Photo Credit: Kurt-Rune Bergset
I am what you might call a slow learner. I managed to make it all the way through high school, despite an eating disorder I couldn’t pray away, and all the way through college, despite a suicidal depression triggered by the same eating disorder, and almost all the way through grad school before I finally gave up on my religion and god.
By contrast, my friend Geoff figured things out in the second grade. One day a nun at his Catholic school tried to pour holy water on the one Black kid in the school to exorcise the devil because he kept getting in fights. But Geoff thought to himself: It’s not Satan, it’s because all the other kids pick on him. Today Geoff is a psychologist working for Seattle Children’s Hospital –which is, ironically, the same place that did in the last shreds of my Evangelical beliefs.
Maybe it was his eyes, or his inability to comprehend why he couldn’t walk anymore, or why people who looked kind kept hurting him. Maybe it was the unbearable tenderness of his parents, who simply wanted to take their child home and love him rather than watch him suffer inexplicable months of “treatment” for a long shot at extending his life. But something inside me broke.
For years I had been patching my Christian faith together, as I like to say, with duct tape and bailing wire. My beliefs had become more and more idiosyncratic as I tried to hold together the lot of moral and rational contradictions that make up born-again, Bible-believing Christianity. Now, finally, after two decades of warping my feelings, perceptions and intellect to defend the absolute goodness of the Christian God, I got mad. I said to the god in my head, "I’m not making excuses for you anymore. I quit." And just like that, God was gone. All that was left was the frame of tape and wire: empty excuses, rationalizations and songs of worship that sounded oddly flat.
I tell you these two stories because they illustrate two extremes of leaving faith. On the one hand you have Geoff, whose parents were casual believers and whose skepticism kicked in early. On the other hand you have me, who took things to the brink of suicide because, as I thought, if I couldn’t pray away bulimia and depression then I was a failure in God's eyes. There are many paths into religion and many paths out.
The Damage Done
Most freethinkers were religious at one point in their lives. Whether you need a recovery process to move beyond that -- and how intensive that recovery process will be -- depends on what you believed, how deeply you believed it, and how much of your social support depended on fellow believers. ExChristian.net hosts forums that give people a chance to talk about their exodus from faith with support from fellow travelers. As often as not, loneliness is one of the hardest parts of the process. A believer can go anywhere in the world and find a ready-made community of fellow Christians. But a former believer can find himself or herself alone at the dinner table surrounded by family members but harboring a dark secret that would trigger rejection and judgment -- if they only knew.
Ministers who lose their faith often face the worst isolation, which is why Richard Dawkins and other have launched the Clergy Project to support those who are in transition. My friend Rich Lyons is a member of the project. He had to leave his home in Texas and excavate old radio skills he hadn’t used in over a decade in order to start life over in Seattle.
Questioning cost him not only his livelihood, but also his wife, access to his beloved daughter, and his small-town reputation as a decent person. Rich now produces a podcast series called Living After Faith – his way of offering a helping hand to other exiles from Christian fundamentalism.
Getting out of the church can be a complicated process -- but it's easy compared to getting the church out of you. A while back, I wrote an article titled "Getting God’s Self-appointed Messengers Out of Your Head." I talked about a concept psychologists call “introjects.” When you are a toddler, your mobility outpaces your good sense. Left to their own devices, many toddlers would play in traffic -- without even being told to. Caregivers have to provide constant external supervision. One of the ways that a toddler becomes capable of greater autonomy is that the voices of those external supervisors get internalized. The toddler brain develops what we call an introjected parent -- an internal model that can say, "Don’t follow that ball into the street," even if the real-world mother or father isn’t there. We create virtual, introjected parents (and teachers and preachers), so that even if all of those authority figures disappear we will still know how to function. But at some point having your parents along in your head is a disadvantage -- say, for example, when somebody really hot has just undone the top button on your shirt.
I think of recovery from religion like peeling layers off of an onion. Dissenting intellectually from teachings or doctrines you learned as an adult is like peeling off one of the outer layers. But if you keep going, you find scripts that got laid down earlier—attitudes, emotional conditioning, ideas you were taught before you had the capacity to question them. And some of these are tremendously harmful from a psychological standpoint.
I once was speaking to a group of Hindus who wanted to understand evangelical Christianity, because rampant proselytizing was dividing their villages and splitting families down the middle. After the talk, a woman named Mohini came up to me. She asked, “Is what you told us really true -- that Christians believe children are born evil?” I explained again the doctrine of original sin. She was horrified. She said, “When babies are born into Hindu families, we whisper to them: 'You are perfect. You are a spark of the divine.'”
Last week, I was working alongside my friend Al, who is a carpenter and used to belong to a Christian commune. I asked him, “If you were talking to a group of college students about recovery from religion, what would you tell them? What would you most want them to know?” He said: “Tell them they are OK just the way they are." Getting rid of the sense that you were born deeply, unacceptably flawed can be a lifetime endeavor.
Triggers for Leaving
Like my own experience at Children’s Hospital, many former believers experience some kind of acute trigger. Religion has an immune system made up of promises, threats and behavioral scripts that keep belief from crumbling under pressure from outside information. In Bible-believing Christianity, that immune reaction includes disparagement of rationality:
“Thinking themselves wise they became fools” (Romans 1:22) or “The fool has said in his heart there is no God” (Psalms 14:1). The Bible is full of threats against the faithless, from the story of Noah’s flood to the tortures promised in Revelation. Rules for believers prohibit emotional attachments to outsiders: “Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness and what communion hath light with darkness” (2 Cor 6:14).
