How My Mind Was Set Free

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By Merle Hertzler (https://mindsetfree.blog/) ~

I learned early that I was not to question my religion. I was to simply have faith. And yet somehow the questions would still come. I would sometimes question the Bible. How did we know it was God’s Word? I would sometimes question Jesus. How did we know he was God? I never dared to ask these questions out loud, but in my own mind, yes, I asked these questions often.

The questions demanded attention. But simultaneously, there was always the nagging fear of what would happen if I died while I was in a state that questioned the faith. I simply could not take that chance. The consequences of dying in doubt could well be unimaginable.

So, I asked questions, yes, but I always knew what the answer needed to be. The side of my mind that argued for Christ had to beat out the side that argued against.

It is as if my mind included an advocate for the faith, an advocate against the faith, and a referee. The referee always sided with the advocate for the faith. And so, the advocate for the faith always won, two to one.

Those times were never fun. I longed to be free from doubts. And so, by sheer willpower, I pushed those questions aside.

But my mind was not really free.

Many years later, the dam would break. The questions would come out–gradually at first, then with a rush. And when it was all over, my mind was free.


I grew up in a conservative Mennonite home. We didn’t listen to secular music, watched only a select few TV shows, and centered our lives on conservative religion.

When I was 14 years old, my family and I joined a fundamentalist church, one that did not question the Bible. Fundamentalism became a way of life for me. Everything that entered my mind had to come through its filter. I soaked it all in.

I was terrified of hell and would often lie awake at night worrying about it. Even in social settings, I would be sitting there thinking about hell. Fundamentalism offered a solution. It said that all one had to do was accept Jesus. So, I did it. Did I do it right? I didn’t know. So, I did it again. I still wasn’t sure that I had done it right. And so, I did it again and again in my mind. I prayed that God would be merciful to me a sinner. I invited Jesus into my heart. Over and over, I accepted him in any way I could think to accept Christ.

One day I read the tract, What Must I Do to Be Saved, by John R Rice. It told me I did not need to concentrate on getting the act of believing right or saying the right words. I just needed to choose to believe. That’s it? All I needed to do was choose to believe? Fine. I chose to believe. Case closed. Let’s move on.

And so, I proceeded in life as though the case was closed. What a relief! I thought that everybody else surely had similar worries and needed to know this news of deliverance from hell.

“Grace, my fears relieved”, the old song says, but before that, “It was grace that taught my heart to fear.” Religion offered a cure for my fears. But what had caused the fears? Religion. Does Christianity invent the fears it then relieves? Is it solving a problem that it created?

I found relief from my fears. But to tell you the truth, faith did not do a really good job of it. The fear of hell had finally become manageable, yes, but it was always in the background.

As a Fundamentalist Baptist

In college, I joined an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, which then controlled every aspect of my life. I went door to door on the streets of the Bible belt, witnessing to those who may have missed God’s plan of salvation. Everybody at this church was told to be a soul winner. The pastor boomed his message from the pulpit, yelling at those who stayed home on visitation night. We had to be out there winning souls.

We didn’t want anybody to die and go to hell without knowing the way of salvation. If somebody didn’t know, then we needed to tell them. I wonder now, why did God need us to tell that story? Didn’t he have all the resources he needed? If we failed to tell somebody, and as a result that person suffered for eternity without ever having known the escape plan, how could a loving God let that happen? I never asked those questions back then. I was winning souls.

The pastor also yelled at those that listened to rock music, gave less than 10% of their income to the church, had the wrong haircut, or attended a movie theater. We were told exactly how to live our lives, and we obediently followed. It was the only life we knew.

In my senior year of college (1978) the pastor [1] moved to another church, and the church [2] deteriorated into disarray. I was confused. This was all I had to live for, and it had fallen apart. I saw the dark side of the church. There was chaos at some church functions. Once when we were singing Just as I Am over and over as an alter call, people became so bored that the song died in the middle and we never finished it. I had thought that we were saving the world. Now I looked at the lives that had been saved and wondered if it had meant anything.

Meanwhile, I watched as the story of Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Guyana appeared on TV. The story of those poor people following every command of their leader seemed all too real to me. I had been living my life much like they had. I could understand why they followed so obediently. Religion can do that to a person. Had I been deluded also?

There was something else that bothered me. I had been reading through the Bible every year since I was in 11th grade–every word of every verse–and was disturbed about what I was reading. Have you ever read the tales of killing, greed, and arrogance that fill the Old Testament? Do you ever question their relevance? I was not sure that I could trust the Bible any longer. As my confidence in the Bible withered, apathy set in.

