Valerie Tarico writes:
I once spent a week reading testimonials at exChristian.net. Almost always, the re-calc that allowed someone to shed Christian beliefs was triggered by some kind of emotional discomfort. The discomfort could be anything from being molested by a pastor or rejected by a snobby youth group to a grinding discomfort with the hypocrisy in the church or family. Sometimes it was a very personal life crisis or sometimes a believer couldn’t ignore the suffering in the world around them.
And yet you seem to have made the transition without a clear emotional trigger. So I’m curious what opened up the possibility of reconsidering your beliefs.
Hi Valerie, thank you very much for taking the time to comment on this post.
You are right that the shedding of Christian faith appears to be very commonly tied to some sort of emotional trigger. After I first announced my change in beliefs, it took my Dad (who, as I’ve already said in the original article, is a completely devoted pastor, and also a rare example of the very best sort of Christian) a while to recover sufficiently to even be able to write a response to me about it (as this comment from my Mom suggests). When he was able to write to me, he wrote that, essentially, he did not believe that it was any of the intellectual difficulties that I had described that were the root cause of my decision to leave the faith, but that it was issues of the heart, that had caused me to desire intellectual justifications for decisions I already wished to make, or had secretly–secret perhaps even to myself–already made.
Of course, I cannot prove him wrong; for who can judge my heart and mind, unless they know it thoroughly? One can’t even know his or her own heart and mind with that much certainty, that they can claim to have proved such a statement to be false, even to themselves–I know from my own experience that the heart often can be very persuasive in directing the mind to whatever conclusions are desired. I have only my own memory to serve as testimony–and that only to myself, and perhaps those who actually witnessed my anguish and despair, such as my wife Sara. The memory of arduously wrestling to reconcile the problems I could not resolve in the Bible, with my own experiences as a Christian, my love for many aspects of the faith, and my indescribably strong desire to continue in what was safe, what just “felt” true, and what had been the most defining aspect of my life for 28 years–this is mine alone, and I cannot haul it out to display for others to see and bear witness to.
The Beginnings of Disillusionment
My “re-calc” was the result of the conjunction of quite a few things. As I say in the article, my direct personal experience with Christianity, and with Christians, has been hardly ever anything but a very positive experience. I did experience joy and peace; and I also believe that many Christians I know have demonstrated above-normal acts of loving-kindness, both to me, and toward others. The fact that I no longer see a Holy Spirit or other deity at the source of these things does not take away from the fact that they were a reality; and it does serve as a testimony to the value that some of the better forms of Christianity can still have (which value, however, must of course be weighed against some of the other things that may be observed about Christianity and its effects in society, many of which are not so lovely as these–additionally, it does not appear to me that Christianity is the only way of thinking that can produce these things). This does seem to make me a sort of anti-stereotype to the typical participant on ExChristian.Net.
But, over a period of years, I was becoming more and more aware of a general culture of ignorance within Christian culture. Recent examples would include widespread beliefs such as,
- that Dr James Dobson has accused Spongebob and Patrick from the popular Nickelodeon cartoon of being homosexuals (usually coupled with the consequent assertion that this must be true);
- that the series of Harry Potter books and movies were a design by practitioners of witchcraft to infiltrate our schools and poision the minds of our children, or that these books promote moral depravities of various kinds; or
- (an oldie but goodie, and still very widely-held) that the Mormon Church owns Coca-Cola (or Pepsi, in some versions).
The sort of ignorance in conservative Christian circles that defends, even now, the many stupid, nationalistic and egotistical attitudes and behaviors of our country and its government with regard to the rest of the world, and especially with regard to the war in Iraq, also makes a prime example.
I’ve also noticed that an alarmingly common tactic used by Christians to argue against positions they don’t agree with (notably, evolution, and any scientific findings that don’t agree with the concept of an earth younger than ten millennia), is the “straw-man argument”: the twisting or fabrication of “evolutionist” arguments to say something that has not actually been claimed, and argue against that instead of against the more difficult arguments that actually have been raised. But this is something I’ve discovered more after my deconversion, rather than something that precipitated it.
(Note: I do not mean to suggest that Christians as a class are more ignorant than, for example, atheists and agnostics, as I have heard many people attempt to imply or insinuate. My experience is that the average atheist or agnostic is just as generally ignorant, and just as inept at employing reason and good judgment; that is, that the average person, regardless of creed, philosophy or belief system, is very poorly educated in logic and rhetoric, and is apt to allow emotion and bias to color their judgment. I have also met many people who are extremely capable in one particular area of expertise, and yet inexplicably have a poor ability to exercise reason in many other areas. All I mean to say, is that the culture of Christianity seems to promote the spread of certain types of ideas that are rarely ever scrutinized, and are frequently ignorant.)
Also, while there were plenty of examples, as I say, of Christians who really demonstrated “God’s agape love”, there were plenty of examples to the contrary. Bigotry, intolerance and in-fighting are hardly difficult to find in Christian culture in general; and even in the churches which I spent most of my time at, which tended to be better-than-average examples of Christian love and support, the truly nurturing, caring, loving and understanding people were still usually in the minority to veiled indifference.
