(What follows is a deconversion story, where I emphasized some passages I find of particular significance)
I came into this world as an evangelical pastor’s kid and then after almost four years of bible college became an atheist. It is a long story, but one that I hope gives some insight into the inner workings of Evangelicalism.
I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to two loving parents who had only the best intentions for my life. Among other side occupations such as church directory photography, my father is a pastor and my mother a worship leader. As Bible-believing Evangelicals, they worry about hellfire, where those who do not believe in the right things are punished infinitely for finite crimes and have no opportunity for repentance after death. They wanted to save me from such a fate and perceived the best way to do this would be to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). This training occurred by homeschooling me and keeping me apart from non-Christians as a young person, and by giving me mostly Christian books to read and Christian music to listen to.
From the moment I was born I was surrounded with bibles, religious conversation, prayers, worship songs, morning devotions, bible-based storybooks, movies, and church services. I accepted Jesus as lord when I was three or four at the prompting of my mother, who, at bedtime one night, asked me if I wanted to accept Jesus to live in my heart. I accepted my mother’s explanation of the universe without question. With no other alternative available, How could I not? At this young moment in my development when children are programmed to trust their parents absolutely, what choice did I have? My parents could just as easily have inundated me with the idea that Kim Jong-il was the Supreme Leader and never wrong.
I had mixed feelings about Christianity, however. On the one hand, I enjoyed socializing with other children and getting praise for memorizing Bible verses in children’s church services (I was pretty good at it!). On the other hand I found worship and sermons in adult church services mostly boring. Not every church had separate children’s services, and often in adult services I could think of little else than how excited I was to get home and get back on my Super Nintendo to enjoy the rest of my Sunday, which was far more interesting than the stories about Moses or Paul that I could recite by heart.
I was home-schooled for almost my entire K-12 education. My parents believed that this would prevent me from being corrupted by belief in evolution and getting “addicted” to drugs, smoking, alcohol, sex, the occult, and associated peer pressures. My mom taught most of my classes, but my dad usually taught bible and gym. I learned to read very well since I had so much time to devote to it, but my science, writing, and math education was dismal and self-taught after middle school.
As a young child, I sometimes had terrifying fears of hellfire or of being left behind in the rapture, fears that usually were alleviated by immediately rededicating my life to God, and, for the most part I was pretty secure in my Christian faith. I learned a lot about the bible and theology because I was reinforced positively for it, but I wasn’t terribly excited about it.
This changed when I was twelve, when two important things happened. First, my mom found porn links in the family computer’s Internet history and discovered my growing interest in female anatomy. She called me into the computer room and started bawling, dumbfounded that I could do such a wrong. In her eyes I was a poster child of devotion to God. The shame I felt was crippling. My stomach reeled. I knew my family would not approve of this curiosity because my eyes were always covered or I was sent out of the room for any intimate scenes in movies. Therefore, I hid my curiosity in the female body and was conditioned to feel guilt and shame at this interest.
When I was caught with porn, my dad took me out to get a smoothie for a man-to-man talk on sex and lust, and how it was so sinful. He reminded me how imperative it is to not “lust after a woman with my eyes” and wait for sex until marriage. I felt horrifically guilty. I was grounded, and limited in my Internet access and trust. As an aside, because I had no sexual education courses in my homeschool curriculum I didn’t even discover masturbation until four years later when I was sixteen. I was completely unaware of my bodily functions and even how babies are made. This event started a cycle of repression, guilt, shame, and self-hatred for having sexual desires and no outlet.
The second major event that shifted me towards more religious zeal was when we moved from Wisconsin to Kansas City, MO. I think my parents wanted a better religious atmosphere for us, and my “fall” into porn may have helped prompt our move because we moved several months after that event. When I reached Kansas City I became part of a youth group with passionate charismatic leaders teaching a new brand of Christianity. This was at a quasi-cult evangelical institution called the International House of Prayer (IHOP hereafter), which believes a multitude of strange things that diverge significantly from mainstream Christianity, while holding onto many of the core tenets of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Even by evangelical standards they have odd beliefs about the end of the world and about their intimate relationship with Jesus.
At 13-years-old, I responded to Lou Engle’s One Thing conference altar call in December 2001. The altar call asked for young people to dedicate their lives to be messengers of the gospel in the last, dying days of our planet before Jesus returns to destroy all evil people on the planet. He also called for youth to remove anything in life that would hinder that dedication, including video games, movies, friends, or anything that hinders biblical devotion. I threw out my video games–dozens of great classic PC games and my Nintendo 64 with its games–and vowed to dedicate my entire life over to Christian ministry. I threw all my effort into graduating early from high school so that I could do this sooner. During those last years of high school I was very involved in IHOP before and after school hours, where I was a sound engineer for several worship teams, including some that had prayer meetings regularly from 6-8 am. I also prayed on the microphone at all our youth events and took detailed notes during all the sermons at IHOP.
