Evangelical Churn: A Defection, Observed

Evangelical Churn: A Defection, Observed June 8, 2016

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While many ex-Christians can point to seriously poor treatment from their tribe before deconversion, for many others of us the worst of our mistreatment happened after we publicly rejected the religion or its major claims.

That’s when we really found out just what our “church family” was really like. All those “hug your necks” became narrowed eyes and accusations–or outright ostracism and shunning, or even terrifying “interventions” like the one I faced when my church friends found out I didn’t want children.

One of the biggest dangers there is to organized Christianity are the people leaving their ranks–and they know it. We’ve purchased their product, tried it–in many cases for decades!–and then realized it didn’t do what the advertising said it could.

The view from up here is great. (Credit: the amazing Simon Harrod, CC license.) Rocky outcrop on Ramshaw Ridge in the Staffordshire Moorlands.
The view from up here is great. (Credit: the amazing Simon Harrod, CC license.) Rocky outcrop on Ramshaw Ridge in the Staffordshire Moorlands.

Little wonder that people who actually speak up about their experiences get treated as the enemy. In many ways, such people are far more dangerous to Christianity’s future and its credibility than a hundred lifelong atheists posting memes on Facebook.

We’re the ones who know.

And thousands of people every day join the ranks of the ones who know. That number comes from Christian leaders themselves, who might have reason to misrepresent and inflate it–but I see no reason to think it’s not accurate.

Well, our ranks just expanded recently with the deconversion of the leader of a Christian rock band. I want to show you how his story fits in with the experiences of other people who’ve left Christianity (including me!), because next time we’ll be talking about why the tribe reacts to poorly to deconversions.

A Fairly Representative Tale.

Shannon Low, the lead singer of the formerly-Christian band The Order of Elijah, just announced on Facebook that he is now an atheist. The Facebook post is heartfelt and detailed–and familiar.

The Order of Elijah is, apparently, a metalcore band. As Friendly Atheist has revealed, just a few years ago they considered themselves an unequivocally Christian band. A lot of us can probably identify with that level of fervor. Shannon Low even thought of his band as his “ministry” and said he thought that a god had told him to be part of this band. He even thought he was “called to be a pastor” when he was first baptized at 20. Very quickly he joined a standard-issue fundagelical church in Joplin, Missouri called Ignite, which proclaims its belief in Biblical inerrancy and infallibility in the Bible’s “original writing.”

Feel free to snicker among yourselves about the idea of an “original Bible,” but you won’t be surprised to learn that its pastor, Heath Mooneyham, styles and brands himself as a cool, hip, with-it pastor who cusses, pounds beer, creeps on waitresses in casino bars, and posed with a gun and a thousand-yard mad-dog stare for his big writeup at Vocativ. Nor will you be surprised to learn that he and his entire church staff concealed from the Vocativ reporter his DWI arrest, which occurred right before the reporter visited them to gather information for that story. I’m sure the news site was quite embarrassed to learn of this deception, but after a brief time away from the so-called “manliest church in America”, Mr. Mooneyham soon returned to his previous position as the church’s senior pastor. If you heard about the pastor giving away AR-15 rifles via raffles, that was this guy.

And this church, which specifically targets young men ages 18-35, sucked in Shannon Low.

Mr. Mooneyham quickly befriended the young, enthusiastic musician and even conducted Mr. Low’s wedding. Mr. Low played guitar for the church’s hip, happenin’ worship team and began leading its teen youth group. In a tiny town in the Deep South, a church’s leader probably feels very grateful indeed for a fervent volunteer like Shannon Low. It’s not at all uncommon to find uneducated amateurs in youth-group leadership in such churches.

So far, nothing new or strange has happened. When folks are young and still think the promises of the Christian religion are true, they can get pretty zealous in their proclamations of faith. Christian culture thrives on these proclamations and on the zeal of new converts.

But then Mr. Low realized that the religion’s claims weren’t true.

Disengagement vs. Deconversion.

Another sign that an ex-Christian was a fervent Christian once can be found in the public nature of their departure from the tribe. It takes a lot of courage to renounce one’s onetime affiliation with Christianity in our culture. It takes even more courage for someone who made his living as a Christian singer to do so. There are still a lot of social consequences to deconversion, so someone who isn’t really certain of their conclusion doesn’t generally go the route that Mr. Low has gone here by publicly writing about their journey through the faith and beyond it. People aren’t usually willing to shoulder that burden and endure those costs without very good reason.

