Integrity is Complicated: Breaking a Promise From Your Old Religion

There was one question from this month’s Conversations Under the Oaks that needs its own post: what are the demands of integrity when you want to break a promise made in the context of a religion you no longer follow?

This didn’t occur to me until I read This Isn’t the Kobayashi Maru: When You Have to Break a Geas, but I am breaking my promise where I dedicated myself as a child and adult to Jehovah, as the “One True God”. I do not wish to follow or work with a god like him, or to be like his followers. Do I need to somehow make things right?

Integrity is near the top of the list of virtues of modern Paganism. Our word is our bond, and we do not fail to carry through with a promise just because it is hard. And yet in the realm of religion, we frequently find ourselves in situations where integrity makes conflicting demands, where there is no clear and clean choice. Do we break a promise, or do we stay in a situation that is unsatisfying or even harmful?

That’s a difficult question, and if you’re looking for black and white answers, you’re in the wrong place.

If you want to explore the complexities of integrity, read on.

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Contracts made by children are invalid

Religious promises are essentially contracts. The devotee promises to believe certain things and to do certain things. In return, they’re accepted as members of the religious community. Some people would take issue with the idea of quid pro quo (“God’s grace is a free gift!”) and others with the idea of comparing something as sacred a religious obligation with something a profane as a contract, but that’s basically what it is.

The law concerning contracts and minors is complicated, and it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And what is right and what is legal are often two very different things. Still, there is an important principle involved: a contract with a minor is only enforceable to the extend the minor has the capacity to understand and fulfill its obligations.

Children may understand the theology and doctrines they’re taught, but they do not have the mental capacity and emotional maturity to make life-long commitments. That’s one of the reasons we do not allow child marriages. If you made a religious promise as a child – or if one was made for you – you have no ethical obligation to keep it.

Contracts made under duress or without disclosure are invalid

If you sign over the title to your car because someone has a gun pointed at your head, no court in the land is going to enforce it. With large transactions, the law often requires disclosure: home sales in Texas require the seller to fill out a three-page document listing all known defects in the house. The legal principle is clear: you have to make a free and informed choice or the contract isn’t valid.

“Become a (certain type of) Christian or burn in hell!” is not a free choice. Religious commitments made without a knowledge of world religions aren’t informed choices.

If you made a commitment under duress or without the understanding that there are many religious options in the world, you have no ethical obligation to keep it.

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Who is harmed, and how much?

It is helpful to explore our virtues and to examine why they’re considered good and right. It’s not because some deity has arbitrarily declared “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” It’s because over time, the skillful application of virtues has been shown to be helpful to both individuals and communities.

Integrity means others can count on us. They can make plans and take risks based on what we tell them, confident that we’ll keep our promises.

If you sign a year’s lease with a roommate and they leave after six months, you’re going to have to scramble to come up with the other half of the rent. If they lost their job and have to move across the country to find another one you’re likely to be more sympathetic than if they just move out in the middle of the night, but either way you’re on the hook for the rent. You’re harmed by their unwillingness or inability to keep their promise.

On the other hand, if you leave a religion – regardless of what you promised – odds are good they’re going to do just fine without you. In the grand scheme of things, one less Methodist or Mormon or Muslim isn’t going to make much difference.

In a small group, though, walking out may have a significant impact. Some years ago I was involved with a church that went through some difficult times caused by some dysfunctional members. One of the lay leaders decided he’d had enough – he resigned his position and his membership. But he paid the balance of his annual pledge before he left. There was nothing to force him to do that, but he felt his integrity demanded it.

There is no Court of Cosmic Justice

And that brings us to an important reality: there is no Court of Cosmic Justice to hand you a decree that says your promises were invalid and you’re so free to move on to another religion.  There is only your own conscience.

Are you OK with what you’re doing?

Changing religions is not unlike changing your marriage partner: it’s messy and complicated, it’s expensive, and it usually involves a lot of tears. Sometimes a partner turns out to be abusive, neglectful, or unsupportive and you have to leave. Sometimes people make mistakes in their choices, or grow apart over the years. Divorces in these circumstances are difficult and painful, but no one short of hardline Catholics and Evangelicals believe they’re ethically wrong.

That’s very different from someone who promises “till death us do part” and then files for divorce because times get hard, a partner gets sick, or someone more attractive comes along.

Did you need to leave your old religion? Was it abusive or manipulative? Did you come to the realization that you couldn’t honestly believe what you were told you had to believe? Integrity in religion means leaving what is false for what is true, or more frequently, leaving what is partially true for something that is more true.

Actions always have consequences

Breaking a promise made in an old religion may be right and necessary. That doesn’t mean there won’t be repercussions.

You will lose a religious community. You may lose friends and family. The good ones will love you anyway, but some may not be able to handle one of their own rejecting their religion.

Will a deity come after you? Maybe. Now, I put exactly zero stock in the threats of “if you abandon Jehovah, then Jehovah will abandon you.” That’s not much of a threat to a polytheist – there are always other Gods. But if you read the stories of our ancestors, you’ll see accounts of the troubles encountered by those who ran afoul of a God. It happened before – it can happen again.

Probably not, though. Most times if you abandon a God or a promise to a God, they just abandon you. Which, from the way you asked your question, sounds like exactly what you want.

But breaking promises – to Gods or humans – is like burning bridges. It’s easy to keep going forward, but you may have trouble going back. Going back – to an old religion or to an old spouse – is rarely a good idea. Burn your bridges and keep moving. But make sure you’re fully aware of what you’re doing before you throw a match on the gasoline.

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My own story

I made certain promises in the Baptist church when I was eight years old. I was a very mature, very intelligent eight year old, but I did not have the context or depth of understanding necessary to make a life-long decision. I have no bad feelings whatsoever about breaking those promises.

I made some more promises in the Methodist church in my late 20s. I still didn’t have a full understanding of the religious landscape – I assumed that Christianity was, if not the right religion, then at least the best religion. I didn’t have a very good understanding of myself, either. But I was an adult, and I feel some responsibility for the promises I made.

At this point, the legal and marital metaphors are no longer adequate. This is a religious matter and it needs a religious approach.

There is no right religion. There are bad religions and good religions, harmful religions and helpful religions. And what is helpful to some may be harmful to another. It’s not “all the same” – it’s all different. Our goal as people of integrity is to separate the true from the false and to find the path that is most right for us as individuals.

The fundamentalism of my childhood is false. The mainline Protestantism of my young adulthood was merely inadequate for me – especially once I discovered a new religion I was truly passionate about.

And so early one morning I had a conversation with Jesus.

I pointed out that I tried to be a Christian. I am not guilty of Chesterton’s charge that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.” I tried – it didn’t work for me. Oh, I could be a liberal Protestant or a UU Christian in good conscience, but it would be a soulless endeavor.

I pointed out that I felt called to this new Pagan path, and that my integrity demanded I investigate it. I knew I could do far more good as an enthusiastic Pagan than I ever could as a reluctant Christian.

The years since have proven this to be true.

I promised to respect and honor the good and helpful Christian traditions, in place of the more detailed promises I could no longer keep, and in the names of my friends and family who remain good Christians.

I have kept that promise.

I felt some sadness at the conclusion of that conversation. How could I not? I was walking away from the religion of my family and the religion of my childhood. But it felt right. I was being honest with myself – and for that matter, with Jesus.

Sometimes we need to honor commitments made in old religions. Other times we need to break them. I can’t tell you what to do in your situation. This is what I did, and why.

I wish you peace and blessings as you move forward in integrity.

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