Religion

I once was a born-again Christian…

…but I’m not any more.

Every once in a while I get an email or a comment accusing me of being a liar, saying it’s impossible for me to once have been a “real” Christian and now to be an atheist. Of course, the people who are so sure of my history have never met me and certainly didn’t know me in my past life as a Christian. Even so, their assuredness that what I’ve said cannot possibly be true always makes me think.

Reading Infidel, I’ve been made acutely aware that Muslims don’t have this problem of understanding. They are quite certain that people of their faith can fall away, and therefore have a solution to stop the apostasy from spreading: kill the infidels. Hmm. It might be the only sure-fire way to control the flock.

I just finished reading an article from Psychology Today, called An Atheist in the Pulpit, by Bruce Grierson. In the article, Grierson interviews several ministers who have lost their faith for a wide range of reasons. Worth reading if you’re interested in finding out how and why this can happen and, perhaps, how you can be an influence for reason and sanity among religious family and friends. It will definitely give you insight into the struggles experienced by those who awake one day to find that their faith no longer makes sense to them.

Here’s part of my story, and some of my thoughts on this topic:

It was a very strange day for me the first time someone asked me “Are you a Christian,” and my answer was, “No.” I’d spent all of my life up to that point — over 30 years — proclaiming to be a Christian. First I was a Catholic, a Christian by tradition and baptism; then I was born again.

John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

On December 24, 1971 in a middle pew on the right-hand side of the sanctuary in Calvary Baptist Church on Jayne Boulevard in Port Jefferson Station, New York, six months after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I accepted Jesus as my personal savior. I was 9 years old.

Jesus loved us, the pastor said, and gave his life freely to save us from sin and hell. Wouldn’t anyone like to accept Jesus tonight, this holy night of Jesus’ birth? “If you would, get up out of your seat and come down to the altar, and pray with me now.”

I didn’t get up. I sat quietly in my seat as a few adults walked up to the front of the church to be saved. But when Pastor F—- had the new converts repeat the sinner’s prayer, I closed my eyes and said the words silently in my heart.

Romans 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

About twenty years later, I stopped rationally believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. But I still believed it emotionally.

I told myself I was a Christian because nowhere does the Bible say you have to believe in your head to be saved. For years after I stopped thinking that the virgin birth and the resurrection were real, I still felt like the stories were true. Cognitive dissonence? Sure, and I was definitely aware of it. But I told people that I was a Christian, and by doing so, I was “confessing with my mouth.”

Eventually my feelings caught up with my thinking and I realized I no longer believed, not with my head or with my heart. It wasn’t until someone asked me, however, that it hit me how much I’d changed. I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian.

Proverbs 14:14 The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways.

There’s a reason that many Christians can’t fathom that there’s really such a thing as an ex-Christian. That’s because the born-again experience is supposed to be a magical occurance where your spirit is literally changed by a supernatural touch from God. It is difficult to fathom not being a Christian any more if you don’t view becoming a Christian as a psychological change but as a spiritual birth. How does one become un-born?

I know that many Christians are unable or unwilling to contemplate that someone can have had the same experiences they’ve had and then turn away from it all. It’s a scary idea. It means they might be wrong. It means that they can’t say, “If you only felt what I’ve felt and lived what I’ve lived you’d turn your life over to God forever.”

Some of us have had those feelings and have lived that life. Some of us have read the Bible cover to cover with an open heart, seeking for truth. Some of us have been Christians, and we’re still not buying it. I know I can explain this until I’m blue in the face, and few Christians will understand or believe me. They’ll say my heart is hard or I’m not spiritually open. I hope, though, that a few will find food for thought in my words.

I Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I no longer need to believe in a supernatural God, a virgin-born savior, a resurrected Lord to validate my journey or to give meaning to my life. Everything that happened to me when I was a Christian was real. My born-again experience was as serious, life-changing, numinous, and yes, real, as that of any person on this earth. (And you doubters can ask my mother if you don’t believe me.) It just wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by my own thougths and emotions and by the communal ecstacy that is present in many evangelical Christian church services. I now interpret my past through the lens of the natural world and the human condition.

Does this mean my experiences were worthless or fake? Far from it. Although I no longer believe in the tenents of my former faith, the fact that I went on this journey, searching for truth and fulfillment, says something important about the state of my heart. A change in explanation — from the supernatural to the natural — in no way reduces or diminishes the value or reality of my experiences, but rather enlarges them and gives them meaning that transcends doctrine, dogma, or ideology.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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36 Comments

  1. Interesting, My Christian->Atheist Conversion follows the same basic path. It really is true, my parents still think I've joined some kind of brainwashing cult.

