Skip to main content

Belief and Unbelief: Deconversion story of a fundamentalist preacher in training

By Grayson Engleman ~

This is about my struggle with faith and doubt. This struggle is common to humanity. Part of faith is testing it, and keeping what passes the test. Put another way, doubt and faith go together like two ends of a see-saw or two ends of a balance scale. One has to find the balance between not doubting so much that they hold onto nothing; and not believing so much that they will refuse correction. This is my goal.

When going on in a particular philosophical or religious track means sticking your fingers in your ears, you become a dishonest person. While it is normal to want to harmonize things to your beliefs and it feels terrible when they fail to so harmonize, truth is truth regardless. It doesn't care whether it harmonizes with what you believe or whether it hurts that you deny it. It just is. I have found myself at an impasse where it is impossible to be honest with myself while also believing the way I used to believe. There are several reasons for this, but it is not easy to put into a nice flow of coherent statements.

Before I get to articulating my current situation, I just want to say that I realize now that, regardless of what Christians sometimes say about Romans 1, people who do not believe are honest about their unbelief. (At least some of them are.) You have no right to tell someone that they know that your religion is correct and that they insist on denying it. This is the height of arrogance and is one of many ways to simply shut down an argument rather than engaging in it or having real empathy to the situation. So regardless of where this journey takes me, at least I understand nonbelievers now to some extent.

All of this has been a long time coming.

I realized that my views of both the inerrancy and inspiration of scripture led to a dishonest reading of the bible. I am not really going to go into details about that. There are hundreds of articles and books from every position on these topics. But at the end of the day, various parts of the bible present entirely different pictures of both God and humanity, and these really have little net overlap. I know the arguments against what I am saying. I studied them in seminary and have been in dozens (hundreds?) of conversations about this from a pro-inerrancy, pro-inspiration perspective. That is precisely why I see it the way I now do. I know where these arguments fall short. I have tried and tested them repeatedly.

Reading the bible honestly shows that each section of the bible is a product of its culture. This alone does not in any way make it untrue, granted, but it does insist that one approach the bible anthropologically. Few modern evangelical Christians do this. They only say they do it. Their real goal is to systematize the passage with their own current culturally-defined constructions of religion, which are altogether different from those of the biblical author they are reading. Therefore they miss the text.

What does cast doubt on the claims of scripture is all of its inner inconsistencies. Again, I am not going to try to prove this nor will I debate it. I have been through all of that a thousand times (from the side of Christian apologetics). All of this is only to explain where I am right now.

To my Christian friends: I do not say any of this to seem blasphemous, only to be honest: In the Bible God does not seem emotionally stable. Violent temper tantrums and gentle sympathies, enraged genocide and sweet lullabies. Sure, we can say that these are just anthropomorphizing the inscrutable transcendent God into ways we can understand him. Or we can be honest: it doesn't seem sane.

Does it?

"But God can do what he wants!" is one answer. Ok. That doesn't help though. It just shuts down conversation. You can't really go anywhere from that.

There are many reasons people believe, at least from the human perspective of belief: Scripture, prayer, community, reason, spiritual experience, morality, and some others. These are some of the legs on which the religious table is built. You can saw one, maybe even two, off, and the table will stand. But if four erode it collapses. This is the best analogy I know for my own condition.

A brief statement about each of these reasons for belief:

- As far as community goes, I have never had much of a sense of a real Christian community. Part of this is a function of my weird personality type I suppose. But it is what it is. I have always felt like an outsider, but especially so in the church.

- In my own life, I have found nonbelievers to be just as moral as believers. Sometimes more so. The whole doctrine that the Holy Spirit progressively makes believers more holy seems a farce. The difference, in my mind, is hypocrisy. Some Christians feign a morality but they are secretly filled to the brim with sin they don't admit or cannot see. Just recently I have been bullied (again) by a Christian whom I have loved dearly for years and who refuses to see it. I already forgave this person, but just so you know: Treating people badly is a very easy way to drive someone away from agreeing with your beliefs, however illogical that may be.

- Scripture is a wax nose. Christians cannot even agree about which books should be canonized into the bible. And to the degree that they do agree, they disagree in interpretation. Two thousand years after the New Testament and they still don't know how to read it.

