Losing one’s faith can feel a lot like mourning the passing of a loved one. There’s so much emotion bound up in a deconversion that it can be hard to unpack exactly what’s happening. I’ve been thinking about the topic lately because we’ve been touching on the topic in comments here and there.
Strangely, it was an old pop song that really crystallized and solidified some of my thoughts and helped me see that a big part of our healing may center around resolving our disappointment over losing the life that Christianity once promised us.
We’ve been talking a lot lately about what I’m calling “evangelical churn” — the huge number of people who are leaving right-wing Christianity. We’ve been talking about how thousands of Christians, every single day, are walking away from their churches, most never to return. But what we don’t always talk about are the individual tragedies often contained in some of those people’s stories.
Oh, some of us don’t so much leave as fly away, dance away, laughing, flitting out of reach and nothing but happy about it. But many others of us are heartbroken at first over the discoveries we’ve made.
One of the most painful things about leaving religion can be that sense of strange mourning that we often feel when we realize that we’d built our entire lives around a lie.
Discovering It Wasn’t True.
As entertaining as it can be to hear Christians try to guess why I no longer believe, they never touch on what that reason actually was, or why I object to the religion now. I know why they don’t understand, and why they can’t really engage with my real reasons. So I also know why they make up reasons that make more sense to them.
Making up their own narrative about what happened helps them dismiss my experiences by overwriting them with something that they think they can actually “fix” or at least ignore. They try to make my deconversion some act of cosmic rebellion, or some sign of ignorance on my part, or some outgrowth of having done something wrong–though they can never agree on or even identify what I did.
I’m not mad at them. I know why it happens and why they have to do it. Hell, I did the same thing long ago.
Indeed, even while accusing people then of the same exact things I get accused of today, I saw all kinds of signs, beginning many years before my deconversion, that something wasn’t quite right about what I believed. I was confronted with many instances of people who had trouble living according to the religion’s demands (“they just want to sin!”), of people who’d found all sorts of contradictions and logical inconsistencies in various Bible stories (“they just don’t know about the Blind Men and the Elephant!“), of situations where my subjective Christian morality just didn’t seem adequate to cover the need (“he just doesn’t want heterosexuality enough”), and of many, many times when the Bible’s promises hadn’t come through as it had said they should (“I guess he had, um, a seed of doubt when we were praying for a cure for his cancer…?”).
But I ignored those problematic realizations, just as one might ignore the signs that a significant other isn’t quite the perfect partner one imagined at first. It takes a lot of such signs and realizations to really break through strong belief, no matter what the belief is.
I ignored all those realizations because Christianity offered me something that I desperately craved. I wanted that promise so much that I was willing to overlook all kinds of signs that something wasn’t right. And when I finally couldn’t avoid that realization any longer, that desire of mine for my Happily Ever After sent me into a tailspin after my deconversion.
What Christianity offered me was a narrative that I ached to have in my life.
But it was a false narrative.
So Much For My Happy Ending.
You were all the things I thought I knew
And I thought we could be
You were everything, everything that I wanted
We were meant to be, supposed to be but we lost it
All of the memories so close to me just fade away
All this time you were pretending
So much for my happy ending
“My Happy Ending” – Avril Lavigne
The song quoted above was insanely popular some years ago. I like having music on in the background while I write, and this song seemed to play every half hour on the half hour at the time. And when I finally paid attention to its lyrics, I couldn’t help but think about how similar it was to my departure from religion.
At first blush, the singer seems totally mystified about why her relationship with her boyfriend went south. They were so happy together! Indeed, he was “everything” that she wanted.
But as the song and video progress, little hints of unhappiness begin peeking through the fabric of her illusions about her relationship.
In flashbacks, we see those hints that she cannot see. They argue a lot. His friends can’t stand her–and the animosity is definitely mutual. She’s annoyed with “all the shit that [he does]” and “all the things [he hides]” from both her and his other friends. By the end of the song, she’s aware that he was only pretending to be the perfect man for her–and likely doing so because his real self isn’t compatible with her at all.
