When I first left my faith behind there was an undeniable sense of liberation. The world around me suddenly made a greater deal of sense: No more did I have to grasp at hollow excuses for why my lived reality failed to line up with the claims of Christianity; I was no longer preaching messages which felt like rhetoric devoid of substance; I would not have to fear fumbling my way around an answer to, ‘why do you believe?’ any more. I was on the other side; I had made it across the fence. I could rest in the garden of authenticity and regain the conviction behind my words and actions.
But, you know what they say, the grass is always greener.
Barely a week had gone by since I first made the leap than I was stopped in my tracks by an Instagram post. Someone I knew from university shared a testimony from a pastor he’d met in Mozambique, claiming to have raised the dead. Now, it’s very easy to scoff at such a third-hand claim. After all, a brief dip into Google led me to a story in which an African man was found alive in a morgue as his family presumed him dead without really checking. In this climate, resurrection stories must surely abound. Why would I believe this one?
Nevertheless, this was not an isolated incident. Growing up in the Christian tradition has exposed me to all kinds of supernatural stories of healing, demonic encounters, and inexplicable coincidences. Many of these could be explained away without much effort, but I’m often haunted by C.S. Lewis’ argument that only one miracle claim needs to be proven true in order for them all to be possible. There are a lot of claims, and not all of them are easy to dismiss.
I’d already encountered a chip in my shiny new coat of armour, and in my panic I wanted to fling the whole thing off.
The miracles themselves are not the point for now, indeed, they themselves raise problematic questions for the Christian worldview which deserve a proper exploration. The point is that I’d already encountered a chip in my shiny new coat of armour, and in my panic I wanted to fling the whole thing off.
If you’re currently alive in the year 2020, you may have heard of something called the Coronavirus. As a result of this pandemic, social distancing has become the norm. After the first month of lockdown, I became very uneasy from just the sight of people on film or TV within two metres of one another. I do not doubt that once lockdown and social restrictions are lifted, it will take a considerable time to fully adjust to human contact once again. When you’ve spent time living within a difficult situation, its mental effects do not disappear once the situation itself is over. It’s a little messier than that.
Spending twenty-five years in the Christian tradition shapes not only your beliefs, but your very way of thinking. It makes it near impossible to approach a subject with objectivity. Of course, this is true for each of us in whatever tradition we find ourselves, and that’s why it’s necessary to examine our beliefs and take effort to recognise the lenses through which we view the world, after all, perhaps they’re in need of a clean.
Or an entirely new prescription.
Nonetheless, the effect of your worldview becomes particularly pronounced when you make the effort to abandon it. You realise that the impact of your previously held beliefs is far deeper than you first thought. There’s no point cutting the head off of a weed if its roots are still firmly embedded.
You may have realized that the angel whispering in your ear is actually a devil, but it’s still there offering you advice. And it’s not going without a fight.
I could throw yet another image at you, but an example will probably serve me better at this point.
My journey of leaving the faith led me into conversations with family and friends in which I was able to voice my true beliefs. However, lurking in the back of my mind was the question, ‘what if the devil is using me as an instrument of his deception?’ How could I not be sure that I wasn’t simply deceived, and was then actively spreading this false way of thinking to my nearest and dearest? After all, the devil is called the father of lies (John 8.44).
As another example, I was initially filled with hope that I was no longer doomed to spend my life without the possibility of relationship because of some ancient biblical texts. But this too was accompanied by the thought, ‘what if this is simply rebellion against God because I want to go my own way?’
The effect of your worldview becomes particularly pronounced when you make the effort to abandon it
In all that I was thinking, saying and doing, I found that I was measuring myself against Christian beliefs and teachings in which I had been immersed my whole life. While not a pleasant experience, I at least count myself thankful that my formative years were spent within a tamer, more tolerant British form of Christianity. It seems no wonder to me that those who went through a more American fundamentalist system often come out of the other end severely traumatized.
It’s also not a great surprise that such thoughts kept springing into my mind. This appears to be how Christianity was designed. Of course, I should be careful when I say ‘designed’, as I consider it not so much an intentional creation, but more of an evolution. Though perhaps I shouldn’t say that word too loudly. It makes sense that over time, Christianity, along with other religions and belief systems, would have developed certain means by which to retain its followers.
I’m struck by an image from a TV show called The Good Place. Within this, there is an ‘anthropomorphized vessel of knowledge’ named Janet, designed to help the inhabitants of a heavenly suburb with all of their mundane needs. At one point, the main characters need to ‘reboot’ Janet by pressing a big red button. However, they do not anticipate the force of Janet’s in-built defensive mechanism which will prevent them from doing so. As the protagonist approaches the button, the usually-stoic Janet falls to her knees, pleading through tears for them not to kill her. She even shows them a photo frame of her three darling children. However, as soon as they step away from the button she calmly explains, ‘this is a stock photo of the crowd at a Nickelodeon Kids choice awards.’
So what is Christianity’s fail-safe mechanism? Have a look at the following verses and see if anything looks a little defensive to you.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons… (1 Timothy 4.1)
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4.3-4)
But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10.33)
For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
(2 Peter 2.21)
How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10.29)
I can picture each of these being shouted by a divine gatekeeper as one takes the steps towards the exit. Using emotive language, those who leave the faith are explained away as people led astray by deceitful spirits or following their own passions. Finally, they are simply threatened.
Not only are these more explicit methods used for those leaving the faith, but other teachings developed which prevent people even reaching that point.
For example, there is a great emphasis on persecution within the Church. Admittedly, there are places in the world where violent oppression is a reality for Christianity – and other religions – but you’d be hard pressed to find anything substantial in the West.
And yet the Western Christians have adopted a win-win strategy. When they are faced with opposition to their views – whether on same-sex marriage, abortion, the role of women etc. – this will confirm to them the biblical teaching that they are being persecuted by evil forces in ‘the world’. On the other hand, when they win legal cases, this in turn confirms that God is actively working on their side. Whether you win or lose, God is right.
Similarly, when many Christians experience what they consider to be the tangible presence of their savior, this is normal and part of the healthy Christian life. Yet when this experience is absent, this is also a typical part of the faith journey, seen in song lyrics such as: ‘even when I don’t feel it, you’re working.’ Whether you feel him or not, God is there.
Finally, if you pray and the thing you’ve asked for becomes a reality, hallelujah, it’s a yes! If it does not appear, you’ve either asked for the wrong thing, or God’s decided it’s not the right time. If the opposite happens, it’s spiritual opposition due to the fallen nature of the world. Whatever the outcome, God hears and answers prayer.
It is a matter of noticing what you’re thinking, and why; reflecting on your thought patterns to spot any unwanted guests.
Such modes of thinking – and many other examples could be given – reveal the nature of the Christian worldview, from its earliest biblical incarnation to the more developed systems. Simply put, whatever happens, God is right. It seems that nothing can take place or be said which would not simply further entrench a believer into their existing ways of seeing reality. God’s got an answer for everything.
This will go largely unnoticed when you’re in the fold, but even once you’ve noticed it upon leaving, it doesn’t just disappear. You can take the man out of religion…
The process of deconstruction must therefore be a more deliberative one. It is a matter of noticing what you’re thinking, and why; reflecting on your thought patterns to spot any unwanted guests.
This journey may be a little more complicated than I’d originally expected, but I’d rather take the difficult path to liberation than remain a comfortable prisoner.