It’s Christmastime and for former believers like myself that can only mean one thing: Everybody and their grandmother will be asking me to come with them to church. Which is to say it’s just a normal week for many of us. Those of us who live in highly religious areas are accustomed to this. Invitations to church for some of us can be like the steady background noise of our lives which we learn to tune out, like the sound of a power tool in the next-door-neighbor’s garage. But the frequency of solicitations always picks up around this time of year.
I get this less often than I used to before I “came out” as an atheist. The invitations dropped off a while back once friends and family began to accept that this isn’t just “a doubting phase” for me, rather it is a new norm. I no longer believe in magic, or ghosts, or spirits, or coming back from the dead, or any of the other stuff that comes with supernatural religious claims. It was a hard thing for them to accept, but in time it became clear that this perspective isn’t going away any time soon, and it can’t simply be willed away. Negative social consequences don’t necessarily change what you believe is real and what is not.
But people who love me still try from time to time. “Please go talk to this one guy, I think he has some things to say that might interest you.” “Would you just please go see this one movie? It’s a wonderful film and it’s very powerful.” “Couldn’t you just come to church for this one thing? It’s a special occasion and it would mean so much to us if you would come!” I’ve been asked before what I think about these solicitations and in the past my response has been to weigh a number of factors: How close to me is the person who’s asking? How often does this thing happen? How much will it matter to them if I decline? How much will it upset me if I do go?
That last point requires a bit more explanation, because I failed to mention that for some formerly devout people, church and churchy talk can actually be triggers for some very negative emotions. I don’t think our friends and family understand this, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. For them, this stuff is all wonderful. It thrills them and they can’t understand why others wouldn’t have the same reactions to songs about Jesus, about sin, about going to heaven and about getting saved from Hell. It seldom occurs to them that the very same songs, turns of phrase, and even mannerisms which feel so right to them can feel so wrong to someone else, especially someone to whom they are closely related.
How can the same sights and sounds make one family member feel so good and repulse another at the same time? I know what I would have said back when I was still a Christian. I would have reverted to quotation mode and would cite Second Corinthians where it says that the Christian message and its messengers are the smell of life to some and the smell of death to others. That was Paul’s explanation for why the same conversation can draw some and repel others. Jesus would say you have to have “ears to hear.” Well, I’ve had them before and now I don’t. I’ve been on the inside and now I’ve also been out the outside. Speaking for myself and for many of my friends who were once devout and now are not, I’ve got an alternative perspective to offer. Take it or leave it.
WHY CHRISTIANITY CAN BE A TRIGGER
There are a number of reasons why phrases, objects, songs, even intonations can set off an unpleasant reaction in a former Christian. If you’ve never been anything other than a Christian, and if your experience of the faith has been nothing but positive from start to finish, it may never occur to you that others have much more negative associations with the things you cherish. Here are a few reasons why they feel the way they do.
1. They may have suffered emotional or even physical abuse at the hands of religious people. Just because your experience was happy and supportive doesn’t mean everyone has had the same experience. Some church traditions are very harsh, magnifying guilt, shame, and fear beyond anything with which you would be comfortable. Some substrains of the Christian faith major on condemnation, hellfire and brimstone. Not too long ago, a friend wrote me to say:
I was raised a fundamentalist, I took my faith very seriously, and I took it so seriously that eventually it all just disappeared. It couldn’t handle the contrary evidence, and eventually it just fell away. For three years after, I led a very happy life as an atheist, and didn’t give religion or theism a second thought until about 7 months ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a terrifying fear of hell. After a brief spat of trying to be a christian again, I realized once again that christian belief seemed both historically, philosophically, and scientifically unfounded, and I’m finally getting to the point where touching hot water or looking at a fire no longer sends me into a frenzy of imagining my whole body will be engulfed in flames for all eternity. However, I’m still tremendously saddened by core christian beliefs, and I feel so hurt that my life has been turned into a sort of high-stakes gamble for no apparent reason. I want to live my life freely, but it’s quite a challenge when every steeple serves as a reminder that most people in my country believe I’m going to be tortured for eternity, and when christian apologists are trolling the sites that I look to for help, making a very sophisticated case for how god is love – but that I’m still going to hell.
My friend’s visceral reaction to Christian symbolism isn’t uncommon, especially among those raised in the harsh severity of fundamentalism. A former colleague of mine used to tell me stories of how her father would wake her up in the middle of the night to preach to her, pleading with her to pray against the devil for her soul. He would punish her severely for wearing clothes that showed her calves, and he drilled into her a strong fear of demons and hell and worldly music. He spared not the rod, as they say. Needless to say, there came a day when she realized that she had been abused both emotionally and physically, and that her father’s harsh theology did not excuse his harsh behavior. People can control how they act toward each other, because character trumps theology in the end. She eventually walked away from the religion of her youth because it gave her nothing but flashbacks and nightmares.
