Leaving Religion: A Qualitative Analysis of Religious Exiting
IN THIS ARTICLE
Religion has been a part of society for thousands of years and touches every life on the globe. Despite this, religious non-affiliation is one of the fastest growing religious identities, and is currently the third largest globally. There has been research into the religious “nones” and conversion, but there has been less focus on the factors and process of leaving a religion. This study looks at the stages of religious exiting with a comparison to Helen Ebaugh’s stages of role exit. Through a qualitative analysis of an online survey (n=610) and interviews (n=17) several themes emerged. The main factors that influenced a person to leave a religion are: logic, religious rules, specific events, and education; the majority of participants self-identified as analytical and utilized thought experiments, education and research to advance their exiting. While other role exits are defined as when an individual announces their exit, religious exiters are often unable to “come out” as an “ex.” Instead they are closeted exiters who exit internally, while outwardly maintaining a religious facade. These exiters, as well as those who are fully “out,” were tasked with developing a new self-identity after exiting, including self-reliance and self-thought. Religion is not openly discussed in society or among families, making exiting a private ordeal. Whether closeted or otherwise, participants described the process of religious exiting as isolating and lonely. Religious exiting hardly ever has a clean break, and those who experience it are longing for a way to share their stories.
Religion is thought of as core system of beliefs and practices centered around sacred objects and texts that galvanize a community through shared morals and world views (Durkheim, 1915). The quest for answers to life’s greatest questions has spurred the constant reiteration of spirituality and religion throughout the world, as evidenced by the fact that religion or spiritual belief is an axiom of most societies. The number of different religions expressed in the world is estimated to be around 4,000, with the first known recorded religion being from 3,500 BCE Mesopotamia (Cauvin, 2008; Mark, 2009; Morris, 1987). This research looks at the population who exits a religion, and what influences them to leave that religion, either through conversion or to non-religion.
Religion is a fundamental part of billions of lives, and is a primary tool for building and maintaining communities. The rituals practiced in religions are thought to be an act of physically constructing a sense of spirituality and strong community connection (Durkheim, 1915). At the same time, religion can be used to placate and subdue populations into accepting their positions in life, as Karl Marx made famous in his saying: “…religion is the opium of the masses” (Marx, 1970). Along with religion being used to keep populations in their stations, it can also have the effect of policing its members internal thoughts, and keep them aligned with the norms of the group (Foucault, 1979; Bentham, 1970). Religion can be used both as a haven for community networks, or as an oppressive force that subdues its followers. Individuals must choose for themselves what spiritual guidance feels right to them.
When a practitioner no longer finds their current religion emotionally or spiritually nourishing, they may make the difficult decision to leave their religious community. This decision is often fraught with high emotional and health costs, and yet many feel that they would rather pay the price than remain (Scheitle, 2010). While there is a growing trend of individuals leaving religion altogether, religious conversion is also a common phenomenon (Jindra, 2015; Robbins, 1979). Christianity itself was founded by converts, and relies on conversion of others for its longevity, while Islam is the fastest growing religion due to converts (Hackett, et al., 2017).
Conversion has been a component of religions since their inception, though the convert may not have had a choice in the process (Buckser & Glazier, 2003). Forced conversion has spread religions and politics throughout the world, and many times forced conversion is a life or death choice for the convert (Firth, 1981). Forced conversion is a traumatic scar left on communities, while personal choice conversion may leave a scar on the individual and their networks. This research deepens our understanding of personal choice conversion and religious exit.
The process of religious exit and religious conversion follow the same path, yet lead to vastly different destinations. This research used in-depth interviews and a survey to look at what influences the decision to exit religion, and in what ways that choice has impacted those who leave.
The study of religion and its role in societies has been a foundation of anthropology and many researchers believe that religion is a tool used for group formation and cohesion (Durkheim, 1912). Religion works its way into almost every aspect of the lives of its believers, and nonbelievers as well. The globalization of religion and religious iconography can be seen in the commercialization of Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as the hyper consumption of candies on days like Easter and St. Valentine’s Day. This dissemination of religiousness can even be witnessed on American Dollars, the American Pledge of Allegiance, and the phrase “bless you,” spoken after a sneeze.
We are surrounded by copious amounts of religious paraphernalia, and many feel a loose tie to their family religion whether they internalize the beliefs or not. There is, however, another group of people who actively distance themselves from a religion and the community they knew. Research on this population of religious exiters deepens our understanding of religious exploration, as well as our understanding of human nature (Francis & Katz, 2000). There are a number of reasons a person may choose to leave a religion, including through conversion or loss of religious faith.
Research into religious conversion and its stages has been conducted by various researchers and offers a look at the steps one would take in joining a new religious group. These steps include some form of crisis or catalyst, searching for new options, exposure to insider group members, interaction with the new group, and eventually experiencing the consequences (good and bad) that come with converting (Lamb, 1999; Rambo, 1993; Snow & Machalek, 1983; 1984). While research into the act of exiting a religion has received less focus, the stages of conversion can be transposed into the study of religious exit. Because conversion and exiting both have similar stages, this research relies on conversion studies as well as those of role exits to explore religious exiting.
Religions often rely on teaching members to recruit outsiders through conversion. Many of today’s largest religions grew through intentional global spreading of their teachings. While this dissemination may have led to conglomerations of spiritual beliefs and practices, the use of physical force and violence was often used to coerce converts. Forced conversion has spread religions and politics throughout the world, and often the convert faces death or other acts of violence if they refuse (Firth, 1981; Weed, n.d.). This study looks at personal choice conversion, though the potential for violent retribution for the exiter can still remain, as will be discussed in Section III.
Cults are religious groups whose members’ beliefs do not align with greater social norms. The general public often view cults as potentially dangerous, fringe groups that are to be kept at bay. Historically, all of today’s largest religions, such as Christianity, were considered cults until their follower numbers grew and they became the norm. Researchers have studied the recruitment of members into these deviant groups, and have found that social networks play a large role in conversion (Stark, 1980; Wright, 1991). Research into deviant criminal behavior has shown that individuals may act against the normal code of conduct in their social groups (such as joining a cult) if they feel they are acting in a righteous manner (Katz, 1988).
While cults are viewed as deviant, the decision to leave a religious community is often viewed as deviant behavior to active members (Lofland & Stark, 1965). Research shows a correlation in the act of leaving religion and the feeling of needing to do what the participant feels is “right,” or “righteous” (Rambo, 1993).
Leaving a religion or exiting from other roles that are a defining aspect of one’s identity is a difficult and troublesome decision, and often this “role exit” fundamentally changes a person's self-identity (Ebaugh,1998). Religion is a common factor in identity and the cessation of that role creates a new role as an “ex” in these people’s lives.
Previous research shows that exiting a religious role has many negative consequences. Those who leave religions, especially high-cost ones, are more likely to self-identify as less healthy than those who remain (Idler, 1995; Scheitle, 2010). At the same time nearly all religious exiters experience a sense of lost community after leaving (Rambo, 1993). This study elaborates on the consequences (both positive and negative) of religious exiting.
This research uses the existing idea of the “ex” identity and previous research into religiosity, to show how religious role exiting follows a similar process to other role exits, while also focusing on the ways in which it differs.
Leaving any role can have consequences, but identifying as a religious ex has close parallels to identifying as a non-heterosexual or non-cisgender person. Research has shown that “coming out,” in regard to sexual orientation closely follows other role exiting (Coleman, 1982). Coming out, in terms of sexual and religious orientation, can put individuals in direct harm, and lead some to choose to remain in the closet (Corrigan, & Matthews, 2003). Living with a closeted identity does not mean the individual has not truly exited. As this paper will discuss further in Section III, religious exiting is accomplished when the individual self-identifies as an “ex,” whether or not they come out to their communities.
According to a Pew report, 70% of the United States is Christian, while the second largest group at 22% is “unaffiliated” or “religious nones” (Wormald, 2015). Globally, however, the largest religious group is Christianity at 31%, the second is Islam (the fastest growing religion) at 24%, and third at 16% is “unaffiliated” (Hackett, et al., 2017). This large unaffiliated group includes those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or spiritual without a specific church or religious connection.
