An old friend from my church days pulled me aside one day to ask me a few questions about why I left the faith. I appreciated her willingness to talk to me, especially given that her husband, with whom I had been closer, hadn’t spoken a word to me since he first heard the news. After grilling me about a handful of topics, she quipped that she didn’t see any horns sprouting out of my head. I didn’t at all seem to be a different person from who I was years before.
In some ways she was right, but in other ways she wasn’t. I’m not a different person from who I was when I was still a Christian. On the contrary, I think I am more myself now than I was before, but to some on the outside it must look like a change. For them, I suppose it was.
Free to Be Ourselves
This topic comes up a lot among fellow deconverts: Did leaving the faith fundamentally change who we were? I know what my old theology would have taught me to say. Those who are “born again” have something in them which “lost people” do not. It’s a living presence, a spirit inside that enables them to perceive things and understand things that others cannot (see 1 Cor. 2:14-15). That makes believers and non-believers practically two different species.
Granted, my former theology didn’t allow for someone who acquires these organs of supernatural perception to lose them again later, but that’s something for them to lose sleep over, not me. Personally, I don’t believe I have lost anything at all except for an unwarranted confidence that I understood the way the world around me actually works.
But in a number of ways I think the faith to which I once adhered was holding me back, or maybe holding me down. It was holding all of us down and we didn’t even know it. The best way I know to explain what I mean is with an analogy from, you guessed it, a movie.
Remember the scene in Forrest Gump when he ran so fast that he broke out of his leg braces? In case you’ve forgotten the scene, here it is again:
Something deep inside me resonates with this scene. Maybe it’s something archetypal, I don’t know. But I do know it’s one of the best metaphors for outgrowing your religion that I’ve ever seen.
Just like Forrest’s leg braces, the faith of my youth provided structure for me growing up. I honestly don’t know how to disentangle the healthy and unhealthy strands of my upbringing, so I’ll simply summarize the whole thing by saying it had both good elements and bad. And some of the good elements, whether you can accept it or not, came from my family’s religion.
It will likely take years for me to acquire enough distance from my past to evaluate objectively the way it unfolded. Much of what I heard in church warped my self-image, but at the same time I also benefited from a great deal of love and nurturing in that environment. Both the good and the bad worked together to make me who I am today, so I really don’t even want to play the “what if” game, imagining how I would have turned out if I had been born under different stars, so to speak.
There came a point where the structure that guided me into adulthood no longer fit me anymore. In fact, like the braces in the clip above, they ultimately came to be a hindrance to discovering who I really was. Just as Forrest discovered he was an exceptional runner and never knew it, so we ourselves had things within us that had not—and could not—see the light of day until we shed those expectations that once guided our every step.
Strength = Bad
Once we break out of our restraints, we begin to discover our own capabilities. It turns out we each have our own modest little superpowers, only we’ve not had the opportunity or the freedom to exercise them. Once we acquire those, we soon come to know sides of ourselves we never knew before…and so does everybody else.
It’s not long before those things which we are truly good at—those things which become a significant part of our contribution to the world—earn us accolades and respect from people around us. Our self-image begins to improve because there are things that we’re truly good at, things we find we love to do.
That’s a good thing, right? Well, that depends on whom you ask.
The kind of Christianity I came from taught that you’re supposed to “surrender” your greatest strengths and abilities to God. What they meant by that was always a little fuzzy, but the gist of it was that the Almighty likes to get the credit for the things you can do, and he doesn’t like to share it. There was always the danger that you would be “too good” at what you do, or “too strong,” and the God of the Bible prefers weakness over strength.
The very first story in the Bible presents us with a God who didn’t want his creatures to know too much. He wanted their capabilities to remain limited so that they would remain more dependent on him, I suppose. As time goes on, we see in the text that it is the “bad guys” who made all the technological advances while those who “called upon the name of the Lord” remained comparatively primitive.
Related: “Anti-Intellectualism and the Bible“
At one point in that ongoing saga, humanity built a tall building and God got really miffed about that. The Bible explicitly says that it was humanity’s growing capabilities that upset the ancient deity, and he stepped in to thwart their progress and shut that down immediately.
