“It’s scary at first,” Kara confides. The Canadian writer isn’t referencing facing rejection for her work, or the rising political situation. Kara is talking about leaving her religion.
It seems like it would be simple. You don’t want to go to church, so you stop going to church. But for some religious groups and denominations, it isn’t so easy. Leaving can be difficult, bizarre or downright dangerous. Some groups want a formal resignation. Some have religious “trials” where they confront those who leave.
For most, it’s a daunting progress, and one which almost always comes with devastating effects on their social, personal and internal lives.
Mormonism, or the Church of the Latter Day Saints, is a huge religion. Worldwide, it’s estimated there are 14.8 million of them with roughly 43 percent of those living inside the U.S.
Lucy was one of them. She says she was “born in the covenant” — as Mormons say — and stayed in the church for the first 25 years of her life. She admits she left with strong faith in God, but did so because of the contradictions within the Mormon rules. She personally describes Mormonism as a “cult.”
The social repercussions she faced when leaving the church were severe. Her friend group quickly shrank to about 10 people without even officially “resigning” from the religion; she just faded out and stopped attending. She's still close to her Mormon mom, however her grandfather chooses not to speak with her because of her decision.
“I remember at one point my grandfather did call,” she says. “I had just got married and was thinking I'd try to introduce him to my husband, but he quickly cut to the chase to tell me that one of my questions I'd posted on Facebook had an answer in the latest Ensign [a magazine specifically for Church of the Latter-day Saints members].
“I tried to ask him what he was talking about, and he just replied that he and my grandmother had been members for a very long time and happy. He quickly hung up without much chance for discussion. He hasn't tried to reach out since,” she sighs.
She isn't close with the rest of her family, either.
Don Cohen, who converted to Mormonism as an adult, has experienced stories about people leaving the faith as well as his own experience, too.
“Over the years, I saw a variety of people stop attending or otherwise participating in the church,” he says. “Generally, there seemed to be genuine concern about the well-being of those people, and attempts were made to try and bring them back.”
His leaving was an academic one. As he searched and asked questions, he realized that Mormonism didn’t have the answers he was looking for and left.
After, he said religion leaders seemed to act out of fear and confusion.
“I had shared my questions and doubts with a number of them, but this material seemed to go straight over their heads,” he says. “Nor did it arouse any degree of curiosity on their part, as to whether any of the things I was saying were valid.”
The biggest impact, he admits, was with his children. They’d been raised in Mormonism, and two of his daughters — through things he asked not to discuss — were devastated by it.
“But fortunately, they are very good kids, with good hearts, and wanted to salvage our relationship as much as possible,” he says. “So other than the 'elephant in the room' — which can't be acknowledged or discussed — we are otherwise close and involved in one another's lives. I am quite grateful for this, as I am aware of too many situations where the outcome is tragic, and relationships are completely destroyed.”
His church leaders visited him and asked for an official letter of resignation.
Others are thinking about doing what Don and Lucy did, but just can’t because the fear of what next is still too crippling.
“I know they’ll be really mad,” says Ashlyn, a recent high school graduate who is hoping to start college this fall. She’s terrified to leave the Mormon religion because she doesn’t want to lose her family. “I’ve seen church leaders sometimes be aggressive bringing people back, and confrontation gives me anxiety. So I stay because I’m afraid, but I don’t really believe anymore.”
Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses
Jehovah’s Witnesses is another large religion, with an estimated 8.3 million of them worldwide. Their presence is seen most in North America, where membership is around 2 million.
Officially, the organization says if you leave, they don't practice shunning.
Of course, Diana, 47, a Witness her entire life, says that she hasn't spoken to several people after they left the religion and is no longer associated with them in any way. She says she does this “out of love, so they'll realize and admit they're wrong and come back to Jehovah.”
Allen says he's an atheist and has been since “about the third grade.” He lives in fear that someone in his family will find out, because then he could be “disfellowshiped” — or basically shunned — for not believing. “It's a huge worry of mine,” he confides. “I love my family, but the religion teaches that you should pick it over family even.”
Living as a gay man, things for Josiah aren't easy, either. He's been cut off completely from all his Witness friends and family.
“My parents won't speak to me and my siblings won't either,” he says. “It was really hard, especially at first.”
Heather, wearing a Death Cab for Cutie t-shirt when we speak with her, shares that she was born and raised a Jehovah’s Witness. She left the faith as an adult.
“I was already on my own, at least, so I didn’t have to worry about being kicked out,” she says. “But none of my family talks to me anymore, not even my sisters, which really hurts.”
When she was trying to leave, her Elders, or church leaders, were very aggressive in trying to get her to come back.
“They would show up at my house for ‘Shepherding calls’ to try to convert me back,” she says. “And they started dropping by my work. Finally, I just handed in my disassociation letter, which is basically a letter saying I quit the Witnesses, and I was done. But it meant my family was done with me too.”
