I think I’ve mentioned–probably only a few dozen times, sorry–that I deconverted in my mid-20s. I’m now in my mid-40s so we’re talking about a deconversion that occurred in the mid-90s. I wanted to talk today about something I was thinking about while reading Neil’s recent blog post about whether or not the Theory of Evolution is antithetical to Christianity. Like anything Neil writes, it’s a very insightful and useful post, but he reminded me in a powerful way yet again of just how much right-wing, fundamentalist/evangelical (“fundagelical”) Christianity has changed since I was a Christian.
Everything changes, even a religion that claims to be unchanging. When I was Christian, I bashed my brains out to find that “original church” I just knew had to exist, that I just knew had never changed. And guess what? I discovered that it really doesn’t exist. Every single doctrine Christians have now that they think is pure, unadulterated Christianity straight from the lips of Jesus turns out to be wildly misinterpreted, or else was a much later addition to the New Testament, or else symbolizes a major shift in Christian thinking. Even fundamentalism itself is a fairly new idea, as is the concept of the Rapture. One of the religion’s greatest strengths has always been its ability to evolve to fit its culture better–which makes Christians’ insistence on not letting their religion do exactly that seem doubly puzzling.
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being part of some group and looking in on them years later, only to find that something important has changed–for the worse. When I think about my old religion lately, I find myself thinking often of the Elfquest character Kahvi, that spirited and straightforward Chief of the Go-Backs, who after many years away rejoined her onetime tribe in one of the Hidden Years graphic novel stories (some of it readable online here). Her lover and partner, the winged elf Tyldak, almost gets shot by her tribe’s terrified scouts as they approach; when Kahvi herself tries to rouse her people’s spirits to join her on a daring quest to regain a cherished artifact they lost long ago, most of them are resistant if not openly hostile to the idea of leaving their only known home for the unknown lands beyond their experience.
Kahvi is crestfallen by this change in her people. At one time the Go-Backs were quite a free-wheeling, hard-living, rollicking elf tribe spoiling for adventures and fights up in the frozen northlands; now they are barely hanging onto their culture and have degenerated morally. This change is subtly communicated but unmistakable; their lodge is run-down, they look dirty and unkempt, and they eat troll meat (which in Kahvi’s day would have been a disgusting taboo). Though she is far from being given to introspection, Kahvi realizes something later that night as she prepares for sleep with her partner, who asks:
Kahvi: They’ve lost something… Pride, guts, heart maybe… I don’t know. They need raising up.
And I find myself thinking of that somber, introspective moment as I survey the wreckage of my onetime religion.
I read stuff like how William Lane Craig is trotting out atrocity-apologetics now, writing about how the real victims are those poor widdle Israelites, having to rape, murder, and enslave all those evil Canaanites at the command of their perfectly good and moral god, and I wonder if anybody back in my day would have tried to blame murdered children for their own murders, or rape and genocide victims for their own rapes and genocides. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that would have stuck out in my mind. Maybe someone was, but I never heard about it. It was actually a big problem for me just thinking about the Great Flood.
I hear about Christians outright lying through their teeth to try to advance their political agendas, like the fundagelicals of one school board did in that infamous Kitzmiller v. Dover trial whose brilliant summary paper is located here, and I wonder if Christians back in my day were so dishonest that a federal judge (and fellow Christian) would call their blatant lies “notable” and “incredible” in scope and breadth (p. 97). Y’all know I was married to a Christian who lied a lot, but I don’t ever think that our religion was so well-known for being so “ends justify the means” as that trial revealed Christians as being, or if Christians were quite so blatant about baldfaced lying to others.
On that note, I’ll just say here that I was not a young-Earth Creationist–and didn’t even notice that this doctrine was a thing until late in my time in the religion. Though I was in a fundamentalist denomination and technically thought the Bible was literally true, nobody in that church demanded adherence to science denial. Now such denial is endemic to the religion, with even well-educated Christians using tired, debunked talking points to try to wish away the vast body of scientific research supporting ideas like LGBTQ people not having made choices or the Earth not being young or created by anybody or humans having actually evolved like any other animals have.
And I honestly cannot say that I remember anything my peers or I did back then as making outsiders feel physically unsafe, as one reporter felt at an SBC conference recently. This air of vicious hostility, hinted-at violence, and barely-suppressed aggression surfaces any time Christians feel challenged or frustrated by outsiders’ noncompliance. I’ve heard stories personally from non-Christians who felt unsafe at Christianist-dominated council meetings, school graduations, and other occasions. Disturbingly graphic threats–sometimes of eternal, supernatural punishment, but other times of very earthly retribution–abound. I’ve talked before elsewhere about the numerous demonic-rape threats I get from Christians. Thankfully, I’ve escaped real-life rape threats so far. But the demonic-rape threats are quite disturbing all on their own, especially when one considers what kind of person thinks it’s okay to talk like that to other folks. Even my preacher husband at the time, Biff, didn’t treat people that way, and I never would have dreamed of treating people the way Christians routinely do nowadays.
Indeed, a non-Christian who inhabits Christian forums and blog spaces can expect treatment like what a dear friend of mine experienced on a fairly popular Christian blog: getting told by Christians to his face that because he had rejected Christianity and was now an atheist, obviously he had no idea how to love his wife anymore and he might as well violently rape her as give her flowers, since it was all the same to mean ol’ nihilistic ol’ atheists. That barbaric insult took my breath away, but the Christians there were all chanting “Hear, hear!” and clearly thought this Christian was quite the clever bunny for thinking of it. And I thought about how low Christians have fallen to make it okay to them now to treat people with such cruel, dismissive savagery.
