I suppose my conversion/deconversion story is different from most, in that I wasn’t raised in a religious family. My father’s always been atheist or at least agnostic, as far as I know; my mother has from time to time expressed belief in angels, a spirit world, telepathy and that kind of thing, but she’s not religious; her parents are Anglican, but as many of you probably know, the Church of England, relatively speaking, isn’t a very fanatical branch of Christianity, and my grandparents are quite open-minded people. At home, we (my siblings and I) have never had any kind of religion pushed onto us; I think the vast majority of our religious education came from school. I have moved around a lot, living overseas (ie, not the UK) for much of my childhood (which, seeing as I’m only 21 now, is actually the majority of my life). For the five years or so we lived in England, we were sent to a Church of England-run school (and now we are living in England again, my two youngest siblings are going to a school run by the same organisation). I suppose I experienced some mild religious indoctrination but I think it was mostly superficial; we were told Jesus stories and sang hymns in assembly and I must have got hold of the concept of heaven and hell from somewhere though I don’t really remember hell being preached to us and at that time, I didn’t think too deeply about what that place really entailed. I think at that young age (I was seven when we left), I just assumed I would go to heaven. I remember imagining heaven when I was about 5, and it pretty much was little more than a hotel (something like a giant version of those capsule hotels you get in Japan) made out of cloud, with gold locks and numbered plaques on the fluffy doors, and you got to your assigned room by floating cloud-car (like something out of Carebears – hardly surprising, since I loved Carebears as a kid). For years I never really thought deeply about religion or God; I remember asserting once to my (much more sceptical and far less gullible) older sister that I did believe in God, whereupon she denounced him as evil, as he killed all those babies in Egypt. I can’t remember what I said to this, or what I really thought about it; I knew about the story of Moses and the Passover, but somehow I never hated God for that, though deep down I must have known it was wrong. Maybe I thought that the bible had some things wrong. Maybe I just thought that God had a good reason for killing those children, we just couldn’t understand it.
Years went by. I spent about three or four years in one overseas country, then we moved to another one when I was about 11; for my first two years there, I was in one secondary school, before moving to an evangelical one after not really liking the first one much. The idea of going to an evangelical school did not really fill me with dread. To tell the truth, I had the choice of going to another school as well, but that one was more academically elitist, and though I passed their entrance exam, I wanted to go to the evangelical school, as they were prepared to let me skip a year (as the year I should have been in was full) – this was an offer that really tickled my pride, and I also felt the people at the evangelical school were friendlier. And they were generally friendly people, though their views on things, as I realise now, were quite skewed, and I don’t know how friendly I would have found them had I not begun to conform to their worldview pretty soon after starting my first year there.
I had thought a little about God and death and hell and all that jazz over the past couple of years. I remember a few nights when I couldn’t get to sleep very easily and I thought about where I would go when I died. At this point, I was chiefly torn between thinking about hell, or thinking about nonexistence. Funnily enough, I found hell more appealing (I think, again, I wasn’t thinking too deeply about what that place would entail – I just found the idea of completely no longer existing far more frightening). I may have entertained thoughts of reincarnation or of ghosthood, but I don’t really remember (I do know when I was a few years younger I had thought a lot about what it would be like to become a ghost). From what I learnt in my Religious Studies classes in my first secondary school, it seemed that all religions demanded that you be really good and holy and not be at all spoilt or selfish or prone to tantrums like I was, in order to reach heaven or be reincarnated into a better form, etc. And I thought, I really don’t think I could live this holy, do-good lifestyle. It’s too hard. Those couple of years, before I came across evangelical Christianity, the most religious thing I was into was some vague kind of homemade Wicca/witchcraft stuff. I remember trying to put “repel” spells on at least one of the boys in my class who was bothering me (I poured rose-scented bath-oil or something onto his picture in the yearbook, and pierced his face through with a thorn), and I tried to get it to snow (by chanting a cheesy poem and aiming a pointed piece of quartz at the sky through my bedroom window). I don’t think any of my spells ever worked (or when they did, it could be put down to plain dumb luck). I remember how my heart fell when later on, after I must have said some enthusiastic, naive remark about crystals, my mother scoffed at the idea that crystals had special powers, dismissing it (quite rightly) as New Age nonsense.
