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Building a Life Outside Your Religious Community

Two folks share stories of leaving religious communities and re-building relationships and identity on their own terms.

When you’ve spent your whole life immersed in a religion, what happens when you begin to question the tenets of your faith?

The decision to cut ties with a religious community often requires a renegotiation of relationships with family and friends – not to mention the monumental task of rebuilding your relationship to your own body, sexuality and core beliefs.

Host Anita Rao speaks with two guests who left the religious communities in which they were raised. Nicole Hardy, author of the memoir “Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin,” speaks with Rao about Mormonism’s law of chastity and the crisis of faith that ultimately led her to resign from the Mormon church. Dr. Jon Paul Higgins, who holds a doctorate in education and educational justice and is the creator, executive producer and co-host of the “Black Fat Femme Podcast,” speaks with Rao about their experience of growing up as a queer Jehovah’s Witness and the surveillance that ultimately pushed them to leave that community.

Thank you to Stacie, Taylor and Rachel for contributing their stories and perspectives to this episode.

Four Ways to Support a Friend Who’s Left Their Religious Community

1 - Educate yourself. If you haven’t done so already, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and central beliefs of your friend’s former religion. Reading or watching media by and about folks who’ve left their religious communities might also help you develop a deeper understanding of what your friend is going through.

2 - Follow their lead. It might take time for your friend to find the words to describe their experience, and they may have difficulty applying labels like “indoctrination” or “religious trauma.” Let them take the lead when it comes to labeling their experience — and keep in mind that the language they use to talk about it is likely to evolve over time.

3 - Make space for grief. Your friend will likely need time to mourn the belief system, values and community they left behind. Keep in mind that they will likely have mixed and complicated feelings about their former community ... even if they’re ultimately relieved to have left it.

4 - Affirm their autonomy. Especially if their former religion involved a lot of rules and restrictions, your friend might want to experiment with activities and forms of expression that were previously off-limits, including gender expression and sexuality. You can reaffirm their right to explore their identity while also encouraging them to prioritize things like safety, boundaries and consent.

Please note: This episode originally aired August 26, 2022.

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Audrey Smith is a writer, educator, and temporary producer of "Embodied" based in Greensboro, NC. She holds a Master's degree in Secondary English Language Arts Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2018) and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing from Oregon State University (2021).
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.