Friday, February 7, 2020
Disfellowshipped: Part 1 - Doubt And Fear
I hope to make readers aware of not only what it felt like to be disfellowshipped, but also the process by which it occurred. While I do feel there were some injustices carried out at that time, my aim is not to seek any sympathy for myself. Rather it is much broader than that, to shine a light on a part of the Christadelphian movement that I'm sure many Christadelphians would rather pretend does not exist.
Every Christadelphian knows what it means, or at least the stigma and even fear surrounding it. But how many actually understand what it's like to be disfellowshipped, or to have someone close to you told they are no longer welcome in the community they have spent most (if not all) of their life in?
In the case of a wrong-doing, especially a criminal offence, I suspect there is some sense that justice is being served. In some cases the person being disfellowshipped may feel the punishment was deserved or appropriate. Indeed in many cases real lives have been harmed by the person and the action was required in order to protect the community from further harm.
I will state plainly at the outset that I have not experienced this form of disfellowship (I.e. disfellowship due to gross misconduct or even criminal activity), nor have I been close to anyone who has. When I speak of disfellowship in this series of articles, I will not be referring to such cases.
In fact I can only speak for that which I have personally experienced. That is, being disfellowshipped for nothing other than a change in my personal beliefs. So that is the experience I will share with you.
To be told that you are no longer in "fellowship" with other people, especially many people who I had previously considered friends and even family, by a couple of older men who hardly knew me, was, in a word, confusing. What did it even mean? Surely it was just symbolic. Could they do that? Well, as it turns out, they could. What I discovered in the weeks and months that followed was that even though some acquaintances initially showed concern, mostly it was out of a desire to catch up on the gossip of what had happened, and perhaps the off-chance that they might be able to help "bring me back to the fold" (although surprisingly, actual attempts at reconciliation were rare to non-existent, thankfully).
You see, even though I had done nothing wrong, it seems most Christadelphians have no category in which to place such a thing, and so I was treated more or less the same as if i had done something wrong. Or worse, I was treated as if I had been the subject of some misfortune that was out of everyone's control, and although they wished it had not happened, they felt there was nothing any of us could do about it, and so they didn't. I was at once a naughty boy, and an unfortunate victim. Many people were happy to offer support in private, but in public they were silent, instead offering implicit support for those who made the decision. Can friendship continue under these conditions? It seems unlikely. There was a gulf between our core beliefs that was becoming wider and the common ground began to shrink. This is what happens when you listen to your Christadelphian elders who said to base your friendships only on the Bible. When that bond was severed, the "friendships" were revealed to be lacking and shallow. I say this to my own discredit. Friendships can be difficult to maintain, and even more so when they were formed around religious commonalities that later disappear.
I will return to what happened post-disfellowship in a moment, but first let's back up a little and talk about the process of disfellowship.
Doubt and Depression
I have previously discussed what it felt like to feel doubts about what I believed, and to search ever deeper to find out what was really true in this world, only to have those doubts confirmed or strengthened. Those who have been through this process will relate to it all. When an entire worldview crumbles, and must be rebuilt from the ground up, there are a range of emotions that flow with it. Fear, uncertainty, disorientation, confusion, curiosity, stress, despair, anxiety, depression, and at times, anger. Questions flooded my mind constantly, such as "why didn't anyone tell me about this?" and "why didn't anyone else look into this?" I suspect several people had tried to tell me, and some had looked into it, and we probably saw them as heretics or weak in the faith. I later learned that this kind of reframing was a defence mechanism to protect our own faith from scrutiny or questioning.
As I have mentioned several times before, it felt so unfair to suffer so much when all I wanted was the honest truth. But truth was so important to me that the more I searched, the more I realised I needed to find it. If I was to devote my life to this religion I needed to make absolutely sure it was true beyond all reasonable doubt, or else reclaim my life and walk away from the lies. And so a few chance scientific discoveries triggered a search for truth that eventually blew my world-view wide open. What I found was that 100% certainty was essentially unattainable and hopelessly unrealistic, because reality was never so clear cut nor easily knowable. The simplistic, naive, childish certainty I was raised with gave way to a more mature sense of doubt, realism, and acceptance of uncertainty as a fact of life. It wasn't all bad though. As I learned more about the world through science and scholarship, I developed a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world that has only grown deeper in the years since.
As a member of a fundamentalist Christadelphian ecclesia, I knew all too well that as my personal beliefs became more receptive to science, especially the natural sciences (biology, palaeontology, geology, cosmology etc), so too these same beliefs would not be well-received by others at the meeting. I tested the waters a little, but swiftly discovered that even the mere supportive mention of biological evolution or big-bang cosmology would raise suspicion and alarm, and that I had best keep my doubts and beliefs strictly to myself. And so I did.
Don't let them see the real you
I learned to live a double life, which is possibly one of the worst decisions anyone can make. Sure, those around me were none-the-wiser, and I could discuss my beliefs on private internet forums behind a pseudonym, but inside I felt terrible, like I was betraying myself. I was a fraud, and I feared that one day my cover would be blown and I would be revealed as such in front of all my friends and family. For over 6 months I read books and watched online debates, while publicly keeping my head down, ever vigilant in social discussions for fear that I might slip out with something incriminating by accident.
One of the first people I told was my wife (now ex-wife). I can only imagine how this felt to her, but her reaction was certainly not positive, and again this reinforced the notion that changing one's beliefs on matters that, let's face it, had very little bearing on our daily lives, was somehow in violation of some moral law! A mere change of personal opinion, based on evidence no less, was deemed severe and significant enough to revoke my membership in God's family and classify me as unacceptable and unworthy of love.
By the end of that year I had reached a point where I had so many doubts and so few people I could trust enough to discuss them with, that I lived with near-constant anxiety and was sinking ever further into depression. Eventually the cracks began to show and I had to seek professional help for the mental illness that was by now causing visible problems in my marriage and family. After several sessions with a professional counsellor (referred by my GP), she stated to me that my condition would likely not improve until I "came out" to my friends and family regarding my beliefs (particularly concerning the science of evolution) and began to live a more authentic life, free to be myself and be open about what I believed. I knew she was right, and so my wife and I agreed that we would notify our families in writing and hope for the best.
The reaction from family members was cautiously supportive, but I have no doubt at all that there were many discussions in my absence that were not so positive. My mental health did improve however, as I no longer needed to feel like an impostor and keep up appearances for fear of being found out. That said, very few of my family members and none of my in-laws were at all curious about my new beliefs, preferring to simply not bring it up. And so I learned to dance around the various subjects delicately, carrying this new "elephant in the room" wherever I went.
Continue to part 2