In the first part of our conversation, Jon reflected on how he currently approaches his former faith, and tackled questions about the concept of God, suffering, free will, and the Bible.
In this second half, he shares his experience of going through the personal process of deconstruction so publicly, and considers where things might go from here.
Since you’ve been reflecting on questions around faith and your understanding of God, do you feel an evangelistic drive to get people to dig down and evaluate their own beliefs?
I think the thing that drives me right now is that there are already so many people that are doing what I’m doing, but they don’t feel like they can do it publically. And because they’re quiet about it, it’s very easy to feel isolated. For the time that I was in Christian music, I didn’t feel like I could even entertain some of the questions that I’m entertaining now because I was scared that it would mean the end of my livelihood, and that is a rational fear. So, I feel motivated to help create a space for people to process these questions in a healthy way.
And, I should say, if they end up going back to Christianity after entertaining these questions, I’m actually fine with that. I think there are good expressions of Christianity. I’m not one of these people that thinks religion is harming the world; I think Christianity has brought more good into the world than harm. I know that plenty of ex-Christians or atheists disagree with me on that one, and that’s a whole other conversation.
But, if someone were to say, ‘Look, I’ve thought about all these things, I admit that I can’t be sure either way, but I feel like my life will be better if I just say, “You know what? I’m going to choose to believe.” I’m going to engage with the Christian community, I’m going to have a church family, and I’m going to try to let myself be motivated to serve others through this faith.’ If you say that to me, then I’m like, fantastic. That’s awesome.
I’m not against people being a part of Christianity. What I’m frustrated by is the aggressive and dogmatic forms of fundamental Christianity, and the lack of willingness to admit that there might be some uncertainty there. That’s what frustrates me.
And I think you get that from both sides, don’t you?
Sure, I’ve been criticized by atheists for saying that I’m staying too close to Christianity because I’m continuing to engage with apologists and believers. I feel like dogmatism across the board is unhealthy. And most of my friends are Christian, so because I don’t believe in God, does that mean that I’m required to now reject all of my Christian friends? That’s just doing the very same thing that the worst versions of Christians would do to me. I’m telling Christians that they need to be tolerant of my questions, so how can I not be tolerant and loving and kind towards them and continue to have them in my life?
So, how does it feel for you personally, putting yourself out there and being very vulnerable to the world regarding what you believe, and then having people come back at you in that way from different camps? Is it as though there’s a target on your back for people to try and win over your allegiance?
Well, I have fifteen years of experience being in a band, and when you’re in a band people say nasty things about you, especially online. It’s like, ‘Your old music was so much better, your last singer was way better than you,’ stuff like that. And I developed a very thick skin. So, none of that really bothers me. When someone I know personally says something aggressive or negative towards me, that hurts a little more, but luckily I just haven’t had a lot of that. I feel like people that know me personally have been largely respectful towards my journey and recognize that the questions I’m asking are legitimate questions, and that this is a legitimate journey and I’m not just trying to be difficult for fun.
I feel compelled to walk this fine line where I’m not willing to arbitrarily identify with any particular philosophy or worldview.
But certainly online I’ve been accused of all kinds of things. I’ve been accused of dragging people to hell with me. I’ve been accused of some weird stuff; I’ve had a few people say, ‘I sense a spirit of homosexuality on you,’ and I’m like, well first off, thank you. Any of my friends that are gay are some of the loveliest people that I’ve met, so I will take that as a compliment. Secondly, I’m not gay; I’m married with two kids, and thirdly, what is the ‘spirit of homosexuality’? It’s just comical on so many different levels for me, so it’s hard to be really offended by it.
But ultimately, I feel compelled to walk this fine line where I’m not willing to arbitrarily identify with any particular philosophy or worldview. I’m just trying to get into the details and figure out what I really think and what I really believe, and that’s going to mean that I can’t fully identify with some of the more fundamentalist or more aggressive versions of almost any philosophy.
When you receive these kinds of comments and messages, how do you choose what to engage with, and how to engage with it?
When it comes to messages on Instagram, I do try to write back to all of them. There are times where it’s not possible; when the CNN, Fox News, and all those articles went up, I got probably ten thousand messages in a week, so there was just no way to respond to all of that. At that point I was responding very selectively because it was just impossible to keep up with. But now it’s more manageable, and so I generally respond if I feel like there’s a constructive conversation that’s possible. If I get the sense that that’s not possible, then I don’t even respond. If it’s someone accusing me of something ridiculous, then I’m just like, we’re not going to agree, what’s to be gained by engaging? But if it’s someone who has a legitimate question, or if someone’s responding in a kind way even if they’re pushing back on me, then I typically will engage.
And then, publicly in the comments, I try to do the same thing. Although I confess sometimes it just gets away on me, and sometimes I will get a thread under a comment that’s twenty or thirty comments long and I’m just going to let them go for it. I’ve got a number of people that are following me now that tend to come to my defense if I get attacked, and so I try to let them do that for me if it’s helpful and meaningful. Occasionally I’ve actually stepped in and said, can you not defend me so aggressively? It’s important that people have the freedom to disagree with me, so if they’re doing that, I don’t want them to be attacked.
