Sunday, August 25, 2019
Life After Christadelphianism, Six Years On
When I look back over the past 6 years I can see a clear progression. Some readers may relate to this too. Early on I was very focused on doctrines, and truth. I still care a lot about truth, but I also care a lot about life, too. Some things don't fit neatly into facts and figures, and yet they matter a lot to me. Many issues that used to fill my thoughts daily have now almost disappeared from view, replaced by a much deeper appreciation of life and all that it entails.
Taking such a dramatic step in life as leaving the religion one grew up in, and a strict, controlling, fundamentalist religion at that, brings with it a lot of self-reflection and discovery. Actually I think self-discovery should be a life-long affair, but this was not encouraged in my Christadelphian past. Discover myself? No, I was taught to conform and follow. Not much room for individuality when your only mission is to imitate Jesus.
Around early 2012, for reasons I now forget, cracks began to appear in the perfect Christadelphian narrative and rather suddenly I found myself face-to-face with impossible-to-ignore evidence that brought several of my long-held beliefs into question. The more I peeled back the layers of what I had been taught, the more discrepancies I found. I remember feeling that so much of what I was taught was now in doubt that I didn't know who or what to trust any more. I felt as though I was sinking, and at times free-falling, and didn't know if this dark, confusing abyss had a bottom.
If you're in this position right now, the best advice I can offer is to be patient with yourself. You will heal and grow with time. Perhaps a lot of time. It's ok. You're ok. Allow yourself this time to let the dust settle.
Though it didn't feel like it at the time, the confusion and fear I experienced was actually a sign of growth, as I learned to place limits on who and what I trusted, and realised that those who raised and taught me were fallible too, just like me. They insisted they were right, but humans do this kind of thing often, especially when it comes to religion. I was learning to think independently as if for the first time. Obviously I had considered myself an independent thinker for many years before that, but something was different now.
As a Christadelphian, there were many things I was taught not to question. And like a good Christadelphian, I obeyed. Essentially what changed is that I started to give myself permission to question those things, indeed to question everything, and ask myself what I truly thought rather than trying to come up with clever justifications for what others had insisted was true. If I didn't have to defend their orthodoxy, and was free to reason without a specific end-point forced on me, what conclusions would I reach? I decided to follow the truth wherever it led me. That's when things began to unravel.
It's not all a lie ... is it?
When I first began to read about the findings of science and also the views of some prominent critical Bible scholars, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I thought surely there were wise Christadelphians who could help me piece it all together, and they would provide the answers that those scholars and scientists were missing. I had long dismissed scientific theories that disagreed with my religious views, on the basis that those scientists were failing to take God into account, and thus were led to incorrect conclusions. This level of hand-wavy, casual dismissiveness was very typical of my interactions with science for much of my life until that point. Again I knew which areas of science differed from the orthodox Christadelphian views, and I remained well on the Christadelphian-approved™ side of the fence.
I went through phase after phase of discovering some discrepancy between what I had been taught and what historians or scholars were saying, only to then reconcile it together again into some kind of hopefully-coherent picture. For example, it didn't matter if there were human errors or contradictions in the Bible, because divine inspiration only needed to preserve the central message. Or perhaps it was ok if the exodus never happened exactly as the Bible stated, and was merely a literary retelling of stories that brought together collective memories. I couldn't figure out why an all-knowing god would need to communicate via a book written in ancient human languages, or why its opening chapters should borrow so much from Sumerian mythology, but I thought at least if the resurrection was solid then maybe I shouldn't worry my little head about those other things. Maybe.
Was the resurrection solid? There was evidence, wasn't there? I began to watch debate after debate, and read article after article, and even books recommended by other Christadelphians, trying to find something, anything, to warrant belief in the resurrection of Jesus. But to cut a long story short, the arguments didn't hold up. I just couldn't ignore the fact that the skeptical arguments made more sense. There wasn't enough evidence to warrant belief in such a miracle. Following Hume's reasoning, I had to reject the greater miracle, and a resurrection is surely a greater miracle than a handful of anonymous accounts of random people from a superstitious era potentially being mistaken about what they saw. We have many examples of the latter, and not one verified case of the former. It is also rather instructive that many other accounts of historical figures from around the same period (including Roman and Greek rulers) also contain reports of amazing miracles, none of which people today would accept as historically accurate.
I was lied to
Realising that half of what you were taught probably isn't true is not the most pleasant experience one can have. I began to feel justifiably angry. I had been let down by people I had trusted. If I could find the courage and time to look into the foundations of my faith, why couldn't they? Most of the people I spoke with had never seriously questioned their beliefs. To be fair, until that point I hadn't really challenged mine either. But there were people much older than me, my teachers, and those I had looked up to, even my parents, who had never even taken the time to read any books or articles from other religions, let alone biblical scholars and scientists. It would seem most Christadelphians, or at least most of the ones I've known, are just not very curious about truth.
I also became angry for a different reason, although this and the above anger phase passed fairly quickly. In the Christadelphian version of the Eden story, it was said that Adam's sin resulted in a change to human nature, such that the rest of us effectively inherited a tendency or bias towards sin. In such a view, the deck was stacked against us. At the very least, we should have the same opportunity Adam had, not some condition rigged from the start. Or if, as some claim, Adam also shared the same nature, then even Adam's situation was rigged as well. A game with loaded dice is not fair. It gets worse. If we consider the larger picture of an all-knowing being who would not only create this situation knowing the outcome in advance, but also must have created suffering itself as a concept, a feeling it could not experience, and subjected other beings to it, then we realise we are talking about an extremely malevolent being. Now, I didn't believe any of this was actually true, but I was angry that I had been made to feel ashamed of my own nature, as if I could be judged immoral by such a monster as that.
