One of our readers, Mark Joseph, mentioned in an earlier comment that he used to be a missionary. A simple query by me led to his producing a small essay about how and why he abandoned Christianity. I thought that putting this up was a good way to begin the new year.
Two notes: this gives the lie to the claim that atheists are unsophisticated about religion, which ignores the fact that many of us used to be believers. And it also shows that some of us who gave up our belief in God easily—like me—have no idea how wrenching it is to abandon deep-seated and lifelong religious convictions.
Mark also sent an introduction, and then divides his narrative into “before,” “during,” and “after” his deconversion. Without further ado.
In her horrifying memoir of anorexia, Wasted, Marya Hornbacher stated: “I wrote this book because I believe some people will recognize themselves in it…I would do anything to keep people from going where I went. This book was the only thing I could think of.”
Change the word “book” to “essay” or “post” and you have my own reason for writing this, and agreeing to have it published on the internet, despite the fact that I realize there might be some considerable negative reaction, especially given the potential for wide circulation of the essay and the fact that up to now I have told this story to only one other person. I would like to thank Jerry Coyne for his interest in having this brief memoir published on his website, and look forward eagerly to his forthcoming book on the emptiness of theology.
WHY I AM NO LONGER A CHRISTIAN
by Mark Joseph
I became a Christian at age 18. My best friend, a recent convert, told me about Christianity, and a short time later I accepted Christ as my personal savior. My main motive was to live forever, and the decision was eased by two still-childish aspects of my personality at that time: a desire to please, and an inability to think critically or to ask questions.
As I was always an excellent student, I went on to seminary (I hold an M. Div. from an evangelical seminary) and became a Bible teacher. I was married young, and my wife and I were missionaries from 1985-1999 in Haiti and the Czech Republic. In both countries I taught in the Bible school and seminary, and wrote textbooks (Bible commentaries and books of systematic theology). I read great gobs of young-earth-creationist and intelligent-design literature, and ignorantly spouted it: in one of my textbooks, I started the section on the “doctrine of man” with a four-page dismissal of evolution so misinformed that it would make even Ken Ham cringe.
On our furloughs I taught at our home church. Strange as it might sound, my role in the church was pretty much that of oracle, as I knew the Bible and theology better than anyone else (not excepting the pastor), and was greatly loved as a teacher. Even now, after 15 years of apostasy, it would be a trivial exercise for me to find a hundred people who would declare unhesitatingly that I was the best teacher they ever heard.
My entire life was wrapped up in Christianity. We were always at church, most of my reading was the Bible, Christian books, and mission magazines, I preached when and where I could, I prayed regularly, I loved and tried to please God, raised my children to be Christians, and was never unhappy or doubtful about any of this.
I know this all sounds a bit too self-aggrandizing, but it’s crucial to understanding the force of my moment of deconversion that at the time I was following Christianity not merely as a sort of lifestyle, or because it was associated with a particular political position, or because I was using it to get ahead in the world, or as a social group to which I could belong, and certainly not because I was born into it (I was raised in a Jewish home), or for any of the other reasons some people are religious in general and Christians in particular. I was following Christianity because I believed it was true, and trying to find out and know what is true has always been important to me.
We were missionaries in Haiti from 1985-1992, and then in Prague from 1993-1999. In Prague, we lived in a panelak, one of the immense blocks of apartments built by the Communists. In the summer in Europe, many people leave their homes to go on vacation, which makes the panelak both warm and very quiet. I don’t remember the exact day, but I was sitting on the couch in our apartment (I was the only one home) and praying, and in a completely unexpected manner the thought crossed my mind, “there’s nothing happening here.” That was the exact moment; it was like a light had been turned off. I’m guessing that I’m the only Christian ever who lost his faith while praying on the mission field! And this is the important part: this happened solely because of God’s non-responsiveness to my seeking and serving him, which I was doing because I believed he was real, and because I believed that the Bible was true, before all the psychological catastrophes and educational experiences described in the next section.
Of course, that moment was only the beginning of the process. The following year we returned permanently to the States (in the second of the three times in rapid succession that I was vocationally abused by a Christian organization, our home church cut off our support). During the next three or four years I made every effort to retain my faith (always by myself; the church is not a safe place to voice doubts or ask questions), continuing to read, teach, pray and seek God. To say that God never responded in any way would be a pathetic understatement. Of course, I now understand that the reason is that religion is not true, God does not exist, and religious experience is merely a psychological phenomenon. Finally, around 2002 I realized that not only did I no longer believe in God, but that I was not going to make any further effort to do so.
