I have a complicated relationship with religion; especially when it comes to Christianity.
Before we begin…
It can be difficult to talk about a negative personal experience with a particular religion without it being perceived as spreading that negativity or insulting individuals or groups in general.
I want to make it clear that everything I talk about here is my personal opinion and I have no ill-will of any kind towards any individuals or groups mentioned. Please do not direct negativity towards anyone based on the contents of article. It can be informative and beneficial to explore and discuss various perspectives on religion and spirituality, even if we ultimately disagree.
Freedom of religion or belief is a human right: we are all entitled to our own beliefs and to choose how we practise (or choose not to practise) them.
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I was raised in a secular home, though I was christened as a baby (it was just “the done thing” culturally) and I attended a school that made us sing hymns during assembly (despite not being an explicitly church-affiliated school). My dad was raised Catholic, but didn’t carry it on into adulthood.
These brief dalliances with Christianity didn’t particularly stick with me. Sure, we went along on school trips to the local church and I think my mum took toddler-me and my baby brother to church one Christmas Eve when my dad was working a night-shift and she didn’t want to be alone.
But none of that made me feel like I’d had a religious upbringing. We definitely didn’t attend Sunday services or pray or read the bible. “God” and “Jesus” were never mentioned and my parents never invoked any religious rules or “biblical discipline” in my childhood.
It wasn’t until I reached my early twenties that I began for the first time to consider religion as a possibility. Even then, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I threw myself into Christianity for the first time.
I talked about this experience in my 2018 blog post titled “Why I loved and then left Christianity“. I’m not going to repeat this story in full, so feel free to go back and read it then come back here!
The TL;DR version is that I had what I believed to be (and some may have been) many good reasons to become a Christian. I was lost, lonely, and longing for meaning. I found a tribe to which I could belong. I assigned myself an identity that I thought made me “acceptable” to others.
However, it didn’t last. I tried so hard to convince myself that it was true. But listening to people speaking gibberish (and calling it “tongues”) and preaching the word-of-faith doctrine (also known as the prosperity gospel, or the health and wealth gospel) did nothing but convince me that the whole thing was absolute bollocks. We sang along to catchy songs marketed as “worship music” and pretended our services were more than the glorified pop concerts they actually were.
Like Lot’s wife, I left, telling myself to never look back… until, years later, I did. Except instead of turning into a pillar of salt, I turned back into a Christian.
My previous experience of Christianity had been from within a charismatic/Pentecostal setting. Practices included: speaking in tongues, healing by laying on of hands, words of knowledge, tithing, a heavy focus on pop/rock-style worship music, and so on.
I was very disillusioned by all this. My research had shown me that these practices were either not from the bible, had been twisted beyond their biblical intention, or had even been explicitly denounced in the bible.
For example, “speaking in tongues” is mentioned in the bible, but only in that God gave some people the ability to speak in languages that they didn’t already know, so they could communicate about God with “outsiders” who spoke another language. In other words (no pun intended), let’s say person A spoke language A, and person B spoke language B. Person A wouldn’t be able to tell person B about God or Jesus, because they didn’t speak the same language. So God would suddenly give person A the ability to speak in language B! So person A tells person B everything they need to know in language B, person B is converted to Christianity, person A then leaves and then can’t speak language B anymore. It is seen as a gift from God, not something that people can produce themselves by babbling.
I’ve totally oversimplified this, but you get the point. According to the bible, it was a skill God bestowed to help his followers convert others. It was not a room full of a hundred people making random sounds that not a single person could interpret.
Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? […] If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.1 Corinthians 14:22-23, 27-28 (ESV)
Anyway, back to my original point; I was totally put off this “flavour” of Christianity.
Nevertheless, I had fallen back into old habits; ruminating on death, yearning for community, seeking order and security. I went back to endless research, spiralling along the way. And in my research, I discovered a different school of thought: Calvinism.
Talking about this now feels awkward and embarrassing, because the viewpoints go so clearly against my core values, but I think it is important to explain the thought processes that laid the foundation for me being swept back up in Christianity.
One of the main issues that turned me away from Christianity the first time was my inability to believe in what I was “supposed” to in order to consider myself a “true Christian”. Discovering Calvinism appealed to my need for logic, rules, and consistency.
