A sensible approach to a difficult transition
by Jim Etchison
" ... you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:32
"The real freedom of any man can always be measured by the amount of responsibility which he must assume for his own welfare and security"
-- Robert Welch
People often view a de-conversion as a sudden, bursting decision, but it is rarely so. For me, leaving my faith was like the creation of an oil painting. At first there were vague shapes that I couldn't identify. Then, stroke upon stroke, the details came into focus, and finally what was happening in the picture became clear. At the time, the picture I saw was my worst fear coming to life -- but I knew I had to proceed. I wasn't until long after the painting was finished, however, that I could recognize the beauty in the creation.
And you will see the beauty too ... eventually.
Even though I've changed drastically since my de-conversion, the basic elements of my identity are still the same. The same person who once wanted to be a minister now wants to help those who, like I once was, are locked in the error loop of the church and can't get out. Before I made my own foray into the unknown, I was filled with apprehensions that actually postponed my leaving the church for many years. I believe thousands of fundamentalists struggle with those same fears today. Some of them will eventually leave the church; others will never seem to find their way out. For those who decide to leave, my hope is that this book can help.
To that end, my goal has been to write a book that would have been useful for me about thirteen years ago. I was seriously doubting my own faith, mentally thrashing through philosophies and contradictions with myself and what my church believed. I would have benefited a great deal from a book that gave me a bit of assurance in very broad terms.
This book has three parts. The first part will help you understand how you got where you were, and help you weigh your decision to leave your religion. Part two will offer methods to prepare for making your move, since the quality of your preparation for this life change can determine the success of the outcome. Part three offers practical steps on actually making the change, and how to navigate the difficult terrain you're heading into.
Please note that I freely interchange a few terms in this book. Terms like Fundamentalism, religion, Christianity, and the church are all interchangeable. Note that in all these cases I'm talking about a system of beliefs that has become oppressive to certain people. Most of the principles in this book can be applied to virtually any such system. Since I happen to have been a part of Fundamentalist Christianity, that's the specific religion I'm targeting in this book, but if you're a Mormon or a Hindu or a Zoroastrian -- the same principles may apply.
I'll be honest. The idea that this book will actually get published frightens me. I fear the reactions of my family and friends. I fear the reprisals from Christians who feel I am their enemy. I fear the potential tragedies that invariably occur when people leave their religion. And then there are the nagging fears that I am wrong and the church is right, and I am helping people to get into hell by publishing this book. I've learned that these particular fears will never go away, and so I've also learned to put them in their place. You will too, because fear never forces you from doing what is right.
PART ONE: On Your Mark
Of all the members at my church, I was considered among the most ardent and faithful. My church was a progressive but fundamentalist pentacostal church in the San Fernando Valley. At the time, it had over 5,000 members. At 22 years old, I was a key leader of the college group. I led worship, taught a Bible study, and was frequently delivering "words from the Lord". I truly believed that I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I could look strangers in the eye and understand deeply spiritual issues they were encountering. I attended church most days for some reason or another. Church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Bible studies were held in my apartment on Tuesday nights, and there was usually some other event that would take me to church another day or two every week. In short, I was completely immersed.
I hadn't just jumped into the water, either. My parents became born again Christians when I was nine, and in an effort to fit into the family, I gladly joined in. From that point on I was a believer, and my fervent drive to get "closer to God" led me deeper and deeper into the ways of the church. By the time I was 15, my step-father was a graduate of Bible College and beginning his career in the ministry as an Associate Pastor. I was, by definition, a model son, and was already showing signs of being an effective minister. My parents encouraged me to join the ministry, and I decided to go to the same Bible college and join the Lord's work. After all, with all the encouragement and acceptance I was getting, coupled with the fact that I knew practically nothing else, why shouldn't I?
By the time I was 22, I prayed, read the Bible, and wrote a spiritual journal every day without fail. (You could say I did it religiously.) There were few people who could defend the gospel better than I could. But I was filled with anxieties and doubts.
Why can't I defeat my flesh? I would ask myself. I would combat my sexual urges every day, but continually found myself returning to the "sinful" world of pornography and masturbation. These defeats not only discouraged me, but kept me in a state of ongoing "repentance" and insecurity. This syndrome kept me eternally needy of the reassurance, acceptance, and "grace" offered by the church. I didn't see, of course, that the church was not only the cure for my disease, but the virus as well.
