She had a tough time with the less-than-desirable schedule and accommodations, but in the end she was witness to “the power of God” and “will never doubt again.” I dug deep, attempting to shut off the judgment I reserve exclusively for Christianity long enough to be excited for her. Or to at least sound excited for her.
It didn’t work. My inner eye-roll was reflexive and beyond my control. Hearing myself say, “Huh. That’s really great,” with all the passion of accepting a handmade ashtray for Christmas, poked at the disconnect I sometimes feel with friends who remain in The Fold.
When I first cut ties with Christianity, I believed my friendships were strong enough to be immune to my zig-zaggy journey away from Jesus. As a Christian, I had non-believers in my life with whom I shared a connectedness; why should this be any different?
I latched on to Christianity in my early teens, because it and the friends I made were a welcome reprieve from the loneliness and chaos I experienced with my family of origin. I was wholeheartedly committed to Jesus and my church family. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I attended Bible school fresh out of high school, led youth groups, cabin-led at a Christian camp for two summers–on a weekly basis, reporting the high number of souls being saved under my leadership, and married a Youth Pastor when I was 21.
I stopped going to church after my daughter was born because juggling nursing and naps with sermons became too difficult. I was in school for my BEd at the time and acquired a gaggle of non-religious friends. Friends I celebrated, loved and respected. I was challenged by the beauty of their characters that were in no way governed by God. I was embarrassed and inspired when they often turned up with more generosity and kindness than I, as a Christian, was assumed to possess.
After graduation, I wrestled with the idea of cutting ties with my family of origin, and at the same time I became increasingly jaded and exhausted from the lack of direction or comfort my Invisible Friend offered. Trying to get attention from Jesus felt like brain gymnastics.
When I was about nine years old, my friends and I set up a fort tucked away in the trees of the golf course near my childhood home. One day I was the first to arrive and found a notebook tucked under some leaves. On the cover, written in crayon: “The I Hate Shannon Patterson Club.”
Never did I experience the “freedom in Christ” advertised as readily available to Christians. The silence and disconnect evoked, repeatedly, the same hot, angry rejection I felt the day I found “The I Hate Shannon Patterson Club” notebook. Left behind by my tangible friends and an invisible, silent god.
When my Steve left the church to start his own business, I had been emotionally absent for some time and began to make it public. My signature line was, “I don’t know if there’s a God and I kind of don’t care. I’m going to test living free of one and see where that gets me.”
I recently watched a video series by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, wherein he challenges the religious right. “The evidence for religion is either nonexistent or terrible.” The videos tickled my insides and firecracked relief and joy from my pores. I was lost and had been found.
Leaving Christianity has been amazing. For the most part. There was (up until I met Sam) part of me that clung to the hope that I, too, would one day experience God’s presence in my life and rejoin the conversation with my Jesus-loving homies. There was a niggling voice that continued to fear I was nuts for leaving. Mostly because I was unable to articulate why the leaving happened. Not in a way that felt satisfying or convinced anyone, including myself, of certainty.
It was surprisingly easy to walk away from an identity that consumed my life for nearly two decades. An identity rooted in what Harris equates to fairy dust, Zeus and Batman. Shedding ideas that no longer resonate can be unthinkable when they have been your compass from the embryonic stage.
Harris voiced thoughts I was marinating but unable to articulate. He renewed the freedom I experienced leaving religion. His ideas squished lingering sheepishness and injected pride for finding my freedom.
This new confidence I have in leaving religion has not bridged the distance between myself and friends who believe, but has instead bombed out fresh depth. A bond, a shared language, a default setting was lost when I evicted Jesus from my heart.
Along with freedom, there’s sadness in the separation that comes from leaving behind beliefs that built the foundation of long-standing circles of friendship and support.
We find ways, my friends and I, to dance around the distance and the unease my leaving brought to our relationship, and maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe one of us needs to name it. “Ooh. There’s that awkward tension again. Did you feel that? It sucks. I love you.” Maybe naming it would steal some of its power.
I want my Christian friends to know we still share the same center: Love. My Love no longer has a beard or wears a white robe and skin, but it continues to answer to Love.