Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Gratitude of Apostasy: A Testimony

I never intended this blog to become another atheist report from the culture war front. And I never intended to piss anyone off. It has become a first-person report on belief and I've hurt the sensibilities of old friends and colleagues. I'm not disappointed with these consequences. I find them invigorating and I've taught myself that popularity is less sustainable than being skeptical when truth claims are asserted.

And I hoped to start writing as a way of showing my ability to think with expectation that future employers might consider me a good idea guy.

What has happened is that I've lost my faith and I think most employers would read this and be afraid that talking to me would resemble a journalistic interview with Bob Dylan from "Don't Look Back".

My original intention was to write as a way of reporting on my confusion. My hope was that if I expose my inner life on the 'net I would wrestle with it myself and become more conscious. I've discovered that much of my confusion has been driven by my willingness to compartmentalize my mind as a way of keeping popular truth commitments a "live option".

The most shocking thing I discovered is the evidence for my default arguments were thin yet my instinct would default to them. Inviting evidence has humbled me and made me change my mind.

I started writing as a professing Christian and free-market capitalist but challenging my preconceptions has led me to obtain with comfort a Christian Atheist theology in the Altzizer/Price tradition and Democratic Socialism in the European tradition.

Owning up to these ideas frightens me because I can hear the shouts of friends and family (and my instinctive former self) but the evidence I've examined thus far makes them more reasonable. I might change my mind again if new evidence is presented. What I experience with believers in god or free-markets however are not evidence based arguments but appeals to outrage or emotion. And I don't like those choices. They are manipulative and bullying.

I have been told I seem fickle, crazy or mean.

Many friends who wish to assert intimacy announce to me that, "I don't read your blog because it angers me," and I'm amazed that they don't comprehend the consequence of that statement. If you don't like what I write here then you don't like my honest ideas and if that is the case then it might be more honest to admit that we have little in common. While we might be friendly with one another we don't have the mutual respect to assert intimacy with anything other than nostalgia and good-will.

I find, now that popularity is not my ambition, basing my free time in nostalgia and good-will is unsatisfying.

The good news is that humans have evolved to be social animals where ideas are sustenance and many psychological ecosystems exist to feed the mind.

While old friends wrestle with their own ideas and battle with their own confusion relative to my desire to be expressive and have announced their disappointment with me or have drifted away, I've found new friendships.

Some smart men and women have read my comments here or on sites like Common Sense Atheism and Debunking Christianity and have introduced themselves.

They've shown kindness and empathy. It feels good just like kindness and empathy felt good when I would "go along to get along" in my MBA or Mega-church but now the good feeling is founded on a commitment to reason, not popularity.

Yesterday one of these folks extended his hand in friendship and since we live in the same metropolitan area we are hoping to meet up.

I'd like to share here what I wrote to him. It is not meant as argument but rather exposition in the tradition of Christian testimony. It seems honest and a necessary piece of information to provide context with my direct criticisms of religion and the American exceptional philosophy bound by Capitalism.

So as a Thanksgiving post I provide my apostate testimony as an act of gratitude that I've come to like myself by knowing my mind.


I was raised Roman Catholic but left the faith in my early twenties and started seeking a more satisfying spirituality. I experienced a bit of Buddhism, 12-step-recovery (both for my drinking and the abuse I suffered at the hands of my parents' drinking) finally drifting into the Mega-church movement in 2003. I was taken by the contemporary nature of the Willow Creek style service and loved the people. I also began using my creativity within the church, leading drama ministry and teaching acting techniques to lay-people so we could put on dramatic pieces as augmentation to the Gospel message.

I never investigated the truth claims made in Church and instead used Christianity as a more universal form of "self-help". I didn't care if the historical assertions, ontological arguments or biblical criticism were sound and true, my loneliness was lifted and people were nice so, I started to tip-toe towards an Evangelical apologetic disposition.

I met my wife on-line and our shared Christianity motivated our courtship. She's beautiful, smart, kind and courageous so, I thought this was more miraculous evidence that I was "saved" (because I am not all that handsome and can be kind of a jerk).

Once married, we attended her church, an Evangelical Free denomination that practices expository preaching.

I had never surrendered to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy until then and had never read the bible in context with a narrative exegesis.

The fundamental presentation made me start questioning if the the book was inspired or if it was just myth.