    In fact, I still use the verse in Corinthians to explain it to people, I've grown out of Christianity, and now I need to put it away.

    I enjoyed the post, keep skepticizing!

  2. This is a lovely and thought-provoking post. It's always interesting to me to hear the deconversion stories of those who were truly religious. I was only ever half-assedly religious and still jokingly call myself the worst Catholic ever.

  3. I'm currently reading Infidel as well… I'm about 1/4-1/3 of the way through (she just started menstruating). Given the hypocrisy and abuse she's endured to this point, my question isn't "How did she turn away from her faith," but rather, "How is it that *everyone* doesn't turn away?"

  4. It takes a ton of courage to examine yourself and your beliefs like that. I was raised by a bitter ex-Catholic, so atheism was always the norm for me – and although I went through my own process of questioning whether or not it was right for me (I obviously decided that yes, it was), it was nothing like the process I imagine coming from the other extreme would be. Thanks for sharing the story :)

  5. Yes, many thanks for sharing, writerdd. I went from atheist(my teens)… to agnostic(my late teens to late twenties)… to born-again Christian(late twenties to late thirties)… to atheist again(the last three years or so).

    I read the entire Bible several times, taking notes on what struck me as important or just significant. As a poet, I still find parts of it inspiring.

    But that detailed examination of Scripture definitely led to me realizing I was no longer a Christian. There were too many contradictions, too many things I could not accept.

    It was a little frightening, consciously discarding the idea of god and the fantasy of life beyond death. But I found life rewarding long before I was a believer, and I am rediscovering those rewards now. My 3 year-old nephew is a great help in that regard :)

  6. I also thank you for sharing, Donna. I am on a path to deconversion. I feel much more free and more confident as a result of letting go of all those years of guilt and mysticism. Although I have a great support system in my darling husband, Skepchick provides such a nice supportive environment for people like me. Thanks again!!!

  7. Also, can you share some of these emails? Or are they too rude?

    Actually, I haven't saved any. So far I haven't gotten any really rude emails or any hate mail. Basically the messages just say something like, "You were never a real Christian. If you had been one, you would still be one."

  8. First, let me say, this was a fantastic post! I'm definitely eager to read the book-length version.

    I was raised nonreligious, had a few flirtations with "ancient mysteries" and UFO woo in my pre-teen years, and was a bit of a NOMA devotee early in high school. Whatever "deconversions" I've experienced have definitely been less dramatic than the transition from born-again Christian to atheist! Whether I'm better or worse for that is left to the interested reader as an exercise. . . .

    I have had a few "spiritual moments," secular revelations, if you like, but they all sound like the stuff one would make up as atheist miracles: understanding Newton's Second Law in elementary school, standing in the front row of a live Mary Prankster performance. . . . I am the perfect parody of myself.

  9. A thoughtful post; I enjoyed it. But I question most of the the claims in your last two paragraphs. You wrote:

    [blockquote]Everything that happened to me when I was a Christian was real. My born-again experience was as serious, life-changing, numinous, and yes, real, as that of any person on this earth. (And you doubters can ask my mother if you don’t believe me.) It just wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by my own thougths and emotions and by the communal ecstacy that is present in many evangelical Christian church services. I now interpret my past through the lens of the natural world and the human condition.

    Does this mean my experiences were worthless or fake? Far from it. Although I no longer believe in the tenents of my former faith, the fact that I went on this journey, searching for truth and fulfillment, says something important about the state of my heart.[/blockquote]

    I think humans crave drama. The struggle for resolution gives them purpose.

    I suspect your series of conversions had less to do with the "state of your heart," and more to do with the state of your social circumstances and your perceptions of your role(s) within the context of your society.

    Call me cynical, but the evidence suggests to me that "spiritual" conversion of any kind just a coming-to-terms with a new path toward social integration.

    [blockquote]A change in explanation — from the supernatural to the natural — in no way reduces or diminishes the value or reality of my experiences, but rather enlarges them and gives them meaning that transcends doctrine, dogma, or ideology.[/blockquote]

    It only reduces it in the sense that it removes the previously held illusion of purpose.

  10. [Damnable different tag syntaxes! :-)]

    A thoughtful post; I enjoyed it. But I question most of the the claims in your last two paragraphs. You wrote:

    Everything that happened to me when I was a Christian was real. My born-again experience was as serious, life-changing, numinous, and yes, real, as that of any person on this earth. (And you doubters can ask my mother if you don’t believe me.) It just wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by my own thougths and emotions and by the communal ecstacy that is present in many evangelical Christian church services. I now interpret my past through the lens of the natural world and the human condition.

