Walking Away from the Holy Mountain

This is a guest post written by James Mulholland. He is the author of several Christian books and just published Leaving Your Religion: A Practical Guide To Becoming Non-Religious. His blog of the same name can be read here

There are not five easy steps for leaving your religion. There is nothing easy about it. When you’re raised in a religious culture, it’s all you know. If it was a healthy community, it deeply satisfied. Walking away is painful. I went through all the stages of grief — denial, negotiation, anger and depression — before accepting my disbelief. For most people, leaving is a journey of a thousand steps.

Many of those steps away from religion happen before you’re aware of any dissatisfaction. Long before you finally walk away, your religious life begins to break down, to smoke and sputter, to lose momentum. One day, something inside you shifts.

I remember that shift, that moment my religious life came grinding to a halt. It happened in the most ordinary of places. I was attending a summer cook-out, eating a hot dog and shooting the breeze with my neighbors, when one of them asked, “Are you a Quaker?”

When I replied that I was, they asked, “What do Quakers believe?”

Now that wasn’t a hard question. I’d answered it a hundred times. I could quickly and easily explain the five Quaker testimonies, that all Quakers valued simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality, that we sought to live out these testimonies in response to God’s love for us, to live as faithfully as possible to the light within. As religious expressions go, it’s not bad.

But on that summer night, something shifted. Instead, I replied, “Quakers are committed to five testimonies — simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality. They seek to live out these testimonies in response to God’s love for them, to live as faithfully as possible to the light within.”

If you didn’t catch the difference, I’m not surprised. Though I immediately sensed something odd, it wasn’t until later that I realized what had changed. Two words. On that summer might, for the first time in my religious life, instead of saying “we” and “us,” I said “they” and “them.”

The end of faith sneaks up on you. One moment you’re Christian and the next you’re not. Though outwardly everything appears the same, you know something central to who you are has forever changed. You can’t go back, even if you wanted to. You begin to walk away. You discover that leaving a religion is like walking away from a mountain.

At that cook-out — six years ago — when I crossed the line between “we” and “they” I took the first step away from my religion, but religions — like mountains — are massive landscapes and no one escapes their shadow quickly. It was several months before I resigned as a pastor, nearly two years before I stopped attending services, and four years before I finally recognized I wasn’t Christian any longer.

It takes a long time to walk away from a mountain. In the beginning, it fills the sky behind you. As you walk away, you’re constantly aware of its presence over your shoulder. You measure your progress against it. You position yourself in relationship to it. When life gets rough, you may even turn back toward it. But, for most people, once you walk away from the mountain, every day it slips lower on the horizon until one day its highest peaks disappear and you find yourself in unchartered territory, wonderfully lost, and with no choice but to explore the lush world around you.

That’s where I stand today. I’m nervous, but mostly delighted. Having left the comfortable confines of the church, I’m packing a tent. I’ve traded my map — with the path between cradle and grave drawn in indelible ink — for a compass. I’m heading cross country, no longer traveling the straight and narrow or carefully following in the footsteps of the saints of old. I’m free to go anywhere.

I find that possibility terribly exciting, but I understand that what now excites me wasn’t always as thrilling. Sometimes I’ve been afraid. Other times I was sad. During the past six years, as I’ve walked away from the mountain, there have been risks, moments when I faced choices with unknown ramifications, but the rewards have far outnumbered the losses. Becoming non-religious continues to be an incredible journey. Occasionally, I still look back, scanning the horizon for the mist covered mountain and recalling the life I left behind, but mostly I look forward.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Castilliano

    Thank you, that was an effective and beautiful metaphor.
    Perhaps because it captures my experience as well as the proper sense of freedom that leaving religion can bring.

    I listen for the “we/they” differentiation when I can remember to, and have uncovered a closet atheist and perhaps a budding atheist or two by doing so.

