Religion is on a steady decline in Britain. For a country that was once ruled by Protestantism, today only 30% of Britons say they have a faith. Back in December, Refinery29 talked to six women of faith in Britain about how they prayed and how religion figured into their lives. But what happens if you lose your religion? Below we hear from a 27-year-old woman who was raised a devout Evangelical Christian but lost faith in Jesus during her late teens.
Losing God was like losing my father, my hope and my purpose.
I grew up surrounded by religion – it’s part of every single childhood memory I have. I remember my earliest religious experience: I was praying at a Summer Christian camp I used to go on with my family every year – it was the highlight of the year, a massive social event. A youth leader had one hand on my shoulder and as I prayed, I felt another hand on my other shoulder. I opened my eyes and all I saw was the youth leader’s hand. I asked them if at any point they put a second hand on me and they said no. That was the first time I thought I’d physically felt God.
My mum used to pray in tongues over me when I went to bed – a spiritual language the disciples used to pray. At church, people would fall over, screaming, howling in pain, laughing hysterically when the pastor would invite the Holy Spirit to come. It was normal during a regular Sunday service at our Church in West London to see people crying and shaking. At bigger spiritual events you’d have roomfuls of thousands of people doing it. They say spiritual outpourings come in ebbs and flows, so sometimes the reaction is stronger, or a certain pastor would cause a greater outpouring.
From a very young age, you’re living in a world that feels like fantasy, where adults talk about exorcising people who have demons, or being healed and finding gold dust on their hands. I had youth leaders as a child that would tell me how they’d prayed for other ten-year-old girls who were possessed – and you’re told that if you’re bad you’ll be subject to the same.
I believed all of it. As with anything, people accept it to greater or lesser extents and some of the kids were there because their parents told them to be, but I enjoyed it, and my parents were proud of my faith. At 11, 12 and 13 I would walk around school telling people how I talked to Jesus every day (and this was a non-religious school, since my parents emphasized sending me to the best one). People thought it was a weird thing about me, they joked about it, but generally they were quite accepting.
Up until the age of 14, I prayed constantly. In Evangelical Protestantism, it’s emphasized that you should have a personal relationship with Jesus, that you should pray in the same way you’d text your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your mum. Only, Jesus is more important so you speak to him all the time. As a child that’s pretty simple to take in – if you’re told someone is just as important as everyone else, you accept that. It’s like an imaginary friend everyone around you is endorsing. God is always there for you, but the downside is, he’s there all the time, even when you do something wrong.
The church I went to had a lot of confusing messages about sexuality. Because they were a progressive church they were loath to give specific rules, so they just put a positive emphasis on how important it was for women to be virgins for their husband. Boys never seemed to be held up to the same standards. When it came to homosexuality in my church you were allowed to be gay but not to practice it. They’d say: “Don’t hate the sinner, hate the sin.” Which now obviously reminds me of “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
Because my church never said “don’t do this” or “don’t do that”, at 15, I started drinking a bit, and that felt fine because it wasn’t strictly prohibited as anti–Christian. Nor was flirting with boys. There were a lot more girls at my church and at Christian camps than boys, and so the boys at church would treat you like shit because they had way more options. Boys outside of church showed me a lot more attention, so I started hanging out with them instead.
I still felt very religious around this time, but sexuality became a way to test the boundaries. And that evolved into sixth form when I started hanging out with naughtier friends. Still, when I got my first non–Christian boyfriend, I told him from the start, ‘I’m not going to have sex with you because I believe in no sex before marriage... and I’m not saying that to you in a ‘you can persuade me in three months’ time’ kind of way – it’s really not going to happen’. He was fine with that... I think because secretly he actually hadn’t had sex himself.
I was slipping with drugs and alcohol. I was also making friends with a lot of gay people, and I struggled to see how their lives could be sinful.
When I told my mum I had a non-Christian boyfriend, she was devastated. I remember it clearly: I was sitting in the bath and told her that he asked me out and she said, ‘I hope you didn’t say yes’. When I told her I did she walked out of the bathroom and didn’t say a word to me for three months. There was no confrontation, nothing. Up until then, she was my best friend, but that was the moment I started feeling the disappointment of my parents, and realised that the love I received from them felt very conditional.
As I went to university, I was losing my religion in so many aspects of my behaviour, but I really held onto the fact that I was a virgin. No really, I clung onto it – it was so countercultural among the people I met there, it really marked me out as a Christian. My friends would take the piss out of me and say “How’s your NSBM?” (no sex before marriage) and I sort of liked it. I didn’t go to church much any more, I was slipping with drugs and alcohol, I was beginning to lose my belief in God by thinking more independently. I was also making friends with a lot of gay people, and struggled to see how their lives could be sinful. Still though, I carried my religion through my virginity – sex was the last thing that sealed my faith.
Not long into uni, I got a new boyfriend. While we were making out I’d say things like ‘I wanna fuck you’ when I was caught up in the moment. I didn’t always mean it, but one time we just kept going – I could have stopped it, there was plenty of time to change my mind, but I didn’t. He even went out to get condoms just before we had sex and while he was gone I googled: ‘What if you’re a Christian and you lose your virginity?’ It said: “You’re very likely to lose your faith” and I thought, ‘Well, that’s fine then, because I won’t lose my faith!’ In hindsight, I 100% was.
After I first had sex, I was forced to confront my feelings about my religion: I didn’t go to church, I didn’t believe in God, and now I wasn’t a virgin, so, what was I? I’d black out for a day and lock myself in a room and cry. I felt lost. When you have a faith, it forms your entire worldview – especially when it’s not chosen by you but chosen for you. But suddenly, aged 20, I had to re-envisage society, my self, mortality. Granted, it wasn’t one moment that yanked me out of my faith, it was an attrition over the course of six or seven years, but it was still like TheMatrix – the idea that everything you’ve ever believed is wrong... it makes you feel like you’ve been mad for years. It also makes you question the sanity of everyone you’ve held close to you.
Losing my faith naturally put a strain on my relationship with my family. I began to feel like I was leading a double life. We developed a joke that I was clumsy (when actually I was pissed), I kept relationships from them. Meanwhile they began to realise that they couldn’t force me to go to church and that they had to choose between a relationship with me and that. When they asked me to come I’d say I wasn’t in the mood. Now they don’t ask me, now it’s subtler; it’s not ‘come to church’, it’s my mum showing me photos of young Christian couples getting married, with some pointed comments about how she’d want that for me. We’re on good terms, but very different ones.
When I look back at my upbringing, I can’t help but see it as cult-like. I’m talking about a religion that encompassed all areas of my life, all of the time, constantly dictating my every thought about other people and about myself. And when I think about it like that, it’s no wonder I mourned the loss of it like the death of someone – the death of myself, in many ways.
There are major positives to losing my faith: I don’t carry around the guilt in the same way, particularly about my sexuality, and I think that’s freeing – like a weight has been lifted. I also feel able to treat other people in the way I want to treat them – I don’t have to regard homosexuality in a way that’s consistent with someone else’s idea of right and wrong, in fact, I’ve now had a homosexual relationship myself.
And yet, the strange thing is, I’d say I was probably happier before I lost my religion. When you’re Christian, as long as your personal relationship with God is good, as long as you apologise for anything you’ve done wrong, then you’re headed to heaven; everything else is temporary. But now, if things are shit, they’re just shit. If they’re unfair, they’re just unfair. You can’t console yourself with the thought that everything is part of God’s wider test or plan. You just have to think: this is probably it, I probably have X numbers of existence until I die, and then I’m gone. Sometimes, I miss the idea of eternal bliss.