Life Is a Journey; Or, How Beliefs Change

I was struck recently by a post by Latebloomer of Past Tense Present Progressive. In that post she detailed her journey from fundamentalist Christian to agnostic, describing it as follows:

For as long as I’ve had an identity, it has been wrapped up in the word “Christian”, specifically the fundamentalist variety.  I wanted my relationship with Jesus to completely consume me and leave me with no other identity and no errant belief.  My entire life would be spent in gratitude to God for saving me from the hell I deserved.  It was my responsibility to try to love others the way God loved me: by hoping for them to start to follow Jesus too, so that God and I could accept them into our spiritual family.

Then slowly, one by one, my fundamentalist beliefs started shifting, starting first with my beliefs about evolution, then my beliefs about homosexuality, then my beliefs about the inspiration of the Bible, then my beliefs about sexual purity, then my beliefs about salvation only through Christ, then my beliefs about hell.  For about five years, my identity became “liberal Christian”.   I embraced my own human limitations and uncertainty, and found beauty in the variety of shades of gray that replaced the black and white of fundamentalism.

To my surprise, however, my personal journey didn’t stop in liberal Christianity.  I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day, less than a year ago, I decided to face the fact that my label had to change.  Even the very broad label “liberal Christian” didn’t fit anymore.  I found conversations about Christianity to be extremely interesting, but conversations within Christianity were completely meaningless and empty to me.  I had no desire to pray anymore, and I found the idea of sin and blood sacrifice to be very outdated and arbitrary.  The idea of love in Christianity seemed more like abuse and manipulation to me.  The Bible was not worth my time anymore, and church was nothing but depressing.  I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t think Christianity was any different from any other religions, and that I seriously doubted that god even existed, much less that he was actively involved in the affairs of the world.

That is how I arrived at my new label: agnostic.  It was a very uncomfortable label to put on, mostly due to residual fundamentalist emotions that bounce around in my head on occasion.  Some of the discomfort also came from immediately being seen as a tragedy or a project by the few Christian friends and family in my life.   However, I was lucky enough to miss out on the greatest discomfort because my husband has taken a very similar journey as me, at nearly the same time.  Overall, the small discomfort I experienced was short-lived, and the label now feels like a natural part of me; I’m quite happy with the fit, and with the colorful view from here.

My own journey was incredibly similar to what Latebloomer describes here. The weird thing is that the point where I went from liberal Christian to agnostic/atheist happened so gradually I almost didn’t even notice it. I was still going to church, still professing belief, and it just slipped away. Some of the core tenets of Christianity stopped making sense to me, and I began to view Christianity in a solely anthropological sense. It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t intentional. And it’s not something I can just snap my fingers and undo—at risk of sounding dismissive, it sort of feels (to me at least) like the moment you realize that Santa isn’t real—you simply can’t go back after that. (That said, around the same time I read Latebloomer’s post I also read one by Samantha of Defeating the Dragons, in which she described how ritual and tradition brought her back to Christianity after a period of agnosticism.)

Growing up in evangelical circles, I thought people picked a label and then stayed there. Sure, some people converted to evangelicalism and others backslid, but I didn’t appreciate just how fluid identities could be, how much people’s religious beliefs could change over their lives, sometimes more than once. I find it fascinating—and liberating. Life is a journey, and I am and always will be a work in progress.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Truthspew

    Mine happened very early in my life. I knew something was up when I discovered Santa Claus didn’t exist. That lead me to start questioning the whole God and Jesus thing.

    And of course it didn’t help that I went through Catholic schools at the pinnacle of the Vatican II reforms – when the church started getting subversive and so too the theology. It culminated in my junior year of high school – we were studying the Bible. We all started seeing the inconsistencies in the book. And we talked about it. Of course the spin was yes God was there, but some of us took away a different perspective.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    Very much like me. For me, though, my labels shifted twice. I grew up agnostic, and made a more or less conscious decision to become Christian as an adult because my husband was a lifelong Lutheran. After he died, I found myself doubting and questioning, and slowly shifted away from liberal Christianity to the “atheist” label.

