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Part 3: Free Fall

4,000 Words

This is part 3 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series is intended to tell you my story from the last few years of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in same way as before.

Part 3 explores the paradox of emotions and feelings I went through as I saw my faith fall down around me.

You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab at the top of the screen.

(Credit to Eleanor Vivian for her proof-reading and critical feedback)

Image by Layers from Pixabay


“It is very difficult and emotionally stressful to change what you believe about something as fundamental as who Jesus is and what the Bible is. It is highly traumatic. Most people who approach scholarship of the Bible are simply not willing to do it because they don’t want to be proved wrong…When I went through this at one point in my life I finally just said, ‘I’m just going to go wherever I think the truth leads me because Augustine said that all truth is God’s truth.’ If it’s true it comes from God, and so you shouldn’t be afraid of it. It may cause emotional trouble but you shouldn’t be afraid of the truth, and I was willing to change my life if it went that way.”

-Bart Erhman, renowned Biblical scholar and former Christian (now agnostic) (1)

The day I realised I’d lost my faith was very ordinary. It was my final week at Oxford University and I was walking home from college towards my room in the south of the city. I was nearing home and crossing Folly Bridge when with gentle bluntness and terrifying matter-of-fact-ness a thought crept into my head: “I think I’m an atheist now.” It wasn’t piercing, thunderous or dramatic. It just was. And in that moment, my world changed – I had no response to it; I knew it was true.

A friend who converted to Christianity as a teenager once told me: “I don’t think Christians realise how scary it is for people when they convert to Christianity. You have to totally re-think everything you thought you knew about life.” This really struck me at the time as, having grown up in a Christian family, even if I hung out with Doubt regularly, I could never truly relate to what it is to have to completely change your worldview – that is until that day crossing Folly Bridge. More recently, listening to Bart Ehrman summarise his own de-conversion quoted at the top really resonated with me. I recognised that emotional stress and trauma. I also knew what it was to unwillingly yet nonetheless doggedly follow where the truth led, continuing to take each step despite the mixture of painful emotions as well as the equally powerful desire to numb, forget and pretend it wasn’t happening. This is that story.


Confusion and Distress

I often think that intentionality more than reason is the most ‘human’ of all our traits as a species. More than just the ability to make a choice, intentionality is that creative will to mould our lives according to a certain end. To borrow the language of the ancient philosophers, when we are at our most ‘animal’ is when we are acting without purpose – or at least a purpose beyond mere instinct and survival. At our most ‘animal’, there is no intention to our actions except what instinctually seems most appropriate. Intention meanwhile tames the wildness of nature, moulding all according to its purpose. It turns the streams into canals, the stallions into carthorses and the forests into cities. For the animal, the world around just is; for the human, the world around offers potential to become.

Now I do not mean this crude dualism between the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’ to be an unfair, snobbish indictment of any apparent ‘lower’ form of life of our animal brethren. You need only look around at the news to see how humanity’s intentionality has had many unintended consequences to the detriment of our natural environment. Indeed, there is something very precious and valuable to be found in that most ‘animal’ of qualities to live and just be. Nonetheless, there is also something very precious and beautiful in intentionality. After all, it is intention that invites the outcast into deep friendship, stays the would-be predator’s knife, and leads the artist to paint. But why intentionality is so particularly human is that we are lost without purpose. Indeed, even the Stoic who conforms her life to the pattern of nature is still moulding her life very intentionally according to what she believes is truly best.

When day-to-day survival is alongside our impending mortality so guaranteed, we search for a ‘higher’ purpose in which to root the actions of our lives. Yet, we do not search too hard, for intentionality is also exhausting in large quantities. As much as we are creatures of intention, the ‘human’ is a creature of routine. We would rather not have to think too much about what we must do. Thus, our religions through the ages have always helpfully routinized our years with holy days, festivals and pilgrimages that intentionally create space for important religious activities like fellowship and prayer. Indeed, social creatures that we are, we frequently opt to delegate our intentionality to the larger group. This, I believe, is the foundation of culture; for what is culture but the unarticulated intention of a group to live life according to often equally unarticulated purposes, values and reasons? The British person cannot tell you why they are always so polite, and the Korean cannot say why they always defer to the elder – they just do. The foreigner immediately, however, notices how ‘strange’ these behaviours are, and if you wish to learn about a culture, ask a foreigner before you ask a native.

