Help for recovering from religion: book and retreat

By Marlene Winell

This is an excerpt from my book, "Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion." I would be interested in your feedback.

Religion is supposed to be good for you. Yet people get hurt in religious systems, sometimes seriously. I used to think that although damage was done by so-called cults, most religion is essentially benign. It could give you some comfort as a child and teach you some values, but then you grew up and away from it. It wasn’t until I looked back on my struggle to grow free of my own indoctrination, and heard the stories of others, that I realized that this kind of emotional and mental damage can be profound.

In fundamentalist Christianity you are told you are unacceptable. You are judged with regard to your relationship to God. Thus you can only be loved positionally, not essentially. And, contrary to any assumed ideal of Christian love, you cannot love others for their essence either. This is the horrible cost of the doctrine of original sin. Recovering from this unloving assumption is perhaps the core task when you leave the fold. It is also a discovery of great joy – to permit unconditional love for yourself and others.

The problem of religious damage has not received much attention in our society, perhaps because Christianity is so much a part of our culture and real criticism is taboo. Just consider what we have done to so-called heretics throughout history. Religious damage may also seem less serious than other recovery issues such a alcoholism or child abuse. And since faith is thought of as a good thing in a world brimming with materialism, selfishness, and violence, many feel strange when complaining of church attendance or growing up in a religious home.

But leaving your faith is not like no longer believing in Santa Claus. It can be shattering to realize that your religion is creating problems in your life. Whether you leave abruptly or drift away over a long period of time, you may experience profound sadness and confusion about what to do, think, and believe. You may also feel the rage of betrayal or struggle with persistent depression.

Many people are reluctant to talk about this subject for fear of hurting loved ones, of alienating others, of appearing foolish and self-centered. They sometimes fear divine retribution. I have known therapists who were afraid to work openly with people on these issues because they were concerned they might be labeled anti-religious or anti-God. However, more often, therapists who have not been through the experience themselves do not understand the difficulty of recovering from an authoritarian religion.

But breaking away from a restrictive, controlling religion can be a wrenching, profound experience. You may be feeling confused, guilty, empty, or bitter. You may be depressed about life or scared of the future. Perhaps you have trouble connecting with other people and life "in the world."

You are not alone in your experience. Many, many others have been through this and gone on to reconstruct their lives in meaningful and satisfying ways. While the experience of losing your religion is often painful and confusing at first, there is much to be learned and ultimately a profound maturity to be gained. This book can provide some assistance in your recovery by clarifying the issues involved, offering ideas for healing, and suggesting directions for further growth.

In general, leaving a cherished faith is much like the end of a marriage. The symptoms of separation are quite similar-grief, anger, guilt, depression, lowered self-esteem, and social isolation. But whereas help for divorced people is readily available, little if any assistance is available to help you to leave your religion. The familiar sources of church support are no longer there, and family members still in the fold may actually shun you. Secular friends and even therapists may not understand what you have been through. Part of the difficulty is the anxiety, the terror you may feel about having to go it alone. After having been born again, leaving your faith can feel like being lost again.

There are many issues to work through-thoughts and feelings to process, new friends to make, new beliefs to nurture, and new ways to live. Because your religion took care of so much, defining and dictating reality in so many ways, you are now faced with largely reconstructing your life. Recovery begins with deciding to take that responsibility. This may seem overwhelming, but the benefits are indisputable. You get your life back on your terms. Indeed, the journey out can be thrilling as old fears and doubts give way to new and healthy possibilities.

Phases of Recovery

People seem to go through phases in their recovery from rigid religion, just as other life changes have typical sequences. This particular change goes deeper than many others and touches on all aspects of a person’s life. The following sections offer a very general outline of the recovery pattern that I have observed and facilitated in clients:

1. Separation
2. Confusion
3. Avoidance
4. Feeling
5. Rebuilding

These are not discrete stages in the formal sense. There is considerable overlap between them and a person may be in more than one phase at a time. However, the overall pattern may help you understand where you have been, where you are now, and what you can expect in the future.
(Details are in my book).

Issues in Recovery

"I feel like a scared, lonely, abandoned little kid that just can't get it right and who must be a real "bad boy." I have a large sense of not deserving anything that finally I am not important. This is connected to my "nothingness in the eyes of God," which was taught very early. My mother dedicated me to God when I was an infant. God is what is important, not me. Am I worth taking care of?"

From what I have learned in my work with formerly religious people and from my own experience, certain issues of healing and growth appear to be common to the process of breaking away. Some areas of personal development continue to be important for many years. The areas of impact described here are typical consequences of leaving a conservative, fundamentalist church. They also apply in various ways to leaving other groups. The intensity of impact can range from simple life limiting to extreme harm.

1. Recovering a sense of self
2. Working through emotions of anger, guilt, anxiety, & loneliness
3. Learning how to be in “the world”
4. Accepting self-responsibility
5. Creating meaning and personal spirituality

(These will be explored in my next post and can be found in my book, as well as online for free at They will also be covered at retreat weekends).

Here is an inventory you can use to assess how you are doing on these issues:

Issues Checklist
Directions: For each item, mark the number that best reflects the impact that issue or feeling has on your daily life. For example, mark 1 if the issue is mildly bothersome to you, 3 if it is moderately troubling, and 5 if it is severely disturbing. Mark 2 or 4 if the issue falls somewhere between.

Issue/Feeling Severity

Confusion 1 2 3 4 5

Anxiety or fear 1 2 3 4 5

Lack of clear identity and personal values 1 2 3 4 5

Negative sense of self 1 2 3 4 5

Emptiness, as if you have no core 1 2 3 4 5

Negative image of your body 1 2 3 4 5
and discomfort with sexuality

Lack of meaning or purpose in life 1 2 3 4 5

Anger and bitterness 1 2 3 4 5

Loneliness 1 2 3 4 5

Loss and grief 1 2 3 4 5

Depression 1 2 3 4 5

Persistent guilt 1 2 3 4 5

Difficulty enjoying daily pleasures 1 2 3 4 5

Unreasonably high expectations, perfectionism 1 2 3 4 5

Trouble appreciating people 1 2 3 4 5

Difficulty with self-responsibility 1 2 3 4 5

Lack of deep self-love and skills for self-care 1 2 3 4 5

Trouble thinking for yourself 1 2 3 4 5

Difficulty feeling and expressing emotion 1 2 3 4 5

External focus for satisfaction 1 2 3 4 5

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