This is a GUEST post. Every now and then we’ll get another writer in to take on a topic that’s been on their mind. This article is the third in a four-part series by Vanessa James, writing about her spiritual journey of doubt and deconstruction. If you missed the earlier parts, here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 2.
Vanessa James is a film/TV composer by day, singer-songwriter by night, radioactive at lunch, and trespasser by derelict buildings. She lives by the sea in Brighton but was born by the main road in Bradford to a wild Colombian mama and a polite English papa, which keeps her confused, but multi-coloured.
Here are the next couple of blogs from my Christian Detox journey. I decided to stop digging so incessantly after posting these last year, having reached the destination of a clean slate. I’ve not actually written since these blogs, but a very different journey opened up on the other side, so I’ll write a present day blog soon (as Part 4 of this series).
For now, come back in time with me to my January 2015…
Happy New Year!
2014 was the most challenging, heartbreaking, depressing, angering, confusing, yet eye-opening, exciting and unforgettable year of my life. The hurricane was all worth it because as Nietzsche said…
‘No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’
…and I’m looking forward to living in the freedom that comes with reclaiming myself in 2015.
I thought I’d spare you a few blogs-worth of what’s been a few months of reactionary bungee-rope coiling between heavenly highs and foundational facts. Certain environments revealed my very impressionable state, which I realise came from my desperation to belong or to grab hold of anything that made a bit of sense in the wild river of confusion I was spinning in.
A friend asked me to perform Amazing Grace at a charity ball one evening. I was barely able to stand or blink back the gathering tears as I connected to the lullabies of my birth-tribe, desperate for any of it to have been true and not just psychological or anthropological tricks. That desperate desire to believe again began handing out hall passes to my remaining Christian hang ups, luring me to reenter faith camp, but my mind soon yelled, ‘Oy! Integrity please! I’ve been waiting on that ignorance bench your whole life. Give me a chance!’ So I coldly put myself back on door duty and made sure I was leaving all biases at the door with this journey. Shame, but I’m ok with that: there’s not much I find of interest inside comfort anyway.
Still, whenever my feet touched the atheistic ground, my sadness and fearful reactions would fling me back up on that bungee rope towards my old comforts. But as it goes with bungee ropes, the bounces become less erratic and soon settle – as did my view. Feeding my brutal questions with new knowledge has helped cleanse my system, helped me separate my perspectives from facts, helped me to see beliefs more like ideas, and helped me accept a new reality with no defences, enough for my feet to touch the new ground long enough to really view the world as a non-believer; to embody and experience life as an atheist. And it seems reason really can get you everywhere, because guys – I think I ruddy made it…
I may sound chirpy, but you know it’s not been easy, straight-forward, instant or pleasant getting here. It’s been soul-ripping, world-shattering, confusing and costly; but a worthy price. In fact, this has been one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I even panic at the thought of never having done this actually. If I wasn’t trying to keep these short, I’d share all the Googling and fascinating/heartbreaking information that’s helped me get here, but I trust your questions will lead you to a place of personal resonance.
Steven Weinberg said:
‘Science doesn’t make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God.’
We have the freedom to choose and the option to believe. There were two trees in the garden of Eden, right? And if we never had the option to really choose faith in the first place, doesn’t that make it a bit bland? Without fear there’s no courage, so maybe without doubt, there’s no faith. I still have questions and hang ups, I’m surrounded by stumping stories of ‘God works’ from sound minded people, and there’s plenty of neuroscientists out there who speak of the psychological benefits inside having a belief in a good God; all of which offers a reason to choose Christian beliefs again.
But for me, right now, I’m resonating more right where I am. I’ve currently found more solid ground to not believe than to believe. And here I feel happy, healthy, awake, sane, respectful of my mind and peace, heart and my essence, and in touch with my truest self like never before. This garden that I’m in right now, I can almost taste it in the air, it has so much growing here that I need to feed on and strengthen in as part of my basic human development.