Yet, for those who find themselves a minority, rarely do you find their intentions so shrouded in unarticulated mystery. Minorities of all stripes – whether religious, ethnic, LGBTQ+ or political – will almost always have the theory and terminology to hand to explain why they are as they are. Unlike majorities who can afford to lazily rely on the facile human notion that majority equals right, minorities have a constant existential pressure to justify themselves. Why are they not like the majority? A minority must always be ready to answer to this question. They can’t rest on the weight of cultural assumption. For this reason, an anxious doubt almost always lurks at the door of the minority in a way it simply doesn’t for the majority – what if they’re wrong and all this energy spent existing as a minority is for nothing? When this anxious minority comes into contact with the assured majority then, it frequently produces variants on two themes: a stubborn, obstinate false-bravado or a timid, worried apologeticness.

However, although there is this anxiety in minorities, there is also a paradoxical rootedness, security and purpose. Unlike most in the majority, a minority knows who they are and what they’re living for. Indeed, the problem with majorities that delegate out their intentionality to a common but unarticulated culture is that they can easily lose all sense of rigour and drive; they forget why they behave as they do and what they’re living for. Yes, their lives may lack existential anxiety, but their actions can become empty and their lives can grow stale. It can very easily become a life that ‘goes through the motions’. Thus, the unarticulated life is frequently the fruitless one. It never realised why it was living.

I say all this, because I want to try and help you understand the paradox of emotions I experienced when losing my faith. On the one hand, due to this ‘existential angst of the minority’, there was a deep determination to pursue the truth in case I really had been living a lie. Simultaneously, however, there was this deep sense of rootedness and purpose that Christianity gave me which meant I was greatly unwilling to let it go. I knew who I was; I didn’t want to un-know it.

Unless you know what it is to live everyday intentionally, choosing to be and live differently from the majority of the world around you, you won’t understand just how distressing and confusing it is to lose that sense of identity. This wasn’t just something I did on a Sunday; nor was it something I practiced in the ‘private sphere’ of my home. This was my life. Although not always consciously, everything I did, thought and said was intentionally weighed by Christianity’s measures. Thinking back to my university days, to list just some of the actions influenced by my faith is not difficult. Moreover, there must have been far many smaller decisions I made that were consciously influenced by my faith and even more that were unconsciously affected. What was my life now without faith? Who was I now if not a child of God? To leave Christianity was to enter a dismal abyss of uncertainty in which I saw no light. I had always known who I was, and thus what I must do. But now I was lost in a sea of uncertainty. I was an island beset by chaos; all order and direction had left me.

And yet, my life had already been set in a specific direction. A couple of months before my ‘Folly Bridge experience’ I had made the decision to spend the next year of my life working with a charity supporting Middle Eastern refugee Christians all because of a profound spiritual experience that meant I believed this is what God wanted me to do. I knew I would spend the next year visiting churches, interacting with Christians from all walks of life, and supporting the ministry of a high-profile Christian minister. I had even turned down a high-profile secular graduate scheme in order to do it. But now with my faith in tatters, I couldn’t decide whether I was in a tragedy or ironic comedy. Just a couple of months before, embarking on this exciting, faith-moulding year with a dynamic Christian ministry had made total sense. Yet now I had to contemplate whether to try and pull-off pretending to be a Christian for a whole year or just throw in the towel. I realised that continuing as if nothing had changed in me was most likely dishonest, hypocritical and insincere. However, I also knew that if I threw in the towel that would mean people would ask me why, and I couldn’t face that. If I admitted to the world the confusion I felt inside, that would make it real in a definitive way. But I didn’t want it to be real; I was good at being “Jacob the Christian”, and I had no clue how to live as “Jacob the…atheist or something-or-other?”

So I kept it quiet and ran from my demon. Indeed, the blessing of just having graduated was that I had a summer of no expectations before I went to work for this charity. University was now over, and I could return home to a quiet home to rest, garden, and watch TV. For several weeks, I had a quiet, domestic pattern. I saw the occasional friend but for the most part I either busied myself with jobs around the house or simply sought out the numbing properties of our media age. Yet, I couldn’t keep my thoughts at bay forever. I knew I was hiding. I knew the demon of my apparent deconversion must be faced sooner or later, but it all seemed too much

Fear and Loss

What is the truth worth? It’s a big question and we often find those individuals inspiring who, in pursuit of truth, went through much self-sacrifice, even at the cost of their lives, and in so doing, achieved a greater good. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are probably not willing to pay the price. Bart Ehrman highlighted this in his quote at the beginning, and though he was specifically airing his thoughts on Christian biblical scholars, most people, Christian or not, are probably unwilling to earnestly and sincerely seek after truth when it will likely cost. So, if it is already difficult to pursue the truth for a greater good when there is a cost, is there any reason to pursue truth when there is no greater good yet the cost is still high? Does the pursuit of truth remain a worthy end in itself, regardless of cost? If it does, the end fulfilment seemed hollow to me. If my pursuit of truth led where I thought it was leading, then I saw no reward but the cost of abandonment and isolation.

