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

Part 3: The Questions Get Personal

While I was trying to process all this, I was unexpectedly struck by a big blow. At Christmas break of my senior year, my girlfriend and I were discussing when to get engaged and make our impending marriage official. We and all our family and friends knew that this was inevitable, but it was still a very big step to make it official and to declare to the world that we intended to marry each other and to spend the rest of our lives doing all we could to make our marriage and any resulting family work. It was at this time, when I was contemplating the big step of marriage and how to make a marriage work, that an aunt and uncle, a Christian couple whom I greatly admired and who had what I took to be a model, Christ-centered, reliable marriage, had their marriage blow up in a very messy, nasty divorce. I was completely floored by this. How could this have happened to a couple like them, of all people? I have heard that it is very common for children to have a fear that something bad might happen to their parents. Well, since this aunt and uncle would have become my guardians if my parents were out of the picture, I never had this fear. In fact, it was sometimes almost a hope. I really admired them and their family. I admired their walk with God. And now this happened. It showed me that even if it is the case that it is necessary to have a “Christ-centered” marriage in order to make a marriage work, that this alone was not sufficient: Christ, once put in the center by this couple, did not keep himself there. So in a real sense, it was not up to God to keep the marriage going and good, it was up to the couple: it was their responsibility to keep God there, and God had not given any indication, at least in this example, that he would do much of anything to keep himself there.

But that is only if this really is a necessary condition in the first place. At this point, I was finally able to admit to myself that another aunt and uncle set (actually, my father's aunt and uncle [this was the uncle who had been a professor at Vanderbilt]), another couple I greatly admired, were not Christians. They had never talked about religious things, and only listened politely when I talked about God, but when I saw the way they lived their lives, when I saw their marriage, and especially when I saw how they faced death when this uncle was dying of cancer, it just did not compute in my Christian mind that they could be anything other than real, born-again, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians. This was not just implicit thinking on my part. I recall explicitly coming to this conclusion when my mother asked whether he was a Christian. Since he was dying, she was concerned about his salvation and wanted to include a gospel message in our family’s Christmas card to him if he was not saved. I responded by saying that he never talked about religion or the place of God in his life, but he certainly lived it such that he could only have been a Christian. I did not think it possible for non-born-again Christians to live as they did. But, I finally allowed myself to admit (and later confirmed in conversation with my aunt), they weren't. I could not have asked for clearer examples to demonstrate that Christianity is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of having a good marriage. I realized that if my girlfriend and I were to have a good marriage, it was ultimately up to us to make sure it worked; we could not rely on God, nor did we need to.

I know that the belief that a couple has put and kept Christ at the center of their marriage does in fact help many marriages (but, as with a placebo, a belief does not have to be true to be effective). Now, however, I found that reality forced me to have to admit that sometimes this does not work, and even further that marriages can work wonderfully well without it. Yes, Christ, or at least a belief in Christ, does in fact help many people. But there was nothing systematic about it. Many people are hurt by Christianity (as I have seen from others now that I’m out of Christianity and have met others who have also deconverted), and many people are helped by other beliefs. My previous belief that there was something unique about Christianity, and specifically my version of it, was further shaken.

It was shaken even more as I reflected more on and learned more about my father’s uncle, the one who had showed me how well a nonreligious person could live and die. Nicholas Hobbs was a psychology professor who accumulated many admirable accomplishments over the course of his life, among them being one of the people who helped to set up the Peace Corps, a fine example of people helping others without any direct ties to religion, helping others whether out of one of a variety of religious motives or out of entirely nonreligious motives. But Nick’s proudest accomplishment was his work with, as he labeled them, troubled and troubling children. He wasn’t much for therapy; he believed that insights in therapy were more likely the result of progress rather than the cause of progress. Real progress comes, he said, from doing stuff in the present and aiming toward the future, looking outside and forward, rather than from introspection looking inward and backward. He believed, and his successful work with troubled and troubling children seemed to give good evidence that, acting and changing habits of action was the more effective way to change the type of person you are. He also believed that, like our physical bodies, our minds/emotions/”spirits” can naturally heal themselves, as long as they have a good environment ("emotional splints"?) to do so. So he also focused on changing the environment that these kids were in by restructuring their social environments (e.g. helping parents become better parents, structuring activities so they were both engaging and educational), teaching them new habits for living in their new environment, habits of action that would also tend to maintain and enhance a positive environment (i.e. learn how to actively shape their environment so they would not be just passive victims), and allowing them to heal themselves in that better functioning environment, rather than just by medicating them.

