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How to thrive after leaving your religion | Psyche

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Guide

How to thrive after leaving your religion

It can be distressing, but liberating too. Use these tips from clinical practice and personal experience to emerge stronger

Photo by Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu/Getty

Need to know

To some, the idea of leaving a religion can seem as innocuous as cancelling a gym membership. However, for many who have left a faith tradition, the reality is much more complicated. As a psychologist who works with these individuals – and as a formerly religious person – I have found that the transition can be challenging and even intensely painful. While the reasons why people leave a religion and the experiences they have in doing so are quite varied, many endure deep feelings of loss and confusion along the way.

One Muslim woman described to me how her values no longer aligned with the traditional Islamic teachings of her family. She agonised over whether to introduce her family to her non-Muslim boyfriend of several years. She feared that they would disown her.

A Catholic, gay woman told me about how she had struggled to reconcile two seemingly incongruous parts of her identity. Eventually, she decided to pursue spirituality without the involvement of the Church. She felt she was being forced to remove herself from a community of which she still wanted to be a part, but that had made it clear she was not really welcome.

A Mormon man recently left the Church after learning about what he considered serious discrepancies between its actual history and what he had been taught. He now struggled over how to break the news to his family and friends, as he knew they would be shocked, especially since he had been a leader in the Church for much of his life. He was especially afraid that his adult children would see him as a sinner, and would distance themselves and their families from him.

My own experience with leaving religion, like many people’s, unfolded gradually over the course of years and was due to many reasons. One of these was that I began to notice how many of my therapy clients were suffering from their experience with the religion that I had always deeply believed in and identified with. Some of these clients struggled with feelings of shame and self-hatred to the point that they battled suicidal thoughts after attending church. I grappled with the dissonance between my values and what I began to recognise as thinly veiled sexism, racism and homophobia in my Church’s doctrines. I experienced a confusing identity crisis that required me to re-evaluate my own beliefs and admit that many of them were wrong.

If you, too, have decided to leave a religion – or have been working through such a change for some time – you might find yourself questioning your identity, your purpose, or decisions that you have made. You might even lose, or have already lost, relationships and community. I have seen these difficulties up close. But I have also come to see that, as is often true of difficult challenges in life, this kind of transition can ultimately bring enormous growth and contentment too.

In this Guide, I will offer perspectives and tips that have been helpful for people who have decided to leave a religious faith or are considering doing so. My professional experience in this area is largely based on providing psychotherapy in the United States to those with Christian religious backgrounds, but I have found that the same principles often apply well to people from other faith traditions.

Your faith transition will be unique, but you’re not alone

There is no single correct way to navigate a change in your faith. While many people leave their religion behind completely, many others hold on to certain traditions and maintain some participation in the faith community, even as their beliefs change. How you define and what you choose to call your experience (a transition of faith, a loss of faith, leaving your faith, deconversion, etc) is for you to decide. In this article I use these terms interchangeably with the full knowledge that no one term is right for everyone.

Various aspects of your identity – such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, marital status, parental status, or socioeconomic status – can influence what specific challenges you face during a faith transition. What helps one person to get through this time might not be as helpful for you; this does not mean you are ‘doing it wrong’ or haven’t tried hard enough, just that your experience is distinct from theirs. You’ll need to be patient with yourself as you find what works for you.

Still, it can be helpful to recognise that you are going through something that many others have experienced in some way. Throughout much of the world, we are seeing declines in religious membership. While many people who leave one religion convert to another, in recent years an even greater number of people have become unaffiliated with any religion. As of 2015, the religiously unaffiliated accounted for an estimated 16 per cent of the global population, and in almost half of the world’s countries they made up the second largest ‘religious’ group.

One similarity I’ve noticed among people who transition away from faith is that they often report feeling they have grown in numerous ways and become more empowered through the experience. For this reason, the phrase ‘loss of faith’ doesn’t always resonate; they often report that they have gained something invaluable.

One client told me that their religious life was full of feelings of deep shame and a sense that they could never measure up to God’s expectations. After leaving their faith, they reported feeling self-acceptance and self-love for the first time. The change had a ripple effect in this person’s life: it affected the way they showed up in their marriage, increased their willingness to be open and vulnerable, and brought renewed confidence and excitement about their career.

