As I look back on the 2010s, I see a decade where I became increasingly independent: Moving out of the family home, working, travelling, making my own choices, owning my own ideas and values.
That independence then led me to places and ideas that I would never have expected at the start of the decade, even to independence from the religion that had once defined me.
An important disclaimer
It’s worth looking at my previous post, Illusory spiritual growth. As with that post, I think it’s important to see where I started from to show how much increasing independence has changed me.
This requires an important disclaimer: I’m going to be talking about the constraints of living in a strongly religious family home. I have to. Living by myself gave me a freedom that probably isn’t even possible with many people in the same house trying to live together.
However, I don’t in any way wish to imply that we were not properly cared for or that I was unhappy in that environment. I got on well with my parents and siblings, and I still do. We felt loved, and we built a shared vocabulary and shared experiences that still hold us together today.
Much of who I am today is due to the love and support of my family and particularly my parents. My parents encouraged us to seek independence, and while they may be disappointed by some of the places it led me, they accept me.
Even where I talk about constraints that seem problematic looking back, I don’t know I always felt constrained by them at the time. And I know many of them were because our parents loved us and wanted the best for us. Good intentions certainly aren’t everything, but they matter.
A portrait of family life
Family meal-times were important. So were family Bible readings, prayer, and attending ecclesial activities.
We had breakfast and dinner together, with Bible readings before breakfast and after dinner. There were prayers before both meals and readings. We rotated around the family table, and the person who was in the “prayer seat” led the prayers. We each prepared our own breakfast and lunch, but almost all evening meals were cooked by Mum.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we attended almost every ecclesial event, including two Sunday services, a Wednesday night Bible class, and many Saturdays filled with talks and activities, particularly for those of us attending various youth groups. This was not a choice - or at least, if it was I didn’t realise it.
By that time, I had had my own laptop for many years, and had very few restrictions on how much time I spent on it. But I can see now that there were many limitations on what I could use it for, though not all of them were spelled out in so many words. For example, in practice there was no playing of immersive computer games, no curiosity about certain important life topics (sex, for example), and no seeking out perspectives that contradicted the family faith.
I don’t want to make it sound like my parents were running some kind of surveillence state, because that’s over-simplistic, but at the same time these things weren’t accidental. My parents were worried about their children being led astray. Everyone knew the internet in particular was a gateway to unimaginable evil, and one of their responses was that all uses of it should be in a somewhat public space.
While I did sometimes use my laptop in my bedroom, that was frowned on. I usually used it at the kitchen table. I always positioned myself with my back to the wall, which was not accidental, but that still left the possibility others saw the things I was doing as they walked past. And it would be obvious if, for example, I was playing games rather than working. I’m sure it meant I didn’t explore some things just because I might have to explain them - even if I didn’t think exploring those things wrong.
The truth is that I was a good child, and I certainly wasn’t doing “bad stuff”. But I think being able to be monitored still bothered me, and maybe I didn’t always know the exact line where “bad stuff” might be considered to start.
I don’t believe my parents were monitoring our internet usage. After all, I was already reading the ex-Christadelphian site and commenting anonymously before I left home, and they never mentioned it. But I was aware they could monitor it, and that also probably contributed to self-censoring (Nowadays, I think children wanting to avoid that kind of monitoring would be more likely to use their phones, but that wasn’t such a thing back then).
The soundscape was also shared. I don’t remember any of us using headphones (I certainly didn’t), and I don’t know whether this was a deliberate decision or just the way it worked out. This largely ruled out use of video content, and meant if you were visiting somewhere disapproved you might risk an awkward autoplay video with sound. It also gave me less chance to explore my own musical tastes, though I was fairly content with the largely classical music commonly played in the family.
This also stretched to the movies we watched. We didn’t have a TV, and basically never went to the movies. In my childhood, that had meant watching very little audio-visual content of any kind. However, in the 2000s computers had started getting DVD drives, and suddenly it was OK to watch DVDs (don’t ask me why). I think for my younger siblings much the same happened in the 2010s with increasing access to audio-visual content through YouTube.
However, watching DVDs was still a family thing, and probably didn’t happen more than once a week. Mainstream movies were looked down on, mostly due to one or more of the three deadly sins: Swearing, nudity, and excessive violence.
