Life After Faith Can Be Hard

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by Neil Godfrey

I concluded my previous post with “Why do I need the middle man (or god or spirit or totem pole)? Is there not a more efficient and honest way?” That sounds flippant, perhaps. In reality life after years of relying on the crutch of faith can be very difficult at first. One no longer has a pole that enables getting over the impossible bar. Self-doubts can come back at the most inconvenient moments.

Chance had me listening to a radio interview with a psychologist who had a fundamentalist background and who had written a book, a “guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion.” Everyone is different so my own experiences of psychological recovery would be relevant to only a few others, but Marlene Winell’s book covers a wide range of insights and exercises or pathways for people damaged by their religious experiences to recover and enter “normal life” as healthy, “normal” individuals. I especially appreciated her various suggestions relating to seeing oneself as a child, lovable, accepted no matter what, as a pathway to overcoming self-loathing and maintaining a positive and healthy self-acceptance.

No doubt there are many other books that are on the same topic and that others have found very helpful in their recoveries. But Winell’s Leaving the Fold was the one that helped me and to which I often returned to keep on an even keel.

Feel free to add other books that you or others you know have found especially helpful in psychological, emotional recovery after religious indoctrination and negative pressures.

(Ed Babanski has a book by the same title, Leaving the Fold, but I think that has a slightly different emphasis. It is a collection of various types of testimonies of former fundamentalists who have found different directions after their life of faith.)




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Neil Godfrey

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  • Christine
    2019-04-17 00:52:47 GMT+0000 - 00:52 | Permalink

    Totem poles are about kinsman lineage or clans, not gods to be worshipped. Other than that, you’ve said what I love to hear. Get rid of the middle men who make money and don’t do hardly anything in comparison to the money they take in, except give you a pew and remind you to give so that you will receive.

  • 2019-04-17 08:30:30 GMT+0000 - 08:30 | Permalink

    Ed Babinski here. My book featured a variety of testimonies, and I received letters from readers saying it helped them to recognize that they were not alone, that many others had also traveled down the same road out of fundamentalist-ville.

    My book also was cited in many subsequent volumes by others: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/3JQ7OLD5KDHWQ?ref_=wl_share

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-18 00:56:03 GMT+0000 - 00:56 | Permalink

      I was looking at your book again and I am sure it would be of great benefit to many people on the verge of leaving their faith or having recently left it. You cover a wide range of life options and perspectives.

  • James Green
    2019-04-17 13:47:27 GMT+0000 - 13:47 | Permalink

    Neil, I understand that I come from a rather unique place. I was not raised in any religion, and I do not believe any of my morals were formed by religious bias. I specifically remember when, at the age of ten, the discussion came up among my peers, and I casually noted that I was an atheist. I’ve never retreated from that position. However, I am intellectually interested in this subject since it is beyond my own experience. While understanding that every person’s experience in leaving their inherited religion is different, I have a number of questions about the experience. Did you later perceive that you had been in a cult-like paradigm? Were your post-religion morals significantly influenced by your religious upbringing? If so, how hard was it to migrate toward your own moral center, and have you developed moral codes independent of religion?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-17 22:27:40 GMT+0000 - 22:27 | Permalink

      Did you later perceive that you had been in a cult-like paradigm?

      I saw I was in a cult before I left the cult. It was the dawning on me of what I was mixed up with that initiated my departure. (I didn’t walk away overnight because I had to consider and plan for the impact on others close to me and for whom I was responsible.)

      I did not jump from the cult to atheism, by the way, as my critics seem to assume. I moved into “softer” religions, mainstream churches — where I had been before I joined the cult. It took some time before my ongoing questioning led me to atheism.

      Were your post-religion morals significantly influenced by your religious upbringing?

      It’s hard to separate the influence of one’s upbringing from what one understands to be one’s innate personality or psychological makeup that exists independent of any religious or other background. I used to reflect on my motivation for getting involved in a socialist activist movement — it seemed like we were carrying on the candles in a time of darkness until the opportunity arose for more widespread action; it “worried” me a little that that was a similar image to I had of my involvement with the cult — a small group of light-bearers in a dark world. That led me to think it was “me”, something about my makeup. But I also came to see many of those political activists as focused more on ideology than humanity, and I was wary of ideology (doctrines) and more interested in humanity, so I moved on. Humanity always trumped Righteous/Moral Principles for me — and that was very much a reaction against my cult experience.

