The Challenge of Leaving Religion and Becoming Secular

This is a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, edited by Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook. Oxford University 2016.

by Marlene Winell, Ph.D.

Abstract: This chapter explores the personal change from “religious” to “secular” and reasons why that change is such a significant paradigm shift for some people. We will look at the lingering effects of religious indoctrination and the healing from trauma that it can require. A developmental perspective is applied to understand the arrested human development that occurs within a constricting religion and the stages people move towards upon leaving it. Next we employ a cross-cultural lens to examine cultural adaptation that can involve culture shock as people interact with an increasingly secular world. Finally, we will look at aspects of healing and personal growth important to becoming secular.

 

Becoming secular after being deeply religious is no small matter. For the sincere believer, religion defines life, and giving it up challenges core assumptions about reality, personal identity, and relationships. The transition creates enormous opportunities for growth, but it can create challenges that add to earlier harms done by the religious indoctrination itself. Consider the range of emotion in the following quotations, which I have personally heard during my years of counseling:

“It is as if the world has come alive for the first time since I was young, as if my senses and mind are waking up from the dead.”

“Though it’s taken almost half my lifetime – and endless hours of therapy – to shed the anger, guilt, and self-hatred, my new life is demonstrably richer, fuller, and more meaningful than my narrow, fear-driven experience. I am not alone.”

“It is like a death in the family as my god Jesus finally died and no amount of belief could resurrect him. It is an absolutely dreadful and frightening experience and dark night of the soul.”

This chapter explores the change from “religious” to “secular” and reasons why the change from religious to secular is such a significant paradigm shift for some people. We will look at the lingering effects of religious indoctrination and the healing from trauma that it can require. A developmental perspective is applied to understand the arrested human development that occurs within a constricting religion and the stages people move towards upon leaving it. Next we employ a cross-cultural lens to examine cultural adaptation that can involve culture shock as people interact with an increasingly secular world. Finally, we will look at aspects of healing and personal growth important to becoming secular.

People in Transition

A significant exodus from organized religion is occurring, particularly in the United States. A survey by the Pew Research Center (2015) revealed that nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) were raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion. We are hearing the stories from thousands of people in the media, in memoirs, and in emotionally charged discussions online. The struggles described can be heart-breaking, but the support from the virtual community is often impressive as well.1 Other sources of data are clinical case studies and qualitative interviews, which have been the basis of my own work for over twenty years, with people I call “reclaimers” – this chapter also refers to them as former believers and ex-believers. They are reclaiming and rebuilding their lives after participation in religious beliefs, practices, and communities (Winell 2012).

The experience of reclaimers varies widely. Former believers who were indoctrinated at a young age seem to have a harder time recovering, and more so if the religion or family was strict and dogmatic. My own clinical observations indicate that personality differences matter, with sensitive, emotional personalities reacting with more distress to religious trauma, as does the depth of involvement. Devoted believers who try the hardest to conform and please also hurt the most when faith fails.

Traditionally, attention has been paid to fringe or cult-like groups when identifying problems in religion (Singer and Lalich 1996). These concerns have been legitimate and important interventions developed (Hassan 1990), but many of the issues associated with so-called cults also apply to conservative forms of mainstream religion. For reclaimers leaving groups characterized by rigid beliefs, authoritarian structure, and attempts at isolation from the larger culture, their departure presents a significant challenge to their entire worldview and sense of self. In some important ways, leaving religion is not like other life transitions. An example of an ordinary transition is leaving home – a challenging but normal developmental task. Individuals pack their belongings and make arrangements for a move. Counselors understand and can be supportive. Individuals have a context of many peers. In a normal developmental transition of this sort, you don’t have to reconstruct your own identity, other people, the world, the future, life, death, the afterlife, meaning, values, and life plans. You can continue to trust your feelings and intuitions, and exercise critical thinking. You don’t have reality ripped out from under you. By contrast, a former minister and the author of Godless, Dan Barker, has said that losing faith “was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt. It hurt badly… It was sacrilege. All of my bases for thinking and values had to be restructured” (2008, 39).

Religion provides a framework for meeting deep and important human needs. It provides a place to belong – a tribe. To echo Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (1951), religion provides cosmic meaning for those who need a cause. Disillusionment is a massive loss. Leaving religion is less like moving houses and more like deconstructing an entire house and then building a new one from the foundation up.

