by Neil Godfrey
Marleine Winell in Leaving the Fold (See earlier Journey Free post) outlines several reasons leave fundamentalist religious systems in particular, but I think some of the points probably work for why people leave behind any religious faith. Her list is not complete or the result of a controlled study, as she herself explains. The purpose of her book is to support readers who have already stepped outside their old religious worlds and to share with them a range of experiences of others who have been through the same journey.
In general, people make changes of all kinds based on integrating information from new experiences. Human beings are “wired” to survive and thrive. Thus when we are disappointed with the methods we are using to meet needs, we are likely after a while to seek new methods. Also, change is more likely to occur if we are frustrated and we have access to information about alternatives. In effect, there are forces that push and forces that pull. Formally religious people find other ways to live, without the intellectual, emotional, and ethical discomforts that had become bothersome. New satisfactions add to the impact of the dissatisfactions, and the combination becomes enough to force the break. Thee multiple influences can be subtle and accumulate without clear awareness. (p. 88)
1. Developmental Change
People are growing, changing, maturing beings. Our development into more complex creatures is most noticeable in infancy, through childhood and youth.
This change is not random, but progressive with increased physical skill, emotional maturity, moral and cognitive development.
Personal development continues through adulthood. We integrate experiences as we change and grow, learn to appreciate paradoxes and shades of grey in our lives, learn how better to deal with situations.
That normal development can, however, be arrested. And that’s what happens when someone is diverted into a fundamentalist, black-and-white, dogmatic belief system.
In cases where a believer puts their trust strongly in a religious leader they make themselves vulnerable to disillusionment, even trauma, when that leader seriously fails.
Leaving such a religion can thus be seen positively as simply resuming one’s personal maturing and evolution.
Sometimes such resumptions of personal development come with a major life transition. Winell cites one woman for whom the birth of a child was such a turning point:
I believed the Bible’s promises and prophecies. I declined my parent’s offer to pay for a college education and devoted my time to studying the Bible and volunteering full-time in the ministry. At the age of 28, as I was expecting my first child, my whole concept of life and of the future collapsed. It was as if I had awoken from a dream state and saw reality for the first time. In the midst of the ensuing confusion I was left with the task normally reserved for adolescents: the search for who I am and what I am to do with my life. The nagging doubts that I had been able to hold at bay for years were finally slipping through. (p. 89)
2. The Bible and Fundamentalist Doctrine
I liked Marlene Winell’s observation on when believers start to seriously question their beliefs:
Questions about doctrine emerge easily when the ban on thinking is lifted even slightly. (p. 89)
This often happens as people get older and feel less reliant upon authority figures for “truth”.
Of course, certain religious codes have their own thinking-inhibitor mechanisms built into them. Or as Scott Atran points out (see Fantasy and Religion) the believer suspends normal propositional thinking about the objects of faith. The rational ways of thinking about daily life matters and inquiries into secular topics of interest don’t apply to religious belief systems.
Something has to happen to open up the possibility of seriously questioning one’s faith in the same way one would question one’s memory of a shopping list. For religious systems that are not authoritarian it is not a question of “a ban on thinking” but a matter of a different way of processing religious beliefs. People don’t use the same processes of communication and comprehension of holy texts and objects of faith as they do for thinking about the best way to drive safely or interpreting the instructions of their boss.
Central to most [intellectual and ethical issues questioned] is fundamentalism’s most basic tenet — biblical inerrancy or infallibility. . . . [T]his creates some serious problems, including:
- Intellectual difficulty with overgeneralizations, conflicts with science, and contradictions.
- Moral difficulties where God is portrayed at times as partial, vengeful, and deceptive, while in other parts of the Bible universal love is taught; the history of the Hebrews in the Bible shows progress in moral concern rather than a static code; injustice in the Bible including the slaughter of innocent people and minor transgressors.
- Moral difficulty with concept of endless torture and hell.
