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Escaping to reality

By unoder ~

Hello all. Allow me to tell my story. If it seems a little long, then I apologise, but I have a lot to say. I can only hope you have the time and the patience to hear me out.

My brief introduction

Our EscapeImage by Felipe Morin via Flickr
I’ve been on here nearly a month now, so I thought it was about time that I introduced myself properly with my own story of how I came to de-convert. I have opted not to post my real name as I generally prefer not to do so when I’m online. Thus, unoder (pronounced “oo-no-duh”) is only a handle. Out of interest, it is the Danish word for ‘bad habits’, and also a name of a song by a group called Under Byen of whom I am a very big fan. Why unoder? I just liked the sound of it. But this is all incidental.

Where it all began

I was born in the UK (where I still reside) and was raised as a catholic from a very young age. My father didn't practice, but my mother did and grew up that way herself. Thus, she passed her religion on to her children (i.e. my sister and I).

From as early as I can remember until I was about 10 or 11 years old, I went to Mass every Sunday and endured the long, droning ritual of dreary, minor key hymns and call-response passage repetition delivered by the congregation with little to no feeling or enthusiasm. I learned nothing from this faith save how dull church ceremony could be. It meant nothing to me.

When I was around 10, my parents divorced, and in the fallout, my mother lost her faith in catholicism and decided there was no god. To me, it just meant I didn't have to go back to that boring old church anymore, so for that, I was grateful.

Then, when I was about 12, my mother found faith again, this time in Christianity. And yes, I already know what some of you are thinking at this point: "But Catholicism IS Christianity". Well, the specifics can be debated forever, and I don't really wish to go there, but the fact remains, Christians do go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from nominal Catholics. (It's mainly due to the former group's reliance on the Pope as an authority and its veneration of Mary over Jesus, but whatever.)

Anyway, the first thing I noticed now that Christianity was on the menu was my mother's constant talk about "the devil", who it seemed was responsible for every bad thing anyone ever did. Nevertheless, as a naive and impressionable child, I followed along with my mother’s new found search for spiritual meaning and became indoctrinated, as did my sister. In fact, I even found myself responding to an altar call at a church service when I was 12, where I accepted Jesus as my lord and saviour. Perhaps I was drawn to the spectacle of sound and light and the emotionality of it all. Who knows? Either way, at such a young age, I had no idea what this decision really meant, or the effect it would have on my life in the years to follow.

By all accounts, we were a pretty devout family. We prayed religiously(!) every morning; before school, my sister and I would read passages from the bible and we prayed every night before bed, too. At 13, I got my first inkling that something wasn't right when reading passages from the Old Testament. The god within seemed to my young, adolescent mind to be perpetually angry. He was always smiting something or someone. Famine here, plague there, striking people down left and right for every little thing... it never seemed to end. Yet he loved us?!? That didn’t make sense to me. Even as a 13-year-old I knew I’d never treat any child of mine that way. But, ours is not to question, or so I was told. So instead, I just chalked it up to mystery. Apparently I’d learn the reason for this when I got to heaven. Or something.

Despite this, I pushed on all the same. The whole time, this image formed in my head of this invisible, perpetually glowering man in the sky with a booming, stentorian voice whom I had to not so much as please but APPEASE, because the slightest slip-up could have dire, near-fatal consequences.

The god of anti-sex

When I was 16, my mother told me something that created a serious psychological complex that it took years to shake. Before I go into that, let me say that I do love my mother dearly. She has always been a good parent to my sister and I and, for the most part, has been a kind and compassionate person; a model of what christians should be, in a sense. I also believe that, like most good parents, she did the best she could by my sister and I. I just think her beliefs are somewhat misguided in that she overestimates Christianity and underestimates humanity - even herself. Most of all, she is human, and humans, even parents, make mistakes.