Paradigm Shift

To borrow the language of philosopher and historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, an individual goes through a personal paradigm shift in order to become a secular person. The concept of “paradigm shift” or “scientific revolution” was famously developed by Kuhn (1962) as a way of understanding scientific progress. According to Kuhn, a paradigm is a “constellation of beliefs shared by a group”, or “a constellation of findings, concepts, values, techniques etc. shared by a scientific community to define legitimate problems and solutions.” A paradigm shift happens when “anomalies “ appear, leading to questioning of the paradigm, then a stage of crisis, and then the development of a broader science with a new paradigm. Periods like this have happened many times in the history of science, such as Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution, or the Theory of Relativity by Einstein.

This model can be applied to leaving religion and becoming secular. A person who has been indoctrinated in a rigid, conservative form of Bible-based Christianity acquires and lives with unconscious, all-encompassing assumptions on the daily, cellular, experiential level that touch on every aspect of reality. Here are some of the assumptions, held personally and by the surrounding social environment:

 

• Humans live in a world of sin and danger, dominated by Satan.

• Earthly life is taking part in “spiritual warfare,” along with real spiritual entities of good and evil.

• There is a timeline for all existence set by God, starting with Creation and ending with the earth’s destruction and Final Judgment.

• Values, morals, and all things important are eternal and unchanging, authored by God who answers to no one.

• Humans are sinful by nature, guilty and needing salvation.

• Human life on earth is unimportant in the cosmic scheme. Pleasure is for the afterlife, and the “flesh” is sinful. Life’s purpose is to serve God.

• Ultimately God is in control and will have justice. Humans do not need to understand His mysterious ways, only have faith and not question.

 

These assumptions crumble when leaving religion, and replacements are not immediately apparent. This can touch off an emotional breakdown or a complete existential crisis. Because social supports often fall away and professionals don’t understand, it can be a lonely time as well – a dark night of the soul requiring courage and stamina. From the ruins, the former believer must construct a new identity and a framework for living life with meaningful new commitments.

At its most fundamental, a “religious” stance in life involves a supernatural worldview concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. “Secular” involves a worldview that is completely natural in its explanations. Consider these two different paradigms for looking at the world:

The supernatural paradigm from antiquity posits the existence of an unseen spiritual world with supernatural laws and forces to explain the material world. The unseen is beyond human understanding but has ultimate power over human destiny. Human response to this condition is generally passive, while seeking guidance and mercy from an external deity and waiting for a better existence.

The natural paradigm views the universe as unitary and natural, vast but available for human investigation. Explanations are sought within the natural order, since natural laws are the rules that govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe, and the changing universe at every stage is a product of these laws. Human agency is generally considered the preferred method of improving the world.

These paradigms are radically different, and any person who moves in their personal orientation from one towards the other goes through a seismic shift.

 

Figure 1. Scientific and Philosophical Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm-shift-colored-w-border

In Figure 1, the Copernican revolution is depicted as an example of a scientific paradigm shift, which was an upheaval in science. It meant that the universe did not center around the Earth. The lower part of the graph depicts philosophical paradigm shifts, on the personal and societal levels. The change in worldview from supernaturalism to naturalism is an example occurring on both levels simultaneously. Within the societal shift are the individual paradigm shifts of individual people who are giving up their supernatural assumptions about reality in favor of a natural understanding of the world.

Consider the parallels to a scientific paradigm shift. The initial worldview of Christianity is, like a scientific paradigm, a tightly knit system of core assumptions. The believer goes through stages of doubt and questioning when “anomalies” are discovered that challenge what is assumed to be true. These may be problems with the “scriptures” or with the church, moral issues, or scientific conflicts. Gradually, information accumulates that contradicts the paradigm until it no long holds and a crisis is reached. The individual must release much or all of the old paradigm and find a new paradigm for life. This process can be just as painful and revolutionary as any scientific paradigm shift since it can turn reality upside down for a sincere believer. Many report resisting the change for some time, just as scientific paradigms have been opposed because the new reality seems too shocking.

When individuals leave Christianity, an interesting and problematic aspect is the way personal paradigm shifts are embedded within a much larger shift in society. A massive shift has been going on for hundreds of years in western society from a religious culture to a more secular one, creating enormous conflict each time a new practice or “heresy” disturbs the old order. (Controversies over teaching evolution in schools and allowing reproductive rights for women serve as current examples.) Since there have been many shifts within it along the way, we could call this a “meta-paradigm” shift because it is so comprehensive. A major feature of this meta-paradigm shift is the transition from exclusive supernaturalism towards accepting naturalism. As humanity learns about the natural world, there has been a move from a supernatural view of causation by forces of good and evil to a naturalistic explanation. For Western civilization, the Enlightenment marked this radically new understanding of reality. Today the Christian church no longer rules Europe and cannot burn witches for causing epidemics. Gods and demons are less often used for explaining natural disasters, crop failures, or disease. Despite progress, the world is still in the agonizing middle stages of the meta-paradigm shift, stranded in a wasteland where religionists shout scripture while scientists scratch their heads. The societal shift does not always support personal progress. For example, a person may try to live free of religion but still be surrounded by churches and bombarded with religious reminders at Christmas and Easter. In some areas of the U.S. billboards proclaim that “Hell is Real”.

