By Dr George Askwith
George is a member of Dorset Humanists committee and a volunteer for Faith to Faithless which is Humanists UK's section to support people leaving high-control religions. For this article, she spoke with two women about their experiences leaving religion. Both had grown up in tightly controlled organisations, with little autonomy. Their descriptions of leaving were full of fear and uncertainty...
“Alone in this place, I scramble to find anything to hold onto. Where a sure foundation stood, now an unstable swamp is swallowing me up. My faith is crumbling. Where will I go? How will I survive? What is my purpose?”
For many people, losing faith and leaving a religion can be difficult. The very process of losing faith is emotionally complex, and personal. This deconstruction can mean reassessing beliefs, values, and a sense of purpose in life. It can create an identity crisis, lead to social isolation, existential anxiety, and grief over what has been lost.
These difficulties are often heightened when leaving a high-control religion – a religion requiring rigid beliefs, with authoritarian demands, and thought and emotional control through language and threats, such as a fear of divine punishment or social shunning. In such religions, there can be added difficulties. For example, for some who are excommunicated, doubt and deconstruction may come months or even years after leaving.
Doubt can arise for various reasons, including intellectual curiosity, moral concerns, or a desire for greater personal autonomy. But in a high-control religion, voicing doubt is dangerous.
I volunteer with Faith to Faithless. We come under the Humanists UK umbrella, and we support people who leave high control religions, whether by choice or ostracisation. Many of the people I’ve met talk about the process of questioning, doubting, and leaving as a lonely experience.
For this article, I spoke with two women about their experiences leaving religion. One had left Mormonism, and the other The Children of God. Both had grown up in tightly controlled organisations, with little autonomy. Their descriptions of leaving were full of fear and uncertainty as they began to question the constant indoctrination that they had experienced. Rebecca (not her real name) described her panic as she began to doubt long-held beliefs: “This has to be true. It must be true. I want it to be true. What if it's not true? What. If. It's. Not. True. What if it’s not true? I contemplate staying at home next week, feelings of shame wash over me as a result. How can I doubt God, or his church, or his plan for my life?”
As a child, Melanie (name changed) remembers being asked to pray over strangers for their healing. Realising she didn’t believe in prayer “was a frightening thought, and one I couldn’t discuss. It wasn’t safe to have doubts and I knew to keep my thoughts to myself.”
Similarly, Rebecca remembers months of lonely questioning, as she was “striving for an answer in isolated desperation”. Their descriptions echo the experiences of many who leave such religions, who often think that they are the only person who has ever doubted, because it is never, and never can be, openly discussed.
In Melanie’s case, the dangers of voicing doubt including “breaking”, as she explains,
“‘Breakings’ were extreme punishments: it could mean being made to seek forgiveness and change your name; to be separated from your family, or to experience prolonged periods of punishment. They happened when people expressed doubts, criticisms or were perceived as being out of line.”
For both women, processing doubt and deconstructing faith was a long process. Melanie only realised she was an atheist years later, reflecting on her beliefs after a bereavement. Removing themselves from the constant indoctrination of the church was important, as Rebecca remembers: “I decided not to attend church and life slowly felt calmer, less stressful and I finally had the space necessary to reflect on my world view, dismantling it one principle at a time.”
Both women talk about the importance of education after leaving, not just academic education, learning critical thinking and how to evaluate information, but also meeting new people and learning new perspectives: “Learning that life can be interesting, engaging and fun!”
“Our service users include ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-Muslims, ex-Evangelical Christians, and ex-Orthodox Jews. Despite coming from different religious backgrounds, the experiences of leaving are often similar...”
At Faith to Faithless, we offer peer support groups and socials both online and in-person, enabling people like Melanie and Rebecca to connect with others who understand their experiences and the challenges of doubt and deconstruction. Our service users include ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-Muslims, ex-Evangelical Christians, and ex-Orthodox Jews. Despite coming from different religious backgrounds, the experiences of leaving are often similar, allowing for important emotional support and validation from others. We encourage our attendees to take time to reflect on themselves and their experiences, to share their stories and information. Most importantly, to develop self-compassion. Losing faith, and the challenges that come with leaving a high-control religion can be incredibly difficult, and it is good to remember that questions and uncertainties are natural. If you are interested in finding out more about our work, please go to faithtofaithless.com.
I started this essay with a comment from Rebecca, and I will leave the last word to Melanie:
“Today I take comfort in the knowledge that I don’t need a higher power to give my life purpose. I love the thought that we can make our own meaning, and that finding moments of joy and kindness is enough to make life worth living.”