No more faith: the whys and why nots of my deconversion.

No more faith: the whys and why nots of my deconversion.

Image cour­tesy of freeimages.com.

It’s real­ly rare for peo­ple to ask me why I decon­vert­ed from Chris­tian­i­ty. Like, real­ly rare. It’s way more com­mon for them to assume they already know, whether they’re talk­ing to me while they’re express­ing this assump­tion or not. How­ev­er, in a sin­gle week, I’ve had two sep­a­rate unaf­fil­i­at­ed peo­ple ask me a vari­a­tion of the same ques­tion about the role fun­da­men­tal­ism had in my decon­ver­sion. Of course, I’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out my decon­ver­sion for the bet­ter part of two years. Per­haps it’s time for me to work out of my thoughts here with you.

A quick note: this is a rather long read. I want­ed to be as thor­ough as I could while con­cen­trat­ing on the points below, so I’ve tried to make it as easy to scan as pos­si­ble.

Hav­ing been a devout believ­er for my whole life until recent­ly, I’ve been privy to how peo­ple react to the “falling away” of a broth­er or sis­ter in Christ. I’ve had many of these assump­tions myself when friends and acquain­tances left the faith. As I’ve gone through the decon­ver­sion process and observed oth­ers who have done the same, I’ve real­ized that most of the rea­sons Chris­tians tend to assume some­one leaves Chris­tian­i­ty are either com­plete­ly false or con­fus­ing­ly mis­placed. So I’d like to cov­er rea­sons that most cer­tain­ly aren’t why I decon­vert­ed, while also explor­ing with you what things did con­tribute to my change of belief sys­tem.

Before I get start­ed, if you haven’t read Cap­tain Cas­sidy’s excel­lent post, “Here’s Not Why I Decon­vert­ed,” that’d be an excel­lent start­ing point. Many of these talk­ing points over­lap with hers.

Reasons that aren’t why I deconverted.

I’m an extra-special snowflake who just wants attention for my rebellion.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, peo­ple real­ly have accused me of decon­vert­ing (and also writ­ing about my life in gen­er­al, actu­al­ly) for the sole pur­pose of believ­ing myself to be super spe­cial and want­i­ng atten­tion. The “want­i­ng atten­tion” thing has come up con­stant­ly over the course of my life, gen­er­al­ly in response to me talk­ing about any trau­ma or men­tal health prob­lems I’ve expe­ri­enced. It was lobbed at me for my eat­ing dis­or­der as a teen, for my mul­ti­ple sui­cide attempts and self-injury habit, when I start­ed talk­ing about being sex­u­al­ly assault­ed and strug­gling with PTSD, and espe­cial­ly when I start­ed writ­ing more pub­licly about the doubts I was hav­ing about my faith.

This isn’t an uncom­mon accu­sa­tion to make of a woman hav­ing pub­lic opin­ions or tak­ing up space. It’s also real­ly insult­ing, actu­al­ly. As if I was real­ly bored one day and decid­ed, “I know how to make peo­ple pay atten­tion to me! I’ll renounce the faith I’ve based my entire exis­tence on! That ough­ta do it!”

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this accu­sa­tion tends to come from peo­ple who both don’t know me very well and feel some­how enti­tled to con­trol me — a rather unfor­tu­nate and dehu­man­iz­ing com­bi­na­tion. Any­one who actu­al­ly knows me will tell you I’m not a rebel­lious or atten­tion-seek­ing per­son by any means. In fact, I’m active­ly atten­tion- and con­flict-averse. I don’t enjoy con­cen­trat­ed scruti­ny at all, par­tic­u­lar­ly the neg­a­tive kind aban­don­ing my faith seems to have attract­ed from many I hold dear.

Ryan Bell, of the Year With­out God fame, wrote a fan­tas­tic post that kin­da dove­tails into what I’m talk­ing about here, enti­tled “I’m not bit­ter and I’m not rebelling.” It’s well worth the read and helps demon­strate that this kind of accu­sa­tion is pret­ty typ­i­cal from believ­ers when one of their own leaves the team.

Speak­ing of being part of the team, anoth­er com­mon insin­u­a­tion is that…

I was never a serious Christian.

