All illustrations by Michael Dockery.
Leaving a religion is an existential headfuck. There's no other way to describe it. It's like a breakup, a death, and a midlife crisis all at once, except your drinking buddies don't drink because they're religious, and your other friends don't exist.
So for those of you on the edge of the abyss, or for those of you who are curious about what goes through the mind of a Jesus freak confronted with meaninglessness for the first time, here's some things I wish I'd been prepared for but wasn't.
You'll Spend a Lot of Time Looking Back
I grew up in the semi-rural areas of South Australia as an atheist, and quite a happy one. My parents took our family to a Lutheran church on Easter and Christmas, but none of us took it seriously.
Then when I was 15, I found God. My relationship with my religious girlfriend had gone long distance, and one night, upset at the general state of affairs, I had a strong desire to pray. I remember calling out, to "God, whoever and wherever if you are, if you even are at all," and in return being filled with warmth. I was certain that God had answered my prayer.
The next day I visited the only religious friend I had. She sent me to the only church she'd been to. It was a Pentecostal church, which meant nothing to me at the time but basically means it was the most outrageous kind of church this side of Australia's apocalyptic Agape Ministries. The four years that followed were a roller coaster of visions, prophecies, hymns, fasting, and a whole lot of overwhelming guilt and confusion.
Christians Don't Want to Hear About Doubt
At the age of 19, I stopped believing. It took about a year and I kept praying and hoping God would save me from disbelief. But He didn't.
My Christian friends didn't want to hear that the entire New Testament might be a fable or that the concept of an all-loving, all-powerful God was possibly an intellectual fallacy. So we generally avoided the topic and I tried to tempt them across with my tales of sin and debauchery. After a while, well, we didn't actually have that much in common.
I remember one conversation I had with a really nice guy from church. He was one of those dependable, all-round good guys that had come to the church in his 30s. He always asked why I wasn't at church. He was genuinely concerned and when I told him, rather sheepishly, about not believing anymore, he told me it was a phase. Religious people just didn't understand.
No One Else Understands Either
Were there any atheists waiting to embrace me? No, they were too busy enjoying the worldly pleasures I'd been warned about. I had my toes in a few friendship pools in first semester of university, but after I became Christian my friends really dropped off. Only one or two people could stand me after that.
At the time I didn't care about losing friends, but later I regretted making such a spectacle of myself. I used to wear a T-shirt to uni with a logo that I'd printed myself saying that I "hearted" Jesus. I would read my pocket-size New Testament in the quadrangle and announce in tutorials that I was a Christian. Once, I even told someone off for exclaiming "Jesus Christ!" about some assignment we had to do.
Later I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I didn't believe in those things anymore.
There Ain't No Party Like a Jesus Freak Party
As a Christian I loved going to youth group. That was a crowd of about 15 or 20 gathered in a church hall. We'd spend the whole night talking about God, singing worship songs, praying, and speaking in tongues. I really loved "feeling the holy spirit" within me. It was like a drug.
As an atheist I wasn't going to parties, so to compensate I got into the TV show Californication in a big way. I watched every episode multiple times. I even bought the DVD set that came with the bonus Californication G-string. I never wore it, though I would have for David Duchovny. He was my hero for understanding existential angst and dealing with it in the correct way. Even if, after six seasons, his character hadn't developed at all.
You Will Discover Sex and It Will Blow Your Mind
Believing in God is on par with great sex, maybe even better, but the feelings are remarkably similar. As an atheist, trying to have sex with women gave me something to focus on, instead of just pining about mortal life.
I was 19 and embarrassed about my complete lack of sexual experience, but I dove in with the zest of an optimistic puppy. We were drunk at my house, listening to folk music , and she was also a virgin. It made me realize why the church is so against sex outside the bounds of marriage—because it's so incredibly good.
Your Dating Pool Will Increase Dramatically
Normal, non-religious women were refreshingly… normal. They didn't have all these hang-ups about sex and intimacy. They didn't have all these preprogrammed ideas about marriage and children, unlike almost everyone in the church, and they didn't wear so many polo shirts. Also there were a lot more of them.
You Will Understand Why People Get Drunk
The first time I got drunk, I made out with my best friend and her best friend in an RV in their backyard while doing tequila shots. I passed out, vomited, then passed out again. It was bliss.
You Will Be Beyond Embarrassed
It's not just the things I did, but the things I believed. Speaking in tongues? It's just spouting gibberish. I can still speak in tongues, anyone can. All you have to do is relax and let any noise that comes into your head come out of your mouth.
But my worst story is this: One time I was catching a bus through the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. It was fairly empty, maybe three or four passengers, when suddenly I heard God inside my head. He was telling me to preach to the woman in front of me. Naturally I didn't want to, but I told myself that whatever God had in store was more important than my own hang-ups. So I did. I sat next to her and, as casually as I could, asked her if she'd like to know about Jesus. She said no. Are you sure? I asked. It really is quite important, you know. But she was sure, so I went back to my seat. What a letdown. The only conclusion I could come to was that either God was working in some mysterious way I couldn't understand, or I had fucked it up somehow. God was silent on the issue.
The Emptiness Is Soul-Crushing
I didn't become religious to fill a hole, but after religion, there was a hole. I used to think I was going to spend eternity in the clouds with my BFF Jesus, just talking about how weird Earth was.
All that was gone now, so I backpacked around Europe. I walked through beautiful cities: Paris, Amsterdam Berlin. I soul-searched. I thought, if I'm going to figure out what to do now, this is where I'll figure it out. But I was looking for something that wasn't there and wasn't anywhere. I drank a lot, ate in tourist traps, and eventually went home. Everything was the same. I continued to wrestle with depression on and off for years.
But You Will Get Over It
Some people immerse themselves in their careers. Others in relationships, or video games, or craft activities. I tried everything, but these things were like band-aids for my existential anguish. They got weird quickly, I had to rip them off and afterwards I knew they never really did anything anyway.
The transition will take time. First you're a Pentecostal nerd with a mission to read every single exhausting page of the Old Testament (even Deuteronomy), then you start to question your faith (what is faith anyway?), then you're an agnostic admitting the possibility there could be a god but unable to say for sure… and finally you realize it's all stupidity and you're a full blown hedonistic, religion-hating, virgin-sacrificing heathen.
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