Hellfighters

I. This is how it all started

I was raised Christian, but had never been particularly devout. When you're young, you just do as your parents do – and my parents were "twice a year Christians", usually only going to church on Christmas and Easter. But when we moved to a new house up the street from a large Presbyterian church, my parents began attending regularly. My mom expressed some guilt that she hadn't been more vigilant getting my brother and I involved in the church. I attended sporadically out of a desire to do something "moral", but I wasn't particularly serious about it.

Around the time when I was 14, my brother had been attending another church more regularly. I didn't hear much about it, but man did I ever hear about God from him. He would provoke me in arguments, trying to show that I wasn't a real Christian. Mostly, his provocations just left me annoyed and frustrated. But one week, I'd had a big fight with my dad, and was grounded. My brother offered to take me to church with him, to a Saturday night youth group called Hellfighters. I was angry at my parents and just wanted to get out of the house, so I agreed.

We arrived at a small building that looked nothing like a church. It was pretty modern-looking, and there were snacks and beverages, pool tables, and of course (since it was the 90s) teens with their shirts tucked into their jeans. It was the first time I'd ever been to a youth group of any kind.

We gathered in groups for short Bible study in the back rooms of the building. I have no recollection of what we talked about. But after about an hour of that, we met in the main room for "worship". There was a short sermon, and then... it started. One guy spontaneously ran laps around the room, and my brother just laughed and said, "That's just so-and-so," like it was to be expected of this guy. The music started, and people started closing their eyes, waving their hands, and speaking in tongues. Some people cried, and others fell over. I felt the Holy Spirit moving in me – a palpable sense of presence – and I fell to the floor, speaking in tongues. I don't remember how the night ended, but I remember I stayed there for quite a while, and lots of people came and laid hands on me in prayer. 

II. On fire for God

With my friend Joy in 1994. Yes, that's a belt loop.
Shortly after my initiation, I attended a weekend Bible training camp at the same building. We spent a lot of time in devotional-like Bible study groups, but the camp was mainly focused on witnessing: how to approach people, and how to answer common objections and questions, like "How do you know the Bible is true?" Between my initiation and the camp, I was now fully immersed in the church. At one point, five out of the seven nights of each week were spent in church-related activities, from large "fellowship" groups to small "mentoring" groups, interspersed with three or four regular church services. We would occasionally go "witnessing", passing out gospel tracts and asking people about their fate in the hereafter. At home, I would often spend hours in my "prayer closet", recapturing those feelings of God's presence that had become almost an addictive high.

At school, I no longer felt like I belonged. I carried two Bibles with me to school every day, and did some Bible studies at lunch with the few devout Christians I knew. At the encouragement of my church leaders, I threw away most of my secular music, and physically destroyed anything I perceived to have an overtly anti-Christian message. I spent less time with my "unsaved" friends, because I didn't think they shared my values – they were "worldly", doing as normal teenagers do with sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. I wanted to be right with God.

III. Retrospective

I'll spare the details of my deconversion, because I've written about it extensively (if you're new to the blog, try here, here, and here for starters). My recent foray into some old Jars of Clay albums got me thinking about the experience itself.

Firstly, I'm amazed at how readily and uncritically we adopt the behaviors of our peers. That first night, people were jumping around, crying, falling on the floor, and speaking in tongues. In subsequent weeks and months I witnessed miraculous healings, prophecy, and even heard a claim about a guy who raised his wife from the dead. To an outsider, it all sounds almost comedically absurd; it'd be funnier if there weren't so many people who had such sincere convictions about it. I'd never partaken in any of these activities, or even seen them, and I was immediately swept up in them. I was surrounded by friendly peers and kind, seemingly knowledgeable adults – and it sure felt real. Not once did I stop to look at what I was doing and say, "What the hell is this? Why am I behaving this way? Why have I accepted all these beliefs?" For me, it was an emotionally and socially driven experience.

Secondly, the subculture was very insular, as my love for Jars of Clay attested. When you're a devout Christian, your faith is the single most important element in your life – it's your lifeline to God. Accordingly, anything that could pull you away from that faith – including secular music, movies, games, even unsaved friends and family – is considered an obstacle. I wasn't necessarily made to feel guilty about having doubt – even my youth pastor, in a heartfelt sermon, expressed his own struggles with doubt – but it was viewed as a stumbling block to be quickly resolved so that you can be "on fire" again. There was a lot of guilt about our daily behavior as well – I confessed my sins often, even if I wasn't exactly sure what I could have been doing wrong; heck, if I thought I hadn't been doing anything wrong, I figured I was guilty of pride.

As I got older – but still prior to my deconversion – I realized church life didn't have to be that way. But there was always a lot of guilt, because guilt is woven into the very fabric of Christian theology. The whole reason you need to be "saved" is because you are guilty of the most heinous crime of all: being human. You're born bearing the sinful nature of your forefathers (which is supposed to explain this), and there's no act of kindness, no amount of goodwill, that can save your doomed soul – only faith can save you. If that sounds like a contrived guilt trap, that's because it fucking is.


IV. Apostasy

All experiences in the church are of course unique, but in the years since my deconversion I've been astonished at how many people I've met who had remarkably similar experiences, particularly at the emotional level. It was only when we were able to detach ourselves from the powerful emotional and social elements that we were able to examine our faith with the same skeptical eye that should be applied to all claims about reality.

None of this should be misconstrued to say that I deconverted because I wasn't happy with my experience in the church. I knew that my experience was not necessarily representative of the church as a whole, and my later years as a Christian saw me exposed to much more liberal theology in which tolerance of other religions and critical inquiry were encouraged. I deconverted because when I finally undertook that critical inquiry, I came to believe that the claims and tenets of Christianity are unsubstantiated. It was many more years before I discarded all notions of divine beings (I considered myself a "theistic agnostic" for many years), but the process there was a similar one of self-reflection and skeptical inquiry.

Leaving the faith is one of the best things I ever did. It's liberating to root one's moral values in our innate human solidarity – our shared needs, interests and responsibilities – rather than the arbitrary whims of a capricious deity. It's liberating to treat all ideas equally – to believe that no idea is sacred, and that all claims about reality should be investigated with skepticism. It's liberating to know that ignorance is our greatest threat, and that exposing ourselves to contrary opinions and counter-intuitive facts is not only healthy but essential for our growth as human beings.

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