This is a vari­a­tion of the No True Scots­man fal­la­cy, or as Neil Carter from God­less in Dix­ie writes, “You were nev­er real­ly one of us.” It’s also a major indi­ca­tion that who­ev­er thinks this has nev­er known me at all.

I’ll nev­er for­get talk­ing to a super­vi­sor at one of my first jobs. Con­ver­sa­tion had turned to our per­son­al lives and I men­tioned my faith. The imme­di­ate response was, “Oh, I know you’re a Chris­t­ian. It’s not hard to tell.” I remem­ber the pro­found relief I felt that my rela­tion­ship with Christ was so eas­i­ly detectable.

Iron­i­cal­ly, in the imme­di­ate after­math of the pub­li­ciz­ing of my decon­ver­sion, I was equal­ly relieved to hear a dear friend tell me that her first thought was, “If Dani can leave, any­one can.” It was so val­i­dat­ing to hear acknowl­edge­ment that my faith was vis­i­ble and self-evi­dent by the way I lived my life…so any aban­don­ment there­of wasn’t just chaff blow­ing away.

Those who knew me well as a Chris­t­ian ought to be able to tes­ti­fy that I was absolute­ly ded­i­cat­ed to Christ above all else. All you have to do is peruse #MyFundyJour­nal to see evi­dence that I strove to be con­formed to the image of Christ through Bible study and the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of the Holy Spir­it. I was quite well-versed in the apolo­get­ics of my denom­i­na­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly regard­ing gen­der-spe­cif­ic issues (just ask me about the head­cov­er­ing some­time). I was active at my assem­bly, attend­ing every meet­ing I pos­si­bly could and fel­low­ship­ping with the oth­er brethren, even lend­ing my musi­cal skills to con­gre­ga­tion­al accom­pa­ni­ment when I was need­ed.

But more than the things I did, I was tru­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly ded­i­cat­ed to God. I took very seri­ous­ly the com­mand to love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. This led me to will­ing­ly and joy­ful­ly attend­ed Bible con­fer­ences, Bible stud­ies, prayer meet­ings — and even attend as I said in a recent post, when­ev­er I felt like some­thing in my life was get­ting in my way of my rela­tion­ship with Christ, I would remove it. The music I lis­tened to, per­form­ing music pub­licly, friends I felt were a world­ly influ­ence, col­leges I want­ed to attend — in my mind, there was no con­test between these dis­trac­tions in my life and my love for God.

I’m not say­ing I was per­fect. I had my fair share of thorns of the flesh and temp­ta­tions that I reg­u­lar­ly con­fessed and worked to erad­i­cate from my life. What I am say­ing, though, is that my faith was real and observ­able. My love for God and my fel­low believ­ers was real. Which leads some to con­clude…

I just wanted an excuse to sin without guilt.

Accord­ing to many in fun­da­men­tal­ism, women just don’t enjoy sex. It’s almost as if we’re not sup­posed to. (I per­son­al­ly think this says far more about what kind of lovers Chris­t­ian patri­archy teach­es men to be by virtue of the sub­servient role women sup­pos­ed­ly fill, but what do I know?) I mean, there are excep­tions to this. But the num­ber of times women told me and my peers approach­ing our wed­ding nights that sex was some­thing we did for our hus­bands, not our­selves, and to not expect much plea­sure at first if ever…it’s deeply trou­bling, to say the least.

So per­haps it makes more sense that it was con­sid­ered the height of deprav­i­ty that as a 21-year-old, I had con­sen­su­al pre­mar­i­tal han­ky-panky — and liked it. I’ll give you a moment to clutch your pearls or roll your eyes, whichev­er you see fit.

If you’re not already read­ing David Willis’s excel­lent web com­ic, Dumb­ing of Age, I sug­gest you rem­e­dy that imme­di­ate­ly. Seri­ous­ly. Start here.

I’m sure that many can point to my, ahem, “sex­u­al strug­gles” as rea­son for leav­ing the faith, or at least as a start­ing point. In some ways, though, they’d be right about my want­i­ng to escape the guilt of my sin — if only because our view­points on sin are wild­ly dif­fer­ent. This isn’t a con­ces­sion to this point by any means. I’ll touch on it again in a moment. Also, let me remind you that I was 21 years old, an adult whose sex life was lit­er­al­ly no one else’s busi­ness.

