Past is Prologue: Part 4

The most crucial stage in any young apostate’s story comes in the months following deconversion. The initial act of coming out as non-religious is exciting, full of the kind of adrenaline that makes the world bright and clear, that rattles your nerve and makes you feel alive. This settles into a steady revolutionary glow, the simple happiness of nonconformity and rebellion against tradition.

But, like the chemistry of any relationship, that fades too, and you are forced to confront reality. Humans by and large need community, acceptance, and consensus in order to believe anything. If you remain in your original religious environemnt, community and consensus will not be found, and your new identity will begin to crumble. These days, the apostate will seek solace on the internet, browsing atheist forums and watching videos of George Carlin and Ricky Gervais til the early hours of the morning. But at the end of the day, the internet is just voices in the dark, unable to provide the kind of personal engagement we need to believe and to belong.

Because no matter what we rationalists claim, giving up faith is not a simple matter of evidence and logic. Apostasy is also the rejection of an identity, often a core identity, an act equivalent to renouncing your citizenship, or deciding to never speak of Joss Whedon again. It is casting yourself loose from old social ties in the hope that someone, somewhere will catch you.

It hurt, and I was scared. I’ve learned since that the one thing I’m afraid of most is being afraid, so I hid, from the pain and from the fear. I buried myself behind walls of intellectualism. I pretended that the pain and fear were irrational, that they didn’t exist at all. I fancied myself a rare true rational soul in a world of emotion-driven and irrational people, failing to realize that ignoring one’s own emotional state is as irrational as is ignoring any other empirical evidence.

And yet the pain got through. I lost myself in countless religious arguments, feeling the need to prove myself over and over again to people who would never believe that my viewpoint was valid. I watched the hell out of George Carlin and Ricky Gervais. And despite the fact that my family and most of my friends accepted my change, I still felt harried, felt like I no longer belonged.

I needed space and anonymity, an environment where I could introduce myself as a nonbeliever and be accepted as one, without spending hours explaining how and why I’d changed. I don’t know if I realized that consciously, but I came up with a solution nevertheless: a plan, hatched six or seven months after leaving PHC, to travel around the world without flying. Consciously, I thought it would be a grand adventure. Unconsciously, it was an excuse to get away, and stay away, until I was ready to come back.

I rented an apartment in my hometown in Montana to drum up the work I’d need to make it all the way, and divided my time between that, old friends, and reading. The structures of my old mind continued to collapse, leaving nothing behind but dust.

I was entering the deep woods, and though the clear paths were already fading, the only way I saw was forward. In June of 2011, I boarded a container ship bound for Antwerp. Steaming out of the Charleston harbor, dolphins leaping in our wake, I felt a crack in the emotional impassivity I’d cultivated, felt some of that that old shivering excitement. The wind was stiff and salty, and everything was changing.

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  • Chris Ponder

    Tim, I don’t know why but I think you might like this book, maybe you’ve already read it? “Losing Moses on the Freeway” by Chris Hedges. Travel safe little buddy.
    Chris Ponder
    Darby, Montana

    P.S. If you haven’t read it, let me know and then put it on your Amazon wish list. :-)

  • Janelle

    I stumbled across your blog because we have some mutual friends on twitter. I love the flow of your writing and how starkingly honest you are. It is a refreshing thing.

    I am a Christian myself and am currently trying to make sense of the hot mess the Church has gotten itself into. I am training to be a counselor and hope to work in the church context and outside of it. I am particularly drawn to people who have left their faith, as I have much empathy for them. When I was just out of college, I had a big crisis of faith and did not know it to be possible to believe anymore. I was still going to church, but in the crux of it, became a practical agnostic. I acted like I believed in God but did not act it out. In fact, I even started working at PHC in the midst of this and was continuously baffled by its Christian but rather closed-off, don’t talk, don’t doubt, don’t be transparent sort of atmosphere. I had a lot of questions but no one could answer them, but when I started going to a church in the denomination of my current seminary, they struggled to try to answer them. Their honestly and humility helped bring me back to faith, in a slow and gradual process.

    I am not trying to re-convert you. I have never been much for that in the first place. I can see why you cannot reconcile faith and reason. Neither can I. I do believe in reason, to a certain extent, but I do not bow down to it in how I apply it to my faith. The integration of faith and reason is a product of Enlightenment theologians who tried to reduce something so intimate, personal, and an on-going event/story to a series of propositions. And maybe you prefer Enlightenment thinkers to Augustine because reason makes sense– I know a lot of people who feel the same way. I think modern, post-enlightenment Christianity is sad, devoid of emotion, hope and love-filled action; it’s not the Christianity I have come to believe in (I think it is even more sad that PHC makes their students write papers which hail these notions.) I do not know if you have read Lesslie Newbigin, but he’s written a really thoughtful book called “Proper Confidence” which speaks of this. And to be fair, now that I made a Christian book recommendation to you, you can feel more than free to make an Atheist book recommendation to me. I would be more than happy to get it on my kindle for a little winter break reading.

    I have no agenda here. I find your entries to be very genuine, interesting and warm-hearted and if you ever want to dialogue, I’d be happy to.