Overview:

Religion is my ex. Let me tell you about why and how I left him. You may recognize him, and he may be stalking someone you know.

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When I was a young woman, tending house for the first time after leaving my community of origin, I would surprise myself while washing dishes in the sink, as the water turned playfully pink, and I didn’t know why. Sometimes I would see bright droplets of blood on the floor and follow them like breadcrumbs, looking for some creature who had bled out and died from the instinctual predation of my cat. 

When I sliced my hand while cleaning a knife, or cut my perpetually bare feet on a glass I had, without fanfare, let slip from a counter and shatter, I was so dissociated, I didn’t know where my body began or what it felt like to live in it. I hadn’t yet tried alcohol or any mind-altering drug, prescription or otherwise, to numb my pain. I didn’t need an escape hatch. I had left my body years ago, and I wasn’t yet safe enough to find my way back.

Many of us who were raised in religious extremism don’t live in our bodies. Our days are spent in our heads and our nights are disrupted by the ghosts of our early indoctrination, our subconscious rising up in confrontation. We were trained to live for an afterlife, so when there is pain here, we transport ourselves there. 

The religious programming of our early years materialized everywhere, like an ex who won’t leave you alone, long after you filed a restraining order. 

The religious programming of our early years materialized everywhere, like an ex who won’t leave you alone, long after you filed a restraining order. 

Religion is my ex. Let me tell you about why and how I left him. You may recognize him, and he may even be stalking someone you know. 

I grew up on a mountain, preparing for the Apocalypse. This doesn’t explain the juxtaposition of faith and famine, or how the landscape of my childhood was more amorphous than the boundary of a mountain implies, but it’s the simplest truth for which I can find words. For a decade of my childhood, a Mountain was the closest thing I had to a home, and I learned to forage for what I needed to survive on it.

But my real home wasn’t a place. It was an idea. An idea my maternal grandfather turned into a fundamentalist religious community, governed by him. 

Grandpa visited a lot of churches, peddling among disparate denominations, and sometimes I was allowed to go with him, to learn the seductions of commonplace belief systems which pave the way to hell. We sat down in church basements to break bread with Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. We ate supper with Mennonite and Amish families in the dining rooms of their homes. Grandpa criticized them all for different reasons. Some drank wine, which Jesus had clearly intended to be grape juice, or they decorated their churches with pomp and circumstance, like heathens, or they worshiped the idols of popular music, clothing or entertainment. Grandpa believed even the Amish were too liberal, because they allowed their youth to sow wild seeds of rebellion, encouraging them to drive cars and drink liquor and lose their purity in order to get it out of their system, so they would know what they were giving up and wouldn’t yearn for what they never had. 

Grandpa told us he was God’s prophet and would live to be five hundred years old, that the angels would descend from heaven and take him up into the clouds like Elijah. Grandpa’s followers believed him, because he was the authority. His pontifications were the soundtrack of my childhood, and his teachings that God’s vengeance would be unleashed upon the world unless a small group of God’s chosen people stayed his hand terrified me. My mother and her siblings, and my siblings and me were born and raised with the fear of Grandpa and his jealous God, whose eyes we could not escape.

We learned to take up arms against Satan, the earth’s ruler and do what God commanded, no matter how absurd. Grandpa believed that he, like Abraham, might be called to sacrifice his children as a testament to his devotion to his Lord; in exchange, God would bless him, and he would multiply his seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and his seed would possess the gate of his Enemies.

So we memorized scripture, put on the armor of God, and bowed to the mercurial tyranny of Grandpa, to whom we belonged. 

In time, I would leave my grandfather, the mountain on which I was raised and religion altogether, but the girl they indoctrinated still lives inside me. In truth, every girl I have ever been lives inside me, singing in gospel harmony, like a choir. The believer. The invalid. The seductress. The victim. The fighter. The heretic. The forager. The survivor. Uncivilized. Hungry. Angry. Wild. 

Former believers are often afraid of hell and other punishments God might mete out. We suffer from triggers and flashbacks, with a foreboding feeling there’s something inherently wrong with us, something that makes us unworthy of love, comfort or rest. Even when we’ve turned our backs on early teachings and created a template of new morals to live by, the God of our fathers haunts us. We live with a low-grade fear that if we let go of our vigilance, our ex will find us and punish us for trying to get away. 

It makes it difficult to live in a secular world. Or even one in which religion is soft and yielding, called to comfort, rather than afflict.

You can take the girl out of the cult, but it’s hard to take the cult out of the girl. How do I yield to pleasure, rest, comfort or acceptance, when we were taught to enter at a narrow gate–for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.

This column will explore some of the shifts I’ve made to leave my ex behind and how former believers can build relationships and communities that serve us on the earth we inhabit, rather than an afterlife, in the nebulous sky. 

Michelle Dowd is a journalism professor and contributor to The New York Times, Alpinist, Catapult and other national publications. She is a. Professor of Journalism at Chaffey College, where she advises...