The process of leaving a religion is comparable with other developmental transitions, such as moving out of a childhood home or starting a new career. Whenever we move from one stage of life to another, we go through a transitory phase, the space between an old way of functioning (which we knew very well) and a new way (which we haven’t quite figured out yet). During this transitory phase, you might experience feelings of loss, anxiety and other difficult emotions. It will take time to figure out and adjust to the new stage of life you are entering. But, like many of the individuals with whom I’ve worked during faith transitions, you can come out stronger – and better able to live a life that feels genuine to you.

What to do

Accept that you might have difficult and conflicting feelings

You could be surprised by what you miss and what feelings you have as a result of leaving your faith. You may grieve the loss of certain meaningful beliefs, elements of your identity, or relationships and community that were tied to your religion. Grief is not a linear path: you can experience anger, sadness and other feelings at many times and in many combinations. Know that, while these feelings can be intense, they tend to decrease in intensity and make more sense over time, particularly when you give yourself room to feel and accept them.

It’s possible that you will also experience feelings such as shame about leaving or fear or anxiety about the consequences of your decision. You might even feel ashamed about having been a part of the religion at all, or angry at yourself for not leaving earlier. The emotional experience can be confusing for some, especially those who have had a difficult relationship to their faith. If religion was a fundamental part of your identity, but you came to find it antithetical to other significant aspects of it (eg, your sexuality, gender or political beliefs), moving away from religion might involve simultaneous feelings of loss and validation.

All these feelings are normal. Give yourself a chance to try to make sense of whatever you feel. These feelings, however uncomfortable or contradictory, provide information about how you are responding to the situation. Try to create a sense of curiosity about your emotions, rather than being judgmental towards them. You can ask yourself ‘What am I feeling?’ and ‘What is this feeling trying to tell me?’ These make excellent journal prompts; writing can be a powerful way to process complicated emotions.

Face an uncertain future one day at a time

The experience of leaving a religion can bring up so many questions and challenges that it is easy to become overwhelmed. Relationship complications, familial disagreements and personal dilemmas can abound during this time, and it’s not always clear how to resolve them. Additionally, religious systems often provide straightforward answers to life’s most difficult questions (‘What should I devote my time and energy to?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’) – without religion offering this sense of clarity, life can start to feel more overwhelming and confusing.

‘I don’t know’ – or even better, ‘I don’t know yet’ – are valid answers to the difficult questions and conundrums that you might encounter during a faith transition. Allow yourself the time necessary to find your footing again. Trying to hurry this process often leads us to choose what most quickly alleviates our anxiety, rather than what is most in line with our values. It’s important to remember that there are rarely perfect solutions or answers in life. Recognise the unhelpful pressure to ‘get it right’, and instead confront the challenges of a faith transition with flexibility and a plan to readjust your approach as many times as necessary.

A specific exercise that you can try when you feel overwhelmed is creating a worry list:

  1. On paper, write down a bulleted list of all the things you are worried about. Write a subject line for each issue, just enough that you can know immediately what you are referring to. Keep listing things until nothing more comes to mind.
  2. Go through and cross out any items that you have absolutely no control over.
  3. Of what is left, circle or underline a couple that you want to focus your attention on that day.
  4. Next to the selected items, write down the next step to take. Here’s an example of what it might look like at the end:
  • Unsure about whether to start eating pork.
  • Telling parents about leaving faith. Next step: write out a rough draft of what I’d like to communicate.
  • When will Covid end?
  • Nephew’s baptism in six months, should I attend?
  • Disagreement with spouse over taking kids to church. Next step: plan a time to talk about couples therapy.

Repeat this exercise as often as necessary. Doing so can help you organise your thoughts, decide what most needs your attention now, and pace yourself realistically. You will never have 100 per cent certainty in all areas of your life but, even so, you will gradually be able to find greater direction and stability.

