaction.
For someone who is just now publicly “coming out” from a religious background as hopelessly fundamental and conservative as mine, it’s encouraging to find a faithless friend or two who can relate to my own experience. I hope that by sharing my own story, I can be of some encouragement to you as well, wherever you happen to be in your life.
Here we go…
The Missionary Kid
My story begins in the tropical jungle of north-central Brazil, where I was born and where I spent the majority of my childhood growing up as a missionary kid. My dad was a high school teacher, and my family lived on the campus of a boarding school that served to educate kids whose parents were off spreading the Christian Gospel. Some of these parents were Bible translators living with Indian tribes, others were support staff stationed in different cities in Brazil. Our little school was where they sent their kids to get an education. It was only a small school—during my time there, the student body probably averaged around 40 or so students every year, from first grade all the way through high school.
But I’ve gotta say, it was a pretty sweet place to grow up! Year-round tropical weather, jungle for camping and exploring as far as you could walk, and the murky Amazon River for fishing and swimming. If it sounds like a little boy’s paradise, that’s because it was. I learned from a very young age to love the sport of soccer (Brazilians like to say that “God plays soccer”). I had the chance to visit primitive Indian tribes. I managed to acquire a conversational level of Portuguese, even though we were somewhat isolated from Brazilian influence and culture. For example, to reach the city of Manaus, where we got our supplies, we had to travel by boat to a nearby village that had road access and then take a bus or taxi into the main city.
We did have interaction with the Brazilians around us, but it wasn’t quite the same as growing up completely immersed in their culture. One form of contact was a Sunday morning outreach ministry with a small community downriver. And we would often invite local soccer teams to come play soccer and volleyball games with us. But there was something so irreconcilably foreign about us. English was our default language. To be honest, we were our own little missionary community, a mostly-American boarding school that looked very much like a colony in a strange land.
My religious upbringing was very conservative, to put it nicely. Lots of people can say the same thing, I know. I don’t need to go into all the details. Let’s just say that at 25, I still have some trouble relating to the opposite sex because of the crazy legalistic restrictions that carefully crafted a pretty little Christian bubble around me as I grew up.
My background also added a certain amount of cultural confusion to the whole fundamentalism schtick. Like I said, our school was significantly isolated, enough to make me realize (much later in life) that I really couldn’t call myself a true Brazilian, even though I was born in Manaus and therefore possess full citizenship, voter and taxpayer cards, and military registration papers. I remember when I was eighteen, going into a building with a bunch of teenaged Brazilian guys I didn’t know, in order to get myself dismissed from mandatory military service. I was nervous, scared, and very uncertain. I was the only guy with white skin. I was the only one who got laughed at by the whole crowd when the uniformed officer called out my name and completely butchered it beyond recognition. Because he was Brazilian and couldn’t pronounce my American name.
I really wasn’t Brazilian. But what about American? I was only partly American, due to the almost complete ignorance regarding American culture that I grew up in. Two passports, one person, no country… So what was I?
Just a missionary kid, I guess, whose real culture was a uniquely structured boarding school sub-culture.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Growing up, all of this was okay with me. I had a loving family and plenty of fun stuff to do. We never lacked anything we needed. I was happy, and I grew up feeling somewhat privileged to experience the things I did. I have nothing negative at all to say about my parents, who nurtured me well and raised me up with plenty of love. I want to specifically point this out, because I know other ex-religious types who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds and were motivated to leave the faith for that reason. My experience wasn’t like that. My deconversion had nothing to do with any kind of abuse.
And while I’m at it, let me also point out that I’m not aiming to undermine any particular person at all, and I’m definitely not intending to direct any sort of bitter anger toward the wonderful little missionary school I grew up at. I used to be bitter. I’m not that way anymore—now, I’m just more willing to be vocal about my (un)beliefs. If people are offended, so be it, but I’m very much open to fair and respectful discussions.
Getting back on subject, my deconversion—which didn’t have anything to do with any sort of abuse—did have a lot to do with my experience as a missionary kid, which is why I took the time to write something about it.
