People who leave Evangelical Christianity often carry scars, either from their time in the walled community of believers or from their struggle to break free. Getting God’s self-appointed messengers out of your head can be the work of a lifetime, as Recovering from Religion hotline volunteers and therapists can attest; and religious communities can be cruel and unforgiving toward defectors, even when these defectors were once beloved. I’ve written about this with Dr. Marlene Winell, who has a full-time counseling practice with clients who are working to release toxic religious teachings and so reclaim their own thoughts, values and chosen purpose in life.
But no set of religious dogmas or community practices is all downside, and I found myself musing recently on a question that isn’t usually front and center for outspoken critics of religion like myself. What did I get from my time as an Evangelical that I still cherish? How did my former religion—either the years as a believer or the process of leaving, shape me in ways that I still appreciate today? What teachings or experiences do I still embrace and strive to carry forward?
Some of the things I appreciate most about my Christian experience are lessons taken from my exodus, but not all.
Gifts from Leaving
The gradual realization that my religion was laced with moral and rational contradictions and provably false claims ultimately made belief impossible for me. But that final break came only after years spent searching the scripture to bolster faith, witnessing to others, and even teaching Sunday school. Doubts and depression alternated with a sweet sense of God’s presence during worship. So, the implosion of faith left a profound sense of my own ability to be mistaken—an awe of how real things can feel when they are not. It left me permanently suspicious of simple answers and wary of groupthink. It tattooed a question onto the edge of my consciousness that never quite fades, no matter how bold my proclamations may sound: What if I’m wrong?
Knowing that wrong can feel so right gave me a deep respect for the scientific method, which has been called “What we know about how not to fool ourselves.” Hypothesis testing forces researchers to ask the questions that could show them wrong. That is why, though individual scientists and indeed whole generations may be mistaken, science is ultimately self-correcting. Scientists can be wrong, but they can’t be wrong for 2000 years.
I especially appreciate this hard-won perspective now that the political Right and Left in the U.S. seem so full of fervor. Some people earnestly proclaim that certitude is a virtue and behave as if righteous ends justify dishonest means. Well-intentioned tribes of activists eschew nuance or complexity, and treat requests for evidence as breaches of loyalty. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Having been burned once, these dynamics feel all too familiar. I think that’s a good thing.
Gifts from My Sojourn as a Believer
Obviously, my Evangelical mentors never meant to inoculate me against fervor or certitude; quite the opposite. But they did actively work to instill some other attitudes and values that, in modified form, still define my better self.
- A sense that issues of meaning and goodness are at the heart of what it means to live well.
–Evangelical version: The meaning of life and definition of goodness can be found in the Bible.
–Secular version: I can make my life meaningful through what I create and how I affect other lives.
- Appreciation for community organized around shared values and sense of purpose.
–Evangelical version: Our purpose is to worship God and save souls for heaven.
–Secular version: My community works toward broad lasting wellbeing here on Earth.
- A robust conscience.
–Evangelical version: You are a sinner, forgiven but otherwise deserving of death. You should feel guilty when you break God’s commandments (as interpreted by your church).
–Secular version: I should feel shame and guilt when I cause harm to sentient beings who are capable of feeling pleasure or pain, who have fears and desires just like I do.
- Sensitivity to anti-Semitism.
–Evangelical version: Jews are God’s chosen people.
–Secular version: I stand guard because Jews are fully human—and vulnerable.
- The conviction that if you believe something, you should do something about it.
–Evangelical version: Go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature.
–Secular version: Volunteer, advocate, write, march, vote.
- A cultivated sense of wonder and reverence.
–Evangelical version: God is great; singing his praises forever will be heaven, literally.
–Secular version: The world is full of wonders great and small, intricate and expansive; they are all around if I pause to look and listen.
When outsiders hear the word Evangelical, what comes to mind often is dogmatic, insular, judgmental, sexist, homophobic, indifferent-to-evidence, anti-science, right-wing cultural imperialists. The world knows that American Evangelicals drove the election of Donald Trump, which carries a host of other ugly associations. In Latin America, conversions from Catholicism to Evangelicalism are seen as fueling the rise of far-right demagogues who are antagonistic to human rights, the needs of the poor and the mere survival of other species. In other words, the reputation of Evangelical Christianity is in the sewer, with reason.
