Thoughts on my de-conversion, one year later
So it has been just about a year since I made public that I had abandoned the faith to which I clung so dearly for seven-plus years of my adolescent and adult life. It seemed appropriate to write down, for my own sake, some of my reflections on the process that has occurred during this last year. For anyone who reads this, what follows may or may not be coherent, that is my fair warning to you—I am writing as I think, I am not writing any kind of academic essay.
The Kubler-Ross model describes five stages in which persons deal with grief. Generally this model is attached to a tragedy of some kind: diagnosis of an illness, loss of a loved one, economic turmoil, etc. I was not raised in a religious family, and began flirting with the prospect of religious faith as early as sixth grade when I became friends with several evangelical Christians. During my freshman year of high school I experienced a profound conversion experience which radically altered my life. It would be easy to attempt to relegate this conversion experience as having simply “bad” or simply “good” consequences; however, to do so devalues the way in which my religious faith has shaped me as an individual. I digress. Nonetheless, it is important to know that my Christian faith pervaded every aspect of my life over the next seven years.
By no means was I a perfect Christian, I was never quite able to figure out how to acquiesce to the tenets of my own faith. Regardless, my faith was incredibly important to me. I belabor this point only to set the stage for this fact: when I realized that I could no longer intellectually assent to the system of belief which had shaped my entire life for seven years, it was very much tragic for me. Christians often refer to Jesus as their “best friend,” and while I am honest enough now to admit that at my most devout, my faith never received the attention it deserved, the figure of Jesus was always a very personal priority in my daily life. Thus, to experience a sudden paradigm shift to the magnitude of denying the very existence of the person of Jesus was much like discovering that one of my parents or closest friends had only existed in my mind.
Again, I digress. Returning to Kubler-Ross (who I brought up at least fifteen lines of text ago), my response to this ‘tragedy’ falls under three of the five stages, at least. For months I suppressed what my intellect and my intuition both told me: my God was no different than Allah, Krishna, Ra, or Zeus. In fact, during this stage I exhibited a renewed fervor in my religious devotion. After all, it was my own sin that led me to doubt, yes? Bible study and prayer consumed my time. Systematic theology and philosophy of religion became the choice of leisure reading for the greater part of last summer. In the end, however, my own denial caught up with me.
Next came anger. Somewhere in July I tested the waters and hinted that I was on the verge of walking away from Christianity. By August I made it public that I no longer considered myself to be a Christian. By September I was furious with my circumstance: a 21 year old college student who had built his very life on the foundation of Christian faith, came to reject that foundational structure of his life, and then found himself living in the midst of Christians for another long year. It seemed unbearable. Chapel. Christian kitsch—the cheesy music, the godawful (no pun intended) WWJD bracelets, and for heaven’s sake the T-shirts. Prayer at the beginning of every class. Fear of being “found out” by professors or employers who would surely react poorly.
It was as if a wool had been pulled away from my eyes and I perceived things in an entirely new light. It wasn’t chapel or the t-shirts that really made me angry. It was the deeper issues. The guilt that I saw people carrying around. The self-loathing for their inability to rid themselves of “sin” in their lives. The ever so subtle judgment of one another. “Well I just don’t understand how she drinks and says she is a Christian.” “Well I remember Jesus saying, ‘Judge not!’” Corporate Christianity seemed, at that point, to look very much like corporate America. Smiles on the outside, unbridled ambition and jealousy on the inside. During much of last fall, I found myself lashing out at any opportunity against the Christian faith. I craved the debates with Christian friends. I hungered to show them up.
Finally, I came to accept my situation. I came to realize that my former religious faith was a natural belief set to hold, and likewise the current religious faith of others is perfectly normal. Unfortunately, my “anger” phase caused me to burn bridges and had the unintended consequence of hurting many of those who I cared about the most.
It is interesting now that I no longer live among Christians, I am much more comfortable with myself and where my thoughts have landed on the issues surrounding faith. For most of my time now, it is a non issue. On the outside of the “Christian bubble,” faith or lack thereof simply does not matter to most people.
For an entire year I have struggled with the question of, “What next?” I have shared this question with many people in that time. If in fact, there is no god, there is much struggle and strife going on in the world for no reason. People carry around unnecessary guilt. Muslim extremists devote themselves to suicide missions for no real gain. Christian conservatives tout anti-gay propaganda without any real moral grounding. Wars have been, and are being, fought for a non-issue. What next, then? Do I dedicate my life to eradicating religion from the planet?
No. To do so would require becoming as dogmatic as those who I criticize. Sure, I will spar with theists in a debate. Definitely I will share my de-conversion with others. Certainly, I think that the world will be more safe when religion eventually does earn itself a place in the history classroom and nowhere else. On the other hand, I recognize that the world is infinitely complex. All actions carry with them a combination of good, bad, and neutral consequences (if we can even know what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ even mean!). I do not believe any transcendent being exists. And it inspires in me the need to understand with the problems that confront the world.
I am more committed now than ever to pursuing those issues that matter to me: preserving the environment, combating poverty and ending wars, expanding health care and protecting personal liberties. I am moved more now than when I was a Christian by an image of a starving child in Africa infected with AIDS. I am more committed now to understand how gun laws affect the safety of a poor family in the inner city. I am more determined now to see education flourish not onlin in America, but in the world. On the other hand, I recognize that there are others who are inspired to do the exact same things because of their religious faith. There are those who, before their religious conversion, would seek to serve only themselves. People are complex (therefore they require a designer… wait, wrong argument) and persons interacting in the global community are even more complex. Religious faith brings with it a muddy mix of good and bad. I don’t seek to eradicate faith, rather I seek to encourage those positive effects of religious faith and to mitigate the negative effects of religious faith.
As for me? I am happier now than I have ever been. I find myself with purpose and goals and confidence and comfort. I have done good things in life and I have done bad things in life. Jesus promised freedom from the bad, but only loaded more guilt on my shoulders. Now my mind is filled with clarity. I seek to correct those behaviors which I would consider to be “bad”—note: behaviors which I consider to be bad, based on empirical evidence and personal exploration; not behaviors which I consider to be bad because an ancient text arbitrarily says they are bad—I am free from the guilt that plagued me as a Christian.
A strange confession: from time to time I still enjoy listening to Christian music. It reminds me why I was attracted to Christianity in the first place. The narrative, presented from a certain perspective, really is beautiful (at least when it remains simple). A person is born into a slavery of sorts and is freed by one who is already free but sacrifices himself. Altruism and love are qualities which should be aspired to. For me, listening to the music that tells this story is kind of like reminiscing with an old friend. Ultimately, though, I walk away each time more certain about designating myself to be an atheist (well, at least to most people—thank you, Bertrand Russell). I envision a world in which education is valued, where healthcare is a right and not a privilege, where the world is cared for, where poverty (at least abject poverty as we know it today) is eliminated. This world that I envision for the future, not a utopia mind you, but a constantly improving society, is what gives me hope and fulfillment and joy.