Here is another account in my series of real-life deconversion stories. They are often painful, psychological affairs, as you can see from the various accounts. ML Candelario was put on to me by contributor Cody Rudisill who has posted the occasional article. I thank MLC for his contribution. Please check out my book of deconversion accounts, edited with Tristan Vick, which can be bought from the sidebar over there, or by clicking on the book cover. The previous accounts can be found here:
I – Salvation
I became a born-again Christian at the age of nine, but the story of my conversion (and subsequent deconversion) does not start there. Perhaps it could start with the stories of my parents—my dad having been raised Catholic and, after moving to the States from his native Puerto Rico, converting to Pentecostalism before ultimately moving away from institutionalized religion altogether; my mother having (briefly) been raised Mormon before settling into that ethereal spirituality many of my Evangelical friends call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Instead, I’ll start after all of that, with me as a small child being raised with a notion of “God,” and even “Jesus,” distinct from hard doctrine or systematic theology. This is, I suspect, what most Christians in America grow up with. God was That-Which-Makes-Us-Feel-Good.
My family was rather poor—my parents declared bankruptcy just before I was born—but we had some close friends, so we were rich in that regard. One of my earliest friends regularly attended church with his mother, who taught a Sunday school class for kids our age. I went with him a few times and vexed his mother with questions like “if the first become last and the last become first, aren’t you just shooting for first place when you actively try to be last?” Of course, I probably didn’t articulate it like that, but my point is that I took her lessons seriously and often had questions that seemed, sometimes, outright rebellious. I was keenly interested in learning about the Truth of God. Always an obedient child, I wished to learn about this Authority, what he was like, what he required, so that I might live rightly.
After I had visited my friend’s church several times and failed to enjoy it, my mother heard about a local Vacation Bible School that was supposed to be so fun that people had taken to calling it Summer Bible Adventure. The community joked that it was “VBS on steroids.” Wanting to do the socially acceptable and laudable thing, and hearing that I would have fun, my mother sent me to this event. Of course, this caused a bit of a disconnect with my friend and his mother—as she was miffed that we weren’t going to her church’s VBS—but nevertheless I went.
This church—the one with the VBS on steroids—was to become my homechurch for the majority of my life as a Christian. By the end of that week, I had gone down the aisle and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer of acceptance/belief/confession. I had become a new Christian. My mother, seeing her only child have such a religious experience, followed soon after. When she voiced her concerns at the fact that I was making a life-changing decision at the age of nine, the pastor informed her that I stood out to him as having been one of the few kids who could clearly and effectively communicate a need for the Gospel and what it all meant. I knew what I was doing, he claimed, because I told him all the right answers. Now, I remember parts of that day and I know that I did feel as if I was supposed to come forward and accept Christ (whether this was from the Holy Spirit or from the fact that the pastor had been preaching this—and all the other doctrines I parroted back to him—during the course of the week, I’ll let you decide). But I also know that I was a very good student and memorizer of facts, and so it doesn’t surprise me that I was able to tell him what I was doing. After all, he had just preached a sermon to us kids about who Jesus was, how he came to save us, and that we needed to serve and love God by accepting him into our hearts and obeying him in our lives.
In any case, however you slice it, my mom and I had become Christians. We were saved!
II – A Good Christian Boy
I ate religion up. I loved it. My life became consumed and defined by being a Christian. I read my Bible cover-to-cover, a feat which I have come to realize few other Christians have accomplished. (I don’t say this in an arrogant sense. I don’t think I’m better than these other folks. I just want to give a sense of how seriously I took this life, of how wholly I tried to dedicate myself to God). I made it through high-school without drinking a drop of alcohol, without taking a single drug stronger than an ibuprofen. Barring one relatively minor encounter for which I felt an extraordinary amount of guilt (i.e. I became consumed with worry that the Holy Spirit had left me), I did not engage in sexual activity. I don’t know where you live, reader, but for my country this is by far the exception.
