Joining and Leaving the Faith – Four Stages We Go Through

Last year, a fellow blogger posted a comment in which she shared a link to an article entitled Into the Clear Air. I have wanted to draw attention to it for awhile as it’s a truly poignant piece that deserves a large audience. The author, Adam Lee, wrote about the four common stages that many of us go through in regard to embracing and then later abandoning a deeply held religious faith.

If you are going through a deconversion of faith and/or have recently left the faith, you’ll find the 20 minutes or so needed to give it a read as time truly well spent. The many quotes from others who have been through the journey are very helpful. I’ll summarize a few key points below and add some personal reflections.

The author writes about the four stages of conversion/deconversion, which are: (1) Exaltation; (2) Doubt; (3) Darkness; and (4) Illumination. The time spent in each stage can very wildly for each of us, but nearly all of us experience those same 4 stages.

four-stages

joy-exaltation-1(Stage 1 – Exaltation): For me, becoming a Christian was a pretty joyous experience. I felt a weight of teenage guilt lifted and I began to view life through new rose-colored glasses. I enjoyed the comfort and security in the man-made message of the Bible. It was also great to join a community of like-minded believers who showed interest in my life and well-being. It was also an opportunity to develop some talents (music) and skills (public speaking).

doubt(Stage 2 – Doubt): For me, this was a very long period or stage. Doubts about the validity of my Christian faith began in Bible college when I learned about the anonymous authors for many books of the Bible, combined with the dubious way it was assembled and voted on (canonized). As I grew older, my doubts grew when I started to face the many logical fallacies, scriptural contradictions and scientific disputes with my faith. I started my blog to share my journey so I won’t restate it all here. But for most of us, it’s a long, difficult and arduous process.

darkness(Stage 3 – Darkness): When a person’s former faith collapses or vanishes, it can be a truly dark time. Typically and initially, we have nothing to replace it with. We can feel lost and adrift, with a lack of meaning or purpose in life. There can be fear or horror. Everything is different! I remember feeling that my safety net was gone. I no longer had a deity with a personal interest in my well being. The author states that this stage is the worst but usually the briefest. I’m grateful that was true for me — it was brief. I could measure it in days rather than weeks or months.

illumination-joy(Stage 4: Illumination): This was the awesome stage. The bondage was ended! It felt like the prison doors were opened and the world was no longer this grossly distorted thing because the myopic lens of faith was gone. The cognitive dissonance was ended. I remember feeling a far greater sense of awe and wonder for the universe than what I held in my Christian faith. There was a new sense of urgency and motivation to enjoy a full life. Humanism became the guiding principle for a meaningful existence. I had the exuberance of a new convert and I wanted to share my new found joy. I was fortunate to find fellow bloggers and local friends who shared in this illumination. If you haven’t checked out meetup.com for local groups, please do! Many locations will have groups of fellow skeptics, humanists and atheists to connect with and enjoy life with. Rebecca and I have made some great friends thanks to meetup, and it’s so refreshing to have friends who aren’t judging everything little thing you say or do through a religious book.

angerThe author doesn’t list definite stages beyond #4, but it might be helpful to know that feelings of anger can be quite normal. Losing one’s religion has been compared to the anguish of divorce and/or the grief from the death of a loved one. I have experienced all of that, and anger toward religion is normal. I wrote a piece a year ago called Anger at Religion. I think it was a cathartic exercise and that’s an important tip. If you have strong feelings of anger, channel that energy into something constructive. Don’t let it rule you.

Lastly, know that there are plenty of us who are hear to listen and help. You don’t have to feel alone! Visit some online communities like Reddit’s exchristian group or the exchristian.net website. Consider writing your thoughts and feelings down or start a blog like I did. WordPress is a terrific platform and you can get started for free.

Have a thought or comment to share? Please do.

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8 thoughts on “Joining and Leaving the Faith – Four Stages We Go Through

  1. I feel I am still in the ‘Darkness’ phase 9 months since I concluded the Bible could not be true and thus could not be a divine book.I am hoping to reach the illumination period but thus far it eludes me.

    It is a bit like the ‘joy’ of Christianity. I mostly found Christianity not to be joyous and of this just made me feel more guilty and feed a self reinforcing negative cycle.I knew it couldn’t be God’s fault as God was perfect so it must be my fault. Despite shedding faith I still struggle to shed that kind of mindset.

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    • Peter, thanks for sharing. How long were you ‘in the faith’? And do you think the length of time and/or the extent (or level) of indoctrination has played a factor in your current feelings? I’m curious too what brand of Christianity you were in?

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      • I was involved in faith for most of my life (I am in my mid 50’s now). It was not until my early 20’s that I really understood the faith for myself and owen it, prior to that it was more and inherited faith.

        Even though my level of commitment varied over the 30 or so years I followed Christianity seriously, it always informed my worldview and my outlook on life. The Churches I was involved with were not extreme so the indoctrination I experienced was not as bad as many experience, but I still struggle to come up with a coherent world view post faith.

        Being someone who is prone to self loathing and the like, I really brought into the total depravity concept at a personal level, even though I was far more tolerant of others (except during a five year religious crazy period) than of myself.

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  2. I’m not sure my deconversion story nicely fits these stages. My stages aren’t really stages, I guess, because they very much overlap. In some ways all of these things have been occurring simultaneously at various points, with varying intensities. This does give me food for thought. I think I might be too early into my deconversion to really understand how this process will end up playing out in my life. I can’t say I’ve fully reached illumination, but I wouldn’t call it darkness either. Hmm.

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    • Thanks for sharing. I think we’re all familiar with the 5 stages of grief: Shock, Denial, Anger & Guilt, Despair & Depression, and finally Acceptance. We can all probably agree that those 5 stages for grief are typical or common, but at the same time, I think many of us have recycled through some of those stages in certain situations (I know I have).

      I like Adam Lee’s post, but perhaps like the stages of grief, we can’t always neatly mark stages in a journey with religion? I intentionally waited over 18 months to highlight his article because I wanted to let enough time pass to ponder my own walk. And I do recall feeling quite a mix of feelings for awhile post-deconversion, which I probably could have identified as joy + sadness, illumination + horror, light + darkness, etc. I am 100% fully in the acceptance stage, so I wonder if that’s an important piece? Full acceptance? I don’t know but I like the conversation.

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  3. I believe that for some people, especially those who were born and raised into evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, leaving religion can be a traumatic experience. Marlene Winell coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome to explain how realizing that a god you devote immense amounts of time, emotional energy, self-abuse, and identity to never existed is like the death of a loved one, and why deconverting can result in symptoms of PTSD.

    For me there’s no clear point where I just jettison all of that baggage and enter the “illumination” stage, fully prepared to embrace the world. I can’t just move forward and pretend like nothing’s wrong, like I haven’t lost the very heart of everything I ever was and knew – I tried that. Definitely to each deconverter their own and obviously it’ll be different for those who are traumatized and those who aren’t really.

    I run a blog for those leaving fundamentalist religion at http://www.the-art-of-leaving.com! We’ve also put together a list of resources which you can find on my blog if you scroll down a bit – blogs, websites, subreddits, in-person groups, etc. It’d be awesome if you could share this on your blog too to spread the word!

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