      I have heard experts say that many people who join such cults are very idealistic. I think in some part (not the whole story by any means) that’s what led me to the cult and more radical groups.

      More generally, I believe I am a far more compassionate person in general than when I was in the cult. In the cult outsiders were always seen as something of a danger, a threat, a risk, the lost, a lure to damnation. Now I am far more open to and accepting of people in real life, not just in my prayers for their salvation of the occasional good work as a witness to them. I regret the hurt I caused my family for withdrawing from them all those years. I have certainly attempted to become a lot less judgmental and more understanding of others.

      I spent a lot of time observing life, all life, lizards, birds, flowers, trees, fish, dogs and cats, butterflies, elephants, and also studying different human cultures through anthropology books and programs — just thinking about the nature of life per se, what it was all about, what that meant for any one individual. I refashioned or honed, one might say, my view of ethics from that time of reflection. It was a clean start.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-18 00:44:57 GMT+0000 - 00:44 | Permalink

      If so, how hard was it to migrate toward your own moral center, and have you developed moral codes independent of religion?

      I did a lot of reading about ethics and morality (Ardrey, Hauser, Ridley, Singer, Wright….) and concluded that “morality” is something innate to us as humans. Different social structures mean certain applications of innate “moral codes” vary, but the basic ideas of fairness, justice, kindness, helping out, not killing those we need to get along with, not stealing from those we need to get along with, etc. are universal. Religions can make a big fuss about moral codes coming from God but they don’t. No-one needs a Jewish God booming out ten commandments to know that killing your mother for her money is wrong.

      I’m not a psychopath or sociopath so I do find it easy to want to get along with others and do my little bit to make life a bit less difficult for others if and when I can — like most of us do.

      I don’t think there’s much else to the question of morality. Religion too often simply has people denying their real natures, alienating them from themselves, learning to loathe and fear their own natures, “putting on a new man” (as the bible says) — i.e, a “put on”! Freeing oneself from all of that and just learning to accept and love oneself is the basis of a decent morality, I think. One becomes open to wanting to get along with and accept others a lot more, and everything spins off from that — a deepening awareness that we are all on this planet together and all essentially facing the same fears, threats, hopes, together….

  • DW
    2019-04-18 06:01:07 GMT+0000 - 06:01 | Permalink

    I very much valued the testimonials in Ed Babinski’s “Leaving the Fold” after having finally left the fold myself. Another book that resonated with me in those early days as an exile from my former faith was Karen Armstrong’s autobiographical “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness” in which she relates how she became a nun at an early age and then went through a painful journey of self-education and reflection culminating in her having finally left her order for the secular world. Another author I really enjoyed reading was Alan Watts, in particular his “Beyond Theology: The Art of Godsmanship.” For anybody who has been deeply indoctrinated in a particular theology, Watts helps to approach religion from a very different, broad perspective. (I found Joseph Campbell’s writings to be helpful in the same way.) And speaking of things heard on the radio by chance, many years ago I was lucky enough to have heard a public radio interview with a former missionary (Daniel L. Everette) to a tribe of Amazonian Indians who lost his faith while living with them in the hopes of evangelizing to them. He wrote a great book about it called “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.”

    Really, any testimonial I’ve read over the years by anyone who had been a true believer indoctrinated with a strict belief system only to later lose their faith was/is helpful to me. It helps assure you that you aren’t crazy or unusually stupid or credulous or alone in going through the experience. Another thing I found helpful in the early years was to restudy Christianity and the Bible from a non-fundamentalist/doctrinaire perspective. When you go from a total belief system to total uncertainty about everything, you have little to make sense of the world. The transition left me in a terrifying, emotionally tumultuous state, and it was easy to bounce back and forth between former thinking/belief patterns and a skeptical understanding. But after I began to re-educate myself with more mainstream scholarship about biblical writings, and the Christian religion, I found it much easier to not revert back into old fundamentalist ways of thinking. Skepticism and doubt in and of themselves weren’t enough to prevent instinctive, emotional reversions to the beliefs I had been indoctrinated in. You need to have some new framework of understanding to replace the old.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-18 11:04:21 GMT+0000 - 11:04 | Permalink

      It helps assure you that you aren’t crazy or unusually stupid or credulous or alone in going through the experience.

      Amen! That’s so important, knowing you’re not alone and your experience does not make you a freak.