This theme runs like a thread through the entire biblical narrative. In one place the Bible says God reduced the size of Israel’s army from 30,000 to 300 just to ensure that no one else could get the credit for their victory. John the Baptist struck the same note when he announced the inauguration of Jesus, saying that “he must increase, but I must decrease.” And the apostle Paul perhaps more than anyone else stressed over and over again that “[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness.”
It’s no wonder evangelicals like me developed a complex about giving ourselves credit for anything we do. We were programmed from birth to repel compliments the way that Teflon repels grease. Thinking less of yourself is central to the Christian faith. Without that, you don’t need a savior at all, and that would cause the whole religious edifice to collapse.
Imagine if doctors fitted all children with leg braces no matter what their condition. Imagine if medical school taught them that all children have crooked backs requiring corrective restraints. That’s kind of like the Christian faith. Everybody’s born broken and, left to their own devices, they will turn out wrong. Good thing we have the church there to tell us how to think and how to live, right?
Painting by Numbers
Once you surrender your “gifts” over to God, your every creative endeavor begins to follow a predetermined script. Since all capabilities were given to you by God in order to glorify him, it is no longer up to you to determine how those gifts will be used. If you are a writer, you write for God. If you are a singer, you sing for God. If you are a dancer, a mother, a musician, a businessman, a teacher…you get the idea.
But there is a stifling aspect to this mentality that you cannot see until you leave the fold and begin to look back at what you created. You see that it’s almost as if you’ve been “painting by numbers” the entire time, following some unspoken template for how every expression of your heart and mind and body should look.
These days when I drive through a new part of the country I’ll flip through the local radio stations in search of good music to listen to, and I can always tell when I’ve just landed on a Christian station. It’s hard to quantify what it is that clues me in, but there is a distinctive quality to the sound and the lyrics that always gives them away.
I will hear only one or two chords and suddenly think to myself, “This is a Christian station.” How do I know? It’s hard to say, but I can say that it has something to do with this paint-by-numbers instinct among Christian creatives. At first there’s a particular sound that gives them away. Then, after I’ve heard the lead singer disparage his or her own capabilities two or three times in the first verse alone, my suspicions are confirmed.
Reflecting back on my own former writings (I had a blog and wrote a book back when I was still a Christian), I see that even my most gut-level honest posts about the messiness of life always wound up circling back to expressing the requisite hope in Jesus in the end. I learned that obligatory circularity from the Bible and from the church. Like with the psalmists who weren’t afraid to write laments and imprecatory songs, messiness is forgivable as long as you remember to end it on a positive note. Anything less would be a failure to exemplify saving faith.
I’m highly suspicious that many of those psalms originally ended on a despairing note, but then later editors came along and tacked on happy endings the same way Disney always does with the original tales of the Brothers Grimm. I’m almost certain that happened to the entire book of Ecclesiastes.
I wouldn’t give you two cents for the stuff I wrote as a Christian. Of course, I meant it all when I wrote it. But I was following a script. Those words weren’t just mine—they were patterned after a rigid structure that didn’t really allow me the freedom to discover reality for myself. In my own way I was parroting what I was taught to believe, and looking back I can see just how deeply that need to conform really ran.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding…”
Becoming a Sponge
When the day comes that you finally outgrow the restraints that people gave you when you were born, you find it’s like leveling up in a video game. The entire landscape changes, and all the challenges change shape as well. Suddenly your objective becomes something you’ve never considered before and you realize you’re experiencing a dramatic paradigm shift that you didn’t even know was coming.
How could you have known? Without knowing what you didn’t know before, you never could have conceived of what expanding your horizons would look and feel like. Now the whole world looks different, and you find yourself setting your sights on things you never would have considered before. With enough time and distance the things that used to seem hugely important to you will fade into the background as insignificant distractions from what really matters to you now.
The first order of business after a paradigm shift like this is feeding your mind and your heart. Nothing grows without being fed, and this growth spurt demands a sudden upsurge in mental and emotional stimulation. Have you ever seen the movie Limitless starring Bradley Cooper? He experienced explosive growth in his own mental capacities and the first thing he had to do was feed his mind. Deconversion works a bit like that.
There is so much to learn. So much you don’t know or understand. That’s the overwhelming sense you get the moment you realize you’ve been painting by numbers your entire life. Suddenly you find you have an insatiable appetite for devouring every piece of new information you can find. You check out books from the library and blow half your paycheck on Amazon purchasing new titles. You listen to podcasts and start devouring new blogs. You start exploring new music and maybe start visiting new places. You find you just can’t get enough and you feel like you want to know it all.
