This year I’ve been reflecting on how much I changed in the 2010s. Some of the changes could probably have been expected given my age and stage of life, but leaving religion in particular wasn’t expected by me or by those around me.
It now makes me wonder how many others there are like former-me: People who are young, indoctrinated, dedicated to their religion. Maybe they’re already facing doubts, or maybe they will in the next five or ten years. Maybe they’re already thinking of quitting, or maybe they just view the doubts as things to be conquered.
If I were going back in time, what might I say to former-me? And if anyone feeling these things happens to be reading this post, what might I want them to be aware of?
I’ve been surprised by some of the people I’ve known who have left religion, so I’m sure I’ll be surprised by some of those who quit before 2030. Perhaps it will include some of my siblings or my still-religious peers. Almost certainly it will include many people that I’ve never met and will never meet.
However, if it is going to happen, I don’t know how much doubling down on religion will help. Certainly in my case no amount of giving talks or sitting on committees or doing Bible study or going on mission work made a difference. In some ways, those commitments might have made it harder to leave. But in other ways they brought me into contact with inconvenient truths, and taking the religion seriously meant that I couldn’t put off finding answers for ever.
What would I say to former-me?
When I read some of my thoughts from when I struggled with doubts, I sense the confusion and hurt and anger and despair. Maybe those feelings were always going to be there, no matter how I approached it. I definitely made mistakes, and there are definitely things I wish I’d known or done differently. Maybe if I were doing it over again I could handle it much better, or maybe I’d just end up making most of the same decisions.
However, here’s some of what I might say to former-me:
You’re not doing anything wrong: Religion was an important part of my upbringing. Most of my family and friends were Christadelphians, and I’d always been taught it was “the Truth”. Even thinking about walking away from it felt like a betrayal of everyone around me.
However, there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand the world. There’s nothing wrong with embracing reality. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be sure the things that you believe in and that control your life are true.
You’re not alone: Given that social context, it’s not surprising that I felt alone. The religion seemed to satisfy everyone around me - how come I couldn’t be happy with their pat answers? Of course, I did know that if I was successfully hiding my doubts, there were probably others around me who were doing the same. But I had no way of finding those people. I did know a few people who had quit religion, but didn’t really feel safe confiding in them.
However, what I’ve discovered since quitting is that many, many people from different countries and denominations and religions have asked the same questions as I did, not been happy with the answers given, and eventually walked away. Some of those have written at length about their experiences, or been able to explain exactly why they weren’t happy with the answers. It’s easy to sit in church and feel like you’re the only one who’s not really feeling it, but there are whole communities out there where you will be valued for who you are.
Things will get better: This is something I did hear from a few people. But things had felt so difficult for so long that I feared making the break official would just make things worse.
As it turned out, I was surprised by how quickly things did get better. Yes, I still had a long way to go, but making the break official gave me the opportunity to explore what a new life might look like without the constant mental turmoil. And perhaps it was because I’d taken so long to get to that point that I was then ready to move on and eager to find out what came next.
You can’t keep putting it off forever: When I was doubting, it seemed like I could consider quitting in six months or a year, but never right now. That meant I kept putting it off for ever, and the uncertainty itself was harmful.
This is a hard one, because there’s always something more for you to investigate or discover, and you may never be able to be 100% certain while still trapped in the religion. A time will come when you realise you have to leave anyway, ready or not. Maybe you would be better to get through it faster - but I now know others who did go through it faster, and then found they were forced to make choices they weren’t quite ready for. You will at least be able to be sure you are doing the right thing by the time you finally get to it.
You don’t have to know what comes next: When I officially quit, I had a few ideas what might come next, but nothing concrete. And some family members were critical of this.
But the truth is that I didn’t need to know what came next. It was enough to know that the religion I had followed wasn’t true and was harming me. I did figure out what came next, one thing at a time, and I’m still doing that.
Quitting won’t destroy every relationship: This was one of my biggest fears. So much of my life was built around religion: What would be left if I walked away from it all? Would I end up alienating the people I loved and depended on?
On balance, most people have handled it better than I expected. Yes, relationships changed, and some aren’t quite the same as what they were - but others have ended up deeper and more authentic and more rewarding than I would ever have expected.
