Leaving the Fold

Leaving the Fold

Friday, 9 May 2014

Leaving the Fold

De-conversion- leaving the fold

De-converting from Christianity was not easy. It is one of the most difficult things one can do after being a follower for almost ten years. I was a Christian for the better part of ten years, even after the events that destroyed my trust in Christianity my faith remained by the tiniest  thread for a long time. In many cases, the person de-converting may have been a follower for a lot longer than ten years. The process starts due to some crisis of faith, at which point the doubt begins to set in, you can try to ignore it but eventually it may become as annoying as an itch you just cannot reach, or a warning beep on your computer that tries to tell you something is wrong and needs to be addressed. If you ignore it it won't go away, if you give it your attention then it grows. At this point, those experiencing a particularly serious crisis of faith will often find themselves beginning the process of de-converting from Christianity.

The period of de-conversion can last months or even years. Some people seemingly recover from it and return to Christianity because, much like a person’s home, it is a place of familiarity or they may think there is too little support to turn to elsewhere, and according to believers the repercussions of backsliding are undesirable (to say the least). De-conversion has much in common with the stages of grief. First, you deny it to yourself and others unwilling to reconcile the fact that you could be losing your faith in God. Some people will try extremely hard to ignore the possibility that they are losing their faith. Other people may find themselves assured that doubt is common among Christians and is nothing to worry about. Then you get angry, angry at the possibility that all you have been told by your pastors and other church leaders was a lie, you do not know whom to trust, and this may cause some personal investigation into the subject. Sometimes you even get angry with yourself for being doubtful and angry with your former fellow brethren, even those who have not done you any wrong. Eventually, you grieve the loss. Once your fellow brethren recognise your loss of faith, they may offer little help. This is not as much an issue of them being rude as it is that they see your loss of faith as a spiritual sickness. If they think they cannot cure it they often quietly slip away, as though fearing that this sickness is contagious. For many Christians, the idea that anyone could lose faith and God would allow this to happen can be a terrifying one. It is terrifying because it gives the most horrible impression that to God, even if you are a Christian you are expendable. In other words, to God you are a tool, an instrument of his will, which can be discarded without consequence. For other Christians, the idea of losing faith is unfathomable because they cannot compute why someone would do this as it goes against their perception of the world and the way they have been taught quite often from a young age. The idea that someone would not want a relationship with the loving, personal deity that they have been raised to believe in is mind-boggling. I remember thinking exactly that when I was a Christian. Christians quickly form a rationale, usually something about the de-converting person being evil or a pseudo-Christian, to explain why the person would do this. For those in Christian families, and who manage to lose their faith, this can be extremely difficult.

The strong sense of community that often comes with Christianity and the knowledge that you risk losing that sense of community makes the transition when de-converting even harder.  Much of Christianity’s power comes from its ability to appeal to our deepest emotions touching them when we are most vulnerable and by seemingly providing a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. Letting go is not easy nor is the fear of losing a part of yourself, and your identity, the fear of this can be overwhelming. Eventually, the often-long transition through to acceptance comes.

Christian beliefs on whether ex-christian’s exist or not

Here, I want to consolidate my various thoughts on Christianity, since the process of de-conversion has led to so many questions and doubts regarding Christianity and whether or not the Bible was truly divinely inspired. This will include commentary on parts of the Bible that are particularly problematic to Christian theology. A note of warning to any Christians, if you are happy to read ahead and are not easily offended and value insight into how others perceive your faith then by all means read on. If you are however easily offended or view any criticism or disagreement others might have with Christianity as an affront to your faith then I do not encourage you to read this. I welcome all refutations regarding my objections toward Christianity. My aim is not to de-convert Christians but to encourage them to allow their perception of the truth to be tested and to view it with an open mind and a healthy dose of scepticism while understanding how others perceive their faith. I do not believe that in the event that the Christian God is real, he would condemn his followers to an eternity of Hellfire for doubting him, asking questions or for reading this. Even the Bible says that Christians should provide an answer for what they believe in and should not shy away from doing so, one such verse is the following from 1 Peter 3:15:

"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," - 1 Peter 3:15

A lot of Christians could do well to remember and follow what this passage suggests but a large number do not. Many have an aversion to answering difficult theological questions to the point they will out-rightly ignore questions, some will dismiss them often with a pre-rehearsed answers while others consider them nonsensical even if they aren't and will just about mock the asker (sometimes they do mock the asker, in direct contradiction of the above passage). Having experienced all the above I found my personal investigations frequently frustrating. Some Christians I don't blame for fearing asking questions, or for not answering them. Such fear is understandable if you think the doubt it causes will lead to God condemning you to eternity in a lake of fire.