- Problem with occasions of Jesus expressing vindictiveness, discourtesy, narrow-mindedness, and ethnic and religious intolerance.
- Intellectual difficulties with the human decision-making process for deciding the books of the Bible and questions of the value of other writings not included.
- Nonuniqueness of Judeo-Christian teachings and practices. Other religions have similar rituals and beliefs, including sacrifice and vicarious atonement through the death of a god, union of a god and a virgin, trinities, the mother Mary (Myrrha, Maya, Maia, and Maritala), a place for good people who die and a hell of fire, an apocalypse, the first man falling from the god’s favor by doing something forbidden or having been tempted by some evil animal, catastrophic floods in which the whole race is exterminated (with details analogous to the story of the flood), a man being swallowed by a fish and then spat out alive, miracles as proof of power of divine messengers.
- Moral difficulties with intolerance and oppression in today’s society which are based on the Bible.
- Intellectual difficulties with New Testament authors’ interpretation of events as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. There are a number of references to “scriptures” that simply don’t exist.
People who leave fundamentalism usually take issue with the most central and most destructive doctrine of all — the doctrine of original sin. With increasing self-respect, contact with small children, knowledge of humanism, or connection with nature, it becomes emotionally and logically untenable to view the world as totally fallen and wicked. Other points of view offer more sane and livable options. (p. 90)
Marlene’s final point there is another way of noting that it is human experience and developmental growth that has the potential to prise a believer away from a religiously-dictated view of the world. That is, raw intellectual challenge is not sufficient to achieve this with many believers. Indeed, rational challenges and contrary evidence generally are assimilated be believers in ways that confirm their faith.
3. Fundamentalist Attitudes
Again with growing awareness of the world some believers no longer feel comfortable with authoritarian and judgmental thinking.
The fundamentalist mindset feels stifling to the individual and cruel in its implications for others. A believer who becomes more open-minded toward diversity of lifestyle can become unwilling to toe the party line in condemning others. In the past slavery was approved, and bigoted attitudes are still common in conservative churches. At present, the rhetoric about “family values” is strangely intolerant of varieties of family structure and women’s issues. The most glaring condemnation is of gays and lesbians, which can result in violent assaults, not Christian love. (p. 92)
We have probably all heard of cases where individuals have been traumatized by the attitudes of their churches towards their sexuality. It is easy to imagine such people struggling with guilt feelings that can lead to them ending their lives or leaving their religion.
4. Sexism and Patriarchy
Women who develop a feminist consciousness find fundamentalist churches becoming an intolerable burden. And the more devout they are the more they may feel the pain. I don’t need to elaborate any more on this one, surely — it is by now well and truly in the public awareness zone.
(This may not be strictly related to attitudes that demean women, but it comes to mind at this point. During my years with such a church I recall one young woman — her first day of attendance I think it was — finding herself criticized by other women for dressing like a harlot. No, it was not the hemline or a low cut top. No problem there. It was her colour choice: bright red. Maybe there was some other jealousy infusing the criticism, too, since she also happened to be very beautiful. She did not last long in the fold, happily for her.)
5. Disappointment with Christian Life
Christians are promised huge benefits for becoming “born again.” You expect to feel different, to have more love, joy, and peace — the “abundant life.” You also expect to have mastery over problems in your life. And you want to grow in strength and wisdom. In the church group, you expect a superior level of Christian love. (p. 94)
When these benefits do not materialize doubts can set in. However, those doubts very often come to be directed inwardly and increase the believer’s sense of unworthiness and guilt. The “solution” is “more prayer”, “more faith”, getting rid of some secret sin . . .
Believers go through tortuous cycles of guilt and repentance, trying to get it right. Church attendance and Bible reading can be compulsive levels as an effort to fend off doubt. Moments of joy and happiness do occur, but you wonder why good feelings cannot be sustained. Many a Bible study is about how to live a more “victorious life.”
A few believers who enter such a religion late in life may recognized after a few years that “it does not work”. Those who are more thoroughly indoctrinated, however, learn to habitually fault themselves with every disappointment.
