For many who've endured spiritual abuse, reminders of their former religion can be triggering. Even in a new setting, a reference to scripture can cause their heart to race.
Controlling groups malign people who leave them. Scorn and shame are used to try to bring the individual or family back into compliance. It is an attempt to shut them up, squash their legitimate criticisms, and minimize the damage among stayers (that is caused by the truth leavers speak).
Depending on how closed the group is, and the number of years of participation in the group, the leaver is faced with many tasks to accomplish on the way to reclaiming his or her life. For some people, this journey takes them completely out of religion, and into the secularism. Marlene Winell describes these steps, in the 2016, Oxford Handbook of Secularism.
There are many misconceptions about people who leave religion, and do not take up a new one. There is the assumption that they quit too soon. They quit before god could help them fully heal. They stopped because they wanted to sin. They quit because the devil got ahold of them, or they were too lazy to seek more information.
For people who were enmeshed in an abusive group, the path to secularism is often one made after due diligence, careful study of evidence, and maybe even after lots of prayer and reflection.
Winell describes the paradigm shift that it takes to totally leave religion behind: the exploration of a new culture and the personal development it takes to get through this crisis. She suggests that people who become secular, following their time of being deeply religious, have advanced in their moral thinking. They are no longer living out of fear of punishment, or living up to social expectations, or maintaining social order out of duty or fear of authority.
Leavers have residual effects of having been extremely religious, Winell identifies Religious Trauma Syndrome. There can be fear of punishment, developmental delays, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But healing and growth also occur. As Winell writes:
"The former believer now living in the secular world is not without hope. The traumas and liabilities may be real but new opportunities are just as present. Without the strict rules and authoritarianism of a religious group, former believers can explore freely and exercise their own cognitive and emotional capacities. New friends, connections, and activities are available. This is all exciting despite being daunting." (http://bit.ly/2iX3aWG)
Whether you consider yourself secular or not, part of reclaiming life will be coping with triggers. When a trigger occurs, it is helpful to pay attention to your breathing, focus on where you are in the moment. Look around the room you are in, listen, smell, and breath. This can help ground you in the present, reminding you that you are safe.
If certain words trigger you, can you reframe them? Look them up in a dictionary, use the word with its proper meaning, not the twisted meaning of the group you left. If certain verses were repeated over and over to control your behavior, explore their context and see if they were plucked out of context and misused.
Avoidance does not help you overcome triggers. Exposure to triggers can help you overcome triggers. Because exposing yourself to a trigger can be frightening, it is best to explore this option with a professional, such as a licensed counselor or therapist who understands trauma.
Don’t be afraid to follow your questions wherever they lead you. One question that has led many into secularism is how to reconcile science with religion, for example, what to do with evolution.
A deep study of church history, can lead to questions of the church’s authority. If the history is this, what does it mean for me? If god is silent in the face of suffering, does god exist? If this is how doctrine came to be, is this how god would do it. or is this human-made? If other cultures taught these stories before Christianity, what does this mean?
It takes courage to ask questions and to accept the answers, but doing so can bring a freedom you never expected. As Winell’s article concludes, “Despite all the struggles, former believers gradually discover that the secular world is not the empty, meaningless wasteland they were led to believe. While still having challenges, it is full of joy and meaning, and this is such a huge relief after all the fear. Personal identities are reformed and lives are rebuilt on new terms. With maturity, the newly secular person willingly lets go of promises for existence by and by for a real life here and now.”
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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