What interests me most in these testimonies is precisely what mental realization was key to the religious turn-around. My story should appeal especially to those who feel or felt trapped by religion for philosophical reasons. I like to think that some new seekers of truth might identify with my experiences and turmoil and find some help in what I concluded.
Background and indoctrination
Religion took an early grasp on my mind. My father was a fervent Christian, although not church-going. He was literalist in his interpretation of the Bible and thus believed in man's superiority over women, for example. I was one of several children and our parents bickered often, as did we kids. There was very little affection in our house and our father in particular was angry and insensitive. He used guilt as his primary child-rearing tool, often quoting scripture and yelling things like “You should be ashamed of yourself”. In addition, we were largely ostracized at school due to our ethnic uniqueness in a somewhat isolated “redneck” community. So I also grew up feeling like a burden and an outsider, but that was not especially unusual for a child.
An elderly couple offered to take us kids off my parents' hands for a couple of hours weekly by taking us to a nearby fundamentalist church. My parents went along with it, happy for a little peace and probably thinking that any Christian church exposure was better than nothing. As time went on I became indoctrinated into the religious culture. I think I found security there that I severely lacked at home. My “born again”-type experience was their summer camp where several other children who knew nothing of my family's ostracization, readily accepted me. This sense of finally belonging helped me buy into the crash-course indoctrination that was used at the camp, who's primary goal was to baptize new members into the “flock”. The story of Christ's death for sinners was the recurring theme, thus they exploited our young senses of guilt. The superiority that one obtains from believing that they are one of the relatively few “enlightened” was also attractive to my young mind (13 years old). They presented themselves as true Christians because they seemed to simply follow the Bible accurately, without the flagrant cherry-picking evident in most other denominations. Their “fundamentalism” thus had logical merit and a certain “integrity” that the mainstream, watered-down churches still lack. If the Bible was the word of God, they seemed to be honest and true disciples of it. I was hooked and began a long period of independent Bible study, although I always had serious doubts and never fully bought in with unquestioning “blind faith”.
Philosophical Problems Encountered
My attempts to reconcile my doubts with the philosophical and logical contradictions of religion were what began my gradual slide into the insanity that is the only possible conclusion of internalized biblical literalism. Most atheists, such as on YouTube, mainly use logic and scientific knowledge to counter weaknesses in the religious position. The problem is that Atheists tend to overlook the basic reason why religion has such a strangle-hold on its followers: the religious have found a comfort, a security, a meaning in their faith. To them religion has addressed our most profound instinctsurvivalwith an ultimate solution: immortality. It provides a sense of competence and knowledge and purpose in a tumultuous world where we are born without a self-evident reason for our existence, where we are uniquely aware of our unavoidable deaths, and where religious “answers” are usually taught to us by default, in lieu of encouraging the mental effort of education and rational, independent thought.
The primary dirty ploy that religions use to trap followers is to claim that the comfort and benefits we see in religion (or the beauty/”perfection” of nature) are sufficient and morally compelling evidence that god exist and that their dogmas represent His intentions. The usually unspoken but always implied notion is that to lack faith is a symptom of moral weakness: to not sense god's presence is because we are clinging to selfish desires or in some other immoral way choosing to be blind. Obviously this assertion (that weakness of faith is an immoral choice) is immune to disproof, and challenges are always met with an self-serving claim such as “You only have to let God into your heart and then you will know the truth”, which implies that we wrongly are withholding something, and is akin to “You will have reason to believe if you believe”. Like most “serious” Christians, I struggled with faith and was fooled into the self-doubt that moral inferiority was what made me unable to be convinced in the “truth” of the Bible.
A similar intellectual contortion is the notion of forgiveness and eternal reward. This is where I found what I believe to be the primary philosophical folly and illegitimacy of religion, and thus my reason to exit: How could it be that simply believing in forgiveness was sufficient for it (as per New Testament)? How was it fair that if I thought god would forgive me then I would be forgiven, while if I didn't see why He so arbitrarily would forgive me, then He wouldn't? It was clear from the Bible that only a small minority of people would somehow meet god's cut-off. The criteria for passing (while the vast majority suffer damnation for failing) was morally and rationally untenable.
[The social isolation I mentioned above led me to in particular become guilt-ridden for the “sin” of masturbation, which has often been a hysterical target of religious indignation. The Bible says that our sins are forgivable if we intend to sin no more. How could I believe that I was forgiven unless I truly intended to never “sin” that way (or any way) again? I could only believe it by convincing myself that I truly intended to never repeat my “fall from grace”, and this convincing myself took increasing time to the point where I would take hours of self-reproaching prayer before I reached this ridiculous, exhausted state of believing that I would stop the sin (and not intend to sin in any other way either), and thus “be forgivable”. It was a very dark and depressed way for an adolescent to grow up. My teenage life had become a constant mental tight-rope walk, trying not to “sin” in any way (which would require a difficult repentance process). This level of self-regulation is obviously not normal and required a type of psychological multi-tasking that our minds are incapable of. ]
I understand that most denominations do not have such a literalist interpretation of biblical doctrine. They increasingly tend to be liberal and accommodating, despite their biblical roots. But the point is that I followed literal biblical philosophy, more than that of any denomination. And it was in particular the religious philosophy of belief in salvation that I found fundamentally untenable and irreconcilable with reason and with the notion of a benevolent God. The implications of the Bible were that God's eternal reward or damnation for individuals was not issued based on merit or reason. Our destiny could only be arbitrarily issued if salvation was not issued to everyone, since believing in salvation is not enough to make us deserve it, and not being aware of the “belief ticket” should not be enough to curse the rest to damnation. If all were undeserving sinners and if God was fair then we all should meet the same eternal destiny (heaven or hell), rather than a few receiving eternal paradise (for simply accepting forgiveness) while the rest were eternally damned. I think this doctrine of arbitrary salvation is fundamental to–and unavoidable by–all religions, and thus I believe that my experience and conclusions are applicable to them all.
