When Losing God Means Losing Yourself

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Late last year, anti-millennial hand-wringers ‘round the country received a small gift from the Pew Research Center: In a new survey on the state of American religious life, the think tank reported that millennials are more likely than any other generation to declare themselves religiously unaffiliated. In fact, they’re the only age-group for which the most common religious identity is none at all.

But it’s not just millennials fueling the rise of nonbelievers — past research from Pew has found that, in general, generations become less religious as their members age. By one estimate, as many as 13 percent of people who identify with a religion have seriously debated leaving that religion, and around 40 percent of those people actually end up doing so. Footsteps, a New York-based social-services agency for people leaving ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, calls this process a “religious transition.” An article in Gothamist, meanwhile, recently highlighted a “social club for the formerly devout” called Formerly Fundamentalist, a Meetup group of around 170 people from different religious backgrounds who had left their communities in search of a more secular life.

Depending on the person, religion can be fulfilling, or it can be stifling; it can give someone purpose, or it can prevent them from feeling fulfilled (the good and the bad stuff can and do mix, of course). And the act of leaving a religion encompasses as wide a variety of experiences as religion itself. In some cases, it can be a slow fade-out, a lack of interest that over time translates to an increasing lack of participation — someone simply stops blocking out their Sunday mornings for church, for example, or finds it easier and more fun to eat without keeping kosher. In other cases, though, the decision to give up on one’s faith can be a difficult, dramatic psychological process, one that causes a person’s life and self-concept to change fundamentally.

So what makes one person’s casual life choice another’s gut-wrenching, Earth-shaking decision?

In large part, it depends what you’re leaving behind – when giving up religion also means giving up life in an insular religious community, the change can initially be emotionally jarring or even traumatic for some. Therapist Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold, has coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome, or RTS, arguing that the syndrome — which she defines as a “condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination” — ought to be considered a mental-health diagnosis in its own right.

“Departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with leaving what amounts to one world for another. This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life,” she wrote. “People leaving are often ill-prepared to deal with this, both because they have been sheltered and taught to fear the secular world and because their personal skills for self-reliance and independent thinking are underdeveloped.”

Granted, these situations involving tight-knit religious communities are particularly extreme, and in some cases edge up to what some people might call cults. But even in less dramatic instances, questioning your religion — and with it, everything you thought you knew about the world — can be psychologically difficult. Often, it’s because the skepticism takes root in already-difficult times: A 2012 study in Sociology of Religion found that certain traumatic life events, like severe financial problems, could be the tipping point for people already questioning their religion (though other traumas, like the death of a close family member, made questioners more likely to stay in the religion).

Even when there’s no compounding factor making a breakup with a religion more difficult, though, the process can still negatively affect someone’s well-being. In a 2006 study of Americans over age 66, those who began to doubt their faith experienced “feelings of frustration, confusion, and bewilderment,” the authors wrote. “If doubt cannot be resolved, then one option is to ignore, dismiss, repress, or deny it. But if doubt arises again, as it often does, then repeated episodes of unsuccessful encounters with it are likely to spark negative emotions.”

But education, the study authors found, seemed to act as a buffer against this form of emotional distress: The less-educated study subjects who confessed to feeling unsure about their religion had lower levels of optimism and self-esteem than their more highly educated peers, gave themselves more grief for questioning in the first place, and were more likely to feel that they were losing control of their lives. People with higher levels of education were more likely to have doubts about religion, but less likely to see their well-being decrease as a result.

One reason for the discrepancy, the study authors hypothesized, may boil down to different sets of professional skills: “People with higher educations typically get more autonomous and more creative jobs. These occupations are based upon and encourage skepticism, questioning, and thoughtful challenging of what is known and what is commonly accepted,” the authors wrote. “Given the lifelong influence of schooling and occupational experiences, people with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to apply their skills in wrestling with, and resolving, religious doubt.”

Switching between the two states — belief and disbelief — also requires a massive cognitive shift, in addition to an emotional one. In 2011, a team of Harvard researchers found a correlation between a belief in God and a tendency to rely on intuition when making decisions. The following year, a paper in Science found a link between analytical thinking and a lack of religious faith. (“Although these findings do not speak directly to conversations about the inherent rationality, value, or truth of religious beliefs,” the Science authors wrote, “they illuminate one cognitive factor that may influence such discussions.”) An article about the two studies in Scientific American explained that these two types of thinking operate in fundamentally different ways, known as System 1 and System 2 (a distinction popularized by the behavioral-economist godfather Daniel Kahneman):

System 1 thinking relies on shortcuts and other rules-of-thumb while System 2 relies on analytic thinking and tends to be slower and require more effort. Solving logical and analytical problems may require that we override our System 1 thinking processes in order to engage System 2 … It may also help explain why the vast majority of Americans tend to believe in God. Since System 2 thinking requires a lot of effort, the majority of us tend to rely on our System 1 thinking processes when possible.

But belief in God is one thing; religious affiliation is another. And sometimes, the two can be separate. In their book The Psychology of Religion, psychologists Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka called this “institutional disaffiliation”: “Many such people remain personally religious,” they wrote, “but churches, temples, and synagogues no longer seem relevant to their life in the modern world.” One 1977 study argued that the so-called “unchurched” can fall into any one of nearly two dozen categories, from “the burned-out” (“feel exhausted, drained, or emptied”) to the scandalized (“see power seekers, factions, and divisiveness in church”) to “the discriminated” (“argue that the church is biased against them”). And some people, whom sociologists have termed “liminal nones,” are able to comfortably maintain a more fluid relationship with religion, frequently switching back and forth between religious identity and disaffiliation.

It’s just one of many complicated compromises people can make as they grapple with whether or not to maintain their religion. Some people leave the community but not the faith; a handful of people in Formerly Fundamentalist, Gothamist noted, are still believers. And others may leave the faith but not the community — one of the group members Gothamist highlighted featured was Celia, a woman who still lived with her Hasidic mother in Borough Park. The arrangement has caused its fair share of headaches: “One day recently, her Hasidic landlord saw her wearing pants and threatened to terminate her family’s sublet,” the article reported. “Her mom, meanwhile, ‘is in complete denial,’ still discussing Celia’s eventual marriage to a Hasidic man.” Much like religion itself, giving up religion seems to require its own set of sacrifices.