I’ve spent a good deal of time lately organizing my thoughts for a memoir, and in the midst of compiling all the most important turning points in my own deconversion I’ve come to see how one development impacted all the others more than I had previously appreciated: I had to study and learn a lot of new things for my job and it broadened my intellectual horizons significantly.
If you feed the mind enough, it will soon demand more nourishment than any religious mentality can satisfy because the brain is better fed by questions than by answers. The former push the mind to expand and encompass larger worlds while the latter shrinks it, teaching it to be satisfied with less.
I simply learned “too much,” and as the old saying goes, a mind stretched by a new idea can never return to its original dimensions. The only way to keep that from happening is to stifle and bury the questions as quickly as you feel them creeping up inside you. Some people are “better” at that than others. I was only able to do it for so long, but then everything eventually broke, and now here I am.
Too Much Learning
“The secret things belong to the Lord,” I was often told in seminary (Deut. 29:29). Which being interpreted means, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.” At every turn where my mind tried to untangle the knots in my belief system, people intimated that being unwilling to let go of the questions was a sign of weakness, a failure to display the obedient spirit I was meant to possess in order to make God truly happy with me.
Remember that the forbidden tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden was the one that made you smarter.
But then I chose to become a teacher, and teachers have to learn about a lot of different things in order to do their job. My undergrad degree was in Psychology and my graduate degree was in Biblical Studies and theology, but my career path forced me to broaden my academic horizons to encompass so many more subjects that it was only a matter of time before something snapped.
The transition started of course with formally studying my own faith. College and seminary can be lethal to a fragile faith because they cause you to ask better questions than you could ever think of on your own. This is surely why so many churches denigrate higher education—they know too well how detrimental education can be to their tiny little kingdoms of thought. But I belonged to a religious tradition that spoke more highly about education than some others—it paid education beautiful lipservice—and I was encouraged to keep studying the Bible formally, even if with a bit of a jaundiced eye.
That’s a really great way to lose your faith, in case you didn’t know. If you take the Bible as seriously as I did, you’ll learn enough about it to realize just how many impossible things it really teaches. And I don’t mean just things like miracles and afterlives and talking donkeys and snakes. I mean it asserts things about history and the natural world which we now know are indefensibly false, and you have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to keep the whole thing from falling apart.
Read: “None of This Really Happened“
But I didn’t stop there. I entered the teaching profession through an alternate route, which meant that my first teaching posts were all serving populations of students with special needs. At first that meant teaching self-contained, small group classes but soon the No Child Left Behind Act dictated that in order to keep serving our students we all needed to be “highly qualified” in each of the subject areas we intended to teach them.
That meant I had to go and get certified in multiple subjects: Language arts, history, civics and government, and math. I would have added science but the teachers’ exams all cost money out of my own pocket and the process of adding all those certifications drained my bank account. It was just enough immersion in multiple subjects to flex my intellectual muscles, and it forced me to learn a whole lot more about the world around me. It was a career-inspired expansion of my own mind and the impact it ultimately had on me was…well, it got me to where I am today.
Protecting the House of Cards
I know too much now to ever go back to the way things were before. The questions I used to ask were smaller questions, and I was satisfied with small answers that once made me relax, but now they only make me roll my eyes. I’ve seen and heard way too much to be satisfied with the kinds of answers I was taught to accept as sufficient, and I have my own career path to blame for it.
I think my experience there mirrors the journeys of so many others like me. For one reason or another we stumbled upon a period of intensified education—something rekindled our craving to know and understand the world around us, and that eventually destroyed the fragile house of cards that was our former faith. The specifics of how that happens may vary from person to person, but I have a hunch the fundamentals are the same.
This is why the church will never be able to shake its anti-intellectual flavor, nor will it even know itself well enough to see that it maintains a decidedly antagonistic posture toward unguided learning. Deep down the church knows they lose people to higher education, which is why they so giddily celebrate anyone who manages to keep their faith amidst a career in academia.
That’s why they’ve virtually sainted C.S. Lewis, whose arguments buttressing Christian theology crumble if you but breathe on them too heavily. It’s not that he had that many great things to say, it’s just that they are so happy he existed that they have to keep reminding themselves along with the rest of us that, every once it a while, a person manages to compartmentalize his intellectual life so successfully that he keeps it from spilling over into his faith. Allowing it to do so would be devastating. I know this from hard personal experience.
But in the world of faith, the celebrities earn their place of importance by being exceedingly good at fooling themselves and others. They are all wordsmiths gifted with the ability to rationalize virtually any idea imaginable, people with plasticity of mind and expression so strong that they can twist and contort reality to fit whatever ideology they were handed (Exhibit A: Evangelicals who support Donald Trump). They quiet our minds and we love them for it, because those pesky questions really cramped our style.
Eventually I just knew too much, and I couldn’t do it any more. And it’s not because I’m all that smart. It’s just that sometimes you get to a place where your need to understand overtakes your need for security—your need to belong—and before you know it you’ve seen the guy standing behind the curtain, pulling levers and turning knobs to keep the illusions going. Once you reach that moment, there’s no going back.
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