Maya (they/them) is a non-binary writer, artist, and everyday activist. They cover spirituality, LGBTQ+ issues, and social justice.
Losing my Christian religion helped me gain perspective and peace
Today is Sunday, the first Sunday in almost a year where I’m not schlepping myself to a worship service and singing secretly to a God of my choosing while everyone around me gushes over this guy named Jesus who, while he sounds cool, doesn’t rouse my soul any more than Rama or Zeus or Gilgamesh or any other character I learned about in my intro to mythology class. A part of me pauses as I write this. Although I am resolute in my newfound faith–and believe me, though it has looser boundaries than organized religion, it is not a lack of faith, but an abundance of it–the old scripts haven’t lost their grip quite yet. They will fade in time.
I feel like a heretic or a blasphemer in saying these things. However, like the child who does not think she is fat or stupid until the world decides to label her as such, I would not have known I was blasphemous or a heretic or altogether heathenish unless I had heard from a very early age what constitutes all of those things. And there lies the rub and the nail on which the “emperor’s clothes” of my faith ultimately unraveled.
This broadening of beliefs has been a long time coming. Over the past three years, I’ve had exposure to people of different faiths after 20+ years of taking Christianity for granted as a given. I’ve also seen friends that I respect leaving Christianity in favor of an all-encompassing spirituality. A pang of jealousy struck my heart when I saw how free agnostic, atheist, and spiritualist friends were to explore their own beliefs and align their ideologies with their integrity. Into young adulthood, I saw Christianity as a fact of life because it was the only vehicle I had to accurately describe the miraculous in the midst of the mundane.
Despite the wondrous nature of the Christian God, I also learned that he had beef with certain people and actions. I learned as a child that humans are inherently evil; even seemingly good people couldn’t hold a candle to the goodness of the Judeo-Christian God. God had this concept of sin–which, depending on who you asked, varied. His preferred pronouns were he/him, even though the Bible acknowledged that God was neither male nor female. He created humans as males and females–as I encountered individuals outside of that binary, I couldn’t help but ask who made trans*, gender non-conforming, and intersex folks, in that case?
As a child, I accepted all of this without question. On rare occasions where I did ask a question, I always received vague, unhelpful answers that translated to: “Because God says so.” As my critical thinking skills kicked in, I couldn’t swallow these supposed truths so easily.
I grew up Catholic but I left the church at 21 when my non-Catholic friends effectively convinced me that Catholics were the wrong kind of Christian. According to my protestant pals, Catholics would be denied entry into heaven for our null and void salvation. It brought me temporary relief to learn that Catholicism wasn’t the only–or even best–path to salvation. My anxiety disorder used Catholicism’s plethora of rules to keep my behavior in check and torment me at night with a litany of alleged sins. This relief was temporary and short-lived.
Compared to Catholicism, being a born-again Evangelical Christian seemed theoretically freeing. All I had to do was accept Jesus into my heart and I was set. In practice, the evangelical circles seemed to judge each other based on perceived moral wrongs as much as the Catholics did, if not more. Their list of socially unforgivable faux pas was considerably shorter–just don’t be gay, don’t get an abortion, and don’t be trans*. Additionally, one should never question or criticize church authorities, according to most evangelical authorities. As a queer, pro-choice, gender non-conforming person who questions everything (including authority), this didn’t jive well with my vibe. Still, I tried my best to meet these standards–they were, as the pastor said, God’s standards, after all.
Unfortunately, despite all efforts to suppress my sexuality, I came to accept that I could not choose not to be queer; it felt offensive that these presumably cisgender heterosexual people suggested a single, celibate lifestyle conforming to gender norms and forgoing the simple joys of building a life with someone you love and engaging authentically with the world while the cis-straights had a variety of life options available to them. As I validated my own feelings, I came to understand that this is indeed an offensive, privileged stance. This viewpoint is the very reason why most queer folks don’t feel comfortable attending evangelical churches.
I am aware that there are progressive Christian churches that affirm the LGBTQIA+ community and advocate for reproductive rights, but the pickings for these congregations were slim in my area. As a nonbinary person, I don’t exist in the minds of my former faith communities, which has made it hard to authentically engage in those spaces.
The final straw for me was when my evangelical friends tried to demonize the downward dog. Yoga calms my nervous system like nothing else, but yoga was low-hanging fruit for those who fear Eastern practices as demonic and want to justify their (low-key racist, IMHO) viewpoint by labeling the most effective stretching/relaxation technique I know as a gateway to evil influence. If these beliefs don’t infringe upon your existence (or that of your loved ones), I can see why it’s tempting to entertain them. As for me, I can’t go about my day with these restrictions in place. So I don’t anymore.