Chapter One: Why the church is so hard to leave
Christianity is a lot like a political party. It was borne out of a specific need of a specific culture. Its ideals were impassioned and brimming with good intentions. It saw vast successes at first, but lived long past its usefulness because its tenets were designed not to meet its original mission, but to keep the organization alive.
If you have found yourself snared in the trap of the church, it is important to realize two things.
It's most likely that no one has done this intentionally to you, and
You've been snared in a trap that was not only difficult to avoid, but extremely effective.
The last thing you should do is get angry with yourself for being trapped. Nor should you get angry with your pastor or your spiritual mentor. In fact, they probably struggle with some of the same doubts that you're facing.
This chapter will show you the nature of the trap you're trying to extricate yourself from. It's important that you understand how you got there, because it will help you keep a better perspective on certain fears you may encounter when deconverting.
The Seductive Community
The initial draw that the church places on most converts is insidious. Whether you grew up in the church or converted at some point, the church's first implied message is "come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." Simple. Just hang out with the folks without any sacrifice on your part and you will gain all of the following:
>>Financial support (sometimes)
>>A place to go
In a word, the church provides you with community. We are all hard-pressed to find a sense of community in Western society, yet a community is required for us to thrive as humans. In part, the success of the church can be attributed to a growing lack of modern society to provide a community for individuals. When we discovered the church and its benefits, we breathed a sigh of relief at finally finding a sense of community. Some of us never even knew what a community could feel like, but found it wonderfully fulfilling. And what were the requirements for us to gain these benefits at first? Practically zero. All we have to do is dip our hand into the well and partake.
I've created a simple formula that illustrates how we make decisions. It's fairly simple:
Benefits - Cost = Degree of Desirability
I will place somewhat arbitrary numeric values to this formula to show how it changes over time. Initially, the equation is very clear, and obviously to our benefit:
Benefits to partake in church: 7
Cost of partaking in church: - 1
Strength of Action: 6
So, like any good drink. We want to drink a lot. And we do. And for awhile, everything is great. We make friends, we develop a network of caring supporters, we have enough events in our week to keep us busily entertained, we gain a sense of importance and belonging, and we feel secure.
But it usually doesn't take long for this equation to slowly change. As we get to really know Christians, they begin telling us the "bad news." Here's an example:
"You know, Jim, you really shouldn't use that kind of language now that you're a believer. The Bible says 'Let no corrupt communication come out of your mouth,' and as you allow Jesus to become Lord of your life, you will need to tame your tongue."
It could be language, drinking, smoking, or any number of superficial "sins" that are immediately apparent to your fellow Christians. The statements will usually be made in a non-offensive manner, with intentions that seem completely forthright and good.
But what if you don't change? Although it's not stated overtly, you know that if you continue using foul language, or smoke, etc., you will be placed at a certain distance by others in the church. They would classify you as someone who doesn't really want to grow in the Lord. Even as I write this, I cringe at remembering times when I placed this exact pressure on new Christians.
Our subconscious fear of not changing is that not changing would detract from our primary benefit: community. For those who grew up in the church, this shift is even more insidious. Because our entire culture, family and friends have all sprung from church and church-oriented events, we are deeply ' entrenched in this benefit by the time we are old enough to face temptations to stray. So our desire to protect our investment is high, and our willingness to conform is equally high.
These and many other "seemingly small" pressures begin to change the equation:
Cost - 3
Strength of Action 5
You'll notice that concurrent with the growth of the cost is the growing value of the benefit. This happens because we get closer to our friends, we get more visibility in our community, we gain respect, etc. As a new Christian's enjoyment of the benefit increases, the pressure to conform increases as well. As a result, increment by increment, these small changes become harder and harder, requiring more and more personal sacrifice and investment. For many people, the costs build faster than the benefits. If we were able to keep a cool head, we would realize in short order that the outcome has become negative, and leave the church. But two other very influential factors come into play at a conveniently crucial time: stubbornness and fear.
