Part 6 (Part 1 here)
I want to start this part with a disclaimer. Religious belief is upheld in my country as moral and necessary and it’s a stigma that non-believers are constantly trying to overturn. Because of this, I want to emphasize that religion is not necessary or good for me. In fact, I am much happier and better off without it. All the same, losing my religion was deeply painful and I am still in the process of grieving it in some ways. I will discuss all of the wonderful things about being free of faith soon. But for now, I want to confess this truth: losing my faith hurt. And that’s what this part is about.
You see, I didn’t want to stop believing. I desperately wanted god to be real. He had been a part of my life as long as I could remember. He had been my friend, companion, comforter, and someone to rely on. My life, experiences, and personality had all been shaped by my former beliefs (I’m still not sure if in good or bad ways). I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted to still believe he was there. I didn’t want to give up.
Unfortunately, I had no choice in the matter. I was rapidly learning that we don’t actually choose what we believe. Sure, we can choose to go to church and surround ourselves with people who agree with us and repeat our doctrines back to us. We can choose to read scriptures and look for meaning in them. We can choose to pray or meditate. But we can’t really make ourselves believe something. I can’t make myself believe that the sky is green. I can’t make myself believe that the earth is flat. I can’t make myself believe that the president is a lizardman. And I couldn’t make myself believe that god was real. No amount of saying “I believe it” could trick my brain into accepting something that it knew there was no evidence for.
I was heart-broken. It was like a close friend had utterly betrayed and abandoned me.
And that made me angry. Yes, just like so many Evangelical Christians’ wet-dream, I was a non-believer who was angry as hell at god. It’s a little odd being angry with someone that doesn’t exist. But I was. I was pissed that he didn’t exist. More specifically, I was pissed that I had made him a part of my life for so long. I had spent so much time and effor serving, reverencing, and prostrating myself to this god, sacrificing my safety, wants, needs, and health to honor him, following his “leading” and performing his “requests” only to find out he wasn’t even there. It was equal parts heart-breaking and humiliating.
Christians trying to re-convert me just made it worse. I was alternately treated like a petulant child or a criminal. As far as they were concerned, I could not possibly have lost my faith due to honest seeking, valid experiences, and years of consideration and examination. No, either I was too stupid to see The Truth (and thus needed to have some more scripture and 1st-grade apologetics beaten into my head) or I was rejecting god out of some sort of malicious intent. Many of them were angry with me for not believing what they believed. My very existence was a threat to them; it was unfathomable that I could have reasonably and rationally come to a point of unbelief. They would stamp their feet and demand that I needed to read more scripture, try this church, talk to this person, read this book, pray more, seek more, and jump through more hoops before I was “allowed” to not believe. I had just finally broken free of their shame-based religion, so it was miserable and infuriating to have more blame heaped on me for it. As a result, I withdrew from Christians and anything church-related as much as possible.
Even so, for a while, I kept hoping god would turn back up. I picked up various different religious scriptures and read through them curious if anything would change my mind. It was fascinating, but ultimately futile. The qur’an was just as trite as the bible, which was just as trite as the ancient Hebrew and Gnostic myths and scriptures I read. Indeed, expanding my religious horizons just reaffirmed my lack of belief as I realized one religion’s Truth was no truthier than anyone else’s Truth. I sometimes prayed absently, usually starting with “well, I don’t think you’re really there, but…” It was partly habit, and partly wishful thinking. As expected, nothing happened. Little by little, I grew tired of yelling into an empty room. If god wasn’t interested in answering or wasn’t there, maybe it was time to stop.
Let me say something to any Evangelical Christians out there: do not dare tell me that I “walked away from god” or “hardened my heart against him” or any other such bullshit. Don’t you dare tell me that god is still trying to reach me and I just won’t listen. Don’t you dare pretend that I’m responsible for the break-down in the “god relationship”. I didn’t turn my back on god; I chased him to hell and back again. I struggled to hold onto him for years. I only let go at the point where it was physically impossible for me to believe any longer. That might be uncomfortable for you. You might hope that you will have some trite and simple answer for me, like “just pray more” or “just ask god to show himself to you” or “just read these verses” or (most annoying of all) “just believe.” Trust me, I tried all of that. I prayed, I begged, I read, and I wanted so badly to believe. But I can’t. If god is out there and he wants me to believe in him, he should either give me some evidence of his existence, or he should not have given me a brain that requires evidence for belief. If he’s out there, he only has himself to blame for losing me.
Alright, that’s enough gloom. Next time I want to talk about what I love about being faith-free.
Despite my misgivings, I continued to search for answers. The more questions I asked, the more flimsy god became. One after another, doctrines that I had once believed crumbled away under the weight of serious scrutiny. Hell was one of the first to go, and it’s the one that dealt the fatal blow to my faith.
Losing my belief in hell was as simple as reading a 1-sentence argument online. “Infinite punishment for finite sins is not justice.” That was it. I am certain that it could not have been my first time hearing some form of this argument but it was the first time I actually let myself consider it. I realized how cheap and petty the idea of hell was. In fact, god’s entire reward/punishment system started to look pretty asinine. God loves us, and yet is willing to let us be tortured for eternity rather than giving us a second chance? God has to send us to hell because he is holy and cannot exist with sin, and yet he has existed with us in our sinful state for the past thousands of years without any sort of spontaneous combustion? God is just and merciful, and yet thinks that our actions in a 100-year-or-less lifespan are enough to determine our eternal fate? How did any of this make any sense whatsoever?
