Chapter Fourteen: Leaving My Religion
D G pushed me to finally resign from OMF. He did not like my questioning orthodox Evangelical beliefs and he had become increasingly uncomfortable with my expression of ‘heretical’ ideas. I thought that the things I said were rather tame expressions of obvious realities such as the fact that there are mistakes in the Bible. But such comments scandalized D.
In a gradually more open manner I challenged fundamental Christian beliefs and the absolute and all-encompassing authority of the Bible. This was too much for D. The entire Christian belief system and structure of authority rests on a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible and obedient submission to that book. If you start to question that base authority then the very super-structure of the Christian system crumbles. It’s not just a slippery sliding slope. It’s a quick fall off the cliff into hell.
I also questioned the dehumanizing submission of people to religious authorities. I argued for more freedom for diversity of thought and behavior, along with more toleration of difference. We should have the freedom to go out to a movie or have a beer once in a while. Normal people did. No one was being harmed by such things.
But this only upset D more. He was distressed by what he viewed as my increasingly dangerous heresy and advocacy for freedom. He realized that I was slipping out from under his tight control. In an effort to bring me to repentance he once rebuked me with the question, “Where is your former desire for holiness?” What he really meant was- where was my desire to submit unquestioningly to Fundamentalist ideas and culture as dictated by authorities such as himself.
I questioned why people like D were free to share their views but they would not tolerate anyone else expressing anything that differed in the slightest degree from their view of orthodox Christianity. Dissenting views were condemned as being from the Devil and proponents of such views were punished with public condemnation or banning. I felt it was all too oppressive and inhumane.
I was also tired of hearing leaders tell us that we were all equal members in one big happy family but then cloistering themselves away in secret meetings to make decisions for the rest of us; decisions that impacted our personal lives profoundly.
I eventually submitted an article to the OMF Bulletin (an in-house journal) that was critical of centralized leadership and control. The article questioned elite domination over members and argued for more freedom and bottomup control. But it sounded subversive to the powerholders in the upper strata of the OMF hierarchy and it received some controversial response.
At an annual missionary conference held in Manila the wife of an OMF leader conducted a seminar where she made comments about disgruntled workers who were causing dissension or strife and were therefore disturbing the peace and unity of OMF. She looked at me numerous times during her presentation. I felt that she was speaking directly to me.
If my mild criticism of power-holders and their domination of others had evoked her indignant response then what would she think if she really knew what was going on inside my head? I was now rejecting core Christian beliefs.
Back in Davao D called me into his office. It was just a few weeks before I was to return to Canada. He offered no thanks for the 11 years of hard work that I had invested on behalf of the Manobo. He never once asked if I had fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited those in prison, clothed the naked (all right, so I had stopped the clothing projects), or had otherwise shown compassion to people. He was preoccupied only with the unorthodox ideas that I was suggesting regarding more human freedom from the straight-jacketed religious control that we existed under.
Oh well, they did not send Jesus off with a blow out party and a gold watch. So suck it up.
D then confronted me with an ultimatum- shape up or ship out. Repent and get back into line with Fundamentalist Evangelicalism or don’t come back. I resented his rigid stance and at first tried to resist. “You can’t give me an ultimatum, D”, I argued. But then I realized that I was already feeling more on the outside of Christianity and looking in. I had no more to offer the Manobo and my heart was no longer in missionary work.
Like Bob Brinsmead, I had come to question the validity of the Christian missionary movement. I no longer believed that it was God’s work or will. It was far too much about religious intolerance, exclusivity, and domination. It was very much the opposite of the love and inclusion that the historical Jesus had advocated (an entirely different person from the Christian Jesus). Christian missionaries were trying to impose what is essentially a religious ideology of exclusion and opposing dualism on primitive societies that were easily overwhelmed by the seductive power of Western wealth and technology.
I no longer wanted to be a part of it. I wanted out.
My escape from religion was not one crisis experience such as my resignation from a Christian organization like OMF. It was more a gradual process that spanned several decades and involved thinking through issues one by one, re-evaluating everything, and making conscious changes to my worldview.
Major transitions in life and significant changes in worldviews are rarely quick and easy. They often entail long years of struggle to understand the greater background and historical issues, and our place in the overall scheme of things.
