It’s been placed on my heart to share my faith and I’m going to do it in a very unconventional way...by sharing how I almost “lost my religion”. Recently, I stumbled across a podcast on the topic of conversion and de-conversion: Why atheists become Christians and Christians become atheists. One of the guests, Joel Furches, has done a case study on why Christians become atheists. He has a BA in psychology, an MA in education, and a PhD in Behavioral Analysis. I found what he had to say very interesting and very relatable. In fact, it added clarity and explained much of what I’ve experienced in my faith life from childhood to present day. I also realized that what I’ve experienced isn’t uncommon.
I have never identified as an atheist nor believed in the idea of a grim, meaningless universe, but I have identified as a weak believer in matters of the Christian faith. I have always been a “doubting Thomas” type. While I have craved an unshakable faith, much of my faith life has been full of questions. It wasn’t always this way. Growing up in church, child-like faith came easy in my younger years. It wasn’t until college where I was immersed in the sciences and majored in biology that my faith was challenged for the first time. Were my beliefs and my faith just products of my childhood and thus results of my early environment or were my faith and beliefs truly my own? What did I truly believe? Could I reconcile what I was learning in science with faith? Were the two mutually exclusive? Did I have to choose? Are our brains hard-wired to ask these kinds of questions...questions of God’s existence...is this restless desire to know if God exists actually evidence in and of itself that God exists? This desire to know seems universal among people who believe in God, among people who do not believe in God, and among people who don’t take a stance either way...it’s a question I’d say all of us have contemplated at some point in our lives. Even among people who passionately argue against God’s existence, God seems to take up a lot of their mental real estate. I’ve always found it interesting that atheists seem to spend as much thinking about and debating about God than people who do believe in God. If something does not exist, then why is it such a massively discussed and debated topic? Why is there a universal desire to know or discuss God’s existence? What if that universal desire is actually a cosmic pointer to God’s existence?
So...many...questions. You get the idea.
Moving on...as an analytical thinker by nature, questions always came naturally to me, and while my church environment had always been one where intuitive, emotional needs were met, my intellectual needs were not always met. Hard questions didn’t seem encouraged and any level of doubt or uncertainty was seen as evidence of disbelief, weak faith, or “backsliding”. I felt shame for my internal questions and doubts and kept them mostly a secret. For a while, I placed my difficult questions on a back shelf in my mind. I hoped they’d disappear, but they plagued me until I began to deal with them. As a side note, I found my greatest evidence for God’s existence years later and it had been right under my nose for years...everyday at work...packaged neatly inside the chromosomes I analyze daily as a cytogenetics technologist. DNA--the information molecule of all living things--became the proof that convinced me beyond a doubt that God IS real and to quote ex-atheist Anthony Flew, “super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature”. I’ll share more on that part of my story in greater detail at another time in another post, but if you’d like to read more on that topic, check out “The Language of God” by Francis Collins.
Over the years, I reconciled some questions while leaving others as works in progress, but there were other glaring issues in the church environment that bothered me such as gender roles in the church (women’s roles in leadership and ministry) and the typical religious stance towards the LGBTQ community. (Those are two topics that I’d love to dive more into in separate posts at another time). I had yet to find a church that was truly inclusive--many claimed to be, but inevitably, there’d be a bait and switch. I didn’t want to attend a church where EVERYONE wasn’t lovingly and completely accepted because the Jesus I follow welcomes EVERYONE. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
There weren’t always issues...we visited some great places that just didn’t feel like a fit. Eventually, we grew more sporadic with church attendance, and after growing completely disillusioned, we fell out of church for many years. We would visit a church searching and hoping to find a fit and that “reconnection” that we craved, but we’d inevitably find ourselves disappointed. I honestly reached a point of apathy...a place that I didn’t want to be...the place where you feel almost nothing at all. There was a name for what was happening and I didn’t even realize it. I was on a journey of deconstruction and I didn’t even know it. Thankfully, I never reached a fully deconstructed state and was in more of a disaffiliated state, meaning I didn’t just drop my faith all together and declare myself an agnostic or atheist, but I dropped away from the church and became disillusioned, yet I maintained a hope (if only a sliver) in rebuilding my faith.