In this context, embracing a secular worldview or paradigm is not only possible for the reclaimer; a new framework for living is a necessity to proceed with life. Contrast the following secular (humanist) viewpoints with that conservative religious worldview described above. This list is not exhaustive, but selects some that challenge conservative religion, and may provide considerable relief for reclaimers. (For example, number 4 allows one to stop judging people as saved or damned.)

  1. Meaning is created.
  2. Nothing is certain except change.
  3. Each is responsible for their own life.
  4. Everyone is equal and innocent.
  5. Death is final.
  6. Reality is a matter of perspective.
  7. Complexity and ambiguity are normal and everywhere.
  8. Humans have a moral compass without god.
  9. Earth is our only home.
  10. Pleasure is a good thing.

From my clinical observations, finding a new philosophy of life is the primary task in recovery from religion. However, for a person undergoing that transition, views such as are far from obvious. Even if the outdated realities have been stripped away, many believers were taught that there are no other coherent versions of reality. Consequently, even thinking about any of the above views are part of the outcome of crisis in that paradigm shift.

Lingering Religious Trauma

Religious indoctrination is often early, deep, and optimized to get past cognitive defenses. Consequently, the effects last well beyond leaving the faith, and a discussion of becoming secular would be incomplete without addressing them. Raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion violates a social taboo – yet religion can truly be harmful. Religious practices can harm children by promoting physical, sexual, and mental maltreatment (Heimlich 2011). For example, in Alice Miller’s research (2002) on the serious long-term consequences of corporal punishment, a direct connection is made to parental authoritarianism in relation to the Fourth Commandment, “Honor thy father and mother.” While religion is not well recognized as a source of trauma in the field of mental health, it is gradually getting more attention. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes “Religious or Spiritual Problem” (2000, 741) with examples including “distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith.” There is still little writing from psychologists about religious harm, with the exception of my work and that of Valerie Tarico (2010), who has been my collaborator (2014).

The following cases illustrate the lingering effects of religious indoctrination:

 

• A young woman who has left her faith is covered with scars from cutting herself because she was constantly judged for masturbating.

• A young man has no idea what to do for work because life seems meaningless and he can’t make decisions after always looking for “God’s will.”

• A woman drives past a billboard that says “Where will you be if you die tonight?” on her way to work and has an anxiety attack, causing her to miss work.

 

Some harm from religion can be described as a form of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). The concept of complex PTSD was developed by Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery (1997), to describe trauma that is not just a one-time event, but a repeated stressor such as continuing child abuse.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

With Religious Trauma Syndrome, a theoretical concept I have developed (2011), the trauma is two-fold. First, the actual teachings and practices of a restrictive religion can be toxic and create lifelong mental damage. Second, departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving one world for another. Leaving can precipitate significant and sudden loss of social support at the time when such support is most needed when one is facing the task of reconstructing one’s life. Reclaimers are often ill-prepared to deal with this. They have been taught to fear the secular world, skills like self-reliance and independent thinking have been suppressed or underdeveloped.

Key dysfunctions in RTS are:

 

• Cognitive: Confusion, difficulty with decision-making and critical thinking, dissociation, identity confusion.

• Affective: anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal ideation, anger, grief, guilt, loneliness, lack of meaning.

• Functional: Sleep and eating disorders, nightmares, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, somatization.

• Social/cultural: Rupture of family and social network, employment issues, financial stress, problems acculturating into society, interpersonal dysfunction.

 

Certain theories and empirical work in the field of trauma offer insight into recovery from religion. Kaufmann’s “shattered assumption framework” (2002) has been used to understand traumatic loss such as the death of a loved one, but can easily be applied to loss of faith. In this view, “The assumptive world concept refers to the assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, stabilize, and orient people. They are our core beliefs. In the face of death and trauma, these beliefs are shattered and disorientation and even panic can enter the lives of those affected” (Beder 2005, 255; see also DePrince and Freyd 2002).

