The Fear of Leaving Christianity

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Ever since I wrote this post about leaving Christianity, I’ve been thinking more about how to order my thoughts on the matter. Not everyone goes through the same process of deconversion. There might be some common threads – like the proverbial straw that broke the back of faith – but overall the entire journey is by-and-large different.

This really is as it should be. Faith itself is an incredibly personal affair, like a straight-jacket tailored to fit a single person. Describing how I unraveled mine will not necessarily help other people unravel theirs entirely. Thinking about this frustrates me, as my own journey away from Christianity and religion in general is something that has been very necessary for me to do. I can’t help but wonder if there are other people out there who might need to consider their own exodus for their personal benefit, and I can’t help but consider if there is anything I might do to help.

My goal is to go from inadequate expression to adequate exploration of this idea.
It’s not enough to read specific rebuttals of religious precepts. I did that myself around the time my faith shattered and got lost, piece by bloody piece. Losing faith was very much a longer and more painful process than getting a toenail removed. The actual realization that I didn’t believe was only the last part of the process. People describe this, I think, as the complete journey of deconversion from Christianity. Thus, I wonder if other people might be offering an incomplete picture.

Starting at the beginning of my journey, I actually needed to get over several things that kept me persisting in faith which exist outside examining specific faith beliefs. In other words, it wasn’t just believing in creation or the crucifixion or personal divine revelation that made me a Christian. Other things had their hooks in me, like fear of how apostasy affects loved ones, and ignorance of how I justified my beliefs. These thoughts would often end an examination of my own faith, encouraging me to just shrug and tell myself that I shouldn’t worry about such things.

These external supports for faith are pretty expansive, but I think fear is the most important to begin with.
I could probably tie fear into much of what kept me going as a Christian. Fear of the imagined consequences of not accepting Jesus, fear of treatment by Christians, and fear of destroyed relationships are three areas I can think of off the top of my head. Each of these are themes within the faith, cultivated within the subculture of my upbringing. There’s a reason why Pascal’s wager, Chick tracts, and Bible verses about divine retribution exist. They each promote fear of something unknown.

By no means are these examples exhaustive. There are other kinds of fear which get espoused in many churches. One type is the fear of whether one’s salvation is assured. It’s supposed to be, and this assurance is good enough to remove all doubt. However, don’t get complacent, because it’s possible to think you’ve trusted in Jesus but will discover after death that you didn’t really do it after all. Teachings often bounce between these two ideas, shoring up faith in the former and then destroying confidence with the latter. Functionally, this encourages Christians to keep going back to places of faith.

Some standard objections to the idea that Christianity promotes certain kinds of fear.
One objection that I’ve received in the past is that fear is not something that’s supposed to be coming from the Christian deity. Of course, I know this because it was once something I told myself (and get reminded of by Christians since having left the faith). The reasoning behind it effectively labels “real” teachings as only promoting good feelings, and false ones were responsible for my former beliefs. To accept that, I’d have to believe that the Bible and many people who still believe are all false teachers. I can’t have it both ways.

But the most common objection I have ever received is that all of this is some kind of backwards description of love. Threatening an eternity of torment is elevated to a loving act, or maybe it gets ignored altogether. Regardless, one is supposed to be afraid because the dangers are allegedly real, and there is a deity really looking out for everyone.

The problem with this latter objection is that it ignores common definitions of a loving act or relationship. To be fair, when I called myself a Christian I didn’t think this was the case. At the time, I didn’t consider that the whole scheme of eternal punishment might be excessive, or that the manner of infractions for such punishments were arbitrary. From one perspective, everything was okay. From my new perspective, none of it is okay.

And perspective matters, which is why fear is so important to get rid of.
To be very clear: I could not get rid of my toxic faith without first losing my fear. The manner in which I did so was not healthy, completely by accident, a byproduct of my mental infirmities. I had wound myself up so hard into my faith that I finally lost all fear of the consequences. It took being at the end of my proverbial rope to stop worrying about what thinking about my religion would do to me.

Fear is what kept me from drawing back the curtain, from examining those beliefs I held as closely as any other. Without it, I could go to the edge of the cliff and look down into the valley below. Instead of imagining what it might look like, I could see for myself what was there.

As it was, I was missing out on something beautiful.

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