Another way to cope with uncertainty is to remind yourself of your own strength. Think back to previous times in life when you faced a difficult obstacle. Think of how overwhelmed you felt by the problem at the time. Now consider how you feel differently about that experience in retrospect, and think about how you overcame such a difficult experience. It is very likely that one day you will look back on this time in your life and recognise that you made it through this challenge as well. You don’t need to have all the answers right now.

Refocus on your values

Years ago, I was hiking in the Arches National Park in Utah. I was up early to beat the heat and about an hour into a hike when the trail suddenly came to a dead end. I realised the path I had been following was in fact not the trail at all but a dried-up river bed. I had gone off-course somewhere and had no idea where I was. After a panicked and unsuccessful search for the trail, I eventually climbed a small hill and was able to see the arch I was hiking to, not far off. I headed in that direction and soon reconnected with the trail.

Just as difficult terrain is easier to navigate when you have a point of reference (the arch), the complexities of a faith transition are easier to handle when we use values to help guide our decisions. Values don’t tell us exactly what to do, but they give us a direction to orient ourselves. Just because you leave a religion doesn’t mean you can’t still live in accordance with your values. Some of your values might change through the experience of leaving a faith, but many others will be the same as they have always been.

To identify your values, it can be helpful to ask yourself:

  • What is most important to me in life?

and

  • What kind of person do I want to be?

You can use the answers to inform your decision-making. For example, let’s say your parents are hurt that you left their faith, and have repeatedly pressured you to return in ways that are hurtful or frustrating to you. You ask yourself the above questions, and find that you deeply value your relationships, and that you want to be a kind and honest person. You can then ask yourself: ‘How can I respond to this situation with kindness and honesty, in a way that shows that I care about protecting this relationship?’ There isn’t just one ‘right’ way to respond that would fit these values – there are many.

Refocusing on your values might lead you to identify important aspects of your life that stem directly from your faith tradition. It’s possible that certain practices, relationships and/or beliefs are still in line with your innermost values. There is no need to throw out everything connected to your religious history. You can approach it as a mental inventory: if something aligns with your values, hold on to it. If it doesn’t, consider letting it go, or adjusting it to be more in line with your values.

A client of mine described missing the habit of a nightly prayer, but reported that, as they no longer believed in a god, it felt like a strange thing to want to do. We explored why they missed this spiritual practice and what it had offered them. They discussed how those quiet, prayerful moments had given them a space to reflect on the day’s successes and failures, remember the things they were grateful for, and commit to living their values more fully. What a beautiful practice! This client later came up with the idea to meditate on these areas, and found this practice to be deeply meaningful to them and in line with their values.

As another example, after leaving my religion, I chose to hold on to the belief that challenges in life are an opportunity for growth and development. This idea is in line with my personal and professional values, and I find it helpful in navigating life. But I chose to leave behind the belief that painful emotions or experiences are punishments from God for sinful behaviour. I find this belief shaming, unhelpful in my own life, and ultimately out of line with my values.

Many of my clients have told me that they could more genuinely live in accordance with their values after leaving a faith, as they were independently choosing to do what felt right, rather than doing what they were told was necessary.

Seek support and community

The loss of relationships and community is a painful experience shared by many who have departed from a religious group. Research indicates that loneliness can be disastrous for our mental and physical health. You should not have to suffer alone. While some of your existing relationships might be damaged or even lost in the course of leaving a religion, other relationships – even with those who are still religious – can actually be strengthened. Many people maintain strong relationships despite differing beliefs.

Identify one or more people you think will be supportive, and consider sharing your experience with them. This could include trusted friends, family members or mentors. Although not everyone in your life will necessarily be supportive of your decision to leave your religion, many of my clients tell me that they were surprised that so many people were, and they were glad they took the risk of opening up. If you’ve decided to open up to someone but are feeling unsure about how to proceed, explaining the dilemma can itself be a helpful way to start. For example, you might say: ‘I’ve been nervous about telling you about a big change in my life because I wasn’t sure how you would react. But our relationship means a lot to me, and I would love to have your support.’ You might add that you don’t need them to give advice, just to listen and acknowledge what you are facing.

It can also be helpful to connect with people who understand your religious background and the experience of leaving your specific faith. There are now many online communities centred on supporting people who are leaving a particular religious group. An example of this is the Reddit group ‘exmormon’, where thousands of ex-Mormons support each other. There are similar forums online for many different ex-religious groups. (See the Links & Books section below.)

