Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

How It Happened: My Deconversion Part 10

The first part of this series can be found here. This post is a bit longer than the others in the series, but it was hard to find a good breaking point.

After coming before the congregation and publicly repenting of allowing doubts to rock our faith, my wife and I weren’t happy with our situation, but we hoped it was going to lead to something better. We had avoided being withdrawn from, so we were hoping we could begin repairing our relationships with family, and in deciding to attend a different congregation, we could take a less public role in the services and keep our children out of the Bible classes without raising too much suspicion. We hadn’t wanted to mislead anyone about our beliefs — we were just trying to find a solution that both we and our families could live with. But we had one or two hurdles right at the beginning.

A couple of people from our old congregation didn’t like the way I had handled the public repentance. For one, my wife wasn’t present since two of our children were sick. My wife and I didn’t see a problem with that, since we were the kind of Christians that didn’t think women should speak during the service anyway — so even if she’d been there, it wouldn’t have changed much. Some of those same people were also disappointed that I didn’t get visibly upset when I went before the church. But my wife and I knew those were minor objections, so we weren’t too concerned about their traction with the congregation as a whole, and we were right about that — our confession/repentance was accepted.

The other issue that caused us some turbulence was our decision to leave our old congregation. I’ve already given our reasons for doing this — I knew I couldn’t go back to a public role in the congregation, so that would always shed doubts on the quality of my faith. And my wife and I were not comfortable sending our kids to Bible classes, which also would have raised a red flag with our former brethren. So our decision to leave was something we couldn’t compromise. Our families continued to ask us to come back to our old church, and we couldn’t tell them our real reasons for leaving.

Despite those hurdles, we followed through with our plan. Each service, we visited a different congregation (all church of Christ), and there are several in this area to choose from. We felt that if we could continue with our end of the deal, things would eventually get back to normal with our families. And at least with my dad, things looked good initially. He sent us a very nice letter following my public confession and stated that he felt we were on the right path. He said that he knew we weren’t 180 degrees away from our doubts, but he was sure that we would get there over time.

But in the end, our parents had difficulty giving us that time. They often wanted to know which congregations we were attending, but we refused to get into that with them. Of course, that made them wonder if we were going at all, which was unfortunate. But we knew if we told them where we were going and when, they would reach out through the network in an effort to keep tabs on us. We just weren’t comfortable with that. We didn’t want to be the Hester Prynne of every church we walked into. They also continually asked us to go back to our old congregation — something else we just weren’t going to do. I do sympathize with them a bit. They honestly believed our souls were in danger, and I understand why they would want to do whatever they could to correct that. But we had hoped after the way the previous 6 months had gone, they would take our repentance and continued church attendance as some small wins and let some time go by before pressuring us on other issues. Instead, the pressure in our families never had time to dissipate.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. We don’t do it in the typical fashion, where people dress up and sit around a dining room table. Instead, we get together with about 50 or 60 extended family members at a large, one-room cabin deep in the woods of central Alabama. My grandfather and one of my uncles (as well as a few other family members) built the cabin back in the 70’s, and we’ve used it for family get-togethers since. We ride 4-wheelers, take hikes in the woods, and sit around playing guitars, etc. It’s very informal, and it’s a lot of fun. The weekend after Thanksgiving was always fun too, because I always went camping with my dad, my grandfather, my brothers, and my best friend. I looked forward to it every year.

The day after Thanksgiving 2010, we all loaded up and went for our annual camping trip. I took my two daughters with me, who were 7 and 5 at the time, but my son stayed home with my wife, since he was only 20 months old. My wife’s parents invited her over that Friday to watch football, and everything went fine that morning. She went home during the afternoon to let our son take a nap, but her parents asked her to come back that evening. She had a feeling that they would end up discussing all the religious drama we’d been going through, but she agreed to come over anyway. And though I don’t believe in prophecy, my wife’s prediction did come true.

Her parents began by asking if things were any better for us, which was their way of asking if our faith had grown any over the last several weeks. My wife replied that things were about the same. So they asked if we believed, and my wife said that we had made the decision to believe. This is obviously an important distinction. But when we were still in the stage of expressing our doubts, a few people had told us that if we would just decide to believe, our faith would eventually return. So that was the narrative we had run with in an effort to avoid withdrawal. But my in-laws weren’t happy with that answer, so they began asking specifics: “Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe the Bible is inspired?” And my wife finally just decided to quit using politically correct answers and revert to complete honesty. So she answered, “No.”

