Why Leave Fundamentalism?
This page is organized as follows:
- Why one might leave fundamentalism
- My journey begins
- My reasons for leaving fundamentalism
WHY LEAVE FUNDAMENTALISM
For any number of possible reasons, a person may come up against doubts, disappointment, disillusionment, failure, repressions that burst out, or discrepancies between what you see and what you are taught. What the religion promises, it doesn’t deliver. Human nature reasserts itself. The heart contradicts the head. In many families, peace reigns until a youngster becomes a teenager and rebels or until he gets to college and is exposed to new ideas.
To the true-blue fundamentalist, none of these issues would be sufficient for leaving. If someone left the fold, he had his eyes on man, not on God. It’s the departing individual’s fault; the faith didn’t fall short.
Nevertheless, these fundamentalist beliefs don’t always hold the wavering believer. Life can grind down this sort of faith for some people, even while making others stronger in the faith.
If you questioned and disagreed, you either had to stifle yourself and fit in with the religion (but repression doesn’t work in the long run), or you had to try to assert yourself in the religion (which typically doesn’t go over big), or you had to make a double-life for your split parts (which isn’t psychologically or emotionally healthy and leads to hypocrisy), or you had to leave.
The leaving might be of your own free will, or it might be from self-sabotaging, such as the friend who had a one-night stand to get herself dis-fellowshipped in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Those were the choices.
Over the years, I had assorted issues that became cumulative, until a transition time out of the religion was precipitated by unexpected events. I’ve done a lot of thinking about those issues – not only what they were, but what caused them. From hindsight, I’ve concluded that the troublesome issues were built in to the framework of fundamentalism and could not be resolved within fundamentalism. But that was hindsight. At the time, I blamed myself for falling short.
MY JOURNEY BEGINS
When other teenagers were out among friends, I was home studying the Bible, outlining the books of Job and Romans. When others were exploring literature and other interests, I was reading religious books. When others were thinking about careers, I was asking God if I should be a missionary. When others were choosing college, my choice was made for an evangelical school. When others were dating, I was forbidden to dance or go to movies. I could only date other evangelicals who were boring to me, or, if I dated non-believers, I had to invite them to my church and hope they would get saved. While others were connecting with other humans emotionally, I connected through prayer partners.
My life was taken over. There was no major decision that I had a right to, that I didn’t have to lay at the feet of “the Lord.” If I was content to stay within the parameters of the church…and perhaps wed another fundamentalist, things might have worked out, but when one starts to think for one’s self… that’s the start of trouble in paradise.
I have a family legacy of my dad singing, “I want to be me,” and my mother’s strong spirit. Both of them had youths and young adulthood as “normal” humans before they got involved in the fundamentalist church around age 30. In this, I had an advantage over fundamentalists who might be 3rd or 4th generation or more. I asked a Jewish friend what would happen if the rabbi’s sons in her congregation wanted to go to public school instead of yeshiva. “Rabbis’ sons never go to public school” was her succinct response.
I also was brought up in the church, so it held no mystique for me, the way it might for a convert who came as an adult. As I grew up, I wanted to explore the outside world, like any teenager would want to do. An older convert who hadn’t found meaning in the outside world might be content to let the church be his parameter but the outside world beckoned to me.
I can remember having a teenage opinion on some controversial subject and predicting to myself what the pastor would say when I asked him about it. True to form, he gave what I considered to be the “party line.” I never asked him another question. I wanted to think and instinctively didn’t respect the standard responses to complex subjects.
As an individual buys deeper and deeper into what the religion offers, the religion’s framework becomes the way he sees the world, like looking through a lens or a grid. Underneath all the singing and smiling, this grid is rigid, black and white. Just step out of line and see what happens. Say that you believe in gay marriage, for example, or that you think women should be allowed to be pastors, or that you will vote for a pro-choice politician, or anything that contradicts what your group teaches, and watch for the fireworks or the silence, knowing that your name is now on the prayer lists of your fellow congregants. At some churches, you might find yourself in the center of a circle of elders, as they try to cast a demon out of you.
