August 20, 1989, at the Port Jefferson Church of Christ, my older brother Richard baptized me as a Christian. Richard was a minister (though that wasn’t necessary in our churches to baptized) and at the time he was the person I most wanted to emulate in life.
The choice to get baptized was a huge deal in Church of Christ churches. It not only symbolized but actually effectuated one’s personal commitment to Jesus Christ and many I grew up with thought that it was utterly necessary for salvation. There was none of this “pray the sinner’s prayer and you’re in” shit. You had to be dunked. (So, spoiler alert to God’s Not Dead fans, Professor Radisson’s still going to hell.) And you had to be baptized while you were truly understanding, believing, and wholeheartedly committing. Being sprinkled as an infant wouldn’t work. Even were you to believe later when you understood, it didn’t retroactively suffice. So Catholics or Presbyterians or whatever other people who grew up in phony churches had to be rebaptized when they discovered True Christianity™ through the Church of Christ.
The choice to get baptized was also individualized for children and adults. They didn’t all go through a systemized confirmation process involving some equivalent of “confirmation classes”. This was a good thing, I think. It prevented the kinds of appalling scenarios many doubters report of being outright forced as children into making confessions of faith they don’t believe in as part of religious rites or sacraments or confirmations, simply because they were the age that this was required, whether they believed the words they were saying (supposedly before God Himself), or not.
If anything, things were quite the opposite. We were encouraged to take the choice to become a Christian very seriously. It was an enormous commitment. Rather than claiming every kid raised in a Christian home to be a saved Christian already, it was a big deal that they couldn’t become Christians until they were able to cognize what it meant rationally and choose for themselves to be saved. There was a lot of emphasis on waiting for the right time, for when was mature enough. Which, of course, was incredibly enticing to a kid (and I imagine to many prospective members). All these gushing pitches about the wonderful salvation through Jesus Christ and the chance to become a real and true member of this loving community of believers nicely set you up for the coy “but we don’t want to force you and you shouldn’t take this commitment lightly or rush into it” spiel just when you’re on the verge of impulsively signing up. I spent several years of childhood carefully and conscientiously “waiting to make sure” before I finally could do what I was dying to do–be born again through baptism and be a Christian. I was then always taken aback and put off when I’d see others in my churches letting little kids decide to get baptized. And one night when an overbearing “spirit-filled” Pentecostal minister my mother dated “led my mom’s friend to salvation” in one sitting (without even a baptism!) I was uncomfortable with the whole thing.
So, the Christianity I was immersed in was a very Americanized, low church, and individualized kind. The idea of religion as a matter of communal membership by dint of family or country or ethnicity was utterly foreign to me. Becoming a Christian was completely about personal belief, personal decision, and personal piety. My home church (the Port Jefferson Church of Christ) and her affiliates on Long Island all believed themselves to be “non-denominational”, even though they were associated with each other and with other churches around the country and had their own Bible Colleges, etc. They were Church of Christ churches different from the United Church of Christ. The movement went back to the American 2nd Great Awakening of the 19th Century. In its origins it pulled people from various denominations who wanted to go back to the “original” church.
The movement was, appropriately enough, called “Restorationism” because the (utterly naive) hope was to recreate the early church’s way of doing things and believing. (My Calvinistic church history professor in college told me the movement was “primitivist”, which I, expectably took to be insulting. He swore he was just being anthropological–“primitivism” apparently was an academic word for movements that try to recreate and remain faithful to their supposed original religious form. Personally, I think he liked the insulting connotations nonetheless.) The radical and revisionistic approach the Churches of Christ took was to eschew any explicit emphasis on, or recognition of, theologians since the very earliest period of the church and “just read the Bible”. This sort of dehistoricized naivete that imagines a 19th, 20th, or 21st Century person can simply pick up the Bible and read it as it would have been originally understood, without any theological frameworks to help and without reconstructing and readopting for oneself a whole raft of long ago antiquated views about the world from the Hellenistic world, is, of course, doomed to failure. The church’s beliefs were all the more modernized, however retrograde in some beliefs, as a result of its historical ignorance and careless anachronisms. At least the mainline Protestant denominations manage to be anachronistically 16th Century in their assumptions and the Catholic Church nicely medieval. Those periods are at least closer to the actual original church—even if still off by hundreds and hundreds of years.