But con­sid­er­ing con­sen­su­al sex was such an egre­gious sin that I was expelled from my fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian col­lege after spend­ing 3 sep­a­rate “coun­sel­ing” ses­sions with elders from the local assem­bly, then two of my clos­est friends at the time began treat­ing me like I had a con­ta­gious sick­ness and start­ed mak­ing deci­sions for me since I’d proven I was untrust­wor­thy, I sup­pose it’s some­what under­stand­able that some peo­ple then leap to the fol­low­ing assump­tion:

Bad” Christians drove me away.

It’s this ques­tion that two peo­ple have asked me with­in days of each oth­er. “Do you think you would have stayed a Chris­t­ian if it wasn’t for fun­da­men­tal­ism and how you were treat­ed?” It’s also not unusu­al for peo­ple from my past to lament to me that I had such bad expe­ri­ences. The impli­ca­tion is clear: if only I’d real­ly expe­ri­enced True Chris­tian­i­ty™, per­haps I wouldn’t have strayed.

To be hon­est, I find this both puz­zling and a lit­tle insult­ing, depend­ing on the per­son and con­text. I was taught to look beyond the per­son­al­i­ty and actions of fel­low Chris­tians, par­tic­u­lar­ly author­i­ties. Instead, I was to try to glean from them any­thing that may have come from the Lord. Which is exact­ly what I did.

So when a high school peer scoffed at me for plac­ing any blame for my depres­sion and sui­cide attempts on those who relent­less­ly bul­lied me, I decid­ed that God was try­ing to teach me per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty. When a men­tor told me that to expe­ri­ence fear in the wake of my sex­u­al assault was to deny the suf­fi­cien­cy of God’s love, I took it to heart. (Of course, repeat­ing “God hasn’t giv­en me a spir­it of fear” in the face of every post-trau­mat­ic stress episode served only to make that phrase a trig­ger.) When my best friends told me that I was untrust­wor­thy as a non-vir­gin, I told myself that they were act­ing as iron to sharp­en me.

Inter­nal­iz­ing these and hun­dreds of oth­er microag­gres­sions over the course of my life was of course trau­mat­ic. I can see that now. But at the time, I had nei­ther the expe­ri­ence nor lan­guage to rec­og­nize or describe it that way. I delib­er­ate­ly accept­ed these peo­ple and their words as part of the per­fect will of God. Even if they had intend­ed it for evil, I believed God intend­ed it for good. At no point in my most sin­cere Chris­t­ian faith did I ever think the actions of my fel­low Chris­tians were dri­ving me away from the heart of God. If some­one was a world­ly influ­ence, I sim­ply sep­a­rat­ed from them.

There was a peri­od of 2–3 years where I decid­ed that fun­da­men­tal­ism wasn’t for me. I fig­ured God’s pres­ence in fun­da­men­tal­ism was a bug rather than a fea­ture. Dur­ing those years, I befriend­ed many of the “right” kind of Chris­tians accord­ing to the peo­ple who ask me this ques­tion. The kind of Chris­tians who strive to fol­low the heart of the gospel rather than the let­ter of the law, who are con­cerned with the well-being of the least of these and engage in social jus­tice lib­er­a­tion work. Many of these peo­ple remain close friends to this day, and we work togeth­er to make Chris­tian­i­ty and the world at large a safer, kinder place. Ulti­mate­ly, for rea­sons to fol­low, this Chris­tian­i­ty just didn’t fit.

In light of the above, the answer has to be no, I don’t think bad Chris­tians or the wrong kind of Chris­tian­i­ty are respon­si­ble for my athe­ism. Of course, I can nev­er defin­i­tive­ly know, because that’s just not the life I had for so many years. But I can say with rea­son­able cer­tain­ty that I would have lost my faith no mat­ter what.

I’m just angry with God.

