Losing my religion: thoughts on leaving Christianity

Paul Wright

Introduction

This is a page about why I left Christianity. It's on the web because it's easy to put things on the web, because not everyone who knows me knows this story, and because I hope it might help someone in a similar situation to know that they are not alone.

Although I address some of the problems I found with Christianity, this page is more of a personal history of the things that convinced me than a systematic attempt to disprove Christianity. If you're looking for those sort of arguments, the Secular Web Library has lots of them (I particularly recommend Richard Carrier's essay, Why I am not a Christian). You might also be interested in other things I've written about religion, where I address some of those problems in more depth.

Before I start, I must say that I have many Christian friends who I love dearly, people who have stuck with me despite all of this and who are shining examples of the ideals they hope to follow. In the passages below, if I appear to be angry (as I may at some points), I hope they will realise my anger is not directed at them.

This page is long. Just in case you don't read all the way to end, I mention that LosingMyReligion.com has an article you should read if you've just left Christianity.

Before we start, time for some messages from our sponsors...

Hello CUAAS people

In October 2009, I gave a talk to the Cambridge University Atheist and Agnostic Society, which they slightly cheekily billed as The Truth about CICCU, though it was more a bunch of personal recollections than tabloid revelations. I've blogged my notes and what I rememeber of the questions they asked me over on my blog, where you'll also find hyperlinks to more information on some of the stuff I spoke about.

Hello CICCU people

It looks like people from CICCU are finding this page. If that's you, I've written about that here, in my journal. You might also be interested in blog postings where I mention CICCU.

Hello Premier Christian Radio listeners

Premier Christian Radio invited me on their Unbelievable discussion programme as a result of finding this essay. You can read all about it, and download the audio of the programme, along with my "director's cut" comments on the discussion (where I say all the stuff I didn't have time to say on the radio), in this entry on my blog.

The way in

School

I went to a church school. I wasn't particularly religious initially, but had a friend in the school's Christian Union, so I'd tag along of a lunchtime. Being a shy teenager, I didn't go to church very often, but I continued to attend a CU on into Sixth Form. During my two years there, I methodically read through the whole of that Gideon New Testament following their 2 year reading plan (I did a lot of other reading besides, as I found A Levels easy and was too shy to socialise much), and began to seriously call myself a Christian.

CICCU

There is an institution at Cambridge called "Ciccu", Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union. It is a bestial thing, compact of hypocrisy and secret vice. -- Aleister Crowley, Confessions
Crowley was, of course, barking mad (or alternatively, someone who has cleverly realised the power of anything "spiritual" to get girls). Even so, I've always liked his use of "compact" in that piece. Anyway, as he says, the Cambridge University CU is called CICCU. Any secret vice going on was well hidden from me, alas.

CICCU was (and, as far as I know, still is) an evangelical organisation. The word "evangelical" sounds like it should mean "mainly interested in converting people". That's partly true, but it's actually a theological jargon word for a set of beliefs held by some Christians. CICCU's Doctrinal Basis lays out the official line of the organisation in rather technical theological language. Points of note include a belief in the infallibility of the Bible, and in substitutionary atonement, that is, the belief that Jesus died as a substitute for Christians, taking the punishment for their sins. I once found myself explaining evangelicalism to a Jewish person on LiveJournal: you can read the thread for more information.

My initial impressions of CICCU were that they were too evangelical for me. I felt that the CU would disapprove of a couple of friends who were gay, and I couldn't see the reason why being gay was a bad thing anyway. I thought CICCU were too literal in their interpretation of the Bible. I still didn't go to church and came under some pressure to do so, so I did, going to The Round Church at St Andrew the Great (usually referred to as StAG, a useful abbreviation which I'll use in this essay), one of the evangelical churches in Cambridge which is popular with students.

