My Deconversion From Christianity
I was born into a Christian family attending a Methodist church in Ireland. Both of my parents were very involved in the church, and they raised me and my brothers accordingly. When I was 5 years old we moved to the USA, where we settled into an evangelical Foursquare church. I grew up memorising Bible verses, attending Christian camps, being encouraged to worship in the pentecostal style, and dedicating my life to God. I never considered that any of it was open to questioning or interpretation – it was just the way things were.
When I was 12 years old, we moved back to Ireland. My dad became a Methodist minister and I spent my teenage years attending the various churches he was appointed to. These churches were more traditional than I was used to and I wasn’t sure about them at first. But this changed as I became involved with the youth-friendly side of the church (youth groups, contemporary youth services, special youth-centred events, etc.). My whole social life became based around it. I had become passionate about music and an avid fan of many Christian bands. My church encouraged me to get directly involved in music, and I gladly immersed myself. Over the years, right into my twenties, I played multiple instruments in several worship bands and eventually became a worship leader. Some friends and I formed a Christian band with regular prayer, songwriting, practices and gigs. I was told time and time again how much of a blessing I was to so many, and how the Lord had bestowed me with my gifts and anointed my endeavours – I completely soaked up language like that and felt really proud that I was doing something for God. I dated Christian girls. I prayed and read devotionals daily. I regularly discussed Christian topics with my Christian friends. In fact, all my best friends were Christians. I was never rude to non-Christians, but I certainly felt it was important to avoid their potential influence. I wasn’t a perfect Christian by any means – I messed up a lot just like everyone else. But I wanted to try and be as good as I could, and live my life for Jesus.
It would be dishonest to say I wasn’t happy growing up like this – generally, I was. I did not have the horrible Christian childhood experiences that I’ve read in many deconversion stories (mainly those from more rigid fundamentalist backgrounds) and it breaks my heart that some people do. My family were, in hindsight, quite reasonable and liberal Christians. I was constantly surrounded by people who loved me and cared for me very much, which is of course something I completely appreciate and feel very lucky for.
Growing up, I did have some problems with Christianity. They were never to do with experiences or how other people treated me, but more to do with struggles in my own mind which I often kept to myself. I grappled with the idea of hell – why would God create hell, allow it to exist, and send humans, who he apparently loves, there to suffer forever? I was never entirely comfortable with the more extravagant pentecostal styles of worship (even then, I considered much of it to be an act). I was never satisfied with Christianity’s big NO (without further explanation) on sexual matters – as a teenager I often felt guilty and self-loathing for just experiencing otherwise natural feelings, which could make me extremely miserable at times. I was discontented by the double standards and Bible cherry-picking that went on among different Christians and how for most people, God seemed more a projection of themselves. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the Christian answers for many difficult questions. I couldn’t help but notice how people of other religions could be just as confident in their truth as I was in mine, and have spiritual experiences very similar to those professed by many Christians, myself included. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
But even with all this and more, my faith was never shaken. I suppose I simply felt immature, that someday I would understand why everything is the way it is. I always decided that for the time being, I just had to trust in God, devote myself to him, and everything would work out. And so my Christian life went on.
“Faith does not give you answers, it just stops you from asking questions.” —Frater Ravus
I got married in my mid-twenties, and my wife was soon (unexpectedly!) expecting our first child. My involvement and responsibility in church waned as I gave more time to family. We ended up going though a period of several years in which we did not regularly attend one particular church, but I was by no means less of a Christian. I continued to pray and read Christian literature, and I visited many churches (or listened in on live church broadcasts) as we moved around. But as time went on, I felt more and more compelled to get back into proper church membership and offer up a more substantial part of my life to God. So at the very beginning of 2012, I found a small local newly planted church with some great enthusiastic people and an approach to Christianity that I immediately clicked with. I invested my time and my talents, and soon became involved in church activity, particularly the worship once again. For about four or five months, things were going very well, and I was excited about what the short and long term futures held, and really wanted to get more and more involved. God was good!
But then something happened. I started to… think.
There was not a single event that triggered my deconversion. In a renewed commitment to my new church, being older, I was more mature than I had been the last time I was part of a regular Christian community, and I suppose I reached a stage where I was no longer satisfied to just be told how things are. I wanted to know why. I stopped doubting my own mind and thinking narrowly. I had become more aware of the world as a whole, and while Christianity seemed to make sense when looking back at my own life, it didn’t make sense when looking at many other people’s lives. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be able to give answers and not just ask questions.
“No amount of belief makes something a fact.” —James Randi
And so several things went on simultaneously, in no particular order, that led me down the path of deconversion. They all happened together and what I learned from one would interleave with and influence the others.
