It is still a shock to my system when I encounter a person who is fundamentalist or evangelical. The experience is much like a friend of mine who served in Vietnam when he would have a flashback. Psychologist Marlene Winell has coined a term for the devastating effects on those of us who have left authoritarian religion (fundamentalist Christianity in particular). She calls it “Religious Trauma Syndrome.”
Religion was my life for many years. I worked, played, and lived exclusively with Christians. But as I matured, the damage to my mind, body, soul, and spirit became too high. Leaving Christianity was a long and agonizing journey that tore at the essence of my being. The transformation has created confusion, fear, anger, and grief for me, my family, and my friends. But I had to find out who I really was.
Previously, authoritarian religion did everything for me. It dictated my financial decisions, my choice of friends, how to raise my children, my reading, my pleasure, and my thoughts. It was a cult that labeled anyone who did not accept its rules as heretics.
“Leaving” the Christian tribe meant losing everything I held dear. It was like my parents had suddenly and tragically died. My “Christian” nuclear family and friends ostracized me, and I no longer had a community to lean on. Every aspect of my life had to be reexamined, healed, and redesigned.
I struggled with the decision, but I needed to reclaim the ability to think for myself, to understand and accept my feelings, and to take more responsibility for my life. The magic (wonder) in my life had been churched and shamed out. Recovering my inner child was a crucial aspect of my journey back to health. I had to remember what I had forgotten. My essentials—curiosity, sensuality, communion, and freedom—had been preached, schooled, and spanked out of me.
But I slowly discovered there is more than one way. Despite the exclusive notions of truth I was taught, I dared to question the game God was playing with me. I found there is more than one way to live, and more than one way to understand spirituality. And so, I began to change the direction of my life.
From Fundamentalism to Existentialism
My background in theology has recently morphed into a fascination with philosophy—particularly existentialism. This method of thinking was forbidden and censored in my previous life. As I examined Existentialism, I discovered it is merely a way of doing philosophy that reconnects it with normal, lived experience.
Sarah Bakewell writes about the father of modern existentialism, Jean Claude Sartre. He created a philosophy of expectation, tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, a walk up a hill, the passion for a desired lover, the revulsion from an unwanted one, Parisian gardens, the cold autumn sea at Le Havre, the feeling of sitting on overstuffed upholstery, the way a woman’s breasts pool as she lies on her back, the thrill of a boxing match, a film, a jazz song, a glimpse of two strangers meeting under a street lamp. He made philosophy out of vertigo, voyeurism, shame, sadism, revolution, music, and sex.
In his novels, short stories and plays, and philosophical treatises, Sartre wrote about the physical sensations of the world and the structures and moods of human life. Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of objects.
Existentialism teaches there is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must continually invent his path. But, to create it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him. It is no surprise that fundamentalists and Evangelicals condemned the movement. The Catholic Church put Sartre’s entire works on its Index of Prohibited Books in 1948. They feared, rightly, that his talk of freedom might make people leave their faith.
In reality, existentialism was a danger to all institutional hierarchies—education, social, political, family, as well as religion—because it championed individual choice rather than the collective. Existentialism threatened a patriotism that would cause the youth to give their lives in meaningless wars, the mandate to do a job without meaning, the unthinking worship of autocratic leaders, familial authority, and dogmatic theology.
To me, the journey from fundamentalism to existentialism is neither a purely intellectual pursuit nor a collection of cheap self-help tricks, but a way of thinking that leads to a flourishing, fully human, and responsible life. It is a life of wholeness, authenticity, and freedom.
It is no coincidence that in Trump’s America, the 2019 word of the year is existential.
From Trump to Truth
A big reason Trump is so popular with Evangelical Christians is his eerie resemblance to authoritarian pastors. Religious people want leaders to tell them what to think and how to live. They eat up spin in the name of comfort, and they are willing to ignore reality for their distorted version of the facts. Trump tells them what they want to hear, and they don’t care that he is a pathological liar, bully, sexual predator, and dictator who is obliterating the virtue of truth. It lines up with their Christian worldview, which is built upon lies and contradictions.
Trump’s Merry Christmas schtick is a perfect example. Christians eat it up. “Oh Praise God,” they say, “our President is putting Christ back in Christmas.” If so, just call me Scrooge. Christmas, with all its pious sentimentality and vulgar materialism and Easter with all its bloody crucifixions and false promises, doesn’t do it for me any longer. I finally realize how ridiculous it is to celebrate an account of a man’s birth and resurrection that has no factual basis.
My journey from fundamentalism to freedom has led me away from self-proclaimed “stable geniuses” who have all the answers to intellectual powerhouses who ask lots of questions. Christians can have their heroes Trump, Falwell, Jeffress, Graham, and White—but the mentors for my journey are now Jung, Sartre, Campbell, Beauvoir, Montaigne, Thoreau, and James.
Consider the words of Thoreau, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Beauvoir, “I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth—and truth rewarded me.”
Jung, “Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.”
Montaigne, “I speak the truth not so much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little more as I grow older.”
James, “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”
There are many layers to my journey—my Quest. And I could probably write a book on each one. Maybe I will.
Here are just a few:
From Mindlessness to Mindfulness
From Fear to Acceptance
From Cloning to Curiosity
From Sexual repression to Sexual fulfillment
From Inequality to Equality
From Shame to Self-absolution
From Close-minded to Open-minded
From (in a neurological sense) an Increased default-mode network to a Decreased default-mode network
From Radical Discontinuity to Relaxation
From Ignorance to Awareness
From Unconsciousness to Subjective Consciousness to Collective Consciousness
From Fragmentation to Cohesiveness
From Cynicism to Trust
From Prayer to Meditation
From Fear and Control to Freedom
We all share the dilemma of being responsible for our own lives—great freedom and also a burden. I can understand giving it over to institutions and authorities who say they know best. I did that for most of my life. But it is a new day. The only thing I am certain about is that I am uncertain. And it brings me great peace and joy to write those words.
Sarah Bakewell says that we find ourselves spied upon and managed to an extraordinary degree. We are farmed for our data, fed consumer goods but discouraged from speaking our minds or doing anything too disruptive in the world, and regularly reminded that racial, sexual, religious, and ideological conflict are not closed cases at all.
Perhaps we are ready to talk about freedom again—and talking about it politically also means talking about it in our personal lives. The philosophies of my mentors (all of whom are dead) remain relevant, not because they are right or wrong, but because they concern life, and because they take on the two most prominent human questions: What are we? And what should we do?
Tomorrow, I plan to take a significant step on my journey that will hopefully provide therapeutic benefit for my Religious Trauma Syndrome. Stay tuned.