The High Cost of Leaving Your Faith

Pensive_NeilI don’t typically share highly personal stuff on this blog because my life is intertwined with many others, and they would not want their personal matters to be put on public display.  But earlier this week a reader asked me a question which I think deserves a post of its own because it’s about a matter I know many people are facing every day.  People who grew up in relatively secularized cultures won’t identify with this issue but anyone raised to be religious will know it all too well.  If you were raised to be a devout Christian and later left the faith, you will get why this question touches a nerve.  The reader asked:

After you changed, did you ever feel desperation?

My answer likely went in a different direction than he intended because for me, there have been several stages of stress, loss, and pain associated with my leaving the faith, and they started long before I finally let go of those beliefs which had so characterized my life up until that point.  I can think of a couple of particular seasons in which I seriously questioned my faith, and those questions never really left me.  I posted about that struggle yesterday, and if you haven’t read that yet, please stop and go read that now.  It gives you a peek into the mind and heart of a young man sincerely wrestling with his own rationality, trying to reconcile it with his faith.  I can still feel the angst from those days emanating from the words on the screen, and for various reasons this still feels so fresh to me.  The fallout from that struggle continues for me today.

Most of all, however, I want to draw your attention to the fact that I wrote the journal entry linked above a good six years before I began to honestly face my own questions.  If you read the brutally honest things I say you may find yourself asking “Why on earth did you cling to your faith so long after this?  How could you?  With no satisfying answers forthcoming?” The simple truth is that the cost of leaving my faith was too high for me to allow myself to go down that mental path.  Again, I must acknowledge that anyone reading this who has never lived in a highly religious environment (I’m looking at you, Europe, Canada, and the “blue states” within the U.S.) will scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is about.  But anyone from a context similar to mine will “get it” immediately.  When your entire life is built around a religion, leaving it means leaving your life and starting over again from scratch.

I cannot overstate how powerful a deterrent this is to people who already have seen enough to know better than to remain in their faith.  They have enough information to critically analyze the beliefs they were taught, but they push the questions down, holding them under like trying to hold a beach ball under water.  It can take a lot out of you, but it must be done or else you could lose everything—your friends, your family, your job, your marriage, your kids…you name it.  There is no end to what people may take away from you to pressure you back into submission to their faith.  See, from their perspective, people’s eternal destinies are at stake here.  No punishment (excuse me, “discipline”) short of hellfire is too drastic to coerce you back into faith in (their) God.  It’s only because they love you that they will take everything from you in order to save your soul.  “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the Good Book says.  Reminds me of the old adage, “With friends like these…”

Right now there are men and women filling pulpits even though they’ve long since lost any ostensible faith in the religion they preach.  Daniel Dennett has just released a book chronicling this struggle, and I must admit I totally understand their struggle.  For people who have built their lives around their faith, the loss of it can be too great to endure.  It’s not that faith really gave them anything which they can’t get through other means (fruitful friendships, loving families, fulfilling work, etc).  The problem is that they’ve spent years, maybe decades, building their lives around one particular religious subculture, and if they leave it they will quite possibly lose everything they hold dear.  All of their friendships may be based on sharing a common faith.  All of their closest family may be committed to the same beliefs as well.  Their jobs may revolve around the propagation of this faith.  Even their marriages are likely predicated upon a common commitment to the same God, the same faith, and the same ideals and passions so that losing those means you’ve just lost the foundation of the most important relationship in your life.  This is sheer terror.  If your marriage was not built upon a shared passion for a common set of religious beliefs then you have no idea how painful it can be to honestly grapple with your own intellectual questions.  You see the issues.  You know they are there.  But you just can’t keep looking at them because if you do, your life as you know it could soon be over.

So you stuff your questions down.  You try to forget about them.  Or maybe you take them out every once in a while and wrestle some with them (as I did on occasion) but whenever you reach that point wherein the most logical conclusion would be to say, “This is all nonsense,” you have to stop.  You have to.  If you don’t, the cost will be too high, and you know it.  So you stay there for years, maybe even decades.  In my case, I made it six more years.  During that time I threw myself further into ministry with my local church group.  I wrote songs (just the lyrics), delivered spoken messages, arbitrated church crises, and even traveled some for “ministry.”  I wrote a book tying nearly twenty years of searching into a neat little package and felt really good about what I had produced—right up until the moment I realized none of it matters.  All those carefully nuanced interpretations of the Bible don’t do a thing to make people any different from what or who they already are.  It was all an idealized pipe dream and deep down I knew it.

