Today we’re going to talk about leaving religion–and what happened to me after I made my intentions clear that I was done with church.
Leaving religion isn’t always easy. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I just woke up and saw the light one day and skipped out of Christianity with a song in my heart and a smile on my lips, enlightened and oh-so-very-evolved. No. It wasn’t like that at all. My deconversion was a long and rather drawn-out process. We always want stuff to be linear and fit a narrative, but messy reality isn’t always so cooperative. That’s why I’ve tried to present events on this blog in terms of “during this year” or “around this time,” because a lot of this happened decades ago and at this point, I don’t even remember exactly when some stuff happened if there wasn’t a concurrent event I can track down and fix a date to (like the David Koresh compound invasion, which happened right around my deconversion).
Belief is a complicated matter; it’s not as easy as going “well dang, that tears it” and just walking away for most folks. There are a lot of legs of one’s religious faith that need to be knocked out, and in my case those legs had to be knocked out very quickly as well as very definitively before they could be propped back up again either in their original form or with new buttressing beliefs. I got lucky and I know it. I’m not special and I’m certainly not some deep or introspective thinker, or trained in high-falutin’ theology or an expert logic-mistress. That’s why this blog is called “Roll to Disbelieve”: I threw the dice a hundred times at least before I finally got a critical success, in gaming terms. That’s why you’ll probably notice I’m pretty sympathetic to rank-and-file Christians who are doing their best. In some weird alternate universe where Snape and Draco get together and Sonic is a girl, I’d still be Christian.
No, rather than being a quick deal and an easy decision, I was actually completely devastated when I realized I’d built my entire life and worldview around lies and deceptions–and that I was harming not only myself but everybody around me with this nonsense I had believed. It hurt. It was very painful. And I had to deal with a lot of fear of the unknown–not a fear I navigate easily even today–because at the time, nobody was really talking about what it was like to deconvert.
There weren’t any awesome websites or resources for those considering leaving Christianity. There were no books, no speakers, no Reddit groups, no Facebook pages. There weren’t any YouTube video series and certainly I didn’t know anybody who had left Christianity. I knew some atheists and pagans, but I didn’t know anybody who had at one time been a Christian and turned to atheism or paganism, much less someone who’d been a fundamentalist, except maybe one SCA acquaintance who’d been a Southern Baptist minister and was, at the time I knew him, a pagan, but I’d been out of the SCA for years by the time I deconverted. I had absolutely nobody to talk to, either; any Christian I voiced my doubts to was hostile to the very idea of questioning “God” and the Bible, and I was embarrassed to share my doubts with the atheists I knew after acting so positive I was right. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I didn’t have much to fear from the pagans, who probably were actually ex-Christians themselves, but I didn’t know that. So I felt completely alone and like I was blazing the trail entirely from scratch. Ex-Christians and doubters today have no idea how good they have it, but even with the resources available today, it’s still really scary to consider walking away from Christianity.
That’s why, before I go into what happened when I did it, I want to stress something really important. We should not police people’s fears or demand they “purchase” their beliefs or decisions by justifying what is really only theirs to decide. Leaving Christianity has some huge repercussions for some folks–it can mean losing a job, a spouse, the love of parents and family, or a home. It can even mean the risk of physical harm and the loss of one’s entire reputation and livelihood. Only the person in question can decide how much risk is acceptable. Only the person in that life can decide what he or she can handle. It’s asinine to judge another person for staying secretive about deconversion. For me, the stakes were pretty low–at most, I had only an already-unstable marriage to risk. For someone else, the risks might be way too high. The more people who leave Christianity, the lower the stakes get for everybody (which is, I suspect, why we’re seeing such a tidal wave of people leaving nowadays), but even so, it’s wrong to tell someone else how to live or what decisions to make. I am presenting my tale here purely because I don’t see a lot of stuff online about just what it’s like to stop going to church.
So. Once upon a time, I was laying in bed beside Biff on a bright Sunday morning having slept not a single wink the night before. I’d had a long Bible study and private prayer session that night before in hopes of bolstering my faith, and had come to the extremely painful conclusion after many months of deliberation that my religion was false–that the Bible wasn’t infallible or inerrant at all, and that moreover a lot of my religious thinking seemed designed purely to keep me docile and submissive to those men above and around me.
I’d been so scared and so depressed and so anxious for so very long that I’d finally hit that point where my giveashit broke. Ever hit that point where it just doesn’t matter anymore? Where life can sling whatever it wants to at you and you won’t even run anymore–hell, you won’t even duck anymore–because you’re just so exhausted with terror that you don’t care what happens to you as long as it gets over with? That’s where I was. I was so exhausted emotionally I couldn’t even run anymore. I’d run clean out of tears. I’d given up caring about the risks. I was emptied of all doubt, all fear, and all anxiety. It was actually a really exhilarating feeling in its way. Far from feeling depressed or sad, I felt downright buoyant.