The domination and control that I experienced in Christian organizations prompted me, as much as anything else, to question more thoroughly the issue of religious authority. Christian leaders regularly appealed to God and Jesus Christ to validate their control of others. And here I began to discover another fundamental contradiction of the Christian religion.
The historical Jesus had challenged all authority as pagan and inhuman. He had consistently refused to exercise any authority whatsoever over others. Instead, he chose to relate to others with a strikingly humane attitude of inclusion and equality. He inspired people by his own example of love rather than by command or threat. Any cursory reading of the gospels shows that Jesus simply refused to dominate people or to support structures of domination over people. Unfortunately, this brilliant historical example of humane relating was buried under subsequent Christian mythmaking which produced the dominating King and Lord called Jesus Christ. But that Christ is a radically different person from the historical Jesus. Jesus actually existed in history as an ordinary human person while the Christian Christ is a religious creation that embodies of the most barbaric traits of primitive mythology. Christians have long confused the two and this has resulted in fundamental contradictions throughout Christian teaching.
The Dark Underbelly
I had found at the heart of Christian ideology and life very little of the historical Jesus and his scandalously radical view of life. The historical Jesus had advocated a radical inclusion of all humanity without conditions or barriers of any kind. He had affirmed all human life as equally valuable and worthy of honor. And he had taught endless forgiveness and patience toward the imperfection of others.
But at the heart of Evangelical Christianity I had found black and white exclusion of the worst kind. The Christian viewpoint was relentlessly isolating. As true believers we were taught to view ourselves as set apart from the rest of humanity. We were the divinely chosen or elected insiders in opposition to divinely rejected outsiders. Jesus had never made any such distinctions. We were urged to take firm stands against ‘sinners’- all those in other denominations or religions, Liberals, free thinkers, Catholics, Muslims, sexually active people, drinkers, abortionists, criminals, gays, and numerous others- the very people that Jesus would have welcomed as friends and associates. We were very much not like the historical Jesus.
Too often we were encouraged to exhibit the same attitude as the Evangelicals in Texas who met on the steps of the state capitol. One of their preachers declared, “The democratic Liberals, leftists, abortionists, New Agers, gays and ACLU radicals will all stand before God to be judged and punished endlessly”. Listening church members, on hearing of the damnation of their enemies, cheered, laughed, clapped, and praised the Lord loudly.
Sure, we were also encouraged to love people but not with normal human love, or authentic unconditional love. No. It had to be holy Christian love which demanded the conversion of the other person to the Christian system. And if people refused to convert then our Christian love soured into something that clearly resembled hate because it damned people to hell. Christian love was first and foremost to be defined by isolating and excluding holiness.
A religion like Christianity promotes intolerance and exclusion by its very claim to possess the sole truth of God. This belief in sole proprietorship of truth leads to the automatic damning of all other differing systems of thought as falsehoods. Even worse, Christians view differing systems as satanic. This explains the Christian refusal to engage with or learn from other systems of thought. If they are satanic lies then they should not be engaged but rather avoided in order to protect true believers from deception. This is why fundamentalist Christians then refuse to enter into dialogue over the issues that others raise. Anything satanic is to be dismissed out of hand as not worthy of consideration or discussion.
The dualism and exclusion of Christianity- us versus them- is just more of the same destructive tribalism that humanity has long tried to liberate itself from. It is the cursed polarization of people into ‘my band versus your band’, the isolating dualism that has plagued all primitive religious societies. I had come to realize that Christianity was advocating a pagan view of life no different from that advocated by the earliest shaman. It was blindly arrogant for us Christians to claim that we alone represented the most advanced truth of God when our basic patterns of belief and behavior were no different from all previous systems of primitive religion.
I had also come to realize that many Christian beliefs and practices were a blatant denial of the teaching of the historical Jesus that Christians claimed they alone represented. Jacques Ellul (The Subversion of Christianity) was right in stating that Christianity was on every point the exact opposite of what the historical Jesus had stood for.
Over the past few decades the Jesus Seminar has made a clear demarcation between the historical Jesus and the Christian Christ. This has helped to resolve many of the contradictions in the Christian tradition.
I had been part of this inhumane religion for far too long. I recognized that the problems that I encountered with my religion were not just peripheral issues that needed touching up here and there in an otherwise sound system. They expressed something profoundly wrong at the very heart and core of Christianity.
