why i am no longer a christian

This is a bit of a departure from my normal feminist musings…. and it also isn’t a departure at all. This story has shaped me into the feminist I am today… this is the story of my experience with Christianity….

I grew up in the midwest in a family and religious community that believed and practiced what I now understand to be a fairly common midwestern and conservative form of Christianity. I’m told that I prayed the prayer to “ask Jesus into my heart” when I was 5 (but I don’t actually remember that event). I was baptized when I was nine (and like a good Baptist, I do remember that). Throughout my childhood, all of my friends were Christians, and all of my family members were Christians. The Christianity I was taught was my truth. I went to church at least 3 times per week. I could recite the books of the Bible in order. I went to a Christian college, thinking that I wanted to be a pastor. At one point, I had memorized the Sermon on the Mount. You get it.

When I was about 14, I began to feel uneasy about the Christian beliefs I was being taught. I felt like I had to judge/admonish/discipline people who were doing things that didn’t match up with teachings that I had been absorbing. People who believed in evolution needed to be corrected. People who drank or had sex needed to be disciplined. Gay people needed to change. Women needed to be submissive. Everyone needed to forgive, constantly, without fail, even when they were being exploited or abused. In high school, these social aspects of “Christianity” really bothered me.

When I started taking theology and philosophy classes in college, my uneasiness gained new depth, and I learned to articulate new questions. If Jesus preached about God’s forgiveness (aka not requiring reparation/repayment for a wrong), why did God require Jesus’s death as repayment for human sin? That isn’t forgiveness; that is someone paying your bills for you (even a mob boss would let someone do that). If God is all powerful, either God allows evil to happen and doesn’t try to stop it or God purposefully harms people…. and either one makes God into a sadist. If the Bible is supposed to be God’s word and God is supposed to love everyone equally, how can the Bible endorse the mistreatment or inequality of women, slaves, and homosexual people? Unacceptable. Over time, I could no longer ignore those questions. And the only answers I could find made God look like a big jerk…. a selfish, tyrannical, fear-mongering, dictator…. someone I wanted nothing to do with.

In 2005, when I moved across the country to start grad school (aka seminary), someone asked me if I was a Christian. I’m not sure that anyone had ever actually asked me that before, because everyone already knew/assumed that I was one. But I remember this specific conversation very well. We were at “John’s Incredible Pizza” standing by the bumper cars, and this person asked me, and I said no. My answer actually surprised me. I didn’t know that I didn’t think I was a Christian until my mouth had said it, but when I heard the words, they felt accurate….and liberating. Once I moved across the country, I no longer had to identify myself as an insider to the religion I found so harmful.

So, I went through a period of Christianity-hating. I hated everything about Christianity. I thought it, and religion in general, was all that was wrong with the world. I really thought that the world would be a better place if everyone gave up on religion entirely.

But over time, I realized that Christianity didn’t have to be as harmful and hurtful as I originally thought. After years of study, I concluded that there are no compelling reasons for Christians to think that slavery is acceptable, that the Earth was created in six 24 hour days, that homosexuality is a sin, that women can’t be religious (or any kind of) leaders, that Jesus was forced by God to pay the price for humanity’s sins, or that there is a literal hell of any kind. Those are all interpretive moves that occurred in certain historical and political contexts, and there is no reason whatsoever for Christians today to hold on to them. There are, however, many compelling reasons for Christians to oppose slavery, human trafficking, and exploitation of any kind. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to support science, medical research, and technological advancements. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to support gay rights. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to work to empower women. There are many compelling reasons for Christians to enact Jesus’s example of loving community. And there are many compelling reasons to work to ensure that “The Kingdom of God” (re: dignity, love, and respect for all) is enacted on Earth now, today.

Happily, throughout grad school, I encountered many wonderful self-identified Christian people who don’t believe in substitutionary atonement, who embrace and find beautiful the love and sexuality of LGBT individuals, who accept evolution, global warming, and modern science, who don’t read the Bible literally, and who find feminist interpretations of text and tradition meaningful and long overdue. These people are Christians who live love instead of judgement and who live thoughtfulness instead of blindness/ignorance. In summary, these Christians demonstrated that Christianity didn’t have to hurt all the time.

