by Jeremy Van Wert,
Marriage and Family Therapist
September 5, 2020
Losing a Religion:
A Process of Discovery, Denial, Decisions, Dissonance, and Dedication to a Life of Spiritual Integrity
“I was married and very active in The Church. Along the way some things stopped making sense to me. At first I asked some questions in meetings. But it became obvious these questions weren’t welcome at all. I tried to ignore my questions for a while, but they’d emerge again during discussions or lessons. I lived in the shadows for some time. But the people around you start to catch on when you aren’t as enthusiastic as the others. When that happens, it’s the short road to being very alone around people who have been such good friends in the past. It’s very unsettling. I began to fear losing my family over this and I wished I could just ignore my questions, but I couldn’t. Then I sat down and Googled a few of my questions and everything came crashing down.” – an Ex-Church Member
Not all faiths are created equal. Many faiths promote charity, kindness, openness, and have an open door policy for anyone to come and go as they choose. Some faiths demand oath level conformity, dedication, and complete submission. These faiths are extremely difficult to leave once a person develops questions, faith dilemmas, or discovers major problems with the religious organization itself. These churches abound around the world, leading members to take their concerns and put them “on the shelf.”
Some call “putting it on the shelf,” the phenomena of avoiding thoughtful address of the collection of questions the scriptures of a faith cannot address. This practice allows a person to behave, interact, and engage with their church family naturally despite deeply held reservations and questions about the integrity of their faith, scriptures, history, and/or claims of their church body. Whether a person is raised in a faith or converts through the effective marketing efforts of a faith, these questions often create anxiety inside a person as they think about how splitting from their faith would affect their relationships and family.
People experiencing an inner conflict of faith experience something called cognitive dissonance, a state of inconsistent thoughts or beliefs conflicting with one another. For instance, a person staying in an identified religious group they no longer believe is true who stays for the sake of providing their children with the wholesome lessons this faith provides for the development of children is living with two irreconcilable concepts. The first concept is that the entire faith is a lie. The second concept involves raising their children to believe these lies for the development of their moral compass and character. Cognitive dissonance creates anxiety and conflict that can last for years but usually come to a point of impasse. After all, how can one raise their children to believe lies for their own good?
When Leaving Equals Moral Failure
Many strict modern members-only religions teach that leaving the faith is what people do when they’re unable or unwilling to live by the high moral standards taught by the organization. Leaving the faith becomes a sign of moral failing and poor character. This serves to keep people from leaving and it makes people afraid of what their friends and family will think of them if they leave. This intense internal battle creates anxiety, depression, and a consistent feeling of failure or being found out. Additionally, church members tell stories of individuals who have left and just how much their lives have failed to thrive. If the church is perfect, those who chose to leave are surely to blame for some deep moral failure.
Support for a Big Decision
For decades, individuals leaving strict hierarchical religious organizations have had to fend for themselves. Many strict religious organizations keep their members very busy with several weekly activities, keeping them involved in a revolving door of social gatherings meant to solidify church teachings, social norms, and consistent affirmation that all is well, nothing is wrong, and the world outside the organization is less important. Choosing to leave places an individual in a very new world.
People freshly disconnected from a church find themselves navigating very unsettling waters. Friends and family react strongly, often reaching out in ways that are insensitive, unsupportive, and even unkind. Church leadership may also reach out and even provide orders to attend some kind of church court hearing. Beyond the gut-wrenching reaction of the church body, the individual leaving the church has an entire new world to explore. They may never have had alcohol and do not know how to drink appropriately in a social environment. They may have preconceived notions of people, organizations, products, or cultural practices that cause unnecessary avoidance or fear. They commonly have intense feeling of rage, resentment, anger, grief, and loneliness. Their children may be getting used as pawns in a game to provide leverage to bring the person back to church. Lastly, the freshly disconnected member has very few avenues in which to turn for real support in this matter. There are online forums, but they feel impersonal and many of the people involved in these forums may appear very extreme in their views and behavior. Also, many therapists are not trained in the doctrine, disconnection process, threats, anxiety, loneliness, and specific road to stability relevant to leaving a religion.
Support for Your Process
Leaving a religion is one of the hardest things a person may endure in a lifetime. It may have been everything a person ever knew to be true. There is shame, embarrassment, frustration, humiliation, and the crafting of a new life beyond this faith. Strong support can help guide a person on a path of graceful thinking, reduced anxiety, appropriate behavior, and can help a person stay sane, stable, and on the road to a positive future.
If you are leaving a faith, avoid the following:
- Avoid sending a letter to friends and family explaining why the faith is wrong.
- Avoid any debate regarding any aspect of church doctrine until you can do this without any emotional reaction. (This may take a decade.)
- Avoid behavior intended to provoke, instigate reaction, or settle scores.
- Avoid open discussion of your religious separation on social media that may be viewable by friends/family.
Here’s things to do:
- Seek literature and resources with a positive message of healing, grief processing, and inner peace.
- Seek out a therapist with a specialty in helping support people leaving a faith. This is a specialized set of skills.
- Seek balance, moderation in all things, and increase your empathy for those still linked to the religion. They’re humans too and life is hard.
- Focus on yourself.
I would love to help support you in this journey. I’m a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California with a specialty in supporting people in the emotional journey of processing the feelings associated with leaving faith behind. Not all faiths are created equal and spiritually is very important in the life of a human being. But as you know, spirituality can be horribly misused and turn humans into financial resources for faiths that exploit and limit the potential of the human spirit. Leaving the building doesn’t mean you’re free. It just means you’ve started a long journey.
About the Author
Jeremy Van Wert MFT MBA is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice doing tele-video therapy sessions with immediate openings. Jeremy has a specialty in trauma, anxiety, teens, parenting, men’s issues, and religious abuse. You can find Jeremy at www.ascentonlinecounseling.com