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Another Sheep Leaving

By Matt:

I find that investigating the world around me is far more interesting, far more fascinating, and far more devastating, especially to the Christian fundamentalist. That’s probably the reason I’m here. Before I really begin, I must say that after reading many testimonies from many brave, wrongly-branded “black sheep” that decided to wisely “separate from the herd”, I’m proud to say that I’m eating the grass of common sense and knowledge beside you as one that’s no longer a part of the flock. The bonus? I don’t have the lame threats or moral guilt-trip of a backwards shepherd to rule my life. I congratulate you because I know it’s tough.

SheepsImage by pinkangelbabe via Flickr

I want to keep this as short as possible, but I fear it’ll be long anyway, and I find it difficult to pull a final product out of my life’s journey with Christianity because, due to my experiences, I have a love-hate relationship with it that can’t be summarized easily. Parts of Christianity I find fascinating and wonderful – like the verses in Ecclesiastes concerning “a time for everything” or the verses in Corinthians about love. However, there are things about Christianity I abhor (one of them being Christians themselves), so that might reveal itself in my writing. I personally believe some people have become better morally (maybe even ethically) being introduced to the “faith”, the church somewhat plays a role in society (good and bad – but that’s debatable) but intellectually, the ability to reason with facts and evidence seems to plummet the longer one stays in a congregation. I have spent quite a while trying to convince some of my old church friends concerning the evidence against them, but they refuse to look at it or acknowledge it (save one or two more “open-minded” Christians), so I feel like I’m basically talking to a brick wall with most of these people. I still keep in contact with my old preacher, his son (who follows in his footsteps without a pulpit, but is far more reasonable), and a small number of the church membership. The rest think I’m only a rabble-rouser, bad influence, spawn of the devil or somewhere between the three. If any of them want to talk, I’m willing to listen in an open, honest, informed discussion. So to say that Christianity out of my life completely is incorrect and, because of some of the values Christianity did instill in me, it will always play a factor in who I am.

The boring stuff: I was invited to church when I was five years old and baptized when I was seven. I did it for two reasons: the constant pressure to accept Jesus at a young age as one’s personal Lord and Savior is difficult to fight when that’s all you know, and the other kids were doing it, so why don’t I? I understand now that I’ve lived it that breaking away from Christianity is akin to giving up smoking – the sooner you light up, the longer you continue taking drags, the more difficult it is to kick the habit. The same is true with my old church and Christianity and, trust me, it has been a long journey from where I first began. I was raised in the church, I was a bit of an outcast (I was overweight, shy, reclusive) and I didn’t really blossom until I was a teenager. I just sat quietly, did the things kids do (zone out until church was over), and basically piddled away about ten years of my life in Vacation Bible School, Children’s/Youth Camp, etc. continually being indoctrinated by close friends and their families. Yeah, it seemed true, but I really had no contending worldviews, so I saw it all as truth and did not question it. I was a good little lamb.

However, around 12 or so, I really became interested in the Bible because, as I was coming up in school, I found that there were relevant issues going on that I could apply what I’d been taught (or indoctrinated). So I read, studied, read, prayed, read and I’m sure I found some room to fit some reading in there as well. I lived a sheltered teen life when I was young. I was still picked on because of my weight and because I was quiet, I was a very passive person. That would lead me to self-pity, but I always had the Bible and church to make me feel better. I needed validation, so I was taking whatever I could and I was eating up everything the church had to give me (intellectually and physically – I do miss Baptist potluck dinners). When I was about 14 or 15, people began to notice me because I was very knowledgeable when it came to doctrine. I was, according to them, “living a moral life” and I was “studying the word of God like a good Christian should.” I was doing the Jesus-thing and I was doing it well. I even felt Christ’s presence in my life (though now I just recognize it as the same sort of feeling a person gets when talking to an imaginary friend). On ethical issues and issues of morality, God’s law seemed to be supreme, final, and no one could (or should) question it. I became a firebrand (still am in some respects) for the faith because I seemed to know more than the average bear, especially in my age group. My preacher thought I had the makings of a very talented preacher because of my relationship with Christ and my ability to interpret God’s word. Oh, the irony.

