This section is organized as follows:
- Maintain your sanity as you leave.
- See yourself realistically.
- Understand what you have come from.
How do you maintain your sanity as you leave your religious community? This can be a very traumatic time, for reasons already discussed. One man went to tell his Pentecostal minister that he was leaving, only to have his hair subsequently fall out.
Here are some practical mental health suggestions that you might find helpful during such a traumatic time. I have no medical training. These are lessons from my experience in leaving fundamentalism.
MAINTAIN YOUR SANITY AS YOU LEAVE
One suggestion is to put God on the shelf for now.
When I left the church, I prayed this one last prayer, “God, I’ve tried my best but this religion isn’t working for me. I blame myself, but everything I’ve tried has ended in a dead end. I trust that you have goodwill toward me and that you know that I’ve tried my best. I believe it’s time for me to learn what life is about, so I’m going to put you on the shelf for now. Please put a protective shield around me to protect me from the prayers of the evangelicals.” That was the last prayer I prayed, in the late ‘60s. With that prayer, I essentially side-stepped the “god” question for the foreseeable future, without guilt, even though at that time I expected to reconnect with religious faith down the road. Likewise, you don’t have to label yourself “still Christian” or “agnostic” or anything, frankly. You can shelve that discussion for now and enter into the spirit of this web site as a temporary classroom, to be engaged in without guilt.
- Can you appreciate how freeing such an attitude of trust is? If I had gotten bogged down with guilt, if I had believed that I was a backslider and that “the god” was angry with me, I might have been incapacitated and have had to expend my energies on repression. I might have felt paralyzed. Because I didn’t feel guilty, I didn’t carry that weight. I was free to look outward and to learn from outside experience.
- This attitude of trust gave me freedom to explore. I didn’t have to sit at home and “look for answers” in yet another religious book or in the bible. I didn’t have to try another church. Because I wasn’t rebelling or trying to repress emotions, I wasn’t tempted to be self-destructive and lose myself in drink, drugs, food, or sex. I knew that I wanted to build a good life. I knew that I wanted to learn what life was about. I didn’t want shallowness, though I ended up sloshing through enough of it.
How would someone act who did feel guilty, even if the guilt was repressed? I imagine he or she might try to outrun the guilt or to wall it off or to deaden it through addictive behavior of one sort or another. Another possibility would be to become a “spiritual seeker,” looking for answers elsewhere. Another path might be to rebel. But I’m just surmising about all this, because they weren’t my path.
Protect yourself from fundamentalists.
With this prayer, I set up inner protection against mental tyranny from evangelicals who cared about me, mental tyranny in the form of prayers and concern and “things to read.” You know the gig. You might have even used it yourself.Did I believe at the time that a god was setting up this protective shield? Maybe I did. It took many years for me to see and own that I was able to do that on my own and indeed had the responsibility to protect my self. I did the best I could with the understanding and the language that I had at the time.
I had a dear evangelical mother who “prayed without ceasing.” Her unending attentions to my “soul” were crazy-making. I many times in those early years felt that she would be good at the Chinese water torture … drip, drip, drip. For my mental health, I had to have the separation so that I could find myself and not be continually reacting to her pressure.Even to this day, decades later, I sense that inner protection that I give my spirit and am learning to smile pleasantly at evangelicals who tell me they are praying for me. Evangelicals, of course, are patient. They are schooled on stories of death bed conversions. They never give up.
Try that invisible shield. It could help save your sanity if you are from an evangelical family or fundamentalist church or other religion that considers you a backslider or infidel. Put up your own invisible shield, coming from your human spirit.With those protections – acceptance of a “mutual-agreement-with-God” that I needed to continue my education outside the church, coming from a stance of trust, and a protective shield against the fundamentalists that I knew, I was set to go forward.
Make use of an “unresolved issues” folder.
Growth is natural. Decisions and directions will come in their own good time, without being threatening. Your job is to learn what you can today and to live life. As you make progress, you will outgrow some old attitudes, and they will be replaced by more substantial understanding.But some questions will linger. For the time being, keep a folder in your mental file box labeled “Unresolved Issues” and file the issues away as needed. Some issues may never be resolved, because life evolves. You may have to live through something to see which way you will go, how it will turn out. You don’t have to control the issue by labeling it, any more than you need to define yourself with a label.
Letting things evolve in their own time does not mean that you sit passively, however. Keep focused with what you need to be doing. Keep learning. Maintain forward motion.
SEE YOURSELF REALISTICALLY
There is a lot to consider when making such a huge life change, a change in how we identify ourselves. It may be time to sit under a tree and think about how one concept after another relates to your life. Maybe some journaling would be in order.
Want something more.
This point is so very important. I wasn’t consciously thinking in terms of wanting something more when I left fundamentalism because, of course, I thought that I had had “the best” and was confused about not being content with it. I left fundamentalism without a sense of knowing anything about where I was going and ended up being more of a ping pong ball than someone on a path to a healthier place.Looking back, though, I did want something more than was available in fundamentalism. As I wrote above, “This isn’t working for me. I need to learn what life is about.” So I guess you’d say that the “something more” that I wanted was to face life without a preconceived agenda. I wanted freedom of thought. I wanted freedom of experience. I wanted to take in information on my own terms and process it, without the church interpreting it for me.
I also had the experience, another time, of feeling that I was destroying myself. So a second “something more” that I wanted was to nurture my “self,” though I hadn’t clue how to do that.
The wish for freedom went back further, though, to childhood. I remember in summer bible camp hearing a preacher speak about a boy who went to visit in Canada. “While there, he told NO ONE he was a Christian. Can you believe THAT?” asked the preacher incredulously. I could. I didn’t want to tell anyone I was a Christian, either. I sensed the constraints and knew that my first choice would have been my freedom, even though I endured that religion much longer, often keeping busy and convincing myself that I was happy.
“Wanting something more” is a key first step, because it provides the motivation to change. Do you want something more? Try to spell out what it is.
Know that you know nothing, if that’s the case.
When I left the religion, I felt as if I were a Martian just come to earth, trying to learn what humans were like. I didn’t know how humans felt, faced problems, developed common sense, thought, etc. I might have been 30 years old, but I had the life experience of a child and the maturity of 14-year-old, in a woman’s body. I was a swirling mixture of trying to go forward but still being in the habit of mind that was imprinted on me – the superstitious, magical thinking approach to life, the out-of-balance emotional needs and wants, and ignorance and inexperience when it came to knowing how to think. Despite my naivete and good intentions, there are some experiences that I would rather not look back on and some people that I hurt unintentionally, just as part of my craziness at the time. At least they were spared more craziness by losing me.
I used to listen to radio psychological talk shows to learn how humans thought and felt and faced problems. In those years, there was David Viscott, M.D., and Toni Grant. They helped this Martian understand human life a bit better.
Realize that lack of life’s experience can be costly.
Even with good attitudes – of trust, of exploration, of wanting to be constructive and not destructive – it was still so easy to end up in places that had I been more in control, I wouldn’t have chosen. I was inexperienced with life and made costly errors of judgment. But perhaps it was the best I could do at the time, and those life experiences became my classroom.I hope the road is easier for you, my friend, and that this web site can play a small part in shortening the recovery process for you. As radio psychologist Toni Grant used to say, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” We only have one time through. Let’s do our best to get past some of the basic lessons so that we can make the best of what time we have left and enjoy life, too.
Rather than take stock of my inexperience and put on the brakes, I instead tumbled headlong into hard experiences. I didn’t consider saying no, because my earlier church training was that any experience coming along could turn out to be “God’s will.” Magical thinking kept preempting rationality.
Realize that you were schooled in magical thinking.
Magical thinking is superstitious thinking, where “eternal significance” potentially hovers over chance meetings. You think that that charming man might be “God’s will” for you? Would your thinking change if someone told you that he was addicted to Internet games or to gambling or that he was a Peter Pan who didn’t want to grow up? When we accustomed to magical thinking, we can easily miss or dismiss warning signs.I didn’t know in those years that a big part of being human and being free is the ability to make choices for one’s self, not to be tossed about by circumstances. I just didn’t know how to begin, except in the most rudimentary sense. Maybe you don’t, either.
Recognize that you may have little knowledge of the world.
Start anywhere… current events, politics, where to find real news, psychology, health and nutrition, cultural events, music, art, poetry, literature, understanding human nature, values, environmental issues, friendship, justice issues, the Middle East, relationship issues, being a citizen, being a world citizen, education, travel, appreciation of nature… I was ignorant of anything but fundamentalism.
The “world” had been forbidden to me. I was trained to self-censor new and therefore threatening ideas and thoughts. A few years after I left the church, I read the Christian Science Monitor newspaper every day for a year and felt that I learned more than I had at college. Then life got too busy, or something, I forget. My foray into current events became an interlude. I wasn’t formed enough to take my place as a world citizen. My uncle said to my mother, “Your life is as big as a postage stamp,” though he eventually “made his peace with God” as death loomed.
I guess that the first step in relating to “knowledge of the world” is to know that there IS a world out there. We were so used to being in our own little fundamentalist cocoon. It will take some getting used to, being outside. But think of the adventures that await!
Recognize that your life was nipped in the bud by fundamentalism.
The normal growth experienced by humans was foreign to me. When other children were playing and learning to develop friendships, I was telling my little playmate that she “didn’t believe in God” because she was Roman Catholic. When my classmates were involved in learning what life was about, in exploring their own lives and friendships, in figuring out what directions they were headed, I was home studying the bible and listening for the missionary call of a deity.