Deciding that hell was a bunch of hogwash didn’t cause me to stop being a Christian. After all, Christianity and hell need not go together; it was easy to find expressions of my faith that did not include it. But all the same, it was a pivotal moment for me to realize that taking things on faith had allowed me to be so thoroughly duped by this lie. Hell, it wasn’t even a good lie. It was a lie riddled with glaring inconsistencies and with a pathetically obvious motive to manipulate and control church-goers. It was about as realistic of a threat as putting a dollar-store ghost costume on and wiggling my fingers while saying “woooo.” And yet I had swallowed it 100% and allowed myself to be fucked by it just as it was intended. I had let it so deep into my mind that, even once I realized how silly it was, it still could wake me up in the night, scared shitless. It made no sense. None! What had I been thinking?
If taking things on faith had caused me to abandon good sense this badly, what other obvious lies might I have accepted? What other inconsistencies might I have papered over with the pretty but flimsy excuse called “faith”?
I decided that simply saying “I believe it” was no excuse to fail to prove my doctrine beyond reasonable doubt. If something was true, there ought to be clear, impartial evidence for it. I was not going to be duped again. My rational mind was finally turned on full-throttle and it couldn’t be stopped. Unfortunately for god, he was no match for it. No matter where I turned for proof, he failed to deliver. Proof of Jesus’ divinity? Nope. Proof that the Christian god is the right one? Nope. Proof of god’s interference in the doings of men? Nope. Proof of miracles? Nope. Proof of god’s existence? Nope. Sure, I could squint and tilt my head and say “if you look at this from just the right angle and say the right things and believe it really, really hard, you can see god there.” But if I looked at it face-on with both eyes open, god vanished into the patterns and complexities of reality.
At my work, I was often the lone skeptic. I don’t mean to say I was the lone non-Christian. No, the school I taught at was full of astrology-following, Reiki-practicing, modern-medicine-eschewing, conspiracy-theory-believing instructors, both Christian and non (and I loved them, despite my occasional frustration with their strange theories). I once found myself pitted, almost completely alone, against the entire Massage Therapy department in a debate on the existence of auras. But I digress. The topic at hand, one day, was whether or not Reiki was an effective healing tool. After I presented studies and they presented anecdotes, they asked me if I would be open to changing my mind if I tried it and found it to be successful. “Sure, I’d consider,” I said. “But I would go into it skeptically since I don’t have any reason to think it would work.”
“Well, if you don’t believe it will work, then it won’t work for you,” they said.
“You know, the number one sign of a scam is when you’re told you have to believe something is real before you’re allowed to see the evidence,” I said.
I might as well have been reprimanding myself. If god was real, why could I not verify his existence independently? Why did the evidence only appear if I already accepted the premise? The sunset only looked like god made it if I already believed god made it. The bible only appeared to be perfect if I already believed that it was perfect. God only worked miracles if I already believed he would work miracles. God only seemed real when I believed he was real. I was required to trust in the conclusion before I could see the evidence. It was a scam.
Somewhere around that time, despite desperately wanting him to be real, I stopped believing in god.
Where I left off, I had suffered terribly at the hands of anti-gay Christians, but I had not lost my faith. I understood that, while god was supposedly perfect, Christians would fail to exhibit the same perfection. This was not an impediment to belief… it was obvious. However, various Christians’ demands that I reach their theological conclusions and my inability to do so did raise some questions. How could I know for sure what is true? It was a huge question, and I was eager to search for answers.
The first possible answer that I tackled was the assumption that Truth would be revealed in scripture, and whatever was most Scriptural was most True. My recent experiences had pulverized this idea thoroughly. Various different pastors, Christians, and myself had all studied scripture and come to different conclusions. Indeed, over the years, many people have interpreted scriptures in many different ways. Modern Christianity bears very little resemblance to ancient Christianity, despite being based on similar documents and events. Even in modern Christianity, there are tens of thousands of different sects, largely differing on interpretations of various scriptures or traditions. Even if one assumed that the bible did theoretically have all Truth within, that clearly wasn’t sufficient for humans to actually have a clue what it was saying.
Furthermore, the assumption that scripture ought to be the ultimate authority on all Truth was looking increasingly silly. My sister loved quoting 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all scripture is god-breathed” ’til she was blue in the face as evidence for biblical inerrancy, but at the time those words were written, the bible as we know it did not exist. Did Truth not exist in any clear form until 397 at the Synod of Carthage? Is there any real reason to assume that Paul in the 60’s A.D. was referring to a document that would only be officially canonized in another 330 years? It seemed like a stretch. Besides that, saying “the bible says the bible is true therefore the bible is true” is a pretty shoddy argument even by evangelical standards.
The next place to turn was tradition. Could church traditions provide a solid foundation for truth? This one disintegrated immediately. Relying solely on church leadership, whether past or present, seemed like a desperately foolish endeavor. Authority had let me down badly in the past. Could I really trust the decisions and decrees of powerful, political men who lived over a thousand years ago? Men who had obvious failings and conflicts of interest? Men who advocated horrendous crimes and oppression alongside their supposedly “pure” doctrine? Furthermore, considering “tradition” to be truth gave me no guidance on which tradition to follow. Many people claim to trace their traditions back to the early church, but in all likelihood, none of them represent the church of 2000 years ago.
Finally, divine inspiration and interaction seemed like the obvious place to turn for answers. In the past, I had assumed that god had the ability and desire to work personally in our lives, giving us guidance and reassurance. I had lived with a very intimate faith; I talked to god like I would talk to a friend. One of my favorite ways to process my thoughts would be to just take a long walk and talk out loud to Jesus like he was walking beside me. I thought he was listening and, very gently, helping me find my way. I had taken the promises that god could answer prayer literally, even while still admitting that the answer might not look like what I expected.
