Losing Their Religion

I recently finished Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready!, a book exploring Christian pop culture and some of its stranger manifestations, from theme parks like Florida’s Holy Land Experience to the Ultimate Christian Wrestling pro circuit (no joke). But one event that he paid special attention to was Cornerstone, a Woodstock-like Christian music festival held each year in Illinois that routinely draws hundreds of acts and tens of thousands of people. According to Radosh, Cornerstone had a more open, authentic feeling than most of the events and festivals he attended, and was more welcoming of different perspectives than other Christian gatherings where all attendees are expected to march in lockstep with the religious right’s political platform.

Radosh had this to say about the person whom he felt best summed up the Cornerstone ethic:

If there is a quintessential Cornerstone artist, it is probably David Bazan, who played the festival for the better part of a decade with the band Pedro the Lion. Among the qualities that made Bazan such an important figure here was not only the depth of his talent, but the fact that he actually had more credibility in the secular world than the Christian one. Bazan had been raised in a strict Pentecostal household, but had grown into the kind of Christian who treasures the Jesus who freed his followers from religious rules. In the book Body Piercing Saved My Life [get it? —Ebonmuse], Bazan describes his Cornerstone gigs – one of his last remaining attachments to the Christian culture industry – as missionary work… [p.175]

However, he did note that Bazan wasn’t at the festival the year he attended (the book was published in 2008), and speculation was running rampant as to why. Some people guessed that he had been kicked off the grounds due to his habit of drinking during his sets (Cornerstone is officially a dry festival), or that he had gotten fed up with festival organizers hassling him about it, or that he had been disinvited because of the occasional cursing in his songs.

Well, as it turns out, the truth is rather different:

I worked as Bazan’s publicist from 2000 till 2004. When I ran into him in April — we were on a panel together at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Music in Grand Rapids — I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in five and a half years. The first thing he said to me was “I’m not sure if you know this, but my relationship with Christ has changed pretty dramatically in the last few years.”

He went on to explain that since 2004 he’s been flitting between atheist, skeptic, and agnostic, and that lately he’s hovering around agnostic…

Bazan’s latest album, Curse Your Branches, is a confessional chronicle of his deconversion and the personal turmoil he went through as a result. Somewhat surprisingly, he returned to Cornerstone in 2009 to play some songs from it. According to the article, it met with a cautious reception – Bazan’s fans from his evangelical days were still drawn to his music, but most of them didn’t want to admit he had changed his mind and invented elaborate rationalizations for how his lyrics could be fitted into a Christian worldview. Nevertheless, the fact of his deconversion was widely known, even if not widely acknowledged.

Bazan himself, however, appears to have come to terms with the change in his beliefs and is far more at peace than he ever was:

After a long few years in the wilderness, Bazan seems happy — though he’s still parsing out his beliefs, he’s visibly relieved to be out and open about where he’s not at. “It’s more comfortable for me to be agnostic,” he says. “There’s less internal tension by far — that’s even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them — or however you want to credit it — if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another.”

And David Bazan isn’t the only Christian entertainer who’s recently walked away from religion. Another interesting example is from the Coexist Comedy Tour, featuring stand-up comedians from a variety of different faiths. Except as it turns out, John Ross, who was the Christian member of the troupe, isn’t a Christian anymore either.

Ross embraced Christianity enthusiastically. He taught youth groups, toured the nation with Christian punk rockers Anguish Unsaid and even got religious tattoos. (The dove on his calf and the “Jesus” in Japanese kanji on his neck now act as sight gags onstage.)

“From the beginning I had questions,” Ross said, “but I would just write them off with ‘Our understanding is not God’s understanding.’ Until the last few years. It’s hard to keep doing that.”

By Ross’ account, he converted to Christianity as a means of escape from a broken and chaotic family, gravitating towards the stability that the evangelical church offered. But eventually, he realized that faith had only provided a way to sweep his problems and doubts under the carpet; it hadn’t actually gotten rid of them. With that realization in hand, he had the key to freedom, and like David Bazan, he’s found a new sense of peace and tolerance for himself:

Having left Christianity, Ross is surprised by how little has changed. “I’m still just as compassionate towards people,” he explained. “I’m not going out and living in sin.” The only difference “is that I don’t feel guilty anymore,” he says. “There’s no war in my head.”

It’s worth wondering if the use of irony, which plays a vital role in both good music and good comedy, may have been a factor in both these deconversions. Evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers, and many evangelical believers insist, or fear, that to doubt or to question any tenet of their faith could bring the whole thing crashing down (something we’ve seen demonstrated recently). But the nature of music (at least, music more sophisticated than bland, one-note Christian pop), and certainly the nature of comedy, requires self-doubt, introspection, and self-questioning. When these collide with the brittle certainties of fundamentalism, stories like these may be the inevitable result.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://blasph3my.blogireland.ie/ Blasph3mer

    I read end enjoy most things in this blog but I don’t often comment. However, I’m just really curious as to what you mean when you say that irony plays a vital role in good music?

  • Brian Madison

    First time I have heard of Bazan, I am going to have to check out this new CD, sounds like it may have some great tracks on it. I am interested in listening to some of his older music and contrasting it with the new to see how far he has gone in changing, interesting… Great blog, keep up the fine work!

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Wow. Two of the Anthony Flews of the theistic movement have deconverted!

  • Erika

    Now, let’s be fair. Christianity is not the only source of bland pop music. =)

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    OMGF:
    Ha ha! Good one.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    to the Ultimate Christian Wrestling pro circuit (no joke).

    I cannot agree with you about that. It is a joke; however it is what I call a true joke.

