In this blog’s first year, I spent a few months outlining all the different elements that went into my deconversion. I haven’t formally talked much about it since. Now, here, I want to put my deconversion ex-timony into one post. Here’s how–and more importantly why–I deconverted from Christianity, and why I won’t ever go back to it or any other religion.
Wayyyyy Too Catholic.
I grew up unbelievably poor in a super-Catholic family in a ghetto of Honolulu. And whoa, did I ever believe in what I learned in church and Sunday school.
I’m not even sure it’s physically possible to overstate just how immersed I was in Christianity as a child. Catholicism does a great job of on-boarding kids–especially very young ones. I was without a doubt their ideal hoped-for end product. I cried inconsolably when a Sunday school teacher told my group that we, personally, had been responsible for Jesus’ suffering in the Passion (that’s the series of events from his entrance to Jerusalem to his crucifixion). I would be hard-pressed to imagine how much better or more thoroughly a child could be indoctrinated than I was.
A few glitches showed up in the Matrix even then, though. Once I saw a sign on a storefront church that announced that Jesus himself personally showed up at their services every Sunday–and holy COW I wanted to go there. My aunt and grandmother immediately shot that idea down, and I had no idea why. And my aunt’s explanations of what Heaven would be like raised a lot more questions than they answered!
My indoctrination had one very important ramification: Having been successfully taught that supernatural things existed and that magic was real, I extended that teaching into everything else in my life. I cultivated a rich fantasy life that I was convinced was completely true and real. It turns out that it’s really difficult to tell a kid that this fantasy stuff isn’t real while that other fantasy stuff is totes for realsies.
Nor could I ever figure out why the people around me didn’t take Christianity as seriously as I did. With few exceptions, the Christians I knew personally treated the religion like something they just did, like brushing their teeth or walking their dogs.
I wanted more. I insisted on more.
I just didn’t know where it was or how to find it.
A Hard Right Turn.
When my family moved to Houston I was in my mid-teens. My searing loneliness–coupled with my naïveté regarding Christian hypocrisy and overreach–made me prey to be hunted by the fundagelical kids roaming my school’s hallways.
As wild as it might sound now, at the time I’d simply never encountered fundagelical kids before; either religion hadn’t been a big honking deal at all, or else most of the folks I knew were Catholic. I only had the vaguest idea of what Protestants even were!1 And I didn’t yet know that Christians are so eager to make sales that they will literally take advantage of a child’s loneliness to proselytize her. When a schoolmate invited me to a lock-in2 at her Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) megachurch, I accepted because I really thought she was making an overture of friendship. (She was only faking it. Yay Team Jesus!)
The evangelism I heard that night blew my mind–and scared me senseless. The mind-blowing part was that this, finally, seemed like a Christianity that people actually lived totally and wholeheartedly. They were so totally gung-ho about their faith and spoke of it in such immediate and personal terms that I felt downright electrified. This felt like what I’d been seeking my whole life: a full-bodied, full-throated faith that consumed a person like holy flames.
I didn’t know yet that fundagelicals talk that way precisely because they haven’t found that kind of faith yet.
The scary part is probably also easy to guess at: I don’t know what other Catholics are like, but my family and community didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling upon Hellfire and damnation and all that. I’d never even heard of the Rapture until then. These Southern Baptists were talking about a life spent trying one’s best to become and remain saved–and also trying to rescue as many people as humanly possible from a fate literally worse than death.
I was 16. I converted almost instantly and was baptized by dunking into the SBC.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand She’s Out of the Frying Pan.
The pretend-friend vanished immediately after my conversion to the SBC, but I remained there for about six months. I became dissatisfied quickly for a couple of big reasons:
First and foremost, I noticed a lot of hypocrisy in the people around me. All that gung-ho talk meant nothing in an SBC member’s actual day-to-day lived reality. SBC members cheated; they “sinned” sexually; they lied; they broke traffic laws. There was no difference at all between anybody at my church and anybody outside of it–and that’s being charitable, because often it seemed like my fellow church members were considerably worse than the “unsaved” riff-raff outside the sheepfold.
