Part 1: Sorting It Out
“Some things that happened in that church make more sense now, and some things I’m still sorting out. It takes a while. A friend of mine that left two years ago still cries once in a while. I know of other people that left the church and either went through therapy or are still going through it. I’m scared sometimes, because I think that I may never get better. But then I remember that other people have left that church and are doing great now. My friend said that when she first left, all she knew was that her favorite color was pink and what her name was. She is fine now, and I will be too.” -Evelyn
The Recovery Process
the rabbit’s foot
that couldn’t hurt
and I hurt
Breaking away from your faith has had an impact on your life, and probably a profound one. You may be feeling confused, guilty, empty, or bitter. You may be depressed about life or scared of the future. Perhaps you have trouble connecting with other people and life “in the world.”
You are not alone in your experience. Many, many others have been through this and gone on to reconstruct their lives in meaningful and satisfying ways. While the experience of losing your religion is often painful and confusing at first, there is much to be learned and ultimately a profound maturity to be gained. This book can provide some assistance in your recovery by clarifying the issues involved, offering ideas for healing, and suggesting directions for further growth.
In general, leaving a cherished faith is much like the end of a marriage. The symptoms of separation are quite similar-grief, anger, guilt, depression, lowered self-esteem, and social isolation. But whereas help for divorced people is readily available, little if any assistance is available to help you to leave your religion. The familiar sources of church support are no longer there, and family members still in the fold may actually shun you. Secular friends and even therapists may not understand what you have been through. Part of the difficulty is the anxiety, the terror you may feel about having to go it alone. After having been born again, leaving your faith can feel like being lost again.
There are many issues to work through-thoughts and feelings to process, new friends to make, new beliefs to nurture, new ways to live. Because your religion took care of so much, defining and dictating reality in so many ways, you are now faced with largely reconstructing your life. Recovery begins with deciding to take that responsibility. This may seem overwhelming, but the benefits are indisputable. You get your life back on your terms. Indeed, the journey out can be thrilling as old fears and doubts give way to new and healthy possibilities.
Phases of Recovery
People seem to go through phases in their recovery from rigid religion, just as other life changes have typical sequences. This particular change goes deeper than many others and touches on all aspects of a person’s life. The following sections offer a very general outline of the recovery pattern that I have observed and facilitated in clients:
These are not discrete stages in the formal sense. There is considerable overlap between them and a person may be in more than one phase at a time. However, the overall pattern may help you understand where you have been, where you are now, and what you can expect in the future.
Phase 1: Separation
Before leaving, there is usually comfort from being “in the fold.” Whether you were raised in the church or joined later, there was a time when things were at least okay. Some people report great satisfaction when describing their religious participation: values were affirmed and emotional needs were met; their belief system felt intellectually congruent. Other people describe less identification or less intense involvement, but some contentment nonetheless.
But then questions and doubts arise, perhaps gradually. Bits of new information become harder to integrate and new life experiences do not fit with standard dogma. It can feel unsettling when it seems that prom-ises are not being fulfilled or that unexpected problems are occurring. That is, there are fewer pluses and more minuses. Your faith feels like a tapestry coming apart.
Many believers strive to continue being faithful, using denial, ration-al-ization, or greater effort to be “victorious Christians,” for example. Fi-nally, it just becomes too much. Some people will make a sudden break, perhaps after a “last straw” experience. Others will struggle for a long time and only gradually let go. In trying to make sense of your doubts and fears, you might try to get help from church leaders, only to find that they don’t want to hear you; it triggers their own fears. Over time, you may notice your attendance at church dropping; you might experiment with other churches, read the Bible less, pray less, and finally come to view yourself differently-no longer as a member of the “body.” The leaving can range from the traumatic to what seems relatively easy. Nonetheless, deep changes are occurring.
Phase 2: Confusion
Whether sudden or gradual, breaking away usually creates a state of serious confusion. This can be a major upheaval because your religion essentially defined your entire structure of reality and your old definitions no longer hold. Notions of who you were, your purpose in life, your re-la-tionship to others; needed explanations about the world; interpretations of the past; expectations for the future; and directions about how to feel, think, make decisions, and lead your life have been lost. Letting go of such a massive structure can leave you feeling totally adrift. The sense of existential angst can be intense as you struggle to get a new foothold on life. You are starting over from scratch on all the basic questions about life. Many people in this phase feel like a naive child in an adult world.