Often those who say ex-christians don't exist are the same people who say atheists really actually believe in God but are just in denial about it. I find this opinion both discriminating and ironically similar to the position they accuse atheists of having, which is; turning a blind eye to the truth. They justify this by the writings of the New Testament including those by Paul, John and surprisingly to a lesser extent those that they believe to be of Jesus Christ himself. These references include the following two passages:

19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”
  • 1 John 2:19
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
- Hebrews 6:4-8

n.b. Authorship of Hebrews is disputed. The style of writing is not identical to Paul’s letters; therefore, he is not widely regarded by scholars to be the writer.

The second reference, while not denying the existence of ex-Christians in contrast to the first reference is clearly far less than optimistic about their future prospects and many Christians interpret the ending as an allusion to Hell. I believe ex-christian’s do exist and that they are not pseudo-Christians as some call them otherwise de-converting would not be such a difficult process.

On the Apostle Paul

While Jesus at times appears more welcoming and tolerant of sinners, even to the objection of his disciples and others with him, Paul on a few occasions does not share the same attitude. It seems many Christians pay more attention to the words of Paul and the words of the other epistles sometimes than they do of those in the gospels, which they believe to be the words of Christ. Of course, many would argue Paul and the other authors were writing through the influence of the Holy Spirit and therefore their words are the words of Jesus. In Paul’s case at least, this does not explain his intolerance for both women and non-believers, including Jews. It does seems odd that given the New Testament, and Old Testament for that matter, is the Word of God, there have been an awful lot of people (like Paul) doing the talking and still to this today there a lot of people doing the talking.

Paul's intolerance for non-believers is shown by his belief that everyone knows whom Christ is in their hearts even if they have never been told a thing about him before. He also implies that non-Christians are incapable of doing anything that is not evil, which is far from correct. Even the most moral of Christians forced to go without any creature comforts or food, sleep or water for an extended period of time would be tempted to forgo their sense of morality and resort to desperate measures to ensure their own survival. Desperation can make the line between right and wrong seem a lot thinner.

 Paul’s attitude towards the Jews also suggests he is not terribly fond of them.Other comments are also unrealistic such as when he says man has tamed every creature on Earth. It might have been more correct if he suggested controlled to some small extent, or said they had been affected by humans which is most certainly correct (though not nearly as much at the time of writing).  Some of Paul’s attitudes may be explained in that he was writing to a specific audience in his letters and that the intended audience was only meant to be those to whom the letters were addressed. Despite this, Christians still seem to think that Paul was writing to future believers such as themselves, seeing a meaning in the pages that seem to apply to them when this may not be the case. There is also the odd situation where the devil seems to have enough power to prevent Paul from doing what he wants, yet if God is on Paul’s side and the devil’s power is obsolete by comparison to God’s one may wonder how Satan was able to achieve this. Unless God wanted it that way (from 1 Thessalonians), which does not make it sound like God, is entirely on Paul’s side.

Paul’s displeasure at the Jews not liking him preaching in their synagogues also seems strange because, if his writings are to be believed, Paul essentially tells them in their own sacred site (not a brilliant idea to start with) that their beliefs are no longer the correct ones. In other words, they are no longer exclusively God’s chosen people and the Law of Moses is no longer applicable to them which probably would have sounded decidedly sacrilegious to the average Jew. To top it off, as if suggesting they were no longer God’s chosen people was not enough to cause significant offence, Paul also suggested that the gentiles, whom the Israelite’s were not particularly fond of, had found favour over them in God’s eyes. As if this was not insulting enough for the average Israelite, Paul also says he is a Roman citizen and this probably did not help. It should be no surprise that Paul might have become very unpopular so quickly with the Jews, even though this part of his teachings may have sounded great to a gentile, to the Jews this would have been highly insulting. The idea of the Israelite’s not being God’s chosen people even goes against Jewish interpretations of Old Testament prophecy in which the nations would recognise and revere Israel as God’s chosen nation. It seems unsurprising that this rather brazen move would have gotten some Israelite’s extremely upset especially since their beliefs are such a core part of who they are. Therefore, with that it mind, it is easy to be less than sympathetic to Paul’s displeasure at being persecuted if you consider how insulting Paul’s words would have been to the Jews and that’s without considering the fact he said it in their own place of worship. It’s kind of like thinking of the most insulting things you can say to someone, saying it to them, and complaining that they didn’t take what you said very well. Clearly, Paul was not a diplomatic evangelist. that said, evangelism has a habit of not being diplomatic. Especially when Hell is mentioned. 

