Introduction to Deconsecrating Myself
Man, I feel like an ass.
Last year I quit my religion, which isn’t that big a deal really – people do it every day and rebellious teenagers are doing it in droves as we speak. But the way I did it was pretty dickish. I mean, I was a youth minister when I decided I was going to quit, so there was really no good way to do it. I didn’t sleep with a teenager or anything like so many other spiky-haired, outdated-slang-using slimeball youth pastors, but I didn’t exactly dance out gracefully either. I put in my notice at the church I was working for and left after I found a new job. On my last day the kids and their families all gathered in our church fellowship hall for a party to give me a happy sendoff, sang songs to me, put together a slideshow and gave me touching presents – a mug that they’d written their names on, a “back to school” gift pack (they knew I was also going back to college – for nursing - after I left), silly toys with sentimental meanings, a cross that one of the kids had gotten on a trip to Jerusalem, that kind of thing. When they asked where I’d be going to church now that I was moving on I just said “I don’t know, we’ll see where God leads me!” with a wink and a smile. Then, a few months later, having talked to no one, I started putting up blog posts about everything I thought was wrong with religion, and about how I didn’t really believe in God any more and hadn’t for a while. And, a few months after that, I self-published a book about quitting religion. Surprise! Your youth minister was an infidel and too much of a coward to talk to you about it face to face! I hope you like spiritual damage and confused disappointment, because that’s what Tim’s giving out as a parting gift. They are all really nice kids. I love them. They deserve better. Plus they are Episcopalians – it’s not like they were fundamentalists who would have ostracized me for having a few doubts.
I’m atoning for my sins now though in what seems like it might be youth pastor purgatory. My first job out of church has been working on the psych unit at a children’s hospital. It’s nice to be able to help, but I work with some seriously troubled kids at their worst moments. My church was in a wealthy suburb of Seattle, and the kids in my youth group were respectful and nice to me up until the end despite the fact that I was a shiftless turd. On the psych unit, from the time they meet me they pelt me with the congealed bitterness of a thousand betrayed youth group members. The elementary school kids usually just scream at me using improperly employed swear words: “You’re a damn!! Farter fuck faggot!!” The high schoolers tend to be adept at pointing out sensitive areas of weakness: “Aren’t you too old to have acne? You’re a bitch and I would kick your ass if we were on the street. Why do you always talk like you’re so smart and important? You must have something wrong with you to want to sit here and get made fun of by teenagers all day. Shouldn’t you have done something with your life by now?” The middle schoolers are the ones who kick me in the shins, spit in my face, and occasionally try to rub feces on me.
You know, I have to admit that this first part is kind of a lie. I do feel bad about leaving the way I did. No doubt about that. But the truth is that I know I need to stop all this self-flagellation. I know I shouldn’t feel that bad about it – not because I think I handled my departure well, but because I think I did about as well as I could have given the circumstances. The decision to leave religion behind was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, and the process of leaving was the most traumatic experience of my admittedly charmed life. Divorce is a pretty good metaphor, and the kind of divorce where you know that all of your friends are going to side with your ex, because they like her better than you and have a lot invested in their relationship. I was stressed out, and in a really bad place – genuinely depressed and angry, and in fight or flight mode. Mostly flight. That kind of crap runs in my family – we deal with too much stress by shutting down and hiding, or giving up. I tried, but honestly you can only expect so much from yourself. I have to give past-Tim some grace. I don’t think I was that bad of a guy – certainly not deserving of some 13 year old throwing shit at me.
When I decided to quit, it was a decision to leave my whole life behind - I grew up going to church, I studied Bible and Theology in college and grad school (still paying on the loans), and I spent most of my career as a minister, trying to convince youth and young adults that they should go to church. Selling religion was the only marketable skill that I had, and my entire identity was wrapped up in my place in the religious community. Most of my family is religious, and I expected that the pride they felt in having a minister in the family would be transformed into shame, sadness and confusion once I became an apostate. (A few) religious people revered me. When I left I expected that they’d be worried for my soul, defriend me on Facebook and treat me like I was playing for the wrong team.
And communicating my departure from religion by putting out a book, which I also made available online for free, was kind of like publicly announcing to everyone I’d known and loved that I was divorcing them. “I hope we’ll stay on good terms, but we can’t live together anymore, and I want full custody of the kids”. As a minister I was a mildly public figure. I wanted to tear off the band aid quickly rather than drawing it out, and there’s no easy or good way to communicate the end of your faith in that kind of situation. So I just did it. I told everyone at once without talking it through with almost anyone privately. Not nice – bad form – but the best I could do at a time that sucked for me, I would assume, more than for anyone else. And for most people who read, it provided a much more thorough explanation than I ever could have in person.
Counter to my irrational fears, most everyone was gracious. The thing I heard the most was how sad people were for me – about my seemingly negative experiences of church, about my seeming abandonment of God, about my soul, about the fact that I was leaving behind my values and the people who loved me, about how I hadn’t talked it through with them first. All of that, honestly, is understandable. The only thing I could find to be upset about was that a lot of people who I thought would be hurt or upset or something were silent – just left it alone. It was a shitty time – not a bad year, exactly, because I think I made the right decision, and because I was mostly prepared to deal with the consequences of my actions – but painful for me and for a lot of other people who care about me. But ultimately things are okay now. People have forgiven me. I’ve lost contact with some people in the year since I left, and almost all of my relationships have taken on different shapes, but nobody has disowned me (that I know of, anyway). Honestly, after the initial trauma of my announcement that I was leaving, most of my important relationships are in the process of getting stronger because of the experience, because it opened up a new level of honesty that couldn’t have been there otherwise.
