…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. Wouldnâ€™t anyone like to accept Jesus tonight, this holy night of Jesusâ€™ birth? â€œIf you would, get up out of your seat and come down to the altar, and pray with me now.â€
I didnâ€™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 sinnerâ€™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.
Thereâ€™s a reason that many Christians canâ€™t fathom that thereâ€™s really such a thing as an ex-Christian. Thatâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€” from the supernatural to the natural â€” 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.