Here is another account in my series of real-life deconversion stories. They are often painful, psychological affairs, as you can see from the various accounts. Anthony Toohey contacted me through facebook and ended up writing this account. Please check out my book of deconversion accounts, edited with Tristan Vick, which can be bought from the sidebar over there >>>, or by clicking on the book cover. The previous accounts can be found here:
As a child in a very dysfunctional (read: alcoholic) household, I was raised nominally Catholic. We went to church on holidays and whenever my parents were trying to get their shit together. After they split up, when I was six, my mom did start getting her shit together and decided we needed some instruction, sending my brother and me to after-school catechism. This created a fascination in me for the bible and for the mystical/spiritual aspects of Christianity. But perhaps the strongest memory is not as pretty. When I was 9 or 10, my mom went to the hospital for a brief follow-up. She left me in the waiting room. There, on the end table, I found the infamous Chick tract “This Was Your Life.” The imagery and the message of the threat of the Lake of Fire was (and still is) seared on my mind. I have never forgotten those panels, though it’s been 40 years. I also remember going to Good News Club once or twice, but I didn’t care for that very much.
During my early teens, my mom got sober, and shortly thereafter, my dad did too. They both did so through AA. My mom is still sober to this day; my dad, who passed away in 2008, stayed sober for many years, but in his later years struggled with prescription pain killers, which ultimately did him in. Throughout most of my teen years, I attended dozens and dozens of AA meetings with both parents. I learned a lot about different versions of god and spirituality, but I also learned many good lessons about living life that have stuck with me and help me even today. But it did predispose me to think of God/a Higher Power/etc. with a sense of personal accessibility and power.
It was also during this time that I discovered my mother was gay (right after she did!). She didn’t actually come out to me for a couple more years, but it was something that, at the time, I accepted pretty readily. More on that later.
Let’s go back in time first. During high school, I actually followed a girl I liked to a youth group. Somehow I got it in my head that I needed to get baptized. My dad talked me out of it, because I couldn’t explain to him why I wanted to. Shortly after that I stopped going (right around when the girl made it clear it wasn’t going to happen – go figure). That was my first real brush with Evangelicalism.
In my sophomore year, I met a girl who would become (and still is) my wife. We were a pretty typical teenage couple, with everything that goes along with that, including sex. I’m not trying to be inappropriate, either. This fact will play a role in our early Christian experience that I’ll relate shortly. That summer we had already decided we would be married out of high school. She is still with me 33 years later, 28 of those married. She’s literally the best thing in my life to this day.
In 1985, I graduated from high school. Theresa had graduated the year before. We had a wedding date set for a year later, June of ‘86.
Going to work full time, I met a Christian named Duane. One Saturday night, Theresa and I ended up over at his place. We played a bible trivia game, where I surprised myself a little with how much I had retained from my formative years. The game brought up questions, and before the night was over, the three of us were sitting cross-legged on the living room floor as Duane shared the Gospel with us. As he was nearing the conclusion of the story, Duane described the final judgment, with me as the star. God was sitting on the Great White Throne. When it was my turn, my name could not be found in the Book of Life, and God looked me in the eye and said, “Depart from me, evil one, I never knew you,” and I was cast into the Lake of Fire. It was that Chick Tract all over again. With that picture, and Duane’s promise that all of the confusing stuff I’d heard about salvation and redemption in my Catholic upbringing was wrong, that it all came down to Believe and Be Saved… Well that was enough for me. I did, and as far as I knew, I was.
The next morning was Sunday, and we walked into Santa Cruz Christian Church, at that time a church of around 400 people. There’s nothing like the first Sunday after salvation, right? Everything is new. Everything is fresh, and it seems like you have all the answers. And by all accounts, you do, in the $6.00 bible you picked up in the lobby on the way in.