Do you think that this process of deconstruction is something that everyone should go through in one form or another?
I’ve thought about that, and I’m not sure. I feel like some people are wired in such a way that they’re just fine going through life and not rocking the boat too much. I think you should try to move your life in a direction that causes it to be more and more meaningful and fulfilling, and not less. And for some people, deconstructing their faith isn’t necessarily a path to making things better in their life. I was having a conversation about some of this stuff with a buddy, and he’s a Christian, but I don’t think he spends a lot of time thinking about it. He just likes to work his job, barbecue on the weekends, and go to church on Sunday because that’s their community, and he’s just happy with his life. He’s a good person, a moral person, and I’m sure some Christians would look and him and potentially ask, does he have a real relationship with Jesus? Is his Christianity authentic? And I go, well, he’s a great dad, he’s living a life that he finds fulfilling, and why disturb it?
I think that stifling your questions and your doubts is no way to live.
But in my original Instagram post I used the metaphor of a sweater, and for some people like myself, if there’s a thread hanging off the sweater, I can’t just leave it there; I’m going to pull on it, or cut it off, or do something about it. And so, for me, Christianity has been like that, where I see problems and I can’t help but poke them. I can’t. I mean, what am I going to do, not poke them? But some people don’t want to.
So, my perspective is that if you feel like you have questions, you should look for some answers, and you should have the courage to follow that journey wherever those answers take you, because it will be better than where you started. I think that stifling your questions and your doubts is no way to live. So, for people that feel compelled to act, I think that they should, and for people that don’t feel that compulsion, I think that’s fine too. What we all should do is ask, how can we best live our lives? And that’s a question that doesn’t necessarily require deconstructing everything. You may feel like you have an idea of how to answer that question. I just know that answering that question for me involves going down this fairly lengthy rabbit hole.
So, what do you think is next? Both personally in terms of what you believe, are you happy to continue not knowing, or would you like to land somewhere? But also, in terms of the journey that people have been going on along with you, what would you say the next steps are?
Well, I have continued to post things, but I’ve gotten less and less purposeful about it, because I’ve been in this season where the most important thing I can do right now is learn. And, yeah, for me, I’m not content not knowing. If there are things that I can know, I want to know. So, I’m consuming books at a rapid clip right now. I really, really want to learn. Because I do feel that knowing more can potentially help lead me to a better life. I think on some level that’s true for everyone, but I think on an intellectual level that’s very true for me.
But the flip side of that coin is that I’ve never actually felt more compelled to participate in things that help alleviate human suffering. So, I’ve stepped up contributions to non-profits, and one of the things that I would love to do if I have any sort of a platform is grow that platform and use it to help shine a light on causes that I really believe in. I think that’s a pretty meaningful way to spend your time in life. For instance, I Iive in San Diego, and there are half a million people in San Diego who are considered food insecure. That basically means that they don’t always have enough to eat. In today’s culture, with the amount of wealth that we have as a nation, and as a society in any Western country, it disturbs me greatly that there are people, especially children, that literally don’t have enough to eat. That seems like something we could fix if we wanted it bad enough. So I feel compelled to be a part of that.
I’ve never actually felt more compelled to participate in things that help alleviate human suffering.
That’s the two sides of the coin for me. I want to learn more and more about who we are as human beings, why we’re here, and what it means to live a good life. And then I want to follow through on my intuition that making life better for other people is a meaningful way for me to spend my life. And I want to find out how those two relate, because they clearly relate somehow. That journey is what I feel passionate about doing now.
As film-making is your livelihood, and you previously made the documentary about the Batwa tribe in Uganda, do you think you would want to pursue combining your profession and what you personally have a heart for?
If I could unify all of those things into a career, I would be very happy about that. As it stands, they’re all slightly overlapping but not entirely the same. Right now I’m working on a couple of different music videos and some video projects for a few corporations and tech companies here in the U.S. I enjoy the work, I’m just aware right now that my life consists of spinning multiple plates: trying to make sure my kids are doing okay, and trying to make sure my marriage is okay, and then trying to make sure my video career is okay. And then also trying to maintain and keep in connection with this community that I’ve unexpectedly found myself participating in, of people on the fringes of belief and unbelief and asking really important questions about life. So, if I could find a way to unify those things more in the future, that’s definitely something I want to work towards.
Like you said, doing more projects with non-profits would fall into that category. Typically the problem is that non-profits need money, and because those projects are very time consuming, it’s difficult for me to necessarily charge what I would need to for that amount of time. That documentary in Uganda, for instance; when I went and did that, we talked in spirit about a fee that they’d be willing to pay me for documenting their work there. When I got there, I was like, I don’t know how I can take that money. So when I got back I ended up sponsoring a couple of the kids there. They did pay me some of what we had talked about, but I also spent a bunch of money contributing back to them, just because I felt compelled to. So, it hasn’t been a very good way for me to pay my bills.
I haven’t really figured that out yet, I don’t have the answer to that question. I would love to do much more altruistic work in my film work, but I also have to provide for my family, and I haven’t cracked that code yet.
Follow along with Jon’s journey on Instagram and Twitter @jonsteingard
The above has been lightly edited for clarity.