This lack of diplomacy and lack of respect for other people’s beliefs is what so often results in evangelists and missionaries being persecuted (even when it was the actions of other Christians, trying to faithfully fulfil the Great Commission, that lead to their persecution). A better example of where this occurs is when tourists may visit a country where their nationality is not particularly popular and they are harassed because of it even if the tourist had nothing to do with whatever caused people from their nation to be unpopular. Western tourists may be the subject of this in many countries where being western and having lots of money are often (but not always) considered synonymous, some unscrupulous individuals will go to great lengths to make a profit based on that idea.

Does the Holy Spirit Allow Christians to ‘Correctly’ Interpret the Bible?

Christians believe God or Jesus’ Holy Spirit allows them to understand the Bible. If the spirit of Christ was allowing Christians to understand the Bible, this does not explain why it leads Christians to many different interpretations of the Bible instead of just one consistent interpretation. The idea that the Holy Spirit allows Christians to thoroughly understand the Bible does not explain why he, or it, has not told people who some of the author were. For example we are not sure who wrote Hebrews or if the book of Peter was written by the same Peter who travelled with Jesus in the gospels. Nor does the idea that a divine entity interprets the Bible for Christians explain the need for theology degrees. The apostles after all did not have this luxury and nor have most Christians who have ever lived. Some rebukes against atheist criticism have included that the critic did not have a theology degree or were not a Bible scholar and, therefore, their opinion of the Bible was not valid. This argument, however, is thankfully not that common because, not many Christians have the luxury of getting a degree in theology. One could presume that if they had the Holy Spirit they would not need a theology degree to understand either what the spirit was saying or what the book was saying. In fact, suggesting that only a select group of people can interpret a book means that all outside criticisms and analyses can be ignored regardless of their reasoning and suggests that God is not a believer in equality. It seems strange that God would also only help Christians to believe and understand him when they already believe, so they are not the ones who need help believing in him. This view is supported at least once in the gospels where Jesus says he came to heal the sick not the healed that do not need a physician (Mark, 2:17).

If God wanted to reach everyone why would he make it so his book could only be correctly interpreted by those who were saved, not those who need saving. If you are writing a scientific article and you wanted to sell your idea to the general public as your target audience who, presumably, would have a limited knowledge of the subject you are writing about, would you fill the article with scientific jargon, data, figures and words that to the average person would find very difficult to understand? Especially if only those with a well-grounded knowledge of the content would understand what you were talking about? Probably not, they might not read past the title or the abstract if you are lucky. It seems odd that if God was writing with the intention to reach all of humanity (writing through the authors as commonly suggested) that he would make it only interpretable by a select few i.e. those who are already converted. It gets worse when some theologians suggest (or imply) that not even the Jews can correctly interpret their own scriptures, especially when a theologian says that there are hundreds of references to Jesus within the Old Testament making me wonder how the Jews could possibly have missed it. Implying that they have been incorrectly interpreting their own sacred text, something many Jews dedicate their life or childhood to and have done so for many years, means they would be understandably offended. Although Paul discovered this he did not seem to appreciate why the Israelites might be upset.

When it comes to interpretations not even Christians have a universal consensus on which one is correct. Nowadays, instead being a unified religion Christianity has many denominations all claiming they have the correct interpretation of the Bible. The differences in opinion between some denominations are sometimes minor, but this is far from the case for many of them. Even Peter and Paul seemed to disagree on doctrine despite both having the same spirit helping them, leading to a schism in their teachings. Nowadays, differences of opinion regarding doctrine and theology can go as far as openly opposing the opinions of other denominations in a less than loving manner. There are even some churches that will go so far as to suggest other denominations they don’t agree with will not go to heaven, and even openly suggest that members of another denomination will go to hell (which is not their call anyway). This threatens to undermine the value Christianity places on community if it ends up with this kind of in-fighting.