I think that things shook out like they did, in part, because I drew out the process of leaving religion for so long. I lost faith in the Evangelicalism of my youth when I was in college, and spent the ten subsequent years wrestling with different forms of Christianity before I left. It took a loss of belief in the central tenants of the faith, a loss of my certainty that the good contributed to the world (and by world, I of course mean me) by religion outweighed the bad, a loss of motivation about supporting the mission of the church, a loss of the sense that religion could provide me with a viable career path, and about six months of additional directionless agonizing before I finally decided to quit. And by the time I did, I had good reasons – the horse I was beating was, without a doubt, dead. Jesus, for me, was no longer the savior, the Bible was no longer the Word of God, Worship was no longer a source of solace, Christian thought was no longer a source of spiritual enlightenment, “Christian” was no longer a synonym for “Good and Trustworthy” and the Church was no longer God’s instrument on earth. I left at a time when I was feeling emotionally damaged and completely burnt out with the religious life. I tried to do it the best way I could. Still, sometimes I feel like an ass.
Since I left, I haven’t become one of those God-hating, church-hating bigots who wants to write about how bad religion is (despite the fact that when you make a major decision like that, your natural instinct is to defend it subconsciously by focusing on all of the overwhelming reasons that you are right). In fact, I still really appreciate all of the things that religion provided for me, and I understand, at least, why someone would want to be a Christian. When, as a teenager and young man, I committed myself enthusiastically to the disciplined principles of Evangelical Christianity, I gained a lot. I had a strong sense of being personally saved and loved and valued, despite my obvious and varied flaws. I felt a strong sense of mission and purpose, convinced that I had an understanding of God that could save my friends from Hell and save the world from its corruption. I had a strong sense of belief – some concrete ideas about God and ultimate reality in the face of the existential confusion of the age. I had a sense of identity as a Man of God, and a strong sense of community connection to other Christians, who I found to be immediately accepting, caring and trustworthy. (This included an in with the fly Christian honeys.) I had something to keep me out of trouble, a deep spiritual motivation to be moral and good, and a strong commitment to loving and serving the people around me. None of those are bad things.
When I left Evangelicalism after a loss of faith in its Gospel, I became a liberal Christian, where I maintained some of the Christian identity and community connection that I’d had, and gained a strong sense of the beauty of life, and of religious practice. I gained a sense that my religion was compatible with other peoples’ religions, and even gained a sense of solidarity with religious practitioners outside of my own community. I gained a newfound commitment to faith-motivated social justice, and I met people who were doing amazing things – giving up prosperity in order to help people who were living in slums and so forth. This is all good stuff – I’m for it. I’m for a lot of what religion brings to the world. Maybe even most of what religion brings to the world. It’s just that, ah, I don’t believe in the religion I was raised with. And I’m not sure I can find another ideology that I could latch onto in a religious way.
The last time I wrote a book it was about the process of losing my faith. I looked it up though, and books about losing faith are a dime a dozen (or, I guess more accurately, $0.99 on Amazon.com). It’s easy to do, and there’s nothing really innovative about it. Plus it just seems like kind of a downer. “Here’s why I quit, and why I’m so much smarter than all of you who haven’t, blah blah blah”. In my case though, since I’m not generally against religion, since there seems to be a vacuum for this sort of thing, and since writing things down is how I think them through, I wanted to write this book for you about what’s next after you leave – about how I’ve tried to replace religion, and how I’ve tried to maintain the good things that religion brought to my life, while getting rid of the unnecessary dross. In the last book I was quite the sad clown, as people tend to be when they’re writing about losing faith. I feel like I owe it to the world to contribute something a bit more positive. This book is a tribute to religion, and to the religious people who’ve been such an important part of my life – an attempt to show that, even though it didn’t work out between us, I’m not mad at you and I really do appreciate what you taught me.
In the year after I officially left church, I’ve spent some time intentionally evaluating what I’ve lost, and filling in the gaps with other, less religion-y pursuits. I decided in my infinite wisdom that the religious life contributed 8 essential gifts to my life, and I’ve structured this book into chapters where I ruminate for a time on each one before forcing myself to move on. In the order in which it was logical for me to write about them, the gifts are:
1) Belief: a set of ideas about God and the meaning of life to latch on to in the abyss of despair that is our existence.
2) Discipline: a structured set of practices to follow in order to order life and improve oneself.
3) Pilgrimage: meaningful ways to travel and learn from the world.
4) Service: a structured commitment to “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
5) Community: a sense of belonging and connection to other people.
6) Ritual: an aesthetic experience of submitting yourself to something bigger.
7) Morality: a sense of what you should do and why.
8) Purpose: a sense that life has a meaning, and that you know what it is.
In this little book, I’ll tell some stories about what I’ve done with each of these things after I left religion. My hope is that 1) writing this will help me get my shit sorted out, and 2) I’ll communicate some level of insight about how normal and universal the needs that religion addresses are, and how possible it is to address these needs without the ideological baggage that comes along with religion, and 3) I’ll provide an amusing diversion for my friends and family, who will probably be the only ones to read this. If you are religious, I also hope that reading this will help you to see that “Christian/Religious/Muslim/Scientologist, etc.” does not equal “good”, and “non-Christian/Religious/Muslim/Scientologist, etc” does not equal “bad”. Or, more personally, that I haven’t gone over to the dark side. If you aren’t religious, I hope that you’ll get some sense from this that religious people aren’t generally crazy, or really much different from you. They’ve just found a way to meet some universal needs in a pretty satisfying way.
And thanks again for taking the time to read this.
(On that note, if you want to read the rest, follow the link on the right side bar.)