by Jonathan Burrello (cartoonist and infidel)
This is not meant to be a polemic (an argument) against religion. My intent is not to offend. This is just a summary of my personal metamorphosis.
Part of the Flock:
I never thought I’d be a non-believer.
I was raised in a healthy Christian home. I remember asking Jesus to come into my heart (at least ninety times). I remember a traveling evangelist telling me, “One day God’s gonna use you.” I remember that overwhelming sense of guilt welling up to induce tears at the altar. I spoke in tongues. I prayed multiple times every day and read my Bible every morning. I shared my faith with friends at school. I was baptized at age 9. Later I would go on mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Northern Ireland. I would play my cello every Sunday on the stage with my family. I debated my teachers and friends whenever they brought up evolution, homosexuality, or a host of other buzzword topics.
Amid this tremendous sense of identity, there was also, however, a sickness. Constantly being told how evil and bad and undeserving I was (but that God killed his son 2,000 years ago so I wouldn’t have to go to hell) probably left a more indelible mark on me than I’m ready to admit. When I was a child I made up prayer requests to fit in. In a sanctuary of hundreds I faked being slain in the Holy Spirit to not be the odd man out at church camp. At one point, at a very young age, I feigned seeing visions for approval. The adults were pleased. On one occasion, after a woman had prayed over me and asked if I could feel Jesus coming into my heart I told her I did. Then she asked me what it felt like. I told her it felt like a warm octopus tickling my insides. Despite knowing how manufactured many of these experiences were, I still convinced myself they were all genuine.
At my darkest, I fantasized about killing myself so I could be in heaven with Jesus (I wonder how uncommon that is among young Christians). At my weirdest, I would wake up in the night and anxiously check to make certain my sleeping family members had not been Raptured away without me. I would physically punish myself for having lustful thoughts. There was even a time when I thought demons haunted my apartment.
That desperate need to please the adults when I was young eventually faded away and was replaced with a desperate need to please God; a god who was, by definition, outside the realm of my comprehension and whose demands of perfection I, by design, was incapable of approaching. But I knew that all I had to do was trust, love, and believe in Jesus.*
*At least, love what I was told Jesus was and believed Jesus to be. In my experience, everyone sort of defines their object of worship differently, even if only slightly. Jesus has at least as many faces as he does subscribers. Maybe everyone is really just worshiping themselves, or rather their ideals. I wonder.
After high school I attended two different Christian affiliated colleges. I read the Bible multiple times all the way through and I took classes studying biblical theology from a Christian perspective. After graduation I found a church and was active in Bible studies and community outreach (something I still value). I was even working as a speech coach and adjunct professor at a Christian university. I was happy overall, with my sense of belonging and sense of destiny encouraging me every step of the way. Sure, I found the Bible’s slavery, misogyny, genocides, tribalism, barbarism, capital punishments for seemingly absurd trifles, animal and human sacrifices, and copious military campaigns over “holy” real estate somewhat bizarre and troubling, but these were common stumbling blocks for many Christians who had read the Bible. My job was to simply trust God even when I didn’t understand and I could do that…at least for a time.
A Change of Heart:
So what happened?
One of the more depressing things about losing your faith is the things some Christians say to you. They keep trying to guess my story. They’ve all been off so far, and most, though well-intentioned, come off as condescending and ignorant. Worse, I frequently hear, “You were never a true Christian.” I know the verses they glean this dogma from, but I don’t know how else to break it down for them. I believed it all. It was a crucial part of my identity. I loved my faith and Jesus and my church community. I saw God’s hand in everything. I believed I had communicated with the creator of the universe every night for most of my life. I had desperately wanted to be a Christ-like person. If walking away from one’s faith was proof one had never believed (because “once saved, always saved”) then what was the litmus test to determine if any current believer wasn’t just now kidding themselves deep down?
Anyway, what did happen was what happens to everyone: a compounding of a lifetime of events, information, and experiences. All of it quite humbling. In elementary school I learned there were other religions. In high school I learned that Christianity was far from the first religion. In college I made my first LGBT friends, who forever transformed my previously held negative perceptions. When my college girlfriend’s grandmother was dying she asked if she would be going to hell because she was a Buddhist. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to believe God was at least as understanding as I was, but in light of the words of scripture, I wasn’t sure.