Adaptations of the classics were generally fine: For example, I have fond memories of Pickwick Papers, Pride & Prejudice, and the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. Children’s movies were usually fine too, as was anything G-rated. Documentaries showing the wonders of God’s creation were good, particularly animal documentaries, though it was of course necessary to ignore the content suggesting evolution or an old earth.
With the exception of films we had to watch for school, I don’t ever recall watching a film with on-screen nudity, let alone sex. Violence was slightly more OK in moderation, but not if it had too much blood or realism. But the net result was that I had almost no opportunity to know iconic films like, say, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Though, to be fair, I think I avoided LotR because, as a Tolkien fan, I expected to disapprove of the changes from the book. And as for superhero movies, they were right out.
The house was filled with books, often older ones, and we combed second-hand bookshops and libraries looking for more. However, any book we were reading was similarly typically in a public space, and anyone could question those decisions. For that reason, there were some books I read bits of in book shops or libraries but wouldn’t bring home.
I didn’t have my own car. Mostly because I didn’t need one: We were right next to the train line which got me to and from work. And when going to any ecclesial events I would rarely be on my own.
There was no alcohol in the house, and with the exception of communion wine I’m not sure I drank any alcohol while I was still at home. I certainly never went out drinking with friends or anything like that.
These things are just snapshots. The overall picture, though, is that a lot of the time someone could know where I was and what I was doing, and that constrained me. In my teens many of these actions had been dictated to me. In my twenties I’m sure I continued with these actions because I believed in them and because of habit, but also because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.
Perhaps it’s always true that parents want to know more about where their children are and what they are doing than those children want them to. However, I think it made things more difficult when we knew that only a few things were “good” things, while a fair percentage of “normal” things were at best sub-optimal, possibly outright “bad”. I was already busy enough that doing things spontaneously could be difficult, and I knew that if I did things that disrupted the family routine or took me away from ecclesial activities I would have to justify those choices.
This meant I had comparatively few times when I casually caught up with friends outside of organised events, and also comparatively few times when I did things by myself. I probably could have done more “normal” things, but didn’t, and I don’t know how much of that was that I didn’t want to do those things, and how much was that I feared disapproval, or didn’t know those things were an option, or just plain had no idea where to start.
The thing is that I was a fairly compliant child, and wanted to please my parents. I’m not sure how often I pushed boundaries - maybe I really should have pushed more. Perhaps it was less that my parents tried to control me and more that I limited myself to try and avoid disappointing them or having to answer awkward questions.
I don’t think I found it particularly constricting, though I would be hesitant to go back to it now. Even though I grew adept at hiding things, I’m not sure I had much I actually needed to hide.
Doing religion my way
Initially, I made choices that doubled down on religion. For example, I flew to India within 24 hours of my final Uni exam, and stayed there till a few days before starting a graduate job. And I think that makes sense: It was all that I knew.
However, as I described in my last post, this independence also meant that I was doing religion my way. As a full-time professional I made opportunities to speak at BibleTech:2010 and to go on mission work for three months in 2011. But I don’t think anyone else would have made the same choices. They were my choices, they were funded with my money, and no-one else had a say in them.
As it turned out, one of my more fateful religious choices was following an ex-Christadelphian site and critiquing what I saw as unbalanced or incorrect coverage of the religion. I don’t know whether those around me would have considered that a good idea. And after a little while I did it anonymously because I feared disapproval and didn’t want to be tracked. Again, it was an independent choice that I was free to make, that I viewed as part of my religious duty, and which led me in unexpected directions and exposed me to facts I didn’t know.
Following the (capitalist) Christadelphian dream
Going on mission work at the end of 2011 was a desperate attempt to revitalise my faith. However, at the same time I was looking to move out of the family home. I’d already unlocked the “stable job” achievement, and everyone (including me) knew that the obvious next life step was getting a foot on the fabled property ladder.
Even before leaving for India, I placed offers on several houses. None of those offers were accepted, but they just show what my expectations were. I guess I knew in my heart that the mission work was just an interlude, and that life as a software developer in Melbourne was the real life I was preparing for.
Within a week of returning from India I first inspected the house I would later buy, and in which I am now sitting writing this post. Family members talked about the wonder of God’s timing, but I knew better. It’s not perfect, but I like it.
