When I’ve talked to people about my experiences in church, I’ve often heard things like, “You just had a bad experience. It’s not all like that,” or “You shouldn’t judge all of Christianity by your particular circumstances,” or “Well, yeah. The church sometimes sucks, but God is still good.” In other words, my personal experience might have been bad, but for others, it’s all good, so it’s not God’s fault. Now, people close to me might say this because they neither want to blame God or me for my situation. People who don’t know me might tell me I forsook God and now I know where I’m going.
I wasn’t the most successful Christian, but I wasn’t the most insular, either. I attended a Catholic school as a child, and we went to Mass every Friday. I have at various times in my hometown church led small groups, taught Sunday School and youth groups, delivered the sermon, led worship, and prayed for people for healing and baptism of the Spirit. I’ve attended and been a counselor at youth camps of a more Pentecostal sort (think Jesus Camp, but a little less intense) where people prayed to be able to speak in tongues. I even attended an Episcopal church a few times, and went to a couple Mormon stake dances (it was all U2 and Depeche Mode). I didn’t intentionally take in the broadest swath of Christianity, but it wasn’t the smallest.
Here’s the thing. My Christian experience wasn’t bad. Largely, I enjoyed my involvement in the church. I rarely look back with regret, and I value the morality that was imparted to me. I am not bitter about my Christian experience.
When I co-led a group a couple years ago (also entitled “Exiting Christianity”), the majority of attendees’ experiences with the church were much worse than mine. I came away feeling lucky that my experiences were largely with Christians of a less dogmatic and judgmental type. It’s hard to convince people that religion is good when their encounters with religious people have been condemnatory. Why should the person who feels mistreated think otherwise? Especially from an outside perspective, why believe that God is good when the evidence or your life experience suggests otherwise? (Many Christians do this, of course, with seemingly little reason other than custom. I coasted on custom for a few years.)
Nonetheless, my spiritual experiences, overall, were good. Even when I was kicked out the church, I held no ill will; I figured if I had been a conservative Christian, I would have done the same thing. So if we can’t blame the church, or the pastor, what else could be at fault? Geographic and cultural changes, perhaps? When returning to my hometown church the first few years after moving to California, I regularly had people half-jokingly comment, referring to this or that change in my appearance, that it must be a “California influence.” Longer hair? California. Vegetarian? California. Liberal political views? California. Loss of faith? You guessed it. I had heard this type of explanation before as well, when talking about someone who had “fallen away” from the faith because they moved away or stopped going to church. These are certainly factors, but not for the reasons people suppose.
Viewed in light of an ultimate truth that you already possess, exposure to divergent world views and multiculturalism may seem like a bad thing. I stayed in my hometown until almost thirty and heard negative opinions expressed about what lay beyond all the time. Now having lived elsewhere (though still in the Western United States) and traveled considerably, I would argue that everyone should spend some time living in a different location, even if only for a few months. The challenges to your default way of thinking and the expansion of your cultural understanding are worth a great expense.
Though in the scope of things, my cultural and spiritual upbringing may have been comparatively provincial, I don’t hold it responsible for my leaving the faith. I would say that living in a different culture had something to do with my subsequent life choices, but I haven’t been put under a liberal, or Californian, or atheist spell.
The single greatest factor in my deconversion that I haven’t mentioned was my continued education, which played a much more complex role. I’ll talk about that in the future.