Moreover, the fears instilled by the religion itself can produce additional anxiety. You were taught that if you did not believe you would go to hell. So it makes great sense if you have been nervous and scared about leaving. There may be times of near panic, when you wonder whether you’ve made a terrible mistake and will be forever damned. You might have trouble with intense feelings in this phase because you have been taught to interpret them as “conviction of the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes people in this phase wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler and safer to just “get right with God,” and return to church. However, such returns rarely last.
But the experience of leaving can also be liberating, like breaking out of prison. If you feel oppressed by all the formulas and judgments, the rules and regulations, you might now feel a great relief, able to think and feel and experience much more of yourself. Some people describe a wonderful, almost euphoric, feeling of “coming home” when they settle in to the notion of just being alive and living life now, in this world. They see the world as a friendly place for a change, like a newly discovered candy store, with so much to offer. There can be a glorious excitement about taking charge of your own life.
“Since leaving, I’ve changed how I think. I was stuck in a dualistic way of thinking. My world now seems filled with infinite possibilities. When I first left the church, I felt this weight being lifted from my shoulders. Freedom to be me is probably the most positive benefit”. -Richard
Phase 3: Avoidance
The next phase amounts to a kind of moratorium on religion and spirituality. Many people do not attend any church whatsoever and do not want to even discuss the concept of a God. They want to distance themselves from church to deny previous involvement.
Those who feel they have been abused by their religious experiences may also avoid any contact with church members or even church buildings. A number of people have trouble participating in organizations of other kinds as well, in political or social groups, for example. These patterns of avoidance and numbness seem to be methods of self-protection. From the perspective of an outside observer, this phase may look like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” but it appears to be an essential part of the recovery process. To make a real break, you need to call a halt to life as you once knew it and create some space and new direction for yourself.
Phase 4: Feeling
After a while, intense but mixed feelings tend to emerge. This can be a chaotic period. Most people experience some amount of anger. You might feel like an angry child losing Santa Claus. In thinking over the time spent being faithful, there can be rage over the damage done-life lost, negative self-image, ignorance about the world and real life, guilt and suffering, denial of pleasures, missing skills, hurt relationships, spoiled careers. If you have parents who used religion to justify severe discipline, or if you suffered actual abuse at the hands of church leaders, you could be very angry.
While some people find ways to express themselves during this phase, most wonder what to do with all their anger. Because of what you’ve been taught, you might think that you should simply forgive and forget rather than accept these feelings as legitimate. The rage may then go underground and stay with you. Bottled up emotions like these can leave you feeling hopeless, helpless, anxious, and depressed.
As you progress out of the avoidance phase, the other major feeling you will likely experience is grief. You really have had multiple losses. Uncovering and grieving these losses will be key to releasing you from your pain. This process is akin to recovering from the death of a loved one. As described by Carol Staudacher (1987), this usually includes shock, disorganization, and reorganization. The loss of relationship with God can feel devastating, as though your parents have died; you no longer have a Heavenly Father. If you were deeply involved in a personal relationship with Jesus, you have also lost a best friend and lover. Added to this is the guilt of leaving and fears about what you did to cause the breakup. You might also be afraid that no one else will ever love you like that again. Yet going back seems impossible, and that makes the whole process all the more agonizing.
Phase 5: Rebuilding
Fortunately healing can occur. You can work through your pain and allow your inner strengths to emerge. In the rebuilding phase, people re-discover their self-worth. They rejoin life on a different basis. Perceptions and beliefs are reconstructed. You too can find new principles to live by and new meaning for your life. Some of your values may remain the same, but you sort through what you have been taught and keep what is valuable.
You learn anew to do things from choice. As you rebuild your sense of self, you become more clear about who you really are. You can respect your own thoughts and feelings and make decisions more confidently. For example, you might still believe that “love one another” is an important guideline for your life. On the other hand, “be here now” might also become important to you, and different from what you have been taught.