And I think that was about as far as I followed the approved script.
Maybe I was supposed to have got married before getting on the property ladder, or maybe it was supposed to be afterwards. I’m not sure. Anyway, marriage to a fellow believer and having children was definitely supposed to be in the script, and neither of those things happened.
I’m sure there were many reasons for that. One reason of course just being that I didn’t know where to begin: If I had, I might already have been in a significant relationship before I had the chance to experience increased independence or increased doubts.
However, once I did have doubts, I knew that getting involved with a Christadelphian woman would be neither wise for myself nor fair to them, and I wasn’t ready to break the rules around relationships with non-Christadelphians.
Looking back, though, I think there was another important reason I couldn’t even acknowledge to myself: Now I was in my own house, making my own decisions, I valued my freedom too much. Marriage and children might have added wonderful things to my life, but they would also have constrained me. Perhaps I needed to discover me before I could figure out how to relate with others in that way.
The reason I couldn’t acknowledge it to myself is that I would have considered it “selfish”. Said out loud, it would have been neglecting my “duty” because I cared about me more than I cared about those around me or about the glory of God. And that would be shocking.
It wasn’t till later that I came to realise that that “duty” was imposed on me by others, and it was up to me whether I accepted it or not. More than that, that it was OK to make my own choices and discover what I liked and valued. However, it turns out that long before I realised that I was often still capable of making such “selfish” decisions - I just couldn’t acknowledge to myself or others that that was what I was doing.
Two important points of stability
Over the rest of the decade I gained increasing independence, and as a result was able to change many parts of my life. However, there were two important points of stability around which that change was based: My job and my house. They were places where I was increasingly free to assert my independence from religion and from family customs and expectations.
I’m not sure whether they were actually necessary. Maybe I could have made more of the changes I wanted more quickly without being tied to these two things, or maybe it would just have filled too much of my time and been too overwhelming trying to change everything.
However, I think it’s important to remember that independence and stability can be perfectly compatible. Independence certainly means the ability to make changes without having to consult others, but it also means you get the choice how much you will change, and how much you will keep the same. And I think it’s fair to say that I valued stability more at the start of the decade, and value change more now.
But it wasn’t just that those places allowed me to be a different person, but that they taught me different things. Consider religion: In my first year of work I had taken many opportunities to talk to my co-workers about my faith, and beat myself up about not doing it more. In later years I tried to avoid talking about it at all. I don’t know what message I ended up sending to them, but I do know what they taught me: They showed me it was quite possible to be good without being religious, and they also exposed me to inconvenient facts I was unaware of.
These two points of stability were the parts of the approved societal script that I had followed fairly unquestioningly. And yet it turned out that they gave me the independence I needed to reject the expectations of others and forge my own path in life.
Private prayer and Bible reading
I’ve talked about giving up private prayer. That happened within months of moving into my house. It might even have been within weeks.
I had probably struggled with private prayer in the family home for a couple of years with no-one noticing. After all, it was meant to be, y’know, private. Did I feel more freedom in my house to actually reject it all? Or was it just coincidence that that particular stage of my journey happened at that particular time?
In an odd way, I wonder now whether it was actually the freedom to pray without restraint that allowed me to reject it. I was able to beg and to plead without fear of anyone else seeing and judging me, and then notice that absolutely nothing had changed and I couldn’t even know if there was anyone listening.
At the same time, though, I had had that kind of freedom at home when family had been away on mission work, and had occasionally used it in agonised prayer. And in those times it didn’t lead to me giving up on the idea of prayer - sometimes it even strengthened my faith. So I don’t know.
Freedom to make morally neutral choices
When I started on this journey of independence I would have been horrified by the very idea of rejecting religion. But not all of my decisions were so morally charged. Much of the time it was freedom to do things my way where there really wasn’t a right or a wrong. And some of those freedoms may have contributed to bigger life choices I made - but they didn’t have to.
In some ways I wasn’t ready for the change of living in my own house. I moved there in late autumn with shorter days and cold coming, and for a while felt trapped by myself in an unfamiliar location.
Theoretically, I had the independence and could have made significant changes from day 1, but in practice not too much changed. I’d made sure my house was within walking distance of a train station, so I still took the train to work. I may have got a car, but about the only place I drove was religious services. I may have got a phone, but I hardly ever called or texted anyone. I may have had my own internet connection and bookshelves that I knew couldn’t be monitored, but I didn’t immediately seek out disapproved sites or forbidden books.
