We’re like a bunch of PTSD sufferers comparing notes on how we all got shell-shocked. We’re all a bit…twitchy.
A reviewer should maintain some objectivity to do justice to the book she reviews — as I’m attempting, with Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The catch is that like the book’s editor, University of Victoria Research Fellow G. Elijah Dann, and like those who tell their stories in this book, I myself am an ex-fundamentalist.
A fundamentalism-survivor, as it were.
But that’s the point, the common theme running through these stories: the writers were damaged by that world view, many giving the impression they only just escaped with their sanity.
Virtually all describe their experience of being convinced of the doctrines of their church, convinced they have a personal relationship with God, and often making plans to “do God’s work” through some sort of ministry. They frequently enter via an emotional appeal, and firmly believe that through the indwelling power of God’s Spirit, they can overcome sin and live a victorious life.
Then the cracks appear. Sin is not overcome — and it’s never the fault of the teachings — it’s always the believer’s fault, no matter how devout and prayerful and committed they are. Or a dissonance appears, between what fellow believers say in public and how they behave in private. Or — the worst sin of all — the believer asks a question.
Fundamentalism insists on adherence to a rigid set of doctrines, so even an honest question is viewed suspiciously. Pat answers are provided, but if questions continue, other believers attack the questioner, reinforcing the impression that fundamentalism’s simplistic, black-and-white world view can’t handle the real world.
Some of these writers retained a belief in God or some form of spirituality, while others, trained in the fundamentalist “all or nothing” mentality, decided, “Well, then — nothing.” But always their departure from this movement was a painful, seismic upheaval.
Jacob Shelley, in “Life Stages,” describes the “contempt and scorn” with which his wife’s family treated both of them: “…a letter in which she beseeched her parents to accept her decision to marry me … resulted in the bulk of her family — in the name of God, peace, and love — cutting her out of their lives. Their righteous indignation has also led them to reject any interaction with our newborn daughter, their only grandchild so far.”
Julie Rak, in “Looking Back at Sodom,” relates how she could no longer deny she was a lesbian, despite fundamentalist teachings about homosexuality. Her honesty led to a divorce, with the resulting repercussions for her husband and children.
This book will enlighten ex-fundamentalists along with those having no experience in the movement. The fundamentalist mindset appears in places I’d never have expected, such as a group with Marxist beliefs, living as the early Christians did in the Book of Acts. Yet the church I attended would have attacked these people too, for not being “real Christians.” Such is the rigidity of fundamentalism.
I had few issues with anything in this book. In the earlier stories, I felt the writers skimmed over their internal thought process, so I didn’t fully understand why they left. I kept wondering, “What were you actually thinking at the time?”
Many gave detailed descriptions, though. In “The Jesus Lizard,” James Fieser’s story closely resembles mine: an intellectual inability to believe the fundamentalist story, for lack of evidence or coherence. Fieser also encapsulates one of the most poignant reasons why a believer would begin to question. He describes how his friend’s family was swept away in a flood, and “while he wasn’t bothered by the good Lord’s handling of the situation, I was. I felt it was odd that while Alan prayed for the safety of his family, all that was granted was the life of his dog.”
This book will give non-fundamentalists some astonishing insight into how otherwise rational, humane people might plunge into such an anti-rational, harsh world view, and why it’s so hard for them to escape.
But for former fundamentalists, reliving their — our — own traumatic experiences through these stories, the understanding will go much deeper. We will think to ourselves, in relief and empathy, “I was not alone.”
[Note: Thanks so much to Mini Book Expo, where I learned about this book and was able to request a review copy.]
25 thoughts on “Leaving fundamentalism”
Excellent review. I simply cannot understand how people could behave like this and still consider themselves Christian.
I, too, left “the fold”. I was raised a fundamentalist Christian. Went to church three times a week, sometimes four, until I was 16 years old. After reconnecting w/ my first cousins online, I have been researching information to relate to them why I left and prove to them that I am far from alone. Additionally, I was wondering how many out there feel, as I, that it was comparable to abuse. I could go on for hours, but won’t. Just am so appreciative I have found some good information. Thank you!
Jennifer, many think as you that it was abusive. In addition to checking out this book, you may want to look at
with 16 pages of “deconversion” stories.
Thank you, Lee Vegas! Funny, I was just telling a friend that “abuse” wasn’t quite it, more: profoundly damaging to a child’s heart and mind. So, I guess there was a reason I put abusive. I have spent the last twenty five years healing my heart, mind, and soul. I’m so happy to finally have this as a resource. On to check out the link – thank you!