The conversation ended in an argument, and my wife called me on her way home. I didn’t get great reception in the woods, but it was good enough to figure out that I was probably on my last camping trip. I didn’t have the heart to tell my dad, so I just tried to make the most of that last trip. That annual camping trip is absolutely one of the things I miss the most.

The next week or two contained many phone calls with family and friends from our old congregation. My wife and I continued to point out that we were still going to church every service, just as we had said we would. But it’s true that we had admitted to no longer believing any of the doctrines in Christianity, so our old congregation felt like they would have to withdraw from us.

Knowing that was coming, I had one more thing I needed to do. My dad’s parents still had no idea any of this was going on. They live about an hour away from me and are stalwart members of their congregation — my grandfather is one of the elders, in fact. So I knew they would hear about everything as soon as our withdrawal became official. So I took a day off work and called them to see if I could come eat lunch with them. They were thrilled to have me over, and we spent some time just visiting with one another. It killed me to have to tell them about it, but I knew it needed to come from me and not someone else. So I finally began telling them about the doubts I had been having, how they began, what I had done about it, and what things were finally coming to. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. In some ways, it went better than I thought it would, but I imagine that was mostly due to their shock at what I was telling them. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that the withdrawal was imminent, but I did tell them it was getting to that point. I haven’t seen my grandmother since then, though my grandfather did come to see me about six months later. We talked for about an hour at a gas station near my house (many Christians in the church of Christ don’t feel like they can come in our house now), and I was able to explain my position a little better to him since the initial shock had long since worn off.

Anyway, our withdrawal was made official shortly after I visited my grandparents. We received a letter from our old congregation dated December 5, 2010, in which they informed us we had been withdrawn from. It had been six weeks since I had gone before the congregation with a public repentance. Here’s one of the paragraphs from the letter:

The statement you read in October to the congregation provided some hope that you both were making progress in the right direction. However, we have not seen fruits of repentance since that time — such as efforts to repair relationships and any tangible evidence that you have rejected the human wisdom and skepticism that you say “crept in” and damaged your faith.

I’m not sure how much progress they expected to see in six weeks, but at the same time, I’m glad they didn’t wait any longer. Once we had been officially withdrawn from, my wife and I were finally able to just let go of all the pretense and get on with our lives. We stopped going to church, which actually surprised some people. We had only been going in an effort to stave off withdrawal, but since that failed, we had no reason to continue. We were shocked that anyone was surprised by that.

My wife and I have also speculated that our families wanted the withdrawal to go into effect before Christmas in the hopes that we would come back before we missed out on all the festivities. But honestly, we’re just not that shallow. When we were Christians, our faith was sincere. We held to our convictions, not because they were convenient, but because we firmly believed them. When we left Christianity, we were no less sincere. And the lure of Christmas gifts and get-togethers was not enough to make us pretend belief in something we found to be false. We had tried to walk the thin line between appeasing our families and keeping our kids from being indoctrinated, and we just weren’t interested in trying anything like that again.

There’s a little more to tell, and I’ll start digging into that in the next post.

84 thoughts on “How It Happened: My Deconversion Part 10”

  1. I agree with that comment. I feel sad that your attempts at compromise, which really were a compromise for you, were not (apparently) met with any compromise in the other direction.

    And as a christian I cannot understand this “withdrawal”. I can understand how they might feel that they needed to exclude you from any role within the church, which you didn’t want anyway, but I cannot understand anything more than that. Jesus said christians should be like God, and be willing to leave the safety of the “fold” to seek out the “lost sheep”. If you were no longer a congregation member in good standing, surely you were (from their viewpoint) “lost sheep”? And therefore all the more in need of their prayers and friendship?

    So I feel both sadness and shame. I hope the situation may yet change. Obviously I hope you may yet come to see that christianity is true, but I also hope that your family and friends can see things differently in time.

    Best wishes.

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  2. I find it sad but not incomprehensible. There’s a cold logic to withdrawal. It prevents the spread of doubt by keeping believers away from doubters, and it imposes a high social cost on dissent (as Nate’s narrative so powerfully demonstrates). People who practice withdrawal may have their own doubts about the content of their beliefs, but they believe unwaveringly in belief itself.

