Last post, I asked whether my deconversion was inevitable, and decided that it felt pretty inevitable. However, obviously some people do hang onto their faith much longer than me, and I don’t think they’re being dishonest or stupid.
After quitting, I heard some suggestions from believers of things that might have kept me in the faith. There have also been some things I’ve seen in others that I’ve wondered whether they might have made a difference to me.
If I’d been brought up better
One of the most common verses Christian parents are referred to is:
Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
However, while this sounds like a fairly positive instruction, it has a dark side: When a child leaves the faith, parents often blame themselves for not training that child properly. I completely reject this, because I think parents should be aiming to raise independent children. That means those children must have the freedom to make different decisions from their parents.
In my case, my parents emphasised the importance of following truth, since Christadelphians were supposed to have The Truth. This became a problem when I concluded the Christadelphian worldview and truth claims were false. Maybe my parents could have made it harder for me to discover this (though they did a pretty good job of indoctrination), but I think there are limits to how far a parent can (or should) train a child to ignore reality.
If I’d completely withdrawn from the world
This might well have worked, though I don’t know how I would have supported myself cut off from the world. It is much closer to my childhood, and goes some way to explaining how I got to 22 without seriously questioning my faith.
In my previous post, I talked about “surviving” an Adventist school, but the reality is that it mostly kept me separate from the world and reinforced my existing worldview. Yes, they interpreted some parts of the Bible differently from me. But they agreed that God existed, that the Bible was a reliable source of information about God as well as a guide-book for life, and that on the evolution front only “micro-evolution” happened.
Outside of school, my family and those in my church all took belief in God and in the Bible as obvious. Belief just made sense in that environment. And if I could have stayed in such an environment I think I would have remained a Christadelphian.
In going to university, I was going out into “the World”. It was the first time I seriously encountered people who didn’t believe in the Bible - but it didn’t have much effect because religion didn’t come up much in software engineering classes. Nor does religion come up much in my workplace, though it did show me that there were many decent people who didn’t share my faith.
Perhaps more important was the increasing use of the internet at Uni, at work, and at home. If I or my parents had completely cut off my internet access I think there’s a fair chance I would still be a Christadelphian.
However, ultimately I don’t think I could have withdrawn from the world forever. The expectation was that I should reach out to others and share the good news with them. Though I didn’t feel good at it, I did do some outreach outside the church bubble, including at Uni, at work, and on the internet. The result of that outreach was that I didn’t change them, but they slowly changed me.
So withdrawing from the world might have worked for a while, but I think I would have felt trapped, and would probably also have felt like a failure at outreach.
If I’d taken my religion less seriously
Don’t laugh. I’m serious here.
Consider some of the things I did: Reaching out to co-workers, going online to defend my faith, developing Bible study software, studying the Bible and preparing talks. They were all things that I was praised for, they were all things that I took seriously, and they all exposed me to ideas which contributed to my deconversion. It’s possible that if I’d put less time into them I would have come across fewer problematic ideas.
Defending Christadelphians on an ex-Christadelphian site was probably the most fateful of those decisions - but how could I take my beliefs seriously and not want to defend them against what I saw as misrepresentations?
If I’d been too busy to have doubts
On the surface, this sounds reasonable. I must have had some amount of spare time to deal with doubts - maybe if I’d spent more time committed to the cause, that spare time would have vanished.
But the reality is that I already took my religion seriously. In addition to a full-time job I attended all organised religious events, prepared and led talks and discussion classes, participated in committees, and did mission work. I don’t think anyone was complaining that I didn’t do enough.
But imagine that I had managed to keep myself completely busy without exposing myself to alternate viewpoints by defending the faith. What then? The casual conversations with co-workers would still have happened, and I would still have stumbled across inconvenient facts while browsing the web. I don’t know what I would have done with those facts - perhaps saved them till I burnt out completely from overwork and was feeling down?
If I’d been more willing to fake it
I’ve heard that some value the community enough that they try to hold onto it by faking their faith. It might then be possible to give up some of the more onerous tasks and focus on community over doctrine. I considered this, but didn’t feel it was an option for me, both because I took the religion seriously and because I came from a family who took it seriously and would notice if I wasn’t pulling my weight.
That left me trying to be a full-on Christadelphian upholding the truth without really believing it. The power of compartmentalisation helped keep cognitive dissonance at bay for a while, but trust me, I got sick of it. Even though I still sort of believed I couldn’t see myself continuing on more than a year or two. The idea of having to keep faking belief for 30, 40, or 50 years is horrifying. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say I would have killed myself, or at least attempted to (I thought about it much more often than I like to admit).
It also doesn’t say much for a religion claiming to have the Truth if people are expected to fake their belief in order to be part of it.
If I’d known apologetics better
Don’t make me laugh. I was inside the bubble. I was good at defending the Bible (well, to my satisfaction, anyway). I knew all the right answers. And yet, I still couldn’t really feel that God existed. More apologetics might have provided me with some more thought-stoppers to work through, particularly early on, but that’s it.
