Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

A few weeks ago I began chronicling the story of my Christianity, my deconversion, and my personal and intellectual development post-deconversion. I began with the reminiscences, Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood and Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models.  This post is a series of recollections of my high school religiosity. Below I cover my outspokenness in high school, my love affair with Contemporary Christian Music, my time as a pamphleteer that presaged my future career as a blogger, my attempt to threaten my high school with a lawsuit, the English teacher who awoke the love of the liberal arts in me, and my high school discovery of poetry.

An Outspoken Freshman

1992-1993: Freshman year in high school was when I think I first dug into theology and politics. I read Mere Christianity over Christmas break and it had a huge influence on me. I remember earlier, in 5th Grade reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe too and finding it profoundly moving. The death and resurrection of Aslan struck me as so powerful and there was something familiar about it, like I knew this story but I couldn’t articulate it directly.

I listened to Rush Limbaugh and devoured his books in the spring. I was amazed at how he made everything fit this one worldview. As Emerson might see it, Limbaughs false consistencies were the hobgoblins of my juvenile mind.

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At 14-15 years old I did not realize how easy it is to make everything seamlessly fit one’s paradigm as long as one is entirely prejudiced. I remember making vigorous arguments at a family event when I was about 15 and my brother trying to take credit for teaching me how to argue. I credited Rush. (But I probably owed the most credit to my youth minister Mike who was profoundly influencing me this year through our long one on one weekly talks.)

This was the year that I also relentlessly debated on behalf of an abstinence-only approach to sex with the the poor safe sex guest speaker in my freshman English class. She was remarkably unflappable and gracious, even offering me the chance to put together an alternative presentation, but she stuck to her own plan of teaching abstinence as one of numerous options.

I was also really outspoken on abortion that year and though I don’t remember bringing it up much in subsequent years, I was bullied over these views for years. There were people who every time they saw me would try to wind me up by jeering, “what are your views on abortion?!”

My school had few Evangelical Christians. Outside of church I knew few kids as outwardly religious and zealous as I was. I was utterly undeterred by being disliked for my beliefs and managed to have many friendships with normal kids in spite of them.

Precocious Preacher

This is me after giving the Sunday sermon at my church at 15, beginning my career as a lecturer.

1993-1994: When I was 15, I began getting public speaking experience in earnest. Eighteen years ago today, on November 21, 1993, I gave a very well received Sunday morning sermon as part of a “Youth Sunday”. My deep message was called “Take it to the Limit” based on a cheesy Christian hair metal song by the band Whitecross. I talked about the clever little tale in the Bible in which Gideon outsmarts a much larger enemy army with fewer soldiers of his own by startling them in the middle of the night with all sorts of noise and fire, leading the enemy to panic and kill each other out of confusion. I was given opportunities to talk at very small places like a Christian home for troubled teens. It was a big deal to me. I stayed over as a guest of honor and everything. Being in front of groups teaching and preaching was extremely natural to me. I wound up a camp counselor at my Christian church camp by the time I was 16 too. I was an utter and complete disaster at first. My first week involved being in charge of a group of fifteen kids, all 11-12, eleven of whom were girls. They manipulated the crap out of me.

That same year was biology class. I had woken up one morning watching a creationism propaganda show produced by D. James Kennedy. They offered a free book at the end of the video called The Collapse of Evolution by Scott M. Huse. I thought that was awesome of them. I drove my poor biology teacher crazy with my obstinate refusal to accept the truth of evolution. He was a good, kind, friendly, and patient man who deserved much better.

That year I also read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters which became my favorite book for several years. I found it utterly enthralling. I only now remember bits and pieces. My favorite bit remains his account of humility as the ability to acknowledge one’s own accomplishments and even admire them, yet with the same distance as noting the excellence of someone else’s work, not overly wrapped up in one’s own contribution to it. This was a big influence upon me not to be shy or ashamed or overly modest about whatever I did well in life but to appraise whatever I did honestly and straightforwardly whether good or bad, just as I would someone else’s work.

The Screwtape Letters: How a Senior Devil Instructs a Junior Devil in the Art of Temptation

Before Camels With Hammers There Was The Point

1994-1995:  My church decided to redo its weekly bulletin and add features to it. I quickly became the editor-in-chief of the project and turned it into a monthly “journal” which my editor and I decided to name The Point. We filled it with articles, poems, and other items of interest that I solicited from church members and pastors who I knew from various places. I wrote a lot and vastly rewrote some articles in the editing process. I went crazy designing (and sometimes overdoing) creative layouts and fonts for all the different articles. It was a labor of love and I think it was of a somewhat impressive level of quality for a project helmed by a 16-17 year old. I never once submitted anything to the high school newspaper or creative writing periodical. Even then I sought a blogger’s independence and had a leeriness of submitting my work for editorial judgment.

