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losing my religion

Losing at Losing my Religion – a 10 year perspective

For just over 10 years now I’ve been an atheist, an ex-Christian. After losing my religion I starting sharing the story of that journey, my difficulties with the church, and many of your stories as well. I’ve been talking privately with dozens of people ever since the first time I wrote down my story, and I’ve been touched by what it’s meant to you – and what your stories have meant to me.

During the first few years after I left the faith, I found myself driven toward kicking against the church with as much vigor as I could. I needed to see it’s defeat and I needed it to be done at my hands. I felt like everything leading up to my awakening had been a giant deception, and that was true – people, adult people – had lied to me in order to control me. They used their influence to teach me that my beliefs about god were determining factors in my eternity. I eventually modeled their behavior. I did the same thing to others. I also became as self deprecating as they were, as I learned to hate all the parts of myself that couldn’t meet the standards set forth by my benevolent but jealous god.

Eventually my vigor waned. I became more concerned about social justice; LGBT rights, the lives of black and brown people, the treachery of warmongering and death in countries inhabited by people poorer than anyone reading this can fathom, and the importance of separating church from state. It became clear to me that what was important was not my insistence on godlessness and controversy, but instead on humanity and the philosophical ideology of humanism and what reaching it’s ends would look like for underprivileged people. I thought – and maintain, that the church will destroy itself with no help from me. It will implode by the force of the immense anger and hate machine that churns inside it.

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Why Cling to Faith?

People of faith  often share an experience that is so rarely discussed among themselves that, at first glance, it seems as if it’s existence is completely covered up – this quiet secret is not rare in any way at all, however, and most people of faith know more about doubt than they are willing to admit in public or even in private to their peers. There has to be a reason for this hush surrounding the uncertainties that are likely to accompany faith and that often do – that reason is that with doubt comes consequences.

And so doubt is buried and ignored and handled with no real help at all.

The first moment in which a person has an inkling of doubt about something foundational to their understanding of reality and something they have up until this time known to be true is utterly terrifying. Most people, as they test these feared waters, find themselves bravely dipping their toes in and then quickly retreating as soon as they realize just how difficult this will inevitably become.  Faith is that thing we most fear questioning as the implications of being right vs. being wrong are eternal and severe.

“I’m going to start by questioning the goodness of god,”  or “I’m not sure who Jesus really was,”quickly turns into supplications made out of an overwhelming fear often generated by the simple thought of this intent toward questioning. Fear is faith’s built in survival mechanism, you threaten faith – even momentarily and even in the most seemingly miniscule way, and fear will overcome every crevice of your person. This is precisely why many never fully experience doubt – they try it out, become overwhelmed by fear, and retreat to the comfortable lie they’ve always known.

Those who fully embrace doubt do so at the expense of every comfort they’ve ever known.

The first time I started to approach my doubt I recall being absolutely terrified to the point that I trembled.  I would lay awake at night pouring with sweat as I prayed for forgiveness for my uncertainty, knowing – like Pascal – that the price of being wrong was heavy and eternal and yet at the same time fiercely angry at the god who would allow for such muddy waters where the truth about his will and existence were concerned. It’s easy to be a young man who knows only his faith and only the basics of even that – it’s much more difficult to have a library of religious knowledge at your feet and still view your own faith with the same objectivity that worked previously.

Unlike Pascal and nearly every young apologist I’ve ever encountered I understand something about belief that, upon first approach, is very difficult to swallow; you are not in charge of what you believe, you will believe what you are convinced is worthy of belief – but never anything that hasn’t met that criteria. You may study and learn and throw yourself into your faith – but if you, for whatever reason, later become unconvinced of the truth of that faith – not believing it’s tenets is entirely out of your control. Simply put:  You cannot believe what you do not believe.

That’s what makes doubt so dangerous, once it’s seed is planted it cannot be stopped – and once well rooted and growing it won’t be pulled out by any amount of force. Of course, there are counter measures one can make – all of which are, in my experience, temporary.  Most who experience doubt retreat quickly and then employ some sort of cognitive dissonance to explain away their experience – but as I said, these efforts are generally fleeting and as long as they may last the dormant root of doubt one day revives and lays the faithful to waste once again. I certainly experienced this a number of times throughout my life as a Christian. If I look back on it the times that I was most outwardly devout they are likely also the times I was most fiercely attempting to dissuade uncertainty. I think many people are the same way; their desperation leads to devotion – strained though it may be.

