Story of Recovery: Drew Stedman
Later, I attended Worthington Christian High School, an extremely right wing evangelical school run by Grace Brethren Church in Worthington, Ohio. It was here where I really became fanatical about God. I attended a revival at a youth summer camp that was similar to, but somewhat less extreme than the camp featured in the documentary, Jesus Camp. I had finally "experienced" God for myself. I returned to school my sophomore year "on fire" for God. I read through the entire Bible word for word as quickly as I could, often skipping class to do so. I started a Bible Study and prayer group in my home that was called "The Love Club". I would prepare bible studies and teachings with the help of my Father. We would pray earnestly for the requests and concerns of the group. We sang worship songs. I became the worship leader for our high school chapels, which often featured messages of fear that would inspire guilt. We were warned of the evils of masturbation and pre-marital sex. We were shown graphic images of sexually transmitted diseases. The message was clear. This was what happened when you stepped outside of God's will.
One day, we were led into a revival. We were told that some of us were not true Christians. That we needed to search our hearts to make sure we truly believed in Jesus. Many students, who were emotionally broken by the message, came forward in front of the entire student body and confessed their sins and prayed to God. They cried. I cried. We praised God. We were told that even though we were Christians, many of us had let sin creep into our lives. We were asked to give up our possessions that were holding us back from God. Many of the students felt "led" to go to their cars or lockers to get their "secular" CDs to give up to God. Many of us made commitments to listen to only Christian music. Classes were cancelled. The revival lasted all day.
In addition to this spiritual indoctrination, I was also indoctrinated academically and politically. Prayer and references to scripture were commonplace, even in subjects like math, and especially science. We were presented with a strict Young Earth Creationist model in our science courses. We were taught "evidence" that the Earth was only several thousand years old, that God created every class of animal uniquely, that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, and that the flood of Noah was a literal historical event. In history class we were taught a strictly right-wing Christian view of the formation of America. We were taught that America was founded as a Christian nation and that evil forces were hard at work trying to turn America away from our God. I believed them.
After high school I attended Cedarville University, a fundamentalist Baptist school in the middle-of-nowhere, Ohio. It was here that I first began to question my faith. Although I had taken such care in fostering my relationship with God in High School and had made many strong efforts to proclaim my faith and evangelize others, I still felt guilty. In spite of my efforts and prayers to have the desire to do what God wanted me to do, I still behaved more or less like a typical college student. Sex, alcohol, cigarettes, soft drugs? Why was this? My heart was in the right place. I wanted to follow God, I prayed earnestly and often for the will to do so, but I consistently partook of the forbidden fruits which I was told by the Christian authority figures in my life were contrary to God's will. At this point my faith changed internally. It no longer made sense why God would condemn so many well-meaning people, over what increasingly seemed to be trivial issues. I remember a key moment at this point in my life when I was in a Bible class that was espousing a strict Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. We were discussing the doctrine of Total Depravity, which is that all humans, because of Adam and Eve's original sin are born into this world inherently evil and in a state of separation from God. I was troubled by the implications of this. I raised my hand and asked the professor if a child born in a distant country, into a culture who had no knowledge of Jesus Christ would be sent to hell if it were to die before missionaries had been able to tell them about Jesus. The answer to this question was yes. I could not accept this.
I began to form my own opinions about the Bible. It seemed to me that Jesus would have been radically opposed to this type of thinking (although now it seems obvious to me that Jesus becomes whoever the believer wants him to be). I became very enamored with Christ's teachings of compassion, and what I interpreted in his teachings as non-violence. I became increasingly disgusted by the violent desires I saw prevalent in evangelical culture. Cedarville University has a large rock which students can spray paint with different messages, usually "Happy Birthday" wishes and the like. But in 2003, just before the US invaded Iraq, someone had spray-painted the rock with "Bomb Saddam". In my new found liberal Christianity I took offense to this. I spray-painted over it with "Blessed are the peacemakers" from Matthew 5:9. In less than a half hour it was painted over with "Go troops, go! Kill! Kill! Kill!" This became a turning point in my life, a moment when I internally rejected evangelical fundamentalism as politically and morally toxic.
Although I had experienced an ideological shift, I still felt comfortable in the Christian community because it was all I had ever known. I left Cedarville for Nyack College in New York, which was another fundamentalist college, although it featured a more relaxed environment. I coasted along, slowly realizing that I was disconnecting with the evangelical belief system on an almost daily basis. By the time I graduated I had essentially stopped going to church and was doing my best to lead a normal life. I reconnected with a fellow classmate from Worthington Christian High School whom I quickly fell in love with. Along with some of my good college friends, we moved to Los Angeles. A year later, we were married.
