Have you walked away from the church — and possibly your Christian faith too?
If that’s the case, then here’s my question for you at this point: where are you headed now?
For those of us who grew up within evangelical or fundamentalist Christian churches, and have since walked away from the church (and possibly the Christian faith altogether), there is often a major sense of “separation anxiety” to deal with. Ex-evangelicals will say that “it feels like I’m going through a painful divorce!”
Just reflect on how much time, effort, energy, and money we spent. There’s a social cost, too — the potential loss of friends or family members who are still within the system. In many cases, this decision represents the forfeiture of much of the support system on which we relied.
For those of us who spent years within the church, the doctrines and teachings we received from preachers Sunday after Sunday, month after month and year after year were deeply ingrained into our very souls. They ended up forming both our identities and worldviews. As a result, when we divorce ourselves from our religious past, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are now embarking upon an odyssey of reconstructing an entirely new identity.
This is a scary journey indeed.
Think about how deeply ingrained this whole thing was for so many of us who spent years within the system. For example, one can’t listen to sermons on a weekly basis (allegedly based upon the Bible), year in and year out, and not be somehow impacted on a very deep level by this sort of indoctrination.
One of the most common issues that ex-evangelicals report is how, after leaving the church behind, they are triggered by all sorts of strange things. Oftentimes they aren’t aware of the connections between the triggered emotions and their past lives.
But what causes this triggering?
In many cases, what triggers them often stems from such things as their years spent within the evangelical culture; the variety of teachings they received; their experiences with spiritually (or sexually) abusive church leaders; or perhaps it relates to how horribly they may have been treated by other Christians.
Whatever the cause, all of these things and more can trigger people and cause mental health and emotional problems later on in life. Religion even contributes, in some cases, to trauma-related PTSD. The very real fear, for example, of the possibility of going to hell causes many people to have major issues, for which they may need therapy.
As time goes on, and ex-churchgoers move farther and farther away from their past beliefs, oftentimes as they process their experiences, they begin to notice just how emotionally and psychologically scarred they are from all of those experiences. They begin to understand just how messed up they were emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps sexually too. They can become very angry about how they were manipulated, abused, lied to, and traumatized by the church.
If you’re like me, and many of my friends who similarly came out of the church, you’ve had to undergo therapy and counseling to help you process these experiences from the past.
Some of this damage can be traced to the “black-and-white” dualistic thinking in which the evangelical church often specializes: us-versus-them, sacred vs. secular, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan. Politically, it can be seen in the way people are characterized: Republican Christians (who stand for God, home-schooling, “traditional family values” and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, gun rights, Donald Trump and the American way) vs. liberal Democrats (who stand for such terrible things as gay marriage, abortion rights, stricter gun control legislation, LGBTQ inclusion, gender fluidity, feminism, etc.).
In other words, oftentimes churches (typically the more conservative ones) make their parishioners feel that they’re a part of an embattled, persecuted minority. Trafficking in fear, church leaders seek to convince their members that they need not only to participate in fighting, but ultimately winning, the “global culture war.”
The notion of “taking a stand for God and Jesus” in Western society may mean that they have to go on the offensive to get their point across to that person with whom they disagree vehemently on a particular issue. Hell, Christians will even vilify other Christians with whom they disagree — be it over an issue of theology or a certain biblical interpretation like speaking in tongues, end-times rapture scenarios, or whether a woman can preach in a church, or even be a pastor or an elder. In the case of conservative John Piper, for example, he argues that women shouldn’t even be allowed to teach in seminaries. Why? Because they’d be in a position to influence male students, who are ultimately headed for ministry. Thus in his view, it perverts the “biblical teaching” on women having authority over a man.
A House of Cards
What’s most important, in such a scenario as I’ve been describing above?
It turns out that more Christians would rather be right than approach the truth; shockingly, many Christians in such a system and worldview would feel fine about “winning” an argument. Subsequently, they may well destroy a relationship with another person over it — as long as they can walk away and claim that “Well, at least I was right.” Sadly, this is just one legacy of much of evangelicalism, but it helps to explain why Christians can, so much of the time, just be assholes — not just to non-Christians out there in that evil, secular world, but to each other too.
Contributing to this type of thinking is this problem: for many evangelicals, the stakes are simply too high. This explains why they can be so rabid in defending their particular point of view — no matter how warped it may be. But the reality is that this entire edifice is built upon a shaky foundation; it’s a house of cards. For example, many evangelical Christians simply can’t entertain the remotest possibility that their Bibles might contain even the tiniest mistake. Their entire view of God and Jesus is tied up with the truthfulness not just of the text of Scripture, but with God’s very nature as a truth-telling deity. By this logic, if Scripture were somehow found to be flawed, false, or in error, then by extension, their God disintegrates also.
It’s all interconnected. Take out one card, and their entire faith collapses.
This type of thinking may help to explain why so many evangelicals cling fiercely to such doctrines as biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and biblical infallibility. They will fiercely defend them to the hilt! Typically, however, when you examine it more closely, it’s largely because of their theological commitments that drives them to embrace such a position. In many cases, this leads in turn to practices such as bibliolatry (worship of the Bible as somehow a “magical book”) and biblical literalism (claiming to take every word in Scripture literally, even though this is technically impossible to do).
The ultimate irony in all of this is, of course, that most Christians don’t really obey even some of the clearer teachings in the Bible: for example, what about foot-washing, women not being allowed to teach (or even speak) in churches, greeting each other with a holy kiss, raising “holy hands in prayer,” and so on?
Conveniently, many of these injunctions are explained away as not being “culturally relevant” today; but when it comes to a hot-button issue like homosexuality, both sides of that argument will delve into both Old and New Testaments to bring up a litany of verses that prove definitively that God is for it — or maybe he’s totally against it. They certainly can’t agree on any one interpretation of these texts.
Here’s another example of the way this treatment of the Bible ends up taking Christians into strange places. Doctrines such as the so-called “young-earth creationism” spring from such a literalistic hermeneutic. This belief, to which many evangelicals hold, came about when someone thought to add up the genealogies in the Pentateuch, and subsequently deduced that the earth is but 6–10,000 years old. Since this is biblically true, it is believed, such heresies like evolution, the big bang theory, and the rest of Darwin’s thinking must be violently rebutted, because (as everyone knows) the first few chapters of Genesis were meant to be read as nothing more than a science textbook explaining the origins of the cosmos and humanity.
Again: take away one card from this entire house of cards, and the whole faith system collapses. But who would want to hold to such a shaky belief?
In the final analysis, when combining the interpersonal conflicts experienced between many Christians, together with a healthy dose of shame and guilt every Sunday from the pulpit, there you have it: church. Here’s what is so bizarre: even though you’re a Christian, and you’re on your way to heaven, every week you hear the same variation of a familiar guilt-inducing message.
“God is disappointed and angry with you!” Why is he so upset? Because you haven’t been reading your Bible enough, praying enough, and evangelizing enough, so the preacher tells you each Sunday, so why not add that to the already heavy burden of shame being heaped on your shoulders?
Not only that, but much of the worship within the Sunday service is based upon a familiar theme: how broken we are before God, and that we are nothing without his help. No wonder people feel so badly and ashamed about themselves, because basically–we’re worthless and weak apart from God.
I have to ask, in all seriousness: why would anybody want to be a part of such a system?
Believe it or not, there is real life after evangelicalism; there’s freedom and release from those heavy burdens — but this life is, strangely enough, to be discovered outside the walls of most churches.
There’s irony for you.