First Amendment Champion

1994: I edited The Point with the goal of making this ostensibly Christian journal into a proselytization vehicle. My friends at school were the people to whom it was most distributed and though we wrote and presented it aimed at a general audience, we saw it as outreach to non-believing or nominally believing kids in my school. Most of my friends liked it. It certainly never converted anyone. One day one of my teachers raised the question of whether I was allowed to be passing it out in school and so the principal ordered me to stop.

So I contacted a lawyer. For no charge The Rutherford Institute, a group which aggressively supports the Christian side in 1st Amendment battles, put together a memo for me defining the rights the courts had determined students had for distributing religious literature at school. My principal told me I was entitled to a table where I could hand out The Point between periods. I thought this was ridiculous and just went back to doing what I had always done—handing it out informally to my friends and to strangers. We made a huge deal out of the attempt to “censor” us in The Point with a huge “Censored” logo and our cartoon mascot behind bars. I passed out the issue telling kids it was banned and they lapped that up.

Too much of the burden of producing The Point fell on my shoulders so I eventually ran out of energy as I became interested in and distracted by other things, and the project unceremoniously fizzled within 9 months of its really taking off. It basically just lasted the full duration of my Junior Year.

Poetry

1994-1996: I began writing poetry as part of an attempt to write song lyrics with my friend Bryan in 1994. I am so comically unmusical and so bad a singer that the plan of having me sing while Bryan played guitar on our recordings did not go terribly far. We made a few demos that probably are most mercifully lost to history. But I kept writing verse—terrible, blunt, artless, didactic verse that a dogmatic religious teenager would write. Only when my heart was smashed to pieces in May of ’95 did I make my first efforts at metaphor and symbolism. This was because, interestingly, while I did not see how awful didactic poetry was, I did know how bad whiny teenage broken heart verse was and aimed to avoid it by writing about my experience on a more general and universal, symbolic level. This was also to hide the subject matter since I was shy about coming right out and explicitly expressing my broken heart in verse others would read.

I remember for the first time, even before this, realizing some of my poems sucked badly. I was putting one into The Point and it just struck me that it might suck. So I asked my editor and my girlfriend if it was bad and they were kind of matter of fact about it. Yes. Yes, it was bad. They hadn’t thought to stop me from publishing it (or previous bad poems!) though. No one had ever told me how bad my verse was until I, like, asked if it was bad.

By the time I was graduating high school, I had gotten pretty good. We put on a slightly elaborate poetry reading at my church with music and super lo-fi lighting effects and it was a night I’m still proud of. I got much better throughout college and put together a compilation called Naked in the Night Garden of which I am still reasonably proud but which I would be hard pressed to actually find amidst all my old papers.

Rereading my poems a few years ago, I was surprised how many of my poems were deeply critical of the church, even as they were written when I was a believer. I had a Christian enthusiast’s love of God and Jesus, of course, but I was working through philosophical and psychological ideas with a fair degree of concern for truth beyond mere fundamentalist preaching. Although most of my poems were short, the crowning accomplishment of my poetic efforts was a 180 stanza poem called “A Prolegomena To All My Future Prayers”, in which I somewhat vigorously debated the existence and goodness of God with a fictional interlocutor and with myself.

I stopped writing poetry altogether simultaneous with the end of my faith during my senior year of college. I have only written a poem or two since, for a girlfriend. The last poem I wrote during my prolific period was very short and it was written the day after I deconverted:

When I Lost My Faith…
I slit my thought
and was rebaptized in its blood

And that was all the poetry there was left to write.

Mr. Doyle

1994-1996: When I was inducted into the National Honor Society, my soon-to-be English teacher Mr. Peter Doyle gave one of the very few ceremonial speeches in my life that I remember anything from. I remember him describing how in his public speaking class he would always have students give a short speech on how to get to their house. He would himself describe how to get all the way to his home in Brooklyn from our Suffolk County school on Long Island. He then talked about a few intrepid students who used those directions to arrive at his doorstep. He talked with pride about their response to his books when they were in his apartment. Somehow this led to the conclusion, in which he turned and faced all of us seated behind him and with not a trace of irony but rather the most convincing and dramatic of faces and vocal inflections possible said to us, “Welcome to the life of the mind.”

