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Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion

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This guide helps readers who have rejected rigid religious upbringings find new independence and self-love. Learn to accept conflicted feelings and choose a healthy reality. Learn to live in the here and now.

312 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 1993

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Marlene Winell

3 books17 followers

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5 stars
318 (49%)
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210 (32%)
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90 (14%)
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16 (2%)
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3 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 64 reviews
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
June 30, 2016
I left fundamentalism a long time ago, but there's no leaving my fundamentalist family. This was an interesting book to read through as I prepare to make another visit home, a journey which is always stress-laden! I found the first part to be the most beneficial, because it allowed me to make some connections I hadn't made. It took me weeks to get the courage to read the last chapter in that section, about where family intersects with fundamentalism. Maybe someday I can write about what it was like to grow up in that kind of environment. Most stories I tell other people seem hard for them to believe!

The second section, about dealing with the effects of fundamentalism, was actually the reason I read the book but I found the least useful. I think Winell means well but the inner child approach doesn't work for me, in fact it just makes me cringe. I don't need to create a new version of myself in order to process emotions. I don't need to be patronizing with myself in order to give myself permission to feel. In fact, I feel I need to be less compartmentalized over all. So I was kind of rolling my eyes through a few chapters there. I agreed with her that it is important to deal with the guilt and anger that leaving fundamentalism can bring, but then she doesn't give many strategies for doing so. I found some nuggets that I can pull into other thinking and working that I'm doing.

The good news (for my own realization) is that I've actually done a lot of the work already. I'm a unique bird who was fighting the limits of fundamentalism from as early as I could write in a journal. Going to college and then getting married marked the times where I could live my life without those restrictions and guilt-trips, and I took naturally to the new way of living because I was always that person. The last section of the book may be more useful for people at the start of their journey. There is a lot to process, a lot to filter out, a lot to let go of. The "moving to a new country" feeling Winell describes really resonated with me, and is also why I've included this on my "cults and communes" bookshelf because this book is an insight into the other world people experience within this system, one that has many similarities to cults - with use of isolation, restriction, etc. to control its members. When that system is replicated inside your family unit, it can be a very restrictive way of being.
Profile Image for Myrrh.
2 reviews1 follower
March 26, 2009
As a former Christian Fundamentalist this book really helped me put my feelings into words. The author describes exactly what it feels like to be trapped in a religious group that is overbearing, dysfunctional, and psychologically damaging and she gives good advice for the healing process once the reader walks away from "the fold." Although born-again Christians are known for promoting a "personal relationship with God," once inside, your relationship is no longer personal, but critiqued by other church members who have "heard from god" and have been "led" to tell the believer what they need to change in their life. Winell puts it all into perspective. I would recommend this book to all Fundamentalists, but especially to those who are questioning whether or not their chosen faith has encroached too far into their person spirituality; I would also suggest this title to people who have family members who have become involved in religious extremism since it will give them a tangible critique of what their loved one is experiencing as a born-again believer.
Profile Image for Brett Bavar.
14 reviews2 followers
February 13, 2010
Worth reading for Chapter 4 (Recognizing Manipulations) alone, though Part II and Part III were very boring for me. Part I was helpful for processing my past experiences with fundamentalist Christianity from a new perspective. Part II and Part III are written for those who are struggling to deal with psychological issues after their departure from fundamentalist Christianity. If you left fundamentalist Christianity and still feel well-adjusted, the latter parts of this book are probably not for you.

Here are a few great quotes I found insightful from Chapter 4:

"The pattern of indulgence and then remorse illustrated [in an earlier example:] compares to the behavior of an alcoholic or otherwise addicted individual. The religious addict is attached to the benefits of religion--the sense of righteousness, the social approval, the emotional conflict--and yet is tempted to explore the forbidden. Because of pressure to stay on the straight and narrow path, decisions to deviate are made impulsively. Then the fear of consequences sets in and the cycle continues with shame and confession. The individual is thus trying to live two lives, engaging in the psychological pattern of 'splitting.'"

