I’ve recently been reading about and observing narcissistic behavior in parents and estranged parents. It’s been fascinating observing patterns of abusive and disordered thinking among those who have driven their children away and seeing the similarities to my own family’s behavior.
One of the common traits is the duality with which the parent views their child: the child is simultaneously horrible, useless, embarrassing, and hated, but also the most important and treasured person in the parent’s life. On estranged parents’ forums, members will frequently describe how they despise the offending child, blame them for all of their problems, and even fantasize violence against them. But yet they view the estrangement as unbearable and they will take enormous measures to end it. They try to buy the child’s favor, try to manipulate, even stalk and threaten them. Even though they hate them, their child is the most important relationship in the world and they will do anything to get it back.
For a child enmeshed in this sort of relationship, it can be very disorienting. The abuser vacillates between treating you like scum to putting you on a pedestal and reassuring you that you are loved and the most valuable person in the world. Victims often respond by beginning to believe that they deserve mistreatment and should be grateful for the moments of affection that they do receive from their abuser. I know I sure did.
But this struck me as familiar in another way; the Christian god is generally depicted in a similar light. Captain Cassidy of the ever-excellent Roll to Disbelieve commented on the seeming contradiction in Christian theology between god viewing humanity as disgusting and evil and also viewing it as utterly sacred and beloved. We are both wretches and children. We are both worms and brides. And we are to be forever thankful that god loves us even though we are worthless and detestable in his sight.
This dichotomy is not contradictory in the eyes of a narcissistic parent. The reason they place such a high value on their victim is that they need that power. They need the confidence they get from controlling their child. They need the validation that comes from debasing them. They need their child to constantly apologize, self-efface, and prioritize the abuser’s desires over their own health and safety. If the child chooses to disconnect from the abuser and break that cycle, the parent loses everything. This is why the victim is both loved and despised.
I don’t believe god is real. But I do believe he was written and is depicted as a narcissistic abusive parent. Since he is not real, he is not benefiting from the arrangement. But someone is. Churches, religious leadership, pastors, and any people who claim the favor of god are benefiting from these power dynamics in the same way as an abusive parent. Their victims are the people who feel they are both loved and hated by god.
The way out for me was to define my own worth. I did not need god or family or anyone else to place me on a pedestal, nor did I need them to tell me I am a dirty, worthless sinner. I am human. I am neither sacred nor defiled. I am neither inherently worthy of transcendent love nor inherently worthy of transcendent disdain. I am inherently worthy of respect as a human being from other human beings, the same as all other human beings on this planet. I do not need divine favor and I do not need to submit to divine displeasure. The horrible truth that the abuser does not want you to discover is that you have the power. If you choose to walk away, you still have yourself. They have nothing.
I walked away.
I am considering the claim that god is both all-merciful and just. I have many times heard it argued that god is all-merciful to forgive transgressions of his law, but that he is also just and thus must punish unbelievers in hell. I propose that these two designations for god are contradictory and this view of god is untenable. I am using the definitions that justice is bringing the correct and deserved consequences for actions (both good and evil) and mercy is offering respite or forgiveness from the negative consequences of a transgression.
Now consider the modern Christian theology of hell as a punishment for sins and Jesus as a sacrifice to forgive them. In this tradition, god is willing to forgive people and spare them from the supposedly deserved punishment of eternal torment, but people can refuse this forgiveness and be condemned. Thus, some people will be forgiven and some will not.
On its face, I could argue that this seems to contradict both the assertion that god is all-just AND that god is all-merciful, since only some people are served justice and only some are served mercy. But a Christian theologian might argue that god has offered mercy to all people and thus the fact that some do not receive it is a flaw of humanity and does not reflect on god or the nature of his mercy. So what do I make of this?
What god has offered us, the supposed guilty party, is a plea deal. If we accept the conditions of this plea deal (accepting god as our savior) then we will be forgiven. If we refuse these conditions, then our trial and conviction are carried out.
But there are some problems with this. A criminal has a right to refuse the plea deal and people have a right to refuse salvation. For this reason, a plea deal is, by definition, not mercy; it’s an alternative form of justice. If a criminal refuses a plea deal, it is generally not because they want a greater punishment for their crime. It is because they feel the terms of the plea deal are unreasonable or unacceptable. Offering someone an unacceptable plea deal is not merciful. Mercy would be forgiving a person without pursuing punishment or negotiation. An unacceptable plea deal to gain forgiveness is not merciful.
