Why I Left Christianity

Leaving Christianity Website

This includes some notes into my thoughts and reading for reference and further research. To make finding this information easy, most of the notes lead to quality websites whilst some of the books referenced link to free on-line versions.

My background was very liberal. I was first attracted to Christianity when I was only about six by hearing the story of the crucifixion at school. I remember feeling that what happened to Jesus was unfair as (so I thought) he just wanted people to be good and to love each other. So he had my support. This was basically my attitude until my late teens. Very simplistic, and not so far particularly damaging! What I believed in from the start and what attracted me to Christianity was a message of love. It was the desire for this that was primal and would become the driving force that took me out later.

Although I believed in it, for the first years religion was just one of my aspects. Until my late teens it was not particularly what my life was always centred around. At about 15 I thought that I needed to find some more seriousness to life, which I didn’t perceive (rightly or wrongly) in the people around me. I decided I should go to church. None of my family went, although my parents are nominally Christians, it was never a big deal for them. So I told them I wanted to go to church. My Dad used to go when he was younger, so he took me for a while so he could “explain the ropes.” We went to a moderately high Anglican church, and the layout of the service was very strange until I got used to it. I loved going. I found the gentle atmosphere and sense of mystery, and the focus on a message of love just what I wanted. I was also very attracted to church music (the “classical” type) and joined the church choir. This got me more involved, but mostly in the music and fellowship rather than any strong religion. I did take it seriously though, it just wasn’t at all evangelical or fundamentalist etc. I decided to get confirmed, and also took an active part in various discussion groups. There wasn’t at this stage in my religious experience anything unpleasant that I had noticed. I was always unhappy with anything at all fundamentalist in religion and thought that “charismatics” as we called them were a bit disturbing and probably crazy. It didn’t seem to have much to do with religion as I knew it.

Next I went to university to study for a physics degree. I joined the university Anglican society that was again very liberal. They were the sort who were mostly interested in spirituality and fellowship. The “kingdom of God” was an inner process and not a revolutionary state on earth! Their favourite theologian was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were certainly not evangelical. I also had (and still have) many liberal and very good friends who were Methodists and Catholics, as well as those whose religious status I do not know. As I said, a desire for the message of love and not dogma was the driving force at the time. Up to that stage I would be hard pressed to say that my religion was particularly unhealthy. Instead it was thoughtful and became more so. It was of course a deeper thinking about Christianity and the search for deeper spirituality (however one may think of “spirituality”) that would later lead me out of religion.

I had always liked philosophy, but I wasn’t widely read. Up to then it had been chiefly Plato and Aristotle, and I was only just discovering Popper. I had no problem with evolution or the discoveries of cosmology or the rest of science, I felt that a literal interpretation of the bible was trivialising what God must be. What exactly God was or meant remained a mystery, but I liked the mysteries. Meanwhile, at university I had the first decent exposure to arguments from atheists. At first I think I made more of an impression on them than they on me, because they weren’t really attacking Christianity as I knew it and I was the thoughtful type. I’m glad to say I didn’t convert anyone. It was not my intention to anyway.

I got to know some more informed freethinkers. (Now I loath the term “non-Christian” with its negative connotations. It is like calling a woman a “non-man” as if it is a defect!). I was perturbed that I could not give an adequate coherent account of even the basics of Christianity. Why was the atonement necessary, and how does it work? [1] It seemed very weak when analysed by an outsider and was disturbing to find how easily I could be made to flounder. I was also perturbed to discover something of the history of Christianity, such that an interpretation as a human phenomena should sound so convincing and plausible when confronted with the evidence. However, since I was not well read enough at the time, I was cautious. I didn’t want to lose my faith because I read or heard something convincingly deconverting when a Christian source could have explained in a Christian way for me if I had only searched better. So I resolved to read Bertrand Russell et al, but not yet. I needed Christian ammo. (Note I didn’t give the opposite scenario a thought, that I might be hoodwinked into Christianity!)