And if I’d known that type of Christians existed when I was 16-21 , I might not have had to go through the painful experience of leaving the only worldview and only community I’d ever known.

I am writing this story to be of some use to you, whether you are a religious leader, a religious practitioner, or a member of the human race in general. Maybe this story is useful for reminding you about the harm that can come at the hands of religion. Maybe this story can encourage you to combat those harms as zealously as you can. Maybe this story can encourage you to participate in reforming Christianity. If you experienced something similar, maybe this story can show you that you aren’t alone. Or if you’ve been hurt by it, maybe this story can remind you that Christianity can be beautiful and empowering. Maybe this story can remind you that Christians can be loving and supportive and that religion can bring something useful to the world. Or maybe this story has some other meaning for you….

I’d love to hear from any of you. Thoughts? Responses? Questions?

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10 Responses to why i am no longer a christian

  1. This is awesome, Tracy. I think I was the same age when I let myself ask, “what if God doesn’t exist?” I really equated being a Christian (or acting like one) with being a Good Person, and how could I say I didn’t want to be a good person. When Jay worked as a youth director and then we moved to Lutheran camp, I really gave it another shot, mostly because it seemed like that was the only way to be a part of the community–how could I voice all my doubts, which were mostly really, really angry because I never let them out? I always percieved “real Christians” as having NO doubts at all, having NO issues with God always being referred to as male, the oppression of women, etc, etc. Church was not a place for asking questions or expressing doubts, for sure (and the kids in my Sunday School class were so mean and teased me if I came after missing a few weeks).
    I think it’s extremely hard to grow up immersed in a Christian culture, because if you say “I’m not that” then you’re out. I am still working on being honest with people and saying that I do not believe in hell beyond a state of mind/experience in life (and with what I’m reading about Goddess mythology and the feminine spiritual journey, the descent is a powerful thing and though it’s scary it’s not something to run away from; and I think that everyone thinking Jesus “did it for them” really shortchanges people from being conscious of their spiritual journey).
    Jay and I have talked recently about him going to church again and wanting to take Ennis, and I felt really upset–I don’t want him to believe that anyone died for his sins.
    I wonder about people who grew up in a more secular or even pagan community. I think I’d have a much more positive view of Jesus had I not come out of a Christian background (even though I could never and still can’t name the books of the Bible); I have learned a lot about Judaism from a storyteller friend, and because she just shares stories, I don’t have all the guilt of “this is what good people believe,” and so I can get value from it. I still am working on getting some value out of Jesus by separating him from Christianity (but mostly I’m way more interested in Goddess mythology).
    I’m glad you shared this.

    • Thanks Rose! And I’m so glad that Goddess mythology has become so meaningful for you. Let’s talk more via email, and we can have “WBS” while in Faribault!

    • Rose, I’m also learning more and embracing more feminine spirituality and Goddess mythology. What book(s) are you reading? I’ve also been attending a once a month gathering of women called Full Moon Circle. There’s ritual, connection, deepening conversation, and a wide variety of beliefs. If you were ever around here for one, I would absolutely take you!

  2. I found the post raw and honest. I especially appreciated the part about you feeling liberated when you were asked if you were a Christian and you said “no”, surprising yourself. As a Chaplain, people always, constantly, without fail assume that I’m a Christian. And if someone asked me, I’m not sure what I’d say. I know I’ve healed so much from the anger and hurt I felt (very similar to yours) from the Christianity of my/our upbringing. I still connect with so much of the radical Christian message and with the remarkable person of Jesus. And I feel a beautiful love when I offer Christian Chaplaincy to my patients. But I’m almost scared to own that it’s not who I am, considering my vocation and cultural location (Hospice Chaplain in North Carolina/The Bible Belt). Does that make sense? It feels somehow necessary to my profession that I have a clear religion/spirituality. But then I wonder, is being open to faith, religion, and spirituality and aiding others with it enough? It seems to be. My patients and their families are open to me and verbalize their appreciation for my presence . But THEN I also worry that some of them would be much more closed (or judgmental) if they knew the “truth” about me. That I don’t know if I can or would want to claim Christianity as my faith (anymore). It has been especially touching the times when I’ve been able to be my authentic self with a patient or family member. Beautiful connections have ensued. It feels wonderful to ponder these thoughts aloud, as it were, because I find that I hold in so much our of fear. Sigh. Thanks for the outlet friend!