One factor was prayer. To be honest, prayer had always been a bit of an issue for me. Even though I prayed almost every day since being a child, I much preferred it when other people prayed. Why? Because truthfully, I had way less faith in prayer than I would have liked to. Often, praying simply had no effect. Being quite an introverted and independent person, I would rarely share my problems with others – instead, I’d just pray about them privately. But really, I never knew if it worked – events would tend to play out the same whether I prayed about them or not. Praying for anything tangible became a bit of a taboo to me, because I was always disappointed. All I could do was pray for something generic like strength or wisdom, and then hope that doing so made a difference. I noticed how people who regularly shared and prayed about their problems with others did seem to get results, and I couldn’t help but wonder if those results were solely attributable to the awareness and subsequent action of their human confidants. I convinced myself that perhaps my prayers were too selfish, that I didn’t have enough faith, that I was asking for things that were against God’s will, or that it just wasn’t my spiritual gift. I mostly stopped praying for myself, and instead trusted others would do that for me. And so my prayer became sort of a ritual in which I would ask for non-specific things (especially if such things were expected anyway) or for things that I could never know the outcome to.
In summer 2012, as I was picking the songs for Sunday worship in my new church, my wife suggested that I choose a popular song called Mighty to Save that week. This was because she had been following a popular internet social media thread in which a very young girl was dying of cancer, and Christians all over the world were getting involved. They were praying for healing, and many of them were singing Mighty to Save in their congregations as a unified global appeal to God. I hesitated. The little girl was in a terrible state. I admitted to myself that I had always avoided praying for things like this because it made me feel stupid and embarrassed when they didn’t work out. But this time, I convinced myself to try. I was in the middle of a fresh commitment to Christianity and I wanted to go all in.
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” —Jesus (Matthew 7:7-8)
So I sang Mighty to Save in church that week. I prayed many times for God to save the girl, and I thought that surely at least one of the involved Christians around the world had a strong enough faith. I was ready to see God in action! Well… a few days passed… and the girl died. I thought – why does God do this? How can we convince people that God cares? I was angry. I shared my feelings with my wife and she said that no, people on the social media thread were happy and encouraged because the girl’s family got a few more days with her than the doctors expected, and her suffering seemed to be lessened – perhaps that was God’s will, they were saying! I was livid. People were praying for healing, for saving! We cried out! No one was praying for “a few extra days”! If this was God’s will no matter what we prayed, then what was the point in praying at all? Am I the only one angry about this?!
This of course was not the first time in my life that something like this had happened. Failed prayer was a recurring theme, and I was sick of making excuses for it. A few months later, when I was further into my deconversion journey, I had what ended up to be my final conversation with God. While driving one day, after listening to an audiobook that got me thinking about all the current and past suffering in the world, I looked up at the sky and said with a tear, “Either you don’t care, or you don’t exist… which is it?” No answer came.
I came to think a lot about prayer. I pondered that people will pray, and then figure out whatever they want the answer to be afterward. Answers to prayer and God’s will were always a hindsight revelation. It all just seemed like forced justification. Too many unanswered prayers are ignored while the odd prayer that seems to be answered receives all the focus, as if it couldn’t possibly be anything but God’s intervention. I started to get frustrated with Christians giving all the credit to God for what was actually effort and action by human beings. I formulated my own version of the jug of milk analogy (in which you can pray to any object or entity of your choosing, and in hindsight, the answer will always be one of “yes”, “no” or “wait” – i.e. the prayer will always seem to be answered). I reasoned that if God knows the future anyway, then why pray at all? When I finally came to the issue of theodicy (see later on) and how altogether narcissistic most prayers are given all that God fails to do for people experiencing real suffering in the world, that was the end of prayer for me.
These reflections triggered a memory from my past – a challenge I once heard from a non-Christian. He pointed out that churches will spend lots of money and organise lots of labour for the upkeep and security of their buildings, while offering prayer alone for the homeless, sick and needy. He proposed the opposite – that the money and labour be used (without prayer) for attending to the homeless, sick and needy, and prayer alone be offered for the upkeep and security of their church buildings. “Let’s see how that works out?” he sneered. At the time, this challenge made me uncomfortable because innately, I knew it to make a real point. Back then I chose to ignore it. I can do that no longer.
But before these prayer issues fully played out, another factor – arguably the strongest factor – which led to my deconversion was the discovery of information.
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” —Donny Miller
As part of my renewed effort for a more thorough commitment to Christianity, I started to study more. I wanted to learn more about Christianity and be a respectable source of knowledge and moral values to my family, as well as to other people. I wanted to become wise and not repeat the mistakes (as I saw them) that were being made by other Christians. So as well as getting involved in my new church, I set out to learn as much as I could. I had eight hours of commuting to work each week, and had been enjoying various audiobooks for a while, and so I decided that going forward I would devote that eight hours a week to God. Not yet sure of any books to read, I started with podcasts, particularly those that included popular sermon recordings of various renowned preachers and pastors from around the world.
To begin with, I was hooked. Some of the preachers were incredibly easy to listen to, skilled in rhetoric, and well rehearsed in Bible verse. They preached about Christ and Christian living, and drew a lot of nods from their congregations, me included. What I liked most is that they backed up almost everything they said with a biblical source. (Over the previous years, I had been sensitive to preachers who I felt were injecting too much opinion into their sermons, and not enough scripture.)
