It was an honor to have read this memoir by Sarah Henn Hayward before its official release in November 2023. I wish I’d had it by my side 25+ years ago when I was fumbling through my own deconversion. It would have felt like the friend I didn’t have at the time.
First, I will tell you what Giving Up God is not. It is NOT a preachy tome that tries to argue everyone into their own deconstruction. It is not a dramatic story of extreme religious trauma, nor is it a flashy tale of overnight deconversion. It is, rather, a relatable, gentle journey from extreme belief to curious wonder. It is, in some ways, a story not unlike my own. Like me, Sarah Henn Hayward was a middle class white kid who grew up in the culture of evangelical Protestant Christianity – the conservative kind, but not the most extreme kind. Like many of us who were coming of age in the ‘90s and ‘00s, she was saddled with the church’s pressure and repression of purity culture and the evangelical imperative to spread the gospel. But unlike some folks’ experiences in higher-control churches, hers was more moderate, and she was fortunate to have parents who were tethered to reality. Hayward also shares about her childhood battle with scoliosis; fortunately, their Christian community was the kind that held a prayer vigil when she went into surgery, not the kind that discouraged medical care.
Hayward’s story of eventual departure from religion was not an abrupt emotional reaction to abuse or trauma, but equally moderate. Instead, Hayward writes about attending university and traveling abroad, during which she experienced a gradual intellectual and spiritual unwinding as she became acquainted with the complexities of the world, the variety of people in it, and the infinite beliefs and perspectives that exist throughout. Over time, she evolves from the rigid, black-and-white-thinking of traditional evangelical belief to the complex, less-tidy philosophizing of a “poetic naturalist.”
And while this kind of story may not serve reality-TV-level melodrama, it is, instead, familiar. And I suspect it will feel familiar to many others out there as well. While I find stories like the “quiverfull” Duggar kids’ quite captivating, and downright infuriating, I don’t necessarily find them personally validating. In some ways, those extreme stories can do the opposite for some. I did not experience extreme physical or sexual abuse in my childhood or adolescence. A lot of my church youth group memories are actually positive. While I, too, was subjected to purity culture, indoctrination and repression, I was also, like Hayward, encouraged to go to college, and encouraged to wait to get married (albeit, definitely to a man, and definitely as a virgin). So when I first learned terms like religious harm, religious trauma, and later, the more formal “adverse religious experiences,” I wasn’t sure that they applied to me. (I am now quite aware that I and so many others have been harmed by religion, just in less obvious, nuanced ways, especially as a queer person.)
Maybe you’re more like me than the Duggar kids. You may ask yourself, am I allowed to walk away from my church and my faith, even if it didn’t harm me in “big” ways? Was my moderate evangelical church experience really THAT significant in shaping who I am? What if I just don’t agree with the belief system anymore, is that enough to leave? Or you may wonder… is my personal/philosophical/spiritual journey a story worth telling, even without major issues of control or abuse? Hayward gives us a big fat YES to all of it with this book.
And, side note – Hayward is a physical therapist. She’s not a former minister, or a mental health professional, or a social scientist. In other words, she is a layperson, a regular Jane, who simply knew the importance of bravely sharing her story. Something in her needed to put it out there and knew there would be an audience who would benefit. And I think she was right.
Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your journey with us. I see myself in your story, and I think others will benefit in knowing they’re not alone.