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Finding an Identity After Leaving the Church

by Traci PedersenSeptember 24, 2014

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” ~Brennan Manning

What happens when your beliefs and values no longer match those of your church? Do you stay in the church and quietly agree to disagree? Or do you move on? According to new research, many find it hard to leave and equally difficult to stay.

For the study, researchers interviewed former members of the Mormon Church, asking them to reveal the challenges they faced in leaving the church and how they managed to form a new ‘identity.’ The study also investigated religion as it relates to consumption—such as the role the church tends to play in influencing what its members should and should not buy in the marketplace (alcohol, coffee, R-rated movies, etc).

Not surprisingly, making the choice to leave a long-attended church can stir up intense emotions and even cause an identity crisis in some people. It is no small occurrence when people lose their trust in the institution that has long helped structure their moral beliefs and their daily lives, say the authors.

According to the researchers, when a former churchgoer attempts to develop a new identity, he or she must reassemble his life from a much broader marketplace of ideas, experiences, goods, and services.

For example, some people may begin to rethink behaviors they had previously steered away from, such as drinking wine or caffeinated drinks, watching R-rated movies, or wearing different types of clothing. Since many of their choices had been largely dictated by trying to follow the rules of the church, some individuals attempt to ‘try out’ these behaviors in order to see how each one makes them feel.

Whether we remain in the same church our whole lives or choose a new path (or several new paths), establishing a strong sense of self is key. According to Tony Robbins, our personal identities are in a constant state of motion. “We all contain the power to reinvent ourselves and create a new, empowered identity that expands what is possible in our lives,” says Robbins.

The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.


Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional freelance writer who specializes in psychology, science, health, and spiritual themes.  Some of her most recent work includes covering the latest research news in science and psychology, writing science chapter books for elementary students, and developing teacher resource books.  When she is not researching and writing, she is spending time with her family, reading anything and everything, and going to the beach as often as possible.

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