After God, Then What?

After God, Then What? August 1, 2017

going on a journeyThis summer I’ve been trying to work my way through outlining a book I’ve been wanting to write for several years now, but didn’t feel ready to begin. The biggest holdup, I think, was that I wasn’t sure which of two or three directions I wanted to go with the book. Truth be told, I probably have at least three or four books in me trying to get out. But for now, I’d prefer to start with the one that matters the most to me.

At first I thought it would be relatively objective—less about me personally and more about the issues surrounding religion—laying out as concisely and systematically as possible why I no longer accept the Christian belief system as my own. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s not the book I need to write first. What I really need to start with is more of a memoir that tells my own story.

There’s so much I’ve never told, and it’s all relevant to understanding my journey out of the Christian faith. More to the point, I think it would help the most people identify with what I have to say if I go ahead and, as Ernest Hemingway Red Smith once said, just “open up a vein and bleed” onto the page. The more of my soul I bare, so to speak, the more help it will be to people looking for assurance that they are not alone.

This has stirred up quite a lot of emotion for me. See, the last couple of years of my life have been rather gut-wrenching. Maybe not quite as crushing as the year I realized I could no longer hold my family together as an intact unit, but at times it’s been close. Writing a memoir that covers both of those periods has already taken its toll before I’ve even completed a single section of the book.

I’ll press on through, don’t worry. And I’m doing what I can to maintain the kinds of self-care it takes to do this kind of internal digging. But it’s been a real challenge.

Becoming Human

Atheism for Dummies author Dale McGowan once said that “Atheism is the first step. Humanism is the thousand steps that follow.” I totally agree, especially now that I’ve seen how little it does to determine who a person becomes merely to disbelieve in gods. Atheism is just the beginning. It’s only an answer to one single question: Do you believe in any gods? Speaking for myself, I’m far more interested in where you take things from there.

As a developing humanist, my personal goals revolve around learning what it means to become increasingly, well…human. That may sound weird but, let me assure you, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds.

I was taught that being human is an undesirable thing. The word itself is used so negatively in my culture that it’s become synonymous with brokenness, weakness, and at times even wickedness. It would seem the Christian faith views humanity as a sickness that needs to be cured, and my surrounding culture is permeated with this way of thinking.

But I no longer agree with this view. Yes, I will agree that the history of the human race is full of dastardly deeds, bloodshed, and scandal. But history works the same way the evening news does—it almost exclusively notices the worst things we do, and seldom notices how routinely people do what is good and right in their day-to-day lives. That’s really unfortunate, because it skews our image of ourselves in ways that undermine our noblest dreams and aspirations.

In particular what I’ve struggled to accept is that the Christian view of “the self” left me with an unhealthy disapproval of myself that has led me to make poor choices, devaluing myself and others in ways I never should have. I was taught that self-love is a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs. In fact where I come from, putting the prefix “self-” in front of anything is a shorthand way of saying something is very, very wrong.

Self-love, according to the world in which I was raised, isn’t just one flaw among many we possess. In my world, love of self is the essence of all that is wrong with humanity. It’s not just a sin, it is the sin. It’s the root of it all, the original sin going all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

This is all very convenient in the hands of a belief system prepared to sell you a solution to your woes, but let’s not get sidetracked by that discussion right this minute.

The Greatest Love of All?

After deciding to my own satisfaction that the religion of my youth no longer deserves my credence, the next task before me is to learn, at long last, to fall in love with myself.

Do you have any idea how it irritates my fingers to type that sentence? I mean I can almost hear someone cranking up that punchline-of-a-song by Whitney Houston, and I can see Stuart Smalley turning to look at himself in the mirror to recite his daily affirmations…

And yet. I’ve been around the block a time or two, and I’m telling you there’s something to this. In fact, it seems like everyone who is further along than I am already takes this for granted. It’s elementary stuff for them. Nevertheless, here I am, at what feels like Square One, trying to figure out something so basic as accepting myself for who I am and learning to build on that a life that benefits others in ways that are truly healthy.

Failing to love myself has caused me to hurt others. I am learning through painful experience that trying to relate to others out of a sense of insecurity and insufficiency is a recipe for disaster. It turns out, in spite of my reluctance to accept the truth of it, that knowing myself better is fundamental to being able to know and love others in a way that benefits them more than it hurts them.

I wish I had understood this sooner.

But I can’t undo the past. I can only take ownership of the pain I’ve caused other people and then resolve to do better from this point forward. I will not let the guilt of causing them pain overwhelm me (anymore). Instead, I will take the next step and the next, resolving to do better from this point forward.

I wouldn’t say that learning to love yourself is “the greatest love of all,” but I would have to say that it’s an essential step to being able to really love other people well. Because no one can give to others what they don’t have themselves.

What I’m trying to say is that in the process of mapping out my journey out of my faith, I’ve come to see that it’s an indispensable part of the story to include this struggle with learning to accept myself as a person worth loving.

The Department of Interior

Before you set out on this journey of self-discovery, you have no way of knowing what it is that you don’t know. It’s like a vast frontier you’ve never explored before, only this expanse exists inside yourself. Once you start the journey in earnest, you will quickly discover that you have a whole community of people living inside of you. So many voices that make up your internal thought processes, like a committee of people who push and pull to get their own way in every decision you make.

The loudest of them all, at least for me, is my Inner Critic. Let me tell you, I have one amazingly articulate and ruthless Inner Critic. This guy is winsome. He is inventive. He is resourceful, he is resolute, and he knows every detail of my life and will summon whichever parts will do the most damage to my sense of self-worth because, for some reason, he seems determined to tear me down until I’m barely able to move.

It’s like having your own personal prosecuting attorney following you around all the time, reminding you of all your faults (and then making up several new ones that aren’t even true) except he or she is imperceptible to everyone else but you. Until you open your mouth, that is, and tell others what you’re thinking. At that point, the people who love you the most will speak up and push back against this destructive inner tyrant, because that’s what they are there for.

I have a hunch this guy exists for a reason, and maybe it traces back to the forces of evolution. I suspect there is some function this inner adversary serves which is useful for our own survival. Maybe having a voice inside us holding our feet to the fire pushes us to do better, to be better. It’s like having an internal coach egging you on to reach for your greatest potential…only he does it entirely by reminding you of all your shortcomings, I suppose in order to motivate you.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t really work for someone like me. If I feel worse about myself, I only shut down and decide to do nothing at all. My Inner Critic is a primarily destructive force rather than a constructive one.

But there’s another friend inside there whom I’ve neglected for years, decades even. I think I’ve also had an Inner Cheerleader who remembers the good things I did, and is poised and ready to remind me of what I am—of what I am capable of accomplishing—if only I’ll feed that voice as much as I do its counterpart.

I’ve come to realize I have ignored this internal voice for so long I’ve learned to tune him out entirely. It’s like I’ve turned down the volume on him until he’s barely a perceptible bit of white noise behind the bellicose pontificating of my Inner Critic. As self-immolating as this compulsion may be, the reasons behind it seem clear as day in retrospect.

A Personal Discovery

I think our brains have been wired by our evolution to listen to our Inner Critic more than our encouraging, helpful internal voices because there is something beneficial to our raw survival in it. It makes sense to me that the harsher voice is there to push us and keep us from succumbing to forces in the world that want to truly destroy us (because let’s face it, the world isn’t designed by anybody for our personal benefit). He is actually there to help us stay alive.

But one of those exploitative forces in the world has learned to co-opt that Inner Critic for its own benefit, and that force is religion. In the hands of evangelical Christianity, my Inner Critic grew to become an incredible hulk. He’s a virtually unstoppable anti-hero who beats me to a pulp every day without any means of building me back up again because that’s not really his job.

His job is to make me feel worse about myself, presumably to motivate me to do better. In the hands of the church, he becomes an accuser meant to drive us back to our knees asking for forgiveness and help from God, whom they stand ready to represent in your life, telling you exactly what you should do next in order to be redeemed. It’s purely incidental, I’m sure, that at some point money will be asked for as well. But I digress.

Your Inner Critic’s favorite thing to remind you of is that the only consistent factor in all of your problems…is you.

