I didn’t expect my previous article (Losing My Religion and Leaving The Church Behind) to be read over 8, 000 times, nor did I emotionally prepare for the number of emails that I was set to receive for the following 40 hours.
The day after I posted the article on Facebook, my boyfriend and I drove down to Bateman’s Bay. For the first time in a long while, I felt lighter, as if a load had been lifted from my shoulders. I squeezed his hand and with tears in my eyes embraced the next chapter of my life. I was finally free of the follow-up emails and the awkward conversations about God with partial strangers and the routine texts about church attendance from old youth group leaders. I no longer needed to hide that photo of me on the top of a mountain with nothing but socks on, or the fact that I travelled alone with my boyfriend, or that I regularly sunbake topless at nudist beaches. I no longer had to worry about being judged for uploading a bikini shot embracing the beauty of my body- curves and all. I didn’t have to give a fuck about modesty. I could say ‘fuck’ on my blog and I wouldn’t get an email about my ‘unwholesome talk’. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! I could tag my friends in inappropriate memes and talk about sex and become a nude life drawing model and experiment with drugs and graffiti a penis on a wall and it didn’t matter because I no longer needed to hide the fact that I probably did it anyway. Now everyone will shrug it off and say 'oh well, she can do what she wants now' and farrrrr out, can you hear my sigh of relief?
So many Christians (and closeted post-Christians) don’t do things they want to do because they fear the opinions of their Christian community MORE than the opinions of the God they believe in. That is where the problem arises and that is the point where I want to break free. While I still have a strong moral code, I have recognised that I need to learn how to think independently, because I’ve been thinking as ‘a congregation of believers’ for all my life.
Leaving the church can feel like you’re hiding in a dark, decrepit mansion playing a game of hide-and-seek. Your friends want to find you, but they don’t know that you want to stay hidden forever. And so, what usually would be a half an hour game has lasted 10 hours, and the thought of being found is becoming more and more anxiety-inducing, especially coupled with the knowledge that your friends are looking earnestly. Thankfully, once it hits the 12-hour mark, they stop looking. Suddenly their footsteps don't echo down the hallway and you can no longer hear their deep breathing in the room next door. You sigh with relief and walk freely out of the mansion, into a new world with a fresh perspective.
For the following few years, you’ll run into familiar faces at the grocery store or in the line at the bank and they’ll ask ‘where have you been hiding? Do you go to church now?’ and you’ll say ‘Oh, I don’t go to church anymore’ and then it’ll be kind of awkward so they'll mumble something like ‘oh that’s cool’ even though you know they don’t think it is. Then, sometimes, if they’re brave, they’ll ask you why not and how long you’ve been out for and even follow with a ‘would you like to come to church with me this Sunday?’ and of course, being in a queue somewhere isn’t exactly the right place to answer that honestly, so you'll just spit something stiff about ‘needing a break’ and quickly move on to ‘so how's the kids? How’s uni? How’s your life separate from church/God/Christianity?’ all the while cowering in anxiety.
I couldn’t handle the apprehension of that future, of having to repeatedly face the awkwardness and the reminder of a life and community I used to be a part of, so I had to yell from my hiding spot (in the wardrobe, of course) ‘I DON’T WANT TO BE FOUND, I’VE FOUND ANOTHER WORLD IN HERE’.
That was my motive with the previous article. To tell the world I was out.
I’d now like to clarify a few things that arose (primarily on Facebook) after posting. Many people who read the article and voiced their opinion ‘contextualised their responses within the limits of their belief’ as one commenter put nicely. So what I will say is this: right now I have rejected the conservative Anglican doctrine and the structure in which people are taught (and which many do not question), not necessarily the church. For the record, I don’t think I’ve rejected Jesus- but it doesn’t matter. Conclusions are overrated and largely forced upon young people in the church. I’m only 22 and I want space to figure it out. I don't have to know what I think yet and, most of all, my Christian friends don't either.
I strongly believe that our current education system is failing our children because we adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach. I think our churches do the same. I know this not because of my own experience, but because of the 100 or so messages from Sydney Anglican strangers opening their hearts and telling me of a similar emotional struggle.
There were those who were ‘struggling’ with homosexuality because the church had taught them that homosexuality is something you ‘struggle with’. Most of these people believed the messages of the Bible but also believed they were entitled to holding hands and going to bed with someone (made in God’s image) that they loved fiercely. Their struggle to reconcile both meant that one was sacrificed. I understand why they decided to choose love on earth.
There were messages from atheists still embedded in church communities and playing an active and influential role. People who were scared to rip up the Comfort Rug from under them, wary that their life may be hollow without the Christian community they have come to love.
There were people like me who didn’t feel spiritually engaged in the formula of a service. Start on a high song- but no raising hands, that’s for the Pentecostals and everyone knows the errors in their gospel message. Now, let’s sit for announcements, stand for two more songs, sit for an Old Testament reading and a New one. Now recite the Nicene Creed in monotone and listen attentively to a 20-40-minute sermon by a male preacher who is sometimes only 23 and has no experience of life outside the church but has God-ordained wisdom anyway (remember child-like faith, folks!). Sit and pray with the stranger beside you even if they’ve never walked into a church before and you have anxiety and struggle to talk to strangers. Now we’ll sing for one more song, and even if everyone is vibing today we won’t do one more because we can’t go a minute over schedule, right?
There were those who had grown up in a Christian home and no longer attended church on a regular basis, but who felt like they must maintain a façade for their believing parents. These people go to church on occasion because to see the sadness in their parents’ eyes breaks their heart- so what’s a Sunday morning sacrifice?
There are many still in the church, waiting for the right time to make the transition. To those people I say ‘there is no right time’ and to Christians I say- look out for them, love them and let them go if you trust in God. As stated by a kind Christian commenter: ‘I wonder if your friends have ever considered, that while you seem to be walking away, you are in contact with many others who will join you in re-discovering the love, joy, and peace, that results from the patience, kindness, goodness, that will bring you back to humbleness, and faithfulness in the Jesus you know?’
As I have been receiving these messages, it has been difficult not to grow increasingly frustrated. Firstly because of all of the insensitive emails/messages that missed the entire point of my article, and secondly because there are so many people striving to better their lives, to live in reverence to a Higher Something but still 'have been known to cry [myself] to sleep' at the thought of removing themselves from a religion. Who are we to judge if Christians themselves would argue that ‘only God knows our heart’?
I want to thank those who have sent kind, loving and supportive messages- particularly those who respect that forcing a message onto someone who is experiencing the emotional peak of their religious exit is unhelpful and only evokes bitterness. I also want to thank the Christians for their loving comments in public spaces- you were being watched by many silent onlookers, many of which have never experienced religion and have no desire to. 'Don't these people get it?' one friend said, 'can't they treat it like a Subway? You like one type of sandwich, they like another type. The end'. Christians know it's more complex than this, but by commenting with jargon and 'God's Word' you are completely isolating the very people you're trying to convert.
I want to extend my hand to everyone who resonated with what I wrote about. Please feel free to email me, I have loved reading your stories and I’m in the process of replying to every single one. This is just as lonely for me as it is for you, so let’s be friends and support each other in this crazy little life we have. Let's get comfortable with not knowing The Answer.