The inanity of the scripture and the inability to confront these oddities by the small group we attended frightened me that I had duped myself into believing that a good feeling equaled a verifiable truth.

I also went through a job crisis around this time and suffered a depressive break which landed me in the hospital and diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder/depressive disorder leading to medication.

As I started dealing with my mood disorder I started seeing the placebo effect religion had in helping me navigate it earlier.

I also saw how this was a choice to modulate my biology and therefore I questioned the spiritual presuppositions I took away from the experiences I had.

I was concerned that Christianity was no different than other cultural artifacts that can engender feeling but were not evidence of anything other than our ability to think about a material world (e.g. theater, music, sports).

This concern coincided with behavior I faced that left me confused.

I had a former bible-study leader assert to me after election day 2008 she knew Barack Obama was a Muslim terrorist because "Jesus, told her in her morning quiet time."

I had another leader from a church I once attended and the father of a good friend of mine send me a word document via email exposing Barack Obama as the anti-Christ with detailed descriptions how President Obama has broken each of the Ten Commandments.

I engaged in an intense conversation with an Elder from our E-Free Church and his wife regarding the Intelligent Design conspiracy (they both are ID supporters) and was encouraged to investigate the literature on ID and the arguments of William Lane Craig.

I did both.

I discovered that the Discovery Institute is a theocratic organization whose aim is not science but politics and I was disgusted by the self-serving nature Judeo-Christian belief could engender.

My bias towards religion as delusion was deepened when I read Craig's debates and found his culture insular and his scholarship arrogant.

His debate with Bart Ehrman led me to investigate Dr. Ehrman's writing which led me to Debunking Christianity, Common Sense Atheism, Robert Price, The New Atheists and now a desire for critical thought and honest discourse.

I empathize with what sounds like loneliness in your journey. I've felt it too. It has made me angry and my anger has been complicated by the frustration that who I thought were my friends may have only earned that title due to a shallow definition of friendship I embraced as a way of elevating the endorphins Christian worship produced.

Peace to you and thanks for reaching out. I don't feel so alone.

Be good to yourself.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.


Anonymous said...

Hi, had this blog in my RSS reader for a bit, just read your review (I'm pretty sure) for Thom Stark's book on amazon and noticed the name is the same! Liked your review there, looking forward to reading the book.

Nice post, especially appreciate difficulty in writing on a blog and upsetting others from one's days as a Christian. I struggle with that too, but also struggle with being angry at the fundamentalism (and fundamentalists) who affected my beliefs. Especially because it is fundamentalism that makes it hard to pull away from or change one's religion. Rather than being a normal process of evolving beliefs, it becomes a breaking with community and friendships. I hate that. So I struggle with being called unjustifiably angry by others, and feeling justified at the same time. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

At any rate, my point is, I commend the even tone in your writing. And, happy thanksgiving to you too.

Vinny said...

My days as a born again Christian were back in the 1970's so I really didn't have to worry about anyone I was close to back then when I started blogging. Still, I have evangelical in-laws and some very conservative Catholic cousins so I blogged anonymously at first and only gradually let people know about it.

I was very interested in your comments about Willow Creek. I have known a few people who started going there without any real idea about the theology or doctrine. One of them went there for several years before he figured out where they were coming from.

Peter said...

This is an excellent testimony, and I second what atimetorend says - very even toned. I appreciate the honesty without the anger.

Speaking as both a pastor and a follower of Christ, reading this testimony breaks my heart. Not necessarily because of your migration away from religion - from what I can tell, that actually seems like it was the most logical and reasonable thing to do in response to the faith you experienced and the leaders who were supposed to be guiding it.

Rather, it saddens me to see how bad the church is at being the image of God. How too often churches can just turn into feel-good self-help groups; how bad we are at figuring out what's God and what's us, so that we start labeling our own crazy ideas and politics as something "God said"; and, as you pointed out, how self-serving religion can be when we make it all about us... which we often do. And worst of all, how often we're only friends with people who believe the same things we do, and couldn't dream of associated with someone who is (*gasp*) not a Christian!

All that to say... I don't claim to have the authority to apologize on behalf of all Christianity, but I AM sorry we're such a screwed up bunch.

At the same time, I do celebrate the fact that there ARE Christians and churches who are really trying to actually follow Jesus, instead of using faith as a way of feeling better about themselves. They aren't perfect, but they are at least open to exploring theology, allowing their beliefs change over time, and letting their faith shape how they live (instead of the other way around).

