It’s funny. If you had sat me down 5 years ago and told me that one day I’d be a blasphemy-loving bisexual apostate who had finally come out to her parents, gotten cut off, and called it all the best thing to ever happen to her, I probably would’ve laughed. Or cried. Maybe a little of both.
Just picture it: high school aged me, little pink Bible in tow, memorizing Scripture verses in our church’s “Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed” Friday night program like any other week. I was not a picture of joyful heresy.
Back then, see, Jesus was still my everything. I was still eager servant to the God of the Universe for my forever and ever, still believed that was the only right and happy and good way to live in the first place, as my Chinese American Baptist church taught. I still sang songs like “your will above all else, my purpose remains: the art of losing myself in giving you praise” with all my heart. I still got down on my knees weekly to rededicate my whole soul to God. And so on and on.
All my life, too, I’d heard of the fabled fallaways, apostates. I could never understand how anyone could know the indescribable joy and peace and hope of Christ, live a life for Him … and leave. For what? Nonbelievers were supposed to be dangerous, blind, with empty lives not worth living; atheists were all secretly miserable. My greatest wish was that I never became one of them. At annual summer camp, I sang “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back” with tears in my eyes.
Maybe that’s why, when I began to have my first doubts in high school, I never saw it coming. I still don’t remember when it happened, or how, or what even did happen — my brain has blocked those memories out. Was it conversations with kids at school — exposing me to a world beyond my insulated church? Websites, videos, or just a slow, wordless dawning that came naturally with my age? I don’t know.
But it began a tug-of-war that lasted years: the ever-echoing could it all be wrong? locking me in a spiral. Every week, seeing the moral and logical discrepancies in what I’d always taught was the only accurate, just, and fulfilling belief system in the world would push me to my breaking point, and I’d think “screw it all” for a few short hours until some sermon or song lyric would “convict” me to return to God on my knees.
By senior year, I had somehow reached the point where the terror of hell and wasting my salvation couldn’t chase me back to the foot of my bed in prayer anymore. I no longer believed. I had also realized that I was bisexual. That brought a new all-consuming problem: I couldn’t let anyone find out.
My parents, while they loved me, could be controlling, punishing, and zealous. I didn’t know yet that it wasn’t normal, but I did know it wasn’t safe. I had no idea how my parents would react if they knew I was bi and a nonbeliever, but it could be anything from getting disowned and kicked out, physically punished and trapped, sent to conversion therapy, and so on.
So I passed my time in fear. The summer before I went away to college, the pressure of having to keep pretending I believed to everyone I’d grown up with, singing to a God I loved all my life but who never even existed, and keeping my sexuality and true beliefs a secret, all 2-3 times a week, got to me. I nearly attempted suicide a few times, but I made it to college — a liberal, Jewish-influenced university 5 hours away.
College changed everything for me. For the first time, I could say my secrets aloud. I had a lot to learn; I didn’t know who Drake and Beyonce were, I was afraid of alcohol, I didn’t know how to hang out with people. But from the very first moment, I was free to be who I’d always dreamed I could be, beneath the secrecy and fear. I went from a situationally mute high schooler to someone friendly, energetic, open-hearted, and involved in more activities and activist leadership roles than I could remember.
I continued living a double life at home, though, and it was poisoning me. Every time I went home for break, I wondered if I’d come out the other side. Having to keep pretending at church was hell, and I’m not made for hiding. I would revert to the small, powerless, trapped self I’d been, and my Christian indoctrination would rewrite my brain. I almost tried to kill myself one or two more times, and I realized in winter of freshman year that my parents could find out my secrets at any time because of short fiction pieces I’d had published.
So I started preparing for the day my parents found out. I knew at the very least they would stop paying for college, and if it happened over break, I’d be trapped with them. So I called local shelters, memorized crisis numbers, packed a runaway bag with me at all times, and went to the campus Bible study, which was even more toxic than my church and originated from a cult. When I went home for the summer after freshman year, I truly thought that I would not make it out alive.
But I did. And even this brought troubles with it. I had not expected to survive and for the last half of 2016, I wished I hadn’t. I didn’t know what the point was. I felt I’d been lucky for having kept my sexuality and disbelief a secret for this long, and it was just a matter of time before my parents found out, I was disowned, homeless, and had to drop out of college, and I thought I would kill myself or be killed when that time came. I also didn’t know how to leave Christianity behind fully; my double life kept me anchored still in that world. What did life as a non-Christian even look like?
But something happened on Christmas Eve of that year. I was desperate, drowning in the memories of how I lost my God, my self, and my family, friends, and world without anyone even knowing, and close to suicide. So I called the Trevor Life Line. A woman picked up, and we talked, and for some reason, while I was sitting on my bed with that tear-streaked phone, I understood why leaving and living in the aftermath of my fundamentalist religion was so damn hard. I saw my past self, everything she had gone through. I saw my past glowing like a path.
I can’t explain what came next. I think of it like a fever break, forceful, sudden, and thorough as first hail, tongue of fire, riptide. I started healing. Apparently the term for this is post-traumatic growth: a phenomenon where, after trauma, your view of the world and your self evolve into appreciation, openness, adventure, spirituality, and gratefulness. And in the mountains by Vegas as the year turned 2017, that began.
I spent the next few months coming into myself. The world exploded into a wide-open kaleidoscope of possibilities, adventures, opportunities. I realized that the idea of a conventional life: 9-5 job, stationery, family and retirement, bored me. I wanted experiences out of life, and there were so many fewer rules than my religion had led me to believe. I’d discovered absurdism, the idea that life has no inherent meaning, in the autumn, and it didn’t depress me — it excited me.
And then came March 19.
This day, like so many other events in my deconversion, I cannot fully explain. Here, too, it’s like there was something wordless, instinctual, and invisible in me, guiding. It knew, I think. It knew that I deserved more than the hiding I’d been doing for the past five years. It knew that if this new self was to keep growing and healing, the hiding had to stop.
