Leaving religion behind
Leaving behind the religion in which you grew up, is not an easy decision. The process involves fear of losing friends and family, and feelings of shame and guilt. How does this affect someone’s mental wellbeing?
What if you are born within a certain religion, but no longer want to be part of that religious community? In the Netherlands, the story of writer Lale Gül, who left the Orthodox Islamic faith behind, sparked a much wider public debate. Gül wrote the autobiographical book Ik ga leven (I am going to live), a story about a Turkish-Dutch woman who rebels against the strict Islamic society in which she grew up. After the publication of her book, she received multiple threats on social media.
Around the same time, broadcasting company HUMAN aired a documentary series called Vrijdenkers (Free Thinkers). The documentary follows six young people who left their (orthodox) religion behind. Their stories all have one thing in common: after leaving their religious community, they received a lot of negative comments from family and friends who did not understand their choice. With religion playing such a big role in someone’s life, leaving creates a personal struggle that can lead to mental health problems.
Loss of safety
Leaving a religion or religious community behind is also known as apostasy or deconversion. German researchers Heinz Streib and Barbara Keller pointed out five different dimensions of deconversion. The first one being loss of specific religious experiences, for example losing the purpose of life. The second is intellectual doubt, denial or disagreement with specific beliefs. The third dimension is moral judgement. The fourth consists of emotional suffering, for example feeling a loss of safety or losing social contacts. The final one is resigning from the religious community, such as no longer participating in meetings.
These five dimensions usually result in leaving the religious community behind entirely. They show that apostasy is not a one-time event or a simple choice, but rather it is a process. It should also be noted that apostasy does not always result in atheism, but can also lead to a change of faith or to leaving the church as an institution but still believing in God.
In the documentary Vrijdenkers, Inge recalls her mother saying, “I would have preferred that you died,” after sharing with her that she wanted to leave the Liberated Reformed Church. Her family received flowers and cards from the religious community, because having a child leave their religion behind is one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. Inge’s story is a clear example of how apostasy can have a negative impact on family relationships. It is similar to the experience of Sofyan, who left his Islamic faith and consequently felt a distance from his parents. Sofyan mentions how he did not speak to his parents for several years.
Moreover, the fear of losing one’s family can sometimes make people live a double life. This is the case for Fatima and Danah, two women who left Islam but experience difficulties living life as ex-Muslims. Fatima shares how she is torn between her parents and her personal happiness. Both young women still wear their headscarves to keep their parents happy. Feelings of guilt towards family and friends can be harmful for one’s mental wellbeing, and living a double life can be emotionally draining. According to Inge, there should be more space to create a dialogue between the parent and the apostate. The dialogue should not only focus on the apostate’s feelings, but also on those of the parents.
Punishment of the devil
Changing your belief and having to leave your social network behind may increase the risk of vulnerability, psychological problems, and loneliness. Loneliness seems to be an especially relevant problem. According to Oliver, as shown in Vrijdenkers, the most difficult thing to do is leave people behind. Besides loneliness, apostasy can also cause anxiety, depression, and the idea of constantly failing. Apostates often feel scared to discuss their doubts with other people, and experience high levels of shame and guilt. These feelings might cause them to isolate and withdraw themselves from their family and friends, which can lead to depression. Religious communities might argue that leaving your religion will cause you to end up in hell and be punished by the devil, like Saïd Elhaij was told. The fear of being punished after leaving your faith can trigger (existential) anxiety.
Certain factors can lessen the impact of apostasy on mental wellbeing; social support, self-help, and helping others can protect against mental health problems such as loneliness and depression. Finding other apostates and sharing your experiences also helps in fighting off loneliness, which is why the Dutch Humanist Association created the ‘Vrijdenkplaats’, a platform that brings together people who left their religion behind.
Leaving behind the religion in which one grew up, leaving behind the community and having to refind oneself, is not an easy process. Family members and friends might not accept the decision, and feelings of guilt, shame, and loneliness can affect mental wellbeing. But there are groups and organisations, like the Vrijdenkplaats, that bring together people who left their faith. Their message? “You are not alone.”
What do traditions, tolerance, and tension have to do with each other? Find out more on the EARS Dashboard.
 Streib, H. (2020). Leaving Religion: Deconversion. Current Opinion in Psychology.
 Łysiak, M., Zarzycka, B., & Puchalska-Wasyl, M. (2020). Deconversion Processes in Adolescence—The Role of Parental and Peer Factors. Religions, 11(12), 664.
 Streib, H., & Keller, B. (2004). The variety of deconversion experiences: Contours of a concept in respect to empirical research. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 26(1), 181-200.
 Bolton, L., Fonseca, A., Tracy, D., & Barnby, J. M. (2020). The Consequences of Apostasy: How Changing Core Social and Personal Religious Beliefs Affect Sense of Self, Mental Health, and Identity.