As much as I’m flourishing here, with faith gone, I do feel a lot of emptiness. I suppose that’s a natural result of separation. So whilst I’ve been trying to get used to the shapes changing within me, I felt the need to find a place that would embrace me as I was, which led my feet to the door of a humanist/atheist church! The Sunday Assembly – a global movement with the tag line: Live better. Help often. Wonder more. I took sermon notes for you:
The Christmas Service – 21st December 2014
The act of gathering, singing, laughing, supporting, strengthening, crying, wondering, and sharing with one another (with a sober mind) is what’s lacking from outside religion. My leftover need for unity, connection and community is why I’m here today.
I’m sat under a flurry of Smart-Price festive decorations and looking out to a small sea of Christmas jumpers (I didn’t get the memo). A festive goth welcomed me at the door with a name sticker and a cup of tea. I don’t drink tea but I took it anyway. The worship is Slade. THE WORSHIP IS SLADE! And sung as reluctantly as any traditional British congregation: glum faced, eyes glued to hymn sheets whilst stood in rigid rows, and yet we’re singing: ‘So here it is merry Xmas, Everybody’s having fun!’ I stare into the bottom of my teacup and laugh like a mad man with a comb-over. But then enters a saviour – The Pogues have come to deliver us! What man can resist the heartwarming, uniting, tear jerking power of their Christmas hit. Good lord, did someone really just pull out a tambourine!? And did that mans antlers just light up? Steady… things are hotting up.
‘You scumbag you maggot!!’ I shout-sing with my de-icing neighbour. The CD gets stuck but we can’t stop singing ‘And the bells are ringing out for Christmas day’ over and over. We’re sober. We’re idiots. Am I home? With notices passionately read by a man in an inflatable robin hat, saying: ‘We’re gonna buuurrrn* something outside soon!’ —Yes, yes I think I’m home. (*burning explained later)
Everyone’s loosened up for Rudolf The Red Nose Reindeer. Children are dancing with their parents, the gay couple next to me just slapped each other’s asses on ‘Ho!’, the old man in a flashing LED waistcoat just used his fingers as antlers and… LOOK! Robin-hatted man can DANCE! There’s so much diversity and acceptance here. Isn’t this what heaven should look like? Or at least Earth. All kinds getting along with all kinds, celebrating differences and… oh enough of this, I’m putting my pen down to get my hand-horns out and sing: ‘You go down in Hisss-tooor-eeeeee’ a semi-tone flat with the rest of my comrades. Happy people are infectious. Fact.
A Latvian woman is on stage talking about her culture of dancing, drinking, singing folk songs round the table and their passion for setting things on fire, finishing on a photo of a Viking boat. I think I’m in love. Ok she’s just asked us to go outside to set this something on fire. Back soon…
We’re British so we’ve returned EXACTLY to our same seats. The burn victim was a Yule log. Latvian lady asked us to write all our troubles from the year on a piece of paper (I ran out of room) to throw into the fire. Singing ‘Oh Tannenbaum’ with mostly made-up words, we cast our worries into the fire together, and quietly watched them turn to smoke. It was sublime.
We’ve just done the offering – an opportunity to give to a local charity doing a homeless food drive. Probably the most cheerful offering I’ve ever given because I didn’t have to think to feel 100% integral and right in myself about giving to that. The preach is about finding gratefulness. It’s inspiring, wise, practical, and you don’t need belief-membership to access it’s benefits.
We close on ‘Deck The Halls’ – not atmospheric, Holy-Spirit music that psychologically puts someone in a less rational state to encourage (aka persuade) the unsaved to come to Christ. I always thought I’d feel better if people made their faith leap in stark light. The service is over. We’re offered Christmas cake, more tea, and a chance to meet each other. The leader (inflatable robin hat man) came to say hello to me, which brought to my attention a weird personal behaviour – a hangover from religious compliance – an old addiction for the leaders approval so they see how proud God would be of a girl like me. YAK! I caught it quick and even told robin-man so to explain my sudden behaviour switch, which sent us on a riveting conversation about mind-abuse.
