Breaking Up: Why Is Religion So Hard to Leave?

Breaking Up: Why Is Religion So Hard to Leave? May 19, 2018
leaving religion
Double Entendre: Retro image of hidden sign for a spiritual retreat. (Mr. Doomits, Adobe Stock, standard).

Breaking up is hard to do.

That sentiment, the title of a 1962 Neil Sedaka song about the acute pain of failing romantic love, also explains why religious people find the prospect of leaving their faiths so traumatizing — even when they no longer believe the dogma.

This stanza from the song (below) captures the essence of the spiritual struggle many people must endure when they divorce themselves from their religions, which necessarily often means alienation from family and others they have grown to deeply love in their congregations:

Don’t take your love away from me

Don’t leave my heart in misery

If you go then I’ll be blue

‘Cause breaking up is hard to do.

When a believer exits a religion, both sides suffer — the leavers and the stayers. Both grieve for different reasons but with the same result: everyone feels rejected and unloved. The stayers sense emotional and spiritual betrayal in the exodus of a former congregant, often a close friend or kin, while leavers are often broadly shunned afterward for their perceived disloyalty and betrayal of unspoken group expectations.

Nobody’s happy, but the religious divorcee, suddenly marooned in a new spiritual wilderness, often feels relieved, liberated, actualized in the real world. Yet, the scorn of former co-conspirators in the life of religion left behind always stings, as ex-believers commonly attest.

Such existential human pain and the loss of a sense of belonging are among the key reasons that religions have perpetuated over centuries — whether their doctrines are fully believed by the faithful or not. Powerful, often irresistible human social and behavioral dynamics are at work here, not the verity of various spiritual messages.

A blog re-post published this week and a Netflix documentary I recently watched starkly reminded me of these truths.

‘Fleeing Fundamentalism’

The re-post in Linda Lascola’s Rational Doubt blog, titled “The High Cost of Fleeing Fundamentalism,” contained a number of brief stories about faith leavers who suffered the inevitable consequences. The article was originally written by Andreea Nica for the website Religious Dispatches. Lascola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and Preachers Who are not Believers (2010).

Nica’s article focuses on the 39 percent of young adults (18-29) who are religiously unaffiliated, compared with roughly a quarter of the population who identify as “nones” (those without religious connections). The proportion on nonreligious young adults, Nica writes, is now four times what it was a generation ago. Research has focused on the nonreligious, she explains:

“But a subset of these growing religious nones has lacked examination — those who have left fundamentalist religions. Underexplored is how disaffiliation from fundamentalist groups impact family relations and friendships, as well as the stressors involved in ‘coming out’ as a nonbeliever.”

One 34-year-old woman quoted in the article, described the emotional power of her charismatic congregation’s spiritual experiences before she left the fold:

“The church services were known for extreme emotional highs. Worship would last several hours and would be used to work the church members into an emotional frenzy. Often people would dance while waving large flags, some would kneel, some would openly cry, some would be seized with uncontrollable laughter. These behaviors were thought to be the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

A 30-year-old man reported rejection by “very close friends” in the church when he exited:

“We still communicate, but they have definitely put a wall between our relationship. They no longer include me as one of their own. I’m familiar with that guarding because I used to put similar walls up with people who were not part of my religious community as well, so I recognized it right away.”

Another young woman still hasn’t told her mother she is now a nonbeliever, and is estranged from her devout father:

“I told my father never to speak to me again when I was 24 and have had no contact with him since then, though every few years or so I Google his name to see what he is doing.”

The leavers are the also the object of pity, prayer, anger and rage, along with various forms of rejection. Some report feeling so stressed, dejected and despondent tht they consider — or attempt — suicide.

‘One of Us’

The riveting documentary I watched on religious divorce, entitled “One of Us,” focused on the dispiriting experiences of three ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews in New York who decided to leave not only their faith but the close-knit, insular Hasidic communities that had long nurtured them. The film is directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who also directed the secular-vantaged docs “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia.”

A review of the faith doc in The New York Times quotes Chani Getter of Footsteps, a support organization for former Hasidic Jews as well as those who are thinking about leaving.

“Nobody leaves unless they’re willing to pay the price.”

And the price is steep.

A Hasidic woman named Etty, 30, when seeking a divorce from her controlling husband was removed from her house — and her children — by Hasidic police for alleged abuse. The system advantages men over women in these communities, and husbands have greater rights over children.

But some of the leavers also experienced joyful epiphanies once liberated on the outside. The oppressive environment of Hasidism keeps members completely ignorant of many touchstones of cultural normalcy in the rest of America, so when they see what they’d been missing, they are often ecstatic. One young man who left his community was so amazed at what he learned on Wikipedia alone when he got unfettered access to the internet that he referred to the online encyclopedia as “a gift from God.”

Mostly, however, joy was found in simple relief from oppression, which softened the inherent trauma in leaving their faith, families and community, and sometimes their children.

If you want to revisit the question of why so many people seem to hold fast to religious traditions that not only make no sense but are also oppressively abusive, these two avenues are well worth exploring.

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