2017 Book Reading Challenge, Book 6: Losing My Religion

Possible trigger warning for religious trauma syndrome.

Title: Leaving the Fold: A guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion 

Author: Marlene Winell

Publisher: Apocryphile Press

Location of publisher: Berkeley

Year of publication: 1993, 2007

Number of pages: I’m not sure – I read the Kindle edition.

Fiction or nonfiction: Nonfiction

Have I read this book before? No

Date I finished reading it: 1 February 2017

Genres: religion, post-traumatic stress disorder, religious trauma syndrome, Christian fundamentalism, psychology, self-help, post traumatic church syndrome

Personal reflections upon reading this text:

This book was one of a number of self-help psychology books specifically dealing with religion-induced trauma that The Husband and I have started reading over the last few years, as we try to process our experiences of our time in a nondenominational Pentecostal megachurch. I was there almost 15 years; he was raised in that religion and knew nothing different until his 30s. (“Oh! But it’s not a religion! It’s a relationship… with God!” – Every Pentecostal I ever met, including me.) I have found that these books take me quite a long time to finish as the subject matter can be quite heavy, and even anxiety inducing. I have to take it in small doses; thus, it took me close to a year to finish reading this book.

My earliest introductions to the notion that religion can seriously hurt people was probably sometime in my university studies. I took an undergraduate course on the sociology of deviance and chose to explore cults. While I received a terrible mark on that essay (to my disgust), the actual content that I studied was very enlightening. I was raised in a laid-back, though still devout, Roman Catholicism and while I had drifted away from it, I held predominantly positive views of my religious background. That is, most of the reasons I moved away from it were connected to issues of apologetics, as opposed to any personal traumas.

The strange irony is that after studying a course on cults and harmful religions, thinking that I knew all the warning signs, I married into a religion I experienced to be dreadfully controlling. Now, it wasn’t all bad – I liked that women could preach, and I enjoyed the spontaneity of intuiting what we believed God was saying to us and through us. There were a lot of genuinely good things going on, and those were the aspects that first attracted me.

Fast forward ten years and I was a mess. I will spare the details but I was in need of help. Actual, practical, medical help. Except that the voices who held the most sway and influence in my life, the authority figures in that religious context, were the sort who believed that mental illness was a form of satanic oppression; they recommended para-church exorcism ministries to anyone living a life less than ‘victorious’; they were very defensive towards any critique, no matter how reasonable those critiques were; and even though they ostensibly seemed to value women by ‘allowing’ some women to preach, there was a deep undercurrent of misogyny, as reflected in their willingness to give a voice to preachers that taught segregated gender roles and essentialism (like, that women are ‘naturally’ geared towards working in the home). The list could go on. I saw LGBT+ friends deeply hurt by being required to attend counselling, always with the hope of making them ‘straight,’ or, at the very least, requiring them to be celibate and closeted. I saw very sick people encouraged to rely on prayer alone to heal them. I saw very intelligent, highly educated women unhappily reduced to a kind of subservient motherhood. I hasten to add, I don’t mean those who happily and joyfully chose motherhood because it’s what they wanted. I mean those who for years would lament the loss of career because their husbands didn’t want their wives to earn more than them; men who were threatened by the very character qualities and personality traits that first attracted them to their wives.

For me, it was death by a thousand cuts. There wasn’t one specific moment where I thought, “Gee, this religion is toxic and dysfunctional.” It was a whole lot of little things. Like,