When I start­ed writ­ing about my expe­ri­ences with sex­u­al assault and men­tal health prob­lems, along with pub­licly ana­lyz­ing the affects my child­hood faith and expe­ri­ences had on me, many of my fel­low Chris­tians became very con­cerned — not that my expe­ri­ences had hap­pened, but that talk­ing about them some­how indi­cat­ed bit­ter­ness and anger toward God. No amount of rea­son­ing with them would dis­suade this belief, so even­tu­al­ly I stopped try­ing.

You know, I real­ly can’t hon­est­ly say I’ve nev­er been angry with God. I touched on this a bit in an old guest post: upon real­iz­ing my teacher had wit­nessed my attack and chose to sit back and watch, it sud­den­ly occurred to me that God had done the exact same thing. More than that, I real­ized He did it on a dai­ly basis in allow­ing tragedies and injus­tices to thrive around the world.

That absolute­ly did shake my faith, and it did make me doubt God and His good­ness. But more than that — it lent more cre­dence to the nonex­is­tence of such a deity than it did to the exis­tence of any deity sup­pos­ed­ly con­cerned about the world.

What I think peo­ple fail to under­stand is that my anger both then and now isn’t tar­get­ed at God at all. It’s tar­get­ed at the belief that an all-lov­ing and pow­er­ful deity can be said to exist and blithe­ly allow hor­rors to hap­pen to the world at large and even His chil­dren while still demand­ing love and wor­ship. It’s tar­get­ed at the belief that evil is per­mit­ted to make room for some greater good — a greater good that con­ve­nient­ly can nei­ther be ques­tioned or even observed in this life. It’s anger at how the idea of God is used to jus­ti­fy the com­pla­cence of His peo­ple in the face of tremen­dous injus­tice at home and abroad. It’s anger at the cru­el­ty belief in such a God cre­ates. It’s anger at injus­tice and those who will­ing­ly allow it to hap­pen.

So…why did I deconvert?

That’s a fair ques­tion. And a hard one. But I think I’ve nar­rowed it down to three major com­po­nents. They all sort of hap­pened togeth­er, in a big ball of wib­bly wob­bly timey wimey mess. It’s dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate them from each oth­er, but it’s the most sense I’ve been able to make of the whole ordeal of the past sev­er­al years. These rea­sons won’t con­vince every­one, and that’s okay. Decon­ver­sion, like faith, is a very per­son­al and indi­vid­ual mat­ter. There’s even some over­lap with a few fal­la­cious rea­sons above. Like I said: wib­bly wob­bly, timey wimey, big ball of mess. Nev­er­the­less…

I saw the logical conclusion of a biblically literalist Christianity.

I’ve said before, though per­haps not on this blog, that Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty showed me the deprav­i­ty my ver­sion of Chris­tian­i­ty led to. In almost every way, out­side of beliefs about church order, we were the­o­log­i­cal­ly com­pat­i­ble. I can’t pin­point what exact­ly opened my eyes, any spe­cif­ic inci­dent. But it was while I was there that I real­ized, sud­den­ly and with no going back, that our Chris­tian­i­ty nec­es­sar­i­ly demand­ed per­fec­tion from believ­ers. These peo­ple, these “sheep,” if they weren’t for­tu­nate enough to be one of God’s annoint­ed, were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly sub­ject­ed to humil­i­a­tion in the name of Christ if per­fec­tion wasn’t attained. This humil­i­a­tion was ruth­less, exact, and some­times led to excom­mu­ni­ca­tion from all they held dear. This Chris­tian­i­ty promised love and accep­tance and peace, but instead manip­u­lat­ed, sep­a­rat­ed, and wreaked hav­oc in the lives of those unable to con­form. There was no basic respect. There was no con­cept of con­sent. There was noth­ing but a tat­tered and flim­sy umbrel­la of pro­tec­tion offered only to those who toed the line. Every­one else was left to rot.

This shook me to my core. It was utter­ly incom­pat­i­ble with the uncon­di­tion­al love and for­give­ness I believed to the be true heart of my faith, the true heart of God. I was left reel­ing for years after this rev­e­la­tion, caught between intense fear­ful shame cre­at­ed by afore­men­tioned humil­i­at­ed excom­mu­ni­ca­tion and intense anger that they were get­ting things so des­per­ate­ly wrong.

