My Path Out of Christianity

A Personal Project
About a year ago now, I began a major personal project. As a devout Christian husband and father of six children, I was unhappy with the "drifting" I had been doing. We had not attended church regularly for over three years at that point, and while we were still actively involved in a weekly small group/Bible study, my disillusionment with Evangelical Protestantism was such that while I remained committed to my belief in God and my faith in Jesus as my redeemer and savior, Christian faith tends to atrophy and even die when it is not connected to a the support systems of church and faith-based community, in my experience.

The "major personal project", then, was the rebuilding and fortification of my faith and beliefs in such a way that I could, along with my family, "swim the Tiber", and become committed, permanent members of the Roman Catholic Church. I embarked on the effort with some enthusiasm; while I still had some major issues to confront in order to become a Catholic, fully committed in good conscience, these issues seemed surmountable, and at the conclusion of this effort, I expected to begin RCIA with my family, and begin the happy process of settling into our new "spiritual home", where we belonged all along, as Catholic friends regularly reminded me.

I took a "first principles" approach, as a means for really doing the thinking and reasoning that would lay the foundation for decades to come as a faithful, enthusiastic and effective Catholic. For the first time ever, I think, I purposely put everything I believed on the table for review, and went to some length in making careful notes and comments in an MS Word Document and an Excel spreadsheet to keep things organized. My faith in God wasn't in question, but I "cleared the decks" as a kind of "provisional atheist", that I might clearly identify the grounding and basis for "non-negotiables" of my belief. The last thing I wanted was to lead a family move to the Catholic church, only to become a dissident there again, as I had become for so many parts of the Protestant faith and culture I lived in presently. More than anything, I wanted clarity about these issues that would stick.

My efforts quickly became a case study for the caution that one should be careful what one wishes for. I wished for clarity and durability in my beliefs about God and religion, and I got it (durability being tentative just a year in, of course). In forcing myself to do a tabula rasa accounting of what I believed and why, I ended up with undeniable clarity on two propositions: my 30+ years of Christian faith were predicated note on verifiable interaction with God and reasoned justification for the truth of the Bible, but instead 1) an (nearly) overwhelming desire for Christianity to be true in some form and 2) cowardice in confronting the prospects of unbelief in my life.

I had pages and pages of outline items documenting the usual historical (claims) of evidence for Jesus' divinity and the resurrection. I had the standard cadre of philosophical arguments in there - the Ontological Argument, The Transcendental Argument, the Cosmological Argument, etc. I had a list of the "miracles" and events in my life I believed represented supernatural intervention and interaction. One by one, though, all of these fell apart under skeptical, honest review. For instance, I had become concerned several years ago at the frankly pathetic state of Intellectual Evangelicalism. In discussing this with friends, they pointed me at C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig. I was intimately familiar with Lewis, of course, who was the closest thing I had to an intellectual hero of the faith (Chesterton was appealing too, but not nearly in the way Lewis was).

Immersing myself in the books, articles, and debates of Craig, though, just exacerbated the problem. If Craig was even representative of Intellectual Christianity, never mind being one of its best examples, the situation was much worse than I had previously thought. Reading Bahnsen, Frame, Poythress, Plantinga and rest of the Reformed philosophers made the picture bleaker still, a kind of demon-apologetic wearing a cross, and carrying a Bible.

Provisional Agnosticism
Over several months I worked through philosophical and historical arguments from a new, hypothetical perspective. Rather than presupposing God, and synthesizing what I read and heard accordingly, I was now to a point where I began Craig's Reasonable Faith and Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus without extreme prejudice.

At that point, I was still a believer, but on the horns of a very serious dilemma. My project was backfiring, my "first principles" strategy aimed at shoring up my beliefs and convictions was seriously destabilizing them. If I continued, I understood the potential outcome, and the ramifications were quite troubling. If I aborted the effort, no one else would be the wiser, and I could return to my comfortable faith. But I would still know, and would have to live with the knowledge that I bailed out because of my fear, and an unwillingness to be fully honest and self-critical.

