I recently had a revelation about why it is sooooo hard for me to consider leaving my religion. Like many revelations in my life, it came from an humorously unexpected source:
While listening to public radio, I caught the tail end of an interview with Terry Gilliam. I knew Gilliam was a writer, an animator, the director of many innovative films (Brazil, Fisher King, Baron Munchausen, etc), and a member of the British comedy team Monty Python.
What I didn’t know was that he had been born in Minnesota, making him the only US-born member of the troupe.
What I also didn’t know was that in 2006 he renounced his United States citizenship.
He talked about his reasons for giving up his US citizenship. He lived and worked in England. He hated George W. Bush. He didn’t agree with the direction the US was moving. And he was tired of paying taxes to a country where he didn’t live: “I wasn’t getting any of the benefits of my tax paying in America… wasn’t driving on the roads or flying any of the bombers.”
So he gave up US citizenship.
That seemed crazy to me! I actually started to have a bit of a panic attack just thinking about it. And the questions started racking up in my head:
What about his family in the US? Did they feel betrayed? Was he saying England was better than the US? How could Terry think of giving up citizenship in the most powerful nation in the world? What would he do if calamity struck? Where would he run if England was suddenly attacked by a powerful enemy? Where would Europe be without the United States? Wasn’t it worth paying taxes to know that he would be protected by the US Embassy anywhere in the world? How did he KNOW he wasn’t getting any “benefits” from his tax paying? Wasn’t the tax money he paid going to fund the military that kept the world stable and protected him, even if he didn’t acknowledge it? What if he was wrong or changed his mind? If something terrible happened, there was no coming back and saying “Oh, sorry, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake and would like to be let in, pretty please?”
Besides, MILLIONS of people are clamoring to COME to this country, to become citizens of the United States. If you were lucky enough to be BORN a citizen of the MIGHTIEST and MOST PRIVILEGED country in the world, why would you CHOOSE to LEAVE?
And suddenly I realized that I was no longer panicking about citizenship in the US. I was panicking about another citizenship that I was born into, in the MIGHTIEST and MOST PRIVILEGED religion in my world:
For me, losing my faith is not just about a change in my personal life. It is not just about my own beliefs or opinions, about my personal theology and life focus and afterlife theories and scholarship. It is about all of the relationships in my life, about my identity and my place in the society where I have grown and belonged my whole life.
Leaving (losing) my faith is tantamount to renouncing my citizenship in the country of my birth – by choice – and therefore losing all of my alliances, all of my protections, all of my security, and all of my privileges.
And that is the part of deconversion you can’t possibly understand if you grew up without a religious alliance.
Deconverting means leaving EVERYTHING meaningful and secure behind – on purpose – and setting out for…. well, you can’t even say “God knows what” anymore. You can’t stay where you were, but you don’t know where you’re going. And no one does.
If you’ve read or listened or talked to anyone from the non-believing side, then you have most likely encountered your share of jerks along the deconversion road. Which means you have a deep-seated fear that 1) maybe everyone where you are going is a jerk and 2) you are now going to become a jerk as well.
You risk losing everything and everyone precious to you by making the choice to leave faith (although losing faith is rarely a “choice”, it is more something that happens to you). You fear that you will no longer be permitted access to them, at least not in the way you’re accustomed. And you know it is very possible that even the most loving and accepting people in your life who still believe will feel that your leaving is a rejection of them, an accusation against their intelligence, a betrayal of their love, and a very frightening descent into the clutches of the devil and the pit of hell.
In addition to all of that, you are leaving a community – faulty and flawed perhaps, but familiar – and you fear that you will never have a true community again, that all you’re going to get in return is an individualistic conglomeration of angry attacking anti-theists.
People change citizenships all the time. People live without faith in a god or religious community every day. Somehow they manage to live, work, breathe, procreate, love, survive, despite the losses and the fear and the uncertainty.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.