The next year I had him for English and for Public Speaking. The first day of class he promised we would learn more in his class than we had in any others. It was in his classes that year and the next that I first was inspired with a love for the liberal arts and began to see learning as an exciting pursuit of truth. I wrote some of my first purely philosophical essays for Mr. Doyle, ones which moved beyond my literalist theologizing and into thinking. I remember in particular writing about how foreknowledge could be compatible with freedom in Oedipus Rex and doing a comparison of the differing visions of hell one found in Dante’s Inferno, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

The Yearbook

1996: When I graduated I was remarkably gratified to read what my friends and acquaintances wrote in my yearbook. Somewhat to my amazement, people expressed a lot of admiration for my dogged commitment to my beliefs. No one had done so for the four years that I was risking (and assuming) alienation in order to speak my mind. But in the end, people responded in a really touching and affirming way to my willingness to stand alone for what I thought. That yearbook is one of those things in my life that makes me proudest and most gratified to reflect on—even if I regret pretty much everything I stood for. At least it’s a reassurance that my principled atheism likely also has a more positive effect than anyone now admits to me.

Christian Music in High School

1992-1996: In the beginning of 1992, I discovered Contemporary Christian Music and I devoured it. I had been starving myself of most music besides “Weird Al” for years out of fear that secular music was evil. So listening to, and loving, Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man for the first time was this unbelievably happy experience.

Go West Young Man

It was music I dug and it was completely Christian. I can still remember the liberating rush I felt when I first heard it. It was like being one of those Footloose kids and being allowed to dance—but not having to side with the devil to do it! And it was with so much consternation that I would debate with others whether his (barely) more “secular” 1993 album Change Your World and whether Amy Grant’s mainstream pop albums were “too compromised” for their cross-over (less cross-oriented) appeals.

Change Your World

At the same time I picked up Smith, I also picked up Carman and was elated by his stuff too. Carman had “edgy” stuff about demons and witches and this “dark” stuff made it cool to me. I also got into Whitecross as a way to try to find something hard and metal-like to appeal to my metal-loving friends. It took me a while to adjust but they became one of my favorite bands. I even put together a music video of movie clips for their song “In the Kingdom”. Below is their official video. In retrospect the song is pretty awful. My video made it better. It had muppets. Someday hopefully I will figure out how to transfer VHS to internet accessible video file and shall gift it to the world.

DC Talk was my introduction to rap:

I eventually found a couple heavy metal albums I still think are pretty sick, like Bride’s Snakes in the Playground

and Tourniquet’s masterful Vanishing Lessons:

Within a couple of years, I naturally, without realizing what I was doing, gravitated to less explicitly Christian, less mass-marketed and cheesy, and more indie Christian bands. I was into the stuff which was obscure, made attempts at being honest, was comfortable with some ambiguity, and musically tried to do interesting things.

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

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

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • The Vicar

    Ah, Christian contemporary music. I’m so glad I have never been exposed to much of it; every time I hear some of the stuff which is supposed to be so inspiring and beautiful, I am astounded at how inferior it is to… well, just about everything else. In fact, the secular songs I’ve heard by Christian groups are notably better than the Christian songs by those same groups. It’s like the subject matter just destroys any ability to write decent music or lyrics.

    Ironically, the only Christian music I have ever paid good money for I picked up after becoming an atheist, albeit accidentally. (It’s a Japanese group named TRF; I liked a couple of their secular — so far as I can tell, although my Japanese isn’t that great so it might just be a case of very subtle metaphor — songs, and bought a couple of albums. A pity; import CDs are expensive, and the album containing Christian songs is mostly rubbish.)

  • Gordon

    Aslan’s sacrifice was more moving because CS Lewis was a better writer than Yahweh. Plus with Aslan it is the villan who sacifices him, which would make Yahweh the White Witch in this analogy?

  • Ana

    Oh, contemporary Christian music was the soundtrack of my teenage years as well. We actually played Hillsong and Michael W. Smith (among others) in the church, with translated lyrics. It was a big thing, every year in the youth camp, playing the translated songs from the CD that had been the most sucessful that year, and I had the live CDs from those worships.
    We didn’t have a strong “Rock is from the Devil” philosophy, so I listened to secular music too, but during those years when I was most fervent I loved having some emotional christian music to cry and pray to. I remember playing my “Hillsong United” CD so much it was utterly destroyed, and I had this CD I really liked that’s so indie I can only find one song on youtube: “Not for Sale” by Lidija Roos.
    It didn’t faze me much that all my friends were listening to pop, because I inherited my parents very ecletic taste in music, so I was always the weird one out. Like when I was 10 and fell in love with Guano Apes while everyone else was singing Britney Spears…
    And actually, the music is the single thing I miss the most from my evangelical years. It has this emotional quality that really resounds with me, and it’s kind of hard trying to ignore decade-long instincts to sing those songs when I’m happy, or sad, or whatever. We were always singing, even just walking down the street!

