The peace, comfort, and happiness I saw on so many faces was the truest and most profound gift to me. Thank you, my friends.
The cliche´ “everyone has a story,” was never more true than it was at the First Annual Recovering from Religion Excursion. We had ’em and we told ’em. For many it was cathartic.
Another memorable moment occurred on our last night together. A group of us, accompanied by three wonderful guitar players were singing our lungs and I suspect, our hearts, out. We were in fine form. As someone who loves music, I know! One of our group became emotional. I saw the early stages. The song? A personal memory? I felt it best to leave him alone in his thoughts.
Then, although fighting it, he began to cry. I later learned that the Christian Matrix had dictated that only certain music, played a certain way, was appropriate. This person chaffed at the restrictions and eventually “lost” his music.This very night, at this very moment, we witnessed him finding “his music” again. Part of his freedom to be “ME.” What an extraordinary experience. Would that it be more common for more people.
Having just returned from the first-ever Recovering from Religion Fall Excursion, I am reflecting on the experience in all of its experimental glory. One year ago, we asked: What if we built a religion recovery event around a weekend, in a retreat setting, with therapists and volunteers available, with timely topics related to morality, sexuality, and community, post-religion? Would people attend? Could we build a structure that would be helpful, welcoming, and affirming?
Boy, did we get answers. What a profound, refreshing, and at the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, life-changing event this was.
The setting: the cool mountains of North Carolina in cozy lodges;
the agenda: to create a peaceful space for sharing stories and nurturing friendships;
the presentations: deep dives into religious intrusion and human vulnerability;
the objective: to provide hope and healing to those struggling with doubt and nonbelief;
all came together to create an experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.
On a beautiful fall Friday afternoon in September, where the table was both figuratively and literally set, attendees began arriving: by plane and automobile, checking into cabins, meeting one another, exploring the retreat grounds with its ponds, waterfalls, and bonfire rings. Informal chats began, with the common thread being a history of exposure to religious dogma and indoctrination. Couples, parent and adult child, singles, friends – all working through the awkward first moments of introduction, melting immediately into comfortable conversation, and a tangible sensation of relaxation and acceptance that this was a warm and affirming space to share.
The announcement at the opening about limiting screen time to enhance the weekend was unnecessary – no one wanted to miss a moment. Email, texts, and social media lost their position of priority for a few short days.
The weekend included informative presentations (Why are we vulnerable to accepting unsubstantiated beliefs? How do we reclaim our sexuality? Why do irrational fears of a tortuous afterlife imbed into our brains? How can we live a happy healthy nonreligious life?),
a hike on a small portion of the Appalachian Trail,
loads of carefully-prepared and beautifully-presented food and snacks,
joyful and hilarious karaoke with our very own Mandisa,
and loads and loads of sharing, talking, laughing, and hugging.
And then, just like that, it was over. It was time to return to our busy lives. The simplicity of that reality belied the progress so many had made. We were not sure when we planned this event where on the spectrum of belief our guests would fall. My conclusion was: almost all of our new friends had done the difficult academic work of examining their religious beliefs, found them wanting from lack of evidence, and discarded them. However, many of them, as do many former believers, had gotten stuck right there. Coming out to one’s family and loved ones, finding and building a community of freethinking friends, deliberating and creating a humanism-based morality were all significant tasks that lay ahead.
It is our deepest hope, as we gave yet another round of goodbye hugs, exchanged contact information, and headed off for all points of the compass, that our guests will return to their lives inspired, informed, and energized to continue rebuilding their lives, free from dogma, cognizant of the relics of indoctrination, and as said by Robert Ingersoll, to stand “erect and fearlessly, joyously, face all worlds.”
To the donors who provided the means,
To Shanon who had the seed of the idea, nurtured the growth, and brought it to life,
To the volunteers who gave of their time and effort,
and mostly to the guests who leaned in and opened up and embraced the offering,
our deepest gratitude.