So when scripture seemed difficult to interpret and tradition was lacking, I had always turned to my “friend” to guide me. But now I was forced to realize that this guidance was lacking. Specifically, many people believed they were being guided, but this guidance often led in different directions. How could I be sure that I was hearing from god and not they? How could I be sure I was not just reacting to coincidences, jumping at shadows, and feeding my own biases?
I questioned many spiritual people about this. All of the answers I got only led me in circles. “Test if the inspiration you feel matches up with scripture!” said the fundamentalists. Well, that’s nice, except as I said that the scriptures are not clear about pretty much anything, are subject to 20-bazillion interpretations, and have no real claim authority. “Test if it bears good fruit,” said the evangelicals. A nice thought, but “good fruit” is surprisingly subjective. Where some people saw good fruit in my relationship, other people saw prickles and spines. Maybe it was a pineapple. The bible never explains how to deal with pineapples. “If it brings peace and love, it’s from god,” said the progressives. For a while, I was willing to accept this, but finally admitted it was arbitrary. Why should I assume that god always brings peace and love? Jesus and god, as they are described, were complicated dudes. For every “blessed are the peacemakers”, there was a “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” For every mercy enduring forever there was some god-wrath being kindled. Why should I assume any of the attributes of god are consistent? How could I know which one to expect?
So now, with great reluctance, I began to turn my scrutiny towards even my most cherished memories of my walk and interactions with god. I didn’t want to. But I needed to know. Surely they were different! Surely god’s truth would still shine through them!
But each one evaporated once I turned the light on them like goddamn vampires. Speaking in tongues? I was 11 or 12 years old, under a lot of pressure to perform, surrounded by screaming adults that were shaking me by the shoulders for hours while I was overheated and dehydrated. It was no stretch to imagine that my stressed and disoriented brain had glitched, inducing a stammering, tongues-speaking experience. The many intense feelings of power and awe that I had attributed to god? All of them occurred while I was either extremely stressed or anxious for help, or else when I was otherwise being manipulated by my environment (music, atmosphere, collective behavior, etc). Even the miracle vision that saved my life occurred at a moment when I was in an altered state of mind, preparing to take my own life. Could I really claim, with any reliability whatsoever, that it was god?
No, I couldn’t. Not a single moment that I had shared with my god could actually be verified in any way. All of them had natural explanations that made just as much sense… maybe even more sense. I had been squinting and tilting my head and imagining that I saw Jesus in a piece of burnt toast but, in the end, it was probably just a piece of toast. And it hit me: what sort of god only shows up in ways that, to an impartial observer, doesn’t look like god at all?
Probably no god at all.
I had originally intended to side-step the part of my story right before I was banished from my family’s home. It is hard for me to summarize what happened in a concise way and I don’t think I can ever explain just how disorienting and crippling it was. There’s still a lot of raw emotion wrapped up in it. However, I felt that, in order to properly document the circumstances surrounding my deconversion, I needed to take a step back and describe what happened. It is important because I had horrible experiences with Christianity, but that did not cause me to abandon my faith… at least not directly. I will expound more on this in another part. For now, I will attempt to plow through this quickly.
My experiences prior to my rejection were horrible. During that time, I underwent a rigorous attempt at re-training by my family and church. Although I was an adult (around 23 years old), I was made all but a prisoner in my parents’ home for two months; I lacked transportation and was banned from using their phones or internet for unapproved communication. I bought a personal pay-by-the-minute cellphone but I was punished with arguments, guilt-trips, and the cold shoulder anytime I used it. To further my isolation, my parents and sister leveled threats of serious emotional and spiritual consequences if I dared to talk about my home experiences to anyone. My parents wanted me to feel I had nowhere safe to turn, so they demanded invasive information about my communications. Even what my doctor or therapist said to me in private was considered need-to-know by my parents and pried out of me. I was offered a counselor but was not told that she was unlicensed… besides which she was also counseling my parents who would inform her what to say and how to treat me. My affection for my own family became a weapon. My mothers’ illnesses were blamed on my rebellion and I was told that I had destroyed the family. Everything they did was designed to leave me feeling hopeless, helpless, and isolated, and it was disastrously effective.
All of that paved the way for what I call “interventions”. These were sessions in which I would be required or coerced or manipulated into sitting and listening to pastors, family-members, or church-goers attempting to set me straight (literally). Their tactics ranged from shaming (“you disappoint God, your lifestyle is disgusting to him”), to guilt (“let’s go around in a circle and have each family member describe how your sexuality personally hurts them”), to scripture (“if you want us to leave you alone, you have to win this scripture debate with us”), to monetary influence (“we paid for your doctor’s visit so now you owe us obedience or you have to pay us back”), to emotional manipulation (“we love you so much; how could you ever think we would harm you?”) to just plain repetition (“say you give your sexuality to god, say you give your sexuality to god, say you give your sexuality to god.”) In a cruel twist, after months of being restricted by my family, they abruptly reversed course and threatened to banish me from their home forever if I visited my girlfriend. I visited. I was banished. That is where we left off.
Let me make it clear: while all of this had worn me down physically and emotionally to the point of almost killing me, my faith in god was still strong. The abuses of Christians did not change that. I was still trying to find truth and answers, and I still trusted that god could provide them. He had confirmed his love and acceptance to me again and again. How could I doubt him?
Now that the pressure had lessened and I felt safer, I had a chance to mull over my experiences. What was clear was that some of the most spiritually demonstrative months of my life and my family’s lives had come and gone with both of us being equally convinced of completely opposite statements. We were no closer to convincing the other whether god did or did not approve of my relationship. I began to get angry. I wanted answers for why everything had ended so badly. Why had we failed to reach a consensus? Why was it so hard for god to speak to both of us equally clearly? I truly believed god had miraculously spoken to me, but if that was true, why was he unable or unwilling to do the same for my parents? Or if my parents were the ones hearing from god, why was god unable or unwilling to speak to me? And that led me to a fatal question.
