“Done” with Religion?

My core identity remains deeply Christian. However, after 48 years of attending church at least once per week (almost without exception, even during college), I am – at least temporarily – “done” with the local church.

Part of this stems from the era of COVID-19. At the same time my family and I try to do what we feel is responsible in preventing further spread of the virus, others in our area see no problem with in-person worship, contributing to a new sense of disconnection.  

Even if COVID-19 never happened, though, I still might be “done.” For years, although I earnestly joined with others in my local church community to recite the same creed and prayers of the Christian faith and to pour my heart into collective worship and service, I often – ironically enough – had the sense we didn’t share the same worldview or many of the same values. I never felt comfortable attending the men’s Bible study because I believed my questions or divergent thoughts would not be welcome. Maybe this is an aside – or maybe not – but my kids never significantly connected with anyone in the church’s youth program either. As time passed, I realized we didn’t really have a place at that table.

I’m not happy about being “done.” I feel failure… isolation… and profound loss. I’ve described this split as being like “divorce.” And, yet, in my brokenness, I also feel some degree of new freedom.

***   

The first time I heard of a religious “done” was when I was in a meeting with my colleague, Josh Packard, Sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, and author of “Church refugees: Sociologists reveal with people are DONE with church but not their faith.” The term “done” is a play on words, referencing the more common term religious “nones,” the broader, growing group of individuals in the developed world who express no religious affiliation.

As Packard writes in this excerpt published in Christianity Today – and drawing on interview data his team collected over the years – religious “dones” generally: (1) were highly active in a local church, (2) didn’t really want to drop out, but (3) felt stifled by church structure.

***

The psychology of religion generally concerns itself with why individuals are more religious than not (see this post for one summary) but, in recent years, a few psychological scientists have started to examine why some are irreligious. As I’ve written elsewhere, Julie Exline is a pioneer in this line of research, demonstrating how the movement away from faith sometimes may stem from an extreme protest reaction against adversity. More generally, non-belief often may reflect a variety of relational and emotional factors.

Recently, in an online only article in the journal “Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,” a set of some of the first psychological studies of religious “dones” was published.

In an initial study, the researchers asked 114 individuals who said they were once – but no longer – religious to write about their primary reason for the change. Fifty-two percent cited intellectual reasons, such as a perceived incompatibility of their previous religious beliefs with science or logic, or described how they simply “outgrew” their old beliefs. Twenty-two percent described how they couldn’t be part of an institution they felt caused trauma to themselves or others or perpetuated hatred toward particular groups they supported. Fifteen percent wrote about experiencing a personal adversity they couldn’t reconcile with their beliefs. Finally, 11% noted social reasons, such as feeling like they didn’t “fit in” with a religious community.  

A larger study focused on 643 people recruited from the United States, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong who said they were formerly – but not currently – religious. Seventy-two percent of this overall sample seemed to have “discontinued” from faith, exhibiting relatively lower levels of religious belief, commitment, and practice. In contrast, 28% were “still practicing,” despite their lack of formal affiliation. This group showed relatively higher levels of religious belief, commitment, and practice, and also revealed more favorable attitudes toward religion and religious people. Interestingly, however, the “still practicing” group also displayed more emotional distress, maybe because they continued with a religious identity that was not supported by a specific community.

***

Unsplash | Stefan Kunze

It’s intriguing to consider what it means to be “still practicing” a religion without being part of a religious community. Although many religious people are also spiritual, this “still practicing” group may be even more clearly so, as the term “spirituality” evokes more of a sense of autonomous quest. Still, without a community surrounding them, I can see why emotional distress would be high, as individuals would seem more likely to feel isolated and unsupported in their core identity.

Although this recent research is making progress, it still seems to be largely scratching the surface, and more research will be needed to appreciate the full complexity and nuance of individuals’ religious experiences.

As I think about where I stand, for example, I wouldn’t consider myself irreligious at all – even though I’m not connected with a local church at this point – and therefore I wouldn’t have even qualified to participate in this research. In addition to private disciplines I practice daily such as study, prayer, and meditation, I’ve used the unusual opportunities in the pandemic to participate in several excellent online churches from across the world, and I continue to talk and text with Christian friends about matters of faith on a regular basis. In a tradition that is inherently communal, I wonder how to continue to claim an identity in Christ without being a part of a local church, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be part of a mystical “global body.”