It seems "right for the story" to relate my struggle over that dilemma, and how I struggled over time to be deeply honest and transparent with myself and others about the justification and reasonableness of my faith. I did choose to pursue critical examination, the path of honesty, but as it happened, no sooner had I realized the dilemma I was facing, then it was over. I awoke in the middle of the night, and prowled the house through the rest of the night, agonized, exhilarated, shocked and in despair over facing the facts. I did not have a good basis for my beliefs, and the nature of my faith as an expression of my desires and my fears laid open to see, undeniable. I was a Christian because I was raised to be one, and I remained one because it's what I wanted. Moreover, I remained one because it seemed the only choice available in terms of my social connections and relationships. I was an evangelical homeschooler, deeply embedded in my church, thoroughly immersed in my faith, identified by it. I was a "godly man", and a good man because of my faith in God, which I was never shy about or ashamed to admit.

That night, with the realization of how motivated and determined I was, subconsciously or otherwise to tell my own story to myself and the world in terms of am active, powerful relationship with a living God, the creator of the universe, I for the first time faced the reality of God as a creature of my own invention. I "inherited" it in a way, being raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, but I had made the illusion my own, and I now had no way to deny my own self-deception. God was God because that's the way I wanted the truth to be. I wanted to live forever. I wanted a neat clean way to resolve the problems of my immoral and unethical actions. I wanted an easy clear-cut basis for right and wrong. I wanted to think I was special, cosmically-special, just like all my Christian friends and family members. I wanted to think that all men will see judgment day, after death, as a way of relieving the despair of seeing evil triumph on earth, and as a way of abdicating my own personal responsibility to do my part to see justice served; God would fix everything in the end, so I could do what I managed or wanted to do, and sleep easy at night because God would make up any cosmic differences, and ultimately right all wrongs.

I read parts of the book of Job the next morning, which has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Rather than just man being used as cosmic chits in a bit of gamesmanship between God and Satan, I saw man creating God is his own image. I had a daughter die during delivery several years ago (so really, I should probably always say I have seven kids, with one that's dead to be fair and respectful to her), and though I didn't realize it until much later, it was a kind of "Jobian" experience for me. The anguish and pain of losing a child in the delivery room -- her heartbeat and vital signs were terrific at a doctor's checkup at 9am that very morning -- was powerful in reinforcing my conviction this was NOT the end, and that I would see my daughter again some day, beyond this life. It was the only right way for the world to be, and what a happy, hopeful thing to be a Christian, where I did have that very expectation and assurance! If I hadn't ever believed in God until that day, I suppose I would have been quite motivated to invent God, and his heaven, and the afterlife on my own, very much in the mode of Job declaring "And in my flesh I shall see God", out of sheer emotional rejection of the idea that death is final, and some losses are never recovered, some injustices are never set right.

The insight into the plausibility, and the reasonability of my decades of faith being accounted for as imagination, exaggeration and credulity borne of desire caused the full collapse of my faith. I no longer believed, and had achieved a broad, if excruciating, view of why my faith was unfounded and why I had embraced and promoted it still for so long. I knew that I could not prove to myself of anyone else that God did not exist, but I now had a reasonable basis for understanding not just the poverty of evidential arguments for Christianity and the disingenuous dishonesty of the various philosophical arguments for God, but also an explanation for my experiences, and my interpretations of the Holy Spirit and his perceived mediate influence in my life. I had arrived at atheism in my application of honesty, introspection, and fair appraisal of the evidence and issues involved.

I was an atheist.

Costs of De-conversion

My wife is a believer, and has been since before we were married. My family is fundamentalist Baptist. My social circles are dominated by my faith community. I have plenty of non-Christian colleagues and friends through work, but even years after "dropping out" of regular church attendance, my social peers remain members of our last church, and similar churches. We homeshool our children, and so a large part of our lives revolves around the activities of our homeschool co-op. As you might imagine, our homeschool group is a hotbed of religious zeal and fundamentalist/evangelical fervor.

