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.