The slowest process of my life (besides dying).
Waking up from religion has been a multi-dimensional, multi-experiential process. You know the whole “layers of an onion” metaphor? In the case of extricating myself from religion, it’s more like peeling back layers of a multiverse with that uniquely painful phase involving the Sun (which hurt just as much as you might imagine). And what I’m realizing now is that, when it comes to esoteric thought or metaphysical questions, I don’t know that I’ll ever complete that peeling back. I’m too fascinated by philosophical questions and the idea of metaphysics. And not to sound whiney because I’m not, it’s just fact that these interests, combined with my rejection of religion places me on an island, playing with a ball I’ve named Wilson, knocking my own teeth out with the available ice skate lying around. But I also wonder if, after so much group time and the resultant group think, if this isn’t actually a good thing. I’m fine with the idea that for the rest of my life, 40-50 years if I’m really lucky, I’m supposed to be learning how to think independently and be okay with myself when other people disagree with my premises or conclusions.
I’ve been waking up from religion for the past 12-14 years. It’s hard to pinpoint a date because honestly I’ve always questioned the presuppositions and events that I was supposed to take on faith that flew in the face of not only science, but actual, historical human experience. I was never encouraged to take any biblical teaching metaphorically. Everything was literal and the Bible was treated as an historical document. An old high school youth group friend of mine recently asked me if I felt that all the beliefs that I, until recently, had been challenging resulted from our shared 2-3 year experience at X Church. And this is where things get tricky because so much of what I feel I was taught was actually taught very indirectly. So indirectly, I’m surprised to find out, that many of my peers can’t relate to my extrapolation of the teachings we were both taught. And I know these beliefs I no longer hold didn’t come from home because while it was an unspoken expectation that I was a born-again Christian who was anti-abortion and pro-republican, we simply never spoke about it. The Bible wasn’t cracked open at my house for family time. It just wasn’t the way my family operated.
I attended a private, Christian school for a number of years and was in church on Sundays during those same years. I memorized catechism and went to Friday chapel and there was definitely indoctrination at a young age. Then the family went through a rough patch and I didn’t find myself back in church regularly until my sophomore year of high school. This huge and super cool youth group with a ton of lay staff found a place for me, then places for me and I ended up spending most of my time at that church, with the same people day in and day out for two and a half years. And make no mistake, these were great people. During what could have been a troubling and self-inflicted- wounding part of my life, I was given a role in leadership, many friendships, and a home with multiple parent-type figures. That was my family. I went to school because I had to. I went to work after school because I had to. I went to church and church activities because I would have stopped breathing if I didn’t.
Unfortunately the flip side of this substitute family was the anxiety and fear and depression that resulted when I left the group and didn’t have help keeping the sandcastle intact. Because what happens when a person leaves a group? Perspective shift – even if just a little one. I tried to stave off my perspective shift as long as I could – my eternal life was at stake, after all. But I graduated from high school and suddenly didn’t have a place in the church’s college group (for various reasons, but I have to tell you, the church staff really dropped the ball in thinking through their student’s transitions). I moved away and in crept the depression, then the anxiety and at what I call my personal zero-point, when I couldn’t have cared less what happened to me in the now or in the afterlife, I started to allow the questions to come in.
Turns out, I had suffered anxiety from the time I was born. This anxiety, and eventual depression, was exacerbated by the messages I received in my religious environment. Those messages were often direct like the necessity of believing in an all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful, schizophrenic, mass murdering God who is also the epitome of love and sacrifice. And then some messages were less direct like: this same God loves me unconditionally but can only bear to look at me through his Jesus-colored glasses; otherwise I’m shit out of luck and hell bound for eternity. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Combine those religiously required take-on-faith beliefs (check this box and you get to go to Heaven) with the cultural and societal expectations supposedly backed up by scripture, and there’s a lot of digging out that has to occur to fully free oneself.
During one of my lowest lows, zero-point moments, I thought, I don’t care. I don’t believe in God and if I go to hell, well, I go to hell. What of it? Just allowing myself to think these thoughts created anxiety, yes, but a surprising chaser soon followed of freedom that I didn’t know existed. Depression, ironically enough, was my ticket to personal salvation (this, after giving my heart to Jesus multiple times and getting baptized twice. Apparently these moments of salvation just wouldn’t stick). Just letting the statement sit on my tongue and finding that minutes, days, weeks later – no consequences. Hey! I’m still walking around, breathing, heading off to work each morning, drinking my coffee, buying groceries, hanging out with my friends, walking the dog! Nothing changed. The earth did not split in two and swallow me whole. I didn’t lose my house, my health, my friends, my spouse, my dog. The story of Job did not play out as had been insinuated to me throughout my religious education.
Then I started reading all the no-no books – all the dangerous books. Scholarly works by professors of the history of religion, religious studies; bishops and fathers who went against the grain and were kicked out of their churches for thinking independently; listening to The Bible Geek podcast, online lectures, entering online forums where discussions about religion almost always turned into debates but were done so by really smart people who were 2, 5, 10, + years ahead of me in terms of the extrication process. I learned so much. THAT was when the earth cracked in two. THAT was when I felt like I was being swallowed up whole – finding out that I had been lied to by an institution that claimed to love me and care for me, but which actually rejected me once I started thinking for myself.
I don’t think the most harmful teachings from the church were about any particular doctrine or dogma. I think the most harmful teachings from the church (in my experience, anyway) were to never get to know my self, let alone trust my self, my emotions, my thoughts, my though processes. I was taught to always be following someone who was “in the know” and that person was never going to be me. Secondary harmful teachings of misogyny, self-deprecation, and no inherent value or worth followed closely behind.
I have suffered what might be irreparable damage within familial relationships. Only time will tell. When I was finally honest, tired of faking it with friends, I lost some of those too. The irony is too rich for my taste. Some things will never be the same. I’ve been told, “Well, it’s just so hard to talk to you because now we speak different languages.” Oh if only they knew how fluent I still am in theirs. Trust me; I could still follow along if given the chance. It took me a while to realize that the concern on their part has little to do with whether or not I can track in a conversation with them, but that they might relate to what I’m saying and where I’m coming from – the fear is too great. Understanding that feeling too, the pain dissipates a little and I find that I can forgive them for the do not know what they do.
I wouldn’t trade this experience – which is far from over – for anything else in the world. Not even for my salvation in the afterlife. I feel like I’ve been saved in the here and now. Actually, I’ve never felt so confident in dying before. One of two things is going to happen: I’ll cease to exist, or, Heaven and God are real and God really is the epitome of Love that I’ve heard about and he’s actually really misunderstood (or misused) by his followers and I’ll get into Heaven anyway because he just loves me so much. My money is on the first possibility but I won’t reject the second should it come to that.
This experience of being fully in my body, learning to trust my own decisions and conclusions, using my mind, the freedom – worth the price of admission to this funhouse called life. I find that landing on another identifier like atheist, agnostic, or new ager would be, for me, counterproductive to all this work. When people ask me, “Well then, what are you now?” I shrug and answer, “Me. I’m me going through life, taking it day by day.” And breathing. I’m finally breathing.