And so, during a late-night routine phone call with my parents on Sunday, March 19, I ended up telling my parents that I was bi and a disbeliever. The whole thing was surreal, none of it planned. It just happened: halfway through the conversation, something unknown in me reached a tipping point, and the words forced themselves out of my mouth.
After all this time hiding, I had never imagined I would be the one to tell them, to bring the consequences I was terrified of down on my own head. My parents told me they were no longer paying for college. They asked what they had done to deserve this.
But it happened. After I hung up the phone at 2 am, I curled up and cried into my stuffed panda. And one minute later I straightened myself up. I breathed deeply. And I launched into action. I told my suitemates next door what had happened, I emailed every university employee I needed to, I paced the common room floor, feeling the carpet under my bare feet, drinking in the redness of the dull EXIT sign.
Everything was a thousand times more real. I knew what lay ahead would be grueling. I knew the person I would’ve become if the phone call never happened would never exist now; instead, there would be a new one, called on to survive all that was coming.
And yet, when I woke up in the morning that same day, all I felt going forward was a deep peace. As I told friends, professors, financial aid advisers, and bosses what had happened, I did it with grace, humor, and that peace. I didn’t know if I would still be able to go to college or have a place to stay come summer; to be honest, I’d never imagined this ending anywhere but with me as a homeless dropout. And yet, in this new reality, I knew I would find a way to be okay because I had me, the me I’d been healing and growing into since Christmas Eve.
So I did all the things I needed to do to stay in college. I filed my first tax return at 5 am on a Wednesday. I wrote a 13-page letter to the financial aid office, appealing for a grant of independent status by describing my abuse and trauma narrative with details I had never told anyone before, hoping they would consider it “bad enough” for me to be allowed to try to pay for college by myself. I got a 4th job and started waitressing with no prior experience during finals season. I started a fundraiser for summer living expenses that went over its goal in 3 days.
And through it all I found more love, support, and grace than I ever expected. From all sides. I found out I had friends who were working through college as independents and got advice (and my 4th job lead) from them. The financial aid adviser turned out to be queer with abusive parents just like me, and my academic adviser, a wonderful man with a husband, went through the same thing himself in college. My supervisor at work and my therapist advocated for me. A friend from high school shared my fundraiser on Facebook, and ex-religious friends from online, readers of my poetry and short fiction, and people I hadn’t seen from as far back as fifth grade donated and encouraged me. I made new friendships and deeply strengthened and restarted old ones.
After it all, just before finals, I heard that dependency override to the financial aid office was accepted, and I applied for financial aid. What I heard back still floors me.
I won’t need to pay for any tuition out of pocket, other than the usual loans I’ve already been taking. I’ve been given free on campus housing this summer through a job (in the financial aid office!) with someone who’s been unbelievably generous to me this whole way. And with my new waitressing job? I am gonna be okay.
But I’m so much more than just okay. I am thriving. On a level I’ve never seen before.
I enjoy going to work because I love the people I’m with. I make good money on my tips, and I’ve heard that I’m good at my job for someone who’s just started. Waitressing is throwing all the areas of situational mutism that I need to recover in my face, and while it’s definitely hard, I’ve grown so much as a person just in the past 2 weeks.
I’m planning to get the blasphemous badass tattoos I’ve dreamed of this summer, and I may finally change my name to my preferred, Max. I’m going to sharpen my harp skills at a Renaissance music camp on full scholarship for a week. I’m hanging out with friends, making new ones and learning to connect.
I’m going back to my old high school, empowered by finally being out, to make things better for LGBTQ+ people, while I also organize Asian American advocacy events, plan LGBTQ+ resource improvement at my university, and try to build community and resources for people who are recovering from and transitioning out of religious communities just like me.
Life is an adventure now. Life is open, and full of possibilities, and while the world can be sketchy and complicated as hell, I’m all in it now, and it in me. I wanna travel, to live an unconventional life, to become and grow and heal every day. I am not just the person I always dreamed of being as a closeted, scared, traumatized born again Christian kid … I am becoming someone I didn’t even know I could be, and falling in love with them.
Before I lost my faith, my self, my world, I was supposed to go to a Bible Institute. Become a missionary, live my whole life for Jesus. Now, I’m a soon-to-be-tatted bisexual apostate, financially independent from her family, recovering from situational mutism, depression, disordered eating, and religious trauma, and an aspiring community/clinical social worker dedicated to empowering ex-religious people. I never saw this coming, but I’m so happy it did.
There’s a poem I read today that I think sums this all up. Fittingly, it’s “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins.
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in yet another Sunday church service, waiting for it to finally end because look, they had lunch ready and there were meatballs and listening to a pastor spout off about how porn is satanic makes a girl hungry, damnit!
But prayer time dragged on. And on. It was about that time in service when people were praying (and crying) on the floor, and there was this one person who was just going at it. Sobbing so hard. Minutes passed. I was a little freaked out. But honestly, more hungry than anything.
And then finally someone appeared in the front of the room. Hallelujah. Meatball time.
I wanted the guy to open his mouth and say, “alright, time for lunch, let’s wrap it up!” That is not what the guy said. Instead the guy said, “today, in this church, a boy was just saved!” And everybody clapped. (Except me. I shuddered and whispered good game, obviously.)
At that point I was still young and naive. I was still hoping that meatballs were gonna be a thing. Except that wasn’t meatballs coming round to the mic. It was a kid, the one who just got “saved,” and he was a complete and total wreck. He had a piece of paper in his hands. He stood in front of the mic and he opened his mouth and my dreams of meatballs and emotional stability for the day shattered into a hundred little pieces.
“Dear God,” he said, “only you know how much of a piece of trash I am.” That was his opening. He was sobbing so hard he could barely whisper. As his “testimony” went on, sometimes he couldn’t even do that. He called himself a liar of liars. I was crying with him at that point. He looked broken. He looked so broken.
He spit out the phrase “Internet porn” like a knot of wet hair, and my mind flew back to the sermon we’d all just heard, the one where the pastor proclaimed that porn was under the cloud of Satan (wherever the hell that is), the one that I joked off in my head but had probably ripped this kid’s heart to pieces. That one.
