Why I Am No Longer a Christian
Ruminations on a spiritual journey out of and into the material world

Part 1: My Life as a Christian

I suppose you can call this my “extimony,” a term which I should explain for those who may be unfamiliar with the brand of evangelical Christianity in which I was involved. Among the evangelical crowd, having a “born-again” experience of admitting to God that you are a sinner, asking for his forgiveness which he offers through the sacrificial death of Jesus, and inviting God into your life to “create you anew” is crucial: if you have not had such an experience, if you have not so invited Jesus into your heart, you have not truly been “saved,” i.e. you are not a real Christian. As the label “evangelical” implies, evangelical Christians also take evangelism very seriously (as in the “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew instructing Jesus’s followers to go to all the world and preach the gospel). To evangelize involves “witnessing” to others, i.e. telling them the gospel message, the story (as they understand and interpret it, anyway) of God, Jesus, Heaven and Hell, salvation, etc. One’s “testimony,” i.e. one’s own personal story of one’s born-again experience and subsequent relationship with Jesus and of what God has done in one’s life, features prominently in witnessing. Thus, as one who used to give my testimony when witnessing to others about how I became a Christian, I call the story of how I became an ex-Christian my extimony.

So, by “no longer a Christian,” I mean specifically no longer a born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Protestant Christian. But if you are a Catholic, Anglican, Mormon, or some other form of Christian, or a Muslim, Hindu, or whatever else, before you conclude too quickly that I was just involved in the wrong religion and that your One True Religion (tm) is safe from my critique, think carefully about how some of my general critiques of evangelical Christianity may also apply to your religion, e.g. the question of the existence of a theistic god in the first place. Also think about how some of my specific critiques of evangelical Christianity can be easily modified to apply to your religious views, e.g. problems with interpreting and defending your religion’s scriptures and your sect’s interpretations of them. 

Before I relate how I became an ex-Christian, I should say how I became a Christian in the first place. In brief, I grew up with it. My parents took me to church, and I believed and accepted what I was taught. But, really, it wasn’t so simple as that. My born again experience occurred when I was eight years old. I can still recall the conversation I had with my mother when she laid out the gospel story for me. The story made sense to me, I accepted it, and, as the next step was explained to me, I invited Jesus into my heart and pledged to serve him with my life, to follow his lead. Even now I recall the special feeling I had then, a feeling of everything falling into place and making sense, a feeling of inner strength and happiness and enthusiasm, a feeling of belonging, of having a place, of knowing who and why I was. It was a feeling, as was explained to me, of the presence of God. I felt God in me.

Sure, I was just eight years old, and I was accepting what my mother was telling me. But I really did accept it for myself. Just accepting whatever my parents (or anyone) said just on their say-so was not the way I typically operated. For as long as I remember, I’ve always wanted, and looked for, reasons for a claim, an expectation, a command. I’ve always been one to think about the whys behind the way things are. It should have been expected that I would eventually study philosophy in college and graduate school.

Also, though I was just eight and the emotions I felt at the time were quite immature relative to what adolescents and adults experience, what I felt was a big deal for me at that age. After all, when you feel the presence of God, that’s a pretty big feeling at any age. I experienced it to the depth and extent my limited emotional capabilities allowed. In fact, the experience itself significantly enhanced and shaped my emotional capabilities. Before my born-again experience, I was without an overarching theme for my life, a general understanding that could encompass my life and experiences and make sense of it as a whole. I was just living. Christianity gave me a reason for it all, a way to understand it all, not just something specific in life but the whole thing.

To some extent, I later sort of regretted having become a Christian so young, at least in one respect. As a teenager, I was very impressed by the powerful testimonies of adults who found God at a later age, after having experienced the misery and depths of a sinful, selfish life of rebellion against God and then having been redeemed from those depths by a loving God who recreated them into his joyful children to lead powerful, meaningful, fulfilled lives in service to him. I guess I had a touch of testimony envy, finding myself wishing a bit that I had that sort of deeply moving testimony that so obviously demonstrated God’s love and power to those who did not yet know him. But I was more grateful that God had spared me from having to experience those sorts of depths before he redeemed me.

And I did have what I believed to be powerful evidence of God’s working in my life. Not having to have gone through such negative experiences was one. As I was taught, we as Christians should live our lives such that others could see the power of Christ in us. Having, as a Christian, been able to avoid those miserable depths should be evidence to others that there was another way available to them, that life can be better, it can have meaning and purpose and fulfillment.