    I’ll be linking others to this.
    Cheers, JMK

  • Tom Wierman

    Great read….so glad (and lucky) that I started doubting at a very early age. I was that kid that constantly challanged the silly stories.

  • Andrew Hackman

    James had a big effect on me when I was a Christian… funny to read this now and find we have taken the same path.

  • Susan_G1

    beautifully written. I can imagine it was incredibly difficult to resign and then to leave.

  • Jeffrey J Schieberl

    This is a great post! I to come from an extreme fundamental religious back ground where my parents left me in a cult called the Children of God at age 12 and the mental brainwashing done by these groups and churches alike take many years to overcome. Even though I left the cult and the church I did not stop believing in God and Christianity for many years, but one day as this author says I realized I no longer thought of myself as a Christian or a Religions man. The moment I realized this I felt as if a huge weight was lifted from my soul and a new freedom and zest for life has begun!!! I.m reading all the books they deemed evil such as “The origin of man” “The Communist Manifesto”, “Why Evolution is True” and many more. I find none of them are evil and I don’t want to become a communist, but they are eye opening and inspiring. I see a bright exciting new future for myself, a new beginning if you will and I.m 55. Better late then never!

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

      i envy you, Jeffery. you are on a great journey, and at such a time in life! Mazel Tov.

  • Rain

    It’s a cool story. As with all cool stories, one always wonders if one should put the “bro” after the cool story, if you catch my drift. Being hyper-skeptical is a curse or a blessing lol.

  • https://kusmeeks.info/ kusmeek

    simply delightful, thanks!

  • Ella Warnock

    Great post, James. Thanks.

  • Mitch

    “Many of those steps away from religion happen before you’re aware of any dissatisfaction. Long before you finally walk away, your religious life begins to break down, to smoke and sputter, to lose momentum. One day, something inside you shifts.”

    Truth. Also, great metaphor. I love backpacking!

  • anniewhoo

    I enjoyed your post. I really identified with the mountain analogy, not as far as religion goes, but with other aspects of my life. It beautifully puts into perspective how problems do indeed get smaller with time. I will stow this concept away and bring it out when my teenager could benefit from it. Good luck to you!

  • KMR

    That’s lovely imagery. Some of us find though we can leave our religion yet stay within the religious community. Maybe it depends on who you are, what you find you’re comfortable with and most importantly the makeup of the religious community. I don’t know. But I have both and at this point I’m comfortable with both. If at some point I’m not I’ll make a change and I guess that’s when your imagery will become personal to me instead of simply poignant words on a blog.

  • Keyra

    It’s sad when atheists led their fundamentalist backgrounds affect their outlook on the whole of Christianity

    • Carol Lynn

      No. It isn’t.

    • LizBert

      Quakers are hardly fundamentalists…

      • 3lemenope

        The Fundamentalist Quakers stare disapprovingly.

      • Tmayhall

        Well, there actually are atheist Quakers, right? Quakers aren’t necessarily theists.

        • Nankay

          None that I’ve ever known of. Quaker meetings ranged from conservative to liberal, but they were ALWAYS theistic

          • 3lemenope

            There are, in fact, Quaker atheists. Wiki has it covered.

            • MineApostasy

              Much like there are UU atheists.

        • Rastaman426

          If you are an atheist….how does it make sense to add any religion in front of it? It’s like that old Irish joke that a person was caught in wrong part of Ireland when armed men held him up and asked him whether he was Protestant or Catholic, and he replied he is an atheist, to which they asked if he was a Protestant atheist or Catholic atheist….

          • Paul Lambert

            KMR, There are Atheist Buddhists, Atheist Unitarian Universalists, Atheist Jews and Atheist Quakers. This is due to a variety of reasons such as the benefits of community action (social justice work), shared goals, identity as a group member beyond the religious aspect (e.g. secular Jews), the lack of a need for a belief in the supernatural, “spiritual” practices that have scientifically documented physical benefits (e.g. meditation). I’ve found for these reasons there’s no reason to through the baby out with the bath water.

