Marlene Winell, PhD, wrote a wonderful book – Leaving the Fold – on how fundamentalist religion indoctrinates and harms people and how people can escape. These are notes from her book. If you find the following information helpful, read the book.
Phases of recovery
Once you decide to leave your faith, you may experience the following phases:
Separation – gradual or sudden loss of your supportive, affirming, congruent reality.
Confusion – slowly replacing old definitions, relationships, explanations, interpretations, expectations, and directions. You have to start over from scratch. Panic and fear of dire consequences may be overwhelming. All these new feelings can feel evil. But you may also feel relief, liberation and excitement.
Avoidance – distance and avoidance of religion. Self-protective numbness may occur. You are creating space for new things.
Feeling – Intense and chaotic feelings may occur, including rage over life lost, damaged self-image, ignorance about everything outside of your church circle, pleasures missed, skills unlearned, relationships damaged, and career options spoiled. You may have even more anger if you were physically, sexually or emotionally abused by church or family members. You may struggle with being taught that anger is unacceptable. Anger may eventually be replaced with grief. Loss of your relationship with God is like the death of a parent or a best friend and lover. You may feel guilty for the breakup.
Rebuilding – You begin to reconstruct your self-worth, beliefs, principles, and values. You learn to make choices and value your own thoughts and feelings. You gain confidence and rebuild your social network.
These phases are not always linear and may overlap.
Leaving your religion will bring many issues, including:
Learning that self-esteem is not selfish or the same as puffed up pride.
Learning to accept your body and sexuality.
Learning that you have internal capabilities of strength, wisdom & love.
Learning to look within for security and satisfaction.
Feeling very angry at and betrayed by family, church and God.
Grieving loss of God, family, community. Feeling abandoned and lonely.
Replacing imagined security, safety & protection from hell & Armageddon.
Giving up guilt and rituals of forgiveness.
Replacing perfectionism and idealism with flexibility, compassion, and self satisfaction.
Learning to appreciate nature and the here and now. You are “home” now.
Learning to be responsible for yourself, make your own decisions and trust yourself.
Learning to accept and express your myriad of feelings.
Learning to have your own opinions, beliefs, and values.
Recreating meaning and purpose in your life.
Learning to just enjoy this life.
Families may hinder emotional growth by
instilling a fear of God rather than love for Him,
using guilt to manipulate,
failing to practice what they preach,
neglecting individual feelings and personalities,
refusing to listen to questions and doubts, and
forcing a list of do’s and don’t’s rather than true understanding.
Fundamentalist family experiences and teachings tend to include a fearsome, punishing God; rigid rules; strict, authoritarian parenting; harsh, abusive discipline to control natural inclinations toward evil; and fun-hating. Adult Missionary Kids and children of alcoholic parents have much in common. The most common dysfunction is shame for being defective, bad, inadequate, etc. Fundamentalism believes that people are inherently bad, and human errors are sin rather than just innocent mistakes. Most fundamentalist parents have little understanding of child development, and natural processes of maturation (such as egocentrism, aggression, sexuality, rebellion) are seen as spiritual flaws that must be aggressively eliminated.
Fundamentalist parents force obedience, even to the point of abuse. Withholding of love and approval is used as punishment. Rigid sex roles are enforced. Fathers are expected to be in complete control and mothers in submission. Parents and religion have all the answers, so children do not learn to be open minded, think critically, make complex choices, or form their own opinions. Alternative ways of thinking are threatening and unacceptable.
Feelings are suspect, and some (anger, jealousy, fear) are condemned as evil. Even positive feelings are sometimes unacceptable unless in a religious context. Normal emotions result in guilt and shame. Avoiding the pitfalls of sin can create very unaffectionate families. Ordinary human love cannot be trusted.
Dedication to God and spiritual issues takes priority over the well being of people, including children, who often feel unimportant. Child neglect can be similar to families with an addicted parent, but neglect cannot be questioned. The real family is spiritual. Emotional needs are met through a personal relationship with Jesus. Family members may feel close to God but distant from each other. Interpersonal skills are not taught but expected to magically come from God. Total dependence on God can be truly dysfunctional.
