This is the second edition of “Your Stories” – a bi-weekly feature here on RagingRev.com from my readers featuring your own stories of doubt and leaving the faith. Today you’ll find a reader who wishes to remain anonymous (we’ll call him J), but who I have known for probably 10 years now and how he was converted to Christianity as a young teen at the Brownsville Revival and then was later plagued with doubts and questions.
J and I have known one another as both Christians, and now as unbelievers. We explored many of the questions we had about our faith together along with a few other friends (whom will be sending in their own stories later) together and we’ve seen the transition from men of faith to men of doubt happen.
J’s story is very similar to my own, I remember wishing that I could go down to Brownsville to be a part of the great Revival happening there. I remember being told by my mentor in the faith that I could be the reason the next great awakening occurred. I wanted it badly enough that I could taste it.
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My childhood was quite chaotic. I moved a lot, living between my parents and my various grandparents. Things were always a bit uncertain but one thing was consistent and that was church. When living with my grandparents I would always go to church, sometimes up to three services a week. I attended Assembly of God churches, Lutheran churches, and everything in between. Pretty much every denomination besides Catholicism. Christianity was engrained in me from a very early age and was the only lens I had to view the world through. During my early childhood I accepted God at face value. As I continued to grow into my teen years I lived with my parents. We would go to church off and on, always during key holidays or visits to my grandparents. My parents were more the “we believe in God” but weren’t overly religious types. Over the years church became a chore, something I found boring. Once I was a teenager I pretty much hated the thought of going to church. My mother had remarried at this point and I was a rather stubborn teen. I hated everyone and everything. I barely got along with any of my family and would constantly fight. Around this time though my father’s side of the family became very religious, much more so than usual. Though this wasn’t your typical “churchy” kind of obsession.
Any time I would visit my father or his parents they would be talking about a specific church in Florida, and being from Oregon that’s quite out of the ordinary. Any time I would visit they would be watching tape-recorded services from this church on their TV. This irritated me because even when we weren’t at church, there would still be church. I didn’t care much at this point, but they would talk constantly about how “God is moving in Florida”. Eventually, they all dove head-in and moved down to Florida specifically to begin attending this church, my grandparents joined their seminary and my father moved down to Florida to do the same. I stayed with my mother in Oregon.
The next summer rolled around and my brothers and I were set to visit my father in Florida. I knew that side of my family moved down there to go to church, and this church was a nightly occasion. I remember the phone call specifically where I asked my dad, “Are you still going to that church?” and I was relieved when his response was “No, but your grandparents are”. I was so happy that church was not going to be a part of my summer vacation. We packed our bags and headed down. Much to my surprise my dad not only stopped attending church but rather went in the opposite direction. He went from the straight-edge beacon of morality to encouraging me by buying alcohol, telling me to “hook up” with girls in the neighborhood, and a number of other things. I think it was his way of trying to bond with his teenage son and not be like his parents were in raising him. Eventually though, I think he felt the need to turn his life back around because he mentioned that his parents had bought us some tickets to go to a conference the church was putting on, and that we had to go. He made it seem like it was more for them than for us. I agreed as the conference sounded a bit more fun than church so what could it hurt?
I figure at this time I should take a moment to mention exactly what this church was. It’s known as The Brownsville Revival. It is an Assembly of God church in Pensacola Florida that claims to have received a spiritual outpouring on Father’s Day 1995 that lasted for seven years. Millions of people from all over the world poured into this church just to experience it and have their faith reignited. The church held nightly services that would easily last from seven at night until three in the morning. People would line up for twelve hours just to get into the main sanctuary. There were three full-sized sanctuaries for overflow that would project the services on big screens. This was no small thing.