So I began, naturally, to have a distaste for and disillusionment with Christian culture in general. I know that I am not alone in this, as some of my siblings who are still Christians share these same feelings, and I have seen a number of books published recently expressing the same. However, the condemnation of the Christian culture is not condemnation of Christianity itself, or of the Bible; after all, Christians themselves acknowledge their humanity, believe in an oppressively sinful human nature, and preach forgiveness and grace, not attainment of human righteousness or perfection.
At this time, I was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with certain Biblical teachings, such as many of the things Paul wrote about women (the more extreme of which are simply explained away, but these explanations seemed to fit less and less); and Biblical teachings against homosexuality, which, unlike nearly all of the other moral prohibitions in the Bible, I found great difficulty in finding a rational basis for condemning, other than the obvious “God said so”.
Reality Versus the Bible
Now, with all of this simmering under the surface, I did, in fact, encounter some more personally troubling difficulties with Christianity. These were things that presented intellectual/theological problems that affected me much more directly than any of the other problems I’d been struggling with, and yes, provided emotional frustration as well.
A very close friend of mine has severe bipolar disorder, also called manic depression. It took some time to discover it for what it was. But through direct observational experience with it, I watched Beth go through such emotional and mental torment that no one who has never had or been close to someone with a severe mood disorder could ever begin to appreciate. In particular, the massive, massive depressions; soul-wrenching, emotional pain, without cause or reason, lasting for hours or days. Such torrents of emotional darkness! Like nails that never stop scratching against chalkboards that only your heart hears. She would lie on her bed and, *sob*, for hours. It would get to the point where the concept of death would become an appealing escape (being the only one visible). This was frequently coupled with strong, irrational and unquenchable fears and anxieties.
The concepts of depression, and particularly of suicidal thoughts, are more or less anathema to Christians. Psychology and modern psychiatric understanding are widely mistrusted (I suspect you yourself have experience with this). And: the Bible guarantees a wide range of instant psychological healings, available for just a prayer. Christian Science and “faith healings” may be widely recognized as cult-ish, but when the injury or illness is psychological in nature–and especially when it manifests itself almost exclusively through our emotions, suddenly the very same mindsets about faith healing apply now–and not only apply, but are the preferred and more dependable treatment. (Never mind that the root causes of this illment are plainly physiological in nature, and will even show up in a CAT scan with a fairly unmistakable signature.)
Like pouring salt on a wound, all my poor friend tended to get from fellow Christians was admonitions to pray harder, or spend more time in God’s Word (especially the Psalms). Beth was often expected to “just snap out of it”–all she really needed was an attitude adjustment; occasionally, some sin in her life was doubtless to blame. The Apostle Paul admonishes us to be rid of our anxieties by presenting them to God in prayer, whereupon (we are promised), we will be filled with the supernaturally effective Peace of God. Paul also proclaims that the Holy Spirit within us is not a spirit of fear, but of “power, love and of a sound mind”, implying that it is impossible to be close to God, and yet have a mind tormented by irrational fear and mental and emotional infirmity. Jesus, James and Paul all clearly pronounce that any spiritual gifts we ask of God without doubt, will be given to us (the “spiritual” qualification, of course, is not actually part of those scriptures; we’ve just added it because empirical experience demonstrates that it is untrue of arbitrary physical gifts).
No one who knew Beth at all, could claim that she wasn’t praying often enough, or sincerely enough, or that she wasn’t spending sufficient time in the Bible, or that she wasn’t genuinely praying to God to remove these plagues from her. She bared her soul. And got nothing.
Every shred of evidence in existence shows, and every experienced psychologist and psychiatrist knows, that it is essentially impossible for people suffering from acute mood disorders such as bipolar, or chronic medical depression, to lead a normal life without pharmaceutical help. Because of the awesome depth of the emotional pain involved, bipolar disorder has a very high mortality rate, as one of every six sufferers of the disease take their own life. Many, many more at least make an attempt at some point.
All of this absolutely flies in the face of accepted Christian wisdom, and of Biblical teachings. This was the first disparity between Christianity and “The Real World” that I was forced to encounter, and could not but accept. While it didn’t cause me to deconvert from Christianity (and, indeed, Beth herself is still a Christian, though a somewhat more skeptical one), it was my first proof that at least portions of the Bible were not true; or, at least couldn’t be taken as seriously as people tended to.
The Finishing Blows
It was over a year, possibly two, after all of these issues, that I encountered the first internal contradiction in the Bible that I couldn’t resolve (which I discussed in one of my first blog posts). I soon began to find others, some of which I’ve described in my post, Lost Credibility.
In the end, I don’t think it was any one thing that pushed me over the edge; it was more of a “critical mass” of things that just didn’t add up, though the discovery of irreconcilable internal Biblical contradictions was the final blow, and presented the greatest challenge to the entirety of my faith.
But, if there was anything that served as a “trigger”, something that perhaps allowed me to start being more honest with myself about what I was reading in the Bible, and to realize that I had been allowing emotionally-based and irrational explanations to resolve its inconsistencies, it was probably my experiences with Beth, and the subsequent discovery that even the promises of spiritual gifts aren’t always strictly true.