In my case it was not just an issue of what Christians call “The hypocrisy of believers”. I had often heard Christians say, “Oh, she or he is disillusioned with the church because of hypocrites”. No. It was something far more profound. It was the essential nature of the Christian religion and religion in general that I found to be inhumane.
For some 15 years I had engaged a religion that taught people to separate themselves from the rest of humanity. Christianity promoted the view that its adherents were specially favored by the one true God. Christians were the beloved children of God while the rest of humanity was hated and rejected by God. There is absolutely nothing of genuine love in such exclusivity. Our practice of love- the making of zealous converts to Evangelicalism- was a dehumanizing distortion of the unconditional and freely accepting love that the historical Jesus advocated.
As I reflected on this more, I could understand better the peculiar Evangelical habit of demonizing and publicly demeaning outsiders. Evangelicals derived great pleasure from harshly castigating those who disagreed with them. LE had derisively scorned more liberal minded people who advocated “dialogue, compromise, and meeting of the minds”.
I remember a traveling preacher, Leonard Ravenhill, who visited Prairie and during his sermon he said with undisguised scorn, “Paul is appealing, but Peale (Norman Vincent Peale, the positive thinking preacher) is appalling”. It was a cute little rhyme but an all too commonly expressed animosity and contempt toward all who dared disagree with Fundamentalist truth.
Another Evangelical radio preacher expressed the same animosity toward those who diverged from the Christian version of Easter. Mimicking a whiny school kid’s voice, he sarcastically derided people who indulged, “Rabbits, colored Easter eggs and all that jazz” during the Christian holy season. With the loveless demeanor of an Evangelical authority he harshly condemned normal human fun as evil and worldly. He declared that God wanted people to focus only on the blood and guts of Christian atonement. I had heard that all my life. Anything not conforming to the rigidly constraining Evangelical lifestyle was damned as worldly and evil.
The same thing happens at Christmas time. Christians bemoan all the lights, trees, Santa Clauses, gifts, Irish Crème, partying, and declare apocalyptically, “You’re all going to Hell in a handbasket”.
I wanted freedom from the intolerant inhumanity of it all. I wanted freedom to be human again. It was time to make a clean break and escape once and for all.
After D’s ultimatum, I went to my room to think things through. I hesitated at first because OMF had formed my circle of closest friends and my life for some 12 years. My two sisters were still members. But finally, I acknowledged that it was indeed over. I knew that I would be condemned for leaving the will of God. Mission organizations require new candidates to express a special call from God as essential for membership. And if God leads you to join us, they claim, then you had better be sure that he is leading you to leave or you will miss the will of God. Brushing such nonsense aside, I concluded that I was already on the outside anyway. So I went downstairs and told my sister Barb and another friend that it was over.
I felt positively liberated.
I was not just leaving an Evangelical organization; I was leaving a religion that had been one of history’s most intolerant and brutal organizations. I was finally escaping the Christian God of shame and terror.
I returned to my parent’s home at Prairie Bible Institute in July 1986 feeling uncomfortably out of place. Pop psychology would describe me as being ‘conflicted’. I was a heretic from Christian doctrine and I knew the gasping and censoring that would erupt if I ever shared my true feelings with anyone in that Christian community. The initial fluttering of hearts would immediately be followed by outrage, gossip, slander, charges of heresy, condemnation, and then punishment- most likely banning and expulsion. I did not want to face it all again, having just been through a similar experience with D G.
At home I tried explaining my changed views on a few minor issues with Dad but he exploded in response. Putting on the frown of a displeased and angry God, he warned me, “Those are the Devil’s lies. Be careful of his deceiving”. He did not want to discuss things further nor listen to anything that did not sound fundamentally orthodox.
Dad was then in his sixties and I decided that it was probably best not to upset him. Why ruffle the feathers of someone peacefully settling down toward retirement and old age. I resented the fact that he maintained the freedom to express his ideas but would not accept my expression of different views. It was not fair. But for the sake of family peace I decided to bite my tongue and just keep quiet. The smothering of dissent was common place in Christian communities. Over the next few years Dad and I would learn to avoid discussing controversial topics. Discussing anything religious only led to heated arguments and me being condemned as falling prey to Satan.
