Dehumanization: Why I Left the Church I Knew

There is much ado about the “millennials” going around right now, of which I am a part. We’re doing a lot of unusual things, and among them we’re leaving the church. To explain us, everyone is throwing around the latest surveys and conjecture. I don’t mean to stifle good analysis, but why not just ask one of us? Since I’m a millennial, allow me to give you a sense of perspective. The situation is much worse than anyone has really had the courage to say. So, strap in and prepare to take a hard look at what we commonly accept about church.

leviathanThe fact is that the church has tried to strip us of our identities. The individual exists to give power to the collective identity, not to exist as himself or herself. If you have thoughts or feelings — or worse, if you act — contrary to the accepted norms, prepare to face an onslaught of pressure to get back in line and submit. You will face everything from passive-aggressive suggestions to outright hostility.

It’s not just a church problem. We’re fed the “grow up, get a degree, get a job, get married, have kids who do the same” narrative even in the secular world. None of those things are bad. I just got married, and I love my wife. I’m about to finish my degree (finally), and I’m looking for a job. The problem is that the narrative is not presented as an option. Deviate and receive passive-aggressive suggestions from everyone around you, if not worse. Much of the time, it’s worse.

But the church is an especially stringent enforcer of the narrative, and it comes with a few extras thrown in for good measure. In addition to enforcing the societal expectations, they set out a bunch more requirements: believe some flavor of ad hoc reasoning about Genesis and creation; “love the sinner but hate the sin” when it comes to the LGBT community; vote pro-life 100% of the time while neglecting the complexities of life, politics, and bioethics; and the list goes on. Don’t worry about helping guide the community toward what it actually needs: the agenda is not going to change, and all that’s left is for you to show up and give your time, your money, your assent to the right beliefs, etc., depending on denominational demands. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Christ asked of us, but it’s what many of us Christians are doing.

I could rattle off a long list of people whom I know personally who have suffered under the church, with myself on that list. These weren’t incidental occurrences, as if each person just happened to go to church with a jerk who tried to wield power. No, the church system caters to this sort of thing: it turns the insensitive asshole who bullies people into conformity into a goddamned hero. It is a total inversion of values: the church weighs the worth of the individual in the degree to which he loses his individuality by conforming to the preset standard.

It is not strictly a matter of theology but also of practice. It affects every aspect of the church. The “grow up, get married” narrative is the defining characteristic of singles departments everywhere, with many of my female friends describing it as like walking into a meat market where they’re on sale. Conform. Even the kids’ Sunday School classes bear the same marks of manipulation and control. I remember very distinctly participating in an entire musical in children’s choir about how stupid evolution ostensibly was, even though I had no idea what it was about at the time. Don’t know what evolution is? Oh, well. Conform. In youth group, we talked about how having premarital sex was like handing your future spouse already-chewed gum, immediately shaming everyone in the room not only for the fact that many had already engaged in premarital sex but also because we felt ashamed of our very natural desires which were arising at that time. Conform. Everyone is so concerned that if we exercise our own autonomy, we might do something challenging. We might even make the wrong decisions. Which is worse, however: making a few wrong decisions on our way through life or instilling a culture in which people are not free to exercise their own human free will? The latter is totally dehumanizing.

Everything is about do this, don’t do that; believe this, not that; dress this way, talk this way, treat others like this or that or whatever. It tries to pass itself off by invoking church authority, but it’s not Christianity; it’s a very complicated social checklist devoid of any real meaning. Those who dare to be themselves and to challenge the narrative receive a heaping helping of scorn. Even minor deviation may meet with violent oppression.

There is no freedom to be.

This, more than anything else, is perhaps the defining complaint, it is the fist in the air against all the bullshit raining down on us from above. It is the middle finger I raise to the system that nearly stripped me of everything that I am. It is my courage to be in the face of the monster that tried to kill everything human about me, and it is my vow that I will spend every day of my life in direct defiance of that monster by daring to be myself.

. . .

