One of the most important milestones for a born-again Christian is to tell your “testimony.”
A testimony is your personal story of how you came to the faith. It often includes the problems or challenges you were facing in your life at the time, how lost or confused you felt, the person or experience that led you to god, and ends with your salvation as you accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal lord and savior.
This is my testimony, but in the opposite direction: how I was raised deeply embedded in an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian mega-church, how I became disillusioned with the view of reality it offered, and the unexpected journey I went on to leave my faith and build a different worldview.
One of the things I most wanted throughout this process were models of success: former Christians who had made the leap and discovered an alternative path to leading a successful, rich life. I’m telling my story because I want others out there who find themselves in the same spot I was in – questioning their received worldview and wondering if another path exists – to know that it does. There are many available worldviews, many possible beliefs, and countless other ways of moving through the world that can give you tremendous fulfillment, community, and a sense of purpose.
I’ve been amazed to see how quickly being an atheist or agnostic has become common over my lifetime. According to a recent Pew Research study, about 30% of U.S. adults are now religiously “unaffiliated.” This is a 6% increase from just 5 years ago and a 10% increase from a decade ago, a stunning shift in religious belief that has no parallel in American history. From 2007 to today, self-identified Christians have gone from outnumbering the religiously unaffiliated by 5 to 1, to just 2 to 1.
We desperately need new visions of what it means to be a sincere, spiritual person without having to conform to anyone else’s religious template. I hope my story serves as inspiration for you to create your own.
Christian fundamentalism in Southern California
I was raised in a deeply religious, evangelical Christian household in south Orange County, California. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back now it’s clear that my family and the mega-church we attended were fundamentalist: we believed that every word of the Bible was literally true.
Every member of my family was always involved with the church – my mom sang in the church worship band, dozens of my dad’s Christian-themed paintings (check the “Biblical Themes” box) hung on every wall of the building, and my three siblings and I found ourselves in various services, youth groups, Bible studies, or volunteer trips multiple times per week. The church was our second home and faith the center of our family life.
I adopted the evangelical Christian worldview wholesale from a young age. It was all I knew. I spent my teenage years playing piano in the youth group band, going on countless mission trips and church camps in the summers and winters, and constantly evangelizing to anyone who would listen.
Throughout these years, I was always incredulous at the lack of urgency and concern displayed by other Christians. If you really believed every non-believer around you was on a path straight to eternal torture in hell, how could you do anything but preach the gospel?
From the time I was about 10 years old, I started going on regular service trips with my family and church groups. We would cross the border into Mexico to build homes, provide medical care, and donate books and other supplies in border towns like Tijuana and Mexicali. In high school, I spent my breaks on mission trips throughout the world. One year I spent Spring Break in Belize, where we built a school and provided free dental care to the local population. I worked one summer at a basketball camp in Alsace-Lorraine in France, which served as a cover for us to evangelize the youth in the area (Catholics and Europeans were considered about equivalent to atheists).
The summer before my senior year of high school, when I was 17, I spent 3 months traveling throughout Ethiopia with a group of American missionaries putting on showings of The Jesus Film, a 1979 portrayal of Jesus’ life that is used as a method of conversion. Ethiopia has one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world, dating back to Biblical times, but our approach to evangelism required us to invalidate any faith that didn’t align strictly with our definition of being “born again.” I remember being pelted with rocks by a crowd of angry Ethiopians in the streets of the southern city of Awasa, enraged by our assertion that they weren’t “real” Christians and therefore needed saving.
If anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I wanted to be a missionary. I took my preparation for that career path very seriously. I became the leader of my high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) group, where each week I would prepare and deliver a lunchtime sermon to a classroom full of my fellow FCA students. I read many in-depth books on theology by writers like Dallas Willard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I memorized countless Bible verses. I prayed like it was going out of style. I only listened to Christian music, read mostly popular Christian writers like Max Lucado, Lee Strobel, and John Eldredge, and the highlights of my year included going to Christian mega-concerts like the Harvest Festival.
