The other day a close family member asked me to explain to her why I left the Christian faith. Three years ago I did what I could to boil down my main reasons for doing so for a handful of friends, all of whom were pretty theologically-minded and had a ton of questions and challenges afterwards. That prompted a second, longer letter that enumerated some of the things which nudged me in this direction. Those letters are there for anyone to read, but this time around I decided I’d rather just give it another try and start over. It takes time to develop a comfortable vocabulary for explaining something as hard to nail down as this, and the passage of time makes some things a lot clearer. Below you’ll find my updated attempt to answer this question.
I have to first say again that I don’t usually spend much time doing precisely this because talking people out of their faith isn’t a particular burden of mine. It’s not that I find anything wrong with that per se, but I just know that changing minds on really big things takes a long time and can’t be done in just one or two pithy conversations. Most of my writing and talking to people is directed toward those who are already outside of (or on their way out of) their religion. I couldn’t have said it better than Captain Cassidy said it recently:
I’m not out to change minds. I don’t know many bloggers who are out to do that. I’m out to crystallize people’s half-thought thoughts and show them they’re not alone in thinking what they think. Maybe illuminate some dark corners and give name to some shapes. I don’t know if I’ll ever run across someone who deconverts because of [her blog], but I do know I run into people all the time who realize they’re not alone because of what they read there and who suddenly get that light-switch-flip moment of illumination because of something I talk about. Makes it all worth it, really.
Or like a great meme I saw the other day said:
But someone close to me asked a direct question and unlike most people who seem only out to show me up and prove their beliefs are superior to mine, I believe this question was asked in earnest. She just wants to try to understand how someone can go from fervently believing for decades to not believing at all anymore.
I also need to point out that any one of these issues taken alone might not have had the same effect on me, and could have been passed over because of any of the explanations people have come up with over the years for them. But for me, it was more like a death by a thousand cuts. It was the cumulative effect of all of these things that led me to decide that it made more sense to drop the belief in the supernatural than it did to hold on to it.
Dear [name removed],
I don’t usually go into all of my reasons for leaving the faith for people who are still in it because it usually leads to arguments and it always feels to them like something precious is under attack. But you asked for some kind of explanation and this is my best shot at doing that.
For me it started with realizing how good we are at fooling ourselves about things we want to believe. I noticed that people (including myself) are capable of overlooking mountains of information in order to leave undisturbed whatever beliefs we hold most dear. Take Dr. Oz products for example. I can tell a customer five different ways that the product she wants is useless and will not cause her to lose fat but she still will buy it anyway. There was something she wanted to believe, and nothing could convince her otherwise. The more I’ve noticed this tendency in other people, the more I’ve turned to analyze myself to see how many things I believe against contrary evidence.
Being in church leadership only intensified this for me. For example, getting to watch the decision making process that goes into guiding a church made me see that: 1) There’s no magic to it; people just do the kinds of things people do, good and bad, only in church you’re taught to believe that something supernatural is happening when it’s really nothing of the sort, and 2) People put more trust in religious authorities than is warranted. They’re more willing to suspend their critical thinking skills in church than anywhere else, and that sent up red flags for me. And while we’re on that subject…
I noticed that critical thinking skills in general are discouraged in both the Bible and in the Christian faith (or at least in most of the versions I’ve encountered, excluding the most liberal ones). Sure, I could find one or two “proof texts” which mention reason and intellect, but the overwhelming drift of the Bible is against trusting reason. Experience has taught me that this is a bad thing. Anyone who tells you to suspend your critical thinking skills in the interest of trusting something or someone should usually be noted and avoided. Both the Bible and our Christian culture as a whole do this far too many times to not raise my suspicion that something isn’t right.
Next I suppose I started to look outward to see that people all over the world believe very different things and that they are as convinced that they are right as I was that I was right. I started to ask more earnestly how I knew better than they did? How did I get to be so lucky to be born in one of the right countries so that I was taught just the right religion out of all the choices available out there? How come I believe the Hindus are wrong and there’s only one God, not many? How come Muslims got the number of gods right but picked the wrong one? They’ve even got their own “Bible” and it disagrees with ours on really important things. How come we’re right and they’re wrong? Hinduism is older than both Christianity and even Judaism so I can’t say we’re right because of being here first. And while there are only about a billion Muslims in the world, statistics say that soon there will be more of “them” than there are of “us” because of population trends. So I can’t say we’re right because we outnumber them.
