I lurked around this board for a while when I was in the process of de-converting, but haven't really been back since. I thought I'd share a bit of my story. I think shared experience is powerful when going through any challenge, and leaving the faith is most certainly a challenge!
I became an Evangelical Christian when I was in late Junior High (8th-9th Grade). My friend went to a Pentecostal church and I went on a weekend retreat with his group. At the very beginning of the event there was a "revival" - Pentecostal style. Healings, speaking in tongues, people falling over "slain in the Spirit," etc. It was a shocking experience. After the revival service I spent the weekend with this group doing Bible studies, etc. along with just having fun:) At the end of the retreat the leader led me through a Sinner's Prayer and I was born again. It was the start of a new life for me.
After coming back, I immediately attached to this Pentecostal group, going to Wednesday night Bible studies with my friend. Their leaders were great people and they seemed like they cared about me deeply. It was exciting to learn about God and I became very passionate about the faith.
Eventually I edged away from Pentecostalism and joined an Evangelical Free church in my area. Throughout high school I was really involved at church and my faith was basically my identity. I got really into apologetics, Christian music, evangelism, etc. The whole nine yards. My biggest driving motivation in high school was trying to get my friends saved. The thought that non-Christians were going to hell consumed me in a sense. I felt that I was responsible for the fate of basically everyone I met. I wasn't a raving street evangelist or anything, but read my Josh McDowell, C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, and Greg Boyd and tried to convince my friends to accept Christ. I went to a public high school, so there were plenty of people that needed Jesus!
After high school I went to an Evangelical college and majored in Biblical Studies. It was an academically rigorous major and actually taught from a fairly "mainstream" perspective a lot of the time. My professors accepted non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that Scripture was a composite document (i.e. the books were often not written by simply one author), that there were major tensions in theological ideas, that there was a lot of haze around the formation of the Canon, etc. But even though the Biblical Studies was more liberal than I had expected, the official theology of the college was most definitely Evangelical. My professors could come to liberal conclusions when interpreting a specific biblical text, but their theology still had to be within Evangelical bounds. I was surrounded by other Christians and continued to be highly driven by helping people I knew from outside the faith find Jesus.
But there were times in college that I went through serious doubts. I felt growing cognitive dissonance as I continued to study the Scriptures from a historical-critical perspective. All these ideas just didn't seem to fit together. How can we say that the Bible is a composite document, edited over and over by unknown people, and yet say it is the inerrant Word of God? How can we get out of what seem to be major contradictions in theological content between different books (i.e. James' understanding of justification vs. Paul's, Judges' vs. Joshua's differing presentations of the conquest, major differences in the presentation of Jesus between John and the Synoptics, etc.) and still somehow say that the Bible, as a whole, is giving us one unified message from God? If the archaeological evidence doesn't fit Scripture, what does that say about Scripture? If Genesis doesn't give a historical account of our origins, how do we reconcile thi.? On and on and on. But these doubts would come and go in waves. I was generally more concerned with intra-Christian debates (Calvinism vs. Arminianism, etc.) as everyone around me accepted the Christian faith anyway.
After graduating college, I went into the workforce running after school programming at a high school. Here, more cracks in my faith began to show. Mainly the doubts from this experience surrounded meeting and developing really strong relationships with non-Christians. The group of students I worked with at this school were from a wide variety of backgrounds. Quite a few of them were devout Muslims. Being steeped in Evangelical thought, I basically came in thinking that Christians were "light" and everyone else was "darkness" because only we had the indwelling Holy Spirit. But as I got to know my students, they started to shatter that paradigm. Here were people who were clearly just as "good," and just as devoted to their faith as my Christian friends were to theirs.
But my students were not the only ones who presented this theological problem. My co-workers were the same way. I was on a team of about 40 or so Americorps volunteers. Each of these people were passionate and giving their all to serve the world. The partner I worked at at my school was an open lesbian and non-Christian. And yet...I liked her. I kept on catching myself trying to see the good in my Christian friends and the bad in everyone else, but it became harder and harder to do this as I actually got to know non-Christians!
After this year I taught at a high school for a few years and then went back to Seminary. Biblical Studies and Theology were still my passion, and I wanted to teach theology in the future.
But my experience in Seminary was short lived. That Fall semester, I took classes in Pentateuch, The Gospel of Mark, The Gospel of John, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. I had my nose in basically every part of the Christian Scriptures.