How could I do anything else given the stakes of eternal salvation?
But looking back, underneath all of this zealous devotion I can see a slowly rising tide of doubt. Even as a kid, I couldn’t understand how a loving god could permit his children to be sent to hell. The miracles of the Bible didn’t make sense to me, given that there was no evidence of such miracles today. I figured I just didn’t know enough and would one day figure out the contradictions, but the answers were never satisfactory.
Most of all, traveling with my family to other countries exposed me to radically different cultural values, belief systems, and ways of living. Returning home, I simply couldn’t believe I had the great fortune of being born in the exact “right” place that just happened to impart all the “right” beliefs to me, and that everyone else was doomed because of the circumstances of their birth. I noticed that in many of the cultures we spent time in, people seemed happier and healthier than the people I knew back home in Orange County. It was bewildering.
But I was so steeped in the worldview of my Christian faith that I couldn’t even consider leaving it until years later. Every piece of my reality reinforced each other so perfectly, there was not even a crack through which a sliver of light could shine. I needed to endure several crises of faith first.
In college, I doubled down on my zeal, becoming a leader in the on-campus InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and even organizing a “Jesus Week” full of events at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington D.C. where I studied my freshman year. The school has a large Jewish population, and I still remember the leader of the local Chabad (a community center catering to secular Jews) screaming at me over the phone after I invited a Jews for Jesus representative to speak on campus. Looking back, I understand now that I was projecting my doubt and insecurity outward, trying to convince others of what I increasingly no longer believed myself.
I became political, once writing a guest column in the university newspaper about why homosexuality was morally wrong, but god still loved gay people (the classic, misguided logic of “Hate the sin, love the sinner”). I became steeped in “apologetics,” a Christian-themed pseudoscience which claims to use science to “prove” the existence of god. I remember buying thick apologetics books packed with “proof” of the Bible’s accuracy, which I would highlight and memorize in preparation for frequent debates on the subject with my non-Christian classmates.
The doubt rising within me finally broke through the surface when I was forced to drop out of GWU at the end of that year. I had been assured by all my Christian friends that god would provide a way for me to continue my studies there after I had exhausted most of my college savings in a single year (GWU is one of the most expensive schools in the country). Trusting him to provide, I put in zero effort to provide for myself, such as applying for scholarships or financial aid or seeking part-time work to supplement my tuition. I prayed vigorously for god to provide the funds I needed, and had total naive faith that he would.
My belief system crumbles
When the funds I needed failed to arrive, I found myself in a crisis down to the core of my being.
My faith in god as I understood him was rocked. If my prayer, made in complete faith, failed to work, what else could I trust? Who could I trust when they had all assured me that god would deliver? The life path I had laid out so clearly in my mind – go to an elite East Coast school, graduate and work in a prestigious diplomatic post, and use that position to evangelize the gospel around the world – was gone. All the wonderful friends I had made and expected to spend 4 years with were suddenly out of reach.
I dropped out of college, moved back in with my parents, and wallowed in misery for about 6 months. I didn’t go to school, didn’t work, didn’t pursue my hobbies, and barely saw my friends. I had no motivation or desire for anything. Like so many other times in my life, reading was my only refuge. And this time I decided to follow the thread of doubt in my mind instead of fighting it.
I began to read much more widely than the books I had previously found at the local Christian bookstore.
I read Elaine Pagels’ book The Gnostic Gospels, which told the story of how the books (or chapters) of the Bible came to be. Far from descending from the heavens on golden clouds like I had imagined, I was astonished to discover that there was an incredible amount of controversy and doubt over which books were genuine, and which deserved to become part of the canon.
The formation of the Bible we know today was a messy, political process of backroom deals, awful compromises, clear mistakes, and human failings. For a church so committed to the literal truth of every word of the Bible, it was a terrible shock to realize it had come together through a series of historical accidents. I felt betrayed by every person and institution who had told me with such confidence that these were the literal words of god.
