Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
One Woman’s Journey from Evangelicalism to Agnosticism | Righting America

by Jennifer Jones Hamilton

Jennifer Jones Hamilton is an Instructional Assistant and Substitute Teacher with Carroll County Public Schools in Eldersburg, Maryland, as well as an application reviewer for Teach for America.  She has a bachelor’s degree in History and is a 1994 graduate of Messiah College.  She is an avid reader of all varieties of books, a lover of music, a runner, and a person with deep curiosity about the world we live in.  She continues to work on figuring out what she wants to do when she grows up, and while doing so enjoys life with her husband, Bill, and their three teenage children. 

The recent death of progressive Christian writer Rachel Held Evans (RHE) sparked an outpouring of grief from many individuals across the country, myself among them.  Of course, it is a tragic story even if you had never heard of her, one of those inexplicable passings that makes the very earth seem liable to fall out from beneath you at any moment.  But like many others, I felt particularly gutted because of the pivotal role she played in the dramatic shift in my spiritual life.  Her book, Evolving in Monkeytown (now re-named Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions) was one of the first books I read that made me realize that the questions and doubts rumbling beneath the surface were not unique to me, nor were they something to be feared.  It was the catalyst that took me from years in evangelical Christianity to a more nebulous agnosticism.  

Portrait of Rachel Held Evans in a purple dress wearing a necklace with purple beads and a medallion with a tree inscribed on it.
Rachel Held Evans, June, 1981 – May, 2019. Photo by Dan Evans, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

I confess that my entrance into evangelicalism sprouted from two things: the desire to get my mother off my back and the desire to meet cute boys.  I grew up Catholic; while more than just “Christmas and Easter” Catholics, we were far from zealous.  As I went through middle school, my mother searched for answers to her then-undiagnosed mental illness: she scoured Shirley MacLaine and Edgar Cayce books and met with a Jehovah’s Witness every week before settling into a Baptist Church, where she was “born again.”  

In Jesus, she seemed to find answers to all of the questions she had been asking.  Like many new Christians, she tirelessly tried to convert my sister, my father, and me. She sat on my bed, night after night, imploring me to “ask Jesus into my heart” so that I wouldn’t end up in hell. As a teenager, I was predictably annoyed by this. Exasperated, I finally joined her in the “Sinner’s Prayer” just to get her to leave me alone.

Around the same time, a friend from school invited me to youth group.  I really had no idea what that was going to entail, but her stories of snacks, fun games, and music piqued my interest.  As a marginally popular and boy-crazy 15-year old, I was quite thrilled about the prospect of meeting an entirely different group of kids, feeling that I had already exhausted my friend/potential boyfriend resources at my high school.  I was not disappointed.  My first night at youth group was thrilling, because as the “new girl” I was instantly the center of lots of attention, and I immediately felt like a whole new world of social excitement had opened up to me.  While I wasn’t initially looking for a spiritual experience, that was part of the package, so I jumped in with both feet.

The next 20 years of my life followed a predictable path of the late 20th-century evangelical young adult:  enjoying lots of youth group events, participating in short term missions projects, attending a Christian college, marrying a Christian man. The church provided me with a solid structure at a time when my family was falling apart.  My mother’s mental illness, family financial troubles, and the dissolution of my parent’s marriage all led me to seek “family” within the circles of church. Of course, along with all the “fun” came the spirals of doubt: the repeated praying of the Sinner’s Prayer for fear that I hadn’t gotten it right the first time, getting rid of all my “secular” music (and then promptly buying it all back again, thank you Columbia House and your 12 cassettes for a penny!), crushing on non-Christian boys but then pulling back for fear of being “unequally yoked,” drinking too much and then not drinking at all and then settling in some sort of happy medium of occasional social drinker. Life was a constant battle of trying to please God and at the same time be myself.  The problem was that “myself” seemed to be at odds with what I was told would please God.

