Several months ago I came across a fantastic interview with therapist Paige Palmer on The How-To-Heretic podcast Episode 5 entitled “Quantum of BullSh**t.” It was such a helpful interview, providing extremely practical tips on how best to navigate the path out of religion, that I went ahead and summarized it into bullet points, and added some of my own comments to this excellent conversation.
Leaving religion can be hugely stressful and traumatic, and is an extremely difficult decision to make — once you realize that you’ve lost your former belief system. There’s every chance that you’ll lose your relationships with friends and family; you may well experience shunning, emotional blackmail, attempts to manipulate you back into the fold via passive-aggressive behavior, physical violence, etc.
What is important to understand in this connection is that for those still within the religious system or cult group, your leaving represents a tremendous threat to their own sense of security and well-being. If it happened to you, then it could well happen to them. They may view you as an “intellectual or spiritual contagion” that, like a deadly virus, can spread quickly and do a great amount of damage unless stopped in its tracks. They may well reason that the best way to do that is to cut their losses and forsake their relationship with you, lest you infect them.
Below are the helpful tips that Paige gave in the podcast interview for how to come out of religion.
- Don’t be in a hurry — as we deal with a crisis of faith, and it’s clear that we’re no longer part of the believing community, often a sense of urgency sets in. There’s a notion that just because you are experiencing an existential crisis that you have to act quickly. But this is not the case, advises Paige: take your time, get grounded, figure out who you are and what your beliefs are, going forward. Not everybody is in the same boat when they’re coming out as a non-believer. It’s not limited to any particular belief system or religion. Expect a tremendous backlash in certain situations as you come out (living in the American Bible Belt, for example may impact upon you financially or career-wise). For those in potentially physically dangerous situations (for example some Muslims, Jews, or those underage teens whose parents may literally kick them out), they have to be very careful how they go about it.
- People in your former religion have a tremendous amount of vested interest in keeping you in the faith — expect a tremendous emotional reaction by loved ones who are still in the system. As mentioned above, if it happened to you, it could well happen to them. In the case of evangelical parents, for example, they are genuinely fearful and concerned that now you, their beloved son or daughter, face the very real danger of an eternity in Hell. They want to see you move “back on the path” of righteousness, and so will feel a large sense of concern, fear and unease as they watch you try to differentiate yourself from your former faith or religious group.
- There will be a sense of betrayal — this works in two ways:
A. Among those who are still in — they feel betrayed that we’ve left the faith of which we were once a part. This is even more acute for those of us who were in positions of leadership (pastors, church leaders, etc.)., and spent much of our time teaching and proselytizing others into the religion.
B. By those who’ve left — we may feel betrayed by the fact that people whom we loved and trusted us led us astray. Did those authority figures in whom we placed such trust actually lie to us and misrepresent the truth? In some cases, yes; in most cases, however, maybe not intentionally or wittingly. But the bottom line is this: we feel betrayed that they didn’t do their “due diligence” and presented us with material that was represented as absolutely true (but may end up being completely inaccurate or historically disprovable, like the Book of Mormon). We may tell ourselves: “All the stuff you raised me to believe as true turned out to be a lie; at the very least, much of it is scientifically or historically unreliable.” No wonder we may feel betrayed by those in whom we placed our absolute trust.
4. What’s your circumstance? If you’re going to suffer financially, and/or lose your entire social network, then you need to move carefully when you are coming out of the religion. Think through what the financial and social implications may be before you make your move and announce to friends and family that you’re leaving the religion. In certain places it may cost you your employment (if you’re a pastor, then definitely it will!); in some cases you may be kicked out of the house by your parents; and finally, in certain parts of the world, it is physically dangerous to announce that you no longer believe (as in, for example, some Islamic countries, or in certain fundamentalist Jewish sects).Ultimately, then, you should make a plan — develop a long-term strategy for how you’re going to do this (taking into account finances, employment, future employability, the social cost, etc).
