Simon Ørregaard is the Chairman of Eftertro. It is a small Danish organization devoted to helping people who are in an existential crisis based on being “post-faith,” which is the translation of Eftertro.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you first become involved in the faithless community?
My first contact was via YouTube as shy and vulnerable as I was at the time. I found Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and others in all these great debates, which was a breath of fresh air to listen to. I spent countless hours at nights being encouraged in my own process of leaving faith, being assured that I was on the right way, and that I was not alone. Then I reached out to several people on Facebook and got together with Anders Stjernholm from the Danish Atheistic Society. Since then, there has been no turning back.
Who are the most likely to leave religion? (Age, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, and so on)
That is a big and complicated question. Homosexuals are obviously likely to leave. But then again some live in restraint denying their own nature. I guess that everyone’s story is very individual. For me personally, it is a tale of 30 years of doubt, fear and insecurity. I do think that the younger you are, the easier it is to break out. That sounds obvious, but I did not succeed in getting out before I wasted the main part of my life in a sect. What I am referring to here is all the existential questions you have to deal with. On top of that, you have the social control and the sanctions that go with it. So it is crucial which background you are dealing with. For example, it is often a direct physical danger to break out of Islam. In my case, which was about escaping from Jehovah’s Witnesses, the shunning is worse than almost anything else. There are actually a lot of similarities between JW and Islam in that way.
So, for those who do not know, what is Eftertro?
Eftertro (or post-faith) is a small but still growing network of people who are in trouble because of doubt, fear, loneliness, or existential crisis in leaving or dealing with a religious background. We welcome people from all kinds of faiths. We have Muslims, JW’s, Mormons, Scientologists, New Age, various Pentecostal churches etc – even a Buddhist. All exes of course, even though we are not an atheistic organisation. What we do is to provide a safe place where people can meet and exchange their feelings and experiences, in order to help them in making the right decision for themselves. It is a very powerful thing to listen to all these fates and to realise that we all have the same universal problems regardless of our backgrounds.
As the Eftertro chairman, what roles and responsibilities come with this position?
My main purpose is to ensure everyone that the individual is the single most important. To make people comfortable in a difficult situation. To ensure everyone in that any feeling is legal. To be open, to listen and to share my own experience. I am fortunate to have a whole team to back this movement up. We have meetings in various places in Denmark. The big task now is how to make Eftertro more visible in the public because we see a large potential. That needs funding and we have not come across that yet. So I have a big task in front of me, but luckily I also have some great people who have become some of my best friends to work with.
What derivative, unexpected, tasks come with it, too?
Well, there is the whole issue of how to dissect a certain problem. Sometimes the problem lies elsewhere, and needs attending by professionals or the authorities. If a person is a minor, what do we do? If a person is in danger, where goes the line between our responsibility as citizens and activists? We have a social worker connected as well as a few psychologists. We do attempt to be very aware; that we do not cross any legal or ethical lines.
As a network of volunteers with the knowledge and experience relevant to doubt, faith, and social control, what is the importance of coffee meetings for everyone, and for those Efertro’s volunteer staff help out?
First and foremost, it is a mutual process of getting out. Some people only come to one meeting, some stick around. For those of us who are working on this project the meetings are also very powerful. In that way, we heal ourselves trying to heal others. It is a community, which is often exactly what people like us miss the most.
What are the psychological processes, the internal dialogues, that surround doubt about religion or faith for people?
You can write books about that, but the core thing here is cognitive dissonance. It is a struggle of trying to push doubt aside, while at the same time being in doubt. You are, in a way, fighting for survival on two levels. That is a very troublesome and indeed lonesome process. Not least because you don’t know what lies ahead. What is out there? I believe that lots of people lose that battle before they even get started. When I talked to my family and friends, I got the notion that they knew they believed in something wrong or at least that they understood me. But that recognition is very difficult, because in that moment you lose everything you have believed in. It is basically based in fear of the unknown. The fear of death.
What are the methods of social control of the faith leaders on their followers?
From my own experience, and from others, it is a faith system that makes you feel sinful, guilty, in order to make you want to do good. And when the scale you compare yourself to is “perfection”, you will always have a bad conscience, which will make you try even harder. In that way you feel guilty and afraid before you even get to consider whether your belief is right or wrong (which is a sin in it self!). Then you get to the sanctions and punishment. I can hardly think of a task more difficult than going against that.
What are some of the more horrifying stories that you have come across, even witnessed?
Some are too afraid and vulnerable even to go to a coffee meeting. It is heartbreaking every time. In the Muslim field, it is very hard to witness young, intelligent, powerful, women, who can not move away from their home because of the religion/culture. Even though, their family are not practicing Islam it is dangerous for them to live their own lives. My own family is totally separated now, as if I was dead, which is very hard for my children (and me).
What have been some of the more heartwarming stories of people leaving personally deleterious religious faith?
To see people connect and find a mutual understanding, in some cases, they go public and into the debate in the media. On the long term, Eftertro can make a difference. Very many of these people experience a vast loneliness, and through Eftertro, they can find some kind of peace.
What are the most common activist activities, educational initiatives, and political engagement movements through Eftertro, or in coordination with other groups?
Thus far we have concentrated on coffee meetings and counselling and also talking with students from both high schools and universities. From now on we will focus on more campaigning and lectures. But it is a big task for a small organisation like ours without any funding. But I sincerely believe that Eftertro has great potential, so we will do our best still.
Who are the biggest allies for Eftertro – and even unexpected allies in its efforts of helping out those that lost faith?
Well as far as unexpected allies, we had a priest from the Danish National Church at a certain point. But we agreed that it would interfere too much with the meetings if we had a Christian priest sitting there. But we do get a lot of recognition of our purpose. As far as allies go, the Atheist Society helped this project to get off the ground. In fact, it was their chairman, Anders Stjernholm who got the idea in the first place. He was never religious though, so he was clear on the fact that he would never participate in any meetings. He is still a very important part of the project, and a member of the board. Politically, I am also engaged in a newly started party, The Progressive which works for a secular society based on knowledge and cleansed of all religious bias.
What are their ways of helping out?
As of now by good spirit and support alongside working on some of the same goals. Again I must stress that Eftertro is neither a political or atheistic organisation. We help people in trouble because of faith related issues.
How can others help out, even donate? How can they become involved in Eftertro?
Helping hands are always welcome. Sometimes we struggle to find a location to hold a meeting. You can become a member or even donator via our website eftertro.dk. We do not have an English version yet, but we are working on it.
Any closing thoughts or feelings based on the discussion today?
I just want to say, “Thank You!”, for your interest, and if there is anyone in UK who can relate to us, we will always be interested in working together or exchange knowledge and experience. These problems are international so let us gather all good powers in helping the victims of religious dogma.
Thank you for your time, Simon.