The following is a guest post by Matt. Matt grew up in Lancaster County, PA where he was a member of a religious sect similar to the Amish. After being directed to this website by a friend, Matt offered to share the story of his own journey from religious faith to what he describes as mental freedom. It is his hope that those still caught up in similar circumstances will profit by his story and find the courage to deal with their doubts or frustrations in a positive and healthy way.
Religion was not a large part of my life as a child. My mother paid it lip service but never laid herself open to the charge of zealotry. She sometimes took my sister and me to Sunday school when I was very young. There they passed out candy, which I found agreeable, and there were games and puzzles and songs to sing. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! I was as dedicated as the next child when it came to the clapping.
We had a huge book of Bible stories that was kept on the bottom shelf of our homemade bookcase. It was filled with gloomy pictures of Jesus holding lambs and blessing tragic children clad in strange clothing. From this book I gained a conception of God as being a stern personage with an enormous beard who existed in an eternal state of washed-out pen and ink colors. I was also of the belief that God lived in the attic above the grape arbor belonging to our neighbors, Sadie and Ivan. I was told God could always see me and that seemed like the best vantage point for omniscience.
Later, my sister and I found ourselves living with strangers after our parents’ marriage fell apart. Their names were Todd and Nancy Rolland, and they were what are commonly referred to as Holy Rollers. They started taking us to church on a regular basis, something we had never experienced before. Nancy’s religion pervaded every part of her life. Their house was situated on a beautiful wooded lot and there was always an army of cats hanging around. When one of these felines showed up at the back door with a horrible case of mange, Nancy instantly declared the cat a direct agent of God whom Satan was seeking to destroy by means of a skin condition. She prayed aloud that Satan and his minions would be bound and that the cat should be delivered by the Power of the Blood. It was that kind of a household.
I was 9 at the time and already an avid reader. Books were an avenue of escape for me that nothing could take away. I read everything I could lay my hands on; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, Oliver Twist, A Wrinkle In Time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Arthur Conan Doyle, Greek mythology, anything with even the faintest trace of science fiction about it—I was a machine. At school I tuned everything and everyone out and pursued my own inner life. Teachers would reprimand me for reading while they were trying to teach us Math or the history of the Leni Lenape Indians, a group of people whom had apparently gone in for living in caves and planting artifacts around the state of Pennsylvania. At home I would crawl into bed at 6:00 pm and sleep until I was forced to get up and go to school in the morning. I think 12 hour sleeping jags reveal a lot about the state of mind I was in at the time. Feeling abandoned and deeply depressed, I was the perfect target for philosophies that trade in promises of unconditional love and future rewards.
One night we were taken to a revival meeting at the Rolland’s church, The Worship Center. In retrospect, the name seems very heavy with 70s sensibilities; Jesus is groovy, man! He was presented as the Friend who never failed; the Light in the darkness; the Answer to all problems.
It was the first time I can recall actually hearing and understanding the ‘Plan of Salvation’; how Jesus came down from His Throne on High to redeem the human race from their sinful and fallen condition. And I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was included within the Sinner fold under discussion. Had I ever told a lie? Well yeah, I guess so. Had I ever called my sister a name or had a fight at school? Guilty! Had I ever stolen anything? Of that I was innocent, but by then my own sinful condition had been impressed upon me and when the penitent were called forward to receive Jesus as their Savior I was among those who pressed forward.
An earnest young fellow with lapels the size of a coal barge led me through the prayer of repentance and Salvation. Rising from our knees, he clasped me to his breast and hailed me as brother. I was among the Redeemed now. He gave me a powder blue paperback copy of the New Testament and instructed me to read it diligently. And so I became a Christian.
Wishing to know more about my new-found religion, I took that young man’s advice and read from the Bible before going to bed every night. I prayed very sincere prayers for the salvation of those around me. Such was my zeal that I began to preach the Gospel to other students in Mrs. Donna Shay’s fourth grade class in dear old Clay Elementary school. My classmates listened to my harangues with the patient tact of incomprehension and utter disinterest. Alas, I made no converts in those fallow fields!
