Conversion is rarely brought on by a slow, gradual process of thinking and seeking before finding, though it is not unheard of. Many times it is instant, powerful, emotional, and life-changing. Disbelief may come in an equally powerful traumatic and disillusioning moment, or it may come from the gradual and slow erosion of wave after wave. For me, deconversion was not a decision, but a realization.
I received Jesus at age fourteen in 1990 while seeking the meaning of life. I had a very long talk with a born-again side of the family who assured me that I can have a relationship with God, that God still healed and raised the dead today, that tongue-speaking and prophecy were supernatural signs of God's involvement in the lives of believers, that God answers prayer and guides our lives, that Satan is real, that evolution is false, that we are in the end times, that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, etc. In other words, I was taught everything a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian believes today.
I became completely "on fire" and "radical" for Jesus by giving up any sense of the mundane. Life had one purpose, and that was to bring people to Jesus before the tribulation hit. I immersed myself in Bible study, prayer, worship, church involvement, study, and evangelism. People prophesied to me that I was going to be in a Christian metal band witnessing to Satanists. I had received a very "supernatural" experience followed by the gift of tongues and turned my high school into a missionary ground.
Being told not to date because God would supernaturally choose a wife for me, I had a very disillusioning experience in which I believed God had spoken and confirmed that I was to be with a girl who eventually cheated on me and abandoned her faith. I questioned whether or not God was really guiding, speaking, and protecting me. In 1993, my favorite televangelist Benny Hinn was exposed on Inside Edition among other things for airing unverified healings. I wondered why God had not said anything to me about that all those years I was praising him for healing through Hinn. At the very same time, Hank Hanegraaff (The Bible Answer Man) wrote a book exposing the false teachings of many of my favorite teachers, including playing excerpts of Hinn cursing Hanegraaff's children. This eye-opening critique caused me to abandon my entire theological system and wonder if in fact the Holy Spirit was teaching those past years and if God was in fact healing anyone at all.
I realized as well as I played bass in the worship band at church that almost everything that counted for the supernatural was exaggerated. "Manifestations" and "spiritual gifts" were nothing more than people falling down, giving false prophecies, and no one was ever healed. As I took this Inside Edition and Hanegraaff information to fellow believers they all (without exception) refused to look at any of it. Satan was attacking God's anointed. The anti-intellectual lifestyle and willful ignorance of the church floored me, given how cocky we all were that we were right about everything.
By 1994, the most influential example in my life for ministry was a pastor at Sanctuary church in California and the vocalist of a Christian thrash metal band called Vengeance Rising named Roger Martinez. His songs were filled with Bible verses, he preached hard from the stage, had more than fifty teaching tapes available, and was intense in his message that God can free you from addictions and give you life. He sent me a letter saying he was now an atheist who had joined the Church of Satan, slept with girls on tour, was a heavy drug user, and nearly killed himself. He threatened all of the Christian leaders in his life and demanded that his band be pulled from the stores. He was bitter that despite years of promises, God was not supernaturally healing him of his addictions. This crushed me. Another band I really enjoyed at the time was a Christian metal band called Tourniquet. Their former guitarist Gary Lenaire has recently walked away from Christianity and has written a book called An Infidel Manifesto: Why True Believers Walk Away. It has the endorsement of Michael Shermer from SKEPTIC and can be found here:
The temptation here is for many to say I have put my trust in man and am being letting down by man, but this ignores the fact that there is no truth behind what these men are claiming - namely guidance, healing, deliverance, miracles, and other evidences of God working in people's lives that I now had to deny.
Not to be outdone, at age seventeen, in the middle of ministering and preparing for my calling, I was struck with mononucleosis and chronic fatigue that devastated my health and kept me immobilized for almost a year. Despite all of the prayers, visiting Benny Hinn crusades, being anointed with oil, worshipping, confessing, reading healing verses, and everything else imaginable, I was not healed. What followed was another episode with a girl who agreed God was giving us signs to be together, but did not work out.
