Not every recent deconvert necessarily needs these resources, though. Some who leave religion become healthier than they were before. This was the case for Annie Erlandson.
Raised Evangelical Christian in Lincoln, Nebraska, Erlandson developed anorexia at age nine, modeling after her pastor father, who wrote a book about his own eating disorder. But Erlandson’s struggles with food were tied to her beliefs. She was petrified of growing into womanhood, fearing she would cause men to lust after her and sin. She thought if she could prevent her first period, she could prevent growing breasts and minimize sin. Finally at age 15, doctors caught on to her persistent low weight and diagnosed her with anorexia.
After this, Erlandson began doubting Christianity, and eventually, she lost her faith.
Like Erlandson, some people’s health improves after deconverting because they stop practicing negative health behaviors that may have been tied to their religion. For example, leaving a faith such as Christian Science, which dissuades medical treatment, obviously opens up more opportunities for healthcare intervention.
Other negative health behaviors sometimes associated with being religious, according to social psychologist Dr. Clay Routledge in Psychology Today, are cognitive dissonance (consistent religious doubts can harm your health) and avoidant coping. An example of the latter is the attitude that things are “all in God’s hands,” which could potentially keep people from taking action on behalf of their own health.
Unlike those who become isolated from community after losing their faith, Erlandson’s social life improved drastically after her deconversion. She began hanging out with theatre kids and people in the local punk rock scene.
“I never really had a social group when I was a Christian,” Erlandson said. “I tried joining a youth group and just never felt like I connected with them. I remember one time, when I was nine, being in church during a hymn and everyone was singing and raising their hands and closing their eyes. I didn’t feel it. This wave of isolation and trepidation came over me. Everyone seemed engaged except for me. I knew I was not like everyone else.”
But not everyone's health and well-being improves after leaving a religion. Since for many people, religion means being part of a community, and belief in an afterlife can make death less frightening, leaving that behind can lead to isolation and anxiety. The end of a positive religious experience can lead to a decrease in health, as was the case for Penfold. But leaving a negative religious experience may be a way to boost health, especially if someone has a nonreligious community to support them, as Erlandson did. But one way or another, a person’s faith, or lack thereof, is often so important that it affects physical, as well as spiritual, well-being.