It’s a bit of a paradox: people don’t really change, yet we are capable of huge, life-altering changes in our beliefs. I’ve previously written about the change in my beliefs and moral perspective on abortion. The biggest area of change, though, has been in my beliefs about the supernatural.
As a child I believed very strongly in the god I was taught to believe in, the Christian god. I have a memory of being somewhere around five years old or younger, and making a moral decision based on what I thought Jesus would want me to do. I was in the local library with my mother, asking if I could have my 20p pocket money to get a few sweets. She told me she didn’t have it with her. We were just a hundred yards from home, couldn’t we go back and get it? No, we couldn’t, she said. I turned things over in my little mind: to throw a tantrum or not throw a tantrum? I decided that Jesus wouldn’t want me to, so I didn’t.
As I grew up, my belief in God grew too. I wondered sometimes if other people thought about God as much as I did, or if I was just a weirdo. People often find that as they grow older, their religiosity fades away. But for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, mine didn’t. At the age of 14, I decided to commit myself and my life to Jesus. It was strange but I felt like I had fallen in love with God somehow. That year, I asked my parents not to give me any presents for Christmas (apart from Amnesty International membership) because I wanted to celebrate it as the birthday of Jesus, not as a commercial, secular holiday. At 16, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself and my life to God, so I got baptised. I decided I didn’t want to get married because I dreamed of being a missionary and helping poor people in some far off country.
Shortly after starting university I changed my mind about not getting married, but the dream of doing something for God and something meaningful in the world, in his name, persisted. Instead, almost immediately after graduating from university I lost my belief in Christianity.
It happened one day when I picked up the Bible, hoping God would talk to me. I’d been through a really damaging, horrible relationship with the kind of guy who’d call me a disgusting slapper (that’s British slang for “slut”, FYI) in private, and then complain in public that there was something mentally wrong with his crazy girlfriend who seemed to cry all the time for no reason. This had the effect of really alienating me from the church I had been attending, where he was a favourite amongst the leadership and considered to have the patience of a saint for putting up with a moody girl who hadn’t even managed to “keep sex special” (meanwhile, I was advised to stay with him because something something Jesus). I’d lost the confidence I’d had that the people there cared about me. I was no longer emotionally invested in a church, and my faith hadn’t met any of my emotional needs or answered any of my questions for a long, long time. I tried to hold on, tried to pray, tried to read the Bible – but every time I opened it, it either horrified me or left me cold. Which means that when I picked up the Bible that day, really wishing I could somehow connect to God through it, I was finally reading it with the same kind of detachment with which I might read the Qur’an or some other “holy” book.
Let me explain a bit further what I mean by that. When I was a teenager I had read a book called I Dared to Call Him Father by an ex-Muslim woman named Bilquis Sheikh. In it, she talked about how after a painful divorce, she had turned to the Qur’an for comfort as she usually did in a time of difficulty, but didn’t find any comfort there at all; instead, she was hurt by the callousness and coldness she found within its pages. “Well, of course”, I had thought at the time. “The Qur’an is just a normal book.” (I’d read much of it in school and found it tedious and unremarkable, and as a Christian of course I knew it wasn’t really the word of any god).
Now here I was, many years later, realising the same thing about my tribe’s text: it wasn’t offering me any comfort or wisdom or hope or relevant guidance, or revealing anything insightful, because it was a compilation of manuscripts describing frequently ahistorical events, some involving a mythical rabbi who died almost 2000 years ago. So why should it have resonated with me any more than the Qur’an did? It’s not a coincidence that both Christians and Muslims may tell you that you have to read their holy texts with “the right attitude” or “an open heart”. I’m pretty sure now that what that really means is that you have to have a special credulousness reserved for only their preferred text.
And maybe it was the walking on water, maybe it was the feeding of 5,000 people; maybe it was the raising of Lazarus; whatever it was, for some reason or other it just didn’t seem credible anymore. I just thought, This didn’t happen. It was kind of like I’d woken up from a dream. In a dream, there’s nothing weird about being able to fly, or sing so loud that your house falls down, because you fully accept the physical and logical parameters of the dream world. But the minute you wake up, you know it didn’t happen and couldn’t happen. That’s how it felt. For so many years I’d upheld the physical and logical parameters that accommodated Christianity, fighting off all objections by any means possible, no matter how reasonable those objections were. But I’d stopped fighting – not because I didn’t want it to be true; I did, so much. But I just didn’t have any emotional or mental energy left to make excuses and perform the mental acrobatics needed to believe. So the parameters fell, and the Bible became ancient miracle stories like so many other ancient miracle stories.
Now at this point someone might say “Well, of course you stopped believing. The Bible clearly says that if you want to maintain your faith, you have to keep going to church and meeting up with other Christians.” Aside from the fact that I did keep meeting up with other Christians (albeit much less often than when I’d been going to a church at least thrice weekly), think for a moment about what that might say about Christian beliefs. I don’t have to keep meeting up with other Londoners to reassure myself that I live in London (of course in a city of 7 million they’re unavoidable but that’s besides the point). I don’t have to keep checking photos from space to believe that the world is round. I don’t have to go to meetings with other people where we murmur assent or sing songs about gravity in order to keep believing in gravity. If you are presented with good evidence for something, you only need accept the truth of it once, and you’ll keep believing. So why should I have had to keep meeting with other Christian believers in order to keep believing in Christianity?
So let me anticipate a further objection: “Actually, it’s about having a relationship with God, not about believing in him. Of course all relationships take work. And since God dwells inside of people, we have to interact with other people to interact with God; otherwise the relationship will break down.” Well, OK. But if my relationship with my partner or my parents frays to the point of breaking, and we never see each other again, I’m not going to start questioning whether they ever even existed. I don’t have to keep re-convincing myself, weekly, that they exist somewhere, and that we interacted somehow at some point in the past, anymore than I have to keep re-convincing myself that germs can be hazardous or that rainbows are optical illusions. My point is that if you need constant, weekly encouragement to believe that something exists, and to surround yourself with other people who believe in it in order to believe in it yourself, then I would question whether that’s a well-founded belief.
When I first stopped believing, I was worried. All through the “valley of the shadow” that preceded my deconversion, I had assumed that this was just a trial; that I was going through a long, hot, dry spell but God wouldn’t abandon me, and one glorious day my faith would come roaring back to me with a vengeance. I’d be stronger and fitter and better able to minister and show God’s compassion to others. So when instead my faith just kind of ground to a halt, I was a little stunned. I wanted it back.
I kept searching and reading. I read apologetics books and attended churches and tried to believe, but it never happened; the arguments just weren’t convincing. My Christian faith was gone. Strangely, though, my theism remained intact: I still believed there was probably some kind of god or supernatural force or something; I just didn’t know who it was. Who he was. Who she was. Maybe it wasn’t even a who.
Not knowing anyone else who had deconverted, I thought I was probably the only person who had done it the way I had: losing first my faith, then my theism and my belief in the supernatural. But I’ve found out from listening to more and more stories that people who leave their faith quite often keep hanging onto “something”the way I did. What keeps so many people believing in a supernatural “something” even after they’ve lost the faith that first taught them there was “something”?
Well, for me and many others, it’s because something is left unexplained. Something happened – a miracle, maybe, or a bizarre coincidence, or an epiphany or emotional turnaround – that they just can’t explain without invoking a supernatural element. In my case, it was two events that left me grappling for an explanation and convinced that I’d experienced the miraculous.
In my next (or near-to-next) post I’m going to describe what those two “inexplicable events” were, and explain why they no longer trouble me.