Anyway, when I was 16, I went to an under-18s club night with some friends. At that age, I was nothing like the person I am now and had a lot to learn (especially about girls). I was shy and awkward, had little experience with girls and still didn't even really know myself. At this night, I did try it on with a few girls here and there but was not successful. Now that I'm older and wiser, I realise that's part of life. It happens. You live and learn, and you win some and lose some. That's how it goes. However, at the time, the rejection was unbearable and, coupled with teen angst, was an anchor around my being.

I remember coming home from the night feeling like I just wanted to die (in a melodramatic, teenage sort of way). The following morning, I recounted my evening to my mum and told her what had happened (or didn't happen, in this case), to which I was told: "The reason you were unsuccessful with girls that night was because god didn't want them leading you astray and didn't want you to be contaminated by them, so he made them reject you".

I realise how ridiculous and untrue it all was, but to one indoctrinated, something like this can create a powerful complex. As a young person who’d grown up in the faith and believed, without question everything I’d been taught (even the bits that didn’t make sense), this was a crushing blow to me. The teen years, the years when one begins the journey of discovery in all aspects of self and also sexuality, I had now learned were being denied me by god himself, supposedly for my “own good”. My view of god now was one of a puppet master and a control freak who meticulously micromanaged my existence to deny me any opportunity for personal growth. Basically, I learned that day from my mother that girls were evil, wicked Jezebels and god would do everything in his power to keep them from having anything to do with me.

I now realise this was just her anti-sex Catholic upbringing rearing its head and that she was projecting all of this onto her image of god. Of course, the presumption in all of this was that simply interacting with females would result in (*gasp*) pre-marital sex, which as we all know is a big no-no to Christians. However, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about sex at the time, but it didn’t matter. Either way, god was allegedly going to “make” females not be interested in me so I wouldn’t get “tainted”. So, this logic followed that millions of starving, impoverished children die every day, people are murdered, raped and tortured in all sorts of gruesome ways all over the world and god is quite happy to let all of this happen, but wants to control who I date!? Why couldn’t he just “make” people not be murderers or child molesters instead? Wouldn’t that make more sense than interfering in the minute details of my life? And weren’t we supposed to have free will?

Again, in hindsight, now that I am completely free of all of this, I realise how ridiculous and untrue it all was, but to one indoctrinated, something like this can create a powerful complex. Thus, I spent the following years torn and conflicted. On one hand, I was told (rather contradictorily), that having girlfriends was OK, so long as we abstained from sex, but at the same time, the girls should ideally be Christian and that god would not allow me to get involved with someone that way if it wasn’t “his will”. This all seemed a bit heavy to my adolescent self; after all, I wasn’t looking to marry any time soon, just to do normal teenage stuff, which included having girlfriends. But apparently, god had a problem with it and needed to obsessively keep tabs on my every move.

As a result of this conditioning and the mixed messages it implied, whenever I met a girl I liked, I was literally petrified that god was going to come charging in to physically prevent her from engaging with me. When I did eventually have girlfriends, I was perpetually insecure, thinking that the proverbial Sword of Damocles would inevitably fall and that god would split us up because he didn’t want me to be “contaminated” (and what kind of a view of women is that anyway?). This fear haunted every relationship I ever had, even into adulthood and was something that burdened my relationships until I eventually broke free from the shackles of Christianity.

The end is nigh!

In addition to this warped view of sex and relationships, I was also inculcated with the idea that we were living in the “end times” and that the world would end within my lifetime. I’ve come to learn that this is probably one of the most destructive and negative things one could possibly tell a young person. As you’re finding your way, your whole life ahead of you, the last thing you need to hear is that The End of the World is Nigh, and that one day soon, god will swoop down and blow everything up. Even the “promise” of heaven afterwards didn’t make it any more bearable, particularly as the traditional Christian view of heaven sounded profoundly dull. (Sexless automatons worshipping at the throne of god for all eternity? No thanks…).

The view of this control freak god who wanted to interfere in my relations coupled with this end-time fear had the opposite to intended effect on my sexual conduct. I reached a point where I just thought “fuck it” and rebelled against the repression by embarking on my first sexual relationship. The way I saw it, the world was (allegedly) going to end soon, and if god was going to keep on cock-blocking me my whole life (as I’d been lead to believe), I might as well take what I can get now and repent later (because all you need to do is repent and everything will be OK, right?).

