I am fairly certain that had I ever been Christian, I would have questioned my out of it. I like to think that the breaking point for me would have been the thousands and thousands of different denominations. I often wonder why this isn’t the answer most ex-Christians give for “why don’t you believe anymore?”. There are over 40,000 denominations of Christianity – that’s 40,000+ different interpretations of the “inerrant word of god”. This alone cancels the whole damn thing out, does it not? If God’s word were truly inerrant and perfect as is claimed, then how is it possible for us, mere mortals, to interpret it in a way he did not mean for us to? I hear a lot of your stories of deconversion and there really aren’t very many that cite this as the reason they can no longer believe. Today, I finally have a story for you that brings this problem up briefly. Here is Anonymous with their deconversion story:
I was raised protestant by parents who were former Southern Baptist missionaries. Although by the time I was old enough to go to church (rather than the church-run daycare) they had largely shed the orthodoxy of Baptism, both of my parents were still quite religious.
My parents were musicians, and I think at that time in their lives the best musical outlet they had was through church choir. We moved a lot due to my father’s day job, so we jumped back and forth between a number of denominations – Methodist and Baptist predominantly.
Throughout all of this, I remember being very uncomfortable in church. I couldn’t articulate why at the time. The high-ceilinged buildings filled with hard, dark wood pews, massive ostentatious crosses and the same strange carpet cleaner scent just made my skin crawl. I have journal entries from when I was a child so I know I’m not just projecting backward in time. Church filled me with pervasive dread. It felt *wrong* to me.
When I was a teenager we moved to a town in southern Texas where the social landscape of the childrens’ lives was shaped significantly by which of the several different churches they attended. I cannot stress how odd it is to look back and realize this little one-stoplight town that had no businesses save two service stations and a sad, long-forgotten Dairy Queen managed to support not two, not three, but FOUR full-sized and relatively new houses of worship.
We immediately began attending the local Methodist church. It was literally on the other side of the railroad tracks which ran through the center of town. I didn’t realize until my first day of high school that this was both a physical and metaphorical divider.
As was common in the late 1980s to early 1990s in rural Texas, we had student-led prayer every morning on the loudspeaker peppered in with announcements about pep rallies and bake sales. I didn’t think anything of it, because Christianity was as ubiquitous to me as driving on the right side of the road. Why would anyone do otherwise?
I must confess that despite my dread of churches themselves, I wholeheartedly believed in the Christian message of a risen immortal being who would save me from the fires of hell. I simply chose to study scriptures on my own. This was the start of my difficulties.
I went through a phase where I decided my parents’ interpretations of the Bible didn’t gel with what I was reading. I pored over every word of my red King James Edition (that was given to me in primary school as soon as I could read) and ended up reading the whole thing twice in one school year.
At the same time I joined a contemporary Christian “rock” band, which played at church youth functions a couple of times before breaking up due to artistic differences (don’t they all?) Often before performing we’d sit in on a sermon by the youth leaders of the church, and since my band was non-denominational we played a couple of different venues with markedly different messages.
I remember being impressed by one particularly charismatic youth pastor and talking to him about possibly joining his church. He asked where I’d been baptized, and when I told him the name of the Methodist church across the tracks, his answer threw me so much that it burned itself into my memory.
“Well, you’ll have to get baptized again, the RIGHT way.”
Until that point in my life I had just assumed that although different Christian churches may disagree on the finer points of the faith they all essentially worshiped the same thing. I thought as long as we had the same god, it didn’t matter whether we dunked our heads in a bathtub or got sprinkled with a wet rose from a bowl. This leader of the church thought differently.
I didn’t join that church, and instead continued my own studies for the next few years and into my first year of college. There I met a wonderful person who became a long-time friend, and who also happened to not be Christian. She identified as Pagan at the time, and we had many late-night talks in our dorms about college-freshman-deep topics like gods.
It was during one of these conversations that she asked me point-blank, “So you honestly believe that because I don’t worship your god that I’m not only going to burn in hell, but that I *deserve* it?”
