Having been a person who was, for all intents and purposes, a “True Believer,” I think it’s important that I expound a bit on the stereotypes built up by believers about those who “fall away” from the Church.
I’d often hear growing up about people who stopped going to church and “fell back into sin.” The horrible catalyst would be something like a couple getting divorced and not coming to church anymore or a person leaving and getting involved with a non-church crowd, which undoubtedly meant that person was up to every form of debauchery. We’d assume this without evidence.
Now that I’ve become one of those people I would hear about and blindly judge in my youth, I’ve experienced that a lot of the struggle with no longer believing in what the Church believes is knowing that they think these terrible things about me that aren’t true. Sure, I could choose to keep a lot of those people in my life as friends, but it’s hard to be friends with people who think you are “choosing death” just because you can’t believe in something supernatural. It’s not that I dislike them or want them out of my life, but their beliefs are really just toxic to me now and don’t help me toward bettering myself and learning to love myself in the ways that the inherently self-loathing model of sin wouldn’t let me before. It’s hard for me to shut them out of my life because I know exactly how that looks to them. They see that I’m shutting them out because I hate God. I’m shutting them out because I’m ashamed of my sin and don’t need them to help me fix it.
Where is the balance? Do I keep them as friends and hold onto the guilt of letting them down? Will they ever see that “loving” a person doesn’t involve letting them know that they’re a piece of shit without “God”? What can I do to help the image of those who lose their faith?
I’m going to be incredibly careful in this post because I don’t want to talk about my family in a disparaging way, but an important part of undergoing a massive shift in belief is working through the relationships that were so attached to the former belief system. Usually, this is family.
For me, it is family. My father was a pastor, and my mom is the type of devout Christian that could care less about logic and reason (not a criticism–just the way she’s wired). For this post, I note that my oldest sister is actually quite a bit like how I was as a Christian, and that’s what makes this whole topic rather intriguing. Lately, she seems to have gotten more and more into Christian apologetics and is frequently in a mode to call out “false teachers.” As her sister who cares more about maintaining a positive, albeit somewhat superficial, relationship with her than about expressing how much her viewpoint grieves me, I just sit and watch. And every time I observe, I’m taken back to some instance in my past when I felt that same conviction and knew that I knew the Truth. It’s not comforting for me to think that my sister is wrong or misguided. What I really think is that she is a product of her raising and is trying to live very true to her beliefs, which is something I can respect.
But what I mostly have been taking from all of this is how much observing her makes me glad not to feel that conviction anymore. I know she would be hurt to hear this, but it is so incredibly true and so incredibly refreshing. Unlike my family, I no longer have to be prepared to explain why I believe what I do. I sit in the “I don’t know” and watch them “know.” There’s no pressure and no urgency. I take my time and allow myself to be skeptical and confused most of the time without desperately clawing for assurance or God’s approval. Freedom–true freedom–does not exist with contingencies. With freedom, there is no submission and no expectation. Freedom honors individual integrity. It is optimistically autonomous. The package of “freedom” seen in the Bible relies on adherence and forms a paradox with submission.
And so, I’ve chosen to be truly free. That is me, the optimistically autonomous. The Jones family anomaly. The antithetical offspring. Always pleased to make your acquaintance and never with the hope that you will bend to my beliefs.
I’ve been part of some groups lately full of both ex-Christians and questioning Christians and people who are generally fed up with Christian culture and/or Christian faith. A big theme as of late has been how many of these people lost so many of their close Christian friends once they started asking “too many questions.” What I’m not sure Christians realize is how bad this really makes them look. I imagine from the Christian perspective, some of them feel betrayed by people who leave the faith. Others probably take the “unequally yoked” thing to heart and decide it’s best to gain some distance from those people. Others probably just don’t know what to do, so they don’t do anything at all.
