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Reading Time: 8 minutes

musicFor much of this past weekend I found myself cruising at 30,000 feet without a reliable internet connection to stream any current music. So I took a stroll down memory lane, clicking through some of the songs I’ve had stored on my phone since way back in the earlier days of my deconversion.
I was amazed at how quickly and viscerally certain songs stirred up emotions that have lain dormant in the recesses of my memory, inextricably linked to significant moments along my journey from devout faith to resolute skepticism. These songs stand out to me like mile markers capturing the emotions I felt at various stages along the way, and it occurs to me that others may identify with some of them as well.

Stage One: The Loss

The first song that I found yanking my heart out of my chest while clicking through my old collection was “Say Something” by A Great Big World. Like most people, I originally heard the version sung by Christina Aquilera. But as most radio stations have a way of destroying songs through overuse, I soon came to prefer a cover of the song by Anthem Lights, linked below.

YouTube video

Of course, as it’s written, the song has nothing at all to do with God. But I’m confident anyone who once passionately believed in a “personal relationship” with God but then lost it can identify with this song. It inadvertently captures the angst and insecurity of authentically trying to relate to a figment of your own imagination. The chorus to the song laments:

Say something, I’m giving up on you
I’ll be the one, if you want me to
Anywhere, I would’ve followed you
Say something, I’m giving up on you

If you listen to the rest of the song you will notice a tortured sense of personal guilt weaving its way through the lyrics, as if the writer feels he shoulders some portion of the blame for the ghosting of this relationship. But the reality is that people like us were trying to have a relationship with someone who wasn’t actually there.
This is terribly confusing because those of us who were good at this Christianity thing successfully conjured an experience of this person ourselves a good number of those years. When we finally came to grips with God’s apparent nonexistence, we had to wrestle with the fact that for us he was real for a long, long time. Losing him felt like losing a real person, much like the way Tom Hanks‘s character felt in the movie Castaway when he lost Wilson at sea. He knew good and well it was just a volleyball. But for years, that goofy little thing was his constant companion.
Related: “Parables of Belief: A Beautiful Mind, Watchmen, and Castaway.”
See Also: “God Does Exist.”

Stage Two: The Rejection

For many of us the journey out of faith can be a lonely one, and when we finally come to grips with the realization that our faith has left us, it can put us at odds with our friends, with our families, and with our surrounding communities.
And they’re not always mean, either. Often they are kind, warm people who strive to accept everyone in the name of the Object of their most loyal affections. But in the end a choice still has to be made in which the unbelieving person must be held at arm’s length because it turns out faith is a fragile thing. Too much time around people like us can rub off on them, and they usually figure that out. Walls go up despite their sincerest intentions, because the version of Christianity into which evangelicals have been enculturated militates against unbelief above all other inherent threats to its view of the world.
Because of the alienation that inevitably occurs, another song that stuck somewhere deep inside of me because of its timing in my life was the song “Skyscraper” by Demi Lovato, linked below:

YouTube video

This song can be about a lot of things, but for me it captured my own determination to pick myself back up after losing so many things that were precious to me, sometimes even at the hands of well-meaning people. Underneath the melancholy tones you can sense the determination to rise above the fray and find a new place in the skyline of your own life. The lyrics read:

As the smoke clears
I awaken
And untangle you from me
Would it make you
Feel better
To watch me while I bleed
All my windows
Still are broken
But I’m standing on my feet
You can take everything I have
You can break everything I am
Like I’m made of glass
Like I’m made of paper
Go on and try to tear me down
I will be rising from the ground
Like a skyscraper

I don’t know how to describe the fire it can light under you to find songs that capture the way you feel at a certain moment, even in all its complexities. Songs, like art in general, have a way of doing that.

