Sometimes we get this idea that if we jump through enough hoops, read enough books, act just the right way, find just the right thing to say, that the people around us will suddenly become okay with something we’re doing that they don’t like. I’m not talking about something illegal or otherwise really iffy ethically; I’m talking about basic life decisions that simply might go against the grain. It can be really hard to fall out of step with the dance routine. And I’m here to say that we don’t have to go to huge lengths to justify ourselves to others.
Like most foibles, this one is not solely restricted to Christians. When I consciously decided not to ever have children, I couldn’t believe the pushback I got from my church friends and then-husband. Later on, I sought refuge in one of the few online clubhouses there were at the time for women like me, where I began noticing that people who’d made similar decisions were trying to buy the right to be childfree from a society that was still getting used to this alarming idea (it’s not nearly as alarming now, of course; some 20% of women hit their 40s without ever having kids–some involuntarily, yes, but many voluntarily–so we’re hardly a tiny minority). I’d hear these reasons over and over again:
“I give back to the community in X and Y ways.”
“I love my nieces and nephews and I’m the cool auntie/uncle.”
“I foster children/I’m a Big Brother or Sister/I teach kindergarten/I write children’s books.”
And you know what? That’s absolutely great, if someone wants to do any of those things. But I didn’t really have any excuse. I just didn’t want to be a parent. Whatever that thing is that makes someone want kids, it is not inside me. I recently described it thusly to a friend over lunch: “You know how some people really want a dog or a big truck and some people just don’t? That’s what it’s like.” I wasn’t trying to trivialize the decision to have children; I simply don’t possess that maternal spark, and it’s hard to describe what that’s like to someone who does possess it. I don’t hold a baby and think wistfully about having one of my own. I never really got into baby dolls, tea parties, or playing house as a kid–if someone wanted to push my thrill buttons, they’d give me Matchbox cars instead, or a toy gun or video games, or Breyer horses. (You can probably guess that my mom was totally unsurprised when she learned I wasn’t ever becoming a parent; thankfully, she was also totally supportive.) It’s not that I’m not nurturing–I consider it an honor and a joy to care for my family when they need me–but I’m just not a kid person. I have nieces and nephews, but I’m not a big part of their lives. I’d be the worst teacher or foster parent ever. I’ve written drafts of children’s books that some folks think are amazing and wish I’d shop around, but they’re not the normal whimsical playful stories I saw while working in libraries.
In other words, I didn’t have any way to purchase my childfree status from my peers’ disapproval.
At first that kind of bothered me. I couldn’t go through life being childfree without having purchased it… could I?
Eventually I came to an understanding.
Why yes, I absolutely could.
I didn’t need a virtuous reason to be childfree in other people’s eyes. Just not wanting children was enough. It was my life, not anybody else’s, and if that’s what I chose for that life, then that was coin enough to have purchased that decision. I didn’t need to justify to a single other person why I’d gone that route.
So I quit trying.
Later on I’d notice people purchasing their countercultural decisions in other ways. Back in the 1960s, an upper-middle-class white married woman had to purchase her right to work outside the home; she wasn’t just granted that right by her peers without considerable side-eye until they knew that she was doing it for a virtuous reason: her husband was out of work, maybe, or had died leaving her penniless. Once her peers knew she had a virtuous reason for working outside the home, then they’d be okay with it. As Laura Shapiro wrote in her book Something from the Oven, a survey in the 1950s revealed that women struggled to approve of their peers working if there didn’t seem to be a clear reason for it (p. 135), and that’s kind of how things went for decades. Even in my mother’s day, I heard how women in that class had to earn their right to work outside the house. Today that seems ludicrous–I’ve even heard women who choose to stay home get criticized for not having jobs–but things were a lot different just a few years ago.