"Believers are taught to fear 'false prophets.' The Bible warns against other religious leaders with appealing messages who do not preach the true gospel. ... The Bible's ambiguity, along with the danger of eternal damnation for making a misjudgment, effectively keeps believers relying on their church leaders for correct doctrine. Fundamentalism teaches that there is only one way. All others, no matter how attractive, or how strong the testimonials, are Satan's tricks."

"Human love is disparaged as frail and fickle, while agape--unselfish, altruistic love that is from God love--is held up as the ideal. This can appeal greatly to converts disappointed with their human relationships. Yet, it has little to do with what we usually think of as love: affection, sharing thoughts and feelings, caring, accepting, forgiving, empathizing, touching, listening, giving, respecting, helping, appreciating, supporting, and so on. It is a mental activity of adhering to code. A Christian 'loves' a sinner because God 'loves' the sinner and one must follow suit. Love to the evangelical is simply a willingness to put up with the sinner in order to obey the commission to preach the gospel. Thus the fundamentalist can say, without noticing the inconsistency, 'I love the sinner, but not the sin.' To the uninitiated, this is a strange kind of love, that tries to divorce persons from their activities and then judges those activities with amazing ferocity."
Profile Image for Ivan Campos.
14 reviews3 followers
October 15, 2012
This book is of value to those either leaving, considering leaving, understanding those leaving, and for those not leaving -to ask themselves why they are not leaving.
Profile Image for ShanTil.
68 reviews12 followers
January 26, 2020
Wow. What an insightful resource.

The chapters on recognizing manipulations and breaking away were especially helpful to me. Lots of note-taking occurred on my end. It’s been hard to verbalize what happened to me and what exactly I went through since I left my own fundamentalist group earlier this year. Winell, along with those who shared their stories, put it into words beautifully. The experience of “leaving the fold” is often isolating and confusing, among many other things. After reading the first few chapters, I felt less alone and it was almost as if clouds were scattering in my head. *deep sigh of relief*

I couldn’t get into the suggested inner child exercises in the latter part of the book, but hey, to each their own! If they help others, that’s wonderful.

This book acted as a little beacon, gently guiding me forward in my journey toward a healthier, brighter future. I hope it does the same for future readers, and I also hope more books addressing this particular topic can continue to be released.
Profile Image for Kristen Hovet.
Author 1 book20 followers
March 17, 2016
Necessary reading for anyone who has left (or is considering leaving) fundamentalist, rigid, dogmatic religious groups.
Profile Image for Erik.
Author 1 book3 followers
June 21, 2011
Very useful for anyone who has been "caught" by fundamentalist religion, whether in childhood as a received worldview or later as a charismatic answer to every question that cannot, in fact, deliver. My main reservations with the book have to do with the order of the chapters; I would not have placed the author's story so early in the book, as it contains a number of events and conversations the descriptions of which might give a person struggling to be free of fundamentalist conditioning a difficult time in discerning what the message of the book is supposed to be. Still, when I found this book I was very grateful that someone had written about the fundamentalist experience at length from a point of view of having moved permanently beyond and away from it. The writer does not go quite as far as I would, though, in discerning in fundamentalist teaching a form of child abuse. That book, perhaps, has not yet been written.
Profile Image for Leslie Rewis.
210 reviews57 followers
January 29, 2021
I found the first half of the book incredibly useful when thinking about why people leave religion and/or cling to it. The second half was not really relevant to me, and I think that is because I've been deconstructing for probably 10 years already. I think I am further along in my journey that I don't need to speak to my "inner child." I do think this book is a good starting point for deconstructing Christians. And she does give citations for further reading.
Profile Image for Megan.
48 reviews
October 28, 2013
Extremely insightful. I wish I had read this book years ago. I think everyone who has grown up in and/or struggled with the Christian tradition should read it.
Profile Image for Danél.
34 reviews
September 24, 2018
I am truly grateful for Dr. Winell's pioneering and important work on Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), in which she boldly and convincingly outlines the road to recovery for survivors of legalistic evangelicalism. The first half of the book addresses the symptoms of emotional harm that emerge from an upbringing in a tradition that teaches you that you are meaningless without a relationship with God as defined by your church's strict theology, and while I have not been a member of the fold for a good ten years now, some of her insight provided sobering and clarifying realizations of the emotional abuse that I suffered for most of my childhood and early adult years. It was nice to realize that I was not alone, but part of a community of survivors -- Winell includes testimonials from clients whose journeys sounded a lot like struggles I did not realize that I was still addressing within myself. The second part of the book includes steps toward recovery, and if any readers have experienced RTS, I highly recommend that they try at least a few of the prompts that she provides, if for no other reason than to see if they will help bring out issues that you might not even know still need to be addressed. In particular, the realization that evangelicalism teaches you to repent of all of your sins but to give credit for any success exclusively to God was an eye-opening revelation for my own journey away from my upbringing, and it challenged me to think about the ways that I still carry that mental programming with me, long past the time in which it has any context. Some of the exercises for recovery might seem corny (by Winell's own admission), but they are surprisingly effective -- especially the material concerning recognizing and getting to know your inner child and who they are in context to both your upbringing and your present life. After a long time of internalizing many harmful experiences, I am beginning to see my way out of it. I attribute that to an amazing support system and luck with some very insightful therapists, but thanks to Winell's work here, I feel comfortable giving myself credit too for the courage it took to actually open my eyes. If you were raised evangelical and have emerged from that lifestyle, you have already begun the steps toward healing and finding your own path. It is not an easy journey, but I can tell you with all honesty and from experience -- it gets better, and this book and its exercises may really help.
Profile Image for Taylor.
133 reviews5 followers
October 25, 2015
This is a psychologist trying to evaluate and understand the journey of leaving the evangelical/mostly fundamentalist christianity and going into normal society. The first half, the descriptive half is PHENOMENAL. I am one of the ones who has left the evangelical/mostly fundamentalist bubble and I identify with so many of the things she said. I finally found words to describe what was going on inside of me because I read this book. I would recommend that first half to anyone experiencing difficulty coming out of the conservative christian bubble, and probably to anyone who wants to understand those people from a psychological perspective. I'm super curious about people coming out of other bubbles and see what parts apply to them and what parts do not.