The one thing I do still resent however, is the intentional limiting of opportunities given to children by many Christadelphian parents. Limited education, limited career options, and much worse, right down to the crippling of young minds by teaching them they are different from the world and must remain separate, not to mention the horrible life-long psychological effects of teaching children they are sinful and worthy of death. These things leave mental scars, some of which never fully heal. Oh the tears I have cried due to this in my own life! It needs to stop.
If only I hadn't...
If only I hadn't been raised as a Christadelphian, I wouldn't have had to endure this pain of realising they were wrong and dealing with the isolation that followed. This was one of the many thoughts I grappled with during that horrible time.
Or if only I hadn't read and discovered all those things that changed my mind. Maybe I'd still believe. I even recommended to some Christadelphians never to seek answers to their questions, lest they end up walking a similar path as I did. I told them that "other Christadelphians have questioned and it ended up strengthening their faith" as a way to soften their curiosity.
Or what if the Bible was true and somehow I had missed some vital piece of evidence? What if I was too stupid to reason it through and solve the divine mystery? What if this was some kind of Job-ian test and I had now failed?
Maybe I could just fake it and attend the meetings anyway just so that I could keep my social connections alive. Maybe my marriage would have survived if I had just kept my mouth shut and hid my doubts from everyone else.
Maybe I could have worked harder, or read more, or held on longer, or been a little more patient, or...
The cold, indifferent facts of reality
I sometimes wonder what it's like for children of non-religious parents to grow up in the world and how they first come to realise that they, and everyone they know, will die. I don't recall ever dealing with such a realisation in my own childhood, or even in my teenage years. I think it's because the Christadelphian narrative is, perhaps ironically, much like that of the serpent in the garden of Eden. Being raised to believe I would live forever probably had a significant impact on how I thought of life and death. Death was something other people needed to worry about, but not me.
Losing one's belief in the Bible brings all of this into sharp focus. It's not the sort of thing that particularly helps when trying to be objective about the facts of life, so I tried not to think about it while investigating the foundations of my beliefs. But once those foundations had crumbled, there was no more denying reality. One day I will die, and that's it. I still find it terrifying, but there is nothing to be gained by fearing it. I take it as a part of growing up (the kind that children of non-religious parents probably do at a much younger age), that one must someday look life and death in the face and come to terms with their own mortality.
One thing I am thankful for is that Christadelphians do not believe in hell. Having to overcome a fear of eternal torment is something I am grateful not to deal with.
Coming from being promised eternal bliss and happiness and then finding myself in this world full of suffering and misery is a very difficult adjustment to undertake. Even though I know the promised fairytale is, well, just that, it still feels like I've been the victim of a scam of the worst kind. I think the key is to shake off this notion of fairness that some of us seem to cling to, and accept the uncertainties of life.
As time has gone by, I've begun to realise how crippling a belief in an afterlife can be. I remember in my late teens considering giving up on my chosen career path, because I discounted any measure of success in this life. Thankfully my career did end up taking flight. It has been the one constant through this whole dark patch in my life.
As you can see on this blog, I've spent a lot of time writing about my experience of leaving the Christadelphians, and even more about my thoughts on various doctrines and Bible topics. This has been an incredibly valuable process in helping to sort it all out and put it behind me. If any of you are struggling with anything like loss of faith or even just the isolation and loneliness that comes with having doubts, I highly recommend writing about it. It helps to collect your thoughts together and also to release the emotion onto the page. It's very symbolic. I have kept a diary at various times as well, though I'm not usually a "Dear diary" sort of person. Maybe something like this will help you as well.
What kind of life do you want to live?
This is one of the questions that has often plagued me since leaving the Christadelphians. I went from living quite a structured and busy lifestyle to having enormous amounts of free time and personal autonomy. Suddenly I no longer needed to wish for free Sundays and quiet time in the evenings.
It's not a question I've really been able to answer very well, though. I don't much like the idea of having my life planned out in too much detail, but I'm also far from spontaneous. One of the things I found hardest to come to terms with was the realisation that every choice I make in life is also a choice not to do all of the other things I could have done. This makes the question of how I want to live all the more relevant. Doing nothing is still a choice. Even so, I don't stress about this question - it's more of a guide that helps to motivate me sometimes.
If there's one difference in my life now compared to before it is in how much I appreciate life and everything I have. As much as I have suffered through my deconversion, I am the person I am today partly because of what I've endured. I've also learned a lot. That's an understatement.
In the last year or so I have also found that my interest in the Bible has dropped off quite a bit. I still read the odd article here and there out of curiosity, but it is no longer a significant feature in my life. This is also why I haven't written as many articles this year on this and other blogs. I think this is healthy and quite a positive progression for me.
Six years ago I found myself on a somewhat distressing path of doubt and research, and I was driven by an overwhelming need to find the truth, whatever that was and wherever it led me. Today I still care a lot about truth, but I am much more comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty underpins almost everything in life. It's another of those "part of growing up" things I mentioned earlier. I don't have to know all the answers. I can follow my own curiosity without fear that I'll be judged on my beliefs at some later date.
Life is amazing, with all its joy and tears. Of course there are things I'd change if I could, but I'll accept what I have all the same.
To all those who have offered me support through the years, whether on the blogs, facebook, or that other one they call "real life", thank you.