nonfiction / atheism / religion / memoirs
the candid story of a regular man disowning a god
A brutally honest memoir documenting one man's journey through Christianity, his investigation into his beliefs, his subsequent rejection of faith, and his eventual embrace of atheism. A work that makes use of wit and humor, includes shades of philosophy and existentialism, brushes against the backdrop of science and cosmology, and is infused with the beauties and horrors of the human condition, Portrait of an Infidel is a weighty tour de force, an achievement of brazen humanity, a hauntingly poignant story of awakening and deliverance, and a compelling read that will encompass the reader in a chrysalis of intellectual introspection and personal reflection.
To read this book is to be changed, even if you still disagree when it's over...
Excerpt: "Preface" from Portrait of an Infidel
When I first sat down to write this book, I felt a brief pang of reluctance mixed with a small hint of remorse. I knew there was no way someone such as myself, having gone through all I went through, and being the brutally candid man I am, could possibly tell his story without there being a biting undertone of intense indignation permeating the text (thus the subtitle of this book). I felt bad about it only for a fleeting moment before I pushed these emotions away and fortified myself for the task ahead, a task I then commenced with the truest of convictions that my way forward was not only obvious but also necessary. The truth is that I would bring a wrecking ball to the religion of Christianity if I could, and I would swing it with a delighted smile on my face.
Nevertheless, to be honest, I never thought I’d be writing a book like this. It never even occurred to me that such a thing could ever be possible. Yet here I sit, writing it, hoping to organize my thoughts into a cohesive explanation for how a man who once would have gladly laid down his life for Jesus Christ ended up rejecting him. Yes, I was once a Christian. Not one of those half-hearted ones either, no—I was hardcore. I worked at numerous different churches and even helped start a few. I went on three mission trips. I was instrumental in helping to develop Christian communities on several campuses all over Saint Louis, Missouri. I wrote over a hundred worship songs. I was one of those guys people came to whenever they needed their faith boosted, when they needed someone they could depend on, someone whose encouragement would direct them down the right path again. I wrote and published a book about Christian theology and spirituality (suggesting a new route which, I thought at the time, would help people keep the message of Jesus even if perhaps they wanted nothing more to do with orthodox Christianity).
Behind closed doors, I was just as devout. I went out of my way to be as sincere in my faith as I could possibly be. I spent hours studying the Bible each day, even researching the original Greek in which the apostles wrote the New Testament. I fasted regularly. I shunned ordinary social activities to instead spend time alone “with God” in prayer, worshipfully meditating on Christian truths and just “being with him.” I ordered every single aspect of my life around my faith and my understanding of Christian values and teachings.
That is who I used to be; it’s not who I am now.
Eventually and perhaps inevitably, my commitment began to crumble, little by little, brick by brick. It started out much like all deconversion stories do: I began to notice things. Only small things at first. Then larger things. Lingering things. Distressing things. I began to see that certain dots in my spiritual life did not connect on their own—I had to make them connect through my faith. I slowly started to recognize that my life as a Christian wasn’t anything like I pretended it to be; it was actually empty and sad. For whom was I pretending? Everyone, I guess; but mostly I think I was trying to deceive myself. It took me a long time before I realized that I was even pretending at all, because the pretending felt obligatory; what Christians call an act of “joy by faith” (which is really just religious rhetoric for “sad and unhappy”). I eventually became aware of it as I noticed myself “faking” peace and joy so that others wouldn’t know the truth about my crumbling faith.
In time, serious theological and ethical questions began to present themselves. Some were completely new to me. Others I had already known about for years, but I was either casually ignoring them or writing them off with the most contrived of duplicitous answers.
Eventually, I became deeply disillusioned. A decade after having been “saved by Jesus,” I was no longer sure what being “saved by Jesus” really meant or how it allegedly separated me from the billions of other people on this planet.
Then one day, when the topic of Jesus’s resurrection came up, my wife asked me why I believed he rose from the dead. The answer that came to my mind (though I did not voice it as a response) was this: “Because this is what I was taught to believe.” Sensing immediately that this was a terrible answer (because the Muslim and the Buddhist and the Taoist are all “taught” their beliefs—this does not necessarily make them synonymous with truth), and being the kind of man that I am (an inquisitive, meditative, aggressive seeker of truth), I resolved to step back from this religion and do some research, something I’d never really done before. Indeed, to research the validity of my beliefs always seemed to be an underhanded means of defiantly questioning them in a cynical way, and this I had always been reluctant to do. This is not to say I didn’t have doubts, even from the very beginning. I did. I had always nursed philosophical arguments against God, but these arose from the inconsistencies I experienced in my personal life and weren’t related to the fruits of any serious research or theological objections to this or that.
