TrueScotsman

Losing Your Faith and Mental Health

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There are many different kinds of testimonies on this website, some represent a triumph where the person couldn't be more elated to have moved on from what they believe were delusions and constraints from the Christian faith.  I think there is for all Ex-Christians a realization of the chasm that we have now surpassed, namely that the weight of judgment and performance is ended and the threat of hell extinguished.  Everyone can sigh a relief, even though we're doomed to oblivion still.  What I see more and more, and has been my own experience is that a loss of faith precipitated a mental health breakdown, most commonly seen in serious bouts of depression or activation of childhood bullshit previously kept in submission by religion.  

 

What are we to make of this phenomenon?  It is a question that has had major significance for me of course, and I have seen it intimately in other family members even.  How do we bridge the gap from a shift in a belief, to a correlation of mental health problems.  In this thread, I will make several observations about the role of religion is in mental health, and also conclude with some of my personal speculation on why monotheistic religions, such as Christianity or Islam constitute such a major change in cognitive behavior that it can sometimes lead to significant health challenges.  

 

Point #1 | The Genetics of Depression

 

Since the most commonly suffered ailment of those who come out of Christianity is Depression, this is a particularly interesting case to examine.  What we find is that when it comes to heritability, we do see that it is heritable in a different way.  These genes when turned on, are only really activated through childhood trauma or other related stressors which can occur in formative years.  This was true in my case, as I have a nearly perfect score on the Adverse Childhood Experience test, and also true for my siblings who now all deal with similar issues as myself.  This brings the next connection point of trauma and its relationship to the genetic predisposition to mental health problems, but also how trauma can relate to spirituality and religion.

 

Point #2 | Trauma and Meaning

 

This combination of a genetic predisposition and associated trauma is a trap that many people sadly face, as it lays the foundation as well for questioning religion.  Here is an excerpt of an interesting study on this subject which can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3269830/

 

"Religious and spiritual cognitions should be considered in the context of trauma, because religious beliefs comprise a substantial part of many people’s global meaning system and therefore inform their coping responses (Park, 2005), and because they address issues of existential meaning, which may be called into question by trauma (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). Most often, religious meaning systems provide a helpful vehicle for making sense of seemingly random, nonsensical, or tragic events, by seeing them as part of a larger, more benign plan (Frazier et al., 2004; Pargament, 1997). Indeed, religion can be involved in changing the appraised meaning of a stressful situation by (a) providing a means to make more benign reattributions, (b) helping the individual to see the positive aspects of the stressful situation, and (c) facilitating perceptions of stress-related growth (Park, 2005)."

 

This study also points to the fact that religion is used as an aid, albeit archaic one, for managing the stress from trauma as it becomes integrated with your memory by becoming integrated in your meaning system.  The problem can become worse though, when such beliefs become deprogrammed and the integration of those memories is broken up.  Here I will get into what I speculate is the case given my experiences and research on the subject.

 

Speculation 

 

The example of Martin Luther's guilt is an example of mental health surely, but also of how obsessed one can become when one truly considers the reality of a divine judge.  The guilt you feel for having lied, or masturbated, or having sex, or even just not believing enough can be crippling as a Christian.  This guilt management can for many people be a sort of container for what I would consider larger mental health problems, manifested in the obsession with guilt.  However, for even the average Christian it becomes an embedded cognitive habit which is exceedingly difficult for people to break, as some here even have trouble separating the concept of hell from this feeling which creates all sorts of odd cognitive dissonance after the fact.  The thing is, is that those who suffer from major depression also deal with tremendous guilt, or what I would characterize as self-aggression which can be exacerbated by the cognitive patterns given by Christianity, but without the absolution of having that guilt taken away by the mechanisms of forgiveness.  

 

You also have a preponderance of trauma which is generated by the church itself, whether that be through sexual molestation of children by ministers, as has been reported on this site countless times sadly.  The beliefs themselves can be traumatizing, if you as a child are introduced to the concept of eternal torment and the conception that loved ones will be there.  This means that you're setup for all the reasons to doubt your faith, such as it appears to be bullshit (i.e. hell), hypocrisy and harm from supposed believers, and of course the suffering experienced in your own lives which contradicts the idea of a benevolent god.  