It was a beautiful dream though, and I almost feel like it’s a small consolation that, of all of the dreamy ideals I could chase, I chose the ones that I did.  I feel like I met some really great people along the way.  We were all drawn to such beautiful common dreams.  But you reach a point in your life when you realize that life is too short to be lived inside your own head.  You need reality, and you won’t be satisfied with anything else.  Like the son in Big Fish, maybe you see how much it means to people to play along like their stories are true, but for yourself you want to know life as it really is, without the embellishments.  For me, it was a part of finally growing up and putting away childish things even though many fully-grown, intelligent people continue to cling to these stories into old age.  That doesn’t make them any truer.  But it does mean that at some point those people will look at you and shake their heads, saying “What a shame.  He used to show so much promise.  Now he’s just a disappointment.”  That’s what you may hear (and possibly much worse, lemme tell ya) from your former supporters.  This is all a part of the high cost of losing—and leaving—your faith.

If you’re like me you get to a place where you cannot lie to yourself anymore.  Your need for reality becomes stronger than your fears and you find yourself suddenly, finally, on the outside.  Once you’re there I hope there will be others with you, hopefully even those closest to you, who can hold your hand and walk with you into the unknown.  The opposition you will face could be intense, and you may find yourself starting over again from scratch.  If your spouse can walk through this with you, consider yourself fortunate beyond words.  Not everyone will have that support.  For those who don’t, dark days lie ahead.  But there is life on the other side.  There are people there, some of whom have gone through exactly what you’re going through, and I challenge you to start hunting for those people now.  Make some new friends.  Maybe even travel to see them if you have to, but whatever it takes, build for yourself a network of people who do not need you to think the same way as they do in order to accept you into their group.  Find people who will not judge you for being a critical thinker, but rather who celebrate your inquisitiveness and consider skepticism a virtue.  They are out there, I promise.  And the internet is making them easier to find (more link suggestions, please).  Feel free to drop me a note some time.  I can surely sympathize with the strain this puts on a person’s life.  The cost is high.  But in the end it’s worth it to have a personal relationship with reality.


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31 Responses to The High Cost of Leaving Your Faith

  1. Pingback: Reading Through My Old Journals, I Found This… | godless in dixie

  2. cjoint says:

    This, and the journaling excerpt , are like seeing thoughts and out exodus from faith. I think it’s rooted in our tribalism, this insider/outsider-us/them reaction.

  3. cjoint says:

    Ok, apparently auto correct got me, it’s supposed to say “this, and the journaling excerpt, are like seeing my own thoughts and exodus from faith”

  4. ... Zoe ~ says:

    Thanks for sharing this. As a Canadian I’d like to say that there isn’t anything you write that is foreign to me. We’re not as liberated from religion as you might think. :-)

  5. mikespeir says:

    Amos 3:3 Can two walk together, except they be agreed? (KJV)

    It’s the friendship thing that’s the worst. Suddenly, you find you don’t have any real basis for friendship with so many of the people you hold dear. Oh, you can still be “friends” in some sense of the word, but the connection can no longer run very deep unless there’s some other suitable, replacement ligament. I’ve been fortunate in that my family hasn’t reacted as adversely as in some of the tales I’ve heard from others, but there’s a new distance even there. It’s heartbreaking and psychologically disruptive.

    • David W says:

      “I’ve been fortunate in that my family hasn’t reacted as adversely as in some of the tales I’ve heard from others, but there’s a new distance even there. It’s heartbreaking and psychologically disruptive.”

      This echos my experience, especially the ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘psychologically disruptive’ part.

    • Yes, absolutely, Mike. Said it very well. I have many friends who expressed a desire to remain friends, but you can’t really continue relating to people who are on completely different paths. The distance just grows over time and you lose your ability to connect over common things, especially when those friends continue to orient their lives around the religion you left as completely as you once did. The basis for friendship just isn’t there anymore.

      • Ed Suominen says:

        Overall, my experience with friendships has been the same, unfortunately. But there have been a few bright spots, and I’d like to share one of them.

        Recently, an old and dear friend from my former sect of Christianity gave me a call because he was in the neighborhood, asking if I wanted to join him for lunch. And lunch is all it was—no hidden agenda, no proselytizing, no gentle reminders for the lost sheep to return. That doesn’t mean we didn’t discuss religion. We did, as we would anything else that either of us found interesting and important. But it was not a one-sided preaching session, just a respectful and interesting discussion between two friends who go way back.

        Along the way, my friend said, “Of course I wish you still thought the same way as I do. But that doesn’t make you any less of a person, or make me not want to see you.” I nodded and said I understood, and that he is no less of a person to me, either. And regarding the many of my former brethren who don’t seem to have his sense of grace and maturity, well, I said, I haven’t been having lunch with any of them.

