When people ask, I say I’m agnostic. But I’ll tell you a secret: I have dedicated my life to God hundreds of times.
The first time, I was a five-year-old in Sunday school. Evangelical kids cartoons did their magic. I accepted Jesus into my life and told my teacher, who told my Mum. The specifics mostly escape me. But I remember feeling deliciously small and my saviour unfathomably big.
In that respect, every subsequent revelation has been the same. I was sure God existed at a bay on Sydney’s north coast, where a friend and I spent forty silent minutes watching waves wobble like jelly. Again, in a train carriage buzzing with commuters; again, in my garden as afternoon sun splintered through foliage. Outside the window of my boyfriend’s apartment stands a tree so thick and imposing that it blocks his view and lowers his rent. Once, I woke in the middle of the night to see its leaves trembling in a light wind. I pledged myself to God and began to cry.
But, of course, regular conversion requires regular deconversion. Sooner or later, I remember: I don’t actually believe. Faith, by nature, resists interrogation; and desire for something is not evidence of it; besides, these regularly-scheduled bouts of devotion could well be attributed to the magnificence of nature or the warmth of human connection.
But like an addict or a weak-willed ex-lover, even when I know better, I can’t stay away.
Why? I was raised in a devout Christian family. Around sixteen I gave up Christianity. God soon followed. Admittedly, my experience of religion is narrow: I understand little beyond Sydney Anglicanism. And that understanding is in many ways irrational and confused. I have never been able to entirely disentangle theism from religion, for instance. But this messy set of beliefs gave me so many good things.
The Bible, with its concern for collectives, mercy, and redistribution, made me a leftist. I was by no means perfectly ethical, but religion moored me to moral ambition more firmly than anything has done since. And faith feels incredible. In Ecstasy, a moving essay examining the parallels between her encounters with drugs and religion, Jia Tolentino writes that throughout her Christian childhood she felt “blessed all the time, instinctively”. So did I. To submit to God is to be loved, protected and known. To live a life in which, as Tolentino says, you “will never not be redeemed”.
Faith intensifies whatever it touches. After half an hour’s prayer, people seem more beautiful, solitude more profound. If God is good His creation is too. Faith opened me to tenderness and delight. I miss almost everything about it.
Western society is heading in an increasingly secular direction. 30% of Australians selected ‘no religion’ in the 2016 census; in Europe and North America religious adherence is plummeting. This turn to secularity has, unsurprisingly, been accompanied by a rising distrust of religion’s position in public and private life.
Here, I want to make two clarifications. First, I don’t buy the paranoia of religious people who claim that faith is under attack, nor do I deny the institutional power religion wields. It is vital we hear loud criticism of religious hegemony, and its vast, unfair influence on life and politics. Second, my experience is not universal. There are many people for whom religion is a source of great unhappiness, and deconversion a source of great joy. While I have been fortunate to depart organised religion with little scarring or bitterness, many others have not.
In fact, my argument is fairly modest. Simply, that the growing class of the non-religious should allow more room for uncertainty, sadness and even regret. These feelings need not imply that your conviction wavers. You can mourn what you chose to give up. You can acknowledge the genuine pleasures of faith which you have relinquished, even if you exchanged it for something better or more true.
In his article, How do faithless people like me make sense of this past year of covid? John Harris describes envying religious people during the pandemic:
“I have not even the flimsiest of narratives to project on to what has happened, nor any real vocabulary with which to talk about the profundities of life and death. Beyond a handful of close friends and colleagues and my immediate family, there has been no community of like minds with whom I have talked about how I am feeling or ritualistically marked the passing of all these grinding weeks and months.”
This kind of lament makes secular people defensive. We respond that it is entirely possible to live a happy, connected, ethical life without God. Obviously, this is true. But it misdiagnoses the claim at hand, which is that for some people, faith makes a good life easier.
So, what’s the solution? One answer is community. Associations of non-believers exist. And many of them, such as Atheist Republic and Humanists International, do important political work. But these groups orient themselves in opposition to religion. They treat secularity as a worldview to proselytise, or, at least, an identity to bear proudly. Atheist Republic’s website tempts you to join its newsletter with a free copy of J. D. Brucker’s God Needs to Go. There seems to be little room for ambivalence, for the suggestion that beliefs which are true may also be unpleasant or undesirable.
The obvious response is: well, yeah. People don’t build communities around ambivalence. Just find purpose elsewhere. But this experience — impossible longing for faith, desire for God without accompanying belief — is distinct, unpleasant and often crushingly lonely. I don’t suggest that the reluctantly secular person should ground her identity in said secularity or reluctance. Rather, that the sadness engendered by that belief might be lessened by what Harris refers to as a “community of like minds”.
Open acknowledgement of secularity’s downsides is valuable for other reasons, too. Such acknowledgement shifts the tone and goals of dialogue between the religious and secular worlds. These discussions are no longer battles to be fought, but opportunities for empathy and understanding. Laying down our weapons invites religious people to do the same. And as defensiveness falls away, what remains are the essential demands of non-believers: legal protection, social acceptance, and the separation of church and state.
All loss is a tragedy, even, and sometimes especially, when you choose it yourself. Sometimes I feel grateful for the clarity and freedom of faithlessness. More often than not, I wish I still believed.
Towards the end of Ecstasy, Tolentino recalls an afternoon spent high and alone in the American desert, during which she felt the presence of God. “I sobbed- battered by a love I knew would fall away from me… humiliated by the grace of encountering it now”. Later, in sober hindsight, she reflects, “you don’t have to believe a revelation to hold on to it”. I hope not.