Nevertheless, I entered the evangelical school with much of my religious interest still focused on witchcraft. I knew even then they’d probably be disapproving of witchcraft and try to convert me (though strangely enough I was ignorant of many other fundamentalist viewpoints) – I remember steeling myself, over the summer, telling myself I wouldn’t let them talk me down, if it came to that, over believing in witchcraft.
I would surprise myself when I started that September.
We had assemblies every morning, which wasn’t such a foreign idea to me, as we had had a similar schedule back at my C of E school. But the content surprised me. I was told I didn’t have to do good works to get to heaven. All I had to do was believe in Jesus and I would be saved.
That was all? Just believe in Jesus and I would be OK?
I have to say I was impressed. It never occurred to me to think that this plan of salvation was all just a figment of people’s imaginations. I saw and heard my teachers talk about it, and so I must have unthinkingly assumed that it was true. I also believe my religious education at my C of E school “primed” me to believe in this nonsense. I had always believed in the goodness of Jesus. I didn’t mind the idea of becoming his personal friend.
I didn’t get saved instantly. I was still very much attached to my “witchcraft”. In my head Christianity, barring the image of a loving, peaceful Jesus, still seemed synonymous with stern, bearded men on mountains, telling everyone else what God decreed. I didn’t really like that image. I was much more attached to the gentler, more female-orientated image of Wicca. I only got saved when, one day, my mother was arguing quite heatedly with her boyfriend in the car. I was in the back (no other siblings with me), having to listen to this. I hated it when my mother got angry, and it seemed she got angry or sad and insecure far too easily. I may or may not have covered my ears, but I remember bending over to look at the floor and making a silent, hesitant prayer for Jesus to save me. Later that day, (or maybe it was a day or two later?) I knelt down in the privacy of my room and made a more “official” prayer, just to make sure that Jesus had really heard me. Wicca couldn’t offer me consolation when it came to family problems, but I felt Jesus could.
One important thing I will point out is at the time (I really wasn’t checking out the small print on this offer), I thought this Jesus method of salvation was just one way a person could reach heaven. A person could just as easily reach heaven by being a good Catholic or Muslim, etc – but for those people, like me, who were too lazy (I don’t think I quite used the word “lazy” in my head at the time) or unable to be all holy and religious, the evangelical Christian way of salvation would suffice. As you can see, I was hopelessly ignorant about fundamentalist Christianity.
As the weeks went by, I learnt things about this “relationship” I had got myself into. I did not like much (if any) of what I learnt, but I forced myself to like it. I think I had a “I’ve made my bed, so now I must lie in it” kind of mentality. Well, I’d entered this relationship with Jesus, and it would be ungrateful to not follow his Word just because it didn’t sit well with me. He was God, after all – who was more right, a 13-year-old girl, or my creator and saviour? And I really did not want to go to hell. My young teenage mind really believed I had done enough bad and embarrassing things over the years to merit eternal hellfire. Also, I had been invited to Sunday School by a teacher, and I must have felt it would be rude to suddenly backtrack now.
