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“The point was having this direct line to God, this evidence that the Holy Spirit had entered me and claimed me as his own. Now that same Spirit was reaching back out to God and appealing to him on my behalf.”
It’s rare to come across individuals who can so precisely capture what it means to leave a unique and profound (religious) meaning system. Moreover, the ability to unravel the emotionally wrenching and often complex social psychological process of rebuilding a new life, after leaving a fundamentalist religion, is quite the undertaking. Jessica Wilbanks’s new memoir, When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss, highlights her own process of leaving the Pentecostal faith and how it not only impacted her family relations, as it commonly does, but how she ultimately made sense of her exiting experience.
Leaving a fundamentalist religious meaning system is considered a significant life event and often intersects with other social domains, like the family, in critical ways. This is generally because fundamentalist religions tend to cultivate strong social ties, support, a sense of identity, and a specific meaning system at the intimate intersection of family and religious communities. Therefore, the fundamentalist group operates as an enclosed community that often prevents secular influences as much as possible. In leaving, there are social consequences and challenges in navigating the new world—a new meaning system—one that’s quite different from the religious one.
Research shows that individuals who leave Christian fundamentalism experience a situational crisis in leaving the religion—a unique meaning-making framework focused on the sacred and divine—and undergo a meaning-making process to achieve a positive resolution in leaving the religion. The meaning-making process, in the context of religious exiting, consists of three components: Meaning structure—degree of participation, social cohesion, common purpose, higher emotional significance, and sense of community; meaning orientation—a nonreligious perspective (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, humanism, skepticism), increased empathy and critical thinking, as well as enhanced interest in social justice issues and a sense of morality no longer attached to a religious deity; and meaning security—increased personal liberation, freedom, independence, and sense of autonomy.
Wilbanks speaks to how the charismatic religious community she was so deeply embedded in provided a sense of interconnectedness, community, and higher emotional significance in the world. As highlighted throughout her story, the regular, charismatic church services, her family system, and the religious community offered a sense of belonging and, moreover, the deeply ingrained feeling of being special through a Divine connection.
“…Pastor Jim preached that in a world that seemed empty and cold and unfeeling, promises had been made, promises that would be kept…eventually the meek would inherit the earth. People like us…would gain admittance to the kingdom, and those out in the world, who soaked up its sinful culture…would be doomed to hellfire.”
In the transition to a new world, where there’s no such thing as a Divine language of ‘speaking in tongues’—a language that makes you Special, connected to a Heavenly deity and profound meaning system—a sinking realization seeps in that there’s no easy way of escaping the cold, emptiness of the world. That is, you aren’t really special or connected to the Divine—hence, a situational crisis that calls for meaning-making attempts to achieve a positive resolution in the new world. During her transition out of the faith, the author wonders, “if this is all there is” in the new world. This further illuminates how painstakingly challenging it can be to find peace and meaning in life after leaving a fundamentalist religion while also enduring diminishing relations with family.
Plagued by common negative feelings associated with leaving, such as guilt, fear, and shame, Wilbanks desires to make sense of her experience by returning to her religious roots. Importantly, the guilt and shame that many internalize in leaving a significant religious meaning system is something to consider when one attempts to integrate in a new world. In my own research, exiters’ prolonged feelings of guilt and shame diminishes their self-concepts, namely self-worth, personal mastery, and self-esteem, all of which contributes to reduced well-being. Specifically, the author embarks on a journey as researcher to explore the origins of Pentecostalism in Nigerian society. In her narrative, she appears to have found some form of reconciliation in her investigative process examining the Yoruba roots of her lost faith—that is, making sense of her experience in leaving her religion.
For Wilbanks, in other words, the meaning-making process involved going back to the roots of her former faith to better understand the religion’s central elements, its profound effects on a community, and its social and emotional impact across national boundaries. When individuals can more fully make sense of an intense life event, such as exiting a fundamentalist religion, we can better empathize with ourselves and others in the life transition and, in some instances, with those still in the religious meaning system.
Wilbanks shares the difficulties involved in navigating the secular world while maintaining ties with her religious family, an adventure that includes exploring her bisexuality, alcohol, recreational drugs, cigarettes, premarital romantic relations, and pursuing higher education. She describes the emotional management of being an outsider to her family, while also trying to become an insider in a new world. In this particular life-story, the author’s family relations triumphed over religious ideology, though that’s certainly not always the case. Enduring full losses of significant social systems compounds the challenge of integrating into and navigating a new world—a world one hopes will better complement one’s identity.
Our identities are closely and intimately tied to our social systems (e.g., family and religion) and reinforced, maintained, and preserved in the relationships embedded in those systems. Therefore, when we incur such losses—and, specifically, where a unique and powerful meaning is generated—finding a social script (e.g., learning a new secular language, set of norms, culture) and constructing a deconversion narrative feels nearly impossible.
In the author’s case, she desired to maintain relations with her religious family and found that returning to her former faith’s roots assisted in making sense of her experience. Moreover, to make peace with her past, Wilbanks went back to her faith’s origins with a more objective lens, as a researcher, resurrecting positive elements of the religious meaning system that she can potentially transfer to her new world. Individuals who manage to survive and thrive in the wake of the losses the author and others have experienced share something in common: they undergo meaning-making attempts to make sense of their experience. They create a story. As Wilbanks’ subtitle—A Story of Faith and its Loss—implies, the story is the key.