A lot of the better, more mature music in my collection grapples with these sorts of issues. The lyrics from Isis’ song Backlit from their album Panopticon strike me as poignant and relevant:

Always object
Never subject

We are watching. You are fading.

Can you see us? Are we there?
Are we there…
Can you see me?

We are watching
We are watching…
You are fading…
In the daylight… Fading…

Always upon you, light never ceases
Lost from yourself, light never ceases
Thousands of eyes, gaze never ceases
Light is upon you, life in you ceases

Under the expectation of performance, the constant monitoring for conformity, we are no longer ourselves but objects. We suffer, we bleed, until we either succumb to being another clone, spitting the same bilious lies, tightening the very bolts which hold in place the chains of our subjugation; or we rebel on pain of humiliation, accusation, abandonment, or even betrayal.

These are not exaggerations of reality. Society, and especially the church, has become an institution for the abolition of the human soul. There are plenty of hoops for us to jump through like well-trained dogs, but where is purpose? Where is human flourishing? It has disappeared amid collective surveillance and expectation of conformity.

Don’t just try to pin this on a cadre of abusive pastors. The monstrous enforcer of dehumanization is our collective assent to distrust of one another. The Mark Driscolls of the world don’t just shout aimlessly into the darkness; they have legions of willing adherents who, by their tithes, attendance, and effort, manage to give people like Driscoll every last bit of their power. The Sovereign is our shared hatred of difference, seeking to make palatable our prejudices through elaborate rituals and social institutions — “churches,” or so we call them. We will not solve this crisis simply by ousting a few leaders, though it will help; the problem is in our hearts.

I left the churches I knew because I believe in a thing called truth, and in the core of my being, I knew those churches had none of it. Whatever they had right, I chalk up to either coincidence or their total inability to be both human and consistent with their abhorrent, dehumanizing system. I left the churches I knew because I saw how they only brought about control, suffering, and abuse.


Looking for an honest church

Don’t think this is the church “over there.” Chances are, if you have a hard time accepting people who believe in evolution or who support gay marriage, then I challenge the notion that you are living in the light of true goodness, because although I look around and see functioning institutions which have cross-shaped steeples and say “Jesus” a lot during their services, I do not see many places of refuge for the outcast and despised. I do not see places of the freedom Christ promised. I do not see the churches seeking to be understanding of others. Maybe everyone else is just used to the dim light, but here I am holding up my lamp, looking for an honest church.

Not all is despair. I have found good churches, but many are not so fortunate. The remaining hope is like that of one who stands at the base of a mountain knowing that home is on the other side. The hope of home drives me forward, with the faith that even if I fail, God will make all things right in His good time.

Home is a place where the individual retains his or her beautiful, unique identity while working in cooperation with the rest of us toward building something truly great. It is a place where love, true love, is the standard, not the rigid application of a convoluted interpretation of the Bible. Home is where we recognize the fundamentals of life and the divine and don’t confuse them with the cultural constructs we use to understand them, as though mere participation in Christian culture will save us or bring real life. Home is a place that is safe for the hurting and broken, where they will not have to fear the scornful eyes of their neighbors, where the lost and sick may come for respite and healing.

If you want to know why I left the churches of my upbringing, I left because I am searching for my home.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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22 Responses to Dehumanization: Why I Left the Church I Knew

  1. Ken Nichols says:

    “We have come to believe that the food we eat, the words we say, the music we listen to; the books we read all have to do with our love for God and others.”

    I found the above quote (from the “Who We Are” page of your church) interesting as it is one of the first things people will read. I know you didn’t write it (maybe haven’t even read it before), but it kinda, sorta SOUNDS exactly like what you are trying to AVOID in a church. This could be interpreted as “You only show you love God if you eat this way, listen to this and read this — like WE all do.”

    Just saying…

    BTW, I enjoyed the post. I have sometimes felt the same way, less the language (was that really necessary?)

    • The church is saying that everything we do is in service to God, not that these specific things are what you should do to please God.

      Anyhow, glad you enjoyed the post. I stand by my use of language, though. Other words really don’t capture the intensity of emotion necessary to drive home the point.