Due to circumstances I will not bother going into, I was separated from my sister and sent to live with my Uncle Lester and Aunt Mildred. Their church was the polar opposite of The Worship Center. Lester’s family was Mennonite, a stern and legalistic sect of Protestantism not far removed from the Amish. In these circles one did not go about saying the name Jesus aloud. Indeed, they positively cringed when compelled by circumstances to talk about their faith in any capacity whatever. The path to Heaven was apparently paved in equal parts by obedience to arbitrary rules and by refraining from asking any questions. An example:
“Aunt Mildred, doesn’t the Bible say that to call your brother a fool is to be in danger of Hell fire?”
“Of course it does! Didn’t Sam Martin preach that last Sunday?”
“Right…..right…..but then here, in this verse, God says to this man, ‘Thou fool! Tonight thy soul shall be required of thee!’”
“Yes, it does. I’m glad to hear you’ve been paying attention in church.”
“But…but if it’s sinful to call someone a fool, why does God do it? Shouldn’t He be the perfect example of righteousness? I mean, I don’t understand….”
“You be quiet, Matt! You think you know everything! You think the world owes you a living! You worry more about how lazy you are and not so much about the Bible!”
Clearly this was an unproductive source of reasoned debate. I had many such doubts. The glaring inconsistencies of the Bible came to me under my own steam and as a result of reading the book for myself without the filter of pat rationalizations which are normally employed to sweep them under the carpet. Why would God give a commandment that forbade killing and then go on to repeatedly command the children of Israel to kill? How could you justify sending a plague that decimated an innocent population because their King had taken a census that displeased the Lord (the displeasure arising from reasons I still cannot comprehend)? Wouldn’t true Justice take the life of the King and leave those who had nothing whatever to do with the census unmolested?
How could you justify putting babies and young women to the sword, as God specifically commanded the Israelites to do? What deeply disturbing impulse causes one to take virgin adolescents into slavery, as God commanded to take place? What were these obviously insane rules regarding menstruating women being ‘unclean’, and how had they come to be included in a set of moral codes in any rational system of thinking? Didn’t God create the women to menstruate? And wouldn’t any uncleanness attach to the Creator rather than the hapless Creation who had no say in the design?
I still believed completely. I just assumed that since I was not an adult I was unable to understand, as I did not enjoy the benefit of that ineffable and all-encompassing wisdom that children assume all adults have. And so I ignored my gnawing doubts and continued on the path to Zion.
Then came puberty. My awakened sexual awareness gave me agonies of guilt that can barely be described. The Bible said that to look on a woman to lust after her in your heart was a sin worthy of eternal damnation, and there I was, Lusting in the morning, Lusting in the afternoon, and Lusting double time in the evenings. I prayed abject prayers of repentance; I swore I would change my wicked ways; I pleaded with God to remove this thorn out of my side and deliver me from evil. Then I would go to the orthodontist and return home to frantic masturbatory fantasies about his healthy and amply endowed assistant. It was a vicious cycle of guilt, shame and despair; followed by tears, lamentations, and a genuine fear of burning alive in hell forever.
I was baptized, upon my own request, when I was 16. I hoped that this step would bring me closer to God and make the demands of my religion easier to fulfill. However, I soon discovered that the religion that promises everything and delivers nothing was not to be amplified or enhanced by simple belief and obedience to its commands. Clearly there was still something lacking.
I abandoned the Mennonite church when I was 22; I felt that while Christianity was clearly true (as any fool could see, just look at the creation around you and try to deny it, Atheists!) I had fallen in among people who were blinded by tradition and unexamined religious dogma. I was looking for something more. I wanted the real and living Jesus; I wanted a church that was alive and aware and basking in the peace which passeth all understanding, which portion is promised to His children in the Bible.
