I was homeschooled my whole life by a professionally evangelist father and a stay at home mother. My media was censored, my computer use secretly monitored, and my friends vetoed if they were not also sufficiently close to the Christian homeschooler sphere.
My science books derided evolution as a baseless idea. I was taught that the founding fathers were Christian and founded the United States for God. I attended a Ken Ham seminar. I protested abortion clinics. We switched out Bill Nye for a Christian version. For years we had Bible study 5 nights a week and went to church 3 times a week. I managed to get all the way to adulthood without once uttering a swear word.
I believed in Jesus and the Bible with all my heart – but this wasn’t an unquestioned belief. We studied ‘logical Christianity’, and I had many nights where I would discuss my doubts about Christian philosophy with intelligent theologians. I was surrounded by people from the Church who were open to any question, invited doubt, and presented answers in gentle, rational tones.
I wanted to be rational. The existence of other heretical, yet devout religions served as a huge, constant warning light to me in the back of my mind, and I feared that whatever fooled them might be fooling me now. I was aware, somewhere, that I might be wrong, but I had a lifetime of mental systems with which to handle that. I debated constantly. I studied atheist arguments and had my own refutations to everyone. I thought I knew.
I lost my faith shortly before I turned nineteen, and it wasn’t any one thing that did it.
I mean, I guess there was one thing that did it, but an echo in the mountains does nothing if there’s not already a bunch of snow built up and ready to fall.
Losing my faith was horrifying and painful. I refer to it as my
‘faith’ and not my ‘religion,’ because religion is a word we use from the outside, as the observer watching the person bowed in prayer. For me, the person bowed in prayer, it was my faith, and to call it a religion feels like it undermines the meaningfulness of the feeling of “loving God”.
Nearly-nineteen, sitting there in that dorm room, I could feel my faith slipping away from my fingertips, and it was like trying to avoid a car crash in slow motion. No, no no no. I scrambled for answers, but all the ones I had studied so well suddenly seemed far away. I cried out to God to save me, because I couldn’t do it myself. It was a desperate, last plea to my beautiful savior and friend, and the silence I got back was utter despair.
The life I had known died right there. The way I knew the world – my education, my society, my purpose, my understanding of ethical behavior, of sex, obedience, submission, logic, origin of the universe – all of it crumbled around me and I suddenly knew nothing.
People sometimes ask the question of why it took so long. Really I’m amazed that it happened at all. Before we even approach the aspect of “good arguments against religion”, you have to understand exactly how much is sacrificed by the loss of religion.
People in bad relationships rationalize all the time. Relationships give a sense of purpose, of meaning, love, and stability. Breaking up really fucking sucks, and requires laboriously putting the pieces back together. We all tend to put off breakups for far too long, and we all probably know someone (maybe us) who has come up with a thousand reasons why the relationship is ‘actually fine’ while their life is getting slowly poisoned.
Expand the notion of a ‘relationship’ to your ‘entire life story’ and ‘connection to your entire community,’ and you might understand exactly why Christians are coming up with a thousand reasons as to why their faith is ‘actually right.’ Our brains are incredibly talented at making us feel like we have logical reasons to avoid pain and social exile.
Onto the arguments.
Christianity isn’t ‘wrong,’ really, or not obviously. For every objection I raised, there was an answer. It sometimes wasn’t an amazing answer – but then, science isn’t always full of amazing answers either. After enough questions and answers, I formed a general structure, complete with patterns and themes, “around” my sense of self, if you will oblige the metaphor. My mechanoid belief structure worked. With it I could deal with my community, my life, and my existential questions.
When other people attacked (why did God of the Bible kill innocent people?), I could fend off their assault on my structure with little pew pew shooty ‘don’t judge god with human morality’ guns (which had been preemptively installed by a sermon at age 12). I viewed things from my structure. My primary focus was building, maintaining, and defending my structure.