I missed my childhood, my adolescence, and my young adulthood. They were taken from me by the church. I’m not telling you this as a victim – although what else are innocent children who are taught that they do not have a right to their own lives? These are just the facts, ma’am.
Years later, I had several episodes of deep grieving for these losses. I thought about one very short-term high school boyfriend who might have been the partner I sought and whom I drove away by my testifying to him. I couldn’t be the friend he initially thought I was when we were young. The sense of loss was so hard at times, and it was easy, but not healthy, to feel victimized by the church. I mentally place a hand of compassion on the heads of the evangelical youngsters that I come across. My heart goes out to them.I have a photograph of a sad-faced young Asian girl-child, behind the bars of a wrought iron fence, a picture that reminds me of what I felt like as a child. I have said to my inner child, “I will be your mother. I will protect you. You are safe now.”
Recognize that you are from a fear-based religion.
I came to realize that the religion I had thought was love-based was really fear-based. I never guessed this when inside the religion but could see it clearly once I left. I came to see that fear of hell was what gave fundamentalism its reason for being. How many missionaries would give up their lives and go out to the boonies if they didn’t believe the indigenous people were headed for hell?
Recognize that now the freedom you yearned for is yours.
Walk about saying to yourself, “I am free to enjoy that green grass. I am free to feel the sun on my skin. I am free to choose whatever book I want in the library. I am free to smile at that child. I am free to do what I want to now. I have a future.”
Recently I was sitting in a park, taking pictures of a friend as homework for a photography class. Then a woman walking a large, unfriendly-looking dog walked by. The dog looked like he would like to eat me up. He kept looking at me over his shoulder as he walked away. The woman called back, “It’s the camera. He hates having his picture taken.” Who knew? I am free to laugh with abandon and to be growled at by a dog. I am free to be in the moment and to embrace it.
It’s helpful to understand what we may be as we leave fundamentalism.
My description of myself below will be tough and not complimentary. Maybe you’ll be able to identify with some of things I write about where I was when I left the church. If you can, isn’t it better to face the worst and deal with reality, rather than live in a fantasy world? Underneath you are still you, still a good person, but you need to know what you are dealing with before you can start to make real progress.
When I left fundamentalism, I was on an adolescent level of development. This is not a reflection against me, but it is a reflection against something about fundamentalism that kept me from maturing as an adult. My job – and your job – is to understand where the roadblocks are and grow past them.
From my experience, this is where I think I was when I left the church – and from my observations and logical deduction, I think that a lot of exiting fundamentalists are in a similar place. Sometimes it helps to ask the question, “Why wouldn’t they be in a similar place? – because that’s what the fundamentalist mindset would produce.”
In a woman’s body, I was a mentally off-balanced adolescent, with undeveloped emotions, ignorant and lacking common sense, confused and lacking an inner compass, with little or no sense of self, and little sense of justice or empathy for others, and with virtually no knowledge of the world outside fundamentalism.
This picture is depressing, but if I had recognized it and built from there, it would have saved me a lot of wasted time and heartache.
Do you feel that the description I wrote doesn’t match up with either you or your fundamentalist group? OK, I can live with that. This was my experience, though. If what I wrote doesn’t resonate with you, let it go. It will resonate with many readers. Try to keep an open mind, though, because more growth and understanding may hold some surprises.
How many mentally off-balanced adolescents are walking around in adult bodies, clueless? If you are a mentally off-balanced adolescent, at least you don’t have to be clueless about that fact-!! You just need to acknowledge where you are and get to work – and try not to get yourself prematurely into situations that you don’t know how to handle.
I am a poster child for a bad example here. But, without those hard experiences, I wouldn’t be who I am today, either, so I can’t regret them. I’m just glad they are behind me and not in front.
Be prepared for some unexpected happenings.
It’s in leaving fundamentalism that you discover how it works, how the controls make themselves known. You may hear things from some fundamentalists and be treated by them in ways you wouldn’t have guessed while you were in the religion.You’ll also learn things about yourself that you didn’t suspect. What happens when you lose or give up your safety blanket? You’ll find out on an evolving journey.
I recognized my lack of life experience.
I didn’t know what to do about it, though. Without a clue, I proceeded headlong into hard experiences for lack of common sense and life experience. I wasn’t able to say no, because again my training was that any experience coming along could turn out to be “God’s will.” Magical thinking kept preempting rationality. I see this as a form of superstitious thinking, where bigger meanings hover over chance meetings. You think that that charming man might be God’s will for you? What would you think if you found out down the road that he was addicted to gambling? When our thinking is tied up in magical thinking, we can easily miss or dismiss warning signs.I didn’t know in those years that a big part of being human and being free is the ability to make choices for one’s self, not to be tossed about by circumstances. I just didn’t know how to begin.
I recognized the need to start building a life.
