As I sketched this image at the dining room table, the early Minnesota winter evening light fading quickly, my 5 year old son (chewing his chicken nuggets) glanced over and asked what I was drawing.
“Churches.” I said.
“Oh. Yeah! That’s a lot of churches.” He said.
“Do you know what’s kind of interesting?” I asked him. “There are so many churches in the world, and they are all saying the same thing.”
“What do they say?” He asked.
“WE ARE BELIEVING THE RIGHT WAY!” I squawked, dramatically waving my arms for attention.
He giggled, and nuggets disappeared.
In the fundamentalist church I used to go to, this mindset was definitely the dominating message.
The only way. The only right ones. Chosen.
Being a “believer,” i.e., member of this church required living a very simple life.
Drinking was not allowed. I grew up in a family that adhered to this rule 100%.
Never a drop of alcohol was in the house, and even beer commercials on the television would get the side-eye.
It was bad. “Of the world.” And anything that’s of the world could lead you into trouble, I was taught.
I remember thinking, Doesn’t that include… everything?
Where was the line between ‘of the world’ and not? I wore jeans. I looked just like all of my school friends.
It was a real head-trip growing up this way, to say the least.
A few years ago, I left.
Leaving the church I was raised in caused my family deep grief and sadness. And I knew that it would. I know it felt like a betrayal to them, and to many of my close friends that still attend.
It was the hardest life decision that I have made, to date.
But it’s also one that brought my heart the most peace.
A close friend of mine still attends the church. She recently asked me if the reason that I left was because of wanting to drink alcohol.
I almost laughed.
Or choked. Chortled?
I’m pretty sure my jaw muscle lapsed.
Not out of anger. Not because it’s funny. But out of disappointment and disbelief that people would think that I or anyone would base such a huge, life-changing decision on, and betray family for simply gaining the freedom to consume an ‘adult beverage’.
The question was innocent, and based on her own attempt to understand. But it definitely raised my hackles.
And got me thinking.
There are so many more deeply-felt, soul-searched reasons for making a change like this.
Here are a few of my biggest reasons for leaving the fundamentalist church I was raised in.
I hope this helps others in some way.
If not, at least it gives me a feeling of closure and tranquility, knowing I am sharing my real truth instead of allowing it to go on incorrectly assumed.
I don’t write this out of spite. I don’t write this to bash anyone’s beliefs. This is my truth.
I’ve always felt wary of people that try to make me do things based on stories that provoke fear. In my opinion, organized religion stems from, was born from fear of the unknown. Fear of not having an answer to the mystery of life. Companies and organizations do this, sometimes, for advertising or awareness campaigns.
Fear is a strong motivator! It keeps people together. And who wants to go to hell?
But even at a young age, I found it hard to believe that if I didn’t belong to a certain group of people and behave a certain way that I would be punished. (Punished for just being me? That seems harsh. And ungodly.)
Control via Guilt and Shame
I’ve also always disliked that the storyline of most Christian religions (or mine, anyway) was that we were born as sinful humans that needed to be cleansed, and that the only way was to believe a thing or believe a certain way.
The tears I would cry when I was doing my best to believe were tears of guilt, shame, and despair. I remember feeling like I didn’t quite understand why I should feel bad about myself, but nonetheless glad I wouldn’t burn in hell if I just stayed put in the church.
Judgment & Hypocrisy
The church states that everything is forgiven if you just believe that Jesus died for your sins. I went with that. Especially after getting divorced and feeling like an outcast. I knew in my heart, at least, that I was ok. Even if people were somewhat wary of my choice. I knew there was no way to live my life in that marriage.
After my second divorce I started to feel like there was a more marked awkwardness (judgment) between myself and others, who were probably wondering how I could make such life decisions and still be a “Believer.”
Yet, I still felt at peace in my heart.
It seemed hypocritical that others could judge me for my behavior when we were all supposedly the same (i.e., bad and dirty, but cleansed by forgiveness of sins).
Since I can remember, I’ve felt like the way I was raised wasn’t right.
I’d look around at classmates, teachers, relatives that didn’t attend our church and think that they seemed just as nice as anyone else.
My brain couldn’t take it anymore: If I were to believe what the church preached, that means I had to believe they would likely be going to hell. Coworkers, friends from college… people. Humans. Just like me. Good people trying to live their best lives, with varied beliefs and interests. And I was supposed to believe that they were doomed?
