Coping with loss of faith
July 31, 2018 3:06 PM   Subscribe

I have been a practicing [member of X religion] for most of my life, and now I'm not. It's kinda sad, how do I cope?

So, I used to be a religious person. It was a big part of my life, and influenced everything, from my choice of friends to my professional attitude. Pretty much all my friends were of the same faith, I went to church at least once a week, I prayed a lot, I read a lot. My beliefs and my experience were in harmony. Looking back, I was really lucky in that I kept coming across really decent and humble people at church. But over time, I started questioning things. I just couldn't get over certain teachings, and how they seemed to hurt people. And then I had some very hurtful experiences at church - a long story - and I just shut down. It's like I saw the church's ugly side, the things I had been ignoring - the arrogance, the spiritual pride, the condescension towards women, the abuse of authority, the narrow-mindedness. And I just shut down. I stopped going, stopped praying, stopped everything. It's been two years now so I don't think it's a phase.

It feels like grief. It's a sad and empty feeling, like someone died. I do not want to go back, no way. But I do not know how to cope with the things the faith helped me cope with. So many things! Like death. Like the injustice and suffering I see - from the perspective of faith, you can hope that things are going to be right in the end, that the wrongs will be made right, that those suffering will be comforted. I miss the beautiful parts of faith and there is so much I still identify with so I do not really feel like I belong in either camp.

I'm looking for some inspirational stories and words of wisdom, to lift myself up a little. I'd appreciate book recommendations and blog links, especially from/about people who don't diss the faith they left. I'm more interested in individual experiences and not in support groups. Just something to mull in my head. Pretty much anything you can throw at me!
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Oh hey this is absolutely grief and should be treated as such. I am so sorry you are going through this and understand how horrible it is to have an experience that unmoors you from something so stabilizing and beautiful as one's faith. The cognitive dissonance that comes with that is hard to manage on many levels and if you can't separate your personal experience with your beliefs with those of the institution that (for lack of a better word) governs your faith because things have become too muddied, then it all just falls apart.

Here's my experience with this.

My dad's side of the family is Jewish, but his mom decided to raise him as Catholic for reasons unknown. My dad went to Catholic school his entire life and saw the beautiful and the bad in equal amounts. He went on to double major in English and Religious Studies so that he could learn about other faiths. When he met my mom, who was raised Lutheran, they mutually agreed that what they were brought up with wasn't enough. They converted to Hindu-Christianity and raised me in that faith (with a little Judaism here and there, though not enough for me!!). They are very happy.

But the church we joined wasn't perfect. When my dad experienced a second round of good and bad, it hurt. The beautiful parts of Catholicism soothed him; so do the beautiful parts of all religions. But right now my dad is having a hard time with the chaos going on around the world, and rather than focusing on the good parts, the beautiful aspects of all the faiths he takes comfort in, he is stuck on the bad stuff. He is ruminating on it all daily because too many things going on around the world (including his own mortality) are being challenged. His faith has been shaken. And he is mourning. My mother and I are mourning for him and with him. We are also geographically isolated from other members of our faith and are instead surrounded by some of the grossest bigots ever. My dad is someone who needs to be a part of a community to feel safe. That's not available to us anymore.

My dad needs time to mourn and process the bad. It will take time, but his faith in all the best parts of many religions is so strong that I know he will come back to a space where he feels good again. I hope the same can happen for you.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:30 PM on July 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh. Oh. Oh. I was serious enough about the religion in which I was raised to seriously consider studying for the ministry, but that ran aground on a chicken puppet. I get the feelings of grief and not belonging and all the rest of that baggage, except my close friends were not in the church, so I didn’t leave them when I left.

Recent books I’ve read that have recaptured some of that feeling without repeating the doctrine are Brad Warner’s There Is No God and He Is Always with You, Which looks at ideas of God through a Buddhist lens, and Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints, Which is a deeply human book about being a Lutheran minister in a small urban congregation. They made me feel some of those spiritual feelings that I used to have without demanding adherence to a particular doctrine and without turning away from the mess that religion makes of some people.

Good luck. It’s a journey worth making.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:33 PM on July 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

I lost my faith many years ago and it was very, very difficult. One thing about my faith that I found reassuring was the notion that I was special, that I was loved by something more significant than people. It was that feeling that made the bad things okay, and the good things even better. Death could be faced because the person wouldn't be gone forever, only our time would be spent apart. The people in my life, I found them and they loved me because it was destined.