Being willing to change when you discover new things is a virtue: My family stressed the importance of unchanging truth, and commitments made and kept.
And keeping commitments can be valuable - so long as you still have reasons to believe in those commitments and uphold them. If you discover the things you believe aren’t based on truth, holding onto them anyway isn’t consistency - it’s stubbornness.
You don’t have to give up morality: As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I feared that when I gave up religion I would also have to give up morality. This is explicitly what we were taught: That true morality had to come from religion. Unbelievers were demonised.
However, I found the reality very different: Not only didn’t I need to consult an ancient religious text before doing what I thought right, but rejecting the religion also meant I didn’t have to resolve conflicts between the text and what I thought right. And it never ceases to amaze me how many people there are who preach literal eternal torment as punishment for sins, then abuse their position to gain power to commit those sins.
Suicide is not the answer: I still don’t know whether this is actually something I needed to hear. In my case, it was connected with feelings of pain and hopelessness, but also to the feeling I was betraying others: If I were to die still holding the truth (at least officially), I wouldn’t have betrayed my family. At the time, I didn’t believe I would ever act on it.
Now, looking back, I can see that if I had acted on it I would have hurt my family far more than my quitting religion did, and I would have missed out on so many wonderful (and healing) experiences. I needed to move forward, not to give up.
Your feelings matter. Your happiness matters. You matter: Growing up, we were taught not to be “selfish”. At least in theory, God was supposed to be put first, and others second. I was supposed to be last. So even if the religion was making me angry or unhappy it was still my duty to stick to it.
I’ve come to realise that it’s OK to act in your own self-interest. It’s OK to choose your own goals. It’s OK to prioritise things you value.
Basically, you are a person with your own inherent value, not just a small cog in God’s mighty plan. If the religion doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you. There’s no guarantee of finding happiness, but you are just fine to care about it and try and discover the things that give you happiness and meaning and pursue them.
Authenticity matters: Near the end of my time in religion, I compartmentalised heavily, and was a very different person at work, at home, and at church. I would do whatever it took to be part of the club. And it took a toll on me.
Being authentic doesn’t necessarily mean being exactly the same person in every context. For example, something may be an important part of your life but just not relevant in your workplace. However, what I’ve found is that being able to share who I am with people who accept it gives me confidence that shows in other parts of my life, and can make me more authentic in those other parts of my life. Just about none of this was possible while living with a religion that required me to suppress large parts of myself.
It’s OK to be different, and to show the parts of your life that make you you. Not everyone is accepting of that, of course. But a lot of people like it.
It’s your life: I think this is the bottom line. It’s your life, so you need to trust yourself and listen to yourself and discover what you value and what you don’t.
Yes, you can and should show some consideration for those around you and for those you care about. But that doesn’t mean completely sacrificing who you are to avoid inconveniencing them. And that’s what remaining religious would have meant for me.
What would I say to others facing doubts?
I’ve found the stories of others helpful, so I share my own in the hope that it may be helpful to others. But I’m not trying to make anyone else a clone of me. Different people may have very different backgrounds from me and take very different paths from me. I hope some of the points applicable to former-me are also helpful to others, but they might not be, and that’s OK.
So, if anyone feeling doubts does happen to be reading this, what I would say is: If you’re like former-me, you may feel isolated and alone, but you’re not. If you should happen to want to talk I’m willing to listen, but I wouldn’t force myself on anyone or assume my way is the one right way of doing things.
Instead, I’d say this: Your experience is valid. Your feelings are valid. You can make decisions for yourself without anyone else interfering. Not your parents, not your believing friends, not your significant other, not your children if you have any. And certainly not random bloggers on the internet like me.
The path I took has some similarities with many other stories I’ve read, but some parts of it are quite unusual. It didn’t have to work for everyone - just for me.
Similarly, your path can be as usual or as unusual as you wish to make it. You can recommit to your faith, or find a different denomination or even religion, or completely leave religion.
It could be disconcerting, but it could also be invigorating. It could be difficult, but it could also be rewarding.
You have both the freedom of and responsibility for living your own life and making your own choices.