I found being in the world pretty scary. For those of you who have never been an evangelical christian, being “in the world” means being in the ungodly parts of society and associating with people and things that are deemed unholy. At various times in my life I attended Pentecostal, Baptist, Vineyard (similar to Pentecostal), Presbyterian, Church of England and Quaker services, and at all of these I got the message to varying degrees of forcefulness that the world we were in was evil. Most of the things that we enjoy in life are bad and “of the flesh” as in, they only make you happy on this earth and because they make you happy and not God, then that makes it evil.
The only things that are truly good are those that bring praise to God. So things and places that most definitely did not fit the category of godliness, in no particular order of badness were:
- Non-Christain music
- Any shop in a Sunday
- Shops that had anything overtly non-christian in them, like a book about atheism, incense, occult-like things, products related to sex – heavens no!
- Yoga classes
- Books mentioning God in a negative way
- Films with a lot of swearing in them.
After reading this not exhaustive list of examples of the world, it is clear that coming across these and adapting to being in worldly places when you become a non believer is frankly terrifying and daunting for some. The messages that some christians will have received is that, by doing the above, you are doing something that is against god and making him unhappy. Not only are you making him unhappy but you are spitting in his face, after all he did die for you, so any sin that you do is adding the pain he felt on the cross. It is pretty traumatising emotional blackmail there. It is hard to get past that at times.
I found it hard to adjust to living differently and if I had to go through it again, I would say to my younger self, here are the 5 things you need to keep in mind while you go through this.
5 Tips for Being in the World
1. Go at Your Own Pace
Every ex-christian is different and it will take some longer to feel completely at ease doing an activity that was previously taboo or considered to be evil. You need to take it at the pace that you feel happy with. Some will find it a liberating experience and jump into everything that they couldn’t do before, this is true and if that is the case, then go for it! While others will want to gradually build up to going places that they didn’t used to go to and try going there slowly.
2. You are Not Stupid
The way that you feel is right now is not stupid. It is not stupid to feel severe anxiety going to get bread at a shop on a Sunday, or procrastinate responding to a friend’s message about going to a pub because you are afraid. Whatever way you feel right now is normal.
I felt very stupid for feeling guilty about reading books in the popular science section of a book shop when I first became an ex-christian and I then felt stupid to feel bad about buying one of the books! I felt stupid constantly, as these acts were all ones that other people did on a normal basis without feeling anxious or stressed out. I knew logically that I shouldn’t feel bad for buying a book and that was when I felt stupid.
What I didn’t really get back then was that it would take my feelings some time to catch up with my logical mind. I had no understanding back then that years of indoctrination brought on the involuntary fear response to many things, which is why I felt so anxious. It is normal to be afraid of seemingly normal things, do not feel stupid.
3. Figure Out What You Think
This is one of the hardest ones on the list. After years of not thinking about what you want and feel, but going with what you felt God wanted you to think, it can be liberating to start wondering what you want but, it can also be terrifying.
It can be scary because you have never learnt how to do that before. Take it slow, and start with simple things or break down something big into small chunks and deal with each bit separately. For example, how do you feel about going to a bar? That is huge…instead figure out how you feel about all the other elements of going to a bar, like how you feel about hanging out with friends? Drinking alcohol? Remember that you will often know what you want but anxiety will hold you back, emotions and involuntary anxiety will stay with you for a while. Once you know that you like the idea of hanging out with friends, who will be drinking, in a bar, then you know you can push through the anxiety as you walk up to the door.
4. Look After You
Trying new things, especially new things that you were told were evil and made Jesus sad, is hard. Going for a drink with a friend at a bar may be very hard at first or the first 10 times until it starts to become the new normal.
Make sure to take breaks after stressful situations, do nice things for yourself as a reward for being the new you. Start with the basics if you are unsure “how to look after you” – make sure you are getting the sleep you need, exercise a bit, eat well and keep clean. Sounds pretty straightforward, but changing what you believe in can turn your world upside down, so focussing on the necessities is vital.
5. Don’t Try it Alone
I found it daunting to go to new things, so when I did I would with my friends. They didn’t realise that I was using them as support through my transition to non-belief, as what they were doing was normal to them and they didn’t realise how anxious I was feeling.
They didn’t realise because I didn’t share it with them, I did share it with some other ex-religious people who did get it. Finding others online in the ex-religious community helped me to see I wasn’t alone. If you are lucky enough to have a Recovering From Religion group in your area, then I recommend going to one to get support from others who are going through being in the world and can relate to what you are going through.
If you have any tips for those adapting to being in the world then please share in the comments below!