Having someone that understands you, and has been where you’ve been is so important in life. It’s almost like what the bible calls, “Flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bones”. We all need to connect to someone just like us. The first person I ever told about my deconversion was an ex-pastor now atheist I met online back in February. Our conversation started with email, but he gave me a call and I got a chance to get out what I had bottled up inside for so long. I actually told my story out loud. Here’s how our conversation went.
Ken: Hey John, glad to finally get to know you. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and this process you’ve been going through.
Me: Well, I guess I should start at the beginning. I think how I became a Christian has a lot to do with why I’m no longer one now.
Ken: Interesting, tell me about it.
Me: I wasn’t raised in a religious context, in fact my dad is an atheist. Growing up my dad treated science, and biological evolution in particular, as a hobby. I remember he had subscriptions to the journal Science and Scientific American. I think he wanted to be a doctor growing up but then Vietnam happened.
Anyways, we used to watch science shows together: PBS’ Nature and Nova, Discovery Channel (back when it was actually scientifically minded instead of a bunch of red necks digging for gold or building cars)
Me: and National Geographic specials about big cats and the African grass lands.
Me: I was also bullied pretty bad when I was younger. Grades 5, 7, & 9 were the worst years of my childhood, just being tortured by bigger and older kids. Which had a huge impact on my conversion to Christianity. You see in 12th grade I was just starting to feel good about myself when a girl I had a crush on back in the 9th grade asked me to go to church with her. Youth group to be specific.
“Crush” is putting it lightly. I was twitterpated, head over heels, infatuated with this girl when we were freshmen. She was a good friend, but I had dreams of forever with this girl. She…not so much. Fast forward a few years to college, I date her and it was the worst relationship I’ve every been in. Should have stayed friends.
Me: So coming into my own, I decided to pursue her anywhere she was. Finally having the confidence to believe it was possible. It’s amazing what lifting a few weights can do to the confidence of a teenage boy.
So I showed up to this church event on a Wednesday and there were all these people from school that I already knew and were kinda already friends with. I was instantly accepted into this group of high schools students, which was actually populated by more girls than guys.
Hey ladies, how you doin’?
Me: This was a childhood dream come true. First off, a big group of instant friends. Secondly, girls galore. So I started going to church, twice a week. Who wouldn’t?
Then one Sunday morning the youth pastor asked who brought their bibles. Well I didn’t have one, so I pointed out that I couldn’t have brought mine, since I haven’t received one yet.
“I promise you John, I’ll have a bible for you by Wednesday at youth group”
And he did. So I took it home and did something I thought everyone else was doing, I read it. Little did I realize that no one youth group actually reads the bible. I thought I was doing what everyone else was supposed to do. But when I read it, I changed. Reading Jesus’ words for the first time in my life, the parts from the Sermon on the Mount, I felt that this was a religious teacher that was very wise.
I had no concept of his deity, or resurrection. I just thought Jesus seemed like a smart guy. So then I started going to church to learn. However being raised in a scientific and skeptical context, a lot shit didn’t make sense. The first time the youth pastor spoke on hell, I was definitely not convinced. But the youth pastor seemed like a smart guy, and all the other teens seemed to not only think this was all true but it helped them have purpose and be better people.
Ok, so years later I realize they weren’t better people. Hardly any of them are Christians today and the youth group was apparently a giant dating pool, with sex everywhere. It was all hush hush, so I didn’t always here about it. But I thought they were “good” kids because they didn’t drink, smoke, and do drugs, unlike what I was doing before going to church.
Me: So I dug into the bible believing it must be true, I just had to find ways of understanding it. So I took all the questions a natural born and bred skeptic would have hearing the bible for the first time at 18 years old, and set out in pursuit of all the answers that were supposedly there.
What I didn’t know is that all my christian friends had the same questions I did, they just never bothered to delve into their questioning or the bible [read:theology] for the answers. So I quickly learned the bible better than every kid in youth group.