There’s a lot of other changes that have happened, too. At the time, my particular end of the religion taught a precursor to that odious separate-but-equal complementarian teaching. But speaking as a woman taught that way, there wasn’t more than a strong suggestion that I get married, make babies, and maybe stay home at least while they were young. I got married, but didn’t have children–which alarmed my friends, but my pastor never said anything to me about it; he restricted his advice to my husband with tips on how to manipulate me. Young people dated and hung out together, and older folks who hadn’t gotten married didn’t seem to face more than that implicit pressure that I got about procreation. Back then, teens were told to abstain from sex, but I honestly can’t remember it being a huge, big deal. But now I survey the landscape and see a much stronger push toward misogynistic, sexist policies like “courtship,” so-called “purity rings” and pledges (which are symbols of a whole culture built around the idea of female “purity”), and entire educational curricula built around lying to children about their bodies to terrorize them into abstinence. I honestly cannot remember ever being terrorized and lied to about my body in school or in church, or even remember being hypersexualized and objectified the way modern Christian women are.
For that matter, I also can’t ever remember churches trying to formalize their power over members with things like “church contracts.” That’s really new too. I never even had to verbally swear to do anything when I joined the Pentecostals. Maybe that was part of the problem; I was married to a youth pastor there, so I know that the leadership team was often frustrated by how few people in that church “lived it” outside of church. But signing contracts of membership? Giving churches legal power over someone, even if it is contestable power? And then to hear about churches like Mars Hill that harassed and hassled members who had stepped out of line–I’m trying to even remember if I ever once heard of that happening on a systemic basis, and I can’t. The idea is just unthinkable to me, and it would have been rightly recognized as cult behavior back then. I never even got a post-deconversion intervention like so many of my friends who deconverted more recently. (Maybe I ought to ask for a do-over! At this point it feels like missing Prom not to have had an intervention.)
I can look back at my old church and the way that other right-wing conservative Christian churches acted back then, and I can see the roots sprouting there that became the dark and twisted trees that forest the religion now. I can see that we were already realizing that our religion was losing its dominance, despite our bravado to the contrary. We were already noticing that modern American culture was stepping away from the “morals” and “values” we thought we held in an exclusive stranglehold straight from our god. We still thought the tide was able to turn again with enough prayer and fasting, with enough revivals and enough evangelism, but I don’t know how many people noticed that those efforts were not translating into real-world results. I noticed eventually, and that’s a big element of my awakening and deconversion, but the people who remained have had an extra couple of decades to wonder anxiously why their efforts aren’t accomplishing anything. Back then we just had a few pages of rationalizations for why our efforts weren’t working; now there exist a great many books about why this god doesn’t seem to be answering prayer, and hundreds of rationalizations explaining away the discrepancy between promises and results.
There’s a real sense of anger and frustration coming off the religion nowadays–and a lot of fear. Some of their leaders are putting a brave face on it even while acknowledging their religion’s slide into irrelevance. Other Christians are more open about their frustration and fear about what America’s cultural shift away from Christianity might mean for Christians’ dominance over people. Others retreat into sullen whining about imagined slights blown up into (fake) religious persecution. Some even vent their fury and fear by committing terrorist acts. It goes without saying that I can’t remember any of these reactions being part of the major tenor of my onetime religion. The one time Biff even “joked about” a desire to commit real-world violence, those who heard him make that threat against abortion providers immediately jumped on him with both feet so hard that he never said it again. Now I wonder what the reaction would have been had he said the same thing among today’s Christians.
This religion has definitely changed. I can see all of these changes as evidence that eventually things will be better; I can see a lot of the current abuses as the unmistakeable signs of a once-powerful culture realizing it has lost dominance and clamping down.
But it’s not in me to view these changes as a victory. My onetime peers are hurting and afraid. They are succumbing to the hatemongering and pandering of their leaders. And the women in my old religion are suffering worse than they ever have. These are real people, not numbers, not victory laps, not something to fist-pump the air over. These are real injuries being done to real people–many of whom who are doing the best they can, just like I was once, to please their god and do what they think is right. It’s not their fault they’re caught up in a false ideology that’s spiraled out of control, or that their very lives and bodies have become battlegrounds for cultural dominance. I cared about some of these folks. I still do. A lot of us have family, friends, and even spouses locked in this insane game of cultural Global Thermonuclear War.
It hurts to see how far Christians have fallen and just how abusive and shockingly toxic the religion’s become. I don’t know how much more obvious it could possibly be that these changes are indicative of a deep sickness in the religion. I was damned lucky to get out when I did. I can’t say it’s anything but a very fortunate series of chance events that shocked me out of my stubbornness. That doesn’t mean I can’t look back and see the people who weren’t so lucky and see how much worse it is for them now than it was for me then.
I’m glad I escaped when when things were just “bad.” I want to tell people today who are suffering like I was then and like so many people are now in this religion that it’s okay to walk away. Things are only going to get more extreme and abusive until a tipping point is reached and Christians can’t do anything but make those big changes or lose everything. And there is clearly no god or chieftain waiting in the wings to save them from themselves or fix their damaged religion for them. There’s nothing supernatural about what has happened to bring them this low, and nothing supernatural about what must happen to make it better.
They’ve lost something…
Pride, guts, heart maybe…