One of the first things I discovered was that all roads may lead to Rome, but only one leads to heaven, and that road was called Jesus. I learnt this when I was looking through my book for Religious Education (we only dealt with Christianity, and we used these nasty books published by Bob Jones University – I never liked those books, even though I told myself that as a Christian I ought to like them, as they were dispensing ostensibly useful advice and knowledge. It was just that they were so…authoritarian, I suppose is the right word; no room for argument, and on every page it seems I would discover, or at least I was afraid I would discover, one more thing that I should not be doing. I was actually afraid of certain parts of the Bible for the same reason, particularly the Epistles. Another thing I never liked the sound of, and I am proud to say this, was the Left Behind series; I never actually read them, but what I heard and read about them put me off. I didn’t want to read about the end of the world. Revelations scared and depressed me. I didn’t think it was necessary to write books about what would happen in the end times, especially seeing that nobody knew what would really happen beyond vague prophecies of mass destruction. It just seemed like overkill). Anyway, one lesson in my RE book brought up other religions. I came across it before we actually went over it in class (I’m not actually sure we ever got round to it in class), and I remember my blood running cold when I read its contemptuous message about how all other belief systems were irrevocably wrong, and their followers were pretty much hellbound. This made me depressed for a while, though after praying to God I came to accept it. God must be right, right? Anyway, I felt a kind of peace about it settle in my heart after praying a few times. I must have been telling myself somewhere in the back of my head that God would actually forgive all of these people. At least, for those who had never heard of Jesus, how could he blame them? I remember seeing one of the Muslim boys in my class (I don’t know why Muslims were sending their kids to an evangelical school…) come across this same chapter, and feeling guilty and really bad for him. I knew it had to be a slap in the face for him. His face betrayed no emotion, however, and he said nothing. He probably thought it was just best to ignore it.
There were plenty of other things I had to force myself to accept. I wasn’t allowed to believe that the world was really that old, that evolution had even had a hand in forming us? OK, then…Women should be silent in church, and ought to cover their hair?…Well, if God says so (though the feminist inside me kicked and screamed…I never really warmed to that self-righteous prick named Paul). It’s bad to have sex before marriage? Well, I’ve never personally been particularly comfortable with the idea of premarital sex (or sex in general – the hormones hadn’t kicked in fully yet), so I can go with that. Eve was the one to sin, so all women are subject to men? *sigh* If you say so, Lord…(I actually remember a friend telling me, in all sincerity, that my surname – a double-barrelled one, both parents’ surnames together – should just be my father’s , as a woman should show respect to her husband when she marries, and therefore should change her surname. I think I eventually dismissed her argument, as, well, my surname is my surname, and I do not recall the bible ever explicitly mentioning surname-changing – correct me if I’m wrong – and is a woman keeping her surname after marriage actually disrespectful to her husband? I think the worst it does is wound his poor masculine pride). Homosexuality is bad? Um…why? I have a gay uncle…OK, my friend tells me it’s against your creation, God, and your pattern of man and woman together, so I guess I’ll jam that bitter little pill down my throat as well.
Another thing that bothered me was that Christians were expected to go to church and eventually be baptised, if they were true believers. I felt like a bad Christian because for the first three or four years or so of my five-year mistake, as I have labelled it, I only turned up at Sunday School and not actual church. And even when I began to attend church, though I at first took part in the bread-and-wine ritual, I was at some point told I shouldn’t actually be doing that, as I hadn’t been baptised yet (and was therefore not a “full” member of the church). Baptism bothered me. Part of it was, they wanted me to talk about it to my mother before they did anything, but I was embarrassed to tell her. I had felt embarrassed enough about asking her if I could go to church. And even after these three or four years as a Christian, baptism didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t seem to serve a practical purpose, and it was certainly not necessary for salvation (or at least, that was the viewpoint this branch of Christianity held). Yet for all this talk of “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship with God”, these people seemed to hold baptism as an important step in one’s Christian journey. “Don’t stand still, you must go forward,” (or words to that effect) I was told by one member of the church . It smacked uncomfortably (and so did the bread and wine) of unnecessary ritualism. And we all got at those ridiculous Catholics for doing the same sort of thing! The only difference was degree…
But I felt I should show my devotion by conforming myself to God’s rules, no matter how unpalatable those were. I was serious about this, wasn’t I? I really did want to be saved. At least, I thought that if I didn’t try to change, it would prove that I never really had been saved in the first place.