      • Pinoy_atheist says:

        After my 2 year-missionary work, and became unbeliever (atheist) after a year, it took me a year to come out because I was scared I might destroy family relationship, the most important relationship in my country (Philippines). When I did come out, as expected, I lost my close friendships with my youngest brother and elder sister (who with her husband work as missionaries with me). Saddest thing of all, I lost my most precious friendship with my father who admired me so much because I had been a church youth leader, active church speaker and community outreach volunteer. I have only my younger sister who follow my new path now along with her husband, who I never expect would believe in me because they were not my closest friends among my family members. It took them a year to pay attention though and simply dropped their strong faith and thankful I helped them woke up. Now, I have only my younger sister and her husband, and the rest of my friends in my family have simply disliked me and my sister. It has been truly a stressful struggle everyday affecting our bonding with our once supportive and friendly family. I felt a big loss of losing the once beautiful close bonded family I had but I never regret waking up, dropping my faith and believing in myself alone because my unbelief has made me a better person, and see the reality more than before. When the strongest Haiyan Typhoon hit my country, I talked with my father a night before the typhoon arrived. I convinced him and my mom to leave our house immediately and stay in a strong-foundation hotel because I can’t pray for them. I was glad they did after I promised to pay all the expenses. If I was a believer at that time, all I would say to my parents was ” I will pray for you” (the way my missionary sister and her husband talked to my parents that night before typhoon came). But when I became an unbeliever, I don’t see any reality on prayer anymore. I see only reality and act based on reality alone instead of clinging to imaginary promises in the bible or clinging to faith.

    • I hear you. I lost every single friend I had in the world when I deconverted. They dropped me like a stone. I was hurt at first, but over time I understood a little why they had to treat me that way.

  6. D'Ma says:

    I know I wouldn’t get support because I already have a passel of people praying for me because I no longer attend church. And the part about being told how much potential I had and what a dissappointment I am. Yeah, been there. And I haven’t even said out loud, to anyone except my husband, that I don’t believe anymore. It’s my little secret that I fear is not as much of a secret as I had thought. I can’t even imagine if I did say it out loud.

    Were it not for the blogging buddies I’ve made I don’t know what I would have done. Because you definitely need support.

  7. Evelyn says:

    I have to say I have been very lucky. I “came clean” to my husband. He has been wonderful. He loves me for who I am and all the aspects of my personality…even the ones that he doesn’t agree with.

    • You are indeed very lucky, and I wish you and your husband both the very best as you explore this new world–together.

      • Evelyn says:

        Thank you. He is a great guy and I wish everyone could have the support I do! It just wasn’t worth tearing apart our home over.
        I do keep my ideas to myself around my children until they are older. But whatever path they take
        I will be fine with.

  8. Frank says:

    Thank you so much for your transparency, friend. I think you’ve hit on a topic that is an additional challenge to those of us who leave our faith systems: the regional thing. The Barna group has put out interesting reports on data sets that highlight the facts that faith practices, even among Christians, are expressed and experienced quite differently among our regional subcultures. Leaving the faith in Berkeley, Chicago or NYC is much more acceptable than in Smallville (southern or otherwise rural USA). And although it can be tempting and exhilirating to connect with folks on anti-religious forums available from all over the US (and the world), although well-meaning, sometimes the counsel and exhortations folks on those forums provide add a bit too much emphasis to take some immediate action. All I can really say to anyone from our Southern states is to take it slowly and test the waters before you dive into the deep, or maybe just “be care-full”, your exodus can hurt or offend others in ways you do not intend, and they’ll react to that hurt in ways you might not expect.

  9. of Dixie chick says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I was raised in Alabama in a Southern Baptist TOWN (if there were residents of any other denomination, they knew better than to publicly admit it.) I have been “out” (but with my mouth shut for fear if a Bible-sanctioned beating) since around 13/14 years old. By college, I started slowly telling people knowing that for a lot of people, it would be either OK or completely unacceptable, and it properly weeded out those who were nor ever would truly enhance my life in any fashion. Having a strong support base of friends who accepted me as I am gave me the confidence to be transparent with everyone, even though it’s none of their business. I am out at work, in social media, to my entire family and my life is still filled with amazing people who love me. With the exception of some typical teenage, in your face posturing, I found that once I was comfortable with myself, I remain kind to others and exude positive Thank you so much for writing this. I was raised in Alabama in a Southern Baptist TOWN (if there were residents of any other denomination, they knew better than to publicly admit it.) I have been “out” (but with my mouth shut for fear if a Bible-sanctioned beating) since around 13/14 years old. By college, I started slowly telling people knowing that for a lot of people, it would be either OK or completely unacceptable, and it properly weeded out those who were nor ever would truly enhance my life in any fashion. Having a strong support base of friends who accepted me as I am gave me the confidence to be transparent with everyone, even though it’s none of their business. I am out at work, in social media, to my entire family and my life is still filled with amazing people who love me. With the exception of some typical teenage, in your face posturing, I found that once I was comfortable with myself, I remain kind to others and exude positive energy, most times, that’s exactly what I receive in return and very little effort is required. Most times…

  10. Jen says:

    This is amazingly well written. My “faith journey” has been very similar to yours – right down to questioning it intensely in college only to run back to it and dive in deeper. And then there were many times over many years where I struggled but stayed true to the faith. People ask when I stopped being a Christian and I tell them it was a long, painful process. And when I finally let myself embrace the fact that Jesus was not God, not born of a virgin and did not die to save me from my “sin”, the cost was indeed great. But the rewards and freedom of not being tied down to an archaic and destructive belief system have out weighed the cost over these past 7 or 8 years. Thank you for sharing a part of your journey.

