Many have heard about the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’ve also written about this a bit in relation to my own experience with grief in a previous post. In this post, I want to apply this model in parallel way to look at my evolving feelings about Christian Science as I began to leave it initially starting around five years ago to now, as I leave it further and further behind and become more detached from it. I’ve found that many of my ex-Christian Scientist peers that I’m in touch with via Facebook seem to go through similar evolving stages of “leaving” as well. This became starkly apparent to me during a recent visit with an old college friend of mine who like me, grew up in Christian Science (3rd generation as well), but left Christian Science several years before I did, shortly after we graduated from college.
I want to model here what I see, based on my own experience, and first-hand observations of my ex-Christian Scientist peers, the stages I’ve seen in the departure from Christian Science. I suspect this could be applicable for those leaving any strongly controlling religious faith or cult. Like the Kübler-Ross Model, some of these stages can be experienced in different order, and I don’t believe everyone necessarily experiences each stage, however there are some stages I firmly believe everyone experiences. Everyone’s experiences are uniquely their own, but there are some commonalities. Since I write this blog from my own perspective and experience, I’ll relate these stages to my own experience thus far.
This is one stage I have observed that everyone who has left Christian Science experiences, and always as the first stage. It’s the foundational stage that launches any departure not only from Christian Science, but any faith. Doubt is fairly self-explanatory: basically, it is the conflict that arises when the evidence seen/experienced contradicts the theology and claims of one’s faith. In the case of most who leave Christian Science, doubt arises with the mounting evidence that Christian Science completely lacks its claimed ability to heal physical and mental health ailments, and that the undeniable reality of the so-called material world around us which consistently contradicts the theology of Christian Science, which would have one believe that this reality is actually illusive. Many ex-Christian Scientists will tell you that they harboured doubts about Christian Science for many years before finally taking the steps to leave the faith.
For me, this stage happened early and often, starting in my earliest childhood memories in Sunday School, and continuing throughout my life as a Christian Scientist. I always mentally rebelled against the whole “matter is not real” part of Christian Science theology, and one of my most vivid memories is from when I was probably around nine or ten years of age when I slapped my hand on the table in Sunday School and stated that the table (which was composed of illusory “matter”) seemed pretty real to me. That was a doubt that I never shook. Later in life, I began to doubt more and more the claims Christian Science made of an ability to heal physical ailments, as the evidence that it could not piled higher and higher, culminating in the gruesome and painful circumstances of my parents’ deaths.
I have read of similar accounts with other former Christian Scientists who’ve had to contend with the untimely and often painful deaths of those close to them. For many of them, their frustration was compounded by the fact that they had already left Christian Science and were forced to deal with friends and loved ones still under the delusional spell of Christian Science. Often, those still in Christian Science would push them away for fear that their un-Christian Science thought would act upon the ailing person in a form of aggressive mental suggestion. I take some small solace in the fact that I was still in Christian Science when my parents died, so that aspect of the trauma wasn’t piled on me during that trying experience. It’s worth noting that doubt does not necessarily lead to leaving Christian Science.
Realization comes when one has seen the reality that forms the foundation of their initial doubts. I believe this is also a stage that everyone experiences when leaving Christian Science, after the “doubts” phase. One realizes that the doubts they had are valid, and have a very firm foundation in reality, and there is irrefutable evidence to back them up. It’s scary to come to this stage. You’re faced with the reality that everything you’ve held dear to your heart, everything you’ve thought was true is completely false. The evidence is usually what convicts Christian Science in the court of the person’s reasoning. Realization, in and of itself, does not always prompt a person to leave Christian Science.
For the lucky ones, realization comes simply when one can no longer accept as valid Christian Science theology; for instance, that matter is not real, and they realize that Christian Science is, to put it as a British commenter on a thread stated, “complete codswallop”. They often depart Christian Science earlier in life and go on about their lives in a more normal fashion.
