I’ve always been the kind of girl who wants to follow all the rules and get all the gold stars. Well, I was. I never wanted to make mistakes or be imperfect. I needed constant tangible proof to reassure me that I wasn’t a worthless failure. Being raised an evangelical conservative Christian was the perfect environment for a little girl constantly hungry for approval and praise. I remember my parents sitting me down when I was four-years-old and explaining that Jesus had died for my sins because he loved me. They told me that I needed to pray to him to forgive my sins and accept him into my heart. Even at that tender age, I understood perfectly what they were telling me. I latched on to the narrative of good and evil immediately. I wanted, needed, to be good. I was all in, 110%. They told me it was about the love of Jesus, but there wasn’t much love in my parents’ religion. There was an exacting demand for perfection. There were strict regulations and lines to stay inside. There was the looming specter of my inevitable inadequacy, my inescapable capacity to sin, and the grim realization that I could never repent enough.
So the constraints of my reality for the next twenty or so years were set. It was like my parents put me in a cage but left the door unlocked. Looking back, this seems a little rude. My parents took away my opportunity to determine what I believe for myself. I eventually reclaimed it as an adult, but after a whole lot of grief and guilt. Not that I’m a (mostly) functioning and reasoning adult, I don’t want to do that to a child. I know they were trying to do what they believed would be the best thing for me. To many Christian parents, not raising your children as God-fearing followers of Christ is like not teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street. You’re sending them out into the world without crucial life-saving knowledge. It’s like being a millionaire and leaving none of it to your children. You have a wonderful thing of immeasurable value, and you’re not sharing it with your beloved offspring.
I understand this mindset. I was raised in it. I was brought up to think that it would be better to die a Christian than to continue living as a non-believer. I once argued with a friend in college over whether or not it was wrong for Christian missionaries to go into foreign countries and preach the gospel to people who could be persecuted or even killed for converting. In my piety, I argued that it was better to spend eternity with Jesus than to never hear the “good news”. She argued that the missionaries were forcing their religion on people and endangering the lives of people already living in a difficult situation for no good reason. Now that I’ve grown up some more, I realize that she was right. (Sorry, Samira, this is my belated apology). I also realize that no matter how hard you try to pound religious beliefs into a child “for their own good” there will come a day when they will have to evaluate what they’ve been taught and choose their own beliefs. That day came for me, and it would have been easier if I hadn’t been told that to have doubts about the beliefs espoused to me and to make my own choices was to be evil and risk an eternity of torment. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it doesn’t work forever.
After two decades spent as a “believer” I did some serious self-evaluation and realized that I didn’t like being a Christian. A spiritual path is supposed to bring you meaning and fulfillment. It’s supposed to help you find peace and ground you amid the turmoil of life. It’s supposed to connect you with meaningful traditions and allow you to bond with people who share the same beliefs. Christianity didn’t do those things for me. For a long time I hated Christianity, because it was supposed to be everything for me, and it ended up being nothing. I still get angry sometimes, but the hate has faded away. It faded, because I realized that Christianity doesn’t have to be everything for me. I don’t have to be a Christian. That fact seems really simple, but it took me forever to figure it out. Christianity was not the spiritual path for me. It works for some people, which is great, but it’s not for everyone. Coming to that realization hurt so much, because it was pounded into my head that Christianity was the end all and be all. It was hard to rip those blinders off, but I felt so much better once I did. I felt better, because Christianity didn’t make me feel like I was part of a community where I belonged. It didn’t make me feel connected to a higher power and purpose. It made me feel ashamed, confined and frightened. By the time I left Christianity, I was completely disillusioned with it, which I think was actually a good thing. Illusions can be nice, but reality will always have to be confronted.
To be honest, sometimes I do miss Christianity. Then I have to look deep inside myself and ask what it is that I’m missing. I miss the idea of being right, no matter what. That was one of the strongest messages I got from Christianity: as long I was a Christian I was safe. What I believed was right and true. I wouldn’t go to hell. That’s what I miss, the constant reassurance that I’m safe and correct. When I dwell on that, though, those feelings don’t seem particularly healthy. It is impossible to have concrete proof that one spiritual path is any better than another. So, why do I need that? It is impossible to say what will happen when we die, so why do I need to know? Why do I need to obsess over whether I’m safe from hell or not? If being saved from a punishment that may not be real is my only motivation for being a Christian, is that worth it?
I decided that it wasn’t. I really have no idea what the truth is. I may spend eternity burning in hell. Jesus could be frowning at me right now. However, it just wasn’t worth it to keep adhering to a religion that I felt wasn’t contributing positively to my life. The funny thing is, growing up, I was always told that being a Christian was the best thing that could ever happen to a person. Being a Christian was, supposedly, the only way to find peace and fulfillment. Ironically, I feel much more peaceful now that I’m no longer a Christian. Christianity was stressing me the fuck out, and I’m grateful that stress is gone from my life. When I left Christianity I finally had a chance to take a breath and think about what is really important to me, what contributes to my feelings of satisfaction in life. I realized that the most important things to me are putting positive energy out into the world, connecting with other people, doing my best not to harm others but instead doing what I can to ease suffering. Those things are definitely compatible with Christianity, but they aren’t exclusive to it or any religion. Realizing that gave me the sense of freedom in my life that I had been looking for, that, for so long, I felt Christianity actually blocked me from. It feels good.