I knew that I had to examine every sentence I thought to see if that sentence represented something that I still believed. I had to build a life brick by brick, trying to figure out what I believed now. I came up with only a few concepts in the early days. One of those concepts was belief in a personal universe, where relationships with people were primary.That is, I wasn’t interested in finding bliss through solitary activity, such as meditation. Eastern religion held no interest for me. The real world was good enough for me, and that’s where I wanted to be. At last… to be able to go out and meet the supermarket clerk as a real person without wondering if she was saved and wondering if I should give her a religious tract.
I didn’t want to study books to figure out “what to believe.” I wasn’t looking for another religion or for certainty. I felt inoculated against religions, even though I participated to some degree in various congregations because of the need for community and to find folk to talk to. Sunday mornings could be lonely without somewhere to attend. Subsequent congregations gradually became more and more liberal, as I outgrew one and was drawn to another.
As stated before, whatever congregations I participated in, I always had the feeling that I was walking down my own road, taking from the left and from the right as would enhance my life, but maintaining control of my life. I was finished looking for “answers” out there, whether in mainstream religion, Buddhism, whatever. My answers would be within myself, though I would be open to outside experience and to learning from others.
Looking back, I count about a half dozen religious groups that I participated in over the years before withdrawing from the last one. Now I go to a couple of activities here and there, like a book discussion group at the Unitarians and meetings at a humanist society…and various speakers, etc., as they come up. Mostly I stay away from religious language.
I took the leap of faith to trust another human being.
I eventually met a sweet but street-wise man and took a leap of faith in trusting a “non-believer.” For a long time I kept my mouth shut about my religious background and just listened. I learned more about life and love from this man, who has since passed on. He seemed to be anchored within himself, and he was an anchor for me during the early years as I moved out into life’s experiences.
Despite these positive statements, the relationship was not on an adult level, but I didn’t know that at the time. The relationship came with a great price, but it was also my classroom of the time and my emotional home and for that I am grateful.
It was in what I learned about him after his death that I became aware of cross-addictions. I applauded him for years of sobriety through AA. I did not suspect the gambling problem. How could I not have known? I was a recovering fundamentalist, naïve, and I trusted him, not knowing that the thrills of gambling meant more to him than I did and not knowing how and where I was being manipulated.
I chose my heart over my conscience.
In this relationship with my friend, I had to choose between my own “righteousness” and loving someone else, for he stated that he was unhappily married and couldn’t get out of the marriage but needed a friend. I made that choice in favor of my friend. (Would I make the same decision now? Not on your life, but I was in the fantasy-land of being open to “God’s leading” and someone else’s need, as well as my own emotional needs.)
I could have broken off with him and slept better, but his need for our friendship appeared to be greater than my need for a “clean conscience.” He told me many times that our friendship saved his life and the life of his child, that without me, he would have gone back to drinking. Maybe the relationship did save his life. I’ll never know. Years later, that “child,” now grown, reflected that life can be “messy” at times and acknowledged sacrifices that had been made on her behalf.
From this experience, I was wrenched out of a grid-like approach to life, that is, out of the religious “rules” for an acceptable life. I was thrown into a personally costly relationship that turned out to be my next classroom in terms of real life. I began to learn what a friend is and how to be one, even in this sadly impoverished situation.
The end of the lessons, though, was that a mature choice is not between the heart and the head, but rather a balance between the heart and the head. A mature woman would not have gotten involved with this relationship, but that was my journey at the time. I had no understanding of maturity at the time. I was still seeing life through the fundamentalist grid – with the magical thinking of a deity’s leading, with the non-thinking of an adolescent in a woman’s body, with the compassion for someone else’s needs juxtaposed with my subconscious sense of being undeserving of a good relationship and emotional needs for connection. Tricky business….I hope you don’t have to go through something like this.
I had to learn how to assess relationships.
There was the lesson of stepping back from the situation and observing the action. This man spoke continually of separation…yet his words were largely wishful thinking. I came to think of him as basically “a day at a time” passive. After years of non-action, I wished he would do something – anything – to act. The only sharp words I ever heard from him was when I suggested that he outgrow AA.I’ll talk more about this subject in the section on Relationships.
We may be sitting ducks when it comes to relationships.
We might not have the worldly experience or the street smarts to recognize what we are dealing with, such as an individual with one or more addictions, a Jesus looking for a manger (as Leonard Cohen puts it in one song), a user, a taker and not a giver, a controller, a needy individual looking for a safe harbor, a person with poor judgment, an adolescent in an adult body, a playboy looking for a bunny, an immature person looking for an accepting mommy or daddy, a passive-aggressive individual, an individual who gets off on another person needing him, and so on. Bring in a professional counselor to help you sort things out early in the relationship if need be. Stand back and look for clues and warning signs.
Be aware that the journey may not be linear.
You may need to go through some lessons before being ready for more. You may think you’ve “made it out,” only to down the road find new areas of fundamentalist influence that you hadn’t suspected before. I can virtually guarantee that you will, in fact. There is no “perfect life.” You will not attain perfection, and neither will I. There will always be more to learn, more to grow. If we stop learning, as my 7th grade teacher said, our minds will turn into a swamp.