 

But for many here, they also have been setup for a trap of mental health but find in many cases a nihilistic conception of the world to hold on to which will feed the despair and anguish.  What I mean is that having always looked outside of oursevles for that which gives us meaning, and that what we are grateful for, I think the challenge each of us faces in the absence of the divine is to truly address our humanity and our own existence.  Yeah I don't believe in god, but what do I believe in now?  What do I stand for, and what gets me up and gives me purpose in the morning?  These are not questions which are made irrelevant or unanswerable by the absence of religion, religion only gave us the illusion that there was only one right choice when really we get to make it up.  There is no ideal blueprint for life, and the acceptance of our past as not the result of cosmic evil but of natural causes which when reflected on should promote compassion and forgiveness independent of some mandate that we do it or we won't be forgiven.  

 

What I am saying is that even though losing your faith may precipitate a mental health episode in your life, don't forget that reality has far more tools to help you in these battles than superstition ever did.  Just make sure you don't lose community with others, as the reality is we are all social beings who need relatively healthy doses of human contact to maintain stability.  Understanding your biological and psychological nature gives you the freedom to explore answers based in science, rather than having to grasp in agony waiting on god.

 

These are my thoughts and speculations on this subject matter, what are your thoughts about the relationship between losing your faith and mental health, and what has worked for you after the fact in order to move forward if you did have these challenges?

 

Thanks for reading,

TS

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Wow, @TrueScotsman,

 

You obviously put a lot of effort into that. I clicked on the links to validate them but did not go into each very far. (Lazy!)

 

I went through, and am experiencing some lingering affects of, something similar to what you described. in fact I think I could describe it as an amalgamation of all of your points or concepts.

 

    1. I"m screwed because I'm not feeling Jesus.

    2. Wait! This stuff (xtian doctrine) sounds more and more like b.S. the more I dig into it.

    3. This stuff IS B.S.

    4. Cool! There's no Hell!

    5. Crap! No afterlife either.

    6. I'm a bad person for looking at naked ladies on the Interwebs AND there is no one to forgive me for it.

   

Fortunately for me I never allowed xianity to be my purpose in life so I was able to get up and get to work each day and not need to dwell on this too much. A good day at work, a  quick 40 minutes on the stair stepper, then a glass of grape juice with Mrs. MOHO seems to be enough.

 

Anyway You summed  up the short comings of religion, and how leaving it can be painful, well and finished off with the general solution of science, psychology, and reality.

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These are my thoughts and speculations on this subject matter, what are your thoughts about the relationship between losing your faith and mental health, and what has worked for you after the fact in order to move forward if you did have these challenges?

 

 

After losing faith or actually in a moment when I was hit in a brain with sentence "what if there is no god and he is like a policeman who controls our thoughts and actions" I experienced depersonalization episode, kind of panic attack. I didn't know what is happening with my brain. I thought that I will loose my consciousness, stop talking or forget who I am?

 

This felt so real and i felt like some sort of curtain was put on my brain.

 

So, I was ignoring this strange states of mind, focusing on daily duties to kind of come back to previous good feelings in brain.

 

In my case it was stupid, cause I started having doubts about Christianity before baptism in Evangelical Church and was afraid to tell the church that I don't have conviction. As a result I go to church for 6 years and pretend to be a believer or sometimes feel like a believer.

 

As most people in Poland where I live I was baptized in Catholic Church and when I was 8 years old after my mum's death I started enjoying religion classes at school, praying to God, listen some stories that nun was telling us. I treated God as a protector, who will take care of me while my dad was working and I was home alone. Other kids with full families didn't understand what I go through.

 

Because of lack of mum and grandmothers in my life I am kind of emotionally unstable and look weird and envy at other girls who do everything with their mums. I thought that God and church will be a part of my entire world till I die. I was saying myself "Well even if the rest members of my family will die I will have God and church wherever I will go".

 

TrueScotsman  Definitely and unfortunately I went crazy and insane and I became a shopaholic after losing faith. I also collect lots of things in my room like a sick hoarder. Goimg for shopping makes me not to think about my strange life that no one around me understands.

 

I have a friend who was under psychiatric health care since age 7 and she said to me that she would kill herself if Jesus wouldn't rescue her. Imagine her, starting having doubts about Christianity (well one day I guess she will start having doubts if I ever admit to her that I don't have faith anymore).

 

Question is...how really secular world can help someone who's whole life is based on psychiatric health care, medications? Secular world offers only therapists, psychiatrics, mental hospitals, medications. For many people it's a hell and I am not surprised that these people start to pray to God to get them out from this meaningless world. But what will happen if an ex-mentally ill person starts to having doubts about faith that gave her or him the last hope for a normal life?

 

I watched lots of Atheists debates on You Tube, but I don't know any Atheist who battle with mental illness, cancer or was growing up in an orphange, lost parents or a child. 