The Stubbornness Factor
Stubbornness is often the initial roadblock that prevents people from ever even looking at other options. Once a Christian begins investing time, changing his behavior, and sacrificing money and pleasurable pursuits, he develops an extremely stubborn veneer that prevents him from believing he could possibly be wrong. He doesn't want to believe that he could be wrong because his investment has been so costly. This is a human characteristic that cult leaders take full advantage of. A cult leader will require more and more bizarre behavior of followers until they've invested so much that death seems a trifle. Sexual abstinence, hair and clothing styles, seclusion from society, and other bizarre behaviors exact such a high cost that a person would feel unbearably foolish to admit they have made a mistake.
If a Christian is open-minded enough to admit to himself that he might have made a mistake, the stubbornness factor can be overcome. But the difficulty of this hurdle is chronic because it grows in direct proportion to the size of your investment. For me, having grown up in the church, 20-or-so years of consciously molding myself to the "look and feel" of being a Christian added up to a pretty big stubbornness factor. I did not want to admit that I had "saved myself" sexually, and missed out on all those parties and concerts in my youth on a completely false set of beliefs. That was too painful an admission for me to make! A second formula can be used to show this syndrome, and it looks like this:
Value of costs paid = Level of Stubbornness
There is good news, however. Our stubbornness grows in equal proportion to our investment only after we have made the investment. Unfortunately, the church has a clever (and probably unconscious) practice to counteract this.
A cult member who has only cut his hair and been with the group for a week will not be willing to kill himself for the cult. The perceived benefit of staying with the group must always be larger than the gap between our stubbornness and the value of the next requirement. Let me simplify by saying that the requirements grow in baby steps. They must grow in baby steps because our resilience and stubbornness will not be sufficiently high if the church is asking something significantly greater than we have already invested.
Most religions and cults have "higher truths" or "higher learning" that you are only required to partake in after you have been with the group for a great period of time. In fact, you may not even know about these after taking part in the group for many years. The reason these "truths" are reserved for long-standing members is because their stubbornness factor, after years of investment, is high enough to withstand the absurdity being offered, or the exorbitance of the cost. Scientology is a classic example. Only after being a member of that church for many years, and paying thousands upon thousands of dollars, are members allowed to read certain texts that would appear preposterous to any normally functioning person. The texts talk about race wars on other planets and suggests we are all possessed by the spirits of these other-worldly creatures. But intelligent people have read and believed them. (Some of them are big box-office draws, in fact.) The reason this works is because the benefits of the group are still a greater influence than the cost of suspending one's skepticism.
So as the formula for your involvement in the church begins to equalize, your stubbornness factor can prevent you from leaving. An example of this would be:
Cost - 10
Desirability - 2
Stubbornness + 6
Strength of Action 4
The cards begin to seem fairly stacked against us to ever leave the church. Eventually, however, even this formula would become tipped in our favor by the human need to end our cognitive dissonance. But one more factor comes into play: fear.
The Fear Factor
The second factor that contributes to the formula is fear. While stubbornness comes from within, the ideas that lend to the fear factor come almost primarily from others. The fears are usually delivered via word of mouth, and often that mouth is behind a pulpit. The pulpit is the point of sale where any congregation will either buy (and grow in size) or not buy (and shrink). Because of this, churches learn to say things that add to the benefits side of the equation. They also learn to add to fear. Here's why:
Cost - 10
Desirability - 2
Stubbornness + 6
Fear + 4
Strength of Action 10
Fear is a contributor the a believer's tendency to stay in the church. So by preaching fear, a church can more effectively dissuade believers from leaving the flock. Here are some common fears that they preach:
If you die an unbeliever you will go to hell.
Non-believers live in despair.
God does not bless non-believers
Let's deal with each of these fears one at a time.
Going to hell
Pardon me, but I'm going to make an exception and launch into my own theology for a moment ….
Hell is one of the most brilliant inventions the church ever devised. And remember, the church devised this. Yes, it is spoken of in the Bible (although it's only mentioned a small handful of times, it's described several different ways, and given several different names) but the church has capitalized on this vague notion and done so very effectively.
Hell is one of the most profound fears that a person faces when leaving the church. The vivid descriptions of fire and brimstone may be stereotypically humorous, but the fears go deep nonetheless. Do not run from your fear of hell. Think about it head-on and kill it. If God does exist, then creation is the one source of reliable evidence we can use to understand his nature. The God that created all this diverse life is not the same God who would pull the wings off of a fly for sheer enjoyment. Nor would he put his creation (whom he allegedly loves) into a place of eternal torture based on a technicality. (And if you really dig into the facts of any of the major religions, what separates a person from heaven or hell is always a technicality.)