            • RBH

              Um, it sure looks to me like those folks throw out the (theist) baby but keep the (social) bathwater.

              • Paul Lambert

                You’re confusing which is the baby and which is the bathwater.

          • starmom

            Because for most atheists, they had a religious identity before they became atheist. It is a part of them, their life history, and always will be. The minority of us that are life-long atheists have a completely different story.

    • 3lemenope

      Seems an odd place to bring it up.

      • # zbowman

        It’s almost as if this person wasn’t actually reading the article, and dumped their passive-aggressive attempted guilt trip on the first post they could find that mentioned the words they were looking for.

        • baal

          “passive-aggressive attempted guilt trip”
          No, the various christian semi-trolls that haunt this blog would never do that.

          • # zbowman

            It does seem a bit subtle by their standards.

    • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

      I keep being told this by my more liberal Christian friends too, but even after leaving the fundamental mindset, it still fell apart for me. It’s not about fundamentalism, it’s about truth. How do we know it is even true?

      • JohnH2

        “How do we know it is even true?”

        I think that really depends on what type of knowledge of truth you are looking for in terms of religion. In my opinion the only knowledge of truth in the matter of religion that seriously matters is that which comes from God; I realize that many disagree with me on that but I don’t believe that it is possible to prove God (or even more so Christianity) from philosophical arguments, I don’t believe that presenting evidence of the existence of God or even showing signs actually produces conviction that leads to action.

        Obviously one can come to know that, at least certain aspects of, Christian action are good by doing as Jesus said:

        “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” John 7:17

        I believe that applies to all of Christian belief, more then just knowing that loving ones neighbor as oneself is an ideal action which is good. As Moses says what we should and shouldn’t do is written in our hearts and is not hidden that we need someone to go to heaven in order for us to know it, the way of life and the way of death are always before us and we are always free to choose which of these two paths we are following (Deuteronomy 30).

        To know more specifically though then something more is needed. While Jesus does discuss this point repeatedly, I personally like James description the best in the Bible:

        “5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
        6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
        7 For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.
        .” James 1:5

        A knowledge not of how we should act, we already know how to act even if we don’t act that way, but what we should believe needs to come from God and the way to get it is to ask God, any other conviction is a sandy foundation and the storms of life will cause it to crumble. We must know for ourselves and from God if we hope to have our faith pass through the ‘trial of fire’ and be found unto glory at the appearing of Christ to us:

        “15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
        16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
        17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
        18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:15-18

        • Anna

          In my opinion the only knowledge of truth in the matter of religion that seriously matters is that which comes from God

          That’s the exact problem. How do we know this god-claim is even true? Whatever the Bible says is irrelevant if it is just ordinary writings by ordinary men, not authored or inspired by a deity at all.

          • JohnH2

            Short version of everything that I wrote which you didn’t read: Ask God.

            • http://springygoddess.blogspot.com/ Astreja

              But how does one distinguish the voice of “God” from the voice of one’s own imagination, John?

              • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

                Good question.

              • JohnH2

                I can tell that you read what I previously wrote, looked up the references, considered how they apply to what I was saying, and then asked a very thoughtful comment based on that and not my super short version.

                In which case, what an excellent question. I am sure you are wondering how the two ways that all of us are constantly presented with: the way of life and good and the way of death and evil, play into God answering prayers, especially in regards to my statement that all of Christian belief can and should have the two ways applied to it.

                Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth, and the light, which should already answer your question fully: Jesus is the way of life and good and so we already know when something is good, and therefore when something is from God. Again, as Moses says we don’t need someone to go to heaven as it is already known in our hearts.

                Obviously, though Jesus said that it is the other comforter that will lead to all truth so there is a little bit more to it then this: as there are plenty of good things which are not conveying a message from God to us.

