One of the few things in life that is certain is change. One of the biggest changes in my adult life that I could thankfully control is my decision to leave the church. As far as wellness is concerned, some might consider leaving organized religion a ding in my spiritual journey. However, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite.
Not all churches are bad, some may argue with me. Of course. But many churches do bad things. I also find the inner squabbling about whose theology is correct absolutely exhausting. I’ve been living in this swirling debate for as long as I can remember. I’m sure many of you can relate.
Apparently there has been a whole deconstructing movement happening all over the world, and I’ve unknowingly been a part of this. Only with the advent of social media have I become aware that I’m not alone with my experiences or feelings. In America, less than half of our population are members of an organized house of worship in 2021, a percentage that is in steady decline. But why is this?
Maybe it’s because most of us who have identified as Christian have encountered some toxic theology at some point in their religious journey. I think the most damaging part I ever experienced was purity culture, but there were many other elements of theology that also instilled guilt and other enduring traumas. Layer some bad leaders in with this, and you form some scars that last for life.
As a child, I remember going to church camp in elementary school in the 80’s and being told that if our friends weren’t believers in Jesus, they were going to hell. This was the beginning of a pretty unhealthy fear of the devil for me! My best friend at the time was Jewish, and I was in anguish thinking my best friend wasn’t going to heaven. As an 8 year old. I thought it was my job to “save” her. That’s what the leaders at camp told me. I was so afraid that my beautiful friend would suffer. I felt so conflicted that I did ask my dad at some point, as he studied religion in seminary. He assured me that this was not the case, because as he was taught, the Jewish are God’s chosen people. What a confusing and scary message that church camp preached.
We currently live near a fundamentalist Baptist church. My husband’s aunt and uncle were members there until the day they passed. At one time they held big community events for Easter and Halloween, and we used to take our girls to these when they were little. At one of these events, there was an activity to build a “prayer bracelet.” The woman helping the children explained what each of the beads represented. She actually told my then 4 year old daughter that one of the beads represented the fact that she was a bad person. Wow! The damage control I had to do from that. I didn’t realize that some religious sects teach that humans are inherently bad. My daughter still remembers how this experience made her feel.
When we were growing up, my parents made a big distinction between our church and those considered fundamentalist. Visiting other churches with friends exposed me to some pretty horrible evangelical theologies, including teaching that homosexuality is a sin. From my perspective, this felt like hate, not love. Even in high school, I felt that homosexuality was not a choice, but merely another biological trait, like having blue eyes or curly hair. Our next door neighbors were fundamentalist Baptists, and I can tell you that despite their rather obnoxious outward professions of faith, they seemed less than what I knew as Christian.
As a child, we lived within walking distance of a fundamentalist Baptist church, but we drove about 20 minutes to attend one in the next city that was considered moderate. I somehow took pride in that. And for the most part, our church was fairly tolerant of people who did not fit in the norm, even if outwardly we did not acknowledge the differences.
The exception was the youth group. Our youth minister was definitely more conservative in his views than our main pastor. And, yes, there was some degree of purity culture, which was particularly damning to a survivor of childhood sexual assault like me. I viewed myself as damaged goods: a chewed up piece of gum. My attempts to receive guidance from my youth minister about what I endured as a child were met with dismissal of my trauma, which only made me feel worse. He made me feel like the trauma I experienced was entirely my fault.
But there was also hazing of the girls, most notably on their first night of the big fall weekend youth retreat. The sixth grade girls would be dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night and given swirlies, with our youth minister and the older boys in the group doing the hazing. Don’t know what a swirlie is? It’s when you are held upside down with your head in the toilet while the toilet is flushed. My big brother made sure this did not happen to me, and he did not participate. Since the hazing happened year after year, I assumed the adults of the church were well aware of this ritual and condoned it. It should be noted that hazing is now a class I misdemeanor in Virginia. This practice of hazing fostered a culture in the youth group that allowed some boys in the group to harass the girls, with behavior that would have been written off at the time as “boys will be boys” antics, but categorized much differently now. It all just feels gross, even all these years later.
Additionally, certain members of the group were teased relentlessly by our youth minister, and a few lucky girls were slut shamed. I fell into the latter category, where lies were spread by my pastor, and I really don’t know why. Because I had boyfriends outside of the church? Because of my trauma as a young girl? Because I didn’t put up with bad behavior from boys in the group? I didn’t even know about the lies until I was an adult. That’s the short story.
None of this was ever normal or an example of a church leader who is kind and loving. What he did to us should have never been a part of normal church life, but I didn’t know this wasn’t normal until I went to college and started talking about these experiences with my peers. I began to question everything. Our youth minister eventually left our church, rewarded for his own bad behavior in a way, even though many of my peers in my childhood church still love and respect this man. The problem was punted to another congregation, as seems to be tradition with problem leaders in organized religion.