This boy was breaking my heart. I wanted to reach out and hug him. I was crying and shaking. This boy, standing right in front of me, was so convinced that he was disgusting, worthless. He was so ready to enter into an abusive relationship with God, the kind that had almost killed me, that I’m still to this day trying to survive. He looked and sounded so broken, that’s all I could keep thinking. In that moment, I thought, he looked anything but free.
And as I was sitting there, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, brokenhearted, the founder of the church sprang out of her front row seat, took the mic, and said, “He is free now!” And everybody clapped.
She talked and talked on. She was talking about nonsense. The boy stood next to her, saying nothing, motionless, his head slumped to his chest, staring at the floor. It was like there was nothing in him.
At one point she said, “Let’s all sing Our God Is So Good!” And everyone sang, except me, who was staring at this woman by now with unmitigated horror and hate. Did everyone else in the room really think this was normal? They applauded this boy for saying that he was a piece of trash. Three separate times.
We eventually did get to lunch. I wasn’t hungry by then, but I still ate. At least one thing that day went right. The meatballs were great.
A girl struck up a conversation with me. She looked me in the eyes and said, “yes, before that boy got saved God saw him as trash, and even now that he’s saved he’s still a piece of trash.” On the way back I wanted to scream. PEOPLE ARE WORTH SOMETHING.
Which is, I think, what leads me here. Today.
It’s been months and months since something happened that rocked me to my core. I thought I was going to die. I’ve spent months since wishing that I did. I didn’t want to live. I knew I was going to get cut off from my parents for being a queer nonbeliever. I didn’t want to survive that. I didn’t see the point.
But the day after that service, wanting to live came. I was sitting down with my eyes closed when it came. I was trying to imagine a future (an exercise in impossibility, it felt like.) But it came. It came without warning, like a riptide, from somewhere below my throat. It was visceral, sudden, full-bodied, and all of a sudden it was like all of my being was lunging toward that one image of my future self. And God, this sounds so corny, so dramatic, but I swear in those moments, I felt my future self touch me.
I want, I thought, a life without him.
A life in which God has no part. He has always been a part of this. He has been my father, my master, my owner. When he existed I belonged to him. There was no other reason to live. When he stopped existing, I felt like I did too.
I still carry him in my heart, my mind. Still talk to him, still make myself relive the horror he put me through, still get triggered by things that remind me of him.
Ever since that day at the pond, with Tyler Glenn blaring in the background, I wanted to leave him behind. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to leave something that lived in my own head and heart. I didn’t know how to live a life without either loving God or mourning him. Without flashbacks and fear, longing and loss.
But I’m ready now, I thought, sitting there with wanting in my chest. I remembered the boy, broken, in church while all of his supposed friends applauded him on.
I saw, there, that there is nothing left for me in church. I saw all of the pain and horror that I had been put through as a believer. That’s what I needed to finally hate him. To say, enough. To say, I’m leaving you, I am above you, I deserve and deserved more than you. To say, you are an abuser, and I will be bigger than you ever were. I’ll create a life in which you have no part, neither presence nor absence. You are no longer a factor.
So that’s what I’m doing in 2017. I’m building a life separate from him. He always said I was nothing without him. So wrong. I am everything without him.
I will do what has to get done to survive on my own when my family cuts me off. I will try to recover – from depression, situational mutism, binge eating, religious trauma. I will do my best in school, learn because I mean it, work toward grad school and a social work license. I’ll have fun along the way, damnit. I’ll drink, love, hangglide, visit parts, play with dogs, wake up late on Sundays. If God was a “real life” abuser, this is the part where I set the GPS, pack the car, take the dog with me.
Take a good last look, God. I’m leaving.
Alright, I’ve been sitting on this news for way longer than I’d like, but I’ve been so swamped lately that I haven’t had time to write it out. Finally, here it is…
I finally figured out what I might wanna do after college!
I want to be a social worker, combining clinical work and community building to help people who are marginalized.
Whether at a political nonprofit, and university with queer or non-white students, and community center with Asian Americans and immigrants… I wanna be a therapist and an activist, helping people heal, grow, organize, and work for change, so that communities can become better places for the people living in them.
This is… new for me. I was absolutely against looking into social work at first, actually. I’d just lost someone dear who was related to the field, and I’d always had a negative view of social work. But multiple different people told me, once I spouted off a few things I might want to do as a career, that that’s exactly what social work is!
So… I started going to my university’s professional development center, talked to a career counselor, and after months of research and thinking and dreaming, here I am. Boom.
Here’s the best part: I’m most passionate about working with people who are recovering from or transitioning away from their religious communities or lives (GOD do I need a shorter way to say that!) I especially feel for young people like me who are trapped in religious environments and will be punished or disowned if they leave.
I’ve got dreams. I want to be a therapist, but I also really want to build a community of ex-religious people and organizations to help us. Maybe one day we could have a shelter for kids escaping abusive religious homes or cults. And an organization that provides both counseling and legal/financial/housing support for recovery and leaving. And so on.
This is how I’m pursuing that dream…
I’ve officially declared my majors, Psychology and Sociology. My university doesn’t have a bachelor’s SW degree, but Psych and Soc are just as well (and while I’m wary about majoring in Psych, I love Soc, which also just fell into my lap this semester.)
Also… I finally went ahead and became an agent on Recovering from Religion’s Hotline/Chatline! I’ve been wanting to since last spring, but I didn’t feel ready til now, and I’m so excited. Hearing people’s stories, being there to support others who’ve been hurt by or are trying to live beyond their religions, that’s unspeakably awesome.
I also applied for a fellowship with my university. I proposed internships about therapy with people exiting/recovering from religion, and the interview gave me lots to think about presenting myself for jobs, internships, and grad school in the future. People have lots of misconceptions about what “recovering from religion” might mean, lemme tell ya.
And of course, I am still co-running The Art of Leaving, a blog for people who are recovering from and building lives after harmful religions.
