I grew up in an evangelical Christian family. To say that religion was the center of our lives doesn’t quite capture how all-consuming it was. I was educated almost exclusively at private Christian schools. We went to church or church-related activities at least twice a week and we were all very deeply involved in some aspect or another of volunteering at church. Our brand of Christianity wasn’t what I would call fundamentalist, but we were a nondenominational, conservative, born-again, Bible-believing, suburban congregation that, in 20 years, grew from six families into a mega-church. The husband was the head of the household, and women were not permitted to have authority over men. Tremendous amounts of energy were expended to convince preteens and teenagers of the threat posed by premarital sex and related, “gateway” activities like making out. “Tolerance” was a bad word. Abortion and homosexuality, in that order, were the two biggest sins spawned by the spread of secular humanism in our Christian nation. True Christians were now facing ever-increasing levels of persecution from our own government, which might or might not be a sign of the beginning of the End Times.
Even though my faith was supposed to be motivated solely by my love for Jesus, what really drove me was my fear of dying and going to hell, or else finding that the rapture had happened and I’d been left behind. These are strong motivators for anyone, but maybe especially for little kids. So when I made the decision to be baptized at age 8, of course I loved Jesus, but I was also extremely relieved to know that if I died now, I wouldn’t be separated forever from Jesus and my family, left all alone in the eternally excruciating tortures of hell.
My departure from this way of life started creeping in when I was about 16. I began wondering whether I was really a Christian, and how I could know for sure that if I died I wouldn’t go to hell. This question ate away at me, since doubt was seriously NOT OK. Doubt was incompatible with belief, and belief was essential for salvation. Questioning something as fundamental as the validity of your salvation meant you were not a true Christian, which meant you were an instant Other and a disappointment to your parents and your whole community. On top of that, you were going to hell. I desperately wanted to be sure of my salvation, and I knew that if I weren’t I had only myself to blame. I begged God to help my faith and make me a true believer and give me assurance that I was going to go to heaven. I eventually opened up to a couple of friends, and talking to them did help, but it wasn’t a solution. Either I had to find the assurance I needed, or reject the faith entirely. And even though the former option wasn’t working, getting to the point where I was both willing and able to extricate myself was a miserable, years-long process. It wasn’t until my junior and senior years of college–a conservative evangelical Christian college, incidentally–that I could start facing up to it and begin to reorient my life. It all had to be done in secret, though–I felt an inexplicable sense of shame about my background when I was with non-Christian friends, and I was equally ashamed of my new, evolving identity in front of my Christian friends. I was also terrified that I would lose my scholarship and/or be kicked out of school just shy of graduation.
So it wasn’t until a few years ago, safely away from the Christian culture that had always surrounded and smothered me, that I could really start to accept all the ramifications of my transition. I’m still not all the way there, and I think I will always carry my past with me in a big way. I never bring it up with friends; I actually don’t think any of them have any idea. It’s not something I can discuss lightly, at least not with people who haven’t experienced it for themselves. My parents are still fervent believers and we have never actually discussed my lack of faith. We’ve never been very close, but I still care very deeply what they think of me. And to believe that your own child is going to die and go to hell can’t be an easy thing to accept. I think they were happy to live with a generous amount of denial, but that became more difficult when I made the decision a year and a half ago to move in with my significant other. That has been my most open act of religious rejection to date, a nonverbal coming out of the closet and identifying as an unbeliever. We haven’t really talked about that either; after my mom wrote an email to try and dissuade me from living in sin, the topic never came up again, and it seems like they’ve slipped back into their comfortable pattern of denying reality.
This past year, with the help of an excellent therapist, I’ve been making some connections between my background and my current situation as a future post-academic. Though she’s not the only one to have made this connection, Sierra’s recent post likening grad school to a cult is tragically funny. It follows, then, that leaving grad school or academia is like leaving a religious cult[ure]. Of course, for someone who has actually experienced leaving a religion, grad school isn’t nearly as psychologically damaging, objectively speaking. Yet the similarities between the two cultures may mean that that person is more susceptible, or sensitive, to the dangers. So I’ve started wondering whether my background is hurting me more than it’s helping me. Maybe I don’t have to be so scared to “come out” to my adviser as someone who’s not going to go on the academic job market. Maybe I’m just projecting my past negative experiences on a situation that’s really very different. Maybe I need to step back and realize that this isn’t the life-or-death experience that, at the time, leaving my religion was, and maybe I would be happier and freer now if I weren’t so scared of rejection.