Why is it so hard to leave religion?

Why is it so difficult for people to leave their religion, and potentially abandon their beliefs to which they may have clung most of their lives?

There are multiple aspects to this answer, obviously. On the one hand, people may leave their community (such as a church, mosque or synagogue) for a wide variety of reasons, but still very much maintain their belief system in that religion.

On the other hand, if they choose to leave their community and abandon their beliefs also, both choices clearly represent traumatic decisions that have profound implications on multiple levels.

But to return to the initial question: why is it so hard for people to walk away? In studying this question, I’ve compiled a list of reasons that I have discovered keep people firmly within their religion.

1. Sense of community — religion, and the religious communities and activities into which people join, makes them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Acceptance by a group of peers is very important in terms of helping to develop and maintain one’s sense of self-esteem.

2. Fear — the very real concern people experience when they consider deconstructing their religious beliefs and worldview. They may ponder such questions as: “What happens if it turns out I’m wrong? In what possible (and scary) direction will doubts and questions lead me?” The implications of questioning entrenched beliefs are huge; for example, one could end up in Hell if they get it wrong. The stakes are incredibly high; the implications of having “incorrect beliefs” looms large in the minds of many a religious devotee.

3. Social cost — this involves the high price associated with abandoning significant, and potentially years-long close friendships; moreover, family members who still believe may disown those who leave, and want to have nothing to do with them post-faith. In more extreme cases, those who abandon their religion (or possibly choose to follow a different religion) at best may experience being shunned, and at worst endure physical violence for their choices.

4. Financial costs — leaving religion behind might bring about financial hardships. For example, if a pastor who doesn’t believe anymore — or merely has doubts — confesses this reality to her congregation, there is a very high chance that she will lose her job. Moreover, many Christian organizations require employees (such as Bible colleges or seminaries) to sign doctrinal statements as a prerequisite condition of their continued employment. One could be contemplating the loss of an academic or professional career by admitting that he or she no longer has faith; or at the least perhaps no longer believes in certain elements listed on that doctrinal statement.

5. Investment — oftentimes believers consider that too many years, too much time, energy, money, relationships, etc. have been invested in the particular religious system to walk away from it all. In many cases, people tend to make decisions based upon the amount of emotional investment accumulated; the higher the level of investment in something (whether real or perceived), the harder it is to abandon it. In conjunction with the above point, if for example one has a career in vocational ministry, and has spent significant money and time training for that career academically, this clearly represents a huge investment that will be incredibly difficult to consider losing.

6. Belief system — it is extremely difficult for most people to question, and ultimately abandon, their beliefs in such authorities like the Bible, Torah or the Koran, especially as these are thought to be sacred (or divinely inspired) texts. This also includes such elements as theological systems, views of Heaven/Hell, salvation, the eternal destination of humanity, etc. Evangelical Christianity, for example, has historically tied correct beliefs with one’s salvation, so the stakes are incredibly high. This is also closely tied into the next point:

7. Identity — since religion is all-pervasive, affecting virtually every aspect of the lives of its adherents, religious beliefs and practices help to form its followers’ identities and theological worldviews. Along with the multitude of difficulties associated with abandoning one’s religious beliefs, it is perhaps equally daunting to contemplate walking away from everything, only to have to embark on the journey of re-forming a totally new identity.

8. Attachment — this describes what occurs when the particular beliefs to which religious followers adhere become more important than the religion (or deity) they may claim to follow. Clarifying and ultimately defending those beliefs may lead to fundamentalism or fanaticism, which oftentimes leads followers to commit acts of violence in the name of their religion.

9. Loss of social joy — this is often experienced when attending regular services at churches, mosques, or synagogues. Participation builds social networks and provides increased life satisfaction. Obviously, along with not wanting to pay various social costs associated with departing religion, the loss of social joy can serve as an additional hindrance.

10. Perceived decrease in anxiety — belief in a personal God/higher power who is there to help us through life’s problems, and who will assist us when we make mistakes, is hugely important. Religions promise their followers something to fall back on when they are struggling with issues such as suffering, coping with sin, dealing with depression and anxiety, and so forth. Moreover, the certitude that comes from “knowing” one’s eternal destiny, as a benefit of adhering to one’s particular religion, decreases anxiety levels also.

11.Ego — it is very difficult to admit to ourselves, and others also, that we might have been either wrong, or misinformed by others into following our particular religion and investing large segments of our life into pursuing it. Along with the high levels of attachment to religious beliefs mentioned above, followers may defend their religion fanatically, even though they may harbor serious doubts of their own about certain aspects of it. They may have high levels of cognitive dissonance, but for various reasons it is often simply too much of an existential threat to entertain the possibility that one’s religion may contain serious (or potentially irreconcilable) flaws.

Conclusion

Leaving religion behind is indeed extremely difficult, as should be abundantly clear by the eleven points listed above. Each one of them could be unpacked and lengthened into further areas of study, and perhaps more could be added to the list.

Many of us who were raised within fundamentalist religions endured significant traumas of various sorts, including spiritual, emotional and sexual abuse — all in the name of that religion. Not only did we have to suffer then, we now have to deal with the effects of those traumas on both our lives and that of others too.

But for those of us who did walk away, as difficult as it has been — and continues to be in terms of social and financial costs — we consider the price we paid to be more than worth it. The chance to re-form and reconstruct a new identity, freed from the shackles imposed by religion, is far more valuable than the associated costs of leaving it all behind.

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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