Losing Your Religion
The reader Gretchen is a liberal who often writes critically of religion, with great passion. Erin Manning asked her if she was once a Catholic. She replied:
Erin, I was born into a deeply devout Irish Catholic family, went to church six days a week throughout my childhood, and went to Catholic grade school and high school. My parents both went to Catholic colleges, as did my sister. My dad considered the Jesuits the gold standard for education, and wished it was available for girls at that time too. My brother wanted to follow my dad to his Jesuit university, but the folks couldn’t afford it, and told me that they couldn’t do more for me than my brother, so we both went to State U. I married a Catholic I met in graduate school in the church, had all four children baptized and started them in CCD. My third pregnancy was difficult. I suddenly went into a quick early labor and after a very, very traumatic birth experience found myself with premature twins. My doctor had insisted there was only one, so the whole thing was a shock. We were new in town and knew nobody well. My mother and mother in law were unable to come help – my mom was taking care of my very ill dad, my mother in law was out of the country, and my sister had young children of her own. My husband didn’t have any vacation coming and had to go back to work – this was before FMLA. So I found myself home alone with four young children, including premature twins who had to nurse every two hours, and were too weak to nurse at the same time, so they could literally stay up around the clock between them. I was bleeding so much I wasn’t supposed to get out of bed. My mother was frantic and said I should call the church for help. I said they wouldn’t help, so she called them and explained the situation and they said basically what are we supposed to do about it? So, at her wits end, she called the long distance operator and poured out her story, and the operator connected her with a local home health care agency. She hired an aide to come help me, and my sister paid for it. We literally got more help from the phone company than the Catholic church when facing a difficult situation with newborns, which is why I have a very hard time dealing with priests saying “just have the baby and it will all work out.” The pastor at the time had an obsession with “life” and talked a lot about “welcoming life” and why don’t women just have the baby and give it up for adoption if they can’t keep it, and on and on. The obsession with abortion as the only moral issue seemed to take hold in the Catholic church, and it made me angrier and angrier, listening to his clueless yammering about what women should do, knowing he was going home to a full night’s sleep in the quiet house that I helped pay for, that was bigger than my house stuffed with a family of six. My husband suggested that steaming in the pew every Sunday wasn’t helping my spirituality. Then that priest had to leave – he got caught with a young man, but the young man was slightly over 18, so he didn’t go to jail. The associate pastor did go to jail since his boy was under 18. The combination of the sanctimonious preaching about what women should do, the cluelessness about how challenging actually having children is, knowing that they didn’t have to live what they preached and couldn’t even be trusted around other people’s children, was the end of Catholicism for me, though the process took many years. Catholicism was such an ingrained part of me that leaving was like excising part of myself – it was very difficult, but they’d lost any moral authority for me. I started going to an Episcopal church with a married father as pastor, and found his sermons about making families work helpful in what was still a very challenging time in my life. My daughter planned to be married in the Catholic church, but they refused to marry her unless her Lutheran husband would promise to raise the children Catholic, which he refused to do. They were married in my Episcopal church. Then the pastors got involved with that Ugandan kill-the-gays branch of the church when the gay bishop was ordained, started a schism with the mainline Anglicans, and basically got crazy, so I left them too. The last time I was in a church was for my grandson’s baptism, and church is no longer part of my life.
These lines resonate deeply with my own experience: Catholicism was such an ingrained part of me that leaving was like excising part of myself – it was very difficult, but they’d lost any moral authority for me. I rarely agree with Gretchen, but I know exactly what this feels like.
I would like this to be a thread in which readers who have lost their faith tell how it happened, and how it felt. I am interested in stories, not polemics. If you write a Ditchkins-style rant about faith, I won’t post it. If you want to try to argue people out of religious belief, I won’t post it (nor will I post anyone trying to argue others back into it). I’m interested in the human, narrative aspect of loss of belief.
I mentioned in an earlier thread that religious believers who have never lost their faith, or been seriously tempted by a loss of faith, often have trouble understanding how it could happen to anybody. They may see the reluctant infidels as guilty of intellectual error, or a weak will. Maybe they are right in particular cases; I think it is certainly true that some people tell themselves that they are leaving religion for reasons of intellectual integrity, but the real truth is they don’t want it to be true, because if it is true, they will have to live in a way that they do not wish to live. But not everybody who loses their religion does so in, well, bad faith. As longtime readers know, I lived from the inside, the loss of faith (in my case, the Catholicism that had been at the center of my life for most of my adult life) was an excruciating experience, one that humbled me intellectually and chastised me in my spiritual pride. I used to be so triumphalist in my religious consciousness. I think that far too many of my fellow believers are deluded by spiritual pride in this way, and don’t grasp why we pray, in the Our Father, “lead us not into temptation.”
So, what I want to do with this thread is to invite those who were formerly religious to share their stories of how their loss of faith happened. Please don’t be nasty and polemical about religious people when you do; and believers, please don’t pick a fight when unbelievers tell their stories. I’m going to closely moderate this thread to keep it civil. Let’s talk about the experience of losing faith. The purpose here is to learn from the experiences of others. As someone who, by the grace of God, did not lose his faith entirely, and who often reflects on how his own errors of religious practice set him up for the fall he eventually took, I am always eager to learn from the experiences of others — and not just former Christians, but people who lost their faith in any religion.
(And I will soon start a thread on the experience of gaining faith, so don’t worry. It too will not be a place to argue people into or out of belief, but only a place to share stories about what it’s like to go from one state of being to its opposite.)
UPDATE: For a critical discussion of stories and issues raised in this thread, go here.