Recently The Atlantic featured an article entitled “The Health Effects of Leaving Religion.” The article discusses how, for the more devout, leaving your religion can negatively impact your life for years to come. When your entire life is built around your faith, leaving it means having to start over again, sometimes from scratch. You lose all your closest relationships, your hobbies, and some even lose their careers. The isolation and disorientation this produces can throw you for a loop for a long time. Some go through periods of depression and struggle with thoughts of suicide. Even the nicest people will say and do the meanest things to you because they’re convinced it’s “for your own good.” I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.
The article also points out that many find a new lease on life. It can be quite freeing to leave behind the self-loathing and self-deprecation which come with so many strains of religion. I’ve written before how the Christian faith in particular can teach you to hate yourself, leading some of us to put the needs of others above our own so compulsively that we lose ourselves even as we’re being praised for our selflessness. Untangling yourself from that kind of indoctrination can take a long time, and the process is littered with critics standing by to shake their heads, lamenting your fall from grace. What a disappointment you are to them. The article states:
…many who leave religion in America become isolated from their former communities, which can make them anxious, depressed, or even suicidal. Others feel liberated. No deconversion story is the same, but many who leave behind strongly-held religious beliefs can see an impact on their health.
The reality is that both extremes are often happening at the same time, to the same person, even. For me personally, learning to value life in a new way went hand-in-hand with losing the approval of those closest to me, so it’s a mixed bag.
When you are taught that faith is a virtue—indeed, even the most important virtue you can have because your eternal destiny is at stake—then losing that can be a heavy blow to your self-image and your self-esteem. I was taught my value as a man was determined by my ability to lead my family spiritually. Changing course on that one thing tarnished my value to “the kingdom of God” irrevocably, at least according to the tradition in which I grew up.
Something Good from Something Bad
But learning to see the preciousness of having only one life to live taught me to value my physical health in a way I never did as a devout Christian. In perhaps one of the only truly smart things I did in the process of my deconversion, I somehow figured out how to take all of the negative emotions I was experiencing as my religious worldview was crumbling around me and I redirected those into exercise and improved diet. Coupling my diminished sense of value with an already-present distaste for the poor state of my physical health at time, I began to focus my energy on learning how to eat better and how to exercise effectively in order to drop the excess weight I had accumulated over the previous decade of single-minded devotion to my religion. Over the course of a year or two I dropped about 60 lbs, gaining back at least another ten in lean muscle.
I have a hard time even looking at the old pictures because they hardly feel like me at all now. Mind you, I don’t really feel like my personality or even my core values changed much from my Christian days to my non-Christian ones. Many friends I’ve spoken with since then feel compelled to focus on the handful of social issues over which we now disagree (most of them stem from the Christian faith’s obsession with controlling sex), but I contend that the vast majority of character traits I valued then I still value now. But this particular thing did change. I learned to value my physical health because it enabled me to feel better about myself and to do more good, honestly. With better health, I’m more likely to stick around longer, and while I’m around I’ll have more strength and energy to tackle the problems life throws at me along the way. It’s a good thing, too, because after I deconverted, life threw some real doozies at me, some of which were because of my own mistakes and some simply stem from the polarizing nature of religious fundamentalism.
It started with a change in diet. As I deconverted I developed a voracious appetite for learning new things, including how to eat better. I gradually replaced Otis Spunkmeyer muffins with carrots, and Dr. Peppers with juice and water. Honestly, my choices weren’t always healthy because self-loathing was a major engine in my transformation. It’s easier to force yourself to eat sticks and leaves when you kinda hate yourself anyway. I’m not saying that’s the right motivation to have, I’m just telling you what kicked me into high gear. On my better days I succeeded in redirecting my displeasure toward the excess storage I was carrying around rather than allowing it to remain focused on myself and my failure to be a more spiritual man. I taught myself to hate fat cells instead of my own self, which can be a difficult distinction to make. In the end, I’m just glad I figured out a way to divert all that negative emotion into something productive, especially since I know so many other people who found far more destructive habits in their search to soothe their own inner demons. My biological father was an alcoholic. I became an exercise-aholic.
The exercise part of the equation started as slowly and as incrementally as did the diet. I started out by just walking every day, then jogging a little (a quarter mile, maybe), then a little more and a little more again until I was jogging about three miles. I’ve always enjoyed swimming, so I added that into the routine (it helped that I started coaching a swim team) and occasionally I worked in a trip to a weight room. Because my work obligations increased over time, I rarely ever have the freedom or time investment required to run in races. But I did get a chance to enter the Warrior Dash when it finally came to my state, and I had a blast, so I’ve done that three years in a row now.
Dropping the weight and gaining the strength and energy have significantly improved the way I feel. My life is very demanding, and I don’t think I could do it if I didn’t also work on staying in shape. It’s hard to have the emotional energy that life (and parenting!) demands without also putting some attention into your own personal health. On top of that, my leaving the faith has produced some potentially crippling angst due to strained and/or lost relationships, and I’ve found that remaining physically active and trying to eat well have helped keep the demons of depression at bay. Those I’ve turned to for help have often reminded me of the oxygen mask analogy in which you have to first make sure you have what you need so that you can remain able to take care of the needs of those who depend on you. There’s a balance there, and I never understood that as a Christian because no one really ever taught me to think that way. I was taught to idealize self-sacrifice and even self-negligence as an act of worship and love. I’ve come to see now how very imbalanced that was.
At this point someone always feels compelled to say “Not my Christianity!” and “But I’m a Christian and I love exercise!” Some inhabit traditions and social circles which maintain a better balance between spirituality and physical health. That’s great, and I’m glad to hear you found a healthier version of the Christian faith. But your more positive experience doesn’t negate the existence of the less healthy alternatives, and kindly do not try to dismiss stories like mine in order to feel better about your own. I realize you can be a committed Christian and still care about your physical condition. For me personally, those two devotions always competed with one another and I spent far too many years valuing one at the expense of the other.
What I See When I Look Around on Race Day
A couple of weekends ago I joined a couple of friends of mine in Texas to run in the Savage Race. The obstacles are bigger and tougher than the previous races (don’t get me started on the “Shriveled Richard” or the thing with the electrical wires shocking you as you crawl through them), but it was a lot of fun to run. We decided to take the opportunity to show our support for marriage equality by calling ourselves “TEAM NO H8,” which it seems instantly endeared us to a few observers of the race even if it did draw the occasional glare from others.
As a compulsive people watcher, events like this almost overload me with fun things to watch. People dress in costume and the diversity is pretty rich (at least racially, even if not socio-economically). You feel a contagious kind of energy at events like this, and I’d like to make a few observations.
- Here are a bunch of people who could have done anything with their Saturday morning, and they chose to spend it pushing their bodies to the limit, running, jumping, climbing and crawling through just about everything laid in front of them. It takes a certain kind of person to do that, and they tend to be fun people to be around.
- Evidently we “first world” people have reached the point where our lives are so free from real danger that we’ll pay money to pretend we’re in danger just to have something to get our heart rates up and feel more alive. This amuses me.
- Regardless of creed or ethnicity, at events like this you’ll see every kind of person helping out every other kind of person, pushing them over walls, pulling them up ropes, carrying them over obstacles, and picking them up when they fall down. It’s really beautiful to watch. On race day there are no Presbyterians, Catholics, Jainists or atheists, and racial differences seem completely foreign. You just don’t even think about what makes you different because you’re focused on the common challenges ahead of you. This, I love.
- There’s just something about pushing your physical strength and stamina to the limit that really makes you feel more awake and alive. I’m convinced we’ve arranged our lives in such a way that we disconnect from our own bodies, but things like this reconnect us with our physical selves, and there’s something really centering and grounding about such an activity.
I still consider myself relatively new to the atheist subculture (and yes, there is one). I’m still getting a feel for those things that dominate the consciousnesses of the secularist/freethought community. Just like any subculture, we’ve got our own celebrities, our own favorite memes, quips, and mantras, and our own favorite preoccupations. We love science and debunking myths and urban legends; we love logical argumentation, and Dr. Who; we tend to like Star Trek and/or Star Wars, hard rock/heavy metal, cosplay, sci-fi, and fantasy novels like Thrones and LOTR. The nerd is strong with these folks, and frankly I find them fun to be around as well. Many of us are non-conformists by nature, which would explain our willingness to overcome tremendous social pressure to ask the hard questions about the things we were taught to believe.
But we also tend to be a cerebral people. We live very much inside our heads, and we also spend a great deal of our time online. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Christians go to church; atheists go to the internet. We often don’t have locatable communities to join which celebrate our common values and goals (we’re working on that), but we do have an abundance of social media groups in which we spend a lot of our free time. The more I try to write, the more I get sucked into those communities myself because it’s a lifeline both for myself and for so many others stuck in isolated lives, far from any other kindred spirits. But I still value getting up and moving around. I’m telling you, it makes life easier. It makes sex better. And it just may make this one life we live last a little bit longer, and with fewer things breaking along the way.
So whatever your feelings about diet and exercise, allow me to encourage you to never quit trying either one. We tend to be pretty smart, critically thinking people. I find that turning that same intelligence and pointing it toward learning what makes for a healthy emotional and physical life really pays off. That being said, I still wouldn’t advise crawling through electrical wires just for fun.