Sunday, February 9, 2020
Disfellowshipped: Part 4 - Moving On
This is the 4th and final part of my first-hand account of what it was like to be disfellowshipped from the Christadelphian religion that I had grown up in.
If you have not yet read parts 1-3, you can do so starting here.
After receiving the official letter of disfellowship, I listened in to the memorial meeting announcements that following Sunday by phone, and even recorded the announcement, though I have since deleted it. For me it brought closure, but to my wife it was painful. We were on different paths. I will say no more about that for privacy reasons, other than that we ended up separating 6 months or so later, and eventually divorced. It was a thoroughly painful journey that I felt completely unequipped to deal with, and I carry a number of regrets to this day. If I had my time again, I still would have left the Christadelphians (but peacefully and on my terms), but I would have done things very differently at home. Alas, life is a harsh teacher, and sometimes we learn the important lessons at a significant cost.
Not (quite) welcome here
Even though I was no longer in fellowship I still attended meetings with my family (at a couple other ecclesias). At one point I had rung around a few different ABs of other ecclesias asking if I would be welcome to come along with my family to support them, and was given answers ranging from "not really" to "yes but only if you keep your mouth shut". I was treated like poison, tolerated at arm's length so long as the lid remained firmly sealed. Once you are disfellowshipped from Christadelphia you permanently become a second-rate citizen to them, and they will be sure to let you know it in various ways.
Eventually I no longer wanted to be a walking, not-quite-welcome shadow in a community that I felt increasingly alienated from. You can't really be a Christadelphian without also sharing their beliefs, and I had to stop pretending it would work. I was "welcome" on the proviso that I would someday "repent" and be refellowshipped, but I couldn't do that. Firstly, I had nothing to repent from, and secondly, beliefs aren't exactly voluntary. We tend to form beliefs automatically based on the evidence and arguments we find persuasive.
And so I stopped attending, and slowly became more agnostic. The anxiety subsided, and I learned to live with uncertainty. Acceptance of uncertainty is surely part of growing up.
Life lived on one's own terms is good. When I was young the Christadelphians tried to tell me that everyone in the world was unsatisfied and unhappy, always greedy and wanting more and never reaching fulfilment. To the extent that this is true, it is true for everyone, including Christadelphians. But on the whole it is not true, at least not in my experience. Most people (at least in societies like mine, but unfortunately not so in many places) live fairly happy, meaning-filled lives with their families and friends, doing things they enjoy, travelling around the world, and spending time with those they love. We'd all like it to last a little longer (though the idea of living forever tends to terrify me), but the fact that it is finite is what makes it so valuable. There is also meaning in helping to make the world better so that more people can enjoy this same quality of life in the future.
The obligatory "Not all"
Of course there are many Christadelphians who would not have behaved anything like the power-hungry individuals I dealt with. I know many of them personally, including many who did contact me to say how unfair they felt the whole thing was. Mind you, they didn't contact the ABs to tell them that, but maybe I wouldn't have either if our positions were reversed. Many good Christadelphians tend to keep their heads low and stay out of trouble, because they have good friendships and don't want their own social networks to unravel too. It's unfortunate that so many people allow the bullies almost free reign, but I don't exactly blame them. Maybe it happens in every community, but if some of us speak out it might encourage others to do the same.
You just had a bad experience
There is a tendency among believers to write off non-believers saying they "must have just had a bad experience". Indeed I have received sympathy from some Christadelphians in this exact guise. They will go so far as to dismiss any and all arguments I have raised as reasons for my unbelief, as if my deconversion was simply an emotional reaction to some bad experience. But this is simply untrue and doesn't match the actual sequence of events.
My deconversion effectively started the moment I encountered evidence for evolution, and my doubts slowly grew from that time onwards. Initially there was no "bad experience" other than the gradual loss of faith and the shifting of my worldview. This did become more distressing as time went on but I was not mistreated by anyone at that point since most people were unaware of my changes in belief (mostly just acceptance of evolution at that stage).
I did experience a lot of anxiety and distress around the time that I requested to leave the ecclesia. I was unprepared for the hostility and bullying I faced from the ABs and I found the whole thing very traumatic. But all of that mistreatment only made me distrust those people, and the lack of welcome after I left led to disillusionment regarding the Christadelphian community as a whole. I felt abandoned and no longer wanted to associate with them.
However I was still a believer when I was disfellowshipped, and remained so for several months afterwards as I continued to search for evidence and truth. I only became agnostic some months later. I did not consider myself an atheist until about 10 months after that, and the realisation was simply that I no longer held a positive belief in any particular deity. Some would still describe that as agnostic, but I used the term atheist since I am roughly as agnostic about gods (the personal kind at least) as I am about unicorns, and not many agnostics would spend their days wondering whether those beings really exist.
I mentioned several times that I found the whole experience of both deconversion and especially disfellowship to be quite traumatic. This was no exaggeration. I received a lot of counselling and therapy for it in the years that followed, but it's actually really difficult to find therapists who understand religious trauma. I found the information on Religious Trauma Syndrome very helpful, including the book by the same author.
Even 7 years on, this article has been difficult to write. I debated whether to share the emails as well, but in the end I felt it was better to give the full story so that people could check my comments against the facts. I wanted this story to be heard so that people can know what I went through, and hopefully this one account will open enough eyes to make a change for others who might face the same prospect in future. If I had known what awaited me, I would have simply transferred ecclesias without telling anyone about my doubts, and that would have allowed me to leave on my terms. Some ecclesias will accept a peaceful resignation.
At the end of the day I do not regret leaving the Christadelphians. I simply regret the method by which I did it, and the treatment I received along the way. The particular Christadelphian ecclesias I was a member of were typically strict, controlling, judgemental, and socially abusive. But having grown up in those environments, I lacked the perspective to see it for what it was. There were always easy ways to dismiss the harm as just a few individuals here or a few silly rules there. When your entire social life and family are all tied up in the religion, it's really difficult to leave. But I was always taught to stand up for what I believe in, and that may have been the undoing of my Christadelphian ways. Beliefs are often involuntary - we form them in response to evidence and argument, and we don't get to choose what evidence is out there, or even which arguments we find compelling. All we get to do is choose how honest we will be when we look at the data, and whether we are fooling ourselves or not.
Several Christadelphians have asked me, "Why don't you just move on?" Trust me, I'd love to. Moving on has been difficult and challenging, primarily because I never had a thing to move on to. I have to invent it as I go. That takes time and effort, and sometimes I simply end up finding out what I don't enjoy instead of what I do enjoy. The short answer is that I am moving on, in my own way. A little bit here and a little bit there. My life is very different now than 7 years ago. And I suspect it will probably be quite different again in another 7 years.
On a more positive note, these days I look forward to my quiet Sunday mornings and having plenty of free time on my calendar. Sunday is now a day to relax and spend time focusing on my own hobbies and interests, soaking up the sunshine with a nice long walk, or learning new things about the world through reading books on my favourite science topics. No longer am I forced to affirm things I don't believe, or forced to conform to weird religious norms like speaking (and singing dirges) in 17th century English or dressing in a western business suit on Sundays. Intellectual freedom is my new luxury, and I love it!