I remember this as the zenith of my church career. I had my hands in everything – choir, Sunday School, camp counseling, praise and worship teams, etc.. However, when I look back, I was a horrible person and I would have hated me now. I would’ve made a great inquisitor because I was always comparing morals, judging people (much against the supposed “Christian nature”), and I felt on top of the world and all its vices because Jesus was on my side. I was in the right because the Bible told me so. It didn’t matter how many Creationist debates I lost (many). It didn’t matter how many other belief systems I learned (they’re all “heathen, wrong, and doomed to Hell”) and it didn’t matter who I talked to – they were all either potential converts or damned. My attitude was: I would listen, but you were still wrong unless you gave it to Jesus. I would point fingers, which was easy because my church had a very hypocritical nature. Everything from “read nothing except the Bible and ignore things that are just as/more credible because they’re lying” to the gossiping to hypocritical things like: “yeah, we’re having sex outside of marriage– we feel horrible about it but we’re not going to repent”. I saw all this at a very young age and I felt it was my Christian duty to address sin and ignorance head-on. I felt a duty to reproach these sorts of issues, but some of those people would preach “love one another” and then start clucking like chickens about someone as soon as that person left the room. “Judge lest ye be judged” didn’t ring true in my church. I found myself getting into a lot of moral and ethical conflicts where I had the Bible as my backing. I was an argumentative and egotistical nightmare and if I met myself now, I’d probably take him out back and we’d have a LONG talk.

However, when I saw this lifestyle wasn’t going anywhere and was causing contention, I mellowed out a bit. I focused more on myself than other people and this was when I started to question – just a little at first, but it was the first step. Questioning was actually allowed in our version of Christianity but it was conditional. If you did think, it had to be within certain perimeters. It was the equivalent of letting a dog out to run with a shock collar that activates when it goes too far. When those boundaries are crossed – BZZT – you’re burned! The process and conclusions had to be within the boundaries of doctrine or else, no matter how logical or common-sense the conclusion and argument were – it was wrong. If they said the sky was blue and it had Biblical backing, I could’ve taken them outside on a dreary, grey, dark day and I was still wrong. Furthermore, I was sinful for thinking I had the audacity to challenge any of God’s precepts, so anytime I did question, guilt kept me in check. I lived in limbo like this throughout the last part of my high school years. I attempted to keep it together, though, and I still assumed God had the answers, even if I couldn’t figure them out. I kept at it though, and like one of good faith, I would raise my questions to my church leaders (the Pastor, the Youth Leader, older Christians, etc.) and they’d have answers that, at the time, were fine. So I would settle. They set the boundaries and assisted me in my understanding of the world. What I didn’t know was how limited theirs was. When I was a senior in high school, at my graduation party, I’ll never forget what I heard my preacher say to me as I was going to go off to college: “don’t listen to everything those professors say – take it all with a grain of salt. They’re going to say a lot of things that sound good and make sense, but they’re lies. Just keep reading your Bible and be very careful of other things you read.” It was all too clear then, as I had been catching on during the process of mellowing, that it seemed education was a huge point of contention for the Christians, and the worst was a “liberal education”. I vowed I would do my best, but I think they knew that I was too reasonable to resist verifying a good logical argument. Now I know why they “warned me”.

I went away to school, but not far. I came back to church every Sunday and I even taught Sunday school for a year or so. This was when the birthing pangs of agnosticism kicked in. I was feeling conflicted because piece-by-piece, what they had told me was making less and less sense in the face of other, more rational and well-thought out theories and facts. I was also lonely and when I called on God, I felt nothing. I was always able to “feel the presence” of God when I was around the others back home (but, looking back, it was a created atmosphere because being around people who encourage that sort of thing, it’s hard to go against and easy to get caught up in the whirl-wind of emotion). I remember, though, feeling extremely conflicted about certain issues. Evolution would not go away, no matter how much I would deny it, and neither would the geological evidence or Biblical “contradictions” that I found when browsing a website. I remember feeling only one thing, though, as I was contemplating all of this: I was scared. The first time I googled “biblical contradictions” – I felt like a 13 year old who stumbled onto his dad’s smut collection and was curious, but felt guilty because I actually enjoyed what I was looking at because it made sense. I wish I could tell you that it all fell apart suddenly, but I am amazed now at how far I fought to keep it all together. Every piece that fell apart, I tried frantically to glue back together, but the wall of faith was crumbling under the hammers of logic, reason, and evidence. I blamed myself at first; I considered myself the heathen, the fool, the outsider. I had the encouragement of others to keep the faith and love the Lord (and to ignore those things that bothered me, as they were “of the world). However, my need to know – something that drove me ever since I was a small child – was far more powerful than their words and, because of my curiosity, once things took their final turn, things changed VERY fast.