The God Experience
I don’t know how many missionary kids struggle with self-identity. I’ve talked to some who certainly did. I know others who really don’t seem to have any problems adjusting at all. Good for them. I remember crying behind closed doors as I read a book called Third Culture Kids. I mostly kept my struggles to myself, but they were always very real. A cautious introvert, I usually chose to suffer by myself.
I eventually realized that I wasn’t much of a Brazilian because of the situation I grew up in. I wanted to be one; I wanted to have an identity, and the only identity I wanted was the Brazilian one—mainly because I simply could not relate to my American peers once I came to the States for Bible school.
And I really didn’t try that hard to relate, because by the time I had graduated from high school in Brazil, I was entirely convinced that the fundamental religion I’d been taught was the one and only Truth. It was part of my identity. I was a Christian. I was a Christian missionary kid, for the love of God! Far away from Brazil (which at the time still felt like my true home), I refused to call snowy, frozen Wisconsin anything but my temporary Bible school adventure. I fully intended to return to Brazil as a missionary.
But my ideas about God and life were too extreme even for most of the Christian friends I made in the States after high school, as I quickly discovered. My collection of unrealistic beliefs, combined with the social confusion I was feeling due to my radically different cultural background, incited some debilitating struggles.
The God experience, which up until my first year of college had been nothing more than casual acquiescence to doctrinal statements, now became a legalistic drive in a desperate effort to justify the things I knew to be true and carve out a place of acceptance for myself. I couldn’t relate to the culture I lived in. I was far away from the little sub-culture I was comfortable in. So I looked for God more sincerely than I ever had before. And I tried to do it all by myself.
For awhile I thought I had found him. I thought my daily devotions and prayers were what fueled the spiritual life. But things never seemed to line up in my head. I was aware of a tension early on, a strained feeling of exasperation as I racked up the brownie points with God. I was doing everything I had been taught to do in order to find God, and I could never seem to get as far with God as other people around me.
To be honest, I was a hopeless legalist. My religion was one of doctrinal statements and petty debates about theological foundations. My God was a powerless God. Technically, as is the case with so many fundamentalists, my god was not God but the Bible.
But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. If I wasn’t finding God, I thought, then maybe I didn’t understand my doctrine correctly. And the result of weighing that one thought was pretty much the initiation of a long, despairing search for doctrinal cohesion that ended in apostasy.
And as I moved on through Bible school, eventually transferring from Wisconsin to a college in Chicago, I became more and more disillusioned with God—simply because the personal, all-powerful, loving God of theology was actually none of these things for me in my own life. My experience of God was nonexistent, and I was finally beginning to realize how incredibly problematic this was for my entire belief system. My God left me empty and hopeless. I could not find a reasonable place to stop my theological investigation, a place from which I could build a good solid doctrinal foundation—every doctrine debunked led directly to another one that had to be questioned. God never stepped in to help me out, so what was I supposed to do? It’s not like I didn’t pray for help.
My incessantly inquisitive mind kept right on inquiring, and it carried me straight into the darkest time of my entire life. And as I came up with question after question, the fear of condemnation always kept me from mentioning the thoughts that burned inside of me.
A Nihilistic Angst
My experience with depression started about the time I finished my studies at the Wisconsin Bible school. I lived in an apartment with some friends for a year, trying to make sense of what in the world was happening with my life. I had kept an infrequent journal in high school, but now I started writing a lot. Whenever I was depressed, I wrote. I basically wrote to stay alive. The only times I didn’t write were 1) the rare times I was really happy, and 2) the times when the simple task of writing required more motivation than my depressed mind could muster. Usually, writing was a very practical method of staying on top of things emotionally, because I could say whatever I wanted and keep it all to myself. Because I was able to write, I was able to talk myself out of all my suicidal thoughts and maintain the minimal amount of passion for life.
Because of my tendency towards legalism, I had gradually developed some pretty severe feelings of guilt, inconsistency, and failure because I simply could not live up to what I knew was right. I was evil. I was a sinner. I was supposed to be perfect, but I wasn’t. In time, I realized that these feelings were direct results of my religion, but not before discovering what it really meant to be depressed.