God’s relationship with people is described as a family – father God, son Jesus, bride church, community brothers and sisters, but no mother. This “ideal” spiritual family is in sharp contrast to the dysfunctional actual family that can never be good enough. Actual family problems are considered sin to be denied or ignored, except to give them to God. Parents cannot admit any responsibility for problems without destroying the fantasy of their perfect Christian family and spiritual beliefs.
Sex abuse can be fostered because sex outside of the family is so strongly prohibited. To some parents, it may seem less risky to sexualize their children in the privacy of their home than to expose themselves to the appearance of sin outside. Also, fathers are considered the unquestioned head of the family. Wives and children are expected to be obedient. Inappropriate sexual behavior cannot be questioned. Only self-blame and guilt are allowed for the victim.
Healing your damaged inner child
Learning to value and comfort the precious child essence within you can be very healing. It’s easier to love yourself as an innocent child with normal needs for love, safety, fun, and learning. A child is deserving and well-intentioned, despite making mistakes. Many religious teachings terrorizes children easily. The damage can last a lifetime. Flowers, trees and animals do not have to earn the right to live. They simply live. Fundamentalism teaches that humans have to work hard and earn the right to be loved and to be happy.
Do this: Use guided imagery, childhood photos, nature walks, play time with children, and parenting time to reconnect with and nurture yourself. A healthy child has basic trust, free and easy expression of feelings, curiosity, creativity, ability to give and receive affection, energy, eagerness, confidence, honesty, sociability, humor, and playfulness. Acknowledge the ways your inner child was hurt, and nurture healing.
Fundamentalism teaches that all healing is from outside. The fact is you have powerful healing within. The same way your body heals a cut without your conscious effort, you have internal mental and emotional healing resources and wisdom. The child within you has basic needs and feelings and reacts naturally. The adult within thinks, reasons, and acts deliberately in a wise and caring way. Without the adult, the child is unprotected and may be impulsive, overly sensitive and fearful. Without the child, the adult may be overly serious, insensitive, overly controlled, and dominated by external demands. Together, they give you full access to yourself. They are metaphors for aspects of yourself and can go by any names you want, such as Little and Big.
Childhood messages can become internalized as an “idea monster.” This negative thinking can just be annoying or dangerously critical leaving you depressed and debilitated. No matter how ugly the messages, they are only ideas, not Satan or the Holy Spirit. These negative thoughts, irrational beliefs, the “critic” or “gremlin,” can be modified.
Do this: It is your adult’s job to protect your child from the idea monster by countering with rational analysis and separating the protective purposes from the destructive results. For example, dire warnings and threats may have helped you be cautious. However, the cost of protection was high. You need to fire your idea monster and have your adult take over in a more loving and healthy way. Keep a notebook to become more aware of how your idea monster works, what it says, and how it makes you feel. As you begin to recognize patterns and themes, you can anticipate vulnerable situations and rebut negative messages with more accurate ones. Rebuttals should be positive, reasonable, believable, accurate, and specific.
The process has four steps:
Awareness – take a time out to note what the idea monster is saying and how your child is feeling. Temporarily leave the situation, if necessary
Acceptance – Accept your child’s feelings. Understand how vulnerable your child is because of past indoctrination.
Affirmation – Rebut the monster ideas. Reassure your child.
Action – If further action is necessary, your adult can take care of what your child needs.
Then soothe and comfort your inner child with loving words, reassurance, and soothing activities (walking, dancing, music, a movie, a good book, a nap, a nice meal, etc.). Do what you would do for a child in need.
Fundamentalism views feelings as bad. Anger indicates a rebellious spirit. Sadness means you are ungrateful or self-pitying. Fear is evidence you lack trust in God. Self-confidence is considered dangerous. Earthly pleasure is renounced in favor of devotion to God. Using feelings to know what you want or what is right is prohibited. Only a controlled, peaceful love of God is allowed.
Do this: Living fully means having and expressing feelings. Children are good role models. Art, writing and music are good ways to express emotions.
Decision making requires feelings. You can’t know what you want without knowing your feelings. Empathy and sensitivity to others requires feelings. Survival requires feelings. Fear warns us of danger. Anger tells us something violates our values, and it energizes us for action. Grief and sadness occur when we lose something. Guilt tells us when we violate our own values. It is a signal to do something differently. Joy tells us what is good for us. The key to all feelings is to learn to use them accurately and to let go of them when their usefulness is over.