My convictions in religion and the Bible faded as I grew to doubt their merit. I believed, and still do, that I had sincerely and honestly explored what I saw as the “logical limit” of the salvation-through-faith philosophy. I concluded that it was not valid, or that god at least had not made it compellingly evident to me. So I began to reject the ultimate religious lie that to lack faith was bad. I told god in a final prayer that (if he was actually there and listening) I still wanted to be a good person and that my commitment to live with true integrity remained, and that my commitment in fact required that I step away from unsubstantiated religious convictions so that I could pursue the truth with honestly and intellectual credibility. I thus concluded that the Bible and all Human religions were unworthy of my deference and were rightfully subject to skepticism. I therefore was finally free of all dogma and unsubstantiated religious knowledge.
Sadly, my mind did not quickly recover from the years of extreme self-regulation. As it is, late adolescence is already frequently a time of “identity crisis”, let alone for new converts. Despite choosing agnosticism at 19 and despite having a “superior” IQ, my initial 3-year attempt at university was a dismal failure. I still could not allow myself the freedom to focus on my courses. The unhindered concentration demanded by scientific study was beyond me. I had ruminations. I always felt a need to assure myself that I was “not unworthy”, even though I was no longer religious. I remained obsessed with doing what was moral, probably to convince my fragile conscience that I was in fact not turning away from morality by abandoning religion. But my psychological freedom and spontaneity had been repressed for too long. I felt a compulsion to analyze and “think things through”, feeling that I always just had to sort out a few things and then my mind would be free and at peace. [I think this state of mind was a remnant of my earlier, already hard-wired repentance & forgiveness seeking process.] I felt a profound need too organize my thoughts in order to construct a perspective that would allow me to function and be spontaneous enough to interact with people. Even when I did not think that I was doing anything wrong, I often found myself utterly mentally “stuck”. An analogy I thought applicable was to a computer that lacked boot-up instructions.
I told my story to a psychiatrist and she concurred with what I had discoveredthat I had developed an obsessive compulsive disorder called scrupulosity (moral obsession). Some strong medications helped to break my compulsive desire to “think things through so I could move on”. My emotions were somewhat numbed for a few months, but that helped rewire it (at least that's my impression). A long “reconstructive” period followed, during which I worked in psychologically non-demanding, menial jobs and remained intensely lonely due to my underdeveloped social skills and hobbled self-esteem. After a 3-year break from university I returned and managed to complete a basic degree, but my mind was still not “free” enough. The earlier years of indoctrination (admittedly, much of it self-imposed in my own Bible studying) had trained me to loath myself, so my self-concept had been severely compromised.
Over a very gradual process I have drifted farther from that negative sense of self. I have managed to slowly improve enough to acquire a comfortable career, a rational and loving girlfriend, and some social life. But the truth is that some anhedonic tendencies persist (it sometimes it takes a bit of conscious effort to fight the blues) and I am not quite as happy or satisfied as a person should be. My life has largely been one of acute loneliness, discontent, and being psychologically crippled, but I have gradually improved ever since abandoning religion and I have progressed been well-beyond the diagnostic criteria for any mental illness. My life certainly is more worth living now than it ever has been since the age of 13 when the religious guilt-trap shut on me.
I have never looked back after turning away from religion. I know without doubt that I gave it a fair and honest attempt, and it proved to lack true merit. As with most converts, I recognize the lies and illegitimacy more & more as I age and mature. I don't feel angry toward “God”, as many theists like to think we non-theists do. I know that their god is a contradiction that can't exist. I do have hatred and contempt for bankrupt philosophies (which belie all canonical religions, no matter how much they distance themselves from their founding scriptures) that abuse trusting and developing children by training them to believe that they are born morally corrupt and to fear eternal damnation. I believe that my life is a testament to the fact that the unnatural self-regulation demanded by fundamentalist or literalist religiosity is especially compromising and unhealthy for young, trusting, gullible and developing minds that then become “wired” for pathology, which is extremely difficult to remedy.
I consider any religious denomination or belief system that pretends to have non-evident and unsubstantiated knowledge of god's will to be immoral and unworthy. Unfortunately, this includes all churches and religions that I know of. I now see such religion as a rotten enterprise promoted by intellectually (if not morally) corrupted clerics who seek money and authority. It is frustrating that so many still buy into the notion that religion does more good than harm, and sad that unsophisticated parents perpetuate the doctrines in their children “just in case” the scriptures are in fact a divine guide from god. The world will be such a better place when religious conflicts dissolve and when the minds of children are no longer routinely side-swiped by intellectually untenable belief systems that rob us of so many of our potentials.
I hope that this testimony helps a few. I imagine I might have been spared a lot of pain and angst had I read something like this in my adolescence.
I welcome feedback from any reader.