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Today’s conversion story comes from Amy, a former Christian missionary, homeschooling mom, and magazine editor who has recently abandoned Christianity altogether. Now an atheist, she has asked that I only use her first name.
I’m a mother of four young children, whom I homeschooled until last month when we moved to a new state and an excellent school district. Now, I’m putting my Master’s degree back to work teaching English as a second language in a college prep school for international students. My husband is a research scientist at the local university.
Please describe your conversion experience or process:
I grew up in a nominally Christian home—Mom took us to church occasionally at a mainline, liberal Methodist Church (There were 13 churches and 13 streets in my hometown—this church was one of the few “mainstream.”) I would consider myself a “seeking” kid. I prayed and had a sense of “something larger.” God/nature. Jesus. Whatever. I remember once seeing a part of a Billy Graham Crusade on TV where he was preaching that Jesus died for our sins. Frequently thereafter I would sit in church and look up at the big cross and wonder, “What does that mean? Does that mean I would have died on a cross if Jesus hadn’t?” About a year later (when I was 13), I was talking about Heaven with my best friend who was Baptist, and she asked me if I was saved. I wasn’t, but I understood instinctively that to be “saved” meant to be saved from something. I was instantly fascinated. To make a long story short, I met her at her pastor’s house that weekend and repented and invited Jesus into my life.
It was a meaningful and deeply moving experience. Pastor King explained the gospel in much the same way I presented it to other people in the years afterward. I remember crying and praying, on my own. “Thank you Jesus, for forgiving me. I know why you died on the cross, and that I never could have earned it.” I really understood what Billy Graham had been preaching about and I committed my life to Jesus that day. What’s more, I was completely bewildered by the beautiful simplicity of it. Why hadn’t anyone told me about this salvation before? I felt certain that anyone, hearing the truth of Jesus, would come to faith in Him as quickly as I had. If I’d had access to religious tracts, I would have been the most rabid tract-distributor the world has ever seen.
I read my Bible every day after that, as Pastor King suggested. I began praying regularly, going to church and youth group every week with my friend. I spent almost 20 years involved in evangelism, leading Bible studies, and on staff (with my husband) as missionaries in a well known, international, para-church organization. I was Assistant Editor of a Christian professionals magazine before my oldest child was born. Three years ago, my husband and I abandoned Christianity and deism. We are now atheists.
What events led to your conversion?
There were a dozen little dominoes that wobbled over time, including the Biblical teachings on homosexuality and the conflict of science and the Genesis account of creation (yeah, the conflict that fundamentalists deny is actually there).
But I guess my biggest problem in the end is prosaically common, it just took a simple incident to help me face it: Evil. Not just “why does God allow evil,” but “Why does God permit, command, and even perform acts of evil in the Bible?”
Now, I wouldn’t have framed it like that when I was a Christian—couldn’t have—but the idea was there. Of course, God wouldn’t have any truck with evil—He’s perfect, so I wasn’t even able to frame the question in a legitimate way in my own head. So, as many Christians do, I framed it more simply as, “Why does God allow so much suffering and evil?”
The typical answer is this: God is so big, and so great that only He can see the bigger picture. He is using all things to work together for good. We humans, being fallible and limited, cannot understand how this mighty, perfect being can make even seemingly evil things work together for ultimate good. We must have faith that our perfect God is good (despite the obviously horrible things He permits and encourages).
It’s a tough idea to grapple with, and I think most Christians find this ultimately unsatisfying, though perhaps not so great as to abandon their faith—not when it’s the best answer they have.
I didn’t realize how deeply I had rationalized the biblical God’s evil doings until one afternoon when my 7-year-old daughter came to me with a Bible question. My husband and I had given her a youth Bible for Easter when she was 6, and she’s quite precocious; after starting in the gospel of John and losing interest, she decided that she wanted to read from the beginning. I said, “Go ahead!” not expecting her to get very far. I didn’t realize how far she’d gotten until she approached me with Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
“What does this mean?” she asked me.
(Yes, my daughter understood the basic concept of sex and rape, though perhaps not in their most gory details, but all that a 7-year-old might know.)
Fortunately (or not) I had a ready answer to such questions—I had several explanations to excuse these sorts of verses, after all, was I not a Bible study leader and evangelist?
- “This was just supposed to be a deterrent. A man would be less likely to rape a woman if he had to wed and support her.”
- “This was just for the Jews. They had to follow more serious laws because they were God’s chosen people.”
- “Christians don’t have to follow these civil laws.”
- “No other men would have married a woman who was not a virgin. This was a way of making sure she’d be maintained in case she was raped and would be unlikely to marry.”
But, looking at my little daughter right then, I knew none of these was sufficient. There was only one possible answer, the simplest. I took a deep breath and said, “God said that if a man raped a woman, she had to marry him.”
“That’s horrible!” my daughter protested, and I agreed. And I still do. Wrap it however you want, excuse it however you want, but that’s what it boils down to. God made a civil law that said a woman raped was a woman wed.
How odd that it took my child to help me see that. A child sees clearly what an adult can rationalize away. And how evil would it have been of me to rationalize rape to a child?
I struggled with that the rest of the afternoon, remembering all of the places in the Bible where I had excused Elohim’s evil. Sure, you can try to rationalize these things. Of course! When you’re convinced that God is good, you must find a way to deal with these issues that we see as evil. The only answer you’re never allowed is “God is bad.” But we must allow that to be a possible answer if we’re looking for truth.
