Of all the things I thought I knew about myself a year or two ago, my Christian faith was one of the most solid. If you had told me nearly 12 years ago, at my confirmation, that I would be writing this blog post one day, I would have judged my future self very harshly, and absolutely denied the possibility that I would ever believe anything else. However, despite the protestations of that short-haired, impish young girl (who is still in there somewhere, just waiting for the next haircut), I have reached a sort-of conclusion. I am no longer a Christian, and am not sure I believe in God either. While I believe that the content of someone’s faith and its meaning for them is a personal matter, what I’m trying to write about here is a bigger set of issues about the complexities of leaving a faith that never forced me to stay in the first place.
The Church has been a part of my life virtually since I was born. I won’t bore you with the entire story of how my life has shaped up in Christian terms, but the bare bones is that I was brought up in a Christian family, and allowed to make my own choices in virtually all religious matters when I was old enough. My parents were the reasonable sort who made it impossible to rebel, and for a long time, I took my Christian morality very seriously, attempting to make it the foundation for my life. I fell out with God and the Church when I was around 14, mostly due to social issues in our family Church, but also because that was the start (I think) of my first serious depressive spell. I’ve spoken to nearly everyone involved in all that since, and it’s very clear that it was a terrible confluence of circumstance, combined with the lack of knowledge about my autism diagnosis (them and the rest of the world!). Suffice to say, I bear no one any ill will over all that, but there are still a number of hang-ups I carry to this day that I’m working through on my own. I found another Church when I was about 16, and joined via the choir, continuing my choral obsession when I went up to Oxford a couple of years later. The breakdown that took me out of University in my first attempt at final year also took me out of everything else, and in the midst of being incapable of tasks like washing and eating, questions of faith weren’t really high on the agenda. I later joined another Church in Oxford for a few months, but sort of drifted away when my health took a downward spiral again.
After all that, and having not attended Church since Easter Sunday last year minus Christmas with my parents (something of a cultural obligation, I must admit), it took me until December to actually admit to myself that I am no longer a Christian, and distinctly agnostic. I had talked about it with people, most notably at the beginning of an abortive relationship where we discussed how it was probably the most honest thing to be, but really, truly admitting it to myself was a real task. I’ve wanted to believe in God for a long time, I truly have, but no matter how I look at it, the truth is I simply cannot find it compelling enough to truly say “I believe”.
Part of it, I’ve now realised, is that the way Churches teach what they believe presents some problems of understanding for those whose brains don’t fit the statistical “norm”. For example, if you tell someone who is very literal minded that prayers get answered, and they don’t see the answer being forthcoming, the later explanation that an answer to prayer doesn’t always look like you think it will doesn’t stack up logically. Then you get the people who want to pray for mine and my brother’s “healing” from our autism (a genuine offer my Mum received – anyone else whose blood is boiling, rest assured she dismantled their argument in a way that makes me wish I had been there to see it). You can’t judge a religion by its followers, of course, but when views like that are being thrown around about the way you’ve been made, God or no God, it’s very difficult to feel like you could ever belong.
As an autistic person, I have always felt very alienated from the world as a whole, even before I knew that was why I was feeling how I was feeling. Church has given me at various points, an amazing social space to be myself, but very often, I felt like I couldn’t be entirely myself, and like I had to conform. This in conjunction with the spoken message that we should come as we are before God created a real point of friction in my head, as I felt more and more like I had to cut off bits of myself in order to fit in, and it’s not like fitting in has ever been my strong suit.
The other sense that has perhaps driven me away from the Church is the one that faith will always make things better. I know people who have got through immense trials and whathaveyou who wouldn’t have been able to do it without a faith. Their stories are their own, and I think it’s the height of bad manners, bad taste, and not my business to question their belief in their God. I heard stories of people crying out to God in their hour of need and getting answers, and was taught that all you had to do was ask if you needed His help. I played by the rules that were given to me, but they didn’t seem to work. The real problem that then comes up is that instead of the conversation heading towards ideas like “maybe it’s not the right time”, I gained a feeling that what I was doing wasn’t good enough, that my faith wasn’t strong enough to deserve help. This was particularly bad when I was younger, before I gained my current(ish) understanding that any God that exists gave us brains and expects us to use them, and that we can’t just rely on celestial handouts alone to pull us out of scrapes.
