A former Christian describes his former Christianity

September 20, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

Mike Baker submitted a few comments to DI over the past few months. Then, after I published yet another installment of my favorite quotes (read: I took a night off from actually writing), Mike offered me his substantial collection of provocative quotes (we’ve published them here and here, and there’s more to come). We started an email correspondence a few weeks ago.

When Mike told me that he was formerly a Christian, but no longer, I asked him a few follow-up questions. It turns out that there is an unexpected twist to Mike’s story. He is no longer a Christian, but he believes in God. Yet he believes that organized religions are generally harmful to society. Yet he also admits that good things are sometimes accomplished by religious organizations.

After a few rounds of back and forth, I asked Mike whether he would be willing to allow me to share his thoughts with the DI community, and he agreed. I think that you’ll enjoy reading Mike’s genuine thoughts and his engaging writing style. Without further adieu, here is that email conversation:

Mike:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on religion in that five-part essay you wrote. As a person who has always called himself a Christian (albeit a loosely wrapped one), I’ve recently walked away from my “faith”. In large part by the inactions and apparent acquiescence of “Christians” to G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Feeling somewhat “lost”, I began reading Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris and C. Hitchens just to name a few. I was totally engrossed and amazed too at what is not discussed in church. I now see religion (almost all of the brands) as a brake on human advancement at best and quite possibly the catalyst for civilizations’ destruction at worst. I guess you could say I am in the Sam Harris camp there. I do agree, however, with your summation that bridges need to be built.

Here’s a little on me. My mother grew up in Nazi Germany and brought me up to fully appreciate the meaning of our Constitution and what true freedom and democratic principles represent. Much to my mothers chagrin (something I didn’t fully understand at the time) I joined the Marine Corps after high school and served for eight yrs. Believing that we were the “good guys”, bringing peace and freedom where ever we went I served proudly. Time and a better understanding of history have taught me that that is not always the case. Nothing is ever black and white…

After a long stint (14 yrs) as a project design/manager, I found work as a truck driver after my employer sold out and pulled up stakes. A big shift…my fault for not finishing college! . . .

Erich:

Congratulations also on having the courage to question some of your deepest beliefs. I’d be really interested in knowing more about what caused you to question your faith. I know that introspection is always a dicey proposition, but I’m wondering what you would suggest to be the most effective approach for causing a unthinking believer to become a thinking believer or maybe even a thinking non-believer. At any point were you persuaded by anyone wagging a finger in your face and telling you that your specific articles of faith were unwarranted?

Mike:

About what caused me to drop my faith. Most of my religious “indoctrination” came from my very devout southern Baptist Grandmother. My Mother, on the other hand, was raised Catholic but left her faith behind at an early age. She never dissuaded me from going to church, preferring rather to let me find my own way even though I knew she did not have much love for any religious system. I do not recall ever seeing her even enter into a church. I think this dichotomy between the differences in belief between my Mother and Grandmother has always filled me with more

Image by Wonderlane at Flickr

questions then answers. However, I did accept Christianity as my own, mostly because of my belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. On the other hand I could never totally wrap myself into a religion that always caused me to questions its many and varied tenets, whose followers could and do manipulate to fit any human condition based primarily on their interpretation of biblical writings (and their own biases). So you can see that my belief system was not one that ever rested on steady foundations.

When Bush came into office and started rattling sabers of war, I truly and naively believed that we, a so-called “Christian” nation (I don’t buy that) would rise up against any notion of what I believe was the unjustified invasion of Iraq . During the build-up and rhetoric of war, I had a conversation on this subject with a lifelong friend who is an ordained minister. In a nutshell and with utmost sincerity he proposed that we should lay waste to the whole of the Middle East and then began citing scripture that made allowances it. Not long after this conversation, I watched a very disturbing video on CNN of a young girl being stoned to death because she was in love with a boy from a different religious sect. Recalling the mention of stoning in biblical stories it occurred to me that Christianity is no more or no less radical then the Koran seems to be. Because Christians no longer practice such things doesn’t mean the bible doesn’t allow for it.

