I just realized that I’ve now been out of Christianity for longer than I was in it. That may sound like an odd way to conceptualize things, but I’ve been doing it for a while about various unpleasant people and subjects. It makes me feel good to know there’s that much distance between me and whatever it was that bothered or hurt me, and my time in fundagelical Christianity definitely counts as something that hurt and bothered me!
One of the best outcomes of that deconversion was finally being able to live more authentically–and today we’ll be talking about how that happy change came about.
A Lifetime Ago.
Christianity entered that happy land of “a lifetime ago” recently for me. I deconverted in my mid-20s, and I’m in my mid-40s now. I reckon I’ve now been out of Christianity for longer than I was actually Christian. I’ve gone another lifetime away from it. That timeline means I’m a bit of an old-timer by apostates’ standards. I noticed almost immediately when I joined a site devoted to ex-Christians’ experiences some years ago that most of the people posting had been out of the religion only a year or two, if that; many had literally just deconverted, and some were teetering above the cliff, not realizing they had wings.
Maybe people who deconverted years ago unpacked and dealt with their stuff so thoroughly that they simply don’t often feel the need to post about it on comment threads or forums. Or maybe there are a lot more recently-deconverted people than there are old-timers. Judging by the comments and emails I get and the blogs I see across the internet, I suspect that the latter is more true than the former. People like me who deconverted years ago were just the first trickles of what would soon be a tidal wave of ex-Christians, a wave that is only increasing in volume and depth as the risks of deconversion grow ever smaller and the information available to people grows ever more compelling.
A guest poster on Godless in Dixie recently described the sharp, intense feelings she experienced around Christmas this year, her first holiday season without Jesus.* Her post resonated with a lot of people, and for good reason: that first year out of Christianity can feel like the first year after the death of a loved one. It’s very hard not to think, “Today, last year, this is what happened and what we did.” Recovering from intense religious indoctrination can feel a lot like mourning; it has its own pace and its own timeline, and fighting that process usually only makes it take longer.
But this emotional work is rewarding in its own right. As we near the end of it, we discover gifts awaiting us that we couldn’t have begun to imagine when first we found ourselves on that road.
The first of these gifts may well be increased authenticity.
Authenticity. (Find Out What It Means To Me.)
Authenticity is a psychology term that means to act honestly and in a way that is reflective of your opinions and feelings, while avoiding words and deeds that are dishonest or not reflective of your opinions and feelings. It doesn’t just mean not to lie; there’s a lot more to it than that. Authenticity involves figuring out what we believe, what’s important to us, what we really want out of life and our relationships, and where our boundaries are. Once we’ve got that stuff mostly figured out, then we can start behaving in ways that are true to what we’ve discovered about ourselves.
It’s difficult to be 100% authentic in every single way, and I’m sure not going to pretend that I am there, but the more inauthenticity is present in our lives, the more stress we’re going to be under.
And for me, being fundagelical was hugely inauthentic.
One of the best examples I can share of the stress caused by inauthenticity is this all-too-common situation that Thought2Much described on that Christmas post, one that crops up for so many ex-Christians: being among a group of Christians who want to pray before the big meal. Often the very act of prayer may bring with it all kinds of negative emotions for ex-Christians. Praying might even feel absolutely ridiculous!
What do we do when thrust into this potential conflict? Do we bow our heads and say nothing? Or leave the room? Or pray even though it seems really silly or harmful to us to do so?
Many ex-Christians play along with the prayer because otherwise there’ll be a huge family drama. We just want to enjoy a meal in peace with those we love without World War III breaking out, so we we bow our heads and hope we don’t break out into giggles if the prayer is especially fundagelical.
There are a lot of other ways we sacrifice our authenticity for our still-Christian loved ones. Do any of these sound familiar?
Listening to the awful Christian music our loved ones like to play 24/7.
Wanting so bad to click that “like” or “share” button on something that we enjoyed reading or watching, but knowing that if our still-Christian loved ones see that on our wall, then yes, World War III will break out.
Hiding our struggles and doubts because we know we’ll be dogpiled if we talk about it.
Biting our tongues when our spouses “teach” really awful religious lessons to the children, or insist that they receive religious indoctrination from a church.
Feeling forced to attend church with our loved ones or chapel while at school because if we don’t, we may well lose our families, support, homes, educational opportunities, jobs, or a range of other things.
Lying when confronted directly about our deconversions–because we know what will happen if we don’t.
What one of us considers a perfectly acceptable concession to make, others consider their Rubicon, so everyone’s list will vary even while the main idea remains the same: when we aren’t around people who unconditionally love us, when we’re afraid of massive losses if we step out of line, then we sacrifice our authenticity to keep the peace. Every time we do it, though, it is like a ding on our armor, another brick shuddering loose from our resolve. Living inauthentically is one of the hardest things a person can do, and anybody who’s had to conceal, deny, or downplay a deconversion around a loved one knows how hard it is to live among people who might stop loving us in a heartbeat if we stop presenting the facade they like. It sucks beyond all comprehension.
Sometimes our fears are for nothing–when the truth comes out, our Christian loved ones are dismayed that we felt so afraid, and assure us that they still love us. Nothing’s better than that feeling! The risks still drive us to hide until we’re totally sure that revealing our deconversions will be safe. And we are often right to worry about those risks.
