12/23/13

It’s Never too Early to Talk to Your Kids About…

For a couple years I’ve been dreading having a conversation with my son about (me) no longer being a Christian. Well, maybe not dreading, but it was a big unknown. How would he react? What would he think? I was looking forward to any questions he might ask, but concerned not to upset him unnecessarily. As I’ve noted before, his main contact with Christianity in the last four years (beyond extended family members and its general cultural prevalence, which is no small amount) is through the “prayers” we say together at night. They were prayers, originally, and gradually morphed, at least for me, into general statements of thankfulness, reflection on the day, and hopes for the future. My wife and I dropped the opening greeting to God or Jesus long ago, but made no fuss that my son maintained a “Dear Jesus.” Given this ritual, I wasn’t sure if he would be angry, disappointed, etc., thinking that these statements of thankfulness he had been addressing to a special deity were invalidated.

My fears were unfounded and the conversation was anticlimactic, to put it mildly. Since Christmas is coming, Harland has just turned eleven, and he seemed to be ready to handle the conversation, I decided to have it out. He hates “talks,” because they usually happen when we want to admonish him or a potentially embarrassing subject is going to be discussed. He protested loudly when I asked if we could talk until I assured him it was not about puberty, a topic about which he claims he has learned all he needs to know in school. The “conversation” followed in roughly this form:

Me: Do you remember when we used to go to church at the school when we were in Santa Barbara?

Him: We don’t have to start going to church again, do we?

Me: No. Did you ever wonder why we stopped going there?

Him: Well, we started going to that house, and I’d go in the other room and watch TV while you guys talked.

(This was a group my friend and I called “Exiting Christianity” and consisted of weekly readings ranging from Nietzsche to Thich Nhat Han deconstructing Christian thought with fellow ex-Christians and sympathizers. I never thought about it, but he just figured it was a different form of church.)

Me: Well, we actually stopped going because I don’t really believe in God or Jesus anymore. I kind of stopped being a Christian.

Him: Does that mean we can’t call ourselves Christian anymore?

Me: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me whether we call ourselves Christian. I just wanted you to know that I don’t think that there is some God up in the sky watching over us.

Him: Okay. Can we just have the conversation?

Me: We are having the conversation. I wanted to let you know what I think and see what you think about it.

Him: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me because we don’t do any of that stuff.

Me: Well, it’s important for me that you know. I just thought I should talk to you because we pray every night and that’s why your mom and I don’t say “Dear Jesus” or “Dear God” at the beginning of our prayers anymore.

Him: That’s what I was giving you a hard time about. (He had been on my case to use the “correct” address in my prayers.)

Me: I know. I think that God is something that people use to try to explain things they don’t understand. You know how when you miss a bunch of basketball shots you joke around and say something like “God doesn’t want me to win?”

Him: Yeah.

Me: It’s like that. People use God when they can’t figure something out, but I think we should look at evidence instead, like testing a hypothesis.

Him: So people are incredulous? (New vocabulary word from school)

Me: Yeah, kinda like that. We have a hard time not knowing things.

Him: Okay. Are we done with the conversation?

Me: Sure. We can be done.

And…he went back to watching basketball. In the week or so since then, I have been the object of his jabs about religion since he knows I’m a “religious studies” guy. At one point, he exclaimed “Thank you God!” about something and then looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry dad” with a smirk on his face.

I guess I was worried about the conversation because for a year or so after we de-Christianized, I figured that although Christianity was no longer acceptable for me, it was probably still good for my son. This may have been a way for me to avoid a difficult conversation. I know that there are many adults who feel the same way, who maintain some sort of nominal religious affiliation, in part because it’s “good for the kids?” But why would it be good for children if it’s not good enough for you? I just didn’t think I knew how to teach  any other way.

Since I had learned whatever morality I have in the context of Christianity, it took some time to separate the idea of morality from Christianity, though it seems so obvious to me now. This is a prime example of belief without evidence. I had believed for so long that I was (or tried to be) a good person because I was a Christian. Despite the evidence of millions of good people around the world without Christianity, as well as those good people who are without any religion at all, I was told and took on faith that Christianity produced my goodness, or any hope I had of goodness. There is no way to prove this claim, and it flies in the face of the bodily evidence of millions of people, as well as the counter-evidence of plenty of “bad” Christians. Sure, there are lots of ways to explain away any deviation from the belief taken as fact that Christianity makes you good, but all evidence shows that morality is not contingent on religion.  It’s comforting to me to know that my son, and people more generally, can be and are “good without God.”

