Leaving Christianity Is Like Leaving An Abusive Relationship

by Virginia Duan
KL Yuen/Getty

I’ve tried to leave Christianity countless times over the past few years. It’s weird, because according to my husband, I had already left. To him, being a Christian was all about the outward expressions. Did I go to church? Did I pray before meals? Did I do Christiany things?

But to me, Christianity was a belief system — in particular, one that pursued justice, equity, and restoration of humanity to God. From my perspective, the more I deviated from what the mainstream (aka white, western) understanding of Christianity was, the more I was actually Christian.

So no, I did not — and still do not — participate in any of these external markers of piety. And though it was apparent to my husband that I was an apostate long before I admitted it to myself, unmooring myself from the idea of a god — Christian or otherwise — is disorienting.

The thing is, it’s been ingrained in the very fiber of my identity for nearly four decades. These roots run deep. So many of my old friendships were formed in pews (or folding chairs) and thrived in Bible studies and fellowship meetings. So many of my current friendships were founded on the basis of a shared religion — not the only reason, mind you, but a big part was this common value of progressivism and following Jesus in that context. Much of my basis for social justice is entrenched in the gospel — not all of it, but it was foundational.

I feel as if I’m getting a divorce when I, of all people, suddenly (but was it really sudden?) “fall away” from religion. And when I really examine my journey, I likely would have left much earlier but for the fear of losing my community.

I’m leaving an abusive relationship

Yeah, yeah. Claiming Christianity is akin to an abuser is incendiary — but where is the lie?

Let’s take a quick look at the beliefs Christianity espouses — at least how it is applied in this white, Western, patriarchal society (i.e.: ours):

1) You are a born sinner (rotten from the very beginning).

2) No one else can love you as much as God does — and you’ll never find someone who loves you as much as God.

3) God died for you (because you suck).

4) God will give you a new life if you leave everything and follow them.

5) God tells you to die to your old self and only look to God for everything.

6) Give God control over all your money and every aspect of your life.

7) Love no one more than God — God is the first and only.

Christianity makes you believe that your heart belongs to God — and only God. But what happens when you no longer believe? How do you cut out your heart without dying?

How does this not sound abusive?

Can you imagine some person requiring you to feel this way about them? If my child dated someone — shit, if my child was friends with someone like this — I would tell them to run away. Run far and run fast!

One of my friends said she had so many thoughts about the evangelical god being an idol made in the image of abusive, power hungry men — narcissistic, self-obsessed — and you know what? She’s not wrong.

Not only that, but there are churches full of people who perpetuate these same harmful beliefs. For a lark, let’s take a quick inventory of some characteristics of an abusive person and how they compare to the church.

Humiliation and undermining your self-esteem

From calling you a sinner, to belittling your accomplishments by attributing all your successes to God/Jesus (versus your own hard work or luck), to dismissing your questions or outright disparaging your character when you don’t believe what they believe — classic abusive behavior.

Using control and shame

Churches keep members in line using these tactics by threatening your actual salvation, ordering you about how you should behave, constantly demanding financial sacrifice and accountability to prove your faithfulness. Basically, treating you like a spiritual child.


Whew. This is, like, the entirety of God’s schtick and the church’s way to keep you close. Depend only on God — don’t trust in people. Don’t do anything without getting God’s approval — even your clothes! Everything good comes from God (but all the bad things are from Satan. Convenient).


I can’t even count how many times Christians are told to set themselves apart from the world as a pure beacon of hope, a shining light on a hill. That they are no longer part of this world, but of the kingdom of God. That they are heavenly citizens, beholden only to God — who, of course, only speaks to those worthy.

Accusing and gaslighting

Anytime you try to leave or question their behavior, Christians lambast you, saying it’s your own sin preventing you from seeing how you’re wrong. They weaponize guilt to coerce you into obedience, pointing out how God looked out for you, you should be grateful and thankful for whatever current tragedy has befallen you and whatever tragedy has befallen you is your fault, of course.

Is it any wonder that so many Christians, but especially women of color and LGBTQIA+ folks, feel as if we are worthless? We have been told by the church — the mouthpieces of God — that women brought sin into the world, we are born into sin, that we are nothing without Christ, who had to die for us lousy humans because he loved us so much that he spent an excruciating six hours to die on a cross, condemned wrongfully as a criminal, where he cried out to God but was summarily ignored?

We are made into monsters.

Yes, yes. I can hear the Christians firing up their apologies now. (Look — it won’t work. I used to be on evangelism teams. I study theology for fun. And if people could be argued into the kingdom of God, people would have already been browbeaten into salvation.)

I recognize that perhaps God deserves primacy of place because God is God — not a mere human. But if a god is an abusive dick, why should I pledge my troth to this deity? And despite my laundry list of abusive characteristics, I’m sure Christians will argue that hey, that’s people! Those people were bad! They were not following the true god and if they had better theology, they wouldn’t have done that!

Except how many times can you hear this argument — that it’s the people and not the god or religion — before it sounds like an excuse? How many times can you swallow this bullshit that it’s shitty people before you realize that it might be a shitty god? That perhaps the reason so many shitty people come from this religion is because the religion itself, at its heart, is actually really fucking problematic?

Maybe it’s not me. Maybe I’m not the monster at all — maybe the real monster is Christianity.