All of that is to say that I played the good Christian—and I believed it. It wasn’t an act. I occasionally cried in the pew (softly, trying not to draw attention) at certain worship songs. I was a kind of de facto leader in the youth group. I became part of a ministry that essentially mimed motions to worship songs while wearing black sweats and white gloves (think the “happy hands” scene from Napoleon Dynamite, but more religious). In school and at church I became a sort of defender of the faith, having read and been influenced by the works of C. S. Lewis and other theological titans of the previous century, and having a knack for remembering key biblical stories and their lessons. Having been the first of my family to become truly Evangelical, I was the spiritual leader of my home. My mother often would ask me questions about doctrine and theology, as well as asking me for affirmation against the different denominations of her friends. My own close-knit group of friends had arisen through our discovering, at school, our mutual love for Christ and theology. Plus, you know, they were cool and fun to hang out with. They are still my friends (thankfully) to this day, though they remain Christians. They are the closest things I have to brothers. But the fact remains that our initial friendship was brought about by recognizing in each other a certain seriousness about the faith that few others our age expressed.
Significantly, toward the end of my high-school career, I became acquainted with the website for the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (carm.org, if you didn’t know). The forums on that website were amazing to me. They had Christians and atheists and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and Muslims and… everything in between. It was well organized and informative. Most of my time, however, was spent arguing in one specific section of that forum—the one dedicated to the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. As a good Southern Baptist, I threw myself with a certain zeal into a war against Calvinism (which I saw as essentially a heresy, a doctrine that made God into a maniacal tyrant). Most of my arguments were refuted thoroughly. I now know, in retrospect, that this is because all of my arguments were built upon the foundation of emotionalism. I remember telling one Calvinist that I “would never worship the kind of god you describe.” This was met with an injunction for caution, and the individual revealed that s/he had read some Francis Schaeffer by telling me never to say never, since “‘the God Who Is There’ operates on Calvinistic means,” and “Calvinism is the gospel.” The warning would prove prophetic indeed.
III – College
A year before my high-school graduation, I began dating a young woman with whom I had acted in one of our school’s yearly plays. I like to tell this story, because in the play we were husband and wife—and that young woman is now married to me. But there was a hitch in the relationship from early on—my future wife was a Mormon. Not only that, but she was a devout Mormon. In her church, which I was later to find out in an instance of absurd coincidence was the very same branch that my mother had attended as a young girl, my future wife was the equivalent of me in my church—if not the shining star amongst the youth, at least one of the most intensely serious young members of her church. And so we began to date—against my better judgment after “searching the Scriptures” for wisdom—each of us with the intent of converting the other.
Months passed. We discussed theologies and our respective scriptures. We tried earnestly and honestly to understand the position of the other party. But in the end we could not convert each other and we broke up. This was a profoundly sad time in my life—not just because I had the feeling that this was The One that I was letting slip away, but also because I was perplexed as to why God wouldn’t save the person I knew was the love of my life. Perhaps all Christians who date nonbelievers feel this way. Certainly many highschoolers are familiar with heartbreak. All I know is that I searched the Bible for answers, and I found them. I remember shouting at my mom, who was trying to comfort me, as tears poured from my eyes. I read to her the Scripture that says God has mercy on whom he has mercy and he hardens whom he hardens. There was my answer, and it was Calvinistic: God didn’t give a flying fuck what I wanted. He didn’t care that I loved this young girl with all my heart. If he decided to harden her heart so that she couldn’t accept the gospel, and therefore to send her to Hell, he would do it. I had no say in the matter. It was the first time in my life that I truly knew what it was like to worship a deity so other than myself. So transcendent. I could not understand God. And this was scary.
My girlfriend and I ended up back together after telling each other that the intensity of our separate beliefs was an indication that either one of us was right or neither of us was. This meant we ought to pursue the truth with renewed vigor. But the one thing we knew was that we loved each other. Perhaps this was my first real contact with what is now my ethical system—but that is for a later essay. Onward we march.
I had very little direction in life. Ever obedient, I was unwilling to decide upon a life-track, upon a career, without knowing in my soul which career God intended for my life. Such guidance didn’t come, so I settled on the idea of becoming a youth pastor. After all, I had been a leader in my church’s youth group and I felt that I understood the kinds of issues that young folks dealt with. So I attended Liberty University—the same university my youth pastor had attended.
My first year was a shambles, though there I met friends I’ll keep for the rest of my life. I fell into a dark depression, taking upwards of five or six naps per day—I’d slip back to my dorm room between classes and catch a few Z’s, mostly because I didn’t want to be awake. I didn’t want to be alive, really, but I was unwilling to kill myself in the hope that God was going to make things better. I only truly felt well when I was on the phone with my girlfriend (who had attended a secular university in my home state) and when I was playing in the marching band (since focusing on music let me relax and took my mind off of the things I was depressed about).
