How I Left My Evangelical Christian Faith
Photo Credit: Kurt-Rune Bergset
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I am what you might call a slow learner. I managed to make it all the way through high school, despite an eating disorder I couldn’t pray away, and all the way through college, despite a suicidal depression triggered by the same eating disorder, and almost all the way through grad school before I finally gave up on my religion and god.
By contrast, my friend Geoff figured things out in the second grade. One day a nun at his Catholic school tried to pour holy water on the one Black kid in the school to exorcise the devil because he kept getting in fights. But Geoff thought to himself: It’s not Satan, it’s because all the other kids pick on him. Today Geoff is a psychologist working for Seattle Children’s Hospital –which is, ironically, the same place that did in the last shreds of my Evangelical beliefs.
I can’t recall the name of the small person who severed the final strands of my faith. There's just a vague image of soft brown hair and trusting brown eyes. I was 26, in the last stage of my PhD program, which required a year-long internship at the University of Washington. In one of my rotations, the one at Children’s Hospital, interns provided mental health consultation for families of patients on the medical wards. He was two, and in the first phase of treatment for a spinal cord tumor that would leave him paraplegic even if the nightmare course of chemotherapy were successful. I don’t know how long he survived.
Maybe it was his eyes, or his inability to comprehend why he couldn’t walk anymore, or why people who looked kind kept hurting him. Maybe it was the unbearable tenderness of his parents, who simply wanted to take their child home and love him rather than watch him suffer inexplicable months of “treatment” for a long shot at extending his life. But something inside me broke.
For years I had been patching my Christian faith together, as I like to say, with duct tape and bailing wire. My beliefs had become more and more idiosyncratic as I tried to hold together the lot of moral and rational contradictions that make up born-again, Bible-believing Christianity. Now, finally, after two decades of warping my feelings, perceptions and intellect to defend the absolute goodness of the Christian God, I got mad. I said to the god in my head, "I’m not making excuses for you anymore. I quit." And just like that, God was gone. All that was left was the frame of tape and wire: empty excuses, rationalizations and songs of worship that sounded oddly flat.
I tell you these two stories because they illustrate two extremes of leaving faith. On the one hand you have Geoff, whose parents were casual believers and whose skepticism kicked in early. On the other hand you have me, who took things to the brink of suicide because, as I thought, if I couldn’t pray away bulimia and depression then I was a failure in God's eyes. There are many paths into religion and many paths out.
The Damage Done
Most freethinkers were religious at one point in their lives. Whether you need a recovery process to move beyond that -- and how intensive that recovery process will be -- depends on what you believed, how deeply you believed it, and how much of your social support depended on fellow believers. ExChristian.net hosts forums that give people a chance to talk about their exodus from faith with support from fellow travelers. As often as not, loneliness is one of the hardest parts of the process. A believer can go anywhere in the world and find a ready-made community of fellow Christians. But a former believer can find himself or herself alone at the dinner table surrounded by family members but harboring a dark secret that would trigger rejection and judgment -- if they only knew.