First half, 5 stars. second half, is prescriptive and I found the majority of her prescriptive stuff to fall flat for me personally. She is extremely sensitive so for those of you experiencing real trauma from leaving, her baby steps will probably be great for you. My exodus was difficult, but I always had outlets and ways of coping (however frustrating it may have been) that helped me know I was pretty much fine and would continue to be fine.
Profile Image for David.
46 reviews4 followers
May 2, 2009
If you, like I, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, and you no longer attend or have "left the fold", this book is for you. Very well-written and insightful -- as only one of the "chosen few" could craft -- I found many novel ideas, and questions raised which I have long pondered myself.

Dr. Winell combines her own personal story with that of many of her counselees, and uses these experiences and stories to illuminate and illustrate her own conclusions. Not for the faint-of-heart if you are sitting on the fence regarding some or all of Christian dogma. However, if you are questioning why you have always needed to be "completely understood" while concurrently attempting to solve life's mysteries, then I highly recommend your attention to this book.

Profile Image for M.
6 reviews23 followers
November 17, 2012
This book contains many insights I wish I had considered when I first moved beyond religion--things I ended up reclaiming and facing over time on my own (the hard way). I would recommend this book to anyone who has unwittingly stumbled out of a fundamentalist religion. It's a good primer for the rest of your recovery.

"The word that frequently comes to my mind is courage. Anyone can live by a formula. It's much harder to leave the straight and narrow. Yet many of us have found that we must leave. The imperative from deep within is too strong. Life beckons and to dishonor the call would be spiritual death." --Marlene Winell
Profile Image for Alice Greczyn.
Author 1 book40 followers
September 4, 2019
Must-read for anyone who has left their religion! This book may have saved my life. Learning about Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) was the turning point of my suicidal depression. I am deeply, beyond grateful to Dr. Winell for giving name to the trauma that affected me and so many others. This is the first book I recommend to anyone in the throes of leaving a belief system, whether it's Christianity, Islam, or Scientology. Its value is immeasurable. I hope more mental health care providers read it, too, so they can better recognize RTS in their patients and help them.