(Need to do research here. Find out the origins of Hell in theory and theology. When did it become a dominant part of belief? Was it emphasized out of a few diverse scriptures to scare people?)
Hell does not exist. If I'm wrong, I'll probably go there, but I'm not at all worried.
Non-believers live in despair
As I grew up in church, I often heard preachers talk about the horrible despair the non-believers experience on a daily basis. As a Christian, I understood the depth of my own soul and the intricate complexities of my thoughts. I felt I was special and important in some undefinable way. Because of these teachings, I attached my sense of soulish depth and importance to the fact that God lived inside me … because I was a Christian.
This idea, to put it bluntly, is pure bullshit.
We all feel important. We all have deep thoughts. Christians and non-Christians alike experience despair at various times in their lives. If a Christian says they are never sad then they are sadly lying. People who were frequently depressed while they were Christians are frequently depressed after they leave the church too. People who are usually happy when they are Christians are still usually happy when they leave the church. The secret is out: being a fundamentalist Christian is not transforming in any positive way at all. In fact, deconversion is usually a liberating experience that allows people to transform into what they were designed to be. The end result: more happiness.
In my case, I became decidedly happier after leaving the church. But I'll talk more about this later …
God does not bless non-believers
When I became a non-Christian, my previous methods of thinking become laughably absurd. One of these now-comic tendencies was how I used to place some higher significance on ordinary events. Here's an example of this type of thinking:
"I went to the grocery store today, and I had to go back to aisle seven because I had forgotten to get applesauce. But when I was there I saw a sale on a special breakfast cereal that my husband loves. So I knew the Lord had caused me to forget the applesauce so I could do something special for my husband."
"When Billy left the house this morning it was very warm, but I made him put his jacket on anyway. Sure enough, the weather turned cold and he ended up missing the bus. I'm sure the Lord knew that Billy was going to miss the bus, and that's why the Holy Spirit impressed me to make him wear his
What ends up happening is we ascribe positive outcomes, as well as the avoidance of negative outcomes, to God's blessing. We make this even more silly by doing this:
"I forgot to buy my husband's favorite applesauce today and we ended up getting in an argument. Satan is attacking my marriage."
"Billy forgot his jacket and missed the bus after school today. He had to walk home in the cold and now he's got a fever. I believe Satan is attacking my family."
Pure silliness and tripe. But we get caught up into this thinking, and the end result is that we believe all good things tend to come from God, and that all bad things tend to come from Satan. The resulting fear is that if we leave Christianity, and God's hand is removed from our lives, all these horrible things will start to happen, and none of the good things will happen.
There is a basic psychological principle that describes this phenomenon in graphical form. A triangle forms three connections between three points. A human trait is to establish an overall positive balance between these three connections. Imagine that either a positive or negative relationship exists between three elements. The three elements are you, God or Satan, and a certain event (say, forgetting your applesauce.)
You -- forgetting applesauce
Bear with me while I delve into another math analogy. This graph is not a complicated as it might seem. The relationship between you and Satan (especially if you are a Christian) is ostensibly negative. The relationship between you and the event of forgetting applesauce is negative. Therefore, the relationship between Satan and that event must be positive. Satan made you forget that applesauce! Here's why:
When you multiply the positive or negative values, our human tendency is to work out the equation so that there is a positive outcome. If you multiply a negative with a positive, you get a negative. If you multiply the negative with another negative, you get an overall positive outcome. Our fallacious minds want all three-sided relationships to find this positive equilibrium. A simpler version of this would be if you meet someone that you know your best friend hates, you will automatically have a pre- disposed negative feeling toward them.
The only possible two outcomes that result in a positive value are two negatives and a positive, or three positives. Let's look at another example:
Imagine you don't forget the applesauce. Instead, you remember at the last minute, and upon returning to the applesauce aisle, you bump into an old friend and have a pleasant conversation. Here's how our warped minds might interpret this scenario:
You + remembering applesauce
Upon reflecting on the positive event, we might be inclined to place God on top of the triangle because it fills it out with a positive balance. Satan could not have reminded us to buy the applesauce because the outcome was so nice, and we have a negative attitude toward Satan.
