What’s so great about being an ex-Christian? Intellectual integrity.

While I’m slowly recovering from this flu or whatever it is that has me knocked down and dragged out, I thought it might be refreshing to spend some time thinking about the various ways my life has improved since I abandoned the myths and superstitions of the Christian faith. Today’s post will zero in on just one of those improvements, which, for want of a better term, I’ve labeled “intellectual integrity.”

Given my particular (some might say peculiar) personality type, this is probably the most significant and substantial way in which my post-Christian life is an improvement over my days of faith. For years as a Christian, in fact for decades, I was aware that the teachings of the Bible and of the historic traditions of the Church didn’t quite jibe with the facts as we experience them in the real world. It made me uncomfortable because even in the midst of all my faith, I had an inkling that truth ought to be more consistent with itself than that.

For example, in my early teenaged years, in the last dying gasps of the Jesus Freak movement of the 60’s, I became involved for the first time with some people who were real evangelical types. I started attending Bible studies with a close friend who was already an evangelical, and I heard testimony after testimony about how they’d prayed to accept Jesus and how he had come into their hearts and flooded them with his divine grace, power, and forgiveness. Eventually, I also felt “convicted” of my sins, and one night, in my bedroom, alone, I prayed The Sinner’s Prayer, hoping that Jesus would come into my heart too.

Nothing happened.

Confused, I tried again a couple nights later. Crickets chirped, but from Jesus, zip. The following night I gave it one last try, pouring all the sincerity and contrition and submission I could muster into my confession and prayer. But I might as well have been calling out to Little Bo Peep. So I sat and I thought and I wondered, and eventually I came to the conclusion that Jesus must have come into my heart the first time I prayed, and was waiting for me to do something about it.

It seemed to sound right, or at least to feel right. After all, what right did I, a mere lowly sinner, have to expect God the Son to come down and dazzle me with some kind of spiritual light show? Foreshadowing my whole Christian experience, my “salvation” consistent of me believing what I was told, trying it out, having it fail, and then “learning a valuable spiritual lesson” that taught me humility, obedience, and, well, gullibility. My first “lesson” was the self-taught rationalization that we must “experience” God by submitting our lives to obedience to His will, thus allowing Him to work through us.

The trouble with this approach is that, practically speaking, it involves making up for God’s absence by doing the things He ought to be doing, and isn’t. Sure, it’s a great way to see “God’s will” become real, since real people are the ones doing the actual work, but it doesn’t involve any particular necessity that God be involved in the process, or even that He necessarily exist. Part of my mind was aware that I was making God a sock puppet, a prophet who “spoke” only when I wiggled my fingers inside the sock. I rationalized this charade by telling myself that God was really the one Who was “leading” my fingers to do the wiggling, but still, part of me felt like the truth ought not to be this way.

Then there was the world. I knew in my Christian heart that God was a loving, sovereign God Whose will wisely and inexorably directs all things to His greater glory, but when I looked at real life, I had to admit, I was giving the phrase “mysterious ways” a bit more exercise than was probably healthy. Sure, my faith in God endowed every trivial circumstance with a deep and awesome sense of purpose, but that sense of purpose was somewhat spoiled by the impenetrable confusion and apparent randomness that this “purpose” continually betrayed.

I believed in the purpose, I felt like this purpose gave meaning and value to my life, but most of the time I had absolutely no idea what this so-called purpose was supposed to be. And even when I did think I knew what God’s purpose was, so that things finally started making sense and falling together, it turned out more often than not that my understanding was mistaken, or at least the purpose failed to consistently follow the course I thought I had perceived in its wanderings. Purpose, in practice, offered very little to distinguish it from ordinary, haphazard circumstance. And why would that be?

Then there was theology. Shortly after my marriage, my wife and I got involved with the Church of Christ movement, which teaches that the Bible is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. That appealed to us at the time, because we were put off by the kind of wishy-washy, this-is-what-I-believe brand of evangelicalism that basically turned Christianity into whatever anyone thought it out to be. Surely that could not be the truth, because that essentially said that there was no truth, at least in the sense of truth that existed independently of subjective personal preferences.