While Christianity is one of the most pervasive religions in the world, hundreds of smaller denominations and branches of it exist, each with their own set of rules and procedures on handling exiles. People leaving the church, however, still find it as difficult as others.
Kara relates. She shared with us that when she left, the biggest fallout was with family. “My parents are (still) taking it hard,” she said. “When you believe in a God that sends unbelievers to eternal torment, your child announcing their unbelief is distressing. My mom seems to think that I'm just rebelling or angry at God and will come back eventually. She doesn't get that this isn't an emotional decision but a rational one, albeit one started by emotion.”
Hannah, dressed all in black, jokes about eating enough pasta to feed a family of four before speaking of her own experience, sharing that one of the main reasons for leaving was her sexuality.
“I couldn’t make my sexuality and my faith add up,” says Hannah. “I didn’t want to worship a god that hated me for being attracted to other women.” Meeting her husband, who is transgender and came from a church with a much less radical background, solidified her dissonance with her own. The separation eventually lead to her becoming an atheist, if only internally.
She's still not religiously “out” to her family. She says she stays for the sake of her spouse, because they'd insist on taking the children if it was ever found out. She also rents from her parents, and is concerned if they knew she was an atheist, they’d kick her out.
She’s afraid she’d be left with nothing.
“I think the biggest challenge, for myself and many others, is just admitting that you were wrong,” Cassidy, a redheaded homemaker who grew up going to a Reformed Episcopalian church school, admits. She says for her, religion was a threat used by her parents rather than an actual belief system. Even still, she became an atheist as an adult. “You've spent years or even decades defending this belief. Your first instinct is to protect your ego, and this is a big hit to your ego. I felt like a fool when I realized that I had spent 23 years espousing something so hateful for no reason.”
Katie, also raised Christian, agrees. She’s a cute blonde with a bob cut and says she was able to fade out safely when she went to college. She admits she was afraid to come out as an atheist to her family though; her older brother did the same thing in middle school to a disastrous result.
“Around the age of 14, his dislike for going to church became apparent, and my parents kept asking him about his faith,” she says. “He eventually revealed that he was an atheist, which upset my parents a lot. There were some very loud arguments, which upset me to hear, and made me afraid that my brother was going to hell. He had some other issues related to school around the same time, so it made a turbulent environment in my household. Things did settle down after a while, and our family dynamic has started to heal. Still, as a result, my brother is the only one in my family who knows about my atheism. I told him this past summer, and he advised me to keep it a secret as long as I could.”
To others leaving their religion, I do encourage safety first, and to keep things on the down low if you need to,” Katie advises. “It's best to reveal your departure to family once you have some measure of financial independence.”
Josiah also stresses the importance of having a financial and emotional plan in place. “I was ready financially because I’d been saving and I knew I would get kicked out if I came out to my family,” he says. “But I wasn’t really ready emotionally for all of my support to just be cut off. It was definitely a hard process. People should try to find a counselor before all of this happens so they have a mental support.”
Most we spoke with agree, it’s a process, and one that might need to be evaluated by a professional from time to time.
“If you struggle with mental or emotional health, see a therapist if you can,” adds Katie. “At the very least, open up to a friend. Some of your relationships may be damaged by religious differences, but remember that you have the right to your own beliefs regardless of other people's opinions. You're not selfish for making your own choices.”
“Because the Church generally provides its members with their entire social life and community, leaving that definitely creates a huge void,” says Don. “And being a somewhat reclusive individual, not particularly outgoing, there is a greater sense of isolation when losing friends.”
Katie admits that as doubts about her faith “popped up,” she fell into a depression.
“I'm pretty lonely right now,” she says. “I feel like no one really knows what I'm going through. I also don't want to tell any of my Christian friends what led me to losing my faith, because I don't want to risk putting them through the same crisis I had. My whole life has been in church and everyone I care about is a Christian, so I'll need to make some new connections.”
It isn’t all negative, however. Many people who leave their faith find that life outside religion is a freeing experience.
“Once I freed myself from the constraints of my religion,” says Cassidy, “I felt like I could be who I really was and I could truly live for myself. I'm happier than I ever was, and now I take every day as a precious gift. I can't guarantee that I'll have an ‘after’ life, so I need to make the most of this one. I used to rely on God to make the important changes in my life, but now that responsibility rests solely on my shoulders.”
“The actual leaving, in terms of its impact on my quality of life,” says Don, “was quite positive. Basically, it eliminated the cognitive dissonance, the conflict between my old and new understanding of myself, and the world around me.”
“To someone else who is leaving Christianity,” adds Kara, “I'd tell them this: it's scary at first, especially if you've grown up in the church. You'll probably wonder if you're making a mistake. However, once you're out you'll feel so much freer. Suddenly your life belongs to you, not an invisible deity. The world is so much bigger than your little Christian corner. It's scary, but it's beautiful and exciting too.”
[cover photo by Ben White // body photos Edward Cisneros and Matt Botsford via Unsplash // originally published January 11, 2018]