I swear I heard the gears in my brain grind to a halt. For the first time in my life, here was someone openly challenging the reality I’d lived in and never questioned. I loved this person dearly, and I very much didn’t think anything she’d done in her life merited eternal torment. Did I *really* think she’d be tortured after death for making what seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement of non-belief in the Christian god?No, I decided not. It was the first step in my re-examining everything my parents had taught me growing up. Over the course of my time in college I gradually looked over and discarded belief after belief, until that last one (“god exists”) finally fell away. I remember about when it happened, because I felt an enormous existential weight had been lifted. I didn’t have to worry about remaining sexually “pure” or feel ashamed of exploring my own sexuality. I didn’t have to pity my friend for not believing in the gods my parents worshipped, and I didn’t have the constant gnawing fear of ending up in a lake of fire myself.
As an adult twenty years later, I still live near that small town and run into some of the folks I saw in church back then. The area is still heavily Christian and heavily evangelical, but I see the cracks forming here and there. Sometimes it’s something as small as a Flying Spaghetti Monster bumper sticker, or a Darwin fish T-shirt. Skepticism exists, and it’s growing.
I’m an “out” nonbeliever to my close friends and significant other, as well as my own parents (who took it surprisingly well, having discarded their faith in all but name years ago) but I still find myself hesitant to be “out” around folks over the age of 60, like my SO’s grandparents. Pro-Christian prejudice is very much still a thing here in 2018, and even those with faiths in the “wrong” god are looked down upon less often than the atheist.
Keep an eye out, fellow non-believers. We may still be hidden in some areas of the country, but we are here. You may just have to look a little closer.
Thank you, anonymous, for this beautifully written story. If you want to send me your deconversion story for this series, shoot me an email at email@example.com. You can read other entries in this series here. You can read even older entries on my old blog here.
The second story this week is from Christine:
I was born in the Deep South by German immigrant parents. I was raised with all the prejudicial ideas prevalent in the South along with being told that since I was of German origins more was expected of me intellectually.
When my father, a Marine, was transferred to Camp Pendleton, California, my brother and sister, evangelicals, had families of their own, remained in the South. In 1956 I was in my junior year in high school, doing well in school except in my chemistry class. I didn’t dare tell my parents that I was not the smartest in the class; that honor went to a black girl. With every exam or test, I would ask Helen what her score was and it was always higher than mine. She was an honor roll student. Then one day she told me I had nothing to worry about—she was dropping out of school! “Why? “ I asked in astonishment. “With your grades, you are bound to get a scholarship to college.” Then she said those fateful words that I still recall today. She said, “No matter what degree I get I’ll never be more than a maid.” That hit me hard. I realized where we lived there were no black teachers, no black principals, no black policemen, or bus drivers, or judges. In fact, black women could work only as maids and black men were the gas station attendants, trash truck drivers, or in the Military. I realized that my parents had lied to me and it seemed the whole world was lying to me. Because of Helen, I lost all those silly prejudicial thoughts. I also realized that Germans are not “the master race.” It was a lie.
What else had my parents lied to me about? Was god a lie? Were vegetables really good for me? Who could I trust to tell me the truth? I gave up my prejudices and I gave up god (but I kept eating my vegetables). I eventually left home, married, and started a family of my own. But when my southern family learned I no longer believed in god, my sister went to a lawyer to see if she could have me declared unfit as a mother—it became a custody battle. Her reason? No child should live in a home without knowing the love of Jesus Christ. She failed. But we disconnected. I lost that entire part of my family: sister, brother, and all my nieces and nephews–forever. But I kept my daughter and she was brought up in a home where she could trust me: there was only one race, the human race, and there are no gods controlling our fates or waiting to punish us for disbelieving.
I often think of Helen—it’s been more than 60 years. I owe her a great deal. Because of her, I gained the ability to think for myself. And I have a deeper love of life than any religion could give me. Losing a part of my family is a small price to pay. But reality is so much more satisfying than placing all one’s values on an invisible, silent, and imaginary god.
I’ve spoken on many occasions about the discrimination some atheists face for merely being godless. So many people have balked in disbelief when I’ve mentioned custody battles that have been won or lost based on religion. Christine is very lucky the battle ended in her favour as I’ve heard so many stories that ended the other way. I’m sorry you lost your family, Christine, but you sound like a hell of a mother.
Thanks for reading this week’s Your Stories of Atheism. If you want to send me your deconversion story for this series, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read other entries in this series here. You can read even older entries on my old blog here.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay