Netflix can be a mindless sinkhole of pointless timesuck. I admit to watching hundreds of hours of repetitive and dim-wittedly-narrated nature “documentaries” that sounds like anthropomorphic action movies (“Leopard Fight Club!” “Race of Life!”). It can also prompt unusual discoveries and its algorithm might nudge you toward subsurface interests that you didn’t know that you even had (“Rupaul’s Drag Race,” “The Physics of Light”). This last week, Netflix queued me up to watch “One of Us,” a documentary about young adults attempting to leave an Ultra-Orthodox community of Hasidic Jews in New York City.
I can’t say that my interest in deconversion from religion was exactly subsurface: it’s been a main theme of my life for several years. But just the fact that it’s been the main theme of my life for several years says a lot about the deep and pervasive root of religion in the lives us who were steeped in it from the cradle. While my own life has not been as rigidly-religious as the Hasidim to the outside observer, it was certainly the singular and consuming theme of my upbringing.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian home (think “19 Kids & Counting”). I was homeschooled from Kindergarten onward. My life was entirely contained by my parents’ house and the church that we attended, well, religiously. In practice, this meant that my life consisted of being home alone with my mother and sister all day every day, except when we went to church. I had few friends (kids that lived next door), but those faded out after elementary school, when children become adolescents and their lives become more focused on the wider world of burgeoning autonomy. I had no boys as friends; in fact, I did not have a conversation with a boy until I was in college. My parents closely controlled all the media influences that came into the house and the curriculum they chose to use in our schooling. Every input was carefully vetted to reinforce their worldview. Focus on the Family was a huge theme in print media and radio, as was Bob Jones University Press in homeschooling materials and recreational books.
As restrictive as this was, it was also deeply secure and comforting. I had people in my community (which was synonymous with my church) who had known me from infancy, who loved me, who sponsored my confirmation in the church, made meatballs for my high school graduation open house, bought dish towels and bakeware for my wedding shower, and eagerly anticipated a baby shower that (thankfully!) never arrived. In the same way, I was expected to teach Sunday School, help with vacation Bible school programs, and otherwise foster those who were younger than I. It was a multi-generational community providing a continual structure for the life-cycle events that mark every person’s journey across this planet.
All this is just to say that a television program about people leaving a religious community resonated deeply with me. One line in particular, spoken by an 18-year-old man who had abandoned his earlocks but still wore a mainstream yarmulke, “I’m not ready to live a fully secular life.”
I get that.
It’s taken me six years & counting to reach a point where my life is organically secular, and that’s on my good days. I stopped a religious practice when I was 29 and in the process of divorce. It was a conscious, cognitive, and logical effort. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity says that most people gradually drift away from their faith, one effortless step at a time, and that the person who abruptly quits the practice of religion because “he honestly does not believe it anymore is closer to God than ever.” If this is true, than God and I are cheek-by-jowl at this very moment.
My divorce precipitated my rupture from faith, but my break with faith also precipitated the divorce. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. The divorce began when I realized in a single moment that I did not think that the miserable marriage I had never wanted was in any way sacred. But if marriage, a sacrament and pillar of the Church, was not sacred, than what was? If that piece was a lie, then how could all the others be true? The Jenga tower of my faith came crashing down.
Faith was a habit that broke me, but I still struggled to break with it. It began with the choice to stop praying. I had been sending tiny thought-missiles up to God dozens of times a day since forever. It was a disciplined effort to NOT do that. It was a struggle to hold on to the logic of “I don’t believe that this act will change anything…so I will not do it, lest the illogic nudge me into delusion.” I’m sure it sounds odd to someone who has not experienced this sort of engagement with the Almighty. The best comparison I can make is to an unwanted romantic breakup and the persistent thoughts that plague the mind. “Are they thinking about me? Did they ever care about me? Ha! This funny thing would make them laugh and I want to text it to them.” And so on. Disciplining the mind to quit the habit of framing your daily experience in terms of interacting with your beloved is exceedingly painful and arduous. So it is with quitting God. In the words of the band Storyhill, “You used to be hers, she used to be yours, and you saw everything that way.” It’s Goddamned hard to stop seeing everything that way.
I also quit church. I had been warned repeatedly of the perils of failing to attend church or otherwise “forsake the fellowship of believers,” and so I was expecting a sea change when I did. Shockingly, nothing happened. It was like Y2K all over again. Nevertheless, it was still hard to break the habit. I stopped attending for a week, then a month, then six months. I tried to go back. I sat in the pew, embraced by genuine and kind people, and listened to the pastor and couldn’t stop the drumbeat thought pounding through my head, “It’s not true. It’s not true. It’s not true.” I quit again. I went back again. I quit again. Anybody else see the parallels to addiction cessation?
I went back for Christmas. The service was beautiful. Christmas is the only service of the Church calendar that focuses on love and doesn’t say much about sin and failure, which are otherwise the cornerstones of doctrine. I lit my candle and breathed in the scent of evergreen wreaths and realized that whatever God might exist, he/she/it is NOT in the form of a personable being with human-like idiosyncrasies and an endpoint goal for anything. I blew out my candle and went home.
And yet…I still choke on the word “atheist.” I have the word “Israel,” Hebrew for “Wrestles with God,” tattooed on my back. When pressed, I claim to be a “heartbroken agnostic.” I miss God and the church and the multi-generational community it engenders. I miss the feeling of purpose and place. The world is a big, cold, heartless place and I understand why so many people choose not to scrutinize their own faith. The rewards of belonging can easily outweigh the costly consequences of self-honesty. What’s the harm in a little benign self-delusion? It makes this ugly world a smidge easier to survive. It provides the social network we all so desperately crave in our hyper-connected/super-isolated modern world.
I guess the harm comes back to Christianity’s own doctrine: The truth shall set you free. You can philosophize a lot about the doctrines of Christianity and what they mean. But you can’t appraise them honestly and say that they are true. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Really? Because I sure as hell can’t. There have been many, many times in my life that I tried as hard as I could and prayed as fervently as I could for Christ to strengthen me…and I still failed. (So is that “God saying no” to my prayer? Maybe. But that argument can justify any outcome at any point.) “The Lord is my ever-present help in times of trouble.” Really? Because I’ve been in times of great trouble and no help arrived, either in the form of physical assistance and intervention, or a peaceful comfort for my soul. I could go on and on.
So Christianity may be a nurturing community, but its doctrinal promises are hollow. People believe it because they want to believe it, not because it’s empirically compelling. The truth will set you free; but that freedom is cold and hard and lonely. The cold, hard truth. Is it any wonder that I still long for the God’s warm embrace?