For our meeting on 5th April, we had a talk and discussion about what it means to leave your religion.
“You might as well be in another country”
Audrey Simmons from the non-profit organisation ‘Faith to Faithless’ says that for many people, leaving their faith is like living in another country. If your faith is central to your community, so that everyone you know belongs to it, and ‘not believing’ is an utter taboo, then when you quit, you lose everything you know.
“Some faiths operate as institutions with high control. They make leaving difficult. Members may be told that their religion has the only way of looking at the world, and they are cut off from alternatives, told to avoid TV and media.”
Audrey gives the example of a Nigerian from a Pentecostal community who told his family he no longer believed in the Pentecostal faith. They told him to get out and never come back. Many people are trapped because they don’t want to lose their family, friends and everything they know.
Her own background is in the Seventh Day Adventist church: “It takes up your whole week, with services and meeting each other and volunteering within the church. When you leave you have seven days to fill. All the people you used to talk to, your family, your friends, they are still in the church, busy, and you are all alone.”
Faith to Faithless was set up to help people like these who are leaving a conservative or controlling faith or cult.
They are known as ‘apostates’. Apostasy simply means leaving a religious faith, but the term is often used in a derogatory way by believers.
Apostates are hounded and killed in many countries today. Audrey says that in the UK we tend to think there is no problem, but in fact many apostates face isolation and high anxiety. When they turn to authorities for help, often the advisor or authority figure does not know enough to help them.
One example is when Imtiaz Shams, who founded Faith to Faithless in 2015 with fellow ex-Muslim Aliyah Saleem, was contacted by an ex-Muslim university student. The student had gone to the university pastoral support team for help, who then referred him to a Muslim support group because they literally didn’t know how else to help him.
Faith to Faithless was set up to draw attention to the discrimination faced by the faithless and give them a platform to come out in public and speak out against this discrimination.
Knowing about the discrimination means we can take the issue seriously and refer people to the right organisations. As well as Faith to Faithless, Audrey mentioned the London Black Atheists which she is a committee member of, and the ‘Clergy Project’ for professional clerics who no longer believe.