MY REASONS FOR LEAVING FUNDAMENTALISM
Falling in love with a man (who turned out to be a scumbag) spurred me out of the church, but there were many other issues that accumulated over the years I was in the fundamentalist church. I’ll list them below.
But first, you may be thinking of leaving fundamentalism, or you have left. Why? What were your reasons? Are you able to articulate them? Do you understand what went wrong? I’d suggest that you get a paper and make your list. You can benefit by spending time on this before you read my list below.
“Once you have the question, light will come from many sources,” my college dean once said. You might write something vague and then, below, read a point that crystallizes what you are feeling and helps you to understand the root cause for what you are thinking.
Why I left fundamentalism:
The black box religion
I ultimately couldn’t relate to the “plan of salvation” as presented in my church. Though I had “accepted Christ as my personal savior,” “dedicated my life to God,” and “re-dedicated my life to God,” nevertheless, I continually had a feeling, for years, of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Within myself, I thought of evangelicalism as the “black box” religion. If you were told to believe that “this box is black,” you will be saved. In other words, believe what they told you was the truth, even if it didn’t resonate with you. You could always quote to yourself the verse about the wisdom of this world being foolishness with God. “Believe in the black box. Believe in the black box.”
I was lonely in the church, even though no one would have guessed that. I had no one to talk with and couldn’t have verbalized on what was wrong, even if I had had such a person. I self-censored the outsiders who might have been helpful. They were “worldly and lost.” I would never have spoken with them.
Later, when I left the church, as stated previously, I would say that my favorite word was “with.” I wanted to live in a horizontal human community, with others, not in a church where all thoughts seemed to be directed vertically to God. I wanted to be myself and be open with trusted other individuals. In the evangelical church, intimacy seemed to be experienced mainly through prayer with others. I wanted to own my own feelings, whatever they were, and share face-to-face with other humans on an intimate level.
More attracted to outsiders
I liked worldly people better than the people inside the church. Many outsiders seemed happier, more vital, and more in touch with reality than the folk in the church. Even my dad noticed that the church guys didn’t have much “red blood,” as he put it.
I would get to know some outsiders and then lose them, because I was obliged to witness to them, and they would take off. I experienced a lot of loss because of this. I traveled with a group of college-bound girls in high school but had no close friends. Building friendships with one’s school peers doesn’t really work when you carry a black Bible on top of your books – but then, I wasn’t interested in having friends among so-called non-Christians in those days, anyway. (Evangelicals consider only those who are born again to be true Christians.)
The hint of another world out there
One of those outside guys that I was dating for a short time (and bringing to evangelical functions) did me the favor of telling me that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. That statement sat at the back of my mind for a few years, but it nevertheless was a tip-off that there was a whole world out there beyond what I knew.
I was living in a religious world that seemed to be the reverse image of what I was observing around me. Many times the things I thought were positive were seen as negative by my parents and the church, and vice versa. Life seemed more vital in many folk outside the church, but I was told that the all-alike folk in the church really had the vital life. I got to the point where I had to learn how to reconcile what I was seeing with what I was being told – but reconciliation didn’t turn out to be possible.
Feeling of invisibility
My “self” was not known or encouraged. I was praised as I performed within the values of the belief system. The feeling of invisibility lasted for a long time after leaving the religion. “Jesus” was on the throne of my heart, not me. “I” was nowhere.
Lack of justice
I seemed to have a sense of justice inside me that was sometimes at odds with the church, and I felt the disconnect but didn’t know what to do with it. For example, when I was at Bible camp as a child, I heard a story from the evangelist about a man living in sin with a woman who (gasp) wasn’t his wife in Italy. Then the man got “saved” and left the woman, praising God. I can remember thinking: “He couldn’t have loved her very much.” Later, as an adult, I came to see that as the bottom line. No, he hadn’t loved her. He cared more about his own salvation.
I also cringed at the triumphalism in my church. I remember as a child seeing the triumphant emotions of the adults in the church when Israelis won some battle in Israel, but I remember thinking about the suffering of the Palestinians. I never heard anything about them in my church. There was no questioning of what was just, only glee (is that too strong a word?) at the apparent fulfilling of prophecy.