As surprising as it may seem to those unfamiliar with this territory, I’m not describing any unknown phenomena. There isn’t a pastor alive today with more than a few years experience that hasn’t been precisely where I’m describing, in fact, there are ministries set up just for pastors who are so burned out that they are in peril of losing sight of what it is that led them into the ministry in the first place. Doubt, despite it’s obvious existence in the day to day life in even the most average of Christians – is a topic spoken of like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. “That which shall not be named,” largely due to an overwhelmingly and absolutely justified fear that a congregation that gets even the slightest whiff of doubt may oust their beloved clergyman altogether.  Uncertainty a dangerous thing to admit to when your financial well-being depends on a steadfast commitment to absurdity.

Clergy aren’t the only people with a vested interest in maintaining a faithful status quo. The average believer will have invested a good chunk of his or her life into building a social construct consisting mainly of people who won’t challenge their beliefs. Within this social construct exist friendships and families, churches and social clubs that watch out for one another; if there is anything that the religious are good at it’s being inclusive of those with homogeneous stances and beliefs on the issues deemed important by the bodies that make those decisions.  It should be noted that they are also incredibly good at being exclusive to those who fail to fall in line. It doesn’t take long for a convert into your average religion to notice what happens to those that begin to fall out of line, many of us grew up hearing the gossip about the backsliders in our churches and watching how those people slowly became appendages of little or no use – only to be cast away.

Not only does the average believer have an interest in maintaining membership in “The Social Club”, they also generally want to maintain the simplicity of faith.  It’s altogether easier to believe that every disastrous moment in the life of a person is a part of some divine plan, and to rely on whispered prayers in times of difficulty or crisis for comfort rather than facing this cold and unforgiving universe as it is. I don’t even have to mention the benefit of promised eternal heavenly reward (even if imagined) to make the ease of faith seem like an improvement over the harshness of a life without those small comforts.

The faithful cling to their faith in lieu of exploring the questions and uncertainties haunting the back of their minds for many reasons – most of them having to do with the sheer terror they face when attempting to approach those questions, the danger of losing their social or family structure as well as their membership in a believing majority, and the exclusion provided by those that remain – who exclude for fear that doubt may be infectious.

And it is.


Discussion points:

Are you a Christian or other person of faith clinging to your faith?

What keeps you from embracing the questions and critiques you have about your beliefs?

Are you a former believer who has experienced something similar to that which is described here?

What made you finally decide to begin allowing your questions to drive your thoughts? Where did they lead you?

On Being Nothing: Strong Belief, Strong Doubt, and the Skeptics Role

Strong Faith, Strong Doubt

 

Authors note:  This post will use a lot of Christian catch phrases and paraphrase a lot of Bible verses, so if I use the term “soul” I’m not stating that I believe in a soul, I’m putting myself in the position of a person who does and who uses their scriptures to justify the idea of one. The same goes for terms like holiness, luke-warm, or any other typical Christian colloquialism that may be used in those particular circles – as I’d have used while I was still in those circles. Please also note that I’m not attempting to address any specific theology, but the potential aftermath of any personal theology. This is not a counter-apologetic critique of any belief system and this can be applied equally to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, et al.

 

God created the world out of nothing; so as long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us. ~Martin Luther

One of the foundational aspects of my former faith was the futility of my efforts toward being, doing, or realizing goodness.  The most important lesson my faith had to teach me, the thing that brought me to obedience and surrender to Christ was acknowledging that I am ultimately nothing.

Worthless, degenerate, corrupt: these are the terms that identify the Christian disciple before his god as he strives to meet his creator in the terms set by that creator.

The nominal Christian will never grasp this idea, he’ll reject it in lieu of scripture that affirms his importance in the eyes of god or that talks about how the hairs of his head are accounted for. The nominal Christian leads an easy, luke-warm life of faith where he actually feels worthy. The disciple, however,  is convinced only of the opposite. The average Christian life and the life of the few who believe Luke 14:33 and attempt to live by it are miles apart.

