I came across a post on Patheos from Neil Carter titled, “The High Cost of Leaving Your Faith” that essentially discusses why the journey from faith is often long for those of us who lose belief. There are many similar themes to the ones I addressed in my previous post, “Leaving religion is harder than joining it.” I want to highlight a few parts that spoke to me:
If you read the brutally honest things I say you may find yourself asking “Why on earth did you cling to your faith so long after this? How could you? With no satisfying answers forthcoming?” The simple truth is that the cost of leaving my faith was too high for me to allow myself to go down that mental path. […]When your entire life is built around a religion, leaving it means leaving your life and starting over again from scratch.
I cannot overstate how powerful a deterrent this is to people who already have seen enough to know better than to remain in their faith. They have enough information to critically analyze the beliefs they were taught, but they push the questions down, holding them under like trying to hold a beach ball under water. It can take a lot out of you, but it must be done or else you could lose everything—your friends, your family, your job, your marriage, your kids…you name it. There is no end to what people may take away from you to pressure you back into submission to their faith. See, from their perspective, people’s eternal destinies are at stake here. No punishment (excuse me, “discipline”) short of hellfire is too drastic to coerce you back into faith in (their) God. It’s only because they love you that they will take everything from you in order to save your soul. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the Good Book says.
Yes! I get this because it’s the same circumstance I’m in right now. I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in Christian constructs, but I’m still, on paper, a practicing Catholic. Up until about a year ago, my social circle was largely Catholic – most of the friends I made in the last 8 years or so have been Catholic, and my kids have become good friends with kids of my very devout Catholic friends. “Just leaving” would have profound social impacts on me and my kids. That’s what happens when your life revolves around your religion — it’s a difficult journey to get out.
So you stuff your questions down. You try to forget about them. Or maybe you take them out every once in a while and wrestle some with them (as I did on occasion) but whenever you reach that point wherein the most logical conclusion would be to say, “This is all nonsense,” you have to stop. You have to. If you don’t, the cost will be too high, and you know it. So you stay there for years, maybe even decades. In my case, I made it six more years. During that time I threw myself further into ministry with my local church group. I wrote songs (just the lyrics), delivered spoken messages, arbitrated church crises, and even traveled some for “ministry.” I wrote a book tying nearly twenty years of searching into a neat little package and felt really good about what I had produced—right up until the moment I realized none of it matters. All those carefully nuanced interpretations of the Bible don’t do a thing to make people any different from what or who they already are. It was all an idealized pipe dream and deep down I knew it.
I think all of us who have doubted have been there. When you have been convinced, or have convinced yourself, that God and religion are all that matters in the life, you will do anything you can to hang on to it. Once I began to really doubt, I did exactly what Carter described — I tried to find ways in which the Christian God really cared about the “least of these” and didn’t care about what religion people followed or what they consensually did with their genitals. I tried to explain away the sociopath God of the Old Testament. I tried to make traditional teachings as nuanced and figurative at possible. But, at some point I realized I was grasping for straws, and had stripped religion down so far that it no longer looked anything like Christianity (and given that I live two millennia after Jesus of Nazareth’s death, I shouldn’t attempt to speak for him or project on his purpose).
It was a beautiful dream though, and I almost feel like it’s a small consolation that, of all of the dreamy ideals I could chase, I chose the ones that I did. I feel like I met some really great people along the way. We were all drawn to such beautiful common dreams. But you reach a point in your life when you realize that life is too short to be lived inside your own head. You need reality, and you won’t be satisfied with anything else. Like the son in Big Fish, maybe you see how much it means to people to play along like their stories are true, but for yourself you want to know life as it really is, without the embellishments. For me, it was a part of finally growing up and putting away childish things even though many fully-grown, intelligent people continue to cling to these stories into old age. That doesn’t make them any truer. But it does mean that at some point those people will look at you and shake their heads, saying “What a shame. He used to show so much promise. Now he’s just a disappointment.”
This is the part that really hit close to home. A big reason I began questioning Christianity was that its narrative of humanity didn’t line up with my experience. Some of its “truths” were contradicted by science and facts. Prayer wasn’t efficacious. I was trying to live my life based on abstract values that were largely made up by monastic men in very different contexts than the context in which I live. I had a perfectly constructed fantasy of what the world should look like, largely based on conservative Catholic morality. At some point though, I had to come back to earth. Choices are not theoretical, they have real effects on my life and those in my life. It’s a hard pattern to break when you’ve spent your entire life living in your head. But, at some point you need to provide for your family or look out for your mental health, and no amount of believing the “right” things will do that for you.
I think all of this illustrates the genius of religious power structures. They get you to believe in their program, to make it a crucial aspect of your life, thus making it impossible to change your mind or your life without a high cost. Religion controls us by threatening us with hell and enticing us with heaven, using guilt and shame to attempt to control our thoughts and actions. And just when we want to get out of it, religion controls us with big social consequences for leaving. I know that once I’m ready to finally make the jump, I will be happier for it.