Despite detecting within myself no active belief in the tenets of the religion of my youth over the last few years, I waited until very recently to come out publically as a non- (or I suppose no-longer) Christian. Some who’ve read this blog, and who don’t know me personally otherwise, have asked why it took me so long. Well, for starters, I hardly ever do even trivial things on the spur of the moment, let alone make significant transitions such as this. It’s just my style to consider things for a while. But putting that particular personality trait to the side, the broader truth is that when an all-encompassing and all-explaining belief system shapes one’s outlook and activities for the better part of three decades, one doesn’t just leave.
For quite a while, despite my ever-increasing skepticism, I was in a limbo when it came to church. There were certain things I was getting from the institution that I wasn’t ready to give up (as I wrote about here) and I wondered how long I could manage some semblance of reconciliation between the deep love of the ritual and the awkward lack of conviction underlying my once-treasured ecclesial experience. In addition, and perhaps more frightening, was the very humbling prospect of not only giving up the admiration of my fellow believers (I was really quite devout) but also eliciting a heart-breaking pity in those who'd never worried about the status of my soul.
Though I ultimately decided that freedom from the pressure to judge myself and those around me--not to mention freedom from the pressure to defend a metaphysical “reality” at which any educated person would scoff--was worth the loss of comfort that de-conversion demanded, I can’t say my new non-Christian status doesn’t sometimes bum me out. While most people I know from church or seminary or other Christian organizations either mention that they find a lot of resonance with my journey or just stay quiet about it altogether, I have had a few encounters with people who simply don’t understand. This should be no surprise; there are always going to be people who don’t understand any given thing. However, out of this misunderstanding--which, again, I’ve encountered in an explicit form only a handful of times--I am often presented with words of fear or condolence or both. Yes, it might be predictable; regardless, it sucks.
The fear, I’d assume, is fear for my immortal soul. Some people are worried that I’ve doomed myself, or that perhaps I was never even saved to begin with. Hearing about these painful uncertainties from those who care about me is incredibly uncomfortable as I’ve spent my life working hard on not having to be worried about at all. I made sure to do very well academically, I have always been polite and responsible in professional situations, and I was, at least publically, an exemplary Christian. To be thought of as not getting things ‘right’ is way out of my comfort zone, no matter the context. So, though awareness of the fact that I had been treating Christianity as something I could ‘succeed’ in certainly greased the gears of doubt that were turning in my head, it also made clear to me that I was going to have to swallow a good amount of pride when I stopped striving for the blue ribbons and gold stars.
I was right, and thankfully being aware of and prepared for the consequences of my chosen heresy has helped me maintain emotional boundaries between myself and those for whom my rejection of Christianity is worrisome. What I’ve found harder to handle than the fear, however, is the pity. Pity here sounds like, “Wow, you must really be going through a hard time”, “You seem lost”, or, worst of all, an unsolicited “I’ll be praying for you.” Now, just looking at these words, they seem like relatively benevolent concern. To me, however, they sound patronizing and superior. If these people were paying attention to and truly concerned with my emotional/“spiritual” state, they would see that most of the unhappiness I express these days on the topic of faith is about my experience as a Christian. Now, having left that phase of my life behind, I feel much better. I am not unhappy; I am, to the contrary, more at peace. But the problem for them, of course, as I’ve pointed out before, is that they believe it is impossible for a person to be truly happy without a connection to the Christian God.
I get it. How could I not? I’ve been there, and I’ve felt that fear for my “unsaved” friends, and I’ve said those remarkably patronizing things. But my sympathy will not stop me from speaking critically: devout believers need to have some semblance of respect for the intelligence and autonomy of those around them. I am an adult and this was my decision, to leave behind my faith. To ignore me when I say I’m glad I did it and instead tell me I must be caught up in a world of strife is to imply that I am not in my right mind, that I am either a liar or a fool. I am neither, on average.
I think Christians need to separate true compassion from simple pity. They are taught to have compassion, which has to do with acknowledging the emotional state of the other, and they often do when it comes to issues that don’t challenge their doctrine. However, when it does come to issues that challenge doctrine, such as encountering a person like me who’s happily rejected the church, their discomfort and cognitive dissonance seem to trump any ability to take a happy heretic at her word.
I’m not surprised that disgrace and resentment are the feelings bubbling up for me in the wake of my little schism, though they do make me wary of telling my story in the open. Despite this, I am grateful for what I myself have learned about true compassion--how I’ve come to more humbly sympathize with the outsider, the non-believer, the cultural or religious pariah. And, perhaps ironically, my recently acquired droup-out status has also given me a new appreciation for the work that Jesus did (supposedly) in terms of spending pretty much all of his time with people who were straight up rejected by the ruling religious institution. He didn't seem to care what rules they followed, only that they felt loved and cared for as needed, which is more than I can say for most of the Evangelicals I've met, and certainly more than I can say for the Evangelical I once was, too.