But it didn’t take long for things to go a bit awry. The Christian life that these preachers were challenging everyone to take on was, well, not exactly enticing. I suppose it was all a bit more fundamentalist than I was used to, and I eventually became quite disheartened. My primary gripe was that most of it had nothing at all to do with real ethics. For example, it was preached (as tactfully as possible) that men were in charge – that men had to act a certain way and conversely that women had to act a certain way. It says so in the Bible (which it does). How can you argue with the Bible? If you’re not living like this, God is not pleased. There were lots of things like that, telling us all exactly how we should act, what form our opinions should take, and what our life goals should be, right down to the minutiae. It was all very inflexible. No room was given for the diversity of human personality. Some preachers could be wince-inducingly judgmental, and encouraged others to be so as well. It just seemed to me like this purely biblical Christianity was often out of touch with how society actually functions, and while I could see it perhaps working for small like-minded groups, it could not possibly work for the entire world. It certainly could not work for me. Were I to try and live this rigidly, it would only induce more cycles of failure, guilt and self-condemnation that I, as a Christian, had quite enough of already. It would be like trying to not be me. Why would God want such a thing? But I could not ignore the fact that it was being entirely backed up with chapter and verse!
And so, my focus couldn’t help but shift to questioning the scripture itself.
“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” —Isaac Asimov
Driscoll quoted a lot of Paul and other New Testament authors. Why is Paul’s word the Word of God?, I thought. Can it not just be considered as being notable human writing, like say, a C.S. Lewis book, and not be given such unquestioning authority? Who decides? How do we know? I realised that I knew very little about these things, and had been living in ignorance. I admitted to myself that I had no idea where the Bible came from. I hadn’t a clue about the historical events and processes involved in determining what was scripture and what wasn’t.
So I set out to find answers. I started with some Google searches, but I was quickly put off. The most vocal voices on the internet seemed to be what I deemed both unreasonable Christians and unreasonable Atheists, throwing around opinions like they were experts, and reducing too many conversations to insults. I couldn’t trust anyone as conveying actual knowledge. I decided I needed to start at the beginning. I set it out to find a book about Christianity. A book as unbiased, impartial and agenda-free as possible, that both intelligent Christians and intelligent Atheists gave good reviews. I ended up settling on A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
“If there is a God, atheism must seem to Him as less of an insult than religion.” —Edmond De Goncourt
And well… Christian history is horrible! Lots of people doing lots of very bad and idiotic things in the name of God. I can’t possibly expect to summarise it here. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Why would God go through the whole Jesus ordeal and set the stage for a new covenant with humanity with eternal consequences, only to sit back and let humans completely bungle and pervert it? I could write paragraph after paragraph about all the appalling, horrific nonsense what went on. Killings – lots of killings. Killing muslims, jews and other non-Christians. Killing Christians who believed slightly different doctrines. Killing alleged witches and other unlucky victims of ignorant superstition. Killing humans for just trying to discover more about the earth and the stars. And torturing – real horrific torturing in the name of God. The inquisitions. The crusades. The scripture-based justification of slavery and the oppression of women, black people and others. The lying, cheating, extorting, abusing, controlling and manipulating. I took fairly in-depth notes while reading this book and I documented incident after incident. I’m quite informed. If this was all part of God’s perfect plan, then something is very, very messed up.
As I complained about the actions of these historical Christian brutes and halfwits, others would point out that surely a bunch of good must have been done as well. Well, of course there was. But would you acquit a murderer of his crimes just because he had also happened to feed a large number of homeless people? Would you pardon a serial torturer on the grounds that for each of his victims there were a hundred other persons to whom he was very pleasant and charitable? No!
“Religion now comes to us in this smiley-face, ingratiating way — because it’s had to give so much more ground and because we know so much more. But you’ve got no right to forget the way it behaved when it was strong, and when it really did believe that it had God on its side.” —Christopher Hitchens
I read about all the absurd fatuities. The copious amount of doctrines that were just made up as they went along. The senseless reasoning. My jaw dropped when I got to the part about indulgences. I learned shocking fact after shocking fact. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know any of it before. I was both fascinated and disgusted at the same time.
I had spent my whole happy Christian life knowing – just knowing – that the reason it was good was because I was a Christian, simple as that. To me, my experience was a proof of God. And yet the actual history of Christianity and the lives of Christian human beings for the last 2000 years were nothing like my safe little bubble of existence. I used to feel like a majority, and suddenly I felt like a tiny minority. Where was God in this history?