I had started a new life and a new career, but many of my underlying assumptions about God and Christianity remained unquestioned. My wife and I missed the community of Church and decided to find one that fit our new, non-fundamentalist values. This proved somewhat difficult. LGBT rights were something that we were just coming around on and it seemed that almost every church we went to held official positions against homosexuality. After some searching we finally came across a church that reflected our values. It was encouraging to me to see people who held different beliefs working together to better their community and spread a message of love an acceptance. I became involved with the worship team and eventually became an elder, delivering meditations and occasionally sermons when the pastor was out of town. There were several other young people and couples in the church that had come from similar backgrounds to our own and were seeking a more open, accepting environment. We started a young adult group in our home. Because almost all of us had come from fundamentalist backgrounds, we were all interested in exploring new aspects of faith and belief that had previously been cut off from us during our upbringing. It was obvious at this point that most of us had our doubts about the interpretation of the Bible we were indoctrinated with as children. We began to read a book called The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal Bishop. For most of us, this book decimated our previous conceptions of Biblical inerrancy, or even divine inspiration. It dealt honestly with the immorality of many of the actions attributed to God in the Bible. I had never heard someone speak so clearly in condemning aspects of Christianity that I had always felt uncomfortable with.
Spong also openly accepted evolution, which gave me pause. Although I had come so far in my journey, I was still a creationist. God had created everything right? I reflected back to a conversation I had had at work when the topic had come up several months prior. Someone was making fun of the fact that so many people believe the earth is only a few thousand years old. This bothered me, so I repeated an argument I had heard as a child from Answers in Genesis. As I recall, it was something about the Grand Canyon being created by a great flood. My co-worker, who explained some basic science about rock formation and stratification, quickly corrected me. This was information I had never been exposed to. I felt stupid. And here was a bishop openly accepting this as well? What else had I been missing?
I became obsessed. I poured over as much information about science as I could get my hands on. As a product of Christian education, I realized that many things I was taught in school did not check out with reality. I began a period of enlightenment in my life where I exposed myself to as much new information as possible. As the last remnants of my fundamentalist indoctrination began to crumble around me it became obvious that much of the other world's religions depended on the same type of reasoning. Faith, it finally became apparent, was not a source of knowledge but a mechanism for belief in the absence of knowledge. I had discovered reason. I shared many of these ideas with the group. We explored more books, including How We Believe by Michael Shermer, which is a careful, rational examination of the psychology of belief. It was a book that shook my assumptions to their core.
My view of faith and God had fundamentally shifted. I suspected I knew where this would lead me but I wanted to evaluate some further arguments before I could be sure. I picked up a book called The Language of God by Francis Collins and contrasted it with The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Both men are formidable scientists in the field of biology. Both promote modern science and evolution. But they differ radically on the issues of God and religion. I wanted to hear who had the best arguments and if anyone could defend God against atheism, who better than a top-notch scientist? Needless to say, although I rather enjoyed both books, The God Delusion was one of the most powerfully argued books I have ever read. Francis Collins's arguments in favor of a God seemed almost laughable in comparison (although I really appreciate what he is attempting to do by educating Christians with science).
After years of slowly becoming more and more aware of myself, and the universe around me, and after long and careful consideration, I admitted to myself that I was an atheist. I felt as if a terrible and heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I was free. Free of the yolk of superstition, magical thinking, and dependence upon authority for information. I was free to explore the world around me without the barriers I used to place upon it by faith. I was free to ask any questions I wished without a nagging fear of where they would lead. But most of all I was free to define myself on my own terms.
My close friend and colleague Rob Steiner and I decided to create this website for people like us. People who have escaped from the mental clutches of fundamentalism. If that is you, you are free to define yourself however you wish. Don't let others do it for you. This is not intended to be an atheist website. It is a website for human beings. If you have left or are in the process of leaving a fundamentalist belief system, we hope you will find this site helpful. Also, if you feel comfortable, please take the time to share your story. There are many out there who may benefit from your experience. We would love to know where you came from, where you are now, and where you are going. You are not alone.
- Recovering From: Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian
- Hometown: Columbus, OH
- Current Belief System: Secular Humanist
- Current Location: Los Angeles, CA
- Date: April 20, 2012
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