Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog

The Long, Bumpy Road of Religious Deconstruction

I was raised in an extremely religious environment. My parents were non-denominational Christians and we lived at a Southern Baptism that my parents helped run. Every week, different church groups came to rent cabins, eat at the dining hall, enjoy the lakes and forest, and get closer to God.


So I was inundated in Christian messages: What it took to be saved. How horrible hell was. All of the different kinds of sin. All the things I could do right or wrong. What it meant to “walk with Christ.”


The trouble was, Christ never made sense to me. And I didn’t care about salvation. I wasn’t particularly interested or motivated by what happened to me when I died. And when I did think about it, worshiping at Jesus’s feet for eternity didn’t appeal to me.


But I certainly cared about my family and everyone around me. I wanted to be accepted, to fit in, and deemed a “good” kid. And that meant being a Christian - a believer, a disciple of Christ.


So I tried. Over and over. But it just didn’t add up. I had too many questions. I saw too many conflicting messages and standards.


Even when I moved away for college, I kept trying to go to church, joining different Bible studies and more. I was incredibly confused, sad, and filled with conflicting thoughts. Which makes sense. I don’t think there was anything wrong with me - I was having a normal reaction to an environment and belief system that did not fit me.


A year after I graduated college, I met a Mormon whose dad had just died. I had just learned my mom was going to die, and we had lots of deep discussions.


A picture of a hand over abstract designed backgrounds in a mixed media collage.
"Wanting Out" Mixed media collage by Jackie Schuld

I soon learned that Mormonism had lots of good answers for the things that never made sense to me. For example, Mormons didn’t believe in heaven and hell. They believed in degrees of separation from God. And the degrees weren’t torture - it was based on how comfortable someone would be in being separated from God.


They also focused FAR more on living a good, positive life, instead of the focus on sin, Satan, salvation from hell, temptations, and other scary things that I grew up with. I also had extended family members who were LDS, and they truly lived what they believed.


I still didn’t believe in Christ, but I decided to have faith I would get there. I liked so much of the other teachings - like that they had prophets that clarified scripture (instead of people defending whatever argument they wanted with the Bible). Mormonism provided me a way to finally make Christianity work for me.


It was a rough start. My parents were furious (they felt I was going to go to hell), which only became worse when I decided to serve a mission. My mother was so upset that “I was going to be using my talents to drag people to hell” that she didn’t talk to me for the first three months of my mission. My father resigned from all leadership roles in his church because he felt he shouldn’t lead others if he couldn’t lead his own daughter (please don’t get me started on the amount of misogyny and patriarchy there). Their actions only further reminded me why I didn’t want anything to do with the Christianity I grew up with. Though I did miss my family.


On my mission, my role was to teach others about the church. I soon realized that meant teaching all of the lessons (which I was still learning) and following all of the rules (which I was also still learning). I realized I didn’t like everything. I saw investigators (what we called people who were interested in the church) truly struggle with some of the doctrine. For example, one woman wanted to get baptized, but couldn’t because she couldn’t pay tithing. Her husband didn’t agree with the church and wouldn’t let her contribute the required 1/10th of her income to the church.


As we brushed up against these things over and over, it became abundantly clear I couldn’t endorse or live by everything the church taught. For example, I think homosexuality is natural and fine. The church teaches that it’s ok to have homosexual feelings, but you cannot act on them. That sounds like torture to me. I also realized there were bigger theological concerns, such as what it took to make it to the celestial kingdom and certain covenants made in the temple.


When I returned home, I left the church. My parents were thrilled and I had the chance to repair my relationship with my mother before she died from cancer in 2014.


I was incredibly and understandably devastated by her death. I didn’t know how to cope and I tried the old ways I had been taught - turning to Christ. But again, every attempt I made I brushed up against something I didn’t like. I still didn’t care for Christ or Salvation. My last straw at the church I was attending was when the pastor advocated going to a planned parenthood protest. I fully support abortion and a woman’s right to choose and I couldn’t stand for a protest being the way they chose to live their Christianity to the fullest (Christians are allowed to have their beliefs too, but they could live them by supporting pregnant women, new mothers, and in other life-affirming capacities).


I did not return to the church.


And so, I coped with my grief on my own, pouring myself into my art and making a book about grief. I eventually decided to seek professional help and saw a psychiatrist. This got me started on the path of regular, consistent counseling and the long road to understanding how I ended up where I was.


When I started counseling, I thought something was wrong with me. What I couldn’t see then was that my reactions were normal given the belief systems and environment I grew up in.


I had been doing my very best. Through counseling, I was able to examine different beliefs I had been taught. I was literally challenging the core constructs of my identity - what it meant to be a “good” person (I had always been taught to put others before myself), what were appropriate thoughts (I had been taught that to think ill of anyone or anything was sin), what were acceptable feelings (I had been taught anger is sin and that I should give all other negative emotions to Christ), and more. It was a lot to work through, and it was very confusing at times.


I didn’t even know there was a word for the process I was going through: religious deconstruction.


In many ways, I think I was trying to religiously deconstruct ever since religion was imposed on me as a child. I think my childhood self was deconstructing what didn’t feel good or add up. Even my misstep into the LDS church was me trying to find my way.


It wasn’t until I sought therapy and non-religious help though that I truly began to reconnect with my self. I was no longer being encouraged to look to an external source for power and guidance. I was being taught how to look inward and trust myself.


That process began six years ago when I was 30. In many ways, six years is not long at all. And yet, if I were to tell my 30 year-old self at the time, “Hey, this process is going to take you six years,” I probably would have sobbed in despair. I wanted to be healed instantly (which is another religious belief I had to grapple with).


I also wouldn’t say that I’ve reached the point of the process being complete. I’ve learned enough now that I know I will continue to discover new things about myself and evolve. But I do feel drastically different than I did before. I feel far more peace, joy, and self-acceptance. I understand why I never felt like I belonged (because I didn’t belong in that world) or why there was something wrong with me (I was made to feel the problem was me - not the religious environment or constructs).


I feel no guilt or shame when I say I do not believe in Christ and I am not concerned about my salvation. For someone who didn’t grow up as I did, this may not seem like a big deal at all. But given I was taught that Christ was ALL that mattered - it’s truly a huge shift.


I am grateful for where I am today. Although I do not want to return to my past, I am grateful for the experiences I had. I grew up in a very strange, insular way and that gave me a unique perspective of the world. Being an outsider has its assets. It helps you see things others don’t and think of things differently. I think it has contributed to me being a better therapist, writer, and human. It also helps me relate and empathize better with people who are searching for their own identities.


My past afforded me the opportunity to completely reconstruct myself for myself.


So maybe religious deconstruction needs to be paired with “self construction.” For that’s really what we’re doing in religious deconstruction. We’re removing all that doesn’t feel good so we can truly know ourselves and construct an identity and life that honors that.

 

Thank you for reading. If you would like to work together on your religious deconstruction, you can learn more here

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