In junior high, high school, and college, I was very religious. I was raised by a fanatical fundamentalist Christian mother and fed a steady diet of horror stories about hell, the end of days, demons, and Satan from infancy. These stories, combined with abusive parenting, instilled such a powerful fear of punishment in me that I was willing to do anything to please my angry mother and the jealous God of Christian fundamentalism. I threw myself into fundamentalism with a fervor born of desperate terror. I was “born again” and baptized in a lake. I carried a bible everywhere I went. I tried to get my friends to come to church with me. I promised I would love Jesus forever.
I was intensely miserable.
I left the church a year or two after college, following a long struggle to make Christianity work for me. Deprogramming from the fear and shame that saturated the first 20+ years of my life has been a long and painful process. For many years after I left Christianity and found neo-paganism, I spent a lot of time arguing in my head with the Church. For a long time, I counted myself among the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. I talked a lot about archetypes and energies. I explored energy healing and learned to talk to plants and stones. I participated in a lot of amorphous, poorly understood spiritual activities. I very much needed God to not be real, lest my decades-long fear of damnation send me scuttling back into the arms of my abusers. I enjoyed all I learned, but also felt there was something more, something deeper, that I couldn’t quite grasp.
I can’t point to a moment on my journey when I started longing to feel the presence of deity in my life once again. It grew too gradually to be traced. But I DO remember making the decision to reach out for the Gods, even though I was still afraid to do so. When I called out, Someone answered. She wasn’t comforting, but she was present in an undeniable way. I know She has her reasons for showing up: I don’t yet know what they are. But by now, I DO know if She tells me to do something, it’s probably a good idea to do it.
So when I was given some pretty specific instructions around purification before the last dark moon, I followed them. And as I sank into a hot salt bath on a 90 degree day, I got a sudden flash of insight. I realized the ceremonies I engaged in and the promises I made during my traumatic youth were still tying me to the Pentacostal church, though I left Christianity behind for good over two decades ago. And as I reclined in the tub I felt the way those fragile tendrils of connection were quietly siphoning energy from me and preventing me from fully committing myself to the Gods who have tapped me on the shoulder. In that moment I understood I would need to renounce any and all agreements I had made, and attachments I had formed, with the Christian Gods and church in order to take whatever steps I need to take next.
That was how I found myself formally renouncing my former religion in a simple ceremony in the last hours of August’s waning moon. And while in a way it felt like a mere formality, like filing for divorce after a 20 year separation, the affect it had on me was immediate and unexpected.
Almost as soon as the renunciation ceremony was complete, the itchy, anxious twitches of uncertainty I’d been feeling for years just vanished. Though my experiences with the Gods have been profoundly moving and deeply meaningful, until that moment a small part of me was floundering. I constantly had that nagging feeling I’d forgotten to do something important, or was overlooking something. I second-guessed every experience, every insight. I’d always chalked it up to my general anxiety and self doubt, but when the last frayed thread of connection to the church burned away, the twitchy feeling along my back just melted away. It isn’t that I have no more doubts about my life, or will never question anything ever again. I believe continuing to examine our assumptions and ideas is healthy and wise, and also, I’m fully aware that I’m not perfect and will get things wrong. But the constant tickle of what if, what if, what if is gone, and I feel at peace with my spiritual choices in a way I never have before.
I wonder how many other people who experienced religious trauma as children and made commitments out of fear and coercion are in the same position. I wonder how many of us are still unwittingly feeding institutions we should be free of because we gave them access to part of ourselves under duress, and/or before we fully understood what we were doing. I wonder how many of my fellow polytheists would be freed to develop deeper, more satisfying relationships with their Gods if they cut those old, frayed cords? I wonder how much all these unresolved connections are feeding the very religious institutions that wounded us so deeply?
A ritual by itself isn’t enough to heal all our religious wounds, of course. I’ve spent decades working through my religious trauma, and it’s possible my ceremony of renunciation and disconnection wouldn’t have worked properly if I hadn’t done the emotional labor. Or it would have worked, but might have been followed by months of mourning, grief, confusion, or a fallow period where I felt disconnected from all spirituality. I have heard stories of this happening to others. BUT it can stop the siphoning of our energy. It can stop feeding the machine of abusive religious institutions. And that gives us more energy to devote to the work we are called to do now, and can help us heal from our past hurts more easily. If you have a fraught history with any religion, it’s worth asking yourself if you’re still in some way bound to it without meaning to be.
I was reluctant to write this post. For one thing, some of what I’ve shared here is kind of personal, and that kind of vulnerability can be uncomfortable. For another, I know my personal experiences with the church are NOT universal; that they are, in fact, kind of extreme, and that my personal trauma had as much to do with abusive parenting as it did with messed up religion. I know some polytheists even have relationships with Christian deities and spirits, and if that works for them, who am I to try to change their minds? So why write this post at all?
Because I already know a few other people who have experienced similar things, so I suspect there are more people out there who have gone through something similar and might like to know they aren’t alone. Because the world isn’t an easy place for polytheists, and we need to figure out how to deal with that, and maybe change it. And, most importantly, because my deity told me to tell the truth, and this experience is an essential piece of the truth of being a polytheist in contemporary culture, at least for some of us. If we are going to create safe spaces in which to be polytheist, we need to wrestle with our religious baggage and get clear of it. It’s a long and complicated process, but we can’t avoid doing the work if we want to move forward and build a thriving community, devoted to our Gods and ready to build each other up.
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