The tempestuous 2010s: Illusory spiritual growth
In the early 2010s, I’m sure my fellow Christadelphians saw in me growing knowledge and ability and a continued commitment to God. They must have thought that I was set for life, and was becoming the spiritual leader I was always meant to be.
And yet, this was the decade I outgrew my faith. My path was only leading in one direction, and that direction was away from religion.
Where did this disconnect come from? How could so many people be so wrong?
Remembering the 2000s
Just for context, these are a few of the things that defined my 2000s, and which I would have expected to build on in the 2010s:
A decade of education: Between 2000 and 2009 I spent 5 years in high school, 4 years in university, and only 1 year in full-time work. I wasn’t just preparing for a career, but for life.
A decade of commitment: At the start of the decade, I’m sure I sincerely believed in God, the Bible, and Christadelphian teachings, but it felt like there was plenty of time. Then in 2001 I took the decision to be baptised and commit my life to the Christadelphian God. I was young and perhaps not truly ready, but I felt that I was doing the right thing, and for the rest of the decade I took that commitment very seriously.
A decade of outreach: In 2003 I went on the first of four mission trips to India for the decade. In 2004, I became a founding member of the Dandenong Bible Education Centre, which intended to be “active and innovative in preaching to a new audience of unbelievers”, and I remained a member of that ecclesia until my resignation. Since it was a small ecclesia, I got far more involved in public speaking (exhortations, lectures, Bible classes) than I was really ready for. I even got nominated to represent the ecclesia on the local Bible mission committee (mostly because I wasn’t good at saying “No”). I also convinced myself to talk to fellow students and co-workers about my faith (though perhaps not as much as I felt I should).
A (half) decade of Bible software development: In 2006, I was a software engineering student who was interested in open source and thought the Bible was the most important book ever written. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I got involved in the open source Bible software world. Once my brother started BPBible, I focused on improving personal Bible notes to help me discover Bible truth, and also ended up the primary BPBible maintainer.
However, the details don’t matter so much as the fact that by the start of 2010 I was sincere, all-in, and still comparatively sheltered. I came from a family where serious religious involvement was the norm, and showed no signs that I was going to break from that tradition.
BibleTech:2010, and my first real overseas holiday
At the start of the decade, my most pressing concern was preparing for a talk on “Improving User Annotations in Bible Software”. I was speaking at a Bible software conference in San Jose at the end of March, and I really wasn’t sure that I was going to be ready (as it was, I probably wasn’t - but I’ve already told that story).
Speaking at this conference was probably the high point of my Bible software development work. I continued working on BPBible in my spare time for another five years, but due to a combination of technical and personal reasons I don’t think I achieved a lot in that time.
However, it was more than just Bible software. If this event wasn’t the high point of the decade spiritually, it must have been pretty close. I was doing spirituality my way, and feared that my actions could be criticised by fellow Christadelphians and fellow Bible software developers alike (spoiler: They weren’t). I was outside my comfort zone because I thought it was important, but it turned out it was also a lot of fun.
At the time this must have seemed like a clear sign of spiritual growth. And maybe it was. However, now I see that the post-spiritual portion of that trip had more influence on how my decade turned out.
In the 2000s, all my overseas travel had been to India for mission work. While there, I had done a little exploring in off-times, and I had enjoyed the food, but my main focus had been on serving God and spreading Christadelphian teachings and practices.
This trip was different. After the conference, I had two weeks left to explore the beauty of the US West (“God’s creation”). I was driving and hiking long distances and seeing places I’d never seen before.
Perhaps more importantly, though, I was free. Everyone told me I tried to fit in too much touristing (and, ten years on, they still do). However, it was my schedule, and I was always free to take a break, or to pause and reflect, or to walk another 5 miles. Yes, I attended Sunday services at a couple of Christadelphian ecclesias, but my daily spiritual schedule was completely up to me.
On that note, it’s time for a confession: After the first few days, I didn’t end up doing the daily Bible readings I was supposed to. I don’t think I ever told anyone this, and I don’t think it was a sign of things to come. Instead, I think it was an early sign of an attitude I still have: Giving myself permission to live in the moment and seize opportunities when they come, even if it means putting regular, “normal” activities on hold for a bit.
