Michael Harshbarger

How I Found My Life


I think existence is absurd. I think the love and connections we share with each other make life worth living. Critical, rational thinking–and the ability to empathize–are qualities we lack most as a species. I think everyone deserves respect until they don’t. I think we should all be treated fairly, without assumptions and stereotypes and preconceived notions.


This was not my worldview when I was a Christian. I think my current worldview is better. This is how I found my life. This is my deconversion story.


During the course of my childhood, I attended many different churches with my family. From Methodist to non-denominational to Calvary Chapel – a relatively laid back church born in California that, at least in the iteration I attended, focused more on “teaching” than “preaching.”


I would describe my parents as evangelical-lite. I am thankful for them; they were, and still are, amazing parents. They taught me right from wrong, to be respectful, and encouraged me in everything I did. I was indoctrinated, for sure, but I always felt they were doing what they felt was right: saving my soul and granting me access to heaven. To them, their beliefs were simply facts, so what else would they do?


Up through high school, I was very Christian and very conservative. I went on mission trips, I read C.S. Lewis and Ann Coulter, I listened to Glenn Beck and supported the “War on Terrorism” in Afghanistan and Iraq. I could make sound arguments for my beliefs, both religious and political. I was on the road to a life of church leadership and voting red; basically, God, Guns, and Country, if you will.


All that being said, the bigotry and casual misogyny that were usually acquired through osmosis in the conservative Christian environment I grew up in never set well with me. My parents never railed against LGBT people or degraded women, but women were not allowed to preach over men at my church. And marriage equality was never considered a possibility: marriage was between one man and one woman. Full stop.


My first venture into examining my own beliefs was brought about by a statistically improbable occurrence: I started dating a Mormon girl (spoiler: she’s my wife now). We liked each other very much. Naturally, that led to some discussion of the differences in our beliefs, which led to attempts at converting each other. I engaged in staggering amounts of research regarding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – a topic I still enjoy immensely.


So but here I was digging up anything I could find that disproved her beliefs: crazy things past profits had said, polygamy, Jesus coming to America, the Book of Abraham, and all kinds of stuff surrounding the founder of the church, Joseph Smith. What she believed was wrong; what I believed was right. I’m still not sure how we stayed together through all of it. It created a small rift between our extended families that will probably never heal.


It took me awhile — a few years at least — to have the obvious epiphany. It took the form of a question: Why hadn’t I applied the same scrutiny and rigorous examination to my own beliefs? The answer was simple. It is so very hard to deconstruct your own beloved worldview and the beliefs and assumptions it is made of. It is scary and uncomfortable. I had it all figured out. It was what my family believed. I was going to heaven, Jesus had paid for my sins on the cross, and that was that. It was terrifying to even remotely consider everything I had believed in for so long could possibly be false. And, maybe even to a greater degree, the thought of disappointing my parents was unbearable.


It was a long and drawn out process, my deconversion. I think these things usually are. I had had doubts about various points of faith, belief, and doctrine for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t engaging in the ontology by any means, but some things I would come across or experience or read would cause me to scrunch up my nose like I had caught a whiff of fresh cut onion. My first real brush with doubt occurred at a summer church camp. I was working on getting myself saved.


At the evening worship services, campers would be prayed over by camp staff and hit the ground like they had caught a left hook from Mike Tyson. It was essentially a Benny Hinn reenactment, with a little less flair. I never felt the Spirit in that manner, although I’m sure some of the others felt they truly did. What horrified me the most was the playacting done by a friend I had brought to camp with me. He would go down, face first, anytime anyone came near him. He wasn’t particularly religious and so he seemed to think that was just what one was supposed to do at church camp. After laying there for a few seconds he would open his eyes and look around a bit — usually at me — and smile. I didn’t take this as hard evidence that the whole thing was a farce, but it did bring to mind the following questions: Was everyone else doing the same thing? Was everyone feigning these actions because they were supposed to? Or was I one of a handful that had something so wrong inside that we couldn’t be touched by the Spirit?


Holy Spirit possession aside, the main encounter I had with doubt at these church camps was this being saved business. How would one know salvation was secured? What were the proper procedures one should follow to ensure the saving was legitimate? So I set about collecting evidence, which just amounted to watching what other campers did just before they proclaimed themselves saved. Singing, being prayed for, reciting the save-me-Jesus prayer (“Jesus, Father God, I admit that I am a sinner, I ask you to into my heart and confess you as my lord and savior…”), raising hands, all of these happened in varying frequency among the newly saved. One thing, however, happened in every single instance: crying.


So, I had to cry.


It became my finish line, my Everest. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. I said the prayers, I sang the songs, I raised my hands to my God. I couldn’t cry. For some reason, the tears would not come. What was wrong with me? Was I not meant to be saved? Maybe the Calvinists were right; maybe I was not one of the elect and there was nothing I could do about it.