And it’s downright heartbreaking to see fat people try to buy their right to take up space in various ways. I used to be fat myself and I remember doing the exact same thing without realizing it. I either never ate in public or I ate tiny, tiny portions of salad or other obviously-healthy food. I wore nondescript clothes that let me fade into the background. I lost out on a lot of fun experiences because I was afraid of what people would say if they saw a fat woman doing them–how ridiculous I’d look to them. Now I see fat people trying to buy their obesity by talking up how many diets they’ve tried (“and none of them worked”) or having gym memberships as a sort of “fat tax,” as comedian Christian Finnegan put it in one of his bits. And it’d be hard not to see the whole “Health at Every Size” movement as an attempt to purchase obesity by falsely claiming that obesity has no adverse health complications–which is about as much a non sequitur as Christian bigots’ claim that homosexuality is a choice to justify bigotry against gay folks. It’s like people can’t approve of a fat person taking up space unless that fat person demonstrates that there is some virtuous reason for him or her to be fat or by proving somehow that being fat isn’t unhealthy, like the rest of us can’t show basic respect and courtesy to that person unless we totally know everything about the situation first and know that person’s entire health situation. And that’s bullshit. (Seriously, people who fat-shame, please, please stop.)
In the same way, when folks leave religion sometimes there’s that impulse in us to demonstrate–to ultra-demonstrate, to go above and beyond to demonstrate–that we totally earned our right to have left. We talk about how we’re still wonderful people with morality and integrity. Maybe we stress how law-abiding we are or how much charity work we do. Maybe we make a point of demonstrating how much we read or researched or did before deconverting. Maybe we bend over backwards to demonstrate what wonderful TRUE CHRISTIANS™ we were back then. Maybe we feel compelled to listen to or read or watch every single apologetics work shoved into our hands by well-meaning friends and loved ones worried that somehow we missed that all-important apologetics contortion that’d magically make us un-know what we learned. I’ve even heard ex-Christians stress how many times they tried to pray or go to church to find that spark again. And all of this is okay if that’s what someone wants to do to make sure they’re making the right decision, or to normalize being an ex-believer. But when we’re jumping through hoops, we need to know: we’re not ever going to have done enough. That’s the point of the hoop.
Some of these hoops are held out by our own minds; many of them are held out by those still in the religion we left behind. If we don’t jump through them all, if we skip any or refuse to jump through even one of those hoops, then we fear being labeled over-hasty or worse, like one of those silly apostates who didn’t think things through in our rush to “just sin” (and you remember what that’s code for, right?).
We ache for the approval of our old friends, and of our families. That’s such a very human feeling to have, such a very universal motivation. We want them to nod and tell us that we did what was best for ourselves. We want them to understand.
This is a losing game, and more than that it’s specifically designed to be a losing game.
Sometimes we’ll hit the jackpot and hear those magic words. But more often there isn’t a single thing we could do or read or say or demonstrate to “prove” to our still-Christian friends and family that we did the right thing. We’re never going to be able to purchase our apostasy. There’ll always be a way to blame us or to shame us for having left that religion. I strongly suspect that those still in the religion know very well about that deep human need for consensus and approval–and hint that maybe ex-Christians could maybe get that consensus and approval if they do X and Y and Z and AB and the rest. But if we do all that, most often we’ll find ourselves standing in a muddy field wondering why that effort still wasn’t enough to prove to them that our reasons were virtuous.
Part of the problem, of course, is that if our reasons turn out to be virtuous then a lot of modern Christian dogma–especially on the evangelical side of the table–has to change to take into account that something was wrong with its message or methodology. If someone leaves Christianity, then either something was wrong with it, or something was wrong with that person. If “the system works, if you work the system,” as one hears in multi-level marketing rah-rah, then if the system fails to work then obviously the person didn’t work the system correctly. Either something was seriously misunderstood, or something wasn’t done often or fervently enough, or something. The crowd still in the system is going to find some way to blame those who left because to do anything else would be to admit that the system itself is neither failsafe nor foolproof. It is perfect. Idolized, even. Therefore, anybody failing to stay with it must be imperfect by definition.
