Before his "deconversion" from Christianity, David Bazan was just like any other indie rock star evangelical who achieved secular success while attracting Christian fans who loved him despite his habit of cussing at concerts. Well, maybe he was the only one. From 1995 to 2005 he was frontman for the band, Pedro the Lion. Now he's gone solo. And though he may not believe in God, he still sings about him. The Chicago Reader called Bazan's first solo album, Curse Your Branches (2009), a "harrowing breakup record—except he's dumping God, Jesus, and the evangelical life." CT reviewed that album here, and recently included it in the Top 12 Albums of the Year. We recently caught up with Bazan to talk about his deconversion, his music, and how, on some nights, he still fears that he's going to hell.

David Bazan

David Bazan

You've described your loss of faith as "devastating." When did you feel yourself starting to slip away?

It happened gradually. There were many small steps, but there were some big questions I remember dealing with. I remember thinking that it would have been faithless to push those questions aside or just sweep them under the rug. I believed that if I had refused to pursue those questions, I would have been admitting that belief in God could not be intellectually satisfying. It felt like a faithful response to grapple with these questions. I had to be honest, and let the chips fall where they may. That was what was so devastating. At the time I didn't think I was in danger of losing my faith. I assumed that the hard questions would affirm my faith, not lead me away from it.

Who was your most formative spiritual influence?

My parents were the biggest influences. I didn't get a lot of direct instruction from them. I received more of that in the church. But just seeing them live out their faith was the most important thing for me. Their own expressions of Christianity, love, service and compassion, really impacted me. They are deeply ethical and compassionate people. If it weren't for their authentic example, I would have bailed on Christianity much earlier than I did.

Some Christians might be cynical about your journey. Here's this young guy who hits it big in the rock world, starts to party, and loses his faith. They might say you just changed your creed to match your conduct. How would you respond to that?

By 2002 I had arrived at a place where I still had orthodox beliefs, yet had realized that some of the more superficial behavioral concerns—such as swearing or drinking—weren't really prohibited by my faith. I wasn't using illegal drugs or anything like that; I just swore and drank, so there was no conflict there.

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When I was starting to make the shift, I would talk to my dad. I felt that the kind of Christianity I practiced actually stood in the way of the kind of ethical behavior that I wanted to engage in. Both of my parents have been really upset by my decision to move away from my faith. But we have a great relationship, and they can see my motivation and sincerity and commitment to what I think is right. There may be one sense in which that criticism is true. But ethics has always been of chief importance for me, and that concern actually comes from Christianity. I always want to be completely honest with myself and others.

Is that why you have been so public about your journey away from faith?

I've always grappled with religious and ethical concerns in my music, so it was natural for the shift to come out in the songs. Also, it's just due to my personality. I have very few thoughts that aren't expressed. It's actually kind of embarrassing. I look up to people who have a rich thought life, but they don't need to express their thoughts. But I'm not that way. Growing up, the book of James was really hard on me with its teaching to mind your tongue. So if there's something on my mind, it's coming out.

A friend who is a big fan of yours says, "Tell David he still has a lot of Christian fans, and we still love him!" What's your response to your Christian fans, both the ones who still love you and the ones who were hurt by your decision to leave the faith?

I don't think I'm able to determine the fans I have or don't have. If people are compelled by my work, I'm happy to play for them. It does seem like a lot of Christians still find the work compelling. I think that's fascinating. People like Dawkins and Hitchens have started an interesting debate in the public arena about faith. A lot of Christian commentators have responded to them and engaged in this age-old battle through traditional apologetics. But I think underneath the surface of that debate there's more interesting dialogue that's been ignited about Christianity.

I look at the Barna statistics and there have been some pretty startling shifts within Christianity during the last few years, shifts that I don't think many Christian leaders know what to do with. There's a hemorrhaging of thoughtful people from the church. I'm happy to be in the same room as that more nuanced discussion about faith. I think the more rigorous and honest the discussion, the more fruitful it can be. If my music can contribute to that kind of dialogue, I'm really happy. In a highly polarized debate, what I've done is unforgiveable: You don't break ranks. But in the longer arch of the faith, I think what I've done falls in the tradition of people shaking their fists at God.

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If you see that as part of that tradition of expressing doubt with God, is there any chance that you will one day circle back to belief in and a relationship with God?

It's very possible. At this point, it feels like that's some toothpaste that won't go back in the tube. But part of the deal of being completely honest is that you have to let the chips fall where they may. I'm still fully engaged in those questions. Does God exist? If so, what are his characteristics? What are his intentions for us? I live in those questions every minute. As more information comes in, I'm tossed on the waves. I don't know what the outcome will be. I'm very curious about what Christianity will look like in, say, 20 or 30 years. When the boomers are no longer running the show, when we've recovered from what I see as a very dark period for evangelical Christianity, I wonder what Christianity will look like. I'm very curious to see.

And maybe participate? You keep slipping back to using the inclusive pronoun when referring to the Christian community.

Yes, but probably from the outside. That's part of what's been so devastating about leaving my faith. It's like I have to go through your life with a scalpel. What do you cut out? My whole identity since I was 25 years old was completely intertwined with the Christian faith. That identification is still so natural. Even though I don't believe in heaven, when I think of what happens when you die, I still picture heaven. It's the same with hell.

I've talked with skeptics who have left the faith but still have nagging fears of going to hell.

I've had two big bouts with that fear in recent years. Both happened as I was lying in bed at night. I just suddenly had that fear: Oh my God, what if I'm wrong. I would just lie there terrified, heart pounding. I even started surrendering to God. Then at the last second I just said, "F—k this. If that's how you get to me, through threat of torture in hell, that's not right." At the time it felt like I was talking to God. But really I think I was speaking to my former narrative about God.

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Christian spirituality has played a huge part in your music. Will it continue to play a role?

In some ways, I hope not. But I can't imagine that it won't. It's still the central question of my life. I read a lot about theology and church history. I'll never get a vacation from this. I'm not kidding when I say that this is the central question of my life.

Why do you still care about these ultimate questions?

It's just how I'm wired. I used to wish I just didn't care, but now I'm fine with how I am. I'm a navel gazer to the core, but of course I still have to snap out of it and get stuff done.

Do you ever pray? If so, what do those prayers sound like?

Yes. It's a very conflicted exercise. One thing I really missed initially when I left the faith was expressing gratitude through prayer. So I still say those prayers, just expressing gratitude for the beauty of the world and the joy of relationships. I also miss the sense of surrender that comes through prayer. In the parlance of Christianity I never wanted to have a hard heart. I still feel that way. Sometimes I still feel like I'm praying to capital G-O-D, and other times I guess I'm just praying to the air.

Drew Dyck is the author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why young adults are leaving the faith … and how to bring them back (Moody).