5. What are you going to use your anger for? Many of us, upon leaving religion, obsess about it. We find message boards or social media groups dedicated to debunking the teachings of the group, and rant about how we were hurt and traumatized by our time in the religion. This is absolutely part of the journey, and certainly needs to be processed through in a healthy way. The major issue is, however, if we end up staying in the anger phase for too long, it can become very unhealthy and toxic. Upon leaving, the resulting anger and sense of betrayal can take a multiplicity of paths, and can be incredibly mobilizing: but — in the service of what? What do you want to do with your anger? Options include:
A. Are you trying to “save your family from believing?” This strategy can work, but more often blows up in your face and you end up losing your family. Typically, the most effective results are shown over many years’ patient and respectful conversations rather than an angry confrontation. People will tend to double down and dig in, defending their belief system all the more when they feel attacked and threatened.
B. Are you seeking to get them out of the religion? Attempting to persuade people out of their beliefs is probably unsustainable, and, as mentioned above, it will only result (typically) in them digging in their heels and resisting all the more. No one likes to be told that what they believe in fervently, and have devoted large portions of their lives to supporting and promoting, might well be untrue.
C. Will you become an “evangelistic atheist”? Lashing out at others isn’t a sustainable system in the long run. I have personally met some “angry atheists” who see it as their duty going forward to correct what they perceive as other people’s false, flawed and faulty belief systems. They often will mock the beliefs of those who are still religious: “You believe in a Sky Fairy God? How insane and pathetic is that?” But this again will be unlikely to win you many “converts” to your new position.
6. What are your goals? When we no longer believe what we used to believe, we experience what is called “differentiation.” It could sound like this: “Differentiation involves that ‘how’ of the process of separating myself out from things from I’ve been programmed to believe. What elements of my past are there that I can affirm for myself that are valid for me? What do I wish to jettison? Finally, if I want a great life going forward, how can I continue to be in relationship with people that I still care about in meaningful ways?” There are a series of possible goals that the person leaving religion could well adopt, including:
A. Burn down all your relationships? Through bitterness and contempt, unfortunately this often happens. But as mentioned above, this strategy (while perfectly understandable), simply isn’t sustainable long-term; it isn’t the healthiest way to foster long-term relationships with friends and family members going forward.
B. Stay in relationships, while holding to different beliefs? Can we support each other in our differences (while disagreeing strongly with profound differences), but treat each other in civil and respectful ways?
C. Forsake old relationships and start elsewhere? While this will certainly be incredibly difficult, at times it is the healthiest option that is before us — especially if friends and family are engaging in emotional blackmail and manipulative tactics to get us back into the fold.
D. Start a new tribe? Some people will experience nothing but punishment and manipulation from friends and family to get us to repent and keep us back in line (psychological coercion, people not behaving civilly toward us, being combative, engaging in name-calling, verbal aggression, or pity). The assertion by those still believing and threatened by our non-belief may say that “If you’re a non-believer, you are a sinner; you are morally infirm, and somehow less than me. You have to be defective to disagree with me; insulated with the truth, and thus, free from all doubts, I am morally superior to you”).
I trust that the above series of tips will prove helpful to you if you are indeed in the process of figuring out how to navigate your way out of a religion or cult group. Simply the decision to start questioning your former belief system is a huge first step on the road to deconstruction; moving beyond critical thinking, to the point where you decide to walk away from it all, carries with it huge potential costs. The loss of friends, family and community may well be the starting point; additionally, the loss of one’s job, and facing the possibility of having to start all over, are realities that many who leave religion have to deal with.
It is not easy to make this painful and costly decision. I highly recommend finding a therapist like Paige who will help you work through this journey. One helpful resource is the Secular Therapy Project, which can put you in touch with a therapist either in your area, or via a Skype call. And finally, if you would like to listen to this episode, check out the link below for the actual interview with Paige on The How-to-Heretic Podcast.