In thinking about the new year, I was reminded that in leaving religion, everything is new. The adjustments related to losing comforts are quite serious but the liberating elements are profound as well. In essence, “reclaimers” go through a massive paradigm shift. I wrote about this in my chapter in the forthcoming volume, The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. The following is from that writing.
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.
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.)
- Meaning is created.
- Nothing is certain except change.
- Each is responsible for their own life.
- Everyone is equal and innocent.
- Death is final.
- Reality is a matter of perspective.
- Complexity and ambiguity are normal and everywhere.
- Humans have a moral compass without god.
- Earth is our only home.
- Pleasure is a good thing.
From my clinical observations, finding a new philosophy of life is the primary task in recovery from religion.
Excerpted from: Winell, Marlene. 2016. “The Challenge of Leaving Religion and Becoming Secular.” In Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.