Category Archives: Winell: Leaving the Fold

Ten Reasons To Lose Your Religion

00A minister once told me he wished he knew who or what burned me so badly I left Christianity. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t burned. I evolved. — John

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.

Marlene writes:

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 read more »

Journey Free: education about religious harm and resources for recovery


Journey-Free Facebook Page

From the page:

The Journey Free team is a group working to provide education about religious harm and resources for recovering from the effects of dogmatic religious indoctrination. Our office is based in the San Francisco Bay Area where Dr. Marlene Winell, our director, has a consulting practice; most of Journey Free’s recovery retreats are held in this region too.

Dr. Winell wrote the leading self-help book on recovering from religious harm after working in and researching the topic for more then 20 years. In 2011, she named Religious Trauma Syndrome or RTS a form of chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or “C-PTSD.” read more »

Retreat for Those Recovering from Toxic Religion

Dr Marlene Winell is running another “Release and Reclaim” workshop for those interested in sharing with others their efforts to recover from the effects of harmful fundamentalist and cultic religious experiences, or are still in the process of coming out of religion. It is to be held August 15-17, 2008, at Berkeley, California.

Details can be found here on Marlene’s website.

She has posted comments on previous workshops here. [Link is no longer active. 3rd August 2015]

And a videoclip of a retreat is available on YouTube. [Link is no longer active. 3rd August 2015]

The GOOD legacy of the fundamentalist and cultic life: 12

12: Healthy Skepticism

Concluding my notes from Marlene Winell’s (Leaving the Fold) encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories.

Hoo boy! When I finally broke free of the faith-based thinking of religion I naively expected to enter a world of sensible healthy sceptical citizens. I had, after all, seen myself as apart from “the world” because of my faith, so on leaving my faith as a wiser sceptic and aspiring to be a healthily critical thinker, I assumed to some extent that I was about to become a part of the smart crowd. They had clearly demonstrated their smarts by not being fooled into any of the fairy tale nonsense I had been a part of for so long.

Nope. Fooled again. It had to slowly dawn on me that healthy scepticism was not the default position of most people in relation to most public issues. This was another slow disillusionment. I did not want to be a light in a dark place anymore. I wanted to be normal. But knowledge and experience necessarily bring with them some level of responsibility. I was startled to see that so many of the dark things I had experienced in the cult were taken as the norm, although in less intense degrees or with less damaging immediate impact in most cases, in society at large. Power struggles and willingness to destroy others for the sake of maintaining or enhancing one’s own position or world-view are pretty much regular hammer blows one hears and that batten wayward planks to hold societies together. After some years of tasting the worst of authoritarian ways in a cult one can smell authoritarian and dogmatic systems as easily as a cat smells a rat across a room. No matter if those systems be political, religious, philosophical, social, whatever.

Having been “burned” by your former indoctrination, you are now more likely to be on guard against rigid belief systems generally. You are now more aware of the dangers when you hear some pronouncement of “truth” that implies omniscience, restricts perception, and eliminates alternatives. (p.110)

Beliefs are or can be a form of “selfish gene” — what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”. They can be the tools of shutting down thoughts and imposing power over others. Or they can be simply armour-plated shells one dons out of fear of all that is “out there”. Whatever, they narrow one’s range of permissible questions and licensed answers. Foreign thoughts and and unexplored experiences are their victims.

I personally sometimes like to quip: Answers bind; Questions liberate. Though I do not mean that in a nihilistic sense. Answers are necessary, but equally necessary is an awareness of their inevitable tentativeness.

With healthy skepticism, you can now be more open, flexible, and fair. These qualities are greatly needed in a world full of bigotry and arrogance. (p.110)

I still vividly recall the strange frustration I felt when discussing my questioning processes with others still embedded in some level of faith. They could understand my questioning my church. That was good, they thought. At first I said that though I would question religious doctrines, I would never question the Bible. They seemed to think that was commendable too. But later I asked why not continue to question the so-called foundation of my religion too, and some I spoke to could understand and accept my questioning even the Bible. After that, the next step was to question God, too, of course. Now that’s where almost everyone baulked. Questioning a dubious cult was good, but one must not take questioning itself too far. It must only be applied to demolish “the right targets”.

So it looked to me like the propensity to question was God’s gift if one was questioning a given heresy. But that same propensity was a tool of Satan if it went much farther! Maybe questioning, healthy scepticism, is the only tool that enhances the dignity and true progress of humanity.