Though people often “disengage” by pulling away from the religion and drifting out, when someone full-on deconverts it’s usually final. People who disengage might even still consider themselves Christians–and though they are returning to the religion less and less often, when Christian leaders talk about people walking away from their churches, they’re usually talking about these people rather than those who completely deconvert. They see disengaged people as potentially returning at some point if churches can only say the perfect thing at the perfect time in the perfect way to get their attention. Fully deconverted people, though, would see those exhortations and think they’re the most useless attempts ever made to convince anyone of the religion’s claims. Of course these attempts seem silly; they’re not aimed at us. They’re aimed at people who haven’t fully worked out (yet) that the religion isn’t based on a true story.

Merely disengaged people tend to be a lot more quiet about what’s happened to them, too. And there’s nothing wrong with that behavior, either; it’s just what I’ve noticed. Before I actually deconverted, I was already slipping out of the religion. I wasn’t totally sure about what I was seeing, so I didn’t talk about it. I avoided the question until I knew that I didn’t want to be part of the religion anymore. Once I hit that tipping point, I was positive–and way more willing to discuss my decision to dissociate from Christianity. (Other Christians disengage without ever deconverting; others still deconvert very suddenly.)

Indeed, Mr. Low himself may well have begun disengaging before his deconversion. He talks about a “return to church in search of inner solace again,” which implies he maybe hadn’t been attending regularly–maybe because he was busy with his band/ministry, or maybe something else was happening. Again, this sort of experience is nothing new. Many Christians themselves go through periods where they’re maybe not as conscientious about church attendance. In an age when only a vanishingly small percentage of Christians actually regularly attend church at all, it’d be foolish to assume that all of these absentee Christians are disengaging or deconverting.

But while he was rediscovering his church scene, Mr. Low was experiencing those dips and turns that life throws at everybody. He began to notice that the edges of reality didn’t fit up against Christianity in quite the way his religion said it should.

A Fraying Thread.

Reality rarely cooperates with fantasy. That Happy Christian Illusion never seems to last! Mr. Low’s god-ordained marriage began to falter and eventually broke up. The soothing promised by Christianity failed to materialize, so he comforted himself with alcohol. He still tried very hard to maintain his faith in the middle of “the manliest church in America.”

But then something knocked the legs right out from under his faith.

That “something” varies from person to person, but it’s very common to hear about in the “ex-timonies” of people who’ve deconverted. For Mr. Low, that “something” was the story of Elisha and the bears found in 2 Kings 2:23-24:

One Sunday morning there was a sermon that spoke about Elisha and the bears. After a large group of children make fun of Elisha for being bald he curses them in the name of god (which I thought was a commandment not to do). God sends out two female bears to rip the kids apart limb from limb. Now this story disturbed me. I thought “I’ve read the whole bible, how did I overlook this?” So I began asking some questions and found each person had a different apologetic answer for this story. Some said “You don’t understand, calling someone bald back then was horrible.” or “You need to realize these children were heretics and needed to die so their seed didn’t spread.”

Part of me wonders why someone was preaching in the first place about this story. I’ve read about Ignite and the leadership of the church seems fond of stereotypical macho posturing, so nothing I’m coming up with is very charitable. Obviously the Christians he asked about this concern of his tried to rationalize the story away, but Mr. Low didn’t buy the explanations offered–as well he shouldn’t have. Truly compassionate people should indeed recoil from Christians’ attempts to smooth over the Bible’s various atrocities.

For me, the “something” that finally caught my attention was the sudden realization that prayer doesn’t actually bring about miracles–even though the Bible says, repeatedly, that it does all the time. Once I saw that truth, I began wondering what else in the Bible was wrong. Shannon Low and I both began to read the Bible with more critical eyes, and found plenty of other things we had problems with. (I predict that as he spends more time outside of Christianity and learning about it, he’ll see–as I still do even today–plenty of other stories that he’ll be amazed he never noticed before!)

Already reeling from seeing these overlooked stories in the Bible, he learned the same disturbing truths about the book that I learned long ago–that the Gospels aren’t actually histories, that we don’t actually know a damned thing about Jesus Christ, that even the earliest books of the Bible were’t written till long after Jesus supposedly died, and that plenty of other religions share a troubling number of features with Christianity.

A “Loving” Tribe Reacts Predictably.

