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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Breaking Up is Hard to Do--The Trauma of Losing One's Religion

Recently, I have been contacted by two different men who are currently in the ministry but who no longer believe. Both men feel trapped. In both cases, the men's wives do not know the full extent of their unbelief. No one in their churches knows about it. While it seems obvious that they should just resign their churches and move on with their lives, its not that simple. Both men have bills and expenses and no good way to earn a living apart from the ministry. In addition, the stigma that is sometimes attached to an apostate and the grief from family members is tough to deal with.

Even if one is not a Pastor, it is still hard to walk away from the faith. It creates psychological and emotional trauma much like that of going through a divorce. Marlene Winell, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and former evangelical Christian herself, has written a book entitled: Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion (1993). She also has a practice in which she counsels those who have decided to leave their conservative religion behind. I highly recommend her work.

In the book, Leaving the Fold, she writes:

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 (p. 15).

Losing one's religion can create enormous confusion. Winell explains:

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 relationship 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 (p. 17).

So, its not easy to break away from something that has been so central to one's life. Something that essentially defined you. Something that provided a neat package of explanations for everything in life. Its like starting life over. Many people just can't tackle such a task.

However, for those that do, once they get resettled, they ususally feel liberated. Winell states:

The experience 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 settle in to the notion of just being alive and living life now, in this world (p. 17).

For those who might be struggling with a loss of faith and feeling overwhelmed by it all, I highly recommend Winnell's book.

Here is a podcast of an interview of Marlene Winnell in which she gives her de-conversion story. She details her own religious upbringing on the mission field and how as an adult she gradually lost her faith.

The video clip below is an interview of Marlene Winell conducted by Valerie Tarico, who is also a psychologist, former evangelical and author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth.

Dr. Winnell talks about how destructive fundamentalist religions can be on children and about her recovery seminars.


  1. Took a look at Ms. Tarico's website and found it interesting that she lectures about the "innate character virtues and moral instincts in children".

  2. Very timely post. I lost my faith about a year ago after 21 years as an evangelical christian, basically half of my life.

    The personal upheaval, the sudden social isolation, the impact on my relationship with my christian was unbelievably traumatic. I wasn't a professional minister, but I was a deacon in a PCA church and taught a sunday school class for college students. I almost went to seminary. I left the church as quietly as I could. It was enough that I was dealing with the personal fall-out of losing a faith that defined who I was and how I viewed the world and that my wife was basically in shock, as I would've been if she had lost her faith before me. I couldn't handle the thought of having to debate christianity with all of my christian friends and family and deal with the judgements about me that their faith required of them. A year later and everyone has learned of my loss of faith and I'm ok with that now. It's one of those things that gets easier with time.

    I really feel for professional ministers who lose their faith, because in addition to all the personal trauma they have jobs to worry about too. My brother was a pastor and also lost his faith after he and his family were kicked out of his church and parsonage rather rudely by his congregation. All of his education (which he'll be paying off for the rest of his life) and most of his work experience has been in the ministry so he struggled for a long time to find a job. He finally ended up becoming a truck driver.

    Nevertheless, I think these guys at some point need to stop "living the lie" so to speak and leave the ministry for the sake of their personal integrity. They'll need to figure out how to do that with the least impact on their families, whatever that entails. There are no easy answers, and it's a painful thing to have to go through, but in the end being liberated from the delusions of religion is well worth it, as has been my experience.

    Thanks for your blog.

  3. Lee,

    Thanks for sharing. Before the internet we all felt like we were alone and that there was something drastically wrong with us. Now we can see that there are literally thousands of people who once were devoted evangelicals but now no longer believe.

  4. ---

    Leaving the fold has been exceedingly tough. Here I am three years later, and I know not what this feeling is, much like regret, but more sorrowful. I cannot betray my cognitive faculties to accept something that isn't real, and there are certainly aspects of the Christian faith that are just totally unacceptable (Hell, the role of women, the totalarian fist with which Yahweh reins); but, when I'm around my old churchmates, when I see how happy they are, how fulfilled their lives, how tight knit the community, how loving they are to one another and how sacrificially they serve each other, it's difficult to not be overcome with remorse.