As each disillusionment hit one after another, I spent my time in bed worshipping, praying, and studying. In 1995 I got a job at Family Christian Stores and began studying every theology, apologetics, and church history book I could find. I also began an interest in philosophy. It was during this time that I found how little Christianity could be supported and how little was agreed upon among the broad theological and historical perspective. A growing mount of questions to be dealt with and inconsistencies in Scripture arose.
I was introduced to the Internet in 1996 and in a last desperate attempt to save my faith looked up Josh McDowell apologetics. What came up was a skeptical criticism of his books Evidence That Demands a Verdict. The arguments floored me and all of my stereotypes of skeptics being scared, ignorant, and unresponsive washed away. It was the Christians who were afraid to look at their arguments. I printed out 600 pages that night and took it all to my pastor saying, "If I don't find response to this I can no longer be a Christian." It was then I was introduced to James Randi, SKEPTIC, Skeptical Inquirer, and Free Inquiry. More and more I found the skeptics more thoughtful, articulate, reasonable, and convincing than what seemed more and more to be damage control arguments taking leave of common sense from Christian apologetics and mindless and ignorant superstition among my Christian friends.
I gained the nickname "Dr. Doubt" and was told my anxiety was my own fault for trusting in intellect, listening to atheists, and lacking faith. "Forget that stuff, read your Bible, and have faith" was the most common answer. Many even opposed studying theology and apologetics as a waste of time. My pastor told me to keep studying and I'd find answers to my 600 pages of arguments. By the end of 1996 I fell into a complete emotional breakdown facing the trauma of being sick, having no hope, and having to endure life without a God who I believed intimately loved me and who I depended upon emotionally. In a fit of anger at his silence I told him I no longer believed and began writing an essay to my Christian friends and family explaining why I was now leaving the Christian subculture behind and quitting the worship band.
I tearfully wrote a 30-page essay giving all of my arguments and reasons for walking away, asking for response. The arguments were very basic and not well put together, but were enough that no one responded. It is now ten years later and still no one who has ever asked to see it has responded to it. Instead, I was demonized and told not to cause others in the church to fall. Instead of helping me, they defended against me emotionally and protected a belief system they couldn't defend intellectually. That lack of response was all the evidence I needed that there was no integrity to Christian truth claims.
Due to the utter dependence on church, God, and the Bible, leaving these things behind and trying to live without them left me in vertigo. I was a wreck in every area of my life and had a hard time making even the most basic decisions. Many times between 1997 and 2003 I tried more attempts at returning to God only to be met with the same lack of substance. I learned much about liberal Christianity and Unitarianism at the time. I tried to keep some definition of some God alive to avoid pure nihilism and naturalism. In 1999, I had what seemed to be a very supernatural encounter with God and gave my life back to him, but soon after realized the encounter was not from God.
In 2003 I had yet another dialogue begin in my head which I believed was the voice of God reasoning with me to believe he existed without having to be intellectually dishonest. In other words, I didn't have to be a fundamentalist or evangelical, but a person who was led by the voice of God. This began a new wave of Christian involvement for me. I took another crack at apologetics and spent a lot of time listening to Ravi Zacharias, R.C. Sproul, and other apologists as well as reading all I could on hearing God's voice and being led by him. These many books mirrored my experience and I was certain with their endorsement that I was in fact being led by God.
Almost immediately I had an influx of visions, prophecies, impressions, tuggings, and opportunities that all seemed right on. I became involved with a Christian coffeehouse where I was offered $40K a year to pastor after six months of training. I was about to move to Tampa to start a band when a week beforehand I was introduced to a woman and immediately heard God tell me to stay and partner with her in this ministry. One thing led to another and we both had supernatural confirmations that we were to be married, as did many others give prophecies about it. She wanted her unbelieving ex however. So I spent months trying to intercede for her, break curses off of her, and do all I could to get her to stop "living in sin." She rejected me, left the ministry admittedly because she was tired of hearing God tell her he placed me in her life (even going to a friend's house crying and saying, "Tell God to stop talking to me about Paul" with her hands over her ears). My health collapsed (the chronic fatigue turned to fibromyalgia and I had to get on disability in 2001), I lost my job, was about to lose my apartment, this woman left the ministry, and now I was told the coffeehouse wouldn't need a pastor. God was completely silent now. I obeyed God and was left devastated.