From this, I slowly started to realise how ridiculous all these hang-ups about sex were, and from a purely mechanical point-of-view, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: Would this god really have me burn in hell for all eternity just for having sex outside of marriage? It seemed so silly and trivial. Other normal sexual relationships followed that one, but the complex still haunted me, particularly as I was still a practicing Christian at the time (I’d usually indulge when I’d “backslidden” and felt I just didn’t care anymore), and probably because of that, I never quite shook the feeling that I was supposedly doing something “wrong”. Again, it took breaking away from Christianity altogether for me to finally be free of all that unnecessary guilt.

Hell is other Christians

I returned from university when I was around 22-ish and in my early to mind 20s, I had to go back to living at home again for a while until I’d found my feet again. My sister had moved to uni herself by this point, so it was just my mother and I. Anyway, she insisted that I to go to church because I needed “Christian fellowship”. I didn’t want to, but as I was living under her roof, I complied because it was easier than having her lecture me incessantly if I refused. Ironically, it was these very experiences that contributed a large part to me falling away from the faith.

One of the first fellowships I attended was a Salvation Army church that was just around the corner from where I was living at the time. To be fair, the people there were very friendly, kind and non-judgmental. I didn’t join their church or particular sect of Christianity, but neither did they attempt to persuade me. Instead, they seemed happy to have me there. However, I felt very out of place as most of the people there were quite old. I also just couldn’t see why I needed to go to sit in a church every Sunday just because I believed in god. Either way, I sort out a church with people closer to my own age.

I then ended up at a home church group run by probably one of the most obnoxiously smug and detestable creatures I have ever met. The guy had a wife (who was very quiet and with whom he was often dismissive and rude) and two young daughters. I got on well with his wife, who it turns out was a very likable person, but the husband and I never saw eye to eye. The church group consisted of me, this arsehole and his wife, and about six or seven others. From the moment I arrived I sensed the group leader didn’t like me or want me in his church group: I was the only black male present, and I could tell he was very suspicious of me (as were many of the other group members for that matter who treated me as thought I’d just stepped off a UFO).

I was often bombarded with lots of questions about my personal life, as if they were determined to find out what skeletons were rattling in my closet. To all intents and purposes, I’d been pretty devout as a Christian, but these people weren’t convinced. They were sure I was really up to no good or, at the very least, I had a pre-Christian “past” that I needed to “confess”, testimony-style. Perhaps they thought I was a former drug dealer who mugged little old ladies in his spare time and had a string of children with different mothers. The truth was I was just a regular guy who worked in IT. Either way, my protestations to my mother about the treatment I was getting at the hands of these gossipy, judgmental people fell on deaf ears, so I kept on going back there, but after about 3 months of their bullshit, I finally put my foot down and said enough is enough. I was not going to put up with being treated like a pariah by these so-called christians any more. However, my mother still insisted that I “needed” to be around more christians (she was always concerned that my friends were all “unsaved”), so as a compromise, I agreed to find another, more accommodating fellowship.

This third fellowship was bigger, with a more “traditional” church setting (i.e. in a building rather that some guy’s living room). The young people there seemed a bit more normal in that they actually admitted to drinking alcohol occasionally and even went out to pubs and clubs. However, there was still an air of mendacity about them, and they were also very gossipy and judgmental, but in a different way. The main thing that struck me about them was how they contrasted with my friends outside the church. As mentioned above, my friends were (are) non-christians but, instead of being the depraved heathens “unsaved” folk are often made out to be by christians, they were, in actuality very normal. They weren’t uptight, hung-up, repressed or inhibited, and with them I could be myself without fear of condemnation. I could not say the same thing about the people in the church.

Additionally, amongst this church youth, I also detected an air of bigotry and conservatism and, once again, being the lone black male of their group, found I was often regarded with suspicion (something I did NOT get from my non-christian, friends at all). Interestingly, I also got a fair bit of attention from the girls there, much to the distaste of their boyfriends and fathers...

