Religious Complexity: The Interviews

A/N: many of these stories contain discussions of spiritual abuse. Some also mention domestic abuse (mental, emotional, and s*xual) and homophobia. Specific trigger warnings are placed before each story. If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts/memories and need to speak to someone, help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800–273–8255), the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1–800–656–4673), and the Trevor Project (1–866–488–7386). Additionally, here is a list of resources for survivors of spiritual abuse.

Since college, I’ve had a desire to interview others about their religious and spiritual lives, particularly those whose with complex spiritual identities or testy relationships with organized religion. During the month of August 2021, I reached out on Facebook, asking my friends to share their relationship with religion with me.

There were a total of seven interviews conducted for this project. Some were done over text messages or Facebook Messenger, while others were done over the phone or via face-chatting. Some of the interviews were brief and consisted of a few quotes. Others lasted well over an hour and gave me a book’s worth of material to work with.

The people I interviewed were diverse in their age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and levels of current affiliation with religion, ranging from ex-clergy to atheists to astrology lovers. Most interviewees identified as women, and some as LGBTQ+. The majority of the participants were from Christian backgrounds, and one was from a secular Jewish background. All had encountered conflicts with religion at some point in their lives. Some came to peace with the tension, others are still wrestling with their faiths, and still others have walked away from religion entirely. All names have been kept anonymous.

“People tend to turn to religion when their life is shit”: E. J.’s story

TW: non-graphic discussions of domestic abuse, including childhood s*xual abuse; discussions of spiritual abuse; discussions of homophobia

E. J. described her relationship with Christianity as one marked by “generational trauma,” beginning with her grandparents. Her paternal grandfather came from an abusive household and had a whirlwind romance with her paternal grandmother. They wed after three months, had two children (E’s father and aunt), and became involved in a “fire and brimstone” brand of evangelical Christianity. The young family maintained a relationship with E’s paternal great-grandparents, even after the great-grandparents sexually abused E’s aunt. The children were forced to be secretive about the abuse because, according to E’s grandfather, “God will take care of this and [everything] will be fine.” E’s father, a budding musician, began to question his faith during his teen years due to the abuse being swept under the rug.

E’s father went on to raise his own family in a music-focused household that was still markedly religious. However, E’s father was more tolerant of non-Christians than her paternal grandparents were. E recalled never feeling that “God was with me” in church, and was told that she “just didn’t believe enough” to feel God’s presence; this led to major self-esteem issues throughout most of her childhood. As she was raised by a talented musician, E also feared that “God didn’t bless me the way he blessed my dad,” and that she was “never going to be good enough because I wasn’t blessed by him.”

E’s father began spending time with an older pastor, who attempted to groom him to become a church leader. When her father refused, the pastor abruptly cut off their friendship, causing her father to become immensely disillusioned by Christianity. As a result, E’s family stopped attending church when she was in high school. She describes going through a “hardcore” atheist phase after this, and described Christianity as “cult-like.” She expressed relief that her sibling will never have to grow up under the brand of Christianity that she was subjected to. “Religion shaped my upbringing…compared to how my little brother is being raised, he is not talked to the same way that my family talked to me, he doesn’t have to deal with the religiosity with which I was raised.”

Today, E is working on rebuilding a relationship with her paternal grandmother, who has “a new sense of independence…and is becoming more open to new things” since the passing of E’s grandfather in 2020. She is still estranged from her aunt, but has faith that one day her aunt may open up more with her family. “Religion’s put up a barrier between [my grandparent’s family] and [my family], but that’s their family. That’s not the relationship I have with mine. Things are getting better, we just take it a day at a time. Religious trauma recovery is on the horizon for my family and for me…”

On her current religious path, E reflected, “I’m not going to deny existence of possible higher power, something inspires people’s faith…maybe a higher power reveals itself to people in different ways.” Having read multiple religious texts besides the Bible, E concluded that the lessons of most religious paths can be summarized as “be good people, don’t do bad things.’’

“I have always been raised with the idea that if you believe in one thing, you have to believe in everything…”: J. M.’s story

J. M. grew up in a Seventh-Day Adventist church, and described herself as “very religious” from early on. Her family didn’t eat shrimp and pork or wear jewelry, and the Sabbath was observed every weekend [A/N: Seventh-Day Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday rather than Sunday in accordance with the traditional Jewish calendar].

J and her family moved to a new city when she was seven, where they stopped attending church on a regular basis. However, “in random spurts in our life [my mom] would become religious again, and we would have to go to church every weekend for a good two months.” Her family’s religious attendance remained sporadic throughout most of her childhood.

J began to question her faith around her early teen years, saying that there were “a lot of things” she went through in her life that have caused her to question the existence of God. However, J still had a distinct spiritual life; today, she believes in astrology and tarot cards, and relies heavily on her intuition for guidance.

On her current path, J noted that she still struggles with certain elements of her spiritual beliefs. For example, she mentioned that she was raised to believe that if you believe in one type of supernatural force (i.e. ghosts), you have to believe in the existence of all spiritual forces. “This is where I get stuck a lot.”

