Escaping religion

Photo by Ray Shrewsberry on Unsplash This image has been re-coloured

I am an apostate. This is the term given to people who leave religion. It is not a term I particularly like, but it is the one that most people understand. As a counsellor and peer supporter, I also have professional experience of the needs of apostates. I work with apostates from high control, high demand religions; this is not to say that all religions are bad, but there are some groups within religions that exert high levels of control over people’s behaviour, access to information, their very thoughts and their emotions. They also demand high levels of obedience and commitment. For example, I was coerced to stay in an abusive marriage for 11 years. When I disclosed my marriage difficulties to leaders within the church, the response I consistently received was ‘Marriage is about commitment, not love’ or ‘The bible does not allow divorce’ and even that I needed to be a better wife.

This is not uncommon. Women have told me of their experiences of domestic violence and being told by their religious leaders that they need to be more submissive to their husbands. Women have told me that they were coerced into reproduction, sometimes having large families against their wishes. I have heard countless stories from apostates who have tried to report abuse and were told that they were to blame, and women who were raped and as a result sent to ‘second virginity’ classes, whilst their rapist continued to sit in positions of authority within their religious communities. I remember young people being publicly shamed for having sex before marriage, and another publicly shamed for having an affair.

Apostates may experience a range of issues such as shunning, being made homeless, not being allowed to pursue education, forced marriages, and some apostates are in fear for their very lives.

It takes a lot of courage for someone to leave religious groups such as these. Sadly, leaving is not the end. Marlene Winell talks about the PTSD that apostates can experience, known as ‘Religious Trauma Syndrome’. This can include pathological feelings of shame, guilt, isolation, fear, loss of identity, distrust of self and others, grief and many other emotional issues.

For many like me, as a second-generation evangelical Christian, once I left, I had to learn to navigate the secular world. I was naïve and vulnerable, and I found myself in another abusive relationship. I had to rewrite my reality as I did not understand the world outside of the Christian context. I had to learn how to manage my finances; I had not been allowed access to money as my husband was the ‘head of the home’. I was taught that my body and I were inherently sinful and so I should ‘die to self’ and rely solely on God. So, I had no self-esteem or confidence and had a complete distrust of my own decision-making.

When you leave a religion like this, escape is just the first step. You cannot switch off deep-rooted toxic teachings, and so many people find themselves struggling with their mental health, not to mention the practical issues they may also face. There needs to be more awareness of the needs of apostates but, sadly, our health and social care systems seem oblivious to their needs. It is left to charities like Faith to Faithless who offer ‘Apostasy Awareness’ training for organisations, as well as peer support for those who leave religion.

If you’d like to hear more from Yvonne about her experiences and the work of Faith to Faithless, she is speaking to Plymouth Humanists on Tuesday 25 June at 7.30pm in the B-Bar on Castle Street. It’s a free event and all are welcome. For more information go to the Plymouth Humanists website or email