My disquiet disappeared gradually as I became more and more a part of the CU. A turning point for me was a "house party" just before the beginning of my second year, where CUs from a few colleges went and stayed in a hostel in Derbyshire for a few days, to study the Bible and go for walks and so on. I remember being impressed both by the clarity of the man who was teaching us and also by the character of the people I was with. After this, I started attending the weekly talks on a Bible passage, which were usually model sermons, sometimes given by internationally famous preachers (famous to Christians, that is). And so it went. Eventually I was leading Bible studies within my college's own CU and posting to the uk.religion.christian newsgroup, taking the evangelical line on most things.

The way out

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
'Til I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" he said "Grab your things
I've come to take you home."
-- Peter Gabriel, Solsbury Hill
Looking over old emails, the decline in my faith began almost as soon as I left university. I remained in Cambridge and continued at St Andrew the Great. A few months after starting work, I remember writing to my then girlfriend and describing the experience of watching a prayer meeting from above (I was on the overhead projector) and finding the whole thing faintly ridiculous. More and more, I had the feeling that I was playing the role of a Christian without any conviction deep down. Around Christmas 2001, I stopped going to StAG and resolved not to go again. With the exception of weddings and funerals, I've not been into a church since. In the end, to make the decision was a relief, as the dissonance of being neither one thing nor the other had grown unbearable.

Initially, I was embarrassed to admit I was having problems, and, when I'd left the church, embarrassed to admit that I had left, since I'd been such an advocate of Christianity before. I was afraid to meet people from StAG as I felt I wouldn't know what to say to them. I've had a chance to think since then, and to give some reasons why I changed.

As part of their training in evangelism (evangelism, confusingly, is the word for the process of making converts) evangelicals are told that when they're talking to non-Christian friends with the aim of converting them (at the time, this was always referred to in evangelical circles as having a "good conversation"), they must move beyond theological debates to engage with the person themselves, as such debates are often a distraction. The same applies on the way out as on the way in: I'm not sure reasons and arguments are really an explanation. When people change so radically, something shifts deeper inside than they can articulate. But words and reasons make good web pages. So, with that caveat, here are some reasons. More personal ones first, and then more theological ones later.

The truth should not depend on who you are with

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper
And I was free.
Before I left university, the curate at StAG gave a warning to my group of graduands: she quoted a statistic from a UCCF survey, telling us that within a few years of leaving university, well over half of CU members had stopped going to church. She advised us to ensure that we established ourselves in a church after leaving, and not to get into relationships with non-Christians, lest we be among those who "fall away", as Christians call it. (Interestingly, the UCCF doesn't seem to know about such a survey, but the high fall-away rate is a popular piece of evangelical folklore: I've written more about this on my blog, here and here).

It's true that it was a lot easier to be a Christian as part of a CU. I didn't make a lot of friends in my church after leaving the university compared to the number of friends I had in the CU. Should I have "got stuck in" to the church, rather than leaving when it didn't seem to make sense anymore without CICCU people around me?

I don't think so. Evangelical Christianity preaches the existence of an absolute truth, on a par with how most scientists view scientific knowledge. The order of primacy "facts, faith, feelings" was often spoken of at St Andrew the Great (the ordering comes from the Campus Crusade for Christ pamphlet Four Spiritual Laws). Relativism (especially moral relativism) and post-Modernism are the modern philosophical movements about which thinking evangelicals are most concerned. But at the same time I, and presumably people in that majority of CU leavers, find that once you're out of the CU, the truth doesn't look the same anymore. The warnings from evangelical leaders effectively acknowledge that this is what happens to those who "fall away". There's a contradiction here. A truth which depends on the support of a believing community is not very absolute, but people trained by evangelicalism to value the truth aren't going to be content with anything else.

Chapter 4 of Bob Altemeyer's book, The Authoritarians, discusses evangelicalism, and the large numbers of people brought up in evangelical homes who later reject their faith. The author writes:

What then gnawed away so mercilessly at the apostates that they could no longer overpower doubt with faith?

Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of "amazing apostates," that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God's true religion. That's what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting "the right answer." So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.

The lack of supernatural experience

Evangelical Christianity takes the supernatural claims of the Bible seriously. Evangelicals believe that Jesus really did walk on water, turn water into wine, and, most importantly of all, rise from the dead. Yet supernatural experiences were completely absent from my time as a Christian.

There's a split down the middle of evangelicalism, and my lack of such experiences might have been because I was on the wrong side of it. Oversimplifying slightly, on one side of the split, there are the conservative evangelicals, who believe that now the Bible is written, we have little need for miracles and so they do not occur very often; on the other, there are the charismatic evangelicals, who believe that the more obviously supernatural "gifts of the Holy Spirit" (such as prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues) are still common today.

At the time, CICCU, under the influence of St Andrew the Great, preached conservative evangelicalism, where the primary means of knowing God are prayer and studying the Bible. Conservative evangelicals typically distrust emotional experiences (the "facts, faith, feelings" ordering again). My belief was very intellectual as a result. So, when my reasoning started to take me away from Christianity, there was nothing to fall back on. To make matters worse, as my faith waned I found I could still produce Bible studies and postings to uk.religion.christian. My words were identical to what I would have said as a believer a few years back, even while my doubts had almost overcome me and I barely believed what I was saying.

If God is omnipotent, the sort of things he could do to convince a waverer are limitless. The argument that God wants us to have a choice about following him, rather than overwhelming us, makes little sense. A person who argues that God would not or cannot intervene supernaturally to provide an unbeliever with evidence is getting perilously close to deism, where God is supposed to have created the universe and then stepped back, no longer intervening in it.

A Christian might argue that there's a limit to how much evidence God can give before negating our free choice. C.S. Lewis says, for example, that God "cannot ravish, he must woo". I'd reply that, correctly understood, the claims of Jesus on a believer are so huge that they demand miraculous evidence. If you doubt this, consider what it might mean to "Take up your cross and follow me", or how a person who really feared only God and not men might behave. There's also the inconsistency of God's dealings with people, if he truly wants everyone to come to know him. The Bible itself refers to some people, such as St Paul, who have very convincing conversion experiences. Was St Paul's free will unimportant to God? How about the salvation of people who don't have an experience like St Paul's?

A personal relationship?

Even conservative evangelicals commonly claim that true believers (that is, evangelical Christians) have a personal relationship with Jesus. This relationship is distinguished from the "religion" of other Christians or other faiths, who are seen as seeking their gods through empty rituals. Some evangelicals even go so far as to teach that their religion is not a religion at all. This relationship is taken as subjective evidence for Christianity. When evangelicals are challenged to provide evidence for God's existence, once other arguments are exhausted, their last ditch argument is usually that they can't prove they love their spouses, either, but they have a relationship which meant they felt this love was real (if you reach this last ditch argument, notice that the stuff about "facts, faith, feelings" has gone out of the window, because we're down to talking about the feeling that God is real).

I believed, and passed on, this teaching, but it gradually became clear to me that "relationship" wasn't really the right word to describe my religious experiences. In a relationship between two people, communication is very important, but I rarely felt God communicated with me directly. I had feelings about God, and sometimes I felt God was present, but not constantly. God did seem to talk to some people more, but unfortunately they didn't agree about what he'd said, making it hard to tell who God had actually spoken to. It seemed that many of the painful schisms in the church could be solved if God made his views known plainly. C.S. Lewis's arguments about free-will are even less applicable here, as Christians already want to know what God wants, so he can hardly be ravishing them by telling them. In fact, God's silence is a good reason to doubt he exists.

Much later, my conclusions about all this were nobody is in a personal relationship with God, but lots of people are in relationships with the text of the Bible, and with a believing community. You can have those relationships without God existing at all.

Is God really good?