I also recognized that Dad had never been able to discover the tools to properly re-evaluate Fundamentalist beliefs and find freedom from them.
Other Evangelical friends phoned to encourage me in “the ways of the Lord”. One elderly lady known as a prayer warrior (people who pray regularly for missionaries) phoned to warn me about missionaries that had burned out and “gone off” (Off the straight rails of truth and holiness- and my apologies for these bracketed interpretations but Evangelicalism has an elaborate insider sub-dialect that needs explaining to others). She clucked like an old hen as she told me of one recent casualty of spiritual warfare, “I don’t know what went wrong but when he returned home from the mission field he became a Muslim. Tsk, tsk, tsk. It’s awful isn’t it, how the Devil deceives people?” I did not think so but rather than startle her, I hmmmed neutrally. I would refine this response over the next months at Prairie.
While I did not want to create ugly confrontations with any of the true believers, I could no longer emphatically “Amen” Evangelical values. Hmmm was a response that did not exactly disagree nor was it agreeing. It could be employed to sound like polite interest in what people were saying without disgorging the expected “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord”. I had not used such repugnant God-talk for years anyway as I felt it violated a personal sense of integrity. I just wanted to get away, far away from it all.
Now here I was, back at Prairie with an Evangelical success story and I had absolutely no interest in sharing it. LE was dead but even if he had been alive I would have experienced no excitement over his praise. He would not stand before the huge audiences in the Tabernacle and solemnly declare as he had done often in the past, “This young man has an amazing story to tell of hundreds of poor lost souls finding Jesus”.
What had once been my foremost goal in life- a soul-winning success story recognized by LE- I now viewed with mixed feelings as representing more of human failure than success. How far I had slid down the slippery slope.
Last Days At Prairie
Three Hills is one of the quietest little prairie villages in Western Canada. The town people regularly defeat motions for a liquor store because many of the town residents are members of Prairie Bible Institute. The only crimes that occur are when local teenage ‘unbelievers’ sneak on campus and open the doors of the big church during a service to shout something and then run for their lives. As a student, I had once served in the ushers group that chased and caught such ‘blasphemers’, and ushed them back to face the justice of God. We had taken our duty very seriously. You do not disturb the Spirit of God. What would the shaking-head preacher think?
Despite the peace and quiet, when I arrived back at Prairie I found myself acting as though I were still in a war zone. At nighttime if I noticed that a window blind was up, I would quickly move over to the adjoining wall and then press along the wall to the window before reaching up to pull the blind down and then relaxing again. Then I would remember where I was and realize that no one was going to shoot from the darkness, spraying the house with gunfire. I was back in Canada.
A fellow missionary who had returned to England, wrote and told us that she had heard a rapid-fire, “Bang, bang, bang, bang…” in the street just outside her home. She said that she had panicked and hid because she thought it was gunfire. Later, she discovered that it was only a jackhammer pounding on the street.
I also needed reorientation to the empty streets of Canada. Asian streets were crowded with people and animals. The streets of Asia were homes, play yards, and workplaces. In comparison, Canadian streets seemed empty and quiet.
One of my first major cultural readjustments occurred in relation to small town streets. I was walking downtown in Three Hills one afternoon and decided to cross a street. I saw a car approaching and assumed that it would continue on by while I walked up close to its side and then slipped behind it in the same manner that we had crossed the streets of Philippine cities for over a decade. It was a system that kept traffic flowing and led to surprisingly few accidents. Everyone understood the patterns.
I started to walk across the street toward the car but the driver saw me and stopped. Confused, I backed up to the sidewalk wondering what on earth he was doing. He sat there and waited for me to cross in front of him. I waited on the sidewalk for him to drive on by. We stared at each other for a moment or two. Then, embarrassed, I turned and continued walking along the sidewalk. The car drove on by. Later, when there were no cars in sight, I quickly darted across the street. Initially, misunderstandings like that were stressful. I remembered Meemai running across the street in Tagum and then feeling so tribal, so out of place and ignorant.
In some ways I felt like Rip Van Winkle. I had missed 11 years of Canadian life and cultural development. Wayne Gretzky had become God and I hardly knew who he was. Obviously, someone important to Canadians. Many other changes had occurred.
