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Recovering from Religion and The Existential Crisis

By Marlene Winnell ~

Recently in our online Release & Reclaim support group (which has multiple monthly meetings over Zoom as well as a large community of deconstructing folks in our forums) we had a conversation about existential panic. 

One member posed this simple question: “Is anyone else hitting the existential crisis part of this recovery process?” And from there, an incredibly nuanced discussion ensued.

Jocelyn (*all names have been changed to protect the identities of members, and all who are quoted gave their permission) expressed a nagging, post-religion feeling of dread, that “nothing is real, and there would be no reason for living if there is no life after this one. I know this is due to a loss of Christian identity, but the fear and pain of this loss is enormous.”

Andres agreed: “It’s been difficult accepting that there isn’t some grand cosmic purpose to this life.”

Kara said the struggle to find meaning and worth feels similar to the journey of addiction recovery. “[I felt] like I didn’t have permission to exist after leaving, like I had to constantly earn my right to be on this earth and enjoy anything about life at all… We are going to encounter new triggers or even old triggers in unfamiliar contexts, and in facing them we may have to develop new tools or sharpen old ones we hadn’t needed in a while.”

Leaving religion is such a difficult challenge, because it can feel like an impossible void to face. Fear, pain, loss, and grief are inevitable parts of this and have to be faced. Michael reminded us that there’s an uncomfortable in-between part of deconstruction, where we don’t fit into the “religious side” of things, but we’re still seeing the world through a conditioned lens (particularly when it’s the only one we’ve known), and it can take a while before we start to see things without that framework. “It is neither quick nor easy to completely reinvent one’s identity, especially coming out of one which puts such high stakes on itself,” he said. “For me, the existential dread and hopelessness I felt as I left religion turned out to be growing pains as I changed from who my church said I ought to be into who I actually am.”

One profound realization Andrew had was that life can’t have meaning if we see ourselves as inherently worthless without god. Part of reclaiming our lives means learning to acknowledge our right to our own thoughts and choices. “I’m now trying to recognise that I am the ultimate authority on me [and] on what I think is valid, which by extension should mean that it is I who gets to decide that I’m valid,” he shared. “Once I do that, then I get to explore what I value, what I find meaningful, what I wish to keep and let go of.”

Another member stated that “Experiencing my own humanity matters.” They listed simple pleasures such as washing dishes, noticing the way their dog’s breath slows when he falls asleep, biffing it on a powdery mountain while snowboarding, as well as allowing intense feelings of grief or joy to pour in as the ultimate sense of aliveness. “It all gets to matter,” they said. “Life actually feels so much more sacred to me now than when I was in religion.”

Overwhelmingly, reclaimers are recognizing that meaning is what we make it – not what someone else tells us it is. “For something to be important, the stakes don’t need to be cosmic or eternal,” said Michael. “It just needs to be important to me.”

“Christianity can do a really good job of convincing us that the most important thing of all is that we as individuals are personally saved,” shared Kara. “I think that’s part of why this journey is so hard; we’ve been primed for constant self-scrutiny and self-reproach and that makes it easier to forget that there is this whole great big beautiful world out there full of safety and wonder and novelty. You matter and you deserve to be here.”

Conversations like this are valuable reminders of our humanity, our shared experiences in our healing and deconstruction, and the powerful realizations that await us in our newly chosen lives. We’d love to have you join us for more discussions like this. You can join our online support group and forum here.