Losing my Religion
By Alana McConnell (she/her), illustrated by Kwok Yi Lee (he/him)
Alana reflects on her ever-changing relationship with religion, and wrestles with the weighty questions which inevitably arise.
My genealogy for as far back as I know is filled with Christians. It’s all I ever knew for a significant period of my life, permeating the fabric of who I was. My grandparents on my mother's side were missionaries who set up camp in the Amazon rainforest, feeling as if it were their duty to spread the word of God to those who were just going about their own business. They had good intentions of course. My grandmother was a nurse and my grandfather was a mechanic, so they used their practical abilities and gifts to help those around them in the process. My mother spent her formative years flying between Brazil and Scotland, living close to the edge of poverty, where her parents solely relied on donations from members of the congregation in Scotland. I’ve listened to many stories of what life was like back then for my mother, often involving the wide gap in wealth and class between my mother’s parents and my father’s parents. What they did have in common though, was religion.
My dad’s parents lived in Paisley, Scotland, in a two storey brick house with a manicured lawn on a quiet street. They were loyal members of Harper Memorial Church, and it’s no surprise that my parents met at a youth group social event when they were in their early teens. From there, my parents decided to move to Vancouver and start a life. As well as being a pastor of a Baptist church, my dad studied theology at Regent College. So many of my earliest memories involve church. When you are the daughter of a pastor you spend much of your time inside those walls.
I became Christian at the ripe age of four, boldly committing my life to God and accepting that Jesus died on the cross to wash away our sins. It was a source of comfort and security for me, and it made so much sense to my little under-developed brain. When I asked my mother about heaven, I was given the freedom to imagine a far away place up in the sky, where there is no pain and suffering, instead a huge feast featuring olives and my kitten Jojo frolicking in the grass. I knew I was going to heaven, and I knew that everyone I loved was also going to be there too. That could have been it for me, done and dusted, my worldview wrapped up in a nice little bow. But as I grew up so did the questioning, doubt and anxiety inside of me.
Church hallways were my free reign – I stole sugar cubes from the tea and coffee tray, and learned Bible verses off by heart in Sunday school. I loved singing worship songs, being an unnamed shepherd in the yearly nativity play and feeling like a little VIP pastor's daughter. It was blissful.
Christianity helped me develop deep sensitivity and a heart for those who were suffering. Vancouver has a huge homeless population and it broke me to see people sleeping rough on the streets. I befriended Angus, a homeless man who hung around the church. One day when I was around 7 I chatted with Angus at the back alley behind the church alone. I didn’t understand why my parents were so panicked when they couldn’t find me. I didn’t know about the potential danger of human beings. I didn’t know humans were capable of doing bad things because I was so innocent to the world around me, as a child should be. When I saw homeless people I couldn’t stop crying, I wanted so badly to help them, and my mother humoured me by helping me make turkey sandwiches one Thanksgiving and handing them out to anyone who wanted one.
I had a little notebook and I wrote down every homeless person I saw so I could pray for them, and every night before I went to sleep I got out the book and read off my list.
It’s not uncommon for someone to be raised in a certain religion and then as they enter adolescence to question their once strongly held beliefs and ideas about the world. Religion answers those hugely overwhelming questions, the ones which most of us don’t want to engage with. Why are we here, what happens when we die, what is our purpose, how to make sense of suffering. Religion gives people a sense of security, meaning and faith. In regions where there is high poverty, illness and violence, religion skyrockets. In countries that highlight liberal individualism, religion is declining. It makes sense, because if your life is filled with struggle, turning to a religion that explains that struggle and gives you a higher power to put your energy into can bring you comfort and peace.
When I was around the age of 13 or 14 things started to change around my views on religion. My parents enrolled my sister and me at a highly sought after Christian school which just had two openings pop up. I expected it to be a kind and accepting school with a welcoming and supporting community.
What I received was the ugly side of Christianity. I remember one morning our teacher played us a video comparing abortion to the holocaust, and because I had heard nothing challenging that view I began to believe it temporarily. The girls at school weren’t allowed to wear bikinis to the pool, or singlets on mufti day and the older girls had to wear ankle length school skirts. So many girls had promise rings, the purity culture was suffocating. Individualism was not allowed, there was a very narrow shape that you could fit into that was accepted. I only had one close friend and due to the nature of our tight-knit friendship in a hostile environment, rumours started that we were gay, only creating more distance and judgement from the students and teachers alike. I had a boy once spit on me and another boy refuse to share his food because I was a “lesbian”. I was shocked by this environment, and the feeling of social rejection was incredibly difficult for me to cope with as a new teenager who was already grappling with issues of self-esteem and trying to find a place in the world.
Alongside my less than pleasant experience at the Christian school, I found myself going deeper and deeper into my head at church. I kept hearing about the holy spirit, the power of prayer, stories about miracles and healings, and I just felt disconnected from it all. My doubt felt like this huge big secret I was carrying inside of me, though for all I knew it could have been within many of those in the congregation but no one was voicing it. When it was time for the altar call, a tradition in many churches for those who wish to make a spiritual commitment to God are invited to come up to the front and often be prayed for, I freaked out. It seemed like so many people were overcome by the power of the holy spirit, unable to contain their emotional responses, shaking, crying, even speaking in tongues. Why didn’t I feel any of this? Was there something wrong with me? Or was it an Emperor's New Clothes scenario, where lots of people had doubts within them but no one was voicing it? The answer always had to be God. I was told that it was okay to have doubts, to stray from the Lord and to go off the path, but you always had to go back to God.
I lost my religion when I lost my innocence in the world. It came at a time when I reached adulthood and my family structure fell apart, and I experienced loss of faith in the world and myself. I couldn’t make sense of suffering, of death, illness, disease, depression and pain. It felt so much closer to me than it ever did before. They were far off concepts in childhood but eventually I came face to face with them. Without a religious structure to fall back on, and with my sometimes excruciating sensitivity, I oftentimes feel overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world. I look for answers to explain it, and ask if there was a God, why would all these awful things happen? Like progressive nerve disease, like massacres, like cancer. Like a child being born into this world and only surviving a day. My heart breaks for the world in so many ways, the thought of the planet breaking down, human beings dying of heat, fire, drought and floods. If you can’t make sense of the world’s suffering and you are so highly attuned to it, it can break you, to the point where you don’t want to exist in the world anymore. I’ve said to people before that I hope there is something better after this life, there has to be. And not just for those who are “saved” and “converted”.
God probably won’t come down from heaven with a band of angels and speak to me personally confirming his existence (also, why is God a man?). I will never get a definite answer about these massive existential questions. It would feel very strange if I did. The practice of religion is undeniably appealing; it creates connection, comfort and can bring you inner peace. Who doesn’t want all of that? But with my ever-questioning mind I struggle to imagine myself finding a religion that I can 100% believe in and get behind. Of course, I wish I could go back to my childhood certainty, but right now all I can really do is keep wrestling with my own beliefs and understanding of the world.