And what, specifically, were the things I was depressed about? At the time, I thought it was the “fakeness” I felt was endemic to the school (barring the few folks I would come to call friends). But that is not what I see now. In retrospect, I know that my depression stemmed from my earlier discovery of that one Old Testament verse: that God would save whom he would save, and damn whom he would damn. For some reason, that verse had stuck in my craw. As the prophetic forum-member had written, I was beginning to realize, subconsciously, that such a Calvinistic theology was very much the narrative of the Bible. So many verses I’d previously written off as “mysteries” suddenly made sense in light of this discovery. God didn’t give a fuck. He was about his own glory, always and only, and us humans were sort of byproducts (some lucky enough to be predestined to salvation, others unlucky in their predestiny as vessels of wrath made for destruction). And, though this was mostly subconscious, I felt a rage against this theology and couldn’t understand how my happy-go-lucky, Arminian, Liberty University co-eds weren’t also upset about it.
I’ll speed up a bit here. Over that first year and a half of college, I changed my major to missions (having been introduced to Voddie Baucham’s idea that youth groups were unbiblical); my future wife left the Mormon church after much deliberation and careful, honest study; and, though I was still intent on becoming a missionary, I decided to transfer schools (partially because of my distaste for Liberty, partially because I wanted to get married, and partially because I had the premonition that if I did end up doing missions I would not be fulfilled until I went to the most dangerous areas—the Closed Access Countries in the Middle East, for example. So I decided to major in English and become a writer so that I could have a “real job” while doing mission work. I transferred to my girlfriend’s school and we got married the next summer. I was 19 and she was 20, but we took seriously Paul’s command to marry when overcome with passion.
One of the most important changes in my life during that time was that we became involved with a local house-church. The pastor—who is still a close and dear friend to me—was a Calvinist. In one sitting, he convinced both me and my wife that Calvinism was the clear narrative of the Bible. In hindsight, the brevity of this conversion to Calvinism was because I had already subconsciously understood this—I was simply angry about it. It took a pastoral hand to guide me through the Bible and show that God was kind and trustworthy, that “the Judge of all the Earth” will “do right.” And so, one fine winter’s day, we left our pastor’s house and my wife turned to me to proclaim “Babe, what happened? We’re Calvinists.” My reply: “I know, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
IV – Falling Away
In the interest of keeping this shorter than novel-length, I’m going to broadly summarize the events that transpired in the following few years. My wife and I had our first child, who we named after one of the tribes of Israel. We moved away from our college town, back to the conservative, somewhat anti-intellectual area in which we grew up. We experienced what we called a miracle—our second child, parts of whose heart were not showing up on an ultrasound, was born completely healthy instead of with the (probably fatal) issues we thought he was going to have. But though there was much joy in these years, there was also considerable sadness. My depression and anxiety grew, and no amount of prayer, bible-reading, or renewed dedication seemed to matter. I wrestled between asking God to free me of habits I hated and trying to stop the habits myself. If I did the former, was I eschewing responsibility? If I did the latter, was I failing to trust in the sovereignty of God? And was my inability to discern which route was more biblical… was that the cause of God’s perceived silence? Did he ignore me because of my sin?
During this time, one of my friends—a young man who had been the first of my circle to become a Calvinist and who we all widely thought of as being more well-read about Christianity than any of us others—declared himself an atheist. I had a few conversations with him that left us both scratching our heads at the other’s reasoning. He gave me John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist, but I set it aside after fifty pages or so. I was looking for any excuse to find fault with the book, and found it in what I perceived to be unconvincing first arguments. But I expressed my struggles with a few folks—including an elder—at my church. I met with my elder, who after hearing me voice doubts answered me by saying “you keep saying ‘such-and-such doesn’t make sense’ about Christianity, but if God exists we shouldn’t expect to be able to understand Him. Plus there are plenty of mysterious things in science—like whether light is a wave or a particle.” This was not enough for me. Because it wasn’t so much that there was mystery in Christianity. I could deal with mystery. My struggle was because I had begun to realize that there were irreconcilable inconsistencies with key doctrines. More importantly, I realized that there were no reasons for believing in Christianity that I couldn’t use to defend belief in any other religion—since, after all, it all comes down to “well, if something doesn’t make sense, you have to remember that we shouldn’t expect it to.” What does belief even mean in this context? If I don’t think something make sense, do I actually believe it? If I think something has illogical, irreconcilable doctrines, how does me just saying that I believe equate to me believing it? By saying that I have those doubts, aren’t I on some level saying that I don’t believe?