 

You know in churches we all the time hear about suffering, but Atheists kind of don't focus on a tough aspects of life or rarely.

 

 

Thank You TrueScotsman for this wonderful topic :)

 

 

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After losing faith or actually in a moment when I was hit in a brain with sentence "what if there is no god and he is like a policeman who controls our thoughts and actions" I experienced depersonalization episode, kind of panic attack. I didn't know what is happening with my brain. I thought that I will loose my consciousness, stop talking or forget who I am?

 

This felt so real and i felt like some sort of curtain was put on my brain.

 

So, I was ignoring this strange states of mind, focusing on daily duties to kind of come back to previous good feelings in brain.

 

In my case it was stupid, cause I started having doubts about Christianity before baptism in Evangelical Church and was afraid to tell the church that I don't have conviction. As a result I go to church for 6 years and pretend to be a believer or sometimes feel like a believer.

 

As most people in Poland where I live I was baptized in Catholic Church and when I was 8 years old after my mum's death I started enjoying religion classes at school, praying to God, listen some stories that nun was telling us. I treated God as a protector, who will take care of me while my dad was working and I was home alone. Other kids with full families didn't understand what I go through.

 

Because of lack of mum and grandmothers in my life I am kind of emotionally unstable and look weird and envy at other girls who do everything with their mums. I thought that God and church will be a part of my entire world till I die. I was saying myself "Well even if the rest members of my family will die I will have God and church wherever I will go".

 

TrueScotsman  Definitely and unfortunately I went crazy and insane and I became a shopaholic after losing faith. I also collect lots of things in my room like a sick hoarder. Goimg for shopping makes me not to think about my strange life that no one around me understands.

 

I have a friend who was under psychiatric health care since age 7 and she said to me that she would kill herself if Jesus wouldn't rescue her. Imagine her, starting having doubts about Christianity (well one day I guess she will start having doubts if I ever admit to her that I don't have faith anymore).

 

Question is...how really secular world can help someone who's whole life is based on psychiatric health care, medications? Secular world offers only therapists, psychiatrics, mental hospitals, medications. For many people it's a hell and I am not surprised that these people start to pray to God to get them out from this meaningless world. But what will happen if an ex-mentally ill person starts to having doubts about faith that gave her or him the last hope for a normal life?

 

I watched lots of Atheists debates on You Tube, but I don't know any Atheist who battle with mental illness, cancer or was growing up in an orphange, lost parents or a child. 

 

You know in churches we all the time hear about suffering, but Atheists kind of don't focus on a tough aspects of life or rarely.

 

 

Thank You TrueScotsman for this wonderful topic :)

 

 

Great thoughts, thanks for sharing!  I will respond to this when I get back.

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Well I don't follow the track you described of childhood trauma.  My father had depression and panic attacks, so I must have inherited that.  However, I was raised in a loving two-parent home within a mainline denominational mindset (so no crazy talk of going to hell and such), and suffered no abuse or neglect of any kind.  I was painfully shy and awkward and introverted and developed symptoms of depression including suicidal ideation as an early teenager.  Had no idea I was depressed until having my first panic attacks in my early thirties.  When the doctor said I was depressed, it all made sense.  I was an evangelical by that time, though, and struggled with the faith issues of it.  If I had more faith, would it go away?  If I prayed more/harder/better would it go away?  Why would god let this happen to me?  Is this my "thorn in the flesh"?  If I take medication, am I showing a lack of faith in god?  After going on meds, then feeling guilty and going off again, then struggling  and going back on again, then going off again in an attempt to "cleanse" my body of all unnatural things (including birth control pills, sugar, gluten, etc.), and being ok for about a year and a half, I crashed hard mentally (I wouldn't exactly call it a breakdown, but it was very bad).  Scared the crap out of myself and made the decision that regardless of faith and god, my kids needed me and I couldn't keep up this on-again/off-again game anymore.  I got on a different antidepressant with fewer side effects and started the process of justifying my decision within a faith mindset.  Not easy, and I don't recommend it to anyone!  

 

Now as a deconvert, I am much happier and at ease with myself.  Instead of trying to justify my depression or my use of meds for it, I can just relax in the knowledge that I'm just one of the unfortunate mental health lottery winners - it is just another disability like being blind or missing a limb or being diabetic.  I'd certainly rather not have it, but I don't beat myself up about it either.  