Finally, next semester, I just might start my own Recovering from Religion support group on campus.
I never imagined myself here, and I’m still wrapping my head around it
All this future planning and daydreaming and gushing is great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m still trying to come to terms with it.
Four years ago, God owned me. I was going to go to a Bible Institute for 2 years, try to figure out how God wanted to use life for his glory. I would’ve ended up in ministry or missionary work. Weeks ago, students from an Evangelical college came to sociology class, and I sat on one side of the room thinking how easily I could have ended up on the other.
Now I’m here. Struggling to survive. Barely hanging in there. Yet doing these things, nursing these dreams, to help other people leave the God I once loved with all I had.
I did the one thing I was never supposed to do. The thing I prayed and prayed I would never do. Leave. And now, I want to do maybe the most blasphemous thing I can think of… Help other people leave. I’m truly an elect gone rogue. 😛
This is where I’m at. Can I wrap my head around it yet? NOPE. But two things come to mind. First, a Nayyirah Waheed poem from Nejma.
“do not choose the lesser life. do you hear me. do you hear me. choose the life that is. yours. the life that is seducing your lungs. that is dripping down your chin.”
This is a life I can get behind. Activism. Community building. Counseling. Helping people find or create the power to build better lives. Micro and macro. Heretic helper. Apostate ally. Rooting for the marginalized. At a nonprofit, within a community, with a fox, in a box, these are my green eggs and ham. This is the life that is dripping down my chin.
And second, this inspiring piece by Yasmine, an ex-Muslim who’s got some serious heart.
“And we will pave the way. Every scar on our hearts, our minds, and sometimes our bodies, will be worth it, because the next generation of ex-Muslims will have it easier. We are making sure of that. They will never know what if feels like to be completely alone because we will reach out to them online, no matter where they are on the globe. They will never feel like they are crazy. They will never feel like they are the only one on the planet to ever feel this way. They will never feel like they have no choice but to follow the status quo. We will be their net. And we will be there for them if they happen to fall.”
This is why I blog, why I want to work with and for the ex-religious. Because no one understands the struggles, the victories, the needs, the wishes, of people who are looking to leave harmful religions like we do ourselves. Because no one will care to talk about or help us until we make the conversations happen. Because we stop feeling so alone/crazy/hopeless once we know that other people are going through this too, that they survived, that they’re there to listen.
We have to build our own community, across former religions, between former Catholic and cult, former Muslim and Mormon. We have to write our own blogs and articles, share our own stories, build our own networks. And that’s what we’re doing.
That’s what I’ll be doing, too. I hope you’ll join me.
[ Image is a meme I have seen in multiple places, but can’t find credit for. ]
What do you do when you love a monster?
(Cue In Love with a Monster by Fifth Harmony in the background… Zoinks.)
I’ve been struggling so much in the past month… a few things always on my mind, and of course, all of them have to do with God. It doesn’t help that Tyler Glenn’s been dropping a new song every Friday and his album (EXCOMMUNICATION) debuts on October 21. GDMML Girls, Gates, and Midnight all have me wrecked further than I already was.
So unfortunately I’m not feeling irreverent or cheeky today. I wanted to let you all know about the Ex-Religious Resource Directory I’ve been working on; celebrate me realizing that I want to become a social worker to help the ex-religious (it was so exciting); spotlight Tyler Glenn and how incredibly important his songs are to me from one non-heterosexual religion-leaver to another. But this is the post I have to offer you, here, today.
I don’t know what love is. To be completely honest? I don’t think it exists. And if it does, the last thing people should do is trust it.
I used to know what love was. God was love. God was the paragon of true love itself. God was the only person who would EVER love me fully and permanently. That was because God knew how ugly and selfish I was, am, and will be, and he still accepted me anyway. No human, even people who were supposed to love me like my parents, could ever love me like God did, because God was love. In fact, the only reason humans are capable of love is because even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8)
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)
I used to know what love was. God was not just love, he was Love. Love died on the cross for me and he died once more every time I sinned. Love shaped me while I was in my mother’s womb, knew me before I was born. Love walked with me beside still waters. Was with me through the valley of the shadow of death. Love restored my soul.
Love was there when I worshipped in a sanctuary steeped in silhouette and melody, the lights dim, my voice up, when singing praise felt as intimate and warm as resting my head in the crook of Love’s neck. Love was there at every single daybreak as the sun, eviscerating light, anointed my bowed head and gilded every holy page. Love was there at every funeral, during every test, through every night I lay awake with seemingly nothing but Love left to live for.
Love was sacred and looming. Love was gentle and furious. Love was more ancient, arcane, terrifying and beautiful than the whales that sang, the winds that whistled, the stars that hummed on frequencies the human ear cannot even fathom, as the whole earth sang for Love’s glory.
God was Love. Love loved me. And I loved him. Love was my everything. Love was the only Love there was, the only Love that mattered, the only Love that could be.
And then I started ninth grade. And I learned that Love…
Love commanded rapists to marry their victims and pay the victims’ fathers.
Love said to stone to death men who slept with men… their blood be upon them.
Love told the Israelites to murder every man, woman, and child of a people who did not worship him… but to keep the virgins for themselves. God killed the entire world because people weren’t good enough for him.
Love struck a couple dead on the spot for lying to Peter.
Love caused the earth to swallow alive 250 men and their innocent wives, children, and servants… for daring to rebel against Moses.
Love (in Jesus Mode) said he did not come to bring peace, but the sword.
Love will ship me off for an eternal dunk in the lake of fire, a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth, where the flame does not cool and the worm does not die, unless I give up everything I am, own, and care for to serve him alone.
And I still love him. And I don’t know what to do with that. Because God was love, but God is a genocidal, slavery-enabling, misogynistic, narcissistic abuser with a taste for blood. And I lived the past few years thinking I no longer loved him… but I do. It should be disgusting, shameful, a betrayal of my self and everything he and his people put me through. But I still love him: God, Love, monster, master, father, husband… the face hovering over dark waters, the blinding light and the rushing wind he has always been.
