Losing Your Religion and Finding Yourself Again

girl with mapI’m gonna level with you. I’ve been struggling lately.

Most days I do my best to look at the big picture, to take the high road, and to find the longest view of religion I can manage despite the baggage I’ve accumulated from my years within the walls of the church (plus the years that have transpired since leaving it). Considering the sheer volume of emotional background noise these elements generate around my daily existence, I think I do a pretty good job of it, thankyouverymuch.

See, although it’s been several years since I left the faith, or rather it left me, I still live in a highly religious environment in which everyone takes for granted that I am “one of them.” Without ever even thinking about it, they assume that everyone instinctively knows their God is not only real, but is the only “right” one deserving of our worship. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either deluding themselves, or is immoral, or both. Such people can be rightly ignored, they reason, so nothing we say about any of this really matters in the end.

Related: “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem

For them, people like me exist purely as prospects for evangelism, or else as enemies of God to be “loved on” until we finally see the light and capitulate to the demands of the gospel that we are supposed to know is the real deal, despite what we say we don’t believe. Neither of these options fully humanizes us in the end since according to their worldview the only valid mode of existence is oriented entirely around their narrowly conceived theological construct.

Most days I can still sympathize with their perspective since I myself used to be “one of them.” And unlike so many of my non-theistic cohorts, I can see the utility in the religion that defines their lives. I do not see religion as a discrete element which can be once-and-for-all eradicated from human life. Instead I suspect that religion is a facet of human life that is woven into who we are by our own evolutionary history. Put differently, religion isn’t something we do (or think we don’t do), it is an outgrowth of who we are.

Back on the Couch

That being said, at this particular moment in time, I am so fed up with the damage I see stemming from this particular aspect of who we are. We have created entire industries of worshiping deities whom we ourselves have unknowingly made (yes, yours included), and the unintended consequences of this tradition have left an indelible mark on the collective psyche of the human race.

Speaking for myself, the net effect of religion has not been positive. What I’m finding instead is that my religion of origin has left me with an unhealthy inability to recognize, set, or enforce the kinds of personal boundaries that would enable me to maintain healthy relationships even after more than 40 years of working out what it means to be a human being. To this day, I struggle with even recognizing, much less validating, my own psychological or emotional needs. Even as I type those words, a program in the back of my head starts running a commentary on why none of that should even matter.

In a couple of weeks I start my first legit therapy session, because at this point I need it. Technically, this is the second time I’ve placed myself “on the couch,” so to speak. Only the first time it was in a church, and I feel like I was virtually ignored. The needs that mattered then were Jesus’s, and ultimately I was only there to meet his needs. Incidentally, that right there is the crux of my grievance against the Christian faith in general and against its counseling model in particular.

In case you hadn’t guessed it, I didn’t come away from my year of therapy with an especially high view of Christian counseling. In fact, I have some strong words to share at some point in the future about a handful of tactics our marriage therapist used during our time with him. But I’ll have to save those for a moment when I’m better prepared to talk about it all.

What I’ve come to see now is that my own natural disposition, shaped by both nature and by nurture, set me up to receive the strongest possible dose of whatever toxin the Christian faith serves up to make us ignorant of our own emotional and psychological needs. In fact, I was virtually taught that human beings shouldn’t have needs at all, save to meet the needs of someone else—either each other’s or God’s, whom they keep telling us has no needs, but clearly they are lying.

Related: “Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing

This ignorance of my own needs has left me pretty clueless toward how to have a “healthy” relationship with sustainable boundaries, and I’m way past due for figuring this stuff out. I hear some of my friends talking as if these are things they’ve always understood, and I’m deeply impressed. I’m jealous of those people who have always had a strong enough sense of themselves that they didn’t end up where I’ve ended up, taking what would otherwise be good and healthy relationships and making them not so healthy.

A Necessary Step for Me

Truth be told, I can’t even decide anymore whether I am the one who keeps doing this to myself, or if other people should take some share of the credit as well. I honestly don’t know. They say you teach people how to treat you by how you let them treat you. I don’t know, but I’m determined to get it figured out. Because life is short, and the way I see it, we only get one shot at doing this thing. I want to get it right, or at least I want to get it “less wrong” than I’ve gotten it thus far.

Can you relate to this?

This is the battle I am fighting at the present time, and I’m not going to be able to get much further without settling this matter in a way that feels like real progress. I need to figure out what a healthy sense of self-possession looks like, and I don’t see how anything else I do from this point forward will be right until I’ve got my head wrapped around this, or heart, or however you choose to put it.

I know I’m not alone in this. Many of my post-Christian friends have expressed similar sentiments, so I’m sharing a peek into this struggle in the hope that some of you can identify with this and maybe even share some of what you’ve figured out. Did you make some progress on this issue? The matter of regaining a sense of who you are without reference to what everyone else tells you that you’re supposed to be?

In my case, I’ve struggled with what I would call a hyper-empathetic nature that conforms my own wishes and self-concept around what everyone else around me thinks of me and wants for me. I think I was born this way to some degree, and my environment only fed and nurtured it until it became a defining characteristic of my personality. This can feel great to everyone else around me since it means I usually bend my will to theirs, but the time has come for me to figure out what my will is. And that requires that I first settle for myself that it is even okay to have my own wishes and goals for myself.

It is my observation that there’s no shortage of people who will tell you this line of reasoning is pointless. These folks seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) People who are just as bad at maintaining a sense of themselves as I am, and 2) people who don’t even struggle with this because it’s not in their nature to conform to the wishes of other people. The latter group can’t really relate to this because it’s not something they personally deal with, and that’s great for them. But for my sake I’ve still got some unpacking to do in order to get on top of this fight for my own sense of personal identity.

So that’s where I am right now.

I’ll update you as I feel progress is made, and you’ll know things are getting better when you see this space filling up with the content for which Godless in Dixie was created to produce. I have so much left to say about the world I’ve come from (and still inhabit to some degree), and so much to share from what I have learned by listening to the friends who are on this same journey. Be sure to follow because there’s more to come, starting soon with a final post to summarize my take on Tim Keller‘s apologetics book The Reason for God.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve included the Everyone’s Agnostic podcast in your queue of podcasts to listen to regularly because Cass and Bob are great at what they do, and they deal with many of the same things I deal with on this blog. Just a couple of weeks ago, Cass had me on the show briefly to talk about this very issue, and you call follow this link here to access that episode.

[Episode 140 with Trav Mamone and Neil Carter]

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, 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 living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.