  11. Pingback: When it is hard to leave faith | Rturpin's Blog

  12. My experience was very different, having grown up as a secular Jew in Los Angeles. However, there was still an in group and an out group, but it was not very formalized, so my slide into atheism was gentle and I did not feel like an outsider. I live in the South now, and am very out, as are my wife and children. Given this perspective, it is easy to see that the community formed among congregations has many purposes, and one of them is to bind the members so closely to the group that it is painful to leave. It is no different than what happens in a cult, just slightly toned down.

    Because of the control that this group membership exerts, I am somewhat hesitant about joining in any of these atheist ‘churches’ for the specific reason that they could be the breeding ground for an atheist theology, and the creation of an in group and definition of an out-group. I do recognize the human need to be part of a group, but I’m still waiting to hear how we can do this safely.

  13. Gra*ma Banana says:

    I grew up Catholic but not so devout as your description. What you picture here sounds like a cult and your leaving like an escape. Glad you made it!

  14. Joyce Rutter says:

    What you wrote, I could have written, almost word for word, except, of course, the parts about your own ministry. I was part of a religious cult, being introduced to it from the age of 9 by my mother, who did not at first know what she had stumbled upon. She was a radio dial twirler in the 1950s, and she happened upon the radio broadcast of Herbert W. Armstrong. That led to a request for his literature and monthly magazine. I attended his cult college in Big Sandy, Texas from 1966-69, met my husband there, and remained part of it until 1995, when I finally had to leave. My husband and I are still married, although, with difficulties. He still attends the original cult group, which has since splintered in many directions.

    The process of completely losing my belief in the Christian God took many years, with questions beginning long before I left the cult. I was reared as Presbyterian, until my mother found the aforementioned cult, and god belief was instilled in me from the beginning of my ability to understand words. I still struggle with some of the programming, and perhaps always will. The fear of losing everything is such a strong incentive to not make waves, but it came down to believing that my life was more miserable if I stayed, than it would be if I left. Once I left, and had put some time between me and the indoctrination, the depression that had dogged me for years began to lift. When I was finally able to admit to myself that I no longer believed there was a god who created the universe and cared about me, personally, the world immediately began to make more sense.

    Neil, I find your writing to be the very best of all the related blogs that I have read. I am so glad that you have put your thoughts out there for those of us who need them.

  15. Keyna Jo says:

    Wow, Wow, and just WOW!!! Thanks so much for this….♥…

  16. tlethbridge says:

    Great post. It has been a rocky road for my wife and I since I announced my deconversion, but things have been getting better slowly and steadily. I think one of the things I struggle with is a lack of desire to deconvert anyone else. I have no interest in debating, arguing, or even explaining why I am where I am. I would like my wife to understand, but would be just as happy not to ever explain the details to anyone else.

    It has been a couple of months since we attended church. Ironically, I am probably the one who misses it the most. Well, not the main church service, but our Sunday School group that had great discussions and a real sense of community.

    Living in the south there is simply an assumption you are a Christian of some stripe. My coworkers assume I am some kind of devout believer because I seldom use profanity and have a fairly broad knowledge base about the bible and theology. I just keep my mouth shut and let it ride.

  17. Chris says:

    Glad I found this blog. I went through a similar ordeal in my early-mid 20s. I wouldn’t want to do that again! I’m still not completely out to all my family, and I’d actually rather not concern my 84 year-old grandmother with my lack of faith.

  18. bonnie says:

    If I had any atheist friends I would refer them to your blog. :)

    Really spot on post. I am so glad I had my husband leave with me. I wouldn’t have had the courage otherwise. It was bad enough losing the respect of my parents, siblings and community. Not to mention my job. Many people don’t even let their children play with mine. I don’t think I could honestly do this without my husband’s support. I sometimes wonder how many out there are still entrenched in it because they don’t have the support to leave.

    • Piobaireachd says:

      Probably loads, Bonnie. Fortunately, the internet is helping with this because more and more people are realizing that they’re not alone. But it’s still a huge decision depending upon your circumstances.

  19. Haven’t quite made the jump myself even though I feel that time fast approaching. It is something I dread with every fibre of my being. When your entire family is deeply drenched in religion, even those that blatantly disregard its tenets (I’m Catholic; confession is easy for some), you realise that leaving could cost you a whole lot.

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