As you exercise your freedom and ability to create your own life, a sense of empowerment evolves that can feel exhilarating. You can now take full responsibility for yourself and enjoy the process. Your confidence grows as you address the many areas of life that need your creative energy-career, family, friendships, finances, recreation, and so on. You will need to rebuild your social network. Personal relationships will be different in important ways. You might want a new place for spirituality in your life. Your approach to parenting your own children may need to be rethought.
Issues in Recovery
“I feel like a scared, lonely, abandoned little kid that just can’t get it right and who must be a real “bad boy.” I have a large sense of not deserving anything-that finally I am not important. This is connected to my “nothingness in the eyes of God,” which was taught very early. My mother dedicated me to God when I was an infant. God is what is important, not me. Am I worth taking care of?” -Daryl
From what I have learned in my work with formerly religious peo-ple and from my own experience, certain issues of healing and growth appear to be common to the process of breaking away. Some areas of personal development continue to be important for many years. The areas of impact described here are typical consequences of leaving a conservative, fundamentalist church. They also apply in various ways to leaving other groups. The intensity of impact can range from simple life-limiting to extreme harm.
Another important point is to realize that when you process re-li-gious issues, you end up processing all of your issues. These aspects of personal health and maturity are so basic. Thus, as you make a commitment to work on these areas, you are beginning a very far-reaching journey of growth and are to be commended.
Sense of Self
“I didn’t know that there was a difference between healthy self-esteem and puffed-up pride. It was the case in my family that personal strength was not encouraged. So, for me, when as an adult I realized that my religion was not enough to get me through life, I had no belief in my own strength. For a long time, I was adrift until I could start believing in myself.” -Pam
Selfishness and pride are considered terrible things in a traditional Christian context. Thus when you leave the fold, it can be very difficult to know how to think of yourself. At one time, your individual identity was subsumed in the body of Christ. Now you may need to get to know yourself and learn how to appreciate your uniqueness.
Within fundamentalism, your worth was based on being a redeemed child of God. The atonement was essential to cleanse you of original sin. Now you may struggle with feeling bad and worthless. It will be important in your healing to fully accept yourself, to appreciate and love yourself, and learn about the kind of self-esteem that does not depend on external approval. After an indoctrination about the sins of the “flesh,” learn-ing to appreciate your own body and enjoy your sexuality is likely to be another challenging but rewarding area of growth.
Another devastating assumption of conservative Christianity is that you are helpless and hopeless without the salvation formula. Within that belief system, the only capabilities you could hope to have were outside of yourself. All the strength, wisdom, and love considered worth anything was to be channeled through you from God. Consequently, you may now feel like an empty shell, without any core, and you may still have a re-si-dual tendency to look outside yourself for security and satisfaction. A critical area of recovery will be to discover and learn to use the inner resources you do have. This is often an exciting area of growth.
Fundamentalists and others typically go through intense times of emotional turmoil when leaving their faith. They may feel very angry at family, church leaders, or God. Often they feel betrayed or cheated. A religious upbringing can be abusive in a number of ways. Angela expressed it this way:
“I am angry. I am angry that I was fed so many lies and that I believed them for so many years, making important decisions based on that false information. Those decisions are some that I will have to live with and deal with until I die. I am angry that I had to pay for my parents’ continued existence in their cocoon of safety. They wanted to believe that life was as they said it was, and in lying to me they didn’t have to face reality.I am angry at other Christians and can hardly stand to be around them beyond surface occasions. When they start talking about their belief systems, I want to blow up in anger. I feel like I want to protect other innocent children who are being trashed by those religious beliefs.”
Feelings of grief can also be quite real for the recovering fundamentalist. The losses are multiple-a primary love relationship with the di-vine, a spiritual family, and a supportive community. Despite the negative aspects of dogmatic thinking and judgment, church groups often provide a social context that is difficult to match in the secular world. Leaving the faith can also mean alienation from your own family. Until you re-place or amend key relationships in your life, you might feel abandoned and very lonely.