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  3. I understand why the “withdrawal”. Many religions have a sort of “immune system” that they have developed, to keep people from leaving. Catholics use guilt (and excommunication in extreme cases), evangelicals use fear of hell and satan, and the Amish use shunning, as apparently your church of christ also does. The threat of being cast out of a community is a powerful motivator to keep quiet. I wonder if the fact that they were willing to go through with it in your case will be used on some of their other members who might be doubting, as a threat to keep them in line. And their withdrawal from you also keeps your “dangerous” ideas from spreading among their other members. Not surprising at all.

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  4. I agree with everyone about it being very sad. I know you said you’ve risen above it which is awesome (and impressive – not sure I’d be able to handle this kind of stuff), but it’s still just really sad that these kind of things happen. It just seems so intensely manipulative, and I’ve always hated manipulation techniques.

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  5. I have to say I think some of the comments are probably unfair to Nate’s family and friends. We all agree they are mistaken, but attributing other motives to them may be more than anyone can know (except Nate). I would guess they believe they are taking seriously several statements in the New Testament about dealing with “apostates”, and they are obeying these because that is what they believe they should do. I doubt many of them enjoy it, or have some of the motives hinted at here. It’s fair to criticise their actions, but we should be careful about their motives.

    But of course, perhaps Nate knows better, so I should ask him to comment here.

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  6. I think there are at least three different “motives” we could be discussing here. There’s motive for why the church of christ organization has such a rule in the first place. There’s the motive for why this particular group within it chose to enforce the rule in this instance, even though it would bring pain and difficult ethical decisions on Nate’s family and friends. And then there’s the motive for why Nate’s family and friends decided to obey the withdrawal order, given the personal cost to themselves for doing so. Each of these might have entirely different motivations behind it.

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  7. Glad you mentioned that unklee, because I should have been more clear. I do see the actions as manipulative and I wasn’t attributing this kind of motive to Nate’s family. In fact I get kind of the opposite impression given some of the comments I’ve read on other posts. It definitely seems they are acting as they believe is the proper moral way to act, although they are very sad about it. I was thinking about the Church of Christ in general when writing my post. Another thing to think about as well is that even the church may have fully positive intentions in mind, but that doesn’t take away the negative impacts on other people.

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  8. It isn’t that Nate’s family are necessarily bad people, it’s that their religious beliefs warp their consciences so that they do hurtful things out of a sense of righteous obligation. If Nate was truly on his way to hell for apostasy, it would be easy to justify pressuring him for his own good, or to justify protecting others from his influence the way you’d keep your kids away from a drug dealer. That’s one of the tragedies of the situation – it’s so unnecessary, so manipulative, and yet so sincere.

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  9. After reading this latest post my friend, I cannot add anything more than Unklee has said in his first comment above. I am truly saddened and sorry its all come to this. Christ asks for nothing more than relationship with him and relationship with others . . . both of which have been effectively destroyed with this “withdrawal”. I do have a silly, nagging question though: Say Unklee’s hope comes true and you once again come to see the claims of Christ as true. Would your family accept your return to faith, even if it meant you attended a different religious church congregation, and “faith” other than CoC?

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  10. Thanks to all of you for your great comments.

    Our families have absolutely hated implementing withdrawal. Like a couple of you have said, they’ve only gone through with it because they honestly believe God has told them to do so. They can’t allow themselves to question the effectiveness of the practice, because it’s a divine dictate.

    The church of Christ is not a cohesive group, because each congregation is autonomous. But most of them do practice withdrawal to some degree or another, though individuals within each congregation may also vary on how they implement it. They get the idea from some passages in the NT, which I’ve referenced in my posts on the subject. They think the practice has two main purposes: make the erring member regret whatever violations they’ve committed and come back to the fold, and protect the remaining members from a bad influence. There are also at least two secondary purposes: it keeps a misbehaving member from giving the group a bad name, and it serves as a warning to anyone else in the congregation who may be thinking about stepping beyond the party line.

    I do agree with Howie that it’s a manipulative practice, but I also agree that most people in the CoC aren’t trying to be manipulative so much as they’re trying to obey God. I just wish they would restudy the withdrawal issue to see if they’re even following it in a scriptural way.

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  11. Hi Kent!