You deserve healing.
Profile Image for Luke Shea.
357 reviews2 followers
April 28, 2019
One of the most helpful things I have ever read. Took me months to get through because every time I picked it up I knew I would have some kind of revelation and start crying. Highly recommended to anyone going through any kind of doubt or deconversion process. Just seeing all these things named and discussed and and treated like real problems was so incredibly powerful to me. Love love love it.
Profile Image for Heidi.
11 reviews
June 27, 2017
It is extremely hard to leave Mormonism for two reasons: most if not all my family and friends are Mormons, and the cultured doctrine is 100% fear based. This book was and is crucial to mine and my husband's recovery in healing physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Profile Image for Heather Yockey.
23 reviews1 follower
June 16, 2019
Even as this book is over 25 years old, it is aging well. It has the capacity engage a broad audience. From those who are dipping their toe, to those who are several miles down the road of new beginnings.
Profile Image for Ekmef.
556 reviews
April 15, 2021
Leaving the Fold provides many eye-opening moments to ex fundamentalists, but ultimately, the content is rather dated and it falls into the trap it tries to avoid - it replaces one ruleset (obey God) with another ruleset (Be The Best Self You Can Be!!1!). In the fundamentalist paradigm God tells you to be better, in the post-fundamentalist world that Winell presents, you yourself should aim to always improve. While that is a worthwhile goal, there are many other worthwhile goals and I think that most exfundamentalists could do with some rest and relaxation.
But let's not discount the whole book. Section 1 is the strongest, here Winell systematically tears apart any positive feelings you might have had about fundamentalistist (and in my opinion, all) Christianity. It's about mind control and abuse of power, with the best of intentions that cause the worst outcomes in those who take it seriously. This section is also very useful for non-Christians (eg therapists or other people who encounter ex fundamentalists) who can't fathom how such a seemingly kind religion can be linked to mind control.
In the second section Winell presents her suggestions for a way out, how can we unlearn the fear-based conditioning to deny our own agency and feelings. Her suggestions are mostly built around the concept of the inner child/inner adult, where she appeals to your naturally present inner parent. Well, that doesn't cut it for me (I'm childfree). While it is interesting to explore my resistance towards this topic, this type of psychotherapy probably works best for those who want to imagine themselves as parents. The proposed strategies also aren't very intersectional - they don't leave space for when people actually want you dead or actively want to take away your rights (they're probably having a bad day?).
The third section builds on the previous work to look ahead - what do you want your future to look like (making plans for that was mostly denied to us, as Jesus would be coming back soon anyway). When reading this it was very interesting to become aware of all the precognitions I was unconsciously holding, including looking for A Truth, never trusting your own judgement, the role of authority figures. While the tips weren't as useful perse, they do make you reflect on how you got where you are right now.

I'd say this is a must read for anyone who left contemporary Christianity as AFAIK no one else provided such a comprehensive overview, but with the caveat that this is just another book, important concepts (such as trauma informed care) are missing.
Profile Image for Hannah  Cole.
85 reviews2 followers
May 27, 2019
I'm not exaggerating when I say this book is life changing.

Obviously this is not a book for everyone, but rather a guide for those, like me, who are trying to rediscover what their life looks like without Fundamentalism. This book is my guru, moving me through the different stages of realization, acceptance, and healing that are necessary when working through any kind of trauma.

This book took me well over 2 months to read, a snails pace when I'm usually through a book a week. It demands that you take your time as you see how the experiences and examples that Winell offers are mirrored in your own life. I've already begun to work through many of the suggested exercises, my favorites being the guided visualizations, and have a file full of emotional journal entries from my work. But I think what I love especially is the resources she provides. I have so much more reading to explore, so many more exercises to try, so much healing left to embrace.

This is a book I'll be coming back to again and again, like a trusty reference guide for healing from Religious Trauma Syndrome. I highly recommend to any person who feels they were defined by their religion in a negative way and are trying to break free.

Profile Image for David Teachout.
Author 2 books14 followers
November 25, 2015
There are ways in which this could be looked at as a self-help book, but that would be missing the scope of the problem being addressed. From within religious fundamentalism there is not merely a loss of self but the systematic destruction of the ability to think and feel authentically in a lived-in reality. Being taught to doubt and identify as evil every human aspect of one's existence does not support the ability later to seek self-help. What Winell endeavors to do here is rather a process for laying the foundation of a new life, one that will allow for self-help even as it encourages a new way to look at social connections and one's own relationship to body, mind and emotions. Truly a great beginning to what is a life-time journey.
29 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2022
Mind blowing

The moment I began to read this book I was in it. I identified with everything that the author says about fundamental Christianity.

