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Recovery from a Controlling Religion

by Toronto psychologist Ross Gray PhD

www.rossgray.ca

For some of us, growing up is soaked through with religion. Religious beliefs and practices define how to think about things and how to behave appropriately. Religious authorities tell us how relationships should work within the family, and our community of friends is largely comprised of like-minded believers. We are taught to think of ourselves as special or chosen, different from the stained world of non-believers. Religious faith is a haven of certainty because it provides the truth about everything. And we are expected to grow strong in that faith and be leaders for our community.

Along the way, controlling religion stops working for some of us, and so we decide to challenge or leave our well-defined worlds. Why does this happen? For some, it becomes impossible to tolerate the growing gap between religious doctrine and the evidence of our own experience or of that provided by science. For others, the key trigger for disenchantment is the punishing effects of religiously justified intolerance for natural bodily functions and impulses, or the stigmatizing of all those societal groups choosing different sexualities or lifestyles. For some, the toxic impact of oppressive, religiously informed parenting leads to a desire to escape. The bottom line with these and other possible pathways out of controlling religion is that we start to experience the safe confinement of belief as unhealthy. More difficult is when people are expelled from their faith community for perceived violation of tenets of thought or behavior. In such cases, leaving is likely to just feel like rejection and not at all like choice.

I am a psychologist and I write from the experience of working with many people transitioning out of a controlling religious context. I also write from my own experience in having made such a transition. I am not anti-religion ... except where it interferes substantially with human freedom. Spirituality seems to me a critical dimension of human experience.

It is a big thing to leave a controlling religion. For most of us, it is wonderfully liberating, opening our horizons to new richness of experience and thought. But it is also fraught. Finding a new way of being in the world is unavoidably laced through with loss and disorientation. One writer has recently coined the term "religious trauma syndrome" to capture the various problems caused by "hurtful religion", and by the process of leaving the religion. While this term is not widely embraced by mental health professionals it is nevertheless helpful in raising awareness about the potential fall-out for refugees from controlling religion. In my clinical practice, I've seen how the legacy of controlling religion can include major depression, acute and chronic anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The more rigid, punishing, and isolating the religious context, the greater the likelihood that transitioning away from religion will be problematic.

Here are common problems encountered in the ongoing work of disentangling from controlling religion:

1) Loss of Community: To step out of religion often implies stepping out of our primary social network. Suddenly, we are an outsider to the friendship circles that revolve around faith-based activities. It becomes difficult to be with friends because we no longer agree with their beliefs or choices. They are likely to distrust us or possibly shun us outright as non-believers. So it becomes necessary to do the hard work of making new friends outside of the old context. Especially in the short term it may be really helpful to hang out with other people who've left the religious tradition. There are online support groups for survivors of most brands of controlling religion. But over time, it will likely feel important to reach outside the whole context of religion or escape from religion. New relational contexts can be built over time. But the hard truth is that most people will never recreate the kind of close social network that came with religious faith. Loneliness will be a side effect of getting free, something to struggle against and to also make peace with.

2) Family Fracturing: For those who grow up with controlling religion, leaving will almost inevitably create major disruptions in relations with parents and siblings. In some faith traditions, families shun the offenders and have little or no contact on principle. In others, there is contact but ongoing conflict over a member's decision to stop adhering. Even if active conflict subsides, the impact of disappointment and loss can continue forever for everyone in the family. As one client put it, "my family actively mourns my life". The loss of family coherence, to the degree it once existed, is a major loss and requires ongoing emotional work by those who step out of religion.

3) Dealing with Trauma: Some people are traumatized by their religious experiences, by parenting informed by religious beliefs, or by the events surrounding leaving their religion. A survivor of controlling religion wakes in the night, fearful about being alone. This is for him a familiar reaction linked to parental threats that unless he stopped his childhood sinful behavior he would be left behind when Jesus came for the believers. Another survivor has serious trouble with dating and sexual intimacy, still affected by her father's brutal punishment of her budding teenage desirousness. An elderly man suffers daily panic attacks that started years earlier when he found himself desperate and alone after being shunned by his religious community.

4) Behavioural Confusion: In many controlling religions there are strong rules against various types of bodily pleasure. Leaving the tradition opens the gateway to pleasure. Good. But it can be difficult to know where and how to set one's limits. In the past, limits were always pre-defined. Now one must decide for oneself using subjective criteria. For example, whether to drink, how much to drink, and whether there is any reason to ever be sober again. It can take time to find balance for oneself.

5) Loss of Meaning: Religion provides an ideological framework that gives meaning to life. To leave religion means opening to the experience of not knowing. This can be terrifying. It can feel empty and depressing. Sometimes it can be so difficult to tolerate not knowing that people immediately seek out a new kind of rigid belief system to provide a sense of meaning or ground. They worship health, or cling to the virtue of scientific empiricism, or ... Clearly, a sense of meaning is important for us humans. But the real challenge that comes with leaving a rigid system of meaning is whether we can make more room for mystery in our lives.

6) Who am I now?: When one is firmly ensconced in the community of believers, there is usually a strong sense of identity. But all of that is exploded when one steps out. A client explained that he had been a widely respected youth minister, on the road to an important position. When he decided to leave his religion, he found himself now in the mainstream of society where he was a person of no particular status and in competition with a plethora of bright young men all seeking employment in the secular world. A crisis of identity seems unavoidable in the process of recovering from controlling religion. Who am I? is suddenly an active question that requires thorough and ongoing investigation.

As I've suggested above, disentangling from controlling religion can be problematic on many fronts and many of us will experience ongoing difficulties. Yet most of us also find our way and emerge happier and healthier. Support for the transition away from religion comes in many forms and through many sources. Psychologists or other mental health professionals are one such source. Working with a psychologist can be useful and may actively support the journey towards freedom.

Dr. Ross Gray, Psychologist
Spadina & Richmond, Toronto, ON Tel: 416-951-8782 ross@rossgray.ca

Dr. Gray has been providing individual and couple psychotherapy for adults seeking fuller, more passionate and more meaningful lives for over twenty years.

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For online help with recovery from a bad experience with religion, see distance therapy with Beth Mares RP about the work of another secular psychotherapist.

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