Just to make sure, though, I did read a number of apologetics books when I decided to officially re-evaluate my belief. Some of them were books that I had previously found compelling, while others came highly recommended. A few of them required thought, but there was nothing to bring me back to the faith, and it became clear that I’d only found apologetics compelling because I already believed the religion.
If I’d confided in someone
During the process of questioning I was fairly paranoid, and kept my doubts to myself. Many thought I should just have confided in someone who could either “fix” my doubts or find someone else to help me. However, the reality is that I was frequently around Christadelphians and had heard the kinds of answers they gave to the kind of questions I was pondering. Those answers didn’t help me.
If anything, I suspect that confiding in someone else would have sped up the process. While I kept the doubts to myself I could put off dealing with them for as long as I liked. Once I got someone else involved I think I would have been forced to confront my doubts, and I don’t think they would have had answers that I could accept.
If I had followed spiritual discipline X
When I quit, some people wanted to hear my story just to confirm I hadn’t tried their infallible cure for lost faith. And the message was clear: If I hadn’t tried that particular cure, clearly I should. But even if I had tried it, I obviously hadn’t been doing it properly (otherwise it would have worked!) so I should try it again.
For example, I was supposed to have:
- Kept a prayer journal to spot all the fulfilled prayers and have extra reasons to believe.
- Continued private prayer and Bible reading - just done them better.
- Read, believed, and claimed for my own the promises of God to doubters, seekers, and believers (as detailed in the Bible).
It seems to me that believers view disciplines like these as magic cures. In the mindset I was in, they were just the opposite. Maybe they work for some people, but they didn’t patch up my doubts when they were small, nor did they stop those doubts growing.
I gave up prayer because it didn’t work, and showed me a God who didn’t respond. I gave up Bible reading because it was just reminding me of the problems I had with Bible teaching. Keeping going with these disciplines wouldn’t just have been a waste of time - it would have actively driven me further away.
If God had revealed himself to me
During my doubting years I prayed, begged, and pleaded for God to reveal himself. He never did. There were a few time when I saw natural events and interpreted them as a message from God, such as a particularly vivid experience with the moon, but they didn’t last.
However, just imagine if he had dramatically revealed himself to me on my 25th birthday. At that time I was increasingly feeling that the world as a whole made more sense without a god than with one. How much could one little revelation have affected that?
Whatever the dramatic reveal was, I think that over time that image would have faded, and I would have started to question whether it really happened or whether I was dreaming (particularly if that revelation didn’t match with the rest of the world as I saw it). Maybe if God’s omnipotence budget was up to weekly revelations they could have kept me on track for years, but the reality is that God didn’t reveal himself to me at all, and I don’t expect that to change.
If I had been emotionally connected to God
I’m sure that at one point, long, long ago, I had complete confidence that God existed and that he was working in my life. If it had stayed that way, I imagine I would have tried much more desperately to plug the holes I was starting to see in the Bible. And maybe if I’d truly relied on God, as some believers seem to, I’d have had difficulty even questioning his existence and his workings.
However, if it had come to it I think this would also have made it harder for me to fake faith. I was able to do religion without really believing God was involved for a while because I’d got used to doing things by myself without relying on God.
If I’d faced harsher penalties for leaving the religion
First up, this exposes a really twisted mentality - if a religion really is true, it shouldn’t need penalties to keep a sincere truth-seeker like me on side.
However, I think it would have needed a fairly serious penalty to stop me leaving, because I did fear severe consequences, and still found quitting a better option than tearing myself apart.
Before I quit, I think I had gotten over my fear of being summoned to the Judgement Seat and judged unworthy by Christ. Fortunately, I didn’t believe in hell or eternal torment, since I understand fear like that can be buried more deeply, such that many of my fellow ex-Christians are troubled by fear of hell long after they have concluded intellectually it doesn’t exist.
However, what I was still afraid of was consequences in this life. My family, many of my friends, and most of my social ties were connected with the religion. I knew that ostracism could happen, and was scared I could end up cut off from family and friends as a result of quitting.
In the end, though, the pain of continuing the deception was too great. Given I had resolved to brave possibly life-changing penalties in this life, and had dismissed threatened penalties in the next life, I don’t know what harsher penalties might have kept me in. All I can really think of is torture or even the death penalty for apostates, which wouldn’t show the religion in a positive light (though the Mosaic Law has similar provisions).
Maybe if I’d still been financially dependent on my parents I would have been sensible to delay it for a bit, but I don’t know if that could have lasted if, for whatever reason, I was long-term financially dependent.
If I’d been offered a better deal
Sometimes, when a trusted worker quits their job, their company offers them a better deal to try and keep them. Could God (or fellow believers) have offered me the same?
I can think of one weird moment connected to this. It was shortly after I’d decided to reinvestigate everything, and so mere months before I actually quit. I knew I was in a denomination which gave disproportionate amounts of power to men, and it suddenly flashed on me that if I’d played my cards right I probably could have been someone great (at least in the limited world of Christadelphia…). Lack of belief could actually have helped if I’d been prepared to sacrifice my integrity to put myself in the right position. But the reality was that I had never sought that kind of power and authority, and I wasn’t about to change.