When I realized that the majority of the evangelical church would condone stripping away my sense of self, the foundation of my faith started to crumble. These self-proclaimed “hospitals for broken souls” seemed to create spiritual “patients” by diagnosing normal human behavior as a malady. When I rejected their label of sickness, I stopped needing the treatment. Once I stopped needing Christianity the way a vulnerable person feels like they need a toxic friend, I found it easier to evaluate whether I wanted to participate in it in the first place. Ultimately, I concluded that I was better off without a third party framing my spiritual beliefs and experiences. Since I’ve stepped into that choice, I’ve felt an inner conflict dissipate.
As a sound-minded, conscientious human, I got to the point where I couldn’t entertain the idea that this lifestyle wasn’t harmful to myself and others. The act of evangelizing–where evangelicalism gets its name–confronted my integrity. The process effectively deconstructs someone else’s worldview and rebuilds it to fit your own. Manipulative tactics such as capitalizing on someone’s fears of burning in eternal fire or latching onto vulnerabilities such as financial or emotional hardship to encourage praying to God who can supposedly ease those burdens are common and encouraged. I couldn’t stomach this as a requirement of “serving the Lord.” It felt invasive at best and psychologically abusive at worst.
I also struggled to overlook the way some Christian circles cover up criminal behavior. Having seen firsthand that sexual misconduct, abuse, and enabling happens in Christian communities even outside of the Catholic Church’s publicized scandals, my faith in Christians to possess a superior moral judgment to all other spiritualities and religions wore thin over time. As Tiffany Bluhm discusses in her insightful, ground-breaking book Prey Tell, some Christian groups use scripture and streamlined policies to protect predators and blame/shame victims.
One can argue that “not all Christians” are like that. I would agree that many Christians take Jesus’ example of loving the broken-hearted and the underdogs seriously. However, for a faith that claims to have a monopoly on true goodness, I find it a little suspect that even seemingly mild forms of invalidating victims, such as encouraging abuse survivors to think about what is “pure and lovely” when they experience PTSD or righteous anger at their experiences, are the norm rather than the exception.
With all of these strikes against the Christian church in my heart and mind, I recently began realizing that I don’t need to believe in Christianity to be valid in my spirituality. I can believe in a benevolent, ambiguous, protective force for universal good without labeling it or caging it in a finite, comprehendible system. There are as many versions of faith as there are people on the planet. Miracles and unexplainable events occur all the time. They’ll still occur whether or not I use a preconceived evangelical worldview to explain them.
Now that you know what I don’t believe, let me tell you what I do believe.
I believe in a God who is bigger than all the boxes we try to stuff them into. I believe that the variety of religions and spiritual paths humans have developed since the beginning of history are our best attempts at nailing down this larger-than-life, uncontrollable entity. I believe that different faiths are different facets of the same gem. We’re all looking at the same sky and missing the galaxies for the singular stars. Mythology, legend, and religion are the highest forms of creativity to me. I enjoy learning how others interpret the divine and incorporating the ideas that resonate with me into my grasp of the spiritual realm. I still capitalize God because I respect this great big awesome thing I don’t pretend to understand–I don’t need to follow an organized religion’s spiritual hierarchy to have reverence for something above myself.
Since I’ve stopped believing that God will smite me if I step outside of the Christian line, I’ve felt freedom, serenity, hope, and joy like never before. I can pray openly and honestly to a God who already knows where I’m coming from and accepts me unconditionally. For those who have never been involved with evangelical or fundamentalist Christian religion, it may sound like a no-brainer to believe whatever the hell you want to believe. However, coming from communities that see a correlation between control and godliness, this concept has been life-changing and life-giving for me.
I’m done waiting for permission to put down my cross and take up life on terms that make sense for me. I don’t need to struggle with it or pray about it–I transitioned into this newfound broad faith once I stopped trying to cram my wide-angled, inclusive belief system into the narrow evangelical one and started asking the God I’ve always known to guide me. Gone are the days where I feared certain people, places, and things because a pastor told me the Bible told him so. I look forward to sharing this great big journey of discovery with the world.
To anyone who has considered taking a “leap of faith” into whatever spiritual practice resonates with you, I say go for it!
Godspeed! Don’t believe something just because someone told you to; don’t hold onto exhausted ideologies out of fear of the unknown. And for god’s sake, don’t stay stuck in a controlling, toxic religious environment because it feels like there are no other options. It’s okay to take a break; it’s healthy to take some space if that’s what you need. If your previous faith was right for you, you can always return to it.
Trust me, I know how scary it is to go against the way things have always been or have been for a while. However, fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin. If there’s one good thing I’ll take with me on my journey away from Christianity, it’s this constant reminder: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of this growth and transformation. Have faith in whatever fills you with love, hope, and peace. Most of all, I hope you take this blog post as your permission slip to venture out into the vast expanse that awaits those who dare to reject what humans claim to know and consider, instead, the many things we haven’t discovered yet.
© 2021 Maya Smith