All of this is something I find it difficult to forgive myself for even now (well, it’s only been a couple of years since my deconversion). So many other former Christians have the excuse of being brought up in a religious family. I was brought up in a quite open-minded, progressive household, yet I pushed myself voluntarily into this fanatical mindset, all because, deep down, I was scared. And I really did some terrible things. I ended up throwing away – not just giving away second-hand, which I did with many other “unchristian” possessions (I began to believe that by giving things away, they could get into the hands of someone else and lead them away from God) – no, I threw away Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy my grandparents had given me a few years back, as it was BLASPHEMOUS. At the height of my fanaticism, I tore out the editor’s introduction to Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” (a book I loved at the time of reading it, and which I am now reading again to see if it’s as good as I remember – so far, it is) because it insinuated that there was some lesbian attraction between the protagonist and another female character! I censored a book on art (I still cultivated an interest in art, somehow, in my sick mindset) by pasting a square of cardboard over a naked man’s privates. (Incidentally, after my deconversion, I bought another set of HDM, and a few weeks ago bought another copy of Villette to read while I’m at university; the amputated version is still at home – ie. at my mother’s house, where I stay during holidays when not visiting my father – I’m not sure what to do with it. I tried to get rid of my piece of art censorship, but it didn’t come away very cleanly). But that wasn’t the only bad stuff I did. Possibly worse was the invisible wall I was putting between my family and me. I don’t know if they really noticed, but in my head at least, I had started to drift away from them. They weren’t Christians. They were unrepentant sinners. At the same time, I couldn’t stay away from them…Even my Jesus obsession couldn’t make me completely despise my family. But some of the things they said or did were quite unchristian. I hated it when my older sister started talking about some documentary on porn she had watched, or when she introduced my brothers to American Pie and they watched it together. I felt extremely uncomfortable when I heard any criticism of Christianity from my family. I was resentful of the fact that my parents were divorced. I had been told that divorce was evil (though I did find out that at least two of my classmates, also devout Christians, had divorced parents).
Funnily enough, for all the above fanaticism, I wasn’t a very good Christian. I couldn’t be bothered to pray daily more than half the time. I’d have short spurts of devoutness and repentance, then fall into the same evening pattern of procrastination which would give way to sleep. Truth is, I felt most of the time that prayer was just a drag. Another area where ever more rules on how to do it properly kept popping up. Confess your sins first, then pray for everyone you know, mentioning them by name, then pray for all those people living in poverty and misery, then pray for yourself. And it’s selfish to pray too much for yourself. But I found I never felt very sincere when praying for others, especially when it was a general prayer for a faceless multitude. Not that I have no sympathy whatsoever for those suffering in the world, but I am only human…My concern for myself and those immediately around me will always be greatest. And I did pray fervently for my family’s salvation, when I prayed at all. I guess my thought processes were: if I couldn’t pray properly, it was best not to bother at all (because if I didn’t pray properly, God might not listen, or even get angry – I don’t know why I wasn’t so afraid of his anger over me not praying).
Things began to fall apart once we moved back to England and I started university. Now over the past five years, I had let myself swallow a lot of crap. There were still plenty of things in the Bible that made me uncomfortable, but so far, I had been able to keep my doubts and dislikes pushed to the back of my mind, telling myself that God knew best and that I should just trust him. The headmaster of my school helped find a church for me in my university town. I went. It was the usual pattern for the first month or two: I attended, but no bread or wine for me, blablabla…Then one day, at a Bible study session (of course, only the men ever contributed their thoughts to anything, the women remaining silent – what if a woman had something genuinely new or interesting to contribute, or she felt compelled to correct something?), I hit my head hard against the doctrine of predestination. One of the “elders” (patriarchal, pious, stuffy old men) asked out loud (with a sort of grateful wonder aimed at God) why God chose him [for salvation] and not someone else. And there it was again, that feeling of my blood running cold. Only worse than ever before, and it did not go away with prayer this time. An invisible fog cloaked my mind, my vision. I could see fine…but I felt so far away, so lost. A chilly veil was between me and God…no, it was a huge, cruel, black void. What kind of God were they talking about? Surely this wasn’t the God I knew…The God I knew loved everyone; he wouldn’t be so disgustingly arbitrary. Why should I thank such a God? How could this man be so thankful towards such a being?
