I grew up Pentecostal Christian. My family didn’t actually go to church that often when I was a kid, but I went to a Christian school, and as a teenager I started going to a youth group with friends, and it became a really big part of my life. There were a number of positives to this, like being involved with a largely loving community of people of a variety of ages and backgrounds, but there was a lot I found problematic about the church.
I wasn’t into the hierarchy, the disproportionate focus on financial prosperity, and I saw a lot of great people work and care really hard, not be looked after, and ultimately burn out.
My experience of Christianity distorted my expectations of other people, and life; it distorted my expectations of myself. It encouraged deference to others beyond the point that deference is helpful – in what I at the time intended as part of the pursuit of selflessness and humility. It encouraged me to, for a long period of time, inquire primarily of my feelings – or my spirit – rather than logic.
I stopped going to church regularly in my early-20s, but while I never fully threw myself into one again, I retained a strong, searching faith in the Christian God. For me it was always personal. I read the Bible all the time, trying to make sense of it. As my eating disorder and anxiety worsened, my obsession with trying to make sense of the so-called word of God also intensified. I had doubts, I was confused about what I was doing in life, and I thought the answers had to be in that book somewhere.
“I retained a strong, searching faith in the Christian God. For me it was always personal.”
I have a clear memory of the morning I put my Bible away. Sitting in a coffee shop on Rivington St, exhausted – thanks to anorexia also – I said, I’m sorry but I can’t do this anymore. The relief was strong when I closed the worn book I’d to that point clung to, trying to settle various scores in my mind.
It wasn’t until a few years later, aged 28, that I decided I actually just wasn’t a Christian anymore. Continuing to ask questions had led me to acknowledge I don’t believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, though I respect the depiction of his character, and have been defined by his story. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, along with other key elements of dogma, which seemed to disqualify me on a technicality.
Pushing for greater authenticity in my faith led me to realise that I no longer held it – but letting go of Christianity, along with the eating and anxiety disorder, left me disoriented. I was unsure about which of my own opinions I trusted, and I’ve since needed to dismantle much about how I looked at the world, and put it back together again. I’ve had to re-find a sense of confidence in who I am and what I stand for.
While there was a downside, growing up Christian meant I put a lot of time and energy early on into working out my thoughts around morality and ethics; life and its meaning (jury’s still out); love and what that looks like. While my feelings about religion and faith are very different now, there are many things I still find beautiful about the Bible. I like the way it talks about love. I like the way it talks about choosing to live out of love, not fear. Hard to do.
“I’ve since needed to dismantle much about how I looked at the world, and put it back together again.”
Religion, or any form of ideology, gives us a framework to make sense of the world within. It’s usually easier to wrestle within parameters than it is to have no compass. You may still not be able to understand things conclusively, but at least you have a measure of sorts to anchor yourself – to know what you’re aiming at, rather than setting out destination unknown.
For many the latter prospect is terrifying. We need at least some absolutes or structure to pin us, and religion can offer that. Looking to Jesus, Allah, Buddha, celebrities, science, lovers as pillars, we can build our own sense of identity, boundaries within which we can comprehend both the complexity and the banality of life.
But while religion offers a guide by which we can find our way, it can also be so destructive. Too often, the notion of a deity conjures something that controls – and can be used by others to manipulate, and oppress. This is not a time to blindly follow. If you have uncertainties, don’t be afraid to explore them. Many religions teach the opposite – to protect and strengthen your faith by rejecting doubt, rather than engaging with its tensions.
It can be scary and disruptive to query your beliefs, particularly if you’ve grown up with them and they’re what you’ve always known. Unravelling the faith aspect of your identity can throw your understanding of what is real, what is right, and what you should pursue. The idea that there are no absolutes can be a frightening thing – and it can be a lonely feeling to think we are entirely random, totally abstract beings. Beautiful mistakes.
“It’s usually easier to wrestle within parameters than it is to have no compass.”
I had to lose my way to find it, and it’s been really hard at different points, but worth it overall. Divorcing Christianity strengthened my commitment to testing out why I think what I think, and do what I do. I’ve met a number of people who do not have the same freedom to challenge the norms that shape their realities. People who have decided to lose their religion, but can’t live or talk about that openly. People whose journalist friends are in jail for calling corrupt power to account. People for whom voicing what they really think and feel carries a cost that supersedes any I’ve had to wear.
The threat of ‘the other’ drives people to do terrible things in the name of their god/s. We need to this, we need to that, we need to purge ourselves of difference. The pitfalls of insularity are myriad, and we’re seeing the repercussions in today’s world. At a point in history where you’d hope religion-driven conflict would have dissipated, we are still dealing with its consequences. And watching religious rhetoric instruct political activity.
This sort of chaotic rigidity is born out of fear, and so long as fear – of other, of change, of being left out, or left behind – motivates our decisions, we only limit the happiness and freedoms of ourselves and others. We shouldn’t be scared of another person’s process, and in so doing be led to try to hem others in, to avoid losing our own sense of place, and how to be in the world.
Problems occur when we become so rigid in our understanding of what truth is that we can’t entertain another point of view, yet the drive to find coherence between our own story and the broader social narrative can be strong. We want to feel like we’re on the ‘right’ path, and that there’s some point to this journey. But if your system of belief, when challenged, proves wanting – don’t you want to know what that’s about?
“Problems occur when we become so rigid in our understanding of what truth is that we can’t entertain another point of view.”
All any of us are trying to do is create a world we feel free in, that makes sense to us. Freedom is a great pursuit, but not when it comes at the expense of that of others, and that’s where religions tend to trip up. Most push for the fitting of their followers – and those they seek to convert – into a mould of some sort, albeit some more aggressively than others. All in the name of enlightenment, and, ultimately, spiritual freedom.
But we all have opportunities every day to choose light or dark, life or death, love or fear. For me those choices are no longer contained within the moral framework of religious faith – sometimes that makes them easier, and sometimes it makes them harder, but at the end of the day I know that I am actively making them.
Your journey may take you somewhere different to mine; perhaps to a deeper version of your beliefs. Perhaps to a different religion. Perhaps to nothing at all. My point is that – when it comes to something that, in theory, shapes you so significantly, why just go through the motions? Testing your personal paradigm should strengthen, not threaten it.
Things seem innate sometimes that are actually learnt, and knowledge is always shifting and changing. Truth is shaped by our culture and context, our personal and social histories, along with many other variables. All said, I do believe religion has, and continues, to play a really important role for humanity. Which begs the question, if not religion, then what?
I decided to write this as I’d like to open up the subject of belief on Impolitikal. It felt important to outline my personal history, and clarify where I’m at now. If you have something to say on the topics of faith, spirituality or religion, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.