I could go on about the Constantine-sponsored beginnings of organised Christianity and how it spread through Europe by means of violent force and monarchial legislation. I could talk about the apostolic succession of Popes, which was filled with enough scandal and farce to make it very difficult to accept that they actually believed themselves as chosen by God and guided by the Holy Spirit. I could describe the Protestant Reformation which, in an attempt to undo some of the nonsense by changing the focus from papal authority to sola scriptura, just brought in a new age of ignorance in which suddenly any Bible verse was enough to justify ongoing atrocities. And I could continue until the present time, where we have a plethora of denominations of Christianity, from liberal to fundamentalist, all finding their own unique way to reconcile their own wishes against scripture. It turns out there isn’t a single doctrine of Christianity that hasn’t been contested by at least one denomination or another. Apparently there are two billion Christians in the world – one could argue there are two billion denominations! And there is no reconciliation. Christians everywhere confuse subjectivity for objectivity when it comes to their religion. Like the rest of Christian history, and like that of the other religions, it all couldn’t be more… human.
It didn’t take long to discover that the modern version of Christianity that I am most familiar with is a small fraction of Christian history, and like most changes over the ages, started out as a shunned minority. It’s the latest in a long series of innovations tailored to the society-of-the-day, accompanied by a fresh cherry-picking of the Bible to help us convince ourselves that we’re finally doing it right. All the modern securities, freedoms and comforts we enjoy (and rely on to enable modern Christianity to function) are not a blessing of religion, but rather a product of human democracy, rights of freedom and scientific progress. This is something which only came into fruition in the last several hundred years as the Church’s grip lessened, the Enlightenment was finally able to play out unhindered, and monarchal powers dwindled. As insightfully recognised by the eighteenth century philosopher:
“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” —Denis Diderot
If Christianity had its way, you can be sure we’d all still be living in the dark ages. That is incontestable. If you doubt it, I encourage you to read the history of Christianity and find out all these things, and much more, for yourself.
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” —Steven Weinberg
Of all the things that went on in Christian history, I find myself particularly aggrieved at how the church handled scientific discovery and human philosophy. Read the story of Galileo and tell me you don’t feel rage at the mad injustice. To think what advancements Christianity held back! All the great works that were burned and destroyed by the church because they felt that if it was not from God, it must be evil at worst, and useless at best. Entire libraries of knowledge were lost forever, destroyed by mobs of pious men. Christianity stole a significant chunk of human discovery from us, and we can never get it back.
A History of Christianity convinced me without a doubt that much of Christianity is human invention. But I wasn’t ruling out the idea that this horrible history was beside the point. Perhaps it only proved the frailty of humans and the influence and pervasiveness of evil. God gave us his message through scripture – perhaps it’s up to us to receive it individually? After all, in recent years I had been attracted to a movement within the church that preached the need to get back to the roots of Christianity – to start again at Acts “chapter 29”. To lose religion and embrace Jesus.
But these thoughts just brought me back to where I was when I began to look for a book about Christianity in the first place. My initial motivation was in understanding where scripture actually came from and how we objectively know it is the word of God. Because if the Bible is indeed God’s word, with unquestioning authority, who can argue with any of it? But what if we deemed that some of it is in fact arguable, unreliable or erroneous? Would that not discredit the entire notion of any of it being God’s word? Would it not make the whole thing just a regular book?
So while still reading the history of Christianity, I was (quite coincidentally) introduced to the books of the New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman. I like Ehrman’s style because he manages to present raw evidence, separate from his own interpretations.
I started with Misquoting Jesus, which is the account of how the Bible was changed over time. It tells of how the Bible manuscripts we have are all different, sometimes in major important ways. How whole verses and sections appear in later manuscripts and not earlier ones. It talks about the pseudonymity. The illiteracy. The hand-copying. The amateurism. The admittance of problems while they were happening. The guesswork. The forced harmonisation. The poor translating. The theological, social and antisemitic motivated alterations. The disagreements. Ehrman gives compelling evidence – more than enough to cause serious concern to any fundamentalist Christian.
“The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.” —Origen, Church Father, 3rd Century
After Misquoting Jesus, I moved onto Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted. There is so much material in that book. The delayed biblical authorship timeframes. The poor, biased, oral means of author’s sources. The many contradictions. The irreconcilable gospel stories, events and timeframes. The contrived formulation of “prophecy fulfilment” by Greeks perusing the Septuagint for usable material (with some obvious translation blunders). The widely varying agendas of biblical storytellers. The lack of concern with fact. The forged letters of Paul. The evolution of Christianity where once orthodox beliefs became heretical over time. The political canonisation process. The blatant inventions of doctrines and theological perspectives. The widespread differing interpretations and localised evolutions of Christian theology. And more.
“One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realise that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did, they find that there are other books that were at one time considered canonical but that ultimately did not become part of Scripture (for example, other Gospels and Apocalypses), they come to recognise that a good number of the books of the Bible are pseudonymous (for example, written in the name of an apostle by someone else), that in fact we don’t have the original copies of any of the biblical books but only copies made centuries later, all of which have been altered. They learn all of this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf … Pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary.” —Bart Ehrman
I also read more of Ehrman’s books such as Forged, Lost Christianities and others which expanded on some of the topics covered in Jesus Interrupted with much more evidence and detail.
