I’ve been getting emails almost daily telling me how much the podcast is helping people heal, and I know I will never fully get used to this honor. I’m floored. Thank you all for that.
A common question comes up in these emails from people who are starting over after escaping toxic religion. They want to know how to leave a religious community and thrive. And I feel some of my experience is worth sharing. Like Jamie Lee Finch said on the show, painful experiences are what make us an expert.
Every religious community has those who leave. There is often mystery surrounding those that exit and never come back. Why did they go? What will happen to their soul? How are they living now? Are they happy? I remember how it felt. Maybe they visited back to church when visiting family or on a holiday, but you knew they’d changed. It wasn’t clear how I should treat them biblically. Should I be friendly but not too friendly? Should I ignore them because it feels like some of the Bible teaches that? These are the confusing things going on in the mind of many of those in the community. But I’m not that person anymore. I’m on the receiving end. I’m the mysterious one causing the conflicting feelings, and I’ve lost my community because I had to be honest with who I was and what I truly believed.
There were some Christians that came to my side, loyally, at the times I needed them most. One had me over for dinner once, and their daughter was scared their family would get in trouble from church leadership for allowing me into their dining room. They knew the risks, and they didn’t care.
In my time away from the church, I gave myself room to finally question some doubts I had trained myself to overlook. I didn’t know how to reach out to my old community, and I suspect they didn’t know how to reach out to me. Then the loosening of the old community’s influence cracked open the door for me to act on something I knew about myself since I was 14; I was gay.
When I came out as gay, even many of the faithful friendships became confusing and awkward. Less frequent. Fading. I take some responsibility for this (not blame because I recognize that like-mindedness is important for some communities). After reading many comments on my Facebook status announcing my sexuality, I wasn’t sure where I stood with many people I had called my family for years. I was a confessing, gay Christian then, but that wasn’t possible in many’s minds. Those that wanted to trust me didn’t always know how to address it. Eventually, my faith stopped adding up, and I couldn’t identify as a Christian anymore. The one-two punches of my sexuality and disbelief knocked out nearly my whole community.
My relationship with my family transformed into an entirely different beast. I went from being the golden-boy, soon-to-be pastor who was going to change the world for Jesus to a vocal gay. There was no easy way to transition, and I know it left heads spinning. What else could I have done? My previous communities left no room for who I am. Even if I was vocal to them about being a non-practicing gay during the 13 years between me realizing I was attracted to guys despite my most diligent efforts to when I finally touched another man’s hand, I would have been misunderstood and taking a giant risk of being labeled a pervert. I wasn’t wrong. When I came out, I was asked 5-6 times by the same family member in the matter of an hour if I had been molested or raped as a kid and never admitted to it. Then came concerns for my son’s safety. The shame and pain I held in for years resurfaced, and I wanted to disappear. But I kept on.
I’m more than just a community member or family member, and you are too. A community that has little or no room for graciously treating people that have even respectfully renounced their beliefs is a toxic environment, which will most likely leave you hurt and feeling alone. Have you lost people you care about? Have you come face to face with loneliness and confusion? Here is my advice.
1. BE YOUR TRUEST SELF
There is so much power in being whole. A friend of mine stuck with me as I was figuring myself out as a gay man wandering out of Christianity. We attended the same Bible Study at our friends’ house. One night, I was planning to go to a gay bar afterward because I was trying to get in touch with my emerging community. She asked me where I was going. I smiled nervously and answered, “a bar.” “What kind of bar?” I told her that she knew the answer, but she insisted on hearing me say it. “A gay bar,” I finally confessed. “I know,” she said. “I’m coming with.” And she did. For the first time, there wasn’t “Brady” and then “Gay Brady.” I was just me.
The terms “oneness” and “wholeness” always sounds so new-agey to me until I lived my express of the word. And like a telescope adjusted correctly, things came into focus. I was able to see myself for the hard-working, empathic, single dad I am. Shame for “failing” at “giving into temptation” melted to the ground because it couldn’t stand the heat of reality. I was doing the best I could, and I replaced my feelings of being totally depraved with confidence in my character.
2. FIND YOUR BLISS
You’re free to do things you enjoy just for the sake of doing them now. I remember when the book, “Purpose-Driven Life,” came out. Half the Christians I knew loved it while the other half felt it was too much about people being happy instead of focusing on God’s happiness. These sort of conversation flooded my church experience toward the end, and if the two ideas were mutually exclusive. But one that I never heard debated from the book is how it taught that every meeting, BBQ, ice cream social, party, etc. needed to somehow go back to the story of Jesus Christ and his offer of salvation.
Perhaps my favorite depiction of this can be seen toward the end of Stephen Cone’s “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”, a film about a high schooler realizing he’s gay in the midst of a conservative Baptist church youth group. In the film, every character is experiencing a major life struggle that’s lurking right at the surface because, in their church community, transparency was discouraged. In the middle of this boy’s birthday pool party, the clueless youth pastor enters intrusively with a guitar to concourse everyone to sing worship songs. He called it a way “to bless this and bring it home.” This scene gave me rapid-fire flashbacks to every uncomfortable transition from normal conversation to someone presenting the plan of salvation.
You no longer have to spiritualize your hobbies. I’ve loved writing fiction for years. When I was a Christian, I felt everything I wrote somehow had to bring people’s minds back to the faith so God would get the glory. After leaving the faith, it took me over three years to find my voice without that faith anymore. I’m so glad to have it back. I’ve reclaimed a part of myself again.
