On Grieving for the Loss of Religious Community

I woke up this morning, and realized that I’m grieving. I can feel the heaviness in my body, and the emotional anguish as I watch religious communities of which I was once a part.

As anyone who is familiar with my work knows, I have been on a long trek away from home and into the post-Christian landscape. I have explored atheism, Satanism, Buddhism, occultism, and about a million other isms. I’ve loved my time away from the doctrinally sound, and I’m finally free to explore and ask questions to my heart’s content.

But, there is also a sadness, and I can’t help but think that many other people must be feeling that sadness as well. I’m not the only one who has departed into the post-Christian frontier, and while that frontier is extraordinarily liberating and beautiful, it can also feel deeply lonely. I offer these reflections to you, my fellow wanderer, in the hope that we might be able to share some empathy.

I still move through Christian communities, and many of my dearest friends are still Christian. I have utmost respect for their intellect, their integrity, and their compassion. I still occasionally go to an Episcopal church, if only because I think the liturgy is beautiful.

However, even within the most progressive and welcoming of Christian circles, I find myself feeling like an outsider, like an interloper. A subtle shift has taken place over the past two years: I’m no longer part of the tribe, but an outsider welcomed with hospitality. That is a wonderful thing in itself — that so many Christians are still willing to welcome me into their places — but the shift is jarring. I’m looking in from the outside. And, it chafes my pride to admit it, but that hurts. There’s also nothing I can do about it.

I feel the most acute pain when people I love and admire feel conflicted and concerned over my loss of faith. They tell me how much my Christian writing impacted them, and with a certain measure of sorrow they tell me goodbye, as if someone they loved has died, or moved to a far away place. I could tell them that it’s my integrity that has led me out of the fold. But I don’t, because they already know that and it doesn’t make it any easier for anyone. All I can do is accept their love and pain, and move on. And, it fucking hurts.

It hurts the most coming from the LGBTQ Christian community which probably saved my life. They were the ones who walked me through the tumultuous years after leaving the ex-gay world, they were the ones who invited me to their churches when I was compulsively hooking up in a dangerous manner because I felt like unworthy filth, and they were the ones who got me into recovery for my addictions. They are my family, and it’s hard to feel separated from them.

All of this pain is simply necessary. All of it is part of growing, learning, and finding my own identity and beliefs. This is what we are here for, and it is only when we lean into the exquisite ache of grief that we can embrace the full spectrum of living.

If you are in a similar place, simultaneously liberated and grieved by your walk away from doctrinal belief, I share that space with you.

Do you relate? Please share your thoughts below.


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19 thoughts on “On Grieving for the Loss of Religious Community

  1. I always find your writing and podcast of interest, but recently even more so.Briefly, I was asked to be the worship leader at church by the pastor, who also happens to be my wife. In my thoughts for the day I spoke openly about our church needing to be more inclusive, particularly to the LGBTQ Community. This was not the first time I had suggested a rainbow banner or sticker on our sign out front. The church should be a safe place. I received overwhelming support after church and later via text and email. The next day three very vocal people visited the pastor and were quite angry. Her job, which she has held since 2002, has been threatened. I have been banned from the church as well as the food pantry in which I volunteer on the weekends. My journey to Christianity has been a struggle and quite often, a roller coaster, and this has hurt. Ultimately we will have to make a decision. We will either be inclusive or we will not. If the board and elders decide that the church is not to be inclusive, is all hope lost?

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    1. I don’t know you or your denomination but, as an ELCA pastor, I hope your wife has sturdy allies within the congregation who will not let three loudmouth bullies take over. Too many pastors are pushed out because the congregation doesn’t stand up and help. On the other hand, if you actually don’t have support, I hope you can shake the dust off your shoes, let your peace return to you, and move in.

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      1. Thank you Michael. She has some very strong allies. Part of the issue is these bullies claim to have at least half of the church by their side, while we have not seen or heard anything to back that up. But we do have too many members, in my opinion, that just allow things to happen and let the chips fall as they may. We have too many members unwilling to take a stand and too many unwilling to shake up the status quo. Too many fear change, but if we do not change and evolve throughout our lives, particularly spiritually, then what is the point? If I were the same person now that I was 35 years ago, well,God help us all.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. This sounds incredibly difficult. If it helps, I’d be happy to talk about this more privately. Please feel free to send me an email via the contact page, and we can talk (with the clarification that I’m just a dude on the internet and don’t have many answers, but I’d be happy to listen and understand.) Are you struggling with your place within religion as a result of this experience? I can’t imagine it would be easy.