According to research on this framework, the most damaging traumas are those that are human-caused and involve interpersonal violence and violation (Janoff-Bulman 1992), which would describe indoctrinating children in fear-based religion. This approach names four basic assumptions held about the world that are shattered with these traumas: the world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, the self is worthy, and others are trustworthy. This model applies well to religion if one thinks of the ‘world’ as that created and maintained by the religious group. It is noteworthy that all of the most controlling, authoritarian religions make sweeping, ultimate promises along with demands for devotion. The fact that sincere and dedicated individuals seem to be the ones most traumatized when their religious world crumbles would make sense from Kauffman’s perspective that shattered assumptions cause the self to fragment into pieces. As he puts it, “The assumptive world order is the set of illusions that shelter the human soul” (2002, 206).

As an example of ‘loss of the assumptive world’, losing one’s religion is a special and potentially extreme case. For many people who leave their faith, it is like a death or divorce. Their ‘relationship’ with God was a central assumption, such that giving it up feels like a genuine loss to be grieved. It can be like losing a lover, a parent, or best friend who has always been there. Many former believers have anger about the abuse of growing up in a world of lies. They feel robbed of a normal childhood, honest information, and opportunity to develop and thrive. They have bitterness for being taught they were worthless and in need of salvation, yet never able to be sure they were good enough to make it. They have anger about terrors of hell, the ‘rapture’, demons, apostasy, unforgivable sins, and the evil world. They resent not being able to ever feel good or safe. Many are angry that the same teachings are inflicted on more children continuously. They have rage because they dedicated their lives and gave up everything to serve God. They are angry about losing their families and their friends. They feel enormously betrayed. As one person expressed, “Depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts ruled my life for about two years as I realized that everything I was taught, everything I believed, and everything I was living for was a lie.”

“Betrayal trauma theory” approaches the subject of trauma from a different angle by acknowledging emotions like anger rather than fear as a response. It also advocates recognizing sociocultural forces at play, not just the pathology of individual trauma survivors. The theory points out that society is resentful of the ways in which victims of trauma shatter our illusions of safety and often engages in victim blaming in order to order to maintain basic assumptions (Kolk et al. 1996). Applied to religious survivors, it is easy to see how they are blamed for their own distress. Betrayal may also come in the form of response the survivor receives from others following the event, such as disbelief, minimizing, or otherwise devaluing the individual’s experience. In the case of individuals recovering from religion, the present state of awareness of religious issues in society is such that these responses are a problem. People frequently report difficulties being heard or helped, even by therapists. In the case of ongoing, repeated abuse, it is critical to focus on relational issues (DePrince and Freyd 2002). The pathology is not just in the mind of the survivor. Relevant questions include who did the betraying, what was the betrayal about, the relationship to the perpetrator, and the societal response to the events.

Addiction and Domestic Violence

Dependence on a religious group has been compared to other forms of addiction (Booth 1989). Arterburn and Felton write about “toxic faith,” explaining that “because of the lack of self-worth and the need to feel good about self, addictions develop. Addictions are about finding safety and relief from feelings of worthlessness and pain” (2001, 207).

Within a conservative religious worldview, the ordinary person is an unworthy sinner and comes to the faith to confess, be forgiven, and be saved. However, life happens, and more sin occurs. Guilt always follows, since Jesus is quoted as saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Mistakes are never acceptable and perfectionism becomes an obsession. The person who has “sinned,” no matter what the minor offense, comes back to confess and be cleansed again, and experiences the relief again. This works until the next sin and the next wave of guilt and need for repentance.

The addictive “fix” can be understood and easily compared to cycles in domestic abuse as well. Like domestic violence, the victim does not suspect that the self is innocent and the situation is to blame. When inklings of that fact do occur, getting out is not easy. The self-blame has been internalized, just like in the violent home. The challenge for those leaving a rigid religious group is to resist internalizing blame for problems and to resist returning for another “fix” due to guilt and shame. Here’s one way that I have heard this expressed: “I do things that are taboo in the religion I was in like dance, drink alcohol, and occasionally go out with friends to a bar to socialize. It is still difficult at times to do these things without having feelings of shame and fear but I am determined to burn new pathways in my brain so that it gets to be a habit to have fun and enjoy the now.” Unfortunately, there is no support structure for people addicted to religion as there is for those addicted to alcohol. In addition, those who turn to alcohol to medicate themselves are unable to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because they have no tolerance for the “higher power” language that organization employs.

Harmful Doctrines

While the full extent of damage possibly caused by religious indoctrination has been explored elsewhere (Winell 2007; 2011), certain doctrines are worth discussing here because they create such liabilities for becoming secular.

