10/30/2016 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Fernando Alcántar ~
II am a man with no past. And you are probably one too.
When I was born, my family put the seal of Catholicism on me and taught me that since I was Mexican, I was Catholic just as much.
The rest is a story I’ve shared on the book To the Cross and Back: An Immigrant’s Journey from Faith to Reason. A story of how as a teenager I converted to Protestant Christianity trying to escape loneliness and seeking healing from childhood trauma. I then became a state leader for the Foursquare denomination in Baja California—where I was a tongue speaking, demon-casting young leader. I then became a globetrotting missionary for Azusa Pacific University—one of the largest evangelical colleges in the nation. And then became head of youth and young adult ministries for the almost 400 churches in the Southern California-Hawaii region of the United Methodist Church.
For about 30 years I obeyed the rules of the Bible as best as I could, including hiding the darkest secret—even from myself—the fact that I am gay. For at least a decade I fought a depression anchored in a never ending doubt. What happens if I lose faith? My life would go out of control. And when my heart came crashing down with a mayday and a cloud of smoke behind it in 2011, I hit the ground—hard. I ended up checking myself into the emergency room in Pasadena, California. I walked over to the girl at the check-in counter. “How can I help you?” she asked. To which I responded, “My psychiatrist told me to check myself in because I want to kill myself.”
Leaving religion behind was no easy feat. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—one that in fact almost ended my story. But I am the better for it. Here I am, five years later, still kicking and screaming. But now that I am free from religion, a book with my story on the shelf, I’ve met so many people like me, like you,who find themselves looking behind and not recognizing the path.
For a good part of my life, I studied, worked,dated, played, worked out, traveled, and much more . . . with Christians. I breathed, ate, slept Christianity. Every activity and relationship, I see now, was in one way or another connected to the faith. And when that link was broken, my boat begin to wander off into the ocean, pushed by the freewind, and showed me new areas I didn’t know existed. And that process has been, well,freeing. With religion behind me I have explored and accepted I am gay. I have started a new career and I’m setting new goals. I have met great people who are accepting of whom I am instead of calling me an abomination. But once the newness and the excitement settles a bit, taking a break in the middle of this new road-trip, I realize while looking back that the road behind me has disappeared.
Memories of 30 years, friendships and rivalries, joy and heartache,adventure and misfortune, take place in the pages of my book but are no longer tingling in the waves of my present. It’s like my life started four years ago and I have no roots to keep me grounded—I have no shoulders to hold on to—I am a man with no past.
I’ve traveled around the world, have led hundreds of churches, spoken in front of thousands of people,and on cold nights and dry days I can count on one hand the people I’d reach out to for a glass of water (not attached to a prayer). And this is why many of us doubt and question cutting off the chains. We know religion is toxic, it’s bullshit, it’s childish and nonsensical—but it’s what everyone is doing. It’s what bring them together and connects them to everyone else: community. And who are we without it?
Though in the midst of the sometimes overwhelming loneliness, I never regret divorcing fantasy. If anything, it increases the anger against the brainwashing process of convincing you that if you want to be good and go to heaven (not burning in a lake of fire for all eternity) you have to believe in the invisible, against reason.
It’s hard. I talked with a friend a couple of weeks ago who has a story similar to mine, and he is battling a deep depression, locking himself in his room and disconnected from the world. Why? POWs, war veterans, share a similar experience. The world we left behind is so different now—but it was so real before. And now we walk in the company of ghosts not sure at times if it was all real or not. How could we have gone through something like that? But there aren’t many recovery programs for those who suffer from Religious Trauma Syndrome. Yup, it’s a real thing! Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one's connection with one's faith and faith community, and can be compared to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
We have lost a lot for being brave. And I hope soon the freethinking community will catch up to the fact that we need exactly that—to become a real“community.” It doesn’t stop with saying bye to Jesus. It barely starts. We can’t live in the shadows and continue to play nice to those who remain under a spell so as to not to disrupt an illusion of peace. We have to speak up and say,“I’m here!,” and in the process we’ll realize we are not as alone as we thought we were. We need a new future, as we build a new past, so let’s make this present one we can be proud of—together.