I was born into a Christian family attending a Methodist Church in Ireland. My dad was very involved in the church and my mom (who grew up a Catholic) followed suit. When I was 5 years old, we moved to the USA, where we settled into an evangelical pentecostal Foursquare church. I grew up memorising bible verses, going to Christian summer camps, being encouraged to worship in the pentecostal style, learn my gifts of the spirit, and dedicate my life to Christ. I never considered that any of it was open to questioning or interpretation – it was just the way things were. The sky was blue, one plus one equalled two, and God loved me – it was that simple.
When I was 12 years old, we moved back to Ireland. My dad ended up becoming 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 did not enjoy 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 very 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 I ended up leading worship in more than one church. 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 not get too close to them. 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.
"There's nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it." – William James
It would be dishonest to say I wasn’t happy growing up like this – I was. I did not have the horrible Christian childhood experiences that I’ve read in some 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. For instance, I grappled with the idea of hell (why would God create it, allow it to exist, and be OK with sending humans – who he apparently loves – there to suffer forever?). I was never entirely comfortable with the more pentecostal styles of worship (sometimes it was obviously an act). I was never satisfied with Christianity’s big NO (without further explanation) on sexual matters – I often felt guilty and self-loathing for just experiencing otherwise natural teenage hormone-driven sexual 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 to most people, God seemed more a projection of themselves. I was rarely satisfied 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 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 Christ, 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 at the age of 23, 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 any particular church, but I was by no means less of a Christian. I kept up prayers, reading, podcasts, music, etc. and tried out various churches 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 Christ. 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 just peachy, 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 – it just kind of ended up happening. 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 guess 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 became more and more aware of the world as a whole. Christianity made a lot of sense when looking back at my own life, but it didn’t always 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.
And so several things went on simultaneously, in no particular order, that led me to the path to deconversion. They all happened together and what I learned from one would interleave with and influence others. So it’s not clear where I should start!
Well ... 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 teenager, 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 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 or not. I had no luck at all when praying for obvious divine intervention. In fact, 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 assume that maybe doing so made a difference. I noticed how people who regularly shared and prayed about their problems with others did seem to get results – it almost seemed as if they were getting help from the humans and not God. 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, that it just wasn't my spiritual gift, etc. 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 only for non-specific things, or for things that I could never know the outcome to. I liked it better when other people prayed because they always seemed more sure of it than I did.
In summer 2012, as I was picking the songs for Sunday worship in my new church, my wife requested that I sing “Mighty to Save” and do a special prayer. This was because she had been following a hugely popular internet thread in which a very young girl was dying of cancer, and thousands (millions?) of Christians across the world were getting involved. They were praying for healing, and many of them were singing “Mighty to Save” in their congregations as some kind of global appeal to God. I hesitated... I knew that it wouldn’t make a difference. The little girl was in a terrible state and I just knew she was going to die. 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 go for it. I was in the middle of a fresh commitment to Christianity and I wanted to go all in. So I sang Mighty to Save. I prayed many times for God to save her, 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 she 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 internet thread were happy and encouraged because the girl’s family got a few more days with her than the doctors expected, and the girl’s 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 invested ourselves! 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?! I felt that I went all in, and God let me down. Sometime after that I prayed what ended up to be one of my final prayers. While driving to work one day thinking of all the suffering and prayers going on 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.
After that, I thought a lot about prayer. I pondered that people will pray for anything, 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. I reasoned that if God knows each of our futures anyway (as many bible verses attest), then what exactly is the point in praying 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.
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 thought perfect – I’ll devote that eight hours a week to God. Not yet sure of any particular books to read, I decided to go with podcasts. After checking out a few options, I settled on the number one Christian podcast in iTunes at the time, which was Mark Driscoll’s sermons from Mars Hill Church in Seattle. To begin with, I was hooked. Driscoll is incredibly easy to listen to, skilled in rhetoric, and well rehearsed in bible verse. He preached about Christ and Christian living, and drew a lot of nods from his congregation, me included. What I liked most is that he backed up almost everything he 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. Driscoll seemed different. But it didn’t take long for things to go a bit awry. The Christian life that Driscoll was challenging everyone to take up 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. I knew that if I lived how Driscoll preached we should (which, to his credit, he was entirely backing up with scripture), I didn’t think I’d personally be happy, and that my family as a whole certainly wouldn’t be happy. It just seemed to be an unfulfilling way to live. For example, Driscoll preached (as tactfully as he could) 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. He preached lots and lots of things like that. It all seemed very inflexible, and almost a bit too tailored to what his own life and his own marriage were evidently like. He gave no room for the diversity of human personality. He could be wince-inducingly judgmental, and encouraged others to do so as well. It just seemed to me like this biblical Christianity was completely out of touch with how society actually functions, and while I could see it working for small localised like-minded groups, it could not possibly work for the entire world. It was seriously closed-minded. But, as I have reinforced multiple times, Driscoll was backing it all 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 inspired human writing, like say, a C.S. Lewis book, and not be given such unquestioning authority? Who decides these things? How do we know? I actually realised that I knew very little about anything, and had been living in ignorance. I had no idea where the Bible came from and I admitted to myself that I had read too little of it.
