Tribulations of Leaving Religion

Naked Cathars are expelled from a castle door by knightsYou can leave a company with two weeks’ notice.  You can leave a club or association by giving notice.  But leaving Christianity often brings consequences.

What does your departure say to your fellow parishioners, and how will they respond?

For example, Rich Lyons (from the Living After Faith podcast) left his 20-year career as a Pentecostal minister.  His departure cost him everything: respect in the community, house, job, career, marriage.  He needed five years to get over his PTSD.  And his experience is not uncommon for those leaving some denominations.

Why should it be this way?  When you leave a company, they give you a going-away party.  You can still hang out with your old workmates.  Why isn’t it the same when you leave a Christian community?  Why instead are apostates often cut off from their friends within the church and even their families?

I got some insight into this from an anecdote by Stephen King.  In his book On Writing, he talks about a different kind of outcast.  In small-town Maine in the early sixties, life wasn’t easy for a socially-awkward girl he calls Dodie.

For the first year and a half of high school, Dodie wore a white blouse, long black skirt, and knee socks to school every day.  The same blouse, skirt, and socks.  Every day.  The blouse gradually became thinner and yellowed, the skirt frayed and patched.

The other girls kept her in her social place, first with concealed taunts, then with overt teasing.  If you can’t earn a spot above someone else, you can push that person beneath you, and the other girls made sure that Dodie stayed in her place at the bottom.

But something happened during Christmas break sophomore year.  Whether because of money she’d saved up or a Christmas windfall, Dodie returned to school changed.  She wore stockings over newly shaved legs, her hair was permed, and her clothes were new—a fashionably short skirt and a soft wool sweater.  She even had a confident new attitude to match her appearance.

This change in the social order couldn’t stand.  The other girls didn’t celebrate her accomplishment.  They turned on her.  Under the relentless teasing, her new smile and the light in her eyes faded.

By the end of that first day, she was the same mouse at the lowest rung, scurrying the halls between classes, her books pressed to her chest and her eyes downcast.

As the semester progressed, Dodie wore the same clothes.  Every day.  They faded as their predecessors had, she kept to her previous place, and the teasing returned to normal.  Someone had made a break for it and tried to escape, but they’d been brought back in line.  The social structure was intact once again.

Christian apostates are different because they successfully leave.  But are there similarities in how the congregation reacts to the challenge?  Seeing a congregation as a society, not completely dissimilar from high school, may explain why it sees a departure as a threat.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related links:

  • The full text of Stephen King’s On Writing is available here.  Search for “Dodie” to read his version (much better than my summary).

6 thoughts on “Tribulations of Leaving Religion

  1. Hey, we live in a mobile society. Do what I did… I took a job in another state. When we moved, we just didn’t go to church anymore, and we sought out atheist groups to associate with. No problem. Don’t make it too hard.

    • My own departure from religion was also fairly painless, but I’m amazed at stories from people like Julia Sweeney who struggled for years. Or of Rich Lyons (podcast referenced in the original post).

      But yeah, if Chrisitians can find an exit like you did, that’s great.

  2. Once it became clear to me that religion was making me “crazy”, I knew I had to leave. I couldn’t argue with reason any longer. What was so painful for me is that I had 2 young daughters, I was fighting to take with me. All of a sudden this “spiritual” group, that for years had been like a family to me, turned into my worst nightmare. The control these people had over my former husband, my daughters and me was, lets just say, Stephen King could have made a bestseller from the story. I understand how leaving religion can be a long and painful experience. It changes life as you know it. It takes time to find your balance again, to function psychologically, emotionally. Perhaps this is why some will never leave religion. Doing so will change everything. Life will never be the same once you leave religion and it’s god/s. Because you have to “grow up” , live in reality and think critically. I am so glad I am an atheist! It was a long journey but worth it.

  3. Greetings Earthling,

    I don’t care whether people believe in God or not. I only care if people exhibit loving kindness, empathy, and compassion. I only care if people help each other, if people join forces to lessen inhumanity.

    I discovered secular humanism to be a mutual admiration society of armchair philosophers. There is really little difference between a secular humanist, a Unitarian, or anyone mildly committed to any religion.

    I seek people committed to helping others. Most atheists realizing there is no afterlife pursue pleasure, and happiness. Atheists tend to see themselves as individuals rather than part of the brotherhood of humanity, or part of sentient life.

    I see humans willing to engage in self-sacrifice for the betterment of all. Officer Spock: “The Good of the Many Outweigh the Good of the One.”

    Unfortunately, humans do not operate logically.

    Humans tend to pursue a selfish game strategy that leads to everyone losing.

    If I had a little help, I could alter the future of mankind. I don’t expect anyone to believe this claim. I just wish I could find someone in a position to help willing to hear me out.

    United we stand, divided we fall. Organized humans can do much more good than individual humans. National armies and business corporations succeed because they are organized.

    Organized religion has been both a force for good and evil. If we are going to destroy organized theism, then we need to replace it with some kind of organized group of caring humans.

    Poor / needy atheists have no community where they can turn for emotional support or emergency aid. Government aid can not replace the role of a church to help a member in distress. We need to find a way to form groups, where people know each other, and can help each other based on the kind of human being they are.

    In many religious congregations, when a member of the congregation needs help, the other members are there for them. Religious congregations offer their members many benefits.

    Most atheists and secular humanists just want to be left alone, they follow the creed of Nietzsche or Ayn Rand. There is are no secular humanist congregations where members help each other, support each other, and work together for the common good.

    If you are an attorney, donating your time to work as a guardian ad litem is great. You may be self-sufficient, and independent. What about atheists who are not self-sufficient? What about atheists who need to belong to a community? Where do they find camaraderie? Fellowship? etc? I find secular humanists to be very cold. Secular humanists are cats. But most humans are like dogs. They need to belong to a larger family, to an extended family. Atheists have nothing to offer people like this.

    I discovered most people don’t believe in God because they think that is the most likely truth. Most people believe in God so they can join a congregation where they can be part of group. The lone wolf is a pathetic creature. When the lone wolf injures a leg it starves to death. When a wolf that is part of a pack injures a leg, the other wolves bring it food.

    Wolves are effective hunters only when they hunt as a pack. They can bring down animals much larger than themselves. Lone wolves are not effective hunters. This is why people join gangs.

    Atheism is not a viable alternative to organized religion. Until atheists create organized groups that cater to the poor and needy, they will be viewed as selfish, self-centered hedonists.

    Please Google: “ultra empathy”

    The very first listing is mine.


    • I don’t care whether people believe in God or not.

      OK, but it does affect society if your fellow citizens credulously accept nutty beliefs, don’t you think?

      Most atheists realizing there is no afterlife pursue pleasure, and happiness. Atheists tend to see themselves as individuals rather than part of the brotherhood of humanity, or part of sentient life.

      Some do, but I don’t accept the generalization. Seems to me that atheists care quite a bit about society when they get offended at religious excesses.

      Secular humanists are cats. But most humans are like dogs.

      I don’t totally agree, but that’s a powerful and useful metaphor. Thanks.

      I gave your page just a scan. What do you think of the Humanist Manifesto? Seems to me that your focus is more on community. Makes sense.

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