  2. Pat O'Leary says:

    Chris. Loved the article. And these things need to be said LOUDLY, cos they’re so vital.
    But, for these very reasons, I find it hard to subscribe to any church, taking the view that (even if I were leading it myself) any such social organisation would sooner or later establish its own norms and conformities. …tho I’d love you to convince me otherwise.
    Maybe Jesus never intended us to have these organisations. Idk.

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  4. S Wilkinson says:

    I belong to no social religious organization. My last real church home was in MD and it turned away from the scripture and turned in to a Moral Majority Support Group. From a fellowship of individuals committed to each other and to walking with Jesus. It has been over 25 years since then and I continue to have major trust issues. Oh I have forgiven and reconciled with the individuals but I do not trust, I do not expose myself to trusting a group. I live quietly living my life as best I can according to the God’s Word. Now, you speak of the group trying to make us comply to “Acceptable” Social Norms. You mentioned using convoluted Biblical Interpretation as a tool to establish a social norm. I am who I am and yes because I work in a society that requires my conformance to keep my job I keep my head down and adapt my external behavior to meet the required norms. In doing this I escape the predictable conflict that I would get if I could live as who I am and not who everyone insists I be. God is the only one who knows me and has accepted me completely. He not only accepted me but He sent Jesus to die on the cross so that I could walk with Him and have companionship with someone who does not judge me though He has the right too. I strive to live in a manner in which God has no reason to condemn me for either what I do or do not do. But my effort is not based on the Law but on the fact that I love Him. Love not judgment not cookie cutter conformity and not membership of some religious social organization.
    What I am asking you is that you seek relationship with God and let Him continue His creative work in you. I can not recommend a better friend, father, mother commander or Lord. He is all of these things and He is God. Organizations do not make a home or a family, it is relationships of trust and love. Without God you can have neither Love or Trust.

    • Thank you so much for the kind exhortation. I could not agree more. I’m very sorry that you can’t live openly and honestly. Keep in mind the ultimate restoration, and let’s fight to make it a reality.

    • Ken Nichols says:

      What a wonderful way of putting things. I feel similarly The only one that truly knows me inside and out is Jesus, and He loves me in spite of the imperfections that continue to plague me. I no longer strive to “be good”, but just to love Him and let Him love others through me. I know that that “abiding” is all He really wants of us.

  5. Thanks, Chris. I’ve been pondering this question since RHE piece last week and while writing my response. The denial of identity seems central to the question of why committed millennial evangelicals find themselves estranged. I’ve been thinking that millenials can help the church acknowledge the complexity of the postmodern world, the messiness of lives, our continually falling short of our ideals. I really pray that the millennials will teach the evangelical church about grace.

  6. Jim Vickers says:

    The church is being pressed to revert to its fundamentals. Fundamentals like: Love God, love your neighbour as you love yourself. Love one another as I have loved you. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Judge not, or you will be judged. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. You shall know the truth and the Truth will set you free. If you have done it to the least of these my brothers(and sisters) you have done it unto me.

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  9. Anzaholyman says:

    Reblogged this on Anzaholyman's Blog and commented:
    A young persons thoughts we need to listen…

  10. ObservingThings says:

    Hmm. As a millennial I had a few thoughts in response to this article (in no particular order). 1: We are to conform to the image of Christ (yes, not the church) 2: we ARE the church (so we kind of shoot ourselves in the foot criticizing it) 3: the church (as definited in this article) is power-hungry and offended when members deviate from the ‘norm’. The author responds to the church (aka other brothers and sisters in Christ) in a condescending, harsh and judgmental manner. I would probably have paid more attention to the message he presents had the presentation not been so caustic (or had there been Scripture included so that I could determine the truth). There seemed to be a lack of compassion and the author did not seem to be responding with a forgiving attitude. I see this attitude as no better than the ‘church’s’ attitude that so bothers him. My church experiences have been varied and there have definitely been highs and lows. I have seen church done well and done really quite poorly. This makes sense to me, seeing that the church is made up of redeemed sinners. I’d rather not point the blame at leadership or my fellow church brother/sister (think back to the blame-game in the garden of eden…) and rather seek to fix my own heart problems first. At the end of the day, I care less about keeping my identity as a joe-schmoe human and more about my keeping my identity in Christ. I hope that I will have the guts to happily throw my ‘identity’ and ‘individuality’ under the bus if it gets in the way of ministry or helping others, inside or outside the church.