There’s nothing in the Bible that speaks to how you should treat people who have really honestly considered the veracity of Scripture, lived it for a while, and for some reason or another found that it probably isn’t true. Those of us who have been on this journey have come by our non-belief honestly. I don’t hate God. I don’t insist on not believing in God. I simply don’t know how to believe in God at this point. I do wonder how there could be a God who would have just watched me on my honest journey and didn’t think it necessary to guide me toward him. Perhaps believing in God isn’t all that important to God after all?
When I try to explain all of this to some Christians, they really can’t get it. I get a lot of blank looks. Preachers tell them from the pulpit that every single person is depraved and rebellious to God, so this is the only way they know how to see me. I can tell them that I am being honest and that I am not rebelling from what I think is true, and they really just can’t get that. For this reason, a lot of Christians don’t talk to me anymore. Honestly, I don’t even know how to talk to many of them either. What do I say to someone who is convinced that love is solidly founded in God, and I’ve recently come to my own realization that this is not actually true? There’s just kind of this inevitable divide. I can reach out to these friends, and we can mutually say we care about each other still. However, we can’t go to the levels we did before, and I’ve always been such a deep conversationalist that it would just be weird of me not to talk about consequential things with them.
I lost my faith because I took it so seriously. How do I tell that to a good Christian friend? How can that possibly not sound offensive and/or concerning to this friend? My loss of faith has been a celebration of freedom for me, but it is a mourning for these friends. It makes sense why we can’t talk anymore, and it makes sense why some actually refuse to talk.
Jesus never told his followers to rejoice with those who lose their faith. I’m looking for those who can love and embrace my discoveries. Those people are not Christians.
Here is where I discuss the most difficult part of losing my faith: Dad. No, not Heavenly-Dad. I mean my actual, biological father. I wrote a few times on my old blog, the deconversion blog that got hacked and destroyed, about what an impact my dad had on my life as a Christian. It would be downright insulting for me to ever let my deconversion imply that he no longer has a strong impact on my life. He does, and he always will. I want to attest to that now as I did before.
My dad, having received his PhD in Theology and spending years preaching in the ministry, probably took my deconversion harder than anyone else. Rightfully so. I don’t take offense and I don’t place blame on his reaction. He asked me once if I understand how much anguish he and my mother have experienced over this, and I said that I do. However, I don’t know if I truly can. I don’t know what it’s like to raise a kid under the righteous care of my Lord and Savior and watch her walk away. I imagine it’s something akin to being stabbed in the back, straight through the physical and emotional heart. It cannot possibly be any less painful than that.
Of what little I know about my dad’s own salvation experience, I understand that his experience was essentially mine in reverse. He had a very difficult childhood in a non-Christian home, and he got saved in his late teens. I had a wonderful, secure childhood in a Christian home, and I lost my faith at the age of 23. Here lies the most difficult part of losing my faith. It feels like my experience invalidates everything that has become true to my dad. How degrading it must be for him to see a little twenty-something turn her nose up to Love, Truth, and Everlasting Salvation. It’s a major and ultimately damning life choice from his perspective, and I doubt this makes any sense at all to him. What I continue to admire about him is how he gives me space to experience life myself and seek what is true to me. He does not disown me nor does he belittle me. He seeks to understand me, which is a gift I think few of us PK former Christians receive. I am so grateful to him for this.
What I have difficulty telling him is how little my deconversion has to do with my experience growing up. I loved my childhood, and I don’t think it influenced my decision to leave Christianity. I just didn’t know how to make that relationship with Jesus thing real. It didn’t work, and I couldn’t see how it ever would. It’s all psychology to me, and I don’t know how to see it as anything transcendentally more. But I hate implying that it’s all psychology to my parents and my sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and best friends. I hate how arrogant that sounds, and I desperately want to remove that divide. I don’t want to see them as people relying on a crutch, and I don’t want them to see me as a rebel to my True Calling. Perhaps these things can’t be reconciled. My only hope may be that we avoid these conversations at future family holiday events, online exchanges, and phone calls. Perhaps “I love you” will always be marked by “in spite of.” This may not have to be as dismal as it sounds. I’m willing to work to make it work.
Relatedly, here’s one of my crutch songs from this past summer! Ah, deconversion. Good times.