This triumphalism also showed in relation to the “Second Coming” of Christ, where the message was, “We’ll be saved, brought up to meet Christ in the air, and the unsaved will have miserable deaths.” To me, any feeling person would ask Christ to delay his coming if his coming meant that innocent people would have to suffer. That thought, too, was never expressed in church, where the sense was rather “full steam ahead for Armageddon.” Various current events were fitted to the church’s interpretation of “prophecy.” We believed that the end times were coming ever nearer.
Later in life, I was to take note of how rare expressions of justice appeared to be among fundamentalists. I remember a conversation with my father, who chided my concerns for the poor as being “communistic.” When I asked him if communists were the only people who cared about the poor, he had no response.
In my teens, I learned that eating can be comforting, and I began to overeat when I was lonely or bored and then to try in vain not to overeat. I would “sin” and then pray for forgiveness and try to seek victory in Christ. This went on for ten years, with me never feeling that victory was achieved. In my college years, I took one summer “off” from religion and studied the history of philosophy at a local college. That summer, taken for myself, overeating was no issue, but it started up again when I returned to the church. I suppose I was trying to feed emotional starvation.
I understood that the way forward was backward, that growth was negative. That is, if I wanted to have victory over over-eating, I had to surrender more of myself and let more of Christ live in me. Then I’d have victory in Christ. Nice theory, but it didn’t work.
Later, when out of the church, I learned more about this subject, how the temporary satisfactions that come from food can be found on a more mature and satisfying basis in other areas of life, how food can be enjoyed without guilt, how coconut oil can help normalize hunger drives, and to stay away from sugar and white flour, which would bring on more sugar cravings and depression. I learned about nutrition and healthy eating. I could look back and understand why so many church folk are overweight, with the ubiquitous desserts.
I saw that some of the church friends that I grew up with and who left the church didn’t do so good later in life – alcohol, drugs, and other forms of fundamentalism. The rest of my church friends stayed in the church, as missionaries, pastors’ wives, and families involved on the home front with evangelical churches and missions. At the time I left the church, I knew of no other fundamentalists in recovery. I was alone with my thoughts for a few decades.
The publication “Mother Jones” had an article on some “faith-based” teen homes and addiction. “So many of you turned out to have alcohol and drug problems,” stated a former affiliate of the fundamentalist New Bethany Home for Boys, quoted in an expose on these spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child, unregulated “faith-based” teen homes. One mother reported that when she withdrew her daughter from a fundamentalist girls’ home, the youngster was “robotic,” and “showed signs of an eating disorder, self-destructive behavior, and severe depression” (Mother Jones, July/August 2011, pp. 54, 56).
I was so bored in the church. I came to feel that I had heard enough sermons to last me three lifetimes. I wanted to learn, to understand what life was about…yet it seemed as if the same pot was being stirred over and over and over again. There was nowhere to go; it was always more of same. At some churches, since unsaved visitors may be present, every Sunday morning there’s a salvation message. How many ways can you say the same thing? How many times can a person listen to the same thing?
If this is so good, then how come….?
I continually saw discrepancies between what was presented in the religion and what the teachings resulted in for church people. If my heart yearned for love and intimacy, how come I didn’t feel connection with the “Christians,” who were supposedly plugged into love and intimacy?
A chink (fissure) in the biblical armor
I was controlled by the church’s interpretation of the Bible. Then, one day I found something in the Bible that appeared to contradict whatever I thought was the spirit of Christianity. That was the start of a chink in the Bible, lessening its hold over me. Later, I was to learn that there are helpful books applying modern methods of analyzing and demythologizing the Bible.
When I first left the church, I saw the Bible as a dangerous book, because it was used to chain so many people. As I learned more, I mostly just lost interest in it. For example, I learned that of the four gospels, there are a lot of internal contradictions and, momentous as a person rising from the dead would be, three of the gospels didn’t mention the resurrection at all. Another odd fact for me was learning that the last book of the Bible, the Revelations of St. John, was really the first New Testament book written – and what acid trips of violence that book contains. The first book written? What was going on here?