 

I understand how being raised with the threat of hell and the promise of heaven would make it difficult to adjust to a future of oblivion after death.  For me, I was never in a church that focused on hell, and for whatever reason, I was never much interested in heaven.  It was too nebulous a concept for a concrete-rational thinker such as myself.  I was only ever interested in the here and now.  That may also be why I don't dwell much on what happens after I die now.  And on top of all that, my deconversion happened slowly over many years.  I tried hard to make the Bible make sense, and only slowly shed pieces of it and my faith as I went along.  I think the slowness of it helped me to make adjustments as I went instead of a sudden loss of everything I had been relying on.

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I can relate to this issue a great deal.

 

When I was a believer, I believed in a liberal, almost watered-down version of Christianity quite different form the biblical narrative. I had my fair share of worries in life, but I was fairly convinced that I believed in the right faith, and that in the long run, everything was thereby taken care of for me.

 

Now, not only do I have a great deal of anxiety about my former faith, but all of the worries that a supernatural being was going to eliminate for me, I have to deal with myself.

 

I still prefer my present life by a wide margin. Anxiety and worry is a natural part of life, and pushing it away by using a loosely-held religious belief as a crutch is only going to get one so far. However, living a life true to oneself takes more effort. It just also feels a lot more like being alive.

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Cool topic.  It seems to me, one of the times my "faith" was strongest was when I was having a manic episode.  I was going to walk right out of that hospital undeterred (a psyche patient), converting "sinners" along the way.  Needless to say those goo gobs of mustard seeds didn't move any police officers, restraints, mountains, hospital walls, or sinner's hearts for me, just like years earlier when they didn't heal my eyes when I took a leap of "faith" by tossing my contacts in the gulf and attempting to drive back to north Alabama at night.  What a disaster!

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Just for fun, a little more on driving  350 miles with unaided substantial nearsightedness (alone of course):  

 

Driving at night was like a psychedelic hallucinogenic blur.  Every headlight, every street lamp was like a hundred foot wide ball in my face.  The stripes on the road pretty much vanished.  I was hitting signs, medians and everything except the center of the lane.  Didn't take long for me to pull off the road and wait till morning.  

 

Somehow when the sun came up I was able to squint my way home w/o getting arrested or dead.  I guess I have Ra to thank for that. :) Then it was straight to the eye doctor for me, and somehow I haven't doubted the science of optometry since.

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Thank you for your thought-provoking article, TrueScotsman. You're spot on with the connection between loss of religious faith and mental health. ( As a matter of fact, adhering to fear-inducing blind faith is not good for ones health either.)  Numerous academic studies point to the negative mental health effects religion (particularly those of the fundamentalist variety) have on its adherents. 

On 7/15/2017 at 4:55 PM, TrueScotsman said:

The example of Martin Luther's guilt is an example of mental health surely, but also of how obsessed one can become when one truly considers the reality of a divine judge.  The guilt you feel for having lied, or masturbated, or having sex, or even just not believing enough can be crippling as a Christian.  This guilt management can for many people be a sort of container for what I would consider larger mental health problems, manifested in the obsession with guilt.  However, for even the average Christian it becomes an embedded cognitive habit which is exceedingly difficult for people to break, as some here even have trouble separating the concept of hell from this feeling which creates all sorts of odd cognitive dissonance after the fact.  The thing is, is that those who suffer from major depression also deal with tremendous guilt, or what I would characterize as self-aggression which can be exacerbated by the cognitive patterns given by Christianity, but without the absolution of having that guilt taken away by the mechanisms of forgiveness.  

 

Today with fantastic inroads done in neurology,  it is clear that whatever our belief system is, creates experience and outcome. Ergo a wrong belief will equal a wrong outcome. When you're commanded to fear a bogeyman in the sky who is going to roast your ass if you disobey his word, it is bound to create a perpetual bubbling cauldron of anxiety and depression in a human being.

 

A cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) course that I am taking at the moment (to delete faulty thinking and anxiety from my brain) defines anxiety as the overestimation of threat. The amygdula part of the brain is responsible for alerting the body to threatening situations, setting all systems into fight/flight mode. And as the bible teaches you to underestimate your own strengths and resources and overestimate your faults and failings, of course such a thinking pattern is going to mess with your brain and cause major fear, confusion and panic even though in REAL TIME there is NO EVIDENCE of clear and present danger. If religions and their representative gods are man-made, then sin is a myth and so is guilt. They are conditions that have been created by man. Therefore there's no need for forgiveness or absolution of a mythical god or his/her agents. What's needed is to train the brain to think critically.