  • http://fundamentallyopposed.blogspot.com/ Linnea

    A very gradual transition for me, too, especially in leaving behind fundy Christian ideas about things like politics, evolution, abortion, immigration–now that I identify as agnostic I see how absurd it was to base those kinds of beliefs on my religious ideologies rather than informed research or thoughtfully-developed personal values. I was always a rebel about the gender inequality and racism in our church, so not many changes there :)

    I think I fully abandoned Christianity as a whole in grad school, after taking some classes on the history of religion, and realizing that Christianity is an outgrowth and amalgamation of so many older belief systems; it incorporates many elements of the Egyptian beliefs as well as Zoroastrianism, for example. From there, it was a relatively quick transition to agnosticism.

    But for several years I clung to the hope that I could find a faith I could believe in and practice with sincerity until last year, when I was attending an Episcopal church and considering the confirmation process, and I realized I was really looking for a sense of belonging, not a belief in a higher being. That was a rather depressing realization, and I’m still struggling to find my place.

  • grindstone

    Similar for me, as well. I went from conservative Xtian to fundamentalist to agnostic. Then I went back as a liberal Xtian. Two things happened to make me realize I was still, at most, agnostic.

    I made a disparaging remark about $cientol0gy within earshot of my young son and then had to answer his questions about why I didn’t like “that church” but liked “our church”. Secondly, an article was posted online (and quickly deleted) about how Halloween was a celebration of satan’s birthday and how all the candy was prayed over by witches and I thought, “That’s some crazy-ass shit right there.” Which made me take a step back to see if any of my beliefs were just “more acceptably” crazy. And I realized I couldn’t defend my position as anything other than agnostic. When I stepped outside the Xtian thinking bubble I realized that, for me, it was empty, and the air outside was far from poison.

  • gimpi1

    The problem I see with drawing your world-view from a mindset of religious belief is that you have trouble accepting new information. Any world-view that can’t adapt as new information becomes available is doomed to stagnate and become oppressive.

    It’s also a problem when we identify our opinions with our identity. If you can’t learn that you have been mistaken about something without feeling threatened, you will never be able to really learn anything. Every fact you discover must be filtered through an ideological filter. That make it impossible to understand what a fact even is.

    When your beliefs trump facts, I don’t think you can be considered reasonable. I’m so glad to see people starting to build their beliefs around the facts, rather than the other way around.

  • RowanVT

    Abandoning christianity was a very precise moment for me. I was brought up non-denominational christian. Mom kept trying to find a church without the hellfire and brimstone, because that’s not the sort of christian she is. However, the end result was that we didn’t go to church all that much, and I had never read the bible.

    Enter attending a Catholic high school in part to get me away from bullying and in part to give me a better education than the public high school could. And because it was a catholic school, we had religion classes, and in those classes we read the bible.

    I began having misgivings moments into genesis. If Eve did not know good from evil, then she wouldn’t know disobeying was wrong. Massively unfair set up. And then followed the story of Noah…. and the idea of 14 of every clean animal and 4 of every unclean (the male AND his female) in a boat that size plus fodder for over 100 days plus what were the predators going to eat….. So that threw any chance of the bible being inerrant out the window.

    The first major break came in the story of Soddom. Lot offering up his daughters for gang rape, and god being okay with that, horrified me. I was told “But God didn’t have him actually do it!” and my response was “But God was FINE with the idea and considered him a good person! Good people don’t offer to let others rape their children!” No response to that.

    The final breaking of the ties came when we hit the plagues. And specifically starting with Exodus 7:3 …. ” And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.” God is going to mess with the ‘free will’ he gave us in order to visit torment on an entire nation because of the forced actions of a single individual, up to and including killing *children*.

