For those not raised within a religious framework, or who have never had experiences of religion as an adult, they may wonder why it is so difficult — and traumatic — for a formerly-religious person to lose his or her faith. It shouldn’t be any more difficult to drop one’s religious beliefs, the non-religious person might conclude, than it is when we become adults and no longer believe in the existence of such make-believe creations like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or unicorns.
When a former evangelical Christian becomes an atheist, for example, and no longer believes in the existence of God, surely that transition should be just about as simple. Sure, there might be some nostalgia attached to it: “I can’t understand how I used to believe in Santa Claus; now I don’t believe in God” — but it just can’t be that hard.
Or can it?
As it turns out, disentangling oneself from religion can be both incredibly difficult and distressing initially. It also may well take the rest of one’s life to process through the trauma, anger, grief and loss associated with making those choices.Whatever it is labelled, be it a “spiritual transition,” “deconversion” or a “religious divorce,” the fact is that it’s incredibly traumatic to lose one’s faith.
All humans have the need for security; we can’t thrive if we don’t feel secure. Religion holds out the notion of comfort and security by providing an experience of being welcomed and accepted into a like-minded community in this life. It also extends that feeling of security by telling us where we’ll end up in the afterlife — provided, that is, we follow the rules, and ascribe to the belief system of the religion we’re following.
Cults and fundamentalist religions also prey on vulnerable people who are struggling with a sense of identity crisis, or have feelings of insecurity. Many troubling stories abound of how these systems have taken advantage of susceptible, needy people.
Why is it so difficult to leave religion behind? I’ve identified at least four problematic areas with which people struggle, post-religion.
Dealing with Anger
First, when people walk away from their former religion, and forsake the belief systems to which they once clung for that sense of security and comfort, many describe facing a major complication: it is extremely difficult to deal with their rage. That anger is oftentimes directed at both the religion as well as toward oneself. How could I have been so gullible and stupid to believe in all of this nonsense? Why in the world did I invest so much of my time, effort, energy and money into helping this organization achieve its aims? What do I have to show for it, all these years later? I’ve spent virtually my entire life propping up this system…and for what?
Moreover, perhaps the person feels terrible about their efforts to proselytize others and recruit them into their former religion. Maybe some of them are still in the system; perhaps they’ve left it behind also, but are angry at you for the role you played in getting them involved in the first place. If that religion of which you were a part damaged or abused people that you convinced to join it, then it is no wonder that someone might well feel horrible about the part they played in recruiting others.
Moreover, a lot of anger is directed at the religion, cult or institution of which they were once a willing participant. For example, one might ask a series of questions: how could this religion or cult continue to get away with doing so much damage to so many people for as long as it has? What about various abuses that may have been propagated by leaders of religion — spiritual, sexual, emotional, financial? How could anyone not only continue to be a part of it, but publicly defend it, and help to keep it going such that the abuses continue? Is there any accountability for religious leaders who seemingly get away with all kinds of terrible behavior: embezzlement or misuse of church funds, sexual abuse of children or adults, exploitation of the vulnerable for financial or other gains, and staggering spiritual abuse and manipulation of their followers?
Second, disentangling from religion and the reconstructing of one’s identity, post-religion, are also equally fraught with problems and issues. You may doubt your ability to make decisions, asking yourself: “If I let myself be duped once, how can I ever trust myself again to discern the truth from a lie?” Doubts such as these can be debilitating, especially when we once relied upon external authorities within our former religion to inform, or even make, important decisions on our behalf.
As an example, learning to think critically for oneself can be very difficult when one’s initial impulse is to pray in order to try and discern God’s will for their life. When making life decisions, followers of religion tend to reach for a sacred text to try and ferret out the answer; or there’s a tendency to inquire of one’s priest, imam, pastor or some other religious leader for either secular or spiritual guidance.
But now that we no longer rely upon those security features, critical thinking and decision-making can indeed prove to be problematic. Even worse, as mentioned, we start to question and doubt our own critical faculties, finding ourselves cripplingly paralyzed at key moments in our lives.
One may need to seek out therapy or counselling in order to re-program one’s way of thinking. This involves dealing with the grief and loss associated with abandoning our past religious identities, and the security that came along with following that religion. Moreover, it is critically important to find a new community that offers support, acceptance, and objective advice freed from the strictures and structures of religious or supernatural guidance. Therapy and a new community have both proven to be very helpful for people seeking to construct, or reconstruct, their identities post-religion.
