Musings of an apostate

I had a mini-revelation this morning while doing my daily blog read-through. Somebody — I don’t remember who or on what blog — mentioned that they’re an atheist now but grew up in a Christian home where grace was said before meals and church attendance was expected. The attitude with which they spoke about their Christian upbringing was both casual and unquestioningly distant: it was a piece of their personal history, but far, far removed from the person they were today. They talked about it the way I think about horseback riding or Girl Scouts, two activities that were hugely important in my childhood and have the occasional quirky relevance to my life today, but don’t have any real bearing on my sense of identity and purpose today. And that’s when I realized: I don’t feel that way at all about my Christian past. Although it’s been over three years since I called myself a Christian and over six years since I regularly practiced the religion in any way (prayer, Bible reading, churchgoing), that part of my history is with me every hour, every day. I publicly identify as an atheist, but in terms of my internal sense of identity, “ex-Christian” would be much more accurate.

Since this realization came upon me just this morning, I’m still sorting through exactly what it means and why it is. It’s partly how emotionally reactive I am to many things pertaining to Christianity, reactive in the way you can only be toward something that’s intimately intwined with your identity. But it’s partly the void of cultural identity that might replace Christianity. I don’t have this sense of practicing atheism, of atheism as serving a central function in my identity, the way I did with Christianity. One might say that that’s because atheism has no defining practices, and that could be part of it, but at the same time, I read a slew of atheist and skeptic blogs every day. (I almost certainly spend more hours weekly reading atheist and skeptic writing than I used to spend reading the Bible or other Christian writings.) I live with four other atheists and discuss matters of religion and skepticism with them regularly. I’m connected to a larger community of atheists and skeptics, and occasionally go to large conferences which are every bit as enriching and satisfying as the church retreats I used to go to.

So perhaps it’s nothing to do with how active and engaged I am as an atheist, and everything to do with how deeply engraved Christianity was on my heart. Perhaps it’s simply that the first 25 years of your life never get erased, never really fade into the background… or if they do, it takes longer than 3-6 years.

Whatever it is, it’s something I never feel I can adequately communicate to people who were never devout believers. Dan Fincke, whose blog I love reading partly because his experiences mirror mine so well, asked a month or so ago about differences between de-converts and never-believers, and as (I think) I replied then, this is the biggest difference I see. I feel like my personal history is broken — not in the sense of “destroyed and dysfunctional”, but in the sense of “has a giant hulking crack down the middle.”

Bent Oak Tree

Or like this tree. Pretty much exactly like this tree, actually. I have no idea what other people see when they look at me, but this is what I see when I look at myself: healthy and strong, but with this massive twist, this course correction that dominates the entire shape of my existence. Growing and thriving, but forever and unmistakably different from those trees that grew straight up.

And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away. If it’s just that I need more time to establish myself as a secular girl in a secular world… or if there will always be that sense of being defined by what I’ve left behind, what I’m not anymore.

6 thoughts on “Musings of an apostate

  1. It seems we have a lot in common, Ginny. 🙂

    Not only did I grow up in a Christian family, I was a preacher’s kid.

    I deconverted in my early to mid 20s. (It was a very gradual process). For the first several years I felt all of the emotions you described in your post. I was very much an “ex-Christian.” Even though I no longer believed, Christianity had been such a strong influence for many years.

    Now that I’m 30 those emotions are still there but they are gradually fading away. I still *hate* being proselytized to, but I’m slowly losing my compulsion to read Atheist/Agnostic/Freethinker sites.

    I don’t believe in any sort of supernatural forces, but my non-theism is slowly becoming less and less of an issue. It’s kind of like when I first came out of the closet as bi. At first you feel the need to talk about it all of the time because you’ve spent so much time figuring everything out…and then after a while it fades into the background of life.

    It’s still an important part of my identity, of course, but it no longer colours every moment of life. 🙂

    I don’t know if that will happen to you as well, but you are definitely not alone!

  2. Touching and well-put. I’m right there with ya, a recovered Catholic myself. And it never helps that seemingly supportive family all “know it’s just a phase you’re going through.”

  3. I think I treat my Christian past with disdain because I feel like I was lied to (not purposefully of course) about the nature of the universe, and not given the option to believe anything else. I also had lots of bad experiences at churches and working in churches (during college) that gave me a very negative attitude about “church” and not necessarily religion in general.

  4. I stumbled on your site and wanted to say I identify with a lot of what you say. Maybe part of the reason is that a lot of mixed emotions still swirl in the aftermath, including the odd combination of regret, betrayal, and guilt. Regret for all the lost time and pointless prayers. Betrayal for being taught so many baseless things. Guilt for believing them and teaching them to others. With time tho, it’s all fading more into the past, and affecting my present life and enjoyment less. Christianity claims it will bring one a sense of freedom, but to me and many, it did the opposite – created a sense of oppression, duty, fear, etc. while breaking free from it leaves me free to think and feel what I please, and enjoy life to the fullest in the short time we have, not count on some future bliss in the afterlife.

  5. And guilt, too, at ruining a romantic relationship with a wonderful young man for being taught that to express my love was dirty, shameful, sinful, etc. That haunts me still.

  6. I identified with this post strongly, though I was near 40 before I finally crossed over and admitted to myself I did not believe any longer. I loved the tree comparison; it would make a great sermon illustration ;-).

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