And, yet, it’s my longing and prayer to be a part of a local community where I can know and be known, and so after the pandemic lifts, we will begin the laborious process of “church shopping” again. Hopefully, we’ll find a community that “works” for us, but we may not. Maybe for some people, as Phyllis Tickle suggests in her book, “the Great Emergence,” Christianity will need to evolve, again, to truly have an open table. Maybe Christianity will need to return, again, to the margins – where it has always functioned best – and find a way to balance exclusive truth claims with inclusive community.

With faith and hope, I believe out of darkness, again, can come a great light.

This post was initially published at www.psychologytoday.com.

10 thoughts on ““Done” with Religion?

  1. erikamorck

    A thought-provoking article on the current state of faith – especially as many if not most churches remain shuttered (mine is closed to in-person worship) and those who “practice” their religion are forced to find new ways to worship and belong to a community. Finding belonging is what I miss most about my in-person church and yet ironically, at times it is in the church when I feel the most alone. Yes me, a lay pastoral associate feels very much alone in church. During this pandemic, the catchphrase has been “The church never closed, it just left the building.” I wonder how many will be back when our buildings open again. I have friends who are not so sure. They feel alienated by church political leanings, retributive dogmas, and hypocritical pew-mates. When this gets in the way of the teachings of Christ and their relationship with God – I can see why they would seek a different kind of faith and worship practice. I know I will ever be “done” with church and certainly not religion. I see the church as a hospital for sinners – hence the reason so much can go wrong inside its walls. But it is a place where – at least if we see with the eyes of Christ – that we are all on equal footing – and love can and does prevail in the end. It is the reason I am alive today – without the community I found in Christ I would not be who I am and I likely would not still be alive. I wish you and your family a God-inspired faith practice in this time of reflection and the best in your search for a new community of faith.

    Reply
  2. Rick Rawson

    I am also a “done,” apparently. In 2006, I was elected unanimously (that had never happened before in this church) to the elder board of my 800-member Bible church. One year later, I resigned and 3 months after that I left church altogether. I cannot say that I felt “failure… isolation… and profound loss.” I did feel lost, not in the eternal sense, but in the “what-do-I-do-now?” sense. I eventually (2011) stumbled into St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. I cannot exaggerate the impact that those Exercises had on me. One of the big ideas (there were many) that I took away was the question, “What do you want?” Jesus asks this question (in some form) in the gospels more often than any other question. I have found that most people have no idea what the answer is beyond the obvious and superficial: I want a job; I want a good car; I want more patience… whatever. That’s not what Ignatius (or Jesus) was getting at. He was asking, “What do you really, really want, deep down in the core of your being?” It took me over ten years (!!!) to figure out the answer for myself. In my opinion, the “what do you want?” question is absolutely key. Reading in your essay above about all these people who have left the church, lost their faith, are disenchanted, etc… I have to wonder, what are they each looking for? What do they want? It seems like this question was not of interest to the researchers. It was a big deal for Jesus. Maybe we should be asking it more often, of both ourselves and others. My guess is that many Christians will offer up stock answers that in most cases won’t even be close to the real truth. I spent most of my life in that camp. Perhaps those who are disenchanted are exactly the group of people who are most likely to be honest about the answer. The fact that they have taken a drastic action suggests that they are searching… for something. But what? What do you want?

    Reply
    1. Andy Post author

      Thanks so much for your comment, Rick. I’ve went through the Ignatian exercises as well, and it was a powerful and sacred experience.

      You never said what you concluded about what you want. I’d love to hear.

      Andy

      Reply
      1. Rick Rawson

        My answer to the question “what I want” has gone through a very slow and long process, beginning with “I don’t even understand the question,” to “I don’t know how to think about it,” to “I don’t have a clue as to the answer,” to “I can’t be certain, but…”. Because the answer seemed so elusive, I took a deep breath and decided to embark on a long period (years) of simply waiting. I sensed that something inside me needed to change and only God could lead me along that road. Ever so slowly, amidst persistent daily prayer and meditation on the Scriptures over a prolonged period, I began to understand that what I wanted was to know how to live with Jesus. I knew that was not the final answer. He is not done with me. I am not stuck there. What I want continues to develop. Recently, I came to appreciate that there is a world of difference between God providing a refuge and God being a refuge. I want to know how to move from the one to the other. I want God Himself to be my refuge. I don’t want to just know it; I want to live it. He will lead me on this one too. “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