My sisters also eventually returned to Three Hills to join me in reverse culture shock. We found jobs in a local motel changing beds and cleaning toilets. All my experience with rainforest farming techniques and other tribal development projects was of no use in modern technology-oriented Canada.
It was quite a comedown from our previous lifestyle. We were no longer the celebrated elite, looked up to by hundreds of people, our opinions frequently asked for and respected, and our good deeds recounted with praise before large groups. We were once again nobodies.
Another sobering bucket of cold water in the face came from the Canadian government. They sent me a notice regarding my previous years of payments to the government retirement plan. Over a decade of volunteer work had generated no contributions from me. Consequently, the statement said that on retiring I would receive something in the amount of $18.00 a month. That was sobering. It was time to catch up. I was 36 years old and my best earning years were now past.
The Christian groups that we had belonged to had scoffed at concern about economic issues as being unspiritual and worldly. Such concern for money revealed that you were not trusting God. If you trusted God then he would take care of all your needs. After all, he had sent ravens to feed Elijah.
That is the same irresponsible approach that many Fundamentalists take toward medical issues. Don’t worry about such worldly physical concerns. Just trust in God.
During the previous 10 years some 18 children in a small Oregon town had died because their parents believed that God alone must heal without the help of human medicine. Reporters had asked the adults why they let their children die often cruelly painful deaths. The adults repeatedly responded that God had willed to take the children. It was not their choice. Fortunately for the remaining children, the state had intervened to prevent such foolish abdication of responsibility by the adults. Once again, another example of devotion to God producing inhumane neglect or abuse of others.
With a healthy dose of common sense Lord Nelson had once said to his soldiers, “Yes, trust in God but also keep your powder dry”.
Trust in God to meet financial needs is not a more spiritual stance to take. It is too often a cover for childish irresponsibility that denies common sense and tries to avoid what all other people on earth must do- work, make hard choices, and plan for the future. Dependence on God is often simply a refusal to grow up and take personal responsibility for the difficult decisions of life. People who advocate this religious trust present themselves as more spiritual than ‘worldly’ mortals who must worry about more mundane things. OMF leaders boasted that they trusted God alone and did not stoop to worry about money like the little people who pay taxes. If you were full of such faith then God would send you money, they said. With their faith they believed that they were a cut above the rest of humanity. But in reality they possessed a beggar’s mentality. Their money came from hardworking people who were urged to obey the Lord and give generously to “his work”. They survived entirely by the hard work of the worldly people that they disparaged.
Vancouver- Rejoining The Human Race
It was time to move on to the next stage of life. Within a year of returning home I enrolled at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, taking courses in political science, economics, anthropology, geography, sociology, soil science, development theory, environmental studies, and anything else that would help me understand natural and social systems and how the different elements work together to affect one other. I wanted to understand the science of society and the most useful interventions for improving life for those who suffered most. I even did two years of graduate work in community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia (Masters program). I attended UBC during the early 1990s when Bill Rees, Dr. Doom, was the director of the School of Community and Regional Planning. He was at that time formulating his Ecological Footprint model that claimed to show that humanity was over-consuming the resources of the planet and all was headed toward some catastrophic collapse and ending. His message is known widely in terms of our footprint being too large and the need to reduce this footprint.
I initially bought into Rees’s vision of environmental apocalypse. But then came the surprising revelation that my new environmental beliefs were identical to the Christian religious system. At core Christianity is an apocalyptic system of belief. This holds that there was an original paradise, corrupt people ruined the paradise by their sin, life was now heading toward a catastrophic ending, the world would be purged and a new paradise installed (the salvation plan). The chosen elect would be saved out of the apocalypse but most of humanity would be destroyed and then cast into hell.
Within environmentalism I discovered that I was holding to the same template of mythical beliefs- that life was originally more of a paradise, corrupt people had ruined that paradise, life was now heading toward some catastrophic ending, and we needed to purge the world and reinstall the original paradise conditions (environmentalism also believes that a small group of enlightened insiders alone deserve to remain on the earth while most of humanity should be removed- once again, see my essay “Rise or Decline: The Actual Trajectory of Life” for more detail). While I had left the outer forms of religion and what I believed were many of the main beliefs of the Christian system, I realized that I had not yet abandoned the very core themes of my religious past. In environmentalism I had adopted a newer version of the same old, same old. The leaving of my religion would have to continue yet further.