                The Holy Spirit is that other comforter though and the fruit of the spirit are listed in Galatians 5:22-23: and as Jesus says by the fruits ye shall know them. The ability to discern good and evil is clearly needed to recognize the fruits of the Spirit though, so that part of it remains. The Spirit is often described as a still small voice, a fire, or ones heart being pricked; which is not terribly helpful if one hasn’t felt the Spirit previously just as describing salt to someone who has never tasted salt would be likewise difficult. However, if one is paying attention it really isn’t that hard to recognize.

                TL:DR

                Saying the short version or TL:DR doesn’t mean that the long version doesn’t already contain the answer to your question but the short version: if it is good it comes from God.

                • http://springygoddess.blogspot.com/ Astreja

                  That’s an interesting way of looking at it, John. I’m not so sure there’s anything particularly supernatural about that “still, small voice,” though. I think that a conscience develops naturally as we grow up, although it may come more easily to people raised in an environment that values fair play, empathy and integrity.

            • Anna

              I read everything you wrote, and it still makes no sense. The problem is that you are assuming the answer before the question is even asked. Why do you believe god-claims are true? You can’t just say people should “ask God” to determine whether a god is real because it’s already assuming such an entity exists in the first place.

              • JohnH2

                Seems quite logical that one would ask God if God exists, either He responds and then you know God exists or He doesn’t and you have minimal more knowledge then previously (God didn’t respond to you, which is a point of evidence in favor of not believing in a God).

                • Anna

                  Do you really not see how nonsensical this is? People are supposed to go around asking supernatural entities questions in order to ascertain if they are real? “Unicorn, are you real?” “Zeus, are you real?” “Shiva, are you real?” Not to mention it’s impossible to ask genuine questions of something you know to be fictional. It would be like asking you to make a serious inquiry of Harry Potter, for example.

                  I still do not understand how you determine god-claims are true. Your only advice seems to be ask questions of a god you already believe exists. That says nothing about how you came to the conclusion that any of these beliefs are based in reality.

    • Makoto

      In a way, I might agree with you. I try not to let one bad apple/experience ruin anything for me. That time I got sick at a state fair didn’t ruin going to fairs for me. The time someone turned me down when I asked them out didn’t stop me from dating. Etc. So, yes, if one small part of their faith was the problem, I can see them dropping that one part and trying out other faiths, if that’s what they think they need. And many people do!

      Then again, if the problem they have is the core of the experience, like the fact that a slurpee is based on ground up ice, I can see why they wouldn’t want to try other flavors. Or might come back and try it again later after many years, who knows?

      Everyone is and individual. I can only speak directly to my experiences, and indirectly to those I’ve read/heard about. That’s why I try to read many faith journeys, from one religion to another, from religion to atheism, from atheism to religion, whatever. They all hold truths for the author of the journey.

    • islandbrewer

      It’s sad* when Christians are entirely dismissive of other people’s experiences and let their certainty in their religious convictions make them look down with contempt on non Christians.

      *(By “sad” I mean “short sighted, selfish, and maddening that these people are absolutely incapable placing themselves in others’ shoes and are entirely devoid of any actual empathy as if they failed their ‘being a civilized human’ exam.”)

    • Mr. Two

      Actually, I’m glad I was raised in a fundamentalist church. If I had been raised in a liberal church, one that didn’t necessarily think that Genesis had to be true for the rest of the Bible to be true, I might never have realized it was all bunk.

  • TnkAgn

    I had it easy. My mother and father, nominal Lutheran and Catholic, respectively. Dad, as a working biochemist, would only say that a little religion was good for us kids, so off to church we went. Until I was about 15.

    I find it hard to fathom the sturm und drang, the anxiety of emerging from a truly religious cocoon. My hat’s off.

    • allein

      15 was about when I stopped going to church regularly…because my parents stopped going (they’ve since gone back; I haven’t). Church activities to me were almost entirely social activities, little to do with *true religion*.