I had spent a lot of my childhood in an Assembly of God church. I had seen people “falling down” when being prayed for and heard plenty claims of miracles happening, but nothing could prepare me for the scale that this happened during this conference. My dad and I went alone, but pretty much the rest of the attendees were youth groups from all over the country that traveled to come to this youth conference. It packed an arena football stadium full of kids. As soon as the worship service started people began to get hysterical almost immediately. Kids would start crying their eyes out and falling on the ground without people praying for them. The energy was intense. Everything was building up to an altar call sermon. I recall exactly what went through my head at the time, It was along the lines of, “I’ve been living a lie my whole life. Church has just been this boring thing I’ve never thought much about but God is real, and He’s showing me He’s real.” And then at that moment I heard the voice of God say to me “I am real and I want you to give your life to me right now.” A wave of emotions overcame me and I began crying my eyes out, sobbing uncontrollably. I went down to the altar around several hundred other kids my same age and said the sinner’s prayer right there. I really did feel different that night, like someone lifted a huge weight off of my shoulders.
To summarize the rest of my summer I began speaking in tongues the next night, reading my bible heavily by the end of the week, and spending the rest of the summer attending the church itself. I experienced all manner of being “slain in the spirit”, which I can only describe as a completely blissful yet constraining feeling on your body.
After that summer when I returned to Oregon I immediately found an enthusiastic church in the area to go to and started attending every time the doors were open. I turned into a model Christian kid. I impressed most adults around me with my interest and passion. My mother and step father commented all the time on my change of attitude, we never fought anymore and I no longer caused trouble. This went on for years into my late teens. Being a Christian was an entire identity to me, I witnessed to my friends, listened only to Christian music, and read my Bible, boy did I read my bible. There was even a period where I fasted every other day for three months just to be closer to God.
Now, my de-conversion wasn’t an overnight thing, and it happened in phases. Despite all the miraculous things I had experienced there was this nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Despite being around people constantly that claimed to be having visions, hearing God, seeing God, etc. I never really saw or heard anything. I felt many things, but nothing that I couldn’t attribute to an overly enthusiastic wanting to experience something. I mean, I could have tricked myself to falling down when they prayed for me. I even thought sometimes the church might have put something in the air to make everyone go along with whatever they were doing. I questioned this yet at the same time wrapping my entire identity in it. I badly wanted to actually experience something. I had even cast demons out of my non charismatic friends, one time even right after they argued what a bunch of sensationalist garbage Pentecostals believe. It happened exactly like it did in Church, and they even claimed to see the demons, but I never did. I would hear what I thought was the voice of God, but it just as easily could have been me telling myself what I wanted to hear. This bothered me.
The second thing that begun my de-conversion was how much I read The Bible. Being the model Christian kid I was I read at least a chapter a day. By the time I was eighteen I had read the bible over twice, and probably three times if you count all the study groups and church services. My Bible had more notes and highlights in it than most of the old folks in my church who had their bibles for years. What started to bug me was the stark contrast in the morality the church would push, and what the bible actually said. I found myself questioning authority figures when they would twist and nit pick things to make a point. I remember my pastor specifically preaching that “Jesus didn’t drink actual wine, it was diluted wine”, and I remember thinking, “All the bible actually says is to avoid drunkenness, and Jesus himself didn’t even say that. Why is it so important?” Then I would start to see that everything was a bit of nit-picking and didn’t really follow what the bible actually said. I still believed in biblical inerrancy, so I just started to see people as flawed.
Over time my Church started to become more blatantly corrupt. This didn’t shake my faith, but it didn’t break my network within the Church. To protect people’s identities I’ll just say that the corruption was so bad it became a federal case. Before it reached that point I had already moved on to another Church but my faith had already been shaken to it’s core.
What started with seeing specific people’s opinions, or specific denominational errors in the bible, I started to see core aspects of Christianity as a religion flawed. The rapture? Not really in the bible. The trinity? Not really. Even heaven, hell, and eternity weren’t that specific. The bible didn’t have as many answers as the church tends to claim it does. A lot of it is vague. I started to become interested in the history of the Bible. Where did it come from? Who wrote it? Of course, what the church had been telling me wasn’t even close to right. I started to become interested in the apocrypha, especially the books that really could have made it into the bible but didn’t. The Book of Enoch really changed my perspective. At the time The Book of Enoch really validated my belief in biblical inerrancy and I’d just say the church was flawed for leaving it out.
My long-held doubt in the miraculous combined with my distaste for the church eventually broke down my personal belief in God to a point where Christianity barely described me. I still believed in the biblical Jesus, but I really doubted a lot of what I couldn’t read specifically in The Bible. My beliefs could best be described as universalism. I believed that if Christ was God and God is omniscient then there is no way he planned to fail, and that everyone eventually would be saved. I was quite comfortable with this belief for a long time.
By this time I was in my early twenties, I was done with school and found my place, oddly enough, back in an Assembly of God campus housing. This community was much more accepting of unconventional beliefs than most Assembly of God churches I had attended. I could have healthy discussions with many of my peers that didn’t result in accusations of being a heretic or flawed. I thought I was pretty progressive for being a universalist. However, around this point it kinda struck me. I had stripped away so much of my religion that I was finally able to grasp the thought of, “How can I even know if God is real?”. The thought came to me in that the claims I was making, based on the bible, were completely flawed. I went full circle to the reason I became a Christian and followed my logic. I didn’t see how my experiences in my early teens, which I doubted were anything outside of my own fabrication, somehow validated what the bible said. Even if those experienced were real that didn’t automatically make the bible true. With little to say, agnosticism welcomed me with open arms.
I would still say that to this day I am an agnostic first. I think labels are useful as long as everyone using them in a conversation understands them. I’m agnostic because I know I don’t know. I know there is a limit to my understanding and that ultimately everything I “know” is subject to change. I’m not agnostic because I think that the answer is out there, waiting to find me, I’m agnostic because I don’t think there is an answer. What lead me to atheism is another logical “best guess” I eventually had to make. My avoidance of atheism was always because I thought atheists knew there was no God. There are some who would claim this, but mostly atheists are trying to say, “There isn’t your God”. Theism is a carefully crafted house of cards, you have to believe every aspect of it as fact or the whole thing unravels and collapses instantly. Any belief in theism is circular, and to avoid calling it circular the word “faith” is thrown around like some virtue. Is there a God out there? I don’t know, but if it does exist “God” wouldn’t be the right word for it. I’m an atheist because I quite literally don’t believe there is a “God” because every definition of “God” is deeply flawed. To even begin to describe God is doing so from a vacuum of assumption and hearsay. My belief, or lack there of, in atheism has no bearing on any other aspect of my life.
What lead me to such a strong acceptance of the term “agnostic atheist” really is my sparked interest in science and my humble attempt at a logical understanding of the world. I don’t approach knowledge with some underlying hope or fear. I’ve made a personal commitment to try and understand truth as best I can. Spending most of my life with blinders on in the church has really left me with a feeling of being robbed, because it’s taken me into my mid twenties before I even cared to understand the deeper implications of scientific knowledge. I have much more profound “spiritual” experiences in just realizing indisputable facts about our existence. Some theists would sweep it under the rug just to claim “that’s God”. I again think they aren’t so much helping theistic thinking as they are further beating the word “God” into a pulp. I don’t think the universe is attached to a theist’s morality somehow.
The more I understand about the world the less room there is for a God. Any claim I see of God is just filling in smaller and smaller gaps. Do I believe there is no purpose to my existence? No. Do I see no use for morality? No. Do I claim I can prove there is no God? No, but then again it’s not my place to prove a negative. I believe if you’re going to have faith in God you have to fundamentally accept you’re going down a route that has no logical reason or evidence for it, and you have to really ask yourself if it is the right path to take. My commitment to logic would mean that even if I was to have some literal supernatural experience that I craved as a Christian it wouldn’t logically mean that The Bible is somehow true – how could it? I’ve been through the theist’s walk, both religiously and spiritually, and it’s ultimately a dead end. There has to be more, even if that means creating my own meaning.
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