This year, I’ve been wondering whether my quitting was really as inevitable as it now seems. I’m sure to my fellow believers it was completely unexpected for an apparently committed believer to quit out of the blue. To me, looking back from outside the bubble, it just seems like an obvious progression from indoctrination to reality. But could a few changes in my life have affected the outcome? Or was someone like me always going to quit?
A tale of two birthdays
On my 22nd birthday, I had already survived a number of potential challenges to my faith: I’d survived six years of Adventist high school without any doubt that Christadelphian doctrine was correct. I’d survived four years of a secular Uni without reconsidering faith in God or accepting evolution - in fact, I’d even unsuccessfully reached out to a few fellow students about my faith. Similarly, I’d survived a year in a secular workplace, including reaching out to a few colleagues (though again with no success).
I think my life path looked pretty clear, and it certainly didn’t include quitting the Christadelphians, let alone (gasp) becoming an atheist. In the immediate future, I was preparing to speak at a Bible software conference. In the coming years, I expected there would be more of the same: Bible software development, giving talks at my ecclesia, mission work, and continuing the effort to prove Christadelphians had the One True Interpretation of scripture. Also, though I’m not sure they were part of my personal goals, I probably absorbed the community expectations that I would get married to another Christadelphian, have children, and bring them up to be the next generation of good little Christadelphians.
By contrast, on my 28th birthday I was actively investigating whether I had any reason to believe, and had set a date to decide - at which point I expected I would quit. I was a frequent (anonymous) commenter on an ex-Christadelphian website, and even had a guest post on the site describing my doubts. I was increasingly angry at how I had been trapped in religion by my family situation.
I actively hid my religion from my work colleagues. I had got used to faking my beliefs with family and at church, though I didn’t like the fact that they thought I was someone that I wasn’t (made abundantly clear by some of the appreciative birthday messages I received). And as for marriage, I had either resisted or just ignored those expectations, and by that stage was mostly just glad that I didn’t have anything extra to hold me back.
So clearly something significant changed in those six years. But was that change a rare lightning strike, or an inevitable progression?
After I left, various Christadelphians wanted to know more details about what had made me leave. And it quickly became clear that many just wanted to know the things I’d done wrong to start it all off, so they could stop other other young believers from doing those things. In short, they viewed a committed believer stepping onto that path as something that was both rare and easily preventable.
I don’t think this is correct. Apart from anything else, I’ve seen many stories from other Christian denominations and other religions that sound similar to mine. It’s not just me.
On the other hand, I get the impression that some of my fellow atheists think it’s just obvious that the Bible is false, and that believers who won’t acknowledge this are either stupid or willfully resisting the obvious truth.
For the record, when I look at the Bible now I do think it clear that it’s false. But I know it wasn’t an easy path to get here, and I also know many of my still-believing peers are well-read, intelligent, and thoughtful, and haven’t quit (yet). After all, if it was really so obvious, how come it took me at least 5 years to work through it all?
My view: It was a natural progression
When I tell people the story of how I came to leave, it does sound like there are a few key turning points, such as:
- Beginning to doubt whether there was a God.
- Realising while praying I had no way of knowing if God was listening (and soon that after giving up prayer completely).
- Finally reading a critical work by a former Christian rather than just reading Christian works.
- Deciding to systematically re-evaluate my faith rather than continuing to drift.
So I imagine some Christians would look at that list and say things like “Clearly you should have followed these three magic steps to resolve doubt in God” or “Clearly you should have prayed better/harder”. But I think that’s more because I’m telling a story. The events I’ve called out are events that I remember, that feel significant, and that tell a good story - but they were part of a much longer process.
For example, I think I had problems with prayer before that one epiphany, and I probably continued praying occasionally long after the epiphany. And I certainly wouldn’t have read my first critical ex-Christian work if I didn’t already have severe doubts. As for accepting it, well - let’s just say that if I hadn’t had doubts I could probably have found “solutions” to the problems it raised.
In the same way, the “Tale of two birthdays” above is a story. It may not be 100% accurate: I probably had had some doubts before my 22nd birthday, and I probably wasn’t completely sure I would quit on my 28th birthday. But anyone quibbling over minor details of the story is completely missing the point: I reached adulthood completely convinced of the truth of my childhood faith, and it took over 5 years to gradually work through it all. No-one (including me) has the time to trace through that process in detail, and I can’t even remember it all.
Not feeling God’s presence was an important factor - but it didn’t by itself take me away from belief. A big part of my shift was realising that the worldview I was brought up with didn’t match the real world. Particular problems were young earth creationism, Biblical literalism, and the idea that everyone in the world around us was wicked and out to get us. Given I cared about truth and about understanding the world, that was always likely to catch up with me. In response, I developed a more nuanced faith, but was unable to reach a version that completely satisfied me.
But it’s not like I woke up one day and realised “Hey, my view of the world is wrong!” I didn’t even officially start Project Re-evaluate Faith until I was pretty sure what the answer was after 5 years of doubt.
What I think actually happened was that I randomly collected facts and ideas, and slowly discovered that more of them contradicted my pre-existing beliefs. I could officially deny the reigning assumptions of The World, but I couldn’t avoid coming into contact with them. They came from many sources: I know I picked up pieces from random readings on the internet, from conversations with work colleagues, from friends, even from fellow believers who didn’t believe quite the same as me. I didn’t have a proper explanation for many of those facts, so I put them in my mental “to be investigated later” file - ready for them to fit together later. At times I did have “explanations” for them, but those explanations began to ring hollow.
This means that there were ideas that I came across 10 or 20 times before I actually accepted them. Perhaps I angrily rejected an idea five times, tentatively rejected it three times, filed it away for later analysis, and then accepted it the tenth time I heard it. How do you stop that? If I’d somehow managed to block out a few of those times, it might have taken longer to accept the idea. But I don’t think I could completely avoid being exposed to it.
And it’s because the process was so gradual that I don’t see how it could be stopped. I didn’t have to do anything special to make it happen - being myself was enough. It only seemed dramatic to others because they hadn’t walked the same journey I had and seen the same progression.
Of course, it wasn’t all one direction - there were times when I passionately recommitted myself to God, and times when I begged for help overcoming my doubts. But those couldn’t last, because I valued reality too much, and reality as I saw it just didn’t match belief in the God I once worshiped.
Deconstructing a worldview takes time. I’m pretty certain there were times where I accepted one idea, and didn’t realise till six months later that as a consequence I no longer had a good reason to reject a related idea. And that just meant it slowly gathered steam.
I agree with my atheist friends that I would find it hard to remain a believer seeing the world as I do. Now, after three years out, everything inside starts to seem like a bad dream. And since I arrived in that place by a gradual progression, quitting does seem inevitable.
But that may say more about me personally than about how the “average Christian” should react. In my next post (edit: here) I’ll discuss some of the suggestions people made about what I should have done to stay in the faith, and perhaps what might keep others I know sincere believers (hint: even when it looks a little irrational I don’t think it’s stupidity).