02/6/13

Bringin’ One In

Reaching eighteen and graduating high school is important for many reasons, most of which involve the “What am I going to do with my life?” question. Within the church, the implied question within the question was, “What is going to be your mission field?” That was the insider way of asking in what venue you were going to serve God and tell people about Jesus. Our church put a heavy emphasis on joining YWAM (Youth With a Mission). Many teens involved in the church, including myself, had gone on several short-term mission trips in high school; YWAM was a much longer commitment, usually at least a year or two. We frequently had young people return to the church and talk about the great things that were going on in the far-flung regions of the world. I was jealous in some ways, mostly the part about being in Africa or Ireland or Thailand. Due to my circumstances (getting married, going to school), it never worked out for me to go on a mission, and I was fine with that. I didn’t really want to, but I felt like I should.

I could never fully buy the implication that you serve God wherever you are. It seemed clear to me that some jobs, like being a minister or missionary, were more about serving God than others. Since I didn’t really want to be a missionary, I had to find some other direct way to serve God and convert people.

I should be clear that I don’t think people ever used the word “convert” in a verbal form in my Christian context. I use it because it is more neutral and accessible than “giving your heart to God” or “coming to Jesus” or “coming into the Kingdom,” among many other euphemisms. Besides, the rhetoric was that God converted people; we were just there when it happened.

Anyway, I found an outlet for sharing my Christianity through music. Though I’d only sung in choirs and church concerts growing up, I took up the bass guitar, and then acoustic guitar, in order to play music in church. I was only ever good enough to barely play worship music, but it’s not that difficult to play. However, I also began to play (a few years later) in a Christian band outside of church as well. I’ll talk more about that another time, as there are many good stories from those years. I bring it up now to discuss the only opportunity I can remember of praying with someone to convert, to “receive Christ.”

As I’ve noted, it was disheartening to me that even after my entire life as a Christian, I’d failed at my job. Throughout my twenties, this was a recurrent theme in my thoughts. While playing a gig in Portland, OR, though, I finally got my chance. My band and several others were playing a free concert in Pioneer Square in the downtown area. I can’t remember the details of our set, but I usually ended our last song by saying that the bandwould love to talk to or pray with people after the show.

one

Usually, we just chatted it up with people that liked our music or wanted to buy a CD. In any case, a guy came up to talk to me afterward. I could tell he was bothered by something. We walked out of the crowd and began to talk. He told me that he was from the East Coast, but that his girlfriend worked in the Portland area. He had flown out because she had gotten pregnant with their child and he had encouraged her to get an abortion. She was uncertain, so he flew out and went with her to the procedure. When he came to Pioneer Square, he was on his way back out of town. He felt conflicted about what had happened and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either.

My mind was racing because I knew abortion was wrong. (I don’t think the issue is so black-and-white now, but I did then.) It wouldn’t do any good to berate him about that, though. Instead, I just asked him if he wanted to receive forgiveness. To my great astonishment, he said yes. I led him through a simple prayer to become a Christian. Sadly, I remember very little else, but I know I failed to do much else. I’m sure I got his name, gave him a hug and some encouragement, and sent him on his way.

From a distance of over a decade since, the episode is extremely interesting to me. From an inside perspective, it was abundantly clear that the event was arranged by God. What other possible explanation could there have been for that chain of events that led him to me? Everything had to have an explanation. I feel no need now to give an explanation for how/why it happened. The guy was at a low point in his life, feeling conflicted about his course of action, both in the face of contradictory versions of reality telling him what to do and certainly the emotions of his girlfriend through what must have been a trying situation.

What would I do now in that situation? I suppose I wouldn’t be in that situation in the first place. All the bands who played in those concerts loved music, and we knew that it has a powerful effect on the emotions. It’s amazing, really. If you’ve been to a club or a concert or a church service, you know that people can get “interesting” when the music is pumping. Though it certainly wasn’t with malicious intent, we used the power of music to influence people with a particular message.

If, despite the contingencies, I was in that situation now, I would just listen. If I knew the person, I would make a point to check in withhim again. If not, I would try to connect him to someone local who he would be able to continue to talk with. The difference is the solution. I had one then, I don’t have one now. I could tell him that he’s simply anxious over the dizzying array of choices he must make in this existence that is a constituent part of his humanity, but it would mean little to him. Christianity was a solution for any problem, but it was a solution for me, not necessarily for him.