I bludgeoned him with more desperately honest questions and got answers that felt like ‘me’, bringing me to that place of full resonance again and making my insides feel like Christmas, and I’d not even touched the cake. Robin-man had what I was looking for: a perspective based on solid truth but with the awareness that his brain was the size of a multi-seed boule, an appetite for wonder and mystery that didn’t ignore science, a steady relationship with uncertainty, a gratefulness for being alive, and a drive to help others for the sake of nothing more than to leave the world a better place for being here.
That last point struck a massive chord with me. Here’s a man who’s doing good deeds, not out of pleasing God, but out of a personal desire to just do good. To make another person smile because it’ll make their day better, to help someone in need because they simply need help and because we’re all running the same human race together, to be a kind person because the world is better for it and it’s a good example for the next learning generation. It just seems more authentically good when it’s away from any religious motive, like gaining heavenly brownie points, or to just feel God smile down on you. All that Daddy-pleasing seems a bit childish and gross to me now, what now feels more genuine and profound is choosing to love and do good because you just wanna help a fellow human in this stretch of time we share together. And to be simply kind.
Okay I’m back in the car. Not feeling compelled to spend more time reading the Bible or praying, but to give myself away to mankind in this short spark of consciousness I have. No feeling of us and them. No dividing lines of tribes and religion. More that we’re all just in the same boat, trying to figure out how to sail as best we can. Do we really need ancient books to tell us how to keep our primal, animalistic natures in order when we have brains, compassion, empathy and education to help us figure out how to get along with others? Christianity sure helps align us there but it’s definitely not the only way to live a good and moral life. Meeting the people today has been proof of that. And here’s a shocker – the ‘God-shaped hole’ of the unsaved isn’t true! There’s plenty of good things to find fullfillment and connection to out there.
The visit was a worthy expedition, but I have to say, I felt it lacked depth. Maybe I’ve attached that Sunday morning format to the spiritual, transcendental experience that I was weened on since birth, reminding me too much of the setting where I’d meet a higher power and get a feeling of elevation from that supernatural union with other heaven-bound heirs: things I could now probably explain with psychology and neuroscience, but still, it remains to me that there is clearly something valuable buried inside transcendence for the human experience. Especially in accessing the arena of higher conscious thinking. I wonder if there’s such a thing as rational spirituality. No tie-die, beard growing or chanting involved. And maybe I can just get my goosebumps from shared experiences with people, with nature, with musical and artistic experiences etc.
For now though, I’m just going to enjoy the views and explorations of what I think may be: atheist until proven otherwise.
7. Toxic Religion
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)… it’s a thing!
I’m no fan of diagnoses (their potential to make me a victim and seduce me into their mold makes me wary) but these symptoms help spell out this hangover I probably got from drinking too much fundamentalism:
Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
– Severe confusion
– Identity issues
– Strong black & white thinking
– Poor critical thinking ability
– Crippled self-worth, self trust & self belief
– Difficulty with decision-making
– Feeling powerless to run own life
– Feelings of not fully existing without God
– Self loathing
– Difficulty embracing emotions
– Feeling undeserving
– Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities
– Fear of self-pride (humility complex)
– Anxious of eternal consequences from inability to believe theology
– Grief for ‘believed-world’ and missed ‘real-world’ years
– Shame and guilt
– Fear in ability to connect with non-believers
– “Fish out of water” feelings to real world
– Difficulty belonging
– Information/educational gaps (e.g. science, wider issues)
– Tendency to submit to authoritarian figures without thought
(Full RTS info and help here)
Some hangover, right! Makes you see how much religious indoctrination can potentially take from a person. But don’t paint all Christians with my brush: anything taken without balance is damaging, and I drank the hard stuff from birth with no other ‘self’ to back me up.
