After Dissenting, Designing

I think of recovery from religion like peeling layers off of an onion. Dissenting intellectually from teachings or doctrines you learned as an adult is like peeling off one of the outer layers. But if you keep going, you find scripts that got laid down earlier—attitudes, emotional conditioning, ideas you were taught before you had the capacity to question them. And some of these are tremendously harmful from a psychological standpoint.

I once was speaking to a group of Hindus who wanted to understand evangelical Christianity, because rampant proselytizing was dividing their villages and splitting families down the middle. After the talk, a woman named Mohini came up to me. She asked, ‘Is what you told us really true—that Christians believe children are born evil?’ I explained again the doctrine of original sin. She was horrified. She said, ‘When babies are born into Hindu families, we whisper to them: “You are perfect. You are a spark of the divine.”‘ — Valerie Tarico

In my last few years with different religious and non-religious groups, this has proven to be one of the pivot issues: people don’t seem to stay in a healthy place if they’re still battling the questions of core value (including worthiness and acceptance of self and acceptance of others) and core integrity (including wholeness rather than partial or complete self-rejection).

I have memory grooves from my first few congregations of “born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” “like sheep, gone astray,” and similar phrases heard frequently in sermon, prayer, and casual conversation. I didn’t encounter alternative messaging like “before you were born, I consecrated you” until I was baptized, received my “grown-up” bible, and read the whole book on my own. Even later I realized that the pre-birth consecration message was an affirmation of a single prophet (Jeremiah), whereas “all we like sheep” and other passages made sweeping claims about every other soul. From text and context, the presumed defaults were clear.

When I first discussed Tarico’s article with friends last spring, one shared his path moving out of Christianity and later returning to it because of his scientific studies (he researches genetics). But the article doesn’t account for stories like his. That’s because the Left-The-Church theme doesn’t. Whether articles are written from within the fold like James Martin’s pitiful piece in the HuffPo or outside of evangelicalism like Tarico’s, so many articles presume there’s a definitive one-way trajectory… a “bat out of hell” escape from religion rather than a more organic, winding, and even recursive journey of deeper self-knowledge and sounder relationships regardless of affiliation. After all, it’s also possible for people to journey in place, without “leaving” at all.

Tarico’s post still reads to me as a story of growing out of early tribal models and developing adult ones in their stead. It was our early tribes’ job to give us those models, and it’s our job as adults to re-engage them. I’d love to see more religious and social groups set up to support the adult re-engagement process in a healthy way. But when communities respond to questions as if they were viral attacks and treat changing participants like a survival threat, healthy support can’t happen.

This failure to support adult re-engagement isn’t necessarily about communities’ deliberate ill will (though I’ve heard enough deliberate abuse stories for a lifetime). It’s about the lived impact of design and custom: if the outcomes of support and affirmation that many of us seek do not match a community’s structure, values, habits, and participant strengths, we won’t receive the outcomes we’re looking for. We can’t receive them in that community: the precipitants for them aren’t embedded, so the outcomes can’t emerge in a coherent way.

I’ve worked with open communities before; it’s beautiful. I’ve also tried to draw closed groups into new structures beyond their capacity. This doesn’t work, and it’s also obnoxious! Like people, groups have a receptivity threshold. They can accept a degree of variation in others, and a degree of adaptation in themselves, but beyond that threshold, proposed change meets with significant resistance, rejection, or contrary over-corrections. Working within the limits of the group you’re in means being able to support and participate in more sustainable expansion. Creating new spaces outside of that group, pouring new wine into new wineskins, is another option.

Some people find these strategies to be mutually exclusive, but I’ve long found it healthy to interface with several groups at a time, sharing with each some of what I learn with the others. This practice forces me out of a surface knowledge of my groups. As I navigate among them, I have to learn where their boundaries are, which values are core and which are peripheral. In order to know what to bring back and how to share it, I have to understand what they already have and what barriers have stopped them from from uncovering a given thing already.

This has worked for me so far. What about you? If you’re one of those people who wants different outcomes from your community relationships, have you reflected on what those outcomes are or what they might look like off the page and flowing live among people? Would you recognize alternative precipitants if you experienced them? A safe space to process, to explore, to learn, to practice, to root, to refresh, and to grow—what would that look like to you? How could you contribute to it?

After you’ve dissented, what will you design?

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