All the while, his Christian friends got angry with him, even “literally furious,” for seeking answers. (What, did you think for one second that a church and a pastor like that would be gentle with a dissenter?) He writes about how he was already losing friends by criticizing Christian culture or gainsaying its advertising and party lines–and my heart breaks, because I remember how that was. Christians don’t function well around dissent, and the more fervent and fundagelical the Christians, the less equipped they are to handle dissent graciously.

The message got heard loud and clear. It’s okay to show up in the “manliest church in America” drunk or hung over or wearing filthy jeans. But don’t you dare say that the Bible’s god is “cruel and power hungry” or that anything in the Bible sounds nonsensical or evil.

And definitely don’t you dare quote a Richard Dawkins book at anybody! Boo! Hiss!

Shannon Low began seeing that there was definitely no god of love inspiring Christians to behave better than other folks do. He saw his tribe’s infinite cruelty and boundless hatred lavished upon those they viewed as their enemies: women seeking abortions, gay people, foreigners, and others–a number that was rapidly starting to include him.

It’s scary to realize that one’s tribemates are actually not the good guys in the story of Earth. A lot of right-wing Christians begin seriously depending on their church peers and leadership for their emotional sustenance and care, and they may cut ties with family and friends who aren’t part of their religion. Once someone realizes that the religion isn’t true and that their tribemates aren’t actually the support network they advertised themselves as, it can be really scary to walk away–and lonely.

I’m very thankful that the internet exists now, so people who are in that position can quickly discover that no, they’re not alone at all!

A Conclusion is Made.

Finally, Shannon Low realized that he no longer believed. He calls it a decision, but characterizes it as not being a choice at all and rather a fact he accepted. I’d just about call it a conclusion, myself.

Indeed, many people would agree. I certainly don’t consider my deconversion a choice. I didn’t “choose” to disbelieve. I believed in the first place because I thought there was reason to believe. When I realized there was no reason to believe, I stopped believing. I didn’t “choose” it, and I can’t “choose” to re-believe. I don’t think Shannon Low could choose to believe again, either. He knows too much by now about where Christianity came from, how fallible the Bible really is, and how genuinely useless and counter-productive Christianity’s culture and practices are.

Once he had freed himself of magical thinking, he could finally come to grips with his maladaptive behaviors and coping mechanisms. He stopped “trying to pray [his] alcoholism away” and began seeking real treatment for it. He began solving his problems instead of “giving them to god.” He went back to college eventually and says he’s got a 3.75 GPA, which sure as hell beats mine! He sounds like he’s doing a lot better–as indeed many ex-Christians are.

Life After Deconversion.

Once we escape from religion, once we make our saving roll throw against the illusion, we see through it once and for all. We realize there’s nothing there to fear and that its promises are similarly empty. We start moving forward in life. We stop wasting time on magical rituals and incantations meant to assuage and persuade invisible spirits.

I’ve certainly met ex-Christians who are having rough lives. I’d never say that it’s all sunshine and gravy after deconversion. But I can say this: I’ve never met an ex-Christian who regretted learning that the religion’s claims were false. After the initial devastation and mourning are mostly finished, the light very quickly begins to shine again. And once we’ve back on our feet, even the bad stuff that happens is easier to bear. We don’t wonder what we did “wrong” or what lesson we’re meant to learn from our suffering; we don’t panic about what a god wants or doesn’t want us to do, or worry that we’ll make the incorrect choice. We’re free to govern our lives according to what will do the most good and commit the least harm–not according to what some posturing fanatic thinks an ancient book of translations thinks we should do.

Shannon Low has begun a fascinating and wondrous journey. I wish him all the best–even as I hope he maintains his courage, because his tribe is not going to be thrilled that yet another ex-customer is publicly denouncing their product and making sales even harder for them to close. Indeed, next time we’ll be covering that reaction.

And I appreciate very much that he’s been so public and vocal about his journey out of Christianity. The more people talk about their experiences, the lower those social burdens and costs will become for others. He’s already faced some of those costs–his fans have not all been kind or loving about his deconversion–but he’s going to help a lot of people find the courage to address their own doubts and fears, and to maybe even walk away from groups that they were too afraid to leave before.

(Credit: Simon Harrod, CC license.) Roaches from Ramshaw. The sun setting over the Roaches, taken from Ramshaw Ridge in the Peak District.
(Credit: Simon Harrod, CC license.) Roaches from Ramshaw: “the sun setting over the Roaches, taken from Ramshaw Ridge in the Peak District.”

We’re going to talk more about how Christians see deconversions like this one, and I hope to see you next time!


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