Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

12 years ago today, on October 30, 1999 as a 21 year old college junior majoring in philosophy and minoring in religion at religiously and politically super-conservative Grove City College, I stopped being a Christian. Below the fold, for those interested in these sorts of narratives, is the first installment of a series of posts in which I will share the key turning points in the creation, evolution, devolution, abandonment, and recovery from my faith.

Converting

1983-1992: When I was 5, my disaffected Catholic parents unwittingly sent my 13 year old brother to a church camp that was in the business of converting unsuspecting children to evangelical Christianity, with zero concern for what those kids’ parents might think of that. My brother came home and told our parents, “I have been baptized. I am going to go start attending the Port Jefferson Church of Christ and if you won’t take me the minister will come and pick me up.”

My mother decided she had to figure out what she had accidentally gotten her son into. My mom is a wonderfully social person. She fell head over heels for the welcoming community she found and came to become a fervent evangelical Christian by the following February. 9 years later the church would start to dissolve in dissension and she has forever since never been very comfortable in, or attached to, any of her new church homes. I get the impression she only goes to my now-minister brother’s church out of religious faithfulness and to watch my brother preach. She always talks wistfully of the golden days of Port Jefferson Church of Christ.

My first memory of church—which, as a memory from when I was 5 is apocryphal—is being in Sunday School for the first time and being driven mad that all the questions the teacher was asking were answered by a word I didn’t know. “Jesus”. Being a smart kid, this drove me  nuts. I would figure out what this “Jesus” was if it was the end of me. (And it almost was!)

And boy did I learn about Jesus. I remember at 18 returning to my elementary school to revisit my beloved first and second grade teachers. I could just see the disappointment on their faces that a kid who loved science so much when little had become an anti-scientific Jesus freak. For some reason the pull to learn about Jesus overwhelmed the pull to understand the natural world.

 

Bethlehem Alive

1987-1992: My church inaugurated an annual Christmas event originally called Back to Bethlehem but for most of its years Bethlehem Alive. It was really, really impressive for a congregation of ~150 people in a tiny building. The people of the church tirelessly built and then performed in a “replica” street in Bethlehem which thousands of people from the community would walk through stopping at stations where they would meet all sorts of everyday citizens of Bethlehem who would talk about their lives, often humorously, and make only the vaguest and most passing hints at aspects of the story of Jesus’s birth. Then they would see a live action manger scene (often with a real baby!) and then go to a room that dealt with the resurrection and then go downstairs for cookies, juice, and being approached by church members eager to share the Gospel.

I inaugurated the role of stable boy and then, when I was older, I helped inaugurate the role of shepherd at around 13 years old. Our church expanded and built a huge new worship area and people would be seated there for an hour or so (after waiting in the cold another hour or two) to come in. Our job was to warm up the crowd. As a ham, I ate it up. I would go out there and improvise and yell enthusiastically about the angels we shepherds had seen.

Those Bethlehem Alive nights were intense. Except for the occasional trips to warm up the crowd as a shepherd, they were long boring repetitive hour nights (especially for kids) being live action animatronic puppets. But they were immensely satisfying. The feeling of community that was created was so deep. As a young person to be a part of something so many people, adults and kids alike, were so passionate about, so invested in, all volunteer, left a deep impact. And I even wound up front in center on page 6 of Newsday in the same picture as the girl I had a painful crush on. I stared at that picture endlessly and even then found it enormously humorous that if you looked at it carefully you could see me peeking at her as inconspicuously as I could.

And that was part of the thing about church for me. I was friends with tons of wonderful adults who I got to work on things with and be treated with respect, who in general I would talk to for hours on end, and who were like a large surrogate extended family.

The Joys of Brainwashing

1989-1999: I remember going to church camp for the first time when I was 11 years old. I spent at least a week and usually more (and eventually whole summers) at church camp until I deconverted. Let me tell you, the thing they don’t tell you about being at a brainwashing camp, either as the brainwashed or the brainwashing, is that it is incredibly fun. Being surrounded by your peers, especially as a kid—sleeping in a cabin with a whole bunch of other kids your own age and only falling asleep when everyone has exhausted themselves form joking around in the dark after all day playing games, singing songs, eating all your meals together, having campfires, being whipped up into an emotional frenzy by shameless adults who have no qualms about saying or doing anything necessary to manipulate you into believing that fairy tales are real and you will hurt God’s feelings after he suffered on the cross for you and go to hell if you don’t believe them.