Accompanying grief are fear and anxiety. When you have lost your place in what was once a safe cocoon, your status as a protected child of God and your part in the cosmic scheme, it is natural to feel adrift. At first, this feeling of total disconnectedness can be very frightening. The world can seem like an ominous place in which you have no defenses. Old fears of hell and Armageddon can resurface, even after you have rejected them intellectually. Your task in this area will be to build trust within yourself and the skills needed to deal with the world.
Guilt is often a continuing issue, because it is one of the only feelings indulged by religion. You are probably used to feeling bad for many things, and now you no longer have the old means of forgiveness. Because fundamentalism splits everything into black and white, you may have developed an unrelenting perfectionism. You will need to allow your-self to be human now, understand old messages about mistakes and “shoulds,” and learn flexibility and compassion. The result will be a much more relaxed and open way of being.
For Daryl, a man in his fifties who grew up with a pious mother, guilt was always present when he thought of himself. As a minister he spent his career caring for others, and for many years he ached for the self-love he withheld. He described some of his old assumptions:
“I feel extremely guilty if I go for myself. I am to be perfect in carrying out my divine mission. When I am less than perfect, I am a guilty sinner. I am less than perfect when I get tired, needy, lonely, et cetera. It is very hard for me to take or find satisfaction in a job well done, and I do most jobs well. Praise fails to register or make any difference.”
Being in the World
After leading a religious life, it can be quite an adjustment to live an ordinary human life in the here and now. It can be hard to let go of the idealism of a cosmic plan and a future in heaven. With all the trouble in the world, it can be comforting to think God will settle accounts and the worthy few will get their reward. Looking to God for the perfect re-la-tionship can be far easier than struggling with human connections. Now it is probably a challenge for you to be in this world, putting up with the problems or even enjoying the pleasures. Former fundamentalists of-ten need to heal from the habit of denigrating the world and other people.
Fully appreciating the here and now usually takes some learning. Margaret is a mother of four, the daughter of fundamentalists, and a former minister’s wife who is learning to appreciate simple pleasures:
“I wasn’t taught an appreciation for nature-that God was in nature. It was more like “This is an evil existence; it’ll be better by and by.” So I wasn’t taught the beauty of a sunset or how it feels to walk through grass. That is a deep regret I have today. I don’t know how to experience the beauty of nature and to be as one with it.”
Participating in bettering the world-such as work on environmental, political, or social concerns-is an even greater stretch. Your recovery will be enhanced by accepting that you are indeed home, here and now. You can let go of wishful thinking and be here fully in the drama of humanity. Other people are not saints or devils, and life is a rich mixture of pleasure and pain.
Taking charge of your own life is central to recovery from religious indoctrination. If you learned to wait passively for God’s will and to feel guilty for making your own decisions, this will be a challenge. Notions of responsibility were confused in fundamentalism, since you were at the same time accountable for sin, for making the choice to accept Christ, and for leading others to God. You were supposed to be like Christ, but not through your own doing. In fact, self-reliance was the most dangerous of all attitudes. Thus learning to trust yourself will be a new journey. It might be a whole new experience to be in touch with your feelings. However, in order to take charge of your life, you will need to reclaim your right to feel what you feel. Processing emotions for yourself and expressing them to others may be areas you will need to work on, since you were probably taught to repress and deny your feelings.
You will also need to let go of rigid restraints on your thinking and allow yourself to form opinions, beliefs, and values of your own. You may need to learn skills for decision-making and goal-setting. At times the personal responsibility involved in making choices can seem overwhelming as it did to Betsy:
“I didn’t want to work, answer my phone, or talk to anyone. I had been taught that God is responsible for everything and that if you pray for something, God will get it to you. And here I was, suddenly having to do everything for myself.”
After the convenience of a preformed worldview that answered every question, it may seem a weighty task to develop your own approach to life. In some ways it is more comfortable to seek God’s will through the guidance of the church and accept someone else’s word for truth. Thus it may require a giant developmental leap for you to embrace both the freedom and grave responsibility of human choice.
