Liberal. Conservative. Trinitarian. Jesus-Name. Man. Woman. Gay. Straight. Christian. Marcionite. Atheist. Deist. Pantheist. Agnostic. Pagan. Neo-Pagan. Traditionalist Pagan. Reconstructionist Pagan. Eclectic Pagan.
It seems like our entire lives are just made up of labels and defining ourselves with carefully-chosen words, doesn’t it?
When I was a Christian, I was taught that the entire world had been created by my god speaking it into existence. I used to think of him singing and the whole universe pouring forth. Adam gained mastery over the animals, the story went, by naming them. Christians now could gain mastery over their fates by just vocalizing what they wanted and “naming it.” And the more people you could get to name something they collectively wanted, the more likely it was to happen. (Yes, I know–except when that never seemed to work!)
There are a shocking number of terms Christians use to delineate themselves. Hey, with tens of thousands of denominations, these yardstick terms are important. Ever hear that joke Emo Philips tells?
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
It’s a joke, but only just barely a joke. This really was how people in the churches I attended talked (except the Roman Catholics; there was only one real demarcation I personally encountered, and that was “charismatic” or “non-charismatic,” though I know there are other flavors of Catholicism besides those now; it’s also worth noting that I only read about this group and never met a single Charismatic Catholic in the flesh; just asking my grandmother about them deeply worried and upset her when I was a child). In the fundamentalist church I finally ended up in, we were very careful to delineate between our denomination and the Assemblies of God from which we had originally come, which differed in only one spot–whether or not baptisms were done in “Jesus’ name” or in the name of “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”–naturally, the latter were going to hell because their baptisms didn’t count. Of course, they thought we were heretics going to hell for our idolatry!
When I left Christianity I encountered even more labels we use for ourselves. They’re a sort of mental shorthand. Someone is this, or that. It’s a way of sorting ourselves; these words are like the hat in Harry Potter that tells others how to relate to us and what “tribe” we belong to. But what happens if we’re not quite straight, but not quite bi, but not quite gay? What label do we wear then if none of the labels fit quite right?
Labels are not bad things in and of themselves on a personal level, but when someone leaves Christianity, there’s this feeling that a label now must be applied to replace the one we just discarded. Is this person now an atheist? Or an agnostic? (Yes, I know–agnostics aren’t Atheism Lite or some weird middle ground–but most people don’t seem to know that.) Or would you prefer being a pantheist? Or an apatheist (an atheist who just doesn’t care anymore)? Or a deist? Or a pagan? Or or or or or… It would have been unthinkable not to have a label back in Christianity, so it is nerve-wracking to take those first few tentative steps away from Christianity without any labels at all. I remember that stress very well, that feeling of being adrift. I was like a person without a country, stranded in an airport without a passport, unable to leave for anywhere, in a holding pattern.
Some of us immediately label ourselves upon leaving religion. That’s fine. Y’all are fine, I care for you all the same, and nothing’s wrong with that. I’m speaking more to the ex-Christians who have more trouble and struggle with what it is they do believe and feel. Some of us struggle for years. And I am here to tell the struggling folks: it’s okay not to label oneself right away. If you’re wondering why I don’t talk about my current beliefs on this blog, it’s because they are irrelevant to anybody but myself and my immediate family (and only in that case relevant in a “because they love me and embrace me the way I am” sort of way). I’m not ashamed of my beliefs at all, nor is where I stand some huge secret among my close friends. Nor do I eschew labels entirely in public; I respect how people can group behind a label to get things done collectively. But in the context of fighting religion’s overreach, my personal religious labels are just not relevant to this blog or, really, how I relate to the world. I want religion out of the public sphere, but I don’t care what religion people practice in private. So it hardly matters what religion I pursue or what label I use for my personal views, since I’d want any religion I pursued to be kept out of the public sphere just like every other religion should be.
By moving away from using religious labels, you also open the lines up to examine someone’s actual words rather than try your hardest to dismiss the person out of hand for being (whatever the label is). When you run into Christians, they have to establish a pecking order immediately so they know how to relate to you. Watch them do it. You’ll raise a challenge to some truth claim that got made, and the Christian’s first response, immediately, is to either assume you are an atheist and dismiss your entire question on that basis, or else to ask you what your religion is, as if either would impact the objective truth of the Christian’s claim. I’ve seen this happen so many times online and in real life that it’s almost a drinking game to me now.
It’s not just about religion, though. Watch online forums for phrases like “As a woman,” or “As a parent,” or “As a (insert anything here really).” The phrases are used as labels to bolster the speaker’s position and add to his or her authority. You can trust this person’s authority because he or she bears this label, is the implication. But if the thing that person says is flat-out wrong, the label doesn’t really help that much. So the label doesn’t magically make a false claim true, and it certainly doesn’t magically make a true claim false. It’s irrelevant and distracting.
And I want to see how things roll without religious labels. Nobody needs to know what religion I am, or how I feel about something, to be able to engage with me about a topic relating to religion or evaluate a religion’s truth claims. The words themselves should stand on their own without knowing what label to stick on my forehead. Do not mistake me here: this position is a dangerous and unsettling one to a species that naturally leans toward tribalism.
And in the same way, if someone doesn’t know what label to apply to him- or herself after leaving a religion, that’s fine. The world’s a beautiful place. People are amazing and staggeringly gracious creatures in their way. Of all the things we could worry about, the label we use for ourselves is dang near the last thing on the list of things worth the adding of more wrinkles to our foreheads. It’s okay to just abide for a while, as the Dude would say. It’s okay to just relax and be free from that fear and those shackles. If one day we feel like a label describes us well enough, we can wear it with pride. But if it just doesn’t fit, then that’s fine. And if ten years down the road, the label doesn’t fit quite as well, it’s okay to discard it and either abide without, or adopt a different one.
Above all, it’s okay.
You don’t need to worry about what you call yourself with regard to anything. You can reject the need to label yourself. You can move through this world without a label for as long as you need to do so. You’ll find that the world works about the same with or without you labeling yourself. You can get on the plane and just go somewhere–you don’t need to be stuck in limbo eating Au Bon Pain sandwiches and reading yesterday’s newspapers, wondering when you’ll get to leave the airport. You can just go. You can even leave the whole damn airport if you want and go out into the bright sunshine in some park and just abide for a while, so you can make up your mind on your own time while you do whatever work it is you perceive you can do to improve that place. Maybe in a month you’ll think of where you want to go. Maybe it’ll be ten years before you work it out. Or maybe you’ll never want to leave that park, or maybe you’ll end up going back there many times over the course of your life. And hopefully you’ll be so busy living your life to the fullest that the fear and worry of not having a label will slip your mind entirely (which is what happened to me; one day after abiding in the park for some time working to improve the trails, some off-handed comment by another park guest twigged me and I realized, Yes, that resonates). Until then, during then, after then, you can just be you.
And you know what? Any of this is perfectly okay. Not like anybody knows for sure what’s going to happen after we die. What I do know is that this life is here now and that it is precious, and I know that how we live that life matters so much more than any labels we use for ourselves while we live it.
So it’s okay whatever you decide to do. You’ve got time.
Take all the time you need.
It’s going to be okay.