We’ll need to develop critical thinking and common sense after leaving the church.
I was just about incapable of both when I left. After I was already emotionally involved with a man, I learned that the man was married but wanting a divorce. What to do? I went off to an island, read the entire bible through, making pro and con columns for divorce. The man nicknamed me “Tears” and left for someone who was more fun to be around. My brain knew nothing to do, other than to try to tally bible verses. I had no rational foundation for assessing the situation.
An outsider would view such a situation with disbelief – but I was brought up in the church. I lacked the life tools that I needed.
Could I have said, when I learned he was married, “I’m outta here, buddy”? How could I, when I still saw every happenstance as not an accident, but as God behind it? Yes, there had been clear teaching about not being with a married man – but when you are emotionally involved, there are ways around that, too. Was he “really” married just because he had a marriage certificate? Perhaps the marriage was over. Perhaps this was God’s will for me and for him.
Ultimately, my inner values asserted themselves. They were my hook to sanity. I knew that I did not want to be responsible for separating a father from his children and that he would have to do what he would on his own. Then we could see how things went. I of course was clueless that he probably had no money and intended just to move in with me. Even at my lowest point, I wasn’t up for that.
I look back now and shake my head that I could ever have been involved in this relationship – even if he wasn’t married. As the saying goes, “the heart has reasons the head knows nothing of.” However, the relationship was also the catalyst for my leaving the fundamentalist church, and so I am grateful for the part it played in my life.
We need to forgive ourselves but also know that we do the best we can with what we have to work with, and it’s ok. Next week, next year, we’ll have more to work with and be smarter and better people.
In the feminist movement of the 70s, I remember hearing marriage described as “the two become one, and the one is the man.” In fundamentalism, too, two become one. The human becomes a walking bible. That makes it hard when it’s time to think on one’s own.
How does one go from being a walking book to all the fullness of a human being? That what this web site is about. That’s the question we each have to address for ourselves.
Recognize that living itself is purposeful.
We former fundies may think of purpose as “out there” – like a calling, such as in carrying out “God’s will” in witnessing to others. It’s not like that for us now. Now we live our lives, and that living is the purpose. I write this web site and that is purposeful. You do your best at work, and that is purposeful. You are reading these words, and that is purposeful. Everything we do is purposeful, because this is life, and life is not a dress rehearsal.We learn by going where we have to go. As we are growth-oriented and maintain forward motion, listening to our inner voices, the purposes of our lives unfold through experience and action.
Figuring out what you want can be challenging.
Many people do not know what they want, especially if they were dependent on a fundamentalist church to teach them what “they” wanted. Years ago, I remember David Viscott, M.D., addressing this issue on the radio with a woman who didn’t know what she wanted. “Take a catalog,” said he, “and point to the item that most appeals to you on each page.” Exposure and practice. Those are two parts of learning what you want.How do you know what career you might want if you only have knowledge of a handful of careers? How do you know the qualities of a good teacher or of a good school, if you have only your limited experiences and don’t think critically or ask questions? If we are aware, invitations to growth are all around us, every day.
You’ll be getting to know folk outside the church. How do you recognize emotionally and mentally healthy people? What does it mean to be emotionally and mentally healthy? Becoming conscious means to build knowledge, which is information plus understanding. Building knowledge is likely to be a lengthy process.
There are levels of knowledge, and the more you have a broad base for understanding, the better equipped you will be for wise choices. For example, a chilling article in the periodical, Mother Jones, told about corporations working people harder and harder for less and less money. Having this sort of broad-based and realistic information will help you make street-wise, and not naive, decisions as you face a career choice. Exposure to alternative sources of news will bring a lot of useful information the general public knows little of.
When leaving, the lessons we need will likely not be found in books.
We need to experience life. Life-centered growth comes with openness, action, risk-taking, and a strong tie-in with one’s reasoning powers, intuition, and emotions. I greeted a sad-looking four-year-old neighbor boy sitting alone on a stoop. He looked up and said, “My uncle is moving away. I feel sad. I don’t know what to do.”
That elemental connection with one’s feelings, with the consciousness to express the loss, and with the question, will lead to some next steps. All of these abilities we are born with and can find them again after our times of indoctrination.
We need to be aware of the possibility of unrealized potentials and compensate for them.
As noted before, several times in fact, our lives as former fundies were “nipped in the bud.” We can come to realize what happened to us, perhaps even catch up with our development, but there may be areas or developmental stages that we have simply missed. We need to bear that in mind, have humility, and do the best we can to re-start our lives post-fundamentalism. Some of the more complex neural and emotional pathways simply might not have fully developed when we bought into the simple answers of fundamentalism.
There are consequences to that forfeiture of our lives and our freedom. There may have been some organic, irreversible changes in our brain functions – some permanent impairment, at the worst an inability to understand and to experience the full range of emotions. We need to be kind to ourselves and work on expanding our consciousness and developing fully as we can, knowing that we can broaden our horizons and that we will have plenty of satisfactions ahead. We each have our place in the sun, as much as anybody else.
How can we work on expanding our consciousness? Listening, learning…letting poetry sink deep and sensing inner connections with it … developing empathy through relationships and reading about those who haven’t had it easy… writing a letter to the young child that was you and telling that child that you will protect him or her now….talking with an understanding friend should you be fortunate enough to have one at this point.
Bear in mind, too, that sometimes a situation simply calls for more growth than the individual has so far achieved. If you understood more, you could have handled the situation better. In such cases, the situations may themselves become the vehicle for that growth.
You may experience a “leap of faith” the first time you trust someone from outside the church. You may find it beneficial to keep your mouth closed about your religious experiences for a prolonged time and to see what you can learn from and about the other person. With my first outside friend, I didn’t speak of my background for years. I wanted to learn what a human friendship was without drawing attention to fundamentalism.
If you are grounded in one human friendship, then you can add on another and another. Love doesn’t begin and end in one friendship. A friend is a door to the world. A friend fills us up.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU HAVE COME FROM
It is important to understand your fundamentalist experience.
Is it important to understand why a marriage went wrong? Of course it is… otherwise you might make the same mistake again. It’s the same thing with fundamentalism. If you don’t understand the roots of what you have been through and the methods used to control you, you will be susceptible to layering on another version of fundamentalism and also to repression of unresolved issues, if not an actual return to your fundamentalist group.
Strangely, though, a lot of former fundies disregard the continuing impact of their experience. They think that they have walked away from the religion. Vaguely they say, “Life led me in a different direction.” If you ask them about the kind of experience fundamentalism was for them, they can’t give you specific answers.
At one time, they accepted the bible (or other scriptures) as the iron-clad rule-book for their lives, perhaps as the inerrant (no mistakes) ”Word of God” and as their substitute for thinking. Yet, they cannot describe its impact on them and its effects over time. They cannot describe the underlying tools of indoctrination and the kinds of controls the religion had over them – and often still does, whether or not they are aware of them.
Perhaps, for example, a non-stop talker who is a former fundamentalist has something else going on in him that he doesn’t want to deal with, that he is in denial about. Perhaps a counselor still has a fundamentalist mindset from her youth, which leads to lack of connection with her patients. She can even be an effective therapist and still be walking a lonely road without human connection and no one to talk with. Perhaps a fundamentalist turns into an atheist who carries on the fundamentalist mindset. As an atheist, he is rigid, unable to listen to what another person says who disagrees with him. Perhaps he prides himself on his argumentative skills.
Many former members of fundamentalist churches think of themselves as the same people they were in the church, only their lives took a different direction.
Maybe they “don’t believe that stuff anymore.” Maybe they married an outsider, moved away, and simply stopped going to church. Maybe they are unwilling to think about the experience because they sense that doing so would open a Pandora’s box of unresolved issues that they wouldn’t know what to do with. Maybe they fear that there are no answers and subconsciously hope that the fundamentalists weren’t right after all.
If you don’t know or can’t even tell yourself what’s happening because you don’t want to know, then you won’t have self-awareness relating to your fundamentalist experience. The long shadow of fundamentalism will continue to impact on your life.
Come to terms with the fundamentalist sense of exceptionalism.
We came from thinking that we were God’s children, the white sheep, and that our tribe would be the winners at the end of history. We had the higher knowledge, could be self-righteous in our superiority, and were the chosen when compared to the unsaved and sinful masses, the masses who elect liberals, support Planned Parenthood, and favor civil rights for gay and lesbian people.
Now we have to deal with the liberating view that we are just ordinary human beings muddling through, like everyone else, and that our purposes evolve as we live our lives.
This exceptionalism can still raise its head in unsuspected ways, not only for the recovering fundamentalist but for our country as a whole. How many times have we heard that the United States is the “city set on a hill”? Yet the facts show that we are empire builders, supporting a dictator on the one hand and calling for his head on the other. We act as if we are entitled to use one quarter of the world’s energy and are willfully oblivious to the multitudes suffering today and even losing their lives because of climate change.
Watch out for magical thinking.
We came from thinking that a deity gave signs and answers to prayer. Even if we don’t have a continuing belief in a god, our psyches may still be attuned to “meaningful coincidences,” and too often we can act on thoughts that are not in touch with reality.
I would have thought that I was past this, but I learn again from time to time that “there is no fool like an old fool.” Learning to recognize magical thinking and build new thought patterns in its place may be an ongoing challenge, but the good news is, progress is possible.
In fundamentalism, there is a sense of being exempt from consequences.
