Leaving Christianity is a Lot Harder than it Looks

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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:

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:

Conclusion

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.

Contact Information

Follow me on Twitter @MindShift2018

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!

https://mindshiftpodcast.podbean.com/e/a-deep-dive-into-religious-trauma-syndrome-with-dr-marlene-winell/

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I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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