Many of us were indoctrinated into organized religion before we were old enough to make our own choices or choose our own beliefs, and, consequently, by accepting what our parents, teachers, and peers preached, their religious beliefs became ours.
Moreover, as a result of following religious doctrine, our sense of worth, identity, and purpose all became deeply entangled in religious roots, and with our closest friends and family forming our spiritual community, these roots formed the foundation of our lives. However, despite years of dedication, once we begin to wake-up and question this foundation, the journey out of religion begins.
Although the path is unique for each individual, leaving organized religion is often a complex process that unfolds in 8 Stages.
Understanding the dynamics and nuances of each stage can smooth out many transitional bumps on the road to freedom, and by providing valuable insight, turn confusion into clarity.
Because organized religion imprisons us from the inside out, there’s no foreseeable escape until we free ourselves from within!
Stage 1 – The Stage of Noticing Contradictions
Religious followers are often taught not to question religious rules or beliefs, and, as a result, most of us learned to ignore contradictions and discrepancies within our religious institutions. However, regardless of past blind-sightedness, Stage 1 begins the moment we start paying attention to institutional behaviors that conflict with religious teachings.
- Although our religion may preach unconditional love and inclusivity, our religious community is biased and judgmental, and more like an exclusive club.
- Our religious leaders may fail to practice what they preach, and maybe even be exposed for abusing their power.
- We might also experience inequality where women are considered spiritually inferior or men and women are condemned for their sexual orientation or other non-conformist tendencies.
Despite the fact that these blatant issues and others are justified, downplayed, or intentionally concealed (in order to protect the image of the organization), we can no longer turn a blind eye. As the next step on the path to exiting religion, and the beginning of the end, we start to question the integrity of our religion. By embarking on a quest for truth, the journey to freedom is accelerated into Stage 2.
Stage 2 – The Stage of Questioning
As we drive down the “religious rabbit hole,” we silently question the rules and reasons for all the bylaws and beliefs that govern our religion, and we might even reexamine the religious history we were taught. Everything we once blindly accepted as truth is now subject to scrutiny, and when facts, details and common sense don’t add up, we grow increasingly suspicious.
Regardless of the details, the process of questioning often reveals shocking information.
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For instance, if our religion operates as a profitable business, we may discover that leaders and followers alike unknowingly pray to a monetary god. We might also discover that our religious organization is built on a hierarchy of power where religious leaders have all the power (providing blessings, prayer, healing, salvation, etc…) and followers have none. Hence, when a religious organization is built on disempowerment, rules and bylaws perpetuate dependency, and while independent thinking is discouraged, blind obedience is rewarded.
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Once the blatant truth becomes obvious, it’s common to experience some degree of anger and betrayal, especially if we feel deceived by those most entrusted. We might wonder how we did not see it all before? No doubt, distracted by religious fairytales and their misleading meanings, we only saw what we were told to see and we only believed what we were taught to believe. Just like everyone else, we followed quietly along like sheep – never asking why.
As the truth is revealed during Stage 2, it’s common to either pull away and silently rebel or begin an outward investigation – confronting religious leaders and/or fellow followers.
Unfortunately, most religious institutions are too fragile to undergo an honest examination, and because exposure can result in collapse, most religious leaders avoid any type of inquisition like the plague; avoidance tactics include misdirecting questions, spewing convoluted answers, or reciting religious doctrine.
To further discourage questioning, followers are often “trained” to keep each other in line, and this means that potential disbelievers are quickly shut down by judgment and ridicule, and any sign of disbelief is automatically undermined by scripted answers.
Even if these tactics un-nerve our line of questioning, and we decide to keep our opinions to ourselves, our suspicions only increase, and growing more and more disheartened, faith diminishes accordingly.
After being entranced by dogma and doctrine for countless years, the stage of questioning can be quite sobering. However, although verifiable knowledge easily shatters the illusion, fear and confusion often lead to denial.
Stage 3 – The Stage of Denial
As Stage 3 begins, the facts are indisputable and the hardest part has only just begun.
On the fence between religious bondage and the exhilaration of freedom, we dream of a life beyond religion, and yet, at the same time, we ponder all the problems we must face in order to become free.
No doubt, by leaving organized religion, our entire lives might be tossed upside-down.
If our family and friends make up our religious community, leaving organized religion could result in judgment and rejection from the people we most endearing, including parents, children, spouses, etc… and along with life-long friends, we might also experience the loss of community support.
Plus, if we participate in organizational roles, leaving organized religion could result in the loss of identity, and, if our leisure life is intertwined within the religious community, we might also lose the activities we enjoy most. Last, but not least, if we happen to work with fellow followers or leaders, we could be subject to continuous scrutiny or even lose our livelihood.
Due to potential consequences, it’s just too scary to verbalize a decision or confess one’s truth, and seeing no easy choice, it’s common to go on pretending like nothing’s changed.
However, to remain in our religious organization, we must justify complacency and rationalize religious practices we no longer condone. Although this may seem inconsequential at the time, there’s an unavoidable cost for hiding in the “religious closet.” By denying our truth and betraying our true selves, we’re forced to live inauthentic lives, and the longer we pretend to be someone we’re not, the more pain and suffering we experience.
Also read: Denial: A Serious, Invisible Problem
Whether months, years or decades, when freedom of expression is stifled, growth and wellbeing are equally stunted, and, over time, the practice of self-suppression is a formula for chronic depression.
Although the choice to leave religion may be clear, it’s also incomprehensible. We must either betray those we love or continue to betray ourselves.
Clearly, to make such an important decision, we must be able to trust ourselves. Unfortunately, if we depended on religious leaders for guidance and religious doctrine for standards of behavior, self-trust is likely a foreign concept. Moreover, if we cannot confidentially trust ourselves, how can we be responsible for our own lives?
With our hearts trapped in turmoil and our heads buried in the sand, the choice to leave religion often invokes an internal battle where we’re torn in two. As denial and doubt pair up against truth and self-trust, we’re only fighting ourselves.
However, even when have the upper hand, we cannot escape the fact that we are suffocating, and deep inside, we know that we are only prolonging the inevitable. Although the idea of taking action is still overwhelming, we cannot move forward on the path to freedom until we accept our truth and trust ourselves to make the right choice. The next stage is letting go….
Stage 4 – The Stage of Letting Go
As we move out of denial and into Stage 4, we begin to unravel our religious roots.
Even though we might be ready to embrace a whole new paradigm, separating our lives from religion is a complex process that entails an in-depth evaluation of identity, roles, beliefs, and everything we once considered fact.
After a thorough self-evaluation, the next step is disentangling from the past.
As you go through the process of letting go, you may discover deeper levels within yourself, and the deeper you go, the more buried “stuff” you uncover, and, consequently, the more there is to let go.
Oftentimes, old beliefs are the hardest things to release. Even when you know they are untrue, it can be painful to permanently abdicate beliefs that have formed your entire life, and, in fact, when core beliefs are discarded, the foundation of life disintegrates accordingly. If this is the only foundation you have ever known, you may feel empty, lost, and not knowing what to believe, and, oftentimes, intense emotional turmoil can turn into an identity crisis.
However, by the end of Stage 4, once you finally accept your own truth, it’s no longer possible to live under the pretense of religion. As if awakening from a deep spell, you’re no longer hypnotized by promises and fears, and, maybe for the first time, you have the ability to think for yourself. However, to claim victory over doubt and denial, you must voice your choice through an official resignation.
Now entering Stage 5, it’s time to come out of the “religious closet.”
Stage 5 – The “Coming Out” Stage!
Coming out of the “religious closest” can be one of the toughest things to do, especially when your entire life has revolved around religion, and the lives of family and friends still do.
Even if you plan and practice what you’re going to say, when religion rules your family, the moment of disclosure likely comes with anxiety and dread. However, if your family assumes you’re going through a temporary fad, they might not take you seriously at first, but once you make your choice perfectly clear, you can expect reactions to run rampant. In fact, if your family believes that religious doctrine supersedes (your) personal boundaries, they’ll likely give themselves permission to judge or even resort to coercive strategies.
For instance, to get you to change your mind, your family might try to manipulate you through guilt and shame, accuse you of being selfish, or over-emphasis various scare tactics, such as the threat of eternal damnation or permanent separation from your family in the afterlife. Although they might sound irrational, if your family believes their threats, and you once believed too, be warned, scare tactics could invoke serious doubts in you.
With utmost certainty, to successfully come out of the “religious closet,” you must choose yourself over and above all else, and if you’ve never done this before, it can feel selfish and wrong. Moreover, if your new behavior contradicts old beliefs, and these are the same beliefs your family and friends still hold dear, you might be shaky in your choice and easy to re-enroll or manipulate.
Therefore, to deter the effects of judgment, avoid manipulation, and ignore scare tactics, it’s important to process confusing emotions, smooth out split energy, and be grounded in your choice before coming out of the closet. However, don’t confuse being “grounded in your choice” with trying to convince anyone of your new beliefs – the latter is a formula for disaster.
Through sharing the same set of beliefs, most religions inter-connect followers into a tight-knit community. So, when we no longer agree on the same beliefs and we’re no longer willing to pretend, we lose the one thing we had in common, and because the loss of commonality creates disconnection, we may become, at least temporarily, estranged from the people we love most. Since it’s quite common to experience relationship rifts, if you haven’t yet developed meaningful relationships outside your religious community, Stage 5 can be marked by loneliness. But, remember, it’s just a stage.
No matter the initial reaction, your family and friends will likely go through their own period of denial, and, therefore, during this stage, it’s important to be patient. After all, you had time to process your decision, and it’s only fair that your family and friends have time to catch up, but this doesn’t mean that you should accept their judgment or coercion. Rather than defending yourself or trying to convince anyone of anything, it’s best to set and enforce boundaries that stop unwanted opinions.
For instance, you might say something like. “I’m sorry that my decision is causing you pain and that’s not my intention. However, I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy making my choice and I know what’s right for me. You don’t have to approve or accept my beliefs, and we certainly don’t need to agree, but, I’m one hundred percent clear and committed and there’s nothing you can say to change my mind.”