I think part of what made me unhappy was being around Christians whom I knew believed in this predestination gunk. What kind of people were they? I had made myself adapt to so many horrible teachings, but this…this I could not take. I honestly could not take. Everything else…I had the consolation that God would make things fair in heaven (with regards to gender), I told myself that it was not God’s fault if someone went to hell, but really their fault, as God cannot bear sin, and all they had to do was listen to his message and accept Christ. Not all Christians accepted this teaching of predestination. It had popped up once or twice back at my school, but it had been glossed over as a we-really-don’t-know kind of matter, and I had pushed it to the back of my mind. But now my mind forced me to confront it. Firstly, if these people believed in it, they must have some grounds for doing so, and true, there are verses in the Bible which would seem to suggest predestination. This made me doubt that God was truly loving. Which was the right interpretation? Which Christians were right? I couldn’t talk about my dilemma, my doubts to anyone at this new church. I didn’t feel close enough to them. To tell the truth, thought they seemed friendly enough (well, at least the women younger than fifty were quite nice), I really didn’t feel close enough to anyone. I didn’t think they’d understand, or they’d just tell me it was true and that I should accept it. I couldn’t speak openly to these people. So I emailed a friend, who to her credit is a really sweet, caring girl, and I believed she tried her best; unfortunately I am no longer in touch with her. I cut myself off from my Christian friends. Was that the wrong thing to do? Friends aren’t throwaway like that but…I honestly don’t think I could face them, keep up a decent friendship with them now. I must be a stain to them, a failure, a hypocrite. But I will tell everyone this, as if you haven’t already figured that out: when I believed, I was sincere about my belief. I was no fake. But there came a point where I could just not go on.
Anyway, I tried to resolve this dilemma in my head, and asked my friend for help. But every time I would receive reassurances from my friend, or I would find an article to match my opinion on the Internet…my peace of mind didn’t last for very long. Questions still kept popping up. And my friend herself didn’t sound very sure after a few messages. I became extremely depressed. I didn’t bother praying now for the vast majority of the time. I felt that God should understand this; I was angry at him. When I tried to pray, I just felt that black void above me. He was not there, or so it seemed. I did experience one strange moment where, coming back to my room from church, where I had been trying to hold back the tears, I just crumpled into a sobbing heap on the floor, trying to reach God, asking to feel his love – and I felt a sudden calm – Jesus loved me. Jesus loved me. Though the feeling can’t have lasted through to the next day because I became depressed again. I only found brief comfort in watching Veggie Tales on YouTube, or listening to their Silly Songs. That sounds sad…it was. I began skipping church to go home every other weekend. I could find more comfort in my sinner family, though at the same time I still feared for their souls. I watched mindless films when at home, just so I wouldn’t be left on my own to think…I watched Lawnmower Man to stop myself from falling into my pit of dark thoughts. Lawnmower Man: a hilariously awful film, where I didn’t feel any real connection with the characters. It didn’t matter if and when they died; they were fictional.
You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you’re relying on bad CGI to keep you from slashing your wrists. And I did try to cut my wrists a few times. But I was too scared to go very deep. I also tried to drown myself in my bathroom sink. I couldn’t keep myself under for that long. I swallowed the remainder of the pot of painkillers I kept for periods and headaches. Nothing happened. (It’s probably knocked ten years off my life or something). But I wanted to die. Please, God, let me die, just so I can be in heaven and know for certain and then forget everything in perpetual bliss.
I think sometimes that I’m really not OK in the head. Even now, I can get quite insecure and depressed. But nothing compares to how I felt then. The thing was, whichever way I tried to look at it, it seemed more and more that God did predestinate, or he certainly sent people to hell for things beyond their control.