My conclusion, then, or perhaps it's more accurate to say my discovery, was a terrifying one. In a way that is difficult to articulate, the discovery was profoundly relieving, a fact that attests, I think, the latent, subliminal anxieties and stresses that accumulate for thinking Christians and the inevitable cognitive dissonances they must bear. Maybe it captures something of the moment to say that felt supremely honest and open, the liberating effect of renouncing the "sin" of my self-deceptions and indulgences of desire and caprice. But the overriding reality at that point was, in fact, fear. I no longer believed in God, or in anything supernatural as far as I knew, but I very much believed in the value and preciousness of my marriage, and my relationship with my wife. I've been fortunate in many respects in my life, but nowhere so fortunate as I have been in finding and developing the relationship I have with my wife. I've since met a couple men who've confessed to me that they are "closet atheists" who go to church dutifully every Sunday, leading AWANA on Wed. night, and showing up regularly for men's Bible study on Monday evenings. For them, they simply see their atheism as a threat to that which matters most to them, their marriages.

It's easy from outside of that situation to sniff and snort and decry the dishonesty of that kind of "double life", and for what it's worth, it is dishonest, and in a way, quite cowardly. But having been in that same position, those men will find no condemnation or judgment from me. When push comes to shove, I can understand keeping my atheism tightly concealed as a means of preserving stability and continuity for a marriage. One of the best things about my marriage has been an unusual level of honesty and frankness, and this was highly problematic. The most painful experience in all of this was the .... distance I felt from my wife in those few days where I had become an atheist, but not let her know. It didn't take long for the pain of that to outweigh the fear of turmoil and disruption -- I let it all out in a long, difficult night just a few days after the collapse.

It's been a painful, hard year. I'm sure many atheists have a story that relates their de-conversion as mostly "upside". For me, it is fundamentally, upside as well, but the cost of "coming out" is big, unpredictable, and long lasting. I'm happy to say that my marriage is intact, and as good as ever. My kids are aware, and although mostly unhappy about it and feeling a bit betrayed (which they should, given the unfounded things I've been indoctrinating them with sense birth), and of course dislocated. I've been "disfellowshipped" by some Christian friends, and have caused a major uproar in the homeschooling groups and forums where I have related my story. The Christian myth that morality and ethical "goodness" is predicated on the belief in God, and either impossible without, or at best accidental, runs very deep in the evangelical/fundamentalist community. So, many who learn of my de-conversion wonder, often aloud, what happens now that I'm free to cheat on my wife, steal, or do any number of things worse than that. It's been an eye-opening experience, and my de-conversion is a kind of Rorschach test for Christians, I think. When they confront my rejection of Christianity for atheism, one gets a sense of what they imagine themselves to be in their "native" state. They say they are wondering about my actions as an atheist, but I'm a year on into this as my usual self, a faithful husband, engaged father, hard worker, etc., and what they are often telling me is what they suppose they would be like if they had to develop and execute their own moral and ethical principles. I don't really agree with this, as I think the truth as truth is an important good in its own right, but many Christians I know make a good case for embracing Christianity, even if it is false; by their own accounts, the kind of person they would be without their invented gods and demons and heaven and hell is often downright scary.