So the idea of a Bible-based religion sounded good, like a Kingdom of God with a real, well-defined Constitution that spelled the truth out specifically for all to read and heed. Sadly, it turns out that Bible-based religion doesn’t actually specify anything, it merely means you will phrase your opinion of what the truth should be in terms of what you think the Bible is really trying to teach. There were divisions over how many cups you should have when serving communion, and divisions over whether churches were permitted to set up missionary organizations, and one fellow even came to us, in all Christian charity and humility, to warn us that prayer offered in any posture other than kneeling was a sin that would damn us all to hell.

This proved to be a significant spiritual crisis for me, because I realized that the Bible could not serve as an infallible guide to the truth, since each reader necessarily reads it in terms of his own understanding of what the truth is and ought to be. Truth is consistent with itself, but Christians cannot arrive at a consistent understanding of the Bible, because their interpretations will reflect their own experience, education, culture, personality, ambition and other subjective factors, and because the principles taught in the Bible don’t really reflect an objective reality we could use as a standard to judge whether the Bible was telling us the truth about God or not.

By the time I was in my late 30’s, I had to admit that I was down to one, count ‘em, one solitary, lonely reason why I still believed that Christianity was true. I had seen holes in the theology being preached by theologians, and I uncomfortably rationalized it away by regarding it as just a personal flaw on the part of the individual theologian. I had seen apologetics that promised great proofs and delivered only weak rationalizations. I had turned to creationism in hopes of finding some real-world basis on which I could base my conclusion that the Bible was true, only to find out the creationists were lying and deceiving and bringing general shame on the whole Gospel. I excused it all as the failings of the individuals themselves, but then what did that leave me with as a reason for continuing to hold onto my faith?

My one toehold, the one slender grip I had on my faith was that I did not believe the Resurrection could be faked. Nobody would die for a lie, surely? The early Christians must have seen a genuine, literal Resurrection in order to become the martyrs they eventually became. Right? Right?

Nothing else had proven to be solid enough to support the weight of the conclusion that the Christian God was real. This one last hope must be the sure foundation of my faith, because nothing else was left. And yet, if it were true, then why was there nothing else? I dared not ask myself that question, nor probe too incautiously into the matter of what the apostles really died for, until the election of George Bush as president in 2000. The events that led to that election, and more importantly the words and deeds of Bush’s Christian supporters, finally drove me to honestly ask myself, Is this the sort of world that would exist under the wise and omnipotent sovereignty of a loving God?

My last toehold crumbled as I realized how easy it was to explain the disciples’ convictions in terms of the same hysterical fantasies and denials that surrounded Bush’s election (and even more since Obama’s). I was crushed, enraged, embittered, as though my whole world had betrayed me and then died.

But then something amazing began to happen. The world began to make sense. Suddenly, things that had long perplexed and grieved me became suddenly clear.

Why isn’t the Word of God as powerful as it claims to be in terms of having an impact on people’s lives and actions? Well, because it’s just a book men wrote, as an exercise in what they thought God ought to be saying. It has no power, so its practical impact is simply as great or as small as the abilities of the men trying to use it.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, because they happen to everybody, as do good things. It’s not a reflection of some intentional blessing or cursing by some invisible Magic Dude, it’s just the combination of circumstances. There’s no “mysterious purpose” to try and decipher, no omnipotent benevolence that needs to be reconciled with hard facts. The world is just the world, and things happen, good and bad.

Why doesn’t God show up to do something good in the world? or at least to keep His people in line and out of trouble? Well, because He can’t; He’s just a figment of group imagination.

On and on it goes. Sure, there are complexities we don’t understand and questions we can’t answer, but at least the answers we can find are consistent with each other. That’s a new experience for me, and a tremendous blessing (so to speak). At last, I can believe the truth, and not feel guilty about what I believe. I don’t have to worry about all those internal inconsistencies and known fallacies that I have to embrace anyway, because they’re not there any more. The world is a real place and a true place, and I can embrace it intellectually without compromising my intellectual integrity for the sake of sticking to some dogmatic party line.