    • It is apparent that my thoughts on identity and retaining the self are causing some confusion/equivocation, which I should seek to remedy in the future; however, I maintain that the tone is appropriate. I do not qualify the church in the way that you do, nor do I think being a part of the church would exempt anyone from such harsh criticism.

      The church is the group of people who follow Christ’s commandments. This is a much more ambiguous qualifier than simply those who affirm the historicity of Christ’s death and resurrection. The false church which I critique has no heart for the poor or the outsider except in hoping that he/she may conform to the preset standard. We disguise this dehumanizing fake love as “evangelism” and “outreach,” never really caring for the individual but only for conversion. Any kind deeds done along the way are done with conversion in mind, not well-being. This is not loving our neighbor, and it is not Christianity. Thus, I do not consider the “church” to be the same group as you do, nor do I think being part of the church would exempt anyone from critique.

      What’s happening in what I read here is that I see you allowing for the deep-rooted institutional problems in what claims to be the church because, essentially, we’re all sinners. Yet should that fact keep us from pursuing what is right and just? Should that prevent us from calling out evil? Because the things I see are evil.

    • I know it’s been a while, but I did write a follow-up post that might help make sense of the questions you pose.

  11. James says:

    If you are really interested in open dialogue, then I would appreciate your thoughts on some concerns I have about your “hard look.” First, you talk about how “individual exists to give power to the collective identity, not to exist as himself or herself.” Existing to oneself is precisely what the church has always been about destroying. In fact, if there is a consistent argument the scriptures make, it is that if you live to yourself, you die to yourself. If you die to yourself, sharing in Christ’s death, then you will someday share in his resurrection as well. I am disappointed that a self-designated “philosopher” has not cast the above statement in the context of post-Enlightenment, western individualism. Hell, this may go all the way back to Augustine, but the point is that holding on to one’s identity is just not Christ-like. Christ did not please himself, but instead he submitted to the form of humanity, slavery, Roman law, and death. What this does not entail, of course, is that you need to be defined by fundamentalist bullshit. It does, however, mean that your “devil may care” attitude, unqualified, is no closer to Christ than the thumper who thinks he can usurp God’s judgment seat. You contradict yourself at virtually every point in that section of your post.
    As far as the grow up and get a degree stuff, you can’t seriously take issue with maturity and expect to be taken seriously, can you? Virtually everything you champion, where there is a correspondence with ancient agrarian society, is ridiculed in wisdom literature from antiquity. If the strength of your case against stereotypical church is that it wants you to succeed, and your reasoning for refuting it is that there are pressures in life, then most of the world would look upon you with pity (and the meaner ones with humour). Am I taking you out of context? A little bit, but again your failure to qualify what you say hardly invites benefit of the doubt from your readers. And the truth is, for all asshole ministers out there, the solution is not perrennial childhood. I for one am quite pleased that there will hardly be any competition for my daughter when she grows up, because I intend to raise her to be an adult capable of doing more than pushing a broom. For every point you could raise about how the church pressures you into having a nuclear, middle-class family, there are probably ten studies that conclude that most North American 30-year-olds have attained the maturity of a late teen less than a century ago. Is this progress? Really? If you say so, but again I am glad I am not progressing. (By the way, I am 33 and just now getting around to starting my life. The way I lived my 20s according to your standard will cost me the ability to retire when my body can’t work anymore. I will be one of those guys who are wrinkly and exhausted who stand aside when messy teens need to take a piss at some mall. I don’t recommend it, but I acknowledge your right to an opinion.)
    Always object and never subject, hey? I sure as hell am glad Jesus didn’t take that attitude. You may see some guy flipping the bird at Pharisaism; I see a king submitting to a slave’s shameful death. You may see Paul walking into town kicking some fundamentalist ass; I see a guy who said believers were set apart to God and to clear the yeast from their midst less they forfeit their inheritance (1 Cor 5-6). But maybe this bit will hit closer to home: unadulterated non-comformity is just conformity in wolves’ clothes. In a world of rebels, those who can fall in line and respect apostolic norms are the James Deans. You may find it cool to sit in a pub and pontificate about the complexities of life, but it doesn’t mean that turning our backs on our intellectual heritage is going to improve our quality of life. I could go on and on, but here’s my final thought: I too think the church is full of phonies. But I land on the opposite end of the spectrum. I think there droves and droves of people who want to live a pagan lifestyle who think their Jesus bumper sticker is tantamount to a “get out of hell” card. That will surely flop, but the reaction to their claim to authority is not the subversion of authority itself. It is simply to recognize that as the church submits to Christ it expresses him to this world. I don’t see that in anything you wrote. And I think it would cost you your identity. It’s supposed to. But you are right about one thing. As much as I am saddened by a world that refuses to receive the blessings of Christ, I really don’t think there is any change that happens when millennials who never believed in him start to live according to the pattern their private lives looked like. I think it is good that millennials who leave the church do leave the church because the most dangerous thing of all is being told you’re eternally secure when you want to be your own god. Driscoll may be a shameless asshole, but you haven’t proven the church guilty of anything it hasn’t learned from its surrounding culture, which reminds me too much of your mantra. It was for freedom we were set free, freedom to live obedient lives to Christ. The new covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 (and Paul! cf. Romans 8) was that no written code would define us, but Christ would. Christ and postmodernism will never be reconciled. That’s why I don’t believe you.

