In college I got into a heated argument with a girl named Amy, a member of the Baptist Campus Ministries. I don’t remember how the argument began, but I was explaining how the Bible is full of contradictions and unreliable as a historical document. She said I didn’t know what I was talking about because I wasn’t a Christian, so I told her how I used to be a Christian and that I lost my faith. She responded, “Then you were never a true Christian.” This made me furious.
It happened on a crisp fall night. I was standing outside my dorm building with Amy and several other students, and we had all been talking and laughing. But now it was dead silent as everyone watched for my reaction. I took a deep breath and said, “You don’t know shit!” Then I let her have it. I went into a long, curse-filled tirade about how I had been a far better Christian than she was and how she didn’t know the first thing about the Bible. She tried to argue with me at first, but I wouldn’t let her get a word in. Soon she headed back to her dorm room after saying, “You’re making me uncomfortable.”
Looking back on it now, I feel sorry for her. She was just another naive young Christian who believed what her parents had raised her to believe, just like me a few years prior. She didn’t deserve that kind of treatment, but I couldn’t help it. In fact, I really surprised myself that night (I’m usually very meek). So why did I get so angry?
First you have to understand how strongly I had believed in God and Jesus Christ. For two years my entire life revolved around pleasing God and living to serve him. I spent at least an hour a day in prayer, I read the Bible everyday (and cover to cover), I studied Christian theology, I never missed a church service, I witnessed to friends and coworkers, I sang praise songs while I was driving, I often believed I could feel the love of God, and when I sinned I immediately repented and asked God for forgiveness.
Someone once told me, “The things you did were just works. They don’t prove you really knew Him.” But doesn’t the Bible say, “Ye shall know them by their fruits“? I didn’t do those things for attention (why would I spend so much time alone in prayer, worship, and Bible study?). I didn’t do them so I could feel good about myself (in fact, I felt guilty every time I had unconfessed sin). And I didn’t do them to buy my way into Heaven (I didn’t believe God could be fooled, anyway). I did them because I sincerely believed Christianity was true and because I loved God with all my heart. I actually thought I deserved eternal Hell and that Jesus had graciously thrown me a life preserver, so I was indescribably grateful. If I wasn’t a born again Christian, then who the hell is?
I mention all this is to put my deconversion in perspective. After my first doubts it took about two years before I realized I was an atheist, and it was a very difficult time. I didn’t want to stop believing, but I did anyway and for three reasons: 1) I was so sure I was right, I wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions. 2) I believed lying is always wrong, even to oneself, so I tried to be intellectually honest. 3) Because of Christianity, I had a strong reverence for truth which ironically led me out of Christianity.
Losing my faith was like going through a long, drawn-out breakup where you try to make it work even though deep down you know it’s not going to last. When it was finally over I felt like I had lost the love of my life, and it was all the worse knowing he had never been there to begin with.
After the grief subsided, the next stage was anger. People who have never deconverted from a fundamentalist belief system often don’t understand what it’s like to feel so disillusioned. Imagine thinking you are part of a real-life cosmic battle between good and evil that will determine the fate of all humankind (and that you have a personal relationship with the king himself!), and the next year realizing it’s all just a fairy tale. It’s hard not to feel bitter. The people I had looked up to and admired–my parents, my Sunday school teacher, my pastor, Christian authors and leaders–were all wrong! I was angry with them for not knowing any better, and I was angry with myself for being deluded.
This is where I was in my life when Amy said, “You were never a true Christian.” So yes, I exploded. Was I too harsh? Maybe, but to say she struck a nerve is putting it lightly.
Of course, Amy wasn’t the first Christian to say something like this to an ex-believer. It’s a very common argument known as the No True Scotsman fallacy. The term comes from a story by Antony Flew. One day a Scotsman reads a newspaper article about someone who committed a series of sex crimes in a neighboring country. He says, “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he reads an article about a citizen of his own country who committed even worse crimes. So he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.” Christians make the same fallacy when they say, “No true Christian would lose his faith.”
In my opinion, Christians say this because deep down they’re afraid that they, too, might lose their faith someday. The idea terrifies them so much that they have to reassure themselves by thinking, “That will never happen to me because I’m a true Christian.” If you’re one of those people, then I have a question for you: If I wasn’t a true Christian, how do you know you’re a true Christian?