    At that point, I decided that God was actually evil and denounced christianity. I was 13 years old. I became wiccan for a couple years, then vaguely pagan for many many more before admitting to myself a little over a year ago that I’m an atheist.

    • Alice

      It is amazing how Christians are callous to the horrors in the Bible, probably from being inoculated from an early age. I learned about the plagues in kindergarten, and most of the Bible’s mass murders around that age, but I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable at all. The teacher taught it as though she was discussing the weather. Children are used to hearing stories, and the Bible felt like a bunch of stories to me even though I was taught they really happened. I think most fundamentalists don’t truly take the stories seriously even though they believe them on an intellectual level.

      • Sally

        Alice said: “I think most fundamentalists don’t truly take the stories seriously even though they believe them on an intellectual level.”
        I absolutely agree with you. I have been pondering this lately. I think the stories resonate in a different part of the brain or something than modern day stories equally horrible. That would actually be interesting to test. See if a different part of the brain is activated when believing/thinking about & embracing ancient religious stories Vs what part is activated when thinking about and reacting to modern atrocities. It’s like the biblical stories are somehow mystical. -Both fairytale but true.

      • Alice

        Yes, and I’m also curious if they react differently to Bible stories than to atrocities that happened a long time ago (in a different culture from the participants). When I was studying history growing up, I usually felt sympathy for the people who suffered even though Bible stories didn’t bother me.

      • Slow Learner

        I’ve not been able to find the reference, but somewhere on Epiphenom there is a report of researchers testing this.
        They found that Jewish children told about an “ancient Indian story” where everyone was massacred thought the massacre was evil; but a control group told it as the story of Joshua were much more ok with it.

      • Sally

        Interesting!

      • Sally

        I’ve got another study we need. I wonder if those of us who deconvert or never converted hear those Bible stories with the same part of the brain we hear modern stories with but those who stay religious hear them with a different part of the brain. And is this something we’re predisposed to?

        If so, wouldn’t that be ironic!!

      • Slow Learner

        If it exists, probably on Epiphenom somewhere:

        epiphenom.fieldofscience.com

      • Alice

        I was trying to find that too because a couple of people mentioned it in Friendly Atheist blog comments a while back, but I could only find the George Tamarin study done in 1966 and 1973, and even those search results were almost all blog posts. I knew there had to be something more recent than that. :)

      • smrnda

        I’ll have to ask a few people I know about that one since someone I know in a psychology department just mentioned that a few weeks ago. I’d really like to know the source.

      • Heather

        I love the terrific thought process in these comments! I am losing my religion quickly….not that I had much to begin with, being United Methodist. We are a very liberal bunch. Yet, with much introspection and thoughtful study….I feel it “slipping away”. I have to say, though…the Bible stories always bothered me! I merely suppressed it so I could believe.

    • Semipermeable

      I actually never understood why Eve wasn’t considered a hero. I mean, Eve didn’t even have a name until she bit the apple. Gaining her own name is important, she has her own identity.

      She was just a servent /part of Adam. Adam also reads as pretty dim. He doesn’t really speak, and just does everything he is told like a robot. Without knowledge there could be no possibility of choice or free will.

      Eve gets curious, she seeks knowledge, and she tries to share it. Once they are kicked out of paradise they actually create the human race, so if Eve hadn’t disobeyed then according to the myth none of us would exist.

      I wrote an short story for college, in which Eve was actually a liberator, that she had more in common with Prometheus then anything. She brought her people knowledge and was punished for it, but all her children were free to learn and choose their own life.

      It is very interesting to me that the Christian dogma in genesis actually punishes knowledge seeking and curiosity over blind obedience.
      If anything that is very telling.

  • John Kruger

    There is a YouTube user Evid3nc3 that details his deconversion in many videos.

    http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA0C3C1D163BE880A

    He describes theism as a “mega-belief”, that has several minor beliefs holding it up. One needs to knock down all of the pillars before the main belief can come down, which naturally takes place over a long period of time. I don’t think anybody deconverts in a single stroke, they find one loose end and unravel everything slowly over the course of many years of investigation.

  • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

    My deconversion happened lightning fast. As a Jehovah’s Witness, my beliefs all rested on the premise that the Governing Body had a direct line of insight to God in order to interpret the Bible for us. Individual leaders could be fallible, as I experienced throughout the years, but the group as a whole could not.

    The moment that I discovered the Governing Body had no special insight it was all over. And they had done such a good job of discrediting other religions, I immediately became atheist. It took me longer to research and examine other beliefs to decide for myself (an entirely new experience) what I thought on things like abortion, celebrating holidays, or accepting blood transfusions.

    I, too, was lucky that my mother experienced this epiphany along with me, and my brother had long since come to the same conclusion–he was just pretending to believe to appease us–so now we are a happy family of atheists rather than shunning one another as that stupid religion would have us do.

  • Gillianren

    When I was in junior high or high school, my church started doing “Right to Life Month” every October. They put up a bulletin board full of pictures of aborted fetuses, and that was it for me. Because they left it up during the family mass. The idea that the Church would subject small children to all of that whether their parents approved or not horrified me as much as the images would have if I’d seen them at three and didn’t know what they were.

  • JivinJ

    My own journey was incredibly similar to what Latebloomer describes
    here. The weird thing is that the point where I went from liberal
    Christian to agnostic/atheist happened so gradually I almost didn’t even
    notice it.

    That’s very interesting. While it certainly may not be the case for all liberal (not used in the political sense) Christians it has often seemed to me that the line between liberal Christianity and agnosticism or atheism is fairly thin. Once you no longer believe the central tenets of orthodox Christianity, it seems like agnosticism (or some other belief system) is inevitable.

    • Rosa

      People can have a deep and abiding sense of the presence of the divine completely separate from other theological trappings. Some of those people spend a long time seeking different types of religious organization, looking for one that fits them, and some just accept that whatever group they belong to (or no group at all) is good enough, and stick with the base conviction of theism without ever needing the other parts to fit together.

      • Sally

        I agree.

      • AnotherOne

        Thanks for writing this. That is basically what I have–”a deep and abiding sense of the presence of the divine.” I don’t really know what to do with it, since I wouldn’t call myself a theist, don’t really believe in an afterlife, and don’t believe in any of the theological trappings of Christianity or other religions (though some of the ethical and ritual aspects of Christianity and other religions resonate with me). But this “sense of the divine” is something I wouldn’t want to give up even if I felt like I could–it feels like an integral part of my humanity, and it gives me sense of connectedness with all of life that I find very meaningful and valuable. At this point I’m done thinking about whether or not I believe this or that (and have zero interest in debating it with anyone). Intellectually I’ve reached some kind of agnostic equilibrium, and I just appreciate the spiritual feelings as they come and go without trying to figure out what they “mean.”

    • Dan Arnold

      Actually, some find that what they were taught orthodox Christianity was turned out to be a modernist construct developed primarily in North America in the late 19th and early 20th century. From there, some move on to either a different form of Christianity or decide to leave it all behind, seeing Christianity as a failed construct regardless of when it developed.

      • Sally

        I agree with this too. Before I deconverted I was disillusioned by modern American Christianity (still am) and it’s incredibly comfortable lifestyle (I know we focus a lot on uncomfortable Christian lifestyles here, but this isn’t true for mainline modern Christian women and men). That contributed greatly to my harder look at the Bible which led to the second failed construct for me (Christianity as actually conveyed in the Bible).

    • Adrienne

      To JivinJ’s comment “it has often seemed to me that the line between liberal Christianity and agnosticism or atheism is fairly thin.”

