This is a ‘work-in-progress’; it is my attempt to share some of the experiences and thought processes which have taken me away from being a committed, Bible-believing Christian. I became a Christian in 1984. I began to have serious doubts around 2001 which eventually led me to withdraw from my involvement in church and Bible studies in 2005.
I have wanted to write about this for a while but wasn’t sure where to start – until I had the idea of expressing the thoughts and experiences as a series of questions. This makes sense to me, since one way of summarizing ‘the change in me’ is to say, “I’ve moved from having a collection of ‘Christian’ answers with which I was (mostly) satisfied, to having a collection of questions to which I’m not convinced the ‘Christian’ answers are the most plausible, or best, or most correct.”
Some of the questions overlap and not everything I’ve written is in chronological order; but at least I have been able to write down many things I want to share, by breaking it down this way. As I said, it’s a work in progress…
Question One: The Bible says God is love: is that true?
In 2001 I wrote a poem describing what I’d like God to be like called God of my dreams. This was my attempt to express in poetry something I was finding: as best I could tell, who I wanted God to be didn’t seem to be who the God of the Bible was.
Why didn’t I just adjust my ideas about God to conform to what the Bible did seem to say? First, because every believer I knew seemed to interpret what the Bible said about God a little differently and I couldn’t tell who had the ‘right’ understanding of God, so I didn’t know how I was supposed to adjust my ideas.
But maybe more importantly, the Bible says God is love. In my poem I tried to describe perfect love – and that didn’t match who the God of the Bible was as best I could tell. The God of the Bible in some ways seemed less loving. How could that be? I’ve started with this question because it arose early in the questioning process which led me away from the Christian faith I’d held for over 15 years. Also because this question was very significant: my beginning to have doubts about the nature of God had serious ramifications with regard to my desire to know God personally. I address this more in question (below).
Question Two: If the Holy Spirit exists and operates as I’ve been taught, why don’t Christians behave distinctively better than atheists?
I’m not saying that Christians are necessarily worse behaved in general than atheists. Although, the way they treated me when I was mentally ill (manic – ok, there’s another piece of my story – see below) was not exemplary, to say the least. For example, there was the Bible study leader who said I couldn’t come to her study anymore once I got ill – reasonable while I was ill and hence disruptive – but when I asked her again 15 months later long after the episode was over, she still wouldn’t let me return.
I had the opportunity to discuss this question in the Off The Map Ebay Atheist Blog entry Ex-Christian says Christian No Better than Atheists (thanks, Jim, for highlighting my question by making it a blog entry of its own!) I post as “Ir” on Off The Map.
Question Three: How well does the actual Bible text fit what I’ve been taught the Bible says?
I had the opportunity to discuss an example of this in the Off The Map Ebay Atheist blog – for example: Sheep and Goats: Who’s in and who’s out?
One particular aspect I was having trouble with in 2001 was, “Who does the Bible say will go to hell?” I wrote about the doctrine of hell for my website (but then took it down until very recently because I didn’t want to publicize doubts on my site that I wasn’t sharing with people I knew). Mostly it’s a look at the passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels which mention hell, to see whether what they actually say seems to match what I’ve been taught that they mean.
From here on, the questions tend to get longer and more personal.
Question Four: How can I tell the difference between my thoughts and God’s thoughts?
In my case, because of my two serious manic episodes, I seriously wondered: is it safe to believe some of my thoughts come from God?
This is a long one because I need to give some background – I’ll try to be as concise as possible and refer you to things I’ve already written if you want to read more. It’s quite personal…
I have a family history of manic-depression aka Bipolar Disorder but I had no problems with it myself until I was 31. In the late Spring of 1996 my behavior began to change in increasingly weird ways which led to my husband taking me to the ER one day in June. I was diagnosed with Bipolar/manic-depression and admitted to the psychiatric unit. Just to give you an idea of my mental state – I was so delusional that day that I was wondering if I was the Holy Spirit. Yet it was a ‘mixed’ state where I perceived some things all too clearly like “forcing me to take meds is a violation of the ‘basic rights’ sheet they showed me on admission”. (Their weak excuse for this, later, was “it was an emergency” – but that wasn’t true.) Anyway, you can read more details, if you’re interested, in My Experience with Bipolar Disorder, which I wrote in 1997.
