Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 3 seconds.
The questions began in 1980 at the Southern Baptist Church in which I served as a naive 22-year-old minister of music when the pastor preached a sermon one fateful Sunday evening entitled “Why Doubting God Is A Sin.” Always a voracious reader, I was also in my second year of college study for a Bachelor of Arts in Music. One philosophy professor (even though it was a fundamental Christian college) was encouraging me to think and read more widely.
Even though I had been taught since birth to accept the authority of my Christian leaders without question, this sermon raised the first of many serious concerns. To this day over 38 years later I do not fully understand what gave me the courage to begin questioning religion and religious authorities. Even still, it took almost three decades to start actively deconstructing the dogma and indoctrination of the church, and four decades to enter the renunciation stage.
The concerns increased, and the questions grew more frequent over the years of a highly successful ministerial career. As I traveled the world and absorbed diverse artistic genres, classic literature, historical tomes, and scientific and philosophical thought, the religious teaching I was hearing and the dogma I had adopted no longer made sense. At least, for me.
Statements by my pastors included, “Kissing before you are married is a sin.” “The church must come before my family.” “The Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God.” “If you take away one word, it all falls apart.” “The only truth is God’s truth.” “Only God knows the heart.” “The body is sinful and not to be trusted.” “We are all depraved sinners and filthy rags.” “Unless you say the sinner’s prayer word for word, you will not go to heaven.” “God cannot hear the prayer of a Jew.” These dictums are just a sampling of the many that raised significant inquiries.
When I gathered the courage to question these precepts, I faced ridicule, threats, and censure. I quickly learned that questioning religious authority had negative consequences. Dialogue and debate were not celebrated in these holy circles, and disagreement often had severe ramifications.
The kind of religion in which I grew up and later served as a minister requires rigid conformity to be accepted in the group or have hope for the afterlife. It had a closed system of logic and cultivated a stable social structure to support an authoritarian worldview. We were taught very early to repress independent thinking and not to trust our own feelings. For truth, believers should rely exclusively on the Holy Bible and religious leaders. With the consequences of disbelief so severe, leaders were able to command complete obedience.
I began to distrust anyone who professed to have all the answers quietly. And my true being that had been repressed since birth yearned for freedom from control, an outlet for my curiosity, to be known, and for affirmation of my sensuality. It became painfully clear that Christianity could not meet these needs. The result was a complete disruption of my construction of reality, including my self, my family, my life, my future, my friends, everything. It was horrifying and devastating to me and to those I held dear.
Leaving the church at age 47 and gaining an objective look for the first time in my life, I learned that mind-control and emotional abuse is actually the norm for most large, authoritarian, religious groups. The widespread cultural respect of religion makes it all the more insidious. And when the religious communities are so large and prevalent and the practices culturally normalized, victims with questions and behaviors like myself are silenced and ostracized. Christians are taught to “shake the dissident’s dust off their feet,” and we are labeled “Ichabod,” “a leper, ”and deemed untouchable.
And so I lost my belonging. I lost my tribe. I lost my family, and I lost virtually every friend I had. Psychologist Marlene Winell describes five core doctrines consistent with churches like I was a part of most of my life.
Foundation of fear
The crucial first doctrine is eternal damnation or annihilation for all unbelievers. This is the terrifying backdrop for the salvation message presented to all newcomers and all children born into the faith. The Bible is quoted, including the words of Jesus, to paint a horrifying picture of hell as a lake of fire, a fire of eternal torture impossible to quench despite any pleading.
Small children can obviously visualize these things while not having the brain capacity to evaluate the message. Moreover, the dominant social context makes rejecting these teachings impossible. Children are entirely at the mercy of religious adults.
The salvation formula is offered as a solution of course, but for many, it is not enough to ward off anxiety. How does one really know? And what about losing one’s salvation? Many adults remember trying to get ‘saved’