Friends and Family
A third challenge involves dealing with friends and family members who are still involved in the religion we left behind. Oftentimes this results in manipulative or coercive behavior on their part, as they seek to “win us back into the fold.” While we should have some empathy for them — after all, they truly believe that we’re headed for hell — dealing with such people in our lives can be very difficult. They may inform us, for example, that they are actively praying that “God will punish us to the point of breaking us. That will bring you crawling back to the community for sure!”
While one can understand their concern and fear for us, it is very troublesome to hear statements of this nature from the mouths of family members still in the system. Not only is it manipulative, offensive and potentially cruel, it tends to be ongoing. It is not easy to sever relationships with family members, but that is sometimes the hard course of action that must be taken. If you decide to confront such a person about their offensive actions toward you, be aware that it will be a potentially uncomfortable conversation. Should you do it by phone, letter, email, or in person? Perhaps include another person, who is third-party and objectively removed, to act as a moderator if you decide to speak to them face-to-face.
At the very least, one should establish clear boundaries; keep the tone civil and even; and be sure and maintain the boundaries once they are set. If the friend or family member insists on talking about their religion, and why you should come back into it, you may gently but firmly inform them: “Time for you to change the topic, or it’s time for me to go.”
A fourth difficulty faced by those who leave religion behind is what is known as triggering. When we are triggered by an experience — and most of the time we are blindsided by it — it serves to remind us that we have suffered a significant loss at some point in our past. We may read, see or hear something and suffer a severe emotional reaction to it, since what we’ve encountered arouses feelings or memories associated with a past traumatic experience.
These incidents can’t be prepared for, and may result in a level of loss of control, even bringing on panic attacks or severe emotional reactions. There’s oftentimes a feeling of going into “panic mode” that brings on a physiological response.
What should you do when you’re triggered by something? This is a difficult experience to process, particularly when you’re with other people who may not entirely understand why you are suddenly so emotionally distraught.
In my MindShift podcast episode with Canadian trained counsellor Janice Selbie, entitled “Walking the Path of Deconversion,” she offered up some practical and helpful tips for people who struggle with being triggered. She recommends a series of actions when you find yourself in an emotionally distressing situation due to being triggered.
First of all, give yourself some space; you may have to remove yourself physically from the others for a few moments to regain your composure. Second, remind yourself that you are safe at that particular moment. Third, give yourself permission to leave if you feel that you cannot safely stay in the situation. Fourth, after you’ve calmed down a bit, try and do some processing if you’re able. Can you name the emotion that you’re feeling at the moment? Are you angry, sad, confused? Can you pinpoint what exactly about the experience triggered you? Forcing yourself to stop and think gives some emotional space and provides a bit of objective distance from the experience that triggered you in the first place.
Finally, after it’s all over, do some reflecting on what happened — perhaps with a close friend, family member, or therapist. When was the first time you recalled feeling such an intense emotional response? Can you describe not only the incident, but how you felt about it as a result of the experience? Identifying those initial incidents, and how it affected you emotionally or physically when they occurred in your past, can help you process through your responses the next time you are triggered. It may well be that as you work through the various associated emotions when triggered that you will find yourself reacting less severely in the future.
Walking the path of deconversion feels like a lonely journey. It is quite common to feel isolated and alone, overwhelmed with grief, anger and a sense of loss. Not only have we invested so much into our previous belief system, as we look back on the years spent within the system, we wonder: what do I have to show for it? There’s often a huge amount of regret, especially when we consider other, more satisfying and rewarding pursuits or careers that we could have spent our lives doing instead.
In addition to the sense of lost investment, disentangling ourselves from our former belief system is hardly easy. We may have close friends or family members still involved in the system who are actively engaged in the task of ensuring that we will one day “come to our senses” and re-join the faithful. Beyond those difficult relationship minefields through which we have to navigate, there’s also the emotional baggage we must process from our past involvement in religion.
None of it is easy; it isn’t at all simple. But if you are committed to walking along the path of deconversion, then join me — and countless others — along this journey.
You are not alone.
Listen in to the conversation with me and trained counsellor, Janice Selbie from Kelowna, BC., entitled “Walking the Path of Deconversion.” Available Friday 23rd November on MindShift podcast — available on iTunes, PodBean, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts!