[In case you missed it! This blog posted on July 27, 2012, at Black Skeptics/freethoughtblogs.com. I am reposting it here now that I have started my very own blog. Enjoy!]
I answered “a call” in 1992, when I was a first-year law student at Thurgood Marshall School of Law. At first the nature of that call was unclear, but by June of 1998, six years later, I was ordained a deacon on an elder track in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, United Methodist Church (UMC). And, by 1999, I had served under Episcopal appointment to about five churches as a pastor. However, during the summer of the following year, in 2000, I had requested a voluntary leave of absence to contemplate my future with the UMC, and some deeper theological questions in general. A few years later, in 2003, after another year of pastoring in Massachusetts, I contacted my annual conference to notify them that I planned to officially return my “credential” (ordination certificate) and withdraw from the UMC, permanently. By the end of June 2003, it was a done deal. I was barely 35 years old, and I walked away from my vocational career as a minister and from the central idea of Christianity, that Jesus was the savior or all humankind. I did not believe.
When people learn this about me, I am frequently asked, “what happened?” This question was presented to me just a few weeks ago at a Spanish meet-up group. Can you imagine trying to explain this in Spanish to a gathering of perfect strangers who were mostly Roman Catholic? No matter what I said didn’t seem to be good enough, which is usually how it goes. Those unable to accept that walking away or rejecting God is possible tend to ask me the same question over and over again. So, pretty much, that’s how the conversation went. Porque? Porque?
Now that it has been about a decade since I left the UMC, I have had a lot of time to ponder why it might be difficult for people to understand that someone could walk away from religion and the belief in a supernatural God. Thus, I decided to write this blog to offer few thoughts on why I think this question is so important.
The first thing is that many Christians have a VERY negative view of the human condition. They typically think that as human beings we are deeply flawed or incapable of making reasonable and rational decisions. The doctrine of original sin, proposed in the fourth century of the Common Era by Saint Augustine is partly to blame. Augustine (who was African) had many personal struggles with his humanity, including a tremendous guilt for his sexual practices, and, consequently, he concluded that the human condition was “depraved” or corrupt from birth. As the Church continued to institutionalize, first as the Catholic Church, it also continued to incorporate Augustine’s theory of original sin into the systematic development of Christian theology. All over the world this theory dominates Christian thinking and practices to the extent that many contemporary Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, demonstrate that they believe like Augustine: that it is impossible for us as humans to be good or moral without supernatural help.
A second thing that is particular to me as an African-American woman has to do with the intersectional nature of race and religion. I have a passion for history as a subject, but, much of African-American history, especially the events surrounding the Civil Rights Movement are conceptualized in Christian frameworks or narratives. African-Americans like to compare their plight to the Old Testament Israelites or the biblical narrative of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, i.e., Harriett Tubman was called “The Moses” of her people. Though it is a very symbolic and powerful metaphor, the two narratives are structurally different: African-American history is historical and can be supported by reliable evidence; the biblical narrative, on the other hand, is primarily mythical and fictive and the evidence is sketchy, or in some cases it is nonexistent. Nevertheless, the two narratives are frequently compared, which encourages many to essentialize African-American people as an inherently spiritual or religious group.
In addition, many are involved in religion for reasons that are deeply personal. They embrace God or religion as a result of some social or personal drama. Often people “find God” or “get religion” as they go through something big and bad: they’ve gotten a DUI; went through a bad break-up or relationship; they have experienced addiction or a destructive compulsive habit; or, they’ve gone to jail for a crime they’ve committed. Whatever the case I can understand it and even empathize with this. Socially it is acceptable and even encouraged to focus on a God-other in a time of crisis. This happens especially when someone has just about wiped out and made a total mess of his or her life, and it takes the focus off the mess. If all your life you have been told or taught that you are incapable of doing or being good, and, if deep down you are afraid to do anything good without the help of a supernatural being or beings, then theoretically you probably “need” a god, but not everybody has this need or this desire.
Since childhood I never agreed with the doctrine of original sin, and resisting this dogma in my adulthood was one of the primary reasons that I decided to emancipate myself from religion and the belief in God. By the summer of 2003, I had experienced such a profound shift in consciousness that I began to dismantle even more than a rejection of the Jesus-salvation narrative that I learned first as a member of the Catholic faith. Together, my education, my experience, and my withdrawal from the UMC helped me to begin a process where I peeled back more and more layers of Christian dogma and religious thinking. Thus, as I began to confront and disbelieve what I had been taught for my entire life, I began to experience what atheists call a “deconversion” or a breakthrough, and I began to think and act out of my own human resources. After several years of doing this, I was able to openly and unashamedly reject a belief in any type of supernatural other, including “God.”
In closing, I think it is hard for people to accept that someone would personally reject God. More times than not, they actually take it personally when they encounter someone who has done this, which is one reason why a wipe-out story becomes so important. Upon hearing that someone has rejected God they are worried about their own personal relationship with God. I emancipated myself from the concept of God and religion because I educated and empowered myself to move away from oppressive and dehumanizing narratives. Hence, I stopped allowing the God-talk to have so much control over my life and finally found the courage to realize and to say that God via Christianity, and religion in general, would not allow me to be my most authentic, human self, which is very important to me. When I walked away there was no drama, no wipe-out story, just a shift or a change in consciousness as a personal and political act of liberation. That’s what happened, plain and simple. Gone.
© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D.