None of those opportunities contributed to my spiritual growth. Yes, I could justify it by saying it was admiring God’s creation, but the reality was that I was there because I wanted to be there. I achieved things that mattered to me, but did nothing for my religion (like walking from Grand Canyon Village to the Colorado River and back).
I’m not sure how much I was able to acknowledge it to myself at the time, but I wanted more of that freedom. I wanted the ability to make my own choices and explore in my own way without being constrained by other family members. And perhaps it isn’t too great a leap to say that I didn’t want that freedom to be constrained by my religion either. Though I doubt I knew actually leaving my religion was an option.
Clearly I found all this by accident - my real purpose for this trip was to serve God through Bible software, and I probably expected my next overseas trip would be more mission work. It took greater independence and other overseas trips before I truly appreciated what I’d learned about myself. Looking back, though, I can see that the “holiday” part of that trip had more in common with my visit to New Zealand last year than it did with the mission work in India or the Bible software development or the intensive Bible study that I would have expected to define the decade.
A farewell to mission work
At the end of 2011 I went on my fifth and final mission trip to India, this time for three months. Again, I’m sure those around me saw this as spiritual growth, building on the foundation of the previous decade. What they didn’t know was that it was more in the nature of a last desperate roll of the dice.
In the second half of 2010, probably less than six months after BibleTech, things really started to go wrong. The cold fingers of doubt had crept in, and they seemed to freeze everything they touched. Extra Bible study and heartfelt prayer could push them back for a bit, but they always returned.
I felt that I needed a grand gesture. Something to really show my commitment to God and remind me how important my faith was to me.
I thought about it, prayed about it, and came up with a return to India as the answer. It was something I knew how to do, and would surely be deeply spiritual without taking me too far outside my comfort zone. I would go for longer than I had ever been before. If I couldn’t maintain my faith on the ever-white mission field, where could I maintain it?
However, I didn’t want to move without consulting the will of God, so I organised an elaborate lots drawing ceremony, seeking God’s approval on both the mission and its length. Personally, I didn’t want it to be longer than three months, but felt compelled to offer him six months and a year as options. After all, my stubborn, doubt-filled heart might need a lot of working over.
At the time, I’d been working for my company a little over a year and a half. Even asking for three months extended leave was a risk, though I gave them a year’s advance notice. Six months or a year would have been far too long.
That’s what it boiled down to: While I liked the idea of the grand gesture, I also liked the idea of having a “normal” Australian life to come back to when it was over. It’s hard to over-state how happy I was that “God” in the game of chance agreed three months was the right period of time, and then my employer approved that amount of leave.
Once in India, I was in an environment where people expected me to talk about God and about the Bible, and so I did. I had some good times and some frustrating times. I’m sure it looked great to those around me, but it didn’t solve any of my doubts (are you surprised?)
The reality was that I knew mission work wasn’t my normal life. When I returned to my normal life, nothing would have changed. And by the time I returned to Melbourne I was fairly certain I would never go on mission work again. To be fair, doubt was only part of that - I also had concerns about the organisational politics involved and whether the work I had been doing was actually useful.
So there it was - the grand gesture had failed, and there were no grand gestures left. After all, what do you do to top three months of mission work?
I don’t know how much of an effect this really had on my faith. I didn’t quit the religion for another 4.5 years, and perhaps the slide was slow for a while. But looking back I see it as a critical turning point, because it was about the last time I even tried to restore my faith.
I don’t know whether at the time I was willing to acknowledge to myself I would probably leave the faith one day. But I think in my heart I knew the slide was just about unstoppable long before I reached terminal velocity.
And this is exactly what I mean by illusory spiritual growth: I can’t blame anyone for seeing me spending three months on mission work in India and assuming I was driven by a firm faith. But I wasn’t.
An intellectual faith
Fast-forwarding a bit, I’m sure those around me believed I was a better Christian in 2015 than I had been in 2010. However, at that time I think I’d been fairly sure for several years that I was going to leave one day.
Where did this disconnect come from? How could so many people be so wrong?
There are many answers to that, some of which make me look better than others. But I think one of the most important factors is the intellectual nature of Christadelphian religion. We valued seeking out The Truth in scripture, and I remember being explicitly warned in Sunday School about the dangers of making decisions based on emotion rather than reason.