But once my faith was gone, I really lost that feeling of specialness. It hurt to be nothing in the world, to feel as if no one and nothing in the universe gave a shit about me. I struggled to find a way to be me but also be that special person I remembered being in my faith. So I read a lot and watched a lot of TV and tried to fill that hole that faith had left.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett helped. The idea that gods need us to believe in them helped. The idea that while I may be small and insignificant and the world moves on without me, helped in a weird way. The notion of my lack of specialness helped me see that I could do anything. If I wasn't special, I wasn't limited in what I could do. Being a really awesome bean farmer had as much value as being a great thinker. If my existence wasn't designed to inherently mean something, then it was up to me to make it do so, or not if I choose.

Then, oddly enough a line in Angel (the show about a vampire with a soul) gave me the words to articulate what I was starting to feel and realize. "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."

It's made me value what happens here on earth more. I relish my relationships with people because I know that when they go, they're gone. I make an effort to do things to help people, because if you don't do anything in this life to help...then why be here? I still miss the security of faith, but I've found that uncertainty has freed me from so many limits I placed on myself. I feel like I'm a good person because I choose to be, not because there's some afterlife reward. When I make mistakes, I own them. When bad shit happens, it's because bad shit happens. But by the same token, I know that when good shit happens, it's not because god loves me more than others, or that I did something right, it's just because sometimes good things happen. And that makes them so much more valuable. The people that I've found in my life love me because I'm me and they are them. Not because something put us together. It's a much better world I live in without faith than the one I lived in with it.

Much love to you and know that you can be okay.
posted by teleri025 at 3:35 PM on July 31, 2018 [16 favorites]

It is absolutely grief, because you were in an important relationship that is over. Your relationship with your church, your faith, your religious community, is gone and that's devastating no matter what. Take time to grieve. While mine was not as dramatic or far-reaching, my own crisis of faith years ago was deeply unsettling. When your sense of the world and your place in it shifts, it is profoundly destabilising. But for me it eventually opened up a deeper relationship with my own sense of faith, not determined any more by the human beings who write the rule books. I feel like I got to leave behind what was initially guiding and later constraining, and find a freedom which was much more authentic to me, like a kid getting rid of the stabilisers on their bike. So I found my way back to a sense of faith but I'm no longer religious. But whether that's your experience or not it's about finding a new relationship with your self, so there is hope and opportunity there too.
posted by billiebee at 3:59 PM on July 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's OK to feel sad and weird. But remember all the good things about your church, and the people there being humble and decent: those things don't stop being valuable at the church door - on the way in or on the way out. All those people using their faith as an excuse to employ their own essential goodness and generosity, and those who take the scriptures as a call to be better, are a light in the world, even if you don't believe that light is shining in from outside. You can be a light in the world.

When I go to a funeral, consigning the dead to the ground is the least important bit. I believe they are gone, neither suffering nor rejoicing. The state of grace is the community gathering around the mourners, those who are suffering, and by their presence letting them know that they aren't alone, even at the loneliest time in their life.

I've identified as an atheist for most of my life now, but I know my atheism is informed by my Catholic education in good ways and bad. And that's OK too. Nobody out there runs solely on logic and protein bars.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:16 PM on July 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don't care if it's a person, or an institution or a belief system - experiencing when the mask slips and your trust is betrayed is shocking, heartbreaking, and a rite of passage into true adulthood. There's something so universal and profound in what you describe here.

I suggest actively processing your grief. Exercise, therapy, a new degree, self-work of any kind. Get yourself moving + take care of yourself as things bubble up. More therapy, acupuncture, massage, float tanks. Get some kind of physical practice like cycling or yoga. Start meditating. Get out into nature. VOLUNTEER. The list of things you can do to start moving and start processing is nearly endless.

When I am stuck for the next step, I vacuum and/or clean my house, organize a forgotten corner or closet. This is less stupid than it sounds, and infinitely effective.

Can you travel? That might be a piece of this great re-ignition of your life.

You can keep all the great things you got from that religion and parlay them into something new. Process your grief, and know there is life beyond this experience.
posted by jbenben at 4:58 PM on July 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Haven't been there in a while, but in the past, I found this site helpful.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:18 PM on July 31, 2018

It takes time. I was in a similar situation several years ago - multiple events came together in which I began to feel less and less accepted and appreciated, and at the same time I began to build ties with people outside the church.

I don't think I really recognized my grief for what it was at the time but it was a rocky period. It helped me to find an online support group for other people who had deconverted or were in the process. I also saw a therapist - not specifically to deal with my loss of faith, but it came up a lot. At this point in my life I go to a UU church and that works for me - I feel accepted as an agnostic. I've also been able to rebuild some of the ties from my past in way that feels appropriate - I don't have arguments or discussions with anyone over religion, but we're able to connect over family ties and shared interests.