A pillar of my belief system crumbled.
I wanted to know more, and read Church History in Plain Language, which tells the history of the Christian church through a scholarly lens, but in easily understandable language. Once again, I found that history to be full of greed, vanity, political backstabbing, and atrocities committed by the leaders of an organization that was supposed to represent god’s voice on Earth. I learned that none of the books of the Bible date back to the times they claim to describe, and most were written centuries later based on hearsay and tradition.
Another pillar of my belief system crumbled.
Spending a year on the East Coast, I had been introduced to the more traditional, left-leaning sects of Christianity for the first time. I was introduced to the concept of social justice, which had been completely absent from our West Coast, right-leaning mega-church. Once I returned home, that new lens allowed me to begin seeing through the culture of social conservatism that dominated Orange County-style Christianity, from the emphasis on personal salvation over communal justice, to the ways in which evangelical faith justified consumerism and materialism, to the links between evangelism and myths of American destiny and superiority.
It was like having x-ray vision, and several more of the pillars of my belief system fell.
I started reading more and more widely, including non-church-approved fiction. I picked up The Poisonwood Bible, a harrowing tale about a missionary family in Africa that utterly destroyed my conception of evangelism as a noble pursuit. The story is fictional, but I recognized so many patterns and themes in the missionary world I had been exposed to. I saw how evangelization was in many ways a new form of colonialism, playing out on the psychological and ideological plane instead of in a battle for resources.
Another major pillar – that we at least had good intentions – toppled.
One pillar at a time, the entire worldview that I had adopted from my upbringing was simply destroyed. Seven days of creation forged by a Christian god, the promise of salvation offered by his son come to Earth, my role as a warrior donning spiritual armor in a galactic battle between good and evil. It all came crashing down. I began to see that I was the one trapped in a narrow view of reality, ignorant of the deeper truths that I had been arrogantly trying to impose on others.
At first, I honestly didn’t know if I would survive. There are few things scarier than having one’s worldview fall apart. I remember laying in bed one morning trying to find one good reason to get up. What reason did I have to keep going, to live? When you’ve been spoon-fed a single source of truth your entire life, it’s hard to believe that meaning and morality can come from any other source. I genuinely wondered if I would ever experience joy, or love, or a sense of purpose like the kind I had experienced immersed in the throes of the Christian narrative. I fully expected an overwhelming wave of nihilism, hopelessness, and depravity to descend upon me at any moment, like I had always been told would happen.
Finding a new purpose in entrepreneurship
One evening my mom gave me a copy of the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. She had picked it up while out running errands, and thought it might give me some new ideas and coax me out of my depression.
Reading that book was a revelation. I had never before considered any kind of career in business. In fact, I’d considered anything to do with profit or money morally suspect and contrary to the work of the spirit. But as soon as I began reading, I began to absorb a radically different perspective on what business is and can be.
I read the entire book in one night, hardly sleeping because of the excitement I felt. I then read almost every other book Kiyosaki had published, about a dozen in total. I could feel beliefs about money, ambition, and personal growth shifting within me in almost real time. I saw that business and, more specifically, entrepreneurship could be a means to the life I wanted – of adventurous travel, wide-ranging experiences, heartfelt friendships, a thriving family, and personal learning and growth.
Most importantly, I saw that I didn’t have to abandon the kind of service I’d grown to love on those youthful volunteer trips. Business could be a means of service as well, and at a far greater scale. And I saw that my creativity and my passion could be channeled in a new direction, without requiring me to adopt any particular beliefs or swear allegiance to any particular faith. I could believe in facts, and results, and effectiveness in the real world.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad was about personal finance, investing, and entrepreneurship on the surface, but its deeper themes are about questioning the default life path, seeing money as a means to living a fuller life, and the power of knowledge to give you whatever you desire. It was about self-reliance, but also about trusting guides and mentors to help you. It was about working hard in pursuit of a vision, but also about not treating hard work as an end in itself. The book’s message was to use leverage and passive income to free yourself financially, as a first step to freeing yourself in other ways. Kiyosaki also recommended a wide range of other books, and through those recommendations I was introduced to the world of personal development.