    She is right on with societal isolation. Having been a Christian during the formative years of my youth and through high school and college, I have zero desire to comingle with the "normal" crowd. I don't drink, smoke, go to clubs or parties, or have any desire to be apart of that social circle. I desire to live life the same way Christians do, focused on a family, enjoying the company of others and living very simply. I want to help people just as they do, meet every Sunday, play games and volleyball, go out to lunch together, etc. In all accounts, I fit right in with the Christian community, except one big difference. I no longer believe in their deity.

    One of the toughest things for me personally is the women within the church. They are the exact women that I want to be with. They are not self-centered, they are caring, beautiful physically and even moreso peronally. They are really everything that I'd like in a partner, and yet they are completely unavailable to me, as they are devout Christians, and I am an apostate.

    Leaving your faith doesn't just come with some esoteric "spiritual" struggles, and even if you don't have family that are in (or ever were) the church, there are several issues that you have to deal with once you deconvert from a firmly held and well established (communally and congitively) relgiion.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Ken.

  5. I have very recently 'de-converted'(within the last 6 months). I am still trying to navigate this 'new' life. It is difficult to get rid of these beliefs that have been burned into my mind through the years. Maybe I should take a look at these books!

    Thanks for the post (and the blog in general).

  6. As you know Ken I spent 25 years in the ministry before leaving in 2004. I found Winell's book very helpful. For me, though, I needed more, and 18 months ago I, for the first time ever, sought out a counselor. (psychologist) Finding a counselor was difficult due to the Evangelcial right-wing conservatism in this area. Most counselors were biblically- based. I found a great secular counselor who had a working knowledge of religion and evangelicalism/fundamentalism. (though he is still shocked by some of the stories I tell him)

    The biggest problem I faced (and at times still do) is that who I am was swallowed up by the Church and the ministry. Everything in my life, for almost 30 years, was subordinate to the ministry. In the process I lost who I was.

    I had to relearn that it is OK to have emotions. As you know emotions are bad (according to the Bible) and must be kept in check. Especially anger. It was ugly for awhile watching a grown man, a grandfather, embrace the emotional side of his being.

    Pastors often have to live in a self-controlled environment. Their life, along with their family, must always be under control. Impossible way to live.

    Well, enough of this. I can say, to those who have left the ministry, it does get better over time. It is not easy and you will think you'll never get over it. The past will seem to dominate the present BUT over time it does it better.


  7. Exploring the Unknowable said: " I know not what this feeling is, much like regret, but more sorrowful."

    I think the word you're looking for is "grief." ::shrugs:: Or maybe not. Maybe it's something more personal than that, and there is no good word for it.

    My deconversion was gentler - so much gentler that I hesitated to call it "deconversion" - not least because I was coming out of a less extreme religious environment than a lot of other people. Even so, I remember times when I was sad about it, and other times when I was angry. Not that either of those emotions made any real difference: core elements of Christianity make no sense to me, and no amount of wanting to believe will change that.

  8. Exploring (via Michael. Awkward...): I think the word you're looking for is "grief." ::shrugs:: Or maybe not. Maybe it's something more personal than that, and there is no good word for it.

    That's exactly what it is. Or, close enough, I suppose.

    I framed my own discarding of the faith through the terms of a bad break-up. I suppose it doesn't hurt that leaving the faith kinda-sorta required a bad break-up when it happened.

    It's been over two years since I finally gave up the ghost with the girl in question, probably closer to three since I finally admitted I was and wanted out of the church. But the thing is that I still miss her sometimes. It's not because I miss her, in particular, as she was not exactly the most pleasant person to be around and more than a little judgmental, but what I miss is that those first few months I was with her were the last time in my life I was happy with church and with another human being.

    It's an overall nostalgia that I've focused on a moment when I wasn't actually content. But looking back I like to believe that I was and if I could have just stayed in that moment I'd be happy today.

