This particular deconversion story really hit home for me, not only because I felt like we had a similar upbringing, but because of the raw emotion he feels in regards to his grandmother's dying faith.
One of the main topics of discussion in my life currently is adoption. Everyone asks us where we are in the process. As we meet with real estate agents looking for a bigger house, the agent always asks if we have kids. My husband and I are reading parenting books on the subject. I also talk on the phone with my mother three or four times a week (we are talkers) and it is a source of conversation there too.
The past few weeks I have been watching as a former co-worker's adoption placement has burned and failed. This is their second failed placement. In adoption circles they call this disruption. Now whether I agree with their methods or even whether I think they are doing the right thing is irrelevant to the prayer conversation my mother and I had over it. Basically, my mother went on a ten minute lecture concerning prayer. Her nuggets of wisdom included the following, not exactly verbatim, but definitely accurate phraseology:
"You have to pray a lot because otherwise your adoption placement will fail."
"You would be amazed at how prayer can change things so quickly in kids like this."
"I know prayer doesn't erase the past, but God can erase the hurt."
"I wouldn't have made it through you guys growing up if I hadn't prayed."
"Some days I just prayed I wouldn't kill you, and it worked!"
So let's dissect these things shall we. The first is an absurd illogical notion. If you don't pray your adoption placement will fail? 97% of adoptions are successful. Not all of the parents who adopt are Christians. Some are agnostic, some atheist, many are from varying denominations with different views on prayer and as hard as it is for Christians to believe, some are even people of other faiths who pray to other Gods. It would not be incorrect to assume that there are many successful adoptions in which not a single prayer was prayed. But wait, the Christians will cry, even if the parents weren't praying, someone out there was. Now, I will get into this further with the next paragraph, but suffice to say, intercessory prayer from afar has been shown to not only NOT work, but also to have more negative results. The idea that prayer is the only reason why something can be a success is insane. Bill Gates is a non-theist and has had great amounts of success. Personally, I haven't prayed (not in the way my mother is suggesting) in years and yet my life has gotten better since I stopped. If the amount of time spent praying equals success then there are a lot of people out there that should not be successful and millions more who should be. And there should be a lot more failed adoptions.
The second idea, that prayer will somehow fix these kids in a short amount of time is troubling. Numerous studies have been done throughout the years concerning prayer and tough situations such as illness and family struggles. At best, prayer seems to work as a calming placebo effect although only if the one being prayed for is actually aware of it and believes in the power of prayer. However, a study done by the Harvard Medical School showed that intercessory prayer done from afar without the recipient's knowledge not only has no effect, but patients actually fared worse. Even more troubling is the notion that if there is a God, we humans have the power to intervene in the workings of the world. If we just pray the right way to the right God we will tip the scales in our favor and he will work that illusive miracle. In this case the miracle would be to get over the psychological scars after years of extreme neglect and/or abuse, institutionalization, medication, foster care, and broken promises in a very short amount of time in order for that child to blend into your family. Frankly, I would be worried if this happened as I would think the child may be hiding those things from me in an effort to be "perfect". Or perhaps they aren't dealing with these issues in the way they need to, burying feelings rather than dealing with them. I don't want my kid to magically get better, I want my kid to slowly learn to do deal with their past and still move forward. I would also state that having this expectation, that prayer equals a quick fix, is more likely to cause a disrupted adoption since the expectation is unrealistic to the circumstances.
Of course, I said as much to my mother who quickly jumped to the fact that of course the past can't be erased, but somehow God can erase the hurt. This is of course based off the assumption that whenever somehow overcomes something difficult they only did it because God worked some kind of miracle in their life. Remember, we are not talking about a physical problem here. We aren't talking about how someone in their church gave the $50 or how they somehow got groceries for an extra week. This is about the deep psychological hurt that was caused when a mother, who should have loved her child, sat in the room as her boyfriend burned her child with cigarettes. We are talking about a child whose mother may have actively been a part of prostituting their child at a young age. We are talking about a parent who may have starved your younger brother to death and you couldn't do anything to save them because you were so frightened. We are talking about a father sexually abusing his 1 1/2 year old baby with a broom handle to the point that she won't ever be able to have children. You want to know what I think helps heal those wounds? Therapists, doctors, foster parents, caring family members who didn't know what was going on, patience, understanding guidance, realistic expectations, love tempered by logic, sustained support. Those scars will follow them for the rest of their lives. They will be fifty years old and their past will continue to haunt them. I don't believe for one second that if you just pray the right way those kid's hurt will be erased. Nor should it. That hurt has made them who they are, for good or bad, it is a part of them and needs to made into something constructive by the people who love them.
And now for my mother's assertion that without prayer she would not have made it through. This is true. My mother was a young mother with some serious anger issues. In my home, yelling, fighting, and hitting were normal. Expected even. One of my mother's favorite statements was "God will never give you more than you can handle." She had to believe this because truth was, she had been given more than she could handle. I challenged her on this notion when I was an adult and her comment was, "God does give you more than you can handle so that you have to rely on him." I love my mother, but the truth is she was verbally and physically abusive. Her spankings were always done out of anger and sometimes they were excessive. One particular incident my mother chased me around the house and then outside all the while counting up the number of times I was going to be spanked. 11. 12. 13. Eventually I ran to a tree and tried to climb. My mother yanked me out of the tree, but instead of falling my foot got caught in the tree limb. She continued to yank until I tumbled to the ground with a very hurt ankle. "You're not hurt," she snarled at me before marching inside. "Come inside when you're ready for your spankings." Meanwhile, I am sitting on the ground crying and trying to assess whether my ankle was just sprained or broken. There was skin missing, there was already some bruising, and it was bleeding from the tree scraping it. I sat out there for an hour until my dad came home. Not once did my mom come and check on me. My dad had to carry me inside and put ice on it and to say that he was livid about the situation would be an understatement. As much as I am loathe to admit it, because I know my mother loves me, she was abusive. At one point my dad finally said that they needed to take some parenting classes. I have always been a bit jealous of my brothers because, being much younger, they benefited greatly from my parents' new parenting skills in a way I never did.
Was it prayer that enabled my mother to make it through a day without killing one of us, or was it the fact that she took a few minutes out of her day to quietly meditate and escape the insanity? Scientific evidence would point to the second option. Ultimately, what led to her being a better mother were parenting classes, a husband who became more aware of her needs in the home, and age.
I know Christians want prayer to work. The Bible says it works. Everyone has heard that story from a friend of a friend about something miraculous happening. It is so easy to chalk up ordinary events to God answering prayer. $5 in my pocket must mean that God knew you needed $5 and magically put it in your pocket. The answer can't be that you left it there last week. They believe that prayer keeps them in tune with God, but I reject the notion that something should fail because someone didn't pray enough. This is like a twisted faith healing theology. You didn't get healed? When you must not have had enough faith. Come back next week when your faith quotient is higher and maybe God will be gracious enough to grant you healing. Your adoption is failing. You must not be praying enough. Come back next week when you have spent a few hours in prayer and maybe things will magically get better.
My mother is a prayer warrior. Every morning she wakes up and spends a good hour reading her Bible and praying. She prays for everyone and despite most of her prayers never being fulfilled, is convinced that they are very very important to daily life. If someone's marriage is failing, well it must be because they didn't pray enough. Adoption falling through? Not enough prayer. Feeling anxious over your new cancer diagnosis? Well, you wouldn't be so anxious if you prayed.
Today, while talking about me and my husband's adoption plans, my mother went on a ten minute lecture about prayer. She told me that it was the only reason she didn't go nuts while raising us kids. Prayer (and my extension God) were the reasons why she was able to be such a good parent. (I have a sibling who would argue that it didn't work.) She believes so firmly in the power of prayer and words that she thinks that one cannot get through life and particularly difficult situations without it.
My view: At best it is a form of meditation, a way to refocus on your life and the people in it. At worst it is a delusional placebo effect. The first makes sense since numerous studies have shown that spending even ten minutes in some kind of meditation is good for the body and the mind. My husband has been doing a daily meditation for several weeks now and has had a lot of wonderful thoughtful moments. But one doesn't need a god for these times to be effective. In this way, if prayer is just another form of meditation then I have no problem with it.
What I do have a problem with is this notion that a prayer is like a heavenly slot machine. Keep dropping in quarters and eventually one of those pulls will pay off. Sure, the hundreds of quarters that you put in before didn't work, but since a prayer seems to be answered every now and then, it was all worth it. The problem is that I see the prayers that were answered as inevitable, never miraculous. Oh, you went through chemo treatment and now the cancer has shrunk to almost nothing? God answered prayer. It has absolutely nothing to do with the doctors, the chemo, or your own body and mind. A homeless man gets off the streets and moves into an apartment? That must be God because only God can help someone out of such a tough situation. It wasn't the volunteers who formed a relationship with you and helped you every step of the way.