I studied my barebones high school curriculum rigorously, even in the summer, and wound up getting a high school diploma from my parents when I was just sixteen so I could enter the Forerunner School of Ministry (now IHOP University) and major in “Apostolic Preaching.” It was called this because IHOP genuinely believes that these preachers will have supernatural power to heal the sick, raise the dead, be unharmed by snake venom (though they don’t test it willfully), and attract open air crowds of tens of thousands in the manner of John Wesley.
Some of the weirder things I did at IHOP included fasting on water for five days; fasting on plain bread, fruit, and juice for 21 days; protesting an adult film store with blue purity blindfolds; protesting at Planned Parenthood with Red life tape over my mouth; “prophesying” for people (usually just picking a bible verse for them); trying and failing to faith-heal countless people; yelling passionate prayers into a microphone at large meetings; praying and reading the Bible for 12-15 hours straight for days at a time during IHOP-wide fasts; evangelizing at Haunted Houses with a clipboard of fake survey questions; rocking back and forth while speaking in “tongues” for hours at a time; and taking a vow of silence for a few days.
For the next three and a half years I faithfully read the Bible and various commentaries on it, and listened to teachers from IHOP while also regurgitating that material in prayer meetings and in the youth bible studies, which I began to lead for younger teens. Through all of this I had unquestioning loyalty and commitment to this cause. I was so committed that I became very upset internally when people, including myself, did fun things such as play video games or watch movies when they should have been committing their lives entirely to savings souls from hellfire through intercessory prayer and preaching. It’s inevitably selfish to use your limited lifetime on earth for yourself when you have all eternity to enjoy things when, instead, you could spend this short lifetime saving people from burning forever. I had to save others from such damnation!
I lectured some of my friends on how they were wasting their life and how souls could have been saved instead. If I were rejected by them, I would feel “persecuted” for telling them that they were so sinful, which would lead to commiserating with other bible college students about how sinful the world was and how lukewarm other Christians were. When I, myself, watched a movie or played a game at a friend’s house, I would feel enormously guilty for it. However, this guilt for gaming paled in comparison to the amount of sexual guilt and shame I felt whenever I had a sexual thought, masturbated, or looked at a beautiful woman.
After I began to masturbate around age sixteen, I continually tried to stop. Every week it would be the same battle: make it for three days, five days–or even eight days–then break down and masturbate as my biological drive intensified. Every time I “fell” I would weep miserably into my pillow and beg for forgiveness from God for being such a sinner. Sometimes I would be depressed for several days at a time, drowning in feelings of self-hatred and filth. I felt like the worst person in the world. My self-esteem plummeted. To “fix” myself, I tried several different methods of accountability: confessing to my dad, daily confession with my bible college friends in the morning before school, online programs of study and accountability with an email mentor. I also prayed continually for God to grant me strength to overcome temptation. I recited bible verses with clenched teeth when I would feel tempted. None of this helped. Inevitably, my physical compulsion eventually overruled my mental commitment to not doing it. And yet I plodded on year after year.
Despite my struggles with balancing the Lord’s work with recreation and my problem with continual sexual failures, I remained committed to improving myself and becoming more like Jesus. I had no doubt that this was the track I would stay on for the rest of my life. I have always been something of a realist, however, and because I had little luck with fundraising I planned to become an electrician after graduation from bible college rather than become a full-time minister. I planned to donate large amounts of my income to IHOP and to poverty. Then broadband Internet came about.
Sometime in late 2007 we got broadband Internet from TimeWarner and replaced our dial-up Internet. The superior speed and constant connection gave me access to a wealth of information that I previously had no access to. We had no serious books by atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims in my house. Nor did they sell them at the IHOP bookstore. So the Internet was my sole connection with the outside world and I began to devour its contents regarding everything from nutrition to history to bible to philosophy.
Over winter break in January of 2008, I stumbled on some quotes by atheist authors such as Mark Twain, and I found myself curious as to why this popular fiction author that I read as a child was an atheist. I soon discovered that many heroes and intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson had serious reservations about Christianity. I began to think to myself, “What was it that they found so dubious about Christianity?” Through this process I discovered all the major criticisms of Christianity (e.g., the problem of evil, bible contradictions, the age of the earth, evolution, the tyranny of hell, the inadequacy of faith healing,) as well as the secular support for a naturalistic worldview. (I want to thank Richard Carrier, John Loftus, Dan Barker, Ken Daniels, and countless other secular authors on sites such as Internet Infidels who helped me on my journey.)