In his books, Ehrman also presents theories about Jesus which he finds the most probable, such as the idea that he was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. Other authors present alternative theories, with some even purporting that Jesus never existed at all. Many draw striking, conspicuous, undeniable parallels with Christianity and earlier religions of the area. Several point out the other men of religions and cults of the period who were given attribution for many of the same life events and supernatural acts as Jesus. Some note the influence on Christianity of the longstanding Greek societal admirations of passion and faith in general. All these theories and insights make good points, but often the conclusions are impossible to be certain about. In fairness, such authors have very little to go on, as apart from the biased writings which became the Bible, there is not a lot of available material:
“In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of private correspondence. Zero! Zip references!” —Bart Ehrman
And so here I was. One day I’m an ignorant but otherwise content Christian who wants to find a bit more out about why things are like they are, and the next thing I know my entire perspective has changed.
When I was around three-quarters the way through reading the history of Christianity, and had also read the first Ehrman book, I decided I had to leave my church. I was definitely leaning more towards unbelief at this stage. Every Sunday I was still leading worship and as you can imagine it all started to get, well, strange. I felt I was in a simulation and that everyone was pretending – and nobody but me seemed to be aware.
In those final weeks at church, many of the lyrics of the songs I was leading jumped out at me for what they were. The lyrics said things like “my sin”, “my failure”, “my shame”, “I’m lost”, “I’m desperate”, “I surrender”, “my sinful soul”, “my mocking voice”, “my ransom”, etc. The other side of the lyrics were about how great and deserving of praise God is. Some of the songs went into detail about the sacrifice of Jesus, and how we are the ones who apparently deserved death, but Jesus died in our place. I suddenly saw it all from another perspective. Just why do we deserve death? Why are we allowing ourselves to be labelled failures and sinners from birth, before our lives or circumstances even take shape? If God designed and created us, then surely our inherent “failure” is his fault anyway, right? Why are we OK with being made to feel this guilty? Why are we all having to apologise for being human? How is this fair? How have I not questioned this up until now?
“In exchange for obedience, Christianity promises salvation in an afterlife; but in order to elicit obedience through this promise, Christianity must convince men that they need salvation, that there is something to be saved from. Christianity has nothing to offer a happy man living in a natural, intelligible universe. If Christianity is to gain a motivational foothold, it must declare war on earthly pleasure and happiness, and this, historically, has been its precise course of action. In the eyes of Christianity, man is sinful and helpless in the face of God, and is potential fuel for the flames of hell. Just as Christianity must destroy reason before it can introduce faith, so it must destroy happiness before it can introduce salvation.” —George H. Smith
As a father, I would never inflict such mental abuse on my own child, so why do we not only accept such treatment from our heavenly father, but praise him for it? All the suffering through the millennia – it was the same thing over and over, just done in different ways: convincing humans that they needed to be “saved”, and promising all the answers (with eternal consequences, of course).
And so I left church. I had no choice. I wasn’t ready to tell anybody about my experiences just yet, and I didn’t want to create any issues, so I gave an excuse about the church not being suited to families with small children (which, in fairness, was often an issue for us) and well, that was the end of church.
So, with the history of Christianity behind me, as well as all the New Testament knowledge, I decided to look at the Old Testament, the history of Judaism and biblical archaeology. And, once again, I was in for a shock.
“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on.” —Christopher Hitchens
As many people have done, just reading the Old Testament with an unbiased and honest mind is more than enough to convince yourself that it is a product of uncivilised and knowledge-deprived bronze-age men, not the inspiration of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent deity. It doesn’t take much – a child could figure it out. Never mind the poor sources, countless loose ends, rampant contradictions (that I can’t believe I didn’t notice before), absurd laws, fairy tale events and other things which just don’t make sense. The worst thing of all about the Old Testament is the blatant immorality, cruelty and unjustness of a God who, as a Christian, I had once considered the epitome of all things good. I could give example after example. All you have do is read it. As best put it in Dawkins’ The God Delusion:
“The Old Testament God is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” —Richard Dawkins
I can’t argue with any of this. The Old Testament is a horror story that teaches subservience through terror, and calls it love. Thank goodness there is virtually zero evidence that any of the horrible Old Testament events actually happened, even at a non-supernatural level. Biblical archeology has been practically given up as a lost cause. Cross examining with the recorded histories of other countries (such as Egypt) reveals zero correlation. Jewish history itself reveals the extent of writing and re-writing of scripture that went on, and how it was traditionally something to be interpreted, passed on orally between generations, and not taken literally. It can be clearly seen which historical events led to the eventual focus on the duality of good and evil in Judaism. The Jews stopped accepting complete accountability for their own suffering, and decided there must be something deeper to blame, for which justice would be served by God in time. This inspired the popularisation of many inventions (or “reworkings” from other myths and religions) such as the afterlives of heaven and hell. This of course paved the way for Jewish apocalypticism and then Christianity. Karen Armstrong’s A History of God gives fascinating evidence for how Yahweh was once just one of several pagan deities of Canaan, and how the Jews started as a cult with specific loyalty to Yahweh (hence all the Pentateuch brouhaha over not worshipping other gods). While it’s impossible to make absolute claims, these kind of interpretations are way more credible than taking it all at supernatural face value. The modern fundamentalist fixation on taking the Old Testament literally has no precedent in history. Thank goodness they don’t take Yahweh’s preposterous death sentence laws too seriously, or the Christian world would be a very horrible place indeed.