I think it’s important to mention here, however, that I didn’t view their hypocrisy as meaning that the religion itself had no merit. I thought it meant more that whatever this denomination/church was teaching, it wasn’t effectively producing strong Christians. And that failure screamed “wrong doctrines” to me at the time, since obviously anybody who was practicing TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ with correct teachings was going to be a sterling example of humanity. (Feel free to laugh. I still do.) So obviously the solution to that problem was to find a group that was teaching stuff that produced strong Christians, because that would be a group that had a better handle on what TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ meant.
The second problem involved the SBC’s constant demands for money. I was being hit hard for donations every time I attended any function the church held. But I was a kid. I didn’t have a job. I sure wasn’t going to ask my parents to pay tithes for me. At the same time, I knew that my church was planning to purchase a large abandoned grocery store nearby to turn it into a bowling alley and hangout spot for their sizeable youth group. I didn’t yet know the Christianese term stewardship, but if I had, I wouldn’t have considered my church to be a good example of it.3
When the megachurch I attended decided to mail me–an underage member who’d already vocally objected to being asked for tithe money–pre-printed tithe envelopes, that’s literally when I checked out. I’d already been kinda drifting out anyway, with very little notice taken of it by my church’s ministry team, so that pack of envelopes felt like a slap in the face on two counts. That was it for me.
Into the Fire.
Since becoming a Southern Baptist, I’d made good friends with a schoolmate named Angela–who was as sweet, demure, and loving as anybody could hope to ask out of a fundagelical Christian. She invited me to her church one weekend. I accepted with very little idea of what was in store.
If I’d been both awed by and terrified of the SBC’s preaching, then Pentecostalism was like getting on a roller-coaster ride to go through a haunted house while an arena-rock concert’s going on. The service concerned itself with the “88 Reasons” scare. It was called that because some uneducated Pentecostal git called Edgar Whisenant had dabbled in Jewish mysticism and concluded that the Rapture was totally going to happen in 1988. He had 88 reasons for that to be so. 88 Reasons, 1988 — there was absolutely no way that this scare wasn’t going to make Pentecostals lose their minds.
Southern Baptists are like staid little Victorian maiden aunties compared to the out-and-out zealotry of Pentecostals. These people danced in the aisles; they burst into loud glossolalia during, before, and after the main sermon; they belted out spirituals and gospel songs like they were going to be judged in competition for it; and they were outwardly the most amazingly friendly and cheerful people I had ever seen in my life.
Just as I’d been naïve about friendship evangelism, I was not yet experienced enough to know that people can act outwardly like all kinds of things while not being anything like that in reality.
I was baptized–again!–because I was told that last time hadn’t “taken” because the SBC had recited a magic spell invoking the Trinity, and the UPCI is Oneness, you see, so they wanted to be sure the magic spell was done correctly without any mention of the Trinity.
I was still 16.
It’s hard to maintain a state of total panic over the long term. Eventually I drifted out. I’m sure my mom was extremely relieved to see me leaving what she undoubtedly regarded as a very dangerous cult. I still regarded myself as a Christian still; I was simply disengaged from the religion, which is the official term for someone in that situation.
Very shortly afterward, I met Biff, who would become my first husband. A few months later, he went to that Pentecostal church I’d left–he had this idea that he was totally going to confront them on their own turf and defeat them to win White Knight points with me. Even then I rolled my eyes at this idea; I didn’t accompany him. He came back converted and claiming that he had been totally possessed by demons and exorcised.
I wasn’t thrilled at all about this development, but eventually he talked me into re-joining that same church.
I refused to get baptized again, figuring that three times was enough for anybody.
Trouble in Paradise.