Somewhere in the midst of all this reshaping of your worldview it begins to dawn on you that you’ve been working off of a story that wasn’t exactly right, or at least which is no longer big enough to encompass the larger world you’re beginning to inhabit.
Finding a New StoryDo you know what a metanarrative is? It’s a kind of grand story into which all other stories fit, like a huge tree that provides a home for several different kinds of animals at once. It’s a controlling story that guides and orients all other stories—including yours—giving meaning to everything that happens. Communities are built around them, from the smallest family unit to the most populous nation.
We humans are nothing if not meaning makers, and for whatever reason our consciousnesses and our self-concepts all seem to be wound around the stories we internalize about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. We spend our entire lives adding to and reshaping these stories into a larger plot line which incidentally may or may not be accurate, and I’m not entirely sure that’s as important as it sounds.
The story we find ourselves in* doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate—it only has to hold together in order to be useful for us. Human beings need some kind of organizing narrative to make sense out of what happens to us, and these stories that we tell ourselves and others help us to decide what’s important and what’s not.
Growing up, the Christian faith gave me a metanarrative from which to live. This “grand story” organizes everything in history into a dramatic arc comprised of a creation, a “fall,” a death and resurrection, and then finally a coming judgment and redemption which will sort all of humanity into the good guys and the bad. There are smaller details that change from subculture to subculture but the basics are all still the same. These were the metaphorical braces that determined how I saw the world growing up.
Leaving that faith means you no longer have a controlling story to live from, and it turns out that human beings really need them. You need one for your individual life, and humankind as a whole needs one for the entirety of the human race. It turns out we cannot really function for long, or at least not well, without forging some kind of overarching purpose and goal toward which we are all supposed to be working.
And that right there is where I think the most work still needs to be done.
Atheism Is Just the Beginning
People who leave their faith behind need a new story. And not just one that gives meaning to them as individuals—we need a grand story that has room enough inside of it to support, validate, motivate, and provide purpose for every facet of human life. Without that, we wander aimlessly until someone comes along who does have a compelling story, and you might not like or agree with what it turns out to be.
Incidentally, atheism isn’t a story. It’s just an answer to a single question.
Granted, I identify as an atheist, as a skeptic, and as a freethinker but I don’t think those identities are comprehensive enough to build an enduring community around, let alone an entire civilization. That’s probably my main beef with the movement popularly known as “New Atheism.” It represents a much needed resurgence in skeptical free inquiry, but it doesn’t go all the way toward building a worldview that’s comprehensive enough to support an entire civilization.
Science isn’t a story, either. It is a tool for discovery. It is a method for discerning between wrong ideas and right ones. It’s wonderful…but it’s not a story. You cannot build a community around it, at least not one that would support hundreds of smaller communities, each with their own diverse goals and prejudices. Science is very good at telling us what is, but it’s not so great at helping us settle on what should be.
One could argue that evolution is a story of sorts, but it’s missing a lot of elements crucial to what makes up a story, so I’m not sure that’s enough, either. And even if we did try to extract a metanarrative from it, we would likely end up valuing the same things evolution itself “values” like raw survival and genetic superiority. Are those enough to guide us in everything that we say and do as a species? As a civilization?
I prefer calling myself a “humanist” because I want the boundaries of my “tribe” to encompass the entire human race, but nothing dictates that humanity itself is the apex of all evolution. On the contrary, every single day of my life I am reminded in one way or another that we are not yet fully “cooked” as a species. We seem to be a transitional animal on our way to becoming something else. What that will be, I have no idea. It may very well be a sentient blend of living organism and manufactured machine.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s ultimately what happens to the ecosystems of every viable planet in the universe. Maybe they all keep growing and developing until they become fully automated and self-sufficient. That would explain why no matter how hard we listen, we don’t seem to hear any others out there trying to get our attention. Or maybe they’ve been calling us for billions of years and we just haven’t yet developed the capability to hear them. But I digress.
What’s Around the Corner?
What I’m getting at is that we need a grand narrative big enough and compelling enough to sustain us through all of the changes we are undergoing as a species. We are on our way to becoming a truly global civilization (which would explain the bitter pushback coming from an ironically international network of nationalists who are trying to resist this development), and we are going to face some difficult moral decisions along the way.