What the nonreligious get wrong a lot of the time is the idea that if you can just lead a Christian along the right logical path, they will realize that they are wrong. This is generally bullshit. Christians (and humans in general) are incredibly talented at organizing their structure in such a way that logic works to their favor. If a ‘good argument’ could bring down a Christian’s faith, then it would have happened a long time ago.
What brought down mine was not a good argument. It was a semi bad one, in hindsight, or at least weak in the idea that Christians have figured out some defense guns against it. I won’t specify it here, mainly because I’ve talked about it elsewhere and it would be too identifying.
What the argument did do was, for the first time, allow me to consider that maybe I was wrong.
If you’d asked me before to “consider you’re wrong,” I would have answered that “I have! All the time!” I would insist that I seriously considered other view points. I genuinely believed that “I was wrong” was an option in my mind.
But it wasn’t really, not like this. The argument jolted me so badly that I saw my own worldview from the outside, and it was all suddenly apparent to me how much patchwork I had needed for my defense, how teetering it was, all of the rationalizations I had pulled and twisted every which way. I was living in a structure built for defense, to which function came secondary.
Did it function? Yes, but I’d never before seen how ugly it was.
There are a few things I think that prepared me for this event. One is that for the last year or two I had increasing exposure to nonreligious communities. Somewhere deep down in subconsciousland, I began to realize that, ethically speaking, they weren’t much different than me. I could look at an atheist and feel, deep in my bones, that they were smart, that I could have been born them, that they were aware and thinking just like I was, and they didn’t seem to be evil.
I was “exposed to sin.” I saw people sinning (being gay! stealing a pencil! premarital sex! swearing!), and they were happy and fulfilled, sometimes even more than I was. Christians talk about “being a witness in word and deed,” but this is exactly what the nonChristians were doing to me.
The combination of reducing religious exposure and increasing nonreligious exposure was like starting to spend time away from an “abusive relationship” in the company of “new friends.” Even though I had no conscious intention to “break up,” somewhere subconsciously, the thought of leaving became a more viable option, less terrifying.
I’d also seen a LOT of atheistic arguments against Christianity. I could refute each one, but it took a little bit of effort and rationalization each time. This caused me to (again, very subconsciously, I never would consciously have admitted this) associate ‘effort and rationalization’ with my belief system, which primed me for leaving.
The argument itself had a few traits that made it a good trigger. One was that I hadn’t heard it before, and thus had no preconstructed defenses to ward it off. I wasn’t near my Christian community, so I didn’t have a pastor to quickly refute it for me.
Second is that the argument was nontrivial. It didn’t challenge something like a minor biblical inaccuracy, it challenged the very nature of God himself.
I was already primed, environmentally, to feel safe stepping outside of my structure, and a new argument was just the right thing to jolt me outside.
Once I saw my structure from the outside, that was the end of it all. There was no way I could step back into it, even if I wanted to. I left, and without me inside to hold it up, it crumpled into a thousand pieces that I could never put back together. I felt naked.
For a year I tried to salvage the ruins and ended up clothing myself in some ideological remnants like deism and evolution denial. Eventually I turned full skeptic-atheist, and then a few years later ended up attracted to zen, or a system of thought that seems similar to zen.
Belief systems aren’t “the things we’ve logically concluded about the world.” They are structures that give us a way to interact with our environment.
I can interpret my previous religion as something which allowed me to function in the environment in which I was raised. It’s amazing that something so motivated by function can result in beliefs that feel incredibly real. I have memories of sobbing on my knees, alone in my room except for the presence of Jesus. To me, my faith from the inside was powerful and tangible.
But it was this internal passion that was the necessary fuel to keep the teetering, haphazard structure of my belief intact. Religion would never have survived if at least some people didn’t feel it with all their might.
If you want to ‘deconvert’ someone, view it as if you want your friend to leave an abusive relationship. All you can do is be there for them, give them love, acceptance, and a safe space. Sometimes your friend might be receptive to arguments about why their relationship is bad, but usually they’ll just be defensive. Maybe one day they will leave, maybe they won’t. Remember that the relationship, no matter how bad it is, is fulfilling something for them. Try to be that fulfillment for them.