Editor’s Note: What a treat – two posts in a row from Rational Doubt’s most active book reviewer. This time, as we continue our Clergy Doubt series, she takes us through her struggles to maintain her faith as she mercilessly tests it – and it fails. Then she describes her life on the other side. It was pretty rocky for a while. / Linda LaScola, Editor
By Alexis Record
1.What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?
I wish I could say that I had doubts all along. I wish I could say that converting over a hundred people, the vast majority of whom were impressionable children, to my religion caused me to pause even once and consider the consequences of it all, the truth of it all. But no, I was a true believer with strong faith for 30 years. Hardships that caused others to finally start looking at the reality around them only worked to strengthen my faith and drive me deeper into the Christian embrace. And I was happy. Of all the deconverts in the world, I was the long odds—the surefire way to lose your money in a bet.
First, the Bible failed on many fronts: historical, archeological, scientific and morally. My first time having to confront biblical faults was around the passages about women. Then the numbers didn’t add up. Finally, the promises about prayer failed me, and those I tested at length. I actually prayed my way out of religion.
One day I opened my Bible to begin my quiet time on a random day I hardly remember and realized I didn’t believe any of this anymore. That was it for me. The Christian charter document was bogus so my faith was bogus. Prayer was bogus so my god was bogus.
- How did you initially react to the doubts?
By ignoring them completely (squashing cognitive dissonance), finding blogs and books that reaffirmed my positions (motivated reasoning), and finally praying or reading the Bible (which ended up being a bad move for keeping my faith).
I also spent about a year or two in a progressive form of Christianity that focused on Jesus, not the Bible, being the Word of God. This allowed me to acknowledge the major flaws in my religion’s charter document, while retaining my religion (and the corresponding privileges it came with)! Alas, it wasn’t to be. The progressive Christians still dug through the Bible for truth because it was, again, our religion’s foundation. (You might recall my review of John Crossan’s book on how to do this, and my reaction to it.) Digging through the truth of the Bible was like putting fingers deep into the foundations of a sand castle.
3. What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?
The buildup of doubt, like plaque on teeth, caused the hole my faith fell through. The doubt made sense when the faith didn’t. I tested my faith’s claims for the first time. Truth begs to be tested; lies hide from testing. My quest became one of finding truth. My motivations were pure and I take a lot of comfort in that.
- How did the doubts affect your preaching/teaching/other responsibilities, your interactions with your congregation and your family?
It became impossible to retain my sense of integrity. I started by prefacing a former belief by saying, “The Bible says” instead of just stating the claim. Opening statements such as “Christians believe,” “this verse claims,” and “some think” allowed me to teach the Bible for a bit longer. Of course I was out of official missionary ministry and only teaching my children, some friends, and the occasional Sunday School lesson at this point. But I did have an adoption ministry that I founded that was fully devoted to the biblical ideas of caring for the orphan and the stranger. One entire page of my website was devoted to the Bible’s teachings and quoted verse after verse on this subject. I knew I couldn’t continue with this ministry – not with integrity. First I tried to form an all-Christian board of directors, but it felt dishonest to gather them together under an atheist. Then I tried my best to gift the whole ministry (website, art, previous testimonies of people we’d helped, donors, money, etc.) to a church. I tried for a couple years with lots of interest, but no takers.
The moment I came out as an atheist, all my donors except one vanished immediately. The ministry was dead. Trying to save it, and by extension help those children with disabilities suffering in institutions, kept me faking Christianity longer than I wanted to. (I didn’t want to be another ministry like World Vision who lost a bunch of Christian donors by trying to do the right thing and leaving children to suffer as a result.)
I also lost friends over my deconversion, including my best friend who was my kids’ godmother. She ghosted us and had to be removed from our will after several failed attempts at contact. I didn’t once push my views on anyone, and was too scared to be overly vocal. Still, I also lost a church community, babysitters and close relationships with family members. Soon we (even my believing husband) stopped being invited to intimate gatherings we’d been invited to for ten years or more. It was pure tribalism on a scale I’d never seen before. (I remain immensely thankful for the unbiblical Christians who stuck around and showed me nothing but love during this time. They probably wouldn’t like the modifier of “unbiblical,” but you know what I mean.)
- How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs; that you were no longer a believer?
It was immediate. I opened my Bible and didn’t believe. No more belief. Like a timer going ding.
- How did you think of yourself at that time (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual-but not-religious, non-believer, different-believer, something else)?
Atheist. I found the definition of “atheist” online and it was like a buoy after being lost at sea. I had a word for what I was. A hateful word at the time, but still, a word that was something solid to push off from. Well, I went by atheist, but “ex-Christian” defines me best. It’s like atheist, yet with the explanation of my baggage. It took a while for me to find the term humanist.
- Anything else you would like to say that is not contained in these questions?
The “in-between” time when doubts are looming but giving up faith has not yet happened was the worst. It’s painful and scary. Cognitive dissonance is painful; facing it is brave and horrible. Becoming an atheist, which is just a way of accepting the definition and rejecting claims without evidence, was ultimately freeing. It improved my marriage. It improved my parenting. It improved my community volunteer work. No more tribalism. No more Us vs. Them. No more conversions for them to become more like me in order to be right. As someone who is fully “out” about atheism, I tend to talk about it in excited, passionate tones. I have joy and peace like never before. It’s grounded me to what’s true, what’s real. But what I do not want to ignore or wave away was how incredibly hard the “in-between” time was. Those cracks hurt. They don’t just rip into your faith; they rip into you. But you come out the other side transformed. Um, maybe with baggage. (And no skills for living outside the Christian bubble.) But free and finally flying.
Bio: Alexis Record is a feminist, humanist, ex-Christian atheist, and mother to children with disabilities. She devoted the first 30 years of her life to Christian study and service due to indoctrination, and is working to repair the years the locusts have eaten.
>>>Photo Credits: By Dennis Murphy – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20593799