While enforcing new boundaries, it’s important to be diligent and consistent without being defensive. So, rather than arguing with others, it’s usually best to temporarily separate or disengage from a state of love.
Stage 6 – The Stage of Self-Discovery and Exploration
Rather than being the end of an arduous journey, leaving organized religion is the beginning of a new adventure! Although there is life after religion, it all depends on what you do and why you do it. Whether you hibernate into stagnation or awaken as your True Self is completely up to you!
As you free yourself from religious constraints, it’s time to embark on a journey of inner discovery and outer exploration. Although some people embrace this opportunity by taking a walk on the wild-side and exploring uncharted waters, it’s more the exception than the rule.
Even after you officially leave religion, deeply ingrained beliefs can create a gap between the desire for new experiences and the courage to take action, and, consequently, religious roots can continue to inhibit exploration, thereby affecting the quality of your new life.
So, even though you’ve formally said good-bye to organized religion, you’re not really free until you identify and release any remaining beliefs that no longer serve. In fact, in order to escape energetic bondage, you must specifically disentangle your worth from religion.
Until we consciously disentangle our worth from religion, we unconsciously suppress expression.
Once untied from religious constraints, you are free to explore unlimited choices. Because you’re trying to figure out how to live your life, this period of exploration could entail trying on different perspectives, embracing new attributes, testing familiar values, or even adopting a whole new personality.
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Whether the process of self-discovery encompasses a series of one-time experiences or an intensive exploration becomes a new way of life, sooner or later, authentic self-expression becomes second nature and your life begins to flow. Although it might take time and intention, by the end of Stage 6, you’ll be living on our own terms.
Stage 7 – The Stage of Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Since we cannot fully embrace our new lives while holding onto the past, forgiveness is key. To forgive others, we must process feelings of betrayal and release blame, and to forgive ourselves, we must process feelings of guilt, regret, shame, and powerlessness.
As you make peace with the past and reconcile “lost time,” remember that no one can see the forest through the trees until they’re out of the woods. So, rather than focusing on anything lost, you might want to celebrate everything gained!
Through the journey of self-discovery, we eventually become grounded in our chosen lives, but even though we have developed new relationships, we might still yearn to reconnect with family and old friends. However, despite the fact that we have forgiven their judgment and rejection, they might still need time to accept our lifestyle choices, and this could result in an extended separation period.
Since peaceful reconciliation unfolds through love and compassion, it’s only possible to rebuild relationships with people who are open and willing. Therefore, instead of forcing communication, we must wait until our family and friends get out of their heads and into their hearts. However, when this finally happens, we must build a new foundation for each old relationship, and this often means cultivating non-religion based commonalities, developing deeper communication, and agreeing on boundaries that support the relationship (for example, avoiding controversial topics such as spirituality and religion).
Also, if a family member or friend begins their own journey out of religion, you’ll probably be the first to know. By holding a safe space for exploration and supporting their transition, you could be their lifeline to freedom. However, be careful “not to push” and don’t be the first to bring it up.
Stage 8 – The Stage of Integration
Leaving organized religion is always life-changing, and while learning to live without familiar constraints, freedom can feel overwhelming at first. No doubt, spiritual sovereignty requires a major shift in consciousness, and, oftentimes, integration comes in waves.
To ease the transition period, it’s important to give your new lifetime and space to unfold, and, along with these two essential gifts, it’s equally important to practice self-love and become your own best friend!
As a byproduct of leaving organized religion, it’s normal to be suspicious of spirituality and even reject it entirely. However, just because religion let you down, it doesn’t mean that spirituality is equally deceptive.
For many people, the loss of organized religion leaves an empty space – along with the desire to fill it. Since how you fill that emptiness can make all the difference in the world, it’s important to consciously fill the space with your own thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. By mindfully cultivating a spiritual practice that supports you, there are no convoluted standards to meet or unreasonable conditions to satisfy, and no matter what you do or don’t do, you can’t get it wrong. When it comes to spirituality, you are unconditionally worthy, right from the start, and with nothing to prove nor perform, there are no hoops to jump through or people to please, and this means that there’s never a reason to give your power away.
So, rather than throwing out spirituality with religion, you have the power to create a direct connection to Source on your own terms.
Finally, although you might experience a period of time without the support of a loving community, be careful not to judge changing circumstances prematurely. As a massive awakening unfolds, people all over the world are leaving various situations and organizations that no longer fit, and just like you, looking for the place they belong. As a result, like-minded people are forming new paradigms of communities where everyone thrives.
So, after you say farewell to organized religion and you discover who you really are, don’t be surprised to find an ideal community waiting just for you!
For more on this topic, please check out my previous articles, Waking Up From Religion and Recovering from Religious Repression – The Journey to Freedom.
In love, grace & gratitude,
Copyright: Nanice Ellis 2019. All rights reserved
Religion is a big deal for a lot of time, and at some point, it was the same for you. But if presently, leaving organized religion seems like a good idea to you, then go for it. You are not defined by your religion, and you have every right to decide what you will keep in your life and what you won’t.