Finally, during an oddly timed afternoon worship gathering, I managed to will a few tears loose from their ducts. That counted, right? It had too. I convinced myself I had finally done it. I was saved. I was going to heaven. More importantly, I was avoiding hell. Thank God. Still, I distinctly recall walking back to the cabin I was assigned to sleep in. Rows of double-bunked beds lined the walls. I climbed into my top-level bed. My mind raced with questions, namely: was I really saved? After a few minutes of intense contemplation I decided that, yes, I had successfully extended the invitation to Jesus to take up residence in my heart. And he wasn’t allowed to reject such an invite. The tears came much easier then.


Before my family started attending a Calvary Chapel branch we were members of the red-blooded evangelical non-denominational church. The preeminent live event at the time was something called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. Just so there is no ambiguity here: it scared the ever living shit out of me.


All the skits followed a similar pattern: a person died, a person stood before the pearly gates, a person was told “well done my good and faithful servant” and allowed into the light or told “sorry, we will watch you burn from up here.” The latter was followed by all the lights going out, red strobe lights flashing, and the entrance of horrifying — to a preteen at least — demons in B-movie masks that would drag the screaming person to hell. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead. It affected me is such a way that I asked my dad to come with me to the front after the call-for-sinners-to-be-saved was made. I knew I had been saved, but I wanted to double down on the whole missing hell thing.


Another seminal moment took place at the aforementioned Calvary Chapel branch. At the time the church was relatively young and was housed in a strip mall. The youth group was tiny; maybe four or five young souls. Back then I was perplexed by dinosaurs — it probably imprinted on my brain due to my love of Jurassic Park. I mulled over the mystery of these long extinct beasts and worked up the gumption to ask the youth group leader about it. What about the dinosaurs? Where did they fit into God’s creation timeline? Wouldn’t Adam have been like holy shit, what are these things and how am I still alive?


As you can imagine, the answer I received only left the situation more muddied. The nice young man did his best, referencing certain parts of the Bible that mentioned Leviathan or Great Beasts or whatever. It ended with the statement many of us who, as young Christians, leaned toward skepticism are familiar with: You’ll just have to ask God when you get to heaven. For the rest of my Christian days that occupied the top spot on my list of questions for Our Father.


So, the Mormon Girl. With sprinkles of doubt taking the form of flies in my Christian Life punchbowl, I think I would have reached atheism one way or another. I was too curious; too full of questions; too skeptical. But I think it would have taken a lot longer. I am grateful for this unlikely happening, and even more grateful I get to share my life with the one who, albeit completely unintentionally, helped open my eyes and lead me on the path to living as the real me.


One of the main reasons the Mormon faith is relatively simple to pick apart is due to the time in history in which it was created. It was founded in 1830, which, if my math is correct, is around 1800 years after Christianity began. The amount of information available concerning the birth, development, and subsequent rise of Mormonism dwarfs what we have access to for the same aspects of Christianity. The history of the LDS church is all there, readily accessible.


The same cannot be said for Christianity proper. The Gospels were written down, at earliest estimates, 80 years after they supposedly occurred. Early churches took countless forms and traded doctrines like baseball cards. Canon was firmly established in AD 325 at the Council of Nicaea. So pouring over primary sources was just not an option. Possessing a history degree, I was undaunted. I read everything I could get my hands on and actually took the time to contemplate, even meditate on, what this religion was that I so tightly clung to.


As I progressed in my research the list of problem areas within my beliefs could have filled a thousand notebooks. But I will keep it concise. My main concerns became: 1) the history of human beliefs and when and where Judeo-Christian religions formed; 2) the problem of evil; 3) the unreasonableness of creation; and 4) faith (believing in things not seen).


Let’s start with the last one. If God’s ultimate goal is to have all of his beloved children return to him and live with him in paradise for eternity, it follows that he should make it as easy as possible to believe in him. It appears this was a tactic he disagreed with. First, he is invisible. He’s everywhere at once, but never actually shows himself to anyone, besides a few tribes in the Middle East 3000 years ago. If God really wanted to make himself known he could simply appear to everyone all at once; or commandeer every single TV and computer in existence and show his face and proclaim his plan; or briefly take all seven billion of us up to heaven for, say, five minutes and say I’m real and you should believe in me so you can all avoid burning forever in a pit of fire. Pretty much anything would’ve been more effective than what he did: dictating his commandments to uneducated sheep herders at a time when mass dissemination was impossible.


Instead, we are asked to have faith. The most important decision in the life of a human is supposed to be made without any hard, physical evidence. This has led to thousand of religions all claiming to be the true way to God, to salvation. This also means that, at the very least, God is allowing half his children to choose wrong and go to hell. That is unacceptable and ludicrous and morally bankrupt. The difference between an invisible god and no god is exactly nil.