If at some point you'd be interested in connecting and exploring some different sides of Christianity than it seems like you're used to, I'd be glad to chat.

In the meantime, I look forward to your continued writing. It isn't always easy to read, but it's certainly good to see what people how people with other beliefs are viewing the world.

One question that didn't get addressed in your testimony (sorry if it's a bit personal):

You mentioned that faith was actually a key part of your relationship with your wife. What happened when you started splitting ways with the church? Did she follow you on the course, or is she still a Christian?

LadyAtheist said...

I'm tempted to say "yeah, what he said!"

The evangelical movement is a feel-good movement that has nothing to do with whether god is real or not. Sure, we do need psychological grounding and a social group. That's human. I joined a church whose pastor had a Ph.D. in psychology and ran a pastoral counseling center. His sermons were really good practical advice on how to apply stuff from the bible to daily life. So I joined a bible study run by this woman who had been cured from cancer by god... which I didn't really believe... and it all just seemed like such crap when i read it more closely. So I decided I had to read it cover to cover to really *get* it. The result is that I'm an atheist. What a messed up book that is!

Chuck O'Connor said...

Thanks all for your comments. It is good to know that people are reading this blog.

atimetorend, I understand your perspective. I wonder why believers feel it is a legitimate rebuttal to label atheists "angry". Anger is a characteristic of God and not an automatic evil. I also think we and they misunderstand the cognitive dissonance brought on by such a radical change in belief. It hurts to recognize the truth claims once asserte are not supported by evidence. I think strong feeling is natural and I know I needed to give myself permisssion to be angry as a means to self-respect. I still get angry at the willful ignorance wrought by non-falsifiable truth claims and the hubris attached to those claims. Be good to yourself and let me know how/if I can offer any perspective on your journey.

Vinny, thanks, it's good to hear the experience of a fellow traveler.

Peter, I'd argue that a commitment to a systematic rendering of the biblical god led me to recognize the bible as a library of myth and therefore a cultural choice rather than an absolute truth. The feel good self-help Christianity made the faith palatable, it was only when Christianity proper was presented with it's divine command ethics that I questioned it's truth and eventually it's morality.

Lady A, great comments and my experience as well.

I have a new born baby boy and as he grows I don't want to lie to him. The evidence points to the christian story as myth and I think accepting it as such leads to intellectual honesty and emotional maturity.

Enchanted Naturalist said...


You exhibit a rare intellectual and emotional honesty that everyone, regardless of their beliefs or opinions, would do well to emulate. I look forward to meeting you soon.


Gandolf said...

Beautiful post again Chuck.Truly massive.

Faith has caused anger and even reading Pastor Peters comment it shows some Christians do understand it.

You are far from alone friend with the experience of shunning and some folks withdrawing from friendship.

But in my opinin sadly its a situation a little like the early pilgrims who headed west.Somebody had to have the insight and then the guts to battle all the hardships they would meet along the way, before new ground could become broken in productive, and become a life source for sustaining the future generations.

Chuck O'Connor said..."Thanks all for your comments. It is good to know that people are reading this blog"

Our pleasure.

Chuck O'Connor said...


The Mega-church movement seems to be a front-line in the States in the battle for our collective reason and I think as the economy continues to shrink it will be more and more prominent where the need for a safe place will lead hurting people to assert truth without critical thought. There is short term benefit provided by these institutions (a one-stop shop in socialization) without the necessary long-term benefits provided by plurality (e.g. cognitive dissonance that demands hard thinking to make sense of difference). The Willow Creek community is helping to make our country more credulous and eliminating the necessity of critical thought by demonizing disagreement and elevating empty personality qualities like obedience.

Chuck O'Connor said...


I am so glad we've "met". Your friendship and journey out of the mental prison religion creates has been an inspiration.

Chuck O'Connor said...


My wife and I have grown closer with my apostasy and a rule in our home has become, "Just because I love you, doesn't mean we have to share a brain." She has her beliefs but knows if she asserts them I will comment on the assertion. This has led her to see the church where we attended does not promote honest ideas and she has admitted its policies are contrary to her morality. We will look for another church that can accommodate my atheism and her desire for religious community. It will probably be a more liberal or liturgical church where there is not a call to be evangelical but where reflection and community might occur.