I wonder what happened to the guy. I’m sure he had a down time, and then he got through it and moved on. Is he still with his girlfriend? Are they married? Does he remember the day like I do? Is he a Christian? Unless he surrounded himself by Christians, it’s unlikely. You have to be trained to communicate with God. I’ll never know.

Conversion (and deconversion) is a complicated thing. The web of social and personal influences, known and unknown, that we are involved in is complex. But is no simple answer that lasts without consistent reinforcement.

01/10/13

Not a “Bad Experience”

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.

01/9/13

Deconversion (or Disenchantment?)

Okay, so it’s not a real word…yet. Deconversion doesn’t even sound that great. It’s kind of clunky. I could not think of any better words that adequately describe my experience of leaving Christianity. Unconversion might be a possibility, but that sounds to me more like a complete and tidy reversal, and it is not so easy (nor possible, nor even necessarily desirable) to remove thirty years of enculturation. Deconversion implies to me a kind of excision, a forced or necessary removal of something that no longer has a place. I’m not sure whether in the metaphor I have excised something out of me or excised myself from the larger fabric.

The use of deconversion is not without precedent among former Christians. (See Camels with Hammers for another example) One problem is that deconversion implies a kind of instantaneousness that also accompanies the Protestant understanding of conversion. Change almost never happens that way. Christians particularly enjoy conversion narratives that are dramatic, representing a sharp turn of events, when real and lasting change is more gradual. Take the narrative of the average Christian’s conversion and it will not be hard to identify multiple factors that contributed over time to an individual’s receptiveness to consciously accepting Christianity. The same, of course, goes for many other changes as well. We like conversion, though, because it suggests the great power or will of the actor, be it God or individual. If I quit smoking, but it takes me two years of fits and starts to do so, and I still feel like I could use a cigarette, that doesn’t sound very permanent or appealing. If, on the other hand, I triumphantly announce that I quit smoking cold turkey and never wanted another cigarette again, it seems to attest to my amazing power of will.

In the same way, a quick and dramatic conversion story is a great testimony to the power of God, and these testimonies were once appealing to me. I was often disappointed that, since I had grown up in the church for as long as I remember, I had no great conversion story. No bad past filled with drugs, sex, and hard living; just a good kid who grew up with Christian parents and became a Christian at an early age. I wanted some drama. So I admit that using the term deconversion is a vague appeal to the same kind of story, suggesting a precise turning point. As I mentioned, though, I only recognized this turning point much later and superimposed it on the past for a clearer chronology. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this symbolic method, and we use it frequently to describe changes in our lives. This doesn’t mean the symbol should be used as a substitute for the thing itself. In other words, the story is not equivalent with the actual events; it is a representation of them, and representations can vary widely, between people and even in the same person over time.

There are many other words used to describe a change in religious affiliation, but they are almost exclusively the language of those who remain insiders. The early Christian church was very concerned with apostates (those who abandoned the faith), heretics (those who promoted an unorthodox faith), and the lapsed (those who betrayed the faith in a moment of weakness but have since come back). These all have a negative connotation in modern parlance.

Contemporary Protestantism uses more colloquial language, such as backsliding, leaving the faith, or abandoning the faith. It might speak in terms of belief, such as no longer believing, abandoning belief, etc. In the first examples, faith functions as a substitute for Christianity, implying that if you aren’t Christian, you don’t have faith. Period. Some people may have no problem with ceding the term to Christians; I am interested in what non-members using Christian terms to describe their relationship with Christianity implies for its influence on Western culture.

The same goes for belief. What I like about “not believing anymore” is that it suggests the ongoing social enchantment (support, what have you) necessary to best sustain religious affiliation. What I don’t like is that, like faith, it presumes that belief means belief in Christianity. The religion versus science debate common in the narratives of former Christians or New Atheists has to a certain extent democratized belief, but shares the implication that everyone has to believe in something. Each side accuses the other of denying the evidence. Maybe it is because of my resistance to Christian normativity, but I don’t think of my life in terms of a belief in something, and I don’t identify regularly with “unbeliever” or “nonbeliever.”