Another part of the problem lies in the interpersonal dynamic being set up by these well-meaning friends. They want to put themselves over you–to see themselves as superior, and you inferior. Inferiors do not make unreasonable demands of superiors, do they? Equals don’t do that either to each other. But superiors do feel free to make unreasonable demands of inferiors. If you buy into it and jump through the hoops they’re holding out, you’re affirming that dynamic that many Christians hold: that they are the world’s Designated Adults and parent figures, there to teach, preach, change and fix all those broken inferior subhumans and children around themselves. As long as you refuse to fall back into line, you are inferior. But by then refusing to jump through those hoops, you shake up the dynamic–and every measure possible is going to be employed to protect it and get it back into operation.
So don’t hold your breath waiting for that approval.
I have a friend who had a still-Christian friend and pastor dump hundreds of pages of apologetics reading on him just in case he hadn’t heard the arguments contained therein during his time in deep study of the Bible and apologetics. The implication was that if an ex-Christian didn’t read all that stuff, then he hadn’t purchased his apostasy from his friend yet. He hadn’t earned the right to leave the religion if he hadn’t “done all the research.”
My reaction at the time was a rather blunt expletive wondering whether my friend had been asked to do all that research to get into that group. No, obviously, he hadn’t had to do a lick of research to join up. Very few Christian denominations require anything more than a statement of desire or a quick dunk. Like most scams and con games, it’s incredibly easy to fall into almost every single form of Christianity there is. But now my friend was being asked to read hundreds of pages of seminary-level apologetics books to earn his right to leave without hassle. More importantly, his pastor friend was completely oblivious to how insulting and degrading this request was to a person who’d long demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of Christianity.
I don’t think the pastor here wanted to be insulting or degrading. He probably genuinely thought that there was something in all those books he threw like spaghetti at my ex-Christian friend that might totally change everything; that kind of 180 is a cherished part of Christian folklore, and his culture teaches that those who leave are just silly bunnies who didn’t understand something or “just wanted to sin.” He knew that my friend wasn’t one of those sorts who “just wanted to sin,” so obviously the problem lay in the other direction. But by implying that if my friend read all that stuff that he’d be let off the hook, he was not being honest.
Had my friend actually read all that stuff and remained unconvinced of Christianity’s claims, he certainly wouldn’t have been let off the hook then. None of us are. He’d have been accused of having been close-minded or hard-hearted, or else some other way I can’t even imagine right off the top of my head would have been found to keep him short of enough coin to purchase his apostasy.
It’s okay for us to call out this behavior when we see it, and to give ourselves and our peers permission to be ex-Christians or whatever else they’re trying to purchase.
As the saying goes, the people who love us will love us no matter what we do, and the ones who don’t aren’t folks whose opinions we should cherish anyway.
You don’t need an excuse to be childfree. You don’t have to buy your right to take up space in public or to be treated with courtesy and dignity. You don’t have to feel compelled to “do all the research” if you think you’ve done jolly well enough thankyewverymuch. People who’d demand that you have an excuse, or that you buy your right to take up space, or do more research than has already satisfied you regarding a claim, are people trying to maintain a cherished but challenged belief in the face of an unpleasant awakening. They’re not talking to you; they’re talking to their own preconceptions, to their idea of the proper order of things, to their idea how where you fit into their world: to the ghosts in their own heads.
And you don’t have to battle ghosts.
The one reason you don’t need to purchase your disbelief is that you are under no obligation to be the Jackass Whisperer and find that magical combination of words and deeds that will convince everybody judging you that you did or are doing the right thing.
Nobody will ever look out for you as well as you can. If you don’t step up to the plate and do it, you can’t count on anybody else to do it for you. Trust yourself to know what’s best for your life–and feel free to distrust the motivations of people wanting you to battle the ghosts in their head by demanding that you try and try and try (and fail) to purchase your life decisions from their disapproval. Some folks will only withdraw their disapproval by your full reconversion, so if you’re not willing or able to do that, then you’re never going to have enough coin (meaning: you will never do enough, read enough, or watch enough) to make that purchase.
You’re allowed to refuse even to begin playing that game.