      I sometimes think that part of my critical thinking about church doctrines partly arose long before I left religion: I had come to know the Bible very well, inside out, and I was looking for a new way to approach Bible study and decided, “Hey, why not study each book as a whole, trying to understand it entirely on its on terms, and by relying on nothing more than what I read in each book trying to imagine what both the author and audiences were originally understanding what they writing/hearing. This would be different because until now I had always been interpreting one verse here to some extent by another verse somewhere else, sometimes in a different book, that sort of thing.

      Well, my new approach brought up many questions. I began to see more clearly than ever the larger theme and point of each book, and that led to a better grasp of the context of specific verses, and that led to a number of questions about how the church interpreted some of those verses. I came to discover I understood and knew the Bible better than many of the ministers who had been taught the Bible at a dedicated bible college or whatever that was sponsored by a certain church with certain doctrines.

      Ministers eventually appeared to view me with some suspicion, a radical free-thinker. Not good. I learned to keep my “good attitude” to the fore to allay their fears.

      But when the time was right and certain circumstances came about etc etc I was in a position to identify what was legitimately questionable about church teaching.

      • DW
        2019-04-19 05:36:34 GMT+0000 - 05:36 | Permalink

        “I sometimes think that part of my critical thinking about church doctrines partly arose long before I left religion.”

        It’s so funny how so many of us have had similar experiences! I know absolutely that it was the apologetics material I was taught in religion classes in school and in my church-approved reading material that would prove to be the seeds of the destruction of my own religious faith. When you’re taught how to tear apart the beliefs of other religions and of other rival Christian denominations, a next logical step is for you to start asking yourself, “What if I applied the same logic and scrutiny to my own beliefs?” And then you begin to see how vulnerable your own beliefs are to that kind of skeptical analysis.

        An experience of mine that kind of dovetails with what you were relating – when I was in school, I always thought it was very strange how we were taught that the Bible was this inerrant revelation, every word of it being divinely inspired, but then we would spend most of our time zeroing in on a few of passages (out of context) in various books, or in learning about different stories in a general way while also basically neglecting some Bible books altogether. So, on the one hand, you’re told over and over that each and every word in this book is from God himself, but you’re also ignoring the vast majority of this content.

        This never made any sense to me, so like you I read my way through the whole Bible. And that revealed how much weird stuff was in there, things that were not at all on-topic with our theological doctrines. And things started to not add up. And then you started to notice that all kinds of things in books are being taken of context instead of understood in reference to the rest of the book it appears in. It all began to unravel over time, but gradually. It was a death by a thousand cuts, a thousand things that did not make sense. Finally the cumulative amount of things that didn’t make sense led to a final tipping point of collapse.

        I had the similar experience of pastors not being as educated about certain things, because they never bothered to do as much research as I was doing. But, that’s because they weren’t being driven by any serious doubts. They were content accepting their denominational dogmas and apologetics at face value. (This was their chosen career gig, after all.) When I finally left my church and a relative tried to get me to talk to a pastor about it, the pastor gave me this book about the Bible that was nothing but your basic, standard, conservative Christian truisms and talking points. It was such basic level stuff that didn’t even try to seriously grapple with any modern scholarship on the Bible that I had been studying. And this pastor was more of a thinking person who was a professor at a Christian college.

        I guess a lot of people are content in their bubble world, and aren’t plagued by doubts. I could never help overthinking what I was taught, so I couldn’t remain in the bubble as much as I sometimes wished that I could. But a person can’t help being what they are.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2019-04-19 23:50:03 GMT+0000 - 23:50 | Permalink

          the pastor gave me this book about the Bible that was nothing but your basic, standard, conservative Christian truisms and talking points. It was such basic level stuff that didn’t even try to seriously grapple with any modern scholarship on the Bible that I had been studying. And this pastor was more of a thinking person who was a professor at a Christian college.

          It happens even on scholarly discussion lists today, apparently even on the part of atheistic biblical scholars. I refered to a similar instance concerning Jeffrey Gibson commending to me F.F. Bruce’s book on the Testimonium Flavianum — even though I had studied scores of pages of arguments on all sides already: Bruce’s “rebuttal” was a half page of a few dot points.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-04-18 20:50:19 GMT+0000 - 20:50 | Permalink

      Appreciate the references. I have highlighted them for quick reference.

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