How do I test whether or not something is true?
It’s perhaps the simplest question a person can ask. From our earliest moments, we are asking this question as we explore our world. But my particular faith tradition actively scuttles attempts to apply normal testing methods to spiritual things. Charismatic evangelicals teach you to see angels and demons everywhere based on coincidence, scriptural interpretation, and personal feelings. In other words, it teaches you to label your confirmation biases as god. My parents and I clearly had different biases to confirm. But neither of us had any objective proof or compelling reason to assume that we had heard the truth and the other had not.
I remember the beginning of the end like it’s like a photograph. I was walking towards my graduate school campus through a residential neighborhood. I approached the back gate. It was just a narrow foot-path and the gate was always tangled with vines and brush back here. About the time I reached the gate I finally just said it out loud. “Really, how do any of us know that we are right about any of this?” And the questions came flooding in: how do I know for sure if I’m hearing from god? How do I know for sure how to interpret scripture? How do I know for sure I’m talking to the right god? How do I know for sure that god is there at all?
This wasn’t the moment that I lost my faith. They were just questions. I am a scientist; I am used to questions. Questions are great, because then I can start looking for answers. Little did I know that I had just drank a poison that would kill my faith. It turns out, those particular questions don’t have good answers.
So I was a Christian. That much has been established. What next?
Well, as any good Bible-believer will tell you, Christians sometimes go through trials and tribulations. Sometimes Christians go through a period where they are are seduced by The World, and they allow their faith to stagnate. I was no different. While I was in college, my fire started to fade. I went through several ups and downs, where I would try to re-ignite that spark, but then would lose interest or feel disillusioned with god and the church. I just wasn’t sure how certain I could be about god. I stopped reading my bible, I stopped praying. I made only a few half-hearted efforts to go back to church. Apathy towards god had crept up in my life. It was all very Laodicean.
But like any good Christian, I had a turning point. I had a conversion story, praise Jesus. What was that turning point?
I realized I was gay.
Yep, coming out as gay turned me into a hardcore Christian again. It wasn’t immediate. At first I was scared. Holy hell was I scared. I stewed quietly in my guilt, wondering what in the world I had done to damn me to this fate. I knew, of course, all gays go to hell… at least those that act on it. I determined that I would not let my love for another woman compel me to act against god. I tried to bottle it up, deny it, and hope it would fade away, even as my heart broke over the love I would never be able to have. During this phase, I wasn’t reaching out to god. I was hiding from him. I was terrified, confused, betrayed, bewildered, and ashamed. God was the last person I wanted to show up. I was hoping that I had mostly escaped his notice.
But eventually, I was encouraged by the woman I loved as well as my family to study, reach out to god, and seek out answers on the matter. I started reading, studying, praying, fasting, research, confessing, soul-searching, crying, counseling, and speaking to elders. Much to my surprise, I discovered a depth to my religious experience that was totally new to me. I felt god speaking to me again, I felt his overwhelming love. I felt him embracing me wholeheartedly and welcoming me back to his flock. Amazing things started to happen. Without going into the long and gory details, my revival story has all the hallmarks of a perfect Christian “return to god” narrative: visions from god, supernatural signs, prophecies from various godly men and women, even a miracle that saved my life at the darkest moment. I returned to my faith with joy and passion. But there was one little unfortunate problem.
Each of those spiritual Jesus-moments affirmed to me that god accepted my love for another woman.
That was not the answer that my family or my church had expected me to find. While they had first joyfully encouraged me to seek god’s will, they now began to clutch for power over me to get me to see the “correct” answer. God could not be telling me that it was okay to be gay. How did they know? Well, God had told them that it wasn’t okay. So there.
Christians in my life, especially my parents and sister, began escalating the number of hoops that they expected me to jump through in order to “seek god’s will”. “You can’t make up your mind,” they said, “until you try reading this book, doing this fast, going to this church, speaking to this pastor, praying this much, and enduring these trials.” Desiring to thoroughly test my belief, I conceded to these tests. Each time I would return with the same answer. “God accepts me.”
“Well, of course god accepts you,” they complained. “You just somehow missed the part where he said accepts the not-gay version of you. Try again!”
What followed was a righteous game of supernatural dick-measuring: whose God Experience was the biggest? They started sharing their own Jesus Moments with me. These included demons possessing bedrooms, spirits of oppression, dreams and visions, prophecies, signs from god, and feelings of hatred given to them by the Holy Spirit. All of these things were supposedly clear messages that I was wrong. I conceded that this might seem to be the case, but that it didn’t explain why all the messages I was getting were the complete opposite. How was I supposed to know which one to trust? “Just trust in our authority,” they said. But I then committed the gravest sin a Fundamentalist Christian can commit.
I said no.
I said “if God can give us both visions and miracles and messages from on high, then he can damn well make his answer known to me. I have thrown all of my trust on him… every bit of it and everything that I have to offer. I know he will come through for me.”
And so, I was banished from my family home.
Part 1 (Part 2 here)
I was a Christian. For some of you, my statement is enough for you to believe me and I could stop writing my intro right here. To you, I say THANK YOU. You’re awesome. But for the rest of you who will want to cast doubt on that statement due to the fact that I have left the faith, I urge you to keep reading.