I am a huge reader.  I pay attention to what is going on in the world and have a much bigger view that expands well beyond the sphere I live in.  I have an intensely good memory and remember most stories I hear, particularly if they involve tragedy or injustice. I love all kinds of art and poetry and music.  I intentionally try to expose myself to different people and different viewpoints. All of these traits combined to put me in direct opposition to what much of the evangelical world was trying to tell me was true.  As I got older, I started noticing that so much of that evangelical message just wasn’t jiving with the reality I was seeing.  Science did not seem to be the evil entity some churches wanted me to think it was.  In spite of being pro-choice, Democrats seemed to have a more inclusive, compassionate view of “the least of these” than Republicans.  I was pretty sure God didn’t hate gay people, even though my exposure to the LGBTQ community was limited.  So many of my non-Christian friends were kind, compassionate, generous, and spiritual, contrary to the idea that without Jesus you couldn’t be any of those things.  I started to feel very uncomfortable.

As I approached 40, I was well into questioning the so-called absolute truths that I had tried to believe for the past 25 years. There were many very specific, very clear signs to me that I could no longer ignore.  The mission trip to Uganda (fueled by a guilt trip from one of the organizers, if I’m totally honest) that made me question the legitimacy and value of trying to convert others, particularly others in a radically different culture.  The drive to the beach, passing church after church after church, and realizing that they all had different views of what was capital-T Truth. The Vacation Bible School my kids attended where evolution was presented in the caricature of the bumbling idiot scientist who was stupid enough to believe that people evolved from monkeys and the earth was millions of years old.  I was starting to feel as if the ground was crumbling beneath my feet. When I would sit down with friends and try to talk about it, most of them looked confused, and then condescendingly told me I should just pray or read my Bible more.   As if I hadn’t been doing just that for the majority of my life!

Somewhere during this time is when I came upon RHE’s first book.  And off I went.  She led me to books by Jeff Chu and Justin Lee, Rob Bell and Addie Zierman, and finally to the book that seemed to map out exactly what I had been experiencing, Kathy Escobar’s Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart.  I underlined and highlighted and wrote so many exclamation points in the margins that it reminded me of my first enthusiastic Bible studies as a teen.  I was ecstatic to realize that I was not alone, and that many, many others were going through a similar metamorphosis.  I found a camaraderie in online groups that I wasn’t finding in many of my friends and family.  My non-Christian friends reacted with “What took you so long?” while my Christian friends and family seemed to be wringing their hands over my backsliding.  

The whole experience was exhilarating and uncomfortable.  I found myself feeling so much less fearful, even as I was shedding years of fear-based belief.  (It didn’t all just go away: I still hear that voice of “what if you’re wrong?” particularly at challenging times in my life.)  I came to the realization that I could no longer just base my spiritual beliefs, the core of who I was, on the fear of going to a hell I didn’t actually believe in anymore.  I stopped going to church because I essentially would just sit through the whole service coursing with anger.  I started cursing in a way that I had never done before…it was like a tic that I couldn’t control at times.  Everything I believed was just melting away.

In the 10 or so years since I first read Evolving in Monkeytown, I hadn’t followed RHE as much.  She continued on a path into a more liturgical faith that just wasn’t my journey. “Agnostic” is defined as someone who believes that nothing is known or can be known about the existence of God, a person who claims neither belief nor disbelief in God, and that is the most accurate description of where I stand currently.  When I look at nature or art or go to concerts, when I see certain people engaged in acts of compassion, when I have an intense connection with a person, when I see the amazing and inexplicable ways animals interact with people and one another – I can’t help but believe that there is something more out there, beyond what we see and know.  I just don’t think any one religion has the answer to what that something may be. This has caused a lot of friction and misunderstanding with several of my family members who fear what this means for both myself and my children. At the same time, it has allowed me to become much closer to other friends and family who have been put off by the Christian church.  And not attending church has given my husband and children and I the opportunity to have some deep and honest discussions about faith and belief and religion that I probably would have been afraid to have 15 years ago.  There’s a freedom that I feel now that I’m not tethered to a black-and-white absolute truth.

Even though I hadn’t actively followed RHE over the past several years, I still would pop over to her Twitter feed to see what she was talking about and get her take on current events, particularly since the election of 2016, when evangelicals sold their soul to the political machinations of Donald Trump.  She was someone who gave me hope that there was a compassionate, rational, thoughtful Christianity out there, and her voice will most certainly leave a void in progressive Christianity.  She made people take a good, hard look at the truths that are being handed down by a minority of typically white, privileged men, truths that leave the majority of people on the outside of God’s favor and love.  She certainly helped me along my own journey, and for that I am thankful.  It hasn’t always been an easy road, and it’s certainly not finished.