Our First De-Conversion Story

Author: (Requested Anonymous) / Age: 24 / Sex: Male / Occupation: Law Student

Growing up a Conservative Christian
My parents are fundamentalist Christians in the Bible Belt. I grew up in The Church of God, a Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical Protestant Christian denomination which was originally distinguished from its progenitor, the Assemblies of God, by the dying practice of “foot washing.” I attended a conservative, “reformed” Presbyterian high school K-12th grade before studying at a public university. I’m now 24 and a third-year law student.
By age five I had professed my love and belief in Jesus Christ and had been baptized in my parent’s church. By age six I had apparently lead my little sister in “the sinner’s prayer” in the back seat of our car on the way home from a Christmas pageant. This still baffles me at times, but I was being honest when, at five years old, I said I understood the basic doctrine of salvation. At that age, I could already “feel” my need for God’s grace. As a five year old I felt the sting of religious guilt, even as I faithfully answered back “Jesus!” to every question at school and church with true conviction.
I have a specific memory of sitting in Sunday School, fourth grade. My father was helping the youth pastor with object lessons (he helped teach “Super Church,” children’s church for 1st through 5th grade, for most of my childhood). I was a perfectly sweet and friendly child, yet I was sitting in a folding metal chair, miserable with the guilt of my own sin. On this particular occasion, however, I was begging God’s forgiveness because I just couldn’t help but feel how improbable a miracle really was. Lack of faith was clearly a sin, a failure to God, and my reason was a stumbling block to making God happy. I wanted God to be happy.

Growing up I was a “leader” in my youth group, I nodded to every word of Bible class, I studied every doctrinal debate within Christianity, searching for answers. I ate up C.S. Lewis. I stayed up late at night talking with my other intelligent friends about all the issues. I tried really really hard to figure it out. I wanted truth. In the Church I was always told that the empty feeling inside of me could never be filled by anything but “God.” Of course no drugs, no girls, and certainly no amount of money was going to make that hole go away, so they told me. This was, of course, true. In fact, nothing could fill this particular hole. All the while, it was religion who dug the terrible hole inside of me. Religion dug the hole and partially filled it, promising me that the work would be complete one day—perhaps in “the life to come.”

Being at church pushed away the guilt of doubt, and I loved it there. I had fun times with friends and genuinely thoughtful and well meaning people; people who, in hindsight, must have felt like me. The most perverse part of being raised in the church is that I felt the freest in my youth group for the few hours I was there, yet it was the source of my struggle every other waking moment. It is terrifying how easy it is to believe a fabrication when everyone around you acts as if they know it to be true—when everything you try so hard to believe is spoken of as plain reality. It was easy to believe during the two hours of church, and the guilt inflicted by my own doubt was pushed out of sight, perhaps because that moment was probably the only time I wasn’t somehow “sinning.” The guilt was gone until the next time I was alone. Church was like a drug to which my junkie body has grown accustomed. I remember the drives home alone after youth group, when the high of exaltation of the previous hours melted away into existential crisis. My doubts sprang up again as evidence of my own failure. This was the terrible emotional and mental cycle that I endured the first 21 years of my life.
In college I had a great experience with the local College ministry. Tons of really cool people, great trips, great service to the community, etc. But it was still a struggle behind the scenes. My emotional life re: Religion was becoming a disaster. It was a daily struggle to make sense of it all, even as I hosted “small group” Bible studies in my apartment semester after semester and went on missions trips around the world with others in the college ministry.

De-Conversion
I doubt you could have called me a fundamentalist after about age 12. I knew that it didn’t all fit together (“mysteries” they are called), and the more I learned and the smarter I got, the more acrobatics were required to reason it all away. Around junior year of college it came to a head. To believe in the existence of God despite evidence(and duck the problem of evil) it was necessary to believe that the world around me was all artificial. I had to label both my reason and my experience of the world around me as “deceptive.” We can call this complete delusion, but at my core I knew that something was terribly wrong.

The walls I had built up between reason and my faith had been thinning for years. I have many memories of profound moments of doubt and panic. Most of the time though I was fine, able to push those thoughts away when I was around a community of people who genuinely cared about each other and had a great time. It still felt right when I was around believers, but now only rarely when I was alone.