And fuelling all this apocalyptic mythology is the deeper root myth that there is something threatening, retaliatory, and punishing behind all things. Twinned with this is the belief that humanity is essentially corrupt and destructive. These two beliefs- nasty gods and nasty people- have shaped apocalyptic myth and all salvation thinking.
But fortunately, over history people have discovered the wonder of unconditional love as a potent response to this dark mythology of apocalyptic. We now recognize that instead of threat, retaliation or punishment, behind all reality there is incomprehensible Unconditional Love. And humanity, far from being some corrupt entity, is vitally part of that same unconditional love. I have offered more detail on this in my essay From Retaliation to Unconditional Love: The Grand Narrative of Human Exodus available at my site www.wendellkrossa.com .
Contrary to the warnings of LE Maxwell, I discovered that no one in the university teaching community was trying to maliciously destroy any student faith in God. Instead, I found a lot of very normal human beings that were simply trying to ask honest questions and make some sense of life and reality around them. As in all areas of life, people in academic disciplines are often committed to prevailing worldviews (paradigms) that tend to bind members of the disciplines to systems of orthodoxy. Such loyalty to orthodoxy can hinder curiosity or spontaneous exploration and freeze thinking around the dominant worldviews of any given discipline. In every area of life there tends to be a status quo or conventional wisdom and therefore also a heresy in relation to the status quo. And in all areas of life one finds the same rigidity of thought, even Fundamentalist zeal and intolerance, as well as the condemning of liberated thinkers as heretics.
But by and large, in the university world I found a lot of good, normal people trying to understand reality, life, and the meaning of human existence in this world.
Shame, Shame, Shame
The shame of my involvement in religion surfaced once more on the university campus. “What do you do?” was a common opening question from new people I met. They wanted to know quite naturally what I had been doing. I replied, “I worked in the Philippines”. People then wanted to know what I had done there.
“I did ahhh… rural development work”.
Dad had often said that I should have been a lawyer. I knew how to talk my way out of things. I soon learned how to avoid the dreaded word ‘missionary’ and missionary work. I would state my past occupation in terms of rural development work (aid and development) and conveniently ignore the religious aspect of what I had done. I was embarrassed by my involvement in Fundamentalist Christianity.
But sometimes I still got caught. The aid and development work that I had done sounded interesting to some people and they wanted to know more in order that they could become involved in something similar.
“Oh, wow. Who did you work for? Which organization?”, they would ask. Such questions left me feeling trapped. I did not want to confess that I had worked for the Overseas Missionary Fellowship as it sounded disgustingly religious. So I became adept at muffling around.
“We did projects for CIDA” I would reply. That was partly true. CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) did finance a number of our projects.
But some people were just too damn interested. They would press further, “But which organization did you go out with?”
I then responded, “Ahh, it was a kind of church group thing”. Then I would quickly distance myself with, “But I came to disagree with it all and moved into development work”.
I was reluctant to talk about my religious past. As a consequence of my discomfort, I avoided conversation about God or spiritual matters even when others initiated discussion along these lines. I came to recognize later that my shame over religion was my gradually liberated consciousness making me aware that I had been involved with something inhumane.
I especially felt the shame in anthropology classes. There was a very real antagonism between anthropology and the Christian missionary movement and missionaries were not viewed favorably by anthropologists. They were seen as stubborn, ill-prepared right wing fanatics who unnecessarily intervened in traditional cultures (all right on the mark). As the famous anthropological text said, “Formerly happy pagan villages became quiet and morose places after converting to Protestantism”.
When students asked questions or made comments about missionaries, the disgust was clear in their voices. Professors acted more professionally in disguising their dislike of proselytizing Evangelicals. One anthropology professor, in an effort to be balanced, would recount the positive contributions of the Christian mission movement. “Missionaries have established schools, hospitals, and other beneficial projects”, he would offer, somewhat lamely.
Catholics never seemed to come under as much fire. Perhaps that is because they allow more syncretizing and show more toleration of differing spiritual traditions. You can hardly notice the difference between Catholicism and traditional animistic religions in some areas. Except for the big central churches in barrios, the religious practices and beliefs of villagers in Catholic areas are much the same as they always were. And Catholics seemed to have a more relaxed attitude toward sex.