I kept a similar schedule at work, though I probably started later because I was further away from work. I ate much the same food, though I was cooking it myself. I could have eaten out more, but I didn’t really (after all, wouldn’t that have been “selfish”?) Nor did I start drinking alcohol.
But any of those things I was free to change, and could make the changes at my own pace. And it was only after I started to make changes that I really appreciated having my own home.
Coming from a somewhat complementarian system, many of my fellow religionists wondered how I could possibly manage the cooking. I quickly found the right answer: “All I have to do is make food that I’m happy to eat”. The truth is that I’ve never spent enough time to become more than a passable cook, but it has allowed me to try many more types of fruits and vegetables and meats than I ever did at home. Some I found I liked and kept as part of my regular diet, others it was enough to try once.
The point is that with many of these decisions I was able to feel more in control and do more of what I like. It may have been “selfish”, but I couldn’t see that it was hurting anyone.
Freedom to explore
In my childhood and teenage years I got the reputation of being set in my ways and resisting change because there was a “right way” of doing things. However, whether or not this was true, it also became clear to me in early adulthood that I appreciated discovering new places and trying new things more than many of my siblings. As I gained independence, I was able to do more of this.
It’s easy to point to something like my travels in the US West in 2010 as the place where it started. And it’s certainly true that out there I got a lot more freedom and independence and novelty than I was used to, and wanted more. But that same exploring spirit had been shown earlier in simple actions like consulting maps to discover places near the office I hadn’t been and could visit during lunch break or in an after work stroll.
When I had my own car, and my own house, and my own schedule, and my own salary, I was more able to explore. It could be within Melbourne. It could be taking short holidays in parts of Victoria I hadn’t been. Or it could be larger overseas trips.
I think both I and those around me saw the overseas trips as things that were somehow unusual and not representative of my mundane, “normal” life - rather than seeing them as an outworking of principles I was increasingly applying to life generally. I also find it interesting that in those activities I was explicitly embracing my mortality - even though it would be some years before I officially gave up the idea that I should be living this life to the glory of God, and looking forward to far greater joys in a future afterlife. For example, I explicitly remember things like choosing to pay attention to the changing of the seasons each year because I was only going to get a certain number of years.
So, when I talk about bringing the tourist spirit home as something I was able to achieve after quitting religion, it’s somewhat true - but it was already something I had valued. As I gained independence I was better able to indulge it, and as a result discover how important it was to me.
After leaving home I didn’t have to worry so much about family meal-times or curfews or prejudices, nor did I have to tell anyone where I was going. If I wanted to be out walking at midnight or visiting a museum on a weekend, I could. But religion still kept me fairly busy - leaving it behind meant leaving behind taboos that might have been holding me back, but it also gave me more time to explore and discover new things to try.
Freedom to watch Star Wars (well, sort of)
Long before I left home I knew the Star Wars music fairly well (John Williams is amazing, OK?). I also had a rough idea of the plot.
Within six months of moving into my house, I had watched the original trilogy, and enjoyed it. I still do. Seeing Return of the Jedi last year with the MSO playing live was one of the highlights of my musical calendar.
Sound morally neutral? A pretty straightforward use of my independence? Actually, it’s quite a cringe-worthy story. I told myself I could watch them to be more “culturally relevant” and able to speak to unbelievers about mainstream topics.
I find this story interesting not so much for what it is but what it shows about independence. I was in my own house. There was no-one else around. I was perfectly free to watch whatever I wanted to watch. If there were any rules against watching Star Wars, I didn’t need to tell anyone I’d broken them.
And yet I still wasn’t OK with just watching Star Wars because I wanted to watch it. I needed a “real reason” - even though I’m pretty sure I knew at the time that wanting to watch it was the real reason. Freeing the body from external constraints is one thing - but that doesn’t necessarily free the mind.
That was the original trilogy. When it came to the prequels, there were more barriers, because the last two were M-rated. A hang-over from my family upbringing was that I never watched M-rated films (and thus I think assumed that they were worse than they actually are).