Connected to tradition: A. G.’s story

Born and raised in Brooklyn, A. G. came from a secular Jewish background. He was raised nonreligious during his early years, and describes first becoming aware of God at seven years old through a neighbor. A became an atheist shortly after his bar-mitzvah at age thirteen, but struggled with guilt over his lack of religiosity.

When A was twenty-four, he discovered the Unitarian-Universalist Church (UU), a humanistic religious path that emphasizes interfaith exploration of truth and counts many agnostics and atheists among their members. He has attended the church ever since, as he likes that “they are very liberal” and that “you don’t have to believe in a god, per se.” Through the UU church, he also was exposed to paganism, which he didn’t pursue as it felt “too magical” for his liking. He frequently meets with AHA (atheist, humanist, agnostic) groups at his church.

When discussing his current path, A still identifies as an atheist. He has always been confident about his beliefs about God, and has struggled more with conflicts with others concerning his beliefs. For example, when working at an insurance company in his twenties, one coworker asked him if he was a white supremacist after he told her that he was an atheist.

However, A still appreciates many of the rituals, traditions, and culture of Judaism. He attends seders (that is, multigenerational Passover feasts) hosted by his family and friends every year and occasionally attends synagogue for other seasonal events. For A, rituals are a way to spend time with his loved ones, enhancing his connection to his family and friends as well as his connection to the past.

“Jesus loves everyone, including hoes”: D.K.’s story

TW: brief discussions of homophobia

D. K., who grew up in a Christian household, became a Christian at five years old after hearing her older sister talk about Christ. She accepted Christianity without question until her teen years, when she began to experience “shame for things that, in all honesty, weren’t a big deal.” This shame would materialize when she listened to risque songs or wore tight clothing, and for doing any activity other than praying. D also “hated being told to pray about every one of my problems when that really just wasn’t working.” As she grew older, she realized that she “needed something more than prayer” for complex problems and questions.

For example, D was taught to fear LGBT+ people, as she was told that homosexuality was “a sin” and “gross.” She began to question this belief when she started college and met her first queer friend. Once I got to college and met [my friend], I got over that. I knew that…my lack of comfort with queer people was irrational. I later discovered that I myself was queer.” D now identifies as bisexual and gender-nonconforming.

Following this revelation about her identity and graduation from college, D began to resent being expected to attend church with her family. She also experienced unemployment after college, and “hated constantly being told to pray [about the situation], because I knew that that was not going to solve my problem; a job and moving out of my house was going to.” She slowly became more aware of the negative toll her religious upbringing and her family’s parenting style had taken on her mental health.

When discussing her current spiritual path, D still describes herself as a Christian, “though [I’d] say I am very liberal about it. Something I say to myself if I feel like I’m not being good enough is that Jesus loves everyone, including hoes…I don’t think that people really hate religion — people hate high demand religion.” She would like to resume church attendance when the pandemic is over, and is interested in exploring perspectives about the Bible beyond what she was taught growing up.

“I totally believe in a higher power and I never lost that belief…I am going to heaven whether or not I am in a same-sex relationship or a heterosexual one, no matter how I dress, no matter what I think, or no matter how often I read the Bible or don’t read it.”

Catholic life and marital strife: M.M.’s story

TW: mentions of spiritual abuse, parental neglect

Much like E. J.’s story, M. M.’s story is defined by familial trauma. “A Catholic priest nearly almost destroyed my parent’s marriage…My mother spent more time and energy with the church instead of family. She was very distant with [me and my father].” In an attempt to connect with his wife more, M’s father became actively involved with the church, “but she [was] still very distant and very rude towards him.” Meanwhile, the priest of her parish abused his position in the church with M’s mother, breaching his parishioner’s confidence with their confessions and calling M’s mother at odd hours, such as at three in the morning.

M still identifies as Catholic, but no longer participates in the church. “I’m aware of the good, the bad, and [the] ugly, but I choose to just live by the golden rule.”

“Flavors of disaster”: J.H.’s story

TW: heavy Kierkegaardian-level sh*t

J.H.’s current religious path draws from a variety of Christian and Eastern traditions, but his initial upbringing was strictly Pentecostal. He describes himself as a contemplative, quiet person who felt at odds with the “exuberant, shamanistic” worship styles of Pentecostalism. His church included practices such as “bark[ing] to scare the devil” and holy rolling [A/N: I highly recommend googling Youtube videos of holy rollers]. He recalls feeling a connection to the prophet Elijah and a “still small voice in a cave” (1 Kings 19:11–13) during his early years.

After being introduced to Eastern spirituality through the 1972 show Kung Fu, J explored Buddhism and Taoism and began to practice meditation. He still interpreted everything through the lens of his Christian faith, and became deeply interested in the concept of a mystical, deeper oneness with God as compared to the emotionalism of Pentecostalism. “Entering into the silence within really affected me.” It was during this time that the seeds of his future interest in the early church were sown.

While continuing to wrestle with his faith during his early adult years, J married, started a family, and joined the military. He developed a friendship with a spiritual mentor in the Pentecostal tradition who had strong anti-Catholic sentiments and was “concerned about me becoming more oriented to Catholicism.” J attended seminary after leaving the military, describing himself as a “late bloomer when it came to education and academics.” After reconnecting with a childhood friend of his, he learned about Russian Orthodoxy and began to study early church history.