  • Mandatory tithing: all church members were required to give a minimum of 10% of their pre-tax income to the church. Members were regularly expected to give above this amount, too, no matter the financial hardship it caused them. Over the years I lost count of the number of times we went without enough food to eat, because after tithing, “voluntary” giving, and paying the rent, school fees and bills, we simply could not make ends meet. Any suggestion to the pastors that this financial exploitation of struggling families was destroying people’s lives and help would be dismissed as the whinging of malcontented congregants who didn’t have enough faith for God to bless them. Bible verses were cherry-picked to exhort congregants to tithe or lose their membership status or, worse, to lose God’s provision for their lives.
  • Shunning of anyone perceived as an ‘outsider.’ While the shunning was not orchestrated on a formal level (as far as I know), many of us were subjected to hostility, avoidance tactics, and isolation at the whims of church members. To this day, some of them avoid me when we cross paths at the shops, and I have no idea what I did to tick them off (apart from asking too many questions…).
  • Mandatory “volunteer” work. I have no idea how many hours I spent at church every week over the course of nearly a decade, doing the Lord’s work. It didn’t matter to the church that this volunteering kept me in a state of constant physical exhaustion, kept me away from my family, encroached on what little time my husband and I had outside of his work hours, and made it exceedingly difficult for me to have enough time and energy to finish my university studies. It didn’t matter to the church that my physical health deteriorated rapidly – even when I told them I was sick, they still pressed me to do more. As a university student and stay-at-home-parent, I was expected to be at church a lot more than full-time employed people. As a result, I ended up not getting any kind of paid employment: an unexpected and devastating side effect of too much church volunteering is that it left me unemployable. Despite having ten years of volunteer work under my belt, not to mention two university degrees, the fact is that the average employer in my area just wants someone with previous retail experience. They don’t want a mid-30s housewife who spent her entire 20s helping out at the local megachurch, while never actually developing tangible workplace skills. (Note: this isn’t an excuse for not looking for work. And unemployment is a huge problem where I live, so there are other sociological factors at play. But I am convinced that church volunteering hindered, rather than helped, my job prospects.)
  • Private dialogues between the pastors and I sometimes became sermon material! The last time this happened to me, my genuine concerns over the toxic views of a guest preacher (who seemed to have this deep desire to see all women silenced and was given the platform to run a marriage course in which he whinged that women talk too much and men don’t get enough sex from their frigid wives) were off-handedly dismissed by the senior minister who told me that I should learn to “swallow the fish but spit out the bones.” Apart from being a terrible analogy to use on a strict vegetarian like myself, the pastors essentially believed that they were not accountable for the content of sermons in their own church; that is, the onus was placed on congregants to know which parts of a sermon to take seriously. The pastors ignored the fact that their words held a lot of influence over church members’ lives, like it or not. A week later, the minister’s email to me was told, almost word-for-word, as a sermon to the church about why they aren’t allowed to complain if they don’t like a sermon. So subtle, yet a real kick in the guts for someone who had, to that point, been a faithful and supportive servant to the church. I’ve since learned that other congregants also had similar experiences.
  • Parents in the church were pushed into sending their children to the expensive school run by the church. Despite the glossy brochures promoting it as a good private school, my children’s actual lived experience in their time there was one of brainwashing in conspiracy theories, rampant bullying, and a strange anti-intellectualism coupled with intense pressure to perform. Let’s just say that their lives have improved dramatically since attending government schools – and no, they haven’t converted to some kind of homosexual Atheism as the church school warned us would happen. If you were a church member but your children were not at the school, you were treated as an outsider by other church members. Many families I spoke to simply could not afford the crippling fees and were roped into decades-long financial contracts where they were expected to continue paying fees long after their children graduated. The final straw for me was when one teacher told my 9-year-old child that she was only being bullied because her own faith and relationship with Christ wasn’t strong enough. He refused to do anything practical to help her and instead told her to pray that the bullies would become her friends. Unsurprisingly, this did nothing to stop them kicking her and stealing her possessions. Interesting to me was the realisation that the child bullies were, more often than not, themselves the children of pastors and preachers with lucrative careers based on teaching other people how to raise good Christian kids.
  • My own ‘testimony’ of salvation was used over-and-over as a sermon illustration, as if my entire life prior to the church had been nothing but a waste of existence, and an example to others. I was treated like some anomalous being, somehow extra rebellious. After such public testimonies I was approached by some church members who would inform me it was just a matter of time before satan called me back to his service again. (Cool, thanks.) Some of my happiest memories were considered as dirt next to the purifying act of ‘asking Jesus into my life.’ As if twenty years of Catholicism had not counted as a form of Christian faith.
  • Prior to my conversion, I was a keen artist, lover of books, musician and advocate for animal welfare. I was studying for my education and journalism degree. I had a diverse group of friends from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. I was known for being quirky, creative and caring, open minded and thoughtful, with a strong desire to stick up for those who needed help finding their voice. In the church, these traits my friends considered valuable were mocked and belittled until I – in a sense – withered away. My art was deemed ‘evil’ because of its gothic influences. I was not allowed to read books outside of the church’s socially accepted texts. Good bye, Anne Rice – and hello Left Behind. My music was mocked because in the context of the over-polished pop rock worship music of a Pentecostal megachurch, there is no space for an evil heavy metal loving bass guitarist – and the sheer audacity of me, a woman!, to play a supposedly masculine instrument like bass! I was forced to throw out half of my dearly beloved album collection to appease church members who treated me with musical suspicion. Instead of favourite bands like Tool, I was made to listen to Michael W Smith. Eventually some concessions were made and I was allowed to listen to Christian metal, some of which is genuinely good (I still like bands like Project 86 and Flyleaf.) Caring for animals was belittled in a religion that put all its hope in an eventual disembodied heaven for the select few and animals were reduced to what I dubbed “soulless organic robots” – to care too much about animals was treated with suspicion from people who were certain that God wasn’t that interested in his nonhuman material creation. And having close friends outside of the church? That wasn’t considered acceptable, unless I was trying to convert them.
  • Over time, as the church encroached on my life, I became too busy to maintain genuine friendships. Friends were, by default, whoever you happened to be volunteering with – and if you changed volunteer rosters or ministries, you lost the friends, too. A fear of being isolated and overlooked was a powerful motivator to keep volunteering even when it was impractical or exhausting to do so.