Up until mid-2010, I’m fairly certain I believed that God existed, the Bible was his message to humanity, and Christadelphians had the best interpretation of the Bible. Maybe there were some doubts, but they weren’t substantial. However, this was largely at an intellectual level. I didn’t have any deep emotional connection. People talked about “having a relationship with God”, and I didn’t have a clue what they meant.
We were brought up to pray before every meal, before going to bed, and at other times on an “as needed” basis. However, I’m not sure this had any deep meaning for me. Yes, I believed God was at the other end, but most of the time I don’t think I felt any connection to him. Even while still a believer I’m not sure I ended up praying every evening. Or maybe I did, but they ended up words said by rote (I can still recite the Lord’s Prayer quite well…). And I was independent enough that I didn’t often find the need for God’s assistance during the day.
It wasn’t quite going through the motions, since I really did believe God was there listening to my prayers and would respond to them. But I can only remember a couple of times where I really, genuinely felt that connection.
My parents talked about the importance of keeping a prayer journal so we could have our own list of fulfilled prayers for if we ever doubted. I didn’t. The fulfilment of prayer was then supposed to be a sign of God’s existence. However, I now see that this too is an intellectual approach, and would do nothing to confirm God’s existence at an emotional level. Personally, I suspect that, if I had had such a list, I would just have discovered that the “fulfilled prayers” weren’t as compelling as they at first appeared.
Had I sought advice about dealing with doubt, I’m sure some would have told me that the Melbourne Youth Conference in January 2011 would be the perfect place to recover my faith (I skipped it because I was preparing for mission work). And I know some of my peers came back talking about how they felt excited and re-energised and really close to God (though not, I think, any of my siblings).
However, I have been to various youth group camps over the years, and I’m not sure I ever felt that. I enjoyed being there, but that was mostly at an intellectual level, and they definitely weren’t life-changing. And once I doubted, I suspect being in a room with excited people would just have made me feel more isolated.
This pattern goes right back to my baptism near the start of an exceedingly spiritual decade. I often heard people talk about their baptism as an amazing emotional high, and mine really wasn’t. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. And that was all. And it was enough at the time.
A farewell to personal prayer
I’ve said that I never felt a particular connection to God while praying, even though I believed he was listening to my prayer. Then came the time when it all broke. I have vivid memories of kneeling down by my bed trying to pray, and suddenly realising I had no way to actually know if there was anyone at the other end. And once I saw that I couldn’t unsee it. I know I spent time desperately begging God to reveal himself to me, but he never did. And then I gave up private prayer. Without any apparent ill effects.
This was four years before I officially quit. Four years! What the hell was I doing in that time? And why did no-one notice?
Well, I think that goes back again to my faith being an intellectual faith. Mentally, I was a mess at times. But I was still just as capable of defending the faith intellectually as a trusted member of the community. And I didn’t miss the deep emotional connection with God - because I’d never really had it.
That’s also where I think the biggest disconnect came from: Those around me couldn’t see my deep inner conviction (or lack thereof). All they could judge me by was my actions. I was more busy with religious activities than I had been in 2010, and they assumed that this was motivated by a growing and active faith. But it wasn’t.
I realise that about now there could be someone reading this who thinks they’ve discovered the problem: I didn’t do Christianity properly. If so, please refrain from wasting my time by telling me so, and feel free to stop reading now. This is my personal story, not an argument about the right way to practice Christianity. Whether or not they fit your expectations, my beliefs were very real to me for many years, and they clearly affected the way I lived my life.
Continuing attendance and service
I had been a regular church attender (multiple times a week) basically since my birth. My spiritual routine in the years of doubt included two Sunday services, a Wednesday night Bible class, and many Saturdays filled with youth group talks and activities as well as just about any other officially organised Christadelphian activity in Melbourne.
At the start of the decade I had been a frequent speaker at my home ecclesia, and an occasional visiting speaker at some other Melbourne ecclesias. Once I moved out of home and got a car, I volunteered to speak more frequently at other ecclesias, including ones in country Victoria as well as in Melbourne.