A damaged sense of self. Conservative religious groups generally teach a sense of self that is negative and degraded. In Christianity, this self is lost and damned and in need of salvation. Due to original sin, the self is fundamentally bad and cannot be trusted. This is because all good things are considered from God, while a person is just a channel and can be led astray. As an empty shell, a person’s thoughts are inadequate and misleading, feelings are irrelevant, and basic drives are selfish and destructive. Illustrating the dependence that is fostered, Jerry Falwell said, “Start your day off by ridding yourself of self-reliance” (1982, 56). In this environment, confidence in one’s own judgment is diminished. Of course, for the Christian believer, this problem of worthlessness and weakness is solved by the atonement of Christ (although even then there is no way to be sure of one’s salvation). But the ex-believer no longer has this faith, and is left with a self that still feels bad, weak, and empty. There is little awareness of having inner resources of love and strength and wisdom to embark on a new life journey.

In secular psychology, an active self with personal responsibility is considered desirable, not a liability or sin. Empirical research demonstrates that beliefs about one’s ability and related skills to be self-directing are related to human happiness and effectiveness (Winell 1987; Bandura 1977; Seligman 1975). But former believers who have been taught to denigrate themselves, look to outside authorities, and search for “God’s will,” often struggle with decision-making and overwhelming stress. The damage to self also causes problems at the core level of basic identity. A true believer identifies as being a Christian or Catholic or another label. Beyond something one believes; this is something one is. Thus losing one’s faith is experienced to some extent as losing oneself. This can be quite a loss as the old identity unravels, including such things as being a child of God with an important mission in life. The transition to secular life then involves discovering one’s new identity and rebuilding the self.

Fear and phobia indoctrination. The most challenging recovery issue for ex-believers is dealing with fear, according to my observations. The faithful are taught to fear eternal consequences after they die, and to be very afraid of spiritual and earthly disasters in the here and now. Thus, the self cannot be trusted and neither can the outside world. Without a doubt, the threat of severe, eternal punishment is the worst doctrine of all in conservative religious groups. In fundamentalist churches, teaching about abject torture in hell starts in early childhood with vivid imagery. Mormons warn about “outer darkness,” and Jehovah’s Witnesses fear Armageddon. The ex-believer who rejects the belief system may intellectually dismiss the fear but be haunted emotionally by the question, “What if it’s true?” Some experience anxiety or nightmares for an extended time beyond leaving the faith.

Aside from worries over what will happen after death, believers in conservative religious groups are taught to despise and fear “the world.” Christians are taught to be strangers and pilgrims on the earth, living cautiously among unbelievers. Verses from the Bible are used to great effect: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (I John 2:15) True believers are accustomed to being “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:14-19), which is considered fallen and the domain of Satan.

It is said that leaving the faith and venturing into the world is likely to result in terrible times – misery, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, crime, or worse. Satan and his minions are everywhere seeking to devour. If you leave the protection of God and the fellowship of believers, you will be open to the attacks of the Evil One. All of this is very frightening, and horror stories are told to back it up. Nonbelievers are said to lack any moral core and to have no real joy or happiness or meaning in life because that is not possible outside of the faith. Anything that looks that way is Satan’s deception and cannot last. One woman who had left her faith quoted C.S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity: “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (1952, 72) Despite rejecting the statement intellectually, she found herself harboring a near-constant gut fear that it was true. Specific doctrines are used to warn believers about leaving. One concerns “apostasy.” which is the warning that once a person leaves the faith, they cannot return and the consequence is worse than if they had never believed in the first place. For the apostate, there is no hope of redemption and this life will be miserable as well. Even disgusting imagery is used – a dog returning to its vomit or a sow wallowing in mire (2 Peter 2:22). Apostasy is an unforgiveable sin, and there are others such as blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but this one is clear.

The “world” can indeed be an alarming place, but virtually all conservative, restrictive religious groups paint a picture of conditions getting much worse. “End times” books and movies have a big impact, especially on children; the classic “Thief in the Night,” movie about the “rapture,” resulted in nightmares for many.2 The “signs of the end” are supposedly everywhere – war, natural disasters, changing morality, even peace-making. When the attacks on the United States on 9/11, 2001, occurred, many panicked, becoming more religious. Numerous ex-believers have memories from childhood of finding a parent missing and thinking with horror that they have been left behind. Even as adults they may experience abandonment anxiety, which persists regardless of any rational analysis.

Loss and rejection. Not all former believers leave their religious group willingly or easily. Expressing doubts, questioning authority, and not conforming, can result in expulsion. For example, Paul is quoted, saying “(I have decided) to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5) A client of mine was told explicitly by his church of thirty years that he had been “turned over to Satan” after he had failed to attend for a while. Another was “disfellowshipped” from a Jehovah’s Witness congregation for asking questions. A common experience is to go to a pastor or leader with questions and, rather than getting help, be told that doubting is a sin. For groups with severe sanctions for leaving or breaking rules, the isolation from family and community is extremely painful.

