Leaving religion, playing outside: What's with the post-religious dirtbags sliding into my DMs?
Listen, I know this is strangely specific, but I keep running in to people who have left their religion and latched on to the outdoors and adventure in the aftermath.
My first inkling that this might be a trend was when I came across Andy Neal, the host of The Hiker Podcast, and realized that we share a similar background as former ministers turned outdoor media people. I reached out to him and he was gracious enough to have me on his show to talk about it. It was nice therapy for me, but I wasn't sure how many people would identify.
It turns out that there were a lot. I won't out anyone because I haven't sought permission, but since I released I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation, about a dozen people have contacted me to say that they can relate to the experience of leaving behind strict, exclusive religions and immersing themselves in the outdoors immediately after. You wouldn't think that there would be a lot of overlap between the audience for The Dirtbag's Guide to Life and a memoir about losing faith, but it turns out that there is.
This may be really niche, but it seems like it's worth thinking about. What's the deal? Why do people latch on to the outdoors after leaving religion? Specifically, what does the outdoors do for the post-religious pilgrim?
I've done my own research, and here are exactly four of my thoughts:
1) The Outdoors as a place where you can have agency.
"Losing faith" is an inadequate and unnecessarily negative expression to describe what actually happens when someone leaves behind a religion. Religious transition is often about rejecting a set of beliefs, but it is also about stepping out of a system of authority. Religions are comprehensive systems of leadership and decision making that guide you on how to live and organize your life. That can be a useful tool at some points in life, but it can also lead to a type of dependence that holds you back from becoming an emotionally healthy adult. Strict religions can make you feel like you won't be able to exist without God or the guru giving direction to your life. As a result, leaving religion can feel like falling out of your nest, but it can also be a hugely empowering process of stepping into independence and following truth wherever it leads you.
The literal wilderness is a perfect arena for establishing a sense of agency when you've stepped into a figurative wilderness out of the structure of a strict religion. Goal driven activities like outdoor sports provide a concrete and reliable way to improve your health and self-worth, and can provide a powerful sense of control during a life transition that can otherwise feel like becoming unmoored.
Personally, it was trail running that sucked me in. The stepwise process of training for longer and longer distances, and spending increasing amounts of time and energy sorting out how to run 50k, then 50 miles, then 100 miles made me feel like I could accomplish anything at a time when I was learning to live without the reassuring authority structure of religion. I dove into trail running immediately after I left the church, and it helped me to establish confidence that I would be fine on my own. I could improve my situation, become a healthier person, and accomplish things that I'd previously believed were impossible. It was a powerful antidote to the poison of losing the structure that had previously given life direction and meaning.
Hiking, paddling, world travel, and other adventure activities can provide the same path. They lend themselves to health, growth, and the sense of individual control and mastery that the post-religious are often desperate for.
2) Spending time outdoors is therapeutic.
I won't take a lot of time on this one because the point is so common as to almost be cliche (and we talked about it a lot on The Hiker Podcast), but it's worth mentioning.
The process of leaving religion screws with both your head and your heart. After leaving, it can take years to figure out what you believe about the world, and how to navigate the emotions attached to leaving behind your community, your worldview, and your way of life. Going outside doesn't replace the value of talk therapy for sorting your head out, but it is emotionally therapeutic. Where losing faith can be anxiety provoking and depression inducing, going outside is consistently a good thing for your mental health. If exercise is involved it can channel anxiety into something productive and can turn negative emotions into positive ones, but even just sitting outside helps. Forest bathing makes you happier and at ease.
Everyone everywhere in urban modern society should spend more time outside. When you’re pushed to your brink, it becomes both more important and more obvious that the simple act of going outside makes you feel better.
3) Leaving faith screws up your community. The outdoors gives it back.
Leaving religion also means losing a significant part of your community. While people tend to think of religion as a system of beliefs, it is most importantly a system of community - a means of connection with other people. For a lot of religious people, it's their primary or even only means of connection with other people. When you lose that, you lose your grounding and your sense of place in the world.