Because Lord knows, I certainly did not have this peace! I was still ravaged by guilt and shame and an overwhelming desire to meet debauched and shameless women. I was a wreck of hatred and anger, bitterness and wrath. My vanity was constantly at war with my self-loathing, and while I presented an exterior of self-assurance I was totally lost within. I was of all men most miserable!
It had become somewhat undeniable that my prayers were going nowhere. I was unable to produce a single instance in which I felt that any prayer of mine had been unequivocally answered. I gradually stopped praying, or at least abandoned all but the most perfunctory of prayers. I would debate with Atheists on this dazzling new invention they were calling the Internet, but I had stopped going to church except for funerals and weddings.
These pesky online Atheists kept posing vicious and pernicious misrepresentations of my religion disguised as questions about the illogical nature of my beliefs, and I would huffily promise to pray for their salvation once I was too soundly beaten in the ongoing debate to fool even myself any longer about the shakiness of my assertions and platitudes.
And then I set my foot on the path that led me to where I am today. I decided that, while I was a backslidden and unworthy servant of Christ, I was still a Christian at heart and that surely answers to these questions could be found if only I searched hard enough!
I began reading apologetics; I read C. S .Lewis, my old friend from the Rolland days. I read Josh McDowell; I read James Dobson; I read authors whose names I can no longer remember.
And none of it was helping. Suddenly all the doubts I had muzzled for years came snarling forth into the daylight. How can any god who calls Himself eternally Just and Merciful condemn any of his children to hell? Mercy is the quality of sparing those who deserve punishment from the weight of that punishment. The only people who can be shown mercy are those who do not deserve it. Yet the religion insisted that those who did not deserve it would by no means receive mercy, but should be hurled into the Pit to suffer forever!
Those who repented and obeyed the rules were technically spotless and so disqualified themselves to receive mercy. If you are rewarded for good behavior you are receiving exactly what is merited. The people in hell, who did not deserve mercy and were therefore the only ones who qualified for it, were to be denied mercy. It was totally illogical.
Things must be consistent if they are true. If I told you I had a 2 inch tall elf I kept in my pocket, I think you could be forgiven for disbelieving if none of the Elf Snacks you set out for him were ever eaten. The observable conditions would be inconsistent with my claims. Logic must not only begin reasonably, it must lead to sensible conclusions. IF there is a 2 inch elf, and IF you put out Elf Snacks, THEN those snacks would be eaten. Any other conclusion shows that either I am lying about the elf or I truly believe it but am daft.
If the Bible is true and Jesus is real, why were His followers not demonstrably happier than everyone else who did not have the benefit of divine protection and the peace that all Christians are promised? Jesus said his followers would raise the dead and heal the sick and cast out devils, all in his name. Why is Stephen Hawking still in a wheelchair, then? Why do hospitals even exist? Why do people continue being blind and deaf and halt and lame? Are Christians unwilling to heal them as their God has commanded them to do?
Which is more likely, I asked myself: that Jesus is real and the Bible is true and yet somehow, in TWO THOUSAND YEARS, it was impossible to demonstrate that any of those Elf Snacks had been eaten? There was no evidence for any of the Bible’s claims. Plenty of assertions and insistence that it’s true but that is not the same thing as evidence.
So was it more reasonable to assume that the whole thing was part wishful thinking, and an even larger measure of Control Mechanisms at work? Would the God of Love, the Christ of mercy and forgiveness, the meek and lowly Jesus, REALLY take the time to instruct His disciples to be sure to pay their taxes????? At the very least it suggested severe tampering by a Priesthood whom, for 1,500 years, were the only people who could read and write. Everyone else had to just take their word that they were receiving, through the priests, an accurate account of what God’s laws and demands were.
Now there’s a system that could never be abused in the service of self-interest and personal benefit at the expense of the Little Guy!
I was 31 when I finally found the courage to say, “I don’t believe a word of this!”
The relief of no longer forcing my mind to ignore the obvious and inescapable was enormous.