A slow process
This same pattern played out in more important areas. I had many principles internalised from my family upbringing and religious experience. Even for actions that now seem morally neutral, it could require agonised soul-searching and convoluted justifications before I was able to take those actions. Perhaps I still have some of those principles internalised, years after rejecting the religion.
In my own house I had complete freedom to read any books I liked - books with sex and swearing and violence, apologetics books, science books, books questioning Christianity, anything. No-one else was stopping me - but I had to be mentally ready before I could allow myself to do it. It was also a place where I could have played violent computer games, spent time with “worldly” friends, got drunk, taken illicit drugs. Sometimes I didn’t do these things because of deeply-held convictions, but other times it was just habit, or I hadn’t yet figured out that it was an option. I haven’t done all those things now, or even necessarily particularly desire to. But the fact is that I could if I wanted to.
Even in public I could have done all sorts of things without much chance of family members or other people I knew noticing. I could have gone out for a walk, short or long, at almost any time of day or night. I could have visited a museum, and freely gone into the more “dangerous” sections (evil-ution, for example). I could have gone to wild parties. I could have gone to a strip club, or even a brothel. But for each of those things, I would have had to have chosen to do them.
Sometimes these decisions cropped up in the unlikeliest of places: For example, at the start of 2015 I was discovering the Great Ocean Road, visited Cape Otway light-station, and found a display on our Polar Dinosaurs from 110 or 120 million years ago (even though I think I was still officially YEC at that point…). At the time I was by myself and was curious, but couldn’t quite acknowledge to myself that I was curious.
Other times it was more deliberate: For example, at the end of 2015 I was in the city for an evening Christmas concert, and deliberately chose to have a “Day of Rebellion”, visit a museum, and seek out the evolution section rather than trying to avoid it.
Basically, growing independence meant that no-one but me could stop me reading inconvenient facts about the universe or about religion or about life. Similarly, no-one else could stop me doing things that had formerly been forbidden, but didn’t seem that bad. And eventually I got tired of stopping myself.
Some of these things may not seem a big deal to anyone else. But they were a big deal to me.
Where was your accountability partner?
Last year, I wrote about how in retrospect my deconversion felt inevitable. One thing that was sometimes suggested to prevent that kind of slide was having an “accountability partner”: someone to talk to when you felt temptation. I’ve never had one, so I don’t know how much difference it would have made. But I’m guessing not much.
Part of the problem is that most of the time when accountability was talked about, it was talked about with reference to sexual sins. I probably wouldn’t consider those things “sins” now, but when I did consider them sins I didn’t commit them. (I’m not sure that shows any particular merit on my part - I just don’t think I was as tempted as many seem to be, and didn’t have (or make) as many opportunities).
Of course, walking away from “the Truth” would also have been considered wrong, both by me and those around me. But accountability structures weren’t set up to handle those things, and I really wasn’t doing anything “wrong” - even if I defaulted to keeping it secret. Yes, I had doubts - and I didn’t expect confessing them to anyone else would have helped with them.
But, brought up as I was, could I really think that seeking out truth was wrong? Maybe I thought some of the directions it took me were wrong, but it wasn’t wrong by itself.
Had I had an accountability partner, I would probably have appeared to be the more “good” one, and might well have been judgemental enough that my partner no longer wanted to have anything to do with me.
So who or what are you accountable to?
The reason why I bring up accountability is that I’m sure some people would think “If you’re independent and free to do whatever you like, what stops you doing terrible things?” I feared this myself as a believer - that if I abandoned religion, I would completely lose my moral compass.
What I’ve come to realise is that intrinsic motivation is usually better than extrinsic motivation. While I obviously had ideas of both reward and punishment, I wasn’t really doing what I did to gain the reward and escape the punishment. I did it not just because the Bible said it, but because I believed it to be the right thing to do.
Even as I became more independent, this continued to be true. I wasn’t accountable to God or to the Bible or to other believers. I was accountable to me - and I still am.
As I’ve gained independence and discovered more about the world I’ve changed my principles. But the fact that I have principles and take them seriously hasn’t changed at all.
As can be seen from my Star Wars discussion, independence theoretically allowed me to do all kinds of things, but I still had to choose to do those things and justify them to myself.