I was also becoming more worried by the cruel things in the bible. Especially the unpleasant things said by Jesus [2]. I could only assume that they didn’t mean what they sounded like, but it was disturbing that they were there at all. Also, I almost deconverted whilst at university due to what seemed a more coherent explanation of Christianity as a human phenomenon. I was kept back though by the feeling that as Thomas Merton said “by denying God we are denying ourselves.” If I wasn’t a Christian I would be missing something important in life, therefore there had to be something in it. I finished my degree and got a job.

I read veraciously. I got through Bonhoeffer, all of C.S. Lewis, G.K Chesterton, “the cloud of unknowing,” Thomas à Kempis and other classics, as many of the archbishop of Canterbury’s lent books as I could find, as well as swallowing a concordance and assorted Christian books whose names now escape me. I also joined an evangelical church! Although not really my scene, I actually found it quite exciting when I tried it out. I was struck by how strongly the people there really believed in their religion. I had not encountered that strength of belief before. The people I got to know best (my “home group”) were very pleasant and relaxed, and seemed pretty liberal. As Christianity became more central, I noticed a feeling in me that I didn’t like. When I was a younger teenager and religion was just one of the things I was interested in, it did not particularly impinge on how I felt about other people. Most of the time I wasn’t thinking about religion at all. In contrast, by my late teens and early twenties Christianity became central and it made a difference to how I perceived someone if they weren’t a Christian. I felt I had a special relationship with God through accepting Christ. This was a barrier to people that I became more aware of, but didn’t appreciate the full significance of until I deconverted.

Although avoiding explicitly anti-Christian books, I noticed things in novels and everyday conversations that caused me to think. I remember putting some books down after every paragraph and trying to figure out how I could reconcile that to Christian belief. I read many books of apologetics in an attempt to understand.

Some of my freethinking friends were so pleasant, kind and moral and yet completely against Christianity that the condemnation of nonbelievers in the bible and at church really upset me. One night I even dreamt that I was told to “pray for a better God!” (How’s that for a paradox?!)

Eventually I bit the bullet. I felt that I had to be allowed (by God) to examine the other side of the argument. I trusted him to help me come to a deeper faith if he was there. If he wasn’t there then maybe I would find that out. I put myself in his hands to stop me being misled. I also kept a journal all through this period which makes a fascinating (for me) insight into my deconversion. I read books on the psychology of religion and the history of Christianity from as neutral as possible sources. Meanwhile I had an (almost) “deconversion experience.”

One of my main anchors in Christianity was the feeling that without it we are missing something important. I was at a rehearsal of the Brahms German Requiem. Though not an atheistic work, the genius and humanity at the great achievement of Brahms came through to me and coupled with this was the disaster of death and the cessation of being. It struck me suddenly that to be such a deeply conscious aware human being in life and then to “not exist” is a far more powerful thing than an afterlife or anything God could do. The heroism and tragedy of human life which is so marvellous and yet is capable of ending had a very big impact on me. It was partly the feeling that the universe had created something greater than itself – conscious, aware, striving man who is doomed after a short spell of the miracle of awareness to complete oblivion. The power and impact of such a thought (this is the important bit of the experience that really got me thinking) was completely lost if God existed, or was even thought to exist, which really struck me as remarkable. This was really very shocking and disturbed me very much. It seemed to me that death is one of the most natural things for living beings and it is something which is denied us by many religions. It places a special dignity on human conscious life – aware and striving – and so vulnerable!

I had thought that we only become fully human by believing in God, and now one of the deepest human experiences was only possible for me if I didn’t believe in God, or at least didn’t believe in the afterlife. How could this be?

I read Karen Armstrong’s “Tongues of fire” and was shocked. I found here people of all creeds and none having all the deep numinous, spiritual and loving experiences that I thought were the province of Christianity. I also saw in the commentary a psychologically convincing description of the early Christians (especially St. Paul). I had by this time read much psychology and history. It was starting to piece together. Next, I read Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian.” When I came to the passage where Russell says that Christ had a serious moral defect, he believed in hell – my stomach churned. I felt that too but had never dared even mentally expressing it. How was I to love a God who divides sheep from goats and condemns those I love and understand?