    They are the exact women that I want to be with. They are not self-centered, they are caring, beautiful physically and even moreso peronally. They are really everything that I'd like in a partner, and yet they are completely unavailable to me, as they are devout Christians, and I am an apostate.

    Some gentle advice (from someone who's not so good at taking his own): get out more. As long as you're sitting around, thinking about what you don't have and all the ways your life could be better you'll just trick yourself in to believing that, as they say, the grass is always greener.

    I spent a lot of my time as isolated as possible from the world not long after my break-up with religion/girl. My isolation forced me to constantly look to what might have/could have been. So I sat there and tried to figure out the exact situation that would bring her back in to my life.

    There were none. I knew it then. I know it now. I could give you a laundry list of reasons why and, ultimately, why it wouldn't have been desirable.

    But when you don't give yourself anything to look forward to all you're going to do is lament what you don't have now and pretend that what you had in the past was awesome. There's a good chance it wasn't, but that's the nature of nostalgia...

    Bruce: I realized right about the time that you closed out the first blog you had where I found you (that makes sense...) that I couldn't even begin to imagine how hard your deconversion was. Because while I had been dedicated and cut myself loose, I had never allowed myself to be completely immersed in that world like you had. I had my outlets and Local H or Peacemakers shows. I had more time to read history books or work on writing fiction or whatever.

    And I had the occasional contact with a former equal who really wasn't overly threatened by my decision to leave. You seemed to get a daily barrage of contacts from people who were desperately unsure of their faith if their pastor couldn't hold on to his own.

    I do hope you're doing better now...

  9. Geds,

    Well I don't think there are any more people to pi*ss off. :) I faced quite a barrage of phone calls, letters, emails, and personal visits by people determined to fix me or win me back to Jesus.

    I am pretty settled on the whole God issue. Once I finally embraced Bible is just another book way of thinking...God disappeared quickly. I now deal with more personal issues. Long years in the ministry have left their mark mentally, emotionally, and physically.

    It gets better every day.


  10. It is hard to admit to loved ones that you no longer believe. I know my husband suspects because of the sites I have visited on the internet, (this being my favourite) and some of the questions I have asked him about the bible. I continue to hide the truth because I can not and will not hurt my husband's 86 year old parents. They have been so good to me and to my children. I tell myself when they are gone I will come out, (yikes I feel like a homosexual that has to admit to everyone)! I am not saying anything against a person's sexual choice I am saying it must feel similar.

  11. I was in the doctor's office today and they had contemporary Christian music playing in the lobby. It was emotional, powerful, soaring, hopeful ... good music that made me feel like I was back in the church culture again. Part of me felt warmed listening to it. The other part felt melancholy, like when you look at photos of someone who's no longer around.

  12. Read the book Rumspringa. Most Amish teens return to the faith.

  13. Read the book "From Missionary Bible Translator to Agnostic" by Ken Daniels

  14. Thanks for this post Ken. This may not be in your line of thinking, but I would love for you to ask these two to contact me. I can be some help from the "other side"!

    God bless.

  15. Hi Michael I think you need to read Ken Daniels book "From Missionary Bible Translator to Agnostic"

  16. I can be some help from the "other side"!

    What other side? The, "We'll still let you come back as long as you start being exactly what we thing you're supposed to be again," side?

    Because I've gotten that sales pitch before. It's incredibly demeaning.

  17. "The familiar sources of church support are no longer there, and family members still in the fold may actually shun you (p. 15)."

    If family members act like this, you are probably better off without them. They cannot have had a good relationship with you in the first place. In my experience, it is not usually close family members that behave like this-more often aunts,uncles, cousins or grandparents.

    If the church members shun you, that will just make it easier to make a clean break, which is what is needed. I notice that some former evangelicals still seem to hang on to some aspects of their religion-for example reading and studying the Bible as if it was an accurate historical document.

  18. I wish I'd known about this book 10 years ago; might've made the following few years a lot less painful. I have, however, forwarded this link on to an Internet friend who is just at the beginning of his deconversion journey ... Thanks.