Even though I had left the missionary movement and the Christian religion entirely, I was too recently removed from it and I still felt the association too personally. That religion had dominated most of my life until just a few years or so previously. I had spent my youth struggling with it and my twenties and part of my thirties involved in promoting it. I still felt the sting of my embarrassing association with that odd, extremist, and too often inhuman religious movement. And I did not yet have enough space or time between my past to fully develop a new identity.
But the move from the small village prairies to the big city anonymity of Vancouver provided freedom to make a fresh start. I stopped attending church. I put my Bible away for good, and I quit praying. I felt that I had prayed, studied the Bible, and attended religious services more than enough for a hundred lifetimes.
Prayer, in particular, had always been an exhausting exercise, even a burden. When I prayed my mind wandered and I had real difficulty trying to imagine God. I knew you were not to be too anthropomorphic- thinking God was human-like. So I tried not to imagine a person. I would try instead to imagine a shining white light on a throne. After all, in Christianity we were taught that God was some kind of supreme monarch. But it was impossible to stay focused on my enthroned bright light and I found it easier to just slip over and imagine naked female bodies. That’s where I usually ended up anyway, in some orgy just like the monk who sought to escape from the evil world in order to find holiness in the loneliness of the desert but who always found himself surrounded by naked dancing nymphs. Some call them angels. Repression of sexuality will do that to a person.
And most discouraging about prayer was the fact that God never answered me.
So rather than try to focus on an invisible Holy Ghost (another Evangelical term for God) I found it more helpful to forget praying and just focus on real people. Also, the Bible itself had said that if you loved others then you also loved God. So why not just think about real people and try to be decent to them. And as for things like worship, why not just walk in the forest, enjoy nature, and feel grateful for life? Why develop a practice of worship as something separate from engaging normal daily life?
Too much of Christian religious worship seemed unhealthy anyway. During worship people would work themselves into a frenzy of thoughtless submission to something outside themselves. In that state they were dangerously open to be manipulated by others, such as priests and pastors.
And the Bible- well, I could no longer read it. I had actually stopped reading it in the Philippines. Everywhere I read in that book I ran into threat, punishment, and the harsh God of Christianity. It was all commands, demands, reprimands, and intolerant bands (eat your heart out Jesse Jackson). I simply wanted to forget all the exclusion, punishment, and brutality that is honored and idealized in that holy book. I wanted to escape the dominating God of the Judeo-Christian religion. I needed a more relaxed, easygoing God, a genuinely good God. I needed a truly humane God.
Church, especially Evangelical churches, would not be the place to find such a God. Church was the last place I wanted to go. My sister Gail had often said, “They (Evangelical preachers) always say the same old crap. Never anything interesting or stimulating. I could preach the sermons myself, I’ve heard them so often”. True. A rigid belief system and a sense of possessing the final and complete truth does not encourage creative thought, exploration, or innovation.
My sisters and I needed to make a complete break with religion in order to properly escape, reorient, and recreate ourselves. If we kept up some token contact with religion then we would only suffer ongoing conflict with the old enslaving ideas and emotions and that would slow down the process of rejoining the human race.
On the other hand, having now completely abandoned religion I could not return to my previous lifestyle of drinking, drugs, or playing around. That would never be an option again.
I was wandering in no man’s land.
My sisters and I were also having struggles with bitterness; with the late in life realization that we had wasted so much of our lives in religion as the worst type of religious addicts, Fundamentalists. The best years of my life, my twenties and part of my thirties, had been wasted in Evangelical Christianity. I was pissed off. Damn it anyway, I could have had so much more fun.
I would never be one of those people who look back and say smugly, but rarely believably, “I have no regrets. I would do exactly the same things all over again”. I had lots of regrets.
Fundamentally, I had always wanted to just be a normal human being, part of normal ‘secular’ life, part of the world, and part of humanity. As Bob Brinsmead had said, “God just wants us to join the human race”.
Initially, it was also difficult to handle the old religious emotions that kept erupting to the surface. Sometimes, on meeting Evangelical friends, I would experience the old fear of being exposed as a heretic- of being condemned, shamed, and rejected. Fear of rejection would then prevent me from saying anything that might upset the religious person. But that response was neither honest nor fair. Religious people would vent any thought or idea they wanted to express. Why could not all of us have that same freedom of speech and be treated equally? I began to reject that one-sided freedom to express ideas.