Those who identify as having no religious affiliation has increased over the last few decades, and research into this growing trend has explored the reasons behind the secularization of the globe (Hout & Fischer, 2002; Kosmin, et al., 2009; Roof & McKinney, 1992). This research has shown that those who are currently unaffiliated with a specific religion are influenced in their exit by similar factors to those who are currently affiliated as well as those who identify as atheist.
Religion is an integral part of billions of people’s lives, and often is the primary basis for building and maintaining community. For those who no longer find their current religion nourishing emotionally, they may make the difficult decision to leave that community. This decision is often fraught with high emotional taxes, such as being cut off from family and friends, and yet many feel that the price of leaving is a better choice than remaining. This research looked at who chose to exit religion, what influences this decision, and in what ways that choice impacts their lives.
This qualitative study used convenience and snowball sampling to conduct semi-structured interviews and an online survey. While there are many methods that could have been implemented, these two methods allowed informants to discuss their experience of leaving a religion in their own words. The words that people chose in describing their experiences correlate to patterns of the experience itself. Only by hearing directly from participants can an analysis of shared experience be possible.
In addition to interviews, an online survey was used in order to reach a larger informant pool from more varied backgrounds. I created the survey in the online software Surveymonkey, and circulated it to possible informants through Facebook, Reddit forums, and Bay Area college campus newsletters. See Appendix A and Appendix B for interview and survey protocols, respectively.
The survey took an average of nine minutes to complete, and consisted of various types 17of questions including; demographic, multiple choice, five-point Likert scales, and open-ended questions to allow participants to express their experience in their own words. Participation was restricted to those 18 years or older, and allowed one response per participant. I incentivized participation by enrolling participants who completed the survey in a random drawing for the chance to win a $20 Amazon gift card, awarded to 1 of every 100 complete responses. At the end of my data collection period the survey received 861 total responses and 610 complete responses (a 71% completion rate).
In addition to the survey, interviews were used to gain informant’s unique perspectives and reasons for their role exit, as well as their understanding of how their exit impacted their lives. I used the survey to locate potential individuals for in-person interviews, of which I conducted 17. Interviewees were aged 18 years or older, and exited from a religion either through conversion or to non-religion. Interviews were conducted in locations that were quiet and without many distractions (such as children), and were agreed upon by both the interviewee and researcher. I recorded all 17 interviews with a digital recording app on a smartphone, which I alone had access to and was password protected. These files were encrypted, and placed on a removable storage device which is stored in a locked cabinet.
After conducting interviews, and collecting the survey, I used manual coding of transcripts of interviews and Surveymonkey analytics for additional coding and analytical support. I used grounded theory to conceptualize themes and patterns within the responses.
Demographics of Study Sample
Of the 610 survey responses, 531 were from the website Reddit. It should be noted that while six percent of all online adults use Reddit, its users are predominantly younger and male (Duggan & Smith, 2013; Barthel et al., 2016). Given that the majority of this research’s respondents come from Reddit forums, it would suggest that this research is skewed toward younger and male. This does seem to be the case as 72% of participants are between 18 and 34 years old, and 87% are under 44 (see Table 1). Younger age is associated with higher levels of religious non-affiliation, though this study does not show age as a significant factor in whether they are currently affiliated or not (Hagan & Wheaton, 1993; Newport, 1979). However, when looking at a gender breakdown, 49.01% are male, 46.04% are female and 4.96% are non-binary. So, while Reddit users are more often male users, this research received a fairly even split of the binary genders, though slightly skewed toward male.
Participant Age Distribution
Race. White identifying participants were overrepresented in this sample at 86%, compared to 77% nationally (Bureau, 2016). Those who identify as black were greatly underrepresented in this study with only 3% compared to 13% nationally (see Table 4). Analysis for statistical significance based on race could not be completed due to the low number of individuals identifying as any race other than white. The sample source could be a factor in the underrepresentation of racial diversity in this survey. Further research with a representative racial makeup is needed for analysis of religious exit experience by race.
Religious Affiliation. This study used the American Sociological Association’s religious categories for the survey options with some customization. Protestantism was broken down into several sects in order to allow better analysis of specific sects. While this allowed for deeper analysis, it created some confusion with participants. Many felt the options were over inclusive in Protestantism and not inclusive enough for non-Christian options. Further research on this topic should follow more inclusive guidelines for affiliation options (Alwin, et al., 2006). This study combined the options of atheist and agnostic, which stifled further analysis. Future research should take care to separate atheism and agnosticism in current belief options (Sherkat & Wilson, 1995). Given that this research combined these options, there no significant differences between “atheist/agnostic” and “nothing in particular.” However, if atheism was separated, deeper analysis would be possible.
While there was a range of past and present religious affiliation the sample is heavily skewed to Christian religions with just over 90% of respondents representing Christianity compared to the national level of 71% (Religious Landscape Study, 2017). Within general Christianity, specific sects such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are highly over represented in this study compared to the national average. Nationally Mormons account for 1.6% of the U.S. while Jehovah's Witnesses are only 0.8%. In this sample however 10.16% were Mormon and 13.93% were Jehovah’s Witnesses (see Table 2) (Religious Landscape Study, 2017). I hypothesized that those who left more insular religions would have a greater desire to share their stories, or stronger opinions on religion in general and so these over representations are not surprising. Any self-selected research runs the risk of attracting those who have strong opinions, and while this research did seem to do that to some extent, many participants expressed great enthusiasm for participation simply because they highly valued the research topic and wanted to help others going through the same experience.
This sample is skewed to those who currently identify as atheist/ agnostic or nothing in particular. In the United States 22% of people identify as unaffiliated (which includes atheist identity), while this study has 82.79% who currently identify as some form of unaffiliated (see Table 5). This high level of apostasy could be due to title of the survey, which led many to believe the study as a whole was looking at those left religion entirely as opposed to switched religions. At the same time, this study was aimed and targeted at individuals who have exited a religion, and so it is more likely to have those who do not currently have religious affiliation than the general public.
While not surprising, another item of note is the inconsistent responses of participants when comparing their surveys and interviews. Because my interviewees were selected from survey participants, I could compare their responses from both formats. Survey responses were shorter, less complete responses and were not always truly reflective of their experience. At times survey responses showed very different responses than in person responses as evidenced by the fact that none of the 17 interviewed noted having simply lost faith (without other conscious factors) as the main reason they left their religion, though two of these same participants said so in their survey. Previous research has shown that this phenomenon is a known concern for online surveys, and unfortunately only follow up research with the same sample would conclusively say whether the survey was truly reflective of participant experiences (Wright, 2006).
This research had a large number of participants, and a significant amount of interesting data. Unfortunately, given this enthusiasm for participation, not all of the data can make it into this paper. What follows below is an analysis of the stages of religious exiting: first doubts, seeking alternatives, the turning point and creating the ex- religious role.
Existing research by Helen Ebaugh has established that there are stages to exiting any role that is an integral part of a person's identity. This research looks specifically at the stages of leaving a religion. The stages of religious exiting, as described by the participants, presents differently than what is discussed by other research. Ebaugh describes four stages of exit: first doubts, seeking alternatives, the turning point, and creating the “ex role” (Ebaugh, 1998). While these stages are true for the majority of ex-religious participants, this research shows that religious exit rarely has clean breaks. This is evidenced by the fact that only 78% of this study’s sample identify as a religious “ex” to those around them. The other 22% end up in a hidden-ex role, where their families and communities do not know of their decision to leave.
While Ebaugh mentions four distinct phases, in this study many do not experience all of the phases. Many experience first doubts and their turning points simultaneously, and skip seeking alternatives altogether. This was true across religious and demographic information. Individual values and judgments play the largest part in religious exit; some never felt their religion was right, while others slowly questioned, and others still were triggered by specific events. While these differences exist, these factors can still be compared alongside Ebaugh’s process for role exit.
