I have interacted with many evangelical Christians over Internet blogs and forums. One common claim I have heard is that I was never really a Christian.
If you have read my story on this blog, you'll recall that I was raised as a Christian and deconverted because I decided that the evidence for its validity was severely lacking.
But was I an actual Christian? At first, this question annoyed me greatly. I believed that this claim was nonsensical and absurd at best, and that it was a stinging personal insult and rebuke at its worst.
However, I have now realized that the answer to this question is not entirely black and white. Of course, that conclusion alone should not surprise me. Few things in our existence are entirely black and white.
What shocked me is the realization that I may not have been an actual Christian before I deconverted.
I am trying to remember what exactly it was that I believed in during this time. Did I believe in a higher power? Did I believe in the Bible? Did I believe in the community of my church congregation? Did I believe in the power of faith or belief itself?
Why do these questions matter? These questions are critically important because they attempt to define what Christianity is, and in doing so attempt to determine what exactly it means to be a Christian (or to be a religious person of any persuasion) in today's environment.
I did believe in a higher power. I prayed to my God before meal times and before I fell asleep at night and while I was in church services. Did I believe in the Bible? Yes and no. I had not read all of it. I believed that some of its claims were figurative and that some were literal. I don't think this made me any less of a Christian. I viewed the creation story in Genesis as figurative while acknowledging the reality of evolution, though I fully embraced its claims about Jesus and his supposed sacrifice for humanity. I believed in the eternal existence of heaven and hell, though I had no idea who would end up in each place (I had not made up my mind about universalism or other approaches, but I knew that the Bible said that Jesus was the only way, and I could never get past that reality).
However, as much as I believed in the technicalities of Christian dogma, I also believed strongly in its pragmatic aspects. I believed in the power of faith. I had faith in my government and my society and my family and my friends -- and in God. I also believed in the power of the community in my church. I knew that they were basically good people. I saw my church as a positive influence in my life and as a positive influence in my community.
A nagging question pervades my thoughts: did I really believe in Christianity or did I believe in being Christian? Did I have a belief or did I believe in having a belief? Was I part of a belief community or was I a believer? I don't know the answer.
I don't know if I really was a Christian before I deconverted.
However, if I was not really a Christian, than most of the people in America who proclaim Christianity as their religion probably are not Christians, either. Of course, this assumes that there is an objective definition of what a Christian is, which is probably not accurate.
The major question is this: what do you believe in?
Do you believe in belief? Do you believe in community? Do you believe in faith? Do you believe in charity? Do you believe in good works?
Do you believe in Christianity because it provides an outlet for your other beliefs which you already have, or do you believe in it because you are a sincere follower, you've thought about it at length, and you really do believe that its claims are accurate?
It appears that many people in the world practice Christianity not because they have extensively researched the issues and determined that it is better than all the other religions and spiritual traditions in the world, but because it provides a framework for their other beliefs about themselves and the world which they have adopted from society and family and tradition.
And of course, the same thing is more than likely true for Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and practically every other religious tradition on the planet.
I am tired of asking and answering "what" questions about religion. Now I am much more fascinated with the "why" questions. Why do people believe? Why do individuals believe a certain way?
Was I ever a Christian? Maybe not. Is anyone ever a Christian? Maybe not. Have you ever been a Christian? Maybe not.
Do you believe in a book? Do you believe in a revelation? Do you believe in belief?
Religions often try to be none of these things and all of these things at the same time, for everyone. The whole process of examining religion just confirms my opinion that the religions of our world are human-originated social constructs and not divine manifestations.