I read Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, and discovered the radical possibility that thoughts and feelings were something I could understand, and shape, and use to my advantage. Modern evangelical thought is actually strongly influenced by self-help, so it wasn’t a big leap. But I was being shown a path to improve my life and accomplish big things in the world without having to depend on the whims of an inscrutable god. It was music to my ambitious, 19 year-old self’s ears.
It is amazing to me just how powerful books about business and self-help were for me as a source of motivation. I enrolled in the local community college the next semester, got straight-As for the first time in my life, and was accepted as a transfer student to San Diego State University about an hour away from home. There I again excelled, earning university honors with a degree in international business, with an emphasis on Latin America and marketing. I was determined and on a mission to rebuild my life on my own terms. It felt in a sense that my life had been “saved,” not from sin, but from the clutches of a fundamentalist Christian faith that wasn’t true to who I was.
In the following years I swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and became a hardcore, militant atheist. I was angry, resentful, and vindictive. I read books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and doubled down on my newfound view that Christianity and all other religions were inherently evil, reinforcing paternalistic family values and repressive political regimes around the world. I used my intellect like a hammer, doing my best to undermine the religious beliefs of anyone I encountered. I passionately argued with Christians to try and convince them out of their beliefs, which of course never worked.
My opinion of religion since then has softened. I can acknowledge now that religions offer people a pre-made “package of beliefs” that is easy to understand, easy to follow, and that gives them peace of mind and a sense of community. The path I’ve followed was very hard and I don’t even know if I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t already having a crisis of faith. If you can be healthy and happy in your faith, more power to you.
In many ways, I did ultimately fulfill my wish to be a preacher and evangelist, just for a different religion: the religion of self-actualization.
I can see the many benefits I received from growing up in the church: a strong sense of right and wrong, nurturing and care from a wide community of like-minded people, and an appreciation for spiritual ideas and themes even if I no longer believe in the specifics. I continue to rely on a set of powerful abilities I gained from my fundamentalist faith: the ability to believe in something completely in the absence of evidence, which I now apply to my business goals; the skills to cultivate and grow an intentional community, which I now use with my audience; and principles of leadership that I observed in our pastors and elders.
Perhaps most valuable of all, I have a security and confidence in my newfound worldview that is hard-won through experience. My beliefs now feel fluid and can evolve naturally since I know I can survive that kind of change, and thrive from it.
What Christianty is missing
In retrospect, there are a few things that didn’t work for me about Christianity, and that I think increasingly don’t work for a lot of people.
First, the extremist belief in the literal truth of every word of the Bible is completely falling apart. It just doesn’t make sense anymore. Fewer and fewer people are willing to believe that a whale literally swallowed a man, or that a sea parted with a wave of Moses’ hand, or that every species of animal on Earth was somehow packed into Noah’s Ark. These stories were clearly meant as metaphors or parables, or retellings of stories from other cultures, and it is childish to believe otherwise.
More importantly, it doesn’t seem to matter. If a religious faith is taken as a holistic life philosophy, it doesn’t matter if every story is literally true. Even some of the seemingly most foundational beliefs, such as the acts of creation, the existence of hell and heaven, and even Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, are increasingly being questioned by mainstream evangelical theologians and leaders. Interpreting those stories as historical events is doing incredible damage to Christianity’s standing, I believe, because it obscures the deeper truths they convey through metaphor.