On two campuses (Kansas and California) loaded with pastors, missionaries, theologians, philosophers, apologists, authors, orators, and debaters, I learned that—at least to my understanding and probably against the intent of my mentors—the bulk of Christendom, both contemporary and of antiquity, was quite human, hostile, and forged more by geography, politics, and culture than a unifying omnipresent spirit. I felt disheartened reading the words of C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, and a host of other respected Christian voices, and finding that, while as a Christian I had to agree with their conclusions, their reasoning was unconvincing, incomplete, and deliberately aiming at a presupposed target. Many of these authors were lauded as intellectual giants and I was boggled by the glaring flaws in their logic.
This is not to say that brilliant people cannot have religious convictions. What I mean to say is that the most brilliant people still have yet to present a compelling reason for their religious faith.
Now, it would have been presumptuous and paranoid of me to think I was just a quiet genius who could somehow see through all these phony arguments that were bamboozling a desperate and stupid flock hungry for confirmation bias. I assumed I must have made a mistake and that my earthly pride was trying to separate me from God. The most celebrated theologians could be wrong, but not God. I kept quiet and kept believing.
I said to myself, “I am a believer and I have experienced God all my life and nothing can shake that faith.” After a few years of telling myself that, I gradually admitted to myself that I was not being intellectually honest. I had been actively resistant to new or contrary claims, yet I demanded openness of everyone else. Since that time I have grown to become highly suspicious of stubborn certainty. I felt that if I was to be honest with myself, I had to be open and follow the Truth wherever it led. At the time I believed it would lead to an affirmation of my beliefs so there was nothing for me to fear.
I had been taught to believe that a.) every Muslim, Mormon, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, etc. was all deceived or deluded and they were stubbornly damning themselves by not being open to the Truth by accepting my religion and b.) as an American Protestant Christian I got lucky because I was just born in the right religion. I forget how old I was when this struck me as hypocritical. Too old.
If I could write off all the religious experiences and detailed histories of others as understood sociological effects and legends then I had to turn it on myself. “Was it possible my own religious experiences could be psychologically induced and my own religious texts be merely the stuff of bronze age myth?”
I had never considered that question before and it really was all it took. The house of cards fell over the next few years.
What seemed more likely: a.) another ancient group of people created another god whose face changed with the tides of the ever evolving culture of which it was a part (something you really notice about God in the Bible—and subsequent councils and reformations—is how much he changes over the thousands of years it was written and it always perplexed me) or b.) magic was real sometimes up until ~2,000 years ago and anyone who doubts that is a fool worthy of death (thus saith the Lord). The first proposition seemed to have a lot more explanatory power and appeared much less reliant on suspension of disbelief and vengeful threats.
I read the Bible again—this time with the idea that it was the mythology and politically-influenced historical accounts of a superstitious, tribal people in a pre-scientific age who fashioned a deity in their image, composited with other contemporary gods of the region. I had been trained to regard all other religions as such already. It was utterly shocking by how much more sense the entirety of scripture made to me, as well as the entirety of history. So much of the confusion I had had concerning so many passages were explained so well with this hypothesis—and it was only a level of scrutiny I had already been quick to apply to all other sacred texts previously.
On a solo drive across the country I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Monument Valley. At sunset it was breathtaking. “What difference would there be to this landscape if there were no God?” I thought to myself. I couldn’t think of anything. Even as a Christian I had a basic understanding of how rocks and mountains formed. “How would humanity be any different today if there were no God in control of it?” Even harder. No way to tell. I had heard it said that there would be no morals, but even as a Christian I understood the survivalist and societal advantages of cooperation and reciprocity and had observed both extensively within the animal kingdom. Morality seemed to be a very human construct anyway, as evidenced by the fact that there was no set standard of morality across cultures or millennia. All the morals that had culturally overlapped more frequently were logical, tangibly beneficial, and designed to continue.
I had been taught that God answers prayers in three ways: yes (it happens), no (it’s not God’s will so it doesn’t happen), and wait (it happens later—on God’s timeline). Coincidentally, those are the exact same and only three possible outcomes if you don’t pray. Praying did not increase the chances of any desired result. Was it possible things were just happening at random and everyone was just interpreting events through their pre-adjusted religious lenses? I already believed every non-Christian was operating under this bias.
What all pious folk know is that good and bad happenstances befall believers and non-believers alike with seemingly random dispassion. True, we all will assign different meaning to our misfortunes based on our worldviews, but beyond that could anyone really say that the actions of an incomprehensible and unpredictable god were in any way distinguishable from the expressionless whims of a weather system? I could assign any meaning I wanted to a sunny day or a blizzard. Did that make it valid?
