My field report from a week of listening to the stories of individuals who have left their faith.
Earlier this week I had three opportunities in rapid succession to hear the stories of people who had left their religion. Many of these speakers hailed from various forms of Christianity, including Catholics; some were from other well-known, widely-practiced world religions.
Of those who left the religion they’d been raised in, many rejected their childhood faith completely, and those who did so tended to reject all religious practice and belief. Others sought to pursue their relationship with God (however they defined that) either within a different movement or denomination of their faith-of-origin, or else by converting to a different religion that they viewed as closer to the truth in some significant way, but building on what they still valued from their earlier faith.
Over and over, in the dozens and dozens of stories I heard, several reasons for abandoning their faith kept cropping up:
Sexual abuse and sexual assault by a clergy member or other leader or authority figure in their religious community. Frequently the criminal used variations on “God wills this” as part of manipulating the victim; in one case, when the victim tried to report the crime, community members responded with either “you must have deserved it” or “you must be imagining it.”
Other types of abuse, especially domestic violence, which the survivor sought to escape but either a religious leader (the parish priest, for example) or the religious community overall sided with the abuser and insisted it was God’s will that the victim remain in the abusive relationship.
Hypocrisy. Roles models in the faith (including parents or other lay members of the community, but also pastoral leadership, depending on the incident) either acted in frank violation of their stated beliefs without apology, or else in a matter of prudential judgement (such as financial decisions) seemed to practice extreme self-indulgence while preaching extreme self-denial to others.
Shutting down of honest questions from the young person seeking to better understand the faith or trying to reconcile confusing or apparently-conflicting aspects of the faith.
Marginalization or ostracizing of individuals who did not conform to outward community norms, even if the individual’s behavior was not intrinsically in violation of the faith as professed by the community.
Marginalizing or ostracizing of individuals who did not conform with the legitimate, internally-consistent moral or theological norms of the community, most often in situations where others who violated different but equally-serious moral or theological norms were given a pass.
Lack of community support in a time of significant need.
If you wonder why prayer, fasting, and integrity are the central tools of evangelization, this is why. None of these situations can be “fixed” easily or quickly; barring God’s miraculous help, some of the wounds laid bare will likely not be healed in this life at all.
There were other “easier” cases as well: People who had simply fallen away, life intervening but with no conscious decision to leave. People who had questions they were still open to hearing answers to, if only someone would answer. People who may have had difficulty in their original community, but were still seeking a new community within their religion (however they defined that) which would welcome them.
In these cases, invitations, apologetics, hospitality, and the works of mercy can all be remarkably quick to welcome someone back into the fold, or else invite them into Catholicism for the first time.
So how do you know who needs what? By listening.
I encourage you to seek out opportunities to hear from ex-Catholics and others who have left their religion, as well as those who have never had a religion and feel alienated by the concept of religious belief or practice.
When you listen . . . just listen.
Resist the urge to:
Decide that the person’s community is too different from yours to “count.” Whether they are coming from a different movement within the Catholic Church or they are from a decidedly not-Catholic community, there are similarities with your own parish, diocese, or religious order. Look for them.
“Translate” the person’s story into something more palatable by denying the truth of what they say. Even if your own experience of God and your faith community has been not at all like their experience, consider the possibility that they are telling the truth.
Scramble for quick fixes. If all you can do is offer up a few prayers for some distant stranger you cannot help, so be it. Prayer is powerful. Alternately, if God has placed this person in your life, commit to interceding for this person for the long haul. Maybe your few kind words are all the healing they need, but likely it is going to take much more.
If you know that you tend to say the wrong thing (been there done that), work on just keeping silent and encouraging the other speak. For no-stakes, idiot-proof listening practice, seek out books, documentaries, or websites where you can hear individual stories but don’t have an option to reply. Except, of course, to pray.
If you aren’t yet a subscriber, here is the information on how to receive this newsletter direct to your inbox. There is, of course, also this book, which covers this topic extensively. This post is not an extract, though, everything at One Soul at a Time is new content.