“I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.” —Jules Renard
I read and I read. The most surprising thing about the topics I learned was that the information (or at least the vast majority of it) is not actually controversial. Many Christian theologians and scholars know it all. I find it quite unbelievable that there are Christians who know all that I now know and yet do not falter in their faith. I just don’t get it.
Which brings me to… apologetics. I had read lots of Christian literature during my life – decades of it. I soaked it all up. But one area which I was surprisingly oblivious to was Christian apologetics – the sort that deals with difficult Biblical and theological issues one by one. And so I gave it a go. I looked up issues and with an open mind I listened to what the apologists had to say. But I was far from convinced. Listening to people try and warrant the horrific acts of the Old Testament God, or hearing people contrive facts from nowhere to “explain” biblical contradictions and fallacies only strengthened my justification and further rationalised my deconversion. Apologetics uses a certain rhetorical style which sounds all very reasonable and it’s not hard to imagine that uninformed individuals could be easily won over by it (especially if they want to be). But being able to recognise the intellectual dishonesty and bias in apologetics, seeing the arguments that go on within the field of apologetics itself, and contemplating why God would even require these 21st century shysters to explain his words and actions for him, I have to say the whole thing is shameful.
By the time I was through all this literature, for me, Christianity was all but vanquished. I held on to some tiny strand of attachment, still wanting explanations for Christian spiritual experiences and why people believe. Was it possible that there was still something out there? Could Christianity just be a misrepresentation of some deeper truth?
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” —Frantz Fanon
Some books I ended up reading on the matter were The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer and The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering. Scientists are still ignorant about much of what exactly goes on in the human brain, but substantial experimental research and other biochemical studies have established many facts and trends. Shermer and Bering demonstrate how humans are wired for belief. They explain the evolutionary underpinnings of our cognitive biases and our propensity for finding patterns and intentional agents (whether they exist or not) in explaining things we don’t understand. How we convince ourselves of what we want to. How we can live a belief-led reality instead of a reality-led belief, in which we interpret the world and its events based on our beliefs, instead of basing our beliefs on observing the world. Shermer gives the results of experiment after experiment which show how faulty humans can be when it comes to making belief-based decisions, how easy our cognitive processes can be fooled, and how staunchly we hold on to our biases. How medical and psychological conditions (both permanent ones and short term ones) can empirically cause hallucinations or other experiences, which almost always end up being interpreted supernaturally.
“Faith causes us to distort or even ignore objective data; we often ignore all evidence that contradicts with what we want to believe.” —John W. Loftus
The neural pathways in our brains can be compared to our muscles. When we make our muscles move or stretch in a way that they are not used to, it feels very uncomfortable and our bodies cry out to make it stop. When we absolutely need our muscles to work in a certain way (for example, when recovering from an accident), physiotherapy is required – slow, safe, one-step-at-a-time regain of muscle usage. No pain, no gain. Similarly, if we try to think in a different way than our brains are used to, or process information that conflicts with our deep biases, it too is very uncomfortable – “thinking against the grain”. Treatments for things like addiction and depression, as well as the process of coming to terms with change after a traumatic experience, are all about mind physiotherapy – slowly and painfully training your brain to accept new information and think differently.
Years ago, I actually heard some of this science from the pulpit on the subject of pornography. The preacher said that looking at pornography again and again on a consistent daily basis would cause neural pathways to be formed in your brain that eventually make pornography a requirement – an addiction. This is possible. But what did the preacher offer as the perfect prevention (and remedy)? Pray, focus on God, and read the Bible – lots. Hmmm… trade one compulsion for another? Force different (but equally stubborn) neural pathways to be formed? Mould our brains to demand belief in God? Make it so ingrained and deep-rooted, that the idea of not praying, not believing in God, and not reading the Bible becomes… impossible? Welcome to religion.
“Religious faith depends on a host of social, psychological and emotional factors that have little or nothing to do with probabilities, evidence and logic.” —Michael Shermer
If learning all the above wasn’t enough to completely destroy Christianity for me, the final death blow was the issue of theodicy. I highly recommend another of Ehrman’s books, God’s Problem, in this regard. Theodicy looks at the suffering in the world in the context of there being a God, and questions why it happens. This issue of course came up to some degree many times in my Christian life, and I tended to go for the “free will” argument without much further thought. I can no longer do that.