Despair

I graduated from college with no meaning to life. My Christian hope had gone. I cannot begin to describe the despair that filled my life for the first two years after graduation. There was nothing to live for. I wanted to be happy, but I didn’t know why that would matter. Two hundred years from now, who would ever care if the bones left behind had supported a happy person or a sad person? Probably nobody would ever care.

But somehow, I cared. And I wasn’t sure why. I wanted to be happy. But instead, I knew apathy, bitterness, struggle, frustration, anger and confusion.

When my Christian hope had faded, why didn’t I look for something else? I didn’t know there was another way. I had grown up in Christian schools, Sunday schools, and Bible studies. The Bible was the only hope I knew, and it now seemed so inadequate. I never thought to look elsewhere–such is the grip that religion can have. I wish now that somebody had told me how to live the good life without the Bible. But I would not learn that until many years later.

Digging out

In desperation, I turned to Christian books. I had no intention of going back to my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist days. I thought that perhaps a milder brand of Christianity could help. As I read, I felt encouraged. Was God leading me back to himself? I thought that he was. And so, I made a commitment to walk close to the Lord again. I found that Christianity worked much better for me than apathy.

I would often go to a park and find a forsaken place alone with God where I could pray. I would pour out my heart to God, and I would leave refreshed. I took this as proof that Christianity was true.

I was soon to find the writings of C. S. Lewis. I found them fascinating. He did not just quote Bible verses. He used reason. I liked that. I read his books with enthusiasm and formed a new outlook on life.

I was back to seeing myself and others as rebellious sinners against God. I believed that I had rebelled against God, and that this had brought on the two years of depression. It was all my fault.

I saw others also in the same light as I saw myself. If somebody did something that hurt me, then I figured they must be doing it because they had given in to their evil, sinful nature. I would get bitter at those who had followed their inner sinful self in ways that hurt me. Sometimes I snapped at people and let them know how bad they were. That wasn’t good.

But I also found that religion helped me to keep my mouth shut. If inside I was bad, then I needed to keep that bad anger inside. It came from my fallen nature. I would not want my fallen nature to express itself like this. I wanted only my new positive nature, as produced by the Holy Spirit, to come out. So, the old, angry words were constrained. I set out to surrender my basic wants and desires to God.

I now was turning back to faith, not because I feared hell, but because I needed to avoid the despair associated with depression. I was no longer following the Independent Baptist tradition, but one thing I knew, I had had purpose and hope in those college days. And that was certainly better than the depression that had followed. So even if I was not convinced that my Independent Baptist days were on the right path, I figured that at least my life back then had been better. So I thought I needed faith to have purpose in this life. I just needed to make a few adjustments.

The Problem of Pain

I had a low view of human nature. Such views may look strange in light of what many now say in today’s Evangelical churches. These churches have often adopted a feel good, psychological approach to life that seeks to build our self-esteem and encourages us to accept ourselves and our feelings. Many Evangelicals do this in spite of the doctrine of human depravity that is still in Evangelical theology.

It was not long ago that the view of humanity as totally depraved was dominant, not only in fundamentalist churches, but in mainstream Protestant sources like the writings of C.S. Lewis. Since Lewis’s views were so foundational to me at that time, I will digress here to discuss the view of humanity that appears in his book, The Problem of Pain. He writes:

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed, [3]

Lewis thought that we are bad people, and that God was angry with us for being bad. Lewis thought that Christianity offered no hope to those who did not share this view.

He went on to say that some Christians might ask, “What call has God, of all beings, to be angry with us?” Lewis responded to his own rhetorical question, declaring it to be a blasphemous question:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt–moments too rare in our lives–all of these blasphemies vanish away… At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in [some sinful] action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being…When we merely say that we are bad, the “wrath” of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness. [4]

Guilt is far too rare? Really? Lewis was not merely telling us that our actions are bad, but also that our very character is something that God hates with unappeasable distaste. He was saying that God is justified in having wrath toward us. For after all, at our very core, we are guilty, bad people.

Why are we so bad? Lewis contended that it is because of Adam’s sin. Can God then blame us for Adam’s sin? Lewis responds to this question:

Theoretically, I suppose, we might say “Yes, we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.” But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it leads us to commit. [5]

So we find that we are born as vermin. And Lewis says that it is a shame and grief to us that we are vermin. What is the Christian to do? He continues,

Now the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator… In the world as we know it, the problem is how to recover this self-surrender. We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms…Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive…The human spirit will not even begin to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. [6]

Do you get the picture? Lewis describes us all as inherently depraved descendants of Adam, as evil rebels. We need to die to our own internal wants. Suffering, he claims, is the tool that God uses to affect this change. His books were the biggest influence in my philosophy of life at that time. I also knew of a number of scripture verses to support this low view of humanity (e.g. Job 42:6Is 64:6Lu.17:10, and Rom. 3:10-19).