Continuing the short version: I was sent home with my husband the next day on the basis that I had good enough family support I could recover at home.
The psychiatrist who I started seeing regularly after my release from the hospital declared me ‘stable’ in December and I went off medication a few months later – a little before he actually said I could, but then he said I could stay off since I was doing well.
I remained well until early fall of 2000 when my husband became concerned and had me visit my psychiatrist. I went a few times over the next few months, politely declining his offer of medication each time while my behavior got gradually worse. In early December, by which point I was highly delusional, my husband took me to see him and they said I had to either do what they wanted (which at that point in time was have an EEG because they suspected some epileptic seizure activity) or be hospitalized in the psych unit again. The doctor, my husband and the doctor’s partner actually reasoned/argued with me for hours on and off about it. I was not at all happy that those were my only choices. I remember that I was afraid of having the EEG because in the state I was in, I didn’t know what they were exactly going to do and what it might do to me.
Basically, I was so delusional and paranoid that day (for example, I didn’t know if I was alive or in some weird afterlife state) that it was rather hard to make a rational decision. Yet like before, it was a mixed state; one thing I was very upset about was that I hadn’t made arrangements to have my daughter picked up from school at lunchtime because I’d thought we’d be home in time – and we weren’t. (My husband called someone to make arrangements for her)
When the two doctors and my husband were out of ideas, they left me alone for a little while. In that time I was able to access the rational part of my brain and realize that the point was not “these choices are unfair – try and argue my way out of them” but “they really are going to put you in the psych unit if you don’t have the EEG and go on meds – and remember how much you HATE the psych unit. So you’d better submit to what they want.”
By the way, how is it that my ill brain, when left alone, could do better than all their reasoning? Hmmm…at the time I attributed this to God’s guidance. Either it was a miracle or it showed how useless my psychiatrist was – or maybe both!
A few weeks later the last straw came with that psychiatrist and I insisted on looking for another psychiatrist. I was still quite ill, so this was a very difficult experience in itself. The last thing I needed at that point was to be indicating I was resisting treatment – but there was no way I could keep seeing that psychiatrist. The visit to the first other psychiatrist we tried was a real low point. Amongst other things he said to me, in front of my husband who was already stressed to the max “Are you just going to go from one psychiatrist to the next until you find one who agrees with you?” However, he did give us a recommendation that led us to someone we both liked. Which was a great relief!
If you want to read more about my second episode (like more details about why I had to switch doctors), you can read more in My Personal Experience With Manic-Depression (Bipolar Disorder) – 12/05/02 Update. (It might be more accurate in the details, too!)
The short version is that after a while I became stabilized on meds from my new psychiatrist – my state was up and down during the first half of 2001 but I was definitely over the worst by the fall of 2001. After two manic episodes, conventional medical wisdom usually says a person should be on mood stabilizers for life. However, it turned out that my doctor was willing to let me taper off them in the Spring of 2003 and go off completely in June. I have been off meds and well since then. I can’t say whether I will have more episodes but what I’ve been through makes me appreciate every day I’m not delusional.
Ok, back to Question Four. As a Christian I would regularly pray or read the Bible and then ‘listen’ in my thoughts to what I believed God was saying. I knew I couldn’t be certain that God spoke through my thoughts, but I often acted on faith that he was doing so. This never led me into any serious problems until I got manic. When I got manic and my judgment became very impaired, I continued to think some of my thoughts were from God and that was a problem.
After my second manic episode, by which time I was already asking the questions I’ve begun to list, I knew that some of the thoughts I had believed were from God had not really been from God. (Go figure – God is not manic, according to the Bible) I also knew that whatever it took, I wanted to be well. I did not want to get ill again. It completely messes up my life and relationships. At that point I decided that in view of my doubts and also to minimize the possibility of getting ill again, I didn’t want to rely on any thought that arose just from my mind for anything any more. I wanted to run things past people I trusted. I wanted to rely on what I could see, feel, hear and touch. Putting these together I decided to stop praying and ‘see how it went’. It was an experiment – it turned out to be an experiment that worked too well, from a Christian point of view, because after I got used to it, I didn’t miss praying at all. I didn’t miss God at all. I kept going to church for a long time after this – for various reasons.
