Friday, January 9, 2015

Christian to non-Christian: how the transition happened for me

A little while back, somebody asked me how I got from being raised Christian, to being... well... not. It wasn't a simple process, so it seemed worthwhile to stop and write it out. And it really isn't meant as a defense of my present beliefs, or a condemnation of the beliefs I was raised with. Sill, for anyone who's interested in a bit of anecdotal personal history, here's my answer:

Okay, here goes: somewhere in there, Christianity just stopped making sense to me as a way of looking at the world.

Like I said, I was raised Episcopalian: the sky was blue, water was wet, and Jesus died for my sins. Like any kid in a church environment, I picked up bits and pieces of Christianity as I went along: Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, Jesus dying on the cross, Paul on the road to Damascus, Samson and Delilah; all jumbled together in an inchoate mass. I didn't even really think of it as Christianity; those were just the things I'd learned at church, and not much different from the things I learned in school.

(Somewhere in there I picked up the concept of Hell, but that never really frightened me. I think -- though I don't really trust my memory on this -- that almost in the same breath I picked up the idea that Jesus had already undone that for us, and that God expected us to do our best but also knew we'd make mistakes and wouldn't hold them against us. No, the bit of Christian doctrine that really creeped me out was the idea that God was all-seeing. I was -- what? Six? Eight? Five? -- and I was perfectly appalled by the idea of God watching me poop, or seeing me in the shower. Can't a fellow have a little privacy around here?)

Then, somewhere when I was around twelve or thirteen, I started trying to take all those pieces I'd been given and fit them together: stories, lessons, bits of doctrine, and some things that I suspect are more like Bible fan-fiction than actual Christian teaching. And it... didn't quite work. When I started trying to assemble all that into a coherent whole, it just didn't make a lot of sense to me.

I was kind of used to that. I think I've mentioned this before, too, but I was a weird kid. A lot of things that seemed compelling and important to other people really didn't make much sense to me: sports, cars, fashion. Christianity was just another item on the list, and naturally I assumed that the problem -- insofar as it was a problem, which it mostly wasn't -- was with me.

(True story: our priest -- our head priest, I should say, since at any given time we might have had one or two other priests and/or deacons -- our priest, who was a deeply sleazy and I suspect not-terribly-bright man, once took it upon himself to inform the youth group that we could safely ignore beliefs about things like walking under ladders or having a black cat cross one's path. Those, after all, were mere superstitions -- isolated beliefs with nothing to support them. I thought about that for all of maybe two seconds, and then asked him, "So the difference between a superstition and a religion is that a religion is complicated?" Deadpan. Perfectly serious question, in fact. Flustered him completely; I think he answered something along the lines of, "No, because Christianity is true," but I'm not sure. What sticks in my mind wasn't his answer, obviously; what I remember most clearly was how completely unprepared he was for the question -- for being questioned at all, I suspect, by a twelve-year-old.)

I think the first thing I really stumbled over (intellectually) was the Doctrine of the Trinity, and the dual nature of Jesus. Jesus, of course, is the Son of God -- but He is also, somehow, God Himself. Well, y'know, okay: an all-powerful being should be able to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Only, the more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. Not only was the whole idea starting to seem impossible in a way that no amount of Being All Powerful would fix, it also seemed to change according to which section of the Bible I was reading. And after going back and forth (and round and round) about it for a while, I started wondering if maybe it wasn't just me -- it maybe the text itself just didn't make sense.

Shortly after that, the entire concept of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross stopped making sense to me. As a child, it seemed glorious: Jesus dying horribly, but willingly, to save the whole world. To my teenage self, well... What did this have to do with me? How is somebody else dying supposed to affect the things that I'm responsible for?

And then there was the whole concept of Original Sin. If there was a sequence to that one, I don't remember it; but I got a kind of nuanced view of Genesis from a fairly early age. So that could have been before or after either of the other two, or it could have been one of those things that just never made sense to me; I just don't remember. The Christian doctrine that I understood said that, fundamentally, all of modern humanity was paying the price for a mistake made by a distant ancestor. That seemed... unjust. And God, whatever else he might or might not be, was supposed to be just. But if that wasn't the case, if the whole story of The Fall was a metaphor, then what exactly was Jesus' death on the cross supposed to be saving us from? Don't answer that, by the way. I realize that there are good, faithful answers to those questions, but leaping in to provide them would be missing my point. I already know those answers exist, and I already know they don't work for me.

I went back and forth for a few years, between This Is Something That's Really Important To A Lot Of People, Including People I Know And Love, and This Just Doesn't Make Any Sense To Me. I looked at other religions, other belief systems -- or the watered-down versions of them that get marketed to impressionable Westerners, anyway -- but I couldn't really get into them for the same basic reasons that I couldn't stay with Christianity: they didn't match the world I saw around me; they didn't offer any useful new insights or concepts; they didn't resonate. I went through an "Animist, Pantheist, Moon Worshipper" phase (which was only partly tongue-in-cheek), and eventually I settled into a sort of experiental materialism.

One of the issues I have with (some flavors of) Christianity is the idea that we choose our beliefs. In my experience, that's not how it works. We consider the evidence we find; we compare our thoughts and observations with other people; and we reach conclusions, whether we like them or not. (Given what I hear from a lot of former believers, the idea that maybe God isn't out there and never was is almost never a welcome, desired result.)

So, yeah: somewhere in there, Christianity just stopped making sense to me as a way of looking at the world. It's not that I have anything against it; it's that I just can't do it.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed the glimpse. I really like your 12 year old question to the priest and can picture him being caught off guard.

  2. I agree with secularwings. This was fascinating.

  3. I seems that your slide into non belief was not terribly emotional as it is for some. Is that true, and did you experience any loss or heartache at the losing of your childhood faith?

  4. I think that's fair to say. (I think that old saw about "so-and-so was never really a Christian" is also arguably true in my case -- more true for me than a lot of other people, anyway.)

    As far as loss or heartache... yes, there was some -- the faith of my childhood was a comforting thing, and I remember some times when I wished I could have still been a Christian.

    On the other hand, my transition was a lot less... full of conflict than most. My parents were upset, but they didn't freak out completely (or, more likely, they just did an excellent job of keeping that reaction to themselves). I wasn't really invested in Being Christian as part of my sense of identity, and I wasn't that deeply imbedded our church community; I liked the people in my youth group, but I only ever saw them in youth group. My friends didn't care, but even if they had we were all graduating and heading off to college, so we weren't going to be hanging out all the time, the way we used to. So I didn't go through any of the family fighting, the losing friends and community, or the people telling me I was in rebellion and in danger of hell.

  5. Hi Michael,
    Followed the link from Bruce's blog. I don't think your story is all that strange. It is part of why I teach in the junior high class at my church. Kids that age are forming who they will be as adults and often they have sincere questions and good questions that can be intimidating to those of us adults who are supposed to have all the answers. I make a point of saying to my classes that they can ask any question. I don't always have all the answers but I think that those of us who believe the Bible have to be willing to ask questions of it. If it is true it must hold up under scrutiny. Thanks for the link.

  6. I think it's absolutely wonderful that you encourage questions, and even better when "I don't know" is an acceptable answer. The church I grew up in (Episcopalian) and my family were both very good about providing thoughtful answers to difficult questions, so I'm always a little surprised when people tell me that they weren't allowed to express doubts or ask questions.

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for... how to say this? ...for meeting us unbelievers where we are. You might be surprised by how many people are only willing to meet us where they think we should be (or, you might not).


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