Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How did it feel to officially leave the church?

By Ami
This is the first in a series of monthly essays paid for by our Patreon sponsors. Thank you!

The letter arrived on a Friday afternoon as I was cleaning the house, a habit so ingrained I still can’t break it, even after many years without any belief in the Sabbath. I read the letter leaning against the kitchen sink with soap suds still clinging to my wrists, and I laughed out loud. More than a year after writing to my "home church" asking to have my name removed from membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, I was finally officially free, and this awkwardly worded missive was, essentially, a receipt for my soul.

I wanted to remove my name from the books for a variety of reasons. The simplest was that I wanted to be done with my Adventist past. I wanted to be able to think of the Adventist church as “them” not “us.” This turned out to be impossible, of course, but it is what I wanted when I sent my renunciation letter.

The catalyst for finally writing that letter was an article about “de-baptism.” Around the time I became confident in my atheism, de-baptism was something of a fad with former believers. Websites offered “official” de-baptism certificates, and there were some fairly high-profile cases of former Catholics suing to have their names expunged from church books. The article I read explained that former believers might officially remove their names from church membership for personal closure and in order to stop artificially swelling the ranks of organizations they no longer believed in.

That second reason is especially significant in countries where specific churches hold a lot of political power because of the way statistics can be used to validate political action. “Hey, don’t blame me,” a politician might say. “I’m just representing my constituents, and most of them are Catholic, and Catholics don’t want gay marriage.” Even though many who are still counted as church members no longer attend church or agree with their former church on major issues, those misleading membership numbers bolster the legitimacy and political voice of church leaders. I didn’t want a novelty de-baptism certificate; I wanted my name removed from that count.

I researched how to remove one’s membership from the Adventist church. Fortunately it’s much easier for Adventists than for Catholics. Former Adventists must write a letter to the board of their home church asking to be removed. It took weeks to write that letter. I knew exactly who would read it. I knew whose feelings might be hurt, who might call my mom, who might call me. I was also painfully aware that I was renouncing my faith officially--the exact thing Satan had been gunning for in my imagination since I was a child.

I'd like to say that the moment in the kitchen was a dramatic one, but I felt a curious letdown. I imagine this is what one feels when, after years of separation, they finally receive their divorce papers. On the one hand, it was undoubtedly an important moment of closure; on the other, the people who read my renunciation and wrote the letter releasing me hadn’t truly had a hold on me for a long time. The surprising lack of emotion I felt was proof of that. Freedom was a thing I would continue to make for myself, even if I always clean on Fridays.