I began to doubt my faith. What if I just believed evangelical Christianity because I was born into a Christian family? Wouldn’t I be Muslim or Buddhist if I had been born in a different family? Is there any independent support for my faith as opposed to theirs? So I decided to read Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and C.S. Lewis 50% of the time, and continue reading secular authors 50% of the time. I wanted to be fair-minded, equal in my attention span to both of them, letting the truth prevail on its own. I wanted to start from as much of a blank slate as I could.
I also prayed fervently that God would give me some amazing supernatural encounter so that I would not doubt, or send some sign that I would just know that he was real. But all I heard was silence and my own thoughts. I now realized that the thoughts that I had previously identified as being the Holy Spirit talking to me were from my own mind.
With no signs, no trust in internal voices, and no solid logical arguments coming from apologists, I gave up Christianity and dropped out of bible college in my final semester. At this time leaders aggressively interrogated me about why I was dropping out of school. One leader, Daniel Lim, seemed convinced that I was having homosexual relations with older men (as if doubts about my faith and homosexual tendencies were supposed to be linked?). I don’t think I ever gave any indication of this as I have always been very straight, but conspiracies abound.
Other leaders such as Stuart Greaves hammered me with accusations that I was just being arrogant, and that I needed to be humble and accept their higher knowledge without proof. These claims from charismatic leaders seemed all too similar to the traveling salesman with the miracle, all-purpose, snake oil that requires no proof. It made me want to leave Kansas City to avoid the harassment. Except for Luke Hendrickson and Sarah Troyer (thanks guys!), no one told me that they were happy that I was thinking for myself or reading books outside of Christianity.
One of our Bible college teachers, Wes Hall, stated in a class that we should be extremely cautious about reading books on other world religions, because some of his friends had gone astray after doing so. Essentially, let’s just silence other ideas so that our ideas can win. If we just remain mostly ignorant of everything else in the world, then we can accept the truth. What bullshit! Almost no one was excited for me to ask interesting questions. (In fairness, I understand that they were concerned for my soul, but their methods were counterproductive, alienating, and cultish.)
As I read more about Christian thought, I also began to realize that I had been a part of a quasi-cult of but a few thousand people, yet with influences on tens of thousands worldwide, but still mostly just a cult that kept people in its reach full-time as missionaries spreading its viral novel messages. I always thought that this was on the verge of becoming mainstream, and maybe one day it will be more mainstream in evangelicalism, but it’s not there yet.
Coming out was hardest with my family. Once I began asking critical questions of my family (i.e., did they think hell was fair, the bible flawless. etc.) they basically asked if I was an atheist. My mom wept profusely and my dad was angry and shocked that I changed after all the hours of indoctrination I received as a kid. My brother yelled at me that he couldn’t understand how I could be so blind and not believe in God. I wanted to reply that I was not the closed-minded, blind one since I was reading Christian and secular authors equally, while he had read little but the bible his whole life, but I bit my tongue. This idea of atheism was as incomprehensible to him as it had once been to me, so I don’t blame him. I offered to share a few articles or books with him to help him understand how I felt, but he was so worried about being deceived that he said he would not read them for fear of falling like me.
The one bright spot was that when I came out to my best friend, Sterling, it turned out that he had deconverted from Christianity nine months prior but was too frightened of my religious zeal to tell me. We began to have coffee daily at a small indie coffee shop in Grandview called the Hard Bean. There we poured our souls out about the frustration with family who didn’t understand, the humorous things we used to believe, unanswered questions in science and philosophy, details of evolution that we didn’t know as teens, and where we were going to go with our lives now that we seemed to be done with IHOP and Christendom. He gave me strength when no one else would. Almost everyone else in my life caused me constant pain since I no longer believed the same things they did. Rather than being understood, I was surrounded by constant attempts to reconvert me, or accusations of arrogance, homosexuality, or blindness. I am extraordinarily grateful to Sterling for his support, and I encourage anyone reading this to be supportive and available to those who question their faith. Also, do not count anyone out. Many pastors, such as Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt, have deconverted later in life, so almost no one is so far gone as to be unable to engage in intelligent conversation.
I moved to Wisconsin to get away from the misplaced religious zeal of my family and church members. I joined the National Guard because I had no idea how I was going to pay for college, and then went on to get a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I still feel guilt and shame sometimes when I’m not being productive, but to a much lesser extent than before. I love playing ultimate Frisbee, biking, gaming, reading science and technology news, and having intellectual discussions with my friends. Rather than empty as most Christians suppose godless heathens are, I am now far happier and whole, intellectually and emotionally, than I ever was before.
I am often asked if I am afraid of being wrong and going to hell. I reply that I am not any more afraid of Christian hell than they are of the hells of other religions.