For others, such as myself, it takes personal tragedy to make us realize that all those little doubts we harboured for so many years actually had a basis in truth, and we’re often left wondering why it took us so long to realize what we always knew deep down was true. Many is the time I wonder how differently I would have handled my parents’ illnesses and deaths if I wasn’t still in Christian Science, and if I would have perhaps been able to persuade them to seek life-saving medical intervention earlier, or at least life enhancing medical treatment.
This is one stage not everyone necessarily experiences. Many, when confronting the first two stages do simply leave. They rip the band-aid off quickly, so to speak, and just get out of Christian Science immediately with hardly a glance backwards. Others, even though they’ve experienced doubts, and on a certain level do accept the undeniable reality that Christian Science is completely false in its claims in every way, are still reluctant to rip off that band-aid and leave. In many cases, such as my own, this stage will run concurrently at times with the previous two stages I’ve discussed.
I think of this as something similar to experiments I’ve read about where small animals kept in cages will still walk around in the same sized area formerly bounded by the cage even when the cage is removed. In some ways, humans are no different. With those of us who grew up in Christian Science, it becomes a comfort zone that becomes difficult if not impossible to leave no matter what. In many cases, it forms the centre and circumference of their family, social, and in some cases workaday lives. They stay because they’re comfortable in the cocoon of Christian Science and close their eyes, figuratively tapping their shoes together hoping to be taken back to Kansas again. It’s a fearful leap of faith to leave the comfort zone you’ve become accustomed to, as I’ve written about in this post.
For some, this stage will keep them in Christian Science to some degree for a very long time, or perhaps for the rest of their lives. For others, it just delays their inevitable departure a little bit. For me, it delayed my departure a little bit. Immediately following my parents’ deaths, I didn’t think I would leave Christian Science; I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to see their deaths as failures of Christian Science, even though deep down I knew their deaths were ample demonstrations of the failure of Christian Science.
I initially thought I would only withdraw from some of the “cultural” aspects of Christian Science: branch church involvement and attendance, ancillary organization involvement, and other such things. I thought I would remain a student of Christian Science, continue to study and apply it in my daily life, and despite some ugly conflicts with my Christian Science Teacher, continue to attend my Association. Gradually however, I found myself drifting away from it all over the period of the first year and a half after my Dad’s death, and I eventually withdrew from my Association as well as from membership in The Mother Church. That entire withdrawal process was complete in an official way within two years of my Dad’s death; but “morally” if you will, it was a year earlier, after my the Association meeting I attended. For me, the process of leaving Christian Science was eased by the presence of a new social and spiritual circle in my life. Others are not as fortunate, and sometimes they’ll return to or stay in old ways. This is probably the toughest stage to contend with when leaving Christian Science.
Acceptance is a stage everyone who eventually does depart from Christian Science gets to. Sometimes it leads through other stages such as reluctance, sometimes it doesn’t. Often, I think it happens at the same time as realization. This is the stage where the desire to run back to the old comfortable Christian Science cocoon begins to dissipate. In human psychology, it is a person’s “assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it. . .” 1. Acceptance begins to seal the deal. It is the stage where one gets past the comfort zone of Christian Science they’ve been in for years or a lifetime, and embark on their new and liberated life. They fully accept the reality of this big bad world, and the complete fallacy and unreality of Christian Science. They’re ready to take the leap of faith and get out.
For me, realization and acceptance happened at the same time, but I feel that they’re separate stages. You can realize something is true, but accepting that truth is something entirely different. Once I accepted that Christian Science was false, the notion that the most bedrock paradigm in my life was as flimsy as a house of cards no longer scared me. I could begin to move forward in a new direction, one that was true to myself and what I know, and on some level always knew to be true. I don’t fear doctors or medical treatment, I embrace it, and have truly been healed by it. I embrace and experience grief, anger, sadness, all those negative emotions and don’t feel as guilty about it as I did in Christian Science, where one is taught that these are “false manifestations of error or mortal mind”. Instead, they’re part of my life. No, they’re not nice, but that’s the way life is. It isn’t always nice and rosy.
