Losing My Religion
When this blog started, the focus was different. Some of the subsequent changes were organic, but I didn’t ever explain one major transformation. Until now.
Pretty soon, this blog will celebrate its nineteenth anniversary. Given how quickly time seems to pass, the twentieth anniversary will roll around before we know it.
That’s a long time to commit to one project.
This blog is a bit like a garden. A lot can change in 20 years. Small saplings mature into trees. Some plants die or are pulled out. Weeds come and go. Nothing stays exactly the same.
The first posts on this blog were often about everyday life in Delhi, where I was living at the time. But I long ago stopped writing about “expat life”. I wrote a fair bit about golf, though I haven’t swung a club in more than 15 years.
And I wrote a lot of religion.
That’s no longer the case. At some point, far closer to 2004 than 2023, my focus, priorities, and way of life changed.
I never really explained why I stopped writing about religion – or Christianity, to be more precise. To cover it in detail would take more of a memoir than a blogpost. However, thinking about the future direction of my writing feels like a good moment to paint the story of how I “lost my religion” even if it’s only in the broadest of brushstrokes.
During the 1990s, I was living in Sydney. Over a few years, I went from being curious about Christianity to attending weekly services at a Baptist church, regularly playing music during at least one church service a week, sometimes preaching, later getting a degree in theology, teaching at a theological college, and eventually packing my bags to get a PhD in London, researching in the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture at King’s College London.
Towards the end of that time in Sydney, I worked in a small church and preached regularly. The minister was an older man, a former academic and a fountain of wisdom. There was also a popular youth minister who had been there for a few years.
I was contracted to be there for two years, working about 20 hours a week while also lecturing at the theological college and doing post-grad research.
In my second year there, the senior minister left. During my last months, the church was in the process of appointing a new senior minister. He was younger, and beset with a fragile ego and a tragically limited ability to hold an audience when he preached.
Even though I’d already advised the church I was leaving to study in London, some deacons felt I should go early. However, the church wanted me to stay and see out my term.
Behind the scenes, I was told the new young minister wouldn’t have a “strong arm” if I hung around. Same for the very popular youth minster. Only a “clean slate” would ensure the new minister’s success.
This drama, Shakespeare in miniature, wasn’t important.
What mattered was I left for London with no “home” church supporting me. Normally, people going on the kind of journey I was starting on do so with a supportive community backing them.
A few years earlier, I’d known a minister from Zambia who was in Australia getting a master’s in psychology. The support from his church in Lusaka, where he’d worked, meant a great deal to him when he faced challenges and homesickness.
I didn’t have that.
During those last years in Sydney, I spoke to the head of the denomination about ordination. I wanted to know about the process and also what the future might be if I stayed on the academic track. He wasn’t interested in talking about any of that. His main concern was what he saw as the inevitable failure of my marriage. “I’ve seen what happens when a man marries a woman who has a career. The marriage never lasts,” he told me, leaning back in his high-backed office chair, arms clasped behind his head.
He was wrong. More than 25 years later, he is still wrong.
Of course, winning that argument doesn’t mean much.
What I found was that churches, in both Sydney and London, welcomed the idea because it meant they didn’t have to pay me. There were guidelines for that sort of thing. But I was always greeted with a “Well, you know” or “It’s not like you need it,” when it came time to remunerate me.
I didn’t need the money. But I also didn’t need the ambiguity that comes with being chronically underpaid.
As a musician, I avoid playing for free because it’s so easy to walk away from those kinds of gigs feeling exploited. Same with doing photos or writing.
If you believe in something, you might decide to donate your time to it. That’s your choice. When people hire you then refuse to pay, or expect you to be happy with not getting paid like your peers are, then it breeds suspicion.
I was starting to become suspicious.
The crisis that became a hinge point in my life came about a year before this blog started, during my first year in India.
I’ve written before about quitting my PhD. The decision was painful. I felt like a shameful failure for a long, long time. The year I quit I felt lost. It was the one time in my life when there seemed to be no reason for getting out of bed in the morning. I wrote many emails asking friends and family to come and visit me, but no one came.
And particularly, it felt like, no one from the churches where I’d worked or attended, from the church “friends” I’d made, seemed to care.
There was no supportive community, no circle of “eternal love”, nothing. Was anyone “praying” for me? It felt like there was just the heat and dust and solitude of living with a paralysing decision and an uncertain future.
The journey I’d been on for a decade came to an end, and I had to find a new path.
Back in the early 2000s, a lot of people started sharing their experiences of church through blogs. There were stories of frustration and exploitation far worse than mine.
During the early years of this blog, I was interested in something called the “emerging church”. This felt like something new, a movement of people who wanted to hold the beliefs of Christian faith away from the harmful structures of the established church.
However, many of the people who became associated with that movement, its “leaders”, were still in mainstream denominations and got publishing contracts with the same houses that put out books by establishment church leaders just a few years before.
I felt duped.
Maybe I’d always had it wrong. I’d found myself in a Baptist church and fell in love with the history of a radical Christian group, a loose cousin of the Amish and Mennonites, groups known for questioning the role of consumerism and violence in society.
But the actual Baptist church I experienced was largely a club for middle-class people with once-a-week religious inclinations. There was nothing radical about it.
I started to wonder what I had been conforming to. Over those years, was I changing to meet some eternal moral code or something more contemporary and enculturated? So much of what I’d felt pressured to change about myself in those church years coincided exactly with the parts of myself that were most ethnic and culturally different. Did God really care that much about my curly hair and colourful clothes, for example?
This was highlighted by attending expat churches in Delhi and Hong Kong. Like germs in a Petri dish, you could see people competing to try to replicate the flavour of “church back home” that felt comforting to them.
Not Quite A Conclusion
Church takes up a lot of time. Not going to church made time for other things to speak to me again. Nature, music and art held me when I was younger, and they started to shape me again. I had more time to understand the places where I was living and the people who made those places vibrant and unique.
And I had less noise in my head. Fewer voices of judgement. The simplicity felt more spiritual than the busyness of church life.
Since then, I’ve continued to orient my life towards wisdom. We need more hope and less violence. My life beyond the walls of the church hasn’t been one of fear, loneliness, nihilism, or any of the things preachers suggested it might be. The world is full of beauty, kindness, and moral lessons. How could it be any different?