What Leaving My Religion Has Taught Me
Seeing life from a new perspective
I never thought I would change my mind about Christianity. It was a concept that sometimes terrified me — that future me might one day decide to turn my back on my lord and savior. I shut it from my mind, deciding that my god would never let me be ‘led astray’.
Teachings about fiery hell cautioned me to stay faithful and never deny him. I thought of the apostle Peter, who supposedly denied Rabbi Jesus while sitting beside a blazing fire. Surely nothing could take me away from the deeply emotional relationship I had worked on cultivating with Jesus? And if love wasn’t enough, fear certainly would be.
Fast forward a few years, and I find myself free from the doctrines, threats, and promises of the religion I once loved. It’s a strangely quiet place, where I spend no time asking an all-powerful deity to change reality. Instead, I’m learning to accept the things I cannot control. I now believe that nothing is personal, and none of my finite errors have infinite consequences. Life simply is, and I simply am. I never knew freedom like this.
Here are five things that leaving my religion has taught me.
1. Learning to Trust Myself
It soon became clear to me that I didn’t know how to trust my judgment, or how to forgive and validate myself. I had been taught from a young age that my self could not be trusted, and any focus on myself was selfish and wrong. I had to do what God told me and focus on him. I wasn’t capable of making decisions on my own. I had to deny my self and even put my self to death (Galatians 2:20/Luke 9:23). When I felt guilty, God would forgive me and validate me and that was all that mattered.
As a result, I barely knew me and certainly didn’t trust myself.
When I decided that Christianity isn’t true, I was left with myself. There was no sense of a holy spirit departing me, leaving a notable absence where the supernatural was supposed to have controlled me before. It feels the same inside.
The same, but different. I’ve found peace in the belief that I’m not being constantly watched, assessed, and my actions logged. I’ve learned that I help people more authentically and love them more deeply when I do it from a love of self and compassion, rather than from duty and the death of self. As more times goes by that I don’t live under this pressure, I am continuing to learn what my self truly thinks and feels, independent of religion.
2. Learning to Love Myself
I spent the first thirty years of my life being told and believing that I was ‘a sinner’. This identity tag itself is so unbalanced and sad, as though I am only capable of doing things wrong.
I’d been taught that God loved and accepted me, despite me, and that was all that mattered. Now I realize that if I love and accept me, precisely because every living thing is worthy of love, this is what matters. Self-love and acceptance are what changed my mental state, though I’m still learning their incredible healing power.
Many Christians are deeply unhappy even under the impression of their god’s love. I wonder if this is partly because they don’t love and accept themselves, and in reality, they are their most influential relationship.
3. Respect People’s Religious Needs
A lot of people need religion. Some may need the threats and promises to behave nicely because they haven’t had better teaching, and some may need it for the comfort and security from life’s uncertainties. Some people need it simply because they believe that they need it. I get that.
Even when faith is hard for believers, it’s still preferable than the alternative — that you won’t see Grandma in heaven one day, and that there isn’t an all-loving force in control of everything. When I see a woman whose child died, and then her beloved father died soon thereafter, I see the tremendous comfort the story of heaven brings her. And I realize that a belief in heaven doesn’t need to be real to be valuable.
4. I am Not Alone
I have discovered that people are leaving their religion all the time and they do it for lots of different reasons. Many ex Christians in my recovery group were abused by the church, many were disillusioned by nasty Christians, many thought that the Bible just doesn’t make sense, and many studied Christian history and decided there’s no good evidence for its supernatural claims. I have yet to meet an ex Christian who left because ‘they wanted to sin’, which is the reason my church gave for people leaving.
Many non-Christians hide their beliefs to be treated with equality. Many hide their lack of belief when applying for jobs, for fear of discrimination. In America, Christianity is very much linked to cultural identity, so leaving the religion means stepping into a minority group. It means agonizing over how to share their beliefs or lack thereof with family and friends, and sometimes wondering if it’s even safe to do so.
5. Experience is the Best Teacher
Leaving my religion has taught me that the church is wrong about so many things, and my church leaders often wrongly represented the motives and beliefs of non-Christians. It took changing my own beliefs on many things to learn this. I have come to realize their statements were not borne out of truth or understanding of those who leave their faith. They were a necessary, believable-sounding explanation for why people leave Christianity if its claims of divine-powered truth and satisfaction are accurate.
When a person changes their opinion on anything — religion, politics, diet, parenting, or other relationships — they are at an advantage of knowing what it’s like to think from two different sides. We can compare and contrast the two from first-hand experience. If we stay in touch with this memory, it is somewhat humbling, because it shows us how we can feel so right about two opposite things, depending on our perspective. This wisdom should caution us about becoming too certain of and rigid in our current beliefs.
Most people are happy to hear it when someone escapes a cult, denomination, or religion as long as that cult, denomination, or religion isn’t theirs. In that case, the person made a terrible error. I don’t feel like I’ve made a terrible error. I feel freer, wiser, happier, more in awe at the world, and more cautious about putting all my eggs in one basket again. I am more aware of life’s mystery and complexity.
An official meaning of life has never been discovered and verified. We are all doing the best we can with the education we have and the cultural exposure we have. Where there is a lack of education and cultural exposure, there is most often racism, discrimination, bigotry, and hate — religion or not.
The only thing we know for sure is that it makes us happy when people are kind to us. So let’s all be kind. That’s the only moral compass that I need.