On the Anniversary of Losing My Religion

I was born into a Pentecostal family. My dad was the pastor.

All versions of my story start the same way, with that line.

For decades, I was stepping further and further away from the faith I was taught as a kid. But the emotional core of my faith was still fundamentalist, and I still thought of myself as an Evangelical. And I still believed in fundamentalism (kind of like Daniel Dennett’s “belief in belief”). By the end of 2013, there were two of me living inside my mind. There was the fundamentalist, who believed in some version of Evangelical theology. And then there was the rationalist, who would admit that it’s all just a story, a religious narrative, but—I believed at the time—a useful narrative. I thought of myself as an agnostic Christian, because I didn’t think you could prove whether God existed—all the “evidence” people cite are just stories—but I believed in him anyway, just because.

And at the same time, I didn’t feel I could talk openly about these thoughts. The few times I had cautiously put out feelers in front of religious friends, or even worse, religious leaders, I had been been soundly thrashed with them.

When my daughters were studying for their bnot mitzvah, one of them admitted to me that she didn’t know whether she believed in God. I urged her just to go through with the bat mitzvah, and then she could figure out what she wanted to do after that. Now, I wonder, what if I had just told her the truth, that I didn’t think I believed in God, either, but I was scared to lose the support I got from my religious community.

On another occasion, at a small-group study with a religious leader, we were talking about demon possession in the New Testament and how it sometimes could be describing what we now know to be physiological disorders, like epilepsy. I pointed out that we tell a narrative about demon possession, but an atheist, for example, might tell a narrative that is completely naturalistic, and either narrative can potentially explain the facts of the story, and the narrative we tell affects us more than what actually happened. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember his tone of voice, and knew from then on it was probably dangerous to say anything nice about atheists ever again. I did not have the heart to tell him that I was very comfortable with the atheist’s naturalistic narrative and thought it explained the facts of the story (assuming it’s a true story) perfectly well.

And then there were Evangelical views on sexuality. I was raised to be scared of sex, and ashamed of my sexuality. Growing up, my parents never acknowledged that sex was even a thing, except to guard my tender mind from learning about it. And the few times that sex was alluded to in church or sunday school, it was always something holy, sacred, restricted, and scary. These attitudes are still mainstream within Evangelicalism, and they extend to Christian views about gay relationships.

In April 2012, I wrote in a blog post: “That doesn’t put God’s seal of approval on modern homosexual relationships. It only means we can’t indiscriminately pull out proof-texts, mete out condemnation, and expect to get anywhere constructive. On the other hand, we are all struggling…” That captures where I was as a believer. I didn’t actually believe that there was anything fundamentally wrong with someone just because they were gay, but I couldn’t just come out and say, “God loves gay people and approves of gay relationships.” It was as if there were a bungee cord attaching me to my fundamentalist roots, and all those years it had been stretching tighter and tighter.

Then the World Vision fiasco happened.

World Vision is a Christian charity. No, it’s an Evangelical charity. They do not hire non-Christians and do not hire gay people, and do not hire gay Christians. On March 24, 2014, they announced that they were revising this policy, because Christianity is changing, and gay relationships are becoming more and more accepted by Christians. They said they would no longer care whether a Christian was in a gay relationship or not. They would hire him anyhow.

And Evangelicals hit the roof. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, used the word “disaster.” The Assemblies of God asked its members to stop supporting World Vision. The rank and file hit social media with their own invectives and threats. And they started dropping their sponsorships on the floor. Thousands of poor children in third-world countries lost their sponsors, and millions of dollars in expected donations evaporated. Because everyone knows, it’s better that a poor child suffers than that a gay accountant writes the check.

Two days and 10,000 sponsorships later, World Vision President Richard Stearns had announced that “our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake,” that they now “see that with more clarity…and we’re asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”

We now know it was more like 15,000 to 19,000 children, and some 5−6 million dollars expected over the length of those sponsorships.