Re-invest in the relationships that are important to you, and put time into building new ones. Recognise that you might have to gradually build a new community around yourself, and that doing so is a long-term project. I would also suggest you consider not limiting yourself to only connecting with others who share a similar religious background. If many of your social relationships previously revolved around your faith, it might now feel natural to seek out and invest in friendships that revolve around your deconversion. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, there’s a risk that it will unnecessarily limit the potential connections you could make.

Take ownership of your self-care

Many religions include systems that encourage a basic level of self-care – through, for example, health and dietary guidelines, restrictions around drug or alcohol use, time for quiet reflection, and activities in which people spend time together and develop relationships. Be careful that as you leave a religion you don’t overlook the need to replace an old self-care system with a new one.

Make it a priority to create a new structure that supports your basic needs. Look at it as an opportunity to build the kind of life you want to live. What helps you feel your best? Here are some examples to help you to identify possible areas for improvement in your self-care. Most people have the need for seven to nine hours of sleep, adequate exercise, healthy nutrition, time with friends/loved ones, learning, a clean home, relaxation and quiet, time in nature, fun, intimacy and touch, sex, and accomplishing tasks/feeling productive. Now, as a start:

  1. Take a moment to reflect on how you are taking care of these needs.
  2. Choose one or two of these needs, and commit to building a habit that supports the need(s).

Self-care is really about recognising that how well we function in life is heavily affected by how well we take care of our basic needs. If you routinely stay up all night watching shows, get three hours of sleep, and rush to work late, you are not going to be functioning even close to your best. Taking care of yourself is the foundation of mental and physical health, and it’s especially worth prioritising when you are undergoing a major life transition.

Consider talking to a therapist

Symptoms of anxiety, depression, externalised anger and dissociation frequently accompany stressful events. For some people who are undergoing a stressful transition away from a religion, the difficulties are relatively minor and pass quickly, but for others the mental health complications can be marked and make it harder to function. In either case, seeking support from a licensed therapist can often be extremely helpful. A therapist can help you navigate the complexities of your faith transition while supporting your mental health throughout the process.

If you were already dealing with mental health difficulties prior to leaving a religion, the added stress of the transition can exacerbate those difficulties or prompt new ones to emerge. Many of my clients have reported experiencing their first ever panic attack while in the midst of a faith transition. The stress is just that intense. Having a therapist who can understand and help you cope with this stress (rather than label it from a religious perspective) can be vital.

While most therapists provide safety and non-judgment, and respect the autonomy of their patients, there are some who practise unethically and push religious ideologies. If you come across this, know that it is OK to discuss your discomfort about it with your therapist or to stop treatment and seek another provider. Prior to starting therapy, or in the first session, I encourage you to raise this concern and ask questions about your therapist’s approach to religion and deconversion in therapy. It is important for you to feel safe and unpressured.

A therapist who specialises in or shares a connection to your previous faith could be well equipped to understand the complexities of your particular religious background. Many of my clients tell me that in their previous therapy they spent much of the session trying to describe the idiosyncrasies of Mormonism (a difficult feat), which got in the way of exploring their own experience and challenges. You might want to look for a therapist who advertises that they work with former members of the religious tradition that you are leaving or have left.

Key points – How to thrive after leaving your religion

  1. Leaving a religion can be challenging and confusing. It can bring on self-questioning, painful emotions and relationship conflicts, even as it opens a door to personal growth.
  2. Your faith transition will be unique, but you’re not alone. There are various ways to define and navigate a change in religious status. But there are likely many people who share some part of your experience.
  3. Accept that you might have difficult and conflicting feelings. These could include feelings of loss, anxiety, shame, anger and more. Negative emotions might mix with positive ones. All of these are normal.
  4. Face an uncertain future one day at a time. It’s OK to not know the answer to every question or problem you face during a faith transition. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pick out a small set of concerns to prioritise.
  5. Refocus on your values. Reflecting on what’s most important to you can help you decide which beliefs and practices to keep or adapt and which ones to leave behind.
  6. Seek support and community. Consider sharing what you’ve been going through with someone you think would be supportive. You might also connect with a community of others who have left your former faith.
  7. Take ownership of your self-care. Finding ways to meet your needs – for rest, nutrition, socialising and more – is essential, especially in the absence of the self-care systems provided by many religions.
  8. Consider talking to a therapist. A stressful faith transition can cause new mental health challenges or exacerbate old ones. A licensed therapist who is respectful and non-judgmental can provide valuable support.