And let’s not forget getting massive crushes on the girls who you are interacting with way more often and way more emotionally than you ever do in school. And, maybe, you know sneaking out at night with those girls to play spin the bottle or maybe make out at the infamous gigantic rock where who knows how many people have gotten to who knows how many bases for the first time? (Billy Joel apparently told Playboy that he had his first sexual experience at the camp I grew up at.)

And as a kid the counselors, college kids and adults who took concentrated interest in us kids, were the coolest people you could imagine. It was so painful saying goodbye to all the new friends and all the counselors. Of course, not everyone’s experience of the counselors were so good. At least one friend of mine was molested.

The one thing I ever miss about being a Christian was the ignorant, isolated bliss of camp. To this day, I have dreams (nightmares?) where they let me go back to Christian camp even though I am an avowed atheist. Maybe it’s that they let me go in non-teaching capacity. Or they let me go but I have to carefully walk the line of saying only true things but still not disturbing anyone’s faith. These dreams torture me, they bring out the longing for the sheer naive emotional intensities of being 11-21 years old secluded from the world, alone in nature with dozens of people all falling in love with each other, over the course of a week living as a commune thinking the same.

It is a strange nostalgia for someone like me, a rationalist, a contrarian, and someone who intensely hates emotional manipulation and brainwashing on principle. It is a longing for the emotions and for their good causes, but not their despicable ones.

 

Baptism

August 20, 1989: After an intense week of Christian camp I came home ready to be baptized. It was a huge deal in my church that kids choose this when they really, really believed and were sure they believed. It was a big deal that only true believers, and therefore, those old enough to truly believe, got baptized. Free, cognitive assent was a basic value then. Is that part of why I still value that so much today?

 

The Two Paths

1987-1991: I was baptized by my minister brother. This was a big deal to me. I wanted to be him. My other brother was destroying his life. He was an alcoholic since he was a teenager. I grew up idolizing my brothers’ friends. I grew up preferring the eventual-alcoholic brother over the eventual-minister brother until I was about 9 when one of my eventual-alcoholic brothers’ friends—the pizza guy who worked in his parents’ pizzeria—called up my house and deadly seriously asked to talk to my parents. My brother was there to beat him up over a girl, my brother’s first love who had cheated on him. The same brother was in a car wreck that had his hand in a cast for his high school graduation. The same brother (deceived about her age) got a 16 year old pregnant at 21 years old and wound up in jail for assaulting her a few years later.

On the other hand, my eventual minister-brother overcame learning disabilities and speech impediments to go to college, marry as a virgin a woman with whom he still has an incredibly happy marriage today, all by the power of Jesus. This contrast left a powerfully deep impression on my mind. There was the straight and narrow path to heaven and a good life on earth and the wide path to hell. I had a poster of those two paths above my bed for many years in high school. It summed up my dualistic ethics and anchored my resolve to remain a virgin until marriage (in which resolve I was steadfast until I left the faith).

 

Young Evangelizing In The Secular Camp

1989-1991: Christian camp was only a week or several long (but there are countless stories I should some day chronicle here if I ever get around to it). For several summers I spent longer at a secular camp at which I was bullied reasonably hard (not over religion, just over, you know, being alive—because that’s what kids do to other kids just for being there). The only derisive nickname I ever had was one I had there, “Finckletoes”.

I did have some friends though, possibly all of them Jewish. Growing up on Long Island, even as my best friends changed every few years, always one of my closest friends would be a Jewish kid. So, coming back from evangelical Christian camp on fire to share the Gospel, I was eager to try to convert my Jewish friends. The secular camp I went to took trips out of state. Staying in hotels with our friends, no kids wanted to sleep. We’d stay up all night talking and horsing around. The counselors would mercilessly not let us sleep on the bus the next morning so that we’d be tired enough to start sleeping nights in the hotel after that.

I remember in those late nights, trembling with nervousness and devout seriousness, being 12, 13 years old trying to share the Gospel with my Jewish friends. I remember at 12 preaching the virtues of abstinence to another friend. My intense concern about other people’s views on religion began young. Happily, I was never obnoxious enough to lose any of my Jewish friends. They tolerated me and accepted me always with unflappable aplomb and were teflon to my arguments, unshakable in their identity with no need to change mine. Today if I had to be a part of any religious tradition, in its contemporary form, it would be easily be theirs.

One last related memory. I remember at the secular camp, we were going to have a special night where our boys troop and the correspondingly aged girls troop would stay late and play games and perform skits for each other. My group picked and elaborately rehearsed the Beastie Boys’ “You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party” and I was terrified.

