Ten Thought Patterns that Trip Up Former Bible Believers

Perhaps it’s been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the Good Book. It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that prayer works, if at all, at the margins of statistical significance—that Believers don’t avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn’t so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the Bible is a jerk—or worse.

But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure.

Here are ten mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians even when we think we’ve done the work of moving on. None of these are unique to former Christians, but they are reinforced by Bible-belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.

  1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You’re either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are “lukewarm.”

    This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from Bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn’t enough; you need to be all in. No pain no gain. Work? You’re a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you’ll gain a following.

  2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes—good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. Disagreement becomes synonymous with schism and heresy.

    When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent—we are just fallen (“utterly depraved” in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan.
  3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between “I’m awesome” and “I suck.” Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn’t perfect, and that’s the biblical standard.

  4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of “confessing our sins one to another” turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.

  5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people but also straight guys who like sex, it’s impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the Bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more matters of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor’s wife. Then there’s virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don’t forget God hates fags.

  6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn’t the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues; the consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small every-day wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to center in the moment, breathe in, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.

  7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a Rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown.

  8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what’s right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. (Sound familiar?) They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don’t share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated.

  9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side—just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks!

    Fiction from Western cultures often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes and specific types of oversimplification. And it’s all to easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren’t so simple, but it’s easy to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, elves and orcs.

  10. Intrusive what-ifs. And so we struggle, with new and old interpretations of reality and thought habits competing in our brains. We tell ourselves it’s ok; that we’re ok. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I’m wrong? Many years ago I told a therapist that I didn’t believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn’t talk to anyone about it because I didn’t want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real.

    The journey out is . . . a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if Bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn’t mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.  

In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids and times of stasis. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence, Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out.

I often find myself quoting one former Bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the near and present—a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings.  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, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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17 Responses to Ten Thought Patterns that Trip Up Former Bible Believers

  1. bbjourneys says:

    “What if this is As Good As It Gets?” (A film that was fun and disturbing, like life.)
    Be here now AND work for a better world.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. eheffa says:

    Thanks Valerie,

    I appreciated this summary.

    As a former fundamentalist, I can relate to almost every point on your list. I always thought my Catholic friends were lucky. Their ‘Catholic guilt’ always seemed more circumscribed and externalized and less intense than my much more comprehensive and intrusive Baptist Guilt…

    Being content with uncertainty is not part of the Evangelical Paradigm… but it’s very liberating to not have make up the answers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad this spoke for you. Thank you for taking the time to let me know. It’s interesting that “Catholic guilt” is a widely accepted cultural trope but Baptist guilt not so much.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Kim Cooper says:

      That’s so interesting that you say Catholic guilt seems more externalized. When I was taking a sociology class many years ago, one of the topics we covered was an internal versus an external conscience. It seems that Protestantism basically invented the internal conscience, while Catholicism (and conservative Protestantism) is traditionally an external conscience culture. In an external conscience culture, people walk the straight and narrow because others around them are keeping an eye on them and making them behave. An internal conscience is carried around with us and we tend to do the right thing even if no one is watching. The repercussions of this is that those with an external conscience need everyone around them to agree on what is right and what is wrong, so they don’t like change or everyone doing their own thing. An internal conscience also makes for internal guilt and endless self criticism. I hope I have remembered all that correctly, but it’s very interesting.


  3. Logan says:

    Thank you for writing this. I enjoyed your post and I could relate to all of it.

    I still remember being 16, nearly 40 years ago, and having the youth pastor tell us teens in the church about the passage in Revelation — how God would spit lukewarm Christians out of his mouth. It was fairly traumatizing. I would think about those verses often over the years.

    I’m grateful to be unshackled from that mindset. It’s been 7 years now since the spell was broken, and I’ve been able to put it all behind! But the first 6 months were the hardest for breaking free of the psychological structure. Several years ago, I got an arm tattoo of a chain that’s been broken to help symbolize my freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Lee says:

    In the past I could relate to most, if not all 10 points after coming out of Christianity but my wife and I have been away from such hangups that we no longer give any of your points any thought at all. Religions of any title in the world do not even enter our minds. Thanks for the article which is well put.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mriana says:

    I still have at least one of those hang ups, but I think Bishop Spong put it best when he was talking about Hell and I remind myself of what he said about it, which also applies to what you just said in your post, Valerie. :) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sean says:

    Good summary of the problems. As a former attempted believer, I found that becoming a christian during my teens years was like heaping gasoline on a bonfire. #3 was particularly pernicious. Teen angst is bad enough but couple with the belief that I was never going to be good enough resulted in years of suicide ideation that took decades to overcome. #5 came out of that as well, thinking that if I ever happen to find a wife that I would have to pray for forgiveness for having sex with her. Pre-marital sex helped overcome that.

    After becoming a Skeptic, it has been a fascinating journey discovering the psychology behind these issues that everyone can suffer, no religion required, but can be made worse by the myopic thinking imposed by the group think of religion.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Zytigon says:

    Good points by Valerie Tarico thanks.
    Luke 18:18 ” A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    ReWrit Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good ?” That is a rather sweeping generalization when only a few of my ideas are good and even then it would depend on how you interpret my sayings and how you apply them. For instance while you might admire the courage i have shown in being willing to challenge the ruling religious orthodoxy [of my local area] i would understand if you questioned whether i had gone far enough in my rejection of the orthodoxy, whether i had really got to the root of the errors in the scriptures, whether i had managed to work out which bits were historically accurate and which were invented to reinforce orthodox thinking. You might also question whether the new paths i am laying are sound or following a mirage. I’m not too sure myself what reality is but i say unto you, blessed are they who can reinterpret my words and form them into something that gives a better quality of life for the majority than we have been living with in the past. Yes, blessed are they who take a pinch of salt with what i have been quoted as saying for they shall maintain a grip on reality. On the other hand while my way might not be the best way, be on guard against those who would mutate it into an even worse way.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you! This is very helpful and affirming. I left a Christian fundamentalist group (1980ish) to a slightly more “liberal” fundamentalist group and then 30 years ago I moved to a mainline Christian group and then 10-15 years ago moved on to Universal Unitarians group and now I’ve been free of organized religion for eight years. It has been a “trip”. I’m now drawn to mother earth-I’ll see where that takes me.
    PS I still at times fear hell

    Liked by 2 people

  9. sandduffer says:

    Thank you for this article! I can relate to some of these! We were raised and taught to put the preacher, the church, and service ahead of living our own lives! You have to learn that you deserve to live a good life now, instead of waiting for kingdom come! Valerie, Thank you for all of your writing! It has been a big help to me!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Paul Douglas says:

    Excellent post Valerie!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Charles D Fogleman says:

    My it is nice that the pandemic is over and Valerie is also back.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. bewilderbeast says:

    Your posts always make me feel good and better and I’m happy to say in this case it’s because . . . NONE of the above! Thanks as always Valerie!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Kenneth says:

    Even as a life-long atheist, most of these points would still apply simply because they are part of our base psychology. I know I’m not immune to many of the same psychological traps and fallacious thought processes that are typically associated with religious thinking. All we can really do is aspire to be better thinkers while keeping in mind that we will always fall into at least one of these traps at some point.

    But so many “deconverted” atheists I’ve encountered seem to act like they are immune to these psychological traps and that deconverting somehow makes them immune. And that atheists are oh so better than the religious because of that “immunity”… And every time I see that I’m just like…. No… we’re actually not all that different from the religious in *how* we think as opposed to *what* we think.


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