So I set out to find real answers. I started with some Google searches, but in trying to find answers on the internet, I was 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 impartial and agenda-free as possible, that both intelligent Christians and intelligent Atheists gave 5 star reviews. I ended up settling on ‘Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch (which was fortunately available on audiobook - all 46 hours and 35 minutes of it!)
“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! Horrible horrible 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 non-Christians. Killing other Christians who believed slightly different doctrines. Killing muslims. Killing jews. 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. And don’t forget 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 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 also happened to feed some homeless people?
“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 all about 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 mostly by means of brute force and monarchial legislation. And 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 continued atrocities. And now 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.
It didn’t take long to discover that the modern version of Christianity that I am most familiar with, in which we all go to church to sing nice songs and listen to congenial sermons is a small fraction of Christian history, and like most changes over the ages, started out as a shunned minority. It’s just 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’. In fact, all the modern 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, justice and progress. This is something which only came into fruition in the last several hundred years as the Church’s grip lessened, the renaissance and enlightenment were finally able to play out unhindered, and monarchy 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 anyone to read the history of Christianity and find out all these things, and much more, for themselves.
Of all the things that went on in Christian history, I find myself particularly aggrieved at how the church handled scientific discovery. 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 troops of ‘pious’ men. Christianity stole a significant chunk of human discovery from us, and we can never get it back.
“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
While still reading the history of Christianity, I was randomly introduced to the books of the New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman. I really like Ehrman’s style because he manages to present raw evidence, separate from his opinions. I don’t always 100% agree with his conclusions, but the evidence alone speaks for itself. 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. 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. Even if he’s wrong about 90% of it (which he’s not), there would still be enough issues left to cause serious concern to any 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, many biblical contradictions. The irreconcilable gospel stories, events and timeframes. The contrived formulation of “prophecy fulfilment" by Greeks scouring 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 theology. Et cetera.
“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 Ehrman books like ‘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 alternative theories about Jesus which he finds the most probable, such as the idea that Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. Other authors present alternative theories about Jesus, with some even purporting that he never existed at all. Many draw striking, conspicuous parallels with Christianity and earlier influential religions. All these theories make both good and poor points, and the conclusions are impossible to be certain about. In fairness, they’ve got very little to go on, as apart from the biased writings which became the bible, there is little to go on:
"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, but I still had some way to go. Every week I was still leading the worship at church 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, etc. And obviously, the other side of the lyrics were how great God is. Praise the Lord, etc. Some of them 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 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 simply 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. 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 child-friendly (which, in fairness, was an issue for my family) 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 the work is a product of uncivilised bronze-age men, not an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. It doesn’t take much – a child could figure it out. Never mind the poor sources, countless loose ends, rampant contradictions, 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 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 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. Thank goodness that there is virtually zero evidence that any of the Old Testament events actually happened. Biblical archeologically has been practically given up as a lost cause. Cross examining with the recorded histories of other countries (such as Egypt, who has a much better history) 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, not taken literally. It can be clearly seen what historical events led to the focus on the duality of good and evil in Judaism (and the associated inventions of heaven and hell, along with the popularisation of the character Satan). Karen Armstrong’s ‘A History of God’ gives fascinating evidence for how Yahweh was once a pagan deity 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 hard to make absolute claims, these kind of interpretations are way more credible than taking it all at 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 death sentence laws too seriously, or the 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 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. Trained theologians and scholars know all of it. 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 can only imagine such people must be scared to death of death, or are playing some intellectually dishonest game of Pascal’s wager. I just don’t get it.
Which brings me to ... apologetics. Perhaps my choice in literature over the past 12 months has been a bit one-sided. But I have read lots of Christian literature during my life. Decades of it – Lewis, Stott, Strobel, Yancey, Hurnard, and more. I soaked it all up. Been there, done that. 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. Needless to say, I was far from convinced. Listening to people try and warrant the horrific acts of the Old Testament, 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 I’m sure there are people in the world who are easily won over by it. 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, I knew that Christianity was gone for me. But I held on to some tiny strand of attachment, still wanting explanations for Christian “experiences” and why people believe.