The placebo is that by praying, by releasing that thing and saying "I'm not in control, God is" you are making yourself feel better by thinking that there is some cosmic puppet master who is out there controlling this thing we call life. And sure, it probably does make you feel better to think such things. It is a nice idea to believe that there is some divine plan for each person, but the evidence I see before me states otherwise.
Growing up I was taught that people who didn't pray or claimed to do everything on their own were the delusional ones. That they didn't realize that everything they had and everything they had been blessed with was really from God. It wasn't their hard work, experience, education, or ingenuity that earned them a paycheck each week. It was God. And God would take it away if you tried to take credit for it. The reason you were so good at violin was because God gave you that talent. The reason you are so smart is because God made you that way. With this mindset there is no room for personal achievements because the achievement doesn't even belong to you. Although there are many people all over this world who give no credit to a God and suffer no adverse consequences. Let's be honest here too, I always found the people who did give all the credit to God to be pious self-righteous windbags. And the real kicker? God giveth and God taketh away, which was a phrase used to scare the masses into believing that if you don't recognize God's part in your life, he will take it away. Of course, the evidence would say that if this is something God does, he does it rather arbitrarily. Thus far, Bill Gates still makes a lot of money and he is definitely not giving God any credit.
I quit praying a long time ago, long before I was willing to admit I wasn't a Christian anymore. People speak of the "power of prayer", but I saw no power, only the illusion of power. When I read the Bible, I see a God who is rarely swayed by prayer, one who allows people to suffer, and is sometimes responsible for that suffering. And here's the real kicker, since I stopped praying my life has gotten better, not worse. I no longer live in poverty, I am happily married, I have everything I need, good friends, a great job. Even when I didn't have those things, I knew it had nothing to do with the amount of time I spent in prayer or how much I loved God.
It is these moments on the phone with my mother that I have the hardest time with keeping my mouth shut. I want to shout, "Prayer doesn't work. The reason you were able to raise us without killing us was because you had just enough self-control to not go there. The reason why an adoption works if because of hard work, reading, understanding child psychology, and patience. Prayer would do you no good if you didn't do those other things." Yet, I keep my mouth closed because she wouldn't understand. She will never understand. She will be on her death bed talking about prayer and as much as I don't agree, the only reason to challenge this belief would be to pick a fight.
There seems to be this common thought among Christians that those who are not believers are missing something. That they have a God-shaped hole in their hearts that can never be filled. A few people now have shared stories with me detailing how a "friend" of theirs claimed that they felt they were missing something by not having faith. Now, I don't know who these people are, but I imagine they are people who were not raised in very religious homes. They see the grass as greener on the other side and although they can't quite bring themselves to believe something, they do feel like they were missing out.
For me, the opposite is true. As a poster on exchristian.net said, it feels like I have woken up from the Matrix. The blinders have been lifted from my eyes. Religious chains that kept me from exploring or doing anything the church deemed wrong have been removed. I see the world in all the colors rather than through the Jesus-colored glasses I had worn for almost three decades. I have been set free.
I don't feel like I am missing anything. There is no hole in my heart. What I feel is a profound sense of relief and some anger. The anger is mostly at myself for believing in things that I now see as obviously wrong. Why did I hold onto the belief that the Red Sea could actually be parted? How utterly preposterous. Why did I ignore the contradictions that were so obviously in the Bible? Why didn't I stand up for those in the LGBTQIA community when I knew what the Christians were doing was wrong? Why did I allow such dogmatic beliefs to determine how I thought and felt about my body, sex, and relationships? Why was I so scared to pursue friendships with people who believed differently than me? Was it because I knew that leaving my Christian bubble would mean leaving Christianity entirely? I always tried to be a good, thoughtful, kind, and understanding individual, but the truth was, my faith in God made me act like God...jealous, angry, judgmental, exclusive, silent, and distant.
The relief is knowing that there is nothing I can do to earn my way into heaven or hell. My actions on this earth have earthly consequences, but I don't have to prove to a god that I am worthy of admission. Nor do I need concern myself about somehow angering this god enough to be sent into eternal torment. Which, by the way is some serious bullshit when you think about it. A person deserves eternal torment because they were born and a couple ate some bad fruit a few thousand years ago? You have got to be kidding me. How did I believe this stuff? There is no god and if there is one, he seems to be genuinely disinterested in life here on Earth. I do not believe that the Bible was written or even god-breathed. I do believe that despite how nice Jesus is in the gospels he was either a liar or a madman. And as frustrating as it is that I believed that stuff, it is so wonderful to let it go.