I look at it now, and do not think that I had a very healthy perspective. But this philosophy was mild compared with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist tradition that I had come out of. And it certainly worked better than apathy. This outlook gave me a reason to live. At the time I assumed that it worked because it was right. Now, I think that it worked because it gave me a purpose. Other ways would have worked better.

C. S. Lewis showed me that life was rough, yes, but that was because we needed pain to change us from vermin to what we should be. Fine. Life is hard, but there was a reason for it. God was dealing with the old me, the vermin. I pushed onwards. And it seemed to be working.

I had found this one great pillar to support my rebuild of faith: Christianity is worthwhile because the path that I had found within Christianity works, at least it works for me.

That pillar would one day collapse on me when it was shown to be inadequate. The observation that faith made me feel better is simply not a good reason to say that the faith is true. But at that time the reasoning seemed solid.

Creationism

There was a second great pillar on which I based my faith. This pillar had stood firm even during the days of despair. I was quite familiar with the teachings of Henry Morris and the young Earth creationists. I thought that this was the most logical explanation for how life began. They argued that the Earth was created by God a few thousand years ago, just as the Bible said. During the time of Noah, a great flood covered the Earth. This flood buried many animals, I was told, and these became the fossils we see today. Creationists argued that all this was supported by scientific findings.

Creationists argued that evolution was impossible. They said that creationism was consistent with true science, but evolution was pseudoscience. I listened to this side only and was convinced.

Other things in the Bible may perhaps be wrong. I was finding simply too many problems with the Bible. But I had these two great pillars of my faith: a belief that Christianity as I knew it worked; and a belief that Genesis was the best explanation of origins.

Exposure to Enlightened Views

In 1987 I moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia and found an exciting Evangelical church. I met many wonderful people and quickly became involved in many aspects of the program. I had found a home and was happy.

Some of the Christians at this church came from a range of religious backgrounds. This was new to me. Some people disagreed with the way I understood Christianity. Some did not agree with me that the earth was only a few thousand years old, for instance, or that the fossils had come from Noah’s flood.

Others told me that my religious philosophy did not work, that other philosophies worked better. There were big differences. I thought that we should despise our evil inner self; they thought that we should love ourselves. I thought that we must work hard to keep the evil anger inside of us from coming out; they thought that anger was there because we had not vented our anger. I thought that the big problem was overestimating oneself and overconfidence; they thought that the big problem was low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. I thought that we needed to die to ourselves; they thought that we need to discover ourselves and self-actualize. I thought that God made us feel guilty about our evil feelings; they thought it was the devil that wanted us to feel guilty about natural feelings. I thought that God allowed people to mistreat us because that was his way of molding our character; they thought that mistreatment damaged our psyche, often requiring counseling to overcome t he effects. They thought my philosophy was depressing.

Do you understand why this was a difficult pill for me to swallow? This was a main pillar of my Christian faith–the belief that my Bible-supported views worked. Now here were Christians telling me that my version did not work well. What did they mean it didn’t work well? It absolutely did work. It worked far better for me than the apathy and the depression I had been in. And I had scripture to back it up.

It was not easy for me to accept that my way did not work well and was not based on truth. So, I prayed about it and read the Bible. And what do you think happened when I prayed? That’s right. I was convinced that God was telling me I was right. Seriously, who was I to go against what God was saying to me?

My friends and I all agreed that Christianity had the best answers to life. My experience and prayers told me that my version worked better. Their experiences and prayers told them that their version worked better. Who was right?

Computer Debates

I was soon to have my eyes opened to many other philosophies that supposedly worked best. I would soon meet believers in Mormonism, Islam, Bahai, Judaism, Wicca, and Atheism. Each was sure that his way had worked for him, thus showing that it was the best.

I was going to also hear of many psychological solutions, again with testimonials for each claiming that it was better than other techniques. I was not the only one who had claimed that my experience proved that I was right. Lots of people were claiming that they had tried something, and this made them feel better. Do all philosophies work? Some researchers had looked at the conflicting cures within psychology and wrote, “Is it true that ‘Everyone has won, and all must have prizes’?” [7] Indeed!

I met these people of many religions in the CompuServe debate forum, back in the days when one used a modem to dial into a computer instead of using the Internet. I began to participate in the religion section. I actively debated religion and psychology with anybody that wanted to discuss them. This was to become an important focus of my life.