After I got out of the Navy at 35 I went down to Myrtle Beach, SC to visit a friend and unwind. I bought the best marijuana available, smoked up, and stayed high for 2 years. It was wonderfully liberating. Weed frees the mind of all the shackles Society’s conditioning put upon us as children. All that horrible Guilt was fast dissipating. My attention was drawn increasingly inward, rather than constantly focused outward in hopes a promised Messiah would come and fix me. I sought professional help to work through the trauma I experienced as a child. I became aware that there was no one inside my head but me; nobody was judging me, condemning me, damaging me—except for me! The Me that had swallowed all these lies, the Me that had invested belief in a religion that is so shaky that for 2,000 years it has required an army of apologists to explain away its contradictory absurdities and rationalize its savage atrocities and Stone Age ignorance.
Where are the apologists for gravity? Or for the freezing point of water? Where are the defenders of the belief that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west? These things require no apologists because their truth is evident to everyone. If there is really a God, an entity that is separate from and watching over us, surely He would be just as self-evident.
I am the person I am because that is who I am. I believe the same is true of every other righteous, decent person. It’s not because there is a mystical presence that makes us good; We are Good because We are Good.
I have peace such as I couldn’t even imagine when I was bound in the dungeon of organized religion. The love I feel for my brother is no longer stifled by the self- hatred that must inevitably come with rules and laws that make us dirty in our own sight.
I have escaped.
Matt has given us a well-written and inspiring story about his deconversion from Christianity. From childhood reading habits to Biblical inconsistencies, so much about his story reminds me of my own. Thank you, Matt, for sharing it with us! I look forward to more posts from you.
Thank you, X, both for your kind remarks and for your decision to add this essay to your site!
Well said! When you look at it that way (seeking peace) I guess only the Buddhists are still in the running as far as a helpful belief system. 😉
I agree, Bunny; Buddhism has a lot to offer. I find meditation very useful in maintaining a serene inner landscape. Additionally, if you re-read the New Testament and discount all references to Hell, a lot of what is attributed to Jesus has a distinctly Buddhist flavor. Unfortunately, although I know it is vastly beneficial it is easy to make excuses and put off regular meditation in much the same way it’s easy to find reasons not to get up and go to the gym:)
Have you explored Taoism? I urge everyone to get hold of the Toe Te Ching ( which I believe translates as ‘The Way’) and see what that has to offer. Essentially Taoism maintains that the Universe is ultimately unknowable and that therefore any opposition to it will result in unhappiness and calamity. Just accept it without resistance and allow it to flow as it will. You’ll wind up in the same place anyway but without all the spiritual and emotional bruises.
Also, the Toltecs had a very interesting belief system. They said that we are all born as blank slates, utterly in harmony with ultimate Reality. However, our parents download a version of what they believe the Universe is (which version they inherited from THEIR parents, who inherited it from THEIRS, and so), or what the Universe should be. We assimilate these ideas without critical examination and, when Reality does not coincide with what we want or expect it to be, we become upset and begin to struggle against what is Real.
The solution in all of these belief systems is to gain control of the mind. All very interesting, in my opinion!
@ Matt – Very well written, thank you for the story of your journey. I have a couple of questions: are you in communication with the Rollands, your Mennonite aunt and uncle, and/or your sister?
I guess that was one question. 🙂
Hello Lunylive, thank you for your kindness. I am glad you found my story of interest!
Yes, I still see the Rollands. They invited me to their family BBQ last summer and I went. They are good and well-meaning people, and while I do not share their religious conviction I have no ill-will of any kind for them. I realized they felt guilty over the way events fell out all those years ago, and I am happy to say that I was able to assure them that I did not feel they had failed in any way but did they best they could at the time. Which is really what everyone is doing when you get right down to it–groping through the darkness and trying our best.
Yes, I still see my sister. She married a Mennonite man and appears to be content with her decision. She has a lovely family of intelligent, handsome and very well-behaved children, plus a host of cats that rivals the teeming throngs of the Rolland estate. She seems anxious to avoid discussing my loss of faith and so I do not press her.