Another among many convincers for me was what happened as a result of my father getting transferred when I was thirteen. Junior high school is not a good age to be uprooted from one location and planted somewhere else where the friendships and cliques had already been established, especially for an introverted person who already felt out of step with his peers in the first place. Added to that, I was a Southern boy from Georgia moving to a rather preppy and exclusive part of Connecticut. Further, I had been all set to transfer to a private Christian school the next year. I could not understand what God was doing.

But when we got where we were going, I began to understand. It took a while to realize it, but things were working out for me much better than I was fearing they might. The church we left, the one I had known for most of my life, was decent enough for me, but there were not a lot of kids my age and I did not really fit in with them, and they were not all that serious about their faith. Our new church, however, had a lot of kids my age, and in fact many more around my age than any other age. Those of us around my age were sort of a “pig in a python” growing up in that church. Also, I fit in well with the group, at least by my standards of “fitting in.” And, plenty of them were serious about their faith. It was definitely a time of spiritual growth for me. Along with them, I went through the ups and downs of adolescence as well as of Christian faith, continuing to learn more about my faith and growing as a Christian, seeking what God wanted for my life. At times I felt distant from God, but he always brought me back to himself. Looking back on it, going to a public school that had high academic standards, and going there with a good group of Christian friends who were serious about their faith and who could help me as I also helped them navigate the dangers and temptations of “the world” helped me grow in ways that I didn’t think would have been possible in a more sheltered environment. It seemed obvious to me that God was working in my life, and that he knew what he was doing with me, that he could be trusted to lead me.

Then came the time to pick a college. Here was another opportunity to have to rely on God to lead me in the way he wanted me to go. I prayed long and hard, on my own as well as with friends and mentors, for God to help me make the right decisions. Ultimately, I decided that God was leading me to go to a secular university at which there was at least one group of serious Christian students strong in their faith. I also decided to study engineering. I had done well in all my high school subjects, and had at least to some extent enjoyed most of them, but there was no single subject or area that strongly interested me. Thus, a couple of engineer uncles said “you’re good in math and science, so study engineering: that’s where the jobs and money are.” Also, I reasoned, an engineering degree would enable me to be a “tentmaker missionary” (a reference to the apostle Paul who is supposed to have been able to pay his way, at least in part, by being a tentmaker [Acts 18:3]), using my easily employable skills as a way to go to other countries where people needed to hear the gospel (there is a Tentmakers organization, but I was not involved with that particular group; “tentmaker” is also used as a general metaphor for this kind of missionary effort). My father had an uncle who had recently retired from his job as a professor at Vanderbilt University, and he recommended the school. It had a good engineering program, along with a variety of other strong fields in case either I had misread God’s leading or he had other study plans in addition, and it had a number of organizations for Christian students, such as the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) group of which I became an integral part.

So in college, I continued to get even more serious about my religion. I read the typical Josh McDowell and C.S. Lewis type books so common in evangelical circles, and took what they said to heart and head. I also read Bible commentaries and serious books about spiritual matters by a variety of evangelical Christian authors. In the IVCF group, I led Bible studies, helped organize and run community service projects, and in general revolved my social life primarily around the group. I was also involved in other nonreligious activities such as the campus radio station, both out of interest in the groups’ focus and also for the purpose of evangelizing, by deeds as well as by words (just living a meaningful, fulfilled Christian life was supposed to reveal to others the Truth that was within me). Back at home during breaks from school, my growing “spiritual wisdom” was noted by, among others, the assistant pastor of our church, who taught the adult Sunday-school Bible study for those who were serious about their faith. He asked me to fill in for him while he was away on vacation. So here I was, a college student, teaching the Word of God to adults who were serious about their faith, my own parents and the parents of many of my friends among them.