    • First of all, I am not just a “self-designated” philosopher. I study philosophy, both formally and informally. It’s one of my primary passions. My long-term intent is either to teach or to write.

      Anyhow, there is a lot of equivocation and misunderstanding going on in your post straight from the start, but I will grant that my terminology is confusing to many church-goers who use similar words in different ways. The primary issue is that you conflate “dying to self” with “losing one’s identity.” One very important concept which the Trinity depicts is the notion of three persons retaining their individual identities but existing together as one; thus, retaining one’s identity is important enough that it is part of how we understand God. What I advocate is not radical individualism but rather the cooperation of individuals. Each person must remain him/herself while fitting into the community, whereas society — and especially the church — expects the individual to conform to the expectation rather than find ways in which each may contribute to the whole.

      Thus, I have no issue against maturity; however, I take issue with the disingenuous manner in which we talk about it, as though it is a monolithic standard which applies to all people. There is already significant pushback in educator’s circles against the narrative which says that a 4 year degree is the only way to go. Some simply aren’t a good fit for that line of work, whereas they excel in other areas. The church takes this further and often pressures people to accept predefined roles which conflict with personal goals and talents.

      My hope is that people might submit to Christ as themselves, not as someone else. That is, the gay man cannot submit to Christ as a straight man; he is always gay. He remains himself, but he “dies to himself” in that he dedicates his life to furthering Christ’s ends — but as himself.

      I hope I’ve cleared up some of the confusion here. I don’t think we are too far apart in our thinking.

      • James says:

