How I Lost My Faith

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

losingfaith.jpg
an art i made

‘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.

13 thoughts on “How I Lost My Faith

  1. Faith is basically the identity of my family. My mother pushed Catholicism on me from as early as I can remember but it never quite clicked with me. I could get behind the intent but it was the details that kept me at an arm’s length. My turning point, with Catholicism at least (I’d say I’m agnostic these days), was being at the worst of my depression, suicidal, and finding out despair was the sin of all sins, damnation guaranteed. That day I got angry for the first time in a while and it was at the idea that I’m the bad guy because I was born predisposed towards depression and had just enough crap going on to set it off in a major way. I don’t think I got over that anger.

    Anyway, I knew I wasn’t as invested in it as the rest of them even before depression, which scared me because I always wondered if I was secretly “The Heathen” and I knew that if I didn’t have that in common with them I could never truly be on the inside. There’s still love and we laugh and hang out but I know I’m not totally part of the club.

    The point of this rambling overshare is that I know what you mean when you talk about losing your life story and connection to the community. In a pretty short span all these connections, social, mental, emotional, all died off. Watching them pull away, knowing they should be important but suddenly didn’t mean as much, was strange.

  2. Dang, Girl, I’m busted. I don’t really exist.
    But I still love you. And I always will. Just like your mama told you.
    One thing, keep doin’ the acid; that’s good. But keep it on the down low. It threatens a lot of people’s misconceptions. As scripture says: “Truly, men hate the truth.”
    Miss Aella, I bless you. And my father, who art in heaven, blesses you also.
    Later, Alligator.
    Jesus

  3. Your article accurately describes what I went through growing up in the bible belt and losing my faith around age 20. It is incredibly hard and after coming to the realization that I could not go back to it in good conscience it really brought me a lot of mental instability. I have learned now it runs in the family, but losing my structure of belief certainly triggered it harder than it had before. Thank you for writing this. People who were not heavily raised around Christianity need perspectives like this to better understand those who are believers.

  4. I had a remarkably similar childhood experience: Calvinist Dutch Reformed, homeschooled by a stay-at-home mom, tight media restrictions, Ken Ham videos, seminars with traveling lecturers on Biblical courtship and, honest-to-god, *geocentrism* . . .

    I remember believing that evolution was a pretty obviously open-and-shut secular fallacy that survived only because people were willfully ignoring contrary evidence.

    As in your case, seeing that “unbelievers” were far more pleasant and kind than I’d been led to believe–often more pleasant and kind than my fellow believers–played a key role in my deconversion.

    Your gradual disengagement from faith reminds me a lot of Martin Gardner’s *The Flight of Peter Fromm*, the best philosophical novel I’ve read. And as a former Calvinist you should read the only great novel ever to have emerged from our faith tradition: Peter de Vries’s (atheistical) *The Blood of the Lamb*.

    Anyway, glad you made it out. And I love your writing–I hope you eventually figure out a way to turn it into a full-time gig.

  5. Two thoughts: First of all, it surprises me how many parents don’t seem able to understand or predict that raising a child with life-encompassing ultra-strict enforcement of certain values (while wrong in itself) will more often than not result in the child eventually rebelling and rejecting those values. Not saying that was your primary reason for rejecting Christian fundamentalism, just that it’s something I’ve seen over and over.

    Secondly, I think you make an excellent point about fundamentalist religion seeming internally consistent but appearing from the outside to rest on shaky foundations compared to other belief systems. The fact is that most worldviews, if sufficiently complex and well-developed, are pretty self-consistent. They can’t all be correct. In order to select the most valid one, it is necessary to approach all of them with a birds’-eye view and determine which systems rest on fewer unjustified premises, which ones rely on more roundabout-looking reasoning, etc. (this is in some sense applying Occam’s Razor).

    I’m reminded of the time that I was at an atheist/agnostic club meeting where several Christians were invited, and we were having a large discussion in a circle, and I voiced the opinion that given all the “right” interpretations, one could probably validly argue that the Bible is consistent. I went on to say that a lot of these interpretations and arguments seemed too roundabout compared to those for the naturalist worldview, and that at the end of the day, the reasons for my worldview have to boil down to my impression that a priori the universe just doesn’t look like it’s being run by an intelligent, benevolent being. One of the Christians responded by saying that he was really glad to hear an atheist admit that the Bible is consistent; he seemed to completely ignore my follow-up.

