How I Left My Evangelical Christian Faith
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When the religion’s immune system is working, it can seem like nothing gets through. A motivated believer will fend off any amount of linear reasoning or evidence. Backed into a corner he or she will simply insist, “I just know.” I picture some of my own family members surrounded by a polished wall of smooth steel—impervious, with no foot or handhold.
And yet, over time, life creates little windows of opening. Sometimes the trigger is unignorable hypocrisies or cruelty by church members. Sometimes it is a life crisis—a divorce, natural disaster, injury or loss of a loved one. Sometimes new social connections open up new ideas. Sometimes the accumulation of contradictory information reaches a tipping point. Bible-believing Christians, those who see the Bible as the perfect word of God, would be horrified to know how often loss of faith is triggered by someone deciding to read the good book and discovering the long litany of slavery, incest, misogyny, genocide, or scientific absurdities there.
Stages of Recovery
When the walls of faith start crumbling, people often go through a process that I think of as roughly four phases based on the dominant emotions of each stage:
1. Denial and fear. When religion has provided the structure to your life, doubt can be terrifying—especially if you’ve been taught that doubt is a sign of spiritual weakness or comes straight from the devil. In this phase, many believers redouble their efforts to shore up their faith. They may pray desperately for God to take away the doubts. Increased Bible-reading is common. So is missionary work: if you can convince others God is real, then surely it must be true. Psychologist Marlene Winell specializes in recovery from religion. For this phase of recovery, she offers clients two bits of advice that she sums up as “Get real” and “Get a grip”:
Be honest with yourself about whether your religion is working for you. Let go of trying to force it to make sense....Don’t panic. The fear you feel is part of the indoctrination. All those messages about what will happen to you if you leave the religion are a self-serving part of the religion. If you calm down, you’ll be just fine. Many people have been through this.
2. Uncertainty and guilt. At some point, doubt gains the upper hand. But that doesn’t mean the transition is over. When those final threads of my own faith broke, I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t believe in God anymore, so I told myself, but I didn’t want to drag anyone else to hell with me. A friend described this phase as “I don’t believe in Hell. Does that mean I’m going there?” It would take several years and several therapists after my Children’s Hospital rotation before I risked asking my brother Dan how he managed to hold onto our childhood beliefs. (I found out his beliefs were as long gone as mine.)
My book, Trusting Doubt, is particularly valuable in this phase because it digs into core evangelical teachings, showing how they can’t possibly be true. Information is powerful in helping to purge those last lingering shreds of doubt and the guilt that goes with them. Learn about yourself, the world around you and the history of your religion. Former Mormon Garrett Amini says his parents called books and articles that were critical of his religion “spiritual pornography.” Evangelicals don’t use this term, but the concept is probably familiar to anyone who has ever been a part of a sect that has to constantly fend off reality. So, read widely: evolutionary biology, analysis of sacred texts, psychology of religion, physics. Listen with open ears. The truth will set you free.