‘So why the frig didn’t you get back on your religious potion then, girl!?’
Because I tasted truth potion and realised I wasn’t sober. And that’s the problem with fundamentalists: they don’t know they’re fundamentalists. What they believe is nothing short of spot-on. It’s everyone else who’s wrong. It’s hard to see your own house when you’re stood in it.
So I’ve stepped out of the church doors and I’m trying to make sense of the ocean. I’ve had help from great educators, like: Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Brian Cox, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Mark Twain, James Randi, The Atheist Experience show, a bunch of neuroscientists, cosmologists and psychologists, even Louis Theroux and Tim Minchin — all offering solid, non-god explanations to my primal wonders, like:
How can such fine-tuning behind our existence not suggest a great designer?
How can you explain the amazing design and beauty in nature and biology outside of an ultimate designer?
How can the universe begin from nothing rather than something?
Why are we not still evolving or seeing half monkeys out there?
Where did all the people BC go if they missed out on the Jesus-pass to dodge Hell!?
I’ll admit, at the beginning of this I had hoped that God might steal the show along the way somehow, or that I might be the sequel to the prodigal son, but the more I read and learned about the world outside my bubble, the more I thought ‘Shit – I’m becoming an atheist!’ Because things were operating just fine without the God assumption. The air pocket for my belief was shrinking in the rising waters of science and reason. God was on the endangered species list.
In finding explanations that didn’t require mental gymnastics or exhaust my belief tank, I found a wealth of personal-development that I never knew was waiting to grow.
THE GREAT “I AM”
I AM COMPLETE
Since serving my brain more than my creed, I feel at one with myself, kinder to myself, licensed to learn wider, fervid to see me in full-colour (no dulling required to meet tall belief orders), and the big one…I feel valid. Like I’m actually worthy, likeable and good without God, without grace, and without the sanction of Jesus. Just me alone. (Still working on this one!)
Those feelings of wholeness can be felt inside Christianity, but for me, in letting God complete my undeveloped areas I was only ever really half a person.
That killer line ‘He must increase and I must decrease’ literally killed me. It’s why this photo really upsets me:
‘Less of Me, More of You’ [John 3:30]
I AM MY OWN
There’s this kind of circular logic in Christian thinking: God is the answer to the question but to question the answer is the Devil. The same old arguments can keep spinning if you claim the blank space with a God flag and opposing space with a Devil flag. With that rationale, any wacky ideology can pass as reasonable to the believer (although it takes some amount of wilful amnesia to keep the cycle going). And you do, because it’s strangely satisfying. It’s also a defence though, because our beliefs carry our identity. So get your pitch forks out on those little (Brian Cox) foxes!
Decades of reinforcing external beliefs to quieten my inner doubts has carved an unhelpful pattern in my brain. It’s meant that finding my own voice and trusting in my own powers of reasoning has often felt as impossible as a T-Rex trying to take a selfie. I’ve felt too far behind, too un-rescuable, too damaged to ever develop things like well-formed critical thinking.
But with time, new friends, a lot of self-love, a pinch of rebellion and a respect for my black-sheep mind, I began to grow a little taller.
Goodbye, Proverbs 3:5: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own intelligence.’ Hello, wonder of owning your own head!
I AM YOURS
Since de-programming, I’ve felt more connected to humanity, in a way I never realised I wasn’t. Religion can implant the belief that you’re set apart, special, correct and (if taken too literally) above anyone who’s not in the cult…I mean…religion. We’re tribal beings so it’s almost natural to fall into that.
My beliefs prohibited me from feeling that shared destiny of death and shared need of life with humanity. We were divorced. My life on earth was a stepping stone on the way to Heaven and people had a ‘soul for sale’ sign on their forehead. I was taught to ‘Go to the throne instead of the phone’ and other self-isolating advice.