Anger can be a tough one for the former Christian Scientist. You’re taught in Christian Science that anger is akin to being sinful. It’s not accepted as the natural human emotion that it is. So, anger is suppressed and denied rather than being addressed, and often it ends up being expressed in passive aggressiveness. Christian Scientists are masters at passive aggressiveness, and I think that stems largely from the extreme suppression of anger that Christian Science forces on its adherents. Former Christian Scientists often feel conflicted about anger, especially when their anger is in regards to their former faith. Anger comes when we read or remember once-favourite quotes or hymns, and realize how false they are. It comes when we read about yet another Christian Scientist who has died young from an easily treatable condition. It is especially kindled when we hear about children who suffer needlessly and painfully when their parents choose Christian Science treatment over medical care, and when we remember similar instances from our own childhoods.
Anger is the stage I’m in the midst of now. I’ll be honest, I thoroughly hate Christian Science and would like nothing more than to see its complete obliteration. I still feel a twinge of guilt for even using the word ‘hate’, but that is honestly the way I feel about it. I hate the way my Christian Science upbringing has made me feel guilty about expressing these strong emotions, I hate how Christian Science affected my parents’ choices in their last days, and I hate how it caused them to neglect my health as a child at times. My experience is very similar to many others of my ex-Christian Scientist peers. We are all or all have been at some point, very angry about our exposure to Christian Science. Some don’t seem to ever shake this stage, some move on and become ambivalent. For most, this is a stage that comes and goes, but doesn’t entirely leave.
This is a theoretical stage from my point of view, and I’m not 100% sure if I’ll truly get there or if anyone who’s been immersed in Christian Science theology and culture ever truly gets there. I’ll define normalization as a state where most, if not all vestiges of Christian Science have left a person. They don’t think twice about going to the doctor, feeling negative emotions, grieving tragic loss, or any other of the many things Christian Science ingrains in one to deny. They fully accept the reality of the material world around them and don’t even give it a second thought. They don’t marvel anymore at the ability of cold medicine to alleviate symptoms, for instance, and don’t cringe at the mention of everyday words that have perverted meanings in Christian Science, such as “demonstration”, “practice”, or “belief” for example. They rarely give Christian Science a second thought, and for them it virtually doesn’t exist.
Perhaps this is a stage that one achieves in stages itself, and one that different people achieve in different degrees. In my own life, I have normalized quite a bit, considering that I’m relatively recent in my departure from Christian Science. While I probably still delay in seeking medical treatment when ailments arise, I no longer give much of a second thought about the wisdom of going to the doctor. I simply do it, and have no doubt that it’s the right thing to do. I still marvel, however, at the ability of simple antibiotics to fight off infections, and revel in how good it feels to be a “normal” person. I accept the reality of the material world around me and no longer question it, but I still give that reality and realization thereof a lot of thought.
I see different stages of normalization in many of my ex-Christian Scientist friends. For instance, I have one friend who, while she left Christian Science several years ago, is only now going through many of the emotional processes that I as a more recently departed person is going through or just went through. She simply walked away from it, but never really processed her feelings much at the time. Others hardly give Christian Science a second thought except when we interact on-line, and I don’t think Christian Science enters their daily lives or thoughts very much at all. These are people who are many decades removed from their Christian Science experience. Other acquaintances of mine are in the midst of dealing with very serious mental-health issues connected to their time in Christian Science, and may never achieve much normalization.
Normalization, or some degree of it, is the ultimate goal, the Nirvana if you will, that we all hope to achieve. I think I’ll achieve it by sheer determination and will-power. I’ve always had an uncanny ability to compartmentalize my life and firmly shut the past in the past. Others may never realize it–it will always be that 800 pound gorilla sitting there in the corner of the room that is their life. It is for those people that my anger towards Christian Science will always be kindled. I hate Christian Science, and I truly hate what it does to people, and what it makes some people do to others.
1 “Acceptance.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 6 July 2014. Web. 14 July 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acceptance>