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By Marlene Winell ~

OK, I think we can acknowledge we have a subculture now – a group of people who were once religious but have left and are reclaiming their lives. This group is special and identifiable. It’s not just exChristian; it’s exMormon, exMuslim, ex-Jehovah-Witness, ex-cult, and ex-authoritarian. But we need a name. I believe the terms that refer back to religious worldviews are inadequate, such as unbelievers, deconverted, and apostates. If we were to go that route, hell, we could have a sense of humor and call ourselves the Damned. But I’d rather not give the old frame of reference any power.

Other possible labels are free-thinkers, atheists, agnostics, humanists, brights, naturalists, and others. However these refer to large numbers of people, many of whom have no experience with religion. These groups might share some values with us and even some distaste of religion but do not have personal knowledge of what it is like to believe and then lose faith.

The name I suggest is “Reclaimers.” For some time, I have been learning about and working with people who have left restrictive religions and who are recovering from the effects of indoctrination. We’ve called the process “release and reclaim,” which means letting go of toxic doctrines and reclaiming one’s life. It turns out there is a lot of reclaiming to do. Beyond the healing of damage done, people emerging from the cocoon of repressive religion have to reclaim their identities, their right to think for themselves, their ability to trust their own feelings, and to have pleasure in their present life. They need to reclaim their sexuality, their creativity, their own idea of spirituality, and much more.

Particular groups have special issues and different theologies, but reclaimers understand each other in a basic and deep way. We have all had our humanity denied and truth withheld. We have had our sense of reality shaken to the core and we have had to rebuild, coping with ruptures in our families and risks of “coming out.” We share the need for support and we recognize in each other the exciting signs of coming to life. We know how to grieve together and how to celebrate together. We understand the fear and the rage as well as the courage and unstoppable drive to forge a new, self-chosen path.

In addition, we are unlike those who were spared indoctrination in that we can look back and understand the experience of being immersed and vulnerable in a belief system and thus have compassion for those still trapped. As such we can help the unchurched appreciate the powerful emotional manipulations involved. We can advocate for health and educational services beyond the usual civil rights issues because we understand the abuse. Essentially we are able to provide two ironically contrasting sensitivities. Because we were once believers, we can help to explain the mindset instead of writing religious people off as crazy or stupid, and at the same time, we can alert our society about the true consequences of authoritarian religion, especially the trauma inflicted on children.

We are a very special group. We can help each other on our road of recovery and we can make unique contributions in the world. We can decide that we will no longer let religion block our human development – as persons or as a human family. We are Reclaimers.


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