The biggest lesson I learned during these debates was how to form an argument. It was not enough for me to state that Jay Adams, C. S. Lewis, or Thomas Szasz had written something that agreed with me on a particular point. After all, one can find somebody who will agree with almost any religious viewpoint that he expresses. I needed a more effective argument.

My favorite resource was the Psychoheresy Awareness Ministry of Martin and Deidre Bobgan. They referred to psychological experiments to support their arguments, and often quoted scientific journals. I found that when I described experiments people often listened to what I had to say and were less likely to attack my writings. I developed a love for scientific experiments and the scientific journals that described them.

And so began a regular series of trips to the Philadelphia Public Library, and later, a university library. I would make lists of articles that favored my positions and would go to the library to get more ammunition for my side.

Cracks in the Foundation

These trips became time-consuming, and so, in 1992, I subscribed to my favorite journal, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. At $247 a year, this represented a major desire to learn the truth. Having made the commitment, I was determined to learn something from each issue. I began to read papers whether I thought they agreed with my position or not. This was a change for me. I was not merely reading to prove I was right. I was reading to learn.

I read some papers that were enlightening. I read that trying to suppress thoughts can make them stronger. [8] Were my efforts to keep my true thoughts under control making those repressed thoughts stronger? I learned more about the function of self-esteem. Was my viewpoint of myself as an evil sinner harmful? Did my Christianity really not work as well as I had persuaded myself it had? Slowly, microscopic cracks began to develop in this great pillar of my faith. It was slow and subtle, but the cracks were beginning.

The Creationism Pillar Caves

Meanwhile, a strange twist of fate put me right into the middle of the creation-evolution debate. That was not where I wanted to be, for these fights were often quite nasty. I couldn’t believe that I was there in the middle of it all. But I was not about to leave a good debate. I decided to let people know that evolution could not possibly happen.

I made some progress arguing that the complexity of genes made evolution difficult, but somebody wanted to know where all of those fossils had come from, if not from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. I suggested they might have been caused by Noah’s flood. My argument was defeated in one round. I was asked to explain how it is that we find rocks made of wind-blown sand in the midst of all these rocks under the earth. I had no answer. Wind certainly wouldn’t be blowing sand around under the floodwaters. I told myself the problem was that I was not familiar enough with that issue. So, I avoided the flood altogether until I could find better answers.

I never did find a satisfactory answer to this simple question, nor to many of the other problems with Noah’s flood. So, I concentrated instead on problems that I perceived with the mechanism of evolution.

To make a long story short, this led me to a moment of epiphany in which I found myself in a library completely overwhelmed with the evidence for evolution. In shock, it dawned on me that I had no convincing case for my young Earth Creationism.

After the dust had settled, 18 months later, I had switched to arguing for evolution. I describe this transition elsewhere, and won’t repeat it here.

It was a complete change. Many people have survived the switch to evolution, and they still have faith. But the switch to evolution was traumatic for me. For I had two strong pillars left in my faith, the supposed evidence for creationism, and the understanding that Christianity works. The creationism pillar was now gone. The building above was resting on one unstable column.

The Second Pillar Caves

Meanwhile the other pillar of my faith–the one that said conservative Christian philosophy worked–was severely cracking. When I had met people offering all kinds of psychological cures for the condition of the human heart, I had argued that some researchers had found that it was not just the specifics of the cure that helped people, but that it was the caring, nurturing relationship with a friendly helper that was doing more to build hope, and thus help troubled people. [9] I argued that, therefore, others could not force a view on me that they found had worked for them. Perhaps the fact that they felt better had nothing to do with their method. Perhaps they were feeling better only because they were making a cooperative effort with others to address the problem.

One day somebody turned that argument on its end. He asked me how I knew that Christianity worked. Perhaps people were helped within Christianity because they were in a nurturing relationship with caring people, not because of the specifics of the Bible. I had been caught by my own argument, and I had no answer. I knew I could not be sure that it was Christianity that made the difference.

As this was happening, I was also needing to deal with the errors in the Bible. I had known about these problems for years, ever since I had read through the entire Bible six times in my youth. But I had found those two great pillars of my faith, and thus could ignore the Bible’s problems. Those pillars were now in shambles. And I was seeing skeptics on the forum arguing that the Bible commanded massacres (e.g. 1 Samuel 15); praised terrorism (e.g. Psalm 137); and allowed slavery (e.g. Exodus 21). They pointed out contradictions in the Bible. I knew I had no chance against their arguments. It was no longer possible to ignore what the Bible said. My faith was crumbling.

What should I do?

I began to rapidly incorporate new ideas into my mind. I did my best to piece together a progressive philosophy of life that would keep my faith in spite of these problems. I experimented with ways to include evolution, an obviously errant Bible, a higher view of the self, and even Humanism into my Christianity.

