Leaving the Fold, Exercise 5.1

I started reading Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion by Dr. Marlene Winell.  I had seen it referenced by several others, but recently I’ve been stressing about some of the feelings I’ve been having as a result of moving on from christianity.  Being one to look for answers, I came across this book again, so I decided to give it a go.

Throughout the book are exercises that the reader can complete in order to clarify his/her thinking on a number of issues that are discussed in the book.  Following is my response to Exercise 5.1.

Take some time to review your own reasons for deciding to leave your religion…

Reason 1: Early on it was cognitive dissonance.  When I left home to join the Army, I realized that many the things my church preached against were not all that bad.  I had my first drink of alcohol and the world didn’t fall apart around me.  I had relationships with women, some sexual, most not, and the world didn’t fall apart around me.  There are other things that continued to give me cognitive dissonance throughout my adult life.  Whenever the church said something and the facts didn’t match up with what they were saying, I kept the faith, but eventually these distinct items piled up so high that I left my original church in a rather heated way.  In the book, Winell related the story of a man who was asking questions of his pastor, and the pastor had no logical response.  The pastor finally told him to face the fact that his asking these sorts of questions were nothing more than sin, effectively cutting him off from further questioning.  This is very similar to how I left my original church.  I started asking questions about the specifics of the oneness pentecostal doctrine that set it apart from the rest of christianity.  I sent a letter to the pastor asking him to clarify or justify some of these specifics according to the bible.  After a series of email exchanges, he finally said the following at the close of his last email:

I will say again: you are making a huge carnal-minded human-will motivated mistake. No Child of God, truly submitted to the will of God, would have taken the steps away from Truth that you have taken. You’ve made decisions that, in time, your family will regret; they could even lose confidence in and respect for you.

Again, cognitive dissonance: My family seems to have more respect and confidence in me than ever before.

Reason 2: Facts and information.  After leaving that church I started trying to find the right version of christianity; you know, the one that is completely in line with the bible, as close to the original church as is modernly possible, and has a direct connection to the original church.  What I discovered was that there are way too many versions of christianity, and all of them differ in meaningful ways, and most of them reject the others because they aren’t teaching the truth.  As this search continued, I found books about the problems with the transmission and writing of the bible, the historicity of the biblical accounts, and the archaeological finds that disprove biblical accounts. These books lead to other books about the problems with christianity itself.  I realized that christianity doesn’t hold up when examined point by point.  After learning all this new information there was no way I could continue to call myself a christian or believe in any of its tenets.  I think it is important to point out that I wouldn’t have gone down this road if it weren’t for my incessant need to be “right”.  All I wanted to do was find the truth.  My main goal was to find the right church so I could be right in god’s eyes.  Now from the other side of this experience, I see the real irony in it all; I was trying to find god, and in the process I lost him.  It’s not that I really believe that I lost him.  The truth is, I don’t see any evidence for the existence of a supernatural being of any type, and especially not the one portrayed in the christian bible.

Reason 3: Christian love.  The more I think about it, the more I realize how truly unhappy I was with the relationships I had with fellow christians.  They were all very flat; they were surface-level relationships with no real substance.  After church, shaking hands with people I remember all the hugs and “I love you, brother”s, but when it came down to it, none of them were really interested in me as a person or my thoughts or feelings.  All they cared about was what I could do for the church.  After leaving both churches, only a small handful of people even checked in on me in a meaningful way.  And the causes they supported weren’t really doing anything good in the world: “Let’s send missionaries to Africa to starving, homeless people, not so we can feed and clothe them, but to convert them to our religion, because their eternal soul is more important than their physical suffering…” Total BS!

There are other things I could write about that caused me to leave, but I think these were the big three.  The cognitive dissonance lead me to try to learn as much as I could, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  And all of this was underpinned by a need for deeper, more meaningful relationships with other people, not the flat relationships I had in the church.  It’s a lot easier to see these things looking back.  At the time, I was mostly feeling a great mental and psychological stress and even went into a serious depression for a while.  To this day I still deal with the lingering effects of that depression.  Hopefully reading this book will help me work though these issues and get me on track to get on with life.

That is all.

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Coming Out of the (Non-belief) Closet to My Younger Sister

When I got home this evening my wife was on the phone with my little sister.  I haven’t talked with her in a few weeks, so I grabbed the phone and we spoke about life and kids and all kinds of typical long-distance sibling stuff.  Somewhere along in the conversation, she asked me about how church was going…

I said that I didn’t know.  She reacted in a questioning manner.  I figured that now is the time, if ever it was.

So I told her that I haven’t been to church in several months.  Then I proceeded to explain why.  I explained that the last six or seven years of my life, since leaving oneness pentecostalism have been a search for “the ultimate truth” of god and which version of christianity is right.  I gave her the whole spiel about 40,000 plus versions of christianity using the same source text, but disagreeing over what true christianity is, so there must be some flaws in the source text.

She asked if I had prayed about all of this, and I told her I had done more than my share of praying.  I also told her that I had read the stories of others who had gone through the same things that I had gone through and prayed, and when they got to that point, that’s when they realized god didn’t answer their prayers.  I went through the whole spiel about 90% of prayers aren’t answered, but christians chalk it up to “god working in mysterious ways”.  She said that he also says “no”.  So I asked her how she knows that he actually says “no”.  An answer from silence isn’t an answer at all…

At some point in the conversation, I actually used the phrase, “when I was a christian…” referring to something about praying.  At that point, I knew for sure that it was all or none.  I basically told her that I didn’t believe any of the christian myth anymore.  I said something to the effect of “40,000 versions of christianity disagree over what true christianity is, even while using the same source text, so there must be something wrong with the source text.  And god doesn’t actually answer prayers, except when it’s coincidental, so either there isn’t a god or he doesn’t really care about us.”