This was at a time when I still did believe in the Bible as a source of truth. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it still requires interpretation. It’s all very well talking about me being accountable to the Bible, or to another believer for that matter, but what was I to do if I got conflicting opinions from different people about whether the Bible permitted me to say or do something? Ultimately, I had to make the decision of how I was going to apply the Bible and be happy with that decision.
This is also still true now. I may work from general principles like “Try to avoid harming others” rather than “The Bible is the word of God” - but I need to determine what that means in any particular situation. I can (and do) listen to others for their opinion of right or wrong - but I still have to be the final arbiter.
One of the positives of leaving religion is that I have been forced to think about my beliefs and my principles, and I continue to change them if I need to. That doesn’t make them perfect, of course, but at least I know I’m not just doing things because that was my family background or because that’s what society demands.
My goal isn’t to cast off constraint for the sake of casting off constraint. What’s been important has been to get rid of constraints that I’ve found unnecessary or even unhelpful. If there are rules or principles that I still think valuable, I will continue to keep them.
I do not have an “accountability partner”. But I do have a variety of trusted confidantes, both in person and online.
While dealing with doubts I played a lone hand, largely of necessity. Now, there are few things of importance that I don’t discuss with or confide in siblings or friends. And I think it’s healthier that way.
I may be wrong, but I think this is something that happened because of my growing independence, not in spite of it. Now, I have more confidence in my own decisions, so I can discuss with others without so much fear that they will argue me into a different course of action that is bad for me.
I find getting rid of the theoretically “objective” standard of scripture a big help here. Before, people could trump my reasoning with scripture, or hit me with a clobber verse. I might disagree with either the scripture or how they applied it, but it was much harder to argue against it. Often that made it easier just not to talk about things I was doing, particularly where I thought I’d be given the “wrong” answer, but I don’t think the secrecy that required was healthy for me.
It’s still true that I sometimes choose carefully who I confide particular things in. If there is something that I think important, I’m much less likely to confide it in someone who I know completely rejects it. Even if I’m quite happy to confide other things in that person.
Motivations can be complicated things. I’m sure sometimes part of my motivation is either “I don’t want to disappoint X” or “X values that, so maybe I should consider it important too”, both of which are part of what I think accountability partners are supposed to provide. But is it the primary motivation? I’m not so sure.
I think I’ve got a better support network now than I had at the start of the decade, and am better at using it. As I’ve grown in independence and confidence, I’ve been able to discover more of what I value, and have more like-minded people about me. In this case, I don’t have like-minded people because I wanted “yes-men” to rubbber-stamp my decisions, but because life’s too short to always be proving yourself to people with diametrically opposed views.
These are people that I trust and care about and want to be able to share with. I value their opinions, so I do listen to them and try to learn from them. But I need to make the final decision about what I do, and I also need to take responsibility for that decision.
I stress this because I’m not sure it’s something I saw at the time, and because it’s very different to the narrative I grew up with.
Finding my own way in the world is not wrong. Finding what I value is not wrong. As a result, an accountability structure based on trying to stop me doing the wrong thing wouldn’t have helped me.
What I actually needed? A guide.
Because I was fairly cautious when figuring out how best to use my independence, and because I was always accountable to myself, I didn’t really need an accountability partner. Instead, what I needed was a guide. Not someone to tell me what to do, but someone who would question some of my assumptions of what I shouldn’t be doing.
I didn’t need someone to constrain me - I was just fine at doing that myself. Nor did I need to be told the rules I was missing. Instead, I needed someone to tell me that the rules I’d internalised and applied to myself were more strict than necessary. I needed someone to tell me it was OK to have fun, to do something that I didn’t have to justify as “to the glory of God”. And that had to be someone who I would be ready to listen to.
Consider what I wrote about Star Wars above. Someone who thought Christians shouldn’t watch movies because there were more important things to be doing couldn’t help me. However, nor could someone who had always thought it was fine for Christians to watch movies: They couldn’t necessarily understand how much I was constraining myself, while I might have judged them as an insufficiently spiritual Christian and ignored their advice. At that stage, probably the most helpful person was my brother, who came from the same family background as me and yet got on just fine without making all the self-denying choices I was making.