I wish I’d had a whole lifetime to learn the truth about the real world, unencumbered by the demands of maintaining a “worldview” in the midst of hostile facts. I wish I’d never been a Christian at all. But at least I can say, now that I’m an ex-Christian, I have won the greater prize, I have found the hidden treasure, and there is nothing in all of Christendom’s twisty little ways that is of one tenth the value.

Can Jesus ever buy me back? I don’t think so. I’ve tried Jesus, and I’ve tried reality, and reality is what makes me whole. Nothing Jesus has to offer can ever compete with that.

 
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Posted in Ex-Christian Advantages. 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “What’s so great about being an ex-Christian? Intellectual integrity.”

  1. Hunt Says:

    Thanks for the post — and don’t dismiss the healing powers of chicken soup, it’s better than laying on of hands.

    There is a world, in imagination, where Christianity would make sense. It’s just not the world we inhabit. It’s a Cecil B De Mill world starring Charlton Heston. And if it were true, I doubt I would enjoy living in it. To be honest, it sounds like a terrible existence — to be beholden and obliged to be obedient to a creator who made you to suffer. It just sounds like a fricking nightmare to me. As Hitchens has said: Thank God there’s no reason to believe that it’s true.

  2. John Morales Says:

    But at least I can say, now that I’m an ex-Christian, I have won the greater prize…

    Also, I guess this is akin to saying someone who has never known hunger/poverty/imprisonment doesn’t appreciate being well-fed/financially-secure/free as much as someone who has.

  3. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    For me, it was when a Hare Krishna sold me a Bhagavad-Gita for a dollar at college (well, handed me the book first, then asked for a “donation”).

    It was basically that day I realized that Christianity was just another religion, and of no more merit than any other. Replace that book with a Bible and I would have been looking into a mirror (sans the orange bedsheet, of course).

  4. Eneasz Says:

    A wonderful article, very inspiring. Thank you for sharing. :)

  5. cl Says:

    Thanks for this little insight into your past, DD. I always find people’s deconversion stories to be very enlightening, as they are perhaps the most important elements for believers who wish to understand the deconverted. There was a year or two period where I went to different churches to feel them out, but for the most part, I stay far away from organized religion, as I think it’s good for one of two things: creating fundies, or creating atheists. Your testimony seems to concur.

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I once had a missionary friend who made a similar observation. Well, actually, what he said was that missionaries are like manure: if you spread them out, they can “fertilize” the fields for harvest, but if you pile them all up in one place, they stink.

    I think the problem is that when you get groups of people trying to share some kind of common Christian experience, they run afoul of Christianity’s inherent inconsistencies. Believer A prefers to rationalize things one way, and Believer B takes a different approach, and since Christianity has no real-world roots, there’s no common ground they can use as a basis for reconciling their differences. At that point they can either shut off their brains and believe whatever they’re told to believe (fundamentalists) or acknowledge that Christianity doesn’t work in real-world settings because it’s an inherently subjective and personal fantasy (ex-believers). Or of course they can solve things the traditional way: by creating yet another division in the “body of Christ,” so that each group can have the flavor of Christianity that most appeals to their personal preferences.

    Organized approaches work well enough for fact-based enterprises like science, but that’s because science deals with things that really exist, and that can be independently and objectively verified. Christianity is built on beliefs alone, and that’s why it lacks the cohesiveness to work well in organized settings.

  7. Hunt Says:

    Don’t discount the fact that organized religion (which I’m taking as code for “church attendance”) fills a function that communally inept societies like America have all but abandoned. Interaction, fellowship with other human beings, etc. In many ways the US of A is a very screwed up place in the societal context. Years of anti-communist propaganda has left us paranoid of any kind of community spirit; avowed capitalism eschews many group efforts that may contradict its tenets, etc. Just about the only venue for a release from a strictly regimented existence is community church attendance and adjunct social activities. I honestly believe this is one of the reasons the US is still as “religious” (if you want to call it that) as it is and hasn’t progressed as many of the Europeans countries have. Churches have benefited from the strict deficit of other community and social outlet.