I couldn’t. I never could. And I don’t.
Once I let myself believe what I truly felt was right, my brain and body have felt relief like I never knew possible. Even thinking about it now, years later, it’s like a full-body sigh of relief.
I held a lot of tension in my body that is no longer there. I sometimes wonder if the years of cognitive dissonance contributed to my body trying to self destruct with cancer.
Finding Peace in Uncertainty
I hid my associations with religion pretty well throughout most of my life, and when I finally realized that I had the choice to let go of those beliefs I could rest in the peace of what life actually is: Uncertainty.
”With us but never ‘of’ us.”
This phrase is one that a lot of people who attend the church use to comfort themselves when someone decides to leave the church.
“They walked with us, but they weren’t truly among us.”
Guess what? I was. I wasn’t pretending. I struggled with belief, like everyone does that still goes; some more than others, perhaps. But I really tried to use my faith as comfort. And sometimes it really did provide that comfort. But it was always with an undercurrent of guilt, shame, fear, or just bland apathy.
It never felt like love.
It felt more like giving up. And when times were really tough, instead of having any support to live a better life, I found myself hoping that my life would end.
Love is the absence of judgment (as Rumi says), and yet I was attending a church that judges the entire world as wrong, but places that judgment back on the Bible, throwing their hands up, “We’re just the chosen ones! It says so right there. Not our fault that everyone else is going to Hell.”
That didn’t feel good. At all.
“Maybe this is it! I might get to die!”
There have been several periods of my life when I was hoping that I would die.
I wouldn’t say I was truly suicidal, but my will to live was on the very low end of the spectrum.
The first time I begged God to take me was during my first marriage. I got married young and we did nothing but argue. I was in a constant state of anxiety. I remember driving home alone from church, feeling that sense of dread because it was Sunday and I had no desire to live another day the way I was. I was crying and driving, praying that God would just take me.
When I had a very large cyst on my ovary that turned out to be cancer, I was secretly glad.
Maybe my life of struggle with a divorce and a second, currently rocky marriage — and now this… I thought that maybe it was meant to be that I’d die young from cancer. And I was ok with that.
The realization, later on, after I’d survived the chemo and was fortunate enough to be able to get pregnant, was that I actually had a death wish.
It woke me up.
I realized I’d been living my life in a way that was unfulfilling to me, that was keeping me low and in a half-living state. Not fully engaging with life, with people. Numb.
I don’t believe in living that way.
The truth is that nobody knows what happens after we die. It’s become the world’s largest creative endeavor, to create different stories and rituals and paths that are all so different.
I don’t claim to know what the right path is, and now I believe that nobody else knows, either. And I’m ok with that.
Rediscovering My Peace
Life is hard, no doubt. Having something simple to depend on helps. It turns out, though, that it can simply be yourself.
The peace in my heart hasn’t changed.
I have the same feeling inside that I used to have when I’d feel at peace, thinking about dying and going to Heaven. I don’t believe the same way, but I know my soul is safe. My heart is happy.
I no longer have an underlying unease about how I believe. No exclusive “Us and Them” mentality to battle.
Building Real Community
A real test of love is to leave a tight-knit religious community and see who still talks to you. I always thought I was a pretty well-liked person in that community, but it turns out it was conditional.
Only if I was one of the group would I be supported by the vast majority.
Facebook underlined this fact, especially for someone like me who shares a lot. I used to have a lot more interaction with the posts I’d share.
Hundreds of likes on a cute picture of my son, for example.
Of course, that started to decline when I got divorced again, and then after I left the church the shunning was starkly obvious. I’d be lucky to get 20 likes. And most of the likes, post-leaving, were from non-church friends and family.
It made me sad, at first. But as time passed I realized that the people who have stayed in my life are that much more precious to me.
And unlike some others that have left the same church, my family has shown they still love me.
Due to my own efforts, my community of new friends has grown, too.
There isn’t “one right way.”
Taking myself out of the judgment seat of the fundamentalist church has given me an enlivened sense of spirituality.
Now I believe that (as long as it’s not harming anyone) the only “right way” to believe is what works for each individual human being on the planet.
So, yeah— we’re ALL right.