The schools and community mental health centers he helped set up with these methods worked very well. Children with emotional problems had their lives significantly improved by these methods. Just like the young adults who were helped at His Mansion. But Nick’s Re-ED (reeducation of emotionally disturbed children) program did not rely on God. Like the people at the campus radio station as compared to my IVCF group, Project Re-ED duplicated the results of His Mansion without involving God. His Mansion provided a caring environment with counselors who held troubled people to high standards and assisted them in meeting those standards, in a prayerful environment. Project Re-ED provided a caring environment with teacher-counselors who held troubled people to high standards and assisted them in meeting those standards, but without appeals to the divine. Many of the teacher-counselors were religious, but many were not, and those who were religious were from a variety of religious backgrounds, and the Re-ED principles did not explicitly include anything religious or related to God beliefs. What could I conclude but that the prayers at His Mansion were superfluous? They may indeed have had a placebo effect on many people involved, but the results were duplicated elsewhere without invoking or involving God. My experience at His Mansion had moved me to the depths of my soul with what I took to be clear and incontrovertible evidence of God’s goodness and God’s work in human lives. But what if it was all humans’ goodness and our involvement in each others’ lives?

All this made me reflect on other professors I had gotten to know, both as teachers and on a more personal level. I could think of many admirable people among them, people whose manners of living and viewing life were well worth emulating. They were passionately interested in their research and teaching, and genuinely cared for their students. And yet I knew that many of these people I admired were not religious at all, and only a few of the religious ones were anything like the sort of Christian I was and I believed one had to be to be a “true” Christian right with God.

In learning effective methods of evangelism, I was taught that a great stumper question for those who bring up all sorts of objections, questions, and rationalizations against the faith was to ask how they could explain how God had changed my life and the lives of so many others. How do you explain what God has done for me, how I have found meaning and purpose and fulfillment in life? I had heard many variations of a story along the lines of an evangelist who found himself out of his scientific or historical league and was having a difficult time answering the questions of a few atheist skeptics (typically portrayed in the stories as young and arrogant). Then an older gentleman politely pardons his intrusion, but goes on to tell his story of being redeemed from a meaningless, shallow, and unfulfilling life of sin (insert a few details of such things as drunkenness and fornication here) by finding Jesus, who reformed him and gave him meaning and purpose and fulfillment. The young skeptics find themselves at a loss to account for his story. But here I was being stumped by the mirror image of that question: how could I, as a Christian, account for this sort of behavior in the lives of non-Christians?

Previously, I had always thought that my abundant life was more abundant than the lives of other people who thought they were satisfied with their false religions. After all, when I attended their churches, the congregations and services just were not as alive as mine, they did not move me like mine did. If they would only visit my church, they would see just how abundant a truly abundant life really is. And when they did visit my church and found it as dead to them as their churches were to me, it was obviously because they were so far from the truth that they could not even recognize it when they saw it. Sure, many other people did seem lost or unsure of their lives or of any purpose in what they were doing, many of these people had, by their own admission, lives that lacked “abundance” and joy. But as I got to know some of these believers in other religions better, and as I got to know people with no religion, and as I allowed myself to admit that Uncle Nick was not religious, I had to admit that there were many people whose lives were at least as abundant to them as mine was to me, people who led joyful, fulfilling lives without my God or without any god at all. Their churches were as alive to them as mine was to me. I realized as I got to know more such people and to know them better that it had been horribly arrogant of me to measure their lives and their meanings, purposes, joys, and abundances by mine.

I found myself having to try to put new wine, and lots of it, into old bottles that were bursting at the seams, no longer able to contain all that needed to be held. The world I was coming to know was getting too big for my religion to encompass. Previously, the answer to the problem of God feeling distant was to spend more time in prayer and reading the Bible. If you feel distant from God, the saying went, guess who moved? Well, this time, it was God who had done the moving, and I did not know how to respond to get him to move back. Reading the Bible was harming my faith more than it was helping. And even prayer was becoming more of a problem than a solution. Previously, spending more time in prayer made me feel closer to God. Now, however, I found myself having to shorten my prayer sessions, lest I do more damage to my faith. The longer I prayed, the more I felt like I was just talking to the ceiling or thinking to myself.

