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Valerie Tarico Headshot

When Leaving Jesus Means Losing Your Family

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Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

-Jesus, Matthew 10:34-36

When my Gen Y friend Michael confessed publicly that he couldn't believe any longer, it cost him a full ride scholarship and all of his friends but three. But that wasn't the worst of it. Michael had to make a choice: He could stay in his parents' home only if he refrained from "spiritual pornography," meaning any media that were critical of faith. He could stay there only if he kept his doubts muted and invisible. Michael said he couldn't do that and moved out. His mother said it would have been better had he died. His father banned Michael from seeing beloved younger siblings without supervision. (Apparently spiritual pornography can lead to spiritual pedophilia?) Loneliness and despair took him to the brink of suicide.

Michael is warm, funny, and fiercely smart. Today he is back in school at a secular university, going it alone, working his way toward becoming a brain scientist. But the choices he was forced to face and the rejection he experienced are matched in our society only for kids who confess that they are gay.

According to recent Pew data, sixteen percent of Americans say that they don't have a religious affiliation. Other surveys would suggest that most of these still believe in some kind of god, and many probably still identify in some way with Christian teachings. But the fact is, a sizeable number of us no longer ascribe to the faith(s) of our fathers. And for those whose fathers serve a jealous god, the price can be high.

From testimonials at places like exChristian.net; exMormon.org; Faithfreedom.org (leaving Islam) we know that Michael's despair and desperation were not unique. Many who lose religion muddle along in silent shame -- wanting to believe, praying desperately for doubts to be removed, blaming themselves and fending off images of eternal torture before finally giving up the fight. Granted, some lucky few simply flip a bit, but others find themselves dragged reluctantly into an internal conflict takes years.

Most religions implant psychological safeguards against apostasy, little emotional bombs of fear, guilt, shame and self-loathing that get triggered by the mere act of questioning. In religious orthodoxy, doubt is the domain of fools. It is the consequence of having hardened your heart like Pharaoh or resenting God's power like Lucifer. Oh ye of little faith!

Now add to loss and self-loathing a crush of rejection by people who have loved you "unconditionally": friends, cousins, siblings, parents, or even a spouse. When I was a suicidal nineteen-year-old (still a believer), a woman I had looked up to for years, apologized for having counseled me as a Christian when in hindsight I clearly was not. But even now, despite my public apostasy, my family has never cut me off, nor I them. We walk a loving, if uncomfortable line with each other. Our compatibility depends on things not said as much as it depends on conversation, but the common ground is also real.

Not everyone is so lucky. Some families cannot get past revulsion and sense of betrayal they feel toward a member who has literally broken faith. Manifest examples of kindness, integrity, warmth, or generosity get reinterpreted. They were never real -- or the person has changed utterly.

Some former believers, fragile in either their disbelief or their self-worth, can't stand to be in the relentless presence of even unspoken disapproval. Others try to reach out to family members and get turned away with harsh words or silent shunning. Still others face a barrage of re-conversion efforts at any family gathering.

A divorce can get initiated by either side. Either way, it is the renegade who is most likely to end up alone and symptomatic. Think about it: for a person who has already lost a god and consequently a core part of the self, to sever ties with family is an act of desperation or sheer self preservation.

Returning to my earlier comparison with gay kids coming out -- we all know what the worst case scenarios look like. In major cities across the country, outreach programs offer a helping hand to homeless and often self-destructive gay teens, kids who have been given the boot by parents who think they might as well be dead. But who is offering support to kids or adults who lose their religion?

Even among my professional peers, psychologists, far too few understand the depth of harm that can be done to the psyche by fundamentalist religion -- religion that subsumes the individual self to a cult self. The irony is that few mental health professionals are sympathetic to the claims of moral dogma. The practicing therapist is exposed daily to life's caprice: biochemical malfunctions, developmental vagaries, and rotten life circumstances. In contrast to a religious perspective, psychology seeks to understand material and historical roots of symptoms rather than making moral judgments. So the problem is not that the professional world view aligns with a dogmatic world view. It is just that, in the absence of dramatic evidence to the contrary, we are all taught to think of religion as harmless.

It's time to give up the illusion.

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