Many ancient gods, including the Abrahamic god, were endowed with authority over the weather. It seemed that in our yearning to find meaning and fairness in a pitiless universe we could not understand, many ancient societies personified the elements as gods—in many cases man-like and displaying their culture’s prized attributes—and devised ceremonies and sacrificial rites to try and appease and somehow control nature or supplicate themselves to it. I had already believed this of every other religion and culture. What reason did I have to make an exception for the religion I happened to be brought up in and indoctrinated in before I was old enough to understand it?
Belief is not some arbitrary choice. If it were, its morality and rewards system would be even more nonsensical. Even for the most devout, they were either indoctrinated in when they were young or they simply found it convincing at a later time. Do any of us truly have the capacity to choose what we believe? Can we flip a switch in our brain and believe that elephants are vegetables? What if there were a threat of bodily harm or death attached to the vegetable-elephant claim? Would that make it more reasonable or even possible to start believing it to be true…or would it cast further doubt on the claimant?
All these questions wrecked me from the inside. I was deathly afraid of not believing. For a few years, to quell my doubts and anxieties, I privately sought counsel from pastors, theology professors, apologist texts, online resources, the Bible, and, yes, genuinely and tearfully praying to God for many nights. I asked God for faith, guidance, forgiveness, answers, mercy, understanding, hope, anything he could spare for a sinner like me. The human help was depressingly bad and incongruous and God remained as silent as ever. No dew for my fleece. Who would I be without belief in God and my presumed relationship with his son? How would this effect my relationship with my family?
When I was younger, my father had once told me that the only way I could make him sad or disappoint him was if I turned away from God. That thought echoing in my mind made me hold on tighter than I otherwise might have.
I had never seriously considered the atheist perspective or read any atheist literature. I thought if the bad arguments for Christianity were enough to make me doubt, maybe the worse arguments of atheism would bring me back. It was not the case. I found myself nodding to the beats of their logic too much for my own comfort. The infidels had some good points.
I had no experience with de-converted people. The idea was alien to me. It was only after watching a few videos of former Christians’ de-conversion stories, that I was able to admit to myself that I no longer believed and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I think I cried. It was helpful to know I was not alone. But, boy did I feel alone.
I had lost my comforter, but I had to come to grips with the fact that the truth is not contingent upon our preferences.
The next few months or so were absolute hell. The paradigm shift proved to be a traumatic transition. I had never been more depressed in my life. I remember the first morning waking up and realizing that I was truly and utterly alone. There was no cosmic father figure watching over me. There never had been. I had imagined it and it had been reinforced daily by a steady regimen of spiritual aphorisms stitched into throw pillows and influential figures closing their eyes as they lifted their hands to the ceiling. I gazed upon everything with despair and contempt. I was tormented with feverish nightmares. I was in spiritual withdrawal. What was worse, I couldn’t tell anybody.
I kept it a secret from my family for over a year before I finally told my parents. I wish I had waited longer. I wish I could take back all the emails I sent to my dad. I wish I could have just said, “Dad, I don’t want to disappoint you and I know we will always love each other, but I just don’t know that I believe this stuff anymore.” I should have ended it there. He didn’t want to hear my thought process and incendiary remarks about the thing that was so real and integral to who he was. And I was in no place to effectively communicate what I was going through.
I can only imagine what I put him through; what I’m probably still putting my whole family through—knowing I am ‘in rebellion’ against God, soaking in my unwashed sin and doomed to a sad life of nihilism, ignorance, and eventual death. I know some probably shrug it off as “a phase” and feel that I’ll “come to my senses” eventually. They always remind me that they’re praying for me. It may be condescending, but I believe it is a necessary comfort for people who hold the beliefs they do. In any case, I’d rather them say words in the dark for me than burn me at the stake.
I have been very fortunate actually. My family still loves me and we talk. They may not support my opinions on the supernatural, but they don’t have to. I know many who have not been so lucky under similar circumstances. Whatever you think about Christianity, just know that Christians themselves are diverse, just like any other group of people. As diverse as atheists. And I think most of us can agree on the basics of human decency.
Religion will always be a touchy topic, but the good news is most of it doesn’t matter. If personal mental conclusions are more important than actions and consequences then you may have a misplaced set of priorities. I honestly don’t care what you believe. How do you treat people? The Old Testament says I should be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death by my parents and the New Testament says I am a wicked, foolish, corrupt dog rightfully destined to be thrown into a lake of fire to experience physical and spiritual agony for eternity because I lack a belief in a non-falsifiable being who has blinded me to the truth (to paraphrase a friend, “God can do anything…except save you if you’re not sure he exists”). I don’t care if you believe that. How do you treat me now? That’s all that truly matters. Jesus apparently believed every word of the Old Testament and he still treated people better than it told him to. Folks may think I’m evil for not sharing their beliefs, but I do not have to extend them that same discourtesy.