This was a frightening thing for me. Previously, I had based all my meaning and purpose in life on the God I believed in. I thought that without God, life was a depressingly pointless and shallow futility. I was so glad that God had redeemed me, because without Him, I thought, I would probably have committed suicide. Such thoughts of life without God certainly discouraged me from contemplating the possibility that God at best did not care and was not involved in his creation, and perhaps did not even exist, at least not in any way that would make a real, objective difference to any of us. And yet, there was the example of Uncle Nick, of many of my professors, of friends in other religions or with no religion at all who lived meaningful, fulfilling, even joyful lives. Obviously, then, living well without God was possible, even if I did not know how to do it. I am sure that the examples these people provided me were a primary key in allowing me the courage to honestly face the questions I found, and to be unafraid of where the answers took me. Without their examples, and in spite of my previously stated desire to know what is true even if the truth is something horrible, I might still be a Christian today, too comfortable in my world and too afraid of anything outside that world to dare venturing beyond it.

Or, perhaps I still would have been willing to venture beyond my comfortable Christian world, but without the resources to do so. I had always been taught, and believed, that born-again Christianity was the only way to truly live “abundantly,” to find joy and meaning and purpose and fulfillment in life. Those who lived that way, such as Uncle Nick, I assumed must be Christians. Those who I knew were not Christians but who still lived admirable lives, I thought must be faking it and on the inside they knew they really were miserable. A few counterexamples to what I had always been taught and had believed would not be enough to dislodge firmly held beliefs. This is true for beliefs and conclusions generally: scientists, for example, put aside a few anomalies that do not seem to fit their current understanding of a subject, expecting that probably further examination would show how current theories can account for them, and usually it does. But I was getting to know too many non-born-again Christians, non-Christians of any type, and even non-religious people who lived good lives and were happy and satisfied, and knowing them well enough to know that they could not all be faking it. And, like scientists facing an increasing number of anomalies, I had to be open to the possibility that my current theory, my current understanding of the world, was inadequate and had to be revised or replaced. Perhaps the IVCF / campus radio station comparison, though it was a relatively minor matter on its own, the sort I had so frequently overlooked or fit into my Christian worldview before, was the anomaly that broke the camel’s back and forced me to consider that my worldview was inadequate to account for the world I was learning increasingly more about.

In that last semester before I graduated, I continued to participate in IVCF activities, but mainly because that was where most of my friends were, and I had made commitments to them and to the group and I felt obligated to fulfill my commitments. But it was kind of weird. I didn't say much to them about my doubts, but that was mainly because I already knew all the answers (or, rather, non-answers) that they would give, rather than out of concern that they would consider me a heretic and shun me. And even if they did, I was going to be graduating in a few months and moving on, so that didn't really bother me. I did talk with a few, but now it was mainly to plant seeds of doubt in them rather than to try to get answers for me. In explaining the situation with my aunt and uncle as compared with my father’s aunt and uncle, I was finally able to come across someone else who allowed himself to face my real questions (one of the IVCF staffers). And again, all I got was an admission that he didn't have any answers.

My fiancee was the one whose reaction most concerned me. But she allowed herself to face my questions, and admitted that she didn't have any answers. She knew me well enough to decide that she could trust that if I had questions, I was serious and my questions were legitimate. She decided to stick with me, believing that if God were there and had answers he would answer our questions, and if he weren't there she would rather not lose me for the sake of a god who does not exist. I'm very glad she felt that way, since she went ahead and married me, and we’re still happily married, now with a wonderful son (and all without the benefit of religion).

The summer after I graduated, and before I was to get married late in the summer, I spent a month on a cross-cultural evangelism program. I had been planning on doing something like this for a while, since before my doubts began, and had thought it would be an important faith builder and way to serve God. By the time I left for the trip, however, my faith had been pretty well shaken. The experience, rather than repairing my religious beliefs, served to further damage them. I was struck by the small world, which they thought not only to be so large but also to be of such cosmic significance, of this international organization. Listening to the preaching, I was in a way embarrassed for them: I still had sympathy for them, and still to some extent considered myself to be one of them (yet with a very different, and still evolving, concept of the God we worshipped), but I also understood how those whose world was much larger would see them. I spent the month with people convinced they were in close communion with God and were offering a better, more abundant life to those to whom they were evangelizing. But, I had to admit to myself, given what I had seen from Uncle Nick and so many others, if I were not already a Christian, their witness would not convince me that they really had the more abundant life they believed they had. 

 

 

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