I left fundamentalism long ago but still experience anxiety.
I just want to tell an account. The adolescent Sunday school group was temporarily under a leader who preached that people must not listen to unchristian music, or music by any composer who was not Christian. He also found a verse about cuting off anything that got between us and God. He had before class sometime cut off the very tip of his thumb, and showed us the injury. (Why do I laugh when I recount this? It’s not funny, kind of like why people laugh at horror movies.) It was not a big slice, one a person could make while cooking carelessly. Nonetheless, this was teaching self mutilation.
There were alot of other things. I was a kid, and was traumatized by this. I do not think that the church leadership knew about this. It’s what happens when a church is unhealthy in the first place and does not maintain close accountability for the offshoot classes.
This book should be very helpful to those of us who have moved through this into a better life and a wholesome spirituality.
I grew up in an atheist family and just happened to become born-again in a Fundamentalist church that I visited a few times when in college. After being an atheist, I had such a dramatic conversion experience after I said that sinner’s prayer – I literally felt a whole lot of guilt fall away like a ton of bricks and I noticed drastic differences in how the Holy Spirit turned my heart from evil to good, that I had NO DOUBT that I was now a Christian and that a Christian is a new creation regenerated by the Holy Spirit – not a pious person in the flesh.
When I encounter that fundamentalist superior Christian attitude, I don’t even fall for it. I just tell them I’m a better Christian than they are when they act like that.
Yes, I remember having those psychological experiences myself. They were extremely convincing at the time. Of course, I’ve had similar experiences (like guilt falling away like a ton of bricks, and an apparent change of character) through other experiences as well, so I no longer regard them as any sort of convincing evidence of Christianity being true.
This was no psychological experience – it was a SUPERNATURAL experience. No amount of psychology or anything that the world has to offer could make you feel as good as Jesus did on that day when He came into my heart and forgave all of my sins!!
Yes, I understand that that’s the way you have to interpret it. You’d betray your own theology if you actually believed me, so you are required by that theology to tell me — with supreme arrogance — that YOU (who do NOT live in my head) know way better than ME (who, as it happens, DOES live in my head) what was going on in my head.
But I forgive you. When I was a fundamentalist, I constantly spouted to other people every single word you’re spouting at me. Every fundamentalist “knows” that their interpretation of how things are is ABSOLUTELY TRUE, and that everyone else is wrong if they disagree. I’ve heard the same nonsense from Mormon fundamentalists, from Hindu fundamentalists, from yadda yadda yadda. And every single one of them says to me, “Oh, they’re just superstitious/satanic/[insert insult here], but when WE say it, we’re actually RIGHT.”
*sigh* I take pride in the fact that since I left Christianity, I have gone back to most of those people and apologized for being such an arrogant twit.
I’m glad to hear you felt so good, though. You obviously needed that.
Theology? Who cares about theology – I would betray that anytime with no qualms whatsoever. I grew up in an atheist family never attending church or any Sunday school classes or learning any theology anywhere. I didn’t have any theology except that I didn’t believe in God when I was an atheist growing up.
And then I met Jesus (not theology) supernaturally. This horrible empty feeling I had my entire life left, my guilt feelings fell away like a ton of bricks just from saying that sinner’s prayer in an instant(not due to anything that I did), and I felt His love for the first time. Jesus is a wonderful, supernatural being – not theology.
Forgive me if you got the impression that I was telling you what was in your head – I was just telling you what was in mine. Arrogant? I think that all of us are the same as far as sin-wise except I was probably worse than most for growing up an atheist. I do believe though that if you spend enough time in the world you will accummulate a lot more guilt and bondage to sin that you could have a more dramatic conversion experience to know that it really is real, not just a belief. I hope you don’t have to go down that route though.
I don’t think that just fundamentalists are saved. I believe that there are many sincere Catholics, etc. who are. It’s just if you love Jesus. I believe that Muslims and people from other religions who are sincere, God will make sure that they find the right way to Him. I know that He did that for me since I grew up in an atheist family – even showed me visions. I’m not in love with theology, I’m in live with Him. He’s really nice and just wants to do wonderful things for you and all of us.
We’ll probably just go back and forth forever saying the same things if we continue. But I do remember saying pretty much word-for-word everything you’re saying now. I know you find it extremely convincing, but I no longer do.