This was the "Dark Night of the Soul" I was told. A time in which God is silent and leaves your soul to be tormented and purged. Like Job, he lets everything fall apart. He wants you to learn to trust his voice, not your senses, situation, or intellect. I needed to learn to obey God and take insane steps of faith in obedience to God to prove myself. Then the sense of his presence would return and he could put me in ministry. Because you find no comfort in God in this time, all of your addictions surface to be dealt with. during this time in 2004, a woman auditioning as a vocalist for a musical project I was starting invited me over to listen to her demos. She seduced me by continually begging me to have sex with her. After hours of resisting, I gave in. After the sexual encounter she said, "gotcha, pastor." She then went to the ministry to brag about it to the leadership. I was the seventh guy that month she seduced. She was an ex-stripper who was there because she complained of having demons around her her entire life.
The woman who had left the ministry before had returned and spread lies about me because she was tired of people trying to convince her to marry me. When I called a meeting with her, another person, and the new "pastor" in the ministry I was silenced and screamed at so loudly that the entire building emptied out. This pastor (my cousin) believed himself to an apostle, a prophet, and wanted all authority. The founder needed him to bring in revenue and would not discipline him. As they fought, a split was inevitable with prophets on each side prophesying against each other as well as unethical financial practices and fraud, so I was walked out. In July of 2004 I moved to Arkansas, put this all behind, and was to start a band with a former member of the Christian metal band Living Sacrifice.
While in Arkansas, it was clear there would be no band. I asked God what I was in Arkansas for and he said to heal me and bring me back to this woman after the church splits. People prophesied to me that this was the case and confirmed it as well. Sure enough, the church split, the pastor left, and I received a phone call of apology asking me to come back and pastor. This woman I thought I was to marry called me and said "my eyes are really opened now, can I come visit you?" The night previous a woman praying for us in California said, "God showed me her eyes are open now and you're going to be a very happy man this winter." I heard God say to sell everything I owned, buy a ring, go back to Chicago and propose, and she would say yes. I sent this to her parents and asked them to pray about it. Her mom said, "She definitely respects you and see's herself with you, come back and date her for a few months and we'll give you a blessing at Christmas." I prayed and asked God to guard me or to speak to any prophetic person in my life if this was in any way not of him. Instead of a warning me not to do it, I heard, "I am healing you for what I am calling you to do." Within that month, every symptom of fibromyalgia wore off and I was completely healthy. With this sign, I sold all of my possessions and returned home to marry this woman. This was the absurd faith God wanted to see from me, not looking at circumstances, but trusting his promises.
When I returned to Chicago, she avoided me. As I prayed, God said, "Don't worry, she'll call you in December and you will be invited to her parents house for Christmas and be received. You will know when to buy the ring. She will help you look for an apartment. Don't worry son, I'm right here with you. But don't trust what you are about to see." Sure enough her friend called and told me she was spending time with her ex. I thanked God for warning me not to look at the circumstance, but to trust him. I said, "Lord, will you confirm this through my friend in California again?" Not an hour later she called. Her first words were, "I've been praying for you and God said not to worry, she'll call you." Amazed at God's love and guidance, I awaited her call.
She called on Christmas day to tell me she is begging God that I not be her husband and that she can "feel me praying" against her. She didn't want to see me, talk to me, or befriend me. She was not at all impressed with me sending her a Christmas gift and was clear that I wouldn't be invited over for Christmas. Despite hearing from God that her eyes are open, that she wants me, that she is no longer with her ex, that she would invite me over to her parents house and say yes to a proposal, and despite getting the "confirmations" of other prophecies, none was true. I hung up the phone numb and disillusioned. My life was ruined.