Now here's where the fear comes in. Let's say we leave Christianity:
You -- forgetting applesauce
The illogical fear is that by leaving Christianity, we will have a negative relationship with God, and therefore all of God's actions will result in a negative outcome. And since God is more powerful than Satan we'll have the wrong guy on our side! Yikes!
In order to successfully take control of your own mind, you will need to stop thinking like this. It's hogwash! The Biblical validation that this is a fallacy lies in the scripture: "The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous." (See, the Bible isn't always wrong.)
Now … on to more fears. Some of them aren't generally preached, but they are implied.
Implied fears are hinted at by the society of the church, and inferred by our own paranoid minds. These fears are not actually fallacious in nature. In fact, they might be downright true. But it's important to recognize them and to place the appropriate amount of value on what these fears actually mean. There are three fears:
If you leave the church, your friends and family may abandon you.
This is a legitimate fear. It could happen. Weigh this cost carefully. If being accepted by your friends and family is more important than being able to believe in the way you live your life, then don't leave the church. I'll deal more with this topic in later chapters.
If you leave the church, you will have to make your own decisions.
Most Christians don't actually think about this fear, but I believe it is latent in nearly everyone who has turned the responsibility for creating their value system over to someone else. Especially if we grow up in the church, we become reliant on some church father to decide (usually via some lame interpretation of the Bible) what is morally right and wrong.
This fear is not imagined: it is reality. Although if you've actually gotten this far into this book without burning it and cursing me to the bowels of hell, you probably won't have too much difficulty with this. If, however, you can't handle making your own decisions and being your own moral arbiter, don't leave the church.
General fear of the unknown
This is a vague, but very real fear. If you have immersed yourself in the culture of Christianity, leaving your religion can be much like moving to another country. Everything will look strange, sound strange, feel strange, and if your really spiritual it might even smell strange. I believe this fear alone is what keeps people from venturing away from a lie; they have grown so accustomed to the lie that the non-lie is frightening.
My advice in overcoming this fear is fairly simple. Try it. If you don't like it, go back.
This chapter has hopefully shown why it is so difficult to leave the church. The costs tend to be outweighed by our own fears and stubbornness as well as the actual benefits. Hopefully this chapter has inspired you to do two things:
Place an accurate value on the benefits of the church. I never stated this overtly, but you may have gleaned this from the text. Exactly what is it worth to continue friendships with people who do not truly accept you for who you are, but accept only their idealized version of you? Less than you may have thought …
Wipe the stubbornness factor out completely. You can do this by having an open mind and by adhering to such pithy sayings as "today is the first day of the rest of your life".
Minimize the fear factor by seeing them for what they are. Don't wipe your fears out completely. Some of them might be real and should be carefully considered. But many of them are pure fallacy.
By doing these three things, hopefully
Cost - 10
Desirability - 4
Stubbornness + 0
Fear + 2
Strength of Action - 2
So to return (for the last time, I promise) to my arcane mathematical analogy, let me sum things up:
Chapter Two: Should you leave the church?
Religion is like Country Western music. Some people are blessed with the ability to like it.
I've come to the conclusion that three types of people will read this book. First will be my intended audience: people who go to church but aren't too thrilled about it. Second will be adversarial readers: people who've heard about the book and think I'm an evil Pied Piper. The third group consists of all the people who don't fit into either of the first two groups, and serve to prove that indeed only three groups will read this book.
This chapter is not intended to mollify the second group. I'm including this chapter because we need to achieve a balanced attitude when we deconvert or we risk leading an "anti-Christian" life that would be fraught with, believe it or not, the same pitfalls and traps as Christianity. This chapter will offer perspective that will say, in a way, "don't throw the baby Jesus out with the holy water."
Who shouldn't leave the church
The first chapter explains in detail the trap that Christianity (or any religion) can be for some. It's important to realize that even though these mechanisms exist, they do not have the same effect on everyone. And, the mere fact that the mechanism does have an effect on you doesn't mean you should leave … not yet anyway. There are four groups who shouldn't leave the church: those for whom church works, those who don't have a specific place to go once they do leave (and risk "the overload"), those who are unsure about leaving, and those who are running from a recent traumatic experience or person.
