Sophie’s journey started like most of ours. She was a lifelong, devoted Christian who couldn’t imagine being anything else. Regardless of the side of the faith line you happen to be on, you will identify with at least some parts of her story. We could have each written a story about our personal journey. But that would have been a whole other book. Sophie’s journey is the one we chose as representative.
She is the most open to Christian ideas than any of us. She is uncomfortable with being called an atheist. Sophie is what many Christians would call a nonresistant nonbeliever. She was hesitant to join the project. But we thought her story was worth telling.
During the early stages of losing our faith, we were all what you might term nonresistant nonbelievers. We did everything we could to hold on to our faith. When we discovered the Unbelievable? podcast, we listened every week, and went through the back catalog. We remained even more unconvinced after 10 years’ worth of the best Christian arguments.
Sophie’s story is our story. It can be seen on every page of the book. It can be read between every line. But you don’t have to work that hard. We have broken up her story into three segments and posted them throughout the book. That way, our personal journeys will remain front and center. Don’t get lost in the science and philosophy and the counter-apologetics. This is all the outpouring of the hearts of real people who took real journeys. This is Sophie’s journey, and our journey, and possibly yours.
It should have never happened and I believed wholeheartedly, it couldn't. Apostasy was absolutely not on the cards. God would never let me go, nor I, He.
But a random google search for some apologetic explanation I was seeking, threw up the link to the new ex-Christians website. I had never heard of such creatures. Indeed they were to me, like Unicorns and did not, or rather, could not exist. I clicked. My uptight world unravelled.
Like Justin, my factory settings were very much Christian. Parents and grandparents on both sides were Christians, with the grandparents on the French side of my family having de-converted from Catholicism to Protestantism.
My parents were well travelled and very much “people” orientated. As a result, I was exposed to most forms of Christianity in the UK and a good number in France. Whilst visiting friends and family we attended Methodist, United Reformed, Anglican, Salvation Army, Eglise Réformé, many evangelical churches, Baptists and various non-denominational charismatic churches. We had people from all over the world visit and were exposed to Muslims, Messianic Jews, and to Christians from churches and missions in Africa. I myself attended summer camps in France and the UK run by churches as well as a 3-month stint with the Pentecostal African Americans in the projects of South Philadelphia for Tony Campolo's charity which contrasted to the formal, grotesquely wealthy, white churches we also collaborated with.
My early days in the 70's were spent in a local UK Baptist church until an alleged affair by the pastor split the church. Fortunately, a new church was springing up in town. It was part of the Barney Coombes and Bob Mumford, Salt and Light movement. Fresh from the other side of the pond they offered family and love like never before. A little disorientated by the recent church split, my parents gravitated towards this new church and what followed was around 10 years of what can quite reasonably be classed as life in a cult.
The church was proudly charismatic and professed the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The more upbeat music, talking in tongues, murmurs of healings during meetings at least made for a slightly less dull service, and to my delight, there were other kids to hang out with. We had youth group, summer camps, lots of bring-and-share picnics and outdoor meetings. We were a family and alive in Jesus and frankly, the only real, 'on-fire' church. We participated in ecumenical gatherings, but not without a certain pitying for the other so-called “dead” churches. Any church whose services didn't last 3 hours - replete with words of knowledge, spontaneous dance and prophecy - was clearly 'dead to the Spirit' and deemed very much second class.
Under the happy-clappy veneer was, however, a darker story. This particular non-denominational group were part of what was called the 'Shepherding Movement' which reached its zenith in the late 70's and early 80's. This was an almost formal structure of 'shepherds', (much like elders and pastors) who looked after their 'sheep'. Everyone had a Shepherd! However, it was more to do with accountability than pastoral care and in the hands of inexperienced people, it soon turned sour. Grown adult congregates were “shepherded” to the extent that they were told whether or not to keep a pet, or job, or who to date. A woman who had fled a violent relationship was strongly advised to physically discipline her child. I believe a wooden spoon was the recommended instrument. In this vein, my parents were told that my father's job was interfering with his ability to participate in church activities (and they were many) and my mother was told, for some unfathomable reason, to renounce her French heritage and be “cut off” from France.
The control and absurd prescriptions hurt significant amounts of people. It is worth noting that many high up in the movement have since conceded it was mismanaged and that it caused upset. This was an apology of sorts, though seeking forgiveness from those abused by this process, didn't seem to form a large part of it.
During our time there, if you towed the line, you were fine. However, my parents proceeded with caution and for that, they were on many occasion told they were “out of the kingdom” or the “blessing”. Their questioning was frowned upon, they were shunned, and there were many other instances of cult-like behaviour. In the end, our family were mostly viewed as troublemakers, reinforced by the fact that my sister and I were two of the only kids not to attend the religious school set up by the church.
As a child and young teenager, I was mostly shielded from this lunacy, although the youth group did have its own 'mini-me' version. Relationships with the opposite sex were closely monitored, confessing our sins to one another encouraged - often in unhealthy ways, and popular culture and music were very much frowned upon. But we were free in Jesus, yes amen, that we were!
Reflecting back on the summer camps, I seriously wonder what was going on. Impressionable young people whipped up into emotional frenzies was the staple of our many worship and teaching meetings. Being slain in the spirit was something that was actively encouraged, and I confess to keeling over backwards to the floor. For me, this was utter proof that God existed and that he was changing me from the inside. In hindsight, I can rationalise the experience as a clear situation where conditioning, hype, group thinking and slight hysteria were the influencers. There was, of course, no lasting impact of such experiences.
One night on the camps, it was reported one of the boys' rooms had been attacked by an evil spirit. Terrified young teenagers saw a floating entity and called the leaders to pray it away. With their intervention, it apparently flew towards the girls’ sleeping quarters, so they prayed protection and a shield appeared over the building. Angels were then posted at their dorm door for the rest of the night as their feet and light were perceived. Unsurprising, like the disciples discovering the empty tomb, come the morning, this story was all over camp and all we talked about! I dutifully recorded it in my diary as only a teenage girl can. I am recalling this because in recent times I have spoken to one of the people in the room. Now an Anglican vicar, he has no recollection of the event. I was dumbfounded as this has been an experience where I had talked to the eyewitness, the adults had been involved and I had written the account down very soon after the event. Had it never happened? Was it a story that got out of control at the time? I guess I'll never know.
For my family, things came to a head with this church after a particularly badly bungled handling of a situation where, a young father in the church with cancer was repeatedly prophesied over and assured he would be healed, but in fact died. The following week, instead of asking themselves some difficult questions, this loving church clapped, sang and danced like nothing had happened. The widow fled shortly followed by my parents. Traumatised, they sought sanctuary in an Anglican denomination and sat back to enjoy quiet liturgy and a lack of intrusion.
Whilst my experience may sound quite negative to some, and even weird to others, I had somehow in the process managed to separate man's actions from God's. Church and Christians weren't perfect. I'd understood that much, but my view of God was very much intact as a loving heavenly father that had plans to prosper and not to harm me.
For me, it was time for university where I continued to attend the Christian Union and a local Baptist church. Like Justin, I had strayed away for a little during my adolescence but had come back to the faith and renewed my commitment to God and claiming it was now my faith, not an inherited parental one. Looking back, I don't necessarily feel I had experienced non-theism sufficiently to really form a coherent alternative worldview. At no time did I believe there was no God. If you're brought up in church, the world only makes sense with a deity, and any falling away is to indulge sin (and by sin I mean such horrors as listening to rock music, not praying, dating a non-believer and not reading your bible enough). Making recommitments seems to be a regular feature of adolescence as you are rapidly changing and yesterday's conversion may not have been executed quite right. With the idea of eternal conscious torment ever present, you continually make sure you have dotted the i's and crossed the t's.
Up until this point into my 20's, I had had my inevitable doubts and questions, but largely, Christianity made absolute sense. The world was a mess, and humans had made it this way by their wilful disobedience to God. God provided morality, an overall objective purpose to life, the explanation to why we're here, forgiveness of our broken nature and the comfort of eternal life. We had all fallen short but thanks to Jesus we had a way back to God and anyone truly seeking, would find Him. God's presence was something you experienced and talked about in terms of a relationship. I thought I had a grasp of the basic tenets whilst understanding that there were some minor differences between groups, but God was big enough to handle this.
The biggest test of my faith was during my late 20's when, following a triggering illness of little note, I developed chronic post-viral fatigue lasting five years. Whilst many in life suffer significantly more than I ever did, it is still a cruel disease where a perfectly fit, non-smoking, healthy-eating person is reduced to an exhausted mess. Life is very much condensed and has to become carefully managed. Signed-off from work, I had a lot of time on my hands, and swathes of time to think. I used this time to press further into God and His Word.
At this point in time, I was married and part of the Vineyard churches in the UK, again a reasonably charismatic denomination. So for a while I endured patiently and became fair game for amateur prophets and those with the gifts of discernment to cavalierly project their views of when I was going to be healed and what was at the spiritual root of my bad luck.
