A couple days ago Neil reposted one of my articles from 2011 as a guest post. That post has made the rounds a number of times since I originally published it 4 years ago and I’ve always felt like I’ve needed to follow up on it in some fashion. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do. The emails and comments I’ve received since its appearance here have confirmed that need more than ever, so today I want to discuss the process of grief and the loss of your faith.
The Death of Faith
We usually speak of grief after the death of a loved one but for many in the ex-Christian and ex-believer communities the loss of their faith is very similar to the death of a loved one. How death-like this process will be depends on how sincere and life-consuming your faith has been. But even the nominal believer will experience some of the symptoms of loss when recognizing that he or she no longer holds the same beliefs that once rang true. In other words, the devotion you have to your god or faith will be directly proportional to the pain you will feel as that faith dies.
This faith death is often spurred by a series of realizations, often the embracing of doubts that have long been quieted by the desire to leave well enough alone. Whether it be a recognition that your particular holy book doesn’t meet the criteria for evidence and truth that you once thought it did, or the epiphany that your own cognitive biases have held you in a belief system that new information simply can no longer reconcile. Whatever the reason and however abruptly or agonizingly long this death takes to occur, the end result will seem very confusing and difficult to explain. Most people say that they feel alone in the world and, despite a sense of data overload that accompanies all the new information coming to you about the faith you no longer hold, a sense of quietness that seems unlike any other that you may have experienced before.
Stage 1: Isolation and Denial
The most common reaction to recognizing that you’ve now rejected the core tenets of your religious identity is to deny that you’ve done so. When I first realized that I had done so it took me two full years to stop my denial of the fact that; in truth, I was no longer a believer. Many people retreat further into their faith, they may double up on church services and find themselves praying more frequently and with more fervency. Eventually though, they find themselves confronting the uncomfortable truth that they simply cannot believe what they once did.
Soon after this retreat into denial occurs and is phased out the newly minted doubter finds isolation to be the only solace from reminders of recent events. It is also a security from being found out. Many find themselves making excuses to avoid being around family and church or other religious communities, largely because the wound is still very raw and because the environment of religiosity simply doesn’t feel genuine any longer. This isolation stage for me was accompanied by a great deal of internalized dialogue about the present situation as I tried to understand what had occurred and what the end result might be.
There is nothing abnormal about these processes, expect them and embrace them in the healthiest way that you can. Try to find solace in the silence of your isolation, as it will prepare you to better handle that which comes next.
Stage 2: Anger
“I’ve been lied to my whole life!”
“Everything I’ve ever believed is untrue!”
“The people I trusted deceived me when I was young and vulnerable!”
There are certainly a lot of similar exclamations that can come from the doubter as an examination of the events that brought this person into faith transpires. Most people, myself included, inherit their faith from their parents, and most people accept that faith before they are able to drive.
Religious institutions know, and have turned into a science of sorts, that young minds are the easiest to convince that something extraordinary is true. Consider the tales of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy: Much like the young mind may not be able to discern the tongue-in-cheek fun of these two childhood tales, your local church is spending a great deal of effort and expense on ensuring that young children are exposed to religious notions before they are able to critically examine them. Once embedded as essentially true and unquestionable, even the wayward adult fallen on hard times and in need of a leg up will look to the one place where he believes all truth comes from: the religion ingrained at youth.
For me the anger that arises during this grieving period focused on the fact that people, as children, were sold a truth that later turned out to be untrue. During my own deconversion I was enraged at the adults in my life who had mislead me, Furthermore, I was enraged at any person I witnessed performing the same misdeed upon any other person, young or old. I felt the need to crush this idea, this god, and this church with whatever venom I could produce because the pain of having something so incredibly important to me ripped away was more painful than I could imagine, and I couldn’t abide allowing others to endure the same.
Anger is often a justified emotion. What drives your anger may be something totally different than what I’ve discussed here, but it is well within your rights to feel and to experience it. It is very important that you know that. You may feel the need to lash out, to say mean things, and crusade against your former faith. On the one hand, you’ve earned this angst and it’s OK to take as long as you need to work through it.
Some things to keep in mind though:
Chances are good that every person who ever deceived you was first deceived by someone else in much the same way. This may not excuse the events of the past, but it’s a good place to begin on the road to forgiveness.
Generally speaking, those who evangelize do so with the best of intentions. I remember doing so fully believing what I was preaching would help bring someone into the faith and into the love of God that I experienced. It would prevent them from spending an eternity in hell. These intentions were sorely misguided and I regret every second of it, but I did it because I cared for people and because I thought that the threat of eternity was very real. I’m still angry at the person I was sometimes, but I’m also compassionate toward my younger self because someone first deceived me. That line of deception has been perpetuated for generations; it didn’t begin with me.
Anger, though a sometimes helpful emotion, can drain you and cause further alienation. No matter how justified your anger may be it isn’t healthy to remain in that state forever. I gave my anger a very long time to rule and it truly drained my relationships and personal mental health to the bone. I believe that, even though anger is well within your rights, it is far from within your best interests to let that remain the prominent feature of your life. I recommend that you try to experience it quickly and move on from it quickly if at all possible.
Stage 3: Bargaining
In the traditional model of the stages of grief this is the third stage, but I’ve found that bargaining is often the second stage when it comes to faith, and it can surface multiple times throughout the process.
Bargaining occurs when you find yourself wishing the internal chaos and turmoil produced by your doubt would be quieted. You try to strike a deal with your former god, in whom you don’t even really believe, to return you to his good graces. Fear of punishment drives this bargaining process, along with the loneliness accompanying these dramatic changes in belief as you simply wish to “return to normal.”
Occasionally bargaining will “work” in the short term so that your doubts will be quieted, or at least the volume will be turned down for a time. Doubt can be stubborn, though, and it will linger in the back of your mind, itching from the moment it first enters until you decide to fully embrace it. Though you may offer your god your whole life, bargaining will only bring temporary solace. You might as well prepare for it to be an impotent cure.
Stage 4: Depression
I think it goes without saying that you may experience depression in one form or another. It’s an almost unavoidable practical implication to the loss of your god and your faith. Characterized by a sense of sadness and deep regret, you may find yourself upset that you’ve fallen into this seemingly empty place, uncertain about how you could ever move forward. Depression leaves us with a lackadaisical attitude toward life, removes joy, and makes friendship and companionship difficult.
During this point it’s important to seek companionship and friends who will accept you, love you, and support you without requiring that you conform to their religious ideologies. It’s important that you find someone to confide in who can provide words of encouragement and an empathetic ear when you need it. It’s a good idea to find a support group of other ex-believers to surround yourself with, and if you feel it necessary, a qualified secular therapist to help you work through the emotions of this critical stage.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Acceptance means recognizing the inevitability of the facts, embracing them, and embracing the life that happens after faith. And there is life after faith.
Those of us who left our faith once believed every step we took was ordered by our respective gods. We believed that he had numbered the hairs on our head. It’s quite a radical departure from what we knew to break out and start a new path, but this is our opportunity to do so. We can take this opportunity and find a purpose and seek a happy, enjoyable life surrounded by friends and family who will embrace us for who we are and where we’ve been. It just takes a little courage.
Acceptance feels like the weight of the world coming off of your chest. You are finally able to breathe for the first time. That’s when you finally recognize why you endured all this pain and heartache, and why you worked so hard to allow this grief to reach its ultimate goal: It’s because you deserve to be free, and you deserve to be happy.
Finally you are ready to accept the fact that you are here, precisely where you are, and you cannot possibly be anywhere else. Finally you can begin to choose your own path and make your life your own.
If you are reading this and find yourself in the midst of a loss of faith, you might say: “Hey…I’m pretty sure that I’m experiencing all this stuff at one time!” I think that’s the case for a LOT of people. I think that’s the one major difference between grief in an actual death and grief after a loss of faith–the emotions and stages rush upon you so that you pop in and out of each stage, sometimes experiencing multiple stages at once. This is completely normal, and this is precisely how I experienced it. However it happens for you, this is fine. I’ve set forth my experiences and the experiences of those I’ve counseled over the years in very short order here, but every person’s experience is going to be different. What’s most important is that you understand this:
You will survive this and you will be happy again.
Some Excellent Resources:
Ex-Christian.net – A Forum for ex-Christians
Recovering from Religion – Resources galore
Secular Therapy – Find Secular Therapists in your area
The Lasting Supper – a community organized by David Hayward for those seeking spiritual independence
Dr. Marlene Winell – Religious Trauma Syndrome resource