Maintaining Mental Health during a Crisis of Faith

In my last post I discussed an idea that I have been playing with for a while now, regarding the need to choose and then have “blind faith” in certain epistemological premises in order to have any type of rational worldview.  In that post, I argued that drawing an epistemological line seems like the most reasonable way to intellectually build yourself up after a “crisis of faith”.  For more on that, see my last post here.

However, there is another (and possibly more important) aspect of how to deal with a crisis of faith.  In retrospect I probably should have written this post before my last one, given that the emotional and psychological effects of a crisis of faith often take their toll long before one even begins to consider the deep intellectual ramifications.  With that said, this article can either be read on its own or with the previous post as they are touching on the exact same question.

In this post I want to leave all discussion of truth and philosophy aside, and focus on a purely pragmatic game plan to help yourself in a time of existential crisis.   When a person has a fundamentalist worldview, it affects every facet of their life.  They generally believe that they (or one of their leaders) knows the answer to all of life’s most difficult and unanswerable questions which in turn changes how this person acts both on a micro (as in day to day) and macro (as in major life plans) scale.  While I certainly do not agree with reductionist approaches to religion, it really does seem that Freud was onto something when he suggested that much of religious belief acts to give us a sense of security in a chaotic universe.  It is undoubtedly easier to deal with life’s questions and problems if one believes that all of the world’s secrets are contained and encrypted within a book or teacher.

Now this post is not about intellectually challenging fundamentalist worldviews, but rather it is about what to do when your fundamentalist worldview is challenged.  If everything you have ever believed about the Bible, God, Heaven, Free Will, etc. turns out to be intellectually untenable – it can take a major psychological toll on even the strongest of people.  Some psychologists are even trying to coin the term Religious Trauma Syndrome, which many claim has very similar effects as PTSD.  While this may sound crazy at first, when we really begin to analyze the many factors and outcomes of a loss of faith, it all begins to make sense.

As stated earlier, a deeply religious person may plan their days and even their life around religious teachings, premises, and beliefs.  There are certain things that they will do on a consistent basis and other things that they will never do, simply because they believe that God has commanded them one way or the other.  Furthermore, they have certain expectations about how the world works in regards to difficult questions such a reward/punishment, theodicy, the afterlife, and even objective truth.  Questions that in the real world are extremely elusive and often unanswerable.  It is no surprise that people in fundamentalist religious groups have, on average, much lower rates of depression and suicide than the regular public.  Religion teaches that every individual has an important contribution to give to the world and the good deeds that they do are Objectively good and will yield reward in either this world or the next.  To quote another reductionist thinker, at times religion truly does seem like an opiate of the people.  Finally, many of these communities so insular and tight knit and it can be very socially difficult for one who espouses heretical or even skeptical views – that question fundamental dogmas of their community.

Now again, I am not saying that all or some of these religious beliefs are not true, rather I am saying that many of the ideas that are taken for granted by fundamentalist religious groups are simply unverifiable.  When one begins to rationally question any religious belief (or any other belief system for that matter), they soon begin to realize that the real truth is always more complicated and elusive then a fundamentalist viewpoint allows for.  We simply do not know the answers to many of the difficult questions that many religious groups take for granted and the discovery of this fact can be really difficult to someone who formally believed with complete faith.  Thus, a person who undergoes a crisis of faith will have to overcome many barriers, each of which can be very negative to their mental well-being.

Often times people will feel lost and directionless, they will have a difficult time re-orienting themselves in the world without all of the guidance, structure, and answers that their formal belief system offered.  Additionally, many people may feel upset at their formal religious teachers of institutions and feel that they were lied to or deceived in some way.  Others may feel regret regarding all of the missed opportunities that they did not pursue due to their old beliefs.  Finally, as stated earlier, the social repercussions of rejecting communal dogmatic beliefs can often lead to loneliness or even feelings of being targeted by the wider community.

So what are some practical points that can help alleviate some of these difficulties?