Very quickly I began noticing problems in my new-re-found tribe. And the problems ran both ways!
The biggest problem my new tribe had with me was that I wasn’t speaking in tongues nearly often enough. It took months for me to work myself into the catharsis needed to pull that off. Eventually I did, but that was one of two episodes of glossolalia I experienced. In my church, people worked themselves into glossolalia every single time they prayed. Speaking in tongues was how a Christian demonstrated–both to others and to themselves–that they were “topped off” with Jesus and totally right with “God.”4 So it was a source of deep concern to everyone that I wasn’t speaking in tongues. I got this subtle hint all the time that it’d be totally okay to “fake it till you make it,” something I flat refused to do, ever.
I, for my part, still struggled with the same stuff that’d bothered me in the SBC–but I added to those concerns a growing unease with the sheer misogyny of fundagelicalism. The further in I got, the more abusive elements I saw in relationships of all kinds involving women. Whether the relationship was marital or friend-based or simply the one between women and church leaders, it really bothered me that my god was apparently totally okay with forcing women into this cookie-cutter mold that seemed to both ignore our potential and to leave us vulnerable to abuse of all kinds.
It made no sense at all that any good god would be okay with any of the stuff happening to me.
A Draining Pool.
Biff and I got married largely because every single authority figure in my entire church was telling me that a god wanted us to do so, and I wasn’t equipped to argue with them. We attended college together while Biff evangelized the atheists on-campus. He’d developed a burden for them, you see.5 Until college I hadn’t even met anybody who was very overtly non-Christian, so these folks were all pretty eye-opening! Just by existing, they showed me that yes, it was very possible to exist without a god and to be happy that way. And as you can expect, even in those days (the early 1990s) they had excellent rebuttals to the most common Christian folk-apologetics arguments and talking points.
I also got to know a ton of outspoken, fervent Christians whose doctrines diametrically opposed my own. Out of everything else happening at that time, these Christians were probably the most devastating people for me to know. I expected atheists to have certain objections to my beliefs, but when a fellow Christian voiced them, it bothered me on a level I couldn’t even articulate at the time. They thought a god was talking to them, the same as I did. They were reading much the same Bible I was. And yet they had come out with totally different conclusions than I had. How could that even be possible?
At the same time, I was dealing with very real evidence contradicting my beliefs–like history classes that showed that Christianity was as far as it was possible to get from being a benign force in the world. I was only just beginning to learn that absolutely nothing in the Bible really happened the way it said, either, which was deeply disturbing.
I’d also been indoctrinated for my entire life to believe that my religion was a unique l’il sparklepony among all religions in the world. Unlike all those other religions, mine was history-based! Mine was based on unique ideas like the Incarnation, substitutionary atonement, and the divine infilling! Mine featured real live miracles, not fake ones like all those other religions had! Mine really changed lives! (<— LOL ROFLMAO)
When these discoveries were paired with my sudden and abrupt realization about petitionary prayer not working at all the way that Christians said it did, that opened the door to wondering about the effectiveness of all the other kinds of prayer.
Surely the most dangerous question any Christian can ask is What else isn’t true? That’s a quick route to discovering just what a house of cards Christianity really is.
Coming to a Head: The CPC Manual.
Biff had been getting more and more extreme, eventually signing up as a fake “counselor” with the Crisis Pregnancy Center. One night he headed off to the CPC and I noticed he’d absentmindedly left his volunteer manual behind. I read it, and I was completely devastated to the point of hysterical sobbing about its sheer deceptiveness and cruelty. (Sender’s Manual, which we’ve been going through on this blog, is nearly identical to the one I read.) That night I chose compassion over my tribe’s culture wars.
I literally fled from the manual to my Bible to comfort myself and find answers. Instead, I couldn’t help comparing the CPC’s tactics and agenda to the tactics and agenda of my religious leaders. I kept finding more Bible verses that disturbed my peace of mind further and shredded my faith. I kept finding more evidence that my beliefs simply did not square with reality.