Question Five: if there is something truly supernatural going on with Christians, how come my experiment is going so well and how come none of my Christian friends can tell that I’ve detached myself from any personal relationship with God?
So I started my inward ‘experiment’, but I kept going to church and Bible study. Outwardly I participated and said ‘the right answers’, but inwardly I was ‘detached’ from God – I wasn’t praying or looking to God for guidance at all.
I wasn’t doing this to deceive anyone; I didn’t know what else to do while I was in this ‘experimental’ phase, even though I did feel it was somewhat dishonest of me. I did my best to guard on my motives and attitudes. I felt that staying connected with Christians would stop me drifting away from an accurate picture of who they are and would keep me hearing first-hand what they were about, which was a good thing. Also, in the aftermath of the manic episode the last thing I needed was more challenge and risk and upheaval socially. I needed to recover from that, not incite more of it. So I kept going and outwardly ‘being a good Christian’ while inwardly I was doing what I felt I needed to, in order to protect my mental health.
I was interested to see whether any Christians would notice that I was only being a Christian outwardly. If they did, that could have been evidence of supernatural discernment (not necessarily – but I could cross that bridge if I came to it). Perhaps this line of thinking went back to my early days as a Christian in the kind of church where God tells people secrets about other people. For what it’s worth – that is a very horrible scary thing to believe – and I was glad not to be in that sort of church any more. But – if God is real, there was the possibility of him telling someone I was ‘faking it’.
Well, no-one seemed to notice, so that issue never arose. It amazed me really – other Christians continued to praise me for my extensive Bible knowledge (i.e. my ‘right answers’) and my strong faith. I tried to word my answers to be as truthful as I could and to emphasize what I was most sure about so as to minimize how deceptive I was being.
I don’t recall exactly when I stopped praying – it was probably late in 2001. Which means that for four years I was a Christian outwardly only and no-one – evidently – noticed.
In that time I was involved in worship as an instrumentalist and also accepted a volunteer role I was offered of helping organize the church orchestra music (which was a lot of paper, going back and forth). The trust extended to me by asking me to do that was very valuable in the aftermath of my second manic episode and I was happy to do something which was helpful to the church and, handily, didn’t actually require any professions of faith, but did require a little musical knowledge and some time during the week when I was not tied up with other things and had no immediate family commitments. So it worked very well for me. In the fall of 2004 I did talk to the person who had given me that role about my ‘issues with my faith’ so that he could make a more informed decision about whether he wanted me helping out in that way. To his credit he said it was fine with him, so I continued until the following Spring (Spring 2005)
Anyway, those almost four years of no-one noticing did seem to be be evidence against Christians having supernatural discernment, as far as I was concerned. It was another significant strike against the reality of the Holy Spirit.
Question Six: Is life without God liveable?
I think this should actually have come between questions 4 and 5 but never mind…
When I first began to have doubts I was still in a somewhat manic and therefore somewhat fearful state. I was very afraid of the possibility of God not existing; I had no idea how to live life without God. I had been a Christian for most of my adult life (since I was about 20 years old) and before that I had believed in God most of my life in a fairly nebulous, pray-in-an-emergency-but-otherwise-ignore-God sort of way.
I had often heard Christians assert that life without God was hopeless and meaningless. Early in 2001 I joined the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. I can’t say exactly why – I probably had some manic reason at the time. I was posting as a Christian – I didn’t share any of my doubts there but I did try to avoid ‘defending my faith’ since a) I observed how Christians doing so got quickly nowhere since they were so outnumbered by nontheists/atheists, some of whom were very well-read and thoughtful and smart b) I was reluctant to defend a position I was finding myself less and less convinced about.