By the time I got to college, I quickly became the guy that had all the answers that have bugging christians but everyone was afraid to ask. I soon became president of the campus christian club, I had invitations to several youth groups to speak on the tough questions youth pastors didn’t feel qualified to answer. I also became the worship leader in my college bible study at church.
Imagine that. In a manner of 2 years, the nobody kid who was beat up regularly, with no girlfriend, and few friends, became somebody important. People looked up to me. I got asked to speak, and sometimes paid for it too. I’d play guitar and everyone would start singing praises to god. I would preach and teens gave their life to Christ. Girls were regularly vying for my attention. And I was developing the best friendships of my life.
These were the friends I came out to in my previous posts.
Me: How could I not attribute this to the work of god in my life? And who in my shoes would ever want to leave that? So I delved in deeper. I allowed myself to ask hard questions, fully trusting that the holy spirit would answer them for me. Then I would take these answers and give faith and hope to others. Sometimes to a christian who was struggling, sometimes to non-religious people. It became obvious to me that god was calling me to be a pastor.
While asking hard questions and coming up with the most honest answers I could, made me a very popular christian leader, it also took a toll on me emotionally. I had to let myself doubt. I had let myself be honest with these doubts, otherwise I would never be any use to the church. And I couldn’t ever be ok with pat answers, like those other mediocre preachers.
Eventually I ran out of good answers for good question. That hurt. A lot. It hurt to resort to answers that I knew where bullshit. Since I didn’t resolve my doubts, I wasn’t sure I was fooling anyone else. Then there was the Nietzsche quote:
“I’d be willing to believe in a redeemer if his people appeared more redeemed.”
Ken: Wow, yeah!!!
I can tell that struck a nerve with Ken. I have a feeling he could talk for years about that quote.
Me: I thought the holy spirit was supposed to sanctify us. To turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. To write the law of god on our hearts. Yet I didn’t feel holy, and I was surrounded by these christians who honestly didn’t give a shit about following Jesus. Oh, they claimed they did. But for fuck sake man, nobody actually follows him.
I tried. I really tried, but even I couldn’t comprehend or believe everything he called us to. Oh, sure I rationalized it. Became a Law/Gospel preacher a la Tullian Tchividjian. Somehow we couldn’t follow Jesus and that was the point. Except Jesus is pretty clear that we’re supposed to. As is Paul, Peter, and James.
If I couldn’t answer the tough questions, and if god wasn’t actually changing people’s lives. At least not more than any other religion was doing. Then I had to deal with the fact that maybe this was all bullshit.
Ken: So is that when you became an atheist?
Me: Well not exactly. I got hung up on not being able to refute any spiritual explanation to the universe.
Ken: Why’s that?
Me: Well, for so long even though I wasn’t sure about the bible, I felt it strange to believe nothing. Like, there has to be something out there. Even if the bible is wrong, I can’t believe in nothing.
So in my more honest moments I considered myself a deist. But then I thought, wait I’ve got no more evidence in deism than an atheist has for not believing in deism. And what is deism anyways? How is that actually fundamentally different than atheism? In fact atheism makes more sense than deism.
Ken: (chuckles) yep
Me: So, I guess I am an atheist.
Wow, I’ve never said that out loud before.
Ken: How does it feel? How does it feel to admit that out loud?
Me: I don’t know. I kinda feel nothing at this point.
Ken went on to tell me his story; how he left the ministry, finding a career(s) after being a pastor, slowly discovering he was an atheist, and how his marriage has held up over the years.
YES!!! STILL MARRIED!!!! ALRIGHT!!!!!! Hope.
He sympathized with me, he understood me. Turns out we only live about 2 hours apart.
Ken: If you ever need someone to talk to, call me, you have my number. Maybe we can get together sometime and grab a beer.
Definitely. We need to grab that beer.
EDIT: I had to redact this post for the sake of anonymity.