I thank my educators for who I am now. I also thank Plato. Granted the man is sometimes very boring in his writing, I was amazed when I first had to read him my Sophomore year of college. I still read it from time to time, but I was fascinated that Plato gave me the picture of a man much like Jesus – Socrates. The two have enough in common, right? Both dying for their beliefs? Both never writing their own material? Both having a dedicated group of followers? Both touting virtue and moral commandments? There was one thing vastly different, though: Socrates questioned just about everything and hardly ever relied on faith as a final solution. This intruiged me. I decided to adopt this approach because God and Christ would, if they were the supreme truths, reveal themselves in everything, right? Well, not so much.

The whole “I know nothing” thing really blew my mind when I began practicing and my God! I found it to be extremely true with myself. I realized that having things like evolution, the fossil record, anthropological, historical, and other theological options explained to me, that all of those years I was growing up, I really knew only one thing, and even then I didn’t know for sure (as all I had was based on faith). This turned my world upside down. It humbled me. With this in mind, I began to really dig for answers anywhere I could find them. I put this mindset to use – questioning everything, leaving no stones unturned, and even confronting the difficult questions I had so long been discouraged from tackling rationally. I would question in Sunday school, I would question my preacher, I would talk to people, but when I wouldn’t begin accepting their previous explanations or offering rebuttals, they didn’t take too well to it. It was confirmed to me that, really, these people had “answers”, but they didn’t know anything! If the evidence didn't fit their theory, than it had to be a lie! When they would deride evolution but couldn’t explain it to me, nor could they provide answers that didn’t boil down to “have faith”, “bad translation”, “it’s not your job to question or know the things of God” some other half-assed answer, or straight up denial, the red flag sprang up. I would discuss contradictions in the Bible, of which, according to them: “there are none.” It just seemed to me that the more I questioned, the more I learned they didn’t know, and I did it at the cost of alienating people and stripping away Christian precepts that had been instilled into me since I was five.

Because I was seen as “lacking faith”, I lost my Sunday school teaching position. They rationalize that I wasn’t teaching the kids faith, and it was difficult to when they were attempting to think it through – how could I kill that curiosity? When the kids would ask me questions like “well, Jesus said that we should not follow the old law, so why are we using the Old Testament?” and “this verse says to follow the Old Testament, but didn’t he make the old law null and void?”, the best answer I would have was “investigate further”. Some of them began to question the perfection of the Bible and why those in charge were “picking and choosing”. Why aren’t we killing homosexuals and witches? How do you explain the Crusades? Why are there different versions of event such-and-such?” I encouraged them to ask questions and to think things through and, sadly, the preacher didn’t take too kindly to it. Maybe Christ should’ve thought twice about having people come into his kingdom as children because these kids were bringing up issues that plague religion in-and-out.