      I actually think it is the opposite. Fundamentalists tend to exhibit black and white thinking, and rejecting one belief can lead to rejecting the entire thing. (Libby Anne talks about how rejecting young earth creationism quickly lead her to leaving the religion of her childhood entirely). Theologically liberal christians are much more comfortable accepting some positions, midigating some (as myth or parable), and rejecting others. It becomes very easy then to begin questioning a certain belief and end up simply placing it in a different belief bin (accept, reject, midigate). And doubt is often more tolerated. I’ve seen “rational” (i.e. liberal) religion explained as an “inoculation” against fundamentalist indoctrination (both christian AND atheism); inoculation is definitely a very weighted and melodramatic word, but the concept speaks to me. In my experience, it’s not that the theologically liberal never convert, deconvert, or change their minds, but that the changes tend to be less extreme than someone who started as theologically conservative.

  • Ryan Hite

    I wrote a great book describing my own journey in a process that is similar to that. I am currently writing supplemental texts.
    http://www.ryanjhite.com #ThroughMindsEyes

  • Nate Frein

    I think I was always agnostic or atheist.

    I grew up Catholic, because my father was Catholic and my mother was a wishy-washy psuedo-Christian who liked all the woo about guardian angels but didn’t like thinking about the nastier stuff (which my dad knew all the rote apologist arguments for).

    I think I used the church as a sort of social touchstone. I was a military brat, and while I was lucky in that we moved only every three or four years, being Catholic always meant that the churches were run close enough to the same that I never really felt any kind of jarring change when we found a new church.

    As I grew up, the church offered me ways to use my mediocre talents for social approval. First as an altar boy, and then later as a baritone in the choir. I went to church with my father on Sundays because it was something to do and because I could count on being complimented after mass. So what if the church’s teachings played hell with my attempts to come to terms with being bisexual?

    In the end, when I moved out of my parents’ house I just stopped going. In the end I was happier…I started dating people with healthier views on sex and sexuality. I started to realize that I could get greater validation outside the church than within.

  • http://concerningpurity.blogspot.com/ Lynn Grey

    I can relate to this a lot. I am still somewhere on this path and I don’t know where I will end up.

  • Scott_In_OH

    An important question for Christians having doubts is whether they will change denominations or quit the faith altogether. Like Libby Anne, I came to Catholicism from a different version of Christianity, and I think conversions among denominations aren’t too uncommon. Other people simply re-write Christianity into a version they can accept without ever formally changing denominations.

    This time around, as I’ve had more and more problems with the Catholic Church, I’ve realized the whole kit and kaboodle could be wrong. In fact, I remember the first time I admitted that to myself. I was struck with both fear and relief. A whole lot of things make more sense (the existence of suffering, the success of bad people, the problems that strike good people) if there isn’t a God at all. It felt like a puzzle falling into place. (The fear was about how to proceed, something I’m still working on.)

    • Sally

      You might really appreciate the two Yale lecture series available through Youtube, one on the Old Testament and one on the New. They are scholarly lectures evaluating where these religions (Judaism and Christianity) came from by deconstructing these texts. These series would be upsetting to most conservative Christians, although the content I believe is what seminary students study. To me, the content should be common knowledge to all Christians, but for someone kind of on their way out of Christianity or already out but still fascinated by the whole topic, there are a lot of “Aha, of course!” moments. I think what I like about them is that they’re so honest. Of course for me, an honest look leads to disbelief, but if we can’t look honestly, then what are you doing?

      • Alice

        Thanks, I’ve been looking for something like that. I’ve been curious about what really happened.

      • Scott_In_OH

        Thanks. I’ll give those a look.

    • Olive Markus

      Your second paragraph is right on with my thought processes through deconversion. Everything simply… made sense. No more tying myself in knots to make the littlest thing “true.” Talk about total relief.

  • Sally

    I grew up in a conservative evangelical church (not quite fundie, but close) with open-minded evangelical parents. We’d go to church and then my dad would rip apart the sermon on the way home (for being too conservative in way or another). So this influenced my thinking. I went to a fairly conservative evangelical college but our religion classes involved learning that some Bible stories are true stories and some are truth stories.