I also see my aunt and uncle, although not very frequently. I harbored a lot of resentment towards them for years and it very nearly ate me alive. I have learned through hard-won experience that Forgiveness is not about the other party; it is about you. Cleansing my heart and mind of those old hatreds unloosed a lot of mental chains and eased a lot of psychic hurts. I really cannot recommend forgiveness highly enough as a promoter of peace and happiness!
It occurs to me that atheism and Christianity are opposite sides of the same coin. Both want to be free of guilt, shame, and fear of the hell fire. The Christians use their faith in God or Jesus as their way to escape the fiery chasm, and atheists use reason to claim God doesn’t exist (and therefore hell doesn’t either). What if there was no hell, except as it exists in our own imagination? (And for a visual representation of that imagination, you can go to the top of this page).
For me the idea of reason being the end-all is so limiting. That suggests that everything is knowable. And I think there are so many things that we can only contemplate and never comprehend. The best idea of this came to me in my very first class at Smith College from an atheist professor. The class was astronomy. This day, the professor put a picture of a child on a sandy beach with fistfuls of sand on the overhead projector. He said, “There are more galaxies in the universe than there are grains of sand on earth.” Wowooo! Talking about expanding my mind! He went on to say that scientists don’t know whether the universe is finite or infinite, but they do know that there are an infinite number of mysteries in the universe. He said that even if human intelligence were to solve millions of mysteries every generation, there would still be an infinite number of mysteries left unsolved. Wowooo, again!
These concepts: mysteries, unknowable, infinite or finite universe… will stay with me to my dying day. Yet my concept and fear of the Hell fire I was so afraid of as a child has slowly receded to the point where I no longer believe there is such a thing. I’d much rather think of the afterlife as the unknowable (and maybe our souls get to travel freely throughout the universe without being bound to bodies here on earth) than wonder whether I am going to heaven or hell.
Rather than think about whether we evolved or God created us, I like to think about the capacity we have as humans to contemplate ourselves and our universe. As far as we know, we are the only creatures on earth (and possibly the universe, though I doubt that) who can do that. It is our ability to reason, and for us to choose our life paths, that make me think we are more than just the sum of our parts. This consciousness, I believe is our soul.
I am as curious about our “beforelife” (like where did we come from before we lived here on earth?) as I am about our afterlife. To me it all fits into the idea of an infinite universe. And if the universe is infinite, doesn’t that mean it has always existed and always will?
If heaven or hell exist, are they part of this universe or a different one?
A very thought-provoking comment.
I personally believe we are reincarnated after death; I suspect that the Universe is eternal and that so are we. After all, for all practical purposes the physicality of the Cosmos is infinite; why should that infinity not apply to Time as well as Space, especially if conjectures about Time being another dimension are accurate.
And so this question ‘Where do we/ the Universe come from?’ has never had a lot of immediacy for me; a better question might be “”Where are we?’ by which I am referring to a spiritual or mental condition, or rather the evolution of our Consciousness towards a higher state.
I think We have always been here, in one form or another.
I am a little nonplussed by people who claim that belief in an eternally-existing universe is silly, and then go on to a posit a God who has simply always existed. “Your idea that the cake has always been on the table is stupid! My belief that an Invisible Baker made it is MUCH more sensible!”
Duality seems to affect everything in this sphere of awareness: Day/Night, Light/Dark, Peace/War, Love/Hate. It also seems to have set our minds to a sort of EITHER/ OR factory setting; EITHER we evolved, OR we were created.
This type of thinking excludes an awful lot of middle ground, though. What if we are a single entity (God-Consciousness) who is simply having a dream? In that case, the Universe as we know it does not even exist in ultimate reality and none of this has ever been created/evolved at all!
I will leave you with this line from the brilliant Tom Robbins–
“Science gives man what he needs. Magic gives him what he wants.”
To me, a lot of what is being said here is overly philosophical & complex when reality is simply what we perceive it to be as individuals. I don’t discount anyone’s perception of reality, but it is unique to each person`s life experience. Truth, on the other hand, must be able to be proven. Everyone can have opinions & beliefs, but truth must be concrete.
