Finding myself through losing my religion

A student reflects on being raised religiously and embracing her true self after leaving the church.


As a young child, weekends were my sanctuary — a cherished time to escape the treacherous confines of elementary school and embrace the simple joys of cartoons and sleeping past 7 a.m. However, my bliss was shattered every Sunday morning like clockwork when my mom would barge into my bedroom and force me to get ready for church. 

Even from my earliest memories, going to church was associated with misery. It was long, boring and confusing, and I never made it easy on my Catholic mother who was simply trying to get her three children through the doors of the steeple. 

I laid in bed until the last possible minute, fought with her about the Sunday best attire she had picked out for me and complained about having to sit through mass the entire car ride there. Once we made it inside, I went through the motions with disdain, reading proverbs, exchanging peace-be-with-yous and singing along to hymns, while simultaneously wishing I could be anywhere else on Earth. 

As much as I disliked church, sometimes I was consumed with guilt for not eagerly wanting to sacrifice my Sunday mornings to God. Even as an elementary school student, I knew that a “good” Catholic would never fight with their mom about attending a service. A good Catholic would willingly bound down the aisle with a big smile, zealous for spiritual fulfillment — a desire I never felt.

When it was time to complete my first Sacrament of Penance, or confession to the priest, at 7 years old, I knew exactly what to tell him. I approached him with shaking hands as he sat alone in a pew, seemingly waiting to unleash his ancient wisdom and unbridled judgment upon me.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned, this is my first Confession,” I mumbled. 

I picked at my cuticles and avoided eye contact while confessing the venial atrocities I had committed. 

“Sometimes I argue with my mom about going to church. Sometimes I’m mean to my older brothers. Sometimes I lie about doing my homework.”

The priest agreed I had made mistakes, but catered to my fearful energy with gentle guidance. He reminded me that going to church was a good thing and God wouldn’t appreciate seeing me fight with my mom or siblings.  

I was told to recite several prayers once I was alone, like Hail Marys and Our Fathers, to make up for what I had done. I stood up to leave, my cheeks flushed red and my mind overwhelmed with shame, somehow feeling worse than I had when I first sat down.

“I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Father said as we both made the sign of the cross in front of our upper bodies. 

That moment set a precedent that even as an innocent child, I needed the church to relieve me of my wrongdoings, regardless of what they were. If I didn’t seek forgiveness from God, I was doomed to divine retribution for straying from the path of righteousness.

“Amen,” I croaked back. 

By second grade, my weekly religion classes taught me that people were born selfish sinners who could only be absolved by being born again through the spirit of God. My religion, something that was supposed to bring me comfort and purpose, was synonymous with guilt. 

The fear of sin quickly controlled me, causing overwhelming anxiety about an almighty God banishing me to the depths of hell for small and juvenile mistakes. This feeling manifested itself as crippling stress in my daily life, where I would incessantly panic over disappointing a higher power I wasn’t sure I even believed in.

The guilt and confusion I felt prevented me from seeing my religion as a beacon of love and enlightenment because I was so focused on perceiving it as a sinister being that existed only to keep me in line.

I spent almost an hour every night for most of my adolescence reciting prayers into the void, begging for forgiveness. I rattled them off like a task to be completed rather than a sacred practice that would strengthen my relationship with God. 

I grew increasingly resentful of my time spent in church and theology class with each passing Sunday. The rituals and traditions were burdensome, and while I tried my hardest to connect with my religion, my rational thinking always got in the way of the spiritual nature I needed to truly accept and follow Catholic scripture.

During theology lessons, I wondered why it was silly to believe in ghosts or aliens, but it was expected to believe that Jesus could multiply fish and bread or even exist as the product of a virgin mother. I couldn’t comprehend why we were taught that God loved everyone equally while the Catholic church simultaneously pushed away those who were gay or used birth control.

I questioned how one God could hear so many prayers at once during mass. When I saw war or mass shootings on the television at home, I struggled to accept that a well-intentioned deity would impose so much suffering on his children. 

Above all, when I was alone at night, I wondered why God’s presence in my life only served to make me feel bad if he truly loved me as much as I was told he did. 

Despite my growing disillusionment with Catholicism, I couldn’t shake the deep-seated belief that I was somehow failing as a person by questioning the religion in which I was raised. I felt even more shame when I secretly yearned for an escape from the oppressive shackles of my faith. 

One day when I was 14, I was standing in my church’s lobby before mass when a flyer on the bulletin board next to me caught my eye. The colorful, well-designed leaflet was inviting patrons to join in a picket at a local Planned Parenthood to spread the message of respecting the unborn.

I felt that all too familiar religious guilt once again, but this time it was for the women who would walk into that clinic and be harassed by members of my church, who were supposed to be the epitome of morality and kindness.

The 2016 presidential election was just months away, galvanizing political division and impassioning social movements at an unprecedented level. Issues like LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights and misogyny were deeply intertwined with the teachings of Catholicism, and I could no longer ignore the harm my religion was causing people under the guise of Jesus’ word. 

I had no desire to associate with an institution that would exclude certain people from God’s supposed unconditional and all-encompassing love, or condone acts of hatred and intimidation based on ancient doctrine.  

While my relationship with religion had been on shaky ground for a while before that moment, it freed me to accept my detachment from Catholicism and for the first time in years, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. 

Religion was once the foundation of who I was, and I was initially scared of losing myself as it fell by the wayside. I uncovered great pain in the thought that I was going to burn in hell once I stepped away from God, but I found myself in just as much pain sitting in a Catholic church and praying to a being that didn’t speak to who I was. 

Not praying or going to church anymore doesn’t make me a bad person, but being religious and believing in God was never what made me a good person. I came to realize that my self-worth didn’t need to be contingent upon my adherence to Catholicism or the approval of some higher being, regardless of how I was raised.

Escaping the guilt and restriction of my faith allowed me to embrace a more legitimate understanding of my own spirituality, one that celebrates the inclusion and acceptance of all individuals regardless of their beliefs or identities.

For some, religion can serve as a source of solace and guidance, and for others like me, it was a lifelong burden that catalyzed anguish. I will never question or judge the positive religious experiences of other individuals, just as I hope they can respect mine.

Faith is complex and inherently personal, and while I may come back to it one day, I’m at peace with the path I’ve chosen and am working to navigate how the experiences I had affect me today. 

Navigating life post-Catholicism has not been without its challenges, but it has also been a great source of growth, self-discovery and liberation. Embracing this departure from my religion allowed me to be the most empowered, authentic version of myself, guided only by my values and morals and free to cherish life’s journey with an open heart and an open mind.

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