The latter was my faith, the scars from which I still struggle against as they sometimes feel freshly carved.

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Songs of the Deconverted by Jim Etchison- Review

Songs of the Deconverted by Jim Etchison It’s rare that I find stories that so precisely and eloquently put words to the way it felt for me as I lost my faith. It’s rare that I ever feel like someone actually gets it. Jim Etchison does such an incredible job describing these thoughts and feelings in his book Songs of the Deconverted, that I frequently found myself highlighting portions of the text and gasping for breath as I recalled feeling many of the same things described in the book.

Songs of the Deconverted is a collection of short stories, fiction, that reflect upon Jim’s own experiences. Each riddled with parts of his own life, they serve as the perfect allegory  for what it is like for the deeply devoted Christian to lose that which is most vital to him.

Jim says of his work:

I wrote this book of short stories for a rare group – those who dove in completely, let the current sweep them under, then realized their peril and swam for the shore. The people who climbed out, still dripping, and walk again on the dry land, are forever changed. The ocean won’t define them anymore.  Instead they will be defined by their singular decision to climb out of the roiling sea.

The stories introduce us to Andy, beginning with his climb up Tophat Ridge with an atheist friend who “baffles” him. By the time Andy and his friend reach the summit Andy too is without belief, no longer able to make God true after great revelations cause his religious infrastructure to implode on itself.

From:

Every action, every snapshot in time, was held up against the backdrop of God’s intention.

To:

…now I could see them [the clouds] for what they were: beautiful, gorgeous billows of white against a deep blue sky

Andy’s story is my story. Andy’s pain is my pain. Most importantly, Andy’s triumph is my triumph.

I highly recommend this book to anyone wrestling with deep and difficult doubts about their god, or for those just coming out of this transition period and waking up to a new life without.

Songs of the Deconverted is available on Amazon Kindle right now for only $2.99.

The Burdens of Doubt

Many times when discussing the path of doubt with those that have yet to experience or embrace it they come to the conclusion that it is easy, simple, or even that it was an escape from having to live with and face a life of faith. The burdens of doubt, however, cannot and should not be minimized.

Fear

Fear is the most immediate result of doubt. Even mentioning the word “doubt” can send the believer into a panic gripping his or her rational mind and wreaking havoc on their emotions and mental stability. This is because the believer who approaches doubt does so with great risks assuming that all that they believe to be true is indeed true.

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The Slowest Process of my Life – Your Stories

The slowest process of my life (besides dying).

By Anonymous

Waking up from religion has been a multi-dimensional, multi-experiential process. You know the whole “layers of an onion” metaphor? In the case of extricating myself from religion, it’s more like peeling back layers of a multiverse with that uniquely painful phase involving the Sun (which hurt just as much as you might imagine). And what I’m realizing now is that, when it comes to esoteric thought or metaphysical questions, I don’t know that I’ll ever complete that peeling back. I’m too fascinated by philosophical questions and the idea of metaphysics. And not to sound whiney because I’m not, it’s just fact that these interests, combined with my rejection of religion places me on an island, playing with a ball I’ve named Wilson, knocking my own teeth out with the available ice skate lying around. But I also wonder if, after so much group time and the resultant group think, if this isn’t actually a good thing. I’m fine with the idea that for the rest of my life, 40-50 years if I’m really lucky, I’m supposed to be learning how to think independently and be okay with myself when other people disagree with my premises or conclusions.

I’ve been waking up from religion for the past 12-14 years. It’s hard to pinpoint a date because honestly I’ve always questioned the presuppositions and events that I was supposed to take on faith that flew in the face of not only science, but actual, historical human experience. I was never encouraged to take any biblical teaching metaphorically. Everything was literal and the Bible was treated as an historical document. An old high school youth group friend of mine recently asked me if I felt that all the beliefs that I, until recently, had been challenging resulted from our shared 2-3 year experience at X Church. And this is where things get tricky because so much of what I feel I was taught was actually taught very indirectly. So indirectly, I’m surprised to find out, that many of my peers can’t relate to my extrapolation of the teachings we were both taught. And I know these beliefs I no longer hold didn’t come from home because while it was an unspoken expectation that I was a born-again Christian who was anti-abortion and pro-republican, we simply never spoke about it. The Bible wasn’t cracked open at my house for family time. It just wasn’t the way my family operated.

