A question often asked of those who are going through or who have gone through the deconstruction process is, “Where does Jesus fit in with whatever it is you believe now?” In other words, “Do you still believe in Jesus?” That question can be motivated out of genuine curiosity or out of fear. In my experience, those who ask out of curiosity are often those who are dipping their own toes into the waters of deconstruction and wonder to themselves if the baby can possibly be held onto while the dirty bathwater is being drained.

Before I fully deconstructed out of religion, I used to wonder the same thing as I observed people I know go through their own arduous process. I saw some hold onto the baby, and I saw some throw the baby out with the water. As I watched some leave religion behind, some renounce Jesus and some become atheists, I thought to myself, “I’ll never throw the baby out. I could never not believe in Jesus.” I assumed that people who ended up rejecting Jesus altogether probably felt it was necessary as part of the purging process. That if they didn’t start from a clean slate, they couldn’t start over at all. I figured it was either that or the trauma they went through was so horrific, any mention of Jesus was a trigger. So, get rid of the trigger. Of course, I now know it’s much more nuanced than either reason.

Then there are those who ask, “Do you still believe in Jesus?” due to fear. You’d think I’d have empathy for those questioners as well, but in the beginning of my deconstruction, I didn’t. It irritated the heck out of me. Why? Because it seems to me that many religious people are motivated to ask that question due to the very reason I finally let go of religion: its use of spiritual manipulation and abuse. Most of us have experienced it. Basically, it’s the idea that if you don’t believe the way I believe about God, you will be punished. That punishment can take many forms: ridicule, accusations of being deceived by Satan, labeled as a heretic, rejection by friends, abandonment by family, ostracism from church, and, of course, threat of eternal punishment in Hell.

Since when did beliefs become more important than behavior in terms of consequences? Oh, I know, since man wanted to control others through religion. What better way to manipulate humans than through fear? Being made to doubt your own intuition and rationality, loss of loved ones, rejection by your community and, ultimately, destruction of your very soul strike fear in the heart of most humans.

Nowadays, it’s no longer a sore spot for me. I feel compassion for those in authoritarian, controlling religions who have been manipulated so much for so long that they have lost the ability to conceive that life outside of religion is not only possible, it can be much more liberating and peace-filled and wondrous than life inside of religion. After all, they, too, are victims of the system.

Anytime you are asked to profess a belief in something “or else,” you are being manipulated. If you “believe in Jesus”—whatever that means to you—my hope for you is that your belief is not motivated out of fear.

If you are still tempted to ask me, “Do you believe in Jesus,” ask yourself why you are asking me. It’s possible you are a victim of spiritual manipulation and abuse.