- Spiritual experience is something that some people put a high priority on. But people from all religious walks of life have spiritual experience. No matter how you dismiss these, they believe their experiences as strongly as you believe yours. They are REAL, at least to them. I have had very transcendent Christian experiences myself. And?

- Reason is a big one. Reason is a big part of being a human being. The way Christians sometimes respond to scientific findings because they fear those findings will impinge upon their religion is really sad. And not new. More personally, as stated somewhere above, sometimes belief for me means sticking my fingers in my ears and denying my brain any access to my heart. This is dishonest and doesn't even sound sane when articulated.

- Prayer never really worked for me. I mean, sure, I could find an instance here, one there, but in general, prayer is unanswered in my life. I know the standard answer (sometimes God says yes, sometimes he says no, sometimes he says wait) and the other answer (prayer is not about getting what you want). But Jesus said ask what you want in his name and he will do it. Oddly enough, this category does seem supernatural: whatever I pray for seems to fall apart. I get the opposite of what I ask for far more often than I get what I ask for. Having me pray for you is scary! (I am being sarcastic, but the point remains).

So much more could be said in each of these categories. I could easily make each of them eight pages. But I just want to move on.

There are just a few more things I want to say:

It is clear that religion is a product of culture. People born in Mississippi believe the bible. People born in Nepal are Hindu. This is just anthropology. The only explanations that seem honest are: 1. all of these beliefs have equal truth value (maybe none, maybe partial), 2. people who get access to the right truths are random and helpless about it, 3. God has favorites.

But even closer to home: Christian religion is a product of culture. The longer Christianity lasts, the more if fractures off of itself into new branches. That is because there are as many different theologies as there are people. This is because religion is made by its practitioners. I am fairly certain that that is the only explanation.

Stepping back to look at various beliefs: if you lay out a Venn Diagram of, say, Mormonism, Paganism, Humanism, Catholicism, Islam, and Buddhism (just for example), the net overlap is basically zero. The net overlap is smaller still if you add Hinduism, Protestantism, etc, into the mix. A purely logical response to this fact is to examine each one and find which one most resonates with what seems true to the examiner. But even if one finds the one that seems to have the most truth content, that does not make the corresponding belief system true as a whole.

This is because the system was created by humans. Calvinism. Lutheranism. Same reality. You believe what you are fed, and what you choose. It is a smorgasboard. We all know this.

What I believe now? [...] For now, I see myself as a deconverted person.So wherever my journey will take me, I am pretty sure that I can never view my own future religious views as a system of doctrines. It makes more sense to see Christianity as a dialogue or journey of a community seeking after God. At least that is honest. Religious systems of doctrines are not. They are divisive and small-minded. I don't say that to be mean to anyone. It is just what I have always experienced. Universally.

What I believe now? It depends on when you ask me. I still think Jesus is the best person ever. Most days, but not all, I hold onto substitutionary atonement and resurrection. But other than that, at least for now, I see myself as a deconverted person.

This is something I am not ashamed of and do not feel guilty for, though others would find it immoral. The only way to go on as before is to be dishonest. THAT is shameful. I do not fear truth. I think that many people hold on to what they believe because they fear they are wrong and the whole superstructure falling down is more than what they want to bear. I believe they are not even honest with themselves about this fact. You hear this in the subtext of conversations with religious people. Over the years, in testing my faith with people (as every healthy person does from time to time), little telling statements come out of them: "If the bible is wrong, where is my hope?!" or "If God doesn't save me, I am doomed." It is easy to read between the lines of these statements. Neither get at truth content. They only get at irrational fear.

As I wrote above, I do understand nonbelievers now. I know the standard view that real believers can't ever become nonbelievers. My former condition was genuine. If real believers cannot become nonbelievers, I won't. Can't. But I believe nonbelievers who say they were former Christians. It's insulting to them to say they are lying about this.

It is vulnerable putting all of this out there. I know some people have expressed concern for me. I am not afraid. Truth is truth. Whatever it is, that's fine. Is it accessible? Perhaps. I am fine. I do not want my family or friends to worry about me. I have believed as strongly as I could for as long as I could. Now I am just running after truth. Truth is what matters.