The sample is composed of 65% of those who identify as atheist/agnostic and 33% who are currently religious in some way. When analyzing the data, I was surprised to find very little difference in responses from these two groups. It was hard to tell who was currently religious or not, unless they specifically said. This indicates that while the reasons and manners of exit might be different depending on the religion exited, there are less noticeable differences between apostasy and conversion in this sample. Some differences were still noted, mostly in how they related to religion afterward.
Research has shown that younger, childless males have a higher probability of identifying as religious “nones” (Backer, 2009; Need, 1996; Uecker, et al.,2007). This sample reaffirms that this is the case, and adds that female participants were more likely to be currently religious as compared to men, and nonbinary respondents. Age is harder to analyze in this study as the majority of participants are under 44. The younger age of participants may mean that the correlation seen with high levels of non-affiliation in the study is affirming previous research, however, when factoring for age high levels of non-affiliation are still present in this study.
Section I - First Doubts
In the first stage of exiting, which Ebaugh calls “first doubts,” there are many recurring practices of those questioning their religiosity. Ebaugh believes that changes in the organization, burnout, disappointments in relationships, and specific events are what trigger this initial stage of exit (Ebaugh, 1998). In this study logic, changes in personal values, and religious rules are the triggers to first doubts (see Table 6).
Every religious exit is unique depending on the individual exiting and the religion of exit, however, there are patterns to this process that capture the majority of religious exiters from this study, which will be discussed below.
Logic for this study is defined as the participant’s internal process for reasoning and knowledge. Almost all interview participants described themselves as logical, or reliant on an analytical approach to the world. Many even specially mentioned a high regard for the scientific method, hence their desire to participate in the study in the first place.
The single largest factor that led participants to and through this first doubt stage is their reliance on logic and individual rationale. This was the case no matter which religion was exited or demographic factors, with 50% of all participants mentioning a form of logic as a factor for their exit. Whether the participant was an apostate or currently religious, this self-identification as logical was consistent, as one participant notes:
Many participants stated that they no longer believed or could made sense of the doctrine of their religion, while others said that hypocrisies in their religion's teachings and members behavior also conflicted with their internal reasoning. “Religion is not logical. There are contradictions everywhere.” Education and exposure to new life philosophies also deepened these individuals own rationale, to the point that they moved further from their religious teaching, as seen in the two quotes below:
In this paper, logic is made up of several subsections: Truth, education, hypocrisies, and contacting God. These factors fundamentally rely on logic, and can be experienced simultaneously or individually.
Truth. While participants described themselves as analytical, the underlying first doubts that many described related to the sense of wanting truth. Previous research shows that the use of “truth” narrative is a common practice in autobiographical stories of transitions, which is also shown in this study (DeGloma, 2010). Some religions use the vocabulary of truth to describe their teachings, saying that they and their members are “in the truth,” and it is this verbiage that led some participants to feel particularly betrayed when they believed the religion had been untruthful. Other participants (including some of those currently religious) were motivated in their journey to seek out what science and logic points to as the truth, as this participant shows: “My pursuit of truth to be confident and honest in what I believe eventually led me to question and challenge the many conflicts in Christianity and ultimately leading me to my apostasy.” The following participant noted how searching for the truth led them on a path away from their religion:
The search for truth often comes in the form of research and education, however as will be discussed in a following section, prayer is often used as a tool in logic and truth seeking.
Education. Education through various school systems and the subsequent exposure to other dogmas was a leading cause of initial questioning or, as discussed in Section III, the turning point in exiters lives. Those who spoke of education as a catalyst for their questioning often pointed to learning about sciences, especially evolution, as something that caused fractures in their belief system. “The biggest factor was education. I began to see the truth after I took college biology and micro biology [sic] and realized that the things I was taught growing up were unrealistic.”
At times participants noted that their religion or specific church had accepted teachings such as evolution and the scientific method, and condoned critical thought and education in some cases. This was especially true for Seventh Day Adventists. That is not always the case though, as many participants felt restricted in their ability to critically think about the world around them.
Hypocrisies. Within this sample 9% described questioning their beliefs when presented with certain hypocrisies within their religion. Often this came in the form of frustration at the seemingly random, “pick and choose” strategies of their religion’s doctrine. In many cases individuals discussed feeling confused and embittered by the notion that the very doctrine they were instructed to dedicate their lives to was in fact unsound due to noted hypocrisies. The following participant believed God was a hypocrite, which led to their leaving the religion:
While the hypocrisies in the teachings of religions can cause a person to question their beliefs, the behavioral hypocrisies by “good” religious members can also spark existential confliction. The following passage is from a participant who had their bible stolen from church:
As the passage above illustrates, even something as simple as a bible theft could make someone question their religion or congregation. In this particular case, it was not only having an item stolen, but specifically that it was a bible. Additionally, the adult’s nonchalant reaction to the theft also contributed to driving the participant away. The realization of hypocrisy can also be the turning point that will lead to an exit (as in the passage above), though it is usually only one piece of the puzzle that comes together with other pieces until the final turning point.
Like the bible theft, hypocrisy was also noted in the behaviors and practices of other members of the religion. This moral hypocrisy caused many to state that they believed their religion was one of human creation and not one of God; citing behaviors of religious members such as intolerance, gossiping, selfishness, and vanity as initial sparks for their questioning. This frustration is shown in the following quote: “Many of the Christians I grew up with were sheltered, hateful, racist, sexist, and anti science.”
These moral hypocrisies caused many to shed their religion. While irritation with hypocrisy was a leading cause of doubt, prayer, can also cause participants to doubt their beliefs. The following section looks at how failed prayer can lead some to leave their religion.
Contacting God. Another form of initial questioning comes in the form of trying to feel a visceral connection to God, or higher power. Participants described praying in the hopes of feeling a connection to their God, and when they failed to do so, their faith was shaken. The following participant had this to say about what led to their exit: “The lack of connection to God. I thought I was supposed to hear God in my mind and that everyone else could but I couldn't.”
They searched for a reason why they couldn’t hear or feel God, and a way to find that connection. This type of inquiry is fueled by the desire to have a relationship with God, and participants expressed sadness when they did not. Some thought the specific church they were in was the problem, or internalized these doubts, causing them to believe there was something flawed about them personally.
Other participants spoke about “testing” a connection with God, using a simple “if [A] is true then [B] will happen” formula. In these instances, the participants who deeply wanted to feel a connection to their deity would tell themselves that if [deity] is real then [a circumstance] will or will not happen. This testing was often a complement to trying to contact God, and some participants described a strong desire for these tests to be proven true. One interviewee initialized their test when they were young and struggling to make friends. Their test, like those other participants developed, started with a prayer to God. This prayer asked God to prove themselves by providing the interviewee with a friend. When the interviewee did not receive the asked for support, they heavily doubted their connection with God, and even the existence of God. Another participant noted that they, “Never felt anything anyone else did... Thought god [sic] just didn't care about me.”
Failed prayer and lack of connection to God caused a sense of discontent with many participants. And while prayer is not often thought of as logical, using it to establish tests, even at a young age, is a very logical response to something as unfathomable as God. While logic played the single largest role in causing doubts and religious exiting, both an internal change in values and the religion's rules also played key parts.
Change in Values
Over one-third of participants noted that part of their exit was fueled by the realization that their morals and internal values were differing or had already shifted away from their religion's teachings. These individuals believed that their values deviated not only because of life experiences, but because of some innate value system. Many described having this innate value system separate from their religion, which is consistent with previous research (Hitlin, 2003). Even if this value system felt innate, only after a time of conscious doubting (which includes childhood questioning) did they question the teachings of their church. I had assumed that questioning the religion would lead participants to develop new value systems, but in this sample, that was not the case. Further research into how individuals develop values would be helpful in understanding religious exiting. Of the 36% of those who noted that their values were not aligned with the religion’s, many described feeling particularly uncomfortable with how women, children, LGBT members and other religions were treated. This perceived intolerance of the church is also noted in other research as a main factor for exiting (Niemela, n.d.).