So then I started asking myself what reasons I had for believing what I believed. The more serious I became about that the more I saw that my reasons for believing were all inside my own head. Once I asked myself what demonstrates the existence of supernatural things outside my own desire for them to exist, I saw that there really wasn’t much there. Now don’t get me wrong, I spent more time than most accumulating arguments to support my faith. I collected reasons for my faith like some people collect pictures on Pinterest. But I came to see that their persuasive power lies entirely in our own willingness to believe them before we even see them.
It reminds me of a picture I once saw of the inside of a haunted house in broad daylight. When the lighting is low it has the desired effect on people—it casts a spell of sorts—but when you turn the house lights back on the effect completely evaporates. In bright daylight a haunted house doesn’t look spooky at all. Well, this is kind of like the reverse of that. I was taught to see the world as “haunted” but in a good way. But the lighting always has to be right, and it all depends on your prior willingness to see it the right way. Incidentally, people seem to sense this instinctively. You’ll notice that a great deal of careful control is exerted over the worship experience at church, especially at a place like First Baptist. The same could be said for a concert or a retreat or a camp experience. There’s a good reason for that. Those kinds of experiences rely on generating just the right emotions and experiences. It’s like the opposite kind of haunted house experience. Once you look at it from a different angle, and in better light, you see there’s not anything supernatural about it.
I could go into a bunch of other things but I would rather keep this short and just mention three more things which at one point in time felt like good reasons to believe but in time I came to feel they just weren’t.
I’ll start with the Bible itself. I could spend way more time that you’d want listing all the ways the Bible isn’t what I was taught it is. And you know it’s not because I didn’t take it seriously enough. Quite the opposite; I took it more seriously than everyone else, which is why I started to figure out it’s a deeply flawed book. Besides the internal inconsistencies and the historical and scientific mistakes it makes, it also makes promises which I found to fail almost uniformly (kind of like Dr. Oz’s products!). It promises things about prayer which in my experience don’t match real life at all unless you first decide on principle to disregard or dismiss every instance in which it fails. I was taught to make excuses for it and explain away all the many ways prayer fails to deliver what the Bible says it will (e.g. It wasn’t God’s will, You didn’t believe hard enough, You weren’t living right, etc). But it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t really true to the way the Bible itself speaks of what prayer and faith can do. And then there’s the character formation which the Bible promises will accompany the one who believes. As with prayer, this belief only endures if you first decide to discount any time it fails to deliver (e.g. It was their fault, not God’s, They didn’t do it right, etc). In my experience, people who are naturally kind and generous will be kind and generous no matter what their belief system. And the jerks will be jerks no matter what, even though I’ll admit the overwhelming social pressure of Christian culture teaches some to keep it tucked under a nicer façade.
Belief itself can be powerful; I cannot deny that. But that doesn’t mean it’s correct. Beliefs can lead people to be very nice to others and they can also lead them to be very cruel and uncaring. They can empower one person to forgive others of great wrongs, but they can also convince a group of devoted men to fly a plane into a building to kill as many as possible. The power that belief has over us doesn’t mean that our beliefs are correct, it just means they’re powerful.
I want to know if my beliefs match the way the world really is. My need for that seems to be stronger than some people’s. I cannot change that about myself. I can’t even fake it. And for me, that need has led me to where I am. I had to eventually realize that my need to understand the world was not a weakness—it’s not something to overcome or squelch—and that it was so central to who I am that fear of people disapproving of me wasn’t enough to keep me from asking the questions I asked of my religion. The disapproval hurts. I hate it. I feel like I’ve fallen from everyone’s good graces just for following my own drive to understand the world around me. I don’t know if you have any idea how sad it makes me to know that people are disappointed in me for simply wanting to get to the bottom of things, for wanting to understand the world “too much.” I know the people who love me aim higher than that. But in my experience faith teaches you to see this insatiable need to know as a bad thing. It’s okay up to a point, but once you start questioning certain things it becomes very bad. And I just can’t go along with that. I’ve always felt I should go wherever the evidence leads. For me, that led me out of the Christian faith.
I don’t expect anyone else to follow me out of it. You’ll notice I’ve never tried to convince any of you that I’m right and you’re wrong. I wish that I could expect the same in return, but I know that some aspects of your faith dictate that I am “going down a path” which will end in either temporal misery or eternal punishment. So the best I can hope for is that people who love me, once they’ve said their piece, can get back to just relating to me like a normal person and not a project, or a prospect for re-conversion. People can sense that and it feels truly icky.
Thanks for asking, by the way. It’s always a good exercise for me to try to put some things into words, and I’ll probably share it with some others. Maybe it will help somebody else do the same. As always, I’m open for conversation and questions about this, so consider yourself invited.