I could probably stop there, but the most interesting part is what has happened since.
The catalogue of my efforts to know God after the moment of deconversion, and his non response, would be tedious. However, the nature of the situation was becoming steadily clearer to me as I sought him futilely. Since God never once expressed any sort of love, or any other response to me, despite my most honest and intense longing and searching, I therefore ended up thinking that God had really acted toward me like a will-o’-the-wisp, leading me onward through a swamp and finally disappearing with a derisive laugh and leaving me to sink into the mire.
And if you think that is a hard situation, the next one is absolutely brutal. In 2003, our younger daughter developed anorexia and nearly died (yes, of course my apostasy was blamed for it). After she had been in therapy for a while and was starting to get better, I was driving her home from the clinic, and she expressed a longing for a fruit and yogurt parfait from McDonalds. At that time, if she had expressed a desire for the most expensive dish at the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles, I would have bought it for her without a second’s hesitation. So I pulled into the McDonalds—and they were out of fruit and yogurt parfaits. Needless to say, she didn’t want anything else.
That was quite literally the last straw—if God didn’t care enough about me to arrange for one of the world’s largest corporations to have a regularly-stocked item available when my daughter needed it (surely one of the easiest things for omnipotence to ensure; I wasn’t exactly asking for a miracle), then it was as obvious as the sun in the sky that He either didn’t exist, or didn’t care about me. At that point I had been leaving God for about five years, slowly and painfully, and he had never indicated in any way whatsoever that he cared whether or not I came back. Since that moment, there has been no question in my mind of returning to him. Or, as the wag once put it, “if this is the way God treats his friends, it’s no wonder he has so few.”
In 2004, while working the dead-end full-time office job that I still have, I went back to school and earned a masters degree in mathematics, and since 2008 I’ve been teaching part-time at a university. Besides the math, I started to give myself a good (and ongoing) scientific education, starting with science in general (Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World) and then working through physics, astronomy and cosmology, brushing up on my chemistry (my bachelors degree from UCLA was in chemistry), and finally on to biology and evolution. Meanwhile, I’ve also read a many books concerned with reason, logic, philosophy and religion, and I no longer opine on subjects about which I know nothing. I am resolutely and irrevocably non-religious, and will remain an atheist until someone provides convincing evidence for the existence of some God.
Since I’ve already babbled on this long, I’ll go ahead and answer the first two questions that will be asked.
From non-believers: “Doesn’t this cause tension with your wife?”
Yes, it does. But for a number of reasons, we have lapsed into a not-uncomfortable situation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” She pretends not to notice all the e-mails I get in which the “from” line is “Why Evolution is True” as well as all the books about atheism and evolution on my bookshelves; I never mention the Christian books on her shelves, or the music for the songs she’s teaching to the children at church. On Sunday mornings she goes to church; I stay home and read—mostly science and books criticizing religion. Imagine that—allowing other people to make their own choices in life! Otherwise, though, we still love and care about each other a lot, and work hard together to make something of life. When we returned to the States we owned nearly nothing, and economic survival was our top priority for the next decade or so. And, she truly is a wonderful human being.
From believers: “Are you angry/sad/afraid?”
Yes, I am angry. Angry at having wasted potentially the most productive period of life. Angry at having missed much of what life offers. Angry at having done what was unnecessary at best; destructive at worst, while much that is good went undone. Angry at having one’s every idea, thought and even statement repressed. Angry at being looked at as roadkill, as ignorant, or as despicable by people whom I thought to be friends. Angry at having been lied to and misled for so long. Angry at having “made a pilgrimage to save this human race, never comprehending a race that’s long gone by.”
However, anger is counterproductive, and kind of silly when one considers that no one forced me to become religious. As a result, I don’t express that anger toward others, but it ends up getting internalized as depression. Fortunately, I’m getting better and better at dealing with depression, and my sense of humor has never deserted me.
Afraid? Not a chance. What would I be afraid of? God? Doesn’t exist. Demons? Don’t exist. Hell? Doesn’t exist. As Robert Charles Wilson put it, “I understand so very little. But I am not afraid to look: I am a good observer at last. My eyes are open, and I am not afraid.”