Ever since posting a lengthy Instagram explanation of why he no longer believes in God earlier this year, singer Jon Steingard has received his fair share of vicious comments. Christians tell him that he’s going to hell; atheists resent that he’s remained open-minded toward Christian values. But while people on “either side” like to view religion as a “black-and-white issue,” Steingard says, he is determined to explore its gray areas.
“Where I’m at is trying to go like, ‘Hey, I want to sift through these ideas,’” Steingard explained to TODAY over Zoom. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I want to hold on to the things that are maybe worth holding on to.”
Up until his May announcement, Christianity was at the center of Steingard’s life. As the child of a pastor, he grew up in a devout Christian household, with such little exposure to non-Christians that he assumed that they were "probably not ... very nice (people)." As the former frontman of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson, his entire career relied on his religious identity.
Behind the scenes, though, Steingard’s beliefs were unravelling.
His lack of faith may have come as a surprise to fans of the band, but in reality, it developed over the course of several years. According to his Instagram post, the process of unbelieving was like “pulling on the threads of a sweater, and one day discovering that there was no more sweater left.”
One particularly significant “thread” for Steingard — a self-proclaimed science-fiction nerd — was the denial of evolution he had experienced within his “circles of faith.” Another was the happiness that he said he felt but couldn’t publicly voice when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
By early 2019, Steingard had begun explicitly questioning his religion — both to himself and to his close friends and family. His father took it particularly hard: He “probably legitimately worried” about what would happen to Steingard’s soul, Steingard said.
“That’s got to be terrifying for a dad,” he said. Despite the hurt that Steingard’s realizations caused them, his parents have remained “very kind and loving and understanding.”
The members of Hawk Nelson were similarly "very loving and supportive," said Steingard. Like with his family, he'd had many private conversations with his former bandmates prior to his announcement. "We still keep in touch, there is still great friendship there, and I still think the world of them."
The band released an Instagram statement in May echoing those sentiments, calling Steingard "one of our best friends."
"Our mission as Hawk Nelson has always been to inspire and encourage all people with the truth that God is FOR them and not against them. In that message’s most simple and purest form, that THEY matter," the group wrote. "So now we turn that truth towards one of our own. That God is still FOR Jon & he still matters. Why? Because that truth doesn’t change just because we question it."
It wasn't until the coronavirus pandemic hit that Steingard decided to share his beliefs with a larger audience.
"Quarantine forced us to slow down, like it forced everybody to slow down," said Steingard. "Without it, it's possible that I may have just kept on going about life because ... life is full, life is busy. And sometimes you don't always have the time to stop and really think about things."
He and his wife were grocery shopping and "actually having a conversation" — something that's not often possible with their two toddlers around. "I just I feel like I'm ready to talk about this publicly," he told her.
"I felt like I had the ability to talk about this stuff without being angry or bitter, " Steingard explained. "Sometimes when you see someone stepping away from faith, there's a period of anger and resentment and bitterness, and some of that can be really understandable and normal. I think I had processed that stuff to the point where I felt a lot calmer and settled about it."
In the post’s aftermath, he found that some of the most noteworthy conversations were not with those who disagreed with his opinions, but with those who shared them.
A “surprising number” of people within the Christian community reached out to Steingard and privately told him, “Yeah, I actually hold some beliefs that I don’t feel like I can say publicly because I would lose my job, or I would lose my position in this community,” he recalled.
These revelations further convinced Steingard about the importance of being exposed to a range of religious perspectives — which, he hopes, leads to more nuanced ways of thinking about faith. He's recently moved away from music to launch a career in filmmaking; for his next project, he plans to film conversations with people from all walks of religious and nonreligious life.
Steingard is also still in the process of figuring out what, exactly, his own perspective is.
During quarantine, he's read the Bible more closely than he ever has before. He’s studied philosophy, theology and psychology, trying to unpack his still-tangled feelings about Christianity. His Instagram page has become a reflection of this journey.
In a recent post, Steingard described conversations he’s had with survivors of sexual assault who ask, “How can I believe in a God that would let this happen to me?” He wrote that this question is “at the heart” of his unbelief.
“I just keep coming back to, people are more important than dogma,” he said, commenting on the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the same time, some of God’s fundamental messages are ones that Steingard would “rather not outgrow” — like the commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself, or considering every human life valuable. He's witnessed Christians "operating out of tremendous amounts of compassion" for racial injustice, likely as a result of these values. And they're ingrained in him, too, at least partially because of Christianity.
“Why is it that I feel that way?” Steingard wondered. “I certainly want to continue feeling that way. But trying to figure out how to separate a lot of the religious ideas that are attached to that from that, and how much is that possible, and what does that look like. … That’s the journey I’ve been on.”
Even with this uncertainty, Steingard is confident that relinquishing his faith has positively impacted his life. He’s gotten more involved in charity work because he no longer feels like he has the “excuse” of a God who will make the world better on his behalf. He’s soaking up every moment with his kids, because he no longer believes that he’s guaranteed eternity — or even tomorrow.
“I'm noticing that I'm a part of this human story, and wanting to participate in deeper and deeper ways,” said Steingard. “I actually feel like to some degree, letting go of the image of God that I had held is a really healthy part of that.”