The God of the Bible calls for genocide, the murder of children and babies, condones the rape of captive women, calls for the stoning of even committed same-sex couples who engage in sexual activity together, and brutally starves thousands who don’t obey Him to His satisfaction.
Once I gave up on the idea of a good deity, the rest fell apart pretty quickly. I began reading Biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman who helped explain the strange discrepancies in the Bible. I had long wondered how Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on a colt or on two animals at the same time, or whether Jairus’ daughter was dead or not when he went to Jesus for her healing. Then it boiled down to the point that the Bible is not inerrant. I had thought it was. I had taught others that it was! However, the Bible has discrepancies and contradictions that I could no longer ignore or rationalize. And not just little ones. Take the death of Christ, for instance. Two of the gospels claim that it happened on different days! Wouldn’t the Bible get the facts of Jesus’ death correct? Isn’t this—and the resurrection—the lynch pin of Christian faith?
The book I thought existed doesn’t. The God I thought existed doesn’t.
And now I no longer labor under the contradictions that I did. And I don’t have to foist them upon my children. And I don’t have to live in fear of the things God will do to help “refine” me in this life, or what might happen to me in an afterlife—Millstone around my neck, anyone? Nope. Because that doesn’t exist either.
What kind of impact did your conversion have on your friends and family?
De-converting affected my life in several important ways.
For one, I embraced my life and my children more fully. Knowing that this was it, that this life was all I had, made me focus more on making it better for my family, my children, and for others around me. I’ve become much more involved in social justice. It’s not enough to say, “Everything will be made right when God takes care of it. Now or after death,” because it’s not going to happen that way. If people are to have justice, it has to be done in this life, and I’m investing time and energy in organizations that are striving for that.
I apologized to many friends and family members for pressuring them for so long to embrace Jesus, and repent. I told them I was wrong, in my attitude and actions. It was very hard. Some relationships are gone for good. Some are strong—and—stronger now.
I had to be much more careful with Christian friends in my community, however. I told very few Christians that I no longer believed. Almost all of my peers and my children’s friends were homeschooling families and were Christians of one stripe or another. I did not tell most of them because I believed my children would be ostracized if it was known we no longer believed. One of my closest friends, during the time I was shucking my faith, went railing against Richard Dawkins, almost gleefully proclaiming, “Oh, God is going have His way. He [Dawkins] will pay for what he’s doing!” I felt pretty sure she wouldn’t want me around her children any more, and her daughters were my daughter’s best friend.
Even two years after our deconversion, I still have dear friends who don’t know.
We stopped going to church when summer break came around. My husband and I had been talking about when to leave the church for a number of months when my oldest child was given a “Are You Sure You’re Going to Heaven?” tract in church to share with friends. My husband and I shared a glance, knowing the time had come. We worked in the nursery during Sunday School, and we told the other child care folks that we were going to have to take a break for the summer because of vacations and other obligations (which was true). Then, we just made it a point to never return. Our children were very concerned at first. They were frightened of Hell. “And God wants us to go to church,” my son explained tearfully.
My husband and I sat down with our children and explained that we didn’t believe all of the things the Bible said. We talked about the holy books of the many faiths, and how people all believed different things (which they already knew from our home school studies). My oldest (who was 8 then) said she was relieved, and that she never really believed it any way. “Did you really believe that, Mama? Really?” she asked. I told her that I had indeed believed that, and she seemed stunned.
Now, two years after leaving church. I’m glad that we left while they were young enough to suffer no lasting confusion. It turns out they had already been getting flack from friends for reading Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and for not being religious enough, so I suppose it was easier for them to leave all of that behind.
We have since moved and no longer have to worry about hiding our “falling away” from our friends and neighbors.
Fortunately, my husband and I lost faith at the same time, so we never suffered the pains and fears of those who abandon faith and leave a spouse and children behind (or vice versa).
What advice would you give someone going through the same experience or contemplating a similar conversion?
Follow your doubts.
Faith is not admirable when it flies in the face of what you know to be reality—particularly when your faith costs other people their rights and happiness.
It will be hard for a while, it may be scary. You may feel you have to rebuild the foundation of your entire life, but you’ll find that it’s still there, just buried under the thick detritus of religion. It will be worth it! I have found a freedom I never had as a Christian, and it allowed me to really embrace my family, children, and reality in a way closed to me as a person of faith.
What are three things you have learned in the process?
1. Question, question, question. There are many more questions than answers.
2. Don’t try to fool yourself. Your self will suffer. And so will others’.
3. Compassion is the best moral guide.
Thank you for sharing your story, Amy. If anyone wishes to contact her, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous posts in the “conversions” series:
• Adam Morris: Catholic to Southern Baptist to Gay Follower of Christ
• Trav Fecht: From Contemporary Worship to Liturgy
• Christy: From Fundamentalism to Non-Religious Spirituality
• Ryan Hadley: Christian to Atheist
• David Johndrow: Congregational Church to Charismatic Episcopalian
• Jeremy Myers: From Senior Pastor to Church Dropout
• Mike Wise: Christian to Agnostic to Christian
• Jessica Gavin: Universalist to Seventh-Day Adventist
• Torie Brown Hunt: From Southern Baptist to Mormon