I navigated through the inevitable “this is punishment”, which led to repentance about anything and everything I could possibly think of, to the “long-suffering Christian walk” that endured Paul's thorn in the side. From the utterly vacuous rubbish spouted by the health and wealth gospel proponents (the likes of Kenneth Copeland for example), I had to juggle both the illness and Christianity's view of it. I cried out to God in repentance, for forgiveness and healing. With no change over many years, I continue to read books on suffering and gradually moderated my view. Stupid me! God is not my candy machine in which just the right incantations entered would spit out a dose of healing. No! Suffering and trials purified us. We were even to rejoice in them as they developed perseverance, character and hope as mentioned in Romans 5.
I considered that I must be special, set apart and chosen for this path. Nothing was happening to me that God didn't know about, it was all part of the plan, or at the very least would be worked out eventually for good, and if not in this life, in the life to come. This was to be my only comfort, and this had to be sufficient. I threw myself into embracing the suffering and trying to use the experience to draw closer to God. Of course, some good things did occur. I became much more understanding of other people's struggles and plights, the unfairness, and hardships of life. For that, I am 'almost' grateful for the experience and the opportunity to grow. However, I would class this is as life experience rather than attributable to anything supernatural.
Throughout the process, I endeavoured to seek God, to know him better. I needed some feeling, help, knowledge or experience, just something, that would bring peace, joy and greater intimacy with God even in the midst of suffering. God needed to make some difference in my life - any difference that would help me hang on - or reveal himself so that his grace was sufficient.
The heavens stayed silent. I cannot count the number of days and nights I prayed in utter anguish. Like Job's friends, my friends tended to find my complaining and questioning too intense and over time, they withdrew. But broken, desperate, and literally without strength was good, right? This is exactly when God moves and can be found? But for me, He was not there, save for some bible passages that I clung to which I took to clearly be signs of God speaking to me about patience, long timelines and slow progress. This was centred around the Israelites story of being freed from Egypt. And so my chronic fatigue captivity was my Egyptian enslavement and my long recovery the Israelite trudge to the promised land. I infused meaning into the parallels and clung to faith and God for my hope, peace and freedom.
The constant reconciling of the irreconcilable, of a loving God leaving me in anguish, did take its toll and the many positive stories in church about God moving in people's lives over what seemed to me trivial events, rendered church an untenable place to be. Charismatic churches very often don't do suffering well, so one day, unable to stand it anymore, with no help from God and no discernible changes, I walked out of this church and never went back there.
Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I was treated badly at the hands of Christianity, even then I could still, separate Christians from God. I bare no ill towards those who prayed, prophesied and spoke tongues over me. They thought they were helping, despite it only serving to deepen my frustration and pile up failed promise over failed promise. From people having words of knowledge about my toenail varnish (I kid you not) which apparently indicated that God was intimately involved in my every move, to the building of false hope that I would be miraculously healed, to even stranger assertions that my condition was somehow linked to needing to repent of “lesbianism in the past in my family tree” (which of course could never be verified), I see the whole experience as slightly weird, but part of the fabric of life in general, and my life in particular, within a charismatic setting.
Whilst correlation isn't causation, with leaving, physical recovery followed. Just as randomly as the illness set in, the fatigue slowly subsided.
The next decade or so passed in much happier ways with a move to a ski resort in the French Alps. Feeling better, I tried to attend the local English speaking church, but quickly found the doubts and questionings that had developed, more than drowned out the singing and sermons. I stopped attending completely but still believed in God.
This slow withdrawing from church, will no doubt play well into the view from Christians that this “backsliding” is the inevitable outcome to drifting away from Christian community. I don't think that's true. It was church I disliked, not God. I never once doubted in His existence. Stopping Christian fellowship wasn't because I wished to live more hedonistically or up my quota of sin, frankly, it was to preserve my sanity from the cognitive dissonance that was getting too loud.
As a result of the new life in France with no church, I only developed secular friends, and, something about them bothered me.
I had assumed that it was only with Christians that you could share, connect and be known and that all secular folk had god-shaped holes, with ultimately empty lives, and that they were wracked with guilt and in rebellion to the Almighty. They, of course, knew He existed, they just wanted to live their selfish lives.
However, this didn’t' seem to bare out. My non-theist friends’ lives were no more empty or full than my theist friends' lives. Some, who clearly stated their atheism, were some of the best parents I'd encountered. They had good, loving family relationship. For the most part, they led pretty wholesome, happy lives and some even confessed to wishing they could believe in a god and had sincerely tried, but not been able.
