I've been a spiritual director for over fifteen years. In that time I have done a lot of toxic religion recovery work with people through individual counseling, religious trauma support groups, leading retreats, and speaking on the subject and the steps, stages, and process of disentangling oneself from toxic religious beliefs and practices.
Going deeper into deconstruction
There are deepening levels of "deconstruction" involved. Many people begin by removing themselves from a religious community that they feel is having a detrimental impact on their mental, emotional, psychological well-being and health. Another level of deconstruction involves divesting ourselves from various religious beliefs and practices that we no longer accept. There is a cause and effect nature of toxic religious beliefs. The recovery process involves identifying the deeply rooted toxic beliefs that are the root cause of self-sabotaging dynamics and neuroses that govern our lives such as shame, fear, anxiety, worry, depression, self-flagellation, inauthenticity, suppression, self-rejection, perfectionism, and powerlessness.
Deeper still is a level of deconstruction that sees our religious entanglements as representative of a more deeply rooted problem. Religion is the perfect system for the ego to grab onto. The ego is responsible for facilitating our individual identity and personal agency for the purpose of a lived human experience. However, the ego can become a runaway train, wanting to reify its existence and significance. So it starts looking for something, anything, to fortify and validate its identity, legitimacy, importance, power, superiority, and permanence.
Religion is the perfect scenario for the ego. Virtually everything about religion, take Christianity for example, can be taken by the ego to bolster itself. We've probably all heard the saying that if you were the only person alive in the world, Jesus would have still died for you. How's that for proof of self importance? You alone are worthy of God suffering and dying for you and you alone. Religion also assures the ego of its indestructible, permanent, and eternal existence. After you die, you wake up in heaven and you keep going forever. The only thing different about now and then, is that after you die the ego can finally rid itself of all the stuff it doesn't want - difficulty, hardship, pain, suffering, etc., and instead have everything it does want - comfort, happiness, pleasure, and all the good stuff. Religion also offers the ego an opportunity to fortify its position in countless other ways such as: being "right", which means others are "wrong"; providing a solid identity structure in the form of a defined set of beliefs, attitudes, practices, subculture, and sect; answers to all the existential questions for which would threaten the ego if they were not answered.
The reason why it is pivotal to work through these issues is because if you don't go deep enough into your deconstruction, your ego will just look for another train to jump onto, which is usually the anti-religion train. The ego grabs ahold of the anti-religion mentality as a new way to formulate a solution for its desperate need for identity, security, superiority, self-importance, validation, fortification, etc., and repeat the same dynamics all over again. We now become "right" whereas religious people are now "wrong"; we find a new non-religious tribe or subculture to bolster and validate our new identity; we utilize a different system to gain a sense of superiority; we now have a new set of answers, explanations, beliefs or non-beliefs to gain some sense of security or certainty.
Please don't see this as a judgment. The ego is always looking for something, anything, in order to perpetuate and protect itself. If it wasn't religion or anti-religion, it would be something else. A person is free to believe or not believe in anything they choose. But you know it has become an ego trip when it becomes a basis for one's identity and validation, or something to be "right" or feel superior about, or something we use to divide up the world into "us"and "them", or it becomes the reason for separation and discord between you and any other human being, or becomes the basis for your happiness and satisfaction in life.
In the religion recovery counseling I do, the truly liberative part of the process is getting down into those deeper ego-level aspects of deconstruction. The ultimate goal for religious deconstruction is not just switching sides to becoming non/anti-religious, but drilling down into the root causes of our suffering, unhappiness, disharmony, and dissatisfaction.
The volatility of leaving religion is not a failure or catastrophe
Don't think of your deconstruction and deconversion process as a crisis, problem or failure. Take it as a critical step in your evolutionary process of self-actualization. I have seen that the language often used around the shedding religion and deconstruction process can be unhelpful. Here are some examples of what I hear, and an alternative to reframe it.
"I'm having a crisis of faith."
"Crisis" is defined as "a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger." Synonyms of "crisis" include: catastrophe, calamity, disaster, set back. I certainly understand that the shedding religion journey can be challenging, painful, volatile and painful. But consider the possibility that this process is a gift and a pivotal component of your continuing evolution, liberation and self-actualization as a human being. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star."
"There are no absolute truths."
Many people who leave religion feel disoriented and fearful by the loss of certainty with respect to life's most significant existential questions - existence of God, purpose and meaning of life, what happens when you die, etc. Whereas once a person felt they had answers for everything, suddenly the rug of certainty is pulled out from under them and they feel they cannot be sure about anything.
People who leave religion often find themselves chasing certainty and security on the hamster wheel of conceptualizing new and improved beliefs and ideas about ultimate reality, to replace their former religious understandings. I take a different tact in the religion recovery counseling I do. I ask the person to create a list of things they know with certainty based solely upon direct experience, critical thinking and self-reflection. I don't mean like scientific facts such as law of gravity, but more practical or meaningful truths one can know with absolute certainty about life. For example, a person can prove to themselves through direct experience, critical thinking and self-reflection that expressing love is an uplifting and transformative mindset and action. I will have the a person identify 20 significant or meaningful things they know with absolute certainty about life. The most important knowledge a person truly needs they already know or have access to through direct experience, critical thinking and self-reflection. A person can build their lives upon this knowledge.
"My life is rubble."
Describing their shedding religion journey, a recent client said to me, "My life has collapsed into ground zero. It's like I'm sifting through the rubble trying to make sense of it all." After exploring this mindset further, she restated her situation this way, "The beliefs and mindsets that once were preventing and limiting my growth have been identified and discarded; not I have a new space from which to cultivate a life of greater meaning, purpose, fulfillment and well-being."
"I lost everyone."
One of the most difficult parts of leaving religion is losing one's friends and support network. For many people, their religious community was where most if not all of their most significant relationships existed. It's painful to be rejected or discarded by people we once considered good friends. On the flip side, life after religion opens up the opportunity to cultivate a new social network of friendships with people who are on a similar path and will accept and appreciate you for who and where you are on your journey.
Cultivating a different kind of relationship with yourself
The focus of religion is often stated as "relationship with God." But after leaving a damaging or toxic religious experience, the greatest need is to focus on your relationship with yourself.
Here are some areas to consider:
Self-awareness (exploring your authentic and innermost thoughts, feelings, beliefs, needs, desires, fears, motivations, patterns, habits)
Self-love (regard for one's own well-being and happiness)
Self-acceptance (seeing the totality of yourself without judgment)
Self-compassion (extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering)
Self-care (actions and attitudes which contribute to the maintenance of well-being and personal health and promote human development.)
Self-trust (following what your own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, intuition, judgment, insights, and body tells you)
Self-confidence (empowered to rise to new challenges, seize opportunities, deal with difficult situations, and take responsibility if and when things go awry)
Self-reliance (reliance on one's own abilities, capacities, powers and resources rather than those of others.)
Self-efficacy (confidence in one's own ability to achieve intended results)
Self-actualization (the realization of one's own maximum potential and possibilities)
Self-expression (giving expression to your unique thoughts, feelings, gifts, personality individuality)
Self-respect (feeling a sense of harmony, dignity and gratification in life as a result of taking consistent actions that are aligned with your values and convictions)
Self-discovery (exploring what you are on the most fundamental and ultimate level, beyond the body and the mind)
A question to ask yourself would be: What two or three of the above areas do you feel would make the biggest difference or be the most significant and meaningful for you now to cultivate in your life?
Cultivating a new relationship with yourself could include elements such as:
Becoming more aware of your self-talk or mental commentary that governs your outlook on yourself and your life
Questioning the ideas, beliefs, mindsets, narratives, stories, and ideologies that are influencing you
Taking responsibility for your own happiness and well-being
Shedding the definitions and expectations others have placed upon you
Discarding the mask, and being a more real, authentic and human person
Honoring what most matters to you about life and following your own inner guidance, deep feelings and intuition
Offering yourself acceptance, love, compassion, and patience
Choosing not to remain actively connected to toxic people or those who judge, shame, control or bully you
Practicing self-care measures that promotes and rejuvenates your vitality, energy and wellness
Inhabiting your uniqueness and expressing it freely, fully and unapologetically
Addressing the root cause behind any anger, envy, jealousy, greed, bitterness, people-pleasing, ego-grasping, chronic dissatisfaction, attachment, and clinging that is poisoning your life
Discovering, experiencing, and identifying with your pure, complete, whole, composed, serene, undisturbed, limitless, equanimous nature
Opening your heart to the world with loving-kindness and compassion
Determining what is real and true through your own direct and personal experience, observation, critical thinking, and spiritual practice
Religion recovery and life after religion
My academic and professional background and training is in the areas of comparative religion and philosophy. I am a certified interfaith and interspiritual spiritual director and incorporate various components in my work with people such as psychology, spirituality, humanism, philosophy, the arts, and science. Many of the people I have counseled over the years were damaged by their involvement in religion, and are cultivating a spiritual but not religious approach to life. I have worked with men and women across the spectrum of Theists to Atheists.
I have a spiritual direction practice in Nashville. Several years ago, I began doing spiritual direction with people all over the world through video calls. There are several reasons why people contact me for spiritual direction, including:
- Desiring to explore God or ultimate reality outside the framework of religion
- Seeking a more expansive, meaningful and human spirituality
- Interested in investigating the meaning behind their spiritual experiences such as dreams, synchronicity, and peak experiences
- A life crisis has caused them to question their personal or religious beliefs
- Searching for answers to life’s existential questions such as the meaning and purpose of life
- Interested in exploring spirituality beyond the boundaries of their religious background or tradition
- Wanting to address the root cause of chronic unhappiness and disharmony in their life
- Desiring a whole relationship with themselves through self-discovery, self-acceptance, self-trust and self-care
- Needing to unshackle themselves from toxic religious beliefs
If you have an interest in signing up for a series of guided spiritual conversations in areas like this, feel free to contact me. I also created the course, Life After Religion: A Personal Journey Out. The course addresses areas such as: making peace with your religious past; rooting out toxic religious indoctrination; new ways of approaching life's existential questions; learning new tools for personal growth and development; exploring what spirituality is for you.
For these and other services and resources I offer, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org