My friend—the former Calvinist turned atheist—had come to his rejection of the faith via academic routes. He decided that there was not enough evidence to believe in the Bible’s infallibility, inerrancy, or inspiration. He decided that the more obvious answer to the discrepancies in biblical accounts is that they are polemical texts designed by multiple authors to dictate doctrine and thereby gain power over the growing Christian community (rather than one narrative written by one Author). For me, though, my atheism began for moral reasons. I’ll go so far as to say that my atheism started with emotional reasons. I came to a point at which I realized that the “Good News” of Christianity, if you take biblical doctrines about God’s sovereignty and omnipotence seriously, is basically this: God creates a world in order for it to fall, predestines some to be saved by the death of his son (himself?) and some to be condemned before they’ve even been born, then proclaims himself actually merciful in all this (though surely there was a way for him to create a world without a fall… you know, maybe not have the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden or something), and then demands you worship him.
I came up with what I call my Lake Allegory to describe what I think is the biblical story. Imagine that I take my two young children out onto a lake. We are in a small boat adrift in a tremendous body of water. I have never taught them to swim. Now imagine that I take hold of both my sons, lift them over my head, and throw them into the water. They begin to drown. I save one of my boys and let the other die, saying that if he wanted to survive all he had to do was swim back to the boat—something I know he was completely unable to do, as I am the one who has failed to teach him how to swim. Then I tell my surviving son this story all the time, reminding him of my power, and add “hey, don’t you love me for saving you from drowning?” This is psychotic behavior, yet it is honestly what I read in the Bible. Of course, there are other ways of interpreting the text—and this, to me, is evidence that the Bible is inconsistent because, well, it’s not true—but Calvinism is, in my opinion, the most consistent systematic understanding of Scripture and as such I think my Lake Allegory holds.
In short: I realized that even if this God existed, I would hate him. I don’t mean that in the facile, easy way that most Christians use it when proselytizing: “you sin because you hate God.” I mean in a real, visceral way. I think this God would be worth rebelling against. Because he is a monster unless you arbitrarily define him as not being one (i.e. the “well, God can’t be bad or mean because God by definition isn’t bad or mean… even if most of his actions are bad or mean actions by any reasonable measure” argument).
While I was forming all of this in my head, I began to read Tim Keller’s Reason for God with a group of friends. Rather than having their desired effect of strengthening me in my faith, the book further cemented in my mind the idea that even the most intellectual Christians have very shoddy reasoning and use arguments that could be used to defend any other religion (though of course when someone from another religion uses those same arguments, the Christians cry foul). So I decided, on my own, to read more nonfiction.
Having been an adamant Young Earth Creationist for most of my life, my psyche was ripe for the shattering. I watched an online debate between Kent Hovind—pseudo-intellectual defender of YEC ideas (and also a convicted tax evader)—and Dr. Hugh Ross—a Christian who is also an astronomer and therefore believes in a form of Old Earth Creationism. Now, this single debate made me realize how dumb the YEC arguments were, how tightly they shut their eyes to the evidence all around them. This led me to reject YEC and adopt, briefly, OEC. This move made me feel more intellectually honest with myself, but it was also disconcerting because I genuinely couldn’t see biblical evidence for an Old Earth unless I took the same meandering route through interpretation that Dr. Ross did—unless I jumped through a load of hoops and did a lot of mental gymnastics to accept it. Simultaneously with this new, more scientific doubt, one of my Pagan friends loaned me a book called What Evolution Is, by Ernst Mayr. The book was eye-opening. Perhaps it was due to my mental state, but for some reason this book made evolutionism an unavoidable conclusion to me. Don’t get me wrong. I have always loved science and all of my schooling (barring Liberty University) has been in public schools. I had heard the arguments for evolution before. But finally I realized that it truly does explain the data consistently and methodically. It explains the data better than creation by an omnipotent deity. Scientifically and philosophically, this freed me of my cognitive dissonance. I do not think theistic evolution is a viable worldview, at least if one is pretending to be Christian while holding to it. There is, in my opinion, no room for interpreting the Genesis creation myths or the biblical narrative of salvation and death-through-sin in ways that allow for evolution. You can do it, but you sacrifice an honesty to the text that I find necessary for true belief. In other words, by seeing that the evidence was firmly in the corner of the Theory of Evolution, my emotional/moral unbelief was paired with a solid scientific/philosophical unbelief. I realized that being honest with myself would lead me to deny Christianity. Though I still meet with Christian friends and discuss these kinds of issues, to this day I have not been given a single convincing argument for the truth of the religion. The most compelling is the moral argument, I’ll admit (i.e. if God doesn’t exist we have no real basis for an ultimate morality). I reject all the theistic morality systems that I have seen (for various reasons), but I am still working on getting my own ethical theory in place. When I do, I plan to write a short essay about why I reject theistic moral systems and how one can live morally while holding to atheism.