I was speaking with a friend about end-of-life care. The friend said that she owned several rental properties and felt that the rents would see her through any nursing care. I remarked that that was planning ahead. The friend replied, “Always, always.”
But for fundamentalists, “God will lead. God will see to our needs. God will take care of you.” There is a big difference in attitude between these two responses.
We are used to being dependent, to being preached at by the authority figure. We have to learn how to become the authority figure for our own lives. This can take practice for those of us who tend to be timid.
We need to read the news from different perspectives to get a more realistic sense of our political leaders. Suggestions of alternative sources of news will be made in the Resources section.
Be sensitive to authoritarianism.
The fundamentalist religion is built on a designated pecking order, with God at the top, the minister under God, the man under the minister, and the woman under man. The woman, religiously and culturally, is conditioned to please, while the man is conditioned to consider himself the head of the family.
In fundamentalism, the teaching is that there is equality of the sexes, only that each serves in a different sphere, and that the woman finds her fulfillment in her husband. Since a family cannot have two heads and be at peace, the man is designated as the head, but he is to listen to and cherish his wife.Literature of the feminist movement has a lot to say to recovering fundamentalists, both female and male. I participated in the feminist movement in the ’70s and found that a lot of the attitudes I experienced in fundamentalism were also cultural.
Realize that we were trained in black and white, judgmental thinking.
On the TV program Touched by an Angel, a young man with Downs Syndrome said to another character, “When you look at me, you see what I’m not. Why don’t you look at me and see what I am?”
Black and white thinking is fear-based, fear of someone different from us. Monitor yourself. I still pick up instances of black or white thinking in myself from time to time, but less as time goes on. Watch out for quick or automatic judgments.
Imagination is not cultivated in fundamentalism.
Someone from the dim past told me, “There is always another way to look at something.” That has been a useful thought.
I think of a former fundamentalist friend who was strong in leaving fundamentalism but who, when faced with death, cycled back into it. I think that he lacked the imagination to see that there are other ways to live a satisfying life, other than either being in or outside of the church.
Late night political commentators-comedians, such as Jon Stewart, can help us loosen up and laugh, as can the Daily Funnies (sign-up at www.keystoneprogress.org).
We may be naive regarding religious bullying.
Someone who doesn’t care about your feelings and insists on imposing their agenda on you is a bully. Religion can turn otherwise nice people into bullies. If these bullies are charismatic and have penetrating eyes, they can seem very convincing.
We need to take ourselves out of the equation and dispassionately assess what they are saying. You are the person who needs to determine the right path for you, not someone else.
Recognize the pull of ecstasy and of fantasy.
When we leave the church, we may feel that Christmas will never come again, but sometimes we still look for it. Instead, let us keep focused and know that deep satisfactions will come from being human, as we continue growing. We learn that life itself contains endless satisfactions and adventure, but we may have some healing and growth to do before we experience them.
I like the comparison of a fundamentalist “sugar high” compared to the ongoing satisfaction of good nutrition, addressed to our bodily needs. When you are nourished in all areas of your life, you may find that you end up feeling as an elderly agnostic friend did when he said, “I’m not afraid of dying but I don’t want to leave my beautiful life.”
Adjust to the loss of the fundamentalist concept of being on the winning side and fighting against evil.
That fight gave us a purpose for our lives, throwing life preservers to the lost. In contrast, we now build our own purposes as we go through each day, doing what we want and need to do, as we grow, love, and contribute. Finding your own niches for where you can be useful can take awhile, but start somewhere.
We have been primed for superstitious thinking, for having our antennae up for “God’s will” for us.
We remind ourselves that coincidences are no more than coincidences. We need to brush off the temptation for magical thinking in our lives, and get ourselves grounded in reality. Even dreams, if they reflect an unbalanced world view, could be unbalanced. “The universe” doesn’t unfold meaning for us, any more than there is a “soul mate” for us to find. We will have many soul mates as our inner compasses develop and we cross paths with others having similar inner compasses.
With one man, I didn’t think in terms of a “soul mate” or of the “universe unfolding our meaning” or however he phrased it, yet I didn’t correct him and passively took on the comfortable terminology when he used it, missing the chance of more constructive dialogue.
WHAT ABOUT GOING TO CHURCH?
Think about Sunday mornings.
Staying home Sunday mornings can be lonely. Perhaps you will try another type of church. But if not, what will you do to fill the time? Well, for one thing, watch your vocabulary. Avoid words with negative connotations, such as “lonely.”
How does the following sound to you? “Sunday mornings are my opportunity to enjoy my own company – with a newspaper, with gardening, with a good book and a cup of tea – or with other people, such as with a hiking club or brunch with a friend. I love having free time on my day of rest.”
