Much has been written about people departing “toxic religions.” These organizations have similarities to political or religious cults run by malignant narcissists: strict dogma that cannot be questioned, controlled or no information and education, leaders that are the ultimate authority (perhaps even divinely appointed). Money is required from the faithful even if they are poverty stricken.
There are plenty of people born into a cult (religious or otherwise) who never question the teachings—until something doesn’t fit. Then they assume it must be them. If only they could be a better follower all would be well. When they’re honest and bring up their doubts in “confessionals” (literal or otherwise) they’re counseled or punished for their misgivings and negative thinking.
Brought up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), a woman I know left when she was in her fifties. She now considers the religion a cult. It took a long time for her to realize that no matter how good a Mormon she tried to be, things weren’t going to get better. The church had failed her when she asked for help in an abusive marriage. She was told if she was nicer too her husband would be less abusive to the family. When her spouse eventually left, the church didn’t provide for her and the children as she was led to believe. She was on her own. She spent additional years struggling to become the perfect disciple, but eventually she followed in the footsteps of other family members who had quit long before.
Unfortunately, cults that call themselves a religion enjoy the protection of US tax code 501.c3 which makes them tax exempt. This is a huge benefit for any group or individual wanting to amass a fortune, purchase property, control towns, own news outlets, or anything else money can buy. The Netflix series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the money-making machine known as the Church of Scientology (founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard). Remini, known for her starring role in the TV show King of Queens, was brought into (what she terms a cult) by her parents when she was nine years old. She left in 2013 when she was in her early forties.
Scientology’s “disconnection policy” forbids Scientologists (including family) from having any contact with a former member. Remini’s series, which she co-hosts with former Scientology honcho Mike Rinder contains three seasons’ worth of interviews with those who have left the fold. The “Aftermath” in the title becomes clear when you learn what happened to those who got out—it isn’t pretty. Scientology hires people to harass fallen members at their homes, on the street, in their work environments, and puts pressure on the family. Scientology is not the only group that goes to such extreme lengths to badger and/or libel those who leave their organization.
Leaving one’s community may be the hardest price to pay for no longer being devout. When your family, friends, neighbors, and perhaps even coworkers are part of the only world you know, it’s a frightening prospect to be set adrift from them. How do you start over? But the disenchanted still find ways to separate themselves even if it’s difficult. Addressing those who leave authoritarian religions, Marlene Winell, wrote the book Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others. She has named the suffering ex-church members go through “religious trauma syndrome.” She provides guidance for those who want out (or got out). I’m including her eight-step advice here because it appears to be applicable to anyone questioning their involvement in an all-consuming faith or cult of any stripe.
Winell’s steps (paraphrased):
Get real. Is this belief system and way of life working for you anymore?
Get a grip. Understand that the terror you feel is part of the indoctrination you’ve been put through. It was consciously designed to generate phobias and threats if you consider leaving.
Get informed. Read and learn about the things you were told were bad or forbidden. Explore the history of this group from outside sources. You aren’t limited anymore. (Note: going to college is often the break needed for young people to learn about the outside world and recognize a toxic religion isn’t working for them.)
Get well. You’ve been abused spiritually and need help to recover. You may need therapy as well as a support group. (Note: there are many support groups and online forums available such as Release and Reckon, Exmormons, and recovereingfundamentalists.com. There’s a forum for ex-QAnon believers and for friends and family of those still inside called QAnon Causalities.)
Get clear with others. Be honest about where you are in your journey and let people know if you’ve stopped being a believer. Although others may be upset or disappointed, you aren’t responsible for their reactions.
Get a life. Rebuild your identity from where you are now and how you want your life to be going forward.
Get with the program. As part of the human family are able to contribute by getting involved in areas of interest.
Get your groove on. You are entitled to joy and pleasure as the human being you are now, not solely in an afterlife.
If you know someone who could benefit from Winell’s words, feel free to pass them along. Or perhaps you needed to hear them. Most of the steps seem helpful for anyone wanting to disentangle from a dysfunctional or abusive pattern or relationship.
It’s comforting to know many people have successfully expanded their lives beyond the confines they thought they were required to adhere to. They’ve refocused on positive emotions and actions after leaving a cult, toxic religion, divisive or racist politics, an abusive relationship, or addictive behavior. Change always starts with the first question, “Is this still working for me?” Enjoy spring’s renewal!