I met a new friend at a party during the spring before my friend’s death. She had an interesting religious story. She was the daughter of missionaries and had grown up in a different country, but was a more liberal-minded kind of Christian than how I had been raised. I think the first time I went to a Pride festival was with her.
She and I bonded because we had similar, friendly and outgoing personalities, and later that year we bonded over religion. As I mentioned in part 3, due to the disaster of a year that was 2011, I had a surge in religious faith and feeling. In some ways, I was reconnecting with my religious roots and initial threads of belief – that God is Real, and that Jesus is Real – but with modifications: maybe God wasn’t a scary dominating judging type, but a loving compassionate helping type. And maybe Jesus died to save us all, so no one needed to worry about hell and I didn’t need to worry about saving people anymore. It was nice to have a friend who shared a similar type of Christian faith.
In January of the next year, I remember talking with her about plans involving fasting and praying as a way to get closer to God. We were in her room, with open pamphlets on our laps from her church, discussing the ways we might try these things to enhance our spiritual lives.
But then, in March, I walked into a Starbucks and met the person who would become my husband.
He and I initially connected over shared interests – books, music, movies, video games – but quickly discovered that we had a lot to talk about in the area of religion, too. Though we had been raised in very different Christian traditions (liberal Protestant vs. evangelical, conservative Protestant), and we had different types of religious experiences emotionally (mine highly marked with anxiety, his mostly with positive feelings like awe and connectedness), we had come to a similar place religiously. It was a place of, “I believe in God, but…”
…but what do you do with that faith?
…but I haven’t found a church I really feel connected with…
…but I don’t believe in hell…
…but I don’t agree with everything in the Bible…
(At the time, I was still trying to connect the Bible with my life. The thing is, I, like a lot of people are, was great and finding verses to justify pretty much anything I wanted!)
Separately, my now-husband and I both came to the focus that the most important thing about Christianity could be summed up in Matthew 22: 36-40: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself. For me, there came a point where I realized I needed to focus on self-love and acceptance – for if Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, that meant I needed to learn how to love and forgive myself in order to learn more about how to love others. Evangelical Christianity had not taught me how to love and care for myself, instead emphasizing qualities such as sacrifice, humility, and questioning of the self (“trusting God, and leaning not on my own understanding.“)
Later in the spring, my friend and I met again to discuss our lives and hang out together. She asked me how my relationship with God was.
“Well…” I started, “I’m trying to figure out how faith really is important in my life. I still believe in God, but…”
She was, understandably, a little shocked. It had only been a few months ago that she and I had been discussing fasts and prayer together, and my perspective had changed very quickly.
She said, “You seem to be in a place that’s very fashionable to Americans these days: spiritual, but not religious.”
“Yes, exactly!” I don’t think she meant it as a positive thing, but I took it that way.
She said, “I have to be honest. I’m a little disappointed. Just a few months ago we connected so much about our faith… now it feels like you’re drifting away.”
“I know.” I told her. And I did understand. “I feel like, with everything that’s happened in my life, I need to get back to basics.”
“Yes!” She smiled. “The basics: John 3:16… For God so loved the world…” The favorite verse of all evangelicals with their focus on salvation.
But I had meant the basics of self-care, health, and wellness. The basics of what it means to be kind, gentle, and loving to myself. Especially the basics of emotional health and accepting my humanity.
Sadly, the relationship dwindled from that moment. I think there’s still a chance for us to reconnect, but it can be hard for faith-based relationships to last when one person decides they no longer believe in supernatural things like God.
Meanwhile, I was spending more and more time with the person who is now my husband. One thing I have always loved about our relationship is our wonderful conversations about all aspects of life. Since we had quickly jumped into the topic of religion and faith, we covered a lot of ground in the first few months… Buddhist teachings about detachment and handling emotions, the origin of theories like the Big Bang, the history of the God of the old Testament, the fact that there’s no evidence for the exodus story, his realization that there’s no reason to fear hell if you don’t really believe in it.
Through these talks, I came to some understandings about why I held on to the last threads of faith. Most importantly, I realized I had a faith based in fear. I didn’t hold on because I had positive experiences or because I was really convinced about God’s influence in the world. I held on because I was personally afraid of hell, a nagging feeling of “but what if it is true…” Also, I hadn’t known enough about the history of religion and the history of God to understand how to let those threads go.
Somewhere along the way, during those months of getting to know my husband and realizing he was the person I wanted to spend my life with, I lost those last, sad shreds of faith, dropped them somewhere and didn’t even glance back.
All I had meant to do was re-establish my faith on something that wasn’t fear: maybe on the motivation to be a good person, or to learn to accept my emotions and become an overall healthier human, or to learn how to love people, or to feel connectedness to other kinds of life in the world and the universe.
I think what I realized was that I didn’t need God or Jesus in order to do any of those things. And, in fact, I found secular or humanist philosophies and outlooks on the world to be more effective than faith had ever been at leading me in these directions.
Motivation to be a good person? It’s pretty easy to make arguments that this is driven by natural selection. Early humans helping each other survived better than humans killing each other (as an over-simplified example). As Julia Sweeney put it in Letting Go of God: “And then I thought, well, what’s going to stop me from just rushing out and murdering people? And I had to walk myself through it. Like, why are we ethical? Well, we have to get along with each other in order for communities to exist. So I guess that’s why I don’t run out and just murder people.” Also, without God in the world to help people, it’s up to us to help them. There’s no one there helping people unless we do it.
Learning to accept my emotions and become an overall healthier human? Well, for one thing, without God in my brain monitoring my thoughts, I didn’t have to worry about them so much. I remember getting embarrassed or ashamed by passing, random thoughts that just happen when you have a brain. Especially if it was a sexual thought, I’d have to analyze it: am I attracted to this person? Wait, does that mean I’m emotionally impure? What does it mean that I feel this way? Instead of just accepting that humans have a sex-drive, and if we weren’t so sexual our species wouldn’t have survived this long, and these random thoughts are just a normal part of the human experience. Instead of just accepting that I looked at an attractive man and felt attracted because duh. God wasn’t putting my thoughts on my permanent record anymore (what a terrifying idea! no wonder praying was such an anxiety-provoking activity), which helped me let them go and reduced my overall anxiety. This is just one of a myriad of ways that putting God out of the picture helped me understand and accept myself.
Learning to love others became so much easier after leaving Christianity. I had learned a twisted, unrealistic kind of love. It was based on sacrifice (mutual sacrifice in a marriage type relationship, but sometimes just plain ol’ turn the other cheek). It was based on self-depravation and completely serving the other. It’s not healthy, and it didn’t work. With my focus on getting back to basics, I learned so much about “loving” behavior, and redefining this in terms of how it affects others instead of how my behavior was intended.
Connectedness? I think of Carl Sagan’s statement that we are made of star stuff. I think of other sayings about how humans are the universe marveling at itself, or the universe asking how it came to be. Evolution tells a beautiful story about how we are all connected. None of these stories need God, and all of these stories place us as being more connected. The creation story, on the other hand, sets us apart and connects us only with dust or a rib bone.
In summary, any new place where I tried to find a foundation for faith crumbled, and I found a better foundation in scientific, atheist, and humanist views about the world. And one day I found myself thinking, “…and since there is no god…” and I realized I had left my faith and moved on, and was better off for it.