Even so, when I met my husband, he was a member in an equally moderate church in Richmond which we started attending together. We even received pre-marital counseling from the minister there. I liked our pastor and his wife, and they were just a couple of years older than us. When my kids were born, he was there to pray for us. And when it was time for his family to move on, the new pastor was also wonderful. They gave me church experiences that were so much better than those from my childhood church.
So why did I leave if I had a great pastor? I began to see a rise in Christian Nationalism when Obama took office. It was unsettling and definitely something with which I did not want to be associated. Even in my moderate church, which was not outwardly nationalistic, we had both the Christian flag and the US flag prominently displayed in the sanctuary. I asked that the US flag be removed because I believe strongly in the separation of church and state. My request was denied, thus adding another layer to my deconstruction. Symbols matter. Unrest at school board meetings and recent new laws in Texas and their reinforcement by the Supreme Court have proven how powerful this movement has become, and I want no part of it.
There is so much more to say about this movement. So much so that it deserves its own post. One thing is certain for me, though: The further our nation slides into a theocracy, the further away from God I am pushed.
Although I was once a firm believer, as a young adult I still felt that God gave us the knowledge of and curiosity to study science. As a requirement for my undergraduate degree in biology, we had to take a class about evolution. The last question on our final exam asked us how we reconciled our religious beliefs with the science of evolution, if we did believe in God. My answer? “For me, it’s simple. Evolution is God’s will.” My personal interpretation of the book of Genesis is that one day could be a billion years in God’s time.
One of the best sermons I ever heard was not by one of my pastors, but a deacon of the church I joined with my husband. It was based on John 14:2, which states:
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?John 14:2
The way he interpreted this verse is what blew me away, and I will never forget. It moved me to tears. His take on the verse is that God recognizes that there are many ways to worship, as essentially each religion is a different room. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Einstein, that all religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree; just another way of explaining the unexplainable. We utilize more primitive means of explaining natural phenomena until we can prove these with science, and I believe a loving God would want to give us the power to understand. This sermon gave me a sense of relief that we could stop the squabbling over differences in ways of organized worship, and just be satisfied that maybe they were all pleasing in His eyes, as long as we were helping others. If only everyone felt this way.
I will never understand how church and public education became so political, and politics became so much about religion, but here we are. This goes way beyond the abortion debate. It’s also about race and science and resisting the necessary changes in the stagnant status quo that ensures that everyone has equal rights. I don’t think the state of our political system today is what our founding fathers had intended at all, but it definitely reinforced my choice to leave the church.
I don’t really know what I believe religiously anymore. Agnostic is probably the best way to describe my stance at this point. I’m leaving the door open for the possibility that there is a God who is a creator of goodness and light, and if we are all indeed created in His image, we are all perfect in our own way. I also don’t think that we should live our day to day lives in fear of punishment for every little thing we do wrong. But for all of the bad in this world, and especially for atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion, some days I find it challenging to believe in a God at all.
For now, I have deconstructed, and am finding it really challenging to reconstruct. I may never reach a point of forgiveness about what I encountered in my childhood church. If this current political climate continues, I may not ever find myself in a place to rebuild my trust in religion.
The longer I am vegan, the more compassion I feel for others who deserve more from society, including animals. All living beings are worthy of respect. I will simply continue to fight for fairness, for justice, for love, and to correct the systemic issues that create chaos and harm. I will continue to do my best to make choices that help preserve our planet for my children. It’s the best I can do. And if there is a God, I hope this pleases Him.
I have spent much of my deconstruction feeling this quote from one of my favorite songs:
How she wishes it was different
She prays to God most every night
And though she swears He doesn’t listen
There’s still a hope in her He might
She says, “I pray
Oh, but they fall on deaf ears
Am I supposed to take it on myself
To get out of this place?”Grey Street -Dave Matthews Band
I’m still very much in this mindset, and I realize I must rely on myself to heal. But there’s still a tiny sliver of hope that a divine being is looking out for us.
I’ve found a new congregation on Sundays, so to speak, since I run with a team on these mornings. In our off season, I typically run with a smaller version of this team or with friends. They provide me with the fellowship and community that church provides. They also helped me to realize that I can be a good and moral person without the guidance of organized religion. In many ways, my running family is so much more diverse and equitable than any I ever experienced through church. Running gives me an outlet for anxiety and time to meditate and reflect. And running has given me opportunities to give back to my community in ways that I never expected. This is my church: the Church of the Sunday Long Run. And for these things, I’m grateful.
I do respect one’s choice to believe. That’s your business, just like not going to church is mine. So if you meet someone who doesn’t go to church, don’t judge them as bad people, please. They may just not be in a place to trust organized religion.
Have you experienced religious trauma? Are you alarmed by the rise in Christian Nationalism in America? If you have been harmed by religious experiences, I’m so sorry. You are not alone. It can certainly affect one’s spiritual wellness. It took some professional therapy to absolve my guilt in no longer participating in organized religion, but I feel so much healthier for this decision.
As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.