Worst Case Scenario

In cases like mine, inevitably, there are questions raised and suspicions launched about the actuality or sincerity of my faith in the first place. For what it's worth, I claim to be an atheist who was a deeply committed, "sold out" believer for decades. Raised in an extremely devout Baptist home, I "accepted Jesus into my heart" as a gradeschooler like any good, rational kid does who has grown up with hellfire and brimstone on one side, and felt-cloth Jesus on the easel, welcoming the children into his arms, on the other. I was baptized at 12 years old, had a solid string of ecstatic, powerful "mountain-top" spiritual experiences at Christian youth camps and retreats as a teen. I hit a bit of brick wall in college, as I was set up by my parents to embrace young earth creationism, and allowed to continue in my folly right into enrolling in university. That shook my faith badly, as I'd been betrayed and lied to by many of the people I'd trusted most, but that crisis triggered a transformation for me toward a more mature, thoughtful, and personal faith in Jesus Christ. Through the child raising years, and founding several tech startups that failed badly, then one that did well and eventually got bought by a large Internet company in the dot com days, church was my life outside of work (and inside it, too, often enough!), and I continually identified God's hand in influencing and shaping the world around me and in me according to his will. In the last decade when we've been fortunate enough -- blessed by God, as I saw it at the time -- to have the means, my wife and I have gotten involved with our hands and our funds in church planting and church growth as part of our commitment to reifying the Kingdom of God on earth through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I was not a pastor like John, or Dan Barker. I never went to seminary, and my most impressive "official" credentials in the church were nothing higher than "guitarist in the worship band", but I was a "died-in-the-wool" believer. I never heard God "speak" in an audible way, but I saw many things I considered miracles, many events I interpreted as God's special message of reassurance, love and hope to me. I was an avid student of theology, a circumstance which had faith-building and faith-destroying ramifications for me over the years. In any case, I was not a "lukewarm Christian", one of those who slowly drifted out of the faith. My faith did not fade away, it came crashing down, quite unexpectedly, and frankly not of my own choosing (at least at the start). I was a cradle Evangelical fully immersed, well-read and fully on board. As a poster on a forum for (Christian) homeschoolers commented recent in a large "discussion" over my atheism: it's the "worst case scenario". Such is the dissonance for many who have known me, a good share of them have decided I've just been lying or faking it all these years, or I somehow just was never saved, never a Christian that "took".

A Moral Imperative
The irony for me, given all the indoctrination I've received along with so many other evangelicals and fundamentalists over there years about the necessity of God as an underwriter for moral values, is that while my faith collapsed out of reasoning and skepticism, my eventual rejection of Christianity on a lasting basis was predicated on realizing the moral poverty of Christianity. Some come to disbelief in God out of moral outrage toward God, and understandable but dubious path to knowledge. I came to realize my belief was sublimated desire and fear, and that I just did not have any foundation for believing in God's existence, even (especially) in light of my own subjective experiences, which I overlaid on the bare scaffolding of dubious history and incoherent philosophy/theology. I disbelieved first, but freed from my Christian presuppositions, Christianity took on a much more complex, problematic moral character; for whatever good elements remained, the God of Christianity on many fronts represented cruelty, viciousness, caprice, abuse, injustice, and moral incoherence. I did not believe there was any Christian God, or any gods at all, but if the Christian God somehow was real, and I was badly mistaken, I realized I would have to resist his authority and power on moral grounds, as a matter of good moral conscience.

With that, the matter was decided. I had no remaining basis for belief, and Christian belief had become morally problematic, even if I did have basis for it. In the past year, despite all the pain and stress that necessarily comes from someone in my position renounces his faith, I feel like I have a new lease on life, and life itself has value and moral meaning for me that it never did before. There's a lot of adjustment to do when you've come into your life thinking yourself just a "sojourner" here on Earth, making a brief stop on the way to eternal life with God. But as St. Paul said, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child". At 40 years old, I had done well professionally, had a happy, healthy, growing family and a great marriage, but I was stilling clinging to childish thinking and emotions when it came to God, my faith, my moral foundation and the principles I was passing on to my children. Like many Christians, I find great comfort and pleasure in indulging in dreams of living past my death, and living forever. But this past year has been the year -- better late than never -- to put away childish things, and to embrace reality as it is, and live in such a way as to take full advantage of the precious moments I have in this life, and to build a life of virtue, making my little part of the world a better, more just, happier, and humane place for my kids, their grandkids, and all they will share their world with.