Lost faith. While many had specific reasons for their change in values, 13% of participants noted that they simply stopped believing either in the religious teachings or in their deity. Multiple interviewees said that they never had buy-in to their religion, and so their exit was solidified by a severing of physical religious attendance. As one person noted, “It wasn't a big deal...Just grew out of it.” This was also seen in other research; those leaving religion in Finland believe that religion no longer had relevance in their lives, so they decided to leave (Niemela, n.d.). Exiting a religion may influence a person’s goals and attitudes, however, in this study those who stated they simply lost faith did not note these large shifts (Paloutzian, et al., 1999).
Others experienced this loss of faith gradually after years of doubting. These individuals chose to go against their community’s normal code of conduct because they believed they were acting in a righteous manner, which is a foundation for deviant behavior (Katz, 1988). Many respondents said maintaining their integrity was a factor in their exiting: “My exit was also a matter of integrity because I could no longer defend the claims of my belief system and I realized many of them were harmful.”
Those who note innate values that differed from their religion were more likely to state that they simply lost faith. However, more research is needed in the construction of values with a comparison to religious exit. In addition, more research into those who noted that they lost their faith without mentioning other factors would deepen our understanding of religious exiting. One participant shared this example of lost faith: “Realizing one day that I just didn't believe. And when I looked at the outcomes of the beliefs of the Christian church, I felt like my ethics were not compatible.”
Change in value, while a large influence in religious exiting, is the hardest to analyze. This is because the participants themselves struggled with putting into words the process of developing their own values, and how this shift from their religious reference group happened. Participants noted that they were only aware that the shift had taken place, but few articulated how and why. What it evident, however, is that no single factor influences a person's values. Religious rules, logic, and all other influencing factors play a part in shifting a person’s value system.
The third most cited factor for exiting, at 22%, were the rules and requirements of members of the past religion. Exiters from Scientology and Catholicism noted the financial requirements of members specifically as a religious rule that caused them to feel unease surrounding their participation. Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses noted the potential medical harm that could come from following their religious teachings. Every religion has rules and requirements that may cause members to feel an internal dilemma in compliance. In this sample the intolerance towards outsiders as an axiom to their religion’s doctrine was the most incompatible teaching. These philosophies include the damnation of others and general bigotry.
Damnation of others. Many Abrahamic exes noted that the damnation of others to hell was something that did not sit well with them. The eternal punishment of others for not believing in the same doctrine was considered cruel by many participants, as evidenced by the following quote:
For some, this moral dilemma acted as their final turning point, while for others is was the foundation of their questioning onto which other doubts piled, eventually leading to the final turning point. The damnation of others is specific to Abrahamic religions, however, the general disagreement with the religion’s treatment of others was highly cited by all exiters as a factor for leaving, as discussed below.
Bigotry and treatment of others. Bigotry, or the intolerance of those who are different than one’s self, was cited by 21% of participants as a main factor in their exit. For analysis I include sexism and prejudices of sexuality within bigotry. Like the damnation of others, religious exiters mentioned that the mistreatment of those who were of different races, religions, sexual orientations or any other form of “othering,” was incongruent with their personal morals. One participant said they, “Couldn't reconcile faith with gender/sexuality.” While other participants, like the three below, noted similar factors for leaving:
Unsurprisingly, those who identified as female or non-binary were more likely to list bigotry as a factor that led to their exit. Of those who identify as a non-binary gender, 67% cited bigotry, sexism or their sexuality as factors for their exit compared to only 29% of female identified persons and 9% of male identifying persons. When talking about the main factors for their exit, one participant said the following:
All of these different factors may play a role in an individual's first doubts of their religious affiliation. As mentioned before, not all participants experience conscious first doubts, and at times these doubts are experienced in conjunction with the second stage of role exit, seeking alternatives (Ebaugh, 1988). Logic, change in values and religious rules often combine to push an individual along the path of religious exit and into the stage of active questioning, as discussed in the following section.
Section II - Seeking Alternatives
In the second stage of role exit, seeking alternatives, exiters often “try out” new and different roles they find appealing (Ebaugh, 1998). While participants explore new role possibilities, they also experience positive or negative feedback from family or community members which may hasten or slow their process down (Ebaugh, 1988; Jehenson, 1969; Vargas 2012).
This study showed that the stage of seeking alternatives was often combined with first doubts, or at times acted as the turning point for participants. Many people believed they knew how their community or family would react to their desired new role and so hid their questioning from those around them. Those who did actively seek alternatives did so in a few main ways: openly questioned their religion, reduced religious attendance, and researched alternatives.
Participants in this study had various community reactions to their initial doubt and questioning, which influenced their transition entirely. Some participants mentioned feeling like they were punished or “shut down” when they openly questioned their religious surroundings. This type of negative feedback did not have to be experienced firsthand, and instead could have been witnessed. Many, especially Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims, spoke about the “known” negative consequences for exit as a hesitation for leaving. These consequences included shunning and complete loss of familial support and contact.
Participants used logic experiments early in their questioning process to assess their beliefs. These types of experiments often take the form of the following philosophical inquiry: “If [higher power] exists then why would they allow [some form of evil]?” This philosophical question has been asked by philosophers since ancient times, and is a basis of religious philosophical debate (Lim, 2017). Participants often internally tried to answer these questions, and when they felt unable to reconcile this dilemma, they shared their inquiries with those around them. One participant said the following about what the main factor for their religion exit was: “Intolerance - mostly of certain types of questions or inquiries.”
Many participants experienced negative reactions from members of their past religious communities when they openly questioned or expressed dissatisfaction with their religion. In fact, religious members accused them of incomplete analysis or discredited their questions. Despite this push-back from community members, study participants continued to internally debate their religious surroundings. While all participants of this study eventually did exit, others in the world make it to this stage only to have a negative reaction from family and community lead them to completely halt their exit.
Depending on whether participants experienced positive or negative social reactions, their exit was either relatively easy or extremely tenuous. As will be discussed in the following section, those who experienced or anticipated negative consequences to their religious exit may have chosen to present themselves as an active religious member, while internally reducing or severing beliefs.
Nearly all interviewees noted the reduction of religious service attendance as a conscious act. Participants talked about how they “just stopped going as often,” and that they believed their families were aware of their questioning or exit, but that it was not openly discussed between family members. As the quote below illustrates, pulling away from religious life is often part or the first stages of exiting:
While questioning and pulling away from their religion, participants were often engaged in some form of researching. The types of researching noted by participants are discussed in the following section.
Like in first doubts, seeking the truth propelled the next step of actively searching for knowledge. As participants felt more and more uneasy about their religious life, 16% described a phase of exploratory research that helped them solidify their positions. Some participants casually looked at other religions as their form of exploration, while others described in-depth research of their religion’s history. Along with specific religious history, the most common form of research was philosophical. Respondents spoke of wanting to have more understanding of the world, and felt this could be achieved through philosophical and religious inquiry. One participant said that, “Studying the Bible, theology, philosophical arguments for God's existence, and church history,” were the factors that lead them to leave their religion. The questions that religion answers for most people are mostly philosophical, and so those who are considering leaving their religion show interest in developing a more robust understanding of philosophy and religion (McDougall, 1972). As the following quote shows, participants felt their religion did not give members a proper religious education:
Many spoke of learning about the history of their church as a turning point in their journey, because they felt that their church or religion skewed the truth to create a more favorable narrative. One participant noted that when they read a biography of the religion's founder, it
Participants found empowerment through religious education, and almost all interviewees noted that they actively strive to learn about religions outside of their own belief systems. Many note that this increases in their tolerance for other religions and other beliefs. One of the best tools for gaining knowledge for participants has been the internet.
Internet. The internet played a very influential role in many religious exits. Participants who were questioning when the internet was first widely accessible spoke of the excitement which such vast exposure brought. One participant went as far as to say, “The internet saved my life.” Chat-rooms and forums allowed them to speak to others going through similar experiences, or simply to meet people from other backgrounds. As other research has shown, the connections made through the internet function like other social groups, and can have a profound impact on the lives of users, especially with self-acceptance (McKenna & Bargh, 1998; 1999). The internet was also highly used to research the participants own religion or church’s background. One person noted that they, “Discovered more about my religion on the internet than what what [sic] taught from the pulpit.”