I do like the term disenchantment because it indicates the active effort that goes into sustaining religious community. It also resonates to a certain extent with my experience. My social and cultural environment produced an effect on me, encouraging me to view reality in a particular way. As some of the cracks in that version of reality began to show, the enchantment began to lose its hold. Of course, this happens all the time, which is why communities gather regularly to reaffirm their shared values and beliefs. Once I stopped attending church, however, I lost my source of re-enchantment, and since for a variety of reasons I was unwilling or unable to sustain it myself, I was, over time, disenchanted. Why do you think religious leaders try to get you into church?

This disenchantment is also applicable in many other areas. For example, I have also become somewhat disenchanted with Crossfit lately, although I would still consider myself a “Crossfitter.” It has gone through a cycle similar to that of a religion, and has now alienated some of its earlier members by attempting to extend its reach as broad as possible. I hear talk of breaking away and returning to the roots. Sounds a lot like religion, huh? Much more could be said, but I’ll save it for another post.

The point is that these terms are static and ultimately fail to capture a journey that is ongoing. Nothing is final; everything is in flux. I’ll probably continue to use the words deconversion or disenchantment while I continue to search for something more adequate.

01/8/13

Coming Out

Atheists, humanists, and other non-theists also refer to going public with their lack of religion as “coming out.” It has some similarities with the more-familiar coming out of the closet of LGBT folks. Although a growing minority, non-theism is still a minority position, and thus subject to the resistance and suppression of the majority. This will continue to be the case for some time, since the influence of religion, especially Christianity in the Western world, extends far beyond those who actively think of themselves as Christians. More on that later.

The process of coming out has been a difficult one for me, at least internally, accompanied by all the angst existentialists take pleasure in. I grew up in church, and it was my primary social network. I was implicitly told I didn’t need anything else, and for all practical purposes, I didn’t…until I was no longer a Christian. I began to realize that, combined with the fact that I got married at 18, I had little understanding of other social circles outside of church ones. Luckily—or unluckily depending on how one looks at it, since my education certainly contributed to my deconversion— I had begun graduate school, so I had many companions who loved to talk about religion…as long as it wasn’t personal. So discuss the problems of religion until you’re blue in the face, but don’t indicate you are personally invested. That’s another post as well.

Since I was in California, however, away from the community where I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life, I didn’t have to deal with the nearly universally Christian social network I grew up in. I only saw those folks once every six months, and once I stopped keeping up the pretense of attending church, hardly at all. Since I now live back in the area though, the potential for those interactions has greatly increased. My handful of experiences with Christian friends since my deconversion has helped me understand that a common social background can be the predominant determination of the success of friendship. Of course, most people know this, but you think it doesn’t apply to you. There is a shared language that comes with a shared background, in both literal and metaphorical senses, and with that gone, it’s understandably more difficult for people to communicate with you.

I also was reluctant to be very forthcoming with my change of belief. Christianity had brought me my biggest social advances: positions of leadership in various churches, opportunities to speak and play music in front of large audiences, respect within my small social circles, etc. It also was responsible for my field of study in graduate school (and was the content of my research as well). It took me a while to figure out for myself just how it would all play out. Would I have to change my subject of study completely? Should I even care about it anymore? Maybe I go back to the discipline of history instead of religious studies? The foundations have had to shift, but I remain committed to the importance of studying the Christian tradition.

On a personal level, I also did not want to glom onto an atheistic (or agnostic, or other) position in the way I had done so with Christianity. Due in part to the enlightened self-important status gained from my academic inculcation, I felt as if I was “bigger” than any label. In sincerity, though, I did—and do, athough the existential weight is much less now—want to leave myself open for the possibility that it is all true, that Christianity or some other tradition does hold the keys to the universe, despite all the evidence to the contrary. All these thoughts kept me from bursting people’s bubbles when they assumed who I was. For new relationships, I would gladly explain myself, but for old ones, it didn’t seem worth the effort.

I still have not read Emerson’s Self Reliance, but have always loved his well-known quote that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Emerson was also a favorite of Nietzsche.) I have often kept quiet (in religion and other areas) to fool others and myself that I am coherent and consistent. (It also reminds me of the slip of paper my grandfather had under a sheet of glass on his desk that read, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”) Better though to commit strongly to my views as they stand and change as they change. Consistency be damned!

Frankly, I am still not sure if my family (beyond my wife) knows where I’m coming from now, or even if they want to know. We’ve talked around the subject on many occasions, but neither party wants to confront the elephant in the room. Perhaps these are just my projections. I’m fairly confident that I’ll still get along with the majority of my family, but it remains to be seen.