Anger is common for those leaving religion and is healthy because it means you have a sense of what you deserved and needed but didn’t get. You may feel tricked, betrayed and abandoned. Friends and family who now reject or pity you can be infuriating. You have to overcome your ingrained inclination to suppress your anger. You need to understand that your anger is about your survival, not about blaming others. Your parents and church leaders did their best and believed they were doing the right thing, no matter how wrong they were.
Write about your feelings in a mock letter to anyone you want, but do not send it.
Imagine saying out loud what you have written. Imagine the person you are saying it to.
Draw or paint your feelings.
Role-play a conversation, perhaps speaking as an advocate for your child.
Talk into a tape recorder about your feelings.
Confronting those who hurt you is a difficult, risky decision that may need to be discussed with a therapist. Confrontation can be helpful feedback to the other person IF they can hear it. Remember the other person may have been indoctrinated and hurt in the same way you were.
Do this: It is important to not attack and berate the person directly. Focus on their behavior, not their character. Clarify your own feelings and your objectives (to inform, improve the relationship, blow off steam, hold the person accountable, find healing) before any confrontation. And remember, you cannot control the other person’s response. It may be caring or it may be angry and defensive. Be prepared.
Eventually replace anger with personal power. Use your anger to energize change for yourself. You were taught to be helpless and to rely on God for everything. Now you can take responsibility for yourself. You were taught that life is fair and there is ultimate justice. Now you realize that life is as it is. There are no rules about what should happen to people, only what people choose.
Grief can feel even more vulnerable than anger. Feeling grief means you have the ability to cherish something you lost. Grief is quieter and deeper than anger. Grief takes more courage to feel. You may not have been allowed to be a child and to believe in yourself and your own worth. You may not have been allowed to date, dance, go to movies, or have fun in general. You may not have been allowed to choose your own career or marriage because you had to follow God’s will.
Do this: Write a letter to your inner child to explain what life might have been like if you had been there with your current knowledge. What kind of care would you have provided? How would that have changed things? You cannot be a carefree six-year-old again, but you can think about what you can do for yourself now.
Loss of your religion can feel like:
Death of a parent – leaving you feeling vulnerable, unprotected, uncared-for.
Death of a lover – loss of the feeling of being known and accepted.
Loss of fantasy – the promise of perfection. God was unconditional love, attentive to your every need, available at any time, a good listener, a loyal friend, the eternal companion.
Divorce – your choice to leave can be a torturous struggle between making it work and protecting yourself. You may feel guilty for leaving and betraying a person who sacrificed and died for you (Jesus). You may also feel tricked and betrayed because promises were not true.
Loss of family – no matter how dysfunctional your family may have been, it was a place of shared values and goals, continuing relationships, and rituals that gave meaning and structure to your life. You have lost familiarity and safety.
Grief should not be avoided or denied. Remember
Feelings are safe to feel,
crying is okay,
not everything you feel can be explained,
feelings are not permanent,
you will not “go crazy,”
you are a good person,
time does heal,
things will get better.
Sadness signals the need for self care. You can provide your own parenting and be your own significant other, lover, best friend. Replace church and community with other associations. Build a new worldview and purpose in life. Replace your childish and dependent fantasy with the joy of real possibilities
One of the most insidious teachings in conservative Christianity is that in spite of God being love and Jesus being the good shepherd, you can never be loved unconditionally. You are intrinsically bad, weak, needy, and incomplete because of “original sin.” This engenders shame – feeling bad about who you are, not just what you’ve done (guilt). This indoctrination destroys the self-esteem that children develop naturally. You must replace your old assumptions with new beliefs in your identity, worth and ability.
Each person is special and important VS only God is important, not the individual.
You were taught that focusing on yourself was selfish. The goal was to be like Jesus, not to be yourself. You were to be whatever God wanted. You were not free to make your own choices.
Do this: Imagine yourself in a room full of people, then write a description of yourself, non-judgmentally, in a way that would make it impossible for anyone to say, “That’s me, too.”
Physical: Describe not just height, weight & age, but how you carry yourself, stand & sit; facial expressions; how you look when happy; your voice & laughter; how others respond to you; whether you listen or talk more; distinctive habits, gestures, figures of speech.