Aside from formal shaming and shunning, losing closeness with friends and family is painful for many reclaimers. This is a much bigger issue than in other life transitions. For some, their entire circle of friends is at their church and their social activities are largely church-related. Leaving the group means losses on several fronts. Religious groups often provide opportunities for music, teaching, working with children, service experiences, and even athletics. Attending church regularly provides structure and contact with others on a regular basis, and this is not easily replaced. Most of all the tension with family can be intense, causing ruptures that are very difficult to handle. Even more cruelly, many conservative church groups consider these breakdowns in relationship to be the natural outcome of believers falling away from the faith. The true family, in this view, is the family of God. A Bible quote to support this is, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26).

In summary, the healing process after leaving a religious group can be extensive. Some individuals may be aware of these issues and get professional help, while others undergo it on their own, typically struggling for some time.

A Developmental Perspective

In addition to healing from the harmful effects of religious indoctrination, many former believers need to make up for developmental deficits. This is due to indoctrinated religious beliefs that limit growth in important psychological and intellectual areas, and also the isolating, sheltered nature of many religious environments. For example, because critical thinking is devalued compared to rote learning of approved material, individuals need to learn to think for themselves. A verse used to denigrate a person’s intelligence and “worldly” wisdom (evolution and the rest of science, for example) is I Corinthians 3:18-19: “Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” Former believers have to learn to fully sense and respect their own emotions and desires, and to do this, maturation is essential. Sexuality is one area that is usually underdeveloped because religious groups frequently limit access to sexual information and enforce restrictions. Becoming secular entails becoming comfortable with one’s body and learning to navigate sexuality in relationships.

Other aspects of relationships are also in need of development. Many religious groups provide the entire social life of the members so they learn very little about making friends. The church community is familiar and always present. Upon leaving the fold, ex-believers have to learn skills for meeting people and building relationships. Finally, maturing is needed in managing personal responsibility and freedom. Without the strict moral code of the religious group, newly secular people can feel lost developing ethical and moral guidelines, sometimes requiring a period of experimentation.

In light of several theories in human development, it appears that a conservative religious mindset is associated with a lower level of psychological development, perhaps even causing arrested development. But it also follows that some growing individuals may want to break out of the rigid framework of a conservative group as they mature naturally. With personal development, they are drawn to a larger world. Upon leaving the confines of their faith, they are then free to continue developing in all the ways theorists describe – cognitively, emotionally, morally, socially, and more.

Illustrating this progression is the work of developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1973) who extensively studied moral reasoning and developed a stage theory of moral development from childhood to adulthood that paralleled the stages of cognitive development by Piaget (1977). Interestingly, the most basic level, while usually describing children, compares most closely to the reasoning of rigid religious thinking: Stage 1, Obedience and Punishment, sees rules as fixed and absolute. Obeying the rules is important because it is a means to avoid punishment. Stage 3, Interpersonal Relationships, is another stage that is familiar to a religious orientation. This “good boy and good girl” stage is focused on living up to social expectations and roles, with an emphasis on conformity. Stage 4, Maintaining Social Order, is the last stage that reflects religious thinking, and also the last of Kohlberg’s “conventional” stages. At this stage, one focuses on law and the social order, doing one’s duty, and respecting authority.

The final two stages in this model represent “post-conventional” morality, which requires adults to base morality on reasoned decision-making, considerations about the wider social good, and the value of universally applicable norms, such as human rights. Pursuing these higher levels of reasoning would necessarily put one in conflict with rigid religious thinking. Former believers who have matured appear to have added those two stages to their moral thinking.

A Cross-Cultural View

As former believers become secular, they are in many ways moving from one world to another. In addition to the mental paradigm shift, they experience a social “crisis” stage analogous to “culture shock.” To understand this transition in full, we must consider religion as culture and not just a belief system. Anthropologist David Eller (2010) asserts that Christianity, like any religion, is both part of a culture and is a culture. Michael Zapf explains that “A culture can be understood … as a network of shared meanings that are taken for granted as reality by those interacting within the network” (1991, 105). Restrictive Bible-based religious groups have their own sub-cultures within mainstream Western culture. Core assumptions and values, rules, norms, customs, language, and shared meanings differentiate them from the broader culture. It makes sense then, to look at the transition to secular life as a kind of cross-cultural adaptation. For many reclaimers, this could include “culture shock,” a term introduced by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg to mean “anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (1954, 1). New, strange stimuli may seem to have no meaning (Hall 1959; Adler 1975).