    I eventually married an open-minded evangelical. I always struggled with doubt (as you can imagine with my upbringing), but it all fell apart during a Bible study in our home. I started out a Christian and ended an agnostic. The book of Mark really did me in.

    I eventually read From Jesus to Christ (scholarly look at the Bible much like the Yale lectures I mentioned in another post). Then I read a bunch of other stuff like When God was a Woman (about how monotheism developed) and some Spong (most liberal Christian one could imagine).

    My parents had both deconverted years earlier, as well as a good friend from the same church and college I attended. But my husband, no. We actually have a very good relationship, but it’s like he becomes a different person if we talk about anything religious. But he thinks and functions enough in categories that we’re able to have a life outside of that issue. After an initial period, I figured out that I could be right but ruin my marriage or I could drop the issue and stay connected with him. We had young kids at the time and in all fairness, he had married me as a Christian (both of us) and had we kids under that religion, too. I feel strongly that I can’t pretend to be a Christian, but my enlightenment is mine, not our family’s. I don’t go to church, and that kinda says it to the kids. I don’t try to influence them one way or the other. They have to figure out their own beliefs anyway.

    I’ve gradually come out to most of my old evangelical friends from my youth. They’ve all taken it very well (most were open-minded too and don’t freak out about such things). But I haven’t come out to my very conservative, almost quiverfull inlaws. That probably should have been done years ago but my husband was reluctant (his brother’s family). I think all our issues (we have one child with some clinical issues) will suddenly be my fault, they’ll see me as a project (or a lost cause), and they’ll be very hurt that we didn’t tell them sooner. But I’m very tired of keeping this secret from them, too. We see them several times a year.

    • Scott_In_OH

      I definitely hear you on this. I have no answer, but there are some similarities in my situation. Just keep moving forward, I guess.

  • Semipermeable

    I was raised in a vague ‘spiritual’ family, we said a dinner prayer and sometimes went to a UU church. Most people around me talked about ‘feeling’ something spiritual in certain situations. I never felt it, and for a long time I thought I was somehow broken, like I was colorblind to the spiritual sense. I’d get angry, like if there was really an all powerful god why did it make me lack the feeling and need proof? It was like being set up to fail and go to hell.

    I became an agnostic, did a lot of reading, worked in biology, and eventually realized that the religions I’d read about simply didn’t make sense. They only made sense if you considered them to be human made myths to explain things about the world, made for humans by humans.
    So, that is where I stand now. I am content with being mortal and doing the best I can with life. I am open to exploring more about the world and anything that will come of that, but for now I’m good. :)

  • LizBert

    I think I have a somewhat unusually curious nature, I just want to know all of the hows and the whys of everything. My dad tells me that when I was a toddler he took me to the library at the seminary he was attending and I wandered off. He found me talking to one of his professors who said “take her away, she’s asking questions that I can’t answer.” I always had problems with the logical inconsistencies in Christianity but I soldiered on through my teen years. As I got older I moved away from the more conservative aspects of my evangelical upbringing and tried the liberal Christian route for a bit, but I could never make the questions go away. Eventually the combination of too many unanswered questions and my deep disagreement on social/political issues lead me to realize that I just don’t believe any of it. I’m an atheist, I just don’t see any real evidence that the supernatural exists. Maybe I will in the future, but I’m rather doubtful

  • http://veganspin.com/ Nichole

    I was lucky to have the choice to choose what religion I wanted to be, and ended up choosing none at all! My parents told me, around age 11, that if I wanted to belong to any religion, I could and they would support it BUT I had to do my research and make a case to them as to why I choose the one I choose, to show that I knew what I was getting into and was taking the decision seriously.

    After researching all the major religions and finding huge conflicts in them with my own personal beliefs (I was a compassionate kid, and a born feminist, haha) I decided all religion to be a bunch of hooey and went on my science-minded way. I still research religions and watch documentaries to stay well-informed.

    After recently dating someone from a strict Catholic background, my already steely atheist-resolve was strengthened a thousand-fold.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X