With every passing day of that summer, fear of my eventual isolation from family and friends grew within me. Notice I say isolation, not rejection. The problem was not that I expected my Christian family and friends to want nothing to do with me upon discovery of my deconversion. Although I knew it would sadden them, deconversion is not an unknown phenomenon in the West, and I knew my Christian family and friends would still love me and continue to be there for me. Nonetheless, aside from the knowledge that it would sadden them, I had a deepening sense of fear and sadness because it increasingly became apparent to me how many of my relationships and joys in life were channelled through religious organisations, whether informally or formally. All the regular Christian events I attended like church, small groups, homeless outreach, Bible studies, and prayer groups provided an organised forum for honest, serious and authentic friendships that included but also extended beyond just fun and banter. I might not have to worry about active rejection, but the passive isolation of slow dissociation that would occur if I stopped attending these events hit me like a brick wall. It wasn’t that I had no good friends outside of Christianity. I had very dear friends who didn’t consider themselves Christian. But when I thought about it, even with them our friendship was facilitated through an equally organised institution – the formal higher education system. This had provided that space for serious and honest friendship to emerge alongside the fun and games. Yet, now with university behind me, it seemed that all the secular world could offer me was the lonely, surface-level world of pub and football to provide just a fraction of the interpersonal intimacy the Church had always given me without a second thought.

Moreover, there was the prospect of losing all the beauty and joy I had found in Christian worship, faith and community. Many of my happiest memories, my deepest contentments and my most precious relationships had been channelled through it. It transformed the world around me – the beggar became a brother, the bustling streets and quiet meadows were joined together as Creation, and even the greatest suffering was consoled in the arms of the Cross. Christianity had always been to me as much an aesthetic as a philosophy, a dynamic poetry as much as a codified dogma. Through it I saw the world, and it was very good.

So the fear of what there was to lose was indeed great. Writing as I do now from the perspective of having come ‘back again’, I do not seek to pretend that this fear had no impact at all on the fact that I ended up returning to Christian faith. Truly, even as the anxiety that I might be living a lie was pushing me out the door, the fear of all that I might lose was causing me to grasp with all my might at the handle.

Anger and Sadness

Human emotions, though, are conflicting and fickle things. Alongside the fear of what I might lose, there was a mixture of anger and sadness that I had to lose it at all. The exclusionary element of Christianity has often been criticised in the post-modern West. I’ve often felt this was unfair as it ignores how highly inclusive it also is—anyone “either Jew or Greek” to quote St. Paul (2) can be part of it. However, when I found myself outside the door of what I understood to be the Christian paradigm, I knew I could no longer partake in this form of life which I dearly loved. Again, like with my family and friends, there was no active rejection but rather an impending isolation. I’d become a ‘non-Christian’—the ‘them’ that was distinct from ‘us’. Indeed, I realised more and more how much the Christian language I’d used and heard growing up was one that portrayed people in very black-and-white, in-or-out terms. Yes, anyone could become a Christian, but there was no grey in-between. You were either saved or not saved, lost or found, a Christian or non-Christian. There was no space for those who wanted to keep a foot in both doors.

But this is where I was. I came to describe this grey-in-between as feeling like my mind was Atheist but my heart was Christian. After my epiphany, I could no longer admit to myself that I believed Christianity was a winning ‘bet’, but I was so invested in it emotionally, socially and psychologically that I would rather continue to back a ‘losing horse’ than go through the heartache of letting it go. I guess it was like a break-up in some ways—you know it’s over, but you don’t want to admit that it really is. So I tried to live as if there had been no ‘Folly Bridge experience’. I determined to go through the Christian motions, even if my mind didn’t buy it. Anything to avoid my fear of impending isolation. Anyway, why did there have to be such a cost to losing my faith? Couldn’t I have the community without the Christianity? The love without the faith? How could my faith betray me like this? Why, just because I was no longer ‘fully signed up’, did it have to take away everything I held dear?