Learn more

Navigating mixed-faith relationships

One of the most difficult complications of a faith transition is the way it can affect important relationships, including those with a spouse, children, parents, siblings, extended family or friends. Among other things, conflicts can arise over subjects such as being treated with less respect, being repeatedly evangelised to, having your decisions questioned or judged, exclusion from family gatherings, or the labelling of personal difficulties as ‘punishment’ for apostasy.

Common mistakes in approaching these conflicts include being too aggressive (creating harsh ultimatums, dismissing or belittling someone’s values and beliefs) or being too passive (avoiding the topic entirely, or giving someone free range to set expectations and boundaries). Learning to directly confront areas of conflict in genuine and assertive ways leads to better outcomes. Here are three tips for doing this:

  • Focus on understanding rather than convincing. When we approach a conflict from the stance of trying to convince the other person, we have started a debate rather than a conversation. Debates often fail to improve relationships or to make people more flexible in their thinking. Instead, verbalise your desire to better understand the other person. Make your goal to first understand, then to be understood. Seek to clarify what you can agree on and to acknowledge and understand the areas where you differ. This will likely take more than one occasion, so see it as a series of conversations, and take the pressure off yourself to find immediate solutions.

    If it’s relevant, you might also remind yourself of your own previous perspective on people who left your faith to help you understand others’ reactions to your leaving. These people in your life are likely experiencing a difficult change in how they relate to you. Afford others the same patience that you give yourself as you take time to make sense of the transition.
  • Clarify your boundaries. First clarify these to yourself, then communicate them to others as needed. Recognise areas of your relationships where you are uncomfortable or feeling hurt, and make decisions that protect you. Boundary-setting could include, for example, asking someone to stop trying to persuade you to return to the religion and attend religious events, or communicating with extended family about not teaching religious ideology to your children.

    Setting a boundary is about communicating your needs, not convincing others to agree with you. If others do not respect your boundary, it is your responsibility to hold it. That might involve saying something like: ‘I’ve asked you to please not teach religious beliefs to my children. If you continue to do that, I won’t feel comfortable letting you spend time with them unsupervised.’ Remember, however, that your boundaries can shift over time. For instance, you might initially feel too uncomfortable to attend religious family gatherings, but later decide that you feel fine doing so.
  • Consider enlisting a professional. When communication with a loved one is not moving forward, it might be time to seek help through individual therapy or couples therapy. If the other person is your romantic partner, don’t jump to the conclusion that the relationship cannot work because of a difference in faith. Good relationships are not based on a lack of conflict, but rather on how partners learn to communicate and work through conflicts productively. Often a therapist can help facilitate this.

    In some cases, ending a romantic relationship is the right call. If this happens, therapy can support a healthy transition out of the relationship and minimise unnecessary pain for you, your partner, and any children.

Links & books

The Secular Therapy Project is an online directory of therapists committed to providing non-religious, secular therapy. This can be an excellent resource for those who live in highly religious communities and struggle to find an unbiased therapist.

The ‘atheism’ Reddit group maintains a list of ex-religious subreddits for different religions. These are online forums where members can ask questions, post news, and offer support to one another.

Recovering From Religion has collected a variety of resources, including links to books, podcasts, videos, online communities and articles about specific religious groups and topics.

The NPR podcast Life Kit has an excellent episode on making new friends as an adult, something that many people, including ex-religious people, struggle to do. A previous Psyche Guide addresses this challenge as well.

The book Educated: A Memoir (2018) by Tara Westover is the story of one woman’s experience of leaving an extreme, fundamentalist religious community in Idaho and her journey to find education and rebuild her identity.

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13 July 2022

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