We let everyone know we were affianced and planning to marry the following year, at her little red church, one thing I was happy to oblige. It was suggested to us that we seek marital counseling from the church. What could it hurt, right? So we did. What we thought would be more about building a relationship became a lot more about conforming to their strict expectations, about trying to put the physical genie back into the bottle.
They paired us up with an older couple, the husband counseling me, the wife counseling her. Early on, because we had a hard time switching off two years of a physical relationship, they decided that we were no good for each other and didn’t belong together. Their counseling was intensely invasive in a way many adults would never put up with. But I was a young 18 and had been convinced that my church leaders were breathing the very words of God. If it killed us, they were going to fix us before we got married, or destroy our relationship in the process. Along those lines, I felt it my responsibility to tell my counselor if Theresa and I so much as touched each other. After one time, they decided we needed to be broken up for two months. I went along with it. Theresa still hasn’t wholly forgiven me for that, or for one other thing, which I’ll get to in a minute. After that, they seemed to sort of give up on breaking us up and concentrated on controlling us as best they could.
On top of the couple counseling, the associate pastor overseeing the counseling was talking to us about our plans. They were very focused on the man being the leader/breadwinner, and insisted that I had to be gainfully employed in a career for them to sanction our marriage. So rather than making plans to marry, head off to school together and work our way through, etc., I focused on making a retail career, a decision I regret to this day. But at that point I didn’t know how to go about it. We were called in and given an ultimatum that came straight from the Senior Pastor. Either call off the marriage for at least a year or leave the church. I was aghast. How could I leave this church where the very words of God were being imparted to me every weekend? Surely to do so would be to directly disobey God.
So I called it off. Theresa was devastated. To this day I don’t know why she stayed with me. Her love for me and devotion to me was and is that strong, I see now. And just as we were being spiritually abused, for that is what it was, so I was abusing her devotion by giving up my personal volition to others who would not have to live with the consequences of the decisions they forced upon us.
Nearly two years to the day of our original date, we did finally marry, at our church. Sadly, I don’t even think a year had gone by before both pastors who had worked so hard to “purify” us had fallen into adultery and were removed from ministry.
I will just say that even in the two decades after this, I never saw this for the spiritual abuse, the emotional domination, that it was. It was not until after I left the faith and went back to examine my Christian life in light of my new viewpoint, that the gravity of what I had allowed to be done to us hit me.
Along with that drama, there were other early doubts that bothered me. The first was during that first year. I decided ministry was my goal (remember the priest thing? I want to be the man!). Duane took me down to the Christian bookstore and I bought the first pieces of my spiritual library. He and Theresa had already bought me a study bible. That day I bought a comprehensive concordance, a bible dictionary, an exhaustive cross-reference, a bible atlas, and, finally, Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties.
I took Duane at his word, but inside, the title of that book put a cold shaft of fear inside me. How could God’s word have “difficulties?” What on earth was difficult about God’s revelation to mankind. I mean, he’s God, right? And we have the spirit of God.
When I got home, I looked through some of the topics. I’ll confess that, even then, it seemed very equivocating – sort of a wordy hand-waving. Not being comforted by what I read, I usually ignored this book. Instead, I started reading about all the wrong religions. I became obsessed with cults and false religions. I had all the comparative pamphlets. I read through sections of Kingdom of the Cults. I had everyone else judged and figured.
As life settled down, after marriage, I began to settle into what became a vicious cycle, and into what I know is a common cycle experienced by many, many devoted Christ-followers. Commitment, struggle, failure, guilt, confession, repentance, victory, commitment, struggle, failure, etc. One of my main vices was my anger. Hang on to that thought for a moment. Whatever the failure, I was often very discouraged at the lack of efficacy of my faith. I believed so severely, so completely. I prayed, I read, and I wondered, why would I fail? I was regenerated, connect directly to God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, placed there by the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Why could I not grow through those struggles?
I’m going to skip a lot of time now, and in all that time skipped, there are surely material things that contributed to who I am today. But in the interest of getting to the meat of the topic, I’m going to focus on the building string of doubts that led me to examine, and ultimately abandon, my faith.
