The Palpable Sense of Loss in Losing One's Religion



Often our queer friends are being told that their sexuality is a "lifestyle choice." But ask many people who grew up in evangelicalism and are queer, and they'll say, "Why would I choose this?" For all the marginalization, the askance looks, the outright excommunication, the loathing and self loathing that often comes into play, you really do have to ask, is this something anyone would choose?


The same can be said for losing your religion (which, if you don't know, is as much a metaphorical statement as it is literal). Why would anyone choose to leave the spiritual community they were raised in? It's not natural. It's a loss, even as it is vitally necessary.


Here's the second installment from the chapter on Kate Young Caley from my book Lost Faith and Wandering Souls, where you'll see the palpable sense of loss, even in a five year old child. Excerpts are from The House Where the Hardest Things Happened, by Kate Young Caley.


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Looking back at the years that follow, Caley clearly sees herself as a child who was suffering a powerful loss. Who knows how well she understood her feelings at the time, but looking back, she writes in the pages of her memoir:


"[I]t was so hard to get used to the long, empty hours of Sunday mornings with no more church: no Sunday school teachers who loved me, no felt-board Bible stories, no take-home craft, and no sweaty coins gathered in my palm awaiting their clunk into the offering plate. Without our church service there was silence where my father and mother’s voices had once melted together in victorious song above me.


"My Sunday mornings were quiet now. Empty. I was ten years old and longing for a way to find my way back to God.


"Was there no one who noticed that I really, really missed church? That I was sad? Ate a lot? Slept a lot?"


From the first day of the vote Caley has seen her life as having been indelibly altered. Her symbols of ultimacy, a world that had been so carefully and passionately defined, had been taken away from her and her family. If she was seen by someone from the church in town, she was not spoken to or acknowledged. The sense of isolation was also reinforced by the fact that, soon after the vote, the Youngs purchased a farm outside of Moultonborough. The farm was for them an escape, which in Caley’s mind was the only way the family could retake possession of their lives, to preserve and create their family in a place that no one but themselves could define and control. Caley regards the farm as “the landscape I would rely on all my life.”And yet the fact that her parents never made the attempt to find a new church still puzzles her. It was as if, in the attempt to find a safe place free from judgmentalism, they also exiled themselves from expressing their faith in a communal setting. Having agreed to the covenant themselves, it was perhaps all too clear to her father and mother that they no longer belonged.


For the family, we can speculate that the breaking of the covenant became a persecutory object of transgression. Not having met with forgiveness, support, and understanding, the vote left the Youngs to enter a conflict between their shame over having broken the covenant and the anger toward an environment that could be so cruel. As a result, their concern for group-defining rules and identity completely abandoned them; and in terms of their relation to their own God imagoes, the Youngs shut down, and in a sense, abandoned themselves. They were now left to fend for and care for their own spiritual lives, or at worst, deny any need for spiritual life at all. It was as if a child had been cast off by her parents, left to tend to her own needs for nourishment, growth, and development. As Caley reflects, the farm represented a place she could always count on as the place where she and her family’s attachment to objects of ultimacy could suffer no further damage—and yet also a place that provided little opportunity for reparation. The farm was a powerful source of retreat and would remain one in her mind’s eye. She writes:


"[W]hen the lines get drawn, too often, I am on the other side. I’m the girl who was told, “Your mother is a bad woman,” Or, more recently, “I would not want you to lead our Sunday school unless you sign this statement against homosexuality.” It has been implied, over and over, “You really aren’t one of us unless you use the same words we use to talk about God.”

And what do I do with these stands that leave me out?


"I get away from the crowd and try to be still and know God. I go back to the woods of my girlhood. I sit and stare at small, perfect ferns. Sometimes I sing. Or turn to words Jesus said when he was here among us. I read, “Come unto me, all you who labor, and I will give you rest.” That’s what Jesus said."


What is the labor Caley is referring to in quoting this scripture? Could it be that she lives in her psyche with sharply drawn lines between good and bad symbols of ultimacy day after day, year after year?


Caley is quite aware that the vote cast by those church members so long ago made a lasting impact on her faith. In a conversation she has with her mother, in preparation for writing her memoir, Caley recreates the scene of the vote, finding herself growing angrier, not just at the congregation, but at her mother, who seemed unable or unwilling to recall the details Caley so hungrily sought. In Caley’s view, her mother should be equally angered; instead, June appears distraught. Caley’s anger at the First Church of God is being placed, in some significant part, on her mother. Yet Caley also points out that her mother was only in her twenties at the time, with three small children and a sick husband, and that no one offered her an alternative to the job she took:


"I stared at her. I was incredulous as I watched my mother cry and heave that old shame. I didn’t know what to say. . . .


"I found myself losing my breath. It was not like I was sitting beside my mother in the house where she lives alone, years after my father died. It was as if it was thirty-five years ago and I was in the newly finished sanctuary of the First Church of God in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. And I am there, as the woman I am now. I am my mother’s protector. And I am not going to stand for any of this.


“God,” I call out. “Mrs. Nichols, Ginny Muzzy, somebody—please, listen to me.” I am crying. “Don’t kick my mother out. Please. There are some things we are never going to find again.”[v]


Here Caley relives the senselessness of being excommunicated, angrily pleading with God and the church members in her memory. The moment marks a turning point from persecution to pining when Caley envisions herself in the role of a mother to her mother, who is now a child, something innocent and good, that Caley must defend. Instead of living in withdrawn, self-recriminating numbness, she comes out fighting, and in so doing identifies and recovers, in the person of her mother, something of herself that she lost so long ago.


Identifying the people who instigated a sense of betrayal, moreover, is another illuminating piece in the recovery of faith. In Caley’s mind, throughout her life she had always thought that those who voted her mother out were strangers. It was not until she probed and plied her mother for answers, and in soliciting details from some old friends of June and Dick Young—who likewise left the church after the Youngs had left—that it came out one night.


The two women who June remembered motioning to ban her from the church were the same people with whom she had studied the Bible, knitted articles of clothing, and exchanged hours of childcare. They were women that Caley still sees from time to time even as an adult. “Two ordinary people took our church from us.” It was their simple, blithely committed acts of exclusion that makes Caley now wonder, “To how many generations do the actions of that one, particular winter extend?” With the knowledge that the acts of those who kicked her mother out of church were the acts of friends, Caley’s grief takes a further step, a realization that the hurt cuts deeper than an abuse by a stranger or someone who can be demonized and conquered in personal fantasies. The damage was done to the ability to trust, not just others, but to also the ability to trust one’s own capacity to judge who can or cannot be trusted. It becomes a matter both of perceiving what is wrong with the environment and of what is wrong with the self, and understanding which perceptions are valid. Not only had Caley been implicated in the original transgression of her mother, and relegated in perpetuity to an outgroup, she had also been rendered—most especially by her self-recrimination—incapable of ever participating in a group.


See the first entry here.

See the next post, coming soon.

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David R. Morris

I work to glean helpful information to bring you new ways to move forward spiritually. I'm an independent scholar, writer, and longtime religious publishing professional. My goal is to help us all rewire our American religious imagination. That's something to lean into.