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From fundamentalism to freedom: my story

By Christian Charette ~

I don’t remember the day I stopped believing in a personal god. My exodus from Christian faith was a gradual process fueled by asking skeptical questions. I’m an insider who approached his own faith system the ways I had approached all other faith systems. The trajectory of my life, from being the little preacher boy who took the stage to preach at age 7 to a man who started his own church was, in retrospect, always deconstructing the system of Christianity I had adopted culturally. I was sincere and a true believer but a Christian by default.

It started when I was 5, living in buffalo, NY. My mother had joined a local Presbyterian bible study. Raised catholic, she came to believe that she wasn’t a true Christian with personal faith and decided to become a Christian. This was a decision that had significant impact on our family. After a rough patch, my father also converted and we began attending a Presbyterian Church in Armour, New York. I remember telling my mother that god was speaking to me in my head. I don’t remembered what the voice said, but it seemed to be a positive thing at the time.

We moved to Florida when I was 7. My mother, a school teacher took a job at a private Christian school that required her and her family to attend their independent baptist church. It was 1980 and evangelical legalism in the vain of Bob Jones University was popular. They taught the doctrine of inerrancy, that women shouldn’t wear pants, music shouldn’t have syncopation, no playing cards, no going to movies, no wearing your hair long as a male as it was considered a disgrace, and other generally annoyingly controlling beliefs. I was taught to memorize scripture Jack-Van-Impe style, and we attended church 3-4 times per week. I went to a christian school and a christian boys club. This formed the foundation of our Christian faith. Everything about our life was inside the bubble of Christianity. Informed by Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, it was a fundamentalist Christianity that frankly was no fun at all. Sobered by need to control behavior, it seemed then and now to betray their doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. What the holy spirit failed to be able to change in people magically, they would be sure to accomplish. This eventually proved to be an unbearable way of life and we moved on, a little to the left.

I was 16 when we joined another baptist church that was a little less independent and slowly emerging out of fundamentalism. We didn’t feel so religiously claustrophobic, but basically were still being taught fundamentalist doctrines, just with a little less Scrooge. It launched me into Christian music performance and towards a pastoral career.

My first year of college I attended the Word of Life Bible Institute where I studied nothing but the bible for a year without the outside interferences of television, radio, and contact with the outside world. At the time, I didn’t consider this cultish. After that, I attended Lancaster Bible College where I received a B.S. in theology/pastoral studies and music.

Since this time, I have pastored in one capacity or another in baptist churches, methodist churches and unaffiliated churches where I ended my Christian career after spending 8 years planting (starting) my own church. My Christian trajectory had taken me from fundamentalism to a more emergent and artistic style of Christianity that had boiled down my faith to the essentials of the Apostles Creed. I thought then of everything else as grey and subjectively interpreted. I led this ministry from what is called a missional approach.

During this time, I was heavily influenced by work of the Mark Driscoll’s, Tim Keller’s, Brian Mclaren’s, Gregory Boyd’s, Dallas Willard’s and Rob Bell’s of the Christian world. My ministry experiences, both successes and failures, had taught me as a person about my own biases, perceptions and limitations. But equally important, it demonstrated to me, even within a small circle of Christianity just how different Christians understand and appropriate their faith. It demonstrated a pantheism at work in the name of monotheism.

Augustine is famous for saying, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity“. This statement sustained my faith for a long time. Even though many Christians do often show charity to other Christians of different theological persuasions, deep down they are certain they are right and those others might not even know god. They believe they are right, not just in the doubtful things, but in the very essentials.

I remember after my Methodist stint talking with my baptist pastor back home. He said to me, “how could you work with those people?“. It was an honest moment from the man who had long since recognized that denominational separations are not just about doubtful things, but essential things. Yes, some Christian denominations overlap, but ultimately they disagree and are atheistic about each other’s essential doctrines about salvation, baptism, the holy spirit, inerrancy and infallibility, god’s sovereignty, man’s free will, jesus divinity, the nature of the trinity and much more. These experiences opened a crack of rationality in my own dogmatism. I began to see how each person really constructs their own god, choosing the foundational sticks that work for them, they erect their god projection like a cosmic piñata, heaping upon themselves blessings. It’s a pretty egocentric exercise that allows for an invisible and in-comprehensive agency to comfort the self and condemn the other.

Then I decided to step away from this career. My doubts had grown so much I didn’t think it was fair to myself or others to keep pretending I believed my own apologist answers to essential questions. This allowed me to finally examine my faith as an outsider. It’s very difficult to question the faith that brings you your livelihood.

I started reading the critics themselves. I started studying science and evolution (I was never taught evolution first hand, only through the Christian lens), textual and historical criticism, philosophy, canonicity, psychology and neurobiology. I watched many Christianity/atheism debates. I began to examine my presuppositional faith with the same questions I would have asked of any other person who wanted me to accept their own extraordinary faith claims. In doing this, I realized something very important about my own faith that I think is generalizable to many people’s faith process: because of my geography and family, I had accepted the claims of Christianity without a true examination.