Participants who considered themselves to have been devout would often discuss how their initial research or exposure into “atheist” or non-theist debates was often in the effort to bolster their arguments against such ideas. In many cases participants began reading authors such as Richard Dawkins to better understand the arguments presented so they could develop better counter-arguments. With a measure of humor, participants acknowledged that this often produced the opposite effect when it in fact succeeded in leading them further down the path to apostasy. That was the case for this participant: “The internet blew open, and you then had Sam Harris, you had the Four Horsemen. I read them initially to try to disprove it, but ultimately it turned quite convincing.”
Researching and getting exposure through the internet, can be what sparks initial questioning as well as the catalyst to exiting. As stated in the data analysis introduction, the first and second stages of role exiting are not always experienced by religious exiters, or they may happen simultaneously. Because of the fluidity of these stages within this research, the two sections are not as clear cut as they are in Ebaugh’s role exit’s (Ebaugh, 1988). This could be due to the nature of survey responses, which are not in-depth conversations about the timelines and thought processes of leaving a religion like interviews can be. Be that as it may, whatever the factors of exiting were for a participant, once their fundamental beliefs were shaken there was no turning back.
Section III - The Turning Point
The third phase of role exit, the turning point, comes when individuals reduce any cognitive dissonance from previous stages, recruit resources for leaving, and announce their exit to others (Ebaugh, 1988). Unlike Ebaugh’s research, in this study, the turning point comes when the exiter self-identifies as an ex from whatever religion they had subscribed too. Some found this transition very easy and comfortable, as one participant said: “I had a relatively easy time. It was like taking off an ill-fitting coat and finding a new one.” Another participant, had a very similar experience: “It was just something that didn't fit me, like pants that are 5 sizes too small. I only took off what didn't fit me to become more comfortable.”
The majority of participants however, did not find this transition to be such an easy process. The main triggers of turning points in this study were specific events, education, or psychological distress. Making the choice to leave a religion can be a scary one, and the factors that lead participants to hesitate or defer their exit are also discussed in this section.
Quickness of Exit
At times this identification has been a surprise to the participant. Often this shock comes when talking to family members or community members and when they are confronted with questions like, “do you even believe anymore?” Many participants spoke of being shocked when they realized the answer was, “no,” as shown by the following quote:
Other participants noted that their initial questioning lasted years, but the actual turning point, or final decision was a very quick transition. The following respondent illustrates this:
At times the turning point was the culmination of years of trying to reconcile devout religious beliefs with doubts that arose. As the following quote illustrates, participants found that for years they rationalized any doubts to be part of the religious experience, until further researching or evidence showed them otherwise.
I think I was falling away from religion long before I consciously realized it. Little things were registering as illogical to me as far back as when I was in middle school. However, I brushed them aside as unimportant - I figured it was just something that God didn't give us the ability to understand. When I finally sat down to do some serious investigation into my beliefs, all those little things added up to be much more than I initially thought. That combined with the huge amounts of research I was doing caused me to fully deconvert relatively quickly - over a period of a few weeks.
As shown through the previous quote, the turning point was often after years of questioning, however, specific events sparked the final turning point for many.
While many respondents described their transition out of their religion as a gradual experience, there were many that mentioned specific events as the catalyst to leaving. These types of events varied, but were often ones of emotional distress for the participant. The events discussed in this section are: scandals, death or sickness, and education.
Scandals. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholics were most likely to speak of specific scandals within the religion that resulted in their departure. Sexual abuse cover-ups were often quoted as the turning point in exiting, as shown below.
Scandals and other similar events made participants feel that their religion was one of human creation and not a higher power as they had believed in the past. This was often spoken of in terms of negative bureaucracies within churches or congregations, or the misbehavior of religious leaders as this participant notes: “...Discovered mass child abuse cover up in organization Discovered [sic] all the lies and scandals…”
Participants who described this type of turning point were also more likely to mention their dislike of hypocrisy within their religions. This dislike of hypocrisy also extended to other religion members. As discussed in the previous section and reiterated in the quote below, many respondents spoke of religion members behavior as a turning point for their exit.
I couldn't stand another day having people telling me how I was living my life the wrong way and then watching them do it. Also, the way their attitude was, "Well, I can always ask for forgiveness."
For these participants, loss of community was not a hesitation because it was the community itself that was creating discomfort. Leaving those communities often resulted in better emotional and mental health. However, as other research suggests, those who leave more insular, or high-cost, religions are more likely to experience worse physical health outcomes (Scheitle, 2010). This study did not explore the physical health of participants, but many participants noted an overall increase in psychological well-being after exiting.
Death or Sickness. Participants also described the death or extreme illness of family members as a turning point in their religious exiting. Many spoke with anger about how their family members were devout in their religion and yet were either stricken with sickness or succumbed to an ailment. The following participant struggled with their faith after the death of their father:
This frustration was most often expressed by ex-Christian Scientists, who watched while family members refused non-religious medical treatment and ultimately died or developed long-term illnesses. One participant describes their experience: “I watched both of my parents die due to their choices to not seek medical care.” In other cases, the respondent themselves were the sick party who needed medical attention, and in their decision to obtain it broke ties from their religion. This type of turning point is both jarring and a tragic loss of loved ones. A less tragic, but no less jarring turning point for many is education, which is discussed below.
Education. Some participants noted that their turning point came after leaving their childhood home for college or for other education. At times, even those who were Christian and attended Christian schools, experienced a change in religiosity after exposure to ideas such as the scientific method and evolution. Previous research showed that younger adults with higher education were more likely to develop liberal religiosity (Mayrl & Uecker, 2011). In this study, it seems that instead of the development of more liberal religiosity, education caused many participants to leave religion altogether. The development of critical thinking ignited many questions in those who policed or restricted self-thinking. This growing skill set allowed participants to look closely at their lives and determine what they considered to be “the truth.” With or without the development of critical thinking, school provided participants exposure to individuals with various backgrounds. This exposure led some to come to the conclusion that the negative teachings about those outside of their religion were untrue. As the following quote shows, stepping out of a person’s known community can be a turning point in their religiosity:
As noted in the previous section, at times respondents researched religion or their specific religion and church. This research led many to their turning point when they found it impossible to reconcile the new information they were gaining and their religion’s teachings. This impasse led them to quickly and unexpectedly change their religiosity, evidenced by the following quote:
While many participants followed this type of logic to exit their religion, others were more reluctant to leave, and only did so when the consequences of staying would have caused more damage than leaving. This type of logical exit is called an either/or alternative and is discussed below (Ebaugh, 1988).
Previous research shows that apostasy and conversion can be sparked by psychological distress in conjunction with other factors (Heirich, 1977). That is true in this study, as many participants believed their exit was a literal life and death choice. One interviewee said, “...I knew that if I stayed I wouldn't have lived long so - I had to save my own life.” These respondents left when the psychological and emotional strain of remaining in their religion became too costly. Respondents for whom this was the case were most likely to be in a religion that openly condemned an aspect of their life, such as sexuality or gender. As an alternative to psychological crisis, these respondents determined that taking a chance on the unknown was a better alternative than staying in their religion. The following quote is from one such respondent:
Often, those who described high psychological stresses in their past religious life noted little or no hesitation in their exit. This is most likely due to the expectation that the emotional relief of exiting would outweigh the benefits of staying. One person put this succinctly when they noted there was “nothing to hesitate when life is at stake.” Even this reasoning is a logical approach to religious exit; it was either leave or remain and experience intense psychological and/or emotional damage.
The causes of psychological distress varied in the sample; for some due to having to suppress who they were as a person, for others it was the cognitive dissonance of trying to live a religious life while having doubts in their beliefs (Festinger, 1957). This led some participants to believe that if they stayed they would have died, most likely from self-harm. The following two respondents specifically acknowledged the cognitive dissonance they experienced:
As shown above, while these types of exits are particularly painful, they also have the potential for the greatest reward. Psychological distress in this case acted as a catalyst for exiting, on the other hand, in the next section it played a predominant role in causing participants to hesitate in leaving because of fear and anxieties.