3. REMEMBER YOU’RE NOT A PIONEER
When I read Leah Remini’s book, “Troublemaker,” about leaving Scientology, I recall her describing Nicole Kidman as a role model even though they had never met. Nicole, like Leah, had left the church, and Leah realized that if Nicole could do it and make it out as a happy person, she can too. Others have left my exact previous churches for the same or differing reasons than me way before I did. The way is paved, and you don’t have to be alone.
When I got the idea for The *Life After, I messaged a few people that I had not consistently seen or heard from in over a decade. Many were friends from before I entered the deep, religious jungle, the last religious community I was part of and the most separated from what’s considered normal. My friends and I all went our separate ways, or so I thought. I’d side-eye glance at their Facebooks over the years, and I saw some clues of belief transformation. Eventually, we all kind of ended at the same spot. We were on the other side. I proposed the project to them, and something glorious happened when we started to share our stories. It was like my face was bright purple from holding my breath for so long until I was finally able to release it with them. Conversations with empathic, understanding people and with those with similar experiences as you often bring the best healing. The whole point of The *Life After is to feel less alone, and I hope it’s helping you.
4. CONSIDER THERAPY
A common question that has come up with guests of the podcast, on and off the show, is whether or not they went through therapy. Nearly all of us have after leaving our religious communities, and we benefited greatly. It was important for me to find one with a sliding scale for payments and wasn’t affiliated with a religion, and with the help of a friend, I found a great one. He has helped me greatly by unpacking my experience, recognizing the lingering shame, and finding constructive ways to cope with my past instead of allowing it to give feelings of hopelessness.
Leah Remini mentioned in “Troublemaker” that she also has to keep her thoughts in check, questioning if they are either from her previous belief system or actually from her own instinct. This fragile rewiring nearly always requires some help.
I highly suggest reading up on Religious Trauma Syndrome to see if you may relate to it and could benefit from treatment.
5. EXPERIENCE WHAT YOU MISSED OUT ON
So many of the things were old were “bad” are perfectly fine in moderation. It is rumored in the church I grew up in that the man that played Jesus in our elaborate Easter pageants for years was asked to step down after he was “caught” drinking a beer at a baseball game. The black and white rules often made me wonder what they were actually trying to keep us from experiencing, and the often graceless discipline and judgments seemed too harsh. Unwilling to make waves, I allowed so many things to be forbidden for me until I ventured out.
I tried new things. I had always been nervous to go to the gym because, in high school, I was a nerdy, Bible-thumping drama club B-lister. I lacked the confidence to exercise in front of people, and I felt gyms seemed like a bad use of time because 1 Timothy 4:8 said bodily strength only had “some value” compared to godliness. Without this mind leech, I now look forward to going to the gym. Trying new things gave me self-confidence and better health.
I also look forward to my time at improv classes. I felt I had to suppress a love for television and comedy until I busted through that wall, realizing a deep admiration for actors from the Upright Citizen Brigade, Second City, the Groundlings, and other theaters. Suddenly, I wanted to know some history of these actors and actresses, and I sought out their work. Eventually, I hit “enter” on my keyboard to sign myself up for improv classes. I met so many new people and felt a kinship when three or four in my class shared that their exit from toxic religion also shaped their lives and in some way, motivated their signing up for the class as well. New things taught me I wasn’t alone.
I encouraged myself to explore my sexuality. I had locked it up for years, trusting that good would come from suppressing it. I sincerely believed that God would bless me for making such a giant sacrifice to him. Nothing is more powerful than the teenager that keeps himself from sexual activity, but I could never completely get my mind under control in the way I was taught I needed to. The humiliation and shame of having homosexual thoughts added with a completely natural sex-drive for that age scored my brain with scars that never completely heal. I realize now that no one was winning at the game of fixing our brains of any inappropriate sexual desire. We all were allowing ourselves to be controlled by an impossible rule that only waterboarded us with shame. So I gave myself permission to explore. I’ve meet great, respectful sexually-active people that aren’t as carnal and mindless as I would have expected years ago.Trying new things freed me from a lot of shame.
Since leaving my community, I’ve met all sorts of new people I would have never had access to. The color palette of the people around me is greatly varied, with diversity in skin tone, sexualities, gender identities, relationship styles, and more. My mind has opened greatly, and I feel more at peace with my ideologies because they reflect what I’m truly feeling deep down. I think the seeds of them were always there, but I finally started to make sure they got water. When I explored, I found more of myself.
This may not work for everyone, but journaling is a good way to get your feelings out. The subject of leaving religion is often silenced by shame, outside forces, or just inability to express it. Journaling can really help erode at the mental blockage that often comes with major changes in ideologies and beliefs. Your brain needs time and helps to readjust like as if you walked out of a dark room, and you may find a lot of help in writing down your experiences, thoughts, and emotions during the process. It will create landmarks for yourself on the journey so you can look back and see ways you’ve changed and grown.
Be your true self, find that bliss, don’t be alone, find help if you need it, and see what you were missing. It may take a while to find your footing, but I’m certain that we can get shit done if we allow ourselves to be in control of our lives. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the room and permission to find yourself truly, and don’t rush the process. Your mind can only do so much at a time, and there are things to enjoy as you discover the world in a bright new light.
It will feel prideful for some of us that have that judgemental voice lingering in our minds still like that annoying acquaintance you didn’t invite to your party but showed up anyway. That voice loves to remind you that it doesn’t think you should trust anything outside of your previous belief system. It eagerly reminds you of how many people it thinks would love to see you fail (see what I mean about judgmental?). And if that wasn’t enough bullshit, it tries to convince you that you’re exaggerating your experience because you’re in modern-day American for shit’s sake, and nothing too crazy could ever happen here. That voice needs to be heard and politely told to leave and never come back. I hope these things help you escort it out the door and keep it locked out for good. You deserve your party to be a good one. Now let’s get some cake.