I twisted and turned, tormented and besieged, weeping until I was physically sick from it.
And by the end of that night, I lay in the darkness in bed and realized that I simply no longer believed. Everything I’d ever thought was true, wasn’t.
My deconversion wasn’t really a case of rejecting the beliefs so much as it was feeling like they had been totally drained away from me, even clawed away from me. (At the time I thought of Eustace being clawed out of his dragon suit by Aslan. I don’t think most Christians would approve of that imagery, but that doesn’t make the imagery any less true to how I felt.)
I was about 24, and after making countless attempts and getting countless near-misses, I’d finally made my roll to disbelieve.
Clean-Up on Aisle 666.
The rest of the story is largely clean-up. I stopped attending church, though Biff didn’t see–or want to see–why that was and I didn’t feel up to that confrontation yet. We moved to Japan and then–when his vision of becoming filthy-rich ex-pats there failed–we headed to Portland, where he tried unsuccessfully to find a job (it turns out that if you sabotage yourself super-hard in every single way imaginable, finding work becomes difficult). He ended up joining the military, which is about when he finally realized that I no longer believed. Our marriage ended in an extremely explosive series of emotional conflagrations that largely centered around his attempts to re-assert control over me and my constant refusals to let it happen.
It’d take many years to really unpack what had happened during that time–and to begin recovering from it all. Along the way I learned about science; I learned how to use logic; and most importantly, I learned how to critically evaluate claims and figure out what was true and what was false. I wandered into and out of a couple of other religions–Zen Buddhism and Hellenic paganism.
I first saw the word ex-Christian around 2011 and realized, instantly, that this was me: I was an ex-Christian. I joined a large site devoted to ex-Christians and rapidly figured out that I had a lot to say on this subject–stuff I’d been thinking about for many years.
In 2013, I started this blog.
And then the fun really began!
An Inoculation of the Mind.
It’s never stopped, either.
I value both my time and my integrity a lot more than I did when I was younger. I’m all too aware of how easily a group centered around untrue ideas can slide into dysfunction, and I also know the warning signs and red flags to look for in a potential new group. I’ve become keenly aware of the passage of time–and of how finite that resource is for all of us. I simply have no more time or patience for stuff that isn’t true.
So in a very real way, I feel like I’ve been inoculated against religion–even the nicer versions of it–while making this journey through life. (What’s funny to me is that the reasons I deconverted are now a bit different from the reasons I stay deconverted. We’ll talk about that next time though.)
And–please forgive me a little sentimentality?–I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed making this amazing journey alongside you.
We talk about a lot of really important stuff here and do a lot of good, and one of the most important parts of what we have built here is a community of people who are dedicated to compassion and truth. That’s not common at all. And it’s needed now more than ever.
Here’s to many more years for the journey.
2 A lock-in was a popular kind of youth-group party in the 1980s and 1990s. After being “locked in” at the church, kids spent the night there in a big Jesus-themed sleepover presided over by adults who evangelized at them and entertained them. The kids expected to be given fun food and soda, as well as to have plenty of fun stuff to do. These parties were often given in conjunction with pizza blasts, which were basically just Jesus-themed pizza parties for young people. I haven’t heard of either kind of party making any kind of resurgence since those heady days and have no easy explanation for why they became popular in the first place.
4 That’s Christianese for a state of Heavenbound grace. If the Christian died that very night, they would go to Heaven for sure. Sort of. Nobody’s totally sure. But insofar as anyone can feel any amount of certainty about their eternal fate, being right with their god is key.
5 A burden is Christianese for a particular interest. The idea is that the Christian god assigns his followers these life-goals, which they then carry till the goal is reached (though typically they last for life).
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If you’ve been wanting to share your deconversion story, there’s no better time than the present! Feel welcome to do it here in comments or on the forum! <3 <3 <3