Hesitations in Exiting
When questioning a religious belief system there are many concerns that may cause a person to hesitate in leaving. These hesitations vary, but can cause significant emotional distress for those who face them. While the majority of contributors had significant hesitations, 11% noted that there was no hesitation once they determined to leave their religion.
Family. The single largest factor that led religious exiters to hesitate was family. Family and religiosity have been shown to be significantly linked (Sandomirsky & Wilson, 1990; 1991). Research has shown that families (especially mothers) who are acceptive of their adolescent child are more likely to transmit their religious affiliation than others (Bao, et al., 1999). In this study, however, the transmission of religiosity does not last, even in highly accepting family arrangements. While the homogeneous religiosity of the family may not last, family ties still create hesitation for exiting. About one-half of all participants mentioned family as either one factor or the single factor that caused them to question their exit. Some described their anxieties over family stemming from a desire to not hurt, embarrass or bring shame upon their family.
Another aspect of familial hesitation was a fear of their family physically, and/or emotionally. This could be a fear of physical ramifications in the form of forced exorcism or other types of abuse, or the physical separation and emotional shunning from family. One participant faced imminent harm for their decision: “My family was extremely abusive and I was in physical jeopardy when I decided to leave...It took years to repair the damage to the relationship that resulted from my exit.” Some religions require practitioners to shun or excommunicate family members who exit the religion, and this fact caused many members to hesitate in their decision. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims were the most likely to mention shunning or family excommunication as a leading hesitation.
Many participants struggled with the prospect of emotionally hurting their families, and often prolonged their exit to avoid this:
As seen above, to “keep the peace” many respondents waited to exit (or don’t intend come out as an ex) until specific family members had passed away. This person was most typically a parent, though grandparents were also mentioned. The prospect of losing one’s family is a daunting one, especially if you don’t know what awaits you on the other side.
Fear of being wrong. After family, the second largest hesitation was the fear of being wrong. While participants may not describe it quite in those words, many described feeling intense fear over the prospect of hell or eternal damnation for their choice to exit their religion. Some even explicitly said they felt or currently feel that they will go to hell for their choice, but that they were willing to make that choice. One individual still faces the fear of hell, “Church thinking was so ingrained in me that I had nightmares of burning in hell and being left behind from the rapture.”
This feeling was only shared by those who follow Abrahamic religions that believe in hell doctrine, however the fear of being wrong was especially high in those who left Islam at 48%, compared to the highest of 20% in other Abrahamic religions. A question for further research is to explore what makes those who still believe in hell doctrine leave their religion when it guarantees their eternal suffering in their afterlife.
Loss of community. The third largest hesitation in exiting, was the loss of community. Other research notes that the loss of community is felt by those who deconvert, and this study confirms this (Rambo, 1993; Lim & Putnam, 2010). Every religion represented in this research listed loss of community in the top five factors that caused exiters to hesitate. Older participants were less likely to list this hesitation, which could be due to the exposure and curation of networks outside of religion, such as work and higher education. Those who decided to exit when 18 or younger often had little support or community developed outside of their religious group. Surprisingly, of the top five religions represented in the study Baptists were the only religion to not list loss of community as a top five hesitation. This could be because Baptists were also the most likely to have friends and family outside of the religion while practicing.
The fear of the loss of friends is like the loss of community, however it was often specific individuals mentioned, such as childhood friends, instead of congregations as a whole. Many participants believed that their friends would not understand their decision to leave, and thus would cease to fundamentally understand them as a person. The loss of long term friendships was another component that leads to religious exiting being experienced as particularly lonely. One participant believes that while they lost friends, they still made the right choice: “Loneliness is the most difficult part for me. But the honesty and peace are more valuable than friends who don't want to know the real me.”
Fear of judgement. The fear of judgement was noted by 9% of participants. While some listed the fear of losing friends as a factor, to others the act of having to announce their exit to friends or community caused them to hesitate. The act of telling and explaining to others their choice was particularly stressful for participants. They expected to, or did feel, shamed, judged and misunderstood by others. As one person stated, they hesitated in announcing their exit because they would be “labeled as a ‘mentally diseased apostate.’” This was particularly true for Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and other religions that require any type of public announcement of a member’s religious exit. Because of this religious requirement, many feared how they would be perceived, and were especially concerned with how their families, who remained in the religion, would be judged.
Fear of the unknown. The fear of losing one’s community is often tied up with the fear of the unknown. To leave the only thing that you know is an intimidating ordeal. This step away from the known is also a step away from the support systems that are built into religious groups. Letting go of belief systems that were integral to a person's identity can be a terrifying ordeal. One participant noted that while it was scary, it was also exciting:
While taking the step into the unknown can cause a great deal of stress, a compounding fear is that of losing a connection to something greater than themselves. One person notes: “I loved having the feeling of a deeper meaning and a grand scheme of the universe.” Letting go of a higher power was saddening for some, while others did not want to discredit the visceral spiritual experiences they had in their past religion. This study as well as previous research shows that god can leave a void in a person’s spirituality even if they no longer believe in a specific deity (Gordon, 2008; Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990). One person noted, “My faith in God was the most precious thing in the world to me. The idea that it was possibly based on myths was terrifying.”
All the factors previously discussed that lead a person to exit a religion, such as logic, can be undeniable for participants. Despite this, some still struggled with letting go of the security their past beliefs created. Many participants noted that in some ways their life would be easier if they remained ingrained in their religion, as this participant illustrates: “It would be easier if I were still Muslim.”
While fears can cause participants to hesitate and prolong their exiting process, other participants note that there was no hesitation in their final decision.
No hesitation. Surprisingly, 11% of contributors noted that there was no hesitation to their exit. Some qualified this statement by saying the psychological distress they were under in their past religion was so great, that there was no hesitation in leaving. For these individuals the prospect of leaving was solely a positive endeavor and nothing about their past religion gave them pause. Others noted that the process of leaving their religion was an effortless task, as one respondent said, “It was really easy to leave. I didn't struggle with it at all. I just didn't go back.”
Like the quote above shows, many had a very smooth and easy transition out of their past religion. Some decided their religion was not a good fit, and stopped practicing without any hesitation or struggle. While there were 11% of individuals who spoke of having no hesitation in exiting, the vast majority of religious exiters experienced some level of hardship. From no longer knowing “what to say when people sneeze,” to the massive hardship of being a closeted religious exiter, participants faced many challenges for their choice.
While Ebaugh defines the turning point, or exit to include an announcement to the outside world, 22% of those in this study are unable to outwardly identify as being a religious exiter (Ebaugh, 1988). These participants used the term “closeted” to describe their religious exit. Being in the closet as a religious exiter parallels others closeted identities, such as sexual orientation (Coleman, 1982). Coming out, either for sexual or religious orientation, can put individuals in direct harm, so many choose to remain in the closet (Corrigan, & Matthews, 2003). The significant number of closeted exiters was unexpected and shows the general lack of acceptance of the religious “nones” by their families and communities (Baker, 2009).
As previously discussed, people are likely to hide their exit due to the fear of family or community backlash. These feared repercussions could be physical, emotional and/ or financial. Closeted exiters tend to be younger than 24, and may possibly still living at home with parents or guardians. This reliance on others for financial stability and housing leads these participants to hide their true self-identity as one respondent said, “I knew I was going to leave religion as a teen but I had to bide me time and work hard to become independent because cutting it off sooner would have been a really bad decision.” As this quote shows, being a closeted religious exiter does not mean they did not truly exit. Their self-identification as an exiter is the defining attribute for religious exiting.
While it is not surprising that most familial strife comes from when the family is not supportive of a person’s decision to leave a religion, it is surprising that over 80% of those interviewed mentioned that they simply do not talk to their family about religion. What is even more surprising is that these interviewees noted that at no point in their upbringing was religion openly discussed in their family. This was true no matter the religion of origin. This could be due to general American idea of religion as a taboo topic, however, it is surprising that even parents are hesitant to talk to their children in candid ways about their religion. Instead, there is an expectation that children will continue to participate in the religion they were raised in. When discussing familial reactions to their exits, some participants said that while they believe their family may know, or are suspicious of their exit, there has never been a conversation about it.