Furthermore, plea deals are generally negotiated by weighing the offered consequences of the deal against the possibility of attaining an acquittal in court. In this situation, the accused is allowed to choose if he/she should risk making their case to a jury or taking a lighter punishment in order to avoid the possibility of a worse one. But, in god’s case, the conviction has already been made. There is no option of pleading not-guilty and there is no one to advocate on our behalf should we wish to. We are given the choice of only two things: accept the deal, or suffer eternal punishment with no recourse. We don’t even have the option to contest the severity of the punishment (which I claim is clearly horrific and unjust, but that will have to wait for another post to discuss in detail). A decision made under these circumstances cannot possibly be considered voluntary and, as such, cannot be considered merciful or just.
Finally, we must consider the situation of a believer who has chosen to accept the terms of salvation. Although they supposedly chose to follow god’s salvation out of free will, the threat of eternal punishment renders such an agreement legally unenforceable. Because consent was given only under threat of torture, consent was not actually given. Thus, justice was not served as the believer did not suffer the consequences of their own actions, but mercy was also not granted as the believer merely accepted a plea deal under threat of torture.
This is just one of many reasons I reject the proposition that a god as described by the Christian tradition of hell and substitutionary atonement could be considered either just or merciful. As described, he is neither.
Today I got called “Something.” I’m quite certain the person didn’t mean anything by it. She seemed polite and friendly and was just flustered when she first started to call me “sir” and then second-guessed herself and that’s just the word that came out. I don’t feel angry at her at all or blame her for the slip. But I have to say, it still doesn’t feel good.
In many ways, I’m very fortunate as a transgender person to be in the situation I am, surrounded by a generally supportive and understanding culture and group of peers. While academia certainly still has its flaws, it’s a relative oasis of safety for someone like me. I honestly have little right to complain.
But even so, just existing brings with it a certain level of isolation and othering that I never seem to be able to escape. It is present with me in times and places when I don’t expect it or welcome it and I’m constantly mentally bracing myself or adjusting my behavior to compensate.
I try to pitch my voice down whenever I meet someone new in hopes that they will pick up the correct pronouns without my having to correct them. If they use the wrong ones, I have to decide where to insert “by the way, I’m a guy” into the conversation. I have those awkward moments when I introduce myself as Evan and I get “Eva?” with a confused look. At every doctor’s office visit I practice the “hi, I’m transgender” talk. Every time I reconnect with an old friend or colleague and I have to come out again. Sometimes when that friend or colleague responds offensively or just doesn’t reply and I’m left wondering. I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I walk into a public restroom and someone gives me a double-take glance. I consider lying about my age to people who don’t know my trans status because a 27-year-old who looks like a 16-year-old is a dead giveaway and I don’t know how they’ll respond. I want to be open and unashamed of being who I am, but I don’t want to just be The Transgender Person. I feel pressure to be a stellar role-model because, for many people, I’m the only transgender person they have ever met and I feel like I am their representative of all trans people. This leaves me terrified when my productivity suffers due to trans-related family or health situations that I’m reflecting badly on the whole community and I’m harming the chances of future trans people getting into academia. And sometimes I remember that my very existence is cause for discomfort and confusion even in innocuous situations, like when I walk into an office and get called “something” and I suddenly feel more like a novelty or an aberration than a human being.
I’m not trying to throw a pity-party and I’m not angry at the world. I adapt quite well to most of these challenges and I generally consider others blameless in the awkward or exhausting situations that I sometimes deal with. But it does wear me out. Sometimes one little word reminds me of how overwhelming this can all be. I’m not unhappy, really, and I’m definitely not angry. I’m just a little tired of it right now and I want someone to understand why.
Part 7 (part 1 here)
One long story later, I have finally reached the end. So far, there have been three points I wanted to bring home. First is that I was a born-again Christian; my faith was not fake or shallow, and it was deeply important to my life. Second is why I did not leave the faith. It was not because I wanted to sin, it was not because I was mistreated by Christians, and it was not because I disagreed on a specific doctrine or denomination. Thirdly, I wanted to drive home that why I did leave the faith: because I found so little evidence to support it that I was physically incapable of believing anymore.
So what’s left? In this last part, I want to tell you what I love about being faith-free. I want to tell you how losing belief in god behind made me a better, kinder, more moral, and more whole person. There are many wonderful things about being a non-believer, but I’m going to list my four favorites.
1) My ethics and morality belong to me now. Back when I believed in god, even a progressive-Christian god, I believed that morality was defined by him. The goodness and badness of thoughts and actions were god-given attributes. As such, no matter what methods I used to define my own ethics (scripture, prayer, experience, observation, compassion,etc), I always felt that I was guessing at someone else’s mind. I was constantly glancing sidelong over my shoulder like “did I guess right? Is this the right one?”