No more was this mix of emotions – this anger and sadness – apparent than in my conversations with the few people I did open up to about my loss of faith. Because the other reason why I didn’t want to tell people about my loss of faith, besides the reasons I’ve already outlined, was I was afraid they would try and bring me back.

It is strange that, despite the fact that there was nothing I would have loved at the time more dearly than to have all my questions answered and find myself back in the Christian fold, there was nothing that annoyed and angered me more than the possibility that a Christian friend or family member might feel compelled to ‘bring me back’. I’d been around church long enough to know that a script existed for those who’d ‘fallen away’, and I would be damned if I was going to let someone play it on me. I didn’t want people to bring me back, I wanted people to listen. I didn’t want to be black or white; I wanted to know that I was accepted and loved as I was – this confused, grey-in-between. I wanted to be given time and space to work things out and not feel pressured to go either way.

Yet I did feel pressure. Not because of anything anyone did or intended, but rather because the articulated language of Western evangelical faith was so imbibed with this dualism of ‘us and them’. Now that I’d become a ‘stranger’ to the culture, a foreigner on the outside, it suddenly hit me how much of my Western evangelical Christian faith presented an exclusionary dualism. Even in its very inclusivity, there was an implicit otherness. Behind every invitation into the fold, there was the implication that one was outside it. Behind every call to accept Jesus into your heart, there stood an implicit assumption that Jesus was not there already.

Thus I knew my desire to live in the grey in-between was not possible. I must be in or out. Our language would not allow for anything different. I must either carry on the pretence of faith and go through the motions, and so hope to avoid losing that which I so dearly loved; or I must make known my greyness, but in so doing accept that I must take up a new mantle as ‘the other’ and so find myself placed into a box that felt equally as disingenuous and ill-fitting.

I chose to pretend. Accepting an ill-fitting box was easier than risking such loss. There was bitterness and anger in having to make this decision, but there was also relief. Pretending bought me time.


As I stated in the introduction to this series, when I say I had lost my faith, I do not mean that I discarded my Christian faith and so picked up another metaphysical belief system. Yes, I had an epiphany that I thought I was now an atheist, but once the shock of this had faded, I realised that this was more an epiphany about who I no longer was, not necessarily who I was now becoming. Indeed, even as my anger grew at the way my Christian language had pigeon-holed me into becoming an unwilling ‘other’, I was equally annoyed by the notion that my loss of faith equalled an atheistic conversion. In fact, as the weeks went on, my frustration with the whole dualistic paradigm grew. I was living between two worlds, even if neither world could conceptually accept that.

And that’s why I continued to pray. Yes, every prayer now was shadowed by a lurking thought that my words were but dust in the ether, but pray I did. As my life went into free fall and all the conceptual structures that once made it so safe, secure and certain fell down, I began praying with a brokenness which actually I had read about all my life in the Christian Scriptures. This is when I began to realise that perhaps the issue was not so much God or no God, but rather a total re-think of how I thought about and interacted with God. Perhaps it was not God who had changed, but rather the conceptual box which I had put God in. What if, rather than losing my relationship with the great I AM, I had seen shattered my conception of the rigid YOU ARE THIS?

The rest of this series is all about exploring the story of how I found my feet again after this profound season of lostness. But for now, I think it would be fitting to end this part with this excerpt of a prayer I wrote in my journal on July 6, 2017, approximately three weeks after my Folly Bridge experience.

Father God, You know I’m in an interesting time right now. I’m kind of on the cusp of becoming an ‘atheist’ and yet at the same time not, and continuing to pray to You. I’m learning a lot about things from science to theology and yet I feel like I know less. In some ways I can see that my mind has become atheist but my heart still ardently follows You. There is so much I do not know, but also much I know I must do. You have wiped away the façade of my brilliance. I have become one of the crowd. I have been brought to my knees as a beggar not knowing the certainties of the people around me, but being poor in spirit, aware that I’m not the bees knees I once thought I was. My story is being rewritten, and the plot that once seemed so clear stands now blurred and its conclusion shrouded in mystery. I do not know how my story will end, and I do not know how the next couple years will pan out… I am only certain of my uncertainty and that I do not want to leave my Jesus and I don’t think He wants to leave me. Daddy, hold me close; let this son of Yours not stray away. Bring me home to You.


1. This quote is from a recent debate between Bart Ehrman and Peter J. Williams on the Unbelievable Podcast/YouTube series – “The Story of Jesus: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?” (starting from 1hr26min)

2. Galatians 3:28

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