This lack of communication regarding religiosity causes participants to reflect on their beliefs without the support of family and/ or community. Unsurprisingly, this lack of religious communication permeates the entire process of religious exit, making it a truly individual task. The following participant discusses their beliefs about religious exiting:
While closeted exiters do not feel capable of exposing themselves, they are notably not very remarkable from the rest of the sample. Instead, this type of religious exiter is one who only makes the internal decision to stop participating, without the announcement to others. This creates a conflict of identity in which participants maintain a false outward identity that reflects that of the family and community they do not want to lose, while maintaining a “true” self-identity hidden from others (Goffman, 1963; Sökefeld, 1999). The quote below shows one participant’s experience:
While many participants were fearful of how their families would react to their new religiosity some took on a family protector role. This is consistent with previous research into family bonds and religious affiliation (Pearce & Axinn,1998; Myers, 1996). These individuals chose not to come out as an “ex” to keep the peace, or to keep elderly family members from stress that may cause health complications. In fact, many waited until their family members passed away before exiting, or before coming out. One participant put off exiting for years because of a sick mother: “My mother really cared about my and my sister's declining spirituality, and during the years I was questioning, my mother was very ill. I put off leaving the faith for years out of care for her well-being.”
Others noted that revealing their transition out of their religion would be physically dangerous for them. In some cases, participants feared their family would interpret their religious exit as demonic interference, warranting an exorcism. Other families may cut-off the “ex,” leaving them vulnerable to employment and housing insecurities. Below is the experience of one participant who chose to remain closeted:
Within this sample, the experience of exiting a religion was rarely undertaken by an entire family or community together. Unfortunately for many participants, this led them to describe their exit as simultaneously freeing and exceptionally lonely. While participants in other role-exits studies clearly announce an exit (through change of dress/body modification or other clear signs), religious exiters do not often outwardly announce their exit in the same ways even if their exit is not a closeted one (Ebaughs, 1988).
The following section looks at how religious exiters create a new identity after leaving a religion. This includes the following topics: determining a self “label” that feels correct, finding a better fit for their spiritual life, learning self-reliance, self-thought and new social cues, as well as handling the stigma and loneliness of exit.
Section IV - Creating the Ex-Religious Role
For all those who decide to exit a religion, whether they do so outwardly or while closeted, the final stage of role exit can be the most complex and at times the longest. This is the stage in which these individuals must delve into their new role as an “ex” and construct their new lives. Creating this role includes learning how to relate to their new reference group, and learning about themselves (Beeghley, et al., 1990; Ebaugh, 1988; Firth, 1948) This stage is often the most enjoyable, though can be fraught with painful self and existential exploration.
After the final decision to leave a religion, the majority of participants described a feeling of freedom. Finally making the decision, in and of itself, can elicit this type of feeling, but in this study self-acceptance and of gaining control over one’s own life were the most freeing aspects. This sense of freedom might come from being able to choose one’s attire, being able to sleep in on specific days of the week (most quoted by Catholics), or even being able to choose their desired sexual or romantic partners. The following quote shows how many participants feel about their exit: “My past religion was the main cause of my unhappiness in my younger life. Immediately upon leaving my past religion I felt happier & liberated.”
While most described a sense of freedom associated with their exit, many contributors also noted that their exit created a sense of not having anything under their feet, metaphorically, as if they were in free-fall. Ebaugh describes it as like being in a “vacuum” (Ebaugh, 1998). Exiting an identity central to one’s identity is a complex choice as the following quote illustrates: “My religion was central to my identity, giving it up was painful.” Through self-reflection, that can be quite painful, these participants were able to establish personal meaning and life purpose, or stability with time.
As shown above, leaving religion can be a very painful experience. However, participants can also gain much from their exit. Participants from all religions in the sample list increased freedom, increased self-thinking, the freedom of self-choice, living the life they wanted, and less guilt in the top five things enjoyed most after exiting. Both ex-Muslims and ex-Christian Scientists were the only religions to list the freedom from religious requirements in the top five aspects enjoyed most. The following sections describe the most enjoyed aspects of leaving past religions, as well as the hurdles in developing a sense of self, and identity as an “ex” religious person.
A Better Fit
Many participants struggled with finding something that felt “right,” after exiting, and so almost created their own practice by pulling from numerous other religions and practices to create a unique one suited for their desires. During this spiritual exploration phase in which participants were striving to feel connected to a higher power or to the world around them, many described feeling drawn specifically to Buddhism, and Humanism. Conversion to Buddhism or adoption of Buddhist practices for religious exiters are also consistent patterns within other research (Gokhale, 1986). According to participants, these religions offered a spirituality that felt more aligned with what they were seeking and their personal values. One respondent noted: “I feel more spiritual and closer to God now then I did when I was involved in the Catholic religion.”
In 85% of those interviewed, there was some form of created spirituality that acted as a sort of “stepping stone” to non-religion. This became a stepping stone only because many realized that this amalgamation of a religion could be boiled down to two main ideas. The first was that one should treat others well, and the second was an emphasis on personal growth. This led some participants to then state that a deity was not needed within their belief system. Instead they believed a path of personal, and intellectual growth allowed them to treat themselves and those around them better. The following quote shows one individuals “stepping stone” path:
The seeds of doubt started when I was 17 and still in a Catholic high school. I attempted to not think about those doubts, because I wanted to remain faithful. After about a year or more, I decided to stop attending mass. I became more of a deist. In another year or so, and after reading works of atheist authors, I became an atheist. I didn't really want to leave my religion, but I found that I couldn't reconcile logic with my beliefs.
As mentioned in the methods section, while only 22% of the United States identifies as religiously unaffiliated, in this study, over 80% identify as currently religiously unaffiliated (Wormald, 2015; Hackett, et al., 2017). While religious unaffiliation in this sample is high, 36% of participants found or created a religion or belief system that appealed to them more than their past religion. The quote below shows how one participant searched for a belief system that worked for them:
The highest current belief in this study after “atheist/ agnostic” is “Nothing in Particular,” at 17%, followed by Pagan/ Earth based at 5%. Interestingly, 30% of those who identify as a non-binary gender are currently practicing Pagan or Earth based religions, compared to 5% of females and 3% of males.
Currently atheist interviewees consistently reported that after their exit, when they considering new identities, they hesitated in associating with the title “atheist.” This was often because they had been conditioned by their previous religion to view atheists as immoral, shown by the following quote: “Atheism was vilified and seen as a fault in personality. Atheists were angry, immoral, and bad people when considering things in a social context.”
This led many to feel uncomfortable about assigning the term to themselves, and for a time instead used the term “agnostic” until they felt they had a better understanding of what the word atheist meant.
Many participants described a period varying from a few weeks to a couple decades of struggling to find a “label” for themselves based on their beliefs in a higher power. During this time of uncertainty, participants often maintained a belief in God or some form of higher power, or were practicing some form of spirituality. The quote below illustrated this:
These participants eventually moved away from theistic beliefs to one of accepting not knowing, but still leaned toward a disbelief in a higher power. This is not always the case, but was highly consistent in Christian exiters who currently identify as atheist.
One of the biggest tasks after exiting for participants who left more insular religions (such as Pentecostal, and Christian Science) was learning how to be more self-reliant. Self-reliance in this form means relying on the self for support and guidance. Many participants described having to shift their sense of security in dealing with troubling situations away from a higher power to themselves. This shift in perception often included having to look back at past successes in dealing with stressors and reframing the situation to bolster the self. This was only noted by those who currently identify as atheist. In these cases, the person will look back at stressful situations and tell themselves that if they could get through that situation, then they can get through what they are currently facing. The following quote clearly illustrates this:
Even if exiters believed God was guiding and protecting them in the past, their new interpretation is self-empowering because it moves the source of strength from an external source to an internal one. Interviewees described a deep sense of loneliness when they came to a personal realization that the deity they had believed had been supporting them was no longer there. In their minds it was as if they were, “Abandoning the person who up until that point I had considered my best and closest friend, God.” Simultaneously this was also freeing, as it meant that they developed a deeper sense of self and ownership over their lives.
