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Changing Identity

by Zoey Dalan ~

It's almost always the small things that make you question reality. The big things are covered and denounced, over and over, explained away by everyone you know. What'll trip you up is the small things that don't quite make sense, the details that don't fit in. And sometimes, it's not until you are deeply involved in that reality that you question its nature.

Ironically, I didn't doubt a word they told me until I was set to be an official member of the church. As a child, I was raised in the Methodist church. My family was involved everywhere. My sister and I were two of half a dozen kids in the church at any one time. Both our parents were in the choir. My dad taught Sunday school for the high-schoolers. And every step of the way, as God was shown to me, I never wondered if He actually existed. I wasn't worried about His existence. I was just trying to be the best Christian I could be.

Christianity was like brushing your teeth. The more I prayed, the more I felt like a good little girl. The louder and better I sang the hymns, the more certain I was that I was better in every way than those who didn't sing. The adults never told me outright, but that was the message I got. I was a better person because I was Christian. I was a good girl because I believed.

When I was thirteen, I began taking confirmation classes. Confirmation in the Methodist church is a bit like first communion for Catholics. After I was confirmed, I would be considered a full, adult member of the church. As part of the process, I had to choose a mentor that wasn't a family member. An adult in the church that I could bring my questions to. I would've chosen my dad, who had a very down-to-earth, historical view of the Bible and a very logical way to think about God, but I wasn't allowed. So I chose my Sunday school teacher instead.

In fairness, that teacher was quite ready for a small child's questions in Sunday school. She was not ready for the doubts a young teenager would voice to her. I don't remember the questions anymore, but I do remember her go-to answer being something along the lines of, "We just have to have "faith."

I was thirteen years old. I was reconciling what I was learning in science, not just about evolution and planets but also about electricity, air, vacuums, cause and effect, the beginning of physics, and more, with everything I thought I knew about God. My new ideas of dying and decay were clashing with old lessons about rebirth, sin, and purity. My social awareness was expanding, and now I knew not only did people disagree with me, they disagreed with me about God. I was coming into contact with the idea of religious freedom, the realization that an old ultimatum to convert, convert, convert was old-fashioned, weird, and just plain rude. Nothing said in church made sense to me anymore, and my mentor wasn't helping.

I was also at the age when I stopped talking to my parents about personal matters. Puberty and all that. Although, frankly, they wouldn't have helped either. I later learned that despite their church attendance and involvement, my parents considered religion and belief to be slightly immature, and expected me to grow out of it. This part of my life would have been a great deal easier if they had just told me that instead of bringing me to church and letting everyone who did believe do all the talking.

By the time I was to be confirmed, I'd decided, deep down, that there was no cosmic purpose or reason to life or the universe. That every human has to find their own purpose and to fulfill it, and that mine was just to have some semblance of a pleasant life. I hadn't yet tried to reconcile this somewhat nihilistic perspective with my somehow intact faith, but that might have been for the best. Middle school was hard enough. I did not need that pain in my life.

I'd decided, deep down, that there was no cosmic purpose or reason to life or the universe. That every human has to find their own purpose and to fulfill itBut over the next year or so, I took a good hard look at my faith, and discovered that not only did it feel like lying, it felt repulsive in its nature. My teacher's iterations of "we must have faith" every time I doubted could easily have kept me loyal to a sadist, or worse. In a world that kept telling me to question everything, I was simultaneously being instructed to question nothing. The cognitive dissonance possessed me, and should have told me to get out. Instead, I stayed, trying desperately to tell myself I wasn't atheist. I was still Christian. And after a while, I realized I wasn't Christian because I believed; I was Christian because that little girl who'd grown up in the church was still convinced I was a better person because of it. Christianity was no longer my worldview, but it was my identity. It was a word so native to me, I had no idea how to stop.

But I did. I let it go. I realized being Christian wasn't making me a better person, and that thinking that way was just the Christian way of thinking. I finally changed labels and changed identity, deciding never to lie to myself again.

It should have been easy. My parents were atheists already, and my sister had stopped going to church long ago. I had all the support of my family if I had just asked for it. But I didn't. I'd pushed them away already. My friends were all either atheists who wouldn't understand why no longer believing was such a big deal or Christians who wouldn't understand why I didn't believe. On top of that, my parents still made me sing in the church choir. I was going to church twice a week, once to rehearse in the choir and once to sing in service. I tried to get them to let me stop. I distinctly remember crying almost every week because going to church, singing sentiments that were once sweet and now seemed perverse and wrong, listening to people telling the lies I'd believed for so long, made me feel all the more like the alien in my own church. It reminded me of the hole I'd torn in my own identity to get rid of the idea of God and now refused to fill with other lies. In a place that was next to home, I felt all alone. One day, while asking them to let me stop going, I ended up dissolving into tears on the carpet. My mother, who was certain I was just trying to get out of yet another activity, snapped at me to stop crying, and all I could do was wail, "I can't."

In my defense, I was also facing a bad year in school. I had one class that had a very heavy workload, and another whose teacher terrified me on a personal level. For the first time since I was eight, I was crying in school, breaking down in front of my friend and having panic attacks that lasted hours. I felt like the only thing that accompanied me on my journey to end my faith was the church that kept telling me to turn back.

After that school year, my parents realized I was overwhelmed and upset and let me stop going to church and singing in the choir so I would have more time for school and for myself. It was one of the best days of my life. I was finally alone. Completely alone. I could let my identity heal and become more comfortable with the word atheist, without church telling me twice a week that I was going the wrong way, that I would be better if I was Christian. I had no idea how I'd gone so long believing, when the world I now saw made so much more sense without a God. Sure, it was scarier, it was darker, and it was colder, but it felt more real. It felt more right.

What's truly cruel about the whole ordeal is how easy I had it. Some Christians are truly deeply involved in their faith. They went to Christian schools or had Christian homeschooling. They have Christian parents who, should they ever desert the church, would consistently and sometimes passive-aggressively try to reconvert them. They had friends who were all Christian, a life based on God. Those are the people who truly deserve sympathy. Who really need support. Me? I just needed to be alone for a while. They need more people around them to tell them they don't have to be Christian to be a good person or to have a good life. For them, a change in faith is a change in lifestyle and a complete re-education on the nature of reality and a reevaluation of the universe, often involving moving, isolating themselves from family, losing friends, or having to endure the snide comments and smug looks for the rest of their lives. For me, it was merely a harrowing change in identity.

If I took it so hard, I have no idea how difficult it must be for people like that.