Second, modern evangelical Christianity’s complete corruption by Republican, right-leaning, conservative ideology. In fact, I think the corruption goes both ways. The Right never wanted a separation of church and state, and so they combined them together, with disastrous results. Fundamentalist Christianity corrupted politics by infusing it with an absolutist, uncompromising, crusading spirit in which any perceived opponent is synonymous with Satan and the forces of evil. This has made it impossible to give ground and to see issues from other people’s perspectives. But politics also corrupted the faith, injecting untold amounts of money and power such that the Christian worldview became synonymous with reactionary, regressive, and authoritarian political stances.
The unholy offspring of the two is the modern crop of televangelists and “prosperity gospel” promoters who have come full circle, offering up a vision of the gospel that is all about worldly power and individualistic wealth, the complete opposite of everything Jesus ever taught.
And fourth, fundamentalist Christianity’s rejection of science. This is a profoundly limiting attitude that makes it difficult for them to engage in modern society. I remember the opposition to science as barely a whisper when I was growing up. I would hear adults grumble about the teaching of the Big Bang and evolution in school. Later on, that skepticism spread to stem cell research, climate change, and now, of course, vaccines. The inexorable march of science has increasingly become a threat to the evangelical worldview over my lifetime, to the point that Christian circles today are hotbeds of anti-science, conspiratorial thinking. I’m constantly hearing about my childhood friends being indoctrinated and brainwashed into the latest crackpot cure, secret governmental plot, or general phobia of modern medicine by “groups” on Facebook and other platforms.
It’s incredibly sad, and has the effect of pulling well-meaning Christians away from important conversations around scientific advancements that they could contribute to. Christians often have very sophisticated moral and ethical reasoning skills, and have spent years exploring the practical implications of disseminating ethical thought among a far-flung, decentralized community. They could teach us powerful lessons about how we should think about such technologies as genetic engineering, life extension, and the impact of social media on the human mind, but so often even talking about these issues is seen as anathema.
Looking back, I think the most fundamental departure that I made from the Christian worldview was to evaluate it based on its utility. My reasoning that Christian beliefs were no longer serving me, and explaining why I switched to new ones, falls on completely deaf ears when I speak with Christians. They don’t see themselves as having “chosen” their beliefs, don’t acknowledge the many ways in which they choose only the beliefs they want to believe, and consider the very idea that beliefs should serve the believer to be evidence of a depraved, self-centered human heart. Christian faith isn’t supposed to serve us here and now in this life. We’re supposed to serve it, and don’t worry, we’ll get our due rewards in the afterlife.
Constructing a new worldview
What do I believe today, you might be wondering?
No single idea or philosophy governs my life these days. Instead, I’ve cobbled together a life philosophy from many, many different sources. It has demanded tremendous creativity, resilience, and willingness to endure uncertainty for long periods of time. I had to find completely different social circles, new mentors and role models, and new definitions for such concepts as “faith,” “the soul,” “marriage,” and “morality.” But it’s also been the most interesting, fulfilling pursuit of my life.
There were a few values I learned from Christianity that I retained. Service to others remains a central part of my identity. The times I was serving, helping, volunteering, and giving were always the happiest for me, and if anything I doubled down on service as a way to step outside my neuroticism and anxiety and redirect my attention to the needs of others. I had spent my high school summers evangelizing in various countries, and after my de-conversion I spent even more time in my 20s volunteering abroad: teaching English in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, working in microfinance on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Ukraine.
To my surprise, I found that my service was much more effective and genuine as an atheist. I wasn’t trying to “prove” I was good or worthy of my salvation, wasn’t trying to “earn my place” in heaven, wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything as a hidden motive, and wasn’t biased toward any particular kind of service by my faith. I felt I was much better able to focus objectively on what actually made a difference in people’s everyday lives instead.
Other values and principles I adopted from my family. The near-total devotion to family from my Latino parents remains one of my central pillars, and has served me so well as a lifeline of stability through stormy seas. The Brazilian emphasis on warmth, intimacy, authenticity, and fun were a crucial counter-balance to my neurotic, OCD personality traits. While the American values of efficiency, punctuality, and order were important antidotes to my Brazilian and Filipino tendencies toward chaos.