I was a Christian. I don’t just mean I went to church on holidays and said grace before meals. I was a diehard, devoted, born-again, Jesus-loving, awe-struck, Bible-believing, all-American, devil-rebuking, 6000-year-old-earth-believing, on-fire-for-God, relationship-not-religion evangelical Christian. Pentecostalism was the flavor I was raised with. Yes, I am certain that for many, that makes me a Not-True-Christian, but let me tell you, Pentecostals can “Not-True-Christian” with the best of them. As far as we were concerned, all y’all other Christians were fake. Even the Baptists. Especially the Baptists. We had a particular dislike for that “once-saved-always-saved” bullshit. We sure wouldn’t want anyone to get too comfortable that they were safe from hell in our religion! Can I get an amen?
But lest you dismiss me because I spoke in tongues a few times, let me point out that I didn’t stay Pentecostal. I chose to go to a non-denominational church in my teen years and dropped a little bit of the weirder Charismatic stuff (although some of it definitely stuck around). I was less into tongues-speaking and immersion baptism, and willing to accept a wider range of Christians might have a handle on the truth. Even if my doctrine may not have been 100% pure at all times, according to your metric, no one could deny that I was a Christian. The evidence and fruits of my faith were numerous. I read my Bible front to back multiple times, and the New Testament so many times I lost count. Every single evening I would read scripture and meditate and pray. I sought god’s will on all of the important (and sometimes non-important) decisions in my life. I felt the supernatural presence of god. I trusted in his guidance and I listened for his leading. I had powerful experiences that other Christians confirmed were revelations from the Holy Spirit. My faith was not shallow, nor was it based solely on the demands of others. By almost any standards, I was considered a Christian with a genuine Walk With God.
I preface my explanation of my deconversion this way because I am tired of self-righteous Christians trying to explain to me “you must never have really known Jesus” or “you were never really a Christian.” If you had told that to anyone who knew me during my earlier years, they would have tried to rebuke the devil of lying out of you. They would have laughed. YOU would have laughed. If I was an imposter, I was a damn impressive one, so much so that I apparently deceived my family, my pastors, my community, and myself. NO ONE thought I was a fake.
Now, at this moment, you might still be trying to rationalize where my faith was flawed. “Too legalistic,” you might say. Or maybe “not legalistic enough”. Or maybe you might even imply that demons can masquerade as God and thus I had fallen for Satan, not Jesus (although if they look so alike, I’m uneasy about worshiping either.) But take an honest look at the way that you judge Christians within your own denomination and church. If someone in your church appears to have a real relationship with god, people say they see god working in their lives, they pray, read their bible, believe all the right things, they inspire others, would you ever consider telling them to their faces “you probably aren’t really a Christian”? Or is this absurd “real Christian” standard something you only apply to apostates? I bet it’s the latter.
So then take me at my word for the sake of this discussion: I was a Christian. I loved god and I believed in Jesus to save me from my sins. And now I don’t. I’m not even convinced that God is real. I’m going to briefly explain how that happened.
The Josh Duggar scandal has brought up a lot of conversations about conservative Christian sexual ethics. A lot of important concepts have been brought up, such as Libby Anne’s “two boxes” and Captain Cassidy’s discussion of in-group hypocrisy. All of this has gotten my own gears turning, trying to make sense of the people who are flocking to defend a child molester, while simultaneously insisting that teenaged couple going on a date to Disneyland is equally as sinful. And I think this brings me to the entire justification for the two boxes and hypocrisy: in conservative Christian sexual ethics, there is no such thing as victimless non-marital sex.
People who believe that gay sex and rape belong in the same category haven’t necessarily completely shut off their ability to understand pain and consequences. Rather, they’ve bought into the idea that all non-approved sex has horrific, painful consequences that must be defended against, whether they are visible or not. This rationale is desperately necessary in order to keep people in line. The fact of the matter is, people build their ethics from experience and consequences. This is an unavoidable part of our psychology. Certainly, external consequences can be imposed to encourage better (or worse) morals, but people can’t help but be affected by the actual consequences they observe. This is why we all fall prey to the just-world fallacy, assuming that good things will naturally happy to good people and bad things to bad people.
Of course, this poses a huge problem for the arbitrarily legislated sexual morality that Conservative Christians pedal. Happy gay couples and people who have casual sex and go on to live productive lives are a threat to the assumptions that gay sex and casual sex are immoral. This becomes even tougher to sell when one attempts to claim that gay sex or casual sex are equivalently evil as rape or child molestation… crimes in which a victim can clearly be identified and horrible consequences are obvious. Christians could chalk it up to god being mysterious. They could simply tell people “I know that looks like fun, but god doesn’t want you to,” and leave it at that. But rules without reinforcement are difficult to maintain.
And thus, we get the idea that all non-marital sex victimizes. This is so endemic in our culture that it shows up as well in non-Christian forms. Men are assumed to be predators, unable to control their urges, assumed to take advantage of women because they only want sex. Women are assumed to be temptresses, constantly “defrauding” their brothers in Christ by daring to have bodies. LGB kids are said to be destroying their mental health, gay men are reviled as spreaders of disease, gay women are scorned for being “emotionally codependent”, gay families are pitied as inadequate and unloving, depriving children of a “real” family. Pre-marital sex is said to cause your soul to be damaged, your body to be defiled, your paper heart to be ripped into pieces. And all of these things are tied nebulously to societal decay and a loss of privilege for an entire country. All of these dire (and largely false) accusations are laid at the feet of non-approved sex in order to scare people into submitting to the rules.
What are the consequences? Rendering a gay child homeless is considered less harmful to them than allowing them to be gay. Women are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and to cover up every inch of themselves to avoid damaging men by temptation. Fathers still think that threats of violence or actual violence against men and boys who enter consensual relationships with their daughters is acceptable. Teenagers are still left woefully unaware of how to practice sex safely because the heightened risk of pregnancy and STDs is considered a worthwhile sacrifice to try to prevent teens from having unapproved sex (even if that STILL doesn’t actually work).