  6. Very powerful, wonderfully insightful and introspective. I image it was cathartic to write, I know it was to read.

    I had a vaguely similar, although much less extreme, upbringing that caused me to struggle with inconsistent and outright contradictory teachings. The older I got the more I noticed how smothering and controlling religion was. Finally I came to the conclusion that the only purpose religion served was to suppress and oppress.

    After many years I made my peace with my own beliefs and decided hat the only way I could change someone else’s beliefs would be by having an absolute conviction that mine was the right belief system. Which seems to be the definition of religion.

    I dislike the idea of being a follower or a leader. I haven’t a problem with sharing my beliefs, but I can’t expect anyone to follow them. Only respect them.

    Luv what you are doing Aella. You are intelligent, open minded and thought provoking.

  7. I adore your stories! You write with such eloquence. Maybe a biography some day with your art work included? I would buy it)

  8. Mmm that reads similar to what I’d figured out so far.
    Cheers for sharing it.
    In my life, most kinds of belief systems; god, karma, etc. were destroyed pretty early thanks to abuses, but I was raised an almost devout atheist.
    A devout anything seems pretty unhealthy to me nowadays.
    But being alone still stings. Especially in those moments you pray, just in case… just in case.

  9. A fascinating and thought-provoking essay. It certainly confirms and refutes many of my assumptions about Evangelicals. It never occurred to me that leaving a faith would be like losing a close friend. Though I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools all the way through college, I’ve been pulling away for a while now, though I still found comfort in the Jesus story for most of my life.

    I think the faint ember of my faith died this Easter. Making my bi-annual visit to Mass, I was greeted by a sermon on the Gift of Life, which condemned any woman who did not carry the baby to term if impregnated during a sexual assault. Terminating the pregnancy is “taking the cheap and easy way out”.

    I can’t do it any more. I can’t nod my head in approval for a religion which shames victims of trauma. I’ve tried to be a beacon of tolerance in an outdated and unforgiving environment. I’ve tried to focus on the positive and uplifting portions of the bible while ignoring the mouth-breathers who use it punish and demean others. It doesn’t work for me anymore.

    The only religion I have left is something I call “The Balance Sheet”. When I leave this world, I want the balance sheet to show that I’ve done more good that evil. That I’ve given more than I’ve taken and I’ve made an honest effort to live peacefully with those around me. That’s it.

    You’re essay has made me realize that though I left my faith a long time ago, I’ve never stopped to consider what I lost. Thanks for fucking up my Monday.

    PS– I think a really interesting follow-up would explore how you and your sisters developed such wildly creative personalities in a closed environment. Those of us on the outside, often think of Evangelicals as somewhat vanilla and lacking panache, but the women in your family don’t seem to fit that narrative.

  10. Was your deconversion around the time of the ‘New Atheist’ movement? I think that exposure to the general populace, and the mere ability to entertain atheism seriously and not immediately reject it due to social stigma, has done much to increase secularism among 18-34 year olds in society today. This is similar to the exposure theory of LGBT acceptance.

    In terms of a ‘structure’ you built and maintained and surrounded yourself with, there was a great YouTuber who made a series of videos about his de-conversion process, which described something similar, except he called it a ‘web of beliefs’ I think. The series has sadly lain dormant a long time now, but the videos he did put out were pretty informative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOmSYHzeoNA&list=PLA0C3C1D163BE880A

  11. I have enough trouble talking people out of abusive relationships since when they get reunited, im the bad guy. then again i only think about religion or philosophy when im on the toliet, since its a bunch of poop. 😀

  12. Aella, I have read many of your musings over the past couple of years and I have to say that this is my personal favorite. Please keep sharing your thoughts with us. Always enjoyable and thought provoking.

  13. Wow this was incredibly insightful, precise, and intelligent. Reading it I felt sad because the world you knew crumbled, and wish I could have extended a hand, or just sat their in meditation with you while the jigsaw puzzle was breaking even smaller while you reassembled, or stared.

    Not that it matters but I was brought up Catholic, and because I had doubt early on it wasn’t earth shattering when I decided religion wasn’t for me. Butt butt butt I would say the sky is falling when people tried to lure me back with a story which most times was an undertow of doom and gloom – I would get overly sarcastic but respectful when appropriate. Of course. 🙂

    Keep writing, and I love all the surveys. Sometimes I wish I could modify the answer choices.

    Montana 424.444.7240 looctave@gmail.com

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