From my parents I inherited a passion for traveling and experiencing other cultures. We had traveled almost incessantly from the time I was 6 months old, from short trips to Europe to spending as much as a year in Brazil when I was 14. Each of these cultures was like an alternate reality for me, exposing me to such a wide range of foods, smells, landscapes, architecture, daily patterns of life, and historical and cultural works. I doubled down on travel and spent my 20s living and working abroad as much as I could afford.
But there were other values that I hadn’t found in the church or in my family, and had to cultivate consciously. One was a genuine thirst for truth, in whatever form and from whatever source it arrived. Christianity contains “truth” as a stated priority, but that search is always distorted by one simple fact: the conclusion is predetermined. The only place you are allowed to arrive at is that the Bible is true, good, and of paramount importance. So any bit of information that contradicts that conclusion is discarded or minimized.
Another was self-love and self-acceptance on my own terms. In the church, love is supposed to come from god primarily, and secondarily, from the congregation and community. But love with conditions isn’t real love, and the concept of “self-love” was treated with suspicion, as a symptom of arrogance and ego. Using the self-help literature I devoured, much of it Buddhist-inspired, I learned new ways of accepting and loving who I was without conditions.
Another quality I needed to develop was my intellect. It had been constrained in a Christian environment that viewed analysis, deconstruction, questioning, and experimentation as suspect. I discovered the “Post-Rationalist” community on the Internet in my late 20s, which fueled a complete transformation of how I viewed the world, sparked my writing career, and even informed many of the subjects I teach in my business. I immersed myself in the writing of Venkatesh Rao on his Ribbonfarm blog, using it as a guide to a far vaster world of ideas than I had ever considered.
More recently, I’ve dived into understanding trauma – what it is, where it comes from, how it manifests, and how we can understand and heal it. In retrospect, it is astounding to me that I never heard the word “trauma” uttered in church. It is so clearly a central part of the human experience, especially for people seeking solace from suffering. I think this is perhaps my biggest criticism of the modern church: the lack of practical, science-based education and training in how to live a better life. The churches found in every neighborhood and town could become training centers for teaching real skills like meditation, coaching, yoga, breathwork, writing and the arts, improv, and so many other powerful modalities. They could become beacons of light and hope if they acknowledged that the Bible does not in fact have all the answers for modern problems. It’s inexcusable that the main solution offered to people continues to be to pray and beg god for deliverance.
And most recently, I rediscovered spirituality through a new lens. I was introduced to a practical meditation routine through a book on mindfulness, was captivated by the religion-agnostic teachings of Michael Singer in The Untethered Soul, and inspired by radical activist thought introduced to me by my wife via the writings of Octavia Butler (Lilith’s Brood), adrienne maree brown (Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism), Frank Pittman (Man Enough), and bell hooks (The Will to Change). I feel so grateful for the many interesting and useful perspectives I’ve absorbed from books like The Yoga of Eating, Reboot, The Body Keeps the Score, How to Change Your Mind, How Emotions Are Made, The Inner Game of Work, Finite and Infinite Games, The Art of Learning, Comfortable with Uncertainty, The Obstacle is the Way, and many others.
It feels strange to list those books, because I’ve learned at least as much from books and other sources that don’t seem “spiritual” or “philosophical” on the surface. My view now is that everything is sacred when seen through a certain lens – gardening, managing my to-do list, doing laundry, reviewing my budgets, walking in the park – these are all potentially holy activities when performed in a spirit of gratitude and awe. I don’t accept that any belief system, religion, or institution has a monopoly on what is good, true, or beautiful. There are many access points to the plane of reality we call the sacred, and you are free to choose your own.
My current spiritual journey is taking me right through the middle of the business world. I remember one of the first business books I read was the autobiography of Lee Iaccoca, the hard-charging CEO of Chrysler in the 80s who had to lay off thousands of workers and right the ship of a failing company. He is probably the furthest thing from a spiritual guru you can imagine, but I remember recognizing in his story all the signs of a deeply transformative journey of personal growth.