I have recently written a book about my life and the problems that ensued from my upbringing. Leaving the Fold echos everything I experienced and I felt validated at last.

My book is the journey of how I freed myself up from those terrible beliefs about myself. So I had already healed from most of it. But there were still some powerful exercises in this book for me to look at. Especially how much dogmatic beliefs still affect my thinking.

I am so happy that I came across Leaving the Fold.
Profile Image for Jason A Young.
3 reviews4 followers
October 24, 2017
Helpful book for former Fundamentalist

I was raised as a Christian fundamentalist. I've been deconverted for a decade now. Some of the exercises were helpful for me. I wish that I had known about this book sooner. I've been going through an existentialist life crisis for the past couple of years. The book helped me to better organise my thoughts and regain perspective.
Profile Image for Elaine.
69 reviews4 followers
August 26, 2020
If you used to be a fundamentalist, read this. Even if you think you’ve recovered, you might not really fully comprehend the damage of indoctrination in your life. I didn’t get much from the exercises (I don’t know what to make of all the “inner child” work) but the text really put a lot of shit into context for me. The reading list at the end is very comprehensive. Also, get a therapist.
Profile Image for JennaRose.
15 reviews
September 14, 2014
This book helped me to understand and deal with the stress of growing up with a fundamentalist background-- the long lasting damages and how to heal.
Profile Image for Greg.
5 reviews
November 6, 2022
Excellent book! As a former fundamentalist who grew up indoctrinated in a charismatic church for 20 years, I felt as if this book was written personally to me. I could identify with so much of its content in earlier chapters.

It is also astonishing to think that this book was written in the early 90s. It was simply ahead of it’s time, as more people are now starting to realize that the “morals” often touted by Christianity are not so much admirable ideas that provide for a better life for others, as they are strict instructions for obedience to church elders and their literal interpretation of the Bible, and conforming to their church’s expectations set on them and fellow parishioners.

This book shines a light on many flaws in fundamentalist Christianity that we were just expected to simply accept and believe. I like while Dr. Winell exposes the not often discussed negative components of the religion such as crippling anxiety, little self worth, constant guilt, conformity, unhealthy dependence, conditional love, disdain of critical thinking, not enjoying the present, an odd obsession with a fictional afterlife, a need for external approval and validation, etc. she does not do so in a hateful way to cast blame. This book is truly for healing and recognizing that yes, while this belief system is harmful and toxic, we have the power as individuals to change and there are methodologies available to move past it and enjoy life in the present, instead of remaining bitter and focused on the past (or in the case of so many Christians, only focused on the “next life” which is a mythological heaven or hell).

This book is essential to anyone who is questioning or deconstructing their socially conservative, fundamentalist belief system.
Profile Image for Felicity .
41 reviews
August 23, 2021
While my upbringing was a lighter version of fundamentalism than what is primarily discussed in this book, it was no less harmful. This is the first time I have read anything explaining "my father's religion" in a clinical, factual way and it clarified almost everything about how my life has progressed these thirteen years since leaving it. I feel like Winell has opened a massive door onto a real path of healing that I previously never knew was there. I am so grateful to this book. It firmly told me in no uncertain terms that I am not alone, I can heal, and everything will be okay.
Profile Image for Elise.
20 reviews
January 25, 2023
Very good and well thought out. The inserts from real people broke up some of the more technical verbiage. Not all of this book applied to me. With my parents being extremely conservative in some way this helps me as an adult make health decisions without guilt, and to stand up for myself. I never want to lie to my parents but sometimes the emotional toll of their religious disapproval is hard. This book helped a lot with that and helped me have healthier conversations with my parents. They were definitely receptive which is a blessing. I’m not an atheist but how I practice my faith looks very different now then when I was growing up. Would recommend to anyone leaving( or choosing another way to practice)white evangelicalism/conservative Christian background.
Profile Image for Ben Schnell.
83 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2021
Lots of catharsis and insight. It surprised me how helpful it was.
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