In Watership Down the rabbits allude to it, how too much fear can sometimes make a rabbit lay inert. I’ve heard shepherds say that too–that a sheep that is terrorized too much by a predator will sometimes just “lay down,” and there quietly wait for death.
I know what that’s like. I’ve felt that kind of fear, and I couldn’t move on from Christianity till it had finally been burned out of me.
You see, the “wonder-working power” of Jesus had left me with a crippling case of anxiety as part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some interesting stuff happens neurologically with PTSD–it’s like the sufferer’s brain gets completely rewired. Those affected often become hypervigiliant, meaning that they notice potentially threatening cues a lot more easily and quickly than other people do–and they’ll interpret those cues as way more threatening than others would.
In the absence of actual dangers, a PTSD-affected mind will often just create dangers to fear. A slightly-faster heartbeat becomes chest pain and a possible heart attack. A slight creak in the floorboards at night becomes an intruder bent on mayhem. Years after escaping religion and getting therapy for PTSD, sometimes I find myself laying in bed waiting for the inevitable crushing fist of pain in my chest, or quaking in fear of who might be in the next room over.
And like countless other PTSD sufferers, I find myself figuring out how to practically assess dangers. I’m good at taking my pulse and I know that an anxiety attack may feel like a real danger, but if my pulse feels normal then I’m fine. I look to the cats sleeping on my bed–if they seem perfectly content, then there can’t be strangers in my house because they freak out whenever anybody comes through the door (you can guess I am not amused by their habit of staring at walls or dark corners). I’ll never be totally over PTSD, but I’ve learned to mitigate its imaginary terrors by applying real-world common sense measures to objectively assess possible threats.
In religion, that’s not really possible. There really aren’t any practical ways to assess danger when dread overtakes people. It’s all based on stuff that can’t be demonstrated at all, so escaping fear is much more difficult. I tried, indeed, to comfort myself with various Bible verses advising that fear shouldn’t be part of a Christian’s emotional landscape, and I tried to tell myself that if I was afraid, then obviously I was doing something wrong because I shouldn’t be afraid. But these admonitions did not ever suffice for me because at its heart, my religion was based on several big fears.
I don’t think those measures suffice for a lot of folks trapped in religion, either.
Years after leaving Christianity, I’m largely free of that fear now, but it took a lot of time and effort and self-education. I haven’t had an actual panic attack for years, but I sometimes feel the other symptoms of a minor bout of it. Or perhaps someone close to me will mention that I seem particularly irritable lately or remark on how poorly I seem to be sleeping, and that’s my cue to get back on track with rest, good diet, exercise, and calming activities; I also disconnect from the internet and take time out to sew or read for a while. All of these measures involve getting back in touch with the real world. It’s a sort of three-fingered reset for the spirit.
You can’t do that with religion; nothing about theology or doctrine connects with the real world in any meaningful way. That’s the whole point of it being theology and doctrine. If it connected to the real world, it’d be some branch of science. Meditation can have a calming effect on the mind, yes, but when connected to a religion that preaches an eternal punishment for a finite lifetime’s decisions and conclusions, I don’t see how it helps. It sure didn’t help me.
One night, after years of seeing demons around every corner and being terrified of being “left behind” in the Rapture, I lay in bed after a particularly momentous Bible study. I’d been studying prayer, you see, and figuring out if what my religion as a whole taught about prayer matched up with what the Bible said and what reality actually delivered. I’d discovered that it matched up pretty well with the Bible, sure, but not at all with reality. I was now facing the difficult choice of going with reality or drilling down on my religious faith.
I was so scared. Like most Christians, I was egocentric enough to believe that life or death hung in the balance here and that my decision was huge, urgent, and important (pro-tip: Very few decisions really are any of these; watch out for people who tell you otherwise because they’re likely trying to sell you something). I was running through in my mind all the “miracles” I’d heard of and all the “divine blessings” I’d been told about–and the ones I thought I’d experienced. I was beginning to see them as hollow–as either coincidences or as the results of effort on someone’s part, hardly divine in any way, and thank goodness for that considering the many people who needed miracles more than I ever had. But Hell has a way of seizing the mind, and I felt utterly paralyzed with terror.You see, I was dancing on the edge–teetering, really, windmilling my arms over it–of deconversion. There was no point after that where I could even halfway pretend there was nothing to fear. If I left Christianity, I was going to Hell. It was that simple. That’s why the fear had hit such a fever pitch in me. Before, I could soothe myself somewhat with mantras and talking points. I could pretend that I’d just misunderstood something or that I was doing something wrong. But if I left Christianity, that pretense was gone. Shot. There was nothing past it. It would be years before I even realized that this exact situation was what Christian leaders wanted to make so scary. If the fear is strong enough, then doubting Christians might recover their balance and back away from that edge; they might drill down on their beliefs and come out of the experience possibly even stronger and more stubborn–and more afraid in the end. But sometimes that tactic backfires and produces a fear so strong that it burns itself out by its own sheer heat. That’s what had happened to me: I’d become so afraid that I’d completely exhausted myself. I’d wept every tear I had; I’d cried aloud all night long for help that never came. I was empty.
