If you are in the process of deconstructing your belief system, and possibly thinking of leaving your Christian faith behind, be aware of one sobering reality: it is potentially far more difficult than you might think, for a variety of reasons.
Disentangling oneself from one’s religion can be incredibly difficult and may take — literally — a lifetime, with lasting consequences both to yourself and those around you. This is even more the case when the one who leaves is involved in a marriage or committed relationship with a partner who still believes. Involving children into the mix further exacerbates the already difficult and painful choice to walk away from it all.
For the following three reasons I lay out and explore below, leaving one’s faith or religion is fraught with potential peril and difficulties.
1. The trauma caused by deconstructing, and finally making the difficult decision to leave your former faith behind, can be traumatic and psychologically debilitating. Psychologist and author Dr Marlene Winell is an expert on religious trauma syndrome (RTS). In an article on the subject, she maintains that RTS “is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community.” She points out that not only can religion be the source of much trauma, in addition it is all-pervasive, affecting literally every aspect and area of our lives.
In the case of evangelical Christianity, for example, it affected our relationships with others who were non-Christians, since we tended to view them as potential converts. We couldn’t just have a “normal” relationship with no strings attached; there was always an agenda — and it wasn’t always hidden. Every non-believer we came into contact with represented a chance for proselytization, and oftentimes, if they didn’t want to hear about the gospel, the relationship was terminated. Either that, or we drove them away with our constant referrals to the Bible, the gospel message, or with repeated invitations to church or Christian events. Some Christians have even lost their jobs, or co-workers have severed relationships with them, because they wouldn’t stop proselytizing at work.
Religion can also affect many people’s sex lives; as an example, the evangelical purity culture can have a potentially crippling effect on one’s self-image, sexuality, marriage, and relationships with sexual partners. As a young person raised in this context, in an effort to avoid falling into “sexual sin” before marriage, the herculean effort of suppressing one’s normal and natural sex drive can do incredible damage. And if one does fall into sexual sin and loses their virginity prior to marriage, there is oftentimes a tremendous amount of shame and guilt attached to that act.
Moreover, for those of us that were raised in Christianity from birth, we were indoctrinated with the “truths” of the religion from the Bible. We simply accepted it all as gospel from day one, because we didn’t have the rationality and capacity to think critically for ourselves, or the ability to process the various traumas to which may have been exposed. Imagine, for example, a young child being told they will spend an eternity burning in Hell if they don’t believe the Gospel and accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior! Or that they stood a very real chance of being left behind in the Rapture to face 7 years of tribulation if they weren’t saved when Jesus returned, like the proverbial “thief in the night.”
These experiences, and more, can cause a massive amount of religious trauma, anxiety, depression and religious scrupulosity that take years to work through as part of one’s deconstruction and leaving process. Leavers can often be triggered by memories from their past — what Dr Winell calls “emotional flashbacks” — due to these traumas, which are actually stored in the body. Thus, they are physiological experiences that are deeply embedded in not just our psyches, but our physical bodies also.
There’s also the potential loss of family, friends, and community should one leave the church. Oftentimes when making the difficult decision to walk away from it all, those who de-convert experience shunning both from former church leaders and friends, as well as from family who may still be in the religion. This is what Dr Robert Jay Lifton refers to as “the dispensing of existence,” which is an activity many cults engage in after people leave — but it is all too common in the world of the church, too.
Along with the relational trauma associated with losing one’s support base comes an added difficulty: the compounding factor of the loss of one’s theological worldview, which helped to form our very core identity. Most of us, as Christians, sought “God’s will” for every major decision; we based our lives on what the Bible — the “Word of God” — had to say. After leaving, we will also have to process through associated feelings of grief, anger, betrayal, and self-shaming (“how could I have ever been so stupid and gullible as to believe all of this?”). We have to face a difficult reality: those people we trusted — like our parents — are responsible on some level for putting us into a situation whereby we were traumatized, or suffered other forms of abuses. I’m sure they meant well, and didn’t mean to cause us harm; but nonetheless, many of us suffered tremendously because of the church or its often-toxic theology.
Therefore, simply the decision to abandon one’s faith brings with it a whole host of difficulties and potential problems, some of which I’ve outlined above. But what if you have a partner or a spouse who is still involved in your former faith?
