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When you leave the Christian faith, people come out of the woodwork to impugn your motives for leaving. First I was informed that I did it so that I could have more sex, then I was told I did it to make money. Someone else said I must have a problem with authority because I want to call my own shots. Each accusation tells me something about them that they don’t realize they’re giving away.

But even if all of them were right about my motives, it would still sidestep the question of whether or not I’m wrong, which is precisely the point. They need a reason to write off my departure because the alternative is to question their own faith yet again, and they decided a long time ago that’s only okay if it leads them back to where they started. Round trips only.

Like the pot calling the silverware black, they insist our reasons for leaving must have been personal since their reasons for staying clearly were. They see our loss of faith as a deliberate choice, a failure of commitment and a refusal to submit ourselves to a higher authority. That’s because they’re only staying in it by sheer force of will.

The Need to Belong

People don’t usually admit it, but by the time you have grey hair, you’ve seen way too much to still believe what you were told about the world. Maybe that’s why old people are so cranky all the time, aside from the fact that nearly everything hurts. They learned a long time ago how ugly the underbelly of their belief system really is, especially if they’ve ever been in leadership. Some of them are just way better at living in denial.

They stay within the faith because they need to. You can only build so much of your life around a belief system before it becomes “too big to fail.” Remember when that term got thrown around during one of the previous banking crises? It means that the global economy depends too much on the biggest banks to allow them to crumble. They get special treatment because, it is argued, if anything bad happens to them, things could get much worse for everyone.

Core beliefs work like that as well. After you’ve based enough of your life on a comprehensive belief system like the Christian faith, there comes a point where letting it falter would exact too devastating toll on your life. Your entire social world may be built on a set of beliefs that you can’t deeply question without destabilizing everything. It also would mean you have to rethink a ton of what you believe, and who has the time or the energy to do that on their own?

People say they will follow the evidence wherever it leads, but there is an asterisk next to the statement whether they realize it or not. Doubt and questioning are valid only if they reinforce in the end what you were taught to believe. Those who say they’ve looked into other belief systems only did so by reading books about them written by other Christians. You know they’ll bring you back to where you started, back to where you belong.

Belonging is the point. In their hierarchy of needs, belonging outranks knowing by a margin so big, the former controls the latter. Upton Sinclair said it’s nearly impossible to get a person to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it, but I think the same could be said about their social lives and their personal identities as well.

There comes a point where you can feel everything begin to unravel, and that’s when something kicks in to shut down the whole process because if you keep going, you could lose everything. I call these sphincter moments because it’s as if everything inside of you clinches down to prevent whatever is about to happen from happening. Without an exertion of will, nature will run its course and your plans will soon be ruined if you don’t do something to stop it from happening.

But sometimes you can’t stop it. Sometimes too much has built up and you can no longer prevent yourself from becoming fully aware of all of the conclusions building up inside you. You’ve seen too much and thought too much to keep buying all the notions you were taught growing up. People who don’t think very hard may never reach that point, I suppose. But for many who do, their loyalties and commitments outrank their curiosity and their need to understand by too wide a margin to allow anything to change.

That’s why they see our departure as a deliberate choice–because for them, nothing should supersede faithfulness to your commitments, no matter how much new information you learn. In time they learn to disparage looking for new information in the first place. Because why would you need to?

Skipping Steps

I spend a lot of time retracing my steps out of the faith so that I can better understand how I got here. A pastor once asked me during an interview in front of his church if I ever doubted my doubts. Am I ever skeptical of my own skepticism? Whoever submitted that question thought they were being profound, but they had no idea how basic self-doubt is to people like us. We question everything, including the validity of our questions, and we do it nearly non-stop.

Maybe that’s why I’ve devoted so much time to reading through apologetics books like The Reason for God and Mere Christianity. I used to find books like these persuasive, and for the life of me I cannot understand why. The arguments are weak and they routinely require skipping several steps at once in order to arrive at their predetermined conclusions. I guess that’s why they call it a leap of faith. Leaping, by definition, means skipping steps.