  • TheShadow

    It’s been 2-3 months since I’ve admitted to myself I don’t believe there is a god, but my disbelief has existed much longer than that. I still flinch from calling myself atheist (but if the shoe fits…) Like many other formerly religious, it came on slowly over time. I have doubted the 6-day creation for many years, even in my time of strongest religious fervor. After the church I attended destroyed itself from within (leaders trying to move an unwilling congregation toward charismatic worship), it’s been a slow downhill ever since for me. Over this past year, the decline became more urgent. I felt like god had turned from me, and I believed that god was hardening my heart (Rom. 9:18). I began to waver; I just wanted to know the truth. I became increasingly skeptical of Christianity. The pain that religion has caused became obvious to me. I was tired of thinking of myself as “broken” and in need of salvation. I AM NOT BROKEN.

    • M. Elaine

      My husband and I are familiar with that flinch reflex. In the beginning, he even thought of avoiding the word and just using “freethinker.” I told him I will continue to use “atheist” because there is nothing wrong with the word; it’s not us or the word that is the problem, but others’ irrational reaction to it. It is almost 3 years later now for both of us and the flinch is long gone. My next hurdle is coming out to my family.

      • lmern

        I wish you both the best of luck in that endeavour. I never fully appreciated the depth of my fathers beliefs (despite being influenced by him as kids with Easter Jesus movies and kids bibles for Christmas) so when I dropped the Atheist bomb, it took him by surprise and was a bit calloused on my part. I wish now I had approached my ‘coming out’ with a bit more sensitivity for him (he admitted an amount of disappointment and perceived failure on his part).

        David G. McAfee’s book ‘Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist’ might provide you with some guidance to doing so with tact and grace. Apologies for the .ca link, but it is also available through Amazon.com.

        http://www.amazon.ca/Mom-Dad-Im-Atheist-Non-Believer/dp/1908675047

        • Mr. Two

          I need to figure out how to tell my grown children! And, oh, I hope my grandchildren never become believers.

  • Paul Lambert

    I grew up in a very Catholic household. By the age of 11 or 12 I was very skeptical of the supernatural aspects of my religion and by 15 I couldn’t believe grown adults could take such nonsense literally. I was frequently sent to the director of our CCD program when I’d ask questions our teachers couldn’t answer. I was about 12 when I learned the doctrine of transubstantiation. When I asked for clarification about the act being symbolic, I was sternly told it was not. I was given no choice but to attend church until I was 18 but gave it up after that. I did attend mass while serving in the military, but it was more for the familiarity of the ritual. I don’t understand how people can stop believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the boogie man, yet still interpret the Bible literally. I do like parts of the Bible, as well as a dozen other creation stories and similar myths but to take such things literally seems childish to me. Oddly enough I do attend church weekly again now, but at a Unitarian congregation where my Atheism is more or less tolerated (used to be more so).

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    There are not five easy steps for leaving your religion. There is nothing easy about it.

    Helen Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex: the Process of Role Exit seems to suggest role exit in other arenas is a four-stage process: developing doubt, seeking alternatives, turning point, and new role construction. An undergraduate journal paper titled “The Road to Disbelief: A Study of the Atheist De-Conversion Process” by Julie Krueger seems to prefer a five-stage model, apparently based on Ebaugh’s model with the first stage divided into two. The research by Altemeyer and Hunsberger, on the other hand, seems to indicate that for most of the irreligious, whatever “turning point” is often more gradual or subtle than other role exits — some even less memorable than “two words” at a cook out.

    It’s still not easy, however many steps.

  • Reba Boyd Wooden

    CFI-Indiana sponsored an event with Jim this past Thursday night. About 400 people attended. What is not included on this website is the panel of 4 of our CFI-Indiana members who also told their journey from religion to nonreligion and the audience Q&A.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

    There is nothing easy about it. When you’re raised in a religious culture, it’s all you know

    “there is nothing easy about giving up santa claus and the easter bunny. when you’re raised with them, it’s all you know.”

  • David Chumney

    Thanks for the post and link. Have read Mulholland before, so am looking forward to this one.


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