It stopped me from seeing that I belong to you, and you to me.
I AM THE SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD!
Without dependency on a cosmic saviour to safety-net a global crisis (like world hunger, environmental damage, and other things humans cause in ignorance, greed and laziness), you’re left touching a nerve that it’s actually all down to us.
We can only save ourselves!!
It’s a healthy panic. One that brings meaning and purpose: in that my life matters because of how my choices affect others and this planet.
That co-dependent line, ‘Do your best and God will do the rest’, was actually removing my full commitment to a whole host of things. It is strange how you find more environmentally conscious people outside of the church. Maybe God is expected to rapture us up before we suffer the consequences of our own mess? Oh save us now!
I AM MY OWN LUCK
Waiting on God sounds noble, but for me it was damaging. I’m not a pawn, I’m a person! ‘You’re an active agent in the universe’, as my token atheist friend Red would often remind me. So whilst die-hard Christians are praying on their knees, others are on their feet making their own luck. The Christian bird catches the rotting worm.
Now, in needing no peace, purpose, prayer or confirmation to purchase a ticket for an idea, dream or desire, I feel opportunity buzzing in my hands like never before. I’ll admit, feeling 100% responsible for a potential bad move is frightening, but I’m more fearful of my own flat-line!
So with death as my motivator, I’ve wiped my dusty prayer knee and got running to grab life by the cojones before I black out. There’s so much I want to experience!
I AM IN AWE
Scientists are continually unraveling the backstage mysteries of this universe and our existence. Sure, you can claim each breakthrough as a missing page from God’s design manual if you want to, but isn’t that getting a bit exhausting with having to re-fit it into his other book? The Bible?
Christian apologists appear to be constantly upgrading Christianity in order to rationalise their claims. But to me, that kinda feels like we’re giving the Christian God a slow death.
What can be more awe-inspiring than the idea of the Universe forming by natural, impersonal forces and evolving into this magnificent, unfathomable place, and that the chances were so slim that we would get to experience it so richly through our senses and whatever else our wondrous brains bestow, but we did. You can say that’s proof of Gods grace (because we all like to think we’re special and chosen), but if we’d never made it here we’d not be claiming that. The Universe is full of happy accidents and coincidences that mean nothing, but as pattern-seeking creatures we like to add our own reason and meaning to it. Sure that makes for a nicer view, but doesn’t mean it’s true.
So there’s at least two ways of seeing this thing and I can see both. I just never thought I’d find the same measure of awe outside of God-belief… but I did.
I AM DAMN LUCKY
Believing I’m here by chance and not because I was pre-planned has made me deeply grateful for owning a life. Because one tiny tweak to the conditions and my opportunity to exist would have been overthrown. Frightening! But that’s what makes me feel I better do something good on this planet for making it here! We should be shaking hands in the street, saying: ‘Well done!! Yeah you made it too!’
One downside is that this reality suggests that I am actually completely pointless. Uh! But how cool is it that I can make a point of me by giving my life away.
*maintains heroic pose whilst slowly sliding Xbox under sofa*
In accepting this detox into my life I now have a personal relationship with reality.
I’ve lost a lot, but I’d pay those RTS symptoms twice-over to have gained this elevated appreciation for my current life and feeling in full attendance of it. Sure, having God in my vision made for a really beautiful view, but for me, right now, this one life is best drunk neat. No bubbly mixers to sweeten my senses to reality. I’m finding that sweetness in raw human and earthly connection.
So, what now?
Well, having had my personal philosophies disrupted daily for this long, I think I might be addicted! But what a great habit to keep. I’ve cashed in enough reality-cheques to know I can only be certain of uncertainty. And if I keep the cameras rolling, who knows what I’ll find.
Exploring is an endless pursuit.
You can also check out one of our Main Issues: in-depth and illustrated looks at some big topics related to science, faith and the Universe:
Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.