She’s not upset about the breakup so much as she is angry that he pretended to be something he wasn’t. His deception led her to believe that they would have a lifelong happy relationship when that was an ending that wasn’t possible for these two people.
But part of the problem here is that she believed in that narrative of a happy ending in the first place, leading her to be led astray by someone who offered that illusion to her. She wanted that “happy ending” so much that she overlooked or downplayed all those warning signs she saw during the relationship that all was not well. And when she finally did realize the relationship was over, only then was she really able to recognize how her boyfriend was definitely not lifelong-partner material.
I’m not much of a fan of grunge music or of this particular singer, but I found myself really identifying with this song, though my own experiences centered on religion rather than a “sk8erboi“. I saw some surprising similarities between what she described in her song and what happened in my own life.
The Narrative: Unraveled, Unveiled, and Rejected.
A narrative is a sort of story that we tell ourselves about how life works. If you’ve ever heard criticism of Disney movies for selling young girls illusions about relationships that are not only untrue but which emotionally harm them later in life, you’re hearing a discussion of narrative.
Narratives focus on preconceptions and promises. They tell believers, “Do this, and you will get that.” They say, “This is how people work and how they should work.” They advise, “This is what you should be working towards in order to be happy.” And they burrow into young people’s minds and work their will for a lifetime, whispering at a subvocal level like a song playing in the background while you write.
But sooner or later, somehow, sometimes someone breaks free and sees the narrative for what it is: a set of false promises. All the ways that reality contradicts the narrative come spinning into focus and we realize that our experiences do not fit that story at all, and that we will not receive what it promised us.
Many of us talk about having prayed on our knees, distraught and sobbing, for something–anything–to show us that our beliefs were true and that the narrative will indeed eventually provide what it promised. I was one of them. I spent frantic days and nights scrambling to find anything to prop up my flagging faith. I wept until I worked myself into hysteria; I cried aloud until my voice cracked. And the ceiling didn’t care at all.
Eventually I had to come to grips with the fact that my beliefs simply were not true.
There was no supernatural being listening to my prayers and answering them or talking to me or showing me he loved me in a million different little ways. That “still small voice” was just my own. The “miracles” were anything but supernatural meddling. The society my beliefs described did not resemble the society that really existed. The relationships my beliefs prescribed didn’t actually seem stronger, happier, or longer-lasting than those of people outside our faith system. I could go on, but suffice to say that every single thing, with only a couple of exceptions, that I believed about everything was wrong.
My whole life was a lie.
Nothing seemed to be what I had believed it to be.
And the happy ending I’d been promised would never happen, ever.
One can hardly be blamed for having some strong emotions in the wake of a deconversion.
The Narrative: Mourned.
It’s very natural to feel sad or scared after a deconversion. It’s okay to feel grief. It’s okay to mourn.
We’re not mourning the loss of faith itself, usually. Almost all of the ex-Christians I’ve ever met have made clear that their grief isn’t about the actual deconversion itself. Some don’t even describe their deconversions as a loss at all, but a “discarding” or a “throwing out” of a false belief system. Most people see their deconversions as, ultimately, a very positive thing in their lives.
What we’re sad about and angry about is the life that’ll never be.
For many of us, especially if we’re coming out of really gung-ho fundagelical churches, we got sold a bill of goods about how our lives were going to work as Christians. We were promised that if we did and said the right things in the right way at the right time and with the right enthusiasm, then we’d receive a variety of benefits. We’d meet a divinely-ordained mate, we’d have perfect children, we’d succeed in our businesses, we’d die fulfilled and then go to Heaven. We were told over and over again that we’d be happy or at least contented (though as Galen points out in that excellent post, if those of us who weren’t happy or contented mention that fact, remaining Christians often respond that “nobody ever promised us a rose garden”). Oh, sure, sometimes there’d be some rain in our lives, but overall, that was the gist of the narrative’s promises to us.
When we find out that the narrative isn’t true and that none of that stuff is going to happen, it’s very natural to grieve the life we’ll never have.
I’m not sure that “the five stages of grief” are really quite that cut-and-dried (or that sequential, or that universal) for all people, but definitely there’s a period of introspection, anxiety, and sadness that many of us experience as we process the realization that our lives are definitely not going to look like we were assured they would.
And that’s okay.
This grief doesn’t mean we secretly believe in the Christian god, in Hell, or in any of that other supernatural stuff. It doesn’t mean that we secretly want to be Christians again. It doesn’t even mean that we see any merit in any of the numerous apologetics arguments Christianity offers.
It just means that there was this life we thought we were going to have, a life we thought we wanted, and then one day we realized that we’re never going to have that life. We suddenly realized that we’re on our own, with no giganto-Daddy to save us from our own bad decisions or sheer bad luck, and nobody to tell us what to do with our lives.*
It can take a little time to process our new normal.
The Narrative: Transcended.
After a while, though, something curious happens to most folks who deconvert.
We start realizing that the narrative we’d been sold wasn’t even that great of a happy ending.
Maybe we start realizing that it’s actually not very fair to us or our loved ones, or that it depends quite a lot on other people to do exactly what the narrative demands. Maybe we noticed that we were anxious, fearful, and un-rescued even when we believed in Christianity’s claims; we just ignored those times or pretended we knew why they were happening and that we had some sort of control over their appearance in our lives.
Like the singer in that song I mentioned above, we start remembering all the times when things weren’t really that great. And maybe we start thinking that there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t really that great about our time in Christianity–and a lot of things that didn’t quite work out the way our indoctrination said it should.
When we’re in the thick of the bubble, we don’t notice all this stuff–we may be predisposed to not see it because seeing it would just about require us to do something about it somehow, as we talked about last time. Sometimes our emotional safety feels like it depends on ignoring or rationalizing those signs. And sometimes we are so afraid of what our loving “church family” will do to us if we dissent that we avoid any action that might lead us to seeing any contradictions to our worldview.
So it can take a little distance and time to see that stuff more clearly.
If you’ve left Christianity recently and you’re surprised by the feelings of grief you’re feeling, know that it’s a very common feeling to have right around now–as is joy over leaving religion! Any sadness or fear you feel is almost certainly going to clear up as you move forward in life and learn more about what you once believed. The good news is that you’re not alone as you make those first steps into freedom. A lot of us have walked the road you’re on right now and chances are at least some of us know what you’re going through.
The most important thing I can say to people who’ve only recently left the religion is this: It really is going to get better.
You can still have a happy, meaningful life. In fact, you’ll probably have one that’s even happier and more meaningful now because you’re the one who’s fully in control of your own “ship.” You’ll learn in time to figure out what you want and need out of your relationships, work life, and family connections, and what you decide there will matter more to you and be more fulfilling because it’s what you worked out, not what a cookie-cutter ideology tried to stamp on top of you. You’ll learn what real love looks like and how to show it. You’ll stop stressing out over what coy, invisible spirits want you to do and start working out how to go about living while helping as many people as possible and harming as few as you can manage. You won’t worry anymore about how to reconcile all those signs that your religious ideas aren’t true or how to square your ideology and indoctrination with reality.
When you realize that no divine “sk8erboi” is going to hand you your happiness on a silver platter, that’s when you can finally start building your own happy ending.
Your new life awaits.
* We never had that, of course, but I’m just talking about the realization that we don’t.
I rescued Bother today from a potentially serious situation. She and her brother somehow tore down a blanket that was hanging up to dry and she got totally tangled up in it like a ginger-kitten ravioli. I was walking by and heard her strangled little cries, found her, and unraveled the blanket so she could escape. What a lucky, lucky kitty! She’s sacked out on my sewing project of the day while her brother is snoring with his head on Lord Snow’s butt (he’s getting more and more used to them sleeping on him; I think he’s finally thawing). All is well… for now. Oh, that lucky, lucky little kitling.