My talks continued to be well received. If anything, people thought they were getting better, as I was increasingly striking out in different directions from other speakers and asking harder questions. I’m sure this was seen as a sign of spiritual growth and maturity. Only I knew that it was driven by increasing unbelief: I was free to ask more questions, and I cared less about the consequences.
I remained in charge of leaflet delivery for my ecclesia - advertising the life-changing message I no longer believed in. Actually, it suited me pretty well. Unlike most people, I actually enjoyed walking the streets, and I don’t think I expected many people to respond (they didn’t).
I remained on the Bible mission committee. I tried to make some changes to fix the problems I had seen in India, but didn’t have any success. Honestly, I look back on it now and think I should probably have quit the committee then and there, but I was afraid of the questions I would get. Plus it helped knowing what my parents were doing on their frequent mission trips to India.
Fellow committee members often asked me when I was going back to India. I usually said something diplomatic like “I don’t have any immediate plans to return to India”. But the real answer was closer to “No way am I ever going back”.
I managed almost by accident to get onto the committee of Melbourne CYC, an inter-ecclesial youth group. My main role was to be editor of Salt Cellar, the youth magazine, which I did for four years. As it turned out, it meant a lot to me, and I put one of my strongest messages to Christadelphia in my final editorial.
So why did I do all these things when I was increasingly sure I would walk away one day? It certainly wasn’t about trying somehow to “restore” my faith. I think there are a few main reasons:
Habit: I didn’t know any other way to live life.
Paranoia: If I had slowly reduced the number of things I was doing, I’m sure parents and siblings would have noticed and asked questions that I couldn’t easily answer.
Paying my dues: As a member of a volunteer organisation I benefited from, I felt a commitment to be involved and pay my dues. Which I did, both financially and in the many volunteer activities I’ve described.
My ecclesia needed me: For reasons I won’t go into, the ecclesia which I’d been a founding member of fell on tough times in early 2014. It had been my spiritual home for ten years, and I felt the responsibility to do everything I could to assist. I was even appointed treasurer by lot for a year.
Seeing what they wanted to see
So yes, my fellow believers could reasonably look at my record and say that I was becoming more spiritual. But I think another important factor was wishful thinking: They saw what they wanted to see.
Particularly on the mission committee, there was real concern that everyone involved was too old, and they needed to get the vibrant youth to come in and do things the same way as they had always been done. That meant that in some ways my age (or lack thereof) was more important than my actual mission experience. They wanted someone who would still be on the mission committee in thirty years time, and were willing to assume I would be that person.
My family background helped with that, of course. We were the family that was always at everything and volunteered for all kinds of duties. We were the family who had spent years between us in mission work. I’m sure people thought I couldn’t be other than spiritual coming from that family, and perhaps they were right in my sheltered 2000s.
After I resigned, the mission committee agreed on a unanimous vote of thanks for many years of service. It surprised me at the time, and I would certainly have been interested to hear what the discussion was like in the lead up to that vote.
However, I now think that vote of thanks was the final indication of seeing what they wanted to see (and the mask I presented) rather than what was actually there. For years, my participation had been more symbolic than real. I was more important as a representative of the great youth hope than as a prospective mission worker or administrator. They would probably deny it, and maybe I’m under-selling myself, but I know that my main goal on the committee was trying to avoid volunteering for anything.
This reached a head when someone tried to publicly volunteer me for a major administrative role which would require both mission work in India and administrative work in Australia (incidentally, a role that I’d already refused when they offered it to me in private). As I’ve said, I’m not usually good at saying “No”, but I made an exception in that case. I may have seemed the perfect candidate, but there was no way it could end well. For anyone.
One of the ways I kept up the image was compartmentalisation. While I was in my “religious” compartment, I could say things with genuine emotion because I genuinely believed them when I said them. Even if back home I might ask “Why did I just say that?” (I discussed more about how this worked a couple of years ago when writing about toxic doubt).
This really helped me to withdraw without those around me realising. I could withdraw at work. Or at home. Then I didn’t have so much need to withdraw while in the religious box.
I could even hang out anonymously on an ex-Christadelphian site. Originally, being there had been part of my spiritual growth: I was confident I had the strength of faith to knock down those evil atheists. However, over time I came to agree with them more. And now I’m a contributing author to the site.