There are places in this world where terrible things happen to people. Where disease and starvation cause more suffering than you or I could ever possibly imagine. Where people are tortured – really tortured. Where hearts are thoroughly broken and lives are utterly destroyed. The suffering of innocent children in particular induces a strong distress and outrage inside me. That any Christian can happily live day to day believing that God loves “me”, protects “me”, and is answering “my” prayers whilst these events go on in the world is astonishing. It’s very difficult to imagine that the Creator of Mankind puts higher priority on helping western kids pass their driving tests than he does in intervening as a child elsewhere is raped for the hundredth time. Yet the experiential answers to prayer from around the world would suggest precisely that kind of notion.
“The idea of God’s love really is the perfection of narcissism. Given all that this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, or the misery being imposed on some child at this instant, this kind of faith is obscene. To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings.” —Sam Harris
Theodicy goes deeper still – natural disasters, natural diseases – far beyond discussions of free will.
“Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely. The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion. Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, ‘this might be all part of God’s plan,’ or ‘there are no accidents,’ or ‘everyone gets what he or she deserves’ – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.” —Sam Harris
Even if I was given some kind of tangible evidence for God, I could never return to prayer. How could I pray for anything in my own life knowing that there are millions in a much worse situation than me? How could I thank God before meals, as if he had some control over providing my food, knowing that children are helplessly dying of starvation while I utter the words? And though I never let myself believe it even when I was a Christian, how can a Christian believe that after a horrible life of intolerable pain and suffering, a person who didn’t have his theology quite right, or whose parents told him about the wrong god, would be sent to a place designed especially by his creator for even worse (and eternal) punishment in hell when he dies?
“How can heaven and hell coexist? How can any sane and loving human being be happy in heaven knowing that millions of people, innocent or not, are being tortured for eternity? This heaven is a place void of empathy, an asylum for psychopaths. How is this heaven good?” —Anonymous
When you really – really – consider these things, I fail to see how a Christian can stay the same.
By this stage, I was fully deconverted. Christianity is man-made. It was so obvious.
The whole process took around six months. At one point in my journey, I was calling myself an ‘agnostic theist’ – still unable to imagine there being no god, but not quite sure about Yahweh. It didn’t take long for that label to become deist, and then finally… atheist.
Atheist… at first it was weird to say it. When I was a Christian, my perception of an atheist was entrenched – an atheist was the saddest, most pathetic, and downright stupid kind of person alive! How could anyone be an atheist? My problem, of course, was that I was completely ignorant. Wilfully so.
Now a happy and content atheist, the world was mine to discover all over again. And I was hungry for knowledge.
I had read many more books on primarily Christian subjects that aren’t mentioned above, and still had some on my to-read list. But by now, I felt that that itch had been scratched. There were so many other topics on the horizon. During my deconversion journey, I had caught soundbites of modern atheist authors like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – quotes, memes, YouTube clips, etc. Of these authors, while I was a Christian, I had only heard of Dawkins – I remember feeling very uncomfortable at seeing his book The God Delusion when it was launched in a local book store. Looking back now, my whole Christian life was spent with a kind of fear of information. Conflicting ideas could make me very uneasy. Although I came to understand that those feelings were no more than simple cognitive dissonance, I still felt a sense of triumph and satisfaction when, as an atheist, I was able to freely and unashamedly open up such books for the first time. I read all the aforementioned authors, and many more. I soon followed with deconversion stories from people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dan Barker, Julia Sweeney and Seth Andrews. Christianity calls its message “The Truth”. I found more truth in a single chapter of these books than in all the Christian literature I read throughout my entire life combined. It’s quite difficult to express in words just how much these books resonated with me. Everything they said was so obvious, yet it was like I was hearing it all for the first time.
I poured through book after book. Science, history, philosophy – I read at a fierce rate. And I loved every minute. Never mind the compelling information, engrossing topics, and thought-provoking ideas – it was just so liberating and gratifying to be able to read anything with an open mind. Free of bias. Free of absolutes. Free to embrace doubt. Free to agree or disagree. Free to think for myself and form my own opinions. Atheist, secularist, rationalist, humanist, freethinker, truthseeker – call it what you want, it’s way better then being trapped behind the walls of dogmatic religion.
I don’t have to hate or judge anymore. Other humans are just that – humans. Gone are the ridiculous and harmful absolute morality claims that come with religion. Instead of consulting antiquated scripture to be told what is right and wrong, I get to use well thought-out reason and common sense as part of a wider social discussion. Christianity (and many other religions) are so morally backwards in so many respects, setting baseless blanket rules instead of considering the actual ethics. It feels so nice to leave all that behind.
“True morality is doing what is right without the threat of divine retribution nor the possibility of divine reward.” —Arthur Paliden
My newfound clarity of mind continued to improve. The religious programming was chipped away bit by bit until no traces remained. But left in its wake was a huge frustration. Now, hearing a Christian confidently make a fallacious, purely Bible-based assertion regarding science, morality or philosophy is downright embarrassing. Hearing an apologist or theologian defend absurdities, or contrive an “explanation” for otherwise factual and incriminating evidence against their faith-based belief is unbearable. Witnessing the mass conformity that goes on amongst the religious populace, who refuse to think for themselves, instead christening their faulty epistemology as “wisdom” is disgraceful. And hearing people give “personal spiritual experience” or “conviction” as the only tangible evidence for Christian belief, while they ignore that fact that members of every other religion/cult in the world confidently profess the exact same reason for their contradictory beliefs, is maddening. How did I used to be like this? How is anyone like this?
