Ex-Religious Support Network (ESN)
In Australia, citizens have been growing increasingly suspicious of organized religion. This is made especially clear in the Australian Census. In 1966, less than 1% identified as ‘no religion’. In 2001, 16% so identified, while just 15 years later, that doubled to 30%. In the most recent 2021 Census, near on 40% identified with no religion. A major driver for this disenchantment was the socially regressive attitudes of the mainstream churches to divorce, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, gay marriage and a host of other touchstone issues. In the last few years, rampant institutional child sexual abuse uncovered by the federal Royal Commission made many more people leave the church.
Set against this background is the work of two ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, Steven Unthank and Lara Kaput. It was their address to the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) in June 2018 on Supporting Survivors of Religion that spurned HSV committee member, Leslie Allan, to first think about setting up a community of people leaving their religion. Members of this community, he envisioned, would help each other through the transition to unbelief. In August 2018, the HSV committee decided to commit resources to the establishment and running of such a group.
The group is called Ex-Religious Support Network (ESN) and is set up as a Meetup group at www.meetup.com/Ex-Religious-Support-Network/ Leslie Allan is the lead organizer. The group opened for members on 28 September 2018 and welcomes people coming from all religions, denominations and sects. Membership continues to grow strongly, sporting now over 300 members.
Leslie Allan recognized that some people leaving their religion experience anxiety as they get separated from friends, colleagues and family. Deep questions may also arise for these people about what they are to believe and trust in now that they have lost their religious scaffolding. They may also come to question the meaning and purpose of life. The principal purpose of the Ex-Religious Support Network (ESN) is to provide an avenue for these people to develop friendships and tap into resources that will help them on their journey through a life without religion. The network offers an opportunity for members to share the challenges and triumphs of their journey towards unbelief. In this safe environment, members can learn and support others experiencing the same challenges as themselves.
Members meet regularly both face-to-face in Melbourne location and online. There, members can touch base with other travelers on the same journey, share their challenges, explore alternative ways of living and listen to speakers on living life from a non-religious perspective. From time to time, the group meets more informally for fun times in a park or cafe or to take in a movie or play.
The group first met informally over dinner at a casual restaurant in the city on 31 October 2018. The first formal meeting occurred on 18 November 2018 at a convenient location close to the city and public transport. At the meting, members shared their personal experiences with religion and its impact on their lives. The open and honest testimonials struck an emotional chord with everyone present.
In 2021, the group met on 16 occasions with a range of cafe and online casual get-togethers, a set of Q&As featuring guests with various non-religious world views and expert talks by professional counselor, Caroline Winzenried, on various aspects of religious trauma. We are continuing with the same range of activities in 2022.
Membership is open to all who are seeking meaning and purpose in a world without God and supernatural forces. There is no membership fee and membership is open to people from all locations. Humanists Victoria welcomes donations to help keep the Ex-Religious Support Network flourishing and serving the needs of its members.
For many people, leaving their religion is a difficult and sensitive time. For this reason, the Ex-Religious Support Network is a private Meetup group. For member security and confidentiality, membership status and group conversations are not displayed publicly.
On 7 November 2018, the Humanists Victoria formed a new Ex-Religious Discussion Group on Facebook. The aim of the discussion group is to provide a wider forum for people who have left their religion or are leaving their religion. In this broader forum, members can discuss openly with other apostates around the world their experiences, challenges and opportunities for finding meaning and purpose in a godless world. This group has now grown to over 500 members.
While the Ex-Religious Support Network (ESN) Meetup group is a private group, the new Facebook group is a public group. Unlike the Meetup group, conversations in this new group are visible to the world. The aim of the new group is to generate broader interest and discussion on leaving religion and to direct locals to the Melbourne-based Meetup group.
Participant Ground Rules
To ensure the effective functioning of the Melbourne Meetup group, all members are expected to adopt the following behaviours:
- I will listen attentively and without interrupting
- I will speak respectfully, without resort to abuse or denigration
- I will support my fellow travelers in their personal journey
- I will participate openly in discussions as best I can
- I will say what I need from others in the group
- I will maintain the confidentiality of members
- I will be punctual at meetings I attend
To join the Ex-Religious Support Network Meetup group, visit the ESN Meetup page at www.meetup.com/Ex-Religious-Support-Network/ and click on the ‘Request to join’ button.
To join the Facebook Ex-Religious Discussion Group, visit their Facebook Group page at www.facebook.com/groups/ExReligiousDiscussion/ and click on the ‘Join Group’ button.
The Hidden Toll of Religious Trauma (Caroline Winzenried’s presentation to ESN on 30 June 2021)
Reproductive Coercion and Religion (Jacquie O’Brien’s presentation to ESN on 17 March 2019)
Hidden Forces: Shining a Light on Reproductive Coercion (Marie Stopes Australia White Paper)
Hypocrites: Evidence and Statistics on Child Sexual Abuse Amongst Church Clergy, 1990-2000 (Eros Foundation)