This is a guest post written by James Mulholland. He is the author of several Christian books and just published Leaving Your Religion: A Practical Guide To Becoming Non-Religious. His blog of the same name can be read here
There are not five easy steps for leaving your religion. There is nothing easy about it. When you’re raised in a religious culture, it’s all you know. If it was a healthy community, it deeply satisfied. Walking away is painful. I went through all the stages of grief — denial, negotiation, anger and depression — before accepting my disbelief. For most people, leaving is a journey of a thousand steps.
Many of those steps away from religion happen before you’re aware of any dissatisfaction. Long before you finally walk away, your religious life begins to break down, to smoke and sputter, to lose momentum. One day, something inside you shifts.
I remember that shift, that moment my religious life came grinding to a halt. It happened in the most ordinary of places. I was attending a summer cook-out, eating a hot dog and shooting the breeze with my neighbors, when one of them asked, “Are you a Quaker?”
When I replied that I was, they asked, “What do Quakers believe?”
Now that wasn’t a hard question. I’d answered it a hundred times. I could quickly and easily explain the five Quaker testimonies, that all Quakers valued simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality, that we sought to live out these testimonies in response to God’s love for us, to live as faithfully as possible to the light within. As religious expressions go, it’s not bad.
But on that summer night, something shifted. Instead, I replied, “Quakers are committed to five testimonies — simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality. They seek to live out these testimonies in response to God’s love for them, to live as faithfully as possible to the light within.”
If you didn’t catch the difference, I’m not surprised. Though I immediately sensed something odd, it wasn’t until later that I realized what had changed. Two words. On that summer might, for the first time in my religious life, instead of saying “we” and “us,” I said “they” and “them.”
The end of faith sneaks up on you. One moment you’re Christian and the next you’re not. Though outwardly everything appears the same, you know something central to who you are has forever changed. You can’t go back, even if you wanted to. You begin to walk away. You discover that leaving a religion is like walking away from a mountain.
At that cook-out — six years ago — when I crossed the line between “we” and “they” I took the first step away from my religion, but religions — like mountains — are massive landscapes and no one escapes their shadow quickly. It was several months before I resigned as a pastor, nearly two years before I stopped attending services, and four years before I finally recognized I wasn’t Christian any longer.
It takes a long time to walk away from a mountain. In the beginning, it fills the sky behind you. As you walk away, you’re constantly aware of its presence over your shoulder. You measure your progress against it. You position yourself in relationship to it. When life gets rough, you may even turn back toward it. But, for most people, once you walk away from the mountain, every day it slips lower on the horizon until one day its highest peaks disappear and you find yourself in unchartered territory, wonderfully lost, and with no choice but to explore the lush world around you.
That’s where I stand today. I’m nervous, but mostly delighted. Having left the comfortable confines of the church, I’m packing a tent. I’ve traded my map — with the path between cradle and grave drawn in indelible ink — for a compass. I’m heading cross country, no longer traveling the straight and narrow or carefully following in the footsteps of the saints of old. I’m free to go anywhere.
I find that possibility terribly exciting, but I understand that what now excites me wasn’t always as thrilling. Sometimes I’ve been afraid. Other times I was sad. During the past six years, as I’ve walked away from the mountain, there have been risks, moments when I faced choices with unknown ramifications, but the rewards have far outnumbered the losses. Becoming non-religious continues to be an incredible journey. Occasionally, I still look back, scanning the horizon for the mist covered mountain and recalling the life I left behind, but mostly I look forward.