Here, when giving myself completely to the study of Scripture, my doubts came back in full force. I simultaneously had questions about the Pentateuch: Who wrote it? What do I do with Genesis 1-11? Is there any actual history there or is it pure myth? If it is myth, what can we take from it? Why do we have to "work around" the creation texts and try to squeeze evolution in? Wouldn't God want to make it obvious that this was His Word? Why wouldn't He tell us about evolution? Why do the two creation stories contradict each other? Why is the flood story not one coherent narrative, but two different narratives with contrasting details spliced together? Why isn't there evidence for a worldwide flood? Why does the Law contradict itself, or at least develop? How can I deal with the incredible violence? Why do the laws seem so barbaric? Why the anachronisms? The Gospel of John: Is anything in here historical? Did Jesus really talk like this? If so, why are his most popular quotes not found in earlier sources? Who wrote it? Why is it so different from the other Gospels? How did the Christology get so advanced? The Gospel of Mark: How doe we get around the fact that Jesus, or at least the writer of Mark, seems to predict the end of the world in the near future? For that matter, why does Matthew even seem to make it more explicit that Jesus predicted the end of the world soon? And why does Paul seem to expect the same things? How can mistaken expectations be in an inspired text or come from Jesus himself? 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans: What is Paul even trying to say? Is he a coherent human being? Is there really a vast difference between Paul and deutero-Paul? If so, what does that make of our theology? Should we follow Mosaic law or not? Are we saved by faith, or judged by work? What does he mean by "justification?" Why does his view of government seem to differ so wildly from the perspective of Revelation? How should I interpret "works of the law"? New Perspective or Old, or a mix of both? And how do all these questions relate to an inerrant or infallible Bible, or a God who is trying to reveal Himself through His Word? Could I imagine myself, if I weren't already a Christian, reading the Bible with my current understandings and concluding that it was inspired by God?
Eventually these questions and others piled up to a point where I could no longer take it. My mind became a fog and I felt my faith slipping away. If I was sitting in class, my mind was going a mile a minute, but I didn't hear one word the professor was saying. I started to have thoughts about "how I used to think." Was I no longer an Evangelical? Was I no longer a Christian? I couldn't consciously get myself to believe the same things I used to believe. My mind just went where it went, and it led me away from the beliefs that made me who I was. I had the feeling that I had spent year and years in the trees and I finally saw the forest for what it was. Eventually I felt forced to abandon both my commitment to Jesus as God Incarnate and Scripture as the Word of God. I have up my scholarship and dropped out of seminary. Within the course of a month, I went from being a committed Christian planning on teaching theology, to a lost and wandering human being.
It has been roughly 5 years since I dropped out of Seminary and leaving the Evangelical faith. It's been a winding road, but ultimately I do still believe in God. I know that is a minority view for most people here, but it's where I have ended up, at least for now. I have specifically gravitated towards the contemplative streams of the major world religious traditions. Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism, and William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience became stepping stones to reading some of the great contemplatives. St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Desert Fathers, Philokalia, The Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Tao Te Ching, Kabbalah, Sufis, Buddhist descriptions of meditative states. Maybe this common contemplative center is the core, "numinous," experience from which the diverse religious traditions are based. Maybe I did find something real in Christianity. And maybe that Something Real is bigger than my own religious tradition and the concepts I have been trained to understand It with.
So...that's where I've ended up:) I currently practice Centering Prayer (very similar to Transcendental Meditation and some forms of Zen) and have found it to be incredibly transformational. Through this practice, I do still feel like I experience God. Somehow my soul is transformed into something different, something better - less self-centered, less needy, more grounded, more authentic, more loving, more free, than it was before. Maybe it's a delusion to think I'm actually being changed by God, but it's how I continue to interpret my experience.
The more I process my own deconversion, the more I realize that it helps to have shared experience. When I was going through deconversion, I had to get this shared experience from books (and boards like this). None of my friends were "former Christians." I read the autobiographical works of Edward Babinski, Thom Stark, Rachel Held Evans, John Hick, etc. Some of these authors remained more liberal Christians, but still, sharing the experience of dealing with doubts that I could no longer look past was extremely helpful. It was also helpful to see where others ended up afterward.
I have thrown my own hat into the ring of those who offer a resource to those dealing with deconversion. I recently published a book that shares my story and also just tries to describe American Evangelical Christianity really well. I hope this can be one resource among many that can help people who go through the same thing.
I'm currently in the process of trying to get some exposure. Self-publishing sucks:) So I'd love to share my book with you and get some feedback! Anyone who is interested can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll shoot you an Amazon link for a free Kindle copy. No strings attached...easy as that:)
I hope my story helps somebody in some way:) Best of luck to everyone on the continued journey...