In any case, many religious people don’t seem to care much about what is truth and not truth. Most religions don’t care about truth at all, since they continue to teach that Jesus was born in December, when in their own book of authority (the Bible) says that at the time of Jesus’s birth, there were shepherds herding their sheep & leaves falling from trees. Clearly it was not wintertime. They (religions) also invent their own non-biblical ideas, like that Jesus died on a “cross”, when the word used in the bible is that he died on a “stake”. Some religions invented the term ” trinity”, also not mentioned in the Bible. They have contradictions, such as when the Bible says not to make/worship idols, yet it seems every christian wears a cross as a “symbol of their faith”. They perpetuate lies, such as the story of the 3 wise men who are glorified during Christmastime when, according to the Bible, they were actually sent by the king to destroy Jesus under the guise of bringing him gifts.
Although there are scientific truths mentioned in the Bible also, such as the fact that the Bible describes the earth as a circle during a time when man did not have the ability to determine this fact.
The idea that everything is “unknowable” seems awfully close to some religious leaders who explain away important questions as “a mystery” or “only God knows the answer”. I feel like athiests like to ask lots of questions and still don’t have the answers either. Many like to ask questions that don’t have any answer, such as, ” can God create a rock that he cannot lift?”, which is obviously designed to produce a nonsensical answer & meant only to confuse instead of actually contributing anything of actual substance.
What if truth can be found in both science AND biblically? I believe so and to discount one is a disservice to us as humans. I think a big problem is that people are too eager to take what someone else says as truth, without researching truth for themselves. We assume that authority figures (parents, religious leaders) wouldn’t lie to us, so we simply accept what they say as truth and go no further to investigate for ourselves, even as we get older and find out truths like there is no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, which it seems both our parents AND church leaders have decided that its harmless to carry on such blatent lies (by the way, isn’t it a sin to lie according to the Bible?).
In any case, the truth is there for people if they want to put in the work to find it. In my opinion, most people would rather not know the difference, since knowing the difference would require them to be accountable for their actions, whether its accountable to themselves, eachother, God, or all of the above. People don’t like to be out of their “comfort zone”.
I don’t want to step on Matt’s toes (since the above comment was posted on his story) but I would like to add my two cents to Cali’s thoughts.
I’m assuming that you’re referring to Isaiah 40:22 when you talk about the “Earth as a circle” reference in the Bible. I disagree with your implication that this was intended as a “scientific truth”. Rather, I would say it was probably an indirect reference to the fact that we tend to perceive a domed (hemispherical) sky. Elsewhere, the Bible talks about the ends and the corners of Earth and of Earth and sky being supported by pillars.
Atheists sometimes do use silly-sounding arguments such as ‘can an omnipotent God create a rock so large that he cannot lift it’. I, however, say it’s a valid way to demonstrate that “omnipotence” is a nonsensical idea. Something or someone could appear to be omnipotent, but I do not understand how true omnipotence and logic could exist simultaneously.
I will gladly admit that atheists don’t have all the answers. We just know that religion doesn’t have them either.
“I will gladly admit that atheists don’t have all the answers. We just know that religion doesn’t have them either.”
I actually do not self-identify as an atheist, for whatever that’s worth. I try to avoid labels because labels are typically a handy package for the cramming in of assumptions; people think they already know everything about you because their preconceived vision of what your label entails jams all the comms channels.
If I had to create a label for myself, I would call myself a Truthist: I am one who wishes to know the truth about the universe I appear to be inhabiting. What is it? What purpose does it serve? can it be transcended? Things of that nature.
Like the man says, I don’t claim to have all the answers. I just believe some things can be shown to be a total dead end.
I enjoyed your article, Matt, and could relate to a lot of it. I spent most of my life looking for a religion that fit before I realized that I didn’t need to do that, that I could decide for myself what to believe and that those beliefs would evolve and change as I did. It only took me 50 years to realize that….