It seems to me now that the idea of hell [2] is so disgusting that it makes a mockery even of the most terrible horrors of WW2. For people to believe in it or even seriously entertain the idea makes me wonder if we have learnt anything about human compassion, cruelty and our real needs. It really seems to me that the idea is so vindictive and abhorrent that it is a very serious moral defect for anyone to believe in it with any kind of understanding of what it means. The fact that the church throughout the ages and that Jesus and St. Paul even entertained the idea, really makes it hard for me to believe them to be anything more than men caught up in the religious ideas of their time. I honestly cannot believe that anyone, not even God, has the right to send people to hell or even allow people to believe in it with such conviction. I do not think I will ever believe that the butchering guards at Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Auschwitz and the like were actually perfect and that what they did to Jews, gypsies and homosexuals is justice which I will someday have revealed to me as right. Neither do I think that I will ever believe that a God who lets this happen (and natural disasters) is perfect and I will realise when I meet him that “all will be well” and it is right that people go to hell. How more offensive and ignorant can a religion be?! Far too many people believe in hell. It is a dreadful and dark thing that makes people believe in holy damnation. The fact that Jesus, as depicted in the gospels, believed in hell is to me such a serious religious problem that it was one of the things that finally broke up my Christianity. What was going on in this book! As a liberally natured Christian I had never really believed in the existence of hell, or at least I shied away from hell thoughts, as it did not fit with my idea of a loving God. Rather I thought all this hell talk must mean something else. But the problem was that there was so much of it in the NT and the fact that God seemed to allow the doctrine to be so popular within the church did bother me very much, as did the fact that if Jesus & St. Paul etc. really didn’t believe in literal hell then the fact that they didn’t make it abundantly transparent that they meant something else was just utterly culpable irresponsibility to me, so abhorrent is the merest sniff of that doctrine and so dreadful the consequences of Christians believing it down the ages. [2]

This was the last straw. I had already found so much in philosophy, [3] psychology [4], history [5], biblical criticism and comparative religion that raised such serious questions for religious beliefs that eventually the bubble had to burst. Like suddenly seeing the solution to a mathematical problem that has so far been intractable and is now totally clear, I realised that Christianity and my feelings were all the results of messy human history, sociology and our psychological tangle with all its desire, hopes and fears. I didn’t choose to suddenly believe this. It was just inescapable. I had allowed myself to ask if Christianity made more sense, and was at least equally rich if it was not of God, and overwhelmingly this was what I found. Neither did Christianity seem truly good. I summed it up at the time by saying that religion is “human and natural, not divine and supernatural.”

At first I was upset, but then I became amazed at the fact that this gigantic edifice of Christianity, with all the enormous cathedrals, music, books, missionaries, martyrs, people giving lives to prayer, (crusades, inquisitions), etc. were based on a misunderstanding of the world!! The enormity of this was incredible to me. I felt that I must let everybody know, especially as I was in a position to talk about it since I had known what it was like from the inside. I decided to do some research and read in every spare moment due to this incredible interest in what was going on! [6] I read more Bertrand Russell, William James “Varieties of religious experience” (fascinating!), Tolstoy’s “Confessions”, more history and Psychology, existentialism [7], Hume, Nietzsche, Jung, Don Cupitt, even theology, working my way through the city library, and buying heaps of books. Later I discovered Thomas Paine, T.H. Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane and Robert Ingersol.

Due to my total change of world view I also had some very weird experiences that were not like anything I had expected. I was struck enormously by what I called “existential shock.” I was completely amazed at the mere fact of existence. Not in a “wow that’s impressive” manner but in a feeling that I only had religious words for. It was being struck by the amazing “sacrament” of life – or the utter shock and opportunity of existence over its alternative. It was totally numinous and an almost disturbing feeling that existence is the case. I felt transformed, awed, excited – the whole world seemed more special than can ever be said. Life was far more poignant without Christianity than it had ever been with it. I was not expecting this to happen to me. I thought these experiences were what converted people to religion, not what you got when you left! I soon found two books by Marghanita Laski describing such experiences felt by others, again from all creeds and none. I have since found friends who have similar perceptions. They are not unlike some of the poems by Thomas Traherne (e.g. “Wonder”) or the experiences described by Huxley in the “Doors of perception”. These experiences happen to the religious, the nonreligious and the drugged! [8] All these experiences were human, and all the more amazing for it.