 

The brain is a complex and marvelous organ and I totally agree with the late great Christopher Hitchens who thought it criminal to indoctrinate children with scary gods and portraying them to be real. It took me 60 years to take control of my brain back from an imaginary god, Jesus and his church. Psychologist and CBT specialist, Dr. David Purves, says that the circuit of anxious thoughts in the brain (that leads to anxiety, depression and panic) can be broken and unhealthy thought patterns can be restored to a healthy one. I've experienced a difference and calmness in my brain since I've been practicing CBT as well as Mindfulness and yoga.

 

Here's a bit of my experience: As a child and throughout my adult life, I was indoctrinated with extreme Christian fundamentalism that emphasized a god who meted out fear, judgement and merciless torture for all eternity the most evil being could ever devise. This included new born babies whose parents weren’t Christians or weren’t baptized into the right faith. A belief system that categorizes a new born baby as sinful and then scares the hell out of the child right into adulthood, to any normal sensibility, is despicable. This is one of many biblical discrepancies that flies in the face of the “God is love,” teaching.

 

When certain religious extremist groups murder their daughters in honor-killings, normal human beings are repulsed by such an action. But Christians blithely accept this belief of unspeakable torturous punishment in a fiery furnace. This smacks more of a schizophrenic god than a loving god to me.

While most Christians derive meaning, safety and eternal security from their belief, my experience was in fact detrimental to my mental health. Over the years dwelling in Plato’s “Cave of Ignorance” in which I was spit roasted over the flames of sin, blame, guilt, self-loathing and masochism. Hmm. Does that place sound familiar?

 

“Oh, but Jesus takes that all away,” the faithful say. “You must have FAITH.”

Oh yeah? How come I’d go to church, Sunday after Sunday, bowing and scraping and taking the cracker, and drinking the grape juice and still feeling crappy afterward? I remember, one Sunday, after going forward for prayer, a “prayer-team” member asked me what I needed prayer for. I said, “I just feel so frustrated that I can never, ever please God, however much I want to.” She prayed, “Lord, you hear Jennifer’s heart. Show her your love and grace.” I could never conceive of this ‘”love relationship” with Jesus and God who delight in playing hide and seek with us mortals. And if we can’t find them, we’re to blame. Such childishness!

 

It’s been three years since I set foot in a  church for my last dose of indoctrination, when my sensibilities could no longer accept the scolding from the pulpit about being sinful and disobedient. I could no longer say the confessional prayer,

 

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

maker and judge of us all

We acknowledge and repent of our many sins and offenses,

which we have committed by thought, word, and deed,

against your divine majesty,

provoking most justly your righteous anger against us.

We are deeply sorry for these transgressions.

The burden of them is more than we can bear.

Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father…

 

For me, enough was enough.  I figured out there’s no way I could win this lark.  Which leads me to the late Christopher Hitchen’s brilliant line of reasoning in which he quotes nobleman, Fulke Greville: “Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well…” Hitchens went on to say, and I paraphrase, “Because it’s demanded of you to do the impossible, you'll always be guilty, will always fall short, will always sin, will always confess and will always be in the claws of the priest.”

 

This kind of scraping and bowing was psychologically not a healthy way for me to live. It was through seeking authenticity in my life that I took to heart the words of Jesus, “Seek and you will find.” I sought long and hard. I once sought help (paid help I might add) from a Christian” prayer coach” who was praying for healing for me to be cured of clinical depression.  He asked me to visualize my painful childhood memories. Then he told me to close my eyes and visualize Jesus with me there when I was molested. “How does Jesus feel about the situation?” I knew the answer he was expecting, but I wanted to be real and not parrot bullshit back to him.  I replied in heartfelt honesty, “I don’t really KNOW Jesus.” “Of course, you do!” he replied.  “You’re thinking too much.” 

 

Ah-ha! Thinking – the cardinal verboten Christian rule. Thou shalt not think. Was this the forbidden fruit the god was talking about in the mythical Adam and Eve story? In thinking, you’ll become as wise as god! In seeking you have to think critically. And the seeking must be unbiased, outside the confines of sixty-six books of Iron Age literature. It must take into account scholarly biblical history, archaeology, natural sciences, biology, modern neuroscience and all modern academic disciplines that offer logical and evidence-based explanations of our world, and how we function and survive as a species.  Seeking truth strictly in the confines of the bible is like working out a mathematical problem but only being allowed to use an abacus.

 

For more information on overcoming anxiety and healing your brain, I recommend Dr. D. Purves' Panic Pit Stop https://www.appbrain.com/app/panic-pit-stop/com.app.app26ff54d11435

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