I very much appreciated the acceptance I found there, in spite of not being an atheist and in spite of being somewhat ill, at a time when my real life relationships were in a mess due to my illness. I announced my change of belief there this month, for the first time; I knew they wouldn’t be upset, but I was quite moved by the warmth of the responses I received.
I posted on IIDB a lot even though I was avoiding defending my faith. I had the highest post count of any member for a while (higher than all the nontheists!) It looked like I might be the first poster to reach 10,000 posts but I strangely lost some in a board upgrade; and then soon after that I began to work at sorting out my priorities and being on the Internet less so I could attend to other things better. That slowed my rate of increase and I still haven’t quite reached 9,000 posts. (My username there is my real name: HelenM)
Anyway, for me IIDB turned out to be a wonderful place to learn about what it was like to live without God. Reading about the daily lives of atheists showed me that it was more than possible to live a happy, meaningful, fulfilling life without God. Which I needed to know, in case I was headed that way. So that was extremely helpful.
I suppose some Christians might see joining IIDB and being quite involved there as the ‘mistake I made’ which took me away from God. But I already had doubts when I went there. The nontheists there perhaps put clearer words to my doubts – but they didn’t create them in the first place.
Question Seven: Does Christianity work?
This question breaks down into: When Christianity seems to work, why and how does it work? How does it compare with other approaches to life management (i.e. how to have the most fulfilling life, effectively dealing with the problems we encounter in life, etc)?
I don’t know how much control I have over whether/ when I get manic again. I do know that I want to do whatever I can to avoid it happening. My first discussion board experience was after my first episode. I came across an Internet mental health forum and started reading and posting there. I started reading secular self-help and counseling and psychology books.
Early in 2000 my church announced a video course for training people who wanted to be lay counselors for the church. I was very interested but they said I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t be a lay counselor with my diagnosis of Bipolar. It was too risky [at a church where the chairman of the elder board was a lawyer]. I did find another way to take the course and I was glad to learn what was in it.
Maybe they were right that it was too risky, since I didn’t make it to the end of that year without getting seriously manic again. But also, maybe the way I was treated by Christians that year contributed to me getting seriously manic again – well, who knows. I will never know for sure.
So, as I conducted my experiment I thought about why I was in church (since I was inwardly detached from God) and whether I was getting anything out of it, and whether that was for supernatural or more psychological reasons.
I decided these things had value for me: the social aspect of it; the ‘let’s have goals and work towards them’ motivating aspect of many sermons; the words which had happy associations for me like love and peace and joy – those words made me feel good even if I didn’t believe in God. I found myself skeptical that anything was going on that psychology of group dynamics couldn’t explain.
I found some very helpful things in the secular psychology books I read. I found some of them, to some extent, taught by Christians. But it was rather hit and miss and Christians generally didn’t explain or teach them as well as the best secular psychologists.
I noticed that the Christian answer to everything seemed to be “go to God”. I decided that “reframing the situation” was often a much better solution. I often would hear how ‘terrible’ things are in the U.S. today (because of abortion or gay marriage or whatever) and I couldn’t help thinking how unreal a complaint that was from people who had plenty to eat and wear and a house to live in and a reasonable job to go to. Instead of encouraging each other to “reframe” that and realize how well off they are, Christians would agree with each other about how ‘terrible’ things were getting.
After learning many helpful things from secular psychology, I could barely believe the way some Christians dismissed it as “unbiblical”. Fortunately my own church didn’t take a position that extreme.
Anyway, the bottom line was, it seemed to me that when Christianity ‘worked’, it was for reasons I could explain without appealing to anything supernatural; and I often found it didn’t ‘work’ as well as secular approaches.
Question Eight: All those experiences that I thought were of/from God, that convinced me God is real – what about those?
I was raised in a family without any religion. I became a Christian at the age of 20 – this is the short version: in my second year of college I met some students who were committed Christians and very involved in various Christian activities on campus. I was intrigued. I asked them some questions and then also asked a friend at college I’d known since high school, who I knew was a Christian. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that I had ‘heard the gospel’ in spite of various exposure to various forms of ‘Christianity’ and the Bible. I reread some of the gospels in view of this ‘new information’ and decided to ‘pray the prayer’ by myself late one evening. I mean the “Jesus if you’re real come into my life” prayer. That was a profound experience; very emotional; one that convinced me God was real and I did see changes in my life as I began to live life with God.
