This might sound a bit strange to some people, but dreaming is not much of a thing for me. I don’t mean that I don’t dream, just that I almost never remember them, and they are not often vivid enough to affect me strongly when I do remember them.
But one night, not too long after I deconverted, I dreamed that I had lost my music.
As long as I can remember, music has been a significant part of my life. I have a number of relatives who are musically inclined, including my own mother, who is the person most responsible for starting my musical education on the old upright piano that resided in our living room. (I started really playing at around age four, but there are pictures of me sitting at that same piano when I was around 18 months old.)
My initial interest in the piano, coupled with some people coming into my life at just the right time, turned into an interest in the guitar and ultimately in songwriting. In high school, I played in a handful of bands – Christian bands, because that’s about all I could get away with (and to be honest, I was even sometimes skirting the line there a little bit with the bands I was in) – and started writing songs.
Although I mostly stopped playing in bands not long after I started college (and got married), I kept writing songs, which I would sometimes play in church or at occasional open mic or opening act gigs.
While it of course was not inevitable by virtue of being a Christian that I would write Christian songs, my experience with songwriting and with performing as a songwriter was almost inexorably tied to the idea of writing songs not merely as a vehicle for a narrative or as a method of expressing emotions but specifically as a way of witnessing and of glorifying God. After all, all I’d heard all my life in the context of music was that I needed to “use my talents for God,” and that basically always implied evangelism as the context.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t expressing my own feelings at the time. In the last “Christian song” I would write, entitled “Down in Flames,” I wrote lines like this:
I’m finding it hard to find
A reason to justify
Not changing this now
It’s now or never
Looking back now, it feels a little like I was trying a bit too hard to convince myself. But I was also entirely sincere; one of the few times I performed that song for an actual audience, it moved me to tears just because of what I was feeling when I wrote it – and that has virtually never happened to me.I wrote this song somewhere around 2010 (I think – my records and memories here are a bit shaky). Less than two years later, I found myself in a position where I no longer felt like I could sing those songs anymore. I had crossed a bridge, and the person who had written those songs – whose heart was in those songs – was back on the other side.
So I suppose it’s fitting that I would have essentially the musician’s equivalent of the classic final exam dream: I dreamed that I was getting ready to go onstage to perform solo, and I had no music. And the truth is that I really didn’t. I had sunk all my worth and efforts into a belief that I no longer held.
In many ways, what happened to me and my music is emblematic of what many people go through as they leave religion: The act of leaving behind that which we cannot carry across that bridge and of finding – and creating – new ways of fulfillment. When I left religion, I lost all of the music I had – and my primary social network, my core identity, my sense of purpose, the way that I could most easily relate to family and friends and strangers alike, and so much more. Over the past three years, I have had to build that all again.
Although I couldn’t have known it when I deconverted, that process has been an exceptionally pleasing one for me – painful at times, but ultimately a way for me to forge a path without so much hanging over my head. Today, I feel like I have a new song, proverbially speaking.
I’m still writing songs now – mostly for a band again – and while the pendulum hasn’t swung for me to the point where I’m predominantly writing explicitly atheist songs, my shift is perhaps best represented in the chorus of a song called “Faith in Me”:
When your hopes have all been broken,
Your prayers are spoken,
But there’s no one out there listening
I will still be next to you
To keep your head above the waves
When there’s nothing to believe in,
Your faith is leaving you
With nothing more than misery
I will hold you through it all
You can have faith in me
I have so many more songs left in me now, and now I feel free enough to let them out. My hope for every person leaving religion is that you find that song in you as well.