I don’t typically share highly personal stuff on this blog because my life is intertwined with many others, and they would not want their personal matters to be put on public display. But earlier this week a reader asked me a question which I think deserves a post of its own because it’s about a matter I know many people are facing every day. People who grew up in relatively secularized cultures won’t identify with this issue but anyone raised to be religious will know it all too well. If you were raised to be a devout Christian and later left the faith, you will get why this question touches a nerve. The reader asked:
After you changed, did you ever feel desperation?
My answer likely went in a different direction than he intended because for me, there have been several stages of stress, loss, and pain associated with my leaving the faith, and they started long before I finally let go of those beliefs which had so characterized my life up until that point. I can think of a couple of particular seasons in which I seriously questioned my faith, and those questions never really left me. I posted about that struggle yesterday, and if you haven’t read that yet, please stop and go read that now. It gives you a peek into the mind and heart of a young man sincerely wrestling with his own rationality, trying to reconcile it with his faith. I can still feel the angst from those days emanating from the words on the screen, and for various reasons this still feels so fresh to me. The fallout from that struggle continues for me today.
Most of all, however, I want to draw your attention to the fact that I wrote the journal entry linked above a good six years before I began to honestly face my own questions. If you read the brutally honest things I say you may find yourself asking “Why on earth did you cling to your faith so long after this? How could you? With no satisfying answers forthcoming?” The simple truth is that the cost of leaving my faith was too high for me to allow myself to go down that mental path. Again, I must acknowledge that anyone reading this who has never lived in a highly religious environment (I’m looking at you, Europe, Canada, and the “blue states” within the U.S.) will scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is about. But anyone from a context similar to mine will “get it” immediately. When your entire life is built around a religion, leaving it means leaving your life and starting over again from scratch.
I cannot overstate how powerful a deterrent this is to people who already have seen enough to know better than to remain in their faith. They have enough information to critically analyze the beliefs they were taught, but they push the questions down, holding them under like trying to hold a beach ball under water. It can take a lot out of you, but it must be done or else you could lose everything—your friends, your family, your job, your marriage, your kids…you name it. There is no end to what people may take away from you to pressure you back into submission to their faith. See, from their perspective, people’s eternal destinies are at stake here. No punishment (excuse me, “discipline”) short of hellfire is too drastic to coerce you back into faith in (their) God. It’s only because they love you that they will take everything from you in order to save your soul. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the Good Book says. Reminds me of the old adage, “With friends like these…”
Right now there are men and women filling pulpits even though they’ve long since lost any ostensible faith in the religion they preach. Daniel Dennett has just released a book chronicling this struggle, and I must admit I totally understand their struggle. For people who have built their lives around their faith, the loss of it can be too great to endure. It’s not that faith really gave them anything which they can’t get through other means (fruitful friendships, loving families, fulfilling work, etc). The problem is that they’ve spent years, maybe decades, building their lives around one particular religious subculture, and if they leave it they will quite possibly lose everything they hold dear. All of their friendships may be based on sharing a common faith. All of their closest family may be committed to the same beliefs as well. Their jobs may revolve around the propagation of this faith. Even their marriages are likely predicated upon a common commitment to the same God, the same faith, and the same ideals and passions so that losing those means you’ve just lost the foundation of the most important relationship in your life. This is sheer terror. If your marriage was not built upon a shared passion for a common set of religious beliefs then you have no idea how painful it can be to honestly grapple with your own intellectual questions. You see the issues. You know they are there. But you just can’t keep looking at them because if you do, your life as you know it could soon be over.
So you stuff your questions down. You try to forget about them. Or maybe you take them out every once in a while and wrestle some with them (as I did on occasion) but whenever you reach that point wherein the most logical conclusion would be to say, “This is all nonsense,” you have to stop. You have to. If you don’t, the cost will be too high, and you know it. So you stay there for years, maybe even decades. In my case, I made it six more years. During that time I threw myself further into ministry with my local church group. I wrote songs (just the lyrics), delivered spoken messages, arbitrated church crises, and even traveled some for “ministry.” I wrote a book tying nearly twenty years of searching into a neat little package and felt really good about what I had produced—right up until the moment I realized none of it matters. All those carefully nuanced interpretations of the Bible don’t do a thing to make people any different from what or who they already are. It was all an idealized pipe dream and deep down I knew it.
It was a beautiful dream though, and I almost feel like it’s a small consolation that, of all of the dreamy ideals I could chase, I chose the ones that I did. I feel like I met some really great people along the way. We were all drawn to such beautiful common dreams. But you reach a point in your life when you realize that life is too short to be lived inside your own head. You need reality, and you won’t be satisfied with anything else. Like the son in Big Fish, maybe you see how much it means to people to play along like their stories are true, but for yourself you want to know life as it really is, without the embellishments. For me, it was a part of finally growing up and putting away childish things even though many fully-grown, intelligent people continue to cling to these stories into old age. That doesn’t make them any truer. But it does mean that at some point those people will look at you and shake their heads, saying “What a shame. He used to show so much promise. Now he’s just a disappointment.” That’s what you may hear (and possibly much worse, lemme tell ya) from your former supporters. This is all a part of the high cost of losing—and leaving—your faith.
If you’re like me you get to a place where you cannot lie to yourself anymore. Your need for reality becomes stronger than your fears and you find yourself suddenly, finally, on the outside. Once you’re there I hope there will be others with you, hopefully even those closest to you, who can hold your hand and walk with you into the unknown. The opposition you will face could be intense, and you may find yourself starting over again from scratch. If your spouse can walk through this with you, consider yourself fortunate beyond words. Not everyone will have that support. For those who don’t, dark days lie ahead. But there is life on the other side. There are people there, some of whom have gone through exactly what you’re going through, and I challenge you to start hunting for those people now. Make some new friends. Maybe even travel to see them if you have to, but whatever it takes, build for yourself a network of people who do not need you to think the same way as they do in order to accept you into their group. Find people who will not judge you for being a critical thinker, but rather who celebrate your inquisitiveness and consider skepticism a virtue. They are out there, I promise. And the internet is making them easier to find (more link suggestions, please). Feel free to drop me a note some time. I can surely sympathize with the strain this puts on a person’s life. The cost is high. But in the end it’s worth it to have a personal relationship with reality.