    • Thank you for your kind words about my post, and I’m glad it has given you a space to reflect and ponder “aloud”. I can definitely see the difficulty you face. I don’t have any answers for you, but I can send you a digital hug.

      • While answers would be nice, it was really freeing to just own up to all of this! I believe I’m a good Chaplain. My patients tell me that I help them, that I bring something worthwhile to them, that it brightens their day and uplifts their spirits when I visit. I’m managing being a Christian Chaplain for so many people and I’m grateful for that. It shows me how much I’ve healed. And I’ve even learned to be grateful for my upbringing because it enables me to bring things to people that help them! Like singing old hymns like “In the Garden.” I am and always have been a spiritual person. What that means has changed drastically for me, but it’s still a true statement. And having friends like you that let me name my fears and doubts is very healing. So thank you!

      • You are a wonderful chaplain. There is no doubt in my mind about that. 🙂

  3. Lauren Cardenas says:

    I didn’t have precisely the same experience, but I did attend Hardin-Simmons (Baptist) University straight out of high school. I found myself asking a lot of questions when taking an Old Testament history class. From there it cascaded to a similar time of hating all things Christian, and I like to think I’ve come to a new place now. It is still very hard for me to let people know I’m not a Christian; it is especially hard before they get to know me. I am afraid they will think I am a bad person just because I don’t believe. I am afraid of Julie going to school and telling people we don’t believe in God. My family is in denial and finds the whole thing shameful. They send Julie Christian things like Veggie Tales, a Bible, and coloring books about Jesus. I don’t know what to do, even though I don’t want them to send it. I am afraid of opening a huge can of worms, and I am afraid if we fight it might be the end of our relationship. For now, we try to counteract all of those things by providing literature and information about other religions. I find being an atheist in a Christian nation really scary at times. But I’m getting braver, and I know I am raising my kids to believe in love and truth. And to be fair, Britain has been a good break from that. I’ve met many like-minded people, and it has made me more confident in my decisions.

    I had wondered how you felt for a long time, but I was too afraid to ask.

  4. Amy Nell says:

    Thank you for posting this Tracy. I share many aspects of your story and its reaffirming to hear that there are others with the same viewpoint as myself. I went through a similar process and finally came to a similar conclusion. I believe that religion/Christianity does have a place in the world, even if it is not a religion I practice. There are times it feels very lonely to have this viewpoint, especially when people that matter to you act disappointed or try to convert you.

    To Lauren, I can understand your fears about confronting your family or letting people know about your non-Christian status. I have had people distance themselves from me when they found out or assume that I’m an immoral person. When I (finally!) told my parents, who are pretty typical Midwestern Christians, they weren’t pleased. And after some back and forth debate they came to accept the decision. I’m sure they still pray for me and would want me to change my ideas, but at the end of the day this didn’t affect their love and support. I will always be their daughter and that will never change.

    I do wonder about how my children will fare (when I have them) and its helpful to hear about how you’ve handled that aspect of your daughter’s childhood. I’m sure you will face many more challenges with that, but know that you aren’t alone. When I do have kids, I would want to teach them about love, acceptance, morality and community through my relationships and behaviors towards others without the confines of a church. And I think I would want her/him to conduct their own search for the divine and make conclusions for themselves.

    Thank you Tracy for starting this discussion. Its helped me to not feel alone and ask myself some pretty important questions. Thank you for all those that post, it has been a delight to read.

    • Thanks for your comments, Amy. It seems like there are a lot of us with similar experiences…and I don’t really know what that means for the future, but it definitely means that we aren’t alone. 🙂

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