Soon we will have to decide how we feel about things that weren’t even possible when most of the stories we live by were created. Take abortion for example. For many of us the definition of “personhood” pivots around the moment a baby could survive outside the mother’s womb, but what happens when that gets pushed forward to the moment of conception itself? What happens when we’ve developed a way to fertilize and grow new human lives completely independently of the mother? Where then do you draw the line?
In the not-too-distant future we will also have to decide just how much of ourselves we are willing to mix and merge with technology before we’re no longer the same kind of species we’ve been up until the dawn of the information age. If we speed up the process of becoming whatever it is we are becoming next, should we not worry that we will forfeit something irreplaceable that makes us still “human?”
The world isn’t going to stop spinning anytime soon, and for all I know we may be on the verge of controlling the aging process itself at the cellular level. Who knows what capabilities we will develop next? The mind reels. One thing that’s certain, however, is that as long as we are still what we call human we will need something around which to organize our lives and our values. Much work remains to be done before we are ready for these upcoming challenges.
Are We Ready For This?
One last thought before I put this topic away for now. At the beginning of this article I compared my upbringing to the restrictive leg braces that kept Forrest Gump from discovering one of his greatest strengths: running incredibly fast. I admitted that despite the limiting nature of those contraptions, Forrest probably benefited from them just as I probably did from my own upbringing. Like training wheels on a bike, those structures served an elementary purpose right up until the moment they were no longer needed.
Incidentally, not everyone reaches a point where the braces fall off. I suspect that some people are so naturally wired to fit their environment that they never feel they are being limited at all. This would explain why some people mature inside their family’s traditions and never feel any reason to leave them. For some, it all just fits like a glove and they are happy the way things are.
But the whole human race can be viewed collectively through this metaphorical lens as well. Personally, I’m convinced that the quirky religious traditions we cooked up over the millennia served their own benign purposes for a time, which would explain their resilience. Together we created those stories to explain our lives and our world as best as we could, and they seem to have enabled many cultures and people groups to survive and stick together for a long, long time. Where I live, church is still at the heart of most people’s moral and social education. It’s a part of their weekly routine.
People have been saying for centuries that religion is on its way out, but look at the world around you. Religion is just as strong today as it was thousands of years ago. It has evolved to survive and even thrive amidst an awful lot of change in the world. It doesn’t go away because it serves a set of purposes which I’m not convinced most atheists understand, especially the ones who have never been religious themselves.
Related: “The ‘Nones’ vs. the ‘Dones’“
I’m not entirely sure we’ve reached that moment as a species wherein we are finally ready to break out of our theistic constraints. It almost breaks my fingers to type those words, but as a student of history and a person who follows the news, I have to confess that my confidence in humankind isn’t particularly high right this moment.
What if some people really do need Jesus? Or something like it?
It’s entirely possible that while highly motivated individuals can break out of their primitive beliefs and become something more, the general population may not fare so well as a collective group. I worry that the worst elements in any group will take over the whole community unless a strong and compelling story empowers the rest of the group to check those more destructive and self-serving people.
What if we’re not ready yet to live without religious belief, globally speaking? I realize that’s an unpopular question to ask, but if you want my honest reflection on all of this, then there you have it. In case you’ve ever wondered, this is one of the questions that keeps me up at night. Are we really ready to level up as a species or are too many of us so far behind that it just. won’t. happen? I honestly don’t know.
What if the human race in its current state functions better with religious beliefs than without them? Never mind whether or not the beliefs are really true. I’m asking if there’s something about us that simply doesn’t handle their absence well? It seems to me that we should at least consider that possibility, even though I have no idea what to do about it if the answer is yes.
Maybe this is why so many atheists just keep their heads down and pretend to still believe in Jesus when they really don’t. I don’t think I can go through my life pretending to believe in something that I truly do not believe is real. I’m not wired that way. But what if a majority of humans need some kind of religion to get along in life? It’s worth at least discussing.
In the meantime, for myself I am only just now beginning to feed my mind and heart, looking for whatever the next adventure will be. I cannot control what the rest of the world does, but I can at least take ownership of my own life for a change. And so can you.
[Image Source: YouTube]
* Hat tip to Brian McLaren for coming up with the title The Story We Find Ourselves In for one of his books. The double entendre is one of my all time favorites.
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