If that was Love to me so profoundly and completely for so long, then how can I ever trust what “love” is again? Is love even real? If it is, is it good? What is love?
I don’t know. Maybe someday, I will. But right now, I find that… hard to believe. Hard to even want.
Do you know?
This week I want to share with you all a personal ritual that’s been really special to me in Christianity and out. Actually, I think I may have Christianity to thank for it. And so this post will be probably the first on this blog to talk about a positive thing that Christianity gave me, or strengthened in me!
The ritual I’m talking about is something called daily devotions. Depending on what sect of Christianity you come from, you might know what I’m talking about. Daily devotions are, to my knowledge, a pretty modern practice. Doing your “daily devotions” consists of a few things:
- Find a peaceful, secluded place away from people and noise (your room, the front porch, a lakeshore)
- Pray asking God to “open your ears” to what he wants to tell you in the Scripture excerpt you’re about to read
- Read an excerpt of the Bible – usually a chapter or two
- Read what your “devotional” says about it (a book that suggests a daily Scripture reference to read, and a few paragraphs on how to apply its lessons to your life)
- Think about the Scripture’s “application” to your life
- Pray that God will help you do it in the coming week
Daily devotions are a self-driven activity for spiritual growth, an independent Bible study – you decide when and where to do them, and the idea is that God has different messages for every person every day. It’s up to you to pick a reading schedule or devotional (there are tons you can find or buy for all demographics, from kids to middle-aged women), read it regularly, and actually strive to apply them to your life.
The idea is that through devotions, you’ll grow closer to God. It’s how you’re supposed to strengthen your relationship with God. You retreat from the world to a peaceful place, you tell God your worries and thanks, your praise for him and your sins. You read about who he is. You meditate on who you are and who you aim to be. Then you go forward – with those memories and conclusions in mind.
Now that I’m no longer Christian, I obviously don’t do devotions anymore. At least, not with God.
As toxic as Christianity was for me, I can say that doing my devotions taught me the art of making retreats for myself. Because I’ve been struggling with a few chronic (and very existential) problems for most of my life, a huge part of my survival and recovery has been these “check ins”. The difference between devotions and retreats is that I do the latter by instinct, not by instruction. There aren’t rules. There’s no blueprint. Yet they’re more helpful to the person I am and I wanna be than devotions ever were.
I usually check in when I’m feeling totally overwhelmed. It’s not an intentional thing… I just feel drawn to find a place away from crowds, usually with a great view of the place I’m in, like a park bench or a third-floor room. I sit and think or talk aloud to myself. I go over who I’ve been, what I’ve survived. I check in with who and where I am now in recovery. And I let myself imagine the person I’ve dreamed of being for years… even though it’s almost impossible to do most of the time.
These check ins are a really awesome way to regroup. They also let me connect with myself. I see myself as more a team than one person, so instead of asking the Holy Spirit for help or praising God for what he’s “given” me, I acknowledge my own victories and learn to trust myself, again and again and again.
If there’s anyone I’m praying to now, it’s myself, and I have Christianity to thank for giving me that framework: withdraw, meditate, connect with self, think, thank, and resolve to be better.
Here are some pics of places I’ve gone over the last few months – a pond and the woods I visited before summer began.
As for devotionals, I make my own. AKA – I art journal! I like to say that art journaling is whining aesthetically, lol. It’s pretty self-explanatory: you journal through art, whether that’s collage, sketch, painting, watercolors, etc.
I use my art journal to vent and process things I’m going through, such as situational mutism and mind bugs from religious indoctrination. It’s free therapy… and it’s pretty! More importantly, it lets me put all the thoughts bouncing around my head down on paper.
My art journal is pretty sacred to me. I treat it carefully, and I carry it with me when I need some extra comfort. It’s the closest thing to Scripture I’ve got, and I write it myself. Check out a few spreads that relate to this blog:
That’s it for this week! If this post made you think about your own methods of meditation, or the rituals of prayer and devotions you used to have… if you have questions about art journaling or some of your own to share… go ahead! I’d love to hear from ya. Have a great Sunday, everyone!
As Christians we weren’t allowed to make hard times about ourselves. Well, fuck that.
This week, I want to take a closer look at how Baptist Christianity’s anti-self attitude creates expectations that suffocate us when we’re struggling.
It’s no secret to us by now that Baptist Christianity is pretty much synonymous with repression. I mean, worldview literally stresses that you cannot follow God without “dying to yourself.” That’s rough, buddy.
Growing up, I was taught that loving God means allowing him to control every imaginable aspect of my life, to the point where my very emotions could be sinful, from anxiety (didn’t I trust that God would take care of me?) to anger (how could I not forgive when God had forgiven me?)
Unfortunately, that repression really takes its time to shine when a Christian goes through hard times. The idea is that when you’re struggling in life, it’s because God intended it to happen, and you’re expected to deal with it and feel with it in very specific ways. Any other and you’re selfish and foolish. That’s based on the following 3 concepts.
- God never puts you through anything you can’t handle.
- God puts you through hard times for your own good.
- God puts you through hard times so you will learn that he is the only person you can depend on.
Tough times are not about you. They’re about God.
No matter what’s happening to you – whether you’ve fallen ill, lost a loved one, suffered a natural disaster, whatever – you are supposed to turn into a walking Gospel tract.
God’s goodness is supposed to be so amazing that heathens will take one look, gasp, and say where can I get me one of those?! when they see how At Peace and Gracious your relationship with Jesus has made you. Because you’re not supposed to worry. You’re not supposed to be angry, or question, or get depressed. Not for long, anyway.
Joseph, Paul, and Job: the Good Survivor Squad
But for the vast majority of us who can’t stuff all their feelings down and shove their questions to the side – well, we get blasted with the Good Survivor Squad, Joseph, Paul, and Job. You’ve heard about them in sermons about “rough seasons,” in meetings with your pastor or counselor, in brochures and devotionals. They’re the rock stars of repression.
