Losing my religion: life after extreme belief

Apr 10, 2016

Photo credit: Katy Grannan for the Observer

By Shahesta Shaitly

Megan Phelps-Roper, 30, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church

My first memories are of picketing ex-servicemen’s funerals and telling their families they were going to burn in hell. For us, it was a celebration. My gramps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, so it wasn’t just our religion – it was our whole life. I don’t remember much before the picketing. I was allowed to mix with other kids early on, but over time my world shrank.

We believed it was a Good vs Evil situation: that the WBC was right and everybody else was wrong, so there was no questioning. It was a very public war we were waging against the “sinners”. I asked a lot of questions as I got older, but there’s a big difference in asking for clarification and actually questioning the beliefs you’re taught. I spent so much time reading the Bible, trying to see the world through this very particular framework, that to have truly considered [it was wrong] was inconceivable. I’d seen members leave in the past, including my brother, and the thought of ever leaving the church was my worst nightmare.

The WBC loves and thrives on publicity, so I joined Twitter in 2009 to run the church’s account. I was very zealous and adamant that my beliefs were the truth, but I began to realise that the 140-word limit meant I had to drop the throwaway insults or conversations would die. Over time, I found I was actually beginning to like people: to see them as human beings rather than people to condemn. For the first time, I started to care about what people outside the WBC thought of me. As my feelings towards my faith wavered I’d boomerang between thinking “none of this makes sense” to “God is testing me and I am failing”, but it was only in the four months before I left in 2012 that I actually started to make a plan. I cornered my sister in our room one evening and told her I was going to leave and asked her to come with me. She initially said no and told me I was being silly, but over time we’d have stolen conversations about it and she came round to the idea.

Leaving was unbearably sad. Having dinner with my grandparents or bouncing on a trampoline with my brother for the last time; asking my parents about their history in detail because I knew I’d never be able to ask them about it again: I was consciously saying goodbye to my family while they had no idea. I was trying to keep as much of it as I could. On the day, my younger sister and I sat down with my parents after they’d heard that we had planned to leave. They were really upset and my mom was so broken by the news – I’d never seen her face like that before. We told them we didn’t believe anymore, then went to pack. The adrenaline pumping through me made my hands shake as I stuffed my things into bags. Word spread among the family and several of my aunts and uncles turned up to talk us out of it. It started with: “You know better than this” and spiralled into shouting as we left. I went back the next day to pick up the rest of my stuff and knocked on the front door of the house I grew up in for the first time. The cold was immediate. I knew straight-away that I was not a part of the church any more. I was out. I miss my family every single day.

I still momentarily flinch when I come across someone or something the WBC would disapprove of. Two men kissing on the street, a drag queen – anything that takes me back to what I believed for so long. I still encounter those old feelings and then I have to process it: “That’s what the old me would have felt” – it’s an ongoing process of deep deprogramming.

I see the world in split screen now. I remember feeling like we at WBC were a persecuted minority, triumphant in the face of evil people “worshipping the dead” as we picketed funerals or rejoiced at the destruction of the Twin Towers. But beside that memory is the one where I weep thinking about how callous and unmerciful I was to so many people who’d just lost a son or a daughter. I’m ashamed of that now, and it’s still really difficult to think about the harm I caused. It’s overwhelming sometimes.


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11 comments on “Losing my religion: life after extreme belief

  • I suspect there are people very much alive at the very top of most religions who know perfectly well it’s a scam, who don’t actually believe a word of their own holy books but can’t ever admit it. Imams, priests, maybe even pope Frank himself. You never know.



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  • I’ve always thought the giveaway sign that something is a cult is when anyone trying to leave it is shunned. When anything is based on lies then it can’t stand any dissent. Of course in my opinion all religions are also based on lies but my only direct experience of religion is the C of E which is about as mild and easy going as religion ever gets. I’m sure the vicar in the little village where my grandparents lived and worshipped would have liked everyone in the village to attend his services but there were no hissy fits towards any of the non faithful. I can just about cope with that sort of religion but the catholic church is far worse, islam worse still and then you have the ones like Scientology where you know it’s all about the money, barely even a pretence that the core message contains any truth.



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  • I lost my faith a very very long time ago. I did, however, continue to go through the motions and linger. I’d hit church with the family on Easter or Christmas… The initial losing of my faith was celebratory. I felt free… smart….. alive….
    But, cutting the cord completely and really being separate from my family was anxiety ridden and hard. I still will do the sign of the cross and sit respectfully if someone wants to “say grace”.
    I can only imagine the mental strength that upheaval like this entails. this is a strong young woman and I respect her greatly. However, right is right and any thinking person should eventually see that hate is the wrong way to accomplish anything.

    Robin Williams has a great line in Popeye,” Wrong is wrong, even if it helps you”. It hangs in my classroom.



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  • @OHooligan, post #2

    I’d have said “Size and Age”.

    There are obscure, ancient cults still around (but they’re small).
    On the other hand, Scientology and the Moonies are big but are clearly cults (being that they’re new)

    So, if it’s big and old, it’s a religion.
    If it’s small or new, it’s still a cult.

    All religions were cults once. And some cults around today will graduate to becoming religions.
    (Mormons can probably be considered recent graduates of this transition. Lineball on both size and age.)



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