This is why Christians will still refer to my homosexuality or transgenderism as something that I “struggle with,” regardless of my insistence to the contrary. They simply can’t imagine that being transgender and being married to someone of my birth gender could fail to cause me some sort of mental anguish or horrible repercussions. Similarly, my mother lamented that she just wanted to protect me from the pain and regret of premarital sex, and refused to believe me when I insisted that I felt no pain nor regret. Indeed, despite the fact that many people have asserted that their chosen non-approved sexual behaviors have led them to feel no guilt, shame, pain, suffering, or regret, many Christians stubbornly refuse to accept this.
The fact that the consequences of being “victimized” by non-approved sex are so difficult to quantify is a feature, not a bug. The times that I have refuted the victim narrative that they have attempted to impose on me, I always received either outright claims that I was lying, or gas-lighting of some sort. “Deep down, your soul is tortured, you just can’t admit it,” they’ve said. Or “maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you will, and then you’ll wish you had listened.” Or the Christian will point to some unrelated struggle in my life (especially if there is an actual or imagined mental illness involved) and claim that this is my reward for being gay/transgender/a slut. These claims are intended to be irrefutable. That is why these Christians have such confidence in them. That’s also why Christians clutch so hard at the rare juicy conversion story, where a sinner will describe the bondage of (sexual) sin and how horrible it was and how Jesus saved them. It encourages them that their irrefutable narratives are correct, regardless of the paucity of evidence outside of a few straggling anecdotes.
The thing is, these threats are powerful. They are scary. They scared the hell out of me when I was younger. The damage is especially borne by young Christian people who are trying to understand their sexuality amidst a slew of slut-shaming, purity-espousing, LGBT-hating, fear-mongering, misinformation. And it has actual, real-world, physical, deadly consequences. Instead of the conjured up, nebulous nightmares that Conservative Christians fear, these lies injure kids. These lies make them ill. These lies emotionally cripple them. These lies cause them to be vulnerable to abuse. These lies kill. The morally bankrupt idea that unproven spiritual consequences are equally bad as proven physical consequences is killing our youth. And that is worth being outraged about.
In closing, this all made me scrutinize myself a little. I try to be very fair to other people with differing views (hey, I used to be on the other team) and I relish the open-mindedness that I was not allowed to have when I was a conservative Christian. So my question to myself was, do I ever do the same thing? Do I look at conservative Christians and assume that they are suffering secret, unproven, dire consequences for their different beliefs? And the honest answer is: sometimes. I’ve seen enough visible, physical harm to wonder. But I also recognize that conservative Christians can be perfectly happy and lead wonderful fulfilled lives even believing things about sex that I find backwards and harmful. I can accept that. I don’t think having conservative Christian sexual ethics automatically relegates you to being guilty, miserable, or victimized. However, I do think that there is ample, concrete evidence that, statistically speaking, conservative Christian sexual ethics do not lead to superior outcomes. If you, as an individual, are happy with abiding by no-sex-outside-of-hetero-marriage rules, then by all means, enjoy yourself (safely and consensually). But don’t assume that the rest of us are victims of our unapproved sexuality. We just might be finding just as much (or more) fulfillment and happiness outside of your sexual norms than you have within them.
Mama, Daddy, I am truly sorry that you have left me. I will always miss you. I will always wish that you would choose to want to know me again. And I will always appreciate the things you did for me that helped me become the man I am today… with all of my strengths and flaws. There will be many things I will remember fondly and many things that I will not be able to recall without tears or pain. I cannot say at the end of this “it was all for the best.” Nor can I say “this was meant to happen for a reason.” All I CAN say is “this happened” and “this changed me” and “this was part of my journey to being the man I am today.” And I suppose that is all the closure I can hope for, and I think in the end, it will be enough. I hope that you have found or will find some closure as well. I hope that you will live on in peace and heal as well. I hope that you find fulfillment in your own ways as I have found mine. I hope that you never forget how to love me, as I will never forget that I love you. And I hope that you can be happy in this life and whatever may come next. I hope that, if there is another life, we can start over there and find our family again. But if not, know that I still carry pieces of you with me and I always will.
Captain Cassidy has been writing a series on Excommunications about compromise. The entire thing is splendid, and I highly recommend it (or any of her other posts, for that matter). In this post, she defined compromise as “coming to an awareness of what our real goals are and then finding different ways of reaching those goals if necessary so we can have peaceful relationships with others.” This is an excellent definition, and it exposes one of the greatest challenges to meaningful compromise: people must be honest about their goals and motives.
I have a lot of experience with believers attempting to convert me back to their religion and sexual/gender ethics. Here’s the thing: people who think that they are going to lead you on a long, twisted, and heroic journey to redemption are some of the most dishonest people about their motives. It gets easier to spot once you’re savvy to the game, but if you’re still in the disorienting realm between “I feel guilty always telling them no” and “they are my friends/family/loved ones… they surely would never be dishonest with me” it can be soul-sucking. I’m going to outline a few typical tactics here and expose the underlying dishonesty involved. If you are experiencing this and you are losing your mind trying to figure out how to compromise with your friends or loved ones please know that you are not the problem. The game is rigged. It is designed to have only one outcome, and that outcome is not in your favor. It is okay to just refuse to play.