The irony is that narrow fundamentalist or cultic belief systems encourage questioning of all general social values and systems. They have to, since these systems are claiming to be the only valid alternatives to the world as it is. All it takes is for enough experiences to finally trigger release valves in one’s head to turn that questioning back on the religious belief system itself. That’s not so easy to initiate, but that’s another story. The important thing here is that for those who do manage it, they are bequeathed a powerful legacy that they can use in many positive ways for their own and others’ benefits.

Marlene concludes, probably looking back on all these good legacies and more:

The strengths that you retain from your experiences with religion are very significant. In spite of the confusion, sadness, and discouragement you may be feeling, you have a breadth and depth of being that others do not have. You are likely to have important values, positive personality traits, and a spiritual capacity. You can now challenge yourself to use these strengths to help overcome your difficulties. (pp.110-111)

I’d prefer to speak of emotional and mental maturity in place of “spiritual capacity”, but I guess that’s merely a question of semantics.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 11

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.

11: Community Experience

To quote this section from Winell (p.110) read more »

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 10

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.


Religious groups often provide opportunities for both training and experience in: read more »

The GOOD legacy . . . : 9 — afterthought

Revised again (1). . . .

In addition to life in the fringe cults I should have discussed more the life and legacy of the more mainstream fundamentalist groups, too. But in both types, one will almost surely be exposed to many examples and contacts with some highly memorable people of deep compassion, self-sacrifice for others less fortunate, generosity and personal kindness. (It would be interesting to survey how many of such examples are found among the ordinary members as opposed to those higher up the hierarchy, but this series is looking at the “good” side for now.) Of course there are such acts among those not part of fundamentalist groups too, but I suggest that chances of encountering them are concentrated in relative frequency within the membership of a group devoted to being serious “lights” in the world.

Such memorable acts, people, moments, will always hold a special place in one’s life and continue to serve as inspiring reminders throughout life. And a post-fundamentalist life, once the dividing of the world between godly and satanic camps is a thing of the past, frees one to apply them even towards sectors of society and individuals that were not considered worthy of such acts as an erstwhile believer.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 9

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.

Moral development

Marlene Winell speaks from the perspective of one who grew up in a fundamentalist cult. I am perhaps a little more familiar with those who joined cults in their maturer years. I’ll address my own kind, those closer to my experience, first (not part of Marlene’s book):

Many who “join” or “become members of” cults (the difference has significance, as I hope to explain in a future post) do so for idealistic reasons. Many are in some fashion utopians. They are the same sorts of people, I think, who are candidates for joining a counter-culture commune, or a radical extremist political movement. Contrary to common opinion that they must be as weak and floppy as a woolly upper storey, it is in many cases hard-headed idealism that has led them into a place where they can find approval for embarking on the total self/other-sacrifice that fulfils their idealistic bent. The moral grounding of such an idealist (it surely goes without saying) includes the ultimate golden codes such as love one another, don’t judge, be merciful, kind, etc etc etc. Such innate moral thinking is not easily going to desert one. But what such a one can take from the cult experience is a more humane judgment in living out such ethical ideals. One can be more in tune with the “little” double-binds and contradictions that cultic life introduced — the hurts that were inflicted on loved ones, and even virtual unknowns, — in the pursuit of the highest ethical ideals. Result: a little more judgment and compassion, for all, including “the less deserving”, in the exercise of the ideal virtues. Even at the cost of compromising some of that idealism.

The cult experience can bequeath this mellowed, and enriched, legacy.

Marlene Winell addresses those who knew the idealistic teachings as children and teenagers. Learning the Do’s and Don’ts of basics no doubt kept many from harmful experimentation that could in cases have proved permanent, even fatal.

And the highest ideals of Christianity, of most religions, really are good, not bad. Love one another . . . . , do unto others. . . . , be merciful . . . . , don’t judge . . . . , etc. Others may imbibe such ideals without religion, or through other religions, but that’s fine. The end product is the same. And it’s a decent person. A good start. By all means we must develop our own standards. But such a base is not a bad one to start from.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 7 & 8

Continuing the posts in this series (check the Winell link underneath the Book Reviews & Notes on the main page {click “Vridar” in the header above} of this blog for the earlier posts) . . . . read more »

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 6 – capacity for humility and trust

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.