Meanwhile, I moved on to other interests: country dancing, movies, and romance. Ah yes, romance. I fell in love with a very special lady, who has become my best companion in life. She has supported me through some tough times, and I am very grateful to her. She has a compassion and concern for others that I can only dream about. I had found somebody that I could love with all of my heart. We were soon to be married. She has not agreed with where my skepticism has finally led me, but she is always my best friend.

I had drifted away from participation in church. I now made one last effort to find my place again. There had been a radical change in my thought process. I was no longer the most conservative thinker on the block. Now I was perhaps the most liberal thinker at church. I persuaded myself that I could still fit in–after all it was the progressive element at church that started me on my journey–but I found it increasingly hard to identify with the church program. And I asked questions that surprised everyone.

There is no stopping the mind set free. It is like that first leak of water through the dam. It reaches a critical size, and then bursts free. My thoughts refused to stop. The dam had been broken. I read books that were critical of the Bible. I read the Bible from a whole new viewpoint. I found skeptical sites on the Internet. I asked many questions–many of which are on my website. I found it harder and harder to identify myself as a Christian.

Even the label of Liberal Christian was losing its appeal. I could no longer believe the basics of Christianity. If I still identified as a Christian, while sidestepping the problems, was I committing the sin of silence?

Where it All Led

In 2002 I decided that I could no longer identify myself as a Christian. What am I? I am now an Ex-Christian, an Agnostic, a Humanist, and a Freethinker. In September 2002 I created the website Questioning: An Examination of Christian Belief to discuss my questions and to explain what had happened to me.

I have not chosen an easy path. It is not easy to tell people that I no longer believe that this message is true. But I find the evidence overwhelming. If the weight of the evidence were marginal, I would follow the believing crowd and not raise the issue. I do not like to be different. I prefer to follow the crowd. All of my life I have been a follower. I have always wanted to fit in. But there are just too many problems with the Bible. I simply cannot unlearn what I have learned. Knowing what I know, I cannot be a Christian. So, I choose the road less traveled.

I am not asking you to follow me. You have a mind of your own. You can decide for yourself. But perhaps you could learn from me.

I now have a different perspective in life. I wrote earlier of how I once saw people that hurt me as being evil. If somebody hurts me now, I think they must do it because, from their perspective and current knowledge, it seems best for them to do what they do. Years ago, it was hard to forgive hateful vermin who did hateful things. It is much easier to forgive confused but well-meaning individuals. This change in perspective works wonders. Instead of concentrating on bridling the tongue, one can concentrate on understanding the person who did hurtful things. Rational questioning changes perspectives, and changed perspectives change lives.

I find that I am far happier without the bonds of a preset religion. My mind has been set free. I am free to explore the world without the need to fit everything into a predefined religious bias.

It is fine to question. It is safe to explore. There is always more to learn. I hope that neither you nor I will ever stop questioning.


The above is an edited copy of the story I shared on the web in 2002. Since then, I have enjoyed a life that is truly free. This story had been part of my Questioning: An Examination of Christian Belief website that was on the Internet until 2017. I have now brought that site back online with a major facelift. I have rebranded it as The Mind Set Free.

Merle Hertzler, June 11, 2022

NOTES

1. I have since read that this pastor, Terry Smith, was later convicted of shoplifting condoms. He has been accused of multiple incidents of seduction and harassment. See God’s Man: Savior or Seducer?

2. This church, Longview Baptist Temple, was one of many modeled after First Baptist Church of Hammond, which was led by the late Dr. Jack Hyles. Hyles and numerous pastors associated with him have been accused of misconduct. See Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church and The Scandalous Life of Jack Hyles and Why it Still Matters.

3. Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1962) p 57

4. Ibid., p. 58

5. Ibid., p. 85

6. Ibid., p. 90-92

7. Luborsky, Lester, Barton Singer, Lise Luborsky, “Comparative Studies of Psychotherapies: Is it True that ‘Everyone Has Won and All Must Have Prizes‘?,” Archives of General Psychiatry 32, Aug 1975, p 995

8. Wegner, Daniel, Ralph Erber, “The Hyperaccessibility of Suppressed Thoughts,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63, Dec.1992, pp. 903-912

9. Luborsky, et. al., op. cit., pp. 995-1008

Copyright Merle Hertzler 2002, 2004, 2022. All rights reserved.



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ExChristian.Net: How My Mind Was Set Free
How My Mind Was Set Free
I learned early that I was not to question my religion. I was to simply have faith. And yet somehow the questions would still come.
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