Losing the friends I’d made in fundagelicalism was a big worry for me. Under the social pressure of the group, I found myself changing to fit in better. When my parents visited me for the first time since I’d left Christianity, a few years after deconversion, my dad told me that he and my mom were very glad to have “their daughter back.” My intense pursuit of “Jesus” had turned me into someone I really wasn’t, and he and my mother had seen that–but hadn’t known how to explain it to me in a way that would make me see it too, because one thing that hadn’t changed much was my stubborn streak. Now they were happy to see that I was moving back toward being the cheerful, studious, rational, quirky young woman they’d raised.
After a while, I began to work out that yes, a lot of things had changed in me after my conversion to toxic Christianity, and none of those changes were for the better. I’d become timid and fearful, someone who allowed mistreatment and who shouldered unjust burdens without outward protest. And I had become an intensely angry, moody person because of the unholy amounts of stress, fear, injustice, and mistreatment I felt I had to endure.
The Worst Part of Being Christian.
The worst change I experienced, out of a host of contenders for that title, was that I had become less authentic.
I’d joined a part of Christianity that very famously snuffs out the individuality of its members and uses extremely dishonest and sketchy marketing tactics to relentlessly sell its worldview. Immediately I began feeling the stress of living behind a facade. Every single person I knew seemed so happy and fulfilled in the religion; it didn’t even occur to me that maybe they were doing the same thing I was.
When I began having serious doubts and misgivings about the religion, I couldn’t be honest about my struggles with anybody in the church, and that includes the Christian man I was married to at the time.
I already knew what expressions of doubt would evoke in my tribemates; we all had a ready store of easy talking-points and bumper-sticker slogans at hand that were supposed to work to quell those doubts, but all these had done so far was make my doubts worse as I began to realize that my religion had absolutely no credible or compelling evidence for itself, so these thought-stoppers were really all it had to offer people who had questions and doubts. They didn’t work for anybody who really wanted answers. So I had a slow, miserably lonely slog ahead of me as I figured stuff out for myself.
I was afraid that my loved ones would reject me if I expressed myself more authentically–and I was right to have that fear. I went through a nightmare when my then-husband finally realized I’d totally deconverted, and I’m not the only one who had an experience like that at the hands of “loving” Christians.
Once the news finally got out, though, I felt such a sense of relief: finally, the pretending was over. I was so exhausted from trying to keep up a facade that I couldn’t have kept it up another minute anyway. Though I had some stops and starts as I worked out how to proceed, I didn’t look back.
Living more authentically doesn’t mean that telling everybody I encounter everything that I’m thinking and doing. It means that I present myself as honestly as I can while maintaining my boundaries, and I try my best to live according to my ideals. I pick friends who can stand differences of opinion (voiced respectfully, of course), and I try not to get into situations where I have to be inauthentic or else face massive repercussions. I pick and choose my battles as wisely as I can; sometimes I have to “go along to get along,” but overall it works out. Please let me stress something here, however: this equilibrium wasn’t something I reached overnight. It took years to learn and it’s an ongoing process.
I know many of us are still reaching that point. Though I faced some awful repercussions after deconverting, I had it much easier in other areas; every ex-Christian’s situation is a bit different. Each of us must assess the risks of sharing our experiences and opinions with our families and loved ones, and it’s not anybody else’s call to judge or criticize how another person handles those perceived risks. The result of this complex emotional algebra is often nothing less than a survival mechanism, with each of us doing what we think we must to get through the situation with as little damage to both our lives and those of the people we love as we can possibly manage.
Sometimes a little less authenticity is the price we pay for that short-term survival. I wish people could be more compassionate toward those who are still paying that price and inching toward that point. They’re not doing it because it’s just so damned fun.
Looking back at everything that happened, I can see places where I could have handled things a lot better, sure. I was really reinventing the wheel in leaving Christianity–as far as I knew, I was the only one who’d ever left the religion! I’ve got no regrets though. I’m nothing but happy about deconverting, as painful as some of it was. I’m not sorry about growing out of the faith I grew up with–discarding it–rejecting it–whatever one wants to call that process. I am sorry that I tried as hard as I did to cling to something that just wasn’t working for me, but at least I figured things out in the end.
As I said, I’m stubborn. Some of us take a bit longer than others. I missed out on a lot, yes, but I’d like to think I’ve made up for lost time and then some. And I still hopefully have plenty of time left before it’s all over.
To those who are still struggling, and those who are about to begin their own private struggles, the fight is worth it. I wouldn’t go back to being Christian for all the tea in Queen Elizabeth’s pantry, even after all the terrible stuff I went through after deconverting, and I’ve never heard of anybody who felt otherwise! I support you completely as you work out how to leave religion in the safest, least traumatic way possible and encourage you to keep moving forward.**
I’m going to close by sharing with any new ex-Christians reading this post something that I once ached for someone to tell me–oh, half a lifetime ago:
You are not alone.
And you’re going to be okay.
* The funny thing is, every year is Christmas-without-Jesus. But a deconverted Christian often needs a bit of time to realize that.
** Here’s a link to some free reading over at Recovering from Religion with tips and ideas on handling some of the hassles that may come your way.
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