Meaning and Spirituality
Losing your faith can shake the very foundation of your life. If it was a personal commitment, your life may have revolved around re-li-gious values and activities. If you were taught a religious view of life as a child, it can likewise be very disturbing to discover the need to change your assumptions now. This ambiguity and confusion can continue for some time and may be very uncomfortable. It is quite possible to become depressed.
Most former fundamentalists feel injured in the spiritual arena; they feel hurt and find it difficult to pursue spirituality, because they fear the same traps that caused problems in their religion. Yet it is not possible to live with no structure of meaning whatsoever. For those who find spir-i-tu-ality to be a continuing source of meaning and purpose, their spir-i-tu-al-ity needs to be redefined and made more personal. Kevin had a very painful breaking away experience which left him reeling. He still values the spiritual life, however, and found it helpful to explore other religions as he recovered his sense of meaning:
“I think there are many mansions, as Jesus said, and I’m still in touch with the creative power of the universe. I feel a real personal bond with something outside myself. I hang onto that. I find myself walking down the street talking in my mind to God. I still do that. But I don’t think of God the same way I used to. I don’t believe the dogma anymore. The words are just signs pointing to something more powerful.”
Losing all that was once meaningful without having any replacement can create deep despair. Your personal work here will be to find the drive within yourself to survive and regain your health. As you heal and learn to take care of yourself, you will gradually need to reconstruct a system of meaning in your life. Alternatives will become more apparent as you have more open contact with the world.
Exercise: Impact Inventory
The issues involved in religious recovery vary from person to person and change over time, depending on the course of the individual journey. The following checklist gives you an opportunity to identify the issues that apply to you now and to think about how much each affects you. This exercise can help you to begin some self-reflection. After you finish this book and have made progress in the recovery process, it should be interesting for you to complete this inventory again and see how your re-sponses have changed.
Directions: For each item, circle the number that best reflects the impact that issue or feeling has on your daily life. For example, circle 1 if the issue is mildly bothersome to you, 3 if it is moderately troubling, and 5 if it is severely disturbing. Circle 2 or 4 if the issue falls somewhere between.
|Confusion||1 2 3 4 5|
|Anxiety or fear||1 2 3 4 5|
|Lack of clear identity and personal values||1 2 3 4 5|
|Negative sense of self||1 2 3 4 5|
|Emptiness, as if you have no core||1 2 3 4 5|
|Negative image of your body and discomfort with sexuality||1 2 3 4 5|
|Lack of meaning or purpose in life||1 2 3 4 5|
|Anger and bitterness||1 2 3 4 5|
|Loneliness||1 2 3 4 5|
|Loss and grief||1 2 3 4 5|
|Depression||1 2 3 4 5|
|Persistent guilt||1 2 3 4 5|
|Difficulty enjoying daily pleasures||1 2 3 4 5|
|Unreasonably high expectations, perfectionism||1 2 3 4 5|
|Trouble appreciating people||1 2 3 4 5|
|Difficulty with self-responsibility||1 2 3 4 5|
|Lack of deep self-love and skills for self-care||1 2 3 4 5|
|Trouble thinking for yourself||1 2 3 4 5|
|Difficulty feeling and expressing emotion||1 2 3 4 5|
|External focus for satisfaction||1 2 3 4 5|
These issues will be addressed in later chapters. Healing and growth mean learning to love and trust yourself. Loving your “inner child” is a direct and understandable means of self-love and is the approach used here to build a foundation. Trust includes learning how to listen to your own inner wisdom. You have the inner strength and wisdom necessary to guide your own life, and you can learn to tap into deep inner resources.
Like a gardener who cares for growing plants by carefully watering, feeding, and cultivating, rather than forcing new growth, you also can tend to your own personal growth over time. Your changes will take a natural, developmental course. This book will guide you through the stages of work you can do for yourself. It is important, however, not to rush or take on all the issues at once. You might want to maintain a journal to process you feelings and to complete exercises from this book.
Life is meant to be enjoyed! Intuitively you know this, despite what you have been taught about enduring this world while looking forward to the next. The concepts presented in this book are meant to take you beyond coping and survival to a level of thriving that allows you to fully be the person you want to be.