Fundamentalists and cultists generally reject certain aspects of mainstream society that are to their benefit. “[A] sense of exaggerated self-importance and responsibility is the result of the value our society places on achievement, self-determination, and power. As a result, most people experience some amount of ongoing anxiety.” (p.108 )

With the old dysfunctional belief system the down side was that one would not care enough about the larger material needs of family and self, or trust too much to the care of God or even do damage one’s prospects and needs by giving too much away or assuming that there would be no tomorrow but God’s kingdom. Jobs, family, personal development and interests and more often suffered. Normal responsibilities were too often “sacrificed” by irresponsibility under the rationale of “trusting God”. But there is a good legacy to be salvaged from that. Those of us who have been through that at least know how to accept the things we can’t control in life, and to face situations with a calm and relaxed outlook. That even means accepting our own shortcomings from time to time without overly self-absorbed self-doubts and hates. As often as not this is also the way to finding what we really would like and need in life anyway.

This is the “let it be” legacy that some lucky ones find without having to experience the extremes of fundamentalism.

Recently I heard a most entertaining radio interview with Nigel Latta, a clinical psychologist who has recently authored Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy, Read This! Battlefield Wisdom for Stressed-Out Parents. I know I would have saved myself, and my kids, some good measures of stress along the way had I been open to Nigel’s wit and wisdom when a new parent. Check out the interview here. One part of his message is that parents need to accept what kids will do no matter what.

Acceptance born of understanding of self and our limitations is not a bad way to go.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 5

Awareness of Mercy

Continuing from part 4 in this series . . . .

Next in Marlene’s list is “Awareness of Mercy”. While I found myself nodding in agreement I had to ask myself how such a legacy can come out of such a judgmental belief system.

But first, notes from Marlene’s discussion:

After reminding readers of the teachings about mercy (the command to forgive 70 times 7; removing the speck in your own eye first; not casting the first stone, etc) that necessarily hold a significant place in any Christian teaching, fundamentalism included, Marlene suggests that the ex-fundamentalist “probably retain[s] an openness and caring for people.” I would add that this is probably true for anyone who took their Christian teachings seriously to heart, and that fundamentalists generally take those teachings to heart more than many others. Even if the motive then was tinged with fear, at least this is undeniably a good legacy.

Human frailty, imperfection, and even serious misdeeds may evoke concern on your part instead of immediate judgment. This can make you a more whole, feeling person, with the potential for connecting with people on an emotional level, instead of relating simply to their overt behaviors. In other words, the other side of seeing human weakness is the tenderness you can have for others. You can assume they are struggling and “falling short of glory.” Your mercy is a needed quality in a world of harsh expectations and judgments.” (pp. 107-8)

It feels a little strange reading that again. It is impossible to really know how much of our character is innate and how much evoked by experiences. When I recollect my little “ex cult veterans support group” that included a motley array from diverse cults, we were able to talk as “brethren” — I think we did have a compassion not only for one another, understanding what we had each gone through, but that I am sure we all felt we had a similar compassion for our friends “left behind” and others “out there” who had not yet experienced what we had.

And in the fundamentalist or cultic church one does feel very close, bonded with a family bond even, to each other from all walks of life. Caring and understanding for others, and learning to live mercifully with others when they fail or even deeply offend you, is a daily part of what one strives to live for.

And when one leaves that mindset and “spiritual family” it gets even better. The walls are broken down between yourself and the rest of humanity. You now identify with collective humanity. And when one encounters the harsh and heartless one finds oneself, I am sure many times, reacting with an attempt to understand and to work with instead of against those people as much as possible. One often wants to understand others. The idea of “whose fault” something is, or the culture of “blame”, is distressing because of its unhelpfulness and the pain and strife it perpetuates.

That is the potential that I think is often there — following Marlene’s lead with this suggestion — and perhaps it is a little more accentuated than it otherwise might have been among others who have traveled the same path.

See the Winell archive for earlier posts in this series — and Marlene’s Recovery from Religion website.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 4

Understanding Gentleness

Marlene Winell discusses this legacy as something derived from the model of Jesus, as an anti-dote to much of the traditional western socialization of males to be aggressive, in control, independent and rational, pursuing power and success. She recalls observing Christian men, on the other hand, submissive to the model of the humility and openness of Jesus, coming across as more sensitive, humble and able to openly express their feelings than commonly found among non-Christians.

