Leaving religion is harder than joining it

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I’ve been thinking about why I still go to church, why I still identify as Christian generally and Catholic specifically, why I still go to religious events here and there, and why I’m not out as non-believing/unaffiliated/agnostic to more than a handful of people…and why I haven’t really admitted it to myself. The first thing is that I’m not joining anything, I’m leaving something. We live in a dichotomous world where you join a “side” and identify with a label, and I’m not switching sides or changing labels, I’m losing them completely. If I was becoming an atheist, there’d be something to identify with. But, all I’m doing is seeking truth, to the best of my ability, wherever it may lie – so if a religion has something that, to my cognitive abilities, is true, then I will defend that aspect of that religion (and vice versa). I now understand how awkward it must be to come out as “not-straight” or “gender nonconforming.”

But, bigger than that, it’s hard to leave a religion because of community. When you are part of a religion, you make friends, spouses, acquaintances, and allies centered around a common belief and affiliation. When you convert to a religion, it’s amazing the number of friends you gain – you get brought into a community. But when you leave a religion, and don’t join a new religion or specific ideology or philosophy, not only will you lose a number of friends, but you don’t have a new community to be brought into.

I grew up very connected to Evangelical circles – I was guaranteed at least a few friends and social connections solely on the basis of a shared faith. When I became Catholic, leaving behind nearly all of those relationships was bearable because I joined a massive network of Catholic friends and professional connections. Since I starting doubting God and religion, I’ve only voiced my concerns to a very select few in my Catholic circle. But, I’ve already been experiencing alienation – aside from the bridges I’ve already burned and the casual friendships I’ve already lost from my outspoken support of LGBTQ people, I also lost a very close friend.

I met this friend my first day of college – he lived across the hall from me. I already knew that I was going to convert to Catholicism now that I was out of my parents’ house, and he was returning to the Church after spending his teenage years away – so we were both at a similar point in life. But, we were also ending at the same destination from different paths, and were thus able to provide each other with some perspective. We immediately became very close friends and remained so – my wife and I even gave our first child this friend’s name as a middle name. About 9 months ago I told him about my doubt in detail via email – and he was silent. We got together here and there but there was clearly something different. Finally, about 3 months ago we got together and he apologized for avoiding me and told me that my doubt scared him, so he bolted. He said he wanted to remain friends (which is quite a statement considering that just 6 months prior to this, we had been very close friends for almost a decade) – but given his devout piety and how our relationship has changed, I’m not holding my breath. This is the closest friendship I’ve ever lost – it’s been really hard coming to terms with its gradual death. I kind of want to put the relationship out of its misery.

I suspect that, like when I left Evangelicalism, leaving Catholicism is going to mean the death of all but a couple of my religious friendships. But unlike when I left Evangelicalism, I’m not joining another belief group. There’s no community with open arms and a billion adherents from which to choose friends. There’s no building I can walk into and know that, at the very least, I share some trait in common with everyone there. There’s no shared moral compass, there’s no old ladies organizing support from thousands of people when you have a family emergency, there’s no validation in your beliefs. Fear. Fear of leaving that behind keeps me, not only in the fold, but silent on the real harm the fold does to many of my fellow humans.

On the other hand, opening up my world to any possibility is exciting. For the first time in my life I am meeting other human beings where they are – judging them on the content of their character and not where they go on Sundays…or what they do (consensually) in their bedroom. It’s freeing to commune with someone over dinner and beer, sharing in this common experience called humanity. And, since I’ve stopped limiting my associations to a religion or worldview, I’ve been amazed at the great people I’ve come into contact with – atheists, traditionalist Catholics, liberal Catholics, agnostics, Evangelicals, Methodists, Mormons, Jews – there are many people who are willing to put human beings above their theoretical ideals. I think it’s tempting for many who leave religion to cut themselves off from religious people as a whole, seeing them as toxic. But, the reality is that there are good and bad apples in every batch. And, it gives me hope that I can start having deep relationships on the basis that we are both human, and not on a shared belief. But, it will come at a cost.

I’m stuck in two worlds. Afraid of what’s next.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.

-1 John 4:18


5 thoughts on “Leaving religion is harder than joining it

  1. You’ve probably heard it before, but true friends won’t leave you, no matter what. I’m living that reality. My circle of friends has diminished dramatically. And…it’s painful. And…its lonely. Meeting new people who are without masks s a big challenge. The payoff makes it worth the effort.

    Hang in there, my blogging friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, man. Yes, true friends won’t leave me – I still have some friendships from my Evangelical days – but, man, it’s tough finding out who your true friends are. And surprising – I’ve been surprised at who sticks with me and who doesn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find it surprising how much I can relate to this. Even in the transition from my evangelical upbringing to a mainline church, which is a pretty small transition in comparison to the journey you’ve been through, I have experienced and felt a lot of the same things. I’ve lost dear friendships due to my shifting beliefs. And though I still identify as a Christian even to myself, I often experience times of deep doubt, and in general I find that I now connect much better with my non-Christian friends than my Christian ones.

    Liked by 1 person

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