In conjunction with other types of self-reliance, the skills of self-thinking or critical thinking were underdeveloped for many religious exiters. At times, the pressure to have blind faith in their past religion caused informants to retreat inward, and to learn skills in which internal questioning was severed. Many regarded this learned skillset as “self-policing” or as a “mind-prison” in which their own thoughts and questions were considered toxic by their faith and community to the point that they learned to reduce or condemn self-thinking and critical thought (Foucault, 1979; Bentham, 1995). This is illustrated by the following quote: “I feel like leaving the Catholic Church helped me learn to think critically about my beliefs.” Participants often spoke about their process of self-policing as “mental gymnastics,” as shown in the following quote:
When individuals are developing their identities as “ex” religious members, one of the most difficult skills to learn self-thinking without shame or guilt. The ability to fully think through a situation and come to a conclusion must be actively fostered for some participants after years of stunting their own introspection. One interviewee spoke about how they believed being able to think for themselves was real freedom:
While the general public takes this ability for granted, those who must learn to be self-reliant often struggle with lingering guilt and unease in critical thinking. Thankfully, as with most skillsets, this develops with practice.
Learning Social Cues
While participants described having to reframe past experiences to help them cope with current life, another issue for a religious ex is understanding and learning the social cues of a new group. Catholics were the least likely to have to undertake this type of learning, while more insular religions such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons were the most likely. While these participants understood the social cues and shared consciousness of their religious group, moving in the great population created an outsider feeling (Durkheim & Simpson, 1933). As one person mentioned, even a watching a movie can be eye-opening experience:
As shown above, those leaving certain religious communities may not know cultural references or behaviors of broader society. Learning social cues helps a religious exiter feel less like an outsider in their new identity, though it can be a lifelong process.
One of the largest trends noted in this study is that religious exiters found the process of leaving a religion to be an incredibly lonely experience. Even for those who had friends and family outside of the religion, the process was still one they felt they could not talk about with others. Many married participants also described exiting while their partner remained in the religion, which at times greatly strained the marriage. As discussed previously, the pervasive lack of religious communication practiced by most of American society leaves individuals little to no emotional support while examining their religiosity. This is especially true for those exiting religions in which therapy and psychology are heavily condemned.
As discussed in the methods section, those within this sample were mostly found on the online forum website Reddit, where individuals can find other members of their identity group, or those with similar experiences. Many participants had been out of their past religion for many years, and still used these forums to connect with others, and to share their stories. So, while many of these participants were found in online communities of a shared religious exit experience, there was still a sense of isolation within the sample. This was true regardless of current religious affiliation, as one person who is currently religious illustrates:
Exiting leads individuals to create new identities with new friends, and communities, and new levels of familial contact. At the same time, it also may lead to a continued sense of being an outsider within these new relationships. This sense of not fitting in can lead people to keep their exit private, and to not disclose their past identity to new connections.
Many exiters find that they must straddle two identities at once; one of the past religion, and one of the ex (Ebaugh, 1988). At times both are heavily stigmatized and can burden the exiters with additional isolation and strain (Goffman, 1963). Their past religious communities may shun them for their deviant behavior, misunderstand their reasoning and try to reconvert them. All while their new reference group may stigmatize their past religion or even their choice to exit (Katz, 1988). This makes you an outsider even after the exit. As a number of participants noted, even if members of their past religion or new reference group are interested in the process of their exit, these questions still make them stand out as an “outsider” instead of a “true” member. When telling others of their past, many participants note receiving a weighted “oh” as a response. At times this can be because others think the participant will be unethical or morally inept, and other times they simply do not know how to relate to the experience.
While loneliness and isolation are heavily experienced in religious exiting, participants were highly satisfied with their decision to leave. The following quote shows this:
As shown in this quote, participants in the study were highly motivated to participate with the hope of helping others who may be going through this experience, further illustrating the isolation religious exiters experience.
This study produced a plethora of interesting and important information, unfortunately, this means that there is a lot of data that is not able to be included in this paper. For the purposes of this paper, I focused on the stages of religious exit with a comparison to Helen Ebaugh’s stages of role exit. These stages are: First Doubts, Searching for Alternatives, Turning Point and Creating the Ex Role (Ebaugh, 1988).
While Ebaugh lays out four distinct stages of role exit, this study shows that religious exiting is often not as clear cut. For many participants, the first two stages of exit were blurred together, and happened simultaneously. Logic, changes in values, religious rules, research, education, and specific events combine these two first stages in advancing religious exiting.
The turning points for religious exiting vary and are often the culmination of years of doubting and seeking alternatives. At times the factors that lead to first doubts, such as sexism or bigotry, are the turning points for individuals. At other times, specific events such as the death of a loved one triggers the turning point. The second largest type of turning point is an “either/or alternative” where participants believe that they have only two choices: either they stay in their religion and suffer irreparable psychological/emotional damage, or they leave (Ebaugh, 1988).
While all participants experienced a turning point, most also experienced numerous hesitations in exiting. These hesitations were at times so great that participants felt they could not announce their choice to leave. Instead they become a “closeted” exiter, in which they have internally severed belief in the past religion but maintain a facade of belief.
After participants make the final decision to exit their past religion, the process of creating a new identity begins. This is true whether the individual is closeted or not. Participants describe the decision to leave as especially freeing, or like a “weight lifted.” While that does not change, many individuals also face hurdles in their new role. Learning self-thinking, self-reliance and how to deal with stigmas and loneliness of religious exit are the largest struggles. Participants from religions that they refer to as “cults” were the most likely to struggle with learning how to break away from internal mind-policing (Stark, 1980; Foucault, 1979; Bentham, 1995). Being alone on the journey of religious exiting was emotionally painful and lonely for many of participants.
Religious belief is deeply personal, and the journey out of a religion is also a private event. This inherent individualistic process creates a sense of being out of place; an outsider in their past religious community and an outsider in their new role. Participants believed that there were not large numbers of individuals who go through the process.
Numerous of individuals contacted me to thank me for undertaking this research, which they believed was overlooked in research but vastly important. Others thanked me for allowing them a venue to share their story, and many expressed a desire to participate in the research so they could help others navigate exiting. One participant noted this desire to help others: “It has been the most difficult time of my life over the past 2 years or so, and if my experience can help others in any way, I would be very pleased by that.”
This shows that there is a deep need in the ex-religious community for research and validity. Even among those who have sought out others like them in online forums, there is still a deep sense of isolation and loneliness in the experience. Religious exiters are longing for a way to share their stories. Follow-up research should include more avenues for open communication between the researcher and participant. Interviews, as well as more survey questions would allow respondents to outline their stories in a more fulfilling and complete way.
Limitations of Study and Recommendations for Future Research
Soliciting participation on Reddit was highly successful, with 515 complete responses and 766 total responses, however, this skewed the data to the demographics of its users. This study was skewed to younger, male, white respondents. Using other sample sources would allow for more comprehensive analysis of religious exit. Along with the limitation of the sample source, there was an overrepresentation of Christian exiters. Having a greater number of individuals from the world’s other largest religions would also increase the ability to statistically analyze the sample.
The sample has an over representation of white identifying individuals at 86%, compared to 77% nationally (Bureau, 2016). Those who identify as black were greatly underrepresented with only 3% compared to 13% nationally (Bureau, 2016). The low number of individuals identifying as any race other than white disallowed statistically significance analysis. The over representation of white identifying individuals could be partially due to the lack of fitting racial categories, but also could be due to the main sample source. Maintaining a demographically accurate representation of race in the study would allow for more accurate analysis of race as a factor in the experience of religiosity.
When comparing participant survey responses to their interview responses some participants had different responses, which is a known risk in surveys (Wright, 2006). Future research into this subject should utilize interviews and more open-ended survey questions to capture as accurate picture of the participants religious exit as possible.
Expanding the sample to include a comparison of those who questioned their faith but decided to remain in their religion would add depth to this topic. In addition, it would help identify why some persons choose to exit while others do not. As clearly shown in this research, family members rarely, if ever, choose to exit together, so an important question for further research is: why do some family members, while raised in the same environment, make different choices about their religiosity?
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