Because what made someone accept Christ? You stood a better chance if you were brought up in a Christian family. You would be brought up with the correct mindset. If you were, say, Muslim, and happy with your religion, why would you ever accept Jesus? How could you know that Islam was wrong and Christianity right? And especially if you had been indoctrinated with Islam since birth – how could you be blamed for honestly thinking that was the correct path, and not Christianity? And so many other people, it seemed, rejected Christianity because the idea of God seemed stupid to them, sentimental and ridiculous, or just plain evil. If they honestly thought that – what would convince them? If you said the devil had a hold on their minds – well, then they definitely couldn’t be blamed for their beliefs. But it struck me just how much everyone is affected by their upbringing, their surroundings, their families and their peers. I thought of my older sister and was pretty certain she could never accept Christ. She wouldn’t be able to swallow all of the sexist things about a woman’s proper place, for a start, let alone all the weird killings. I could understand why some people would look at the bible and go, no thanks. My sister had a far more sceptical mindset than me. And who gave her that? God? Or Satan controlling her mind? I don’t think anyone preaching Christ to her would have convinced her, and if she honestly saw the world as God-less…I have a very good friend (very patient, and she put up with my increasing weirdness over the years, which culminated in a desperate email begging her to accept Christ), whose father had died some years before, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a Christian – how could she be convinced about it? She honestly saw it as stupid and cruel, and who would enter a belief system where they’d pretty much have to admit that their father was in hell? I could understand why she didn’t want to accept Christ – she couldn’t accept Christ. It wasn’t as though all these unbelievers secretly knew for certain that God existed but they were just too stubborn to give in…they honestly looked at the world and did not see a God in it. God wanted sincere believers, didn’t he? You couldn’t force someone to believe in him. It seemed to me that only people brought up a certain way, or with a certain weird mindset like my own, could believe. So unbelievers were just victims of circumstance. They were born with certain personality traits, certain moulds of mind, and if they were brought up in a sceptical environment, they stood even less of a chance. And what if you had the right “mind” to be saved, but nobody ever preached to you about it? You’d die in ignorance, and then go to hell for that. And I knew that the vast majority of humanity was consigned to hell. One article I read (that disagreed with predestination, incidentally) estimated something like 80% (it may not have been that number, but it was a high percentage) of people would go to hell. I believe it cited Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
So most people would go to hell. It was a deeply disturbing, heart-crushing thought.
It all came to a head one day, while I was back home, and feverishly turning thoughts over in my head (as always); I concluded that God truly was an unfair deity. Whichever way I looked at it, he either directly predestined people, or sat back and let them become victims of Satan’s guile, or of their own natural predispositions, which they didn’t create, but God did, God and the consequences of the fall, a fall which was the doing of two people – how could the rest of humanity be expected to carry the punishment for the actions of two people? (and one could argue Eve’s and Adam’s actions, too, weren’t fully their faults). In that moment, I decided I no longer wanted to worship such a God, whether or not he existed; I could not go on worshipping him. I might lose my salvation but…I decided I would rather risk hell than go on grovelling before such an unjust beast. God, I am terminating this relationship.
I wasn’t atheist straight away, and neither did all of my problems disappear just like that. It took a while – and the God Delusion – to really move into atheism (or at least agnosticism; I am not prepared to identify myself as vehemently atheist, as I could never disprove the existence of God). At first I mulled over the idea of reincarnation, or that there was an afterlife but no hell…but then I wondered how justice would be served to really evil people if we all got the same afterlife. (Then again, if we all just cease to exist, which is what I believe now, we still all get the same “reward”) That the God Delusion helped me sounds really cheesy, but I found it on my father’s bookshelf, and thought I ought to read it now I had left Christianity and had nothing to fear. I didn’t want to believe I just ceased to exist once I died, but…I had no proof of reincarnation or an afterlife, and these thoughts were just wishful thinking, as Mr. Dawkins would say. If I have no proof of an afterlife, it is best just to live my life as if this is the only one, and not worry for what might come afterwards.