As a researcher, I find it important to participate in the societal discussion and attempt to make a difference in society. The topic of my dissertation is religious disaffiliation, to leave a religious community, how this may affect a person and how the care and support clients need in this life situation can be developed. The results of our first study (Björkmark et al., 2021) show that religious disaffiliation is a life change that may affect a person’s life in profound ways and lead to experiences of fear, guilt, sorrow, pain and different kinds of losses. These experiences can have serious implications for a person’s well-being and health. However, life after religious disaffiliation may also include many positive aspects, such as experiences of joy, freedom, relief, gratitude and empowerment. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the suffering a person may endure in this life situation, we found that life after leaving a religious community may entail suffering of life and even violations of the person’s dignity (Björkmark et al., 2021). In our latest study (Björkmark et al., unpublished) we found that caring for a client in this life situation is about “Having someone who walks beside, part of the way”. To have a holistic view in nursing, means that we care professionals need to take into consideration and care for clients’ spiritual dimensions as well.

My interest in this research topic was sparked by my own experiences of leaving a religious community. My own pre-understanding has been both a resource and a challenge, during the research process. Challenges include keeping a sufficient distance to the research material and topics being studied. However, since there has been plenty of time since my own disaffiliation and through many discussions with my supervisors, I feel that we have been aware of and addressed these challenges. Having a pre-understanding also has many benefits, such as being a driving force through a process that is long and at times exhausting. Coming to the end of this dissertation process, I feel that being able to research this subject has been both essential and therapeutic for myself. Additionally, it is helpful when researching such delicate and sensitive subjects, to have “a common language” with the participants. Many who I interviewed, described after the interview that they sensed that I understood and knew what they were talking about, even though I had not said a word about my own experiences. Several participants thanked me after the interviews and said that it had been a therapeutic experience for them.

As with many difficult experiences that clients that we encounter have had, it is important that they are met with understanding and acceptance. Regardless of the life situation or the problem they are facing, clients need a place where they feel that are seen, listened to and accepted as a unique human being. If this does not happen, they have to go through “double suffering”. First, they are suffering due to a life situation or a health problem, and then they suffer even more if they experience that care professionals do not understand or take their problems seriously. Many participants in my studies expressed how they had not received support or help from care professionals. Some had not even tried to get help within social- and health care, because they doubted that the professionals would understand. Some had however received good help and support. What they talked about as beneficial, was nothing revolutionary or new. They needed someone who listened and took their experiences seriously. They needed confirmation of the suffering they had endured, and support in building a new kind of life for themselves. Most of all, they needed care professionals who had the courage to discuss religious questions and matters, if that is what they wanted and needed.

I hope to be able to defend my dissertation during 2023. Meanwhile, I continue to engage in society and hope to make a difference. Within the organization Support for victims of religions (Uskontojen Uhrien Tuki, ry), I serve as a board member. Through this forum, we for instance have been able to co-operate with Mielenterveystalo (Mentalhub) in creating a self-help program for people who have encountered religious abuse in their life. This program will be launched in 2023 and hopefully later will be expanded with materials for care professionals. Also, I have, in collaboration with The Finnish Ecumenical Council (Suomen Ekumeeninen Neuvosto), recently held a presentation about religious abuse at one of their webinars.

The topic of religious disaffiliation has been visible in popular media in Finland during the last 10-15 years. However, this topic has not been studied from a nursing science point of view, neither in Finland nor the Nordic countries. For this reason, this research topic feels relevant and important to study. It has been very encouraging to have people come up to me after my presentations, talk about their experiences of leaving a religious community and how they can relate to what I talked about. Many have thanked me for raising this subject for discussion, also colleagues and other researchers. I do realize that my research is only a first explorative study and I hope to have the opportunity to continue with research on this and related topics.

I believe that the more a subject is taboo and difficult to discuss, the more it needs to be discussed! This goes for many different subjects, not just religious disaffiliation. Let us work towards being able to research also difficult and sensitive subjects. By this, we can give a voice to those who experience they have no voice and are not understood. And as researchers, through this participate in society around us and try to make a difference.

Maria Björkmark
RN, MHS, PhD candidate, University teacher
Department of Caring Sciences, Åbo Akademi University, Vasa, Finland

Björkmark, M., Koskinen, C., Nynäs, P., & Nyholm, L. (2021). Suffering of Life after Religious Disaffiliation: A Caring Science Study. International Journal of Caring Sciences, 14(1), 1–7.

Björkmark, M., Nynäs, P., & Koskinen, C. (2021). “Living Between Two Different Worlds”: Experiences of Leaving a High-Cost Religious Group. Journal of Religion and Health.

Finnish Ecumenical Council (Suomen Ekumeeninen Neuvosto). Förebyggande webbinarium om andligt våld. 12.10.2022.

Mentalhub (Mielenterveystalo).

Support for victims of religions. (Uskontojen Uhrien Tuki ry).