  • Rob

    When I did(1976-1989) the charismatic fundamentalist(aka charis-maniac funny-mentalist) gig I was into Resurrection Band, Degarmo & Key, and then a local boy gone monk, John Michael Talbot. When my wife had some mental health issues, that was when the true colors of the church shone through, and the lies of what they taught.

    Today’s version of the charis/fundie is no different after all these years. The only thing that has changed is the aspect of musice. Whereas before, the form was either divine or not, that has been thrown out, much like the Catholic Purgatory. Anything for fresh bodies and the money in their pockets.

  • http://marniemaclean.com Marnie

    I read this with interest in no small part because you open talking about your interest in Rush Limbaugh. I’ve always felt that extreme religious faith and far right political leanings are particularly hard to shake because they rely on such a strong foundation of “the other” and a complete rejection of empathy for other views. The devout dismiss opposing views as traps from the devil while the far right write off arguments as part of the liberal media agenda.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on why you think you may have been open to such a huge change in your world view. Do you think that some people are more predisposed to being able to challenge their beliefs or do you think the influence was primarily external? Do you feel like there could have been a facet in your life that, had things gone a different way, you’d still hold your old beliefs, or do you feel it was inevitable that you would eventually get to this point?

    I have held a lot of whacky views in my youth, but they lacked a real degree of dogma. I was generic “christian” when I was quite young, and then a believer in all things paranormal, but it was all stuff I dabbled in by way of books and it simply took tripping over a good skeptic book to change my tune. I find your path to free thought a more interesting journey.

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

    Thanks Marnie! Forgive a brief reply—I hope in future posts to delve into more of the interesting questions you raise. In the meantime, read the previous post about the influence of the ministers in my life for how my mind was prepared to be opened from a key age: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/10/30/before-i-deconverted-ministers-as-powerful-role-models/

    I also was just talking to my class the other day about how my mom raised me in a way that involved constantly talking through reasons.

    Another final key was that I was determined to prove the faith rationally and that meant really digging in philosophically. And doing that sincerely, as I did, meant being thoroughly dialectical and that is really the death of absolutism, over time, in all but the most dense.

  • Brad

    When I was about 10 (in the early 1980s), my mother went to the Christian bookstore, and asked them for the “hardest rock Christian music you have”. The album she bought that day? “Toward Eternity” by Matthew Ward:

    (not actually very hard rock, still kinda groovy, though…)

    Petra was actually my favorite. I think I still have all their albums on LP somewhere in a box…

  • http://www.phatjmo.com Justin Zimmer

    It was fundamentalist evangelicals that pushed me away from religion in my teenage years. Thank you for being who you were and for being who you are today. It’s amazing what a little baptism in the blood of thought can do :)

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

      :)

  • karmakin

    Growing up I was on a similar track up until grade 5 or 6 or so. Probably grade 7 is when I made the big change into atheism. Part of it was that my best friend was atheist, but part of it..

    I was in a magnet program across the entire school district, and I was chosen for it basically because I was religious and conservative at the time. The problem is that I ended up changing my views REALLY fast because of this, a big part of it, is that I was exposed to a lot of the end results of this sort of culture, and quite frankly, it made me very sad.

  • David

    I’m not at all familiar with the genre, but I do recall when I sang in a big choir many years ago, we sang masses and requiems etc. by Bach, Haydn etc. a fellow chorister commented she hated the Christian nursery rhymes she had to sing at church. I am an atheist but love “classical” religious music. While listening to the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s requiem a Christian friend said -if they play music like that in Hell that’s where I want to be.-

  • sinned34

    Evangelical teenage years wasted chasing Jesus instead of girls. Christian music like Tourniquet, Deliverance, One Bad Pig, and Mortification in vain attempts to gain approval from non-Christian metalhead friends. Poisoning almost all relationships in high school with proselytizing. Eventual disillusionment and deconversion to atheism.

    Sir, my lawyer shall be contacting you shortly with a well-documented demand letter requesting you return my lost childhood to me, since it appears you have stolen it and claimed it as your own.

    Well, except for the Micheal W. Smith stuff. Thankfully, I detested his music with the heat of a million suns.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Overall, I feel bad that this makes me feel good (to know I’m not alone) rather than bad (that you did all this too)!

    • sinned34

      As they say, misery loves company. I have to admit I have a little bit of jealousy when I read about people who realized their atheism at a young age, while I fell for the religious con game hook, line and sinker. I really do feel like it happened at the worst possible time. I wasted what should have been one of the most carefree times in life, and it poisoned my love of science, which I never regained until it was too late for me to make a career change.

      Oh, well. At least I learned a lot about myself and human nature thanks to my involvement with evangelical Christianity.

  • Mick

    You mentioned DC Talk. This is how they were advertising themselves in Australia. Everybody I knew regarded them as a joke; silly little boys pretending to be rappers.


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