Believe it or not, the church works for some
Some people aren't affected negatively by the various costs described in chapter one. Some people can fit the moral mold without any turmoil. Some are not bothered by the conflict between doctrine and science. These people might only benefit from the church, and it's your job as a good person to let them continue benefiting.
Even though there are some ex-Christians who will vehemently disagree, it's my opinion that people can believe a myth without any damage. To assert that any of us know the "truth" is arrogant, so we all believe myths to some extent. Just as parents wink at the notion of Santa Claus for the benefit of their children, belief in a fundamentalist religion can benefit some people. It gives them a foundation of belief that they can accept so they can stop worrying about it. They usually "choose" it because it's the default religion of their culture. To borrow from a bumper sticker, they say "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." These people go about their lives with happy contentment in not having to think about deeper truths. They don't bother anyone else about it. For them it works. Bully for them.
Later in this book I'll address the issue of why we need to let these people be. The point of this section is to make a simple point: if you're happy with church, don't leave it. It's a pretty obvious point, but I don't want it said that I'm trying to woo people away from the church. I'm only trying to help those who want out. (Have I beaten that point to death? Okay then, I'll drop it.)
Avoid "The Overload"
Even though this point is fairly simple on the surface, it's worth contemplating long and hard. I know because I made this mistake.
Don't assume that your involvement in your religion is based solely on philosophical alignment. If you do, you might say "I don't believe that anymore, therefore I shall leave. Spit spot." On the contrary, as I've outlined in chapter one, the church's tendrils may very well be intertwined with every facet of your life. To explain this point further, let me tell some more of my story:
In 1985 my lack of fulfillment with my religion became fully realized. I had been removed from my leadership position in church because I had confessed to having sex with my girlfriend. After a series of unlucky events, several elements of my life began to crumble including my job, my car, my friends, etc. I began questioning anything and everything-even my faith. I began reading philosophers and other non-biblical religious texts. In particular, I read Fear and Trembling by Sfren Kierkegaard. (If your faith isn't already demolished, this book will do the trick.) For me, the book introduced the though for the first time that perhaps my faith was a sham.
Shortly after this, I took a trip to Japan. Even though it was a business trip, I ended up staying with a youth missionary group that was stationed there. These young kids were hell-bent on converting the entire city of Tokyo for Christ. I went along with them out of sheer habit -- witnessing on the streets and riding in the trains whilst singing the latest, hippest worship tunes. The Japanese people on the trains -- who were just trying to mind their own business -- had a powerful effect on me. Even though I didn't speak of word of Japanese, there are some facial expressions that speak volumes in any language. They thought we were rude, and they thought we were funny. But believe me they weren't laughing with us. Even though I'd faced this type of rejection before, this time I wasn't in America and for some reason it cut me to the bone. I was repulsed by my own behavior. It was as if I'd woken up from a dream to find myself sleepwalking nude in public. I was horrified.
That night I took a walk, and found myself in the plaza outside the Shibuya train station. It is a common meeting place for people, so the crowd was thick with people. I looked over the sea of dark- haired people and broke down. I was so far from home, and my faith seemed completely irrelevant there. These people don't need to be saved, I thought. They're no different from me. I knew that if my faith was irrelevant there, it was irrelevant period. So I deconverted right then and there. Because I was so accustomed to talking with "God", the statement of deconversion took the ironic form of a prayer. I told God (and mostly myself) that I didn't believe anything anymore. Nothing. I "Rasaed my Tabula."
After flying back to the United States, I went back to work and school, but I was a complete zombie. At the time I had no idea what was going on, but I was reading voluminously, writing constantly, and the rest of the time I was lost in thought. I felt as if I had to answer all my questions immediately. Looking back now, I can understand why. I'd build my house on the proverbial sand and … well, the sand shifted. Even though it was an easy mental leap for me to abandon my faith, it was another thing altogether to try and grasp the world afterward.
A psychologist would say I had an emotional breakdown. My only problem with the phrase is that it sounds far prettier than it felt. I felt a constant barrage of emotions -- none of them good. Even driving down the street would find me severely confused. I remember talking to my roommate at the time, who was a good and noble man. He looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, "What is wrong with you?" I couldn't answer because I didn't know. Nothing made sense anymore. I would lay in my bed and listen to the Talking Heads' song "The Overload" over and over again. I'll print the lyrics here just for laughs:
A terrible signal, too weak to even recognize.