Early in our marriage, my wife was determined to complete her education. After getting eligible to transfer, she decided to attend San Jose State to get an accounting degree. While she was there, she took a class in the Religious History, and possibly one more focused on Western religion. The professor was also a pastor who was, to me, very liberal. He taught about the history of the development of the doctrine of hell. He taught how the prophets were used to enable rulers to motivate their soldiers to commit atrocities they would otherwise not ever consider. He taught the very human side of religion.
My wife is a thinker, and she doesn’t finish a topic until she’s thought all the way through it. She is tenacious and was not going to quit studying until she understood.
It brought her faith deeply into question. While she continued to believe and attend, she also began to ask many, many difficult, and therefore annoying, questions. After a while, she was done attending our hardline church, thinking that their literalism was severely off base. I was afraid that, along with all my personal failures, I was now a failure as a leader of my family.
When we moved to King City, where we now live, we found a small church much like Santa Cruz Bible in character, but small, the way she liked, so she gave it another try. That didn’t last all too long. We attended a bible study. By our second or third time, she was asking more questions. I don’t remember the last question she asked, but it froze the room. You could have heard a pin drop. She got a soft-shoed answer and the pastor rushed past it as quickly as he could.
After that, *I* attended bible study by myself.
I was soon the worship leader and remained so until the end. She was helping out in the nursery, taking care of toddlers and teaching them very simple bible lessons with a felt board and cut-outs. This particular Sunday the lesson called for an ark and animals. She was teaching through the lesson thinking, “I don’t believe this at all. Why am I teaching what I don’t believe? Why am I lying?”
She never went to church again. She announced she was agnostic and didn’t believe what I believed. I was a failed leader, and we were at a crossroads. We already knew one couple that was coming apart at the seams because the husband was no longer a believer and the wife couldn’t accept it. They are divorced today. Could I do that? Could I let her leave for the sake of my faith?
I decided instead that I was just going to love her unconditionally. She did the same for me. We had a long series of very deep, personal discussions about how we would conduct our lives, how we would talk to our kids, what place my religion would have in the household. We resolved to treat each other as equals. We would respect each other. We would tell our kids what we thought, both sides. We would not go behind each others’ backs. We would talk as much as we could about things with love and respect, and we would make our love and our marriage priority.
In the intervening months, our marriage got better than it ever had been. It still is that way today. Why is that? How could my marriage get better? That made no sense. We were unequally yoked. We saw life differently. We saw everything differently. How could we be more deeply in love? That doubt stayed with me until the end.
I did harbor hope that she would eventually come around and return to the fold. In fact I was sure of it. But I knew that I needed to better understand what she learned in college and in her own studies. Although she was very agnostic and non-committal, her arguments were those I recognized from atheists. I knew that all truth was God’s truth. If I could wrap my arms around those arguments and answer them for her, I could meet her where she was and draw her back to gGd. I travel for business a lot and found myself at a Barnes & Noble killing some time. Theresa was on my mind, so I went to the section with books on atheism. I found a book called Why I Became an Atheist. Surely I could look through here and be ready to answer her objections. I opened the book and turned to a section called “The Outsider Test for Faith.”
It evoked anxiety right away. I started reading. The gist of the chapter was this: It is a fact that people, to an overwhelming degree, adopt the religious tradition of their culture. To them it is accepted fact. For us in America, Christianity holds the dominant place. However, Christians summarily reject every other faith with a very real skepticism. Because of this cultural indoctrination, the only way to objectively examine your faith is to take the position of an outsider from a different culture and examine your faith with the same level of skepticism you treat other religions.
