Teddy Prout, Director of Community Services at Humanists UK, sheds some light on the little known struggle of ex-religious people in the UK, and how his organisation's Faith to Faithless scheme sets about supporting so called 'apostates'.
Those who decide to leave a high-control religion are often rejected by family members and whole communities. ‘Apostates’, as these people are sometimes called, may have nowhere to turn and therefore end up homeless, isolated, and at risk of profound mental health issues. In the UK, no statistics on apostasy are recorded by any government agency, police, social services, or anywhere else that this vulnerable group might turn to in times of need.
Apostates, who include ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-Muslims, ex-Mormons, ex-Plymouth Brethren, ex-Charedi Jews and many others, become incredibly vulnerable from the moment that they start doubting the belief system that they are part of. Many religions teach that doubting or questioning is a ‘sin’, and therefore those whose beliefs waver may feel guilty, ashamed or scared to tell anyone about their doubts. They may begin to withdraw from loved ones and friends and can become totally cut off from their support networks and families.
These feelings of shame and guilt can be extremely powerful, leading to anxiety and depression. In the case of people who are struggling with doubts about strong religious beliefs - including in concepts like hell or and eternal damnation - personal doubts about religion can trigger overwhelming existential anxiety and dread.
Once a person has decided to leave a religion they will feel a mixture of emotions. From joy that they are ‘liberated’ from dogma they no longer buy into, through to worries about what others will think of their decision. Some end up remaining ‘in the closet’ as non-believers, keeping quiet about their skepticism for years, if not their whole lives. In ethnic minority religious communities in the UK, apostates are minorities within minority groups. Compounding their dilemma is a public at large that often has very little understanding of the issues they face. The fear of rejection by family is a key concern that drives many people never to confide in anyone. As one of the young people who uses the services of Faith to Faithless said: ‘I felt that my parents would stop loving me if they found out who I truly am.’
This is emotionally draining for people, who may feel that they have to live ‘double lives’. Often the situation is made even more difficult for women, who are more likely expected to have outward marks of religiosity such as modest clothing, or LGBT people, who have to repress their sexual orientation or gender identity to conform. For those who have not told anyone about their newfound beliefs or non-religious identity, their mental health may begin to suffer. For these individuals, remaining unsure of what will happen and fearing rejection by friends, family, and community can lead to severe isolation and depression. They are trapped in a prison of other people’s expectations, backed up by very real fears of violence, abuse and ostracism.
Faith to Faithless
Many organisations feel they lack the expertise to support ex-religious people who use their services, and want to develop their knowledge of the issues these people face.
Faith to Faithless was founded in 2015 and is a programme of Humanists UK, the charity I work with, which has a long history of developing and delivering services and programmes to support the non-religious. We provide new social networks and peer support for those who find themselves cast out of their communities. We also work with schools, universities, local authorities, police forces, and social services across the country to help them understand the unique needs of ex-religious people.
Freedom of choice should be matched by freedom from harm, so that no one has to experience the threat of familial violence, or the severe discrimination that often accompanies leaving a high-control religion.
We hear all the time from service providers that they presently feel unequipped to handle these kinds of sensitive issues. We’re working to train social services, schools, homeless shelters, local authorities, police forces, and other charity services to better understand and support communities like these.
We should all - apostates included - have the right to shape our own lives, free from the fear of negative consequences.