Memory is unreliable when recounting old wounds, but I do know that the beginning of the end started with an email to an old professor in which I expressed: “I don’t think I believe in the God of Christianity anymore,” and ended with a Facebook post about deconversion and an awkward, hard conversation at the kitchen table with a loved one, during a late summer night. Her words threw me off the cliff I was hanging onto by the edge. She didn’t mean to damn me, I’m sure; she was just concerned for my soul.
“What do you mean you have doubts and questions?… After everything I put in you… That’s demonic influence… That’s not how I trained you!“
She said “trained” like I was a soldier who was willingly surrendering to the enemy. It was more complex than that; it’s never that simple, ever. The Biblical verse she alluded to was not lost on me, thanks to years of indoctrination and memorizing Scripture. I knew she was indirectly quoting Proverbs 22:6 which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” She was in for a rude awakening. I was breaking her heart, an unfortunate aftereffect of my decision, and one that I did not want, but my religious (or non-religious) freedom meant more to me, at the time, than her tears at my perceived “betrayal.”
“You do what you want when you get out on your own, but as long as you live in my house, you’re going to church…. I can’t force you to believe. I’ll give you time to doubt and question, or whatever you need to do, but if you don’t follow God, you’re gonna have to find somewhere else to live…”
You’re threatening to kick me out for not believing in God anymore? Seriously? What happened to ‘work out your own faith with fear and trembling?’
“…If you just read your Bible, search the Scriptures…”
Goodbye, loved one. I’ve lost you, maybe forever. If this is what Christianity is, I don’t want it. god, if you’re listening, I’m done.
Looking back now, her words still hurt. But I don’t hate her. Besides, the effect her words had on me was just the final pull of the trigger—the gun had been loaded quite some time ago.
Walking Towards the Cliff
Spring 2017 changed me. I had left my home church, the one my parents still attend, with spiritual, relational, and sexual trauma baggage in hand, and found a forever home in its stead, with a great pastor whose vulnerability from the pulpit floored me. It was the best 3 months of my life. I could actually talk to my pastor and ask him questions, knowing my doubts couldn’t scare him away. Even with all my uncertainty, I still wanted to believe in God.
The church ending for financial reasons was the second major barrel that had been loaded into the gun. The first being the malicious tree of doubt that sprouted up inside me after the sexual trauma, before the PTSD diagnosis.
Why didn’t You stop it from happening?
Are You really good or was I lied to, brainwashed, my whole life?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s not like I hadn’t questioned God on this magnitude before; I had, just not when it was this personal. This time seemed different. I held the unhealed, stubborn sexual trauma up to God like a red badge of courage, as if to say, “See? This is proof as to why you’re not as good as they say you are.”
Couple that with the disillusionment I felt because my faith was not sufficient enough to stop the symptoms I was experiencing, or make my life better or more meaningful, plus the pent-up frustration I had with the church and her 1,000 rules for holiness (including how to dress and worship the “right way”), it was a recipe for danger. I’m honestly surprised I didn’t jump ship sooner, although fear of familial abandonment and eternal punishment were probably to contribute to that.
Falling and Hitting the Ground
I held on for as long as I could; I did. But the night my loved one said those words, I free-fell into a new territory I was unfamiliar with. She threatened me right out of the arms of God and into the hands of atheism/agnosticism and it was terrifying.
Learning this new language of doubt and skepticism was hard for me because even though I was now intellectually free to doubt and ask questions, a luxury I couldn’t afford in my younger years due to the fundamentalist Evangelical upbringing I was raised in, my emotional exodus took some time to come about.
“How do I think like an atheist?” was the first question that popped into my head when I awoke the next morning. I still had Gospel and Christian songs on my iPod, still had the moral compass Christianity had given me, but now I had none of the protection. I forsook my safety net for a hang glider and ended up flat on my back, staring up at an unfamiliar sky with endless possibilities. If Christianity isn’t real, isn’t true, then where do I go from here? What happens next? Everything that had shaped my worldview, my relationships, my sense of self was torn from me and I was left with nothing but rubble and shattered remnants of forlorn, legalistic Christian behaviors. I’ve been a Christian for so long. Without that Christian identity, who am I? What am I left with?
As I write this, remembering that 8-month timespan of official deconversion (unofficially, it was more like 3 years), I find myself experiencing the symptoms of my typical panic attacks: hyperventilation, hypervigilance, and worse, flashbacks. All I see is myself, sitting in a church pew while others around me are worshipping, crying, pouring out their hearts to a divine Being, and I’m sitting down, scoffing at these brainwashed Christians, using nonchalance as a veil to hide my broken, angry heart. I don’t belong here. I don’t believe any of this religious bulls—t. They’re all ridiculous. I don’t belong here anymore.
During that time, I had conversations with my friends in which I wrestled with the notion of “can I be good without God?” and “if God is good, then why all the pain and suffering? Just to teach me a lesson? That’s kinda f—d up. God seems like nothing but a cosmic bully.” But when asked for an alternative, I couldn’t come up with a feasible answer. That frustrated me. What frustrated and hurt me the most was losing friendships. Some friendships I had had with certain people who decided, after me coming out as agnostic, that I wasn’t good enough to be friends with, especially now that we held different beliefs. I found myself praying for God to help me give them grace; imagine that! They treated me like I had some contagious disease that they could catch if they were not careful. They treated me like a leper and I knew the Bible better than they did! (I don’t say that to gloat, merely stating facts). I get it, I was like them before I deconverted: stay within the circle of people who think and believe the same way you do and don’t mingle with nonbelievers unless trying to convert them.
Getting Up and Walking on Solid Ground
It’s no secret that God drew me back to Himself and I returned to Christianity in the late months of 2017. This isn’t to say that having a relationship with God fixes everything because it doesn’t. I still have panic attacks sometimes when in the middle of prayer, a remnant of my former beliefs that God was nothing more than a powerful, divine Being who had the power, and the right, to snatch the breath out of my body at any given moment.
For those who read this to the end with the mindset that everything will be better because “I’m a Christian now!” will be severely disappointed because, as far as coping mechanisms go, Christianity is a pretty bad one, but that’s another post for another day. Christianity isn’t some “get out of jail free” card like some would make it out to be, which is probably why many don’t stick around long.
All in all, it makes sense to me why atheists and agnostics don’t believe in God, especially those who once were Christians. I couldn’t have said that with complete honesty 2 years ago, which either says something about God or me. There’s just something about hardship and hitting rock bottom that makes you a bit more open-minded than you were before.