"The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course." - A. A. Milne
In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20[pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible "bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave"' or merely slapping his side & chortling "God, isn't God a shit!" - Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford. "Randolph" is Randolph Churchill.
As an evangelical, I believed the Old Testament described history as it really happened. Unfortunately, as Milne and Randolph Churchill found out, that means God does some pretty nasty things. In October 2000, I wrote to a friend:
I'm struggling with the stuff in the OT (eg Numbers 31 or 1 Sam 15) and how that can be the sort of God who is worth worshipping. I don't think it can be, to be honest: either I decide that the Bible erred in saying God told the Israelites to do that sort of thing, or I think the moral thing to do is not to worship such a God. I know that there's a school of thought that says that because God created us he can do what he likes, but to me that's obvious nonsense: if I have a child, I don't have the right to abuse it. Or to take an example closer to being God, if it is possible to create an artificial intelligence (and I think it probably is) and I was to do that, I wouldn't have the right to mistreat it.
The Bible passages mentioned are times when God commands the Israelites to slaughter entire cities, killing men, women, and children. He even tells them off when they don't kill everyone. There are Christians who don't believe God commanded the slaughter, and Christians who believe the slaughter didn't even happen, but these options didn't seem open to me as an evangelical.

A more evangelical response to this seems to be that it's God's right to do this (which I didn't find convincing, as my email to my friend says), and that what happened to the enemies of Israel is nothing compared to Hell. Evangelicals believe that everyone deserves to go to Hell, and can only escape by accepting Jesus. (Some notable evangelicals, for example, John Stott, instead believe that non-Christians will be destroyed rather than tortured forever, but this is a minority view in evangelicalism, one which many evangelicals regard as heretical). Most people will end up in Hell. This was another reason for doubting God's goodness. I've written more about hell on my blog.

Finally, it seemed that the world was not the sort of place that you'd expect if an omnipotent and good God ruled it. It's easy to forget this when you have a nice middle-class life, but many people in the world endure terrible suffering. This objection to God's existence (or goodness) is known as the Problem of Evil, and it's been debated for centuries, at least. Ultimately, it seems to come down to whether you can trust that God has a reason for the way the world is. In combination with the other problems mentioned above, the Problem of Evil meant I couldn't believe in God's goodness (and in fact, began to doubt his existence). Once again, I've written more about this on my blog.

Evangelicalism is a pure meme, entirely dedicated to replicating

Evangelicalism is streamlined for making converts, and is strongly biased against activities which do not help with this aim (often including church involvement in the pure altruism I praised above). Rituals and other religious paraphenalia which outsiders find strange are done away with. Church social gatherings almost always have titles which begin with the word "evangelistic" ("evangelistic dinner party", "evangelistic film evening" and so on). Believers are strongly encouraged to start conversations with friends about Christianity and to bring them to these evangelistic events.

There are more subtle rules, which are also common to the more orthodox members of other faiths (presumably because they are good ways of ensuring your religion spreads). An example is the prohibition on "marrying out", which works in part because children are likely to inherit the religion of their parents. Even if the children become atheists in their teenage rebelious phase, the God they don't now believe in, but may one day return to, will most likely be the Christian God. The organisations I was involved in existed for the benefit of the spread of a particular variant of Christianity, and not for the benefit of the people, like me, who believed in that variant. This would be fine if what I believed was true; or, as a poor second, beneficial to me as well as to the idea I was spreading. In practice, I found that my belief was neither of these things.

Guilt, depravity and the bait and switch tactic

I wrapped my fear around me like a blanket,
I sailed my ship of safety til I sank it.
I'm crawling on your shore.
Taking the second one first, why was it not beneficial? Because I spent a lot of time as a Christian feeling guilty. This guilt stemmed from a number of places.

Depravity

Firstly, it stemmed from a doctrine known as
Total Depravity, which states that everything humans do or think is tainted by evil to some degree, and that we are helpless in that we cannot better ourselves sufficiently to be acceptable to God, however we might attempt it. (The idea of human helplessness is central to many aspects of evangelicalism, it seems).