I also take issue with the fact that sometimes spirit filled theologians, answer a question regarding something in the Bible with ‘I do not know.’ While I appreciate the honesty in such a statement, I find it puzzling that somebody with the Holy Spirit would say this. An example was when a pastor was asked what happened to the dead who rose from their graves following Jesus’ death in Matthew’s gospel and why did nobody seem to notice them despite the fact this was rather obviously not an everyday occurrence (Matthew 27:52).

According to contemporary evangelical churches the Holy Spirit tells believers what to say in answer to a question or when they are evangelising so they need not worry about being nervous or unsure of what to say. I am sure the Holy Spirit would not answer a question with ‘I do not know’, unless I am incorrect in assuming it is omniscient.  Of course if asked to predict future events like lottery numbers, I could understand why the spirit might answer with ‘I do not know’. Stranger still is the small number of Christians who seem to believe that it has given them insight into the exact date the world will end, so far they have not had that much success or been very popular with fellow believers as this idea is not considered Biblical by most theologians since not even Jesus is supposed to know when the world will end. There is of course the possibility that the popular idea that the Holy Spirit uses Christians as its mouthpiece is not correct, but that is one of the main interpretations of what the spirit does these days.

In addition to the above points, Jesus is far less than optimistic about the future prospects of all non-believers, as suggested in rather black and white mentality within the following verse:

“He who is not with us is against us…” [Matthew 12:30
(N.b. When it comes to black and white mentality, Paul is far worse).

This seems to support the idea that non-believers future prospects are bleak. Upon reading verses such as Matthew 12:30, many Christians agree that an unpleasant fate awaits non-believers. Although as with any verse, there are many interpretations and it is up to the reader’s discretion to decide which they will believe or to make their own. The common interpretation, by Christians not others, is that it means all non-believers are damned to hell, provided they do not convert. This is an absolute, which does not provide any opportunity for pacifists including renowned pacifists including Mahatma Gandhi who is a frequently cited example, or others who have done very little to deem them worthy of eternal punishment. It is unfair to believe that such people are against God simply because either they were not Christian by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing (anything that could result in them knowing nothing about Christianity such as a child being born to a Hindu family in a remote village) or they did not agree with all of the Christian doctrine (such as Hell) or they left after a bad experience, or in some cases including mine, multiple bad experiences. The entire concept of convert, or go to hell, is an ultimatum that does not support the concept of free will. Hell is not unique to Christianity either but it is a highly effective means by which to create fear in both devotees and others and prevent most people from even considering backing out. Neither is the judging of the dead by their deeds good and bad a concept unique to the Abrahamic religions as many religions, many of them not monotheistic, feature a deity who fulfils this role.

Picking random Bible verses can lead to false conclusions as is often pointed out, however, neither Christians nor atheists are guiltless of cherry picking as it is an easy thing to do. There are some Christian groups who have expressed their hatred for a group of sinners based on one or two verses written in the gospels or Paul’s letters, ironically these groups fail to realise that they are considered sinners themselves, even by Paul to his credit though I disagree with much of what he says. Despite Christian complaints about atheists cherry picking, it is a very common tactic in evangelism, usually starting with verses pertaining to, or thought to pertain to salvation through Jesus and God’s love for humanity. It is never mentioned that according to Christianity that love extends solely to Christians and potential converts, the other 70% or more of humanity might as well be wearing red shirts (kudos to anyone who gets that joke, for those who don't it originates from the sci-fi franchise Star Trek and refers to any character who is only briefly seen on-screen and whose sole purpose is to be killed by one of the main villains of the episode and is then promptly forgotten and replaced). For Christians who don’t read the Bible except in church the Bible is like one of those software agreements or Terms & Conditions statement that pop up on your computer screen whenever you install a program. Instead of reading the whole thing, which I doubt many Christians actually do, they scroll to the bottom and click ‘I agree’.

I will not go into detail on why I de-converted here, partly because it was extremely difficult and because I do not wish to disrespect the privacy of those involved. It can probably be best summarised in the fact that while pastors frequently tell their church to expect persecution from non-Christians, and the Bible encourages this, they never warn you that you might be persecuted by Christians and nor are you led to expect it.

Related Articles

Deconversion in Stages by Paul M. Harrison

Five Stages of Grief by Respectful Atheist

Phases of Deconversion by Hammurabi

The stages of grief over my loss of faith by the Chaplain