The article titled The Health Effects of Leaving Religion was released on Sept. 28, 2014 by The Atlantic. The author is Jon Fortenbury. The article discusses the impact on mental and physical health by those that leave religions, with the greatest impact on those leaving tightly controlling religions like Jehovah Witnesses or the Church of Latter Day Saints.
The most common adverse health effect of leaving a religion is severe depression. The depression occurs through the loss of faith in prior beliefs and fear of the consequences of going against these beliefs. The depression is exacerbated by the pressure from those within the religion to stay in the religion. Because of the very close identification by group members with the specific beliefs of the religion, any rebellion by a member is a threat to the group identity. Retaliation by the group is often isolation from any contact with the individual.
In various forms, this is done by the Amish, and strict versions of Judaism, Catholicism, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and many other faiths. Jehovah Witnesses call this process disfellowshipping. In many of these religions, all religious and social activities are held through the religious organization. Leaving the religion creates a social vacuum that leaves the former believer without any emotional support, and often with great pressure to rejoin the religion.
A study released in 2010 by Pennsylvania State University found that fewer people now identify with religious organizations. Those involved in strict religious organizations claim higher healthiness than those not involved with religions, or those that have left a strict religion. The PSU study defines the characteristics of a strict religion.
“Strict” in this study was defined as “high-cost sectarian groups that are theologically and culturally exclusive.”
Fortenbury’s article quotes Dr. Darrell Ray, a psychologist of 30 years that specializes in helping people overcome the mental health effects associated from leaving a strict religion. Ray has created an organization Recovering From Religion to help those needing mental health treatment find therapists.
Ray compares some of the religious beliefs that are indoctrinated into the minds of followers as being like a language. Those that learn these beliefs such as the concepts of heaven and hell find it very difficult to overcome the fear or sense of loss that occurs when they leave their strict religion.
Dr. Marlene Winell is another psychologist referenced by Fortenbury. Winell has focused on helping those that have left strict religions, and coined the term religious trauma syndrome (RTS) to describe the effects on individuals of leaving a strict religion. This classification is not officially recognized in the lexicon of mental health conditions, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
A term for leaving a strict religion is deconverting. Recovery from the effects of the deconversion process typically takes two to three years of therapy according to Dr. Ray. This concept is interesting, especially for those that “grew up in the religion.” A child does not consider the religious teachings as conversion. The immersion of a child in a strict religion goes beyond conversion.
Spiritualism does not include a belief in hell or heaven. The Principles of spiritualism focus on personal responsibility and declares that nobody is ever beyond redemption. Taking away the fear of hell and the false hope of a future heaven eliminates the religious trauma syndrome defined for those leaving strict religions. People are free to come and go in spiritualism without fear of drastic consequences. There is no pressure to follow a specific belief or to remain within a spiritualist church.
The statement “Work out your own salvation with diligence” is attributed to Buddha. This is an unspoken principle of spiritualism. It is important to recognize that each person defines their own spirituality. Spiritualism does not depend upon religious beliefs as much as personal experience with some higher power. People that do not recognize a higher power can still be very spiritual in that they live life with respect for their selves, others and for the Universe.
The Health Effects of Leaving Religion article provides links to many other studies on the effects of leaving a strict religion. R.E.M.’s song Losing My Religion has a lot to say about deconverting and the trauma that leaving a strict religion includes. Have faith in yourself, and know that you are a part of the divine with or without any religious affiliation.