Mental & emotional: What is important to you? What do you value? What are your interests? What are your dreams? Are you idealistic, realistic, romantic? Do you analyze things or take them as they come? Is truth or compassion more important? What do you most enjoy? What are your pet peeves?
Origins: What has made you who you are? Are there key events or people in your life that have shaped you? Do particular memories resonate for you or have special significance that you alone are aware of? Does your family’s history – where they came from, the kind of work they did, or the lives they led – contribute to the person you are?
Personal development is good VS conformity, not personal development is valuable.
Humans are fundamentally good VS humans are essentially bad & dependent on God.
The physical body is valuable & deserves respect VS the physical body is not valuable.
Fundamentalists are obligated to attribute anything beautiful, loving or wise to God. Trying to become like God is blasphemous. Nothing you do is ever good enough. The physical body is denigrated, and natural urges are always suspect. Your body is not yours, it is owned by God.
It is possible to accept your faults, retain a concern for needed changes, and still view yourself as basically good. Things like lying may have been necessary for survival and to protect your family. You may choose to change old coping mechanisms. A tree that is bent by an incessant wind is not “wrong” for growing the way it did. It is strong and healthy and beautiful because of its experiences.
Do this: List at least fifty things you like about yourself. Notice any discomfort this produces, and recognize it as negative training. Keep a journal for at least two weeks to note the things you did and the strengths you have. Make a list of your “faults,” and note how each functioned to help you survive.
Your physical body is you as much as your mind is. Your body is amazing in pumping blood, carrying oxygen and food, absorbing nutrients, supporting your frame, and allowing mobility.
Do this: Notice and enjoy your body as you walk, dance, get a massage, feel pleasure. Nurture yourself with good food, exercise, and rest.
People have enormous potential VS people are devoid of inner resources
Positive growth & change are natural VS individuals are not capable of growth or change
To a fundamentalist, humans are full of sin to be cleaned out by God, leaving an empty shell to be filled with the Spirit of God. Once saved, everything the person needs – strength, wisdom, love, peace, joy, etc – will be supplied by God. Humans are the property of God, “bought with a price.” If you consider yourself capable, then you don’t need God. When you leave the fold, you have not learned to have confidence, intuition, knowledge, maturity, etc. Learning to grow up can feel very risky. You have to discover that you have inner resources. You can nurture yourself, give and receive love, be creative, evaluate information, make wise decisions, exercise amazing strength and courage, generate joy, experience peace, enjoy humor, and more. You have been capable of all these things all along. You were simply taught to attribute your strengths and natural abilities to God.
Do this: Stop discounting yourself, dismissing compliments, and denying your feelings. Acknowledge compliments by saying, “Thank you.” Don’t discount your power by expressing doubts about your ability.
Living life now
It may take some time to feel at home in the world and allow yourself to have fun. The hereafter is considered by fundamentalists to be superior to here and now. The present is considered hopeless and inferior and doomed, so why bother. It will take practice to know the earth is your home; you belong here; the world is a good place, full of resources and meaning; and you can have a pleasurable life.
Do this: Explore your feelings by drawing a picture of yourself in the world. Defend your child against the idea monster’s negative ideas – it’s wrong to care about the world, you don’t belong here, don’t bother trying to be happy, the world is rotten and too hard to change, people are stupid and full of pride, new things are dangerous, and if it’s fun, it must be wrong. Write your inner child a letter refuting the monster talk and comforting and welcoming your child. Brainstorm ideas that would help a visitor to earth who wants to stay and make it home.
Many religious groups define almost everything as bad – money, sex, entertainment, meditation, guided imagery, relaxation techniques, massage, values clarification, sex education, critical thinking, motivational training, self-esteem enhancement, dancing, movies, and mixed bathing. Ending religious rituals may be fraught with fear. You may need to reassure your child in many situations. You can discover that the world is a safe, supportive and fulfilling place full of decent and wonderful things and amazingly variable, interesting and rewarding people.
For many Christians, their only contact with “outside” people is witnessing to them. This is a one-way communication where there is no listening to, respecting or accepting the outsider. The Evangelist is not looking to learn anything or even to have a discussion. The Evangelist is looking for people who are vulnerable because they are desperate and downtrodden.