This can be disorienting, but it can also open you up to new possibilities. There’s a strong instinct to literally run away when you leave religion, to get away from the pain of the impact on your relationships to friends and family. While it's easy to view this in negative terms as avoidance, the flight instinct isn’t always unhealthy. For a lot of people, it helps them to recognize that they have the opportunity to make something different of their life. When I left evangelicalism in my early 20s, the flight instinct helped Angel and I feel comfortable with leaving the Midwestern United States and moving to New Zealand - a choice that changed the rest of our life for the better. This sort of instinct has driven many a thru-hike, Camino, bike tour of South America, and life changing round-the-world tour.
Beyond that though, the outdoors is itself a path towards connection. While it's easy to think of the outdoors and adventure like the previous paragraph implies - as an escape from other humans - that’s a thorough misrepresentation of what it actually is. The outdoors is, in large part, a community. You can’t learn to hike, camp, trail run, travel, paddle, open water swim, mountain bike, or travel internationally without consulting someone else. Once you have learned, you would be hard pressed to actually do the activity on your own. Most of us - even introverts - eventually bunch up into packs, and the shared struggle of the activity bonds you to each other in a powerful way. The outdoors has its own culture, history and saints, and it helps you locate yourself within a larger story and community.
As someone who spent the first 12 years of my career as a minister working to build up the religious community, this fact has been a lifeline. When I quit religion entirely in 2010, I started devoting my time to the people I was meeting outside. This started first with my old blog, A Little Runny, devoted to the Washington trail running crowd. Then, Angel and I started the storytelling event series and podcast Boldly Went in 2017 as a way to help connect outdoorists of all types. I wrote The Dirtbag's Guide to Life as a sort of (ahem) bible for the outdoor community because Angel and I saw that it needed one. Now, writing for the travel, outdoors and adventure communities is the core outlet for the instincts I honed across 30 years of religious life. As such, it's a key place where I feel like I give back to the world.
4) Religion primes you for an experience of transcendence that the outdoors also delivers.
There is a spirituality to the outdoors that is easy to grasp for the formerly religious.
The experience of transcendence is fundamental to religion, and they all have systems for helping people feel connected to bigger things. Whether it's snake handling, rolling in the aisles, quiet contemplation, self-flagellation, or daily prayer, all are means of feeling connected to God or ultimate reality.
The feeling of connection to something bigger is a universal human experience though, and religion doesn’t have the marked cornered. It’s a reason that fundamentalist Christians demonize things like secular music, hallucinogens and yoga classes. They provide pathways to transcendence outside of religion.
For a lot of us, the outdoors provides an even more reliable pathway towards this sort of grand connection than shavasana, cannabis or Coachella. Standing on a mountain pass at the mercy of nature’s whims. The endorphins that come with the hard work of a long slog into the wind. Sleeping on a remote beach free of social encumbrances. All of these inspire a sense of transcendence. The outdoors is a place where you realize your connection to bigger, more ancient things, and as a friend said, once you’ve found it there, it’s hard to go back to seeking God in a building.
In summary, the outdoors provides exactly what the post-religious wanderer is looking for.
Religion hooks people because it provides for a lot of basic human needs. When you leave religion, you lose your means of meeting those needs. That can shatter a person. A lot of people, in my experience, find the outdoors to be a place where they can find an alternative path to a meaningful, healthy life.
This isn't a comprehensive list, but the outdoors provides you with a sense of agency and independence, a means of managing you emotions, a pathway towards community, and a reliable means towards an experience of transcendence. For the post-religious, these are often exactly what we need, particularly in the immediate aftermath of losing faith.
So, for the post-religious, you might even say that the outdoors provides a path to salvation.
For a deeper dive into the process of leaving religion and/or finding salvation in the outdoors, I hope you'll check out my books.