How did this slow process of “dismantling” or near deconstruction happen? It didn’t happen overnight, and I didn’t even realize it was happening while it was happening. Hindsight truly is 20/20. Insight from Joel Furches’ case study shed a great deal of light on what I and so many others have experienced. My deconstruction didn’t start in college. College was merely a trigger. The groundwork was being laid out well before that. Interestingly, Joel Furches mentions that it is well recognized that deconverts seem to come almost exclusively from fundamentalist backgrounds. I don’t want to mention my specific background in terms of denomination because I don’t want this to seem like an attack against a particular denomination, but I’ll just say that I can check the fundamentalist background box. Joel Furches identified five specific features common to the backgrounds of most individuals who deconvert. He mentioned that every person profiled in his study had at least one of these 5 features. I can identify with most of them. I will mention a few of these features that I specifically identified as part of my religious background “setting conditions” which provided underlying stressors that contributed to my almost deconstruction. These are not listed in any particular order. Also, of note: as I mentioned, I didn’t realize so much of this until later. It’s so difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of it, but with hindsight we can often see so much more clearly.
- Isolationism: a sort of hyper-tribalism, wherein the church is the most primary community, and everyone outside that community is an "other" or an "out group." Specifically, in my personal experience, it was in regards to other denominations outside of the one I belonged to. Other denominations were frequently poked fun at in sermons. In nearly every sermon, you were slowly having your mind infiltrated with negative ideas about other denominations. Instead of being about “Team Jesus”, it almost seemed as if we were subtly being led to think that we were the only or the most correct denomination. Also, in my experience, politics and religion were closely intertwined and there was widespread intolerance of other opinions outside of the “in-group’s” opinions. Almost every issue was non-negotiable.
- Performance Control: a situation wherein the community expects you to behave a certain way, and will call you out if you don't live up to those expectations. As a member of that community, you would also hold the other members accountable for their actions. There is a heavy pressure to perform/behave in a certain way and there is a consequence of shame or guilt if you fail. Don’t get caught drinking a glass of wine or a beer and you should probably burn your secular music. If you aren’t present every time the church doors are open, then prepare for the guilt trips.
- Textualism: a religious community reads and interprets the Scripture as literally and rigidly as possible. Less, if any consideration is given to cultural context. You may not hear much in the way of references to Hebrew/Greek interpretation either.
- Compulsive Certainty: (a big issue for me) You gotta know that you know that you know. You must be certain...about everything...you must not doubt. Any doubt or uncertainty is evidence of disbelief or backsliding.
I listed 4 out of 5, but these are the 4 that I personally identified as relatable to my background. These are setting conditions that create stressors from which most deconverts emerge according to Joel Furches’ study.
These 4 setting conditions progressively creating stressors overtime combined with the trigger of having my faith intellectually challenged for the first time in college are what led to my near deconstruction...a slow growing process that went on for years (and yet I wasn’t even aware it was happening until I emerged from it and looked back).
People who find themselves in a process of deconstruction might have different background conditions that led them there. And this doesn’t only apply to deconstruction. Maybe you never accepted Christ or never turned to God to begin with because of similar issues or roadblocks to faith. Maybe you’re turned off by churches or so called Christians in general. Unfortunately, many people have had negative experiences in churches and sadly, no one does a better job of hurting Christianity than the people who call themselves Christians. Bad Christians sadly happen to good people, but not all churches are the same and not all Christians are bad apples. Or maybe, for others, the only message they’ve received about Christianity is the one they’re getting from the media where Christianity is seen as criminal televangelists who take people’s money, or maybe it’s the so called Christian leaders in the media who spew out illogical, inhumane, intolerant statements or hateful rhetoric that violate Christ’s greatest commandment--to love, but none of this represents Christianity. Many people who find themselves in this situation (disillusioned with faith or the church) are often unaware that there are other Christian traditions/churches where they might find a home. But there is hope. There are places out there...and I’m sharing my story to encourage you to keep searching if you are in this place of uncertainty or disillusionment with church and faith.
We occasionally visited new churches, but we struggled to find our place. I was craving a space where I could ask hard questions...a space where doubt was not a shameful word...a place where doubt could spur growth and where questions were welcomed. I was craving a safe space for all...a loving, authentic, truly inclusive community offering sanctuary and the open, welcoming arms of Jesus to all. I was craving a space where worship wasn’t a production, or a performance or a concert but where worship felt like connection and communion with God...a place where I could feel God’s presence. Did such a place exist for me to find? I mean after all, no church is perfect. The church is made up of imperfect people, so we can’t realistically expect too much, but I felt like what I was searching for wasn’t asking for too much. The Lord knew my heart. Even with my lackluster faith and half-hearted attempts to return to a relationship with the Lord...He was faithful to me and honored what little bit of faith I had and He amplified what little bit of desire I had. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7).