He may not have been the first one to say it, but if Jesus got one thing right it was the Golden Rule.
Proverbs 3:5. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
Mindless capitulation can have dire consequences. I believe empathy is a far more meaningful basis for how we ought to treat one another. Certainly, I feel it is a more practical and consistent tool than ancient texts that have been used to justify every evil under the sun. With every word open to multiple interpretation, our own understanding is all any of us really has. And there’s something refreshing about not having to rationalize or defend the more horrific passages of the Bible or the obtuseness of many church doctrines.
For those who were never a part of this world, it may seem easy to be dismissive of the mental struggles of others and faith in general. My thinking may seem obvious, but it really was a very taxing journey to reach the conclusions I did. Those with sincere faith do not shed it lightly, nor do they seek to.
The weirdest thing is that losing my faith and old notions of a soul, afterlife, spirits, and gods has had very little impact on my personality. I’m still pretty much the same guy. Maybe a little more curious and skeptical and more forgiving of myself, but essentially the same. And the world didn’t explode either. Many times when people give accounts of their conversion or de-conversion to or from any religion they say how much better everything is now that they’ve found the “truth” and their eyes are open. I’d rather not make that claim. Emotions are fleeting. Some days I have a far more positive outlook than others. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I’m still the same silly, little man…who probably thinks too much. And I like me.
People might feel that my experience was not experiential enough, but I feel that that is part of why it is so personally compelling for me. Experiences are fickle, unverifiable, and have resulted in conversions to every mutually exclusive religion, ideology, or movement under the sun. The voices in people’s head have said everything from, “Give a dollar to the homeless man” to “Drown your children.” I think because this was a very slow, thoughtful, and honest endeavor it was maybe more meaningful. Personally, I would rather have a deliberate intellectual process that I can admit to possibly being in error over a personal experience I rigidly believe to be unimpeachable.
The smoke is still settling and I suppose I’m what you’d call an agnostic-atheist, but I hardly hope that is the most interesting thing about me. I’ve never been defined by my lack of a belief in elves.
I still wrestle with myself about what to say or not say to my family. Their religion is still a very integral part of their identity. It gives them what they need, it makes their world make sense, and I for one would not wish them to lose the thing that brings so much to their world. If it is a delusion, hopefully it remains a harmless or maybe helpful one. While it has the potential for harm (as all human institutions do), I still do not subscribe to the mindset that “religion poisons everything.”
My family and I may never be on the same page again (and this has been the biggest and saddest loss to me), but we are separate creatures on our own paths. I have to respect that. All I know is that I am an ever evolving organism who is capable of change and no longer afraid of where my questions take me or if I never get the answers I’m looking for.
I have a lot of regrets about the way I treated people and the way I thought about people when I was a Christian. I cringe to think of it, but perhaps it was a necessary stage in my development as a person.
Could I be wrong about religion and God and the rest of it? Sure. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but as far as I can tell it is not wicked rebellion or a desire to sin that has led me to the conclusions to which I have arrived. Either a.) I have simply not found sufficient reason to follow the crowd and found serious reason to question the motivations and psychological amenability of both crowds and myself as an individual or b.) I have been legitimately deceived by some supernatural force into believing proposition a. In either case, a god that would eternally punish me or anyone else for an honest, thoughtful mistake is not really worth worshiping, in my opinion. If I killed your father for not knowing what the color “blue” was, would you still think I was a great guy? I would respect you more if you managed to retain your integrity and not kowtow to me for my baffling crimes. If there truly is a god or gods out there in some unprovable realm, then I hope they are a good deal better than the ones humanity has devised thus far.
It’s not a happy ending where everything suddenly clicks and just works out. And most religious people will tell you the same thing for their personal conversions too. We may change throughout our lives, but life itself continues to go on. Sometimes merrily, sometimes with great suffering. Whether our joys and pains have any ultimate cosmic purpose is perhaps only for the individual to guess. The answers to all of life’s puzzles may continue to elude our species until the sun flickers out, but there’s something sort of exciting about knowing we’re all on the same mysterious journey together, spinning on a colossal, wet marble suspended in an impossible void that dwarfs even our egos. I find it spooky yet comforting to believe that even the wisest among us is still just making it up as he goes.
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