I never saw myself as a classic entrepreneur, and when I first began self-employment it was mostly to avoid having to deal with the business world! But over time, I’ve come to recognize how powerful businesses can be for making a positive impact on people’s lives. That desire is my north star, and it’s led me to the unexpected path of starting a business, growing a team, streamlining operations, and developing products that people want and will pay for. The needs of a growing business are the greatest spiritual teacher I can imagine – constantly instructing, always holding me accountable, and forever surfacing the parts of myself that it’s time to acknowledge, embrace, understand, and sometimes, let go of.
On leaving one’s reality
When I see people steeped in modern religions – not only evangelical or other kinds of Christians but also conspiracy theorists, die-hard Trump supporters, and radical elements of the extreme “woke” left, I feel tremendous empathy for them. I know what it’s like to give everything you have for a cause, and to not even know you’re doing it. To be so immersed in a set of ideas that they seem indistinguishable from reality itself. And to not even be able to imagine ripping it all away, because that would feel synonymous with the death of the self.
When you immerse yourself in such a belief system, all the aspects of reality begin to synchronize and reinforce those beliefs. Every incoming piece of information either strengthens them, or gets discarded before it can really land. Every relationship is recruited to help reinforce those beliefs, or else that person slowly gets pushed out of your life. The news you listen to, the books and articles you read, the TV and movies you watch – they can all be interpreted to confirm what you already know and believe. It happens completely automatically, through a series of micro-choices you barely even know you’re making, all in the name of seeking truth.
Many have pointed out that religion didn’t die – instead, everything became a religion. Every hot button issue and corporate brand and hype-filled startup and new crypto token has become a die-hard cause that people wrap up into their identity, to the point that a wider and wider swathe of our culture is now fraught with ideological controversy and conflict.
It isn’t feasible to ignore or avoid the people in our lives who have fallen into one of these modern day cults. It definitely doesn’t work to convince them out of it using logic or reason. Beliefs that are not based on evidence cannot be changed by evidence. And it’s not even really viable to wait for reality to catch up to them and show them the error of their ways. The human mind can remain under an illusion indefinitely – for decades or centuries – as the continued popularity of so many world religions shows.
In retrospect, I had many things going for me that allowed me to break away. I had plenty of exposure to other lifestyles and worldviews – from the foreign cultures where we spent time as kids like Mexico and Brazil, to gay culture in nearby Laguna Beach where my father would exhibit and sell his artwork, to the religions and lifestyles of our diverse friends in Orange County, to the wide reading I did from the local library. There was no personal risk to me from changing my beliefs, even publicly, an incredible privilege shared by relatively few people in the world.
So many of the people I see falling into one cult or another are having their way of life disrupted. They are facing new overseas competition, or having their jobs automated by technology, or being overwhelmed by social media algorithms designed to stoke controversy in a way they are ill-prepared for. People will cling to an identity and belief system as long as they have no good alternative, no matter how painful it is or how miserable it makes them. When you believe you’re floating in an endless empty ocean, even a piece of driftwood feels like salvation.
I don’t have an action plan to offer, except to observe that we don’t appreciate how difficult it is to step out of a reality bubble. Most people won’t do it in their lifetime. It’s akin to leaving behind one’s previous life, like entering a witness protection program. And we are all caught up in alternate realities in one way or another. If you happen to have a vantage point from which you can see someone else’s delusion, treat them with compassion, and respect, and give them options, because they are doing the best they can with the information they have available to them.
But most of all, I want to make you a promise: that whatever your current worldview and belief system is, it is not the only one. You are free to choose it, but also free to choose something else. Your life is yours and yours alone. No one can tell you who you are, what you want, or what is good for you, except you.
Faith can provide immeasurable value to your life, but so can losing it.
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