I recently left the strict high-demand religion I belonged to for the past thirty years. The values and practices associated with my faith shaped every part of my life: family priorities, Sunday behaviors, clothing, friendships, political attitudes, and more. A few years ago, I began to be disillusioned not only with my particular sect, but with organized religion in general.
I knew if I stopped participating in the church, others would ask, “If you leave, where will you go?” Humans tend to see things in black and white. Many Christians think if you do not believe in Christ, you don’t believe in anything, and subsequently, you are immoral and wicked. The members of my church are taught that if you renounce religion, there is no other path of happiness; you are doomed to misery. If congregants leave and then struggle with substance use, relationships, or employment, active members see this as a consequence of disobeying commandments. They don’t recognize that these difficulties might stem from being ostracized from family and community or from residual guilt arising from indoctrinated ideas.
As I contemplated parting with Christianity, I asked myself, “If I don’t believe in this, what do I believe?” As a baseline, I knew that there was a power in ourselves and in the universe that we can tap into for help in making decisions, obtaining guidance, and feeling comfort. Forsaking organized religion did not mean I had to give up access to that potential.
For example, the religious habits of prayer and daily scripture study bring benefits such as inner peace and improved relationship skills. I was taught that this is because God blesses you when you spend time speaking to Him and reading His words. But research shows that these same benefits can be attained through gratitude and meditation practices, which don’t require any religious ideologies.
Prayer is, at its essence, a gratitude practice; listing blessings from God directs the mind toward the good things in our lives. Scripture study has parallels to meditation. In both, you shut out the external world and focus on something for a prescribed length of time. As you try to get still, thoughts of your to-do list or previous conversations crowd your mind. Concentrating on the archaic language of the King James version of the Bible is challenging. Meditation requires the same stillness and concentration, and produces the same benefits—enhanced self-awareness, lengthened attention span, and improved emotional health, to name a few.
My habits of prayer and scripture reading helped me not because God blessed me but because they utilized mechanisms intrinsic to human brain. The specific religious beliefs I attached to these practices were unnecessary to access the gains.
Members of my religious community often share stories of God intervening to bless their lives. They might relate a tale of struggling between giving tithes to the church or paying their rent. They worry and pray and finally decide to have faith and pay tithes first. Shortly after, they receive an unexpected bonus or an anonymous donation that covers the rent. God provided!
Some less dramatic instances involve the person knowing the right thing to say to a worried friend, feeling prompted to help someone in a certain way, or being led to a book or website to get help with a parenting problem. I heard these stories of divine help frequently, and I knew them to be valid.
These occurrences may seem fantastical to a non-religious person, but they are commonplace for members of my church. How do you explain this if you don’t attribute these favors to God or the Holy Spirit? Answer: that person harnessed the power of their mind by visualizing a God who would help them. Focusing on the thing we want and trusting we will receive it greatly increases the chances that it will happen. But whether we hold religious views or not, we can create these experiences for ourselves.
Religion has a lot of tools that aid in generating these mystical experiences. The imperative to maintain certain habits (like reading scriptures and praying), the community of followers encouraging each other, and the directive to always have faith combine to create the perfect landscape in the human mind for believing that you can attain your desired outcome. Things don’t always go as the religious person wants them to, of course, but small “miracles” occur with enough frequency to keep the flame of faith alive. Expecting these types of things to happen makes them more likely to occur and sharpens the mind to look out for them. Having a community of similar believers strengthens convictions.
This remarkable power of the mind is available to everyone, however. Leaving organized religion does not mean that I give up mystical experiences. If I believe I can still have them, they will be mine for the asking. I can seek answers within myself, find comfort and peace, and know what to do next in any situation by simply getting still and tapping into the power of my own mind.
Another reason religious people ask, “If you leave, where will you go?” is that they don’t recognize the difference between spirituality and religion. They think metaphysical experiences require organized religion. They also believe that religion provides the all the answers. Orthodox members of my church often say they are glad to have the truth about how the world and the eternities work. Believing you have special knowledge about the universe can be comforting, but it also blocks new ideas. Life is more complex and layered than we often recognize. Seeing the world in a dogmatic way simplifies things, but it doesn’t allow for the three-dimensionality of life.
Religion can be rigorous in the behaviors it demands, but spirituality is difficult in another way—it requires you to find your own path. I’ve heard it said that religion has answers you can’t question, and spirituality has questions you can’t answer. That lack of clarity can be unpleasant, but it can also bring greater enlightenment. When you’re comfortable with ambiguity, life becomes fuller, new possibilities present themselves, and there are more opportunities for joy.
My definition of spirituality considers how you relate to something bigger than yourself and how you find meaning in life. There is a lot of room for diversity in how you search for those answers for yourself. I don’t need an organization to tell me how to do it. There is no one right way. My spirituality allows me to have faith that I’ll be guided continually to new sources of truth and wisdom. Spiritual people are not godless, they honor the god in all of us. This is how I want to live.
Identifying these differences cleared my vision and helped me see the path forward when others were saying there was none. I left religion because I wanted to consider new information and to hold questions in my heart when the answers don’t come easily. I want to feel connected to other people and the universe and find meaning in life through my work and my interactions with others. I am ready to allow myself and others to be on their own unique path, to let go of judgment and condemnation, and to feel love, acceptance, and compassion as often as possible.
Because of the close-knit nature of my religious community, people noticed when I stopped attending church. Many of these people are my good friends of whom I think highly. Interestingly, they hesitate to ask why I left. It’s a taboo subject, but also, they don’t want to be shaken from their faith. I know they worry about my salvation and that they have little conception of what a person could believe if they don’t accept Christianity.
I would love the chance to explain to them that when someone leaves, there is a place to go. There is something to trust in that brings the same hope, guidance, and peace. The benefits they think come from their dutiful observances in reality come from the power of the mind. After leaving organized religion, you can still tap into that strength and its inherent value and assistance. If I had the chance, I would tell them that you can drop the dogma and still experience a life full of spirituality. True, you don’t have someone telling you the answers, but when you take the blinders off, you’re allowed to decide for yourself what those answers are.
Lisa Hoelzer is a lifelong student of the human psyche, including motivations, biases, mind management, and mental health. She loves to read, write, and discover more about the world. She and her family have lived in New Orleans, Minnesota, and Utah.