This last comment, I recall, shook me to the core. Surely God does not turn someone away who would desire Him? This made no sense in my world, but I was on the brink of discovering a whole new paradigm.
I can appreciate to many, that this story so far is nothing remarkable. What follows may read as the inevitable awakening from a fundamentalist upbringing to a slightly wider and frankly obvious, view of life. But at the very least, I hope that my story legitimises my Christian faith as many believers will first seek to discredit one's story on a technicality “You probably didn't really believe. Genuine Christians can't deny Christ”.
I understand it's hard to be challenged. I just hope that believers accept that I was most definitely, all-in. I was a bible believing, virgin conception affirming, literal bodily resurrection asserting, Christian. I had repented, resetting myself repeatedly like an etch-a-sketch with the full understanding of how I was both a pearl of great price and but broken and deeply sinful in God’s eyes. I had remained steadfast, prayed earnestly, sought with faith, put on the full armour, battled, and believed wholeheartedly. I had what I considered a relationship with Jesus. My faith doubts were never about if there was a god, but rather what His character was like and what His will was for my life.
The day I stumbled on the website ex-Christians, was like a mind bomb going off. I assumed quite wrongly, the site would be bursting full of atheists, hell-bent on sin and hard-hearted towards God. However, reading the testimonies I could not believe what I was hearing! Story after story of people, desperately turning to God and finding nothing. Desperate times, desperate cries, ongoing misery. Pastors, worship leaders, ex-nuns, theology students, seminary students, missionaries, devout believers who had tried their level best to keep their faith, but had lost it.
I'm not sure I can convey the utter bewilderment of meeting these unicorns. Ex-Christians were not meant to have tried to preserve their faith any more than non-Christians would have tried and failed, to believe it. It was all about disobedience: Short-term earthly gain but with the full knowledge you were giving up eternal life. Furthermore, many of these people, some of them now atheists (which I deemed in the same category as devil worshippers) seemed very knowledgeable and knew the Bible better than I did.
Initially, desperate to shore up my faith, but also wanting to know more, I did what I've since discovered many de-converters do, and devoured information. Suddenly everything was of interest and I had a great hunger to learn. I read into evolution, cosmology, anthropology, neuroscience, ancient religions, other worldviews, the psychology of belief and mystical experiences. I listened to many de-conversion stories. I realised my difficult questions had never really been addressed and now, there was a plethora of new ones I had not even considered!
I recall the disconcerting, but euphoric moments of discovering Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, whose irreverence and boldness, left me wide-eyed with my hand over my mouth. I encountered those who'd been theists like Dan Barker, John Loftus, Rob Price and Ryan Bell - all who've been guests on the Unbelievable? show, as well as others, like Bart Campolo the de-converted son of Tony Campolo, who I'd worked for in the States.
I dove into apologetics especially with regards the horror passages of the Old Testament, only to find that it seems to come down to a particular word that is under contention that has, or hasn't, been translated just right, or that unless you comprehend the entire cultural context and had just the right hermeneutics to apply, you'd miss the point entirely. More than often, there was no explanation and verses were classed under “difficult”. Had God really chosen to play so fast and loose with the truth, I wondered? It was a minefield and, whilst apologetics may help believers understand, it was starting to make less of an impact on the sceptic I was fast becoming, who was trying to evaluate the validity of the claims.
It was through researching, I discovered the Unbelievable? podcast show and set about consuming all the episodes sometimes at high speed to ingest as much as possible. Perusing the topics I was convinced this was going to help and also I was happy to be stacking the odds in favour of Christianity. The show is excellent, the quality of guests unsurpassed and Justin does an amazing job of letting both sides have their say. Many questions I had pondered, or some that existed in the dark recesses of my mind but had yet to be given form, were discussed. I recall week after week intently listening to the theists' answers, desperately wanting and needing good solid replies to buttress up my crumbling beliefs. To my chagrin, my overall recollection was that the theist viewpoint often left me unsatisfied, and worse, the atheist view seemed much more coherent.
Deconstruction is not a pleasant process. It is akin to being skinned alive. As layers of my belief, world view and my very essence were peeled away or crumbled, it was not without horror, resistance and kicking and screaming the entire way that I was dragged out of my Christian worldview. I did not want to lose my faith, but the desire to know became greater than the desire to believe. It was only when I wanted the cold truth rather than the comforting lie that I could be honest with myself about my findings.