(1) Aggressive helpfulness
Believers may attempt to frame their goals in terms of your happiness and benefit. Maybe you’ve heard “I saw this article and I just thought you’d probably find it really interesting!” Or “I really get where you’re coming from, but I think this book might have a lot of answers for you… it really blessed me when I felt like you do.” Or “Can we just have a discussion about this? I know you don’t want to, but it will feel so good for you to get it off of your heart.” Or “I know things have been really rough with the family lately… I know a counselor you can speak to; I’ll even pay for it!”
But the goal is never actually about your comfort or benefit or happiness (at least not as you’d define those things). It’s about “fixing” you. The article will always* be some horrifying AFA editorial about a (totally not fake) lesbian whose mother paid to have her raped but now, through the power of Jesus, she wants to reconcile and be straight. The book will always* be about how it is impossible to live a happy and fulfilled life without X brand of Jesus. The discussion will always* be an attempt to prove to you that you’ve not done enough research and praying and bible reading to actually reject that particular piece of doctrine. The counselor will always* be unlicensed, Christian, anti-gay, and has already heard the “real” story about you from your family. It will never be good. You can say no.
*Okay it might not be those specific things depending on your situation, but I promise, it will be something equally as unpleasant.
(2) Unsolicited bribes
Similar to the aggressive helper, is the unsolicited bribe. The believer may attempt to buy your compliance. This might put a positive mask on their tactics but, again, the motives are never honest. The gift is not being offered for your benefit and enjoyment, but primarily to win an opportunity to convert you. At times, these can get pretty bizarre. You might get abrupt offers for things you never even asked for (but that the believer knows you secretly really want) with a stipulation tacked onto the end. How about “you’re welcome to talk to me about anything and then, in return, I’ll share my testimony with you!” Or “I’d really love if you could go to the amusement park with me… but that’s not going to work out if you do (insert completely unrelated heathenish thing here).”
These bribes can take an even darker and more dishonest turn when the believer does not inform you beforehand that there are expectations included in the offer. Maybe they offer to pay for a doctor’s visit or offer you a loan and then, down the road, hold that over you as a way to manipulate you into compliance. Remember that you never accepted any terms when you accepted their gift and you are in no way obligated to fall into line because of it. However, if at all possible, it is probably best to avoid accepting any sort of assistance or offers from someone who may have conversion motives, just to save yourself the headache.
(3) The Negative Reinforcement Compromise (NRC)
Another common “compromise” is what I’d call the Negative Reinforcement Compromise… where they believer will agree to stop some sort of hurtful behavior in exchange for a favor. Again, the purported motive is rarely honest: they may claim that they are compromising in order to “maintain a good relationship.” However, the only relationship they are probably interested in maintaining is a relationship with the former believer/straight/cis version of yourself and they are just trying to gain compliance until they can convert you. This becomes obvious if you accept their compromise and, when you don’t convert, they refuse to uphold their end of the bargain. Examples may include “Alright, I’ll stop harassing you about this if you’ll just read this book and talk to this pastor and pray this much.” Or maybe “Okay, we can stop talking about your sin, but in exchange, you should never mention your partner in our presence.” My personal favorite (the one that actually made me laugh at the absurdity) is “Okay, we won’t refer to you by your birth name if you don’t refer to yourself by your new name.”
The believer in these cases fails to recognize that no compromise is reasonable if their behavior is hurting you and you’ve asked them to stop. The only correct response is for them to stop, no strings attached. The NRC probably galls me the most, because it preys on the victim’s desperation to ease the pain or discomfort that they are being put through, often leading them to accept the unreasonable terms. When, at a later time, they decide that the agreement was unreasonable and they want to change the terms of the deal, they will be exposed to the full brunt of the believer’s disdain, disgust, and anger. This will often be used by the believer to justify any further dishonesty or abuse with the statement “but you agreed to X and later you went back on that, so you have no right to complain” ignoring the fact that the “compromise” was made under duress (and the motives stated for the deal were dishonest in the first place).
This is not to say that it’s impossible to find healthy compromises between people with radically different beliefs, ideas, or values. However, the people involved have to approach this with honesty. If a believer is honestly interested in improving their relationship with you, they will be willing to consider actions and options that you state are healthy for you. And you, in turn, can find actions and options that are healthy for them too. Both people must be approaching each other from a place of mutual respect. If the believer thinks that he/she knows what is good for you better than you do, they don’t respect you. Back off, reset, and refuse to engage until and if they are willing to approach the table as your equal instead of as your “designated adult”.
If anyone has their own experiences or tactics to share, I’d love to hear it!
I want to talk about the idea of “conviction” in some fundamentalist Christian circles. Particularly I want to talk about how it is used by some Christians both as a gas-lighting technique and as a method of manipulation. However, I have not really had time or the ability to put my thoughts together in a coherent fashion. So instead, I think I will just tell a couple of stories. These stories occurred while I lived as a woman, so I am using those pronouns and terms since they are relevant to the stories.
Note: for those unaware of this particular Christianese phrase, I am referring to the following definition: a feeling of guilt or shame that God inflicts on a person that comes with the recognition of having committed a sin.
When I was outed as gay to my family, I was living overseas and working on my Masters degree in Astrophysics. Needless to say, I was already under a lot of stress, even before dealing with my family keeping me up til ungodly hours on the phone arguing, laying enormous guilt trips on me for hurting the family, or sending me books and articles and pamphlets about how I am deceiving myself into thinking that I can be gay and Christian and about how lesbian relationships are all just co-dependent and unhealthy and guilting me into reading them. (And yeah, according to these sources, gay male relationships are all about lust and sex and lesbian relationships are about emotional codependency. I can’t even start to unpack that sexist and homophobic load of shit).