There’s nothing quite like it. I rode the roller coaster for awhile. Up and down. Climbing to spiritual highs, where I thought I was in close communion with God; sliding down to demonic depths that rocked my fragile faith and spun me into doubt and despair. I went back and forth between striving to believe in God and viciously hating him. I interpreted my struggle with depression through the fractured, darkened vision of a religion that led me to believe I was under demonic attack.
One memory from my time in Wisconsin stands out sharply in my mind. I was in my apartment, trying to deal with another bout of depression that had been bothering me all day and keeping me from getting anything done at all. As it grew worse, I became convinced that a very evil presence was with me in the room. I felt that something very evil was happening. I remember lying on my back on my roommate’s bed, staring at the ceiling, writhing around as the yellow lamp light seemed to fill the room, blurring my vision. I thought the ceiling was getting farther and farther away from me. And I knew right then that a demon was there, right next to me.
I don’t remember how it ended. I think the evil effect gradually died down and I eventually went to bed. But I felt this evil on a couple more occasions as well. Even as I moved on in life and transferred to the school in Chicago, I was still clinging to the idea that my depression was only a spiritual battle, and that I would conquer it one day. Right before I moved to Chicago, I experienced another session with despair. Here I was, getting ready to start at the school that would eventually award me my baccalaureate, and I was wondering if I should just kill myself instead. A fine situation for a Christian to be in!
As I continued my education, my investigation of Christian doctrine also continued. I was constantly reading extra-curricular material and writing down ideas, thoughts, and personal rants. The amount of disagreement I found among theologians and philosophers was quickly weighing down my mind (which doesn’t understand philosophy very well anyways), and causing me to ask very practical questions about the meaning of life and the ability of my Christian fundamental religion to really answer any of my questions satisfactorily. This is why I became disillusioned with God—I was sickened by all the petty debates and strained theo-philosophical arguments, which generally offered nothing to a mind starving for anything truly practical.
And all this time, God never spoke to me or helped me, even when I asked. Soon I started treating him like I treated most everybody else—I just stopped asking for help.
I could go on endlessly by listing questions that I was asking and not getting any answers for, but that’s not really necessary here. The most basic failures of my religion from my point of view were that 1) it simply could not offer purpose-giving answers to life’s questions, and 2) it often bluntly refused to even try to give those answers. I examined cessationism, I examined inerrancy, I researched eschatology. Everything I’d been taught was quickly scrapped. Doctrine after doctrine died a hopeless death, and I became a heretic in hiding.
As I entered my last year of Bible school, I was finally stabilizing both emotionally and intellectually. The intensity of my depression was waning and slowly transforming into a sort of nihilistic angst, prompted by my increasingly liberal theological decisions and the tiny, conservative Christian bubble in which those decisions were doomed to be housed, at least until I finished my degree program. Over time, I had realized that my struggles with doubt and despair were very much connected to both my cultural background and my fundamentalist upbringing. Before I even graduated, I knew I was no longer a Christian, and could never return to the faith.
Because all I wanted was something practical to help me live a normal life that everyone else seemed to be living. All I needed was the freedom to enjoy what normal people enjoyed. All I craved was release from the years of tension and hypocrisy that had followed me across thousands of miles of jungle, ocean, and snow-covered, frozen Midwestern landscapes.
And that’s my basic story. It’s been an interesting ride so far. I still have to deal with depression, but it’s nothing like the old familiar darkness. And the desperate writing that fueled my passion for life turned into a creative hobby that will stay with me until the day I die a happy death, free from the God who actually led me to consider suicide.
Now that I’ve rejected Christ, the joy that Christians always talked about experiencing is finally mine.
Faith failed me, but now I am saved by works.
Ancient manuscripts confused me and misled me, so now I write my own Scriptures.
And since turning my back on God, I’ve been amazed by how much new hope and meaning I’ve been able to find. My life without God is, without a doubt, the best life I’ve ever had.
Thanks for reading! Your thoughts are anticipated and appreciated.
– Brandt (guest contributor)