  • bdh

    Ah, Cornerstone.

    The more people that attend C-stone (as we used to call it, maybe they still do) the better. From my early 90′s experiences going, it’s true that they’re much more ‘liberal’ or ‘accepting’ of some stuff than more conventional xian music festivals. Anyway, I would go and find ‘my people’ there more often than at the other festivals… we were the ones more than a bit dissatisfied with our quaint, mainstream beliefs but not quite ready to give up the social structure that the Christian community played in our lives, I think.

    …little did I know that the Cornerstone Festival was a useful and necessary stop along my own de-conversion route.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    And this is why my religious grandmother never let my mom go to any sinful dances or concerts. ;)

  • http://danielholter.com/about Daniel Holter

    As a fellow former Christian (and Cornerstone attendee, sound & light guy, and performer), I found Bazan’s latest collection to be a staggering work of heartbreaking genius (to borrow a book title). :)

    There’s truly a few great songs on Curse Your Branches that will hit home – hard – if you’ve left faith behind. I’m happy to have found a songwriter who captures the melancholy joy that is intertwined with a search for Truth.

    Also, Radosh’s book is quite good, if a bit uncomfortable at times for those of us who lived the cheeseoid existence from the inside.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Bazan’s CD is excellent. I’ve been obsessing over it, and plan to review it soon. I do think it’s ironic, though, that the best, most- respected- outside- of- the- Christian- rock- scene Christian rock band broke up when their leader became a non-believer.

  • David D.G.

    Evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers, and many evangelical believers insis, or fear, that to doubt or to question any tenet of their faith could bring the whole thing crashing down….

    In his autobiographical book Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, actor Alan Alda describes just such an experience with respect to his Catholic upbringing and the cognitive dissonance he experienced until his innate rationality and questioning nature freed him from his childhood indoctrination.

    (That’s not the primary issue in the book, but it is an important recurring one, and the book makes for entertaining reading otherwise, too; I highly recommend it.)

    ~David D.G.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Two of the Anthony Flews of the theistic movement have deconverted!

    OMGF wins the thread for that comment.

    However, I’m just really curious as to what you mean when you say that irony plays a vital role in good music?

    What I meant by that, Blasph3mer, is that most great pieces of art are susceptible to multiple levels of interpretation: that’s the quality that makes something enduring, rather than evanescent. That’s something that’s deliberately avoided by most religious pop musicians, who consciously seek to craft their songs so that they have only one possible interpretation and message.

    Also, Radosh’s book is quite good, if a bit uncomfortable at times for those of us who lived the cheeseoid existence from the inside.

    “Cheeseoid”? That’s a new one on me. :)

    I thought Radosh’s book was pretty good – a lot of the material he covers was new to me – though his perspective as a complete, naive outsider gave the whole thing a gee-whiz feel that irritated me at times. When he encounters some of the more pernicious manifestations of evangelicalism – like the preachers at Cornerstone who explained to him that parents who conceive through IVF don’t really love their children – he’s so shocked, shocked, that his reaction tends to derail his reporting. A person who knew more about what to expect from evangelical culture wouldn’t have been so thrown for a loop by this stuff.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ebonmuse “…like the preachers at Cornerstone who explained to him that parents who conceive through IVF don’t really love their children…”
    It’s worse than that. Since they’re going around God’s omnibenevolent plan for them to have and love no children of their own and they made an end-run around His will, He doesn’t give IVF kids souls. I shit you not. That’s why IVF babies just cry, eat and crap.
    And when parents of IVF children tell you how smart and attractive they are? They’re lying.
    And when your car battery dies? An IVF baby did that.
    And the most famous IVF baby? Hitler. Not the Hitler, but a Hitler. I’d keep an eye on baby Hitler if I were you.

  • http://www.BlueNine.info Blue Nine

    I have not been to this site in a while. Is there a rule against saying……..

    BUT THEY WEREN’T _REAL_ CHRISTIANS!!

    If the easy jokes have been banned, I apologize.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    I need to send one of my sister-in-laws to this entry. She’s one of those xtians that just laps up that xtian music (*snort*) scene.

  • Broggly

    “Cheeseoid”? That’s a new one on me. :)

    I’m sure he doesn’t mean this…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_m17HK97M8

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Art that submits to an ulterior motive ceases to be art and becomes polemic of a sort.

  • http://danielholter.com/about Daniel Holter

    @ Broggly :

    indeed, I did not mean that when using ‘cheeseoid.’ :)

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com Spanish Inquisitor

    …most great pieces of art are susceptible to multiple levels of interpretation: that’s the quality that makes something enduring, rather than evanescent. That’s something that’s deliberately avoided by most religious pop musicians, who consciously seek to craft their songs so that they have only one possible interpretation and message.

    That must be why I always found Christian Rock to be so offensive. Instead of allowing me to make up my own mind as to what the song is about, it comes across very heavy handed and proclaims its message, insisting that I like it and agree with it, or else.

  • Nathanael

    Sounds like Bazan experienced the peace of mind which deconversion brings — due to not spending one’s time worrying about a bunch of stuff which doesn’t really exist, such as “what God wants” and “my relationship with God” and “God’s will” and “God’s plan” and so on and so forth.

    “There’s less internal tension by far — that’s even with me duking it out with my perception of who God is on a pretty regular basis, and having a lot of uncertainty on that level. For now, just being is enough. Whether things happen naturally, completely outside an author, or whether the dynamics of earth and people are that way because God created them — or however you want to credit it — if you look around and pay attention and observe, there is enough right here to know how to act, to know how to live, to be at peace with one another.”


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