Anyway. I was quite religious at the time. Having this crisis regarding my family’s rejection of my sexuality had actually driven me deeper into my faith rather than away from it; I suppose I was looking for some stability and comfort which I found in god. I would often go to church to find some solace. One Sunday morning, my parents called me and we had a bad argument that ended in them telling me “we don’t even know you anymore.” I was really upset when I left the conversation so that I could take the train down to church. During the worship service I tried to hold things together but I was so overwhelmed I just broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably. One of the women in the pews noticed me and very kindly asked if I was okay and if I needed to speak to someone. I had a friendly relationship with the current pastor, so I said that I would like to speak to him, thinking that maybe I would admit that I was gay to him and tell him what was happening. I was hoping that, even if he disagreed, he would be loving and supportive in the difficult time I was having and maybe would pray for my family and I. However (as is common in churches) women are apparently only supposed to seek counsel from women, so I was directed instead to the pastor’s wife, whom I had barely met before. This left me feeling a bit scared and vulnerable, but I followed her to a back room where she sat me down and got me a glass of water and tried to make me comfortable. Finally she sat down across from me and waited for my tears to subside.
I was still sobbing and was a bit scared about coming out to a total stranger, but I slowly calmed myself enough to begin trying to speak. “First, there’s something you should know about me. I’m gay, and I’m dating a woman,” I said. I then began to tell her that things were going very badly with my family, but she was not looking at me anymore. She was flipping through her bible. She opened it to Romans 1, and then tilted it a little so I could see it while she watched me intently, clearly gauging my reaction. I started to get shaky and nervous again, trying to ignore it, trying not to look at those pages that she obviously wanted me to see. I kept talking but I felt I wasn’t really being heard. And indeed, as soon as I paused, she interjected and began to tell me that I was living in sin and that god was disgusted with my lifestyle. She asked me if I’d read Romans 1. I said yes, but that I didn’t interpret it the way that she clearly did, that I hadn’t come here to talk about whether or not homosexuality was a sin, and that I didn’t believe it was wrong to be gay.
“Yes you do,” she said.
“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” I stammered, rather flabbergasted.
“Yes you do. You know it’s wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t be crying. You’re crying because God has convicted you and you know you are guilty.”
Never mind the stress and anxiety I was under. Never mind that my family was pressuring me. Never mind that people I loved and trusted were attacking a deeply important part of me. Never mind that my family had just told me that they didn’t know me anymore. No, I was apparently crying because I had been convicted. And, you know, I half believed it, because when you’re that mind-fucked by your family and your church and everyone around you, it’s hard to have any sort of perspective besides “well, everyone is saying it so maybe they’re right.” You lose your ability to judge your own feelings and values. It’s disorienting.
I felt like the breath had just been sucked out of me and I mostly just sat there for the rest of the next hour while she read me Romans 1, she talked to me about how I was disappointing god, my relationship was disgusting, I needed to stop running from the truth, etc. I put up a few weak arguments here and there, but I hadn’t come here to argue about sin. I just wanted advice and comfort and safety. I was in pain and I was crying, and she had chosen to use that expression of my pain as a weapon against me by deciding that my tears were “conviction.”
A very similar experience occurred a few months later at my sister’s church, which she had pressured me into going to in an attempt to convince me to break up with my girlfriend. By this point, my parents had threatened to ban me from coming back to their house if I dared to go visit my girlfriend, and I was in a lot of turmoil about what I should do. My desperation and fear left me vulnerable, so my sister talked me into speaking to an elder that she trusted and having that person pray for me. I feared a repeat of the previous time, but I agreed.
I tried to explain to this woman that I was dealing with a difficult family situation and that I could use some prayer or guidance. I avoided admitting the full circumstance at first, but when she kept asking (and in retrospect, she may already have been informed by my sister) I admitted that I was gay. As soon as she heard that word, she stopped listening and started telling me to pray for god to “release me from this sinful relationship that had a hold on my life.” I told her that I wasn’t going to pray for that because that’s not what I felt was needed. This seemed to bewilder her and she continued to insist that I needed to pray for god to cleanse me of sin. At the time, I started to think that maybe she was just very dense or maybe hard of hearing, because nothing I said really seemed to register. Every time I told her “I’m okay with being gay; this isn’t about that,” she just looked really confused, stammered a bit, and then went back to encouraging me to renounce my sin. I think now that she was not being intentionally dense, but she was doggedly convinced that I knew that I was wrong. She was just waiting for me to drop the pretense and admit it. Why else would I be asking for prayer? Why else would I be in a church? I must have been convicted by god.
It couldn’t possibly be that I was dealing with a traumatic family situation. It couldn’t possibly be that I was about to be kicked out of the house. It couldn’t possibly be that I had been strong-armed and manipulated into coming. It couldn’t possibly be intense pressure and guilt from other people that drove me here. Nope, I was convicted and I just needed to admit it. And so she continued to badger me to pray for the strength to “give everything over to God.” Eventually, I half-heartedly did so because I was tired. At least in this situation, I was less emotionally vulnerable, so I mostly felt frustration and disappointment. I guess that’s what you get when you keep believing people who tell you that a “spiritual authority” will know how to fix your problem and you can’t possibly know how to handle it yourself or be trusted to find your own support.
You know what? Neither of these experiences changed my mind about my sexuality. They didn’t teach me that being gay is a sin. They didn’t show me the light. They didn’t convict me. What they did do was capitalize on my suffering to try to manipulate me into changing. What they did do is drive the knife deeper and teach me that church is not a safe place to be. I have never unlearned that lesson and maybe I never will. I am no longer a Christian (for fairly unrelated reasons, actually) but even if I did choose to explore spirituality again, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable in a church. Maybe with some more time and distance that will change. For now, my conviction is that I would rather be anywhere than sit in a pew and anything is safer than being vulnerable in a church.