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The Role of the Ex-Christian in the Church

Despite my moniker to the contrary I actually try to be the voice of calm reason when I talk to believers; and trust me when I say it, I talk to a lot of believers. Many of these conversations happen with what one might call “infant Christians” or new converts to the Christian faith – I find myself drawn to them because I know that they’ve likely just experienced an incredible emotional high that led to their “salvation” and I want to try to guide them into a faith that is more than just a culmination of feelings that occurred one Sunday morning at church. I’m an Ex-christian now, an atheist even.

When I was a Christian in my early and mid teens I had a mentor that felt it was important to train me up in the doctrines of my faith. He put me under a rigorous method of study, gave me books to read, and introduced me to collegiate level concepts when I was still a teenager. Despite the many flaws of this man he did one thing that so many are failing to do in the church today: he ensured that I knew how to study and think. He knew that this study would generate a thirst for more knowledge in me, and he was absolutely right – it did. Without this mentor in my life I doubt I could have ever studied to the point at which I was able to question the concept of god, much less the basic tenets of my faith. Why is that? and why is this seemingly missing from so many churches today?

I don’t believe an individual can truly question the fundamentals of any concept without having a working grasp of that concept.

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An Insurance Policy against Doubt

The Bible and the Qur’an are similar books, I’ve been clear on that before. One of the many similarities is a certain tendency to provide an insurance policy against the likelihood or fruition of doubt.

They both do so in the same ways; by ostracizing those unsure of their claims, demonizing them as deceivers, and apostatizing them in order prevent their dissent from spreading. Doubters and the questions that plague them, according to these holy texts, are like a cancer that will spread unless you cut it out and kill it.

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Facing the Reality of Death

Death, for believers from many different faiths, is a new beginning. Death is the  point in which your deeds and dedication to your god begin to be rewarded and for many it is something to look forward to.  I overhear Christians talking about the joys of heaven fairly frequently, at funerals I hear pastors talk about how much better off the deceased are than those of us left here grieving.

Losing faith comes with many difficult trials for most.  Facing the reality of death is one of those trials, coming to grips with the knowledge that what you once looked forward to may be the absolute end of your existence entirely. Recognizing this can be painful and scary not only when we consider our own lifespan but also of those we love.

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Appropriate Conduct for Christians

Twice in the last three weeks I’ve been witness to two different Christians in group settings openly ridiculing atheists and science. I’ve also in the past seen believers ridicule other believers of a different sort, a double standard by my book.

The first was at my favorite coffee shop, I was there early in the morning and a group of 12 or so men were having a Bible study. I was a little early for work so I decided to sit down for a bit and finish reading The Blind Watchmaker. I overheard one particular gentleman comparing any non-christian with dogs by saying that he expected  bad behavior from non-believers and other faiths because that’s just who they are just like he expected a dog to lick his behind. The same gentleman later said, “What takes more faith; believing that we crawled out of a swamp, or that god created us?” to much agreement from the group.

In this situation I patiently held my tongue, though I couldn’t help but shake my head in disgust.  I did later send an email to one of the participants that I happened to know, and last week I attended the study myself. Turns out these guys are really nice, were open to my discussion points on the parts of the Bible they were discussing, and welcomed me into the group very openly. I’ll continue attending. (I do intend to discuss their offenses eventually and write about this entire experience here on the blog.)

The second offense was from a guest pastor that held a moment of reflection at an event I volunteer for every couple months, a live music show that benefits my local arts guild. The pastors first words were a quote of Psalms 14:1, “The Fool hath said in his heart, there is no god”.  He continued to deliver a plea for salvation at a clearly secular event. I’ve yet to email this gentleman but I intend to explain that he need not pity this fool.

The point I’m trying to get to is that for some reason it’s ok to make fun of people and beliefs that aren’t your own in the Christian world and to even do so in a public setting, often with the assumption that those beliefs are so rare in your community that there won’t be anyone particularly offended by such things (and for those few that are, well – obviously they deserve it).

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