Some of the books on the historical criticism of the Bible are listed in the Resources section.
I learned that to take responsibility for one’s self is not a sin.
I had a eureka moment a few years before leaving the church when reading the book, Guilt or Grace, by Paul Tournier, M.D. Dr. Tournier wrote that it is not a sin to take responsibility for one’s self. I had essentially been taught that it was a sin to take responsibility for myself, because that was to knock Christ off the throne of my heart and put my ego on it. Now, Dr. Tournier had given me a tool with which to grow.
I was really excited and thought I had learned something helpful. Alas, a lot of time would pass before I would begin to really understand the tool. Still, the tool was essential. It was a key, something that unlocked a door where freedom beckoned, but all I could do at the time was to tumble through the door.
Discovering that I had a right to exist as a human being
Another step of growth and liberation came one Sunday night when a Baptist minister spoke on the “forgotten meaning” of Christianity, i.e., the incarnation, how we (the saved) were of the same nature as Jesus, both human and divine. I’d heard about the divine all along, but this was the first time that I was hearing that I had a right to my own life, that my humanity had a right to exist. I was just about bouncing on the pew with excitement, because I sensed what this new understanding could mean for me. Soon I bounced right out of that church.
The destruction of trust
As long as “I” didn’t exist (and Christ did, “in my heart”), I had no “self” and could not establish a foundation for trust in my inner voice. I came to see the destruction of trust as a core issue in fundamentalism and one of the worst evils. To destroy one’s trust in one’s self, in one’s inner voice, is to knock out the platform for growth and for becoming a person. My brother put it this way: “Pastor X destroyed my self-esteem in Boys’ Brigade.” Lenee Rider, who had been in a fundamentalist teen home, said bluntly, “I felt they stole whatever was inside me that allowed me to trust,” Mother Jones, July/August, 2011, p. 56.
Break the will
I recall parents being told that their child would eventually challenge their authority and at that point it was essential that they break the will of the child. If they did not, they would have a rebellious child. “Broken for Christ,” whatever the age, was seen as a good thing. One girl, after being at a teenage home, stated in the Mother Jones article, “After a while, I was so brainwashed, I didn’t even want to run….I figured this was God’s plan.”
I remember when one of my pastors, who appeared gentle, loving, and mild-mannered, said that his son would not be permitted to go away to college as he wished, unless he first submitted fully to Christ. The young man succumbed eventually.
After leaving the church, a year or two later I went back to visit the same pastor to thank him for what his ministry had meant to me. I let him know that the next step of my journey happened to be a (short-lived) stint of attendance at a progressive Catholic church. The loving pastor got up and walked out on me, leaving his embarrassed wife to carry on with conversation.
The inner voice speaks
I was at an evangelical retreat one weekend when a strong thought came to me, seemingly out of nowhere: “I am destroying myself.” I didn’t understand that, but it got my attention, and I started to actively pull back from evangelicalism. Years later, I mentioned this to a psychiatrist, who reflected calmly, “You were destroying yourself.”
For years in the church, I had a premonition that one day my heart would disagree with my head. I didn’t know what might happen at that juncture. I was to find out, when I fell in love with a worldly person who was charming but turned out to be irresponsible and unfaithful. My common sense and life skills and life experience were just about nil then, and I went through a rough time as this chap withdrew. I can look back and be grateful for the experience, though, because through that, I burned my bridges to the evangelical church. I was so emotionally starved that I chose the relationship over the church, and then the man left. Those were bleak days but I didn’t return to the church. I missed him, not the church.
I couldn’t just “live life.” The rules were laid down for how I was to think, feel, and believe. I knew who could be a friend and who couldn’t. The only problem was that human life is not that way. I wanted to explore and learn and grow, to have adventures outside the church. I had to keep repenting to keep the lid on things. And then, when the lid was off, I had none of the tools for living a healthy adult life. What was repressed finally burst the container.
Now you have heard the main reasons I didn’t fit in as an evangelical. Do you relate to any of these? How do they compare with your reasons for leaving?
In the next tab, let’s continue with this discussion of why fundamentalism doesn’t work for humans.