Remember when Indiana Jones had to make a leap of faith in order to get to the Holy Grail? He stepped off of a ledge into what appeared to be nothing, except he didn’t fall. Something held him up and he later discovered it was all an optical illusion. Harrison Ford is good at playing hard-nosed realists who deny the supernatural right up until it smacks them in the face, and there always has to be some motivation for him to overcome his skepticism. In the quest for the Grail, it was about saving his father’s life. In Star Wars it was about fighting beside the people that he loved.

There comes a point in every defense of the Christian faith when the scenery changes instantly and you have no idea how you got there. The argumentation was proceeding one step at a time for several chapters and then suddenly you turn the next page and feel like you’re reading an entirely different book. It’s like they teleported you to somewhere else and now they’re moving along as if you have no questions left as to how you got from the first reality to the second. It’s very frustrating.

I would be more critical except I used to do this myself. Back when I wrote as a Christian, I spent months building what I felt were solid arguments for the rationality of theism in general but I never figured out how to make the same case for picking one specific version out of all the rest. There’s a huge leap required to go from “There must be gods” to “Actually, there’s only one and it has to be this one specifically, and here’s his book.” Every time I read something new to see if anyone filled in that gap and explained why you have to land there of all places, I am disappointed to find they didn’t. But now I understand why.

It’s because the steps aren’t there. You have to pick a place to jump out of all the options and when people pick Christianity it’s because they need to.

I’m belaboring this point because this is exactly what they do to us–they question our motives for leaving because they feel it somehow invalidates our departure. But how clearly do they see their own motivations for staying, and does that do anything at all to invalidate their choice? They would argue it doesn’t because there’s a god-shaped hole in each of us, so of course finding the right worldview would also meet our felt needs better than anything else you could find.

But the reality is they don’t have a god-shaped hole so much as they have a hole-shaped god, fashioned over time to fit the evolving psychological needs of human beings. Of course Jesus is always exactly what you need. The whole concept is designed to work that way, and it’s working very well for them. That’s why there have to be so many different Jesuses.

Two Kinds of Dishonesty

Sometimes I’m envious of those who manage to stay within the faith, keeping their families and friendships intact. Either they were able to convince themselves not to cross that mental line, or else they quit sincerely believing a long time ago but kept it entirely to themselves. The former requires a forfeiture of self-honesty while the latter requires being dishonest toward everyone else. Is one less harmful than the other?

I don’t have an answer for that because it depends on your situation. No one knows what you need to do better than you do. Of course you want to listen to outside advice, especially from people who know and love you the most. But they’re not living your life–you are. Only you can decide whether or not sharing your disbelief will upend your entire life. Sometimes there are nuclear families to keep together, and I will never disparage someone for keeping this stuff close to the chest in order to maintain the life they worked so hard to provide for their family.

But at least those people are self-aware. They know they’re keeping a tight lid on things because they have to. What irks me are the people who judge the rest of us for getting past our sphincter moments, truly following the evidence wherever it leads. They don’t realize how often they shut down the process, they only know they resent us for not doing the same.

The lack of self-awareness gets to me because I see the harm that it does but I can’t make them see it, too. People who are good at lying to themselves are the backbone of institutions and organizations because they can always root for the team in good conscience no matter how many times they’ve witnessed their beloved groups step over people to ensure their own survival.

The church is the worst at this because it can always fall back on the rationalization that no matter how bad the people within it behave, the belief system itself is beyond reproach. People suck in real life but in abstraction the church remains pristine and holy. It’s a neat little formula that enables them to keep supporting the system, and they need to support the system because the system supports them.

Having personal reasons to believe what you believe doesn’t automatically mean your beliefs are false. But it sure does weaken the charge that those of us who leave the faith do so because we want to. I can tell you for a fact that I didn’t want to, and I am still paying for it even today. But some of us can’t lie to ourselves as easily as the rest can, and I refuse to feel guilty for that.

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...