Due to decades of indoctrination, I will probably never be able to let religion go or not think about it, although I do hope that as I let go, the constant thinking will lessen. There is no god-sized hole in my heart because my heart is made of muscle, blood, and tissue and my soul, my consciousness does not require a god in order to be whole.
I was taught growing up that blaspheming the Holy Spirit meant that, from your heart of hearts, you reject and renounce the Holy Spirit and verbally slander Him and His works and character to others. It is a deliberate act. My mother defined it as someone who has seen and felt the power of the Holy Spirit and then claims later that not only was there no Holy Spirit and takes the credit for themselves. In other words, denying the power and the divinity of something that they know, in their heart of hearts, exists. By either of these definitions, there are a number of very vocal atheists, deists, and non-theists out there who have knowingly committed this unforgivable sin.
It is also the one thing that pops up in my head as I continue to sort out my feelings and past in regards to religion. For example, when I was seventeen I was sure that God/The Holy Spirit was telling me to go on a mission trip to Ireland. Of course, I really really wanted to go to Ireland. Then a guy from Ireland showed up at my church to talk about that very mission trip and I felt like that must be a sign from God. Now, I look back on this and think, yeah...I was seventeen and really wanted to travel, particularly to Ireland. I would have taken a four leaf clover as sign if that guy hadn't come along. By me denying this being a supernatural event, I am basically stating that I don't believe in the Holy Spirit and his power.
What about that time that one of my fellow church members gave me $1000 because my asshole-roommate moved out owing me that much in bills? Was the Holy Spirit leading him or did he just feel moved by my plight? Now, I believe it was the second option. He probably still believes it was the first.
Or that time that I needed to raise $500 more dollars for another mission trip (I have been on five) and a random stranger gave it to my mom after she asked some ladies as a women's conference to pray for me.
And what about that day that I got the gift of tongues. What a terrifying and confusing evening that was. For years I wanted to believe that the gibberish coming out of my mouth was probably (possibly, hopefully) some language from a foreign country. Like I was speaking some dialect of Hindi or something. How do I know this wasn't the Holy Spirit? Because I can do it now, even though I am not a believer anymore. I can speak in tongues the way I did as a kid and teenager and it sounds the fucking same.
More than the fear of hell, this idea of committing an unforgivable sin has been the hardest thing to shake. Coupled with the idea that all those times I felt the Holy Spirit it was really just my own conscience and overactive imagination. And I no longer have to live in fear of unforgivable sins because I don't actually believe there is any such thing. I don't believe there is a Hell, at least not like the one created by Christians, and I don't believe that I need to worry about it.
"How many more times will you be singing at church?" my husband asked as we made chicken pot pie on Sunday. We had not gone to church that morning since I had no volunteer obligations.
"Four. Maybe five more times. Why?" I teased. "Tired of me getting up early on Sunday morning?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "Not that. Other reasons."
I looked at him for a second before continuing to cook. "Well, it won't be that much longer."
"We won't talk about the sermons anymore," he says.
I look at him again. This coming from the man who hasn't attended church in months and who relies fully on my recounting of the sermon when I go.
"But I know we will still talk about religion and stuff," he adds.
It was a brief conversation. One in which he was trying to convey his dissatisfaction with my lying. We had had another brief conversation the day before regarding what I was telling people about why I was leaving, especially since we aren't moving as far away as we thought we were going to in December. I'm using our upcoming adoption plans as an excuse. Truth be told, it is a very good one. We plan on adopting teenagers and my church has maybe three. If our kid wants to go to church, he or she isn't going to have a lot of friends at my current church. Or as I told the pastor, we know you are going to be supportive, but we need to find adoption support. It's a half-truth, but not a lie. My husband was actually okay with this. After all, it's not like he likes this church anyway.
Here's to hoping that once I leave the church, that sticking point will also leave and my husband and I can have more conversations about religion without that getting in the way. Side note, We synced our Amazon/Audible accounts this weekend and I discovered the following books in my husband's audio books: Pope Francis, The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates, God is Not Great, The Moral Landscape, The Fifth Agreement, and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation. Yeah, I think my husband is struggling with his faith a bit too.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I occasionally ran into the stereotyped "angry atheist". These were often men who wanted to argue or debate certain religious topics, usually using there-is-no-God as their jumping off point. As a Christian, they came across as arrogant psuedo-intellectuals who knew just enough science to make them sound smart, but not enough about the Bible to get their message across. I can honestly say that among these individuals, none of the ones I interacted with had come from a believing background. The most you would get were a few whose parents attended church sometimes.
Among their arguments there were a number of problems, some boiling down to a complete misunderstanding of scripture. These are the top four:
1. Hypocrisy: B.C. vs. A.D. The recent case of Kim Davis has brought this particular issue front and center in my mind. Opponents of Davis state that she has divorced multiple times and had an affair so she has no right to judge, but what they don't understand is B.C. vs. A.D. My mother was not a Christian when she met my father, nor was she married when she got pregnant with me. In a panic, my mother decided to have an abortion. Luckily, a friend talked her out of it, but it was a rather close call. Fast forward three years, my mother becomes a Christian. One would think that because my mother has been there, pregnant and unsure, she would have compassion for women in similar situations. No. My mother is staunchly anti-abortion. The closest I have gotten to a shouting match with my mother as an adult was over abortion.
See, the life before she became a Christian was a terrible sinful life full of bad choices and worse actions. Besides the pregnancy, there was also active drug use, hanging around bars, drunkenness, running away from home, and much more. But when she became a Christian, she got a clean slate. God forgave her. All those things she did or thought about doing were gone. They were the actions of another person, one who wasn't saved. Which is why they don't see themselves as hypocrites. Kim Davis became a Christian four years ago, after her affairs and numerous marriages. She can't change the past, but now that she is a Christian she won't do it again. At least, that is what Christians tell themselves. They were wrong, but have moved on to a righteous life. If you are going to argue with a Christian, using their past "sinful" life Before Christ is absolutely pointless. It doesn't matter to them.
2. Levitical Laws. One of my favorite statements that non-Christians make involves the misunderstanding of "the law" as used in the Bible. They get upset with Christians cherry-picking (as they should) about things like homosexuality while ignoring the passages concerning tattoos or mixed fibers. Well, apparently none of those people read Galatians 3 or Acts 10. Both are passages that deal directly with the law and why Christians (in the A.D. sense) are no longer required to live by all the requirements as laid out throughout the Old Testament. Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice and tore the veil and now they have direct contact with God. No need to visit the holy of holies. If God needs you to know something, he will tell you himself rather than through a priest. This is of course arguable, but in the Evangelical circles I was raised in, this was the understanding. We can eat pork because we not only have been freed from the law, but God told Peter directly that he should. So using that argument always seemed a bit silly to me. We don't have to worry about mixed fibers anymore because Paul and Peter both said it was okay.
3. Homosexuality in the New Testament. People quote Leviticus a lot. To be clear homosexuality in whatever form is mentioned six times in the Bible. Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Now, people will quote the Levitical statements all the time, but the problem with this is that modern Christian homophobia isn't rooted in just the Old Testament. Half of of the mentions of homosexuality are found in the New Testament. Now, although Christians believe in the Old Testament, as mentioned above, they don't really hold to Levitical laws. However, the New Testament is the new covenant and it says that it is wrong and they believe it. Even when I was a Christian and a supporter of LGBTQIA rights, it was difficult to rectify those passages in my theology. To be perfectly honest, I ignored them. Or at the very least, I told people that there were many sins listed in the New Testament, why such a focus on the one. But I didn't believe it was really a sin so even that much felt like a lie. No, the Bible is pretty clear about how "God" feels about homosexuality, but let us also be clear that they aren't getting all their prejudices from two scriptures in Leviticus.
4. Arrogance and Intelligence. Walking into a conversation with the idea that you are smarter than the other person based solely on the fact that you don't believe in a God and they do, is bound to be a very one-sided pretentious dialogue. I am a smart person. I had top scores in my classes and on tests. I got into a good college. I have literally read thousands of books. As a Christian, I never doubted that atheists could be intelligent. Yet, I was never given the same courtesy. It was assumed that I was stupid, ignorant, uneducated, and illogical due to my belief in God. Now, I agree that on some level I was rather ignorant, but I was definitely not uneducated or illogical. I was just so sure there was a god that I tried to rationalize that belief using theology. I studied theology a lot from every perspective. I did extensive research into the history of the church, differing theologians, founding fathers of the faith, and even (gasp) Catholicism. If an atheist approached me with the mentality that they not only had it all figured out, but that I was an idiot as well, the interaction pretty much ended there. No thank you. I don't want to talk to someone who is starting the conversation by treating me like a moron. My father is still a Christian and he is one of the smartest people I know. My respect for him is so great that the thought of disappointing him has been a huge motivation in my life. I can't imagine someone walking up to my father and disrespecting him because they believe that belief=stupidity. Having been there, I would never approach a Christian, or anyone of faith, in this manner.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.