This distinctly American form of Christianity centralized free will and free assent to true beliefs to an inordinate degree (even by generally free-will obsessed American standards). These were probably the best formative influences that it had on me. In my evangelical zeal to save souls, it was important to me that people properly understood and accepted the Gospel uncoerced. When I got to college and encountered Calvinists who believed God predestined many particular people (called the “reprobates” for hell before He even created the universe–that Jesus didn’t even have the intention of even trying to save those people when he died on the cross–I was gobsmacked that any Christians could believe such things. (And it was wrenching for me to discover how much unambiguous Biblical support and compelling theological consistency there was for their views!)
To the Calvinists, despite some lip service, free will didn’t matter. It was offensive to talk about humans choosing to be saved. God did the choosing in salvation, not humans. Were humans to choose to be saved that one bit of agency in their own salvation would be tantamount to them completely saving themselves by their own efforts. So, that could not be tolerated. God had to be so sovereign that He utterly changed people’s wills for them when saving them. And those who didn’t ever turn their hearts towards Him were those He never wanted to save.
Once the Calvinists convinced me, despite several desperate efforts to prove them wrong, that this was indeed the most consistent way to read the Scriptures, my only solution to save the morality and believability of my faith was to punt by trying to attack all human categories of reason and morality themselves and say (quite arbitrarily) that these teachings of the Bible must be so alienating to my reason because they were beyond it. In a wrong application of intellectual humility, I became willing to affirm evil things rather than contradict the Bible. Rather than rationally trust in my own ability to tell right from wrong, I let evil beliefs and values be justified by the idea that maybe God’s mind was so far beyond mind that they could make sense. It took me a couple years to realize how irresponsibly reckless and irrational that was, and how much undue deference that gave to the fallible people who wrote the Bible while not having any more reason to claim to know the mysteries of God than I did.
By the time I went to college, I realized that my church’s teachings on baptism and who could be a True Christian were too narrow and exclusionary. My first semester, I wrote a letter home to three teenagers I had started discipling at camp the previous summer, in which I explained that it made no sense to believe that Catholics or other kinds of Protestants weren’t Christians. That would require believing that Christ came to Earth and died for our sins and founded the church, all to let it go to waste for hundreds and hundreds of years while everyone was either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox and not getting baptized as believers and believing this or that other false proposition. It was just too preposterous to say Christianity essentially ceased to exist for all that time until our particular line of churches came about in the 19th Century. I don’t remember baptism or such radically exclusionary attitudes ever being an issue of importance again after I wrote that letter. Essentially anyone who believed in Christ’s divinity and the Bible’s authority was a Christian to me thereafter.
Finally, I like to think that it was my tradition’s emphasis on freedom of conscience that led me to have so much trouble sealing the deal in attempts to “save” people. I remember feeling like numerous times, especially as a camp counselor trying to give the Gospel, that I would instinctually back off emotionally where others would manipulatively go in for the kill. We had to have a one-on-one session with each of our campers during their stay. I remember several of my campers telling me about how the counselor the year before me would use these sessions to basically describe hell to each camper in order to wring a conversion out of them. I was put off when I heard that. I used those sessions to figure out that kid’s “spiritual needs”–whatever it was and just try to minister to that. For some, that meant working through the kid’s struggles with fitting in with other kids. For others it meant talking through how they were handling their parents divorcing. With my one (brilliant) Hindu camper, it meant just chatting non-coercively about what his Hindu faith was about and how it contrasted with my Christian one. For some, it meant trying to give the Gospel, but not in a way that would yield a false confession under pressure. That kind of coercion was antithetical. Then, as now, I would argue hard but be conscientious about ultimately giving people the emotional breathing space and freedom to think for themselves. I wanted, and still want, changes of mind to be authentic and enduring for the right reasons.
Related on the topic of bad vs. good ways to be an evangelist, I recommend you read my posts, Final Thoughts Inspired by “God’s Not Dead”: What Makes Some Evangelicals So Intolerable, Top 10 Tips For Christian Evangelism (From An Atheist), and In Defense of Deconverting People.
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant and where I went from there personally and intellectually. While contributing to an overall narrative, each installment in this series is self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. So feel free to read starting anywhere, according to your interest. Find all the posts written in the series so far below and bookmark on this regularly updated permanent page where a table of contents is kept for future reference.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
After I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion: