It’s the spring of 2015. Two years ago (for those keeping track at home) I was still fairly new in my non-belief.
Where I’ve come from
My religion taught me to continually distrust myself. It taught me to see my own actions and thoughts as problems. No personal failing was too trivial, no sin too minute to be over-looked by the all-seeing eye of my wrathful god. Leaving faith has been like shedding an old skin. It’s been both exhilarating and disquieting at times. Certain questions are bound to arise when one leaves behind a system which is as complex and absorbing as modern Calvinism. Who am I? Where am I headed with my life? What kind of person do I want to be? How can I be happy, now that God is essentially “dead” to me and the church community sees me as fallen and broken? What will I do? What will I say?
Fundamentalism taught me a false confidence, not in myself, but in the doctrines of my religious tradition. I could boast and brag of the gospel. I could proclaim that I held absolute truth, that the keys to the kingdom were in my hand. I could explain why my actions and thoughts were Biblical while others were in error. But it was all just a show, a thin facade. There was no “there” there. There wasn’t even a little man behind the curtain like in the Wizard of Oz.
When I was a Christian, in some ways it did not matter what I did; regardless of my actions and efforts I was still nothing without God. He received the praise for everything good I accomplished while I received the blame for anything bad. My entire sense of self-worth was dependent upon a father figure who would always remain elusive (at least in this life). We could only glimpse Him from the mountain top. For me those mountain top experiences included speaking in tongues, “worshiping in the Spirit” and evangelism. I often felt electrified when I was bold enough to share the gospel with a stranger. Despite my anxiety I always yearned for more after such experiences. I wanted to go even deeper and reach back to the source itself so I could feel that way all the time. I kept climbing back up the mountain and kept searching for ways to be even more godly, more righteous, more “in tune” with His mysterious will. No matter what I did, no matter what mountain I climbed, I knew that it would never be enough.
Life after God
But where could I turn for those incredible experiences now? Where would my yearning for more take me now that I was no longer fixated on Him? Would I be adrift at sea? Would I have to vainly tread water until being overwhelmed by despair and emptiness? This was the future promised to me by countless sermons and devotionals. In my gut I knew this as a Christian. Before my deconversion I never really questioned this description of apostacy. But what if there is meaning after faith? What if the end of “the purpose driven life” (to borrow a phrase from Rick Warren) could really be the beginning of a whole new kind of life with a whole new kind of purpose?
Over the last two years I’ve been fortunate to have time and space to “find myself.” I’ve discovered that there are people who are willing to accept me despite my views of the afterlife. Through Unitarian Universalism I’ve discovered that many of the good aspects of church–community, mutual support, intellectual stimulation, charity, meaningful ritual, music–can be retained without holding onto dogmatic beliefs about the afterlife. The glue of many Evangelical churches may be a set of shared supernatural beliefs, but it is certainly not necessary for other groups to follow this pattern.
I’ve also searched inside and found new ways to think about meaning. Inspiring poets, scientists, philosophers and video creators have lit a spark in my spirit. I’ve seen that it is possible to fill one’s life up with meaning, even while acknowledging that our existence is probably finite. I’ve seen that creativity can flourish and love can blossom without the carrot and stick of divine judgement (heaven and hell). I’ve seen that atheists, non-believers, ex-Christians and skeptics have a wealth of good to offer the world. And while we may be wanderers and pilgrims on a tiny speck, at least we are wandering together. Our lives may not have any sort of ultimate, transcendent meaning, but the meaning that they possess in the present is undeniable.
Where I see my life going from here
- I want to continue to learn about the natural world. My curiosity about the cosmos feels endless. We live in a vast and wonderful universe.
- I want to continue to learn about human history. I’m fascinated by stories of the past which provide me with wisdom and inspiration.
- I want to grow in empathy and patience. I seek to challenge myself to live more in alignment with my own values about non-violence and compassion for other beings. A big part of this journey for me has been becoming vegan.
- I want to continue studying anarchism and moral thought from a secular perspective.
- I will continue to seek out practical ways to make the world a more peaceful and just place.
- I want to pass on some of my knowledge to the next generation.
- I want to have long-term goals, rather than living solely in the present. For me, this means thinking about what I’m going to do 15, 17 and 20 years from now as my kids grow up and leave the home. I have hope that I’ll be able to go back to school in the future and gain the education that I need to become a teacher. But, if I decide that some other profession or study suits me, then I’ll be ready for that as well.
- I recognize that my actions and patterns in the present shape my future. If I live recklessly and destructively then I’ll never have the chance to realize my dreams. If I am impatient then I will probably not see my hard work pay off. On the other hand, my study of different philosophical schools has taught me that there’s a fine line to walk between pursuing a noble goal and becoming obsessed with a goal and frustrated when life–with all of its unforseen complications–does not comply.
- I want to keep writing.
- I want to keep loving.
- I want to keep giving.
This past year I’ve grown much more comfortable in my own skin. I now rarely feel apologetic about how different my beliefs are from those around me. I feel less of a burden to explain myself to others. My desire to get people to see things my way (rather than letting them take their own arduous path to gaining new knowledge) is also waning. I’m also growing much more used to the fact that I’ll be surrounded by staunch believers for many years to come. That’s OK. I don’t need them to fully understand me. I don’t need their validation in order to be who I am and to enjoy my life. I just ask that they treat me decently and with respect. For the most part, even the most devout Christians are willing to accommodate me in that regard.
I don’t see myself as “moving on” from religion, but I do see myself as steadily maturing in my own self-confidence and becoming grounded in my identity; I’m getting comfortable in my new skin. How could I return to that old, dried out husk?
time to walk forward
The air is so fresh and clear here. The sun is shining overhead. The sky is a vast sea of blue, dotted with white clouds sailing across it. The leaves are blowing on the dirt path. Ahead of me are endless miles of green. It’s time to walk forward.
forest image by Dustin Scarpitti