This had several negative effects. First, it demotivated me from developing my own personal set of ethics. After all, they weren’t really my ethics, they were god’s, and I was just trying to figure them out rather than actively developing them myself. Furthermore, it increased my feelings of guilt for moral failings while simultaneously reducing my initiative to right my own wrongs. The fact that I felt I was sinning against god was a distraction from the harm that I might be doing to actual people, and trying to seek forgiveness from god took my focus away from trying to make things right with other human beings. Finally, I value my ethics and morality much more now that I am a non-believer because they are mine. They are a work-in-progress, shaped by my experiences and observations and constantly open to scrutiny and revision, and deeply personal. I created them, I take responsibility for them, I own them, not god, and not anyone else.
2) I don’t have to forgive people who wrong me. Evangelical Christians are probably clutching their pearls right now, but I don’t care. There is such freedom in being able to determine one’s own thought-life, and the Christian commands to forgive are a huge impediment to that. It turns the attention and burden off of the wrong-doer and onto the injured party. Rather than being allowed to reach my own peace and process grief and healing at my own pace, Christianity demanded that I must immediately forgive abusers, regardless of the abuse, and regardless of their own repentance. If I retained any anger, that was a sign that I was at fault. Indeed, not absolving an abuser of their sins is often treated as a worse crime than the abuse. This sort of theology is toxic from top to bottom, and is inevitably used to protect those in power who are harming others. My own suffering under this command was small compared to many, but it was still a wonderful feeling to be able to say “no, I don’t forgive you for hurting me, and I don’t have to. My healing process is more important than your desire to be affirmed and forgiven.”
And in case anyone’s wondering, yes, I have forgiven most people who have done me wrong. But I did it in my own time, on my own terms, without pressure from god, and that made it so much more healthy.
3) I am much more generous. I think this ties in a bit with #1, but it has a few of its own distinctions. When I was a Christian, I was of course encouraged to be charitable and do good deeds. But in a Christian ethical system, the most important thing I could possibly do was “be right with god”. And being right with god was a matter of internal belief and behavior. It had nothing to do with actually doing a lick of good out in the world. Sure, I wasn’t supposed to treat people like shit (and my naturally empathetic nature wouldn’t let me anyway) but I didn’t really need to treat them well either. Kindness, giving, respect, acceptance, and charity were all good, but none of them were necessary the way “knowing god” was necessary. So you can guess which one I spent more time and effort on.
Besides that, removing god from the equation placed me in a position of equality with other human beings unlike anything I had experienced before. No longer was a relationship with the divine competing with my relationship with human beings. And no longer did I have special knowledge or a special relationship with the divine that was not shared by the majority of humanity. Instead, we were all equally alone, equally uncertain, equally mortal, and equally human. That feeling of connection with others tapped into my compassion more deeply than anything I had known before. I felt much less deserving and entitled to the things I had, and much more willing to share them with others. Leaving god allowed me to tap so much deeper into my human potential to be kind, generous, and compassionate.
4) I am finally free. The bible pitches Christianity as a religion of slavery. Before we know god, we are told we are slaves to our “flesh” and to our “sinful selves.” But, although god “sets us free” that is only in the sense of a property transfer. We are told that we are “bought with a price” that “you cannot serve two masters… god and mammon” and that “you are not your own” and you are a “living sacrifice to god.” Your body is not your own, it is a temple to god. Your will is not your own, it is to be brought into subjugation to god. Your soul, spirit, and life are not your own. Even in my most progressive expressions of faith, I did not have full ownership of myself.
Christians always painted being a “slave to your flesh” as a terrible thing, but do you know what I call it? Self-ownership. It means that my life and body belong to me. It means that my choices are mine alone to make and that I alone am responsible for finding meaning in them. It means that I am a free man. And despite the dire implications that this would cause me to succumb to my basest desires, I find I have more self-control now than I had as a Christian. My self-control is motivated solely by my own will and determination, not guilt or external commandments. After all, being free is not the same as being lawless or undisciplined. Only a slave-driver would claim that.
And my spiritual slave-driver is now gone. Thank the god I don’t believe in, I’m free at last.
So, at this time in my life, do I want my faith back? No. I can honestly say, I’m so much better off without god. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally miss it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t good things about my life with faith. But leaving faith has made me more moral, allowed me to feel my full range of emotions, made me a more generous man, and set me free. I am a better and happier person without it.
If I was ever offered some evidence compelling enough to make me believe again, I would not reject it out offhand. But I have to say… I’d be a little disappointed. My life without a god is so much better than my life with one. This is the truth. And, as an ancient book once taught me, I will not be ashamed of the truth.
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.