On Facebook, I saw an Evangelical friend publicly jump ship. And other Evangelicals were talking about leaving Evangelicalism, including Rachel Held Evans.

Every war needs an ethical justification, and the culture war is no exception. “We know that innocent people are getting hurt and killed, but it would be even worse if Hitler were to take over Europe.” There are arguments against that rationale, but at least they’re ethical arguments. I thought that if there were any ethical rationale for the culture war, or some ethical argument that I had missed, this would bring it to the fore. After all, little kids were being left in the lurch, all to win a battle against homosexuality.

I had already decided that Evangelical homophobia was paranoid, bigoted, and very wrong. I had already decided that not only was there zero ethical basis for their religious morality, but that in fact Evangelicals were often very unethical about their morality. But ever the skeptic, I thought this a perfect opportunity to falsify that hypothesis. If I was wrong, I wanted a chance to prove it before I jumped off the the edge of the cliff.

But no ethical arguments were forthcoming. There were lots of theological arguments. Fundamentalist Christians love to quote the Bible, because their theology, their interpretation of Scripture, means more to them than their good, common sense, and means more to them than starving children. I became simultaneously convinced and disgusted. I now believe I was ashamed for having once been on the wrong side of this war, having once stood idly by while religious fundamentalists bashed innocent victims. I was ashamed, because I had been emotionally powerless to help, because I bought into the theology and the ideology, and was trapped by it.

(The Bible doesn’t actually say what fundamentalists say it says, nor do they actually believe what they believe they believe, nor do they act in as noble a manner as they think they’re acting. A big part of being trapped in fundamentalism is pushing to the side the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise alert you to these facts.)

But while this was all going on in my mind, at a more basic level, my formerly Evangelical friend and Rachel Held Evans had changed my perspective. I had never before considered something that now seems obvious: I didn’t have to be an Evangelical fundamentalist if I didn’t want to. When you’re in the middle of the religion, you don’t stop to consider heresies like that. When your entire social support structure depends on believing a certain way, you do anything you have to, say anything you have to, pretend anything you have to, in order to fit in and to be accepted. And you stay far, far away from apostasy. Part of this is emotional. Part is logical. All of it is nonsensical.

On April 2, in an obscure comment thread on Rachel Held Evans’s blog post, I was debating with another Evangelical. (In the quote below, I used the word tolerate, but I think the correct word is probably accept.)

I wrote: “The reason Evangelicals come across as hate-filled bigots is not because they don’t personally support gays and gay life, but rather because they refuse to tolerate [accept] them. They proactively take steps to prevent gays from meeting needs, such as needs for community and love and purpose. Those very steps, to my mind, are unethical, because by so doing I would be treating others differently than I would want to be treated myself. And that’s the crux of the matter I’m wrestling with, and the reason I’ve come to believe that we need a more refined sexual ethic…

“I still don’t see a good ethical justification for Evangelical morality or for the tragedy Evangelicals justify via that morality. And that’s what I was looking for, an owning up to the consequences, beyond just, ‘It’s clear that the Bible says yadda yadda yadda’…

“Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where our hero takes a ‘leap of faith’ off a cliff and finds a hidden bridge? I think I may have just taken my final step off the Evangelical cliff. Thank you, at least, for pushing me.”

And he replied: “I have never understood why people with liberal or progressive theological and moral convictions insist on self-identifying as Evangelical while disparaging the characteristic commitments of Evangelicalism to theological and moral conservatism. If you still shared the Evangelical faith in the first place, beyond the outward trappings, you would not be leaving. So please, don’t implicate me personally in your decision to go.”

And the bungee cord snapped.

And my sense of spirituality shattered into a million pieces.

The next morning, I woke up, and I was no longer an Evangelical. Just. Like. That.

That visceral feeling, deep in my gut, that told me that I had to defend correct theological belief, no matter the cost, it was gone. And I was suddenly free to think anything I really thought was true, to believe or disbelieve as reality led me, to act in whatever way I thought was right. I was free to be the person I truly was.

If I could only figure out who that was.