I had received, by all accounts, a stellar Christian education attending both private Christian schools and colleges, completed with Greek and Hebrew, church history, and supposedly critical examinations of Christianity. But like all good cults, Christianity education operates with a closed posture. In other words, while objections are addressed, they are addressed through the lens of a preconceived knowledge. I was never instructed to read any critical works in their own words, even from insider criticism. Like most bad arguments, they told us what the critics had said or were saying and then argued against what were essentially straw men. This is an intentional sheltering, because when people are exposed to thorough criticism without that lens, they have to come face to face with their own leaps of faith. But it goes beyond that to a more seductive and self deceptive place:

At the heart of Christian faith exist a second hand rationalization that if insufficient intellectually rest on mysticism. Consider what William Lane Craig, known as the greatest Christian apologist of our time writes in his book, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, in the chapter “Faith and Reason: How Do I Know Christianity is True?” He draws a distinction between knowing Christianity is true and showing it is true. Basically saying how Christian apologetics works, he writes: “My friend, I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true. And you can know it, too, because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you are sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the gospel is true. Now, to try to show you it’s true, I’ll share with you some arguments and evidence that I really find convincing. But should my arguments seem weak and unconvincing to you, that’s my fault, not God’s. It only shows that I’m a poor apologist, not that the gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I’ll do my best to present good arguments to you. But ultimately you have to deal, not with arguments, but with God himself.”

Later he writes, “unbelief is at root a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem. Sometimes an unbeliever will throw up an intellectual smoke screen so that he can avoid personal, existential involvement with the gospel.”

This is a familiar sentiment from Christians. It goes something like this: faith has reasonable evidence and cogent rationalities , but if these don’t convince you, you must simply not have faith. Or as Thomas Aguinas put it, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible”. Christians essentially admit that their conviction arises from purely subjective factors, not much different from the sharply dressed Mormon biking missionary who just knows the Book of Mormon was written by ancient American prophets because he has a warm, swelling feeling in the stomach when he asks his god if it’s true. The Christian rejects the mormon’s self-deluding reasoning while embracing an equally irrational dogma. I began to see this as true of how all faith works, arguments in behalf of a fore-gone position. With circular arguments like this, faith beliefs cannot be proven false because its defined as truth first. Maybe that’s why they call it faith + reason. The rationale is like gravy, if arguments end up making sense, yahoo!, if they don’t, doubters just don’t possess the magic mojo to understand it. I decided I could not live my life any longer inside this magic circle. It no longer seemed an honest way to determine truth.

Isn’t it obvious to you that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn’t it obvious that Mormons are self-deceived? Isn’t it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn’t it obvious that the changing doctrines of the Mormon church beg the question? Yes, these things are obvious. Your faith is equally and obviously a cognitive dissonance to both Mormons and Muslims.I think the most important discovery and faith crushing factors come from the bible itself. I know many insiders reading my story will say, “ok that’s a philosophical argument, but what about the bible”. I have read the bible many times and much more these days. The difference is, I don’t have on any magic glasses. I don’t look at inside contradictions, outright phenomenal claims, or archaic scientific ideas and automatically excuse or rationalize it away to fit my preconceived narrative. I am amazed how much is truly missed and glossed over when your an insider with a preconceived truth. I now began to read the bible like I would read any other sacred book, like you would read any other sacred book, critically. Reading it carefully without man made harmonizations, theological rationalizations or total pre-acceptance is more honest. It is how many of you reading this right now would read the Book of Mormon or the Koran, both books claiming authority from a god.

I have had to admit to myself, that in order to even have assurance in Christianity, total confidence must be placed in the cannon of the modern bible itself. It requires two faiths. Before you can ever truly accept the tenants of Christian faith and its many disparate interpretations, you must first trust completely that the books in the bible are truly scripture from a god, and the only scriptures. But I had to ask myself, if I truly believed the councils who put this together selected these books with no bias or theological agendas? What about all the books mentioned in the bible they didn’t include in the cannon? Do I really accept the early authorship dates of the new testament books in the face of strong evidences to the contrary? Did I really accept that a god wrote these books perfectly and yet was unable to preserve them in there original forms, tell us exclusively which books he wrote, and accept the circular reasoning about inspiration and inerrancy? Did I really believe that a god would write these books and yet allow for such evolving knowledge, discrepancies and contradictions among the authors? Could I continue to rationalize failures of biblical prophecies, or accept messianic prophecies that are obviously cherry picked by the new testament authors and have Nostradamus like qualities? What about the discrepancies known and admitted by even Christian scholars? What about the lack of original manuscripts and variants among the ones we have? Why would Christians today read these books and believe the outright magical stories in them but rejects the Book of Enoch (Jude 4,6,13,14-15, 2 Peter 2:4;3:13), Life of Adam and Eve (2 Corinthians 11:14 “Satan as an angel of light”, 12:2 “Third Heaven”) or the many other-referenced in the bible-but not included in the cannon books? I think if most Christians really looked at the bible without magic glasses, they would be more hesitant to place a blind faith in its claims.