The summer after my sophomore year, I took a Christian Counselor Training seminar at a place called His Mansion in New Hampshire, where some friends of my parents had moved to become involved in the program offered there. And quite a program it was. Talk about evidence of God working in people’s lives! His Mansion was (and as far as I know still is) a self-sustaining Christian farm/commune with two missions. One was to minister to troubled teenagers and young adults, people whose lives had been shattered by drugs or alcohol, or by physical or sexual or emotional abuse. The other was to train Christian counselors who could help such people, or help troubled people in general, either as counselors at His Mansion or in professional or lay ministry in other contexts. I saw people whose lives had been totally messed up, who had been suicidal, criminal, mean and hateful, but who had been redeemed, renewed, and turned around by the power of God. These people were brought into the community at His Mansion and cared for and ministered to. They were also given responsibilities in helping to run the commune, and expected to contribute in order to benefit: if you don’t work, you don’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But they were also taught how to contribute, and they were assisted if they had problems, either physical or technical problems with being able or knowing how to do the work, or emotional or psychological problems with accepting and acting on their responsibilities. By their actions, the counselors modeled God’s love for these previously unloved people. And, with few exceptions, they flourished in that environment. Most became Christians or returned to Christianity; and even for those who did not commit their lives to Jesus, few if any left with bad feelings toward Christians or Christianity (at least, not toward these Christians and this type of Christianity, though some still had issues with previous religious abuse in other contexts). With few exceptions, their lives improved, often remarkably. With few exceptions, they still had issues to deal with and much further to go when they left that environment, and not everyone kept their lives together after leaving, but the results were still remarkable. I was in awe of the power of God clearly and undeniably on display there.

In addition, I was fascinated by the psychology and philosophy I learned at His Mansion. When I returned to college, I found I had lost interest in engineering. Actually, my interest had really been in general science, and as I started taking some of the “applied” engineering courses as a sophomore, what I was studying couldn’t compete with my other interests. Now I was facing a junior year of primarily engineering courses, when my interests were clearly elsewhere. So I took a semester off to pray and figure out what God wanted me to do, but the answer seemed pretty clearly to study philosophy when I went back. That was confirmed for me when I attended an IVCF conference during Christmas break, shortly before I was to return to school, at which I focused on the more philosophically oriented seminars available. I made sure I got as many InterVarsity Press books on philosophical subjects as I could, so that I would be spiritually and intellectually prepared to deal with whatever secular philosophy professors tried to throw at me. I especially loved the works of Francis Shaeffer, which took me to intellectual heights and depths and breadths I didn’t know existed. I felt sure that this is what God was leading me to do. I realized the dangers of being taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” as Paul warns in Colossians. Yet I also believed with all my heart that all truth is God’s truth, and that if I studied carefully and prayerfully, if I was as honest as possible with any questions I found and with where the evidence for answers took me, that I would find God at the end and be drawn closer to Him. I was excited by what I was beginning to seriously study, and I was excited to learn more.

And learn more I did. The first book I read in my first philosophy class (Introduction to Ethics) was John Stuart Mill’s Utillitarianism. As we began the book, the professor gave an introductory lecture to familiarize us with the themes. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which says that good and right acts are those which lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. I left that lecture thinking that Mill seemed to be saying something along the lines of “if it feels good, do it.” If that’s the sort of thing these vain philosophies of Godless thinkers said, then I would have no problem navigating these waters. The next couple of lectures and discussions and the time I spent reading the book, however, filled out many more details and nuances, and with a better understanding of Mill I had to admit that I had initially misjudged him. I had a lot more respect for his views. I still did not agree that his Utilitarianism was correct, at least not completely, but it at least made sense. It struck me as a very admirable approximation of “The Truth” for someone who did not know Jesus who was that “Truth.” We went on to read the likes of Kant and Plato. For Plato, we read his dialog Euthyphro, in which he examines the question of whether goodness is good because God says it is good, or whether God says it is good because it is good. The dialog points to the latter as the conclusion: God says goodness is good because it is good. In my Christian mind, I took this to be an affirmation of the reality of goodness, which, I believed, was essentially related to God, and thus was just more proof of the reality and the goodness of God. I read more of Plato in other classes, and he in particular struck me as a very profound thinker, one who seemed to have gotten as close to “The Truth” as one could on one’s own, i.e. without actually having The Truth living inside you and guiding you, as I believed I and all truly born-again Christians had. I also had to admit that what I was reading in these classes was, on an intellectual level, deeper and more profound as well as more rigorous and thorough in their arguing than C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. But I still believed that Lewis’s and Schaeffer’s writings were more true, because more biblical and Christian. I was learning so many fascinating ideas. But I was still able to accommodate them all within my evangelical outlook and framework. 

 

 

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