Ultimately, many of my biggest changes came from expanding my mental “morally netural” category. The more I was OK with trying different things just because I wanted to, the more I could figure out what I liked and what I didn’t. But also, the more I expanded that category, the more I could then listen without judgement to the experiences of others from different backgrounds to me. Once I was willing to listen, it wasn’t too big a step to realise that maybe I could actually learn from them.
Incidentally, this is part of why I’m now a little bit more open about some of the things I’m doing and thinking: I explicitly want my younger siblings to know that there are other options. It’s their decision whether they want to take those options or not. But I’m not sure I even knew those options existed.
Leaving religion was a continuation, not a new beginning
Sometimes it feels like true independence only came once I quit religion, and that my new life is a direct result of leaving religion. However, in practice they were much more inter-twined. I needed independence and freedom so I could safely question my childhood religion in the first place. Making the final break official was the culmination of many changes, small and large, over a number of years.
Leaving religion was like leaving home - I suddenly had more time, more potential to do my own thing, and fewer external restrictions. However, I went to the same workplace the day after I sent in my resignation letter as I had the day before. I still had to figure out how best to use those opportunities, and that took time.
Now it seems like I’m a very different person, but it wasn’t an overnight change. Not only can I trace many of the steps to get there, but I can also look at diaries from, say, my last mission trip in 2011 and see some of the same spirit.
The independence was necessary
Religious people really want to have it both ways. They welcomed my independence when it led to spiritual outcomes, whether real or illusory. They welcomed the fact that I wasn’t always conventional, and that I did things others wouldn’t.
If I’d somehow been less independent I might have retained my faith. But I wouldn’t have been the great spiritual leader they wanted me to be.
I needed to have a better understanding of the world. To have a stable job and my own home. To have freedom to follow the goals I set myself, whether spiritual or secular. To know what I believe right and wrong. I needed that no matter which direction I went.
Instead, they wanted me to be accountable to myself when it made me more passionate for the gospel, but not when I realised that the Bible was a poor foundation and it was my obligation to walk away from it. I don’t think it works like that. If they think independence has benefits, they can’t just switch it off when it no longer suits.
Independence doesn’t guarantee wisdom
For me, independence can mean freedom to set my own timetable without so much need to consider others, to make last minute decisions, and to change my plans on a whim.
If I want to get home at 2AM, I can. If it’s a weekend or holiday and I want to write through to 6AM and then sleep till 3PM, I can (I may even have done it finishing this post…). If I want to work late one day and leave early another, I can.
These things may or may not be healthy, of course. Independence doesn’t necessarily give you wisdom. And I’ve never denied that I sometimes do stupid things (even if they are in pursuit of something I value).
The truth is that my current level of independence is convenient for me. I don’t know whether that makes it good for me.
Since leaving religion, I have tended to avoid weekly commitments, because I had enough of them with religion and they would get in the way of making spontaneous decisions or seizing one-off opportunities. However, I’m also fairly sure that prevents me from trying things which would be a larger commitment but would also have larger benefits to me and perhaps to the community at large.
In the coming decade, I may find that I need to adjust the balance. To have more predictable routines. To put more priority on things I know and value rather than on trying something new. To take more responsibilities for others. To grow up into the “responsible adult” that perhaps I looked more like in my early twenties than I do now. But if so, I hope it will be because of independent choices I make, not because it’s forced on me by, say, the family religion or by stereotypical societal expectations.
This is my story. It is looking back on a decade that was for me tempestuous, and trying to figure out how I got somewhere I could never have imagined at the start of the decade. However, I have stressed some parts of it because I wonder whether they might be more generally applicable.
For me, independence did not mean giving up on morality. It did not mean a free-for-all. Instead, I had to develop my own moral centre. It meant taking the control I both needed and wanted, and also the responsibility that goes along with that.
Independence meant the freedom to discover who I am and what I value. That was a slow process, and I’m not going to claim it’s done. In the process, I found that I’d outgrown my childhood religion.
As I’ve become more aware of my mortality, I’ve realised that the choices I make are also choices not to do other things. Independence may have allowed me to make a more satisfying use of the 24 hours I have in a day, but it doesn’t give me 48 hours.
My life isn’t perfect, but I’m content with what I’ve been able to discover and achieve in the 2010s, and look forward to seeing what comes in the 2020s. I hope to continue to be free to be me - whatever I decide that means - and to be free to make the choices I feel right and to support the people I care about.