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  2. I have just had a strong debate with a bishop who tells me he knows the pain I suffer. It is impossible for one individual to ‘know’ another’s pain. What you have written here explains, beautifully, the condition of so many people who have found it necessary to move away from the institutional church due to the pain and suffering it has imposed on them, mostly by a hierarchy that has lost its own way, and may well be hiding its own deep pain and suffering with a need to control subordinates ( an interesting word! ). I am, of course, aware that there are, in every denomination and church, wonderfully good and deeply loving men and women leaders of great faith – thank God – but who are almost as scarce as hens teeth. Thank you for sharing this, and thank you for your wise words in recent posts. I am grateful to have read them.

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your thoughts. What you said about the hierarchy rings very true for me. When I was converting to Catholicism I found the hierarchy incredibly damaging. But you are also probably right that the hierarchy is hiding its own deep pain. Perhaps it’s that act of deception — the act of hiding — that causes so much damage? I don’t know. All I know is that I had to get out.

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      1. Me too, else I would have died spiritually. And if one dies that death, what remains? Just a moron, in the truest sense of the word. Frankly, in this present age, the hierarchy in just about every denomination has so much to answer for.

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  3. In some ways I can relate. I’m fortunate that we have a pretty strong Pagan community here were I live (though our longest lasting metaphysical store finally closed its doors at the end of last year, which was painful). So while not very well organized or structured, there are still people I can meet with and talk to.

    One thing I do miss are my teenagers, as I was the youth group leader at my church before I left Christianity. I took a great deal of working with them and encouraging them, things that I have not been able to find a way to do in a context that works with my schedule and whatnot.

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  4. I can certainly relate. My wife and I left the institutional church with the weekly gathering and many of the popular beliefs and interpretations they provide. We still follow the example of Jesus by loving God and loving others, yet not being in a church building every week causes problems with many traditional christian people. We do not necessarily use the term christian much due to the stereotype thoughts it causes. Being outside the walls of religion is liberating, being able to ask questions and see things from different views. Having doubts and questions are certainly do not surprise God or change God’s love for us. It certainly can be lonely at times, yet as time progresses we come across more people who have left the church building to be the Church each and every day. We now having friendships and relationships with people in general, not just those who are part of ‘our’ church or ‘our’ way of thinking.

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  5. “Having doubts and questions [are] certainly do not surprise God or change God’s love for us. It certainly can be lonely at times, yet as time progresses we come across more people who have left the church building to be the Church each and every day.” … is the reality for an increasing number of traditionally worshipping Christians, and the great sadness is that what is right under the noses of the institutional church – refugents – they cannot see, or, which may be worse, can see but not have the understanding or training to deal with, and in many cases ( which is much, much worse ) flagrantly refuse to care. Not to surprise God is, I believe, the stuff of faith – as is the daily surprise of God with us.

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  6. I certainly empathize. Like you, I’ve went through various isms — when I first started *mentally* leaving the church, I had went the psychonaut way for a brief spell, studied Zen pretty hard for a few years, (everything from zen-lite Alan Watts to modern Zen Shunryu Suzuki to the oldschool masters like Huangbo and Mazu), Advaita Vedanta, some Krishnamurti, things that I’m sure most “seekers” have dabbled in, in some form or another. But naturally, nothing could take the place of a live, in the flesh, ritual-filled, coffee hour brotherhood sort of deal like I’d had in the Orthodox Church. When you’re used to reading from it’s rich library, partaking in it’s time-tested ritual/liturgies, filled up on ideas of joining spiritually into the very Church of the Apostles, well good grief, how are we expected to deal with the sudden absence?

    TST is a religion and a church which exclaims that liturgy, ritual, religion itself doesn’t have to be wrapped in theism. I resonate with that. While I’m not out here partaking in these things (after all, I’m an atheistic satanist in the appalachians, there is not much community), I’m glad to know that they’re being reclaimed, even in a microcosmic scale. Then again, liturgy, ritual, and religion have always been atheistic — people just haven’t known it. These are expressions of our humanity and our consciousness. The only real disconnect in whatever ritualism, expression, or what have you that I do at home or with others atheistically, and faith-filled spiritual expressions, are what I arbitrarily divide in my mind. I am still learning how I’ll integrate this into my daily life — if at all. Perhaps fawning over these things is simply a trip down memory lane with rose-colored glassed on, putting pretty liturgical lipstick on a pig.

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