In evangelical belief, the remedy for the helpless human condition is Jesus's death for our sins, an entirely undeserved gift from God which does for humans what they could not do for themselves. To claim this gift, all humans need to is have faith in Jesus. In theological language, this is known as salvation by grace through faith. After conversion, God then works in the believer to better them.

Here's the first source of guilt: this view denies that the goodness in Christians (or anyone else) belongs to them. If a Christian were to do something good, it is not the Christian, but God, who should be credited for it. If a Christian does something bad, that's their fault, though. If non-Christians claim to be doing good without God's help, that's Pride with a capital "P", the deadliest of those deadly sins.

Christians might well claim that guilt from this source is a good thing, since it leads people to admit their need for God. However, I believe that the view of the human condition portrayed by the doctrine of total depravity is badly wrong. I do not follow some sort of Enlightenment optimism and assert that humans are in fact naturally good. I would say that humans are capable of equally stunning displays of good and of evil. My problem with the evangelical view is that I think it is wrong for the good to be appropriated by God, rather than being seen as a praiseworthy characteristic of the person doing good.

Faith and works, bait and switch

As I said, evangelical Christianity holds out the promise that Jesus's death will make us acceptable to God. Evangelicals emphatically state that nothing other than God's forgiveness received through faith in God's death will save us from God's wrath. In particular, going to church, being a "good person" or following any particular set of rules will not affect our salvation.

It's odd then, that having accepted this, the evangelical life seems filled with unwritten rules and norms. Another ex-evangelical refers to this as a "bait and switch" tactic: evangelicalism holds out a free gift which turns out not to be free after all. It's important to realise what I'm not saying here. I'm not saying that the organisations I was part of exercised a cult-like domination over their members, but merely that the norms of these organisations were so pervasive that they belied the claim that following the rules does not matter.

Of course, no-one can match up to the norms. And here is a second source of guilt.

But you obviously didn't understand about grace!

At the risk of repeating myself, the norms of these organisations were so pervasive that they belied the claim that following the rules does not matter.

In addition, there's a lot of teaching about grace, but there's also a lot of teaching about judgement. There's a good cop/bad cop alternation of these, sometimes preaching on the joy of salvation by grace through faith, sometimes on terrible threat of people who thought they were Christians being excluded from Heaven.

On reflection, I think the problem is that the Bible, taken as a whole, has no coherent teaching about salvation, but if a church is committed to the position that the Bible is a coherent whole (I'd argue that it isn't) and contains no contradictions (as a church like StAG is), that church must put people on this spiritual rollercoaster in order to preach "the whole gospel". I'd guess a lot of Christians in Cambridge are nervous intellectuals who already believe they're not good enough: they do not need the Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God treatment.

Sex

It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
The evangelical attitude to sex is badly broken, harming both Christians (and non-Christians where Christians attempt to make their attitudes into government policy). I hesitate to mention this becuase my evangelical readers will probably nod sagely and decide that I left the church so I could sleep around. That's not what I intend to advocate, though. Contemporary culture's cavalier attitude to sex can be just as harmful. So what do I mean?

First, there's the whole debate about homosexuality. Better minds than mine have addressed this, so go and read what they said. I'm straight, but I find the Christian attitude to homosexuality unconscionable.

Secondly, there's the confusion over the middle ground between celibacy and sex in marriage (which, to be fair, evangelicals are very keen on) and just what, if anything, might be acceptable there. There's an entire cottage industry producing Christian books about masturbation and how to avoid it and warning adults off "heavy petting" as if they were schoolkids in danger of getting pregnant. I've ranted on my blog about this, and again on someone else's. As I say in the second link, if you control someone's sexuality, you pretty much control them, especially if they're young and full of hormones. The evangelical attitude to sex is about control, and about selling the idea of Total Depravity (and hence selling the cure) by convincing people that in this area, they really are depraved.

LosingMyReligion.com's article on sex talks about this further. Though there are some over generalisations about Christian attitudes to sex in there, the "I was a teenage evangelical" section is hilariously accurate.

Truth

Jessep (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I'm entitled to them.
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth!

-- A Few Good Men

So, I don't believe Christianity was beneficial. How about whether it's true? In the time since I began to write this article, I've done a lot of reading and writing and thinking about religion. Rather than write here about the philosophical and moral problems I found with Christianity, I'll instead point you towards some web pages on the subject, some of which are discussions I've taken part in, others of which are other people's essays.

Conclusion

As I write at the end of this article about a discussion with someone from CICCU, we may, and in fact, must, tolerate logical inconsistencies and other problems with the things we believe. My evangelical faith had no room for these inconsistencies, and ironically, by insisting that it had an absolute truth, undermined itself.

I'm aware that this article could equally well be entitled "Why Evangelicalism is Bad and Wrong", as I've barely addressed any other sort of Christianity. I respect non-evangelical Christians for their ability to incorporate doubts and questions into their faith (this conversation with Angela Rayner is a good example of what I mean). Yet it seems they must constantly struggle against the sort of objections I mention above, and I am not convinced that this seeming Sisyphean task is worthwhile. I suppose in some ways evangelicalism has innoculated me against other forms of Christianity.

I do miss aspects of Christianity, such as a some fine people and communities, the singing, and a feeling of belonging to something greater than myself. But for the moment, I am happy enough to try to live what I consider a good life, with neither the hope of Heaven nor the fear of Hell.

Some concluding words:

The narrator lies recovering from the disease which has wracked his body, talking to Michael, the man who nursed him. Michael tells the narrator how he went to a beautiful church but left because he wanted truth as well as beauty. Michael speaks of how, for a time, he believed he was tottering over some Niezsche-like existential abyss, alone in a godless universe (and out of Shake'n'Vac).

'But I didn't go spiralling down. Because there is no abyss. There is no yawning chasm waiting to swallow us up, when we learn that there is no god, that we're animals like any other animal, that the universe has no purpose, that our souls are made of the same stuff as water and sand.'

I said, 'There are two thousand cultists on this island who believe otherwise.'

Michael shrugged. 'What do you expect from moral flat-Earthers, if not the fear of falling? If you desperately, passionately want to plummet into the abyss, of course it's possible - but only if you work hard. Only if you will the entire thing into being. Only if you manufacture every last centimetre of it, on your way down.

'I don't want to believe that honesty leads to madness. I don't believe we need delusions to stay sane. I don't believe the truth is strewn with booby-traps, waiting to swallow up anyone who thinks too much. There is nowhere to fall - not unless you stand there digging the hole.'

I said, 'You fell, didn't you? When you lost your faith.'

'Yes - but how far? What have I become? A serial killer? A torturer?'

'I sincerely hope not. But you lost a lot more than "childish things", didn't you? What about all those stirring sermons on kindness, charity and love?'

Michael laughed softly. 'And the least of these is faith. What makes you think I've lost anything? I've stopped pretending that all the things I value are locked up in some magical vault called "God" - outside the universe, outside time, outside myself. That's all. I don't need beautiful lies anymore, just to make the decisions I want to make, to try to live a life I think is good. If the truth had taken those things away... I could never really have had them in the first place.

'And I still clean up your shit, don't it? I still tell you stories at three in the morning. If you want greater miracles than that, you're out of luck.'

-- Greg Egan, Distress

Afterword

As I mentioned earlier, LosingMyReligion.com has an
excellent short article for people who've just left Christianity. I commend their advice to anyone in that position.

If you'd like to comment on this page, you can do so on my journal entry about it. It's probably worth reading those comments and my responses before you comment or email me, as I may have already said something relevant there (for example, I sometimes get told I wasn't a True Christian to start with, something I've addressed in this thread).

Legalese

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Back to writings.

Back to the index.