Like most young people, I grew up fully participating in the religion of my parents. My mom had been raised in an independent Methodist church and my dad had grown up in an independent Baptist church. My dad's dad was actually a small-time Christian radio personality in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I should also add that Spartanburg is in the backyard of a Baptist Mecca, Bob Jones University, and that the cultural identity of that area is more than 90% Evangelical. Most people in the region, my parents included, are working-class and only high school educated. Slick, slightly educated preachers rule the roost socially and politically with their polished persuasions.
When I was about six years old, my parents compromised on attending a Southern Baptist church in my neighborhood. After a couple of years, my dad had become a deacon and my parents were fully functioning members of the church. Between the two of them, they served on every church committee. My mom taught Sunday school to preschoolers and both of my parents built and catalogued the church library. My own Sunday school teacher was also my second grade teacher in my public elementary school. Everywhere I went, the Lamb was sure to be there.
I've always been an inquisitive person with a metaphysical mind by nature. When I was eight, I began asking my mom questions about the powers of God, the origins of the world and my own fate after death. She took this as a cue to set up an appointment with my preacher, Rev. Terry Murphy. I sat with Rev. Murphy in his office after Wednesday night services while my mom was in choir practice and he started asking me a series of questions, like, Who made the world? Did I know who Adam and Eve were? Did I know how they sinned in the Garden? I was well familiar with the story, and he told me that because Adam and Eve had sinned that my relationship with God had been permanently set askew. I acknowledged that I knew this, I had heard this in church, so he began asking me questions about Jesus: did I know who Jesus was and why he came to earth and died? I affirmed that I knew that Jesus had come to save the world from sin, and he told me that having realized this I had reached "an age of accountability" in which I could accept Christ. We kneeled together and he led me through a sinner's prayer in which I acknowledged that I was a sinner and needed Christ's forgiveness and atonement. I felt a rush of excitement and wanted to be the best Christian I could be. The next Sunday, I was brought before the whole church and introduced as a new Christian. My baptism was scheduled two weeks later, and in the meantime I practiced baptizing myself in the bathtub and talked ceaselessly with my classmates about the wonders of my newfound identity, to the point that some Christian adults cautioned me about my zeal in public school. In short, I had become a "little preacher." By the time I was ten, "God" had "called my to preach" and I set my sights on a clerical career track.
My brother, seven years older, is my opposite. When he got to junior high, the pressure to fit in with peers led him to fall into a lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol. He was a "problem teen," who ran away alot and began "experimenting" with Satanism to revenge himself against my parents. My mom blamed all of his acting out on the public school system, because while he was at school she couldn't keep close tabs on him and his friends. As soon as I reached junior high age, my mom yanked me out of the public school system and enrolled me in a private Christian school. WCS was an independent Baptist school which used a Bob Jones curriculum. The mission of this church controlled school can best be described as independent, fundamentalist, missionary, “Bible-believing,” salvationist, dogmatic, and Baptist.
Every morning the first class was “Bible,” in which we were instructed in all manners of fundamentalist apologetics and biblical interpretation. We were taught that God had directly inspired every word of the Bible so that we could know the "heart" of God and his wishes through interpreting the literal text of the Book. I was taught that there was only one correct interpretation of Scripture (theirs, of course) and that this interpretation must also be extended to disciplines such as science, history, philosophy and other literature. Any other interpretation of reality was idolatrous, and “heretics” (such as Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche to name a handful) would surely suffer for their lies on “Judgment Day.” Every Friday, we had chapel. At the end of every chapel, we had an "altar call" or "salvation check."
I excelled at WCS. I was a straight A student, I memorized much of the Bible and read the Bible devotionally everyday for seven years, I was selected as student body chaplain and "Most Dependable" from 10th grade onward, and I finished first in my class. I only engaged in "Christian" activities and avoided being tainted by "the world." I was a fundamentalist of fundamentalists!