    Does this mean my experiences were worthless or fake? Far from it. Although I no longer believe in the tenents of my former faith, the fact that I went on this journey, searching for truth and fulfillment, says something important about the state of my heart.

    I think humans crave drama. The struggle for resolution gives them purpose.

    I suspect your series of conversions had less to do with the “state of your heart,” and more to do with the state of your social circumstances and your perceptions of your role(s) within the context of your society.

    Call me cynical, but the evidence suggests to me that “spiritual” conversion of any kind just a coming-to-terms with a new path toward social integration.

    A change in explanation — from the supernatural to the natural — in no way reduces or diminishes the value or reality of my experiences, but rather enlarges them and gives them meaning that transcends doctrine, dogma, or ideology.

    It only reduces it in the sense that it removes the previously held illusion of purpose.

  11. Thanks, Blake.

    Skidoo, I think it's probably half and half. First, I was on some kind of search for how to be a better person; even at a young age, I really did want to do what was right and holy and loving and all that. Second, I was trying to find a place to fit in. Is that what you mean by "social integration"?

    The thing is, I didn't fit in better after I was born again. I didn't fit in at school or at church when I was a kid. It wasn't until high school when I became more zealous that I started to fit in at a different church. I never did manage to figure out how to fit in at school. :-)

    Obviously it's hard to cover the complexity of these issues in short blog posts. I hope the different layers and the subtext of my unconscious motivations come more into view in my book.

  12. Just wanted to thank you for your post. I was a Christian until about 8 years ago. While I was never as far down the rabbit hole as many Christians, it is nice to hear other stories like my own. Keep up the good work.

  13. I too went through a similar process. (Although I /did/ respond to the altar call when I was a kid.) I was always the one that won the "bible sword drills" and knew all of my memory verses. Friends who have come to know me recently always get a strange look when I tell them that until mid high school I wanted to be a preacher. My senior year I started questioning the specific doctrines of our denomination, then college was a process of questioning christianity as a whole, then finally religion and woo in general. (Of course, being a physicist helps in learning the critical thinking skills ;) )

  14. I was always the one that won the “bible sword drills” and knew all of my memory verses.

    Tometheus, crap, I almost forgot about those! I was really good at that stuff, too. We did that in Sunday school and VBS at the Baptist church. I can still recite the books of the Bible in order and the 91st Psalm!

    Going to Bible school instead of college delayed the whole questioning phase for me.

  15. What, in the name of The Holy Hand Grenade, are "bible sword drills"? Sounds like something out of a RennFaire!

    On a more serious note, great post DD! A very clear explication of your spiritual journey thus far. I wonder if you are at the end of your journey, or still have some distance to travel. I suppose only time will tell.

  16. How far into Infidel are you? I just finished the second chapter. Scary shit.

    Also, a point worth making again and again: being raised to be "faithful" and thus be rewarded to for believing difficult-to-believe things (i.e., not trying to think things through with logic and reason, or worse, finding ways to reason things as true which logic really can't support) can be extremely detrimental to the ability to think clearly and rationally even after said faith has been abandoned.

  17. I can still recite the books of the Bible in order

    At a guess, "the Bible" was the King James Version with no Apocrypha?

    What, in the name of The Holy Hand Grenade, are “bible sword drills”? Sounds like something out of a RennFaire!

    Heh!

    I think the "bible sword drills" are contests where li'l kids are challenged to find a verse in "the" Bible. The first kid to find the verse jumps up and reads it, and the winner of the day gets a prize. Let me just load up my MP3 player with appropriately Satanic music before I poke through the Xian websites for confirmation. . . .

    I recall reading, several years ago, a website somewhere in the Chick/Dobson genre which advocated playing this game with the "targets" being, say, the Comma Johanneum or some other passage in which the KJV differs significantly from more modern translations. When the child can't find the verse, or when they jump up and read a version which isn't What Jesus Really Said, they get a quick lesson in the sinfulness of textual criticism, via that time-honored method of public humiliation.

  18. I love your/everyones stories and experiences. Just like most Filipino's, I was raised catholic and that was easy to ditch. What I found more difficult to give up was my belief in chi/ki in the martial arts. Many people treat it like religion and if your teacher(s) believes in it and you don't, the next 'technique line' you participate in will be a 'doosie'.