Joseph is the Gracious and Wise Forgiver. He welcomes those who hurt him with open arms. He cries, but he claims it’s because he’s so happy to see them. He forgives, holds no grudges, and has no flashbacks. He says, “don’t worry. You may have hurt me, but God meant it for good.” He is at peace.
Paul is the Modest Self-Suffocator. He acknowledges that his hard times happened, but never that they hurt him. He’ll rattle off all, like, 51 (random guess) of his near-death experience, then “yeah, whatever” them away since they’re, like, minor league compared to Jesus, right? He considers himself the lowest of the low. He needs some goddamn therapy.
Job is the Silenced Questioner. He responds to rapid successions of tragedy by worshiping God, but when he finally cracks, he gets angry, depressed, and questions God. However, he comes back around and “repents,” saying he despises himself for being so arrogant as to not trust in God.
Unfortunately, Joseph, Paul, and Job are all bullshit paradigms. They are who we’re supposed to be, but they are not who we are. We were supposed to trust that God would take care of us no matter how confused or hurt we were, to never blame him for our pain, to take it all with a smile and a “thanks be to God.” No offence, but that’s bullshit.
This sucks. You’re allowed to say it.
I’ll admit it. I’m a Paul. I’ll acknowledge that things that’ve happened to me are, like… bad… I guess… but there’s no need to make a big deal out of them. I’ll stick a smile on my face and “it’s fine” it away. I get so uncomfortable when people call me strong or say anything that suggests my struggling is worthy of sympathy. Sometimes I even get angry. And that’s because little me, deep down, still thinks that hard times are not supposed to be about me.
Who are they supposed to be about? Beats me, cause I long stopped believing in Jesus.
But you know, maybe it’s okay to just straight up say it. Whatever you’re going through, you can say it: You are allowed to make it about you. You are allowed to say,
Listen, this fucking sucks. This is not good. This is not meant for good. This just sucks.
You are allowed to be angry. You’re allowed to be pissed.
You’re allowed to be depressed. To worry. To cry days, to cry nights. You’re allowed to feel lost, unbearably lost, alone, unbelievably alone. You’re allowed to hate God. You’re allowed to wonder why. You’re allowed to swear. You’re allowed to not feel anything at all.
You can go through this without marketing it to people. Without smiling or dressing it up, without turning it into some inspiring story. You can not see the bright side. You can rely on friends and family, or just yourself.
You can. You are allowed.
Those times when I say this to myself are the times when I write on this blog. And I’m now I’m saying them to you too. Your feelings? They’re yours. You don’t have to perform for anyone now. You can just be.
So go be. 🙂
Hey all, and happy Sunday! Around two weeks ago, I joined an online chat group for ex-religious people (a great place to commiserate and celebrate all things ex-religius, by the way. Come say hey if you’re into it!)
Yesterday was a quiet night for me, and long story short, I found myself compiling some heathen jams for our chat group. I’m always on the lookout for songs with “infidel vibes” (excuse my crude humor), so I thought I’d share the playlist with you all too, along with why I included each song, and see if you’ve got any recs.
1. “Trash” (Tyler Glenn): “Trash” has been my anthem since I first saw the incredible (and blasphemous) music video. It’s such a raw, flagrant song straight from the gut. And it fits its singer. Tyler Glenn is a gay ex-Mormon who sang “Trash” about his relationship with the LDS church after it banned LGBTQ members, and he’s promised a full album about “the pain of a faith crisis and the darkness of doubt.” His Facebook post on reclaiming yourself with that red X is worth the read.
“I repent my days away“… as a Christian I spent my days repenting. Now I repent of those wasted days. Powerful stuff huh?
2. “Heathens” (twenty one pilots): This one’s a no-brainer for me. “Heathens” has got a distinct ex-cult vibe with lyrics steeped in paranoia, desperation, and repression. It echoes, for me, that too-familiar muffled fear and constant vigilance in the pews.
3. “Blasphemy” (Bring Me the Horizon): Another no-brainer. This entire damn song is perfect for ex-religious people. If you want some alternative metal that really taps into post-deconversion anger and disillusionment? This is it. “Was it all for nothing? / Cause we’ve found no sign and we see no light / We hear no voice when we pray at night.“
4. “This is Gospel” (Panic! at the Disco): Okay, so after 18 years of a musical repertoire that consisted exclusively of 2 Christian radio stations, P!atD is my first love. I chose “This is Gospel” and “Emperor’s New Clothes” because they symbolize that visceral need for freedom that so many of my ex-religious friends share. And, of course, the music videos segue into each other. “This is Gospel” is more civil and communicative; I wish I could tell my Christian family, “if you love me, let me go.”
5. “Emperor’s New Clothes” (Panic! at the Disco): Not only is the music video is fucking cool, but it represents to me the transition from asking for freedom from religion to wrenching it away with both hands. Deconversion is a long-ass fall, and it transformed me into what looked at the time like a monster. But it also allowed me to reclaim the darkest, beastliest parts of me that religion had shamed into my deepest recesses. There’s power there.
6. “Battle Cry” (Angel Haze): Angel Haze is such a badass. Pansexual, agender (they pronouns), ex-Greater Apostolic Faith and a survivor of child sexual abuse. They’re courageous and unflinching, and many of their songs have major ex-religious themes. Listen to this: “I woke up one morning, stopped believing in Jesus / stopped believing in churches I stopped believing in preachers / I realized I was a teacher, not just one of the heathens.“
7. “Pretty Lies” (Written by Wolves): Man, I wish I had this song when I first deconverting. It’s an infectious, fast-paced anthem that captures what it’s like to be caught between your religious doubts and the fear of being wrong or getting punished – and letting that fear drive you rather than consume you.
8. “Doubt” (twenty one pilots): Another take on fears and doubts, but instead of weaponizing them, “Doubt” wrestles them. Anxiety, mindfuckery & co. are almost inevitable for secret nonbelievers: “scared of my own ceiling / scared of my uncertainty,” and “shaking hands with the dark parts of my thoughts? no. / you are all that I’ve got? no.”