All the problems and clutter associated with religion disappeared of course, though I won’t pretend it was easy explaining my new position to my Christian friends. (Some still don’t know). Just as others have reported in ex-tian stories, when I told my Christian friends they were only interested in finding out where I had gone wrong. The chance that I had honestly discovered something was not admitted as a possibility. Apparently I caused a stir and comments like “Jesus predicted that some would fall by the wayside”. How’s that for love and understanding from people you thought you where sharing deep things with before? I even had one of them trying to justify hell to me about six years after my deconversion. What can you say to that? [2] I have found now a far wider understanding of the world as I no longer rationalise all my thoughts in notebooks into a “Christian” interpretation of the world around me without having the grace or charity to find out what the facts were and to think unhindered about what is going on. That is also why I prefer to call myself a “freethinker”, as that is how I feel I am. An “atheist” has negative connotations and it seems absurd to define oneself by relation to something that doesn’t exist.

The greatest benefit I discovered was the disappearance of a spiritual barrier for me between people. When I had strong religion, my feeling was that if someone did not know God, then they where “not yet fully human” (though I did the best to not think this, it was there). A “non-Christian” was “spiritually misguided” and it was impossible to properly relate to or feel for such a person. I was in a “spiritually superior state”. Now I see Christians just as people but with a mistaken belief, just like I may disagree with someone’s politics, in that it doesn’t mean I am in a different relationship to God (or Jesus) than them! There is a big difference between disagreeing with someone and thinking your relationship with a deity is different. I now see us all as vulnerable human beings full of hopes and fears and psychological tangle. The relief from religious problems and the fresh perception of a world I had hardly seen before, and the real ability to accept people deep down has made me very happy. For me there came a feeling of all people and nature being in the same boat together, a feeling deep down of “brotherliness” and most of all a sense of complete understanding and acceptance of life. From all this came great compassion for our messy human situation and remarkable connection with a world that I finally felt I understood. None of this is what I had expected to find and I was completely shocked to find so much spiritual love outside of religion. (Karen Armstrong points out that nontheistic Buddhists describe belief in God as “unskilful,” as it can actually harm the spiritual life of a person).

Does someone want to convert me back? What can I say! Who should respond to anything as deep as “God” through fear of what God might do to them, or not give them if they don’t believe it? Christianity, taken completely seriously, is a travesty of what we can be. What is most primordial for a Christian? Is it love and truth, or is it Christianity? If a Christian researched enough to find a conflict between love and truth versus the beliefs of Christianity which way should that person go?

I had been taught that you can only love God if you love your neighbour. It is ironic that I found I could only love my neighbour if I didn’t love God.

Steve Locks

Notes

A reasonable addendum to my deconversion story is related in my feedback to Richard T.

Some of my personal thoughts on central Christian issues.

  1. Enormous problems with the doctrine of the atonement are discussed in the following:

 

  1. Thoughts on hell. This is part of Gentle Godlessness – “A Compassionate Introduction to Atheism” by Paul O’Brian.
    The injustice of Hell by Emery Lee.
    I have included some other cruel things said by Jesus that alarmed me in this section.
    For clarification of my thoughts on hell whilst a Christian see this email exchange and this one, especially here.
    To find out what I thought of “an old Christian acquaintance trying to justify hell to me about six years after my deconversion” see The shallowness of the deepest thing.
    Meanwhile, even heaven has its problems..
  2. Very good philosophy links are:-
    Epistime Links
    The philosophers magazine online
    Internet encyclopedia of philosophy
    The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy
  3. An introduction to The psychology of religion. There is another promising looking site here.
  4. Discussion of the historical examination of Christianity is available at many places on the Web. The search for the historical Jesus is a very good starting point. The main resources I have found have been put here at the end of this ongoing discussion about the resurrection.
  5. For information about some of the books mentioned see here.
  6. The Realm of Existentialism
  7. Transcript of an account of a religious trip during a LSD experience.
    Thomas Traherne’s poem “Wonder”.
    Marghanita Laski’s writings on ecstatic experiences.
    My commentary on Why God won’t go away.

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