Given this, it might seem ludicrous to suggest that, up close, most Evangelicals are decent people who sincerely think they are doing good in the world. But in my experience they are—which makes it even more painful to think about the harm many of my former co-religionists are doing in the name of God. The problem, as I see it, is this: If we want to make things better, being well-intentioned isn’t enough. We also have to understand the complicated cause-and-effect relationships that govern our world. Granting inerrancy to the decontextualized scribblings of Iron Age goatherds and conjurors just isn’t a good place to start.
But granting inerrancy to our own epic myths isn’t so great either. For those of us on the outside, living in the real world means—among other things—reminding ourselves that orcs and stormtroopers are fictional, scripted as all-bad so that we can enjoy the fantasy of them being obliterated en masse with nothing lost. It means conceding that people are complicated and most harm done in the world is done with righteous intent, which makes the problem harder to fix. It means living with the awareness that despite our own best intentions we may sometimes do harm when we want to do good—and that is true no matter what our journey into or out of faith.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author ofTrusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Well written! Yes, truth, life and the world are very complex and it is so easy for me in my moral reaction to fundagelicalism to forget the nuances you speak of. Thanks for a good post!
I lose this perspective too because I get so angry about the harms being done; I have to remind myself to breathe and remember.
The first 12 months of leaving Christianity was tough going even though I was convinced in my mind that Christianity was all about mind control and therefore false. During and after the reformation movement when Christians were killing and torturing non believers, the burning alive at the stake that took place under the name of Witch hunts. This was certainly not the sort of actions of the peaceful loving Christians that the church had me believe that Christians are. The congregations that shunned me and my wife after leaving the church was routine, and still is today to some extent. How ever as time goes by, and you are no longer under the spell of Church Dogma you begin to realise more and more the insidious nature of the brainwash, so much so, that you no longer even think about it, and you just see all church goers as gullible people.
You were in so deep!
There were people who didn’t feel awe and joy in nature, but they were so depressed that they didn’t live to carry on their genes. ;o)
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It took me a while to realize that I am not a Secularist, but instead I am trying to follow Christianity the way Silent Unity ( the authors of the Daily Word Magazine) expresses things. I am grateful for your articles, responses, insights and reading both positive and negative reactions to your postings. Many behaviors that I find abhhorent and intolerable in Christian fanatics I have had to acknowledge that up until 7 years ago, I acted more or less the same way and all I can do is make amends, self check and self reflect. Right now a lot of outside pressures and lack of a medication is making me into becoming or in reality, fighting off tendencies that are mean, uncharitable and generally not nice. I am probably not a nice person to begin with as I haven’t been for ages. I will have to be mindful and work harder to counter the negative tendencies. Or really, include more prayer in that time.
Thank you Valerie, you are really appreciated.
We all struggle with those tendencies, Patricia, even when we aren’t under stress or dealing with our bodies being out of balance. Be kind to yourself, just as you try to be kind to others.
Well yesterday was a good day! Three Daily Word articles emphasized me and my actions and deeds as being conveyors of peace. When a Evangelical Black Church treated my housing community to a loved and very lavish holiday meal on Dec 8th, I was able to be kind, friendly and as I wanted to express to its members thanks and profound gratitude for serving and feeding our community. I asked each person I met to please thank all that I could not reach. One young lady and I happily discussed the goodness of God, the power in prayer as it works in as we pray for others, we too get God’s help for our needs. We rejoiced in how we could feel that help viscerally in our bodies as well as our souls. I was able to ask that young Woman to pray for the return home and safety of a dog that lives in the area of around Chico, CA the bad fires. The poor thing got spooked by the firecrackers of July 4 and ran from home; then the fires hit weeks afterwards. His caregivers have posted dog missing signs for months with no luck. My prayer request was that the dog, named Nelson was rescued by a family and is safe with them and that someday he is reunited with his caregivers. The second was for my senior friend; I am 62, she is 76 she is having serious vision problems that need healing.
So the young lady was glad to DO that- I didn’t have to explain why I wouldn’t join nor visit their church nor fight proselytation. Good all around. Today however, I am fighting through anger and resentment wanting revenge against another resident. I will be asking for the power to forgive and the hope to avoid this person- I WILL be avoiding myself and hope they avoid me. Thanks for hearing me out and hoping all the best; I do need to forgive myself too and realize that I am a work in progress.