How about in the afterlife? Well, I don’t see how anyone could offer me a better deal than I had already been offered. We were promised eternal bliss and freedom from pain and suffering. Somewhat light on details, yes, and with the gauntlet of judgement to run first, but I really wanted it then, and I can still see the appeal today. Honestly, it was a real wrench giving it up, but it couldn’t hold me. It didn’t matter how much I wanted it, because I didn’t believe in it.
The reality is that there was nothing the religion had to offer me that was worth more to me than maintaining my integrity and the freedom to make my own choices in the pursuit of truth and happiness - ironically, all things that the religion was supposed to stand for.
If I’d got married and had children
I think when I was younger I absorbed the community expectation that I would get married to a Christadelphian and have Christadelphian children. If I had, it might have kept me busier and left me with less time to explore. But, like with ecclesial duties, I’m not sure that would have been enough to stop me coming across awkward facts.
It certainly might have made it even harder to contemplate leaving, knowing the strain it might place on the marriage. But if I had come to know then what I know now, I think I would have found it just as hard to continue to live a lie. Maybe harder if I saw myself having to direct my wife and children down a path I felt to be wrong just to keep everything going.
That is of course assuming I’d had a successful marriage. If for whatever reason the hypothetical marriage had failed, it might well have been the shock to the system that forced me to confront reality earlier than I did.
If I needed God’s forgiveness
I’ve heard this story multiple times, though I’m not sure how much is trope and how much is reality. If people feel they have done something really bad, they may feel the need to stay right with God in order to be forgiven so they can live with themselves.
I never had that. In fact, I’m not sure that I did much praying for forgiveness for specific sins (as opposed to a generic “forgive us our trespasses”). At times, my religion contributed to self-doubt, and perfection always felt well out of reach, but at core I think I thought I was a decent person (probably prided myself on it…).
In truth, my self-esteem probably improved greatly once I was able to get past beating myself up for doubting God and saw I didn’t really need him. Why would I then go back?
If I’d been a woman
This one is perhaps the most speculative of all, but it’s an important part of why I was even thinking about the topic. In complementarian circles, including most Christadelphian ecclesias, it is quite clear that men are treated differently from women. This can mean that women’s experiences are very different from men, and thus that their deconversion stories look very different (though, I hasten to add, equally valid). How might these different experiences have affected me?
I think it’s clear that I would have been treated as a second class citizen (“equal but different”). That might have made me accept the inferior position I’d been given and be less confident in my own opinion. Alternately, it might have made me more rebellious.
I probably wouldn’t have done some of the things I’ve described that led me towards deconversion. For example, I wouldn’t have been forced to do talk preparation, and might have been less likely to do Bible study as a result. Similarly, I might have felt less responsibility to defend the faith in person and online. However, it’s still possible I would have done all these things voluntarily, and in fact might have had more spare time to run into problems in other contexts.
As a woman, there might have been more pressure on me to fulfil my God-given role to get married and have children. Since my parents encouraged the ideal of the stay-at-home mum, if that had happened I expect I would have faced pressure to focus on the kids, housework, etc., and perhaps then to leave my husband to deal with the spiritual stuff. Being a stay-at-home mum might also have left me more financially dependent, and thus made it more difficult to decide to quit.
And the differences wouldn’t have stopped with the religion. I work in software development, a male-dominated industry. Had I been a woman, I might have received less encouragement to study software development and felt more out of place. Maybe I would even have abandoned STEM before university. But the flip side of that is that if I’d had to stand up for myself to study and practice software development, I might also have carried some of that attitude across to God and the Bible.
In short, this scenario is so different from my current life that I have no way of knowing the answer. What I do know from reading the stories of women deconverts is that it affects different people different ways. For some, realising the oppression of women was a first step towards seeing problems with the religion as a whole. For others, it contributed to keeping them there for a while.
Ultimately, though, my objection to Christadelphian teachings is that I don’t believe they are true. If I had been a woman, I might have followed a different path to reach that conclusion, or I might not have reached it at all. But I hope that if I had reached that conclusion, I would have felt exactly the same need to walk away from it all, no matter what the consequences were.
If I’d found a reason to believe it all true
This seems like an obvious thing to keep me in the faith, but I almost forgot it.
It’s theoretically possible that there exists some great reason for belief that I don’t know about, but I doubt it. I spent a lot of time as a believer looking for such a reason. Now, I’m not even sure what such a hypothetical reason might look like - though I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be like any apologetics I’ve ever seen.
So, there you have it. If I’d been a different person, maybe some of these ideas would have worked - but the less that hypothetical person is like me, the harder I find it to predict their actions.
All I can really say is the reason why the vast majority of these ideas didn’t (and in many cases couldn’t) work for me. If truth matters (as it did to me), and if Christianity is not based on truth, then it’s hard to maintain it as a stable resting place for life. There are many different paths to reach that conclusion, but it’s the conclusion that matters.
So, over to you. What haven’t I thought of? What brilliant strategy should I have followed to keep me a trembling sheep thankful for the occasional crumbs thrown me by an absent God?