All of the social media bios for this blog feature the tagline, “I’m an ex-Christian and so can you,” but being an “ex” Christian is a tricky thing. When it comes down to it, it might even be impossible. I think it’s fairly clear what I mean by it: I was a Christian, and now I’m not. The question is, though, whether that is something one can actually choose. To just not be in a relationship with this particular religion anymore, like any other kind of “ex”. Certainly I can identify as no-longer Christian, and I can stop participating in the rituals, but is all that goes in to being "a Christian" so easily sloughed off?
There are some denominations within Christendom that say, actually, you cannot be 'un-born' once you have been 'born again'; you cannot kick Jesus out of your heart. They believe that once one achieves salvation, one can never lose it. One becomes a child of God, and no matter how great a distance one wanders from the fold, the Lord will always consider one ‘saved’. Basically, you have a passport to heaven that never expires. This argument is quickly rendered impotent by the fact that I don’t believe in salvation happening in the first place, but it’s worth noting for the sake of discussion; and, it’s nice to know should I turn out to be wrong about all of this atheism stuff.
Regardless of whether the church believes a once-faithful member can fully cut ties with the divine, there is the issue of whether or not I can fully cut ties with the church. I was bathed and clothed in Christianity through all my most formative years. I prayed daily, attended church weekly, and went to Christian camp each summer til sophomore year. There is simply no way to switch off its influence on my ways of being in and interacting with the world. It still shapes my morality, it still shapes the way I build relationships and how I treat people, and it is still the very real faith of so many family members and friends. It would be intellectually dishonest and generally disingenuous to never think of or take into account the ways it informs me, even to this day. Yes, I can say that I no longer believe in Christianity as a doctrine, but I cannot say that I am no longer, in some sense, entangled with Christianity as I continue the journey of my life. I am not, and may never be, free of it all together.
There is yet one more aspect to consider here, in this exploration of the possibility of being truly divorced from the faith. This is the wider cultural aspect. You see, even if I were to painstakingly pick out every sliver of Christian influence from my heart and mind and actions, I would still know how to perform “Christianity”, and that is no small asset in the United States. Christianity--in particular, Evangelical Christianity--is the dominant religion in our culture. Jesus Freaks can whine all they want about being “persecuted” with Starbucks cups and “Happy Holidays” and not getting to force unwanted pregnancies on innocent women, but there’s no denying they have it pretty easy as religious freedom goes. I too have it easy because I not only look like a Christian but can hang with them like a comrade. When I say I look like a Christian I mean that I’m white/European in appearance (as well as identity) and thus easily pass for a stereotypical Christian. People don’t look at me and think Muslim, or Hindu, or anything other than a person that’s of the majority and ‘safe’. In addition, I know the lingo of Christianity, and the stories (which are alluded to throughout Western literature, like code from a secret club), and the rituals. Though I may not personally believe in the church’s tenets any longer, I am a product of its conditioning and therefore hold a certain privileged knowledge that doesn’t change with the convictions of my heart.
So what conclusion might we draw? Is it possible to be an “ex-Christian”? Does it depend on how long one spent being devoted to the faith, or how indoctrinated one was? Can one separate one’s personal convictions from one’s cultural influences, and are there words to succinctly express the difference? Maybe that’s it--maybe this is about words. It’s not inaccurate to say that I’m an ex-Christian, it’s just easy. Sometimes easy, by which I mean rhetorically smooth, is what is called for, as it is when dealing with social media or marketing or the like. For the other times, for the rest of the day and when I’m out living my non-digital life, maybe I have a responsibility to keep the whole story in mind. I have a responsibility, to myself and to others, to understand the words that shaped my thinking; I have a responsibility to be aware of the ways my living has been lubricated by things I was taught when I was young, even if I don’t agree with them anymore. Yes, I am an ex-Christian, but that does not mean that I no longer have anything to do with the church. It means I choose to cease believing in (or act like I believe in) its claims. It does not mean I was never a Christian in the first place. And if anyone has a better term for that than what I’ve come up with, please do let me know.