The great crack in this wall came in my History of the Middle Ages class that I had taken as an elective (and I’m so grateful I did). I was studying for the final exam (which was the next day) when I came across a chapter we had skipped in the book. We didn’t skip the chapter because my teacher was friendly to faith—far from it—but perhaps it was too controversial for a state school in the Bible belt. I saw the chapter on the history of scripture and the early Church (one of the early chapters in the book). I couldn’t resist reading it. It completely shattered me and everything I had been taught. It was my first exposure to a “historical” Jesus and textual criticism of the Bible. I had spent my entire life trying to find answers from within the bounds of accepted doctrine and writings of modern Christianity. I had never been exposed to the information about the formation of the Church or Scripture. It was hidden from me, and the truth was just one giant brick through the window. I was in existential crisis. I couldn’t study for the rest of the night, I couldn’t sleep, and I know that I wept openly for extended periods of time. I had been taught outright lies about the authenticity of the Bible. I also did terrible on the exam the next day, but I’m grateful.

I pushed it to the back of my mind. I kept going to my Christian community, but I was checked out for my last year. Numb. I decided to just wait and “see how it went.” I operated this way for my senior year of College and the first two years of law school. I went to a few different Church groups my first year of law school, but never more than three weeks on any given group. They were terrible; the friends were the only reason I had gone to my group in College, and I couldn’t find cool people at my new campus. I tried to identify as an officially liberal Christian for about a year as I occasionally attended a pretty little Episcopal church. It didn’t work. “Faith” had died out slowly for 7 years.

Back in May of this year I realized that I just wasn’t really religious anymore, and had not been for a LONG time. I hadn’t “believed” with my mind for three years. I was clicking through the TED website when I saw Richard Dawkins giving a talk on militant atheism. I was so curious, and I had heard about him as a biologist. I clicked, I watched, and found myself agreeing with an atheist that his position was definitely more reasonable than agnosticism. A few weeks later I bought the God Delusion audiobook from iTunes.

I laid in the bed of my old room in my parents’ house (home working for the summer) and put on my headphones. The words of the preface broke me immediately. “I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you.” I began crying for the first time in a long time. In this exact moment, the guilt and the anger rolled away, right there, and it has never come back. I wasn’t sad, but I couldn’t contain my emotion. It’s cliche, but the only way I can describe it was tasting freedom for the first time. Those are the words that just crushed me—this book WAS for me. Since that moment I’ve been the most fulfilled and true to myself that I’ve been in my life.

Now what about my family
I have been exposed to both crazy, Jesus-Camp shit and to psuedo-intellectual, “reformed” Presbyterian indoctrination. I honestly think that I’ve seen it ALL firsthand within American Christianity. It would be fun if people had questions about some of those kinds of experiences, especially people who can’t imagine how these people can act so freaking insane. I’ve watched it my whole life, and I could probably explain it with some funny stories.

I have still been hiding this from my parents. The main reason, I’m sad to say, is because I still need their support. I have debt and a semester of Law School left. I’ve always been independent otherwise, and if I was shunned from my family it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. However, they are paying my rent and I can’t imagine how hard it would be if they cut me off. I would lose my credit card, maybe my car, and my rent payments. I don’t know if they would do such a thing, they love me and have never shown me otherwise, but my dad worries me.

All the while I have grown more liberal and less “faithful,” my parents have become more conservative and more fundamentalist. My mom used to record Glenn Beck, but I think she’s getting a little better. My dad now listens to sermons of this apocalyptic freak named Perry Stone who is obsessed with “interpreting” the book of Revelation with a new conspiracy theory every week. I’ll do a separate post on him later. My first summer of law school I wanted to do an externship at the ACLU. I thought it would be a great opportunity because I love Constitutional Law. I thought it would be fun. My dad is very conservative, politically and religiously, and he told me that if I externed at the ACLU that he would not support my rent for the summer. And I just couldn’t afford it, since an externship is for class credits, not for pay. His actions shocked and scared me, and this experience is keeping me in the closet for now.

