Why I Gave Up Religion & Found Peace
It's taken me awhile to get to this point. The point where I feel ready to share, where I no longer feel scared, embarrassed, uncertain. It hasn't been easy, getting here.
I grew up in the church. Protestant, actually. Presbyterian, to be exact. I was raised in small-town Christian America, surrounded by nearly 80 churches and talk of Jesus around every corner. And now, my husband and I are back in God-fearing territory, where most spend their Sundays before the altar and weeknights at Bible studies.
It's a beautiful thing, to see people believe in something so passionately, so devotedly. I admire and respect that wholeheartedly. Freedom of religion is a hallmark of America. But being surrounded by it on a daily basis can sometimes feel isolating for those of us who don't follow or practice a religion. Certainly, I could go to church anyway--after all, it's a wonderful way to find a sense of community. But attending for me feels like living a lie, where I have to censor myself and my beliefs.
I've always felt uneasy about the religion I was born into. In my personal practice, my relationship with a higher being worked as a living diary--I would write to God in my journals as a way to work through my feelings, my struggles; it was stress relief. But the religion itself often left me confused and empty. I've always been a sensitive person, and also an inquisitive one. Countless questions haunted me throughout my adolescent years. Why were people who believed other religions wrong? How could good people go to hell just because Jesus wasn't their Savior? Was Jonah really swallowed by a whale? Why did God let bad guys get away with stuff? Where was heaven and who made God in the first place? Did everything really happen for a reason? No one ever had definitive answers to these questions, and the answers I received and discovered never felt right in my gut.
My perpetual skepticism made living as a Christian a constant juggle between what a god wanted me to do and what I felt was right, or wrong, or neither. Living under the eye of this watchful unknown made me a terrified perfectionist, always trying to measure up to some unattainable bar of righteousness. And the pressure wasn't just self-inflicted--though sometimes subtle, it was everywhere. I can remember as a teen being scolded by a friend for saying "Oh my God," yet I continued to hear her spout gossip and toss judgmental looks at those she didn't like. I had religious leaders tell me that God accepts us as we are, but then tell us to do, say or think certain things in order to be Christian. It wasn't just the constant Big Brother feeling of someone looking over my shoulder, but the plain hypocrisy of humanity, unavoidable in this imperfect world. Why were we so concerned with policing ourselves and others? What did it achieve? Not only that, but why were we blaming our bad behavior on acts of the devil? Why did we only christen good fortune as acts of God? Why weren't we taking responsibility for our own actions? Our own lives?
The more I educated myself, the more my faith dwindled. The more I learned about science and history, the more I began to realize how intricately tied the construction of religion was to man's quest for power and control--over other humans, and even the unknowns of our universe.
In college, I branded myself as a nondenominational Christian--someone who didn't subscribe to any specific dogma or style of the religion. I was sick of the lines drawn in the sand and was still too timid to step outside the realm of faith. My Christianity, I would explain, believed in gay marriage. My Christianity, I told people, didn't condemn those who had never heard of this guy called Jesus, or who were raised in another religion. My Christianity didn't think sex outside of marriage was a sin. My Christianity viewed the stories in the Bible as merely parables for living a good life. My Christianity was all-encompassing, all-accepting, all-whatever I believed was compassionate and loving.
Of course, this isn't definitively Christianity, and deep down, I knew that; I was cherrypicking what I wanted to believe. But a part of me still worried that if I admitted, out loud, any ounce of uncertainty over God's existence, perhaps the hand of God himself would come down and strike me dead right then and there. I wasn't ready to take that risk. Not until I stumbled into my modern British literature course, my senior year of college.
The class quickly became my favorite for its unapologetic review of life's biggest questions. We deconstructed and reconstructed the texts of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and James Joyce, examined war poems, social constructs, unabashedly talked about meaning in a way that made my heart race and my neurons fire. Every day was another exhilarating existential crisis. Nothing meant anything at all. It was all what we decided. We were the creators of meaning.
