“I only got a 1400-something the first time I took the SATs,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain for this clear intellectual failing.
A group of us were lounging around in the lobby of one of the main buildings at our church camp, talking about our relatively recent forays into college and how we ended up where we were. I was both the only girl in the group, and the only person majoring in something not considered impressive. To hear them talk about it, though, it was because I chose art, not that I couldn’t really do much of anything else.
“Same here,” another of our friends replied, shaking his head with a self-deprecating smile on his face. “I think it may have even been a 1300-something.” We all winced at his admitted buffoonery.
What they didn’t know is that I joined them in their laughter to hide my shock at their brainiacal prowess and hopefully deflect any attention that might reveal my idiocy…only to freeze when the first guy turned to me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “So, Dani, what was your SAT score?”
My face grew red and I chuckled nervously. “Oh! Uhm…I don’t…I don’t want to talk about it…”
“Oh, come on!” he prodded, turning to face me in his earnestness. “It can’t be that bad! You’re really smart!”
My blush grew deeper at the compliment (he was a major crush at the time, okay?) and also at the panic swelling in my chest. If he thinks that a 1400-something is pathetic, and he thinks I’m super smart, there is no way in hell I’m telling him I was happy with my 1130.
People’s opinions of me have always made or broken my internal world, where I spend most of my time anyway (hello, INFJ). It’s something I’ve been actively working to change the past few years, but it’s difficult. It’s always been a fear of mine that I’m not really all that bright, that my thinking skills (or “discernment” as my Christian upbringing might describe it) are severely lacking, and that someday people will find out that I’m really below average and suddenly I’ll be considered a stupid, senseless girl to brush aside as entirely unreliable or unimportant. I cherish all the times mentors and peers have told me how thoughtful I am, how smart I am, how deep-thinking and meditative and discerning and intuitive I am. I have spent many years using those compliments to fight off my inner abuser who tells me that a graphic designer who grew up as a conservative Christian and doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree can’t possibly understand or contribute to the world in any sort of meaningful way and must always defer to experts and authorities outside of her own self.
Recently, I stumbled across the amazing blog of formerly-conservative-Christian-but-currently-atheist-activist-philosopher Dan Fincke. I’ve been absolutely delighted to find his writing and have been taking every opportunity to find quiet moments in which to immerse myself in his deconversion story and his philosophy of life. It’s been exciting, freeing, validating — it’s provided me with a sense of kinship that I haven’t felt for quite some time.
After finding his blog, I immediately followed him on Twitter & Facebook, and he (being a friendly guy) asked me how I deconverted.
I was immediately stricken, to be honest. Dan is a hella smart person. He knows what he thinks about things and is able to articulate those thoughts intelligently and convincingly. And if you read the comments he gets on his pieces…every time I try to wade into the comment stream, I find myself quickly in over my head, if I wasn’t already over my head throughout his post.
Through no fault of Dan’s at all, his question brought up all my insecurities of not being smart enough. Suddenly, I’m back in that lobby on that campground, and instead of my friend asking me my SAT scores, the agnostic atheist community is asking me for my street cred.
Which I know is completely ridiculous (and not an accurate representation at all of the question Dan asked of me, nor of his intention in asking). Anxiety is a bitch and it takes all my worst fears and puts the faces of people I deeply admire and from whom I desperately crave approval and voices my fears through their distorted mouths in my brain, and it sucks.
The reason I don’t have a concrete answer to how I deconverted is that I feel like I still am deconverting, that it’s a process I’ll go through for many years. But the turning point (I wouldn’t say the starting point) is that I couldn’t manufacture belief anymore, despite spending my whole life up until that point fully dedicated to Christ. I had to let it go in order to preserve my intellectual integrity.
But then jerkbrain jumps in and tells me that I’m neither a philosopher not a scientist. That I can’t defend my lack of belief in the Christian God, let alone my lack of belief in any god. That I can’t possibly think and parse out for myself what to believe. There’s a tiny bit of truth there, in that I don’t have the words, the correct terms — I just have feelings, intuitions. Things that can’t possibly hold up in the courtroom of my abusive brain, nor do I feel like they’re sufficient answers for people from whom I crave acceptance.
I think both of these things are in part a by-product of being raised in Christianity, however. This compulsive need to second-guess everything about myself, this insistent belief that I have to be able to explain every decision and belief I hold, and that I require an authority figure of some kind to bless my conclusions and my life itself.
I was taught that I was untrustworthy and easily deceived, by nature of having a heart and being a woman, so is it any wonder that I constantly second-guess myself? I always had to “be ready to give an account” of my beliefs. One thing the Plymouth Brethren are very insistent about is that Christians ought to be able to back up their entire lives with Scripture (plus the leading of the Holy Spirit that apparently can never contradict their interpretation of Scripture or the leading of the elders of the assembly). If I was able to do and say and believe the right things and explain why using the Bible and assembly precedent, then I would be pleasing to God and to the spiritual authorities He supposedly placed in my life. So is it any wonder that I desperately seek to justify my life and beliefs through the opinions of assumed authority figures for their express approval of my very being?
That entire way of living (and arguably all manifestations of religion) by its very nature is nothing more than an appeal to authority. An appeal to an authority that, I discovered last summer, only holds as much power as an “unbeliever’s” lack of belief grants it.
There’s so much uncertainty here, outside of religious belief. Where I used to be able to comfort myself with “be still and know that [He] is God,” there is now no such comfort. (If I believed that particular god existed, I wouldn’t find much comfort in the thought anymore anyway.) Just as I was ashamed of my SAT score sitting in that lobby with my super-smart friends, I’m often ashamed by how much I don’t know about the world I live in and how I want to interact with it.
I’m learning to trust myself.
I don’t have all the answers. (I’m not sure there are answers to be had, honestly.) I can’t adequately explain why I no longer have faith, and in some instance I can’t even explain what exactly I believe now. But that’s okay. I’m learning that I don’t need anyone’s permission or blessing in my life for my beliefs, and that it’s okay to continue to learn and form beliefs. Instead, in the words of a Twitter friend, my mantra can now be, “Be calm, and discover that you are strong.”