At other times, while talking to someone who would say something religiously unorthodox, I would feel the old Fundamentalist gut reactions inside- guilt, fear, and shame. At such times I had to consciously stop and ask myself why I felt that way in response to the person’s comments. I then had to trace those emotional reactions back to their religious base, think through the ideas that prompted them, recognize those ideas and responses as no longer valid, and then consciously reject them as inhuman.
It has been a long, slow process of change. As with most problems in life healing rarely comes suddenly but is more often a long process of persistent struggle to change. It has taken me several decades and I am not done yet. I feel like the person who graduated from Prairie and then said years later, “I attended Prairie Bible Institute for only 4 years but I have spent the last 20 years trying to unlearn what I learned there”.
For brief periods of time I even tried to understand something of the logic of scientific atheism. I tried to comprehend the atheist’s perception of reality. Was the whole thing about God and the spiritual just a crock? Did our ancestors make it all up just to satisfy some ancient need for ongoing survival? Extremist selfish gene theory would argue this.
But atheism (or dogmatic materialism) will never be a credible alternative for most people. It simply does not deal with the profound human impulse for meaning and purpose. It tries to orient human understanding to the dogma of meaningless randomness as the explaining principle of reality and life. This dogma simply does not coherently explain the amazing emergence and organization of reality and life. And it does not comprehend or explain the wonder of human consciousness.
But most religion also does not provide a viable alternative viewpoint for explaining reality or life. We need to continually rethink our approaches to understanding or explaining reality and life and continually explore new alternatives. And we need to continually rethink and update concepts of God and spirituality. We need to rethink these, not in terms of the features that have governed all mythology since the beginning (features like threat, punishment, exclusion, domination, destruction), but in terms of a new narrative of reality and life. And unconditional love must be the defining core of any new narrative.
In reflecting back on my religious experience, I don’t know if I ever had what religious people call faith in God. I think I have always felt more of hope; hope that there is something better than this life; hope that there is a good God, a truly humane God.
Human suffering, especially the suffering of children, had often inspired my hope. There had to be something more, something better for those beautiful little spirits who enjoyed so little of life and suffered far too much. I had watched many of them die so needlessly. A deep sense of justice demands something more for them.
Various atheist friends and acquaintances of mine have urged me to take the next logical step and become atheist. But that would require a huge element of denial. It is far too rigid a stance to take in light of the history of human insight and in light of ongoing scientific discovery. Whether we go infinitely down into matter or infinitely out into the cosmos, everywhere life and reality shout Consciousness, profound meaning, and purpose. To attribute it all to chance or nothingness is to take the greatest leap of blind faith denial in the history of the human enterprise. And having explored much of contemporary science and spirituality I am ever more convinced that life is not meaningless but inspired by conscious purpose.
There is one core reality that offers the best explanation for the cosmos, life, and the rising trajectory of all things toward something better and that is the Unconditional Love that has created and now sustains all things.
No Man’s Land
In regard to spiritual matters I eventually realized that I would have to make my own way in life. I had heard of Fundamentalists Anonymous in the US but that organization did not exist in Canada. I would have to find my own way into a free and open future because I knew of no blueprints for freedom and, anyway, what works for one may not suit another. It was exhilarating to be free, but what next?
The move out of religion can be as traumatic as any other major change in life. Religion presents people with a comprehensive worldview and the comforting claim of divine control of life. As disconnected from reality as this may be, it does offer people a sense of predictability and security. Religion claims that God has planned every detail of everyone’s life. And there are rules of right and wrong provided to cover every area of life. Religion does not teach people to think for themselves and function in real freedom.
When the religious worldview starts to lose credibility or to collapse, this can leave some people in a state of confusion and sometimes even result in complete loss of faith in God. At Copernicus’ time many people abandoned their belief in God altogether. They had tied their understanding of God to woefully incorrect views of the universe and life. When elements of that worldview were challenged and found wrong then everything else was suspect and the entire worldview eventually collapsed. That left people confused and uncertain of what to believe. Many then threw the baby out with the bath water.
Fortunately, we have better and more diverse options today than just religious devotion or atheism.