    I do have a silly, nagging question though: Say Unklee’s hope comes true and you once again come to see the claims of Christ as true. Would your family accept your return to faith, even if it meant you attended a different religious church congregation, and “faith” other than CoC?

    That’s not a silly question at all. And no, they would not. I know that I’ll never be a member of the church of Christ again — and that’s not due to any closed-mindedness on my part; I’ve just learned enough about the Bible now to know that an ultra-strict biblical inerrancy position just doesn’t work out. So if I ever became a Christian again, it would be a more moderate version, probably very similar to Unklee or yourself. But our families would still view us as bound for Hell. I know it seems strange, but again, they take a very literal view of the Bible, and they believe every bit of it is perfectly inspired.

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  12. Nate, I guess I expected that the Church of Christ would not recognise other types of christians, but it is disappointing. It seems as if they therefore don’t believe that Christ’s death alone is sufficient for salvation, but God also requires belief in inerrancy? Or is it that they believe only members of their “denomination” can be saved?

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  13. Many of them believe that they are the “one true church” that was established in the first century (on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, to be exact). And they believe the NT teaches that baptism by immersion is a necessary step of salvation, which is one of the biggest things that keeps them from recognizing other denominations.

    This is why the doctrine of Hell became such a big deal to me. Not only did I grow up thinking that all non-Christians were going to Hell, my definition of non-Christian included the vast majority of people who considered themselves Christians. It’s enough to make you wonder if that 144,000 mentioned in Revelation is a literal number. And as I got older, it just made less and less sense to me that a loving God would set up a plan that saw so many people consigned to eternal torment. There were many other things that contributed to my loss of faith, but this is why Hell was certainly one of the important ones.

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  14. Thanks. I agree about hell and a loving God setting things up so that most of those created in his image being punished forever. (As you know, I don’t believe Jesus taught that.)

    But the rest still doesn’t add up to me. Many churches practice baptism by immersion, I have been baptised that way, and so have you (I presume), so the claim to exclusivity has a very flimsy basis – why couldn’t it be me who is exclusively right rather than them? : )

    Anyway, thanks for explaining that.

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  15. Through the years one of many traditions can become “The Tradition”.

    I think one of the saddest things about tradition is when the original reason for doing keeping a tradition is consumed by the importance of doing the practice itself.

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  16. Sorry, I don’t think what I wrote above made much sense. It made sense in my head but then when I tried to put it into words it fell to bits 🙂

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  17. Unklee, the difference between the CoC and most denominations is that they believe baptism by immersion is required for salvation. Most denominations that specifically require baptism by immersion rather than pouring or sprinkling don’t believe it’s a requirement. Rather, to them it is a dedication of your life or an optional symbolic gesture. To a follower of the CoC that Nate and I belonged to, that’s blasphemous as it’s viewed as essential. So even if a group practices the “proper type” of baptism, they are still doing it for the wrong reason making everything they do “wrong”. Hope that helps clarify Nate’s point!

    Graham

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  18. Yeah, Graham’s right. I know it sounds like a bizarre distinction, but that is how most of them view it. One should understand why they’re being baptized, or it’s of no effect.

    While I hesitate to point anyone to my oldest posts, you might find these three articles (and the subsequent comments) helpful in illustrating the CoC viewpoint:

    Post 1
    Post 2
    Post 3

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  19. hey just wanted to drop you line, letting you know that even though I have not been commenting, I’ve been keeping up with most of your de-conversion story.

    Been really busy, I’ve barely had time to keep up with my blog-comments.

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  20. Nate,

    Just wondering,

    when you were a Christian did you write many posts on the evidence for Christianity and the prophesy that was fufilled in the bible?

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  21. Hey Nate,
    I’m wondering if you haven’t actually lost your faith, you have just lost the man-made copy of faith. I’m wondering if you are not now more intimately connected to your saviour because you have stepped back from the many obstacles the system put in front of Him. And I’m also wondering if this experience of walking away – so that only that which is true remains, is something we must all do. cheers Graeme

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  22. Hi Ryan,

    That’s a great question! I had to go back through some of my oldest posts to see if I had anything like that. I don’t have much — most of my earliest writings dealt more with doctrinal issues rather than evidences, but I did find a few posts that touched on those topics:
    Post 1
    Post 2
    Post 3

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