2. Issues associated with leaving the Christian faith behind are compounded if your spouse or partner remains a believer. While it is certainly difficult enough to abandon our former faith, one major entanglement involves one’s partner or spouse who stays a Christian after you’ve walked away. The hard reality is this: many marriages and relationships simply do not survive this decision. Between two people feeling trapped in such a scenario, arguments and disagreements often take place that proceed along the following lines:
- The believing partner is upset and angry because the non-believing partner has betrayed their original marital or relationship goals. Many times two believers initially based their future marriage or relationship on mutual goals: becoming pastors or church leaders, missionaries, evangelists, Bible college teachers, or supporting each other in some form of ministry vocation. Maybe they met at church or at a Bible college and came to share the same dreams of working in the ministry together. When one person walks away, the other person who remains in the faith feels betrayed, hurt and angry at this abandonment of this original vision that may have brought them together in the first place. In the worst-case scenario, the believing spouse can even lose their job in a ministry setting, if word gets out that their partner no longer is a Christian. That would certainly add financial and emotional stress to an already-fraught relationship.
- The unbelieving partner argues with their still-believing partner along the lines of “how can you still believe this nonsense?” This is a very common one — the two fight about the believing partner’s faith, with a view to persuading the believing spouse to deconstruct and abandon their faith too. Obviously this argument tends to lead to more friction and frustration, and will likely not be resolved peacefully. Most of the time, even when presented with seemingly irrefutable information, people tend to double down in their beliefs. They’ll dig in even further, just on principle, feeling they’re being attacked unfairly. Facts and logical arguments rarely change a person’s mind, especially in the midst of a heated emotional argument, when we feel attacked, and when our deeply-held beliefs are questioned or even ridiculed.
- The still-believing spouse or partner tries to persuade the non-believer to come back into the fold. This is the opposite of the above point: the partner who remains a Christian employs various arguments or psychological tactics to convince the other person to return to church, and to re-embrace their former faith. Among other things, this can look like the following: arguments on the line of “this is just a phase, soon you’ll come to your senses;” or “You may have strayed, but Jesus always finds his lost sheep”; laying a guilt trip by telling them how much they have hurt the partner, believing friends, children and family members by their selfish decision; reminding the non-believing partner that they, and many others in the church, are praying for them to stop backsliding and return to the fold; passive-aggressive tricks like leaving Christian tracts in the car, putting up post-it notes with Bible verses on the refrigerator, or even leaving open Bibles lying conspicuously around the house; urging their unbelieving partner to “go talk to the pastor” in the hopes he’ll win them back; or insisting they should visit a Christian counselor, who will then talk them around. And just like above, chances are very high that the non-believing partner will not, in fact, “see the light” and pick up their Christian faith again; it will most likely lead to friction and arguments.
For these reasons and more, the married person, or one in a committed relationship with a believing spouse or partner, will most likely have a very difficult journey ahead. While there are some encouraging stories of partners who have come to some sort of mutual agreement so as to make it work, the fact is that unfortunately many relationships do not survive such a traumatic occurrence. It is incredibly difficult to be in a relationship with another person who does not share your belief system and basic worldview, especially when that person is bent on persuading you to align with their point of view. Moreover, trying to coexist in a home with constant tension and arguments cannot possibly be helpful for either person’s mental health. Hopefully, if you do find yourself in such a situation, you and your partner can reasonably discuss the situation and come to an understanding that allows for the relationship to be maintained in a healthy way.
The third and final point reveals a third difficulty for partners or spouses who are not on the same page in terms of their religious beliefs: what if they have children?
3. Which person decides how they are going to raise the children in terms of religious beliefs? This is another source of potential friction and heated emotional arguments. Who gets the final say when it comes to how the children will be raised? For example, the following points will more than likely present themselves as potential issues:
- The issue of continued church attendance. Should the children keep going to church with Mom or Dad, if the other person has left the faith? What if some of the kids want to stay home on Sundays, whereas others want to go? Who makes the rules on this? Perhaps on Sundays, non-Christian Dad stay at home in protest, while Christian Mom takes the kids to church, youth group, and other associated religious activities. Or maybe atheist Dad goes along quietly, simply to keep the peace, even though he thinks it’s all nonsense. And at what point does the partner “go public” and tell their pastor, and other churchgoers, that they no longer believe? Or is it better to try and keep it a secret as long as possible? If the decision is made public, the kids could come under fire from their churchgoing friends, especially if the parent who left formerly held a position of leadership or influence at the church. Any one of these scenarios could lead to a growing sense of resentment that may explode into a heated argument at some point, as well as undue pressure on the kids from their peers.