When the religion’s immune system is working, it can seem like nothing gets through. A motivated believer will fend off any amount of linear reasoning or evidence. Backed into a corner he or she will simply insist, “I just know.” I picture some of my own family members surrounded by a polished wall of smooth steel—impervious, with no foot or handhold.
And yet, over time, life creates little windows of opening. Sometimes the trigger is unignorable hypocrisies or cruelty by church members. Sometimes it is a life crisis—a divorce, natural disaster, injury or loss of a loved one. Sometimes new social connections open up new ideas. Sometimes the accumulation of contradictory information reaches a tipping point.
Bible-believing Christians, those who see the Bible as the perfect word of God, would be horrified to know how often loss of faith is triggered by someone deciding to read the good book and discovering the long litany of slavery, incest, misogyny, genocide, or scientific absurdities there.
Stages of Recovery
When the walls of faith start crumbling, people often go through a process that I think of as roughly four phases based on the dominant emotions of each stage:
1. Denial and fear. When religion has provided the structure to your life, doubt can be terrifying—especially if you’ve been taught that doubt is a sign of spiritual weakness or comes straight from the devil. In this phase, many believers redouble their efforts to shore up their faith. They may pray desperately for God to take away the doubts. Increased Bible-reading is common. So is missionary work: if you can convince others God is real, then surely it must be true. Psychologist Marlene Winell specializes in recovery from religion. For this phase of recovery, she offers clients two bits of advice that she sums up as “Get real” and “Get a grip”:
Be honest with yourself about whether your religion is working for you. Let go of trying to force it to make sense....Don’t panic. The fear you feel is part of the indoctrination. All those messages about what will happen to you if you leave the religion are a self-serving part of the religion. If you calm down, you’ll be just fine. Many people have been through this.
2. Uncertainty and guilt. At some point, doubt gains the upper hand. But that doesn’t mean the transition is over. When those final threads of my own faith broke, I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t believe in God anymore, so I told myself, but I didn’t want to drag anyone else to hell with me. A friend described this phase as “I don’t believe in Hell. Does that mean I’m going there?” It would take several years and several therapists after my Children’s Hospital rotation before I risked asking my brother Dan how he managed to hold onto our childhood beliefs. (I found out his beliefs were as long gone as mine.)
My book, Trusting Doubt, is particularly valuable in this phase because it digs into core evangelical teachings, showing how they can’t possibly be true. Information is powerful in helping to purge those last lingering shreds of doubt and the guilt that goes with them. Learn about yourself, the world around you and the history of your religion. Former Mormon Garrett Amini says his parents called books and articles that were critical of his religion “spiritual pornography.”
Evangelicals don’t use this term, but the concept is probably familiar to anyone who has ever been a part of a sect that has to constantly fend off reality. So, read widely: evolutionary biology, analysis of sacred texts, psychology of religion, physics. Listen with open ears. The truth will set you free.
3. Loss, grief and anger. Once there’s no going back, it’s not unusual to feel bereft, spiritually, socially, intellectually and emotionally. The loss is real, even if Jesus is not. Religion offers clarity, identity, purpose, community, a channel for joy, a structure around which to sculpt the week and the calendar year. That is a lot to lose -- even if your parents or spouse don’t kick you out. Grieving is important. So is anger. Anger is an activating emotion, it gives you the guts to say what is real—to yourself and to others, and to make hard changes. Christians often are taught that anger is bad, and many people will encourage you to shutter it during the recovery process. It can feel risky, too big or too out of control. But the reality is that each of our emotions has a purpose, and sometimes we need to express anger so we can learn how to take care of ourselves without it. Learning to express anger in a way that is appropriate and modulated takes practice.
When you get stuck in either grief or anger, it's time to get help. Marlene Winell's book, Leaving the Fold, has great self-help exercises for fundamentalists in recovery. But sometimes self-help isn’t enough. Winell offers long-distance phone consultations and RecoveringfromReligion.org is creating a referral list of mental health professionals who are able to work with clients in recovery.
4. Emergence, curiosity, affirmation. The very first ex-Christian Web site I ran across -- now almost 10 years ago -- was called losingmyreligion.com. Its archive still exists, headed by the same banner it had then -- a picture of a dead fish and an inscription that says: "Stay home Sundays, save 10 percent." Just beneath the banner is this poem:
I woke up to an empty room
No more angels watching over me.
No more demons to be held at bay
by the invocation of
an Anglicized version
of a Hellenized version
of a Hebrew name
I woke up to an empty room:
Just a room. Four walls, ceiling, floor.
Just a room. Nothing more.
I woke up to an empty room
and embraced the solid air.
I woke up to an empty room and knew myself
What Comes Next?
In those wonderful interludes when you find yourself awake, the dominant emotions shift from focusing on who you were to focusing on who and what you want to be. Which values and habits from your religion do you want to keep? What do you want to call yourself? What new discoveries most excite your curiosity? What matters – really matters to you?
As a movement, atheism—freethought—secularism is just becoming strong enough to move beyond a defensive posture and beginning to ask these questions. Are there secular moral absolutes? Dare we talk about secular spiritual community? How do we build ritual, holidays and music back into our communal lives? Absent religion, how can we together express wonder and joy?
Joseph Campbell had this to say:
People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive….”
That is the quest of a lifetime.