As you will see, my wife’s question to me and my answer to it spawned the inevitable decay of my faith. That, however, is only a part of the story. Coming to believe that Christianity is unfounded and untrue doesn’t necessarily lead one to invariably adopt a stance of atheism. I therefore mean to accurately show the rational processes that led me to reject all theistic belief in God. I think taking such an approach is imperative, as it’s been my experience that many Christians, though not all, simply can’t understand why any human being would choose atheism. I seem to find myself repeatedly responding to questions as to why I did. Occasionally, some of the more outgoing believers give me the benefit of the doubt on the surface, but I still know that underneath they’re thinking something terrible must have happened, something that particularly disappointed me or wounded me, and my atheist stance must therefore be some knee-jerk reaction. Other believers of the less friendly sort do not hide these thoughts; they just come right out and say them. Very few believers actually listen to the intellectual reasons for my atheism and concede that, while they’d never reach the same conclusions, they nonetheless can understand why I did. My hope here is to help them understand, even if they continue to disagree. Indeed, here in these forthcoming pages, I’m trying to make it as easy as possible for my readers to understand why this once passionate Christian ultimately rejected his faith and ardently embraced strict nonbelief with both arms. My story therefore has two plot lines: 1) my exodus from Christianity, and 2) my ensuing embrace of atheism. My main intention here is to tell the story of how both came to be.
But that’s not my only intention.
I’m not one for beating around the bush, so let me come right out and say it now… Christianity is evil. Yes. If you are a Christian, you probably cannot believe that anyone could actually say that and mean it. After all, what could be so wicked about an institution that purportedly does so much good in the world, an institution that is involved with charity and missions and welfare, an institution that is about love and kindness and compassion, an institution that only wants to help the helpless and heal the sinner? Indeed, Christianity seems so innocent on the surface. That’s why even some nonbelievers might make a convincing argument that while they themselves do not subscribe to the religion, it doesn’t hurt others to do so. I intend to demonstrate in this book that the exact opposite is true.
“But isn’t ‘live and let live’ the best policy?” you might ask. “Shouldn’t you just go on your way and let the Christians go theirs?” Personally, I feel this is a matter of perspective. “Live and let live” may be a good policy, but only up to a degree. For example, if I am at a store and I see a mother severely abusing her children in what can only be described as a vicious or violent manner, “live and let live” ceases to apply in this instance. I will likely call the police or report her to the proper authorities. That’s the only right thing to do because those kids need someone to step in and fight their battle for them. In this instance, I can’t simply turn my head away and think that “live and let live” is the best way to go. Clearly there are moments in life where one must step in and intervene, even if the situation is otherwise none of our business. Certain things are just morally right.
That’s how I feel about Christianity. I do sincerely believe (and this is a belief based on evidence, I might add) that the Christian religion is harmful, dangerous, and dysfunctional. While I cannot make every Christian in the land renounce his or her beliefs (though I wish I could), what I can do is tell my story and offer my observations with blatant, brutal honesty. From where I am standing, to keep my mouth shut would be the greater wrong than stepping on the toes of the believer.
I was discussing this very thing with a Christian friend the other day. “But can’t you just keep your views to yourself?” he asked. “No one’s pushing Christianity in your face, so why do you have to push atheism in ours?”
“Seriously?” I responded. “Seriously? No one is pushing Christianity in my face?” I then told him about the series of billboards I noticed on the side of a road that very morning, billboards that virtually shouted out to me that without Jesus I was pretty much worthless. Or what about those commercials during baseball games that show some guy with a goatee and spiked hair who then proceeds to tell me how cool it is to believe in Jesus? How many times have I walked down the road or through a parking lot and had some flyer for a local church shoved into my hands? How many times have condescending evangelists knocked on my door, unrelenting evangelists who keep knocking after I politely request that they go away? How many protesters parade around in this country holding signs that remind me of their fervent belief in the flames of hell? No, no, obviously, no one is pushing Christianity in my face. No, of course not.
The problem is that the moment we atheists begin to open our mouths and respond to this onslaught of pushy propaganda, Christians then throw up their hands and say, “Hey, can’t you just live and let live?” to which I say, “Can’t you?” But they can’t, of course. After all, Christianity comes with a mandate. Written into the very pages of the Bible is a command, given by none other than Jesus Christ himself, demanding that the religion’s adherents go out and “make disciples.” It’s nice that the Christian gets to force his views upon you because God is literally telling him to. How fortunate. Atheists, on the other hand, are not afforded the same luxury.
Still, perhaps you are wondering why I even care at all. “Why bother?” you may say. “You’re an atheist. You don’t believe anything happens after death, so what do you care what other people believe while they’re alive?”
My response: Imagine it’s 1834. I’m a black man living in Georgia. I’m therefore a slave. Suppose I run away and, somehow overcoming all odds, I make it to the North where, just by virtue of having escaped the South, I am now a free man. Now that I’m free, would I suddenly stop caring about my brothers and sisters still in bondage down in the South? No! I would ache for them! And I’d join the fight for their freedom. That is why I do what I do as an atheist.
I mention all of this because I want to prepare you. This will by no means be a polite book. I will be downright brutal in places. If this offends you, you have my sympathies, but you do not have my apologies. Having once been shackled to the insidious chains of religious faith myself, and looking back on it now from the other side, I have grown to have very little patience or tolerance for it, no more than an escaped slave would have for the owners of Southern plantations. There is such a thing as righteous anger, after all. And if you have decided to read this book, you are about to encounter some. Know that before you begin…