For the former Bible believer, the culture of Christianity was not considered just one of many worldviews. It was the one that was absolute and perfect, resting on reality. Therefore moving out into “the world,” even with the nominal trappings of Christianity, is a feeling of being at sea. It is leaving the “rock of ages” to be untethered in a universe of obscure beliefs and ambiguous cultural ways. Like cross-cultural adaptations, the move from religious to secular worlds may include a sense of discovery and excitement as well as anxiety. One trend over time that has been identified is the U-Curve Hypothesis. In this model, initial feelings of optimism and challenge give way over time to deep frustration and confusion as the person is unable to interact in a meaningful way in the new culture. Eventually these difficulties are alleviated or resolved, so that confidence is regained and integration is achieved. For the former believer, the parallel at the beginning would be in the relief felt in leaving all the negatives of the religion – the intellectual problems, the moral issues, the hypocrisies, the behavioral restrictions – for the adventure of a new life in “the world.” This relief is often described as one that is a long time coming, often after coping with much cognitive dissonance during years of trying to make a religion work. But relief may be followed by feeling lost in the secular world, as if in an unfamiliar country or on another planet. Another frequent comment is feeling like a child. One person said, “I feel like a child in an adult world, like I’m a little girl in a violent and evil world.”

Reclaimers are in many ways like refugees – not just immigrants, but traumatized newcomers. From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2015), we get a description of relevant refugee issues, which include: (1) Traumatic stress related to an intense event affecting emotional and physical well-being; (2) Resettlement stress experienced while trying to make a new life; and (3) Acculturation stress related to grieving losses and adjusting to a new culture and fitting in. Former believers also go through isolation and alienation, they are often experiencing literal “resettlement,” they are adjusting to a new culture, and they are stressed both by the traumas of their religion and leaving their religion. It is no wonder that so many feel displaced and not at home in the world.

The cultural adjustment from a religious world to a secular one is massive. For the most part, cultural assumptions are unconscious and take time to realize and change. This can help us understand the extensive adaptation necessary in the transition to becoming secular. Here are just a few examples:

• The World. In a conservative religious culture, “the world” is fallen and considered temporary; eventually the world will be destroyed and replaced. Life is not to be enjoyed for itself but only for the sake of glorifying God and working to save others for the afterlife. In secular culture, this world and this life is all there is. People aspire to “live life to the fullest.” They think of Earth as humanity’s home for the far future. These views can inspire devotion to ideals such as peacemaking, justice, and environmentalism.

• Parenting. In a religious worldview, parents are responsible and have authority over their children, as given by God. They teach obedience as a primary virtue, and they assume their children are prone to sin, must be disciplined in order to be good. Passing on their religion is their primary goal. Secular parenting assumes influences of both “nature” and “nurture” in creating a unique human being. There is more interest in child development. Values are creativity and critical thinking and expression rather than obedience and conformity.

• Sex. From a religious viewpoint, sex is only permitted within very constrained conditions, usually heterosexual marriage. Even then, the importance is in procreation, not pleasure. All sex outside marriage is so condemned as to be called sin that is worse than all other sin – the subject of many sermons, producing much guilt. From a secular viewpoint, sex is a natural human need, just as normal as other animal needs like food, including masturbation as a normal behavior. Sexual relations are part of social relations more broadly and subject to numerous complexities rather than simply being right or wrong depending on marital status.

• Work. In the religious culture, one is to find livelihood that falls in line with “God’s will.” Most are taught that “God has a plan for your life,” so individuals seek to discern this. High status jobs involve some kind of “ministry.” For secular people, work is usually an important domain of life, and a continuing challenge. It is a personal responsibility to find meaningful employment or career.

• People. In the religious culture, people are evaluated according to their standing in the religion and this provides guidance for relating to them. If they are “in the fold,” they are objects of fellowship and safe for contact or friendship. If they are “outside the fold” they are either objects of temptation and thus to be avoided (feared), or objects of conversion and subjects to proselytize. From the viewpoint of secular culture, people are just people, and part of the animal kingdom. They have basic instincts but are not essentially good or bad. Getting to know people is direct and immediate. People are of all kinds and some interactions are more pleasant than others, but there is no need to categorize them or judge.