The list goes on, but the point is that an obvious question presents itself: If you were so unhappy there, why not just leave?

Good question. In hindsight, I often ask it of myself: why didn’t I leave sooner? Why didn’t I say no right from the start?

I guess if you haven’t been in the thick of it, the tentacles of a controlling religious group caught up in every part of your life, you simply can’t comprehend what it is like. You forget that saying “No” is a valid option, because “No” gets lost in the fear of rejecting God’s called and anointed authorities on Earth. You’re brainwashed into meek submission to authorities who will one day be accountable to God – and so you’re expected to put up with all kinds of maltreatment on the assumption that God will sort it all out in the end. Your life here on Earth becomes insignificant in the light of some imagined future in which Jesus will lift His people into the air and rescue them from a depraved and doomed Earth. (To state the obvious, I no longer ascribe to this Rapture eschatology.)

That’s why books like Winell’s Leaving the Fold are so important. She describes, in great detail, the psychological mechanisms that keep people trapped in a religious system that hurts them, even if they know they’re unhappy there.

It also helps the victims to understand how we ended up in this place of relinquishing our autonomy in the name of pleasing church leaders.

I left that church mid-2015 and so almost two years out I find that I often marvel at how I let bumbling, inexpert folks with nothing but a Bible, dictate so much of my life to me. I still have nightmares about that place, where I awake in a panic because it was so vivid and I saw myself there again, pushed to the margins for the ‘crimes’ of being female, for caring for animals and the environment, for being educated in a secular university, for suffering serious health issues, and being (relatively) poor. And on a side note, isn’t it funny that if a pastor says, “We don’t preach prosperity gospel,” they convince themselves that it’s true, and ignore the fact that they have several sermons a year claiming that all someone has to do is pray and get more money… that all struggling single parents need to do is take on second and third jobs and give their second job earnings to the building fund because an $11 million extension to the church building is more important than addressing the very real impoverishment of numerous church members exploited for their money, time, and talents with no thanks given beyond the occasional “God will reward you… in heaven.”

Take a deep breath. Writing these thoughts down is hard.

Religious trauma, as a variant of PTSD, is something that I and many of my other ex-church friends have to face. And it is very hard to process. Good books are a huge support when they help us realise that, in a way, we were victims of something much bigger than us. Robbed of our individual autonomy, we became small, voiceless versions of ourselves. We were isolated from outsiders – not by deliberate isolation, but by being kept so busy with church work there simply wasn’t time to interact with outsiders and any balance they may have brought to our perspectives.

When I think of my time there, my only description for it is that they tried to obliterate me. They took everything I was and twisted it, whittled it down, and turned me into a shadow of my former self. It was only through the external help of the few non-Pentecostal friends I still had, the intervention of my doctor who saw my health disintegrating, through persevering with my education, and through lots and lots of reading, that I finally escaped. Oh yeah, they’ll say you have to lose yourself to find who you truly are in God; but somehow the way they go about it is very different to the way contemplatives like Thomas Merton or Richard Rohr or Thomas Keating might practice it. On the one hand, you get a church trying to do God’s work for Him by actively belittling members to conform to a church mould; on the other hand is the liberating, freeing, self-chosen path of contemplative action in which an individual discovers the sheer depths of divine love and is able to be more fully themselves, without fear of ego-level criticism. Same Biblical foundation; very different practices; opposite end results.

Now my task of leaving the church is done, I am in the process of trying to heal. Leaving the Fold has some practical suggestions for helping someone to heal their mind and heart after leaving a toxic church. I didn’t find all of the suggested healing practices helpful, but the ones I did were very helpful. There will be those who need professional psychotherapy (from a qualified practitioner, not from a church counsellor), and this book respects that. It works more like an adjunct to professional therapy and if someone needs mental illness support, that needs to take priority over a self-help book. But as far as self-help books go, it’s definitely one of the best I’ve read in a very long time.

Note: at this point I still personally identify as a person of Jesus-centred faith, but it’s a markedly different faith to the one I lived with for almost 15 years at my previous church. I also acknowledge that many of my friends had predominantly positive experiences in that same church and I don’t want to take that from them. In a megachurch as large and sprawling as the one we attended, it was entirely possible for different pockets within the church to be very different people. My experiences were affected largely by the specific small groups, Bible studies, friends and ministries I had in my time there. I also acknowledge that I do have some happy memories from my time there. But I also demand the freedom to acknowledge the bad, the negative and the painful experiences alongside the positive ones. I will not pretend it was all flowers and rainbows and unicorns.

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One thought on “2017 Book Reading Challenge, Book 6: Losing My Religion

  1. Pingback: My Reading Challenge: Progress Report | Fiona Kat: Art and Words

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