I then said something to the effect of “I know you don’t fully understand this or support this or agree with this decision, but it’s the conclusion I’ve come to.”

What happened next really surprised me.  She actually said that still loved me and didn’t want anything to come between us as brother and sister.  I returned the sentiment.

I am very surprised in one way that she didn’t blow up or go overboard, but in another way I’m not.  Her Facebook persona is a lot more ultra-right wing religious fanatic than she is in real life.  Or maybe she is a lot like me and wants to avoid a confrontation at all costs.  Or maybe (and this is the one I like) she really meant it.

Hopefully it stays this way and she won’t hound me or become negative like so many of the stories I’ve heard from others who have become openly secular with their families.  Obviously this recounting of events is a paraphrase and I’ve left a lot out, but overall, I am more than pleased with how it turned out, considering the horror stories I’ve heard from others about the same situation.  I’ll keep you updated when new things happen in this story.

Everyone’s “Right”, but Everyone’s “Wrong”…

I remember wondering at several points in my life why it was that I was born into the right religion, or version of christianity, and not into the wrong one, or the version of christianity that had their theology wrong.  When I was in elementary school, I remember a girl on the playground making a comment about how she had been saved that Sunday at church.  I remember thinking something to the effect of, “You couldn’t have been saved.  You don’t go to my church.”  This thought reemerged many times over the years in many different situations.

One particular situation that always made me have this thought was when I would watch television preachers.  They always seemed a bit odd in their theology to me, and I could never quite specify why that was.  Well, except for the obvious examples like Benny Hinn.

This week my family was on vacation, and while staying at the hotel we were at the mercy of cable TV with no menu to look through and choose what to watch.  So while I was sitting there one evening flipping up to the next channel and watching for a moment to decide if that’s the program I wanted to stay on, I came across a TV preacher and for some reason I let it stay there and watched for a few minutes.

This TV preacher, pastor Bob, or Bill, or something like that was talking about prayer.  He mentioned that he had prayed for some lady in the hospital and now she was able to sit up in bed for a minute at a time.  I wondered why she wasn’t completely healed, if prayer had any power.  But that’s another issue altogether.  He also asked for the viewers to call in and make a donation, to “sow the seed into this ministry” so that they could stay on the air.  I wondered why, if they were in the will of god, didn’t he “just make a way.”  But that’s another issue as well.

While watching, these thoughts of why I was born into the right version of christianity popped up in my mind.  Except this time, it was from the outsider’s perspective.  It was a completely different version of this thought.

I realized that everyone who is a christian must have a version of this thought at some time in their lives.  After all, why would you stick with a particular belief if you didn’t think it was correct belief?  So essentially, everyone who believes has to discredit in their own mind any number of others’ beliefs.

It reminds me of the statistic that there are over 40,000 different versions of christianity.  Many of these versions are mutually exclusive, meaning that if you adhere to, for instance, baptist theology you cannot accept the adherents of catholicism as true christians.  The one I know personally is that if you adhere to oneness pentecostalism, you have to think all christians from other sects are going to hell.  Essentially, every christian thinks they are right while at the same time thinking there are myriad other christians who are wrong.  I was not the only one thinking this.  I would venture that if you got an honest answer from 99% of christians they would tell you this is true, although there are some that are more accepting of other sects, but most are a little more tight on the reigns.  So while I was watching this TV preacher thinking he had his beliefs wrong, if he really knew me (when I was a believer) he would think the same thing about me.

The big picture shows a more telling story than the individual picture.  Get out of yourself for a moment and imagine the 2.4 billion people who claim to be christians.  Every single one of them think that they are absolutely right and a large percentage of the rest are absolutely wrong.  Yet they base these views on the exact same texts (with a few exceptions).

Now imagine this scenario from god’s point of view.  Which ones are right?  Which ones are you going to let into heaven?  They all claim to be following your will.  But at the same time they think most of the rest of them are not.  And why didn’t you, as the “omnipotent”, “omniscient” creator of not only them, but of the very texts that lead them to you, be a little more specific as to how to get to you; how to be the right kind of christian?  But alas, I don’t think we are ever going to be able to answer these questions from within the context of christianity.

From the outside, where I sit now, it all makes perfect sense.  That TV preacher’s message seems a bit off for the same reason that my own previous theology seemed a bit off: they are both based on beliefs that have no grounding in fact, common sense, or reason: thus, the cognitive dissonance that I have felt all of my life when relating to others who had a different perception of what the christian faith entailed.

I once had a boss who like to say that “perception is reality to the perceiver.”  In customer service that is true.  But in the christian faith it is only true on an individual level.  When you look at the big picture you see that perception is a set of blinders that keeps believers from seeing their faith for what it really is: individual opinion of what is right and wrong, subjective reality that keeps the christian faith segregated into mutually exclusive denominations.  Now that I see the big picture, I am glad I am out of it.  This side of reason makes so much more sense.  Not only that, this side of reason lacks the cognitive dissonance that I had to deal with for most of my life.  This side of reason is much nicer on the brain!