Speaking generally (not necessarily all, YMMV, terms and conditions apply, etc) Calvinists don’t believe in speaking in tongues. They don’t lay hands on people to transfer healing from God, nor do they believe that it is God’s will to heal everyone. Whilst not expressly forbidden, they tend to avoid and discourage the use of the pop-style music with less-than-biblical lyrics, preferring instead to stick to hymns.
I didn’t know I was autistic at this time, but I can now see how much the structure of Calvinism appealed to my need for things to “line up” and “make sense”. They taught what was in the bible – it matched up. They had clear rules and clear beliefs, preached by clear, authoritative speakers such as Voddie Baucham (a well-known Calvinist preacher). My brain thrived on connecting the dots and seeing those connections come to life from the bible to daily living. It was consistent. I knew what was expected of me, I could link it back to the text, and it made me feel secure.
Despite all this, there was a huge stumbling block: the beliefs were clear, but I didn’t agree with them.
Calvinists are largely conservative. They tend to believe in complementarianism (“equal but different” gender roles, meaning that men and women are “equal” in value but have “different” strengths and therefore should have different roles) and of course, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and abortion are absolute off-limits. Women could not preach or teach in church, and any other teaching could only be directed to other women. Men led, women submitted.
As a queer, liberal woman, how could I even consider these beliefs?
But I was desperate to conform. I had joined a church where these views were well established and demonstrated. I was constantly consuming media that reinforced these rules and drilled it into me that I was an inherently sinful person who just wanted to rebel against God’s divine plan. It instructed me to stop using my brain – to stop questioning – and just believe. I must stop trying to go against what is “normal”; meaning, the rules of the bible. I was struggling with persistent intrusive thoughts about death and hell. In the end, I was praying for God to remove my doubt and change my views, to stop me from fighting against it all the time.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV)
It’s terrifying to believe that your own thoughts are corrupt and perverse and unacceptable; that your own understanding of your life and the world is so completely wrong and needs to be fixed or you’re on a one-way ticket to the pits of hell to burn for all eternity.
That’s how I felt. That’s what swirled inside my head every night as I lay in bed, praying and praying and praying, telling God that I understood how disgusting I was and how I was entirely at his mercy. I begged to be forgiven and to be saved. I didn’t want to doubt, I just wanted to believe and be able to live the way I was told he wanted me to. I wanted to be safe.
I remember stumbling across the Apostate Prophet YouTube channel (run by an ex-Muslim, now atheist, called Ridvan Aydemir. Ridvan talks about his experience of living and leaving Islam). He is now an outspoken critic of Islam and he uses his channel to both share his experiences and also to debate others on Islam and related topics. His videos often include sarcasm, satire, a perhaps what could be perceived as provocation, but he has also shared poignant videos about his life, such as the murder of his aunt, and the abuse he has faced for leaving and criticising Islam.
Ridvan’s experience is based in Islam and mine in Christianity, and his experience of apostasy and its ramifications have been horrific. For example, in response to his criticism of his former religion, he and his family (including his child) have received death- and rape-threats. I draw no comparison between this and my experience of apostatising from Christianity.
However, there was one particular video of his with which I strongly resonated.
In one of his videos, he talked about praying to Allah for ignorance. He had doubts. He had studied Islam intensely, poring over the texts and living out the instructions in his daily life. But he couldn’t shake those doubts. He asked Allah to remove his doubts so that he would never have to worry about discovering a flaw in the religion that he could not ignore and becoming an apostate. He looks back now in bewilderment that he was praying for ignorance. He had discovered things within the religion that he could not honestly claim to believe or condone, but he was trying to ignore them in order to remain in the religion. He knew it was only a matter of time before he could no longer ignore this.
This was it. This was what was happening to me. The battle between intellectual honesty and the desire to believe and stay safe. The willingness to supress my core values and beliefs, to metaphorically strap on my own blinkers and ignore what I knew to be false. It didn’t make sense. The promise of safety was an illusion.
It was time to leave… again.
I’m going to wrap this up here for now, because this is already super long. However, I will be continuing this story with a part two, so stay tuned for that. I will discuss my process of deconversion, the issues I encountered, along with the positive things and insights I have taken from these experiences.
Over to you…
I’d love to hear about your experiences with religion and/or beliefs.
How have your beliefs changed over time?
Did this affect your position in a religious group?
If you have left a religion, what brought you to that decision?
How do you conceptualise religion vs spirituality?
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!
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