I've spent most of the past year in varying degrees of wandering from the church. This isn't the fault of the church, or at least not my church – I had issues that needed to be dealt with, and I think part of what I was doing was experimenting with not being religious. I couldn't go as far as atheism – that just wouldn't be honest on my part – but I would have described myself as agnostic for a while, and probably as partially agnostic even now.
Basically I went through a period where I just wasn't going to worry about God. I didn't try for any sort of spiritual discipline, I didn't concern myself with the church's teachings on morality, and I didn't go to church every week. For a few months, I didn't go at all. Then once I felt like I had a solid enough break, I started going back every now and then – once or twice a month. During this time, I was still not at all sure about the religious aspect, but I wanted to keep in touch with the community and keep my hand in for the occasional service project and the like.
I think the most important thing to note about this time is that it wasn't a disaster. Sometimes I hear stories along the lines of “I left the church, and my life just fell apart – I became morally bankrupt and totally lost my way and it wasn't until I hit rock bottom that I went back and got myself together.” It wasn't like that for me. For a good while, most of what I felt was relief. I wasn't trying to do things because I was “supposed to” anymore. I had Sunday mornings free, which gave me a bit more wiggle room in time management. I stopped trying to force myself to align with the religious moral ideals I'd been taught. This doesn't mean I lost all self-control. I didn't run out and rob banks because I don't want to. I didn't always act on my anger because I could see that doing so was likely to cause me more trouble than it was worth. I did give my emotions full reign inside my head – if I was having uncharitable thoughts, then I just went ahead and had uncharitable thoughts for as long as I felt like it. During this time, I described myself as amoral, and to some extent I still do. I don't find moral terms very useful – this doesn't mean that absolute right and wrong don't exist on some cosmic scale, just that the fact is that people don't all share the same moral ideas, so telling someone “You're morally wrong” is useless unless they share the same scale. Otherwise, you're just arguing over first principles. I find it much more effective to say (or at least think) “I cannot tolerate that action; if you persist in it, I am going to oppose you” without trying to convince either side of who's right. But that's all beside the point right now – material for another post.
So my life didn't fall apart when I left the church, I didn't become a raving psychopath, I didn't even experience anxiety about the state of my soul. So why go back? There were several reasons, but the one I'm going to look at right now is the fact that my basic nature seems to be more spiritual than otherwise. If I didn't concentrate on doing otherwise, I would slip back into approaching life from a religious perspective. If I didn't remind myself that I was agnostic, I would fall into the assumption that God existed. When I was at church, if I didn't concentrate on performing mental gymnastics and evaluating which part of the hymns and readings I could and couldn't believe in a literal sense, I would find myself swept up in the emotional meaning of the words. In my thoughts about what a good society would look like, I would find myself considering the gospel stories and taking them seriously. Add to that the fact that I still loved my church, and eventually I decided that it just wasn't worth the mental struggle. If I have to fight that hard to not be part of the church, maybe it's because, in fact, I am. I've still changed a lot as a result of my wandering, and some of it I think is good change that wouldn't have happened without my stepping away for a while, but now I don't need to be away anymore.