This is in danger of sound like I’ve lost my faith because God didn’t play by my rules. Any god there is won’t be playing by human rules and constructs, that much is perfectly obvious, and if having a tantrum on my parents didn’t work, I don’t suspect a god would be too keen either. I felt very guilty for a long time, because I assumed that the reason I didn’t believe was because it wasn’t good enough for me, that I was expecting too much of the Church, of God, of the experience of faith. My Anglican Guilt (distinct from its oft-mentioned Catholic cousin, which I always saw as more to do with morals) came from the fact that the Christian message I received throughout my life never matched up with my brain and how I experience the world. As if it’s my fault that the neurotypical majority who have constructed Christianity over the last two millennia didn’t anticipate a 21st-century woman with autism trying to deal with the same issues to which they were and still are finding solutions. It’s almost like it’s never occurred to those who run the show on earth that the message doesn’t work for everyone, not because the content is wrong, necessarily, but because a different understanding and experience of the world will naturally lead to a different understanding and experience of faith. I have found myself in a position where my brain, my logical inner workings, and my spirituality have been incompatible with any Christian message, or indeed the certainty of any God at all.
In this light, the most honest thing I can do is to say I’m not a Christian, and am an agnostic. I cannot and will not write off the existence of a god (or, indeed, many gods), who might even be the Christian God, because I haven’t finished asking my questions about it all. I am certainly swayed towards the idea of some higher being, whether it be one that gets involved with humans or not, but I can’t say any more than that. I have to remind myself, and am reminded by others, that I am not the only person in this position, and that many of them will sit in Church pews (or chairs, if they’re lucky!) every Sunday not entirely knowing why they’re there, which is sad, if they don’t feel they can be honest about their beliefs. Others’ beliefs are their own business, and while I am always curious about what people feel and think and how they got there, my respect for someone has less to do with their spiritual inclinations in and of themselves, and far more to do with their opinions on Morris dancing, bagpipes, being an arsehole towards other people, and whether or not they like cricket.
I am not offended by Christianity as a religion in general (though we all know that every religion has its fundamentalists/radicals/nutjobs, whatever you want to call them). There are many Christians in my life who have made me who I am, been immeasurably supportive during some of my darkest days, and who helped me along my own spiritual development at various stages. I have rarely been made to feel guilty by my lack of belief, and when I have, I suspect it was a knee-jerk reaction in the light of other events happening at the same time (other people’s stories, so I’m not elaborating here). I know people pray for me, and I’m not offended by that, either. I don’t personally pray, but I do understand people’s need and desire to do so, and if they are willing to devote even a tiny portion of the time they spend on their relationship with their God on my needs, that’s a gift I will never refuse. Having been a part of the Christian faith for so long, what I bring out of it into my new agnostic way is my meagre understanding of what it means to those who do believe, and my respect for that remains strong. This leads to some really fantastic conversations with my Mum, who’s doing a postgraduate theology course, because my remaining “inside” understanding combined with the distance I have gives me a very different, but not totally contradictory view on the things we talk about. She and I have had particular fun pulling apart sermons where we both identified dodgy bits of theology, and giving my Dad a good spectacle when we really get going on the arguments…
I guess there are plenty of people who would like me to still be the committed, convinced, active Christian I chose to be previously and might be disappointed to hear that that’s not the person I am anymore. For those who are sorry to hear it, fair enough. It’s a loss for me, too, in a strange way, and it’s OK to acknowledge that. To those who appreciate that this is the most honest way I can be right now, thank you for seeing that. I’ve always believed that faith and integrity should go together, and if you can’t go with the faith bit, that doesn’t mean for a second that integrity should be out too. To the knee-jerkers, fair enough to you too. I’m not expecting everyone to like or accept where I am, immediately. Just know that I am still me, I am still who I am, and just because I’m not a Christian anymore doesn’t mean that I’ve taken leave of all my sense of morality, humanity, or appreciation for the smell of incense.
I don’t ask much of those who disagree with me, other than to disagree sensibly, respectfully, and without the patronising assumption that I’ve just “lost my way” without thinking through my position entirely (in fact, that goes for any disagreement ever). I’ve done so much thinking about this, I’ve twisted my brain into every philosophical knot I can think of, and where I am now hasn’t come without a lot of pain, doubt, and anxiety. I also don’t want people to think that they can’t talk to me about faith anymore – it’s a great subject for discussion (mostly), and I love talking about it, so I hope people don’t feel they can’t mention it. I’m comfortable where I am, and it feels right.
For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have a set of beliefs that reflects me as a person, how I want to work in the world, and doesn’t force me into a worldview that doesn’t compel me. I am not proud of it, per se, but I am content. That’s all I can ask, after fighting this for so long.