It was the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I was living in a tiny, hot one room apartment with my fiance. I remember feeling like there was no where to go get away from my thoughts and feelings that weighed me down like the terrible Maryland mugginess. I read War and Peace that summer, sitting in the tub full of cool water, and I cried along with each character’s tragedy and joy.
The realization itself itself had been so seemingly tiny, a little addendum of internal monologue attached to an eyeroll. A particularly lubricious church-planter speaking at an event, everyone nodding politely, and I think to myself, “Why am I putting up with this? I don’t even believe in this.” I remember sitting at the picnic table, frozen in my fear, trying not to cry into my potato salad. That was it.
People talk about being argued into or out of believing in God. They talk about abandoning belief because of the inconvenience of it’s moral strictures or, conversely, about only believing as a crutch to lean on in difficult times. But I found that both my belief and my unbelief were events that seemed out of my control. Instead, they were the culmination of many external factors. My only active participation was in the response to these realizations.
When I was young I was incredibly embarrassed to talk about God or my faith. I hated even reading aloud in my religious education classes knowing that I’d have to pronounce words like, “sacrament” and “Jesus” audibly. Everyone could hear how I felt about those things by how I pronounced them, I could just tell, and I was horribly uncomfortable. I was taught that feeling uncomfortable talking about God was sinful, as it showed shame. I was taught that feeling embarrassed when discussing your faith was unloving, because it showed you were uninterested in the eternal fate of those around you. These lessons always confused me. The stronger I felt about my faith the less I wanted to casually share it. It was too valuable and too tender to expose so wantonly. My faith was a treasure, a pearl of great price, and I kept it guarded closely.
My religious instructors would have been better off had they used the word, “introvert,” instead of, “ashamed” to describe me. I didn’t self-reveal about anything important or personal. Self-revelation has always felt so dangerous, like every admission was a weapon put into someone else’s hands.
Without God it felt like my world had collapsed. It felt like there was an unending earthquake going on, that every time I went to put my foot down, I wouldn’t know where it would fall. I couldn’t figure out how to be me, or how to be any of the things be I needed to be (friend, sister, fiancee, student). I hurt in a way that I didn’t know how to say, so I mostly didn’t say it. Silenced pain and confusion doesn’t go away though, it makes itself heard through other avenues, I started getting sick in all these strange ways.
With extreme reluctance, and after great prodding, I started talking. Some people were simply supportive, the kind of people who offer hugs and mugs of tea and an ear to listen. Some people tried to convince me, with the best of intentions, of the error of my way. These conversations were very painful, they plied me with Bible verses and personal stories of doubt and conversion. I wanted very much for them to convince me, but I also knew, absolutely, that they would not. And some people took the news of my disbelief very badly indeed. I wanted solace and understanding, but found disappointment and rejection. Sometimes I didn’t tell someone about my own disbelief, but I heard them talk about atheists or other unbelievers, and I grew afraid to tell them how I had stepped out of the warm light of the great cloud of witnesses and into dark of the unknown beyond.
I had revealed my lack of faith in small, but growing concentric circles of friendship and safety. I had felt so much relief knowing that I was understood and loved by those around me, even if I was a godless heathen now. When I hit the wall of hostility I stopped talking. I stopped finding relief. I was lucky enough that I had a wide enough circle of support that I gradually healed. The mysterious illnesses cleared up. The earth started holding still.
Nearly eight years have passed since I lost my faith, and it’s no longer really a secret. There are people I’ve never articulated my atheism to, but if they asked me, I’d be honest. The loss of my faith isn’t the defining feature of my day to day life anymore and I’ve rebuilt my understanding of myself and my relationship to others without the mediator of Christianity. My faith has become a historical artifact associated with dates and places and people, but no longer a living thing that I guard and nurture. I can talk about it now because it isn’t personal.
But there are always things that do remain personal. There are things that I find hard to talk about now and things that I will find hard to talk about in the future. It’s a hard lesson for me to learn: that I need to be willing to be honest about my interior life with the people around me. My supportive friends and family are what buoyed me up when I was sinking so fast under the heavy burden of my secret faithlessness. I’ve also tried to become more gentle and supportive of my self-revelation-phobic friend’s tender spots. You’d think that introverts would be great at treating other introverts exactly as they like to be treated, right? Nope, we gotta learn just like our enthusiastically extroverted sisters and brothers. I’m learning both lessons, slowly, and as much in the open as possible.