Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sense of Community

Lately, I'm noticing a lot of former believers discussing the hardest part of their deconversion experience being the loss of community. I guess I am a little different in that regard.

First of all, I never felt at home in the church setting. My palms would sweat the minute I walked through the doors because I knew it meant having to greet all the adults and mingle for a bit before Sunday school started. I felt a little more at ease in my Sunday school class because I had a couple of close friends there, but I was by no means comfortable. Aside from a couple of close friends, no one really knew me. Granted, I didn't know myself either at the time - but I was, of course, unaware of that. All I knew was that I was restless and reserved.

Church was certainly not to blame for my anxiety. It was my personality and it affected all social settings, including school, weddings, parties, etc. For me, there was never anything fulfilling about traditional weddings, for example. They were chock full of things I had no interest in, such as mingling, dancing, fancy dresses, itchy panty hose, and the ritualistic aspects which often felt forced. I guess I was a strange little girl, never having once fantasized about my wedding day. In fact, when ever the thought did occur, I would dread it. I was more about the idea of true love which is supposed to inspire the wedding. I dreamed about what it would be like to find a life partner. As I got a little older, I imagined what sex would be like. The actual wedding, though, had no appeal whatsoever. Even today, the only thing I can enjoy about one is the booze (if available).

This uneasiness associated with social situations and formality even affected the activities I did enjoy, such as youth activities and missions trips. Less so, because the setting in these instances tended to be a bit more laid back and genuine, but there were moments of discomfort in these environments as well. For example, when it became time to share what was on our hearts. The spirit was supposed to be present and moving within us and the pressure to report such feelings while coming up dry was often too much to bare.

My relationship with Jesus was real but my personality did not allow for expression of that in the publicly passionate versions which often surrounded me. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. I assumed this lack of an urge to sway, cry, and hug everyone due to the power of God's love was just another indication of my sinful nature, leaving me to feel guilty and out of place. Looking back, I see that I expressed my feelings for the idea of God's love in the form of art, music, and prayer; all of which were things I did while alone. My private time was an opportunity for me to recharge. It was my relief, my time to think and reflect; In short, it was my happy place. According to psychology, this is because I lean toward introversion. Again, I didn't know any better at the time.

Anyone who knew me well as a young child could tell you that I was by no means anti-social, however. I loved to communicate with others; just not with anyone and everyone. Also, I needed some time to warm up to people. I had a warm relationship with my father, for instance, and some of his fondest memories with me (of which he reminds me whenever we are together) are the instances where I let my feisty side shine. My mother always colored this personality trait with a negative brush, calling it rebellion thus one of her nicknames for me, snippy. My father, on the other hand, encouraged this kind of behavior; not blatantly but with his positive reactions. He sent the psychological message that it was good for me to be tough and to stand up for what I think. "My Bee tells it like it is!" I can recall him saying many times. It made him happy when I was strong and vibrant.

It is pretty obvious that my father respects strong, opinionated women; my mother is certainly evidence of that. Unfortunately, being a conservative Christian, this often leads to a respect of those strong and opinionated about the silliest of things. Even dangerous, at times. I think I got the more introverted aspects of my personality from my father, who is much more reserved than I. Having sparks here and there of my mother's competitive nature, I think my father took particular notice and especially encouraged those traits. Sadly, my mother's stronger and more intimidating personality overwhelmed my father's subtle encouragement. I think this had a lot to do with my nurturing my timid side, especially the older I became.

For me, leaving behind my church family behind was indefinitely a relief. Leaving some close friends from the church behind, while having many relieving aspects, was disheartening. The relief had more to do with my inability to open up completely from the beginning. I had messed up in that regard. I was too ashamed of my own nature to question why I had this inability when in reality, my best friends should have been the first with which I discussed this. I cared about my friends, encouraged them to be open with me and accepted them no matter what --- but I did not allow them that opportunity with me. I always kept so much to myself because I was terrified of being judged. Would they have judged me? I'm really not sure - but I should have given them the chance.

It was not until I left home in order to escape the oppression of fundamental Christianity that I came to know liberated, down to earth Christians. Finally, people who saw the same flaws I did with religion. They showed me that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship with God. All of which I bonded with over the internet, which was an easier form of communication for me. It was the sense of community that I guess most Christians get at church. The only thing holding me back was lack of a home internet connection, being able to afford only the basics. By the time I was in a better place financially with computer of my own, I was beginning to see the flaws of even a personal relationship with God, minus the religious aspect often connected. Eventually, I began to lean closer and closer an agnostic approach.

Letting go of Jesus was the most difficult part of my deconversion experience. He was someone to whom I could relate even when most of the Christians in my family and church family were against me. The truth is, I didn't understand genuine friendship until moving out and starting a fresh life for myself; one that better suited my needs and desires. I became so fixated on Jesus, I think partly because I did not get the sense of community from religious Christians. Being exposed to relationship Christians on the internet gave me a small taste of what community was like.

Today, even though I am less socially anxious, I still use the internet as a main source of communication which in turn provides a strong sense of community. As it was hard to find relationship Christians offline in the past, it is even more difficult to find fellow atheists now. They are easy to find online, and so free to open up and express themselves, as am I. To me, the fact that these connections are not happening face to face has no bearing whatsoever on how genuine they can be. In fact, some of the online friends I have come to know are closer than family to me in the sense that they know and accept the core aspects of who I am where Christian family members cannot.

It would be an added bonus, however, to meet in person. That would be difficult to turn into reality, considering distance. I also entertain this idea of an online gathering for atheist friends. A web forum, perhaps.

I often hear of Christians claiming atheists needing to gather in this way, mimicking their version of fellowship, is evidence of a spiritual craving. Of course, that's bullshit. It may very well be a spiritual craving, but not in the sense they imagine. Humans want to interact with other humans. They want to be loved, accepted and to relate to one another. Our personality helps to determine how we go about this, but we are social creatures. There is no shame in atheists gathering. In fact, I think it's far better to bond and gather with those willing to adjust their views. They not only provide spiritual comfort but also stimulate the mind.

No comments: