Five Books about Losing Faith and the Search to Find it Again
Updated: Feb 14
If you’re someone who’s struggled with your faith background, or experienced religious trauma, or know someone who has struggled, you will find some good companions in these books.
I own at least thirty memoirs by writers who have wanted to document their struggle to stay engaged in the religion of their childhood but had to find a new path of some kind. Interestingly, a lot of the covers of such books include pictures of the authors as children. It’s evidence that our early upbringing, our first experiences with faith, have a life-long impact. Those experiences become your first language of faith, through which you learn any other language. Throughout life, you’ll always be able to trace a line back to those early moments when you first said yes to God and religion. I’ve collected these books over the years, and still do, as I’ve tried to be a good student to the personal journey of faith, and these books are one incredible way to learn about the journey. The below grouping are memoirs that, once I read them, I couldn’t forget them. Most of these have been around for quite some time, but that’s because they are the ones that remain as examples of what happens when we lose faith, and then perhaps find it again, or sometimes not at all. The stories relayed are sometimes typical, other times quite harrowing (be warned), but each of these writers somehow capture the poignancy of their journey. They include what we often miss in faith in the US: a sense of sadness, of loss, and the steps we take forward after a loss. If you’re someone who’s struggled, or maybe you feel you've lost faith in God, or know someone who has, you will find some good companions in these books. Or if you’re someone looking to understand how we might better create a shared faith community in a way that’s healthy and life-giving, these books will offer clues.
We live in a time when a lot of us are losing our connection to our communities.
We don’t know what to do, and there aren't easy answers. But I do know there’s always hope. This might sound glib, but there is much good that comes from change. These books can help chart the way. And if there's one not here that you've always liked, please let me know below.
The House Where the Hardest Things Happened: A Memoir about Belonging Kate Young Caley, Doulbeday, 2002.
Oh the stories in this book. Caley creates this brilliant, evocative book of her experiences with the religious trauma of being excommunicated from a fundamentalist church, the spiritual depression that ensued, and the fleeting, lovely glimpses of the moments when she found her love for her sacred faith renewed.
Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister's Wife Examines Faith Carlene Cross, Algonquin, 2006.
If you were ever unsure about whether fundamentalism can harbor and reward abusive behavior, this story will put that debate to rest. The toxic, emotionally abusive marital experiences this author endured, justified because they were cloaked in an equally toxic faith, will chill you to your spiritual core. How Cross finds her way out, on her own initiative, is a lesson in the dynamic of overcoming the extremes of American evangelicalism.
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperOne, 2006
I'm forever imprinted by Barbara Brown Taylor's seemingly unexplained tears and sadness of no longer being able to be at the church she worked so hard to lead. I'm thankful for her ability to have paid attention to these feelings of spiritual exhaustion and her strength and vulnerability in revealing it to her readers.
Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father's Faith Randall Balmer, Brazos Press, 2001.
Balmer has for me often been an example of religious mourning and sadness. Whether he intends it or not, there is a great deal of emotion in his writing. Growing Pains is a great example of the imprint that religious life and expectation can leave on a young child. Once again, our American evangelicalism, while surely a part of who we are, has also created an ongoing cohort of those who can't quite believe in the same way as their parents.
Home Is Always the Place You Just Left: A Memoir of Restless Longing and Persistant Grace Betty Smart Carter, Paraclete Press, 2003.
Carter's book is included here because she capture's the paradox of how our spiritual home can often be a moving target, especially if one starts in a too tightly-knit faith community, which may offer solace, but can also leave one ill-equipped for the challenges of real life. Another lyrically-written memoir that is a spiritual exercise simply in its reading.