Ultimately the realization that not all religions can be right….but they all can be wrong led me to step cleanly away from it. I don’t believe one can pick and choose what one wishes to believe in any given religious text. It’s easy enough to accept the good, but I cannot accept the pure evilness that is also present in these religious works. That they aren’t taught in Sunday school doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. And if I can’t accept all of it, how can I continue to “believe” any of it?

In the last five years or so I began my reading of literature by noted atheists. It was like flood gates had opened upon me. These readings served to forever open my eyes to the fact that my decision was the right one. And although I think these things are already inherent in us, ethics and morality can be taught, and appreciated outside of the doctrine of religion. I can say that the first time I uttered the words “I am not a Christian” I felt much the better man for it. I’ve not looked back.

However I do believe in God….whatever that is. It’s more of an intuitive feeling. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. But that belief lies outside of any religious teaching. If my understanding of the Quakers is correct, they believe that God lies within us…not above us or in some far away heaven. I too believe this. As our children have part of us in them, we too have the spark of the creator in us. Therefore, to order my life by the laws of religious dogma I would not be being true to myself. That inner voice. ….Well, it’s hard to explain.

As to bringing a sense of reality to believers. I have had no luck what so ever. I’ve had a few long conversations with several Christian friends on this subject. I truly believe that with many, religion is a crutch that they need to lean on regardless of how unstable that crutch may be. A fear-based insurance against the unknown that lies beyond this life.

Erich

Thanks so much for taking the time to lay it out. That’s a fascinating account. It’s sounds like a big stew of influences, some of them ineffable led you to where you now are.

As you might expect, I was interested in knowing whether any finger wagging atheists convinced you to question your faith. Do you think that the inner impulse to question your faith preceded your conscious decision? Do you think that the new atheists had any part in your willingness to question your faith?

I know that you’ve already written a lot, but if you have a bit more time, I’d be really interested in those additional points.
Again, thank you for sharing . . .

Mike:

There’s no doubt that my inner impulse at questioning my faith has always been there, at least for as far as I can remember. One hurdle that I never got over was that in order to gain favor with God, one had to go through a middle man – Jesus. My “faith” has always been riddled with questions that had a myriad of answers depending on who was giving their interpretations of biblical text. My newly-found convictions stemmed from these never-ending questions and doubts about faith. Faith is, after all, a belief in something that cannot be proved.

I came to this conviction mostly on my own, as I am perhaps the only atheist that I know (at least with regard to religion, my belief in a greater power being intuitive). It was perhaps my disappointment with the actions and words of many Christians both personal friends and those that play on a bigger stage (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, etc.) that caused me to truly begin to question my own ideas of faith.

When I picked up Sam Harris’ book “The End of Faith” I would say I had one foot out of the circle with the other foot very close to the line. As you probably know, one of the premises Sam makes in this book is that those who are moderates in their religions are as damaging to human development as are the radical fundamentalists are. I at first had trouble with this line of thinking because it was myself and many others that I know that follow in this camp. After all, many religious institutions do very good work in helping or feeding the poor or providing a host of other services for those in need. But it is these very same moderates who fail to stand up when doctors are killed in abortion clinics, when unjustified (most are) wars are waged or when a terrorist in the name of religion bombs a crowded market. Harris went a long way in convincing me that you cannot claim part of a religious system without accepting it all.

So, I guess it’s fair to say that I was never a well-entrenched Christian due to my own questioning nature. Harris gave me the final shove. I would probably have never picked up Hitchens’ book if I had not read Harris first but I found him quite interesting in his expose of the many contradictions and fallacies inherent in religion. I have since read quite a few other sources that have opened my mind all the more (your own writings among them!) It was surprising that so many of these writings have been present for centuries. So, the new atheists (and the old) definitely added much in the way of solidifying my own understanding, but the search came initially from with-in me. For without that inner curiosity I’m sure I would never have reached the ground I now stand on.

I think it is one of many of the crucially important issues of our time, that religious power in this world be unharnessed. As you suggest in the piece you wrote, somehow lines of open communication need to be established. I applaud what you did with one of your local churches, and them also for being open to hearing your message. I’m sure that unbeknownst to you that you planted a few seeds.