  8. valdemar Says:

    This is fascinating to me as I’ve never been remotely religious, and always found it slightly weird that grownups should believe ‘all that stuff’. It’s clearly a painful and difficult process to shed belief but – when you can do it – the rewards are obvious. The truth really did make you free.

  9. Eupraxsophy Says:

    Growing up in a Christian family I was subjected to the Christian faith, so it only seemed natural to have faith as well. It wasn’t until later in my life I started to have doubts about my faith. It probably was my love for science that was the catalist for the lose of my faith.

    Truth never contradicts itself and I would wonder about a verse in the Bible where Jesus tells about the wise man building his house upon the rock, and the fool building his house upon the sand. As I had learned the rock represents the truth, the sand superstition, and the houses one’s belief. In other words does one base their beliefs on the truth, or does one base their truths on beliefs?
    With this in mind my sister-inlaw who is a Christian asked me what the Bible is. I told her it is a religious book, in which she told me that it is The Word of GOD. I showed her in a dictionary under Bible and it said ” A sacred book of Christianity…”,” see!”, I told her,” it’s a book!” She still went on about it being the truth and being God’s word, so since she asked me a innocent question in which I gave her an honest answer I decided to ask her an innocent question in hopes of an honest answer. I simply asked her, “How do you KNOW?” I then showed her a Bible where it says Old Testiment and said this means there are witness’s, then I showed her the very first verse,in the very first chapter, in the very first book of the Bible where it says, ” In the beginning God created Heaven and Earht”. I then asked her who is the witness to this event? I proved to her that she is the one that is basing her truths on belief.

    Where I once let go and let God, I now let go of God. I now have an open mind as well as an open heart. Humility has taught me to see the beauty in that which is superficially ugly, and see the ugliness in that which is superficially beautiful. To be able to move on one must face the truth, accept the truth, and respect the truth. It doesn’t mean you have to like it.

    Does science have all the answers or empirical proof? No. But what it has like evolution is substatiated proof like DNA, transitional fossils (Archaeopteryx), and numerous other sciences that well support it. What does Christianity have?
    Speculation, hear-say, testimonies from dead witness’s, faith, and circumstantial evidence. I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than to have answers that can’t be questioned.

    If thy have a boastful tongue let it be that which rest upon thy head the Crown of Truth.

    The destination of wisdom and enlightenment is traveled down the path of humility.

  10. Nathan Says:

    I just found your blog today and this was one of the first posts that caught my eye. I felt compelled to comment, because (as they say) it felt like you were speaking directly to me.

    I’m 30 and lost my Christian faith in June 2007 after several years of intellectual wrestling and searching. I “came out” to my family over the next year and a half, which was difficult, since my dad is an evangelical pastor and I come from a very spiritually conservative family.

    I completely agree with your article that my “intellectual integrity” has been the greatest benefit. The early days were difficult, since teachings on hell and fear of death still loomed. But after pushing through, there’s been a wonderful sense of peace and joy that I never was able to fully experience before. I had become so accustomed to compartmentalizing and rationalizing my faith, that it felt good to finally be a complete person, intellectually.

    It really is amazing how everything that seemed so complicated and mysterious as a Christian simply “falls into place” when you look at it with secular eyes. No more rationalizing or analogy-mining necessary.

    I hope that I would still be open if there actually is a god who wants to know me, but I’m not going to waste any more time knocking on that door.

    I’m still surrounded by Christians, and have taken a “don’t bring it up unless they do” approach to keep the peace, so it’s encouraging to read articles like this and realize that there are so many others that have taken the hard leap of faith out of Christianity and found that reality is just fine on the other side.