9. “Ribcage” (Mary Lambert ft. Angel Haze, K.Flay): More Angel Haze! In the music video, Mary sings in a room cast in blue shadow, faced by a crescent of unmoving people. It’s a powerful metaphor, to me, of the disconnection and despair of losing religious friends and family. “Telling the truth, it might mean you get broken / but letting it hurt, that’s my method of copin“.
10. “Same Love” cover (Angel Haze, originally by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis): Wow. This cover still makes me feel things on a body level. Such an unflinching message about being a queer kid breaking free of religion… and “No I’m not gay, no I’m not straight, and I’m sure as hell not bisexual” – that pansexual representation. Here for it.
11. “Hallelujah” (Panic! at the Disco): When I finally got a Spotify at age 18, “Hallelujah” was one of the first songs I fell in love with! It feels like a joyful celebration, like reclaiming religious words I used to take way too seriously.
12. “Bad Believer” (St. Vincent): Figured this mix needed a dose of nonchalant cheer, so here’s some St. Vincent. “What do you know, I’m just a bad believer; show me your stones” is such a nonchalant line, I love it.
13. “Bad Reputation” (Joan Jett): Ohoh was this song written for me. If I had theme songs for different parts of my life, this would be the one for church. Whoops.
14. “Wild Horses” (Bishop Briggs): Not only is this just a gorgeous blend of upbeat synthetics and laidback acoustics, but “Oh glory, I’m a believer / Oh glory, I’m a troubler” -yeah, it feels like it’s one or the other these days.
15. “Control” (Halsey): I’ve “turned all the mirrors around” on more than one occasion (to, you know, cast out vanity and all.) And Halsey’s chorus is a great reminder… when it comes to the “body” of Christ that hurt us, we’re the bigger people.
16. “Sinner” (Andy Grammer): A nostalgic, almost tender look at how massive a part God played in shaping me from birth. Pretty much every line in the first verse spot-on describes how … “brick by brick and piece by piece.”
17. “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” (Hozier): Those opening lines are applicable to too many ex-religious kids. “I watch the work of my kin bold and boyful / toying somewhere between love and abuse… freshly disowned in frozen devotion / no more alone or myself could I be.”
18. “Foreigner’s God” (Hozier): I love how blasphemous Hozier is, and he does it in such poetic, graceful ways. “Since some liar brought the thunder when the land was godless and free“… that Liar’s thunder can’t touch us anymore. Also, godless = free? Love it.
19. “Take Me to Church” (Hozier): Does this one need explaining? What better song to cap this nonbeliever mix with than one where “I was born sick but I love it… every Sunday’s getting more bleak, a fresh poison each week.” Don’t I know it.
20. “Black Synagogue” (Angel Haze): I left this one off the actual playlist because it opens and closes with sermon (listen with discretion), but there’s no way I couldn’t throw it in. I strongly recommend at least skimming the lyrics… ’cause what a strong show of the before, during, ‘n after of doubting and searching, from seeking God to ultimately finding God in yourself.
That’s what I’ve got! What about you? Any songs we should add to this playlist? It’s a (heathen) collective effort, so drop your thoughts in the comments!
This week, I thought I’d share my thoughts on something that’s been bugging me for a while: social justice culture. Now, social justice was the first worldview I took on after I left Christianity. All my time in college thus far has been spent in social justice activism activities, and near all my friends and classmates believe in social justice too.
That said, I’ve started to see some frankly terrifying parallels between the Evangelical Christianity I was raised in and the social justice spaces I’m a part of now. I’ve been stewing over it for a long time, but I realized recently that even though many people see the toxicity too, not many say it.
So I thought I’d start a discussion. I hope that readers comment with their thoughts – respectfully – or at least come away with a new perspective. I can’t cover all my thoughts, but I’ll lay out the gist.
Disclaimer: This post is not abut equating social justice to toxic Christianity. I’m talking about how my experiences with toxic Christianity allow me to see how social justice ideology might be toxic in its own ways.
Social justice is toxic because its worldview is drastic
According to Merriam Webster, social justice is
“A state or doctrine of egalitarianism (Egalitarianism defined as 1: a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs; 2: a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people)”
SocialJusticeSolutions, born out of the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, writes that social justice has a flexible definition, and can include working for
“…human rights; dignity; political, economical, social, and other equality; equal distribution of resources; justice; use of policy and laws; removing inequality; societal participation in change; personal responsibility; and creating access to opportunity and chance through action.”
Sounds like a noble goal to me. But the social justice movement is far from just ideas; it’s ideas put into words and actions. It’s a community with a culture. And I think that culture, in ways reminiscent of the Christianity I grew up in, can be toxic.
See, current social justice ideology doesn’t just say that we can create a better world. It says that we MUST. It sees the entire world in terms of inequalities, and then it says that every person has the duty to right them – or else they’re selfish and ignorant.
Here’s the thing. If your outlook on life sorts the world into a few massive groups of people and then says that they are in severe danger (of hell, or of racist/sexist/classist etc violence)… those beliefs tend to hijack your feelings, and then they encourage you to speak and act in drastic ways.
That’s what Christianity did to me. And that’s what social justice ideology does too.
Once I believed the basic ideas of Christianity (all humans are bad and deserve eternal punishment; the only way to be better/dodge flames is to serve God), I became obligated to do certain things. I read the Bible and prayed regularly; I went to church; I tried to “share the Gospel” with other people (including complete strangers.)
When I started to see the world from an SJ point of view, I became obligated to do certain things as well. Check my privilege. “Call out” sexism or racism I see in daily life. Use this word, not that one. “Educate” myself.
According to SJ ideology, I knew the truth, and I needed to act on it. If I didn’t, I was selfish and ignorant. What excuse did I have not to act, anyway? This was for the sake of my fellow humans, for mine too.
That’s exactly how I thought when I was Christian (although in different terms.) Thinking like this puts a huge emotional demand on a person. Leaving the belief community has a big, big emotional and social cost. And I know from experience: that’s not good news. Cults are called “high demand religious groups” for a reason.