Like the rabbits, like the ewes being chased by predators, I’d finally “lay down.” I remember how fast I breathed and how cold my skin was in the warm night air.
Then suddenly, just like that, I ran out of energy to fear.
I’m serious. I felt it burn out of me like a candle finally sucking up all the last of its wax. The flame of my terror whittered and sputtered and then died away.
Whatever happened, was going to happen. I just had no more energy at all for fear.
And I could confront the cold reality in that darkness: I no longer believed in Hell, or in the Rapture, or in the Judgment, or in any of the rest of it either.
If anything in Christianity was real, then I could do nothing about it. I didn’t believe in its claims anymore. I ran over all the reasons to believe that there was a literal Hell or a literal Rapture or a literal Judgment, and saw nothing there worth spending my time on anymore. I’d spent literally years of my life not only terrified of these threats for myself, but terrified that my loved ones would face them. That fear had made me do so many stupid things; it’d brought about so many stupid decisions. Fear had made me ignore the facts and do a lot of things that were working way against my best interest.
And now I simply had no more fear to give this idea. I could be really profane here, but why? It was simply an end to fear. Even today I feel exhausted just remembering it. I have no emotional room to grant it anymore.
I don’t know how to tell someone else how to hit the wall like I did. Sometimes the fear just has to putter itself out. I think education helps a lot–the more one learns about the history of Hell and that other stuff, the less likely it all sounds as real-world threats. There is literally no way I can be afraid of Hell now; I know exactly where it came from, and I know there is no way it can exist–especially not in a cosmology headed by a good deity, which is why we’re seeing more and more Christians reject the very idea of Hell. (Indeed, one doesn’t have to reject all of the religion to reject the threats it makes. I did, but nobody has to do things exactly the way I do them.)
Further, I know that thousands of other cultures have their own afterlife ideas, many strikingly different from the Christian conceptualization of it, and that they cannot all be right (but they all can be wrong!). The other threats Christianity makes fall along very similar lines. There’s no more energy in me to find fear in myself anymore.
Some people spend years afraid of this stuff. I know. I’ve got nothing but sympathy. I wish I could help. If the fear lasts too long, or it cripples one’s life or causes serious disturbances, I suggest professional help (RR has a page to help you find a secular counselor, and can likely send you information if you call their hotline; they’re lovely folks).
Remember, Christianity has had 2000 years to hone its terrorizing message, and it is very good indeed at producing fear in people. When you stand up against that attempt to terrorize, what you’re really doing is standing up against 2000 years of concerted manipulation and deliberate fearmongering. Maybe some of the people fanning the flames of fear were doing it for a good cause. Maybe. But the results are the same: millions upon millions of people terrified of various threats in the religion and for no good reason whatsoever. It’s really hard to shake a fear we learned in early childhood, and one that surrounds us in our culture every single day.
When we stand against that, the people who do feel that fear are going to take it as a personal insult and challenge. They’re going to want us to feel that fear again, and they’re going to take whatever measures they think necessary to get us afraid again of the things they fear. Or they won’t believe that we simply don’t fear the things they fear anymore. But stand we must.
When you’re finally free of that fear, you’ll look back and wonder how you spent so long afraid. It’ll all seem so childish and so small, like listening to kids explaining why they’re utterly terrified of monsters under the bed.
When that day comes, be as gentle as you can to those who are still afraid.
And I’ll tell you one more thing: when I realized my fear was totally burned away, I didn’t feel poured out anymore. I was exhausted, but now I quivered in anticipation of whatever was to come next. I could tell that I would soon be filled by something new, and though I did not yet know what it was, I knew it was coming. Courage flickered very softly inside me–still rosy-pink and new like the dawn, but it would only grow.
That was my last night as a Christian, and the beginning of my new life.
There may be a lot of folks reading my words who still fear and don’t know how to rid themselves of it, or who don’t know if they will ever be free of it. You will. Keep doing your best. Learn what you can and educate yourself. Test your ideas to see if they’re true. Seek help if you need it. Fear passes, but you’ll remain when it’s gone.