Hopefully, some members of the flock are quietly searching within themselves the answers to the questions they have not really pondered. As I alluded to before, in my discussion with Christian friends on these matters I’ve tried the full frontal assault practiced by Harris and Hitchens. I can get them to admit the simple premise that one’s religious practices are largely a matter of geography. And yet the next day they will once again be firmly grounded within their comfort zones. The frontal assault doesn’t work unless the recipient is ready to open their minds. The key is finding the way of making a “believer” receptive to inquiry without attacking their religion, which is exactly what you suggest in your paper. The big question is, how best to do that?

But to summarize, my doubts about Christianity have always been present. My decision to step away from the flock was nourished by the “flock’s” own actions, and my continuing understanding of the inherent difficulty of getting a handle on the meaning of the Bible. Only then did I open up myself to the writings of Harris and the like. A truly enlightening experience. I only wish it didn’t take me nearly 5 decades to realize it.
I’ve enjoyed this exchange Erich and I hope you found something I may have said interesting as I have found so many of your own writings interesting and inspiring.
Erich:

Mike:

I’ve enjoyed reading what you have to say.

I must admit that I am Machiavellian—I assumed that I might be planting a few seeds out at The Journey. On the other hand, so were they (I assume).

As I read your responses, it causes me to think that others would also enjoy your thought process. Would you be willing for me to print them at DI?
You confirmed what I assumed. I think the listener has to be ready to hear the message, lest the seed fall on stony or thorny ground (Mark 4:13-20) (this principle goes way beyond religion—it applies to everything)

Mike:

I’d happy for you to reprint our conversation in any format that you desire . . .

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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    Mike

    Let me apologize, first, for hi-jacking your post with a rant – it is apposite, but I do not want to detract from your heartfelt and thoughtful statements.

    Also – may I thank you for sharing. I think I can say without contradiction that almost every atheist has followed a similar path of seeking answers within their 'birth faith', and come to similar conclusions. It is not a measure of your self-worth whether you come to such conclusions early or late, or never – it is merely a reflection on your life's path, and for some that path is very tightly wound and almost impossible to escape.

    It is unfortunate, I think, that religion is so closely tied to family, culture, and country – an accident of birth is all that determines your starting point: hindu, christian, or moslem; southern baptist, anglican, sufi, or sunni.

    It is also unfortunate that not all (very few!) religions are 'enlighted' enough to allow open inquiry. Many religious doctrines forbid any questioning of the faith. There are some notable exceptions – questioning your faith is something that Jesuits demand from adherents every day (which may be why they are simultaneously revered and feared within catholicism). However, questioning is something that most 'religionists' fail to do even when permitted – at least, if they do question, it is not apparent to any external observer.

    Why should this be so?

    In my opinion, the key characteristic of almost every religion is certainty (jesuits notwithstanding, and they still accept the basic doctrine of their church without question). They are right, their god is right, their doctrine is right. That leads to a fundamental problem – if they are right, then everyone else is wrong.

    Defining the world as binary is the key defining characteristic of every religious worldview. Us/them; follower/apostate; good/evil; right/wrong; with/against.

    Anyone who claims otherwise is simply failing to follow doctrine (any doctrine), and that person is on the slippery slope to accommodation, ecumenicalism, and humanism – and maybe even atheism.

    I've often played a 'thought game' where religions try to blend their doctrines in a truly ecumenical fashion. Should one seek an amalgam of all doctrines? If so, which parts? How much commonality is required before something is included, or how much difference before something is excluded from the composite doctrine?

    The result is either a doctrine stripped of almost every ostensibly religious trapping, leaving something akin to the Universalist, or Humanist approach to life. The alternative is a doctrine so vile, and so filled with hate, and so contradictory to human nature, it would be impossible to follow doctrine exactly: everyone would be fallen, everyone would be apostate.

    Religion is evil. It does unspeakable damage to the world. That is, it is born out an emergent property of mind, to seek order, to seek answers – the same property that gives rise to science is in my mind our greatest hope. It is also our greatest challenge – we need to compete with a memetic foisted upon people at birth, whereas science requires effort and discipline to achieve.

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