Another profound experience: in 1996 in the psych unit, locked in the ‘quiet room’ alone with nothing but a mat on the floor, having taken medication because if I didn’t take it myself they said they would force it into me – at that point I sang a worship song and it was a turning point. (I hope Julie reads this!) I wrote a poem about a month later about that experience called The Reason For The Hope I Have: My Experience With Mental Illness. I would say there is no doubt of my faith at the time, if you read that poem!
So, what about all those experiences? The bottom line is, I can’t be sure any more that they were truly from God. Perhaps, as helpful and powerful as they were, they were emotional experiences/ways to access what I needed to access in myself to move forward – and no more than that.
Question Nine: have I been too accepting?
As I read the posts of Christians and atheists on IIDB I noticed a very significant difference in how Christians and atheists deal with questions about God. Basically, Christians give God the benefit of the doubt and atheists don’t.
It doesn’t surprise me that Christians give God the benefit of the doubt; Christians believe they know God and Christians trust God so why wouldn’t they? When my husband calls and says he has to work late I give him the benefit of the doubt; I don’t assume he’s lying and he’s actually doing something else for the evening he’d rather not disclose to me.
Atheists don’t know God and don’t like what they’ve heard about God so I suppose it’s equally unsurprising that they don’t give God the benefit of the doubt. It would be unwise of a wife to unquestioningly accept what her husband says if he calls and tells her “I’m going to be late home from work (again)”, if she’s just come across evidence that he’s been seeing another woman after work.
As I’ve read the posts on IIDB and seen quite a bit of (what I considered) blind acceptance from Christians and needless hostility from atheists I’ve felt that the right approach probably lies somewhere in the middle.
I used to give God the benefit of the doubt too – on everything. If my prayers weren’t answered, I assumed God had his [perfect] reasons for not answering them. When I heard about natural disasters or thought about hell, I trusted that if there had been a ‘better’ way, God would have instituted it instead. I believed the Bible when it said God is love even though I didn’t really understand how a loving God could let people go to hell. If I didn’t understand how to reconcile various Bible passages, I assumed that they were reconcilable somehow.
When I heard atheist objections I assumed that their presuppositions prevented them giving God a ‘fair’ hearing. Perhaps I believed what Christians had taught me about only Christians being able to understand and accept the truth about God – no wonder the atheists didn’t ‘get it’. I was more open to what Christians taught than what I heard from secular sources – in general. I was more pre-disposed to trust someone if they were a Christian according to my ‘definition’ of what a Christian was. I thought I felt a ‘special bond’ with such people – which was also what I often heard Christians say they felt with other Christians; although now I suspect that was just something in my imagination.
This trust sometimes worked to my detriment – for example, I chose my first psychiatrist because I met him at church. I really wanted to see a psychiatrist who was a Christian because I was afraid a secular one wouldn’t be able to understand me. Now – I wouldn’t have gone to a psychiatrist whose training all came from Christian sources because I was a little skeptical about that, plus my atheist husband probably wouldn’t have accepted that. This man’s training wasn’t, so I decided to go to him.
When I went through my second episode I was deeply disappointed in him and had to go through the trauma of changing doctors while I was still quite ill. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have trusted a doctor who seemed to move his office every year or two and who seemed not to have many other patients. Because of his disorganization I was never able to get the EEG trace run that one day which supposedly showed epileptic activity – which I would really have liked to have since it’s the only ‘documented’ evidence of me having any. Well, he misplaced it. Getting what medical records he had took forever and they were minimal when they finally arrived.
Anyway, at some point I moved from giving ‘God the benefit of the doubt’ to ‘for me to even consider living by faith again, I need something more convincing than what I have so far’. This went along with a general trend in my life to check everything out more thoroughly. (But I do trust my husband when he says he’s working late. He’s more than earned my trust :))