I eventually left this fellowship after a year. Once again, I never really fit in and felt more tolerated than wanted or valued. The people my age were very two faced and would often blow hot and cold, and the senior members regarded me as though I was the Antichrist himself, and once again, it just got too much. In the final months, I’d leave the house on Sunday morning, but instead of going to church, I went to town, sat in a café, had some coffee and read a book for an hour or so and then come home. When my mother asked about the sermon, I’d make up some bullshit. Shortly after this, my spiritual free-fall began in earnest.

It was these experiences that made me realise that a lot of what professes to be Christianity is a sham. Its followers seldom practice what they preach and don’t even understand a lot of what they profess to believe. When I was at that last fellowship, I actually headed up the youth cell group for a while, lead prayer meetings and all usual nonsense and it was in doing so that I realised the faith of most of the young people there was superficial at best. They were christians only because their parents were, but the church had influenced them enough that they could not be related to like normal people their age (hence their bigotry and strange behaviour). They seemed so naive and ignorant and blissfully unaware of what they believed and hardly knew the bible at all. A few years later, learned that one of the “golden boys” of the fellowship (who married a popular young girl there), was arrested and imprisoned for abusing children in his position as a school photographer. Ironic because everyone thought butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and that I was suspect. (Not that anyone thought I’d necessarily do as he did, but I was generally regarded as a “dodgy guy” for reasons I’ll leave you to speculate on yourself…).

For people to profess to be christians, yet also be so bigoted and intolerant left a very bad taste in my mouth and made me wary of christians in general. My experiences have taught me that that it is christians who are the most intolerant. The sheer hypocrisy of many of this religion’s followers (whom I’ve associated with, at least) has shown me that the faith, in and of itself has little or no value, and that they are no more or less virtuous than anyone else. Yet, while I still lived at home, I often heard from my mother that christians were “god’s people” and all unsaved were “satan’s people”, the implication being that christians (“not perfect, but forgiven”), were intrinsically better people because of their beliefs.

I could not abide by this, knowing that it was the non-christians in my life who’d shown me the most kindness, compassion, respect and tolerance. To me, it did not seem right or fair that a god of love would favour religious beliefs over what people said or did, that theology was more important that how people treated one other. Thus, the concept of Christian exclusivity, which asserted that the people who meant the most to me would one day be banished to eternal torment whilst all the two-faced bigots got a free pass to heaven was something I started to find very offensive indeed. I also thought about my friends with children. Would this same god also throw these little children into hell too for not being christians? Are they also “Satan's people”?

Waking up

So yes, all of these experiences have culminated in me completely waking up, but at the same time, I value them because they have lead me to where I am now. Paradoxically, without them, I would not know what I do now. Thus, I do not consider my years in Christian servitude to have necessarily been a waste because they have given me “insider knowledge” on what the religion and its followers are really about, and just how pernicious it can all be. The negative experiences have also shaped my character in such a way that I am able to both sympathise with and help people in similar situations, because I’ve been there.

As for what I believe now, I consider myself a spiritual free-thinker rather than an atheist. I no longer follow Christianity, but for reasons I too long to go into on here, I do believe there is a deeper understanding of the universe to be had, and one which has nothing to do with any particular faith or set of beliefs.

Either way, waking from that slumber was the most profoundly enriching thing I have ever done, and I truly believe I am a much better person for it. I no longer fear hell or death and I no longer anticipate the impending doom of Armageddon. Leaving christianity behind has empowered me to live my life without bondage to fear and without an unnatural dependency on a fastidious, wrathful man-god.

My family don’t know about my decision to fall away. I know, for one that it would break my mother’s heart if she ever learned the truth and she would fear for my eternal fate. All I can do is continue to be the best person I can be, which is proof enough that not being a Christian doesn’t make someone an amoral monster. As for eternity, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but I am more than certain that whatever may be out there is not the god of biblical Christianity and that heaven and hell start from within and can be found in us all, regardless of belief.