Why I left the Faith: the beginning of the end

Part 3  (Part 1 here)  (Part 4 here)

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.

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20 responses

  1. That’s my dilemma (spelling?) right now. How do we reconcile diametrically opposing views? I don’t think it is possible.

    1. I think I tend to agree, in the sense that there’s no real way of knowing who has The Truth in terms of who god is and what he/she/it says, or if he/she/it exists at all. Too many people have attempted to answer those questions in all sincerity, but we still have no consensus. Furthermore, we haven’t even come to an agreement about the best way to discover this Truth. Do we put more emphasis on ancient interpretations? Modern ones? Tradition? Inspiration? Who what when and why? If we can’t even agree on how we determine Truth, then it hardly even seems worth asking the question “what is Truth?” because you’ll never know if you’ve reached an answer.

  2. Great questions! I’m comfortable admitting to Christians (or anyone) that I could very well be wrong. In fact, that is one of the major reasons I engage the conversations. The stakes are high, so if I’m wrong I want to know. When I challenge someone’s beliefs, I’m also presenting my own to be challenged.

    1. I agree. I simply cannot believe in something now that I cannot prove. I may or may not be wrong about many things, but at least all of my opinions are now open to scrutiny and change, instead of remaining sacred despite a lack of evidence.

      1. You’ve certainly provided evidence that your family’s particular Christian sect preaches conditional love–you have to follow all of its ideas or you are not really loved by God. At the same time, they probably believe that Jesus’ death on the cross means complete forgiveness and power to life the way they believe. So, they preach God’s unconditional love based on the cross, then they practice the opposite. It’s no wonder that you walked away from god. I would have, too.

      2. This is definitely true. I find it sad that I realized my parents’ love mirrored the love that they believed their god has: you are welcomed and accepted only if you follow these rules, behave these ways, and always obey me. Otherwise, you go to hell. That’s how they saw god. That’s how they treated me. If you completely ditch the idea of heaven/hell and “being saved” you can avoid that. But otherwise, god’s love is conditional, just like my parents’.

    2. Beautifully said. That is supposed to be the purpose of the public arena of ideas and debates.

  3. Well I definitely agree that those are the right questions! Far too few people actually give those foundational questions any serious thought.

    The one thing I would say at the moment is that I don’t think a lack of consensus necessarily implies that there’s nothing there to have consensus about. I see that more as the intersection of reaching toward something we can’t completely understand and flawed human nature.

    Grossly imperfect analogy, but I would compare it somewhat to politics. We all want things to be “better” but even if we were all to agree on what “better” looks like, we’re not all going to agree on how to get from here to “better.” But that doesn’t mean that “better” doesn’t exist.

    Anyway, I’m horrified as I read through what you went through, but having seen the ugliness of people up close, and also knowing the desperation that seems to exist in certain circles for people that don’t fit the copy+paste template of white, straight, cis to just BE DIFFERENT already …. your story is completely believable.

    1. I do agree with you about “consensus”. I think the difference between the consensus I was looking for and what you are describing is the difference between a consensus on something abstract (like ethics) and a consensus on objective truth (like which is the Correct Religion). With something abstract like ethics, it is unlikely that any consensus will ever be made about what is “better” because “better” is inherently subjective. That’s not wrong… it just is. On the other hand, if you are looking for a consensus on objective facts, then our most common method for finding it is the scientific method. Both of these searches for “truth” are worthwhile and valid.

      The glitch occurred, however, when Christians (including myself) used subjective criteria for determining truth and then asserted that we had discovered objective fact. What I was doing made about as much sense as asking a bunch of people “tell me what you think the universe looks like” and then getting frustrated when I didn’t get a single, consistent answer.

  4. Don’t compare faith but do compare practices.

    You can always objectively compare approaches by looking at outcomes. If our actions lead to poor outcomes then no matter the level of our conviction we need to re-examine our assumptions.

    One thing Jesus taught is to ask “why?” questions when thinking about laws people observe. If the reason for a law is “because I told you so”, then that law might not be valid.

    One last thing I can think of is the harmful nature of conditional love, which usually indicates flawed practices.

    You really had a tough experience. I hope your parents can eventually understand you better.

    1. I agree in concept, but isn’t most of the Bible based on the idea of “Don’t question my laws; just obey them.” Why exactly can I not eat shellfish or pork? Why exactly am I not allowed to wear mixed fabrics? Why exactly should a woman have to atone for her menstruation by offering turtledoves to the local priest?

      I realize that all of these are in the Old Testament and that a lot of modern Christians indeed say that these laws are no longer valid, but they certainly were valid at the time in that they were said to have been handed down by God. Therefore if the rationale was “because I said so,” why would they have even been valid at that time?

      1. Each time period has their own “quest for truth”. Some learnings are applicable for all times, while others are only relevant in their original cultural context. Some of your quoted purity laws concerned attempts to be holy. Jesus in his Good Samaritan story pointed out purity laws without brotherly love as deeply flawed.

        The sermons of Jesus we read were in their final form; however, we can think about how could Jesus have delivered his Sermon on the Mount if he did not think about these deep “why?” questions. He spent much time in the desert pondering these things.

    2. I agree, focusing on practices is much better than focusing on faiths. With practices, I can directly try to measure whether the results are good or bad. This is one of the freedoms I feel now that I do not believe in god. I can rely on my own senses to determine right and wrong instead of feeling restricted by another being who owns morality.

  5. Hi Evan! Wow, you’re getting some great responses to your series! I haven’t read them all yet…and actually, I haven’t been on WordPress all that much as I’ve been readjusting to American life. It’s been an interesting (that’s not really the right word) transition; seeing my home nation with ‘fresh’ eyes.

    I have had a hard time putting into words what is happening with me – a level of culture shock so to speak.

    Anyway, just dropping by and glad you’re still writing.

    Take care, heather

    1. Hi! Thanks for stopping by to read. I’d love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I’m glad you made it safely to the States, but I really can’t imagine how rough the transition must be. I felt some pretty significant culture-shock when I came back from 2 years in Germany, and I think that culture shift is probably much less than what you’ve experienced. I hope it gets better. Try not to let American alarmism and whackiness get you down! Please feel free to share your thoughts when/if you have the time.

      PS: I’m going to be in Boulder, CO between July 12th-24th. If you happen to be in that area during those times, let me know! All the best to you and your family!

      1. Hi Evan, thanks for these dates. If things shake out well, I’ll definitely try to connect with you. We leave Colorado on the 22nd. My schedule is not my own right now. Take care and have a fantastic time in CO! It’s a beautiful state! Blessings, heather

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. I just cannot imagine being treated by your family the way you were. Not only was it not Christian in any sense of the word, but it wasn’t humane/human (whatever). It was cruel manipulation and abuse. It would have crushed most people, but you survived. You are indeed a survivor. Good for you! You are definitely strong and beautiful. I’m so glad you lived to tell your story as it is a story we can all learn from. I can’t say I’m enjoying your story, but I am enthralled by it and appalled by it too, but also incredibly inspired by it.

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