    Keep up the good work. I love this site and the work everyone is doing. Anymore exreligious chi-disbelieving martial artists out there. I'd be interested to hear yer story.

    Kriss

  19. Yes, I had to do those as well. For a bonus, my Baptist elementary school also made us memorise a Bible verse a week and recite it in class. We were graded on our memorisation. I got an "A+" in Bible every time!

    Oddly enough, I can't remember a single damned verse that they had us memorise back then, but the skill came in handy when I picked up acting. ;)

  20. There’s a reason that many Christians can’t fathom that there’s really such a thing as an ex-Christian. That’s because the born-again experience is supposed to be a magical occurance where your spirit is literally changed by a supernatural touch from God. It is difficult to fathom not being a Christian any more if you don’t view becoming a Christian as a psychological change but as a spiritual birth. How does one become un-born?

    I know that many Christians are unable or unwilling to contemplate that someone can have had the same experiences they’ve had and then turn away from it all. It’s a scary idea. It means they might be wrong. It means that they can’t say, “If you only felt what I’ve felt and lived what I’ve lived you’d turn your life over to God forever.”

    Another reason I've run into is that many Christians believe the Bible says you can't stop being a Christian.

    If the Bible says it's impossible then no matter what your experience is, the Bible 'wins' – it is right and you are wrong.

    I find that very frustrating and invalidating.

    Thanks for sharing, writerdd. And thanks for the Psychology Today article link – very interesting!

  21. Hey krissncleo, I have never really believed in the whole ki thing (I may have at some point, but did no longer when I actually seriously started practicing martial arts some 10-12 years ago).

    My teacher however, does believe in it, and not only that, he also believes in homeopathy (the typical "I've seen it work" crap).

    He's also, on one occasion when I tried to bring up the scientific validity of homeopathy (or the fact the effects have never actually been shown to exist in medical tests) started on the old "well, science can't open up your head and see your thoughts either". The second time he pulled that one out I countered with MRI brain scans, but that conversation luckily changed subject rather quickly afterwards, as I could tell he didn't really like where it was headed.

    For what it's worth, all the talk of energy and "ki" makes sense within the framework of martial arts, so I know how to interpret it without actually having to believe it. And the nice part is that my teacher doesn't actually mention it too often, since it usually doesn't add much information on what exactly it is you're doing wrong anyway.

  22. Thanks, once again for this story. And thanks everyone who has added their own stories in comments.

    I was brought up a liberal Christian, so I really can't relate to any of the bizarreness. (Bible sword drills?!)

    All I can say is: If you're going to leave a religion, that's a pretty good one to pick.

  23. i am so happy i came upon this post. it resonated so clearly with me, and my experiennces within evangelical christianity and leaving it.

    i especially appreciated how you talked about your EXPRIENCES being real, even when you look back and realize your belief systems was flawed.

    in my life, that is something i;ve spent a lit of time sorting through.

    thanks again.

  24. I grew up immersed in the usual vanilla Christianity of the American midwest. No fundamentalism, and I was always somewhat perplexed by fundamentalists even back in my believer days.

    In my case, I do think that to say I was never really a Christian might be a fair interpretation. I hung onto it for a long time, but I don't think there was a time where I really truly believed…unless you count the whole I was a little kid and my parents told me it was true phase, and I don't really think that counts.

  25. Great post!

    What you wrote really rang true with me. I have skeptical friends and atheist friends too that don't believe I ever bought into religion, just like my religious friends.

    And off topic, when is Infidel going to be discussed? I'm sure you posted a date or you have a regular date, but I must have missed it.

  26. Hi ordinarygirl, I have a couple of posts about Infidel drafted and will try to get one out there in the next couple of days. I always post the review or interview at the end of the month (or the beg of the following month when I'm running behind). But I don't really have a schedule for discussing the book. I like to give people a week or two to start reading, and then I usually post a few discussion topics related to the book.

    How's that for a non answer? :-)

  27. Well, in our case they came up with different 'forms' of Sword Drills… a "parry" was the standard Look-Up-Verse-X version. A "thrust" was where the teacher would come up with a topic (would quote a verse or something like that) then the first person to remember where it was found then look it up was the winner. A "riposte" was when the teacher would come up with a counter idea (say 'evolution') and the first person to come up with the 'right' verse to counter it won.

    (Of course before any of this … "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.")

    Going to Bible school instead of college delayed the whole questioning phase for me.

    Alas, my college was a church-run university. There's something a bit disturbing about physics professors who believe the universe is ~6k years old. (All of the light in the universe was created 'in transit' of course, so it hasn't actually been traveling billions of years.)

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