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention one quick thing. Somewhere in the middle of the narrative of my fall from belief, I revealed my serious doubts to my wife. Her response was “if you didn’t believe in God, how would that lack of belief change your life?” I thought about it and responded by admitting that it wouldn’t change my actions all that much—it would simply change my justifications for my actions, my reasons for acting the way I act. As it turns out, my formerly-Mormon wife had already become an atheist. Ever more pragmatic and down to earth than me, she had come to the conclusion that God simply had no discernible effect on her life. Believing in God didn’t seem relevant anymore. And so, luckily, we were able to retain an honest marriage even through my transition from belief to unbelief. Luckily one of us didn’t have to seriously believe the other was going to burn for eternity (and that this was good for God to do). Because if you really believe that about somebody, do you really love them? I don’t think so. I don’t think you can
V – Life as an Atheist
So now I am an atheist. I feel more complete, mentally, than I ever have. I think this is because of the lack of cognitive dissonance that I mentioned before. I am able to be intellectually honest with myself now, able to have curiosity about different belief systems and scientific studies without feeling guilty. And I have much less frequent episodes of extreme unhappiness and depression. Let’s be honest: I’m a writer, so nothing is going to eliminate those moments altogether. But now I have more agency—I don’t have to sit and wonder if I should pray for change or do it… I just do it. And if I do have moments of depression and anxiety, I recognize them for the chemical imbalances they are, and I take supplements accordingly (I swear by 5-HTP)—I no longer feel ultimate guilt for every action. My curiosity has led to a voracious appetite for nonfiction. In the past few months, I’ve read about mathematics and philosophy, finished Loftus’ book (his section on the Problem of Evil is particularly powerful), delved into the history of religion, started reading about French existentialism and the feud between Sartre and Camus, and am now working my way through an old, six-hundred-page Metaphysics textbook from college. The world is allowed to be interesting again; I’m allowed to have questions and explore answers without feeling worried about where that exploration will lead.
I have grown closer to my Calvinist-turned-atheist friend, and we’ve both expressed what we call “sympathy toward a deity.” What we mean is that we can hold to a philosopher’s god, and we can admit (as finite beings that experience reality through our senses) that there is technically no way to know that there is no god at all. However, we both find too much fault with the revealed religions we’ve studied to consider those religions “true” in any meaningful sense. And anyway, though I can formulate the English sentence “God exists but is not evil or morally culpable for the faults in our world, for the suffering and depravity,” I cannot really hold to that view. To me, though I would love to believe that I will live forever as a spirit and that there is some ultimate, transcendent meaning to the universe, ultimately I think I would hate any deity that existed. I mean, at least if that deity claimed to be omnipotent and sovereign. Because then that deity stands by while millions of children die horrible deaths every day. That deity has created a world in which the driving force of evolution is death—and not only that, but sometimes excruciating death. That deity stood by for twenty-odd years while Josef Fritzl did unspeakable things to his own daughter while locking her in a subterranean prison. I do not have it in me to worship or praise such a being. So I find a kind of comfort in atheism. Contrary to the Christian position that denigrates all atheists as “god-haters,” I actually think my atheism was partially motivated out of a desire not to hate God. Given the options of either hating God or realizing he doesn’t exist, I chose the latter. And this is comforting, because even though I don’t have an ultimate purpose anymore, this also means there is no ultimate being allowing or causing all of this suffering. I no longer have to believe in a being who sits idly by while children starve and babies are born without skin. The shit is still there, but there is no one responsible. There is no one in control of it all demanding I call him “good.”
So yes, there are significant disappointments in becoming an atheist. But I think that being an atheist allows me to be my best self. Such freedom, after years of slavery, is a balm.