So I did what I was sup­posed to do. I read my Bible to find peace and recon­nect to its author…only to find the same manip­u­la­tion and intol­er­ance for human­i­ty in pages once beloved. I explored oth­er denominations…until I real­ized every doc­tri­nal creed I came across con­tained the same tox­ic threads of the fun­da­men­tal­ism I was try­ing to leave behind. There was the ever-loom­ing fig­ure of an all-lov­ing God who was some­how both near to the bro­ken heart­ed but work­ing in mys­te­ri­ous ways we weren’t allowed to ques­tion. Such an absolute author­i­ty, above reproach and not sub­ject to the moral­i­ty He imposed upon His cre­ation, was not a safe, good, or reli­able per­son. Unsure where to turn, plagued with impli­ca­tions I couldn’t quite rec­on­cile, I began med­i­tat­ing on my per­son­al expe­ri­ences, my obser­va­tions about both Chris­tian­i­ty and the world beyond, allow­ing myself to real­ly address ques­tions I’d been sup­press­ing for years. I came to real­ize that…

My experiences and observations didn’t line up with the “basic truths” of my faith.

I’ll nev­er for­get a col­lege instruc­tor of mine that I real­ly liked and respect­ed. He cre­at­ed exact­ly the kind of learn­ing envi­ron­ment in which I thrive. He was kind, com­pas­sion­ate, patient. Every­thing about his char­ac­ter and behav­ior said to me that he was a Chris­t­ian.

Except he was an athe­ist.

I wres­tled for years with how to match the gen­uine­ly good char­ac­ter of this man (and oth­er athe­ists I met along the way) with my world­view. After all, the Bible declares only the fool says there is no God. There is no good man, apart from the grace of God. In fact, moral­i­ty and good­ness can’t even exist with­out God! Right?

I began to see, time and time and time again, that the absence of belief in or obe­di­ence to God did not in any way lead to evil or detract from good. Com­bined with my expe­ri­ence at BJU, where I saw belief in God inex­tri­ca­bly tied to manip­u­la­tion and abuse, I was forced to con­clude that moral­i­ty clear­ly exists and even thrives with­out divine influ­ence, while evil clear­ly exists and thrives among “God’s peo­ple.” Dan Fincke, of Camels with Ham­mers, has writ­ten a real­ly fan­tas­tic post about God and Good­ness that’s sim­ply a must-read for those who insist God has a monop­oly on good­ness.

I swear to you, Tan­gled is a great big giant metaphor for decon­vert­ing from Chris­tian­i­ty.

It was this real­iza­tion that made me real­ize there was prob­a­bly no going back for me. Observ­ing moral­i­ty with­out God called into ques­tion the def­i­n­i­tion and pur­pose of sin (which freed me from false guilt I’d car­ried for that con­sen­su­al sex­u­al rela­tion­ship). Even the need for a deity in the first place was no longer a giv­en, or even some­thing that made sense. In fact, the more I learned about sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy and his­to­ry from actu­al experts, not untrained preach­ers in my denom­i­na­tion or unac­cred­it­ed unfound­ed asser­tions from the clear­ly biased authors of my BJU Press school books, the more I real­ized that the world sim­ply wasn’t the place I was taught it was. It wasn’t dark and self­ish and cru­el. Chris­tian­i­ty, like Moth­er Gothel, was wrong about the world. And, like Rapun­zel, I was unwill­ing to con­tin­ue to hide myself and be used to sup­port some­thing that was increas­ing­ly demon­stra­bly false.

I couldn’t intellectually honestly engage with a non-fundamentalist Christianity.

As I said ear­li­er, I tried for a few years to delve into a friend­lier, more lov­ing and accept­ing Chris­tian­i­ty that focused on doing good in the world rather than sep­a­rat­ing from it. But the same tox­ic threads from fun­da­men­tal­ist and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­i­ty kept pop­ping up in those bet­ter Chris­tian­i­ties. The same deity who was sup­pos­ed­ly good­ness and mer­cy and love per­son­i­fied, even iden­ti­fy­ing with the oppressed, was still a deity unable or unwill­ing to inter­fere in glob­al or per­son­al atroc­i­ties. He was still unable to make Him­self known in a quan­tifi­able or clear­ly iden­ti­fi­able way, still insist­ing on obei­sance and loy­al­ty with­out show­ing receipts that these things are even owed Him. Cer­tain­ly, the Chris­tians who adhere to this form of Chris­tian­i­ty are intel­li­gent and sin­cere. But the claims they were still mak­ing about their deity, their holy book, and the world at large weren’t claims that could be proven in a con­crete way to me. And at the end of the day, my faith comes down to whether there is evi­dence enough to con­vince me.