“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
A book I ended up reading on the matter was The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. This book is a little unstructured in places and I’m sure a better one probably exists, but it was enough. Scientists are still ignorant about much of what exactly goes on in the human brain, but substantial experimental research and other biochemical studies can at least establish certain facts and trends. Shermer demonstrates how humans are wired for belief. He explains our cognitive biases and our need for finding patterns and agents in explaining things we don’t understand whether they exist or not. 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. How the belief system operates when it comes not only to religion, but also extraterrestrials, conspiracies, politics, ideologies, etc. He gives the results of experiment after experiment which show how faulty humans can be when it comes to making decisions, how easy our cognitive processes can be fooled, and how staunchly we hold on to our biases. He talks about medical and psychological conditions (both permanent ones and short term ones) and how they can empirically cause hallucinations or other experiences, which almost always end up being interpreted supernaturally. As humans, we really can justify whatever we want however we want, and looking at the world (not just religion), it’s clear we all do.
“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 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, 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 them and is answering their most inconsequential 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 white kids pass their driving tests than he does in intervening as a child is raped for the hundredth time.
“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 something to do with providing my food, knowing that children are 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 parent’s told him about the wrong God, would be sent for even worse (and eternal) suffering 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 see how a Christian can stay the same.
So... that is some of my journey from Christian to Atheist over the past 12 months. There is of course more which I needn’t go into detail about. I eventually read authors such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. While I don’t agree with every last point they make, these guys have written some extremely thought-provoking material on the problems of religion and I highly recommend them to anyone. As a Christian I used to get defensive when I heard Christianity being criticised. I was extremely ignorant, and my problem was I never allowed myself to even consider that it could do any harm at all. If anything, the writings of these modern atheist authors make me realise how adolescent my own philosophies still are (I am new at this after all!). There is a world of knowledge and thought out there and I’m so glad to have widened my scope now that I’m free from the shackles of religion. I could write and write about all the fascinating things I’ve been learning about in these books.
I’m currently reading the history of scientific discovery and am finding it absolutely riveting. The truth is amazing! I can’t believe that when I was younger I fell for so much nonsense about science from the mouths of Christians.
“The lack of understanding of something is not evidence for God. It’s evidence of a lack of understanding.” – Lawrence M. Krauss
The most popular reason for belief I hear from Christians today is that they can’t accept that ‘something came from nothing’. How such people can get their heads around where God himself came from, or even that this is some kind of valid or rational reason to immediately jump to the Judeo-Christian God as the only possible cause is beyond me. The same people dismiss modern science as if it in itself is some sort of religion – I used to entertain such thoughts myself. As if starting with a conclusion and working backwards to find the evidence (religion) is the same as starting with the evidence and working forwards to find the best conclusion (science)! Without going on a science tangent, it’s enough to say that I now find extreme comfort in knowing that through science, human beings are capable of discovering, understanding and producing amazing things, and that everyone, me included, can shape our future for the better.
“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 good science.” – Sam Harris
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers which can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman
So I’m now an atheist. I wonder what my family would think. I mentioned at the start of my story that my dad is a minister. This is true. And my mom is a devout Christian, as are all my siblings. They don’t actually know about me yet. My wife has thankfully been more or less OK with it. 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. But she’s not very interested in talking about it. Aside from a few people in my life that I’ve been able to have piecemeal conversations with about my deconversion experience, I’m mostly alone.
I certainly don’t intend to keep my parents and siblings in the dark about my deconversion indefinitely. If pushed to it, I’d probably start by sending them here to read this. Knowing they are the sort of Christian I was, I am of course worried they will read this and then despair, convinced that I’ve gone mad, or that Satan has gotten to me. I’m also worried that they’ll think I now must be an extremely 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. Being an atheist comes with a much more fulfilling morality.
“True morality is doing what is right without the threat of divine retribution nor the possibility of divine reward.” – Arthur Paliden
But I hope my family will at least see and appreciate my reasoning. To me, not being understood would be worse than not being agreed with. 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 some people not to take it that way. For as long as I can remember, I’ve just wanted everybody to get along – nothing has changed in that regard.
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 nothing more than a trial with an eternal afterlife at the end. 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 enjoying 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 more excited about the rest of my life than I’ve ever been before.
Thanks for reading this. I’ve read many deconversion stories, and I know mine isn’t perhaps as entertaining or emotionally connecting as others. But I wanted to share it anyway.
“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.