When you break out of a fundamentalist worldview there are a couple of ways that people in your community may react.  The first group, and one that must be avoided at all costs, are those that respond with anger.  Many people who buy into a fundamentalist worldview, but are not intelligent or thoughtful enough to try and defend it intellectually, have no choice but to defend their worldview with anger and even violence against those who disagree.  At one extreme there are religious fanatics who believe that heretics deserve to be killed for their ideas, but at a less extreme, but still pernicious level, are those who respond to iconoclastic views with anger.  These types of people must be avoided in all circumstances.

Along with the first group who responds with anger, are two other groups that respond with either disbelief or a desire to change your mind.  The disbelief group are people that believe in their views so strongly, that they cannot even conceive of why someone would lose their faith.  These people will often time try and attribute your loss of faith to other (non-intellectual) factors.  While these people may mean well, they can be extremely annoying and frustrating, in that they do not believe that you have serious intellectual problems with your old worldview.  The next, and a very similar group, are those who are convinced that “if only you talk to them, you would be convinced that your formal belief system is true.”  Now these people are a little better than the previously mentioned groups, in that they are at least attempting to approach the situation from an intellectual point of view.  However, often times these conversations will be equally frustrated and most of the time these people are not worth the bother. Like the group that responds with anger, once you have decided that for intellectual reasons you simply cannot except certain beliefs, there is no reason to have yourself tortured by those who will become overly angry or pushy towards you.

Your real friends are those that will respect your decisions, even if they fundamentally disagree with you.  This is called mutual respect.  It is extremely important to find friends who you can be open and honest with about how your newfound views are changing the way you view and act in the world.  Many of these people may even try and challenge your view, but they do it from a place of collaboration and care, rather then a place of anger or stubbornness.  Surrounding yourself with friends who will respect your decisions and help you is one of the best pieces of practical advise that I can give.  If you are at a point where you feel like all of your friends/acquaintances are rejecting you, then there are many groups that meet both in person or online where you could meet people that have been through similar struggles.  Also, like always, feel free to reach out to me for any more specific advise on these matters.

Next, it is understandable to feel anger towards the institutions and individuals that taught you your prior fundamentalist worldview.  However, you need to consider the fact that they truly and honestly believe what they are teaching and simply do not know any better.  If you had never broken out of that worldview then there is a good chance that you would have been right next to them propagating their ideas.  Obviously there will be some people that are connected with your former group who respond with anger and annoyance (as described above) and these people must be dealt with on their own terms.  In general, however, it makes little sense to remain angry at your teachers and educators given that their actions were paved with good intentions.  Letting go of your anger is a very large and crucial step to alleviate a lot of detrimental psychological pain.

Another thing that can be extremely difficult for someone who has broken out of a fundamentalist mindset/community is that they will suddenly find themselves with a lot less structure in terms of how they use their time.  Many religious groups (especially Orthodox Judaism) have a very structured daily schedule which people adhere to with extreme precision and breaking out of this mold will leave you with a lot of freedom and choice with what to do with your time.  While a lack of structure can be a very positive thing, often times the abundance of options and choices that are open can actually stymie productivity and good use of your time.   It is crucial to find hobbies, extra curricularals, social groups, and volunteer opportunities to fill in major gaps of your time that would have been previously filled by religious acts.

Finally, in terms of the epistemological worries that accompany any loss of faith, I hoped to address that in my last post (again – here).  Obviously there is no perfect or even one right answer/solution to how to react to a crisis of faith.  What I have hoped to do in this post is delineate a few of the difficulties that accompanies a break from a fundamentalist mentality – along with some practical solutions and ways to approach the situation.

However, practical solutions aside, the best advice that I can give to one who is currently struggling is that time will help alleviate the psychological and mental difficulties of a crisis of faith.  At times it can seem as if life has been stripped of meaning, structure, certainties, and even order – but if you surround yourself by friends doing things that you truly love – the meaning, order, and even certainties of life will slowly return more powerfully than ever before.

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