J began “craving those early Christian practices: the liturgy, the ritual, the regular celebration of Holy Communion,” which were directly antithetical to his mentor’s persuasions and the rhetoric of his childhood church. He visited many monasteries and Catholic churches during this time, where he encountered Eastern Orthodox monks as well as Catholic clergy. He struggled with finding inner silence during times of prayer and meditation at these monasteries, never realizing how loud his own inner noise was. “I felt like I had ADHD…trying to pray, trying to be quiet, constantly trying to move around.” J also encountered a chapel next to a bookstore dedicated to spiritual exploration, which he would frequent to seek answers to his questions. During this time, he began to unlearn the concept of a wrathful god, and gravitated toward the Orthodox idea of salvation as a lifelong process.

J became ordained as a deacon in the Charismatic Episcopal church tradition in 1998, then as a priest in 2004. As a priest, he frequently engaged in interfaith dialogues with Hindu and Buddhist monks. However, his ongoing struggles with his faith and early traumas from the Pentecostal church created tension with his family and church leadership. “Being a priest is a lonely thing…everyone comes to you, but I had no one.” He became disconnected from his family and childhood best friend during this time, struggling to confide in anyone about his spiritual agonies.

Whenever J attended divine liturgy, “I felt like I was caught up to heaven…I was in a trance-like state for several days…” However, this spiritual state was transient, and within a week he would return to his normal state and all its accompanying spiritual conflicts. At the height of his spiritual struggles, J spoke with a Hindu teacher, who told him, “You need to re-invest yourself in your faith, your own mythology.” When J’s oldest child was not allowed to hold church membership as his parents were, the family eventually left the Charismatic tradition entirely and began to attend Greek Orthodox churches.

J practices Eastern Orthodoxy to this day, and his spiritual path is still influenced by his early explorations of Buddhism and Hinduism. “There is a mystical, contemplative direction in all these traditions.” J also practices Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophical tradition that emphasizes alignment with virtue, harmony with divine Reason, and indifference to both fortune and suffering. He draws inspiration from the saints and other influential figures in early Christianity, and rejects extreme and fundamentalist strains of Christianity. On confronting his own human shortcomings, J focuses on a transformational approach, asking himself, “How do I deal with my flavors of disaster?”

“We are not our attachments, our little I’s, we are something deeper…We have to bring our denying and affirming force together in spiritual conflict…If we are not doing our spiritual work, it doesn’t matter…we have become our own ego, our own fundamentalist. The great journey is [within].”

Doing it the “right” way: M. L.’s story

M.L. grew up in a “very Catholic” household until the age of twelve, when her family was excommunicated for taking communion at a Protestant church. “We had a period of about a year where we were going to Catholic Mass on Saturday evening and Protestant services Sunday morning.” M embraced Protestantism wholeheartedly while still holding to some of the Catholic teachings that she was raised with.

M described herself as a “perfectionist” who “wanted to really do my religion right.” She became heavily immersed in apologetics (the discipline of defending religious doctrines), a common practice in Calvinist strains of evangelical Christianity. She argued passionately for young-earth creationism — the idea that the world was created in a very short period of time [A/N: this particular teaching is only taught in particular strains of evangelical Christianity, and isn’t universally believed amongst all Christians]— and decried hyper-sexualized secular culture. M recalled being “neck-deep in purity culture” during this time, believing that it was wrong to even have “the appearance of sin” by spending time alone with the opposite sex.

M’s beliefs in purity culture later clashed with her realization that she was on the asexual/aromantic spectrum [A/N: asexual means not experiencing sexual attraction, aromantic means not experiencing romantic attraction; I refer to it as a spectrum because many asexuals/aromantics can experience limited capacities of sexual/romantic attraction, i.e. only after a close emotional bond with someone]. Her beliefs taught her that the path to full adulthood only opened with marriage and with a woman being under the headship of a man. This did not align with her desire for a close and intimate platonic friendship.

After graduating from college, M struggled with her mental health, which she says was influenced by how she was raised. “It took five years before I learned that my family and my upbringing had contributed heavily.” She describes her spiritual path as still Christian, but more individualistic. M still struggles with confidence in her convictions. “I’ve had to forge my own interpretation of it in order to feel like I’m being authentic with myself, and that makes me feel isolated and sometimes worried that I’m just creating convenient stories to make myself feel better…”

“How do I know what is true when my mind betrays me? How do I feel confident in a person I don’t always recognize in the mirror? It’s a painful, but empowering, process of going back over everything [from my past] and determining what’s helpful and what’s sabotaged me.”

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Questions, comments, and business inquiries: ajtanksley96@gmail.com

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A lifelong learner and poet, Anna Joy Tanksley writes about the intersection of philosophy, mental health, and spiritual identity.

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Anna Joy Tanksley

Anna Joy Tanksley

A lifelong learner and poet, Anna Joy Tanksley writes about the intersection of philosophy, mental health, and spiritual identity.

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