It all started with an invitation to a new church that was doing a new thing. I didn’t act immediately on the invitation because honestly, I wasn’t expecting much...I was sure it was just going to be more of the same. But then, I visited the website and I really loved what I read: “Team Jesus, with a dash of quirkiness” --- “a diverse, creative church”. It piqued my curiosity, so I watched a couple of sermons online, and I loved it. We started visiting with our best friends who were also searching. Then, I attended my uncle’s annual Christmas party, and in conversation, almost at the same time, we said to each other, “I found a new church!”...”really?, wait!! me too!!”...”Where?!” Almost in unison, we both replied, “Parkside Church”. Of ALL the churches in Charleston, we were talking about the very same church. Okay, this can’t be an accident. This church was old but new at the same time. It’s located at the historic Saint Barnabas and I encourage you to visit the website to learn more: https://www.parksidechs.com
So here, I was. Here I am. From near deconstruction to reconstruction...from fragile faith to a more robust trust (always a work in progress)...the faith I returned to was different from the faith I had grown disillusioned with. How different? Well, for example, just to quote word for word from their FAQ section on their website: “Who is Welcome” the answer: “Everyone. No, really. Everyone. Many of us at Parkside Church had negative church experiences before becoming a part of this community. Being a truly inclusive community is near and dear to our collective heart. No bait-and-switch. No exceptions.* *We mean it.”
And they do mean it. WE mean it. We’ve recently joined as members and I haven’t been this excited to attend church every Sunday in a very LONG time. I love the way Pastor Colin digs, teaches and preaches from the Bible, always bringing the context into the teachings and diving into the original Hebrew and Greek. Worship at Parkside brings me to tears of peace, love and joy every time--I can feel God’s presence. It’s truly a special place and God is present and at work in the community (not just the building) of Parkside. It feels authentically real...something I haven’t felt before. It feels like I belong...it’s like coming home. God has never been more real to me. If you’re thinking, “wow, I didn’t know you were such a Jesus freak”, honestly, neither did I, but Jesus is AWEsome. Research has determined Him to be the most historically significant, influential and written about person in human history, but He’s so much more than that. I am literally awed by Jesus, who is God’s ultimate expression of love for us, and I am awed by the ultimate fulfillment, joy and life changing experiences that He brings to those who encounter His radical love. Get to know this counter-cultural Savior who served and ministered with a heart for the marginalized of society and rejected religiosity based on rules and championed, instead, the idea that everyone is redeemable. That’s something I can get behind and so I believe Jesus is well worth following!
I’m so thankful Christ reignited the cooling embers of my faith into a growing passion. After a long season of doubt and near deconstruction of my faith, I have returned and fallen more in love with Christ and the church than ever before and it is thanks firstly to God and also to Rev. Colin Kerr and Parkside Church.
Are all of my questions answered? No, but I know they are always welcome and up for discussion. The purpose of questions is to know the truth, and questions can lead to a deeper, stronger, more robust faith. Using relationships as an analogy, think back to the beginnings of a relationship to someone you’re close to (a close friend, partner or spouse). Questions are what propel relationships forward into intimacy. In order to truly develop a strong, genuine faith, we must cultivate an environment that allows for genuine questioning. After all, God gave us minds and He doesn’t “mind” us using them. Christianity is not a prop for the weak minded. There are many brilliant, well-educated thinkers who have embraced God and Christianity. Francis Collins, director of the NIH and leader of the Human Genome Project is one such example. Christianity does not call us to be mindless or to bury our heads in the sand. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and MIND. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:36-28) God is far beyond anything we could ever possibly conceive of or fully understand, but this is not to discourage us from seeking to understand God. The more we understand God with our minds, the more we love Him with our minds. I believe that some of us are just “wired” that way. I read an interesting book, “Sacred Pathways” by Gary Thomas, which outlines nine spiritual temperaments or pathways to God (ways of relating to God). Think of it as a type of personality test in how we most naturally relate to God. In reading the book, I discovered that two of my strongest, most predominant spiritual temperaments or ways that I relate to God are through nature and intellect. Naturalists connect to God and may feel closest to Him through the outdoors and intellectuals connect with God via learning and stimulation of the mind. It makes absolute sense why I feel connected to God every time I’m in the middle of the forest observing nature or surrounded by the beauty of the mountains or why I feel closest to Him when I contemplate science and the intricacy and complexity of life and the universe. Our path of worship and how we connect with God isn’t one size fits all. After all, God has uniquely created each one of us with different qualities, personalities and temperaments so it makes perfect sense that these differences would be reflected in our worship and how we relate to God.
In closing, on this side of life, we cannot know everything and some questions will remain unanswered. While God can never be exhaustively understood, I do know that He can be known truly, personally, and sufficiently...and for me, that is finally enough.
Jeremiah 29:13 “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Wherever you are on your journey...seeking, questioning, contemplating, doubting...I’m always here offering a “safe space” to talk and contemplate over coffee (or mimosas).