When looking back on my old religious life, I find plenty to complain about. And why should I not? Religion as a whole has enough apologists who are more than happy to stand up to defend even its most indefensible texts, as well as the various atrocities by its most ardent practitioners. People like me are still in the minority, so I practically have a duty to lob my criticisms. Hell, I practically ought to bitch about my experience whether it’s a well-thought-out argument or not.
But that’s not to say that I don’t ever look back at these years with a certain sentimentality. There were many years of happiness, of course. I mean, it’s as they say: ignorance is bliss. I didn’t know any different, so why not be happy with my circumstances?
Regardless of how I’d grade the particular memory, good or bad, I’ve found myself mining for little tidbits lately in the name of therapy. My religious past has been a topic of conversation between my therapist and I due to the huge implications that having dogma drilled into your head as a child can have, so I’ve perused these old times to, not so much find answers, but to better map the world of my depression so that I may navigate it better. So far… I think I could be doing a better job of doing this. It’s a practice that isn’t done so well with just a casual attitude and a listless mentality; there’s more of a meditation aspect that should really be applied. What I’m talking about, after all, is religious trauma.
I’ve always been fairly introverted. Actually, I really ride the line between introvert and extrovert (I’ve even been officially Myers-Briggs tested, and this is what the results said too), but my extroversion only comes out at select times. So it has never been uncommon for me to wander off to just be by myself for a while. This was the case one evening on a church organized camping trip that I was on while in my late teens. It was an annual event known as Canoe Trip, though it had been a long time since actual canoeing was a part of the weekend. But anyway, despite being surrounded by over a hundred of my religious peers, some of whom I saw regularly and others who I barely saw outside of this weekend, I felt the need to wander off by myself under the cover of night around the campground. Most everyone was at the main bonfire singing hymns, if not by a smaller fire amongst the tents (let’s face it, or they were having sex in some of these tents between tent checks), so it was relatively easy to find some privacy. I eventually stopped outside of a small building on the campground, and sat on the hidden side under the faint glow of far-off yard light. Before long, I was crying. I was crying because I was overcome by the feeling of having so many believers in Christ being in one place, many of whom were singing songs of praise. So in this sense, they were tears of joy. But at the same time, interwoven with this sense of delight, was a crushing burden of guilt for not being worthy of the love of Jesus, for being a rotten sinner. And as evidence for this, I only needed to look at what I was doing at that moment: here I was, amongst fellow believers who seemed perfectly content to praise God with song in the waning hours of the day, and I wandered off to be by myself. How perfectly selfish. Who did I think I was? Time for myself could be had just about any time, but I chose this moment, when the opportunity was most ripe to give some semblance of glory to the Creator of all things. So I cried only harder, but they were now tears of guilt and shame.
I didn’t actually need evidence to justify my self-immolation. Our collective unworthiness was preached every single sermon, so my feelings of lowliness were going to exist whether I had a ready example of why or not. But even when I look back with what I feel is clarity, it’s emotionally confusing to look back on moments like this. To feel so worthless, so deserving of punishment, was a good thing within the church. It was almost something to aspire to! But to recognize that it was good to feel so low resulted in a Catch-22 in and of itself.
So here we have what I’ve come to regard as the epitome of religious ridiculousness. Our sect believed we were the only people chosen by God for salvation, and therefore the special few for whom the Universe still spun. But on the other hand, we had to feel guilty for our very existence. Here are indeed the extreme heights and depths of solipsism and self-contempt. So the big question for me has been: how does one grow beyond such a brutal mindset?
There are no answers to be found in stories like this. Not for me, at least. But looking back at these moments are important all the same. Answers are overrated, anyway. For when it comes to overcoming something like religion, answers aren’t nearly as enlightening as questions.