Here is one of the “testimonies” from an ex-believer in Marlene’s book, one that strikes a chord with my own experience:
I noticed right away that it [conversion/baptism] wasn’t as profound as I wanted it to be. There’s a sense that it should be a big experience. It should feel like your life has suddenly been changed. I started to realize that what I was supposed to be getting from being a Christian — a sense of joy and release, and thankfulness and holiness I wasn’t getting. Instead of making me more joyous and making it easier for me to live life, it had just placed this burden of obligation and guilt on me which I didn’t feel it was natural for me to live up to.
It also made me less able to love people, rather than more. I was supposed to be full of this love from God, which would make it easier to see people for what they really were, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I was so full of moral distinctions, and I was so anxious to say what I thought was true and to set myself apart and to say I’m a Christian and I think this and that and this is why. I found myself increasingly moralistic and harsh. I found it harder and harder to be friendly, and I became more and more socially isolated, which was just the opposite from what I had imagined.
Unfortunately such an experience does not, if my experience be any guide, necessarily lead to deconversion or leaving the religion. It can drive a person into a deeper spiral of self-doubt and self-denigration.
The cult I joined was very careful about screening interested persons before allowing them to even attend a church gathering. Interviews would be conducted periodically with the prospective member until the leaders were satisfied the candidate was truly humble and willing to live a life of complete trust in God — that is, was truly self-denigrating and had lost all confidence in him or herself.
Many . . . sincere Christians have found that the demands of the religion have led to emotional problems. The most common struggle is with depression because a person’s normal joy in living is suppressed in order to be faithful. Fear and anxiety are also prevalent. Mental health issues within the fundamentalist fold have even led to the recent establishment of inpatient treatment centers. (See Edmund Cohen’s article, “And Now — Psychiatric Wards for Born-Again Christians Only” in Free Inquiry, Summer 1993. [Also found on Highbeam]) Physical symptoms are also frequent indicators of the stress believers experience. Finally, the mental and physical pain can just become too much of a price to pay. (pp. 95-96)
I have mentioned before my brief discussion with John Spong who acknowledged that there is an uptightness about most believers — and he was referring to believers in mainstream churches — that is not as often evident among atheists and the nonreligious.
6. Disenchantment with Christian Community
People often join a church with the hope that this group of people will exhibit a love and compassion and sanity that is rare in the world. Indeed, the Bible says “They shall know us by our love.” When this is not the experience, disillusionment sets in. (p. 96)
I look back with some envy at those saner people who allowed such disillusionment to pop them out of the church altogether and not to rationalize it into some sort of “Let God be true though every man a liar” excuse.
Judgmentalism certainly is witnessed and experienced, even as a matter of course, routinely, among our supposedly nonjudgmental brethren. Marlene relates the experience of a woman who divorced her husband: he act had been “unbiblical”, to remarry would be “adultery”, . . . She couldn’t defend herself with Scripture and found the judgmental treatment intolerable. To take care of herself and get on with her life Donna decided it was time to leave.
Not a few believers have had their faith shattered on learning of the sexual shenanigans of church leaders to whom they had looked as spiritual pillars, or simply seeing the discrepancy between what was taught and what was practiced by parents.
7. New Information and Other Worldviews
This is a hard one. The greatest irony of my life was that I completed a post-graduate course in educational studies — especially focusing on concepts like “indoctrination” and “propaganda” — while the whole time remaining a loyal member of a religious cult. How on earth is that possible? I can only plead in my defence that Scott Atran’s analysis of religious thought processes is correct.
New information and other worldviews may help chip a chink in the faith-defence shield among believers who have had precious little exposure to the outside world to begin with. I can testify from my own experience that it may be less effective among believers who have had some experience with the wider world of ideas. A believer naturally can feel comfortable putting behind him or her that with which he or she knows little or nothing. Then when the reality of so many intelligent world-views hits such a person I can well understand the confusion arising.