I’m sure my mom knows something is “wrong.” She sounds worried when she sheepishly asks me every once in awhile about “my relationship with Jesus.” For example, the other day I came in town to have lunch with her. I was opening up about a couple of girls I thought about asking out (in hindsight opening up to my mom was a poor decision), and we were joking around about my potential strategy since the girls were friends. Then she got really serious: “But you haven’t said anything about the most important thing.” She looked kind of angry. Stupidly, I had no idea what she was talking about. In retrospect, my ignorance probably gave it ALL away; Jesus Christ was the furthest thing from my mind. “Are these girls following the heart of God?” I wanted to throw up. I thought, “actually, maybe, which seriously worries me if they are.” I don’t remember what I said to play it off, but I can promise it qualified as lying.
I’ve been getting a lot of moments like this with my mom. I’m a terrible liar, and I have never had to do it before. I can barely hide my opinions. The gig will be up soon, and I will probably explode in a fireball of honesty and unwelcome logic. I just hope I have a job by the time that happens.

Besides my family, I’m “out” to anyone who would ask me about it, including a lot of my close life-long friends who are all practicing Christians. I’m at a good law school and I don’t have a single friend who would identify themselves as an atheist or even agnostic. I’m sure there are some, but that’s not what Bible verses on their facebook pages are telling me. That isn’t bothering me too much since I don’t hang out with very “religious” types, or anyone that would ever preach at me. But finding an atheist woman with all the other important qualities? That could be impossible around here. In the long run I’m more worried about that, but I plan on moving as soon as possible :)

  • Karen Diaz

    My story is much like yours. I was raised in the Assemblies of God. I'm much older than you (50) and have some perspective. The only advice I would give to you is to hang in there. I understand being financially dependent on your parents. It is reasonable and rational to refrain from telling your parents that you are an atheist until you can support yourself. You might just say that you are struggling with religious issues – you are! You are struggling with the conflict you may have with your family over your religious differences. You will be financially independent before long – and if you just can not hold back, and you "come out" to your parents – and if they cut you off, you will just have to find a way to support yourself. It won't be easy but I am confident that you can do it. Good Luck! Know that there are a lot of us out here who have gone through similar things. There are many people on many, many websites who would be willing to listen and offer advice and suggestions. :-)

  • Bobby Treat

    I was raised Southern Baptist in Snyder, TX. Baptized on Easter Sunday at 9 years old, when every Baptist is somehow gifted with divine wisdom. Most never change their mind about ANYTHING after age 9… but I was more adventurous. The break came, really, when the church deacons tried to fire Brother Bobby Phillips for trying to use Sunday school textbooks that weren't approved by the Southern Baptist Convention. It came to a church vote, and a majority of the church voted with Brother Bobby. But the deacons, it turned out, had another route to getting what they wanted. They had money, and the rest of us didn't. Collection plates dried up, and Brother Bobby eventually resigned for the good of the church. I perused church budgets in those days and noticed that 1% or less went to missions, and pretty much NOTHING went to help anyone. Later, I noticed that biblical prophets had the same record: they also did nothing for anyone. Samson and Moses were mass murderers. Joshua "fit" battles. War and killing were rewarded; peace-making was not. Today's right-wing christians don't even deserve a capital C; they do not follow Christ in any way. You are young; you'll soon get out from under the thumb of such people, and you'll be better for it.

  • Ali

    Thank you for sharing your story. I was raised in a completely secular environment so reading these deconversion stories is fascinating for me. If you write another post I would certainly like to hear about the crazies, because I've never been in those environments. Lucky, right? I'm really sorry you had to go through those years of mental anguish and lying to yourself and others and must now be on pins and needles with your family.

    Good luck with your parents. Seriously. I sincerely hope that it all goes well and they don't cut you off. If I were you I would go to The Friendly Atheist, if you haven't already, and read some of the Ask Richard series. Richard gets a lot of questions from atheists asking how to deal with their families, and Richard gives wonderful, lengthy advice. Some people's stories and situations are precarious like yours and his answers might provide some tips for the impending Situation.

    I'll keep you in my prayers…just kidding. But good luck.

    Ali

  • JC

    I can almost completely relate to your story. I went K-12 to a Christian school, parents are really conservative, etc. I also live in Alabama (It makes me wonder if we went to the same school…). I started having little doubts in about 11th grade, but they didn’t come to a head until my sophomore year of college (this year). You’re lucky that your deconversion happened later because I still have a while before I am financially independent from my parents. I am also not telling them, but I’m afraid that I might have to soon. I think what I’m gonna do is go ahead and write a letter explaining my deconversion and if I ever have to “come out” to them, I’ll give them the letter. That way, I can say exactly what I want to say and emotions hopefully won’t get too heated. Thanks for telling your story!