My core identity remains deeply Christian. However, after 48 years of attending church at least once per week (almost without exception, even during college), I am – at least temporarily – “done” with the local church.
Part of this stems from the era of COVID-19. At the same time my family and I try to do what we feel is responsible in preventing further spread of the virus, others in our area see no problem with in-person worship, contributing to a new sense of disconnection.
Even if COVID-19 never happened, though, I still might be “done.” For years, although I earnestly joined with others in my local church community to recite the same creed and prayers of the Christian faith and to pour my heart into collective worship and service, I often – ironically enough – had the sense we didn’t share the same worldview or many of the same values. I never felt comfortable attending the men’s Bible study because I believed my questions or divergent thoughts would not be welcome. Maybe this is an aside – or maybe not – but my kids never significantly connected with anyone in the church’s youth program either. As time passed, I realized we didn’t really have a place at that table.
I’m not happy about being “done.” I feel failure… isolation… and profound loss. I’ve described this split as being like divorce. And, yet, in my brokenness, I also feel some degree of new freedom.
The first time I heard of a religious “done” was when I was in a meeting with my colleague, Josh Packard, a sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado, the Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, and author of “Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal with people are DONE with church but not their faith.” The term “done” is a play on words, referencing the more common term religious “nones,” the broader, growing group of individuals in the developed world who express no religious affiliation.
As Packard writes in this excerpt published in Christianity Today – and drawing on interview data his team collected over the years – religious “dones” generally: (1) were highly active in a local church, (2) didn’t really want to drop out, but (3) felt stifled by church structure.
The psychology of religion generally concerns itself with why individuals are more religious than not (see this post for one summary) but in recent years, a few psychological scientists have started to examine why some are irreligious. As I’ve written elsewhere, Julie Exline is a pioneer in this line of research, demonstrating how the movement away from faith sometimes may stem from an extreme protest reaction against adversity. More generally, non-belief often may reflect a variety of relational and emotional factors.
Recently, in an online-only article in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a set of some of the first psychological studies of religious “dones” was published.
In an initial study, the researchers asked 114 individuals who said they were once – but no longer – religious to write about their primary reason for the change. Fifty-two percent cited intellectual reasons, such as a perceived incompatibility of their previous religious beliefs with science or logic, or described how they simply “outgrew” their old beliefs. Twenty-two percent described how they couldn’t be part of an institution they felt caused trauma to themselves or others or perpetuated hatred toward particular groups they supported. Fifteen percent wrote about experiencing personal adversity they couldn’t reconcile with their beliefs. Finally, 11% noted social reasons, such as feeling like they didn’t “fit in” with a religious community.
A larger study focused on 643 people recruited from the United States, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong who said they were formerly – but not currently – religious. Seventy-two percent of this overall sample seemed to have “discontinued” from faith, exhibiting relatively lower levels of religious belief, commitment, and practice. In contrast, 28% were “still practicing,” despite their lack of formal affiliation. This group showed relatively higher levels of religious belief, commitment, and practice, and also revealed more favorable attitudes toward religion and religious people. Interestingly, however, the “still practicing” group also displayed more emotional distress, maybe because they continued with a religious identity that was not supported by a specific community.
It’s intriguing to consider what it means to be “still practicing” a religion without being part of a religious community. Although many religious people are also spiritual, this “still practicing” group may be even more clearly so, as the term “spirituality” evokes more of a sense of autonomous quest. Still, without a community surrounding them, I can see why emotional distress would be high, as individuals would seem more likely to feel isolated and unsupported in their core identity.
Although this recent research is making progress, it still seems to be largely scratching the surface, and more research will be needed to appreciate the full complexity and nuance of individuals’ religious experiences.
As I think about where I stand, for example, I wouldn’t consider myself irreligious at all – even though I’m not connected with a local church at this point – and therefore I wouldn’t have even qualified to participate in this research. In addition to private disciplines I practice daily such as study, prayer, and meditation, I’ve used the unusual opportunities in the pandemic to participate in several excellent online churches from across the world, and I continue to talk and text with Christian friends about matters of faith on a regular basis. In a tradition that is inherently communal, I wonder how to continue to claim an identity in Christ without being a part of a local church, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be part of a mystical “global body.”
And yet, it’s my longing and prayer to be a part of a local community where I can know and be known, and so after the pandemic lifts, we will begin the laborious process of “church shopping” again. Hopefully, we’ll find a community that “works” for us, but we may not. Maybe for some people, as Phyllis Tickle suggests in her book, The Great Emergence, Christianity will need to evolve, again, to truly have an open table. Maybe Christianity will need to return, again, to the margins – where it has always functioned best – and find a way to balance exclusive truth claims with inclusive community.
With faith and hope, I believe out of darkness, again, can come a great light.
McLaughlin, A. T., Van Tongeren, D. R., Teahan, K., Davis, D. E., Rice, K. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2020, September 7). Who are the religious "dones?": A cross-cultural latent profile analysis of formerly religious individuals. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication.