It’s not like you think, going godless — certainly not like I thought, or from what I can tell not like other people like me — who used to be Christians but aren’t anymore – not like what they thought either.
I didn’t become an atheist because I was drowning in deep despair or off my meds. I didn’t suddenly start being evil, thinking and doing evil things; didn’t wake up cursing and muttering blasphemies; wasn’t suddenly deranged and hollow, didn’t start haunting churches and graveyards; going off on people carrying Bibles.
No, I was just being me – a generally nice guy who grew up in the Nice Person Capital of the World (Minnesota) – doing my best to stumble through a series of what one writer calls “lifequakes.” God and being a Christian were at the center of the deluge because they were at the center of everything about me and my life. They just got caught in the middle. The whole thing was a hurricane in reverse – the highest winds and most damage were in the center, so God and Christianity took the hardest hit. Not that they were exactly innocent bystanders: my post-Christian life got started with a betrayal from the inside (a story I’ve told that story elsewhere and won’t repeat it here). For the first ten years or so I thought I would get over it, but the damage was done, the citadel breached, the way back destroyed.
From there my reverse conversion just… happened … privately, quietly, gradually… exactly like Screwtape said it would: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” he wrote to Wormwood, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” It took years to traverse that gentle slope – a long slow erosion of my sense of identity and way of going about life. God and Christianity eroded away like a bank along a favorite stream in a favorite woodland that failed and faltered until finally one days it was all washed away and there was no more grass, nothing but deep ruts and gnarly exposed roots, the thick green underbrush gone and the trees falling over for lack of purchase for their roots, the life and joy and wonder of the place long, long, painfully dried up to the point that there was no possible way to kid myself that there was anything still growing there, anything that could still grow there, and now there was nothing left to do but wish it wasn’t so, and knowing that yes, it was so, irretrievably so, and I would need to find a new place with new water and soil, sun and shade.
That’s what it was like — the emptiness of a wind over a parched land, a waste land of water not falling from the sky, an endless, ever-receding horizon with nothing but heat mirages ever rising up into view no matter how long you trudged toward it.
“A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Yes, that’s what it was like.
It was a grief long-grieved through multiple iterations of shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance – an endless repetition of redoubt and redoubling, of circling back, searching and wondering, and always this feeling that this can’t possibly be me doing this, this is not happening, this was never supposed to happen.
We prefer to focus on the acceptance stage of grieving – it’s heroic, overcoming, the do-over you get after a lot of awareness and learning and deepening. Nothing to dislike about acceptance, but getting there is rugged – no silver lining, no “reason for everything.” Shit just happens.
Grief packs a wallop. Grief is always an ambush – you’re always reeling, off balance, back-peddling. Grief is your personalized apocalypse, your lonely end of the world. Grief takes you on a tour of your history, reveals things you needed to know but didn’t, all the dumb stuff you did because you didn’t know any better and didn’t know how to ask for help, and now that you know better and are willing to ask for help what’s the point because it’s too late. Grief makes a mess of things, leaves you ragged and speechless and unpretty. Grief makes you crazy mad and angry mad. Grief numbs you out, turns you into the walking dead.
Grief isn’t about what’s lost, it’s about how we deal with loss. I lost a lot when I lost my Christian faith, and I lost my faith because I lost a lot. Grief is a super-slow motion baptism of regret. I used to think I lived with no regrets – like people brag about doing – but I was wrong, ridiculously wrong. Regret is a sticky form of the anger stage of grief. I had it stuck all over me – regret over all those years of uncountable small decisions and declarations that would have been made differently or not at all if it hadn’t been for my fierce allegiance to God – all those risks taken, allegiances declared, positions staked out, doubt and despair denied, convictions affirmed, certainties avowed, doubts and wonderings squelched, comfort forsaken, moments of awe and euphoria asserted, instants of triumph celebrated…. So much life! So many faces, constantly in and out of the frame! So much said, so much left unsaid, so much gainsaid….
It has taken years to get unstuck from regret. Lately, it seems the regret years might finally be over. The memories no longer have that angry edge, like the energy of it has been used up. God and Christianity are lost and gone away – a lifetime bond broken, an identity discarded, a way of looking at life left behind – to the point that now I look at what used to be and wonder how I possibly could have lived like that all those years.
That’s what it was like. All of that.
Not like I thought.
Not like other Christians who lost their faith thought.
Probably not like you thought either.