Walking away from faith
My therapeutic work with individuals leaving their faith has taught me much about the realities of some religious practices in the UK and the harsh consequences for those who face potential existential crisis and isolation.
For individuals who choose to leave their religion, there are no longer those answers that can be found in the many versions of the Bible. The absence of ‘God’s’ word can leave a huge hole and people report (in the early days of transition) not knowing what to think or how to act without such black-and-white, all-or-nothing guidance.
Equally, for many, the Church is their ‘tribe’, their community, and holds all of their believing family and friends. This ‘hub’ potentially is their only support due to having depended on it for so long and individuals are often shunned or criticised for leaving. Some are totally rejected and this transition can be traumatic and isolating. Such practices are harmful and abusive; individuals are left feeling hurt and wounded by their closest and, understandably, are left feeling disillusioned. This experience can impact relationships in general as it can become hard to trust.
Religious practice and belief systems intertwine with our sense of identity and for some, their faith is the most important part of their self. It is common to measure self-worth on one’s religious performance, e.g, how often attends church, the strength of faith, etc. This ‘extrinsic’ religion is sometimes measured by others, who offer praise and reward if they observe an individual doing ‘a lot for the Church’. The problem here is that self-worth can become dependent upon how much one does at Church - being a decent, trustworthy, conscientious, kind, and compassionate person is no longer enough.
Such comparison and judgement can bring about a sense of guilt, especially in these busy times. Often, the priority is The Church and this can be hard to live up to with full-time jobs and children. Individuals can come to question themselves about their performance which, in some circumstances, gives rise to a severe and cruel inner critic. This incessant self-doubt and self-criticism can become ruminative (repetitive thinking style), leading to a deterioration in mental health.
To complicate matters further, the fear of hell, eternal damnation, or ‘The End’ doesn't disappear once the individual has walked away from their faith. CBT therapists recognise how thoughts can become habitual and continue to present themselves even when no longer relevant. This fear is harder to wrestle with without the support of friends and family. Reassurance is no longer available from prayer, community or Bible and fear of hell may well continue to rage (triggering and maintaining anxiety) for years.
As a therapist, congruence and authenticity is, of course, fundamental to my existence and underpin my approach in my work, my relationships and myself. I have great admiration for anyone who chooses to live their life more authentically, whether that be with faith or without, but, what I appreciate the level of sheer courage and determination it takes to walk away from Church. I wholeheartedly admire those who take the harder path and am privileged to offer a new experience of support which is entirely independent of ‘faith acts’.