Out Like a Lamb: Day 11: Holy Light, Unholy Eye
Though I have said in the past that this post would be about my relationship to “religion,” I was mistaken. In fact, it will be about my relationship to Christianity. Though Christianity bears certain family resemblances to all other supernatural beliefs and the ritual forms and institutions that shape those beliefs, it cannot be used as a proxy for all religion. Nevertheless, my rejection of all religious affiliation occurred out of the context of my Christian belief. It is a universal departure emerging from a specific experience. It could not be otherwise.
Since I was a child, I felt an intense guilt for never “feeling” spiritual. Though I certainly would have, and did, defend my belief in orthodox Christianity, there was never a sense either of belonging in a church community or the kind of transcendent experience people seemed to lean on in moments of doubt. What was left was the adherence to the ritual forms and institutional skeleton of Christianity–the outward, mushroom bloom of individual and collective Christian belief–and the intellectual frameworks of theology. The latter crumbled much more quickly than the former. I think the social appearance of religiosity substituted for its real existence, as I fumbled my way from conservative Reformed Christianity through liberal Quakerism and Unitarianism.
Because intellectual acceptance of Christian orthodoxy is, I think, fundamentally dependent on an emotional and social attachment to Christian ritual, the outward form of belief, that belief shattered without taking the compulsive attachment to churchgoing with it. I desired acceptance from family members and some of my peers: this was my wager, the benefit I hoped to get in exchange for conformity.
As I became more and more alienated from my assigned gender and all the rigidities that imposed on me, however, the value of that conformity, or, more precisely, the appearance of it, shrank and vanished. Why should I even pretend to support or claim as co-religionists those who were materially oppressing me and those like me? Eventually, even liberal religion lost its lustre as I came to resent the shell as well as the meat of Christian belief. I realized that I was just going to a church, any church, to maintain respectability and appearances. Like many others, my attachment to religion and ritual depended on a fear of exclusion and alienation. My decision to abandon religion altogether did not result from a purely free choice on my part, but rather was informed by a calculation. It was no longer in my best interests to pretend to be religious, and I left the liberal church to which my partner and I belonged.
I have no regrets about trying to create a vision of the world that is free of supernatural transcendence or speculation about gods and souls. I was personally liberated to think in different ways and to look honestly at the terror I had been living in before. My actual renouncement was extremely quiet and simple. I woke up one morning and knew that I was done with Christianity. I didn’t even vocalize this until a few days later. So it’s important, as I go further in this de-conversion narrative, that I emphasize how gradual and painful the post-Christian growth process has been. Epiphanies are rare. For me, it took a long time to sort out exactly what I thought about the world, and the process is far from over. In fact, what I rejected that cold spring morning was not so much a particular religion as a way of thinking and being in the world. It’s a trajectory that I could no longer see working out in the future. What would have happened had I stayed, I don’t know. But at the same time, I am quite confident that travelling in this other direction has been immensely beneficial to me.
Not that I am going to hawk atheism as a panacea or a universal solution to people’e problems. Indeed, atheists have garnered quite a reputation for cloying self-righteousness or, in more devilish forms, for forming a cult of masculine “intellect.” These bullies, often acting as shock-troopers for reactionaries online, fail to understand the true potentials of atheism. Atheism names a rejection, of course, but it is empty if fetishized and placed in a vacuum. Its liberatory potential can only be realized when it pushes in the direction of ecological, integrated, radical thinking. Rejecting God only to put gendered Man in his place is a recipe for disaster. Just as no Christian faith stands alone but is comprised of a vast concatenation of religious and philosophical traditions, layered and warped in often incoherent ways, every individual’s atheism is a multitude of small ways of becoming all pushing with or against each other. Rejection of god is, unfortunately, not always the affirmation of the good, even broadly defined.
And of course Christians and other religious adherents will always claim that atheists are in denial, that they are merely regressives who just worship “man” or “nature” in place of the real truth. Perhaps we cannot escape symbolic and sacred thinking, at least entirely. But given the generally negative impact of Christian institutions on the world, I cannot help but encourage people to disengage from them and find other avenues. Individual believers and even some isolated churches might do good, produce excellent scholarship, create vital radical theology, or otherwise enrich the world, but to me the reality is that Christianity is both unnecessary and false in its premises. We can and should live without it, while recognizing where it might, as a husk and a dead tradition, contribute to a better world.
For those who are still finding your way to live inside a religious community–even Christianity–I wish you all the best. That is a burden I could not hope to bear. Religion is complicated, woven into so many social situations and cultural traditions that it is not easily criticized or extricated as a whole. And for many it might still be nourishing, and we have much to share and speak about together. For me, however, church and religion are nothing but the names for bad memories and a kind of spiritual terror to which I was subjected. May we all find better ways, and end all oppressions done in the name of religion.
Next three posts coming up!
March 22: A post about Magic: The Gathering, current reigning champion of my hobbies and interests. Should be nerdy fun.
March 23: Discussing art is always fun for me, especially when it’s my own. This one will feature some old and new sketches and some graphic design work.
March 24: Though I’ve already addressed my position in the academy, this entry will be about some of my favourite research interests. Everything from chaos theory to economics.