One of the categories I will use in my posts will be titles The Careful Reader. Slowly, methodically I hope to walk through the bible and address the above item list. Drawing in my own positive education in Christian apologetics I think many will find this a fair critic from a former insider who understands and once believed the rationalizations for the bibles errors.

I eventually came to the conclusion that my beliefs had come first, rationalizations had come second. It was a belief dependent realism that fed my faith retroactively. Like most people, I was exposed at a young age culturally to the overarching story of heaven and hell and a savior who died for me. This was appealing on an emotional level. I mean who wants to go to hell? But it glossed over the incredible fantastical claims the story is built upon. Everything after this choice in the bible had to be necessarily true, no matter how irrational. With my insiders faith, all contrary scientific evidence, outright textual contradictions, outrageous stories of floods and miracles, genocide and murder, slavery and polygamy, angels having sex and procreating giants, god being stopped by iron charts, picking up snakes and drinking poison, disparate genealogies of Jesus, zombies walking the streets of jerusalem after the resurrection, prophecies unfulfilled, and on and on….became subject to the first principle of faith. But I began to truly ask myself why I would accept these outright fairy tail like stories just because they happened so long ago in the light of what this god seems to be capable of today? I had read the large books dedicated to explaining what apologist call “apparent” problems and contradictions. Volumes are dedicated to explaining what you would expect a god to make clear from the beginning. But eventually and tragically, platitudes like, “god is just incomprehensible“, or “his ways are higher than our ways” or “he is infinite and we have finite minds” are how most Christians sustain their beliefs. This, I have decided is no way to run a mind and encounter reality. Ask yourself, what other facet of life do you accept in this fashion? Why would an invisible being require my belief, give me such contrary and irrational evidence that required me to ignore the very mind by which I determine all other realities? Why does faith require mindlessness?

I do not doubt other peoples sincerity or that that their faith in Jesus has coincided with very positive changes. But I can no longer allow subjective experiences, and personal faith to determine reality. The fact that people’s faith works is irrelevant. For instance, millions of people have had similar experiences—but they had them while thinking about Krishna, or Allah, or the Buddha, while making art or music, or while contemplating the beauty of nature. Magic feelings, inner assurance, faith or pragmatic and ecstatic experiences are not evidence to base a life upon. There is no question that it is possible for people to have profoundly transformative experiences. And there is no question that it is possible for them to misinterpret these experiences, and to further delude themselves about the nature of reality. It is, of course, right to believe that there is more to life than simply understanding the structure and contents of the universe. But this does not make unjustifiable claims about its structure and contents any more respectable and reasonable.

It’s not an easy choice to examine your own faith. There is a lot of pressure to hold the party line. Many of my family and friends are disappointed. What once was seen as a sound and wise mind, is now suspected as deficient. I have a new appreciation for those who try to leave less complex cults with localized power. I have new appreciation for those who tell their families about their true sexual orientation. It is human to want to belong, and rejection is something the most confident of persons likes to avoid. But I can’t honestly sacrifice my own mind and desire for better evidence for these extraordinary claims on the alter of blind faith.

If you are a Christian, you understand exactly what it’s like for me to be skeptical about Christian faith with respect to how you view the beliefs of say Muslims or Mormons. Isn’t it obvious to you that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn’t it obvious that Mormons are self-deceived? Isn’t it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn’t it obvious that the changing doctrines of the Mormon church beg the question? Yes, these things are obvious. Your faith is equally and obviously a cognitive dissonance to both Mormons and Muslims. Their works and prayers a also working for their experientially. What are you not staying up at night worried about your non-Mormonism or lack of faith is Allah?

They, right now, are living out a faith experience through prayer and worship and are correlating their life events to the hand of very different divinity. They a certain they have the truth through the revealed word of a god by faith. They view you as lacking the faith to see the truth and are perfectly resolved that they will be vindicated in the life to come after death. Understand that the way you view Islam and Mormonism is precisely the way Mormons and Muslims view you. And this is the exactly the way I now feel about all faith based claims.

Some have, and will accuse me of trading one faith for another, claiming I’ve now put my trust in humanism. But that isn’t how this works for people like me. No longer believing is not a religion. If no longer believing the evidence is a religion, then not collecting baseball cards is a hobby. Losing faith in the existence of a god is not equal to claiming one exist, is knowable and cares what I believe. Remove this and all that’s left is humanism in its various forms. Calling that a god is an attempt to level the field and obfuscate the arguments.

I decided to write this blog as a therapeutic exercise. Something that consumed such a large part of my life, so much of other people’s lives, and the American landscape is a topic I just can’t stop exploring. I’m hoping to interact with insiders, still holding onto their faith and offer support to those who doubt. Since I started coming out on social media, I’ve received private emails from people in religious positions who secretly doubt their faith. While I can respect the comfort of faith, I think the world would be a better place without the superstitious. As history has proven, believing absurdities can lead to atrocities.