You’re quite a bit further out from your loss of faith than I am (I lost mine only 3 months ago)… I wonder if you’d consider blogging about how you survived your initial loss of faith, and if you have any advice for those of us who are earlier in the process? You may not have the time or the desire to address such things, but if you do, I’d be interested in what you have to say.
Ain’t No Shrinking Violet asked this question in a comment on one of my posts about four months ago, and regrettably I’m just getting around to answering it today. This is partly because of how crazy my schedule has become with grad school and not having much time to write anymore. However, it’s also because until recently I haven’t had a good answer and have been avoiding dealing with that.
A few weeks ago I was on my friend Keith’s podcast, Vita Atheos, and he asked me this question, about how I survived my loss of faith. The short answer is that it took a long time to recover, and I’m still recovering. I was incredibly angry in the year and a half after I decoverted, and not without cause. I’d spent 28 years beating myself up for no reason—over struggles with doubt, my sexuality, and my increasingly secular outlook—and now it felt as if someone had been ransacking my house for most of my life, and I’d just noticed.
My set piece on this subject is that I went from being a Christian to Christopher Hitchens overnight. [Cue laugh track.]
Like many of us, my initial loss of faith was the shockwave of an implosion that happened almost a decade earlier—9 years, 4 months, and 22 days, actually. You can read about that story here if you like, but in hindsight, I wish I could have gone about it in a healthier way. My deconversion was the equivalent of going cold turkey off heroin after a lifetime of dependency on it.
As Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God, I had to “change the wallpaper of my mind.” Only I went a step further and burned the enire house to the ground. It wasn’t great, and I burned a number of bridges in the process. I have some regrets about that, about not giving some people a chance to get to know the “real” me, but I probably wasn’t ready, especially considering that the majority of my social circle at the time was evangelical Christians.
I will say that if the Secular Therapist Project had been open for clients in 2011, I would’ve been one of the first to sign up. As it is, it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally started seeing a therapist, and until last year that I finally connected with one who “gets” the deconversion and rebuilding process. It’s rough.
And it’s a different process for everyone. For some, it just made sense to stop believing in God, and for them it was largely a joyful and liberating experience. They don’t necessarily carry around the negative scripts and narratives that dominate the inner lives of former fundamentalist Christians.
I was raised in what in hindsight was an extremely toxic belief system. My parents, pastors, teachers and other authority figures taught me to not trust myself, to not trust others, to find fault in others, but most importantly, to find fault within myself. If I couldn’t find anything wrong within myself, I was to assume that I had allowed myself to become blinded myself to spiritual Truths (with a capital T).
Of course, these weren’t the lessons they were trying to impart, but it’s a natural and unavoidable consequence of the theology we accepted that this is how I’d come to see myself.
The reality I come face to face with today is not so much what they taught me as it is what they didn’t teach me, which is how to love and accept myself, and how to love and accept other people. You can’t truly do either of those things with the fear of eternal damnation continually looming over your head, and the fear that something you or someone else might do could put that in jeopardy.
So this is reality for me right now:
- I don’t know how to be happy without the impulse kicking in to find something wrong with that happiness and ruin it;
- I don’t know how to love myself because I can’t look at myself in the mirror without wanting to vomit or smash it, because I can only see the things that aren’t perfect or that don’t meet my impossibly high standards and expectations;
- I don’t know how to let people in for fear of their actually seeing who I am and possibly rejecting that… or more like my inability to understand their acceptance when I can’t accept me.
That’s a long way of getting around to the question of how I survived my loss of faith four years ago. One answer is that I barely survived—I certainly didn’t grow. I lashed out at and pushed virtually everyone in my life away, especially those who were connected to Seth and his church. I retreated into an angry echo chamber of blogs, books, and online forums which only fueled my hatred of Christianity and Christians.
And a lot of people ran away. They could only see the angry, rage machine David, because that’s I wanted them to see. I didn’t want anyone to see the hurt, grieving, loss-wracked, and confused David who felt cut adrift and isolated from everything and everyone he ever knew.
Going to therapy has helped. Finding the Former Fundamentalists helped. If it had been around in 2011, Sunday Assembly might have helped.
But it was ultimately writing, and this blog, that saved me. Sharing my story and connecting with others with a similar story helped contain that fire.
I’m still recovering, still rebuilding. But it’s still a long road ahead.