I vividly remember in one particular class, a conversation about free will. Did it exist, or did it not? In Christianity, it could not exist--despite common refutes otherwise by certain denominations--because God was all-knowing. God was all things. This is what I had been taught all my life, God as omniscient. It had never occurred to me to question this. But suddenly, there it was, this big oxymoron looming in front of me, begging me to look it in the face and answer it as my interpretation of reality. If I believed in free will--which I did, and do--then God could not, in fact, be all-knowing to me. And if God was no longer all-knowing....then what, exactly, was he? Or was he anything at all?
After each class, I headed back to my room, simultaneously feeling as though I were walking on air and on the verge of tears. I couldn't lie to myself anymore--I knew I no longer believed in Christianity, the black and white duality of our world, or the human texts declared divine, lost in translation for centuries. I hadn't believed for a long time. Was I a bad person? What would people think of me if they found out?
Since then, I've kept silent about my views on religion and where I stand amongst them. I didn't want to be seen as defiant, a traitor, or someone to avoid or fear or hate; I am only me, without the burden of sorting through baggage I held onto for too long.
After several years of deep introspection, I have decided not to pursue religion again. Instead, I choose to live in the process of Buddhism, to live in Truth. Although many view Buddhism as a religion, fundamentally, it is not--it is only living in awareness, openness--the buddha-dharma. There is no set of rules to follow, no god to worship, no bowing or strange rituals and ceremonies. Buddhism is simply about the here and now.
Why is it this way? Why not prescribe to something? The buddha-dharma explains that when we hold onto things, we continue to suffer. This life will always be tied to suffering, but we don't have to be a slave to it. When we are, we lose sight of the beauty and joy of life. We begin to put our hopes and fears and desires into something--whether it be a god, or a relationship, or a job, or a place. No matter how much faith in a god we have, we will never reach fulfillment. Reality is fluid, and these things we invest in always change; it's impossible to hold onto any of them forever, making us constantly dissatisfied. When we choose to see this, to see reality, we can act on it. We can live with mindfulness. Buddhism, then, is freedom.
Being a Christian tied me to frozen principles that couldn't be applied to every scenario. There were always exceptions popping up, rules being broken, amendments being made. I found myself judging others by rigid standards, standards I myself didn't live up to. I felt boxed in, limited. I felt tired of the striving and seeking.
I know it isn't like this for everyone, and I don't write this with the intention of pushing anyone away from their faith or as a review of anyone's particular religion. I know many find holding onto a god as comforting, not limiting. I know many enjoy having a religious book for guidance and can look past the areas that may not match exactly with their belief system.
But that didn't work for me. So I write this to share my personal experience; for anyone who has felt this juxtaposition; for those who are lost in the chaos and uncertainty of an internal battle. As a friend of mine says, the world is a million different shades of grey. And that's what makes it so beautiful. There is no need to box it in and define it.
Buddhist philosophy teaches me daily, moment by moment, that there is a present--that the mystery of our origins and ends are in fact reality, that we are a constant stream, we are impermanence. I choose to let the mystery be. This truth helps me embody mindfulness, from how I prepare dinner to how I spend my income. Living in awareness has allowed me to live with more lovingkindness, to expand upon the practice of ahimsa, to slow down and recognize, the beautiful and the ugly, everything in between, and to be okay with all of it.
The process is not without suffering. I lose my temper, speak rashly, experience stress--but the way in which I confront these issues now is much different. There is no more struggle, but rather, the act of simply seeing what is there, and acknowledging the experience. And turning back. No judgement. No self-loathing. Just clarity. I still have faith in something beyond us, but I don't marry this being to a set of strict human limitations.
I have many friends who are Christian and Catholic, and my lack of religion doesn't hinder these relationships. We are all unique individuals, and what works for one person may not work for another. I'm glad to see friends who believe their religion deeply. The actions and words of some Christians do not represent all Christians, of course, and I am more glad to see those who express themselves as loving, accepting humans, as they believe their religion instructs.
Embodying love is not tied to a religion. It is tied to the heart only. I hope others are able to see my heart for what it is, regardless of the label.