Abandoning religion doesn’t just mean turning your back on God. You’re potentially losing your closest family members, friends, home, lifestyle, and your sense of identity. It’s kind of like a breakup, except it’s with yourself, and then you’re reborn as someone completely new. It’s an existential journey in every sense. We spoke to three people about this process and discussed what led them to this point and what happened afterward.
Image from JW publication, The Watchtower. Via Wiki Commons
Former Jehovah’s Witness
My mother was stuck at home alone with five kids when she was converted by door-knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses. They prey on the weak and needy, you know? She started taking us to the kingdom hall three times a week, and Dad would beat her for it. You never forget that sort of thing.
I grew up believing that Armageddon was going to cleanse the "wicked," and all Jehovah’s Witnesses would live in an eternal paradise. If you weren’t in the religion, you weren’t good enough for me. I would go witnessing all weekend and could only date with the intention to marry. I now look at my honeymoon photos, and I appear about 12 years old. It’s so sad. I always knew subconsciously that religion wasn’t inside my soul. I stayed in it for my family. Then I started questioning things, did some research, and became a closet apostate.
Ultimately I wanted my kids to have a normal life, and I wanted be able to celebrate their birthdays. So after feeling this for so many years, at the age of 38, I told my ex-husband I thought we were living a lie. Funnily enough, he had also lost faith, and we were both exhausted from going to three weekly meetings, so we left the religion together. My entire family cut me off for life. Close friends of 20 years would turn their backs on me in the street. I knew then for sure that wasn’t pure love.
I started going out, visiting bars, and dancing until sunrise and beyond. I’d never done that, and I felt alive! I thought, I’m not going to my grave with regrets, I want to live now! I was a kid in a candy store, and the gay community took me in with open arms. I got a boob job, started wearing risqué clothing, and became a party promoter. Hot Kandi is my brand.
At my parties, you walk through the door and lose yourself. I guess that’s why I throw myself in there, to block out the past, because it hurts to remember. These days, I accept every walk of life. Sure, I have a few haters, but my life is about bringing people together. I think that religion gave me a strong moral code. It keeps me grounded and sends me home around sunrise.
Moses and the Ten Commandments as depicted by Rembrandt. Via Wiki Commons
My grandparents survived the Holocaust and were disillusioned with religion, whereas my parents became die-hard Jews after marriage. So I grew up the same, and from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, I lived without electricity or money. I always stood out in my kippah at school, and I had to wrap leather straps around my arms and head home every day with Bible passages inside this little box. Then in school, girls had different classes and play areas, which really fucked up our social skills by pigeonholing women as sex objects.
I’m super angry about it these days; I’m just super against organized religion. In the Bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, and before he goes through with it, an angel stops him, saying he’s proven himself as God’s servant. That story gets a lot of praise, and I used to wonder if my dad would be willing to sacrifice me. Also, just generally, I feel the world is messed up, and it’s a bullshit answer if I throw a rock through a building and say, "Oh sorry, I work in mysterious ways.
I started having doubts about religion very young, but I never admitted to my atheist beliefs until I was 16 and my actions started reflecting them. I partied, ate what I wanted, and hung out with girls. It was hard to hide my actions, even though I kept a kippah in my pocket walking down the street, and rebelling caused turmoil in my family. Though, admittedly, my drug problems caused bigger family fights than my atheism.
Now I’m 26, and I have no sense of deep fulfillment. I have things that I like: books, TV, laptop, porn, cigarettes, cameras, and whatever… but I have nothing that fulfills me. I’m looking for an ideology, but I don’t believe in religion, so what the fuck is there? In a sense, there is no benefit to atheism. I would have been happier believing there was a purpose in the world, there was justice, and that I’ll one day see my grandmother in heaven and Hitler won’t be there.
The one thing I miss about Judaism is there’s no emphasis on the superficial. I know so many rich Jewish people who live in shabby houses. They think it’s wrong to flaunt wealth. Whereas the modern world is about showing everything you have—a good ass, a good car, and good jewelry.
Isfahan Lotfollah mosque ceiling. Via Wiki Commons
I think I was religious for my dad, not for God. I thought I was being a good daughter. I grew up telling him I never missed my five daily prayers. I thought I was purer than everybody, including my sisters. But then one day I missed a prayer and thought, If I’m going to hell for one slip up, I may as well stop wasting my time.
Suddenly I was googling stuff like "proof God exists" and educating myself about theories of evolution. I realized religion is a game of Chinese whispers played over hundreds of years. Islam became illogical to me. I was 19 when I solidified my beliefs as an atheist. I told my friends but never my seniors. It’s best not to. Muslim parents feel like failures if they don’t pass on their religion to their children. Even though my mom is not a "good Muslim," she thinks, like most of them, that it’s better to change religions than become an atheist.
My dad recently passed away, and the process of putting him to rest was a huge burden, like every Muslim event I attended. Having to bathe him in rose water, pray, chant, and cook for strangers on five different occasions was weird. Before I was doing things only because I didn’t want to go to hell—like giving someone money gave me something in the afterlife. Now I’m behaving with no bias. I wear tank tops, I have gay friends, I’ve experimented sexually with women, and my life is not dictated by tedious routines or fear.
I tolerate all religions as long as they are not forced on me. People always want to debate me about it, but I just think they’re afraid to let it go. They need it, right? They think there are great things ahead because God loves them. They believe that even if life is shitty now, they’ll be saved later.
Holding on to concrete things, here and now, makes me feel much more secure.
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