Stage Three: Self-Acceptance

As you start to find your way in the world after leaving your religious community, you may find you carry with you a great deal of baggage from your upbringing. In particular, I learned as an evangelical to have an abysmally low view of myself. As I said in a post I recently reshared, if you take away human inadequacy, you take away the basis for the Christian faith.
[Read: “We Are Not Broken.”]
[Also Read: “Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing.”]
Given how deeply this message was ingrained in me, I will never forget the first time I heard “F***ing Perfect” by P!nk. I was driving down one of the busier streets in my home town and I had to pull over into the parking lot of a Japanese steakhouse because I was ugly-face crying. I won’t embed the official video here because the trigger warnings would take up an entire paragraph, but you can follow this link here if you’d like to see it, although I wouldn’t recommend clicking on it if you’re easily offended.
I must also add that it was the uncensored version that hit me the hardest. Something about breaking through those Christian language taboos made it even more powerful for me, so the cleaned up version doesn’t carry the same punch for me. But it’s still a beautiful song either way.

YouTube video

This song became a personal anthem for me for a period of time in my life. I probably played it a hundred times and it never got old. The same thing goes for several other songs I came across over the years that followed. The more centrally self-acceptance and…dare I call it self-love?…factored into the song, the more I loved it.

You’re so mean when you talk about yourself, you were wrong
Change the voices in your head make them like you instead
So complicated, look happy, you’ll make it
Filled with so much hatred, such a tired game
It’s enough, I’ve done all I can think of
Chased down all my demons, I’ve seen you do the same
Pretty, pretty please, don’t you ever, ever feel
Like you are less than, f***in’ perfect
Pretty, pretty please, if you ever, ever feel like you’re nothing
You’re f***in’ perfect to me

I’ll admit it took me some time to be okay with listening to songs that unabashedly accepted humanity for what it is. I had self-loathing so deeply drilled into me that my still-Christian ears kept wrestling with what struck me as egocentric narcissism. But in time I came to see how important it is to learn to accept yourself for who you are. If you don’t, you’ll be trying to be something you’re not for the rest of your life, and you’ll never learn to truly embrace the life that you have.

Stage Four: Owning Your Life

For those of us who have come to terms with our apostasy (and with all of its consequences, both positive and negative), taking ownership of our own lives can be amazingly invigorating. But it can be a challenge, too, given the demons that we face (metaphorically speaking of course) from our past, and given the opposition that we encounter from people who feel we need to fail. I mean, what would it say about their view of the world if the godless live happy, successful lives?
In fact, they say success and happiness are the best revenge, and I really love that because it only speaks to your own situation and not to anyone else’s. The only revenge I can be comfortable with is the kind that does no harm, and what more harmless course of action than to throw yourself into living your life with all you’ve got?
That takes bravery, and it often takes standing up for yourself. As they say, do no harm, but take no crap…or something like that. To my mind, no song captures that sentiment so well as “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. I even love the dancing in the video. I defy you to watch this video and not smile, and to not want to get up and dance.

YouTube video

I love it. That song will never get old for me.

Everybody’s been there, everybody’s been stared down
By the enemy
Fallen for the fear and done some disappearing
Bow down to the mighty
Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

And last but not least, at a time when I was still struggling with embracing my own autonomy in life, a friend sent me this song, which I believe captures the squeeze-every-moment-out-of-life ethos of humanism as effectively as anything else I’ve ever seen. It’s a fantastic running song, although once I saw the video they made it took on a completely different meaning, especially since I have a friend fighting Cystic Fibrosis as well.

YouTube video

Life is short, and you only get one shot at it. Far from making life cheap, this realization makes it immeasurably more precious than it would be if we really had billions of years to live. Every moment has worth, and every second will be savored all the more once you realize they are so limited in number.

Hope that you fall in love
And it hurts so bad
The only way you can know
You give it all you have
And I hope that you don’t suffer
But take the pain…
Hope when the moment comes
You’ll say
I…I did it all
I…I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places
The things that I did
Yeah, with every broken bone
I swear I lived

Good grief, I love this song so much I can’t even read the words without getting chill bumps. If you haven’t ever heard it, give it a listen and try to tell me you cannot feel the will to live, the will to survive, the will to make the most of every moment you get radiating out of every beat.
These are the songs that take me back to key moments in my rediscovery of my self. Music can do that, in case you didn’t know. It can transport you to another time and another place (cue sappy old Sandi Patti earworm). Life without music would be so much less meaningful.
Why don’t we write more songs?
And what are the songs that yank your heart out of your chest, reminding you of how far you’ve come in your journey?
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...