I wrote her an apology, admitted I was wrong, and told her to forget it ever happened. I went to work at a seasonal job at the Christian bookstore that day and a man walked in claiming to be a prophet after we struck up conversation. Not only that, he went to her church. He assured me I did not miss God and that she was rebelling against God purposely, but that I had a big calling to reach thousands of youth and that she was still my wife. I should mention that the most common prophecies I received were all big money, big ministry, health, and supernatural visitations coming "soon" upon my life. She met with me one last time to tell me she wasn't interested and admitted she was trying to make me hate her and trying to shut God up. I wondered if the prophet was right.
In breakdown and not able to handle my life, I tried to look at the emerging church, Christian existentialism, and mysticism, but all I felt was nihilistic despair. Everything I believed since giving my life back to God in 2003 was wrong - about God's guidance, God choosing mates, the dark night - everything. I ended up homeless and living in my car. I slept on park benches and stayed up all night in forests praying and begging God to speak, guide, or do anything but remain silent in my disillusionment. He remained silent. "I obeyed you! What happened? Speak to me! Help me understand!" Silence. I lost my family after very hurtful arguments and many times stopped myself from suicide at the last minute. On Thanksgiving of 2005 after a heated argument with my mom I called friends to say goodbye and was going to end my life that night.
One friend, a virtual stranger, rescued me with his love and his friendship by inviting me to Philadelphia, giving me his bed, and giving me love and understanding in a way that no other Christian friend did. While others were covering their own false prophecies and trying to blame me in one way or another for the state of my life to protect their beliefs, my friend believed God could be found in the act of love itself and not in any religion or subculture. His name is Aaron Weiss, the vocalist in a band called mewithoutYou found here:
After my time in Philadelphia I went down to Florida and encountered more hardships in establishing myself. I walked into the bay wanting to drown myself in the middle of the night at the beach but couldn't do it. I looked up at the sky and knew praying would be a waste of time. I was angry to still be alive. I was invited to Arkansas to become part of a ministry there and it was at that time, in February of 2006, that I realized I no longer believed. I was still hoping for some last minute sign or surprise visit from God. One night after praying I said to myself, "You can waste your time begging God to show up, or you can get up and learn to live without him. The only other option is suicide. That night I decided to learn to live without God. Reality was not providing me God or any supernatural help in my existence. I was living, by default, just as an atheist would. Based on that realization, I called myself a provisional atheist as opposed to a philosophical atheist. Philosophically, it is possible some God exists.
After a long year of more homelessness and job opportunities falling through, I finally got my own place again in September of 2006 and dedicated the next year to recovering from and moving on from my first thirty years of life. The result was a massive autobiography detailing year by year every belief, decision, experience, and influence that led me to where I was.
Life is still not easy for me as I recover from the damage to my health and nervous system the past few years have caused, but I have never been more sober and at peace with the world as it is. My history makes perfect sense if there was no God there to begin with rather than qualifying to death all of the various reasons "things didn't work out" while continuing to believe and set myself up for more devastation. I am in no way bitter with Christianity or out to "attack" it. I have too much life to look forward to than to be sitting around angry about a false belief system. I still have many Christian friends who I discuss these matters with. I am in a wonderful relationship with a beautiful woman who has also escaped a horrible history in fundamentalism. Since then, the woman I believed God was giving me as a wife has contacted me saying she knew the whole time it was from God but was afraid of love due to past abuse. She wanted me to keep my ears open for God's voice again. I tried to talk her out of it and explain simply why none of this was true. She has since walked away from Christianity, finding our story as a last hope that maybe God was involved in her life.
I have turned my attention towards editing my autobiography for publication and writing on various issues surrounding evangelical and fundamentalist psychology, beliefs, and culture. If any of you have knowledge on finding a good editor or self-publishing company, please contact me.
For a fuller yet still condensed version of this story with many more details than I could give here, I have a series of videos on YouTube you can watch called "From Belief To Unbelief by Paul Harrison" The first one is here:
Thank you for sitting through an extraordinarily long post.