For example, the natural sciences explain so much about this world and the social sciences offer numerous insights about people. An understanding of the scientific method generally makes the nature of knowledge acquisition completely different. It is not merely received from authority. Biology and archaeology challenge creationism. Psychology challenges assumptions about human nature, behavior, and change processes. Other religions and philosophies are equally debatable. Humanism in particular offers an optimistic and viable nonsupernatural approach to life.
Some of these discoveries can be quite the surprise and disconcerting at first. Many atheists are not unhappy or immoral. A great number of people live quite easily without a coherent rational philosophy of life at all. They prefer to accept a great deal of mystery and even absurdity. Yet people have values and frequently choose to treat each other with more respect than the religious zealots. Novels and films reveal a great variety of tolerance and lifestyle. . . .
Marlene Winell extends this to understanding alternative interpretations of the Gospels and Christian doctrine, with a particular reference to the Gnostics. She then reverts to her own experience with glossolalia (speaking in tongues).
Linguists are agreed: “tongues” are not languages; there is no discernible grammatical structure, only a vague to the sounds and cadences of speech. The church I belonged to frowned upon “tongues” as being of the devil. After I left that faith I began to wonder about the phenomenon and after some study about it I found I could easily slip into speaking in tongues, too, if I so. It’s a load of nonsense.
The ecstatic experiences of “Holy Spirit possession” can also be simulated by electrical and chemical means as well as by hypnosis. Some people may already know this and still be religiously attached to such experiences. Either way, such people know that Christianity is not the “sole” path to such experiences.
8. Comfort in the World
A frequent discovery is that the world can be a good and wonderful place. Former fundamentalists laughingly talk about participating in “worldly” activities and finding that nothing happened! It was not so terrible. In fact it is a great relief to let go of the image of Satan prowling around trying to ensnare you. It’s nice to have different friends. It feels good to belong to the human race, to be at home on Earth, sharing basic human struggles, being part of society, caring for the planet. It’s great to go dancing, have a cocktail without guilt, see a controversial play, and generally enjoy life without constant censorship. Often the more worldly views turn out to be the more humane. . . . (p.99)
The most wonderful consciousness that came over me after leaving the faith was to feel a part of the totality of humanity. The world was not divided between those under the sway of darkness and those under the angels of light. We really were all one family, one race, one humanity.
I wonder how many people leave the faith as a result of discovering this or whether this is more usually one of the rewarding experiences that comes after leaving the faith. Maybe a few do leave through this experience. I imagine their former brethren would consider them shallow. But it’s not a bad thing to be wading only in the shallow waters of fundamentalist religion.
9. Other Fulfillments
Again I wonder if this final of Marlene’s points applies more to those who have left their faith rather than working as a trigger to propel people from faith. Maybe some are propelled to leave this way, though it was not my experience:
Part of breaking away can be finding self-esteem, meaning, and love from sources outside of religion. Realizing this can be a profound experience, in part because it counters the assumption that religion is needed to attain fulfillment. . . .
10. Personal Reasons
Marlene Winell encourages readers to list their own personal reasons for leaving their religion. She asks readers to quickly jot down all the things they think contributed to their decision. Was it the literal interpretation of the Bible? Disappointment with fellow believers? Nothing more than a sensation of emptiness?
Her book was written to assist those who had left rigid belief systems, so she asks for more. After writing your list, she asks you to consider the following questions for each reason:
- Was this an issue that you recognized at the time, or is it something that you now understand was a problem?
- For how long was it of concern to you? Months? Years? Always?
- How important was it in your making the break?
One theme should begin to emerge through all of the above: religious commitment was not made in order to meet a curiosity entirely intellectual. That ought to inform us all that “rational debate” is not going to wean people away from their faith. Faith is not about reason. Other personal needs are its foundation. But when you see rational argument beginning to take effect then you know that there is a deeper crisis within the hearts and minds of those responding to this ploy.