I’m also kind of surprised that you’re posting anonymously. Kind of hiding your light under a bushel, don’t you think, when you’re supposed to be proclaiming your truth from the rooftops?
Anyway. Peace to you, Anonymous Christian.
I never hide my light; actually I go out of my way to tell people trapped in darkness about Jesus’ Light. I know what people who are bound in chains of darkness far away from Jesus’ Light feel like inside from growing up in an atheist/occult family and I have a heart to tell them. I spend a lot of my own time and money on color printer cartridges to write Christian newsletters and leave them in dark places where people far away from God and His Light can find them to tell them that Jesus is REAL!
As far as posting my name all over the Internet, Jesus deserves all the attention, not me. And I believe it is wise to be discreet about using your real name on the Internet.
Peace also to you kashicat. Remember Jesus’ Light will always be there for you no matter how far away you wander into the darkness. Instead of believing everything everyone told you when you were growing up, why don’t you look for Him yourself and find your own reasons to believe. I found my reasons on my own – no one told them to me. And I’ll never go back to the darkness. Believe me, the farther you go into the darkness, the brighter that Light will shine when you find it!
Any bad aspects of a fundamentalist church, separate those from Jesus and get rid of those and keep Jesus! Jesus isn’t the Fundamentalist Church anyway; he is how He describes Himself in the Word.
Separate the bad aspects of a Fundamentalist Church from Jesus and get rid of those and keep Jesus! Jesus isn’t the Fundamentalist Church anyway; He is how He describes Himself in the Word.
Oh, how interesting. Not only have reinforcements been brought in, but they’re posting canned and barely-altered spam comments.
Well, my dears, have at it. I used to do exactly this sort of thing. And say everything you’re saying, word for word.
It should make you THINK, my lovelies, and make you wonder WHY I, who was easily as committed and devoted as you are eventually came to find this belief abhorrent.
But anyway, have a good time. Keep in mind, though, that if you start spamming this site too ferociously and lose your godly courtesy, you will be blocked and banned. But that will be a win for you too, because then you’ll get to claim you’re being persecuted.
Before you jump to bad conclusions about my comments and about God for that matter – I posted my comment accidently a second time because my Internet went out while posting the first one and I thought it didn’t get posted. See not everything is as bad as it seems. Jesus is wonderful and Christianity is wonderful regardless of the fact that people and churches are not always perfect.
Every word that I say about Christianity are my words and I mean them with ALL of my heart. Why did you become devoted to something that you didn’t really believe and mean? And now you seem mad at yourself for doing that.
Aha, sorry about the assumption. I’ve seen so many of these Christian spam-comments campaigns over the years, on so many sites, that I assumed I was seeing another one starting. Sorry about that.
And now you’re jumping to conclusions, hon. I believed everything, probably more fervently and deeply than you. Like I say — every word you’ve said to me, I’ve said to other people, absolutely and confidently convinced every word was true. Experience and facts proved to me that I was wrong.
But you know what? I’m not mad at myself at all. I’m proud of myself that when I made my motto, “I will follow the truth wherever it leads,” I had the strength to do it. After the initial shock and emotion after realizing I had been devoted to lies all my life, I discovered a whole new world of integrity, honesty, and freedom. I am proud to take responsibility for my own life (good or bad), and not always fall back on an Imaginary Friend to be my babysitter. The last thing I have been — EVER, in the almost two decades I have been free — is mad at myself. Never, not once, not a single time. I have had not a single regret about following the truth.
And believe me, all those times when, as you would undoubtedly suggest, life got very bad and your own first impulse would be to fling yourself on God to fix things for you — even in those times, there hasn’t been the slightest desire to do that. When I say I have no regrets about following the truth, I mean it. Even in bad times.
Naturally I know (from my own fundamentalist past) that you cannot possibly allow yourself to believe that. You absolutely MUST believe that I am secretly miserable and all I need is Jesus, etc etc etc. I know (again, from being you, in a past life) that the most frightening thing you could ever contemplate is the idea that someone could have believed as fervently as you do now, and then realized they were WRONG. Anything else but that.
Well, hon, you simply can’t rewrite my life. I was you, 20 years ago, and had BEEN you, with absolute belief, devotion, and conviction, for 20 years before that. I’m very happy you’re as convinced as you are. But you simply can’t belief-away my life.
I appreciate your politeness in acknowledging you misinterpreted my Internet issue. I like you – you are a fellow writer like I am. We have some things in common but I thing we have a big difference in what we are basing our beliefs on because our backgrounds were total complete opposites.