A gentle collapsing, the removal of the insides.
I'm touched by your pleas. I value these moments.
We're older than we realize … in someone's eyes.
A frequent returning, and leaving unnoticed.
A condition of mercy, a change in the weather.
A view to remember, the center is missing.
They question how the future lies … in someone's eyes.
The gentle collapsing of every surface.
We travel on the quiet road …
(Remain in Light, Talking Heads ©198?)
These lyrics could probably mean just about anything to any one at any time. But to me they described exactly what I was going through. My doubts had been a terrible signal that for years was too weak for me to recognize. And now that I finally could hear it, every surface of my life was collapsing, and I was on serious overload.
The reason I was on overload was because I made a very daring leap into the abyss without a net. Courageous, yes, but stupid too. You need to be very aware that if you've been a churchgoer most of your life -- especially while you were a child -- that the Christian lifestyle is your center. Leaving the church in a rushed manner will tear out your center. It's kind of like when you catch fire. If you run in a panic, you'll only make matters worse.
I ran from the church, and ended up running back. I wasn't happy about it, but I found myself begrudgingly darkening my church's door with my tail between my legs. My pain in the outside world had been sufficient for me to run to the most effective anesthesia I knew: church. I went back in and tried my hardest to stop thinking about it. For almost 10 years I succeeded.
Bear in mind … those 10 years of worship-induced non-thinking were 10 pretty lousy years. And it was my fault. I was too cowardly to stick out my deconversion. All because I was averse to the pain caused by my hasty retreat.
As Homer Simpson would say: "Doh!"
So take a tip from me: don't run from the church. Plot your course carefully so you don't find yourself back where you started. We'll talk more about that issue in later chapters.
Lukewarm works both ways Another group of people who should think twice before leaving the church is the group of people who are lukewarm about leaving. You know the thing Jesus said about being lukewarm? I agree with it. It's a pretty good rule in life to never do anything half-assed. If you are considering deconversion half-heartedly, please apply the lukewarm principle to yourself. In addition, you can take some advice from Paul: "Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do so mightily!" (Colossians ?:?)
Please don't be a half-assed de-convert because you were a half- assed Christian. If you are dispassionate about your own life then your faith is a secondary problem. You won't be fair to yourself if you pretend to be a Christian around your friends or family -- even if you say you're doing it for "them."
Identify the Real Cause of your Pain Because all religions are made up of people, there are a fair amount of churchgoing bastards in every denomination. If you are leaving the church after a particularly negative experience with a person or group, be careful to identify the true source of your pain before deconverting. Don't assume that all churches are like the one that traumatized you. If you are unclear on your motivations for leaving the church, you will have diluted results later. You might actually feel an affinity with the teachings of the church, but dislike the pompous ass behind the pulpit. In that case, don't confuse your dislike of the pompous ass with your distaste in what he's teaching.
If you leave the church because of a negative person, the reasons for your initial attraction to the church will still exist, and you will very likely feel "tempted" to go back to church as those issues resurface.
To play the "angel's advocate", I can say that there are churches that are attended by truly good and even wonderful people. I know because I've attended them. Toward the end of my faith, I was attending a church that had one of the most balanced and loving approaches to faith I'd ever found. So if mean people are your problem, go find a church with nice people. Granted, this type of church is difficult to find, but they are out there.
Who should leave the church
There are three types of people who should strongly consider leaving the church. First, and most important, are people who are involved in a destructive cult. Second are people who have reached a point of despair in their life because they feel trapped by the church. The third group are people who go to church only to please their family or friends, but really don't think about it the rest of the week.
Some of the most intelligent people in the world can be found in cults with the most hare-brained beliefs. Humans have strange tendency -- we want to believe adamantly in things that are completely untrue. Remember the Heaven's Gate cult in San Diego? The ones who got Beatles haircuts and ate cyanide pudding? Those were valuable people who were destroyed by their own inability to recognize this tendency. It's of life-or-death importance that everyone be able to step outside themselves and ask these questions about their religion:
Here's a definition of a destructive cult:
If you are involved in an organization that fits the above description, I will advise you without reservation to plan a hasty retreat and get out. Go immediately to an organization designed to help people in your situation. And for God's sake don't be embarrassed. One of the most prohibitive factors people face when leaving a cult is their own embarrassment. To admit the cult was wrong, and individual faces the looming though of : How could I be such a dope to believe such tripe? Don't worry about it. There are a lot of people who've been there. Feel the fear and do what's right anyway.