I slammed that book closed and shoved it back onto the shelf. All the doubts I ever had loomed just out of sight, and I was in no place to face them. But I never forgot those words and their implications. In the years following, I underwent a gradual and eventually severe, attitude adjustment. There was a point during my cycle of failure and repentance that I wondered why on earth I would rush to the writings of Paul (specifically Romans 5-8) to restore my spirit rather than to Jesus. One was an apostle, but one was actually God, as I understood it. The modern salvation transaction as we’re taught it was never all that clear in Paul’s writings, and not at all in the words attributed to Jesus. So I began to spend more time with the words of Jesus, thinking that if I can’t find what I need from the words of my god walking upon the earth, the words of an apostle would not help me. To shorten the story, reading the words attributed to Jesus turned me into a social liberal. The Jesus in the bible is compassionate to the poor, destitute, and irredeemable, in stark contrast to the modern Christian, who, if they follow the culture, would sooner tell the poor to get a job and wave the flag of meritocratic individualism.
The next issue I faced was the issue of evolution. I was a Young Earther, but the more I read, the more I realized that the science wasn’t a conspiracy, but rather an accurate representation of the way the world actually worked. But it didn’t lead to my faith deserting me. All truth is gGd’s truth. I figured, therefore, that Genesis was an allegory. My theory was that as long as Christ rose from the dead, then Christianity was true. It wouldn’t matter if Genesis was an allegory or literal. Jesus = salvation. The rest is interpretation.
In the same vein, I decided the flood of Noah was also allegory, as it was scientifically impossible. Australia itself stands as a testament to the unreality of it.
I also came to believe that we were wrong to impose our beliefs on people who didn’t adhere to the bible as authority. As Americans, they are free to believe or not believe in the bible. If they don’t, then their personal lives should have been none of our business.
So being in this strange place, with only the resurrection of Jesus Christ to keep me in the fold, I came to a full on crisis of faith. I won’t go heavily into it now, and no, I didn’t beat anyone up or any such thing. But my anger created a huge issue. My wife made it clear to me that my anger no longer had a place in our household and that I had to deal with it in a lasting way.
I was struck with fear. I had a picture of that vicious cycle of failure and repentance in my mind, and it seemed that the only thing at the end of that road was loss of trust and divorce. I decided that I needed more. I bought a couple books, focused more on the psychology of anger. The one that spoke to me was a nominally “Zen” book on anger that helped me understand my anger as a tool for control and a result of unreasonable, and unmet, expectations. I took to this and began meditating. I meditated on scriptures and began reading Thomas Merton and looking into contemplative Christianity.
One day, sitting on my mat, I realized that, despite the fact that I was meditating on scripture, my church leadership and members would never understand what I was doing. They would see it as apostasy and I would at the very least be forced to step down from the one church thing I really loved, leading worship. The question came to mind again – why did I have to hide? Why was this working and faith and trust and petitioning God did nothing? Could I give up this one thing that was possibly saving my marriage? Why did the world work in very different ways than what I was being taught from the Bible?
Very suddenly and very powerfully, all the doubts I’d built up since that first encounter with the encyclopedia of bible difficulties came rushing in. My faith was teetering. I needed to decide what I believed. But I didn’t want to lose my faith. I wanted to keep it. So I searched for the best apologetics book I could find, settling on Norman Geisler’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. And I knew which book I would read from the athiest point of view. The one that scared me. The one that challenged me. I bought Why I Became an Atheist.
I gave God first shot at me and read Geisler. I expected to be strengthened – steeled for my encounter with the atheist, able to find a way to keep my faith and work on my anger. Instead I took 30 pages (steno pad) of notes. I could easily formulate my wife’s answers to his arguments without even trying. I was disappointed and borderline devastated. I read Loftus’s book. Another 20 pages of notes later I set down his book and realized that 1) I didn’t know what I did believe, and 2) I was sure it wasn’t the god of the bible.
I was unmoored. I tried another apologist, thinking that maybe Geisler wasn’t the best to read. Loftus had referenced William Lane Craig, so I started reading one of his books. About 40% of the way through, I gave up. It was over. I sat at my desk and said to myself, “I’m an atheist.” And here I am today.