Biff bounded up when the alarm went off. He was unaware of what journey I had made in my mind without him or that right then, in our marital bed, at that very moment, not a single fuck was being given. “Let’s get up!” he said, heading into the shower. I stayed in bed, watching the sunlight creep across our pretty floral sheets and comforter. I’d never really noticed how beautiful the peach and green colors were in the early-morning light, but they really were. My grey tabby cat was sleeping next to me all peaceful and blissed out, curled around one of my hands like it was her very own newborn kitten, and I realized right then that I didn’t have to get up. Nobody could make me go to church anymore.
Now, could I have gotten up and gone to church? Sure. I’d been doing so for weeks now even struggling like I was with my doubts and pain and fears. I’d been skipping church off and on for a little while already, with “stomachaches” that made people at church ask if maybe I was (gasp!) pregnant. Nobody’d noticed or said a word to me though, not even Biff, despite my clearly not being as into things as I had once. But that morning, I was completely over church in that sparkling, crystal-clear way that people realize they’re completely over a bad relationship. It seemed obscene to get up, get dressed up, do my (long, uncut) hair, and troop into a church building to listen to people oppress me and pay homage to a being I now knew to be fictional and malevolent in the extreme. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t. And I didn’t care what people thought anymore. I’d suffered under their opinions for so long it seemed bizarre now not to care, but also so liberating I didn’t even know how to describe it–the closest I could come would be to say it was like Allie in the video store.
All I knew was this: I was free.
Biff came out of the shower, scrubbed and clean and washed. He looked a little confused. “Aren’t you showering?”
“No,” I said. “I’m going back to sleep. I didn’t sleep well at all.”
He sat down on the side of the bed, dislodging the annoyed cat. I could tell he was deeply concerned all of a sudden. “Are you sick?”
“No. I’m not going to church anymore, that’s all.”
In retrospect, “that’s all” might not have been the best way to phrase it to a fundamentalist Christian. I might as well have said “I’ve decided to eat babies, that’s all.”
He didn’t have a lot of time–though constantly tardy, and even that morning having gotten up a half hour late, he had to get going or he’d be unacceptably late for his Sunday School shift–so he said we’d talk about it later and got dressed and left the apartment. I went back to sleep.
And that was pretty much that, folks.
I was more worried about my church. I had a lot of friends in church and it was kind of one of those invasive sorts of churches that has a lot of rules about how people should conduct themselves and act in and out of the building. (No contracts, though, so that’s good, I guess.) There wasn’t a lot of privacy or respect for personal boundaries at all–these were folks who considered it perfectly acceptable to yell at me en masse about not having kids out of terror I’d (GASP) have an abortion if I got pregnant unexpectedly. They thought they had a say in my life and had always acted like their approval was necessary for everybody to function properly. So I braced myself for the deluge I expected now that word would get out–and it would, because Biff was rather big-mouthed and I knew that–that I wasn’t just missing another day of church but was gone for good. I was actually worried.
But Biff came home that first Sunday, we had a mild argument, and life went on. I refused to go to midweek services, and then again on Sunday, and I continued to refuse. Our “talk about it later” talk was really just him trying to strong-arm me back into church, and me politely but repeatedly refusing to consider the idea.
And here’s the crazy part: nobody else ever said a single word to me.
Not a single word.
Not a sound, not a syllable, not a word, not a peep.
No visits, no cards, not even any phone calls. (This was before emails, so no emails either, but that part wasn’t their fault.)
I was a little shocked by the realization that my church didn’t seem to notice, much less care, that one of their ministers’ wives had up and decided to stop coming. As the weeks rolled by, though, it became abundantly clear that my absence was not going to cause any major issues (except for Biff, who was having some trouble advancing in the denomination because of his rebellious Jezebel-spirited wife).
In the year or so I stayed married to Biff and in all the years afterward, not a single person from any of the churches I ever attended ever said a word to me about leaving. They dropped me like a stone.
And I mean that. They dropped me. Like a stone.
Maybe I wasn’t ever in the Cool Kids’ Club anyway. Maybe I was already a little problematic for them to deal with, with all that feminism and edumacashun of mine. Maybe they kind of realized what sort of person Biff was, or maybe he’d acted totally out of character and told them not to talk to me (unlikely–Biff’s first line of defense when we had a conflict was to go find friends and authority figures to help him strong-arm me). Maybe. But I’d seriously thought I had friends there, friends I’d spent a lot of time with, friends I’d had over for dinner and who’d invited me over as well, friends I’d prayed with and “hugged the neck of” and brought food to and sat next to in church and Bible studies for years, friends I’d vacationed and gone to retreats with, whose weddings I’d attended and scrimped for presents for, and not a single one of them called or visited after my break with church. And the towns Biff and I lived in were big enough that I don’t remember running into anybody from church on a casual basis.
When I tried to talk to one or two of them by phone at least, the conversation was terribly awkward. I realized we had nothing whatsoever to talk about. They were at least kind enough not to argue with me about my decision, but I could tell they felt really uncomfortable and it was awkward for everybody that they couldn’t even conceive of how to have a conversation without talking about religion every three seconds, so I didn’t keep up with them–and they didn’t keep up with me.
And the pastor of that church and all its ministers? Not a word. I had been a member of their church for years and was the wife of someone on the ministry team of a large, invasive, patriarchal, authoritarian church, but I didn’t even rate a phone call or a Hallmark card (though I don’t know if they make “hey, sorry to hear you’re going to Hell now, but thanks bunches and muches for all that stuff you did for us” cards).
For a while I was upset and hurt about feeling so slighted, but eventually I came to realize that this reaction of theirs was actually a good thing. I’ve talked to ex-Christians since then who were genuinely stalked and harassed by their old churches, and if it’s a choice between being ignored and being emotionally abused, I’ll take being ignored. Being ignored definitely made my decision easier, once I realized that they hadn’t really been my friends anyway so I wasn’t really losing a social support framework.
What really happened was that these people were the equivalent of “work friends.” You know what I mean? Those people you work with, and maybe you even get drinks with or go out with sometimes after work, but mostly you just see those people at work in a work context; when you leave the job, there’s so much talk about keeping up with them, but you never do–because all you really had in common was the job itself, really, and there just wasn’t anything more to hold you together with them. Sometimes there’s a person at work who doesn’t realize that a “work friend” isn’t a “friend friend,” and that’s what my mistake had been here. I’d thought these were “friend friends,” and they weren’t; they were just “work friends.” It was painful to realize that I’d put more stock into these relationships than they really merited.
Even so, I’ve talked to ex-Christians who really truly thought their old church friends were really truly friends, and were just heartbroken to discover how quickly those firm, fast friendships dissolved. Some of those so-called friends even turn on ex-Christians and treat them like serial killers or worse after a deconversion, which is even more painful than just being ignored. Or passive-aggressive fake Christian “friends” will mail anonymous books to a new ex-Christian, or make snide comments upon meeting an old ex-Christian friend at the supermarket or mall, or put on a cloyingly affectionate act in hopes of “winning” the ex-Christian back with love. And these things, too, make ex-Christians realize that we made the right decision–because we know those things aren’t truly love, and if these Christians can’t even love their old friends–if they who know best that it’s all true can’t even be genuinely loving to those who want their love the most–then I don’t see why they’re surprised when nobody else takes their religious twaddle seriously.
So for most of us, one of the hardest things to deal with after leaving Christianity is being ignored and shunned by the very people we thought loved us the most, and coming face to face with the realization that these folks maybe weren’t as close to us as we thought they were.
I don’t really have advice for Christians, I’m afraid. “Stop shunning the people who leave because it’s really hateful” sounds painfully obvious to me, and it’s not like people haven’t been saying it for years. There’s something deeply tribal about Christianity, especially its more toxic elements, and I genuinely think they need to act like they do. It’s not very loving, but given a choice between expressing disapproval and showing love, way too many Christians know exactly what they’ll pick. Incidentally, that’s why so many of them vehemently defend their use of the much-despised “love the sinner/hate the sin” bullshit phrase–it’s so hateful it’s incredible and no non-Christian has ever been fooled by the attempt at distancing or the relabeling of hate as “love,” but Christians love this perceived free license to hate so much they just can’t give it up no matter how often and how badly it backfires. So I really don’t know how much good it’d do to suggest it yet again. Sane and good Christians already know that shunning a departed Christian is a terrible thing to do, and the hateful tribal toxic Christians will find yet another way to rationalize doing precisely that anyway.
To those considering leaving Christianity, though, I’d say this: take heart from my story, because most of the time, the fuss we imagine when we tell people about our decision is just in our head. But when it comes to churches, most of your old church friends won’t really know what to do with someone who makes a conscious and rational decision to leave. They’ve seen people leave before, of course; people are deconverting all over the place. And I don’t think they generally know what to say. Be gentle with your old friends, but recognize that you’ll probably lose quite a few of them, if not all of them, depending on how much respect they can show your new direction and how much of a relationship you had outside of church. Be ready for them to turn on you and start using the No True Scotsman fallacy and the “you did something terribly wrong” excuses, but that’ll probably be about the worst you’ll face.
Either way, though, the truth is worth it once you’ve hit that point where you have to live your truth or else you’ll fall apart. Once you hit that point you’ll know you’re there, because nothing else will matter. The human spirit cannot tolerate living in a lie too long; there’s always that point where it struggles like a frantic beast to escape its cage. Once you get there, you’re going to break free–because that cage is usually a lot weaker than you thought.