And he’s right. Looking back through a number of damaged or ended relationships in my life, I can see all the places where I am the one who sabotaged my own life and the lives of others. Each of those relationships and people were different from one another, and they each went south for various reasons, but the one consistent factor in all of those relationships was me.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a difficult time accepting that. My Inner Critic is too persuasive. I have fed him for decades.

But it finally dawned on me recently that it’s also true that the only consistent factor in all of my successes is me, too. I mean, think about it. Sure, I can point to external things and people that contributed to my successes in life. I have no trouble crediting them for what they’ve done for me over the years to enable me to reach my own goals at various points in my life. But I was a part of that equation as well, and I don’t know that I’ve ever allowed myself to truly acknowledge that. It’s like I’ve had a mental block over that detail for as long as I can recall.

The net effect of this favoritism is that I’ve allowed my Inner Critic to convince me I am a terrible, unworthy person. Looking back over my life at times I can see little else but a pile of mistakes and shortfalls where I failed to live up to my own goals and to the expectations of others.

But that’s not fair, and it’s not true. It’s not an accurate picture of who I am or of what I have done with my life. My life is more than just a series of repetitive mistakes made by me. I have also done some incredibly brave, deliberately self-sacrificing things (see? even now I can’t get away from valuing that as the cardinal virtue in life). I have contributed to the lives of others so many times, and yet I can hardly allow myself to acknowledge any of it.

This is not a healthy way to live. And it’s high time I learned to feed that other voice—the one whose job isn’t just to help me survive but to thrive.

Feeding the Other Dog

Nature seems to have empowered my Inner Critic with a stronger voice because his job is so central to the processes of natural selection. Something has to kick you into high gear to keep you from falling behind in life. But experience is also showing me that if I’m ever going to really get to a healthy place in my relationships with myself and with others, I’m going to have to learn to turn down the volume of my fault-finding frenemy and learn to encourage the other guy to do the talking for a while.

Anyone who grew up in evangelical circles knows the worn out image of the two dogs representing the spirit and the flesh:

A man owned two dogs that were always fighting each other. One day a friend asked the man, “Which dog usually wins the fight?” The man answered, “The dog I feed the most.”

I think the inner voices work the same way. Whether I realized it or not, I’ve been feeding the angry critical voice for my whole life, thanks to a confluence of evangelical theology and my own peculiar self-negating psychology. It now falls to me to take responsibility for the imbalance inside myself and to learn to feed the other voice, the one whose job is to remind me that I’m not a total screw-up, and that more often than not I spend my energies trying to do what I think is right.

The honest truth is that I have a lot of redeeming qualities on which to build a rewarding life that benefits not just me but everyone else who comes in contact with me. But I can hardly even write those words. It almost hurts, like my fingers resist moving over the keys. Saying it out loud may very well break my jaw.

But that’s what tells me I need to do better about this. It’s my next step in this journey out of my religion. It’s the answer to the question: “Now that the God phase is done, what’s next? Where do I go from here?” My next challenge is to learn to value who I am to the point that my own insecurities will no longer get in the way of loving other people well and making a mark in the world during my short stay here.

Until I learn this lesson, my relationships will be doomed to self-sabotage and turmoil because you cannot give to others what you yourself do not possess. If ever I am to remain a healthy presence in the lives of others, I must become a healthy presence in my own life rather than being my own worst enemy.

And that starts with learning to listen to the voices in my internal committee bent on building me up rather than tearing me down. That phase has run its course, and it’s time for a new phase to begin.

And yeah, I realize this probably all sounds like a pile of malarkey to some of you. You can see the internal struggle to admit any of this throughout this post. But I’m telling you, it’s a legit issue. You’re going to have to set aside your programmed response to this kind of talk and learn to see the value in it. Because if you don’t, you’ll just keep yourself down and you’ll miss out on what your life could bring if only you learned to treat yourself as well as you tend to treat others.

A friend told me once I should never talk about myself in ways I wouldn’t talk about a friend, someone I care about. I would never be as cruel or critical of others as I am of myself. But that needs to change. I need to learn to start showing the same kinds of care and attention for myself as I’ve always tried to show others.

My presence in the lives of others will only benefit from that improvement, which means that in the end it isn’t even about myself after all. It’s about learning not just to survive, but to thrive in this life. It’s the only one we get.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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