Concerning problem area number one, humans have worshiped gods from the moment we saw lightning and came up with whatever we could to explain it. Our ignorant ancestors decided that there must be some higher level of being running the show. That would have been the perfect time for God to step in and say hey, it’s me, don’t worry, believe in me, all is well. Instead, every flavor of deity and belief was put forth to make sense of human life. Untold numbers of civilizations and religions would come and go before God decided to set up shop. It makes no sense and, again, is terrible planning and bad management for an all-knowing deity.


The problem of evil (problem area number two for those scoring at home) is so self-evident that I don’t feel I need to get into too much explanation. Suffice it to say, any deity that allows the following to occur will is not worthy of worship: children starving to death by the thousands every day; the Holocaust (his chosen people!); AIDS, cancer, and all such horrendous afflictions; the Black Plague; countless natural disasters; rape, torture, murder, war. The list goes on and on. None of this jives with a god that professes to love us and has the power to do anything at any time.


The third issue, the unreasonableness of creation, is probably my favorite because it is often overlooked. The Christian God is purported to be many things — all of the omnis: benevolent, scient, present. He is perfect in every way. He lacks for nothing. So why create humans at all? What’s the point? He can’t be lonely, he can’t need attention, he can’t need worship, he can’t need conversation. Even if he was just bored he could have stuck with angels. There was no risk there. Instead, he opted to create us with the almost-certainty that we would break his asinine rules which caused horrible things to happen constantly for the rest of Earth’s life cycle. What is that if not pure evil? Lucifer receives all the blame for the atrocities that happen to us. I have a retroactive suggestion for God: don’t create him. Or get rid of him, instantly. The more you examine creation the more it appears as nothing more than a sick experiment conducted by a restless deity with nothing better to do than create a hapless species that would be subjected to untold horrors, half of which were destined to end up in eternal torture and anguish.


All of these problems would take turns bubbling to the surface and sliding back into the depths of my mind as I investigated my beliefs in my early twenties. For the longest time, I could not admit to myself the conclusion I was drawing near to. I would mark it down as a doubting phase, a part of life that most believers go through (according to those I discussed a few of my concerns with). I wasn’t falling away, I was just finding out what I truly believed and my faith would be all the stronger for it. I would come back into the fold and find myself right back on the straight and narrow.


Only that’s not what happened. I couldn’t shut off my mind. I couldn’t proceed with so many unanswered questions. “God will reveal himself in his own time” or “just have faith” or “some things go unanswered until the afterlife” were positions I could never take.


And then I was alone; adrift in life without a group, a tribe.


But only until I discovered that there were others like me. Unbelievers, atheists, free thinkers, the nones (as in no religious affiliation). Not in person, mind you — I was in the American Heartland for crying out loud — but in cyberspace. I wasn’t really alone. There were thousands, millions even, of people just like me. People struggling with their beliefs and coming out the other side. It was OK not to believe. I found podcasts, websites, books, and heroes (miss you, Hitch). So many folks were expressing so many of things I had said only in my head. So many had experiences similar to mine. I wasn’t defective. I wasn’t a disappointment. I was me, and I didn’t have to be anyone else.


Even after these life-changing discoveries it still took me a few years to admit to myself that I had completely given up on gods and religion. I was driving home from work one evening when I had whatever the opposite of a Come To Jesus Moment is. I was sitting at a red light waiting to turn left, about 100 yards from our apartment. I even said it out loud: I am an atheist. A life’s worth of indoctrination and Sunday morning church services revolted against this statement within me. I actually tried to shake it off, saying to myself Nah, surely I’m not. But I was. And there was no turning back.


I handled the ensuing conversations with my wife about as poorly as one could handle this type of situation. I came on way too strong. Everything I had been discussing with myself came out in sharp bursts. We barely survived it. Many couples do not. I am lucky enough to be married to a woman that loves me for me and not for my beliefs. She hung around; I changed my attitude. We made it through it. She is my hero.


It is still a struggle each day. I cannot discuss my worldview with very many people, but a select few have allowed me to be my true self, and no expression of gratitude will ever be enough (having said that, thanks, Scott). Both sides of our family are very religions. The Midwest is very religious. America is very religious. The world is very religious. Atheists are the least trusted group in the United States, and probably the world.


But the tides are slowly changing. Folks everywhere are expressing their non-belief, even in parts of the world where it is punishable by death. Reason and rationality are becoming more valued with each passing generation. Unshackling from childhood beliefs is becoming more common.I believe this trend will continue. And I believe the world will become a better place for it, with less strife and less war and less hate. And a lot more love and compassion.


To paraphrase Sam Harris, no society has ever been harmed by becoming more reasonable. It is a simple thing — a straightforward thing — if you think about it. May humankind always strive to become more reasonable. It is our only hope.


Michael Harshbarger lives in Southern Indiana with his wife and two children. Reading is his passion, and writing is a by-product of that. He would like to thank his family and friends for humoring him by reading what he writes. His answer to any question is 42.

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