I was always a curious child, and that didn’t dissipate even when I was heavily involved in the religious community. I prided myself on the extent to which I knew the narrative of Christianity and philosophical, historical, and ”scientific” defenses of its truth. There was a very clear line, though, where the questioning had to stop. I like to call these the Big Questions.
Growing up in an area where public school teachers present Intelligent Design as a viable alternative to Evolution and the Big Bang Theory led to the undue weight I gave to the biblical creation story. I had no need to question the “science” of Christianity until I went to college. Professors take “belief” in Evolution and the Big Bang Theory for granted. This challenged me.
I was challenged more profoundly by an astrophysics professor who pointed out the logical inconsistencies in trying to reconcile an omniscient god with human free will. I was mad at her because I knew she was correct. Basically, my entire first year of college was a slice of humble pie.
Being unable to sit comfortably with information that doesn’t fit into my preexisting mental framework, I attempted to spin this information (and the other philosophical, historical, and scientific research I was conducting on my own) in a way that eliminated cognitive dissonance. It didn’t work, and it ultimately left me isolated from both my unbelieving friends and my Christian friends because I didn’t quite fit into either group at the time.
My Christian friends at college were open to my story – kumbayah Christianity, I guess – but still ultimately expressed their heartbreak with my deconversion. Returning home, however, created a different dynamic.
I hadn’t “come out” as an agnostic atheist – not to get too technical – to my family. I was easing them into the confession by bringing up some of my concerns slowly but surely.
Now, this is the point where some of you may ask, “Why’d you have to tell them at all?” Well, when you live with people as devout as I do, the constant injection of religion into every area of life is maddening. I couldn’t live a lie, but more than that, I couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance. It was sending me into a depressive episode unlike any I had had or would have.
I actually didn’t say the words “I don’t believe in god any more” until a year removed from my actual deconversion, so my loved ones still perceived me as swayable when I had already made up my mind. My family was in the process of joining a new church at the time – one that couched its transphobia, homophobia, and sexism in gentler tones – so there was a plethora of new pastors with whom I had yet to be disillusioned. My parents funneled my questions into them.
Every church has “a guy.” This guy is the one to whom they send people with philosophical, historical, or scientific doubts about Christianity. This guy presents these people [me] with no shortage of apologetics books. Until recently, I didn’t know that people who were never involved in Christianity don’t know what “apologetics” is, so for semantics sake, “apologetics” is a more intellectual – or dare I say factual – take on defending Christianity. This guy probably has a graduate degree in philosophy and/or religious studies.
I had a cordial conversation with this guy over coffee, and we basically recited the script of believer vs. non-believer interpretations of various philosophical and scientific ideas that I had already read.
I don’t say any of this to sound pretentious. I do not expect every believer to have a complete justification of his or her faith. I just expect that justification to exist somewhere, but the religious do this thing where they shrug off external evidence and base their beliefs on “hearing and feeling god in one’s heart.” It’s all about knowing god personally as opposed to knowing god objectively. This bothers me, not out of pretension but out of intellectual dishonesty. I don’t appreciate people trying to coddle me with things I cannot accept as true.
Anyway, though my refusal to budge toward piety was initially met with gentle and likely well-meaning subterfuge, by the time my atheism was loud and solidified, the tone changed. The subterfuge became outright and hostile. I attribute a lot of this to the fear of hell, obviously, but I don’t believe in hell. I’m not scared of it. I don’t want the fear of others projected onto me.
I’m not sure how double standards about who can speak openly about their faith, accusations that I stopped believing to spite my family, and the implication that I had suddenly become so irredeemably evil that I deserve eternal damnation can be construed as anything but detrimental to my mental health, especially since I was already struggling.
Perhaps most detrimental of all, however, was the assertion that I would be better off returning to the religious fold when I explicitly said time and again and again and again and again and again and again that I would absolutely, unequivocally be worse off. Nothing is more belittling than being treated as rebellious or simply going through a phase. Nothing is more belittling than having my years-long deconversion invalidated like that.
Using my atheism as a scapegoat for the stagnation and sometimes worsening of my mental health is ludicrous and antithetical to everything I’ve expressed, but I say all this with no animosity toward individuals in my life who have said these things to me. I know religion instills fear in people. I know it discourages dissent. I acted the same way toward unbelievers when I was a Christian, and I deeply regret it. Maybe it’s just karma. Lol.
Anyway, all I ask is that Christians put the breaks on conversion attempts when asked, stop blaming mental illness on a failure to perform religious duties (whether explicitly or implicitly), and accept when someone says he or she is better without religion. Just because you can’t see your life without god doesn’t mean everyone else has to see it that way. I know this creates a problem with Christians’ idea of Absolute Truth, but I’ve had way more problems created by Christianity than that. Deconverts (and “nones” in general) are tired of being made to feel like nonhuman aliens with no moral compass nor any direction.
Bottom line, it’s not a lack of faith that contributes to the worsening of my mental health. It’s the attitude of believers toward my lack of faith. Period.