Social justice is toxic because its language and conclusions are drastic
The best way I know how to tell if a community is toxic? Look at its language. Look at what members say. For Christianity, it was the Bible, worship songs, and testimonies. For the current millennial social justice movement, it’s how people speak online, and it’s very reflective of the “we not only can, but we must” view that flavors current SJ culture.
Tumblr, which is infamous for its SJ culture, speaks in absolutes. “We/you need to,” “always,” “the fact that,” “if you do x then you are [negative word] / can just die,” “Period.,” “should not,” “as an x person, y people can [hostile word]“, and on and on. It can see the world in sweeping and deeply colored generalizations, and arrives at pretty militant conclusions because of it.
(Note these are examples I randomly peeled off the first few pages of a blog I still follow. I’m not attacking the ideas *or the people* themselves.)
On Facebook, my feed is flooded with posts by classmates from my college who say things like “silence is violence,” “there is no excuse not to educate yourself,” and “unpack your privilege. Be better.”
Social justice has taken on its own language, and those code words have become methods for control. There are some uncanny parallels to Christianese – both in what they mean and how they can be used to control believers. This issue is worthy of a whole post, but for now, consider “get right with God” and “check your privilege.”
In Christianity, “get right with God” may be used by a believer when another believer has exhibited ungodly behavior or thought. The believer is expected to repent and act in a more Christian way… unless they don’t really love God, that is.
In social justice, “check your privilege” is used by a SJ advocate when a less oppressed person has stepped on their ideological toes. If the person doesn’t want to be seen as ignorant or arrogant, they’re expected to apologize and agree with the advocate.
Both these phrases use implied threats to bring a wayward person back in line – but surprisingly, social justice is way less subtle.
If a person is “called out” and they dispute the person confronting them, they run a huge risk of making it worse. For being “problematic,” people have been reprimanded at best and harshly put down, bullied, threatened, shunned, publicly humiliated, and fired at worst. I’ve seen this reaction online and on-campus. I think we all have at this point.
Some people call this absolute language and political correctness. Others call it censorship. I know it as thought control. It’s militant, it’s virulent, it crushes nuance and discussion, and it makes people (including me) afraid to share our opinions, even if we agree with the general concept of social justice.
And I know what that does to a person. It creates an echo chamber that suffocates individual opinions. It makes you think you’re always right. It emphasizes doctrine over conversation. And none of that shit is good shit.
I could say more, but I think I’ve gone on enough now, and I’m want to hear what you think! Do you see any toxic parallels between social justice culture and another culture? Any experiences you wanna share? Do you agree with my diagnosis? Let me know below!
Nothing Good Dwells in Me is a 2-part series about rebuilding the self that Christianity destroyed. The first article was a more personal exploration of how my church taught me, intentionally or not, how worthless I am. Today, we’ll look at ways to start changing that thinking.
Last time, I laid out a few key (and disgusting, and toxic, and just plain stupid) beliefs about myself and my heart and my destiny (oh my!) that growing up Baptist taught me. You know, the standard human-as-lowkey-worm spiel: my heart is deceitful and foolish, nothing good dwells in me, trusting in people is accursed. The usual.
Even if my church never intended for this to happen – and I believe they didn’t, since they tried (and failed) to keep us from hating ourselves too too much with the occasional “remember, you’re a child of God now! You are incredibly special and important!” – they really should’ve realized that if you teach a kid that they’re both incomprehensibly horrible and amazing, horrible will win out every time. Captain Cassidy and Neil Carter explore the abusive and dissonant aspects of this weird-ass dichotomy, if you’re interested. Like Neil points out:
But what do you do when the damage has already been done?
What do you do when you’ve stopped believing that God exists, but somehow, inexplicably, he is still in your head – trapped with a stalker ex and no restraining order?
When some nights you can’t shake the feeling that living without extreme self-deprecation isn’t right; that you don’t deserve freedom; that you are Bad to the core and the very existence of your body and soul is immoral?
2 ways to build self-worth… plus, anything you’ve got to add!
There are two key strategies I’ve learned to shut up the echoes of Christianity in my head and start telling my own narratives instead. I’d love to hear yours!
1. Ego files
Okay, so I ripped that name off my therapist, and I kind of want to come up with a new one, but the concept itself isn’t new to me. It’s really helpful for people like me who grew up thinking [fill in life struggle] was normal and right and have to fight in order to acknowledge, validate, and celebrate their survival.
I know what mine looks like – on particularly bad nights I’ve written it all out over and over again, maybe even got it memorized down pat. It might be hard at first to let yourself brag about what you’ve done, and recognize that what’s not commonly considered an achievement might be huge and important for you. Simply being alive is the first on my list. Hey, sometimes that shit is hard!
Anyway, being able to brainstorm, or even keeping a Word doc, of things you’re proud of or the person you’re becoming or want to become – it can do wonders. Asking a friend what good they see in you, if you’re both up to it, can also add a few things to your ego file.
2. Disprove worthlessness
Sometimes, though, my brain does not want to play nice. Sometimes I can’t help but compulsively believe that me not being inherently sinful or Bad is a stupid idea, and anyone who says that is stupid and worldly and therefore very bad too.
When that happens, when I can’t believe in my worth, I find it really effective to disprove my worthlessness. For example – okay, if I feel compelled to believe that I am inherently sinful, who says? Why am I inherently sinful? What does sinful mean? Who came up with those standards, and why should they somehow be more correct and noble than all the other religious standards in the world?
A lot of times, I end up feeling better. A lot better. Even though Christian ideology makes no sense, and logically I know that, it can be really hard to believe it – the indoctrination temporarily rewires my brain. (I wish we had a word for that. Ideas, anyone?) Like with an abuser, challenging those toxic claims can suddenly make intimidating “truths” much less intelligent or powerful.
Those are mine! How about you? Anything that does or doesn’t work for you? I’d love to hear it! 🙂
[EDIT: Also, forgot to tell you all that I’m 19 now! I survived to another year. That’s going on my ego file for sure! :)]
[ Photo by auntjojo, courtesy of Flickr ]