My loss of faith was a death by a thousand cuts, but two cut the deepest. If you have to believe something to make it real...it isn't.
For us ex-evangelicals, the Christian message was framed as an invitation to a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. It wasn’t until after we accepted the invitation that they turned around and shamed us for wanting such a thing.
It can be difficult to describe what deconversion is like because it’s rarely a linear process. The contours of the journey take on slightly different shapes each time I look back with the benefit of deeper hindsight. It’s an ongoing challenge.
Why did I quit believing in the Christian story? I think a better question is: Why did I start believing it in the first place?
A better question
The answer is that I absorbed and internalized the Christian belief system because I was taught it from my youngest years. Before I was old enough to possess the critical reasoning skills to challenge those beliefs, I was taught that everything that exists had to be made by a person, and that person had to be the Christian God and no other.
I was taught from birth to accept whatever the Bible says about Jesus, about judgment, and about my need for salvation from a coming punishment. As a teen I became much more heavily invested in my faith, and my devotion to it structured the next two decades of my life.
I had no trouble finding confirmation for my beliefs for the duration of those 20 years. I had an ongoing, dynamic, and passionate relationship with a God who I was certain was real.
When I reached my mid-thirties, however, I began to notice something. I read a lot of church history, then looked around at the many expressions of the Christian faith and discovered just how wildly different people’s beliefs–and experiences–can be. I also noted how fervently each person was certain that his or her way of seeing things is God’s way of seeing things.
I began to ask myself why each person was so convinced that his or her way was the only right way, and soon I began to ask myself the same question about my own beliefs: What made me so sure that I had grasped the right way of seeing things? How did I know that my own experience up until that point had been legitimate?
Looking around a bit further, I saw that people around the world had even more diverse beliefs about which religion is right, which God is right, how many gods there are, and what each of them wants. The more I observed my own people as well as the people on the outside of my own subculture, the more I began to marvel at how many of us could be so completely convinced of things that obviously cannot all be right.
This self-examination led me to raise my standard of evidence toward my own belief system. Upon discovering just how good humans are at lying to themselves, I began to ask harder questions about how I know the things that I know. That process is eventually what led me out of my faith.
Faith first, then sight
The first thing that began to dawn on me was how utterly subjective my faith was. Virtually everything it claimed required first believing that it was true. I was taught that the benefits of my faith were dependent upon my willingness to believe in them.
Like that verse in Hebrews says:
Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Everything important in my belief system works this way: First, you must believe, then you will receive the benefits of the thing you believe. But that struck me as awfully convenient.
Placebos work exactly the same way. As long as a person is convinced that a thing will accomplish a given function, that person becomes more inclined to interpret whatever happens next as a successful outcome. Confirmation bias is endemic to our species.
Related: How faith breaks your thinker
Most of the assertions that my former religion makes about the outcomes of a life of faith are impossible to disprove because either they are worded so vaguely they sound like horoscopes, or else they are so adeptly followed by rationalizations for why they didn’t come true that there can be no valid reasons for discounting them.
It’s a rigged game, and that should bother anyone who is serious about demanding that his or her beliefs be based in reality.
Like former pastor Ryan Bell wrote after his first year without God, I began to ask myself if it would make any practical difference in my daily life if divinity were just excluded from the equation altogether. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that even for a believer as devout as me, most daily chores and duties still had to be carried out in exactly the same way whether or not any gods existed.
You still have to get dressed and go to work. You still have to lock your doors and look both ways before crossing the street. You still require medical attention, have to pay taxes, and you still eventually die far too soon. On a practical level, even believers must live as if there were no God for most daily tasks.
About the only difference I can see is that some people give God credit for what they themselves are doing, while everybody else just lives their life without requiring an extra layer of meaning. On the outside, there’s not that much difference.
Making love out of nothing at all
The other major factor in my departure from faith was the growing realization that my relationship with God was always a one-sided relationship.
I spoke to God on a regular basis, of course, and I felt and openly testified that he also spoke back to me. But in time it finally dawned on me that I had to supply both sides of the relationship.
It was always up to me to conjure up the communication from both directions. Like a child convinced the Ouija board is truly speaking to him—completely independent of his own imagination—I was very good at finding God’s voice amidst a cacophony of otherwise meaningless background noise. I was a good dot connector.
But after twenty years of passionately pursuing my faith, I came to realize that I had been carrying on a loving, decades-long relationship with a figment of my own imagination.
I should add that I enjoyed it very much. It was a fulfilling relationship for me in many ways for a long time. We humans are fundamentally creative beings–much like the gods we envision, which is no coincidence. We can dream up the most engrossing characters and storylines even in our sleep.
Is it any surprise that we can create our own favorite characters and do that so well, they feel real to us? They keep us company when we are lonely, and they somehow embody both our noblest aspirations as well as our most sinister flaws.
The bottom line is that I reached a point in my life where I needed something more solid to stand on—something demonstrably true that was outside of my own head, independent of my own wishes about what should be true. My faith just wasn’t cutting it anymore. What worked for me at 17 no longer worked for me at 37.
Your life isn’t my business
When I talk about my own journey out of the faith, I always stop short of telling other people what they should believe–even if it seems implied in what I’m saying about myself.
To be sure, I don’t believe the religions we inherited are based in reality–aside from a handful of ethical guidelines like the golden rule which are universal to almost all religions and philosophies. But I don’t feel burdened with a responsibility to tell you what you should believe.
Why is that? Quite frankly, it’s because I don’t really care what other people believe, so long as they treat others with a basic level of respect and compassion. That’s something every religion and philosophy can agree on.