Despite all that, I did try to immerse myself in pro­gres­sive Chris­tian­i­ty. I don’t think it’s pos­si­ble to over­state the des­per­a­tion I felt to remain in some form of Chris­tian­i­ty. But I had giant road­block: I’ve been taught so well how to engage in fun­da­men­tal­ist apolo­get­ics. I’ve tried to read the Bible from any oth­er stand­point, to under­stand pas­sages and see pat­terns I wasn’t taught to inter­pret through a Ply­mouth Brethren lens. I just can’t. I want­ed to so bad­ly. I tried to for years. But with the bib­li­cal train­ing I received, I sim­ply couldn’t jus­ti­fy being part of a Chris­tian­i­ty that wasn’t the Chris­tian­i­ty of my youth. And so, with the addi­tion of the pre­vi­ous two points in the mix…I couldn’t jus­ti­fy belief in any deity what­so­ev­er.

These things swirled in my mind for the bet­ter part of my mid-20’s as I bat­tled with my des­per­a­tion to believe in God any­way. But when push came to shove, leav­ing the faith just wasn’t a delib­er­ate choice. Cap­tain Cas­sidy once again demon­strates this bet­ter than I think I would be able to, in her post “Choic­es that Aren’t Actu­al­ly Choic­es” while also demon­strat­ing why con­tin­u­ing to live a lie was no option for me:

I couldn’t choose to believe again in Chris­tian­i­ty any more than some­one over the age of ten could choose to believe again in San­ta Claus, or start believ­ing in the gods Cthul­hu or Hion­hurn the Exe­cu­tion­er. I know too much; I’ve seen too much. At best, I’d just be forc­ing myself to say the right words and behave the right way. I sus­pect that’d be per­fect­ly peachy with the Chris­tians who say this stuff to me; even I used to think, when I was start­ing to doubt, that by going through the motions I’d brain­wash myself into sort-of-believ­ing again. Liv­ing that kind of a lie is a mis­ery I would not inflict on my very worst ene­my, and it obvi­ous­ly didn’t work any­way. I couldn’t force myself to un-learn what I’d learned or to un-see what I’d seen. It’s hard to imag­ine a more dis­hon­est way to win a con­vert than telling some­one to “fake it till you make it.”

Belief isn’t some­thing that can be forced. Belief hap­pens when enough evi­dence has piled up to war­rant belief. Grow­ing up in a Chris­t­ian envi­ron­ment as I did, I was taught to inter­pret the evi­dence around me in a spe­cif­ic way that sup­port­ed belief in the West­ern Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ist God — I had no rea­son to doubt so long as those expla­na­tions held up. But when evi­dence began pil­ing up that didn’t sup­port my con­cept of God (or any con­cept of any deity), doubt was inevitable. It wasn’t a choice made to gar­ner atten­tion. It wasn’t that I was nev­er a true believ­er. It’s not that I just want free license to sin, or that bad Chris­tians turned me off, or that I just have a grudge against God. So when the evi­dence became such that I could no longer ignore it or explain it away with­out hav­ing to lie to myself and others…my faith nat­u­ral­ly fell away, chang­ing my life for­ev­er.


Related reading:

The jour­ney in and out. “There had always been a dis­con­nect between what I was taught and what I observed and expe­ri­enced, between blind faith in invis­i­ble things and repeat­ably testable evi­dence. But as a child, as a teen, even into ear­ly adult­hood, I wasn’t giv­en the words to rec­og­nize the dis­con­nect, or even the tools to inspect or decon­struct my beliefs to see if there was any mer­it to them out­side of want­i­ng them to be true.”

 

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