- What about the children themselves? What do they make of it all? Oftentimes children are traumatized as they witness the parent who used to be a staunch Christian leave their faith, especially if the child still believes it themselves. Perhaps that parent actually led them to Christ in the first place, and now they’re disavowing it all. Daddy used to be a pastor or church leader, and now he doesn’t go to church or believe any of it. Mommy used to teach Bible study and lead youth group, and now she says it’s all nonsense. All of those scenarios have got to be traumatizing to the child. Should the non-believing partner be allowed to talk to the kids about why he or she has left their faith behind, or is it only permissible if the child brings it up first? When dealing with the children, which parent gets to talk about religion with them? Solely the believing one, or is the non-believing one allowed to explain why they left the faith? These are all pressing issues that will have to be dealt with at some point.
- What if the kids are attending a Christian school? Should the children be allowed to continue attending that Christian school, when non-believing Mom now disagrees with everything the institution stands for? Will she have her way, and pull the kids out of Christian school (which entails the loss of their friendship network), and place them into a public school? That decision surely will lead to much disruption and potential trauma for all parties involved. But what if the children want to stay in the Christian school? If the partners have multiple children, each individual child may want to decide for him or herself; this of course presents potential logistical and financial problems, should the children choose to attend schools located in different parts of town.
- How are the parents or partners going to raise their children now, given the new reality? This is probably one of the biggest areas of potential disagreement. Will the children be raised in a completely secular environment, devoid of all mentions of religion? Should the kids be allowed to make their own decisions regarding their beliefs? Or do the parents raise their children, as the Bible has it, “in the fear and admonition of the Lord?” Should the believing husband continue to spank the kids, over the non-believing wife’s objections, feeling he is only following the Bible’s injunction not to “spare the rod and spoil the child”? Does he insist that she “submit to her husband as to the Lord,” as Paul maintains wives should do in the book of Ephesians?
- What if there are believing grandparents or other family members who are involved in the children’s lives? This is a tangential issue, but a pressing issue nonetheless. Many times believing family members will violate the boundary wishes of the non-believing parent when they are watching the kids, or have them over for the weekend. Despite being told not to, they will often engage in the following activities with the children: they’ll insist on taking them to their church on Sundays, or VBS in the summer; Grandpa will read Bible stories, or Christian books, to the children at night before bed; fundamentalist Christian Aunt Jean will explain the gospel to the kids, telling them that they will spend an eternity burning in hell if they don’t believe in Jesus. Oftentimes grandparents, or other family members, will seek to turn the children away from the non-believing partner by informing the grandchildren that mommy or daddy is bound for Hell, too, if they don’t change their ways, repent and get back into church.
I started out this post by stating that religion, as noted by Dr Marlene Winell, is incredibly pervasive — it affects, and infects, virtually every aspect and area of our lives. The points made above hopefully illustrate that reality, as well as the point that disentangling from one’s former belief system is incredibly difficult and fraught with many potential pitfalls.
While making the decision to deconstruct one’s beliefs, and walking away from one’s Christian faith is difficult enough, this is further compounded when adding in factors such as relationships with a still-believing spouse or partner, and raising kids in such a context.
For those who have left their faith, but feel trapped inside such a relationship or family environment, the stresses and traumas of leaving their beliefs behind can be compounded with all of the additional relational drama, dysfunction and friction. It is critical for that person to find support, especially given the fact that they may have lost their former church community and family members.
Know, however, that there are many others out there, all over the world, who are struggling with many of the exact same issues. The support you need may be found in an online support group, or with organizations such as Recovering From Religion or the Secular Therapy Project, should you desire to speak with a secular therapist who is adept at dealing with situations such as yours.
Find the help and support you need — it may prove to be the sole factor that helps you survive the upcoming months and years, and stay mentally healthy.
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This recent episode of MindShift Podcast features a very helpful discussion with Dr Marlene Winell on the subject of coping with religious trauma syndrome. Subscribe on PodBean to catch every new episode when they drop every 2 weeks!