Deliberately deceiving people
One of the things that I regret most is how much I needed to deceive people I cared about. Though I know if I had to do it over again I might well make the same decisions. I was being forced to consider a major life change I didn’t want to make, and it took a long time before I was truly ready for it.
I had grown up with my family and the wider Christadelphian community as my main sources of support and community. I didn’t know what the consequences would be if I came out and told the truth about my spiritual state. Maybe I would be completely rejected and left to figure out a hostile world on my own.
It seemed that it was OK to tell myself that I was going to quit in 6 months, or in 12 months, but it was never OK to think about quitting tomorrow or next week. Which meant there were also times when I thought I could never leave. I would always have to pretend and do whatever it took to hang on to the family and the community I depended on.
So far, that is just me playing a difficult hand that nothing in my upbringing prepared me to play. What angers me now, looking back from the end of the decade, was how the system which claimed to have a monopoly on morality actually enabled me to suspend my moral code.
My parents had emphasised the importance of integrity. However, apparently I’d also internalised the message that if I was an unbeliever I couldn’t have integrity, so I needn’t bother trying. At times, this meant that I didn’t care how much I deceived those around me, because if there is no objective right or wrong I could lie as much as I wanted. And in my opinion this is an incredibly harmful message to send.
I clearly hadn’t worked my way past this by the time I wrote a guest post for an ex-Christadelphian site. Though I think just the act of writing that helped clarify in my mind that it really wasn’t OK.
And that’s why I’m angry now - not with former-me or with the individuals who taught me, but with the system both I and they were trapped in. I was in a difficult situation, and perhaps some amount of deception was necessary while I figured out where I was at and what came next. But my integrity is important to me, and the system’s demonisation of unbelievers and “The World” was responsible for me relaxing that. I shouldn’t have accepted it as anything other than a regrettable temporary compromise.
Preparing to leave
For someone like I’ve described, a supposed spiritual powerhouse and workhorse, preparing to leave without anyone noticing is really hard. Remember, everyone knew I was spiritual because of the number of events I attended and the number of duties I performed. Someone told me after I left that I was the last person in the ecclesia they would have expected to quit, and that’s probably true. While I felt that the events and duties were less and less acceptable, I also felt that slowly reducing my attendance and workload would just drag things out and lead to awkward questions I didn’t have proper answers for.
That meant a clean break was required. Since I also wanted to keep as many of my existing commitments as possible, it also meant that that clean break had to be carefully planned. Finally, I knew the consequences of that clean break could be severe, so I had to be completely confident it was the right decision.
I did try to reduce the number of new commitments I was taking on. For example, the mission committee role I’ve already talked about. After a year as treasurer for my ecclesia I no longer made myself available. And there were always other committees and other individuals trying to get me to do more. Sometimes I accepted duties with strict time limits, but I was not interested in open-ended, ongoing roles. I knew taking on those roles would help neither me nor them.
Owing to the way visiting speakers were organised, I needed to decide my availability up to nine months in advance. When on the (non)spiritual journey I’ve described, how on earth do you know where you’ll be at in nine months? How can you tell if you’re making commitments that future-you will be unable to keep?
In late 2015, I said I was unavailable for May and June 2016. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking then - maybe it was just that I was planning to go to the UK and hadn’t finalised the dates yet. But this gap turned out to provide a resignation date to aim for. A time when I had met every commitment I possibly could. I’ve written a little about that process in my 2016 review.
In April 2016 I showed one of the biggest cracks in the facade: I said I wasn’t available for any speaking appointments for the rest of the year. As I expected, this was noticed, and I was questioned about what I would be doing instead. This had happened with other things too: People noticed me not putting my name in the hat for ecclesial duties, and they noticed me being on a mission committee without going on mission work. They noticed, and they asked questions. But opting out of all ecclesial duties was a much larger change, and as a result the questions were more searching.
By this time, my integrity once again mattered to me. I was sick of the facade. I needed to be able to say who I really was and what I really thought, damn the consequences. However, keeping my commitments also mattered to me, and matching those two up was difficult.
I could deflect the questions about not making new commitments, at least to some extent. After all, no-one expected the answer to be “I’m planning to leave”. I wanted to leave at a time and place of my own choosing, but I was weary of continued deception. The result was, in the words of Frodo, “I told no lies, and of the truth all I could”.