(refer to other books)
There were several breaking points for me during the few years it took to break from my faith. One of them came straight out of the Bible:
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."
I'd taken a logic class in college (not by choice, but I'm glad I took it.) I learned about logical statements in the class, and after taking that class, I was able to break down this scripture into the following statement:
This would be read "If Truth, then freedom." One of the cool things about logic is that there are right ways and wrong ways to modify such if/then statements. One example of a wrong way would be to say "not truth/not freedom." After all, the scripture does not imply that the only way you can become free is by knowing the truth. However, here's an example a correct assumption:
Not Freedom/Not Truth
When Jesus said "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" he was also saying "If you aren't free, then you can't possibly know the truth." This is logically sound. And this realization caused me great consternation because I knew that -- no matter how I could personally define freedom -- it did not describe me. Ergo, no truth. Bummer!
Not free described not only me, but many of my friends. There was a palpable weight to our conversations when we would be truly vulnerable with each other. Being a Christian felt unnatural to us, and was a constant struggle. We all felt like Sisyphus: pushing a rock up a hill that would only roll back down in time. What kept us going was not our faith, but our staunch dedication to encouraging one another. Encouragement is good, but it was only required because we were trying to live a life that is damnably impossible to live.
The paradox of Christianity is found in the scripture by Paul "What then, shall I go on sinning because grace shall abound?" (Chapter, verse) The Freedom offered in the promise of truth is, according to the Greek translation "freedom from mortal liability." So apparently we shall know the truth and we shall go to heaven, but our life on earth shall still suck because we shall still be bludgeoned by temptation and sin. And even though the grace of God will atone for the sin, we still shouldn't succumb to it. Just because. But the Christ's teachings about the Kingdom of God imply that our lives shall be liberated in the soulish sense as well. What's up with this? Is our freedom soulish or is it merely some midnight posting of a check in heaven? I felt as if my faith was full of complicated contradictions that were caused over centuries by compromise and sophistry. Examining my faith was like stripping the paint from a piece of antique furniture that has been painted several colors over decades. Is it red? Is it mauve? Is it burnt sienna?
I spent hours and hours in restaurants with names like "Denny's" and "Coco's" discussing these things with my Christian friends. I think they were a bit perturbed by my constant questioning, and many of them challenged the validity of my faith because I was so beset with doubt. The fact is, my questions made them even more uncomfortable than the orange vinyl seats they were sitting in. When facing brutal reality, they had to agree that the soulish rest they had hoped to find in Christianity was indeed evanescent and ungraspable.
It's the memory of those friends that motivates me to write this book. If you have sincerely tried to find something real about Christianity, but have ultimately found despair, you need to admit that it is not you but your faith that has failed. Once making that realization, it's time to continue your search for meaning elsewhere.
As stated before, you shouldn't leave the church if you are lukewarm about leaving. On the other hand, you shouldn't stay in the church if you are lukewarm about staying. The bottom line is to not be lukewarm. Think about which way you want to go, and do it with a passion.
Jesus hated the idea of people following his cause with lukewarm convictions. I hate the idea, too. But if you find it impossible to get excited about the Christian way of life, then leave. Jesus and me see eye-to-eye on this one. (Read .) Don't misinterpret my statement to mean you should feel bad if you are lukewarm -- I don't blame you if you are.
A lot of people at church -- especially "lifers", people who grew up in church, -- continue to go merely to placate their families. I could have easily fallen into this syndrome. My mother, bless her kind heart, would love for me to become a churchgoer again. It would have been easy for me to "pretend" to want to go to make her happy. Others might have significantly stronger familial pressure to be affiliated with a certain religion.
There is no pressure strong enough that should coerce you into attending a church against your will. I will discuss this more in later chapters, but you must be true to yourself, and until you are you will not be as effective a person as your potential might dictate.
Hopefully this chapter helped you decide whether you should leave the church or not. Granted, I'm making fairly broad generalizations. In the end, I hope you will look into yourself for your ultimate answer.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)