This series, which perhaps lazily but definitely appropriately takes its name from “that one R.E.M. song”, will chronicle the various stages of the process that has been my departure from Christianity. I’ve known many people who, like me, were raised somewhere on the conservative and Evangelical spectrums, and who eventually chose to move toward a much more liberal version of Christianity as their full, adult independence dawned. This shift might look like putting a higher priority on social justice endeavors, or choosing to be okay with homosexual orientations, or learning how to accept the clear discrepancies and absurdities of the Bible without intense cognitive dissonance. I know of very few people, however, with a church-filled youth like mine, who have ended up renouncing their religion of origin altogether. To each their own, but I believe--and it is one of the few things I believe anymore--that people need to know they are allowed to walk away.
It’s hard to identify where and when the root of my disbelief first took hold. I have always been a questioning-type person, and this behavior was encouraged in the household in which I grew up. For this I am thankful; it is not often the case for Christian/Evangelical children. I have very clear memories of exhilarating discussions with my mother about how God might have used evolution as a form of creation, or why it’s unfair to say that Catholics aren’t true Christians (as my tradition did). These talks were welcome, and, as far as I can remember, my opinions were always respected.
In addition to my natural inquisitivity, or perhaps contributing to it, was the fact that I grew up in a town known for its liberal, hippy-esque culture. With this came a fundamental distrust--and often animosity--toward organized religion. Usually, in these contexts, “organized religion” means Christianity. In one way I suppose this type of opposition helped to solidify the church community’s identity and feeling of singularity as a local institution; in another, for those of us who went to public schools and spent our free time doing average local activities, perhaps it also balanced us out with a healthy level of skepticism that was perpetually being refilled.
There were always things about the version of Christianity with which I grew up that I accepted without actual, personal conviction. I thought this was just the way it was, that I didn’t know everything, and that overall the Church was “right” and I did not want to be wrong. I never wanted to go out and argue random strangers into completely changing their worldviews, but I was told that if I didn’t step up when the opportunities arose, the inevitable damnation of those individuals’ souls would be on my shoulders.
(Yes, I was actually taught that if I did not tell people about Jesus, the fact that they would eventually end up in hell would be my fault.)
I can’t actually think of a time when every single thought and feeling I had was totally in line with the things I was being taught in church. At the same time, I thought (and was taught) that there was virtue in choosing to believe things that I did not understand or for which I had no clear evidence. It was called “faith”. The fact that one of the central tenets of my tradition was the total fragility and unreliability of the human mind might have had something to do with my submission to the cause, as well. Oh, the manipulation!
(Next time on “Losing My Religion”...Saving Strangers’ Souls: Adventures in Proselytizing)