Brightest Blessings to you and yours!
Transitioning to a perspective of non-belief may be likened to Darwinian Natural Selection, or, more commonly, Evolution in that it doesn’t happen in an abbreviated time period. It is only after span of inquiry, reflection, critical thinking and evidential analysis that one can amalgamate a thought process that substantiates an atheist or agnostic posture. The process is chiefly founded in the scientific method of analysis consisting of reading authoritative tomes produced by experts in theological studies; and, equipping oneself with intellectual knowledge to build a sound basis for rejecting faith based belief (faith being defined as belief in a proposition without validating evidence). It helps if the authors themselves made the transition from belief to skepticism.
As an aside, one of my favorite responses to the resurrection discussion is based on a principle of physics. That principle being entropy, a short definition of which is the amount of energy not available to a system. A state of low entropy defines a healthy human body type whereas if one is in a state of high entropy one is destined for the morgue. And, entropy is irreversible, think broken egg and shell. In discussions with believers I point out this fixed law of physics to which a common reply is God can (willy-nilly) do this. Well, if “He” can capriciously change laws of the universe that “He” established in the “beginning” then I can’t trust this supernatural being. Next thing that goes? Gravity? Quick trip to heaven?
Although I do not engage in proselytizing, I am a devout atheist and am not shy about engaging in discussions of theology. And, I may learn something.
Very good post Valerie, thank you very much. I am an eighty four year old man with a educational background which includes eight years of parochial school at Saint Mary grade school in Aberdeen, Washington, where the teachersat that time were Dominican Nuns. After Weatherwax high school graduation I continued my education at the University of Portland which is a Holy Cross institution (same as Notre Dame). I kept expecting that sooner or later that I would be considered old enough or mature enoughto begin adult discussions about the Christian or Catholic faith. It took a very long time to realize that in the Catholic community there was no discussions, adult or otherwise withinthe Catholic Community. Religion came down from above (the archbishop in Seattle or the Popein Rome). and even the local priests were too intimidated by this structure, to enter into conversations with parishioners. This deafening silence was at first puzzling, and later verytroubling.
I will not trouble you with the rest of my search for truth and meaning, but I will tell you that the the journey was worth it. Thank you again for your message. Pat Byrne Shelton, Washington
Thank you for taking the time to reflect on a bit of your journey.
I can totally relate. One thing that was a bit different in the version of evangelical Christianity I was a trapped in for so long was that the cult leader was a racist bigot and anti-Semite who preached against blacks and Jews. He believed in the Illuminati conspiracy theory and wrote extensively about how Jews were to blame for the world’s ills. My recovery involved rejecting all of my former beliefs, and getting an education that enabled me to think for myself from a secular humanist perspective.
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I guess I should be grateful that bigotry wasn’t a part of my indoctrination. I also attended Child evangelism Camp, and most of my campmates were black or Hispanic.
I appreciate the pacifism that was taught in the sect I grew up in and I don’t mean the “turn the other cheek” pacifism, but the actually pacifism when it comes to war and related violence. For many years, the Church of God, Anderson Indiana, was pacifist and even had a paper call the Trumpet, up until (I think) WW II, then they loosen up a little that stance, but it continued with some of it’s churches. For me, this pacifism also spills over into my humanism and also humanitarianism. It gives me a foundation in which to stand my ground against what is happening on the border, especially concerning the children, which I guess makes me not a pacifist, but I don’t use violence to stand against such things. Speaking of children, the positive outcome of the abuse I went through, which was enabled by the church I grew up in, also gave me strength and the will to stand against abuses to children and even women, without using violence. So there was both good and bad to it, even using it against Evangelicals sometimes.
Thank you. Kind and thoughtful as always. I strive to be that way.
I do think we also need to stand firm against any claim of special rights or reduction of other people’s rights by religions with access to power. I don’t think only being kind will stop the push for special rights. We’ll have to – at the least – speak out loudly and firmly too.
See: https://vridar.org/2018/12/12/why-im-grateful-to-be-a-former-evangelical-what-if-im-wrong/ .
Neil Godfrey on Vridar.org wrote, “Another beautiful article by Valerie Tarico”.
I can but agree.
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