At any rate, I read other things, studied other religions, and I realize that, when distancing myself from Christianity – they all said the same bloody thing! I read the Qur’an, I studied the Book of Mormon, I read books from the beginning of Christianity, Evolution, other religions etc. and I am slated to read a few others, but when lined up, it’s like one big crap shoot. Combine those with evolution being highly indisputable, the glaring ethical and logical arguments, and silence of God through prayer and I realize that for almost 15 years of my life, I had been living off a lie. Emotional highs, blind-faith, unquestioning devotion, and conformity a good sheep make – but it’s a horrible quality to have in a human being. So, to me, after drawing my conclusions from my liberal studies (which as a Liberal Arts student, I admit what they are), I had no choice. I couldn’t put faith into anything when I realized that a life of evidence was more satisfactory than a life of blind obedience. It was clear to me. By my own clear reasoning, I was forced to walk away. I lost the support of many of the elders (though a majority of them are dying anyway; Baptist potlucks aren’t conducive to healthiness), I lost many friends, I was equated to the “devil” at my church, and I was denounced by everyone (except the Pastor and a few others ironically enough) as ungodly. It was not pretty. When people asked me why I left, I told them why: “I can’t believe in myths and fairy tales.” An argument would ensue, but it would end with “you’re wrong and God is very disappointed in you!” They refused to listen. In the end, I just told them what I had concluded and I made them aware of why I was walking away. Of course, one can’t reason with a mob-mentality, but I occasionally show up to the church in good “faith” (pardon the pun) because, as I put it to one of my friends: “I’ll always be able to listen to your side if you’ll listen to mine.” I don’t think they’re doing well on their side of the bargain, but I hold to my word. They’re somewhat responsible for who I am, so I owe them a small portion of myself in return.

My relationship now with the church is amiable at best. Most of them know where I stand or at least assume they know. Some of the people I left, who tell me they’re heartbroken and “disappointed” that I did, were very loving and I will always love them, but I can’t respect ignorance (nor can I respect that they “pity” me). My mother catches a little flack because she still goes, but she’s accepted by view (she’s not willing to talk about it in detail, though) I’ll always be a bit of a firebrand and the pursuit of truth will always drive me (that’s a left-over from my Christian days), but I am intolerant of ignorance and I learned that taking things on faith is a horrible precept. “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum will show that faith proves nothing.” – Nietzsche. As I mentioned, I do go on rare occasion just to see if I can get the old spark back. Of course, I’m put through the ringer, and sometimes I receive a snide comment (to which I gladly offer one back), but I go to hear out the Pastor. He doesn’t mind as long as I don’t “sow discord”, which is difficult when much of what they say is a lie, unproven, or a series of misinformation, and I assure you that there are times when I want to speak up and say “well, sir, that’s not ENTIRELY true…let me tell you why”. Those things considered, for the moral high ground I, will always listen to what they have to say, but I can easily counter them with a dose of common sense. The times I do go (far and few between as debating with them goes nowhere…and sometimes degrades into just an argument or name-calling session), I am scolded for not coming back (but that’s from the people who don’t know of my agnosticism) or for having my head “filled with lies”. Other times, during the service, I can feel some people’s eyes who I have debated with drilling into the back of my “heathen head” and I know in their minds, I’m not welcomed there anymore. I will probably cut ties when I graduate college and move away, but I give them every chance I can.

I keep in contact with one of my friends from there, but the rest of them think I’m deluded. My friend (the preacher’s son), who is respectable as a man, has an open mind and has freely admitted that he has lost a lot of faith in organized religion (though he still holds firm to Christianity as a belief). Now, as I write, I can conclude that I don’t know what the answer to the million dollar question is, but I can throw in my two cents in a well-informed manner when issues come up. I still continue to read and study as much as I can in matters of religion, history, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and other fields that both enhance my future teaching position and assist me in negating the fairy-tales and obtuse arguments made by Christians. I personally live a life close to Buddhism (though I don’t use the name) with Socratic tendencies, but I have the guts to say that I may not know what is right, but I can discern what is wrong. I assure you that Christianity is just as big of a lie and collection of myths as all the other “heathen fairy tales” are to them.

I know that was long and I apologize if it sounded like a rant, but that's my story. I will continue struggling with the lifestyle I chose for myself and with those who will continue advocating how wrong and deluded I am. I’m free of those chains and I’ve been happier now than I’d been for almost 20 years. As I watch the Youth Group there shrink because the kids get a clue, and I watch the ranks slowly being depleted because the elders (who are the most devout) are slowly dying off, and I hear that many of those who go to college drop out of church, I’m filled with a hope that maybe common sense will become the order of the day instead of fairy tales and mysticism. This site fills me with hope, too. I’ve felt a lot of your pain, your confusion, and I’ve lost enough to know that Christianity can be extremely dangerous. I thank each one of you for your inspiration as you’ve helped me realize that I’m not alone in fighting this battle.