2. Thinking your way out of your religion can be traumatic in itself, and that can leave you with some negative associations. Some of us didn’t have abusive experiences. Some of us had fairly positive Christian experiences, and many of us grew up in traditions which emphasized grace over law, relationship over religion. But that didn’t stop us from asking questions, and eventually those questions led us out of our faith. For most of us, that trip out was a slow and arduous one. Those of us who were the most invested in our faith had to wrestle with our questions for years, and along the way we still encountered the subtle (or not so subtle) guilting that’s built into the Christian tradition as a defense mechanism to keep people inside the fold.
One of the ways the Christian tradition keeps people in is by responding to honest questions and doubts by shaming the people who have them. Doubts are seen as a bad thing, a weakness to overcome with God’s help. They tell you hard questions are fine to have, in theory, but at some point you must either find answers which reinforce the faith or else learn to put the questions aside because what’s wrong with you, anyway? Why can’t you just have faith? Down we go under condemnation for not being as trusting as others toward the things which cannot be proved to our own satisfaction. How dare we ask for some kind of evidence! “Blessed are you who, having never seen, still believe.”
Imagine living under that for years. Then imagine eventually deciding you no longer believe, and yet you still go to church…for years. Have you ever considered what that would be like? Week after week, maybe even several times a week, dressing up and filing into a church to listen to people talk about things you don’t think are real, but watching everyone else have strongly positive emotional reactions to them as if they are? Can you imagine being surrounded by that all the time? It’s a lot to take. And somewhere along the way you might even get up the nerve to openly admit to them that you no longer believe those things anymore and guess what happens next?
The nicest people can still have the hardest time processing that someone they love no longer believes. It grieves them, it worries them, and it can keep them up nights. Even if the ones worrying try to mask it, the ones leaving the faith can tell that their departure hurts the ones they love, and that’s very upsetting. But you can’t do anything about it! Seeing how it upsets them doesn’t make the root issues go away, so all you can do us just try to assure them that you’re not becoming a different person and you’re not becoming possessed by evil spirits or whatever. But then you can see their perception of you change. It’s painful to watch. Your jokes used to be funny to them but now the same jokes are offensive because you’re on the outside. You’ve lost your right to speak about a whole host of things. You’re out of the club now.
This can get really old. It can get old having friends and family try to coax and cajole you back into faith when all you want is to be accepted as you are. They want something about you to change before they can relax around you and that is upsetting. It can leave sore spots on your own memory which make you recoil when they’re touched again. We accumulate baggage on our way out of the faith, and people don’t seem to get that. They can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to come and listen to all the messages recited again which we spent so many years dismantling amidst an atmosphere of guilt and shame.
3. Even those without negative memories will be repulsed by talk of crucifixion, deserving flames, and listening to stories that strain credibility. Non-believers get worn out by the constant presumption that everyone should belong to same religion, but imagine how much more irritating it can be for people who used to believe those things but no longer do. Having to listen to the theology rehearsed all over again as if these things were complete certainties can be very taxing on a person’s patience.
No, I don’t want to sit and listen to someone tell me that I deserve to be burned alive forever. I don’t want them telling me that I’m so broken and weak that I need to be saved from myself, or from the bogeyman. It doesn’t really matter how pretty the music is while it’s being said. The message is still there, and it triggers all kinds of negative responses from people who don’t buy the story. You’ve probably never heard the Christian message with non-Christian ears before but it’s a very negative message. Sure, I know you’ve been taught to pitch it as “good news.” But I don’t consider it good news that the way I am is broken, or wrong, or sinful, or weak, or incomplete. People who left that world don’t care to immerse themselves back into it, especially if their departure from it is still fresh in any way. Which leads me to one final point…
In time we might get over it. We might. Given enough time and distance from the sources of our previous indoctrination, some of us might be able to walk back into a church or a service of some kind without getting queasy, or tense, or having flashbacks to difficult times in our lives. Those of us who had the easiest time leaving our faith have the easiest time being around it again without getting affected by it. But some of us were highly invested, and leaving it brought significant pain and loss. You might chalk that up to the Holy Spirit but I would argue that if it was, he sure knows how to drive people away. Baggage like that can take a long time to unpack and put away.
You wish we could just enjoy what you enjoy, and I can sympathize with that. It’s frustrating, I know. It sucks to have something that’s so special to you, that has been such a source of joy in your life, and not be able to share it with someone that you love. I get it. But this is a part of who we are, and loving us means learning to handle this with grace and respect for our own personal agency. Give us the room we need and don’t smother us. What seems so attractive and desirable to you might be just the opposite for us, so take that into consideration before you ask us to come with you to church. For some of us, Christianity is a trigger.