When you leave religion, you may feel depressed because nothing in the world can compare to the promise of your former religion. The world can seem awful, life meaningless and people impossible. You may still think that life should be ideal. When it’s not, a bad day may feel like a bad life. Perfectionism is not the same as idealism. Perfectionism is dysfunctional because it focuses on the end result. Idealism is a vision that can be motivating to stay on the right track in spite of imperfections and mistakes.
All perception requires contrast. To appreciate a good day, you need to know bad days. You feel joy in comparison with sadness. Perfection does not allow that. You can learn much from Eastern philosophies that teach accepting things as they are, cultivating a peaceful mind, and learning to quiet yourself when stressed.
The challenge is to stop thinking “What will the church think?” “Is this okay with God?” And start thinking “Is this enjoyable?” “There is nothing wrong with having fun.” “It is important and healthy to have fun.”
A relaxed lifestyle is important. Bees and ants work only 20 percent of their day. Hummingbirds spend 80 percent of their time sitting on twigs. Lions can lie in one spot for twelve hours. Humans work eight or more hours a day.
Do this: Don’t worry about other people’s opinions, remember that not everything is worth doing well, it’s okay to do things that do not seem appropriate for your age, observe people having fun and borrow their ideas, play with children, experiment, be open to a range of intensity, and make fun a priority, not a luxury. You are responsible for your own happiness.
Humor and laughter are important for health and healing. Without humor, life is too serious and requires constant vigilance. Human frailty and absurdity are not acceptable to conservative Christianity. Humor makes it okay to make mistakes. Much humor can be seen in the bible – Elisha being teased for being bald; God flooding the world and wrecking his own creation like a child smashing a spoiled artwork; Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season.
Do this: Improve your sense of humor by paying attention to quirks and unexpected things that happen each day. Read funny books and magazines. Spend time with friends and acquaintances who have a good sense of humor. Go to funny movies and plays. Spend time kidding around with children. Collect favorite cartoons & put them up in your house. Hang pictures or posters that make you smile. Keep a journal of things that are funny, ironic or absurd. Write about the funniest things in your religious experiences.
Each day write three things you most enjoyed that day. Each week, write your three favorite experiences that week. Do the same each month. Write down your favorite color, season, hobby, flower, room in your house, comedy movie, junk food, smell, car, fruit, part of your body, etc. Practice simply being present. Notice everything.
Thinking for yourself
Fundamentalism presents a package of beliefs (called the truth). All thinking has been done for you, so thinking for yourself can feel dangerous. God ejected Adam and Eve from Eden for seeking knowledge rather than just being obedient. You have been conditioned to unconsciously associate many things with good or evil.
Scientific evidence is either rejected as being “of man” if it contradicts religious dogma (evolution) or is embraced if it supports dogma (Shroud of Turin, remnants of Noah’s ark). All evidence has to agree with fundamentalism to be accepted. This selective perception is difficult to change. Flashbacks of emotionally laden experiences are powerful, but will fade with time and growth.
Do this: As you review and reject old beliefs and assumptions, replace them with healthier, more functional assumptions. Clarify your old beliefs – I am ___, life is ___, the world is ___, other people are ___, etc. Then replace them with new beliefs. Research other religious and nonreligious perspectives. Watch foreign films. Visit other states or countries. Explore with curiosity. Exercise your ability to analyze and draw your own conclusions. Get a blank notebook to write a “thought of the day.” Make it no more than a paragraph, keep it simple and true to what you believe. Write in the second person as if to you or someone else.
You have been trained to look outside yourself for all guidance. Being responsible, living with uncertainty and ambiguity, and taking risks can be scary. Some decisions and circumstances are under your control, and some are not, but you can always think ahead, try to anticipate consequences, and choose how to respond. You make hundreds of choices each day and create meaning in your life. You can learn to worry less about making the “right” decision and more about just experiencing the choice and investing in whatever choice you make.
Whether you are just beginning to question the dogma of your religion, have decided to leave your faith, are already in the midst of transitioning, or just want to explore what you’ve been through in getting out of fundamentalist indoctrination, I think you’ll find Dr. Winell’s book enlightening. You may also find it very helpful to locate a secular therapist to aid in this difficult but very rewarding journey. Two good resources are recoveringfromreligion.org and seculartherapy.org.