        Some of my “wants” may sound trite or like a platitude or like “Everyone knows this,” or like “What kind of a Christian were you for your whole life?” But, I assure you that my life is very different from what it was 10 years ago. There is an enormous difference between knowing that God can be my refuge, something I have known for many decades, and God Himself actually being my refuge. All of this change has happened since I left the church. If I made no progress while in the church, it was not for lack of trying. Over 40 years, I kept up daily “quiet times”, preached in churches, taught adult Sunday school classes, served on Boards, and did street evangelism with pastors. Leaving the church forced me to ask “What’s next?”, which naturally led to the next question, “Well, what do you want?” And with that, I have gone full circle in this comment.

        What I’ve written here is the tip of the iceberg. I have thirteen years of history with God since I resigned from the Elder board. God continues to work in me daily, slowly. I could write a blog about it and indeed, I have.

      2. Andy Post author

        Thanks, Rick. It’s really inspiring and helpful to hear more of your story.

        A few years ago, I became obsessed by John Hermanson’s album “Psalms” (you can listen here: https://johnhermanson.bandcamp.com/album/psalms). I’ve always loved the Psalms, but this for some reason really caused me to dig deeper. I was struck by how often the psalmist writes about “dwelling in the house of the Lord.” Psalm 27:4 says it most plainly: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Seems like this might be similar to what you’re saying.

        Much to think about. Thanks again.
        Andy

  3. Eric

    Hi Andy, thanks for this. I think you are reflecting on what a lot of people are coming to these days. Dissatisfaction with the church sometimes stems from disbelief in God, but also sometimes from a strong belief in Jesus and the conclusion (as erikamorck & Rick both seem to be saying) that the church has departed from his way. I know many young adults (I am 75) who are on that journey of leaving church and conventional evangelical doctrine and finding Jesus in a new way.

    We too have found refreshment in following online services from 3 continents, and I think this is a phenomenon that will only intensify the issues that you raise.

    I think quitting the church can be the gateway to a renewed faith, and I wish you well on your journey.

    Reply
  4. Rick Rawson

    I have been following your blog for quite a long time. Your academic approach always interests me, perhaps because I am a (retired) academic myself. I don’t recall ever leaving a comment here, though… until now. I couldn’t let this particular post go uncommented. It is too important… to you. What you describe in this post is a really big deal. Really big. Big enough that I prayed for you in my weekly (Zoom) prayer meeting with my brothers (adelphos).

    In a previous comment, I noted that “I don’t want to just know it; I want to live it.” Here’s an example of the kind of thing I mean and what has changed for me in the last several years. For four decades, were I to read Ps 23:1, I would read it as “I hope the Lord is my Shepherd,” or “The Lord is my Shepherd and I’m comforted by that,” or “The Lord is my Shepherd, and that’s inspiring.” In my most honest moments, I would have to admit to myself that I had no idea, in practical terms, what it meant that “The Lord is my Shepherd” or I would admit that “The Lord is somebody’s Shepherd, but I don’t see it in my life.” The spiritual disciplines, or what Jonathan Edwards would call “means of grace,” that I practice are aimed at seeing the Lord as MY shepherd, daily, momently. I now recognize that I NEED a Shepherd, a real Shepherd. It is absolutely not optional. Ps 23 was not written to inspire but to tell us the truth about reality and the reality is that I must have a shepherd in this life.

    For the last few months, I have been praying through the Psalms. “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth.” The Bible was not meant to inform only, but to inform so that we might live it. And, so… I am learning to live life with a Shepherd always nearby. It is not about comfort or inspiration. It is about living life well, regardless of circumstances, which is particularly timely, wouldn’t you say?

    Reply
    1. Andy Post author

      I’m honored by your thoughtfulness and prayers, Rick. Wow. This is getting at what I meant by the “mystical global body” of Christ. Thanks for empathizing with how important this is to me. You’re totally right.

      I always struggle with writing personally. It feels vulnerable, but I know this kind of writing is “where it’s at” in terms of uncovering aspects of myself and connecting with others, and I’d like to do more of that. I also blog for Psychology Today, and if I don’t have any research, they’d delete my posts or blog, and I repost those from there to here.

      Anyway, thanks for connecting again. I’m thankful we’re brothers on the journey.
      Andy

      Reply

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