By my senior year, however, I started becoming disillusioned with the frigidity and dryness of the Baptist church and began looking for more spiritually powerful experiences. In reaction, I began attending a Charismatic church in Spartanburg called "Evangel Cathedral." After attending Evangel for a short time I received the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" and began speaking in tongues, laying hands on people and prophesying. I even once performed an "exorcism" with a friend.
At Evangel Cathedral, I learned that God’s Spirit communicates with all believers who are willing to listen. I listened to “God.” Sometimes, “God” told me to do some very strange things. At one time during my senior year of high school, I wanted to pack up and become a missionary in the former Soviet Union. “God” had told me to do it. Luckily for me, my parents had a better notion of the greater good than I did. They convinced me that if ministry was my intention, then college was the best preparatory road. Eventually, “God” told me to go to college. I selected a liberal Christian college, choosing immediately to major in biblical studies.
One year into my degree I had changed my mind about Christian ministry. I had begun to learn to read Greek and discovered that many of the theological truths of my youth had been produced through mistranslations of the Bible. I began learning history from an “outsider’s” perspective and began privately to read the philosophers I had been warned about during all of my years in church and school. I finally got "the big picture" of the Bible historically and literarily. I worked in an observatory as an assistant, which of course caused me to think cosmically. I joined the Honor’s program and participated in a seminar about the positive influences which the theory of evolution has made in every discipline. The more I learned about history, science and theology, the less connected I felt with the "truth" of the beliefs of my younger days. I noticed that most churches don't have a consistent theological message on any given Sunday, except for "do what we say" or "give God his 10%," so I stopped attending. I finally accepted the truth that Christianity is historically a fusion of Jewish and Greek underclass myths and made my break with Christianity in 1997, turning from a fundamentalist into a thorough-going humanist, but not without great trauma. Many "friends" I had since childhood turned their backs on me and I slipped into a year-long depression. People kept telling me that "I think too much" and that "I should just have faith." They implied that something was wrong with me because I no longer shared their spiritual sentiments or felt the old spiritual intuitions that I had experienced. I wasn't sure what to do next.
I still felt very strongly about studying religion. Many of my classmates seemed content with insulating their uninformed beliefs, seeking an easy track to a pulpit. From there they could simply disseminate what they had already learned in their churches concerning the infallibility of the Christian Bible, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the coming Rapture of the saints and the eternal damnation of non-Christians. I started intellectually attacking them in my religion classes, and I also began confronting Bob Jones street preachers in downtown Greenville on the weekends, where I truly began honing my anti-Christian debating skills. Before I graduated I had decided that I wanted to teach religion from an academic perspective for life. If I could cause a student to examine their presuppositions critically for just an educated moment, I would have prepared someone better than most anyone who had educated me.
I followed this track to a state university in the South where I earned a Master's degree in Religion and taught an introductory class in Judaism, Christianity and Islam for a total of five years as a teaching assistant and adjunct. I did my best to show my students how these religions were "manufactured" historically, hoping they would see for themselves that the truths these religions teach are just cultural contingencies.
Now I'm working on a Ph.D in American history in a state university in the Northeast, while teaching intro courses in a Religion program. I'm focusing my studies on Christian Evangelicals and their thoughts on Jews, Judaism and Israel. Eventually, I hope to perform ethnographic studies of Southern evangelical churches.
To date, I've been an ex-Christian for nearly a decade, and I'm certain inside and out as to why I am not a Christian. I've made like-minded friends but also tend to keep to myself, and I converted to Reform Judaism two years ago. I consider myself more of an intellectual/philosophical Jew instead of a religious Jew. I eat what I like and I don't attend a synagogue. On good days, I'm a pantheist and on bad days I'm an atheist. I'm very much a skeptic and a materialist at heart. I still have big problems with being religious and with being a part of any community because of my Christian experiences. I have a lifelong commitment to opposing uncritical forms of religion through education. After I'm academically settled, I want to write a book about my experiences with Christianity or to edit a compilation of essays by other ex-Christians. As far as I'm concerned, it's a cultural war and I'm ready to strap on my helmet and move to the frontlines. Kirk Cameron had better look out!!!