Losing your faith is not meant to be this clinical, and perhaps it was more chaotic in reality. However, I also think this is a sign of how illusory my spiritual growth really was. If it had really meant so much to me, I don’t know how much I would have been able to stage-manage the resignation process. At some point, I would have had to turn my back on my commitments for my own sanity.
The aftermath: Church edition
Formally quitting was the clean break I had wanted, and was a complete shock to everyone else. I knew the shock was necessary: There may have been a better way to deal with it, but if so I didn’t know it then and still don’t. I was inundated with messages of care and concern from people who had finally seen what I knew all along: the spiritual growth they saw was illusory.
Some suggested that the real problem was the strictness of my family upbringing: All I needed to do was to find the right moderate version of the religion, and everything would be OK. This completely missed the point: Even in church I had already become more moderate and more liberal, and in private that had taken me beyond the bounds of the religion. I may not have grown spiritually, but I had grown, and my religion no longer fit me.
Just as a side note, I do not know of a single moderate version of Christadelphia. Not one. Some may have looked moderate compared to the hard-line fundamentalism and Biblical literalism that was common throughout the denomination, but that doesn’t make them moderate. My conviction then, which has only strengthened in the years since, is that the fundamentals are broken. Not just the fundamentals of Christadelphian teaching, but of the Bible and the God of the Bible. And some of those fundamentals lead to very dangerous places.
The aftermath: Work edition
Unlike in the church, there was no decisive declaration at work that I’d changed. I hadn’t made a big deal of my supposed religion for years, so I didn’t make a big deal of leaving religion. It wouldn’t surprise me if some there still think I’m Christian.
And I think it’s at work that I saw most clearly that spiritual growth and moral growth are not as closely connected as my upbringing taught me. There I could be a decent person without being driven by my spiritual values. Perhaps better, because I didn’t have to feel the obligation to sell my religion to co-workers or to judge them for the different life choices they made.
Six months after I quit, a co-worker heard I was no longer religious and expressed surprise. I found that oddly comforting, because it showed that I hadn’t made a big and obvious change for the worse. I was still me. I truly could have integrity on my own terms, not on the Bible’s terms.
However, to an extent my first two trips of the decade still mark me at work. Since my first extended leave had been for mission work, some assumed that my 2016 UK trip was also mission work.
Last year - three years after quitting religion, and eight years after my last mission trip - I had one co-worker say he’d heard that early on I went on mission work for a few months. Another co-worker was worried that he might be offending me by saying religion wasn’t for him (if he only saw some of what I’ve written on this blog…).
Are you at all spiritual today?
Some people try to draw a big distinction between “religion” and “spirituality”. Perhaps it’s meant to be the difference between the organised, intellectual, “dogma” side and the more emotional side, but I’m not sure I see this distinction.
As I’ve described, my religion was largely an intellectual religion. I hope I’m in better touch with my emotions now. But I don’t think that makes me spiritual.
Nowadays, I do a lot of hiking. People talk about deeply spiritual experiences while out in nature, and I think when I was religious I had more such experiences there than anywhere else. However, I now see those experiences differently.
There are places where I have a deep sense of wonder, of beauty, and of peace. It might be gazing down into a valley, or watching the reflections on a lake dance and change, or seeing and hearing the turbulent waves rolling in. My troubles shrink, and nothing seems to matter more than the moment I’m currently in. Personally, I don’t call this spirituality, but I wouldn’t object too much if others did - it does seem to have some overlap with mindfulness, which is often related to spirituality.
To me, the important thing isn’t the label. The important thing is that these experiences are wonderful, and I have the freedom to seek them out and appreciate them without wondering how they relate to the religious dogma I’m meant to uphold. Mindfulness and the associated meditation practices were generally viewed with suspicion in the religious environment I belonged in.
As should now be clear, for me spiritual growth was not the defining theme of the decade. Up next will be what I think was the defining theme of the decade: A growing independence. Sometimes that independence was used to advance my spiritual goals, particularly early in the decade, but in the end it gave me the freedom to choose a very different life path. I discovered that I couldn’t truly be defined either by religion or by faith: I had grown, and the box didn’t fit.
Now, I am free to be me.