When you say that experience and facts proved your beliefs to be wrong, what were you basing your beliefs on to begin with? Let me tell you what I’m basing mine on. My experiences and the facts proved my atheist/secular/worldly background to be useless. From being an atheist and being involved in the occult, I was in demonaic bondage to demonaic forces that no psychology book, no worldly wisdom, no anything in the world could deliver me from. The world had no solution. It was the power of Jesus Christ who did! Psychology can make observations but all they do is give people medications. There is no real power there to deliver anyone from anything. You have to be out in the world for awhile to get yourself in bondage to something. I grew up that way and never went to church at all.
I share my testimony because I hate to see you or anyone else who grew up with Jesus, toss it all away to go out into the world and step by step walk yourself into bondages of darkness. I know that the Gospel seems very simple compared to all this so-called worldly knowledge out there, but that worldly knowledge can’t do a thing. The Gospel is the Truth and Jesus is the Light.
Nice talking with you.
i grew up in about the most ridgid christian fundamentalism imaginable. i am grown now and still reeling from it. things like “ninja turtles”, skipping church, befriending boys (at school i ignored boys out of fear of being punished by my parents for speaking with them), learning about greek gods in school, asking what sex was, questioning our fundamentalist views, anything that could be considered a “bad word”….all these things and on and on and on were considered evil by my parents. i was always scared. scared of their severe discipline which happened over the smallest details of life, and scared of hell. my parents were taught these bizarre extra-biblical doctrines and….i forgive them for my upbringing….they honestly thought they were protecting my sibs and i from hell. but in fact our lives were a living hell. i do believe in God,and in loving your neighbor as yourself, i want nothing to do though with fundamentalism ever again. i could honestly have killed myself when i was a child if i hadn’t been too scared, because a person cannot function and live under that level of control.
I’m really glad you got away, Rae. I know what you mean about “reeling.” It took me a long time to overcome the habits of thought and the fears that were ground into me by my church and Bible school.
I’m not at all surprised at my friends in recent years who believe fundamentalism — of any religion, not just Christian, though they’re all the same — is tantamount to child abuse.
This is Anonymous Above Again
I think I horrify the minister of the fundamentalist church I’m going to half to death. I grew up in an atheist family and I’ve told him on several occasions already that he treats me with a condescending attitude and that he preaches sermons at me adding evil slants to everything that I do that I didn’t think of – he did.
I think he is in total complete bondage to observing all these laws in the flesh and that he doesn’t realize that a Christian is a new spiritual creation. The Holy Spirit changes your heart on the inside into a Christian. What you do on the outside has absolutely nothing to do with it. The people who knew me when I was an atheist tell me that I’m not the same person that they knew and that they have no doubt that Jesus lives inside of me. This minister doesn’t even think I’m saved because he’s looking for some kind of exterior criteria that isn’t there. Jesus is on the inside and I’m nice to people unlike him. I told him that observing all those laws he’s observing doesn’t seem to be doing anything to his heart because he treats me really nasty. He just looks at me and doesn’t answer my e-mails at this point. I have no idea what he’s thinking now.
I think my question would be why you’re still going to that church. 😦 It sounds like you need to attend a nourishing, non-Taliban-like fellowship instead of a place being “led” by a rigid rule-bound person like that. If he’s all about the external, superficial indications, he doesn’t know anything whatsoever about the heart. So I’d wonder why you would even want to be “led” by that sort of person.
I like to go to this church because I made some nice Christian friends there and because I enjoy the strong spiritual presence of Jesus in this church. There are a lot of churches that aren’t spiritually good where you can’t even tell Jesus is in there. That’s the most important aspect of a church.
As far as the minister, I feel bad for him because I think his religious upbringing put him in total bondage to these rules. Because he is very spiritual and seems to be a very dedicated Christian, I guess I’m assuming that he is sincere and just having trouble breaking free from the rule bondage out of fear and he’s judging me because I don’t do what he does. You just gave me some insight. Could it really be possible that there are very religious Christians in the church who don’t really take it to heart? Why would they waste their time observing all these rules if they are not sincere? Maybe he is just trying too hard to be a Christian in the flesh because he doesn’t understand that a Christian is a new spiritual creation and that the Word and the Holy Spirit change your heart into a Christian, you don’t do it yourself. I totally don’t understand the way that he thinks. That’s part of the problem.