I suspect that social ties are a huge part of religious faith in ways that we don't really understand yet. Or that I haven't learned about yet, at least.

Things will get better. Lots better. It just takes time. Memail me if you want to chat.
posted by bunderful at 5:21 PM on July 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I read Faith Shift by Kathy Escobar. Before I read it I felt utterly alone and completely adrift. It was life-changing and gave me the words to describe my own grief.

Good luck to you. You are not alone!
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 5:24 PM on July 31, 2018

I was raised Catholic, and at some point I stopped believing in God. I do not appreciate the sexism of organized religion, the acceptance of harm caused by pedophile priests. I hate that religion is a major driver of war and conflict. I despise the hypocrisy and greed in too many churches.

I miss ceremony, ritual, sacred music, stained glass, spiritual community. I miss having a space where morality is prized and discussed. I think if I missed it enough, I'd join a Unitarian-Universalist church, or a Quaker meeting; some do not require belief.

I am concerned that the lack of religious belief has not been replaced by any other moral structure; that's another discussion.
posted by theora55 at 5:59 PM on July 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I’ve been through something similar. First, it’s completely reasonable for you to feel grief right now. Second, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

I went from Catholic to extreme fundamentalist (70s Jesus freak hippie edition that simply does not exist now), then back to Catholic, then agnostic. Now I’d say I’m influenced by Christianity and Buddhism and getting back into semi-Catholicism, not because I think that’s where truth lies, but for other reasons that are too weird and complicated to get into here, though it’s partly relate to a serious health situation that has taught me a lot and caused me to rethink everything. I feel like I’ve had a lifelong journey with faith that is still ongoing, and I don’t know where I’ll be ten years from now. And I’m OK with it.

I think that being religious can lead into a way of thinking that solid truth exists and once you find it, you’ll believe the same thing forever. That happens for some people, but not for everyone. I really hate the word journey because it’s so overused, but maybe you can think of this as a process rather than just a loss. You’re at a new point in this process that’s hard right now. You’ll keep going. You’ll find out new things and meet new people. You’ll continue to change and learn and grow throughout your life. And it will be ok.
posted by FencingGal at 6:54 PM on July 31, 2018

It might help to find an online community that provides support for these issues. I know many parts of Reddit are terrible but I have found r/exmormon on Reddit to be very enlightening and it seems to help a lot of people. Also Mormon Stories podcast which is all about faith transitions (which generally means going from religious to nonreligious). Even if the religion you left isn't Mormonism, a lot of the same emotions you expressed in your post are addressed - I think there are some universal experiences people go through when leaving a religion that was once important to them, to the point of being a central organizing principle of their lives.
posted by Mallenroh at 6:59 PM on July 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's not something I've gone through, but has many "testimonials" of peoples experiences leaving faith.
posted by quinndexter at 4:57 AM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe my answer to a similar Ask might help?

This advice from the now-defunct (or rather, owned by someone else) is good.

There's a /r/exchristian but it doesn't meet your request for people who aren't bitter (a lot of ex-evangelicals have reason to be, of course).
posted by pw201 at 5:23 AM on August 1, 2018

This previous Ask has a bunch of good thoughts, too.
posted by pw201 at 5:25 AM on August 1, 2018

I read a quote once that religion is a multicolored lantern, we all see through different colors, but the light at the center is the same. Just because you are no longer associated with the religion you were raised doesn't mean you don't have faith anymore - they are two related but different things. I've found sometimes that organized religion can muddy the waters and lose sight of what is really important. You can still have faith and be a prayerful person without belonging to a specific religion.
I know it is difficult to make this break from the religious community you were a part of, but keep looking, there may be something out there that really speaks to you. I was raised Catholic and am currently athiest, I have no problem with anyone's religion, as long as you're not a dick. My entire family is Catholic and yeah, lots of events in church, which I go and smile and play nice and do my Catholic Calisthenics - (you know, stand, sit, kneel, stand, kneel, sit) so as to not rock the boat with older family members, but in my heart, I know what I believe (or don't believe). Good luck to you, be kind to yourself, this is a journey you will be on for a while.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:35 AM on August 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I suggest spending some time thinking about pinpointing the exact bits of your faith that you miss. Allow me to explain.