But these weren’t my thoughts in the beginning. I withdrew to myself, sure that no one would understand what I was going through. At the religious groups I sojourned with for a few months or years, I went mostly as an isolate. Sitting in the pew, speaking with no one, leaving soon afterwards, staying in the congregation until something changed and it was time for me to move on… like becoming attracted to the young priest and realizing that I was second choice for him. That was the end of the Catholic church for me, though it had been peaceful sitting there anonymously, with no preacher zeroing in on my soul.
Is going to church right for you at this juncture in your life?
You may miss attending some religious organization or other. It was some place to go every Sunday morning. Even though you may not miss the service itself, you can miss being among people who know your name, with whom you have a shared history, who smile when they see you, and who chat about this and that with you.
When I decided to withdraw from both the Unitarian church and Quaker Meetings, I at first was a little wobbly over the thought of not having some place to go every Sunday morning. I sometimes still have mixed feelings about being part of a Sunday morning group but mostly am looking for community elsewhere. Here’s why I decided to withdraw from Sunday a.m. attendance:
At this time in my life, I want to build, and the Sunday morning activities don’t really contribute to that. Further, they take time and energy that is considerable – like the better part of my day and energy, with the coffee hour and errands on the way home. Last Sunday I had a whole glorious day in writing/editing this web site and felt so full at the end of the day. Another Sunday I worked on the vegetable plot, and that felt good.
Nevertheless, I recognize the need for association and building with other people. I ask myself what I can participate in where I am doing both and that would be honoring to who I am? That’s a question that you address for yourself. One friend might go hiking. Another is a photographer and works at an artists’ co-op. Another individual is involved in climate change advocacy activities. Many volunteers monitor streams near natural gas fracking operations to help protect fresh water in face of this challenge. Thousands of people work to save our primary and secondary schools against the privatization movement driven by profit and the culture war on democracy. Others meet in discussion groups and book groups.
Read the book, When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, by Chet Raymo. The holiness of every day brings a different perspective as we are conscious of the gift of life and of the amazing human spirit wherever we are, whatever we are doing.
“But it’s not church.” What’s this draw to church? Loneliness, the need to have your spirit tweaked, the comfort of having some place to go on Sunday mornings, habit? Examine it. Try to decipher it in your own self and see if the reasons you come up with hold up to the light. Examine your motives. Work Katie’s 4 questions (www.theWork.com) on your reasons to help break up any roadblocks, if there are any. Is going to church an active or passive activity for you? Is it a habit? Could you better spend your time doing something else? Church can be a distraction, too.
Maybe you come up with satisfying reasons for attending somewhere Sunday morning. I can think of good reasons, and my life has been enriched through the visiting I have done, plus other involvements, at both the Unitarian church and the Friends (Quakers), and at the local humanist society, which I mostly attend. I have heard of activities and read books that I would otherwise have missed. If I hadn’t met friends and contacts from these organizations, I might only know the neighbors where I live. I’m glad those organizations exist, especially for children. I wish I lived closer to an Ethical Humanist Society and other secular humanist groups, especially Afro-American groups. There are former fundamentalists in all these groups, and all have interesting, good people who are reading, thinking, and doing.
A basic question is, “Where does your inner compass lead you, and how do your weekly activities contribute to that?” In other words, being driven by loneliness is not a great reason to go to a church. Work out the loneliness and come to the place where you would be perfectly happy to attend or not to attend an organized group… and then make your decision for what’s right for your life at a particular juncture.
If you decide to go to church, at least for this chapter in your life, make it a positive choice. Know why you go, what you expect to get from your participation and what you can give. Know what you are linking up with. Does the atmosphere of the church reflect a balance that appeals to you? It’s easy to fall asleep, figuratively speaking, in organized religion. Enjoying each others’ company too much may reflect passivity. Is the group, in Martin Luther King’s terminology, committed to being “a drum major for justice”?
WHO DO YOU TALK WITH, AFTER LEAVING YOUR FUNDAMENTALIST CIRCLE?
When you are ready to face the public, where do you find people to talk with?
I’m not speaking here of discussing your former religious experience. You may do better to keep that to yourself for now, at least when socializing. I’m speaking of finding people who are good people, interesting folk who are engaged with life, and people you can learn from. I’m talking about being around people who represent good values and who can serve as examples and as steadying influences for you at a vulnerable time.
I didn’t do this when I left the fundamentalist church. I just fell into relationships with men from various places I worked. Trust me, that wasn’t so smart.
Where do you go to find healthy and happy adults? We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming section, and you’ll also find other suggestions in the Resources section.
One tip, however, is that you may evolve to more progressive activities that use religious language and then to groups that don’t use religious language. Ultimately, I believe that associating with non-religious groups can be more beneficial. Recovering fundamentalists need exposure to different perspectives on life. Come from a place of trust, not of fear. Look within and without for values with which to rebuild your life.
In the above section, we talked about being realistic with where we are in leaving fundamentalism and with what the fundamentalist experience was.
The discussion continues with a look at some attitudes to monitor as we leave fundamentalism.