I had learned in church, from a documentary called “Hell’s Bells” about how rock music was satanic. And these lyrics were clearly evil. I was sick to my stomach and alienated and scared to death. I snuck home without telling anyone. This freaked out the people in charge of me who lost track of me. I remember my 17 year old brother having to come up to my room and do a lot of damage control with me.

I leave you with the everything-is-terrible worthy documentary which scarred my impressionable young mind:

Before seeing that video, I was a normal kid whose favorite song in the world was the truly epic (hilariously dirty) pop-rock-hair-metal-hedonism song “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. I love it again today and feel like I should include it here to cleanse the palette after all that fundamentalism above!

Your Thoughts?

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

  • http://www.NoYourGod.com NoYourGod

    After reading stories like this, and thinking of the harassment and guilt trips the thumper portion of your family gave you when you announced your non-belief, I can’t help but think how fortunate I have been in that 1) I have never believed in any sort of mythological creator being; and 2) with the exception of one brother’s six-month tour in delusion nobody in my family has ever fallen into the evangelical trap.

    The worst I had to deal with was the temporarily insane brother’s response to my non-belief: “how can you be so stupid?!?” My only possible response was “how can you be so superstitious?” He recovered his sanity shortly. I do not mean to state, or even imply, that believers are insane – it is just that my brother went waaaaay overboard… “feeling the spirit in the room in prayer group” (I put that on the same level as “Ghost Hunters”), saying “everything is in god’s hands” yet not explaining how or why his god would let earthquakes kill babies, and just being overall obnoxious. (Funny side note – the local sportswriter that he rented a room from led the local effort against the cable company when they dared bring that evil Playboy Channel to town. The sportswriter very publicly announced he cancelled his cable subscription. My brother was very technically savvy, so it was natural that the sportswriter ask him to hook the house up to cable by stealing the neighbor’s signal…)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yeah, I was always leery of the “spirit-filled” kinds of overboard people.

      As for the thumper antagonism when I left, it’s basic group psychology. All those visceral, psycho-social-emotional bonds that I describe participating in as a kid are strengthened in part by a strong in-group/out-group psychology. People need and love and thrive in groups. It is very hard to escape the brain’s tendency to do this in ways that also involve hating outsiders to the groups.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Your Thoughts?

    The Def Leopard song is better than the Beastie Boys song, but the Beastie Boys video is better than Def Leopard’s.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

    Red State just happened to percolate to the top of our Netflix queue this weekend. Over the top, and not at all subtle. But Michael Parks really nailed his interpretation of a fundamentalist preacher.

  • Tessa

    A bit late, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. I converted at a summer camp at age 10 and was an evangelical Christian through my teens. I even worked as a camp counselor for a couple of summers. Near the end of high school I started to realize that faith didn’t make sense, and I finally deconverted in second year university. I’m a grad student now, and I still occasionally have dreams/nightmares that I’m back at camp, trying not to be found out as an atheist.

    I wouldn’t really say I miss camp – I always felt judged by the other staff, who seemed to think that being an introvert was a character flaw. Now, I feel guilty for spending two summers teaching kids stuff that isn’t true. But I think that camp was, on the whole, a positive experience for me. I learned a lot of teamwork, leadership, and outdoor skills. I hope that the good outweighs the bad for my former campers, as it did for me.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      A bit late, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post.

      Not late at all, this post is jut from Sunday.

      I still occasionally have dreams/nightmares that I’m back at camp, trying not to be found out as an atheist.

      Wow, me too. I never thought this might be a deeper effect of the cultish character of camp on people more than just me.

      I always felt judged by the other staff, who seemed to think that being an introvert was a character flaw.

      Not a character flaw at all—but probably not the best qualification for being a camp counselor. For me, I always felt like camp counselor fit my personality better than any other job. But, the introverted side of me struggled with only having 1-2 hours a day off when I worked at a camp in college for 11 weeks a summer for two summers. I needed at least some alone time and never got it.

      Now, I feel guilty for spending two summers teaching kids stuff that isn’t true.

      Me too. I do a lot of wincing when I think about that. I have been in touch with one of my former campers and at least he turned out okay.

  • Gordon

    “I am going to go start attending the Port Jefferson Church of Christ and if you won’t take me the minister will come and pick me up.”

    How did this not ring alarm bells?

  • Sam Johnson

    Dan, Im sorry for what Christianity has done to you and your friends. Very Very sorry.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Thank you for hearing us out, Sam.