I often tell people that while I'm a lapsed Catholic, I "lapsed amicably". Technically I lost my Catholic faith - but I actually don't feel that way, because I put a lot of time and careful thought into what it was that I personally believed, and held that as separate from organized religion as a....thing. I never really made any kind of "I shall not darken your doors again" delcaration against Catholicism as such (unless you count the neo-pagan phase I went through for a while), so much as I read about all the other religions in the world a lot and realized that what I personally believed didn't fit 100% into Catholicism. It was like, "....I actually get this element of Judaism....and there's a little bit of Sufiism over there that I agree with....and some pre-Christian stuff, yeah, I buy that...."

My own relationship with God and experience of God never really felt like it changed itself. I was just adjusting how I came at God, and I firmly believe that God's down with that (in fact, the God I believe in is cool with a myriad of different approaches to God, because we're all different; the plurality of religions is kind of the point). I realized I wasn't necessarily down with the public group expression model of faith after all, and even going back to when I was a kid I realized that talking about God in group settings as a regular worship practice made me a little uneasy. Which was what finally made me come around to "well, then that means that leaving the church only means I am leaving behind a model for worship that never really fit me all that well anyway, but me and God are still okay, so....if that's all I'm leaving behind, I'm okay."

I hope I explained that okay? I realized that it wasn't "my faith" I was giving up, but rather that I was giving up a specific prescribed set of dogmas and a specific form of regular worship, that a) I didn't agree with any more and b) didn't fit for me anyway. When I have needed prayer, I pray for myself; when I have needed fellowshp, I find that in other places. Every so often I still duck into St. Patrick's and light a candle, but I have found I'm more comfortable doing that independently anyway.

There is some grief you're going through (hugs to you for that); it may help for you to pinpoint exactly what it is about leaving your faith that is causing you grief, and seeing if there is still a way to incorporate that specific thing into your life. If it's religious fellowship, maybe exploring another church would work. If that fellowship doesn't have to be religious, maybe a club. If you like being spurred to think about your spiritual life, maybe reading a lot of books on spirituality would work (I have a whole list of recommendations for this if you want to memail me).

One thing that really helped me wrap my brain around this was the old adage about how the Word of God was Divinely Inspired, but was coming through a flawed filter. It was a concept that some religious scholars have used to explain away the contradicitons in the Bible, but it helped me a lot - there were some teachings from Catholicism that never sat right with me for various reasons, but after considering them carefully I've found some gold in the dross and chalked that up to "okay, the parts that feel wrong are most likely the bits that got mixed up in translation." Realizing that it may not be God I was disagreeing with, but God's spokespeople, helped a lot - then all I had to do was find other spokespeople.

I hope to God this made sense. Good luck. Memail me if anything is unclear.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:03 AM on August 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Like the injustice and suffering I see - from the perspective of faith, you can hope that things are going to be right in the end, that the wrongs will be made right, that those suffering will be comforted.

I find that an inspiration to do good works, support good laws, and help fund good charities/activism. If you don't believe in an afterlife, if this life is all you get, then what you do with your life matters profoundly and helping other people have good lives is important. So my advice is to find people around you who are helping and see if you can help too.
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:34 PM on August 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

My friend has a website where she openly discusses her departure from Christianity, of that's where you've come from.
Gravity of Guilt
posted by cholly at 2:15 PM on August 1, 2018

I found The Fall of Freddie the Leaf a comforting read in such circumstances. It is a fable for those coming to grips with the concept that there may/is not be an afterlife. It has the appearance of a children's book, but has a message useful for any age.
posted by WCityMike at 5:15 PM on August 1, 2018

After I stopped believing in God, I had to rebuild my mental model of the universe. It was hard and took a long time, but I like my new mental model better.

After you give yourself time to grieve, you might find it useful to learn about different spiritual traditions, philosophies, and cultures. Secularism and materialism are their own traditions and you don't have to accept them wholesale in the absence of religion. Similarly, you can absolutely still find meaning in your old faith. In my case, I still think the Jesus of the synoptic gospels is pretty much the best, even if I no longer agree with Christian theology.
posted by toastedcheese at 7:35 PM on August 1, 2018

Update from the anon OP:
Hey everyone,

thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your stories.

I am still digesting the answers. You have given me a lot to think about and also made me laugh a few times - oh the sermons I remember! The one thing I don't miss is the paternalism and gender segregation, ugh.

I often tell people that while I'm a lapsed Catholic, I "lapsed amicably".

So much this. Thanks for the great term.

In a way, Metafilter is my home now. I feel better knowing that this site exists, that so many people here care about some of the things I also care about.

Thanks again!
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:20 PM on August 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

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