Another aspect of the cultural adjustment undergone by former believers is the strange experience of a kind of Rip Van Winkle effect. This is the feeling of waking up after being asleep for many years and needing to catch up on what’s going on in the world. Getting up to date on pop culture, learning how to dance, navigating a night club, and even ordering coffee at a café – these are examples of specific things that might need to be learned, and may be potential sources of embarrassment. Broader knowledge areas usually need supplementation too. An ex-believer may want to learn about evolution if they were taught only creationism. They might want to know more about a lot of subjects, and from a secular point of view in particular, such as history, science, psychology, philosophy, sex, politics, and anthropology. For those who were homeschooled or attended religious schools, this education can be very important. Many find that their religion has colored their views on politics and social issues, so changes can occur in these areas as well.

In general, the formerly religious can be surprised to find out that there is a rich, philosophical history of thought in the secular world dealing with values and meaning. To recover from the idea that there is only one correct (religious) way of thinking, a helpful endeavor is to read and study other religious views, philosophical views, and especially humanism and naturalism. As George Holyoake, the first promoter of the term “secularism,” said, “Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life” (Holyoake and Bradlaugh 1870, 74). This is a welcome adventure of discovery.

Healing and Growth

The former believer now living in the secular world is not without hope. The traumas and liabilities may be real but new opportunities are just as present. Without the strict rules and authoritarianism of a religious group, former believers can explore freely and exercise their own cognitive and emotional capacities. New friends, connections, and activities are available. This is all exciting despite being daunting. As one person put it, “My life is more real now… Having an imaginary friend is ok when you’re a little child but at some point you have to grow up. And feeling like you’re growing up is just exhilarating. Just knowing that ‘Hey, I’m starting to get some of this, and I’m not as bad as I thought I was. People aren’t evil, and they’re not all out to get you and there is no great conspiracy and life is what it is. The meaning of life is to sing and dance while the music is on.’”

“Reclaimers” is an apt term for people in this situation. Rather than surviving or recovering or even transitioning, reclaimers are in the process of reclaiming their lives. This includes reclaiming their identities, their ability and right to think for themselves, their feelings, their creativity, their sexuality, their bodies, and everything else about them. It involves healing from trauma and pain, making up for delayed development, and moving forward with new personal growth. It can mean getting help in therapy, on line, or from special groups.3 Reclaimer, refugee, immigrant, secular person – by whatever label for one stage or another, this is about gradually healing and rebuilding a life in “the world.” It’s an all-consuming life task. The wounds of religion need attending to, and may be serious, depending on the particulars of the group concerned. Indoctrination goes deep into the unconscious and this can be a lot of work for some time to come. The developmental delays can be apparent especially at times of stress and the remedial education can be significant. But life moves on from the time a person makes a break from religion and matures in the ways of the secular world. It becomes less frightening, despite not being perfect. Unlike those who seek a different religious experience and change churches, rarely does the fully liberated reclaimer choose to return to religion.

Former believers usually find that they also retain strengths from their religious legacy. Some of the values and habits of thought are still relevant. They have experience thinking about important matters and feeling deeply. They understand caring about others. They know about gratitude, humility, grace, and generosity. They have experience in a community and have given of themselves in service. Upon leaving the fold, they also learn a healthy skepticism that serves them well in life. All of these strengths may not be apparent to an individual at first, but in time they become more evident. The personalities that were most passionate about their faith bring their passion to new domains in life. As they find their way in a world with new freedoms, life opens up. They become more fearless and express themselves more fully. With the unique experience of transitioning out of religious commitment and learning all the lessons that entails, they finally arrive in the secular world with much to offer that world.

Despite all the struggles, former believers gradually discover that the secular world is not the empty, meaningless wasteland they were led to believe. While still having challenges, it is full of joy and meaning, and this is such a huge relief after all the fear. Personal identities are reformed and lives are rebuilt on new terms. With maturity, the newly secular person willingly lets go of promises for existence by and by for a real life here and now. One reclaimer expressed it like this: “I feel free to explore the world, knowing that I’m no different than anyone else. I also feel free to pursue friendships that I would never have dreamed of. I feel I’ve got a long road ahead of me, but it’s my road. I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll also have triumphs too. All that said, I only wish I had left religion sooner!”

 

Notes

  1. For example, ExChristian.net is encouraging for de-converting and former Christians.
  1. The most prominent may be Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series of twelve adult books and forty young adult books, published from 1995 to 2004. Dylan Peterson (2009) reviews “A Thief in the Night.”
  1. In addition to numerous online forums, Recovery From Religion (recoveryfromreligion.org) offers a secular therapist referral service, a hotline, and in-person support groups around the United States. Journey Free (journeyfree.org) provides individual recovery coaching, retreats, and a confidential recovery group online.

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In:  The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, ed. Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.