THE BLOG
08/19/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Break Free from Organized Religion

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Freedom OF Religion?
Absolutely.  Part of what it means to live in a Democracy is the First Amendment right that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

Freedom FOR Religion?
That, too, is part of what it means to live in a Democracy. No one is to be prohibited from the free exercise of their religion. What about...

Freedom FROM Religion?
Well, that's part of what it means to live in a Democracy as well. People have the right to no religion, too. To enjoy freedom from religion. What if you were raised, however, inside a religious tradition that today looks and feels wrong to you?

Does freedom from religion apply to those who feel the need to break free of organized religion? How do you walk away from, as well as feel internally free, from a religion you regard today as having lost its way?

Or, worse, has gone mad? If and when you have felt incarcerated like a prisoner inside a religion, how do you break free? I get asked this question often.  I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts that might help know freedom from religion.

1.  First, remember that freedom is the purpose of all religions.
The purpose of all religion is to free you. When a religion ceases to free you, you need freedom from religion.

Furthermore, the purpose of all religion is to bring order out of chaos. By nature, all religions are designed to bind together one's life which sometimes can feel like a confusing puzzle of misplaced pieces.

The word "religion," for example, literally means "to sew together," as a seamstress might sew together a quilt. It means "to bind together" as a bookbinder might assemble the various pages of a novel.

While the purpose, therefore, of all religions is to help people put life together, the unfortunate consequence is that many religions seem only to succeed in tearing people apart, emotionally and spiritually. Has this happened to you? When it does, life tends to unravel all the more.

Freedom from religion is needed.

Apparently, many people are realizing this because, according to the Pew Research Center, "One-fifth of the U.S. public -- and a third of adults under 30 -- are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling."

We are living in a religious revolution.  Instead of people turning to organized religion, however, they're turning away and seeking freedom.

But why?

According to Benjamin Corey, in a recent blog printed in Patheos, Corey has isolated what he would describe as the "Top 10" list of reasons why people leave organized religion. Since most of this departure is primarily, although not exclusively, from the Christian Church, Corey's list focuses on why people are leaving the Church.  I've reprinted them here, along with a link to his blog.

10. People leave the church when they can't find community.
9. People leave the church because they need less drama in their lives.
8. People leave the church because of unresolved conflict.
7. People leave the church because of controlling leaders and unskilled teachers.
6. People leave the church because they're turned off by social climbing, cliches, and nepotism.
5. People leave church when they feel like they need to become a carbon copy of an individual or ideal in order to be fully included and appreciated.
4. People leave church because they are tired of being told how a "good Christian" will vote.
3. People leave church because they're looking for something authentic.
2. People leave church because they feel lonely.
1. People leave church when they don't find Jesus.

Maybe you see in Corey's list one or more of the reasons why you've left organized religion or are thinking of leaving church. Or, maybe your reason for seeking freedom from religion is not listed at all.

What about abuse, as a predominant 21st century reason why people seek freedom from religion? Like physical abuse or emotional, intellectual, or spiritual abuse?

Nowhere are these listed in Corey's list. Yet, I know of scores of people who have left the Catholic Church, or are in the process of leaving, because of the continuing sex scandals among the clergy. They not only want freedom from religion, they want nothing to do with this religion ever again.

Another reason I often hear as to why people are leaving organized religion is because of the narrow-ness of theology, bigotry, closed-mindedness, prejudice toward other religions, especially Islam, prejudice toward the LGBT community, and even bias against science and the use of one's mind in critical thinking.

Our state is home to the Creation Museum. I know many Kentuckians who have walked away from the church because their congregation's leader insists on preaching creationism as if it were science to be taught in public schools.

By the way, "creation science" is an oxymoron. There is nothing scientific about "creationism." Who does not know this? Apparently, many religious people. And, worse, presumably educated leaders.

One of the reasons why I temporarily sought freedom from religion is because of the increasing insistence from lay people and other clergy within my church to conform to one way of interpreting the Bible. That and the intellectual suicide I was expected to commit in order to "believe" the Bible or, more accurately, their interpretation of it.

Had I not found a Church that encouraged people to think and was open to women and the gay community, and did not require me to leave my brain at home when I came to church, I would never have returned.

But the church I attend is quite rare. I know because I'm a consultant to congregations all over America, congregations representing every major Christian communion, and there are few even remotely like it.

Whatever the reasons why you have been longing for freedom from religion, know this, you're not alone.

My second suggestion to you is this:

2. Fear keeps many from freedom, but don't be afraid to walk away.
I think one of the reasons why many people stay loosely connected to their organized religion is because the thought of walking away is expressly frightening.

"But of what are people afraid?" you ask. Here a few possible things...

1. They are afraid of rejection. This is a legitimate fear. Many people may no longer feel a spiritual connection to their religious tradition but they are in families that do. Or, they think they do, anyway. In either instance, it is terrifying to imagine the rejection they might experience from those they love, should they walk away.

If this is you, I want to assure you that there are those who can and will support you. And, they might be in your own family. Watch for that one with whom you might speak and share your religious concerns and questions.

If you find one, or think of one, frame your conversation in the form of questions and this can provide you insight into their openness to go deeper into exploration with you. For starters, for example, use this question: "Do you sometimes feel that some of the things our religion expects us to believe or expects us to practice is a little off base? Or, even way out of line?"

Framing your feelings in the form of a question is like viewing a portrait hanging on the wall. You and your family member are simply observing and you are asking what they observe. This method is not threatening to anyone. And, as a favorable consequence, you might actually discover they have been having some of the same feelings and thoughts, too.

Why do some avoid seeking freedom from religion but stay incarcerated instead?

2. They are afraid of being alone, drifting on a sea of spiritual uncertainty. I think the internet, however, has helped and is helping people find others with whom to connect who are experiencing or have experienced the same kind of religious imprisonment. Don't you?

If you have not found someone, however, or a community that shares an understanding of what you have been experiencing, then, by all means, contact me. I have been writing and speaking to the religiously disenfranchised for decades now. Follow my blog. Friend me, too, on Facebook and Twitter. I will do my best to help you in your spiritual search.

3. I'll mention one more, although there are probably many more reasons why people avoid seeking freedom from religion, even though they derive little spiritual nourishment from it. Something else is holding them within it. They stay precisely because they have found community.

The thought of walking away from the friends they have and the social connectedness to others they enjoy is inconceivable. Add to this the fear I mentioned above -- the fear of losing relationships -- and you will understand their willingness to tolerate beliefs for which they share little in common for their unwillingness to let go of relationships within which they share much in common.

I've talked to many regular churchgoers, for example, who say to me, "We don't believe half the stuff they talk about at church, but we go because that's where our children have friends. We have friends there, too. So, as a consequence, we just put up with all that other nonsense."

"Other nonsense?"

That's what many people feel about the really important "doctrines" and "dogmas" of much of Christianity and organized religion today.

If the day ever comes when these people can internally tolerate the emotional sadness of possibly losing a friendship or acquaintance, they'll leave those religions. And, many of them will anyway, soon after their children are grown and leave home.

If I were a religious leader, I would be very concerned that my congregation was filled with people who are spiritually and emotionally disconnected to the church's message and mission -- who feel so much of it is "bunk" -- and are attending only because of their children and/or their social relationships.

I would not be inclined, however, as many religious leaders seem to be, to judge these attenders as "uncommitted" to Christ or, equally as insensitive, that they are "entitlement seekers."

Ouch!  I would ask instead, "Is there something wrong with us... or even with our message that is causing thinking people to withdraw their spiritual and emotional engagement and loyalty?

If Freedom FROM Religion is What You Seek, How Do You Break Free?

1. Remember the purpose of all religions. When religion gets away from its real purpose - to help people put life together - it will take over your life. When that occurs, and you feel there is nothing you can do to change it, you must leave and leave quickly. Remember, God goes with you. You're not alone.

2. Don't let fear keep you from taking leave, either. It's a most important journey you'll make. Your spiritual survival likely depends on it. You'll not only feel free, but you'll help free others along the way, too.

I'll make one more suggestion here on freedom from religion.
3. If you feel it's time to enjoy some freedom, then, by all means, follow the feeling.
The first step away is always the hardest. The next steps you take will be easier. But, with every step you take, the door to freedom will swing open ever wider indeed.

Mark Nebo, author of The Book of Awakening, tells a Zen Buddhist parable about a man who raised a baby swan in a tiny glass cage. As the bird grew, however, it soon became apparent the swan would soon outgrow the glass cage and, if something was not done, it would be stuck in it, suffocate, and die.

The man faced a dilemma, however. The only way to free the bird was to break the glass jar. To do so was to increase the risk of killing the bird.

What was he to do? He had no choice but to risk breaking the glass and so freeing the bird. As he did so, fortunately, the bird survived.

As I read the story, I thought, "Organized religion is often like this, is it not?"

I am often asked, for example, "Why do so many of our youth leave the church soon after graduating high school?"

There are perhaps many reasons. And, I suppose some of it is just a part of growing up.

But there are other reasons, too, that many religious parents do not seem to realize.

One reason I believe they are leaving is to break free of the cages we've stuffed them in for years. Because of our fears of setting them free, we inadvertently, make their incarceration all the more dangerous to them.

I think the biggest error religions and religious leaders make with youth, for example, is to communicate to them that their questions might lead them to compromise their convictions and that their doubts are really only indications of a failure in their beliefs.

Neither of these is true, however.

If you do not know this yet, you must. Until you question your faith, you have no faith. At best, you carry around a backpack of beliefs that somebody else has packed for themselves but has handed off to you to carry. Which explains why your religion is more a burden to you than a blessing.

For years, I wanted to be free to think, to believe, to love, to laugh, to be myself in a world of religious look-a-likes. But I let my fears of the disapproval of others lock me in a cage.

I know many ministers, too, who, like me, say they believe certain beliefs that they really question. They only say they believe because they are afraid, if they admitted publicly they were not sure or, worse, that they had doubts, their job security would be in question.

Cages.

That's all these things are.

Seek freedom from religion, instead. If that's what you need.

Had I known years ago what's its like to run through the fields and mountains like Julie Andrews was pictured in The Sound of Music, singing, 'the hills are alive..." I would have broken free of the cage in which I lived much sooner than I did.

You were created to be free. If you are feeling the need to leave the cage, leave it.

Rumi, the Sufi poet, asked it best:

"With the prison door so wide open, why would you remain inside?"

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, leadership coach, counsel to non-profits, faith-based organizations and congregations, an adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Kentucky, an interfaith activist and spiritual teacher, and an inspirational and motivational speaker. But not always in this order. On the university campus, he teaches students the art of communication. In public talks, however, he teaches people the art of leading, as well as the art of living...so that... when you come to the end, you've experienced real freedom...accomplishment...happiness...knowing your brief but important journey has made this world a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable place. Visit his website for more information: SteveMcSwain.com