“Are you really surprised by the endurance of religion? What ideology is likely to be more durable than one that conforms, at every turn, to our powers of wishful thinking? Hope is easy; knowledge is hard. Science is the one domain in which we human beings make a truly heroic effort to counter our innate biases and wishful thinking. Science is the one endeavour in which we have developed a refined methodology for separating what a person hopes is true from what he has good reason to believe. The methodology isn’t perfect, and the history of science is riddled with abject failures of scientific objectivity. But that is just the point – these have been failures of science, discovered and corrected by – what, religion? No, by [better] science.” —Sam Harris
Instead of actually going out into the world to address real problems, church-goers busy their weeks with church attendance, prayer meetings and Bible studies, and sanctimoniously declare themselves to be morally superior to everyone else for doing so. All around, wilful in-grouping of congregations and denominations creates an “us and them” mentality, dividing communities and cutting off support networks with make-believe lines. Young earth creationists, relying solely on bronze-age mythology, ignore the glaring discrepant evidence all around them, and dangerously promote a distrust in modern science. Christians, without any expertise on the matter, unquestioningly fill “God” as the answer to every gap in knowledge that they personally don’t understand, and wish to go no further.
“The lack of understanding of something is not evidence for God. It’s evidence of a lack of understanding.” – Lawrence M. Krauss
Mass Bible-based discrimination and oppression cause widespread pain and suffering. Evangelists drum hard-earned money out of ignorant congregations under tax-exempt status, as families suffer financially and crucial public expenditure needs are underfunded. End-times fanatics find a silver lining in every world disaster and renounce all responsibility for the future of the planet, greedily counting the days until the return of their Saviour. Missionaries prioritise proselytising over charity. Priests, deprived of their natural sexuality, turn into monsters. Martyrdom-obsessed muslims turn into walking bombs. Religious hordes kill each other in collateral-damage-ridden battles over “holy” lands and ideologies. And much, much more. When you see the harm of religion and faith-based belief as an outsider, it’s all you can do not to scream in frustration. And they tell us to leave religion alone – to tolerate the intolerance. How can the world be so broken?
At the time of this writing, my parents and siblings don’t know about me yet. Nor do any of my Christian friends or acquaintances. I wonder what they all will think.
My wife has thankfully been more or less OK with my deconversion. She was never as religiously staunch as me and she is an intelligent woman and can understand my reasoning, and loves me for who I am. At first she wasn’t at all interested in talking about what I was going through, though she did get more willing over time. Really, apart from a few people in my life that I’ve been able to have piecemeal conversations with about my deconversion experience, I’ve gone through it mostly alone.
I don’t intend to keep my parents and siblings in the dark indefinitely. I could probably continue for quite a while without any of them knowing, but as time goes on it would get more and more difficult. I can’t keep dodging questions and covering up evidence year after year – I just want to be myself. Knowing they are the sort of Christian I was, I am worried they will despair. I’m worried that they’ll think I now must be a very immoral person, which is something I used to think about non-Christians in the past. I hope I can at least convince them that this is not the case. I hope they will understand my reasoning. To me, not being agreed with isn’t the issue – it’s not being understood that I fear. I don’t mean for my choice to walk away from Christianity to be taken as an attack, though I imagine it will be hard for them not to take it that way. I’m anxious and can get very stressed when thinking about how things might go – I have a good relationship with them and I don’t want to ruin that.
Looking back, personally, my biggest issue with Christianity is that it teaches us to believe that this life does not really matter – that it’s basically a test for whether a single belief is held or not – a mere speck of time compared the eternal afterlife that follows. What a waste! As a teenager, I was drawn to the expression “You only live once”. I thought it seemed a really good way to live. I once said it in the presence of my parents, only to get a eyebrow-raised reminder that no, there is a much more important life after this one. Now, I am free from that. I recently calculated that based on the average lifespan for a male of my ethnicity, I only have around 2,500 weeks left of being alive. To not spend them living life as thoroughly as possible would be a crime as far as I’m concerned. The freedom that comes with knowing that my life is just that – mine! – is exhilarating. I am looking forward to the rest of my life more than I ever have before. I finally get to be… me.
Thanks for reading this. I’ve read many deconversion stories, and I hope mine is as helpful to others as others’ have been to me.
“I do understand what love is, and that is one of the reasons I can never again be a Christian. Love is not self denial. Love is not blood and suffering. Love is not murdering your son to appease your own vanity. Love is not hatred or wrath, consigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your ego or disobeyed your rules. Love is not obedience, conformity, or submission. It is a counterfeit love that is contingent upon authority, punishment, or reward. True love is respect and admiration, compassion and kindness, freely given by a healthy, unafraid human being.” —Dan Barker
May Goodness bless you all.