I can’t argue with the experiences of others. My memory was that Jesus was more often seen as the aggressive, in control, independent and rational type, being born to rule and conquer. But when I think about it I do recall the impact of dwelling on those verses that enjoined fathers not to provoke their children to wrath, and for husbands to love, “nourish and cherish” their wives as their own bodies. And then there were those warm verses about God gently caring for his own and a man being like a shady rock in a parched desert. And especially verses like those in Philippians requiring us to be like-minded, doing nothing through ambition and conceit, but “in lowliness of mind esteeming others better than ourselves”, to look out for the interests of others, not just our own interests. No doubt such meditations did serve to help bring out the softer side of the men. There was no doubt a negative side to some of this insofar as such a mindset also encouraged too much submission and acceptance of nonsense.

And of course there was always the emphasis on forgiveness, compassion and understanding for those we needed to forgive.  And above all, reflection on one’s own responsibility and self-examination in all relationships — if an offence had occurred, to what extent were we ourselves responsible? And the notion of winning over others by doing good.

So maybe I have to concede Marlene is right about this one even in my case.  She concludes this section:

With God in charge, there wasn’t the same need to be strong, macho, and in control. Both men and women could be more honest about their weaknesses and shortcomings. This humanness is part of your legacy as well.

See the Winell archives for earlier posts in this series

See also Recovery from Religion

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 3

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . .

Vision of the Possible

In the church or cult to which I once belonged a common phrase used was “the human potential”. This was in some ways nothing more than a clever PR term: what it meant in religious language was “salvation”. But still, the term helped focus on a vision of an ideal.

Marlene Winell cites another ex-fundamentalist saying:

I am striving to achieve this dream of a full life. I don’t know anyone who has it, but I must say that I would rather spend my life working for something that might not ever materialize in its entirety than just give up and have nothing.

I personally have found the thought of striving for an ideal to be anathema. It reminds me too much of attempting to live out an “inhuman” perfection, a life governed by “principles” in place of “humanity”. But maybe a lot of this is just semantics. I know I really am constantly mindful of what we/people are, of the nature of humanity and the human condition, and the many different paths individuals and societies opt to follow for “the good life”, or at least the best one possible. This is always at the back and front of my thinking when I bury myself in my hobby readings of history, anthropology, neurology, human evolution and prehistory, even cosmology.

Maybe I do have an ideal, and it is to understand and just be what we are, not what we can never be. Or is that an anti-ideal? Anyway, I do do my bit when opportunities arise to expose and demolish those things I see as crippling us emotionally and mentally or otherwise wasting our lives.

Marlene speaks of “ex fundies” as:

likely to retain idealized notions of love, peace, beauty, compassion, fulfillment, . . . . [They] can probably imagine a life that is expansive and creative, full of power, joy, serenity, and generosity. These are Christian ideals, from the positive side of Christianity.

I guess I do have “idealized notions” of one or two items in that sort of list. But I do not like the word “idealized”. I prefer something much more prosaic and practical and real, that avoids any risk of trying to be something other than human. Nevertheless, compassion, fulfillment, generosity, and a few other things are very important to me.

The trouble with Christianity – and Marlene makes this point – was that it very often taught these “ideals” or good qualities in ways that led to them being dysfunctional goals.

Then they were to be obtained through self-denial, self-abnegation, from without instead of from within, or only after death.

See also Marlene’s new website Recovery from Religion

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 2

Sense of the Profound

Marlene Winell wrote in Leaving the Fold (p.106):

You also learned to consider things deeply. As a religious person’:” you had to wrestle with ultimate questions of life and death, good and evil, truth, love, humility, dignity, responsibility, freedom, destiny, finite and infinite. While your life may now have become more simple, it will never be trite. You are likely to retain a certain richness in your thinking, a capacity for appreciating the profundities of human existence. As a result, you may always desire some depth of meaning in your life. Ambition and materialism will not be primary motivators. You are not likely to fall prey to keeping up with the Joneses.

Marlene goes on to offer an extract from another ex-fundamentalist who has expressed my sentiments precisely, so it’s probably preferable for me to express my thoughts here.

Sometimes I look at those who seem to be so content and fulfilled over a cup of tea and biscuits with a chat, or with a beer at the local, and I think I really do wish sometimes I could be like them — chatting happily and contentedly with the local gossip, or about someone who got lucky or unlucky (no difference) with a quiz on TV, etc., all the while sipping tea at a coffee table in the afternoon or drinking a pint at a bar in the evening.

But I never seem to be able to hold that wish for long. Otherwise I wouldn’t be excusing myself from their company and retreating to a space where I can indulge in some deeper thoughts with a book or my own reflections.

Although I could never deny, if it came down to a choice, that I’d opt for the beer at the bar in the evening in preference to the tea at the coffee table in the afternoon. 😉