        That’s very helpful because I think you are making some necessary push back, but I think what my fear is that people who lack your training do not also discern the difference between radical individualism (which seems to be a virtue nowadays) and the holistic church (if I am reading you correctly). My wife and I once served a small, rural congregation, and strangely we met hostility when we tried to empower them. I wanted to change their culture in two ways: (1) pastor does everything; (2) nothing may change. We ended up leaving because they were much aligned to what I referred to as the bumper sticker types, and as tongue-in-cheek as it is, I don’t think there is a change in the church population when such people leave. What I do find troubling, and I may have misread you here as well, is (1) that the “emergent church” actually wants to serve the world, but sometimes at the expense of what can no longer be called orthodoxy (in any case, the scriptures do not know of a post-Lutheran “take it home and interpret it for yourself” model; and (2) the traditional church, I think unintentionally at this point, is just a rehearsal of the Roman judicial system with a spiritual face on it. Neither extreme is a solution. You may or may not agree with this, but if you study the philosophic tradition you know that the philosophers were aware of their forebears, so they assumed a lot of knowledge about the universe, truth, virtue, and so on. (By the way, I won’t claim any expertise here; I’m just a dogmatic Biblical studies major!). What I am really trying to say is that the philosophic schools had a method of formulating their insights. So I think the way to begin this great dialogue is first to get people caught up. The reason I read you as more extreme than you are is because of what you omitted from your post. And I mean this more gently than it may appear. But here’s the thing: you may be able to examine an argument and reduce it to syllogisms you can test; but most of your contemporaries cannot. I felt a little sheepish when I responded to this after so many months, but it appeared in my Facebook news feed and it seemed to me that the response it was generating was leaning to either extreme. I thought it was a newer post and that the conversation was just starting, but the point is that, ironically, I think you need to go against your impulse and institute (if not a restored dogma) a method for tackling issues so that you are not abiding by a standard others don’t share _on account of_ the fact that we are not trained in the classical education that has helped call bullshit what it is. Sadly, bad arguments and dusty liturgies don’t have a discernible scent.

    • James, I don’t know if you saw, but I ultimately ended up writing a full-fledged post in response to the questions posed here by you and “ObservingThings.” Check it out.

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  13. Paul says:


    This is a welcomed discussion. I am enjoying reading all the offerings here. Let me throw a couple of things into the discussion. The Church is a “who”, not a “what”. Culturally, the concept and working definition of “the Church” has come to mean many variations of “it”, some inanimate object or entity . The Church is functionally spoken of as an organization, a building, a culture, a philosophy in our culture today. And so, part of the problem is “the Church” has been dehumanized. The Greek word, EKKLESIA, which is translated as “Church” 97% of the time in English translations, was only attributed as coming from the mouth of Jesus three times in two scriptures in one of the four gospels. And, of course, Jesus probably did not even use the Greek word since He spoke primarily in Aramaic and Hebrew. So, Matthew translated the word into Greek, in his gospel. The EKKLESIA, or “called out ones”, are people. And so, it is not completely accurate to say, as your title indicates, that you have left “the Church” unless you have left Christians or dis-fellowshipped from them yourself. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that you have stepped back from the social behaviors of brothers and sisters in Christ whose actions and choices tend to leave you feeling objectified and dehumanized. What I am hearing from you is a valid complaint that you are not being allowed to follow your own conscience in striving to hear and obey the Voice of the One Shepherd due to obligations, rules, personal and social expectations, and overt and covert expressions of social norms.

    I agree that these controlling dynamics are not a healthy environment in which disciples of Jesus Christ are formed. It is Christ that both you and I will answer to for any position, decisions, thoughts, and actions we take in this life. I happen to believe that He is alive and active in my growth as a disciple of His. I am not unaccountable. I am accountable to Jesus and my conscience. And so those who try to overlord me, I must rebuke, according to what my Lord told me to do. (Matthew 18:15-17 and Luke 17:3-4) In my walk, I have chosen to express myself to individual offenses like these by approaching the offender first privately, then with one or two others, and then, if necessary, to a local fellowshipping gathering of Christians together. And now, I get to further, “tell it to the church”, by sharing this with the believing audience in this blog. I do not wish to be a cog in someone’s machine. I wish to relate directly to Christ and hear and follow His Voice. The very nature of the New Covenant is that “‘They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.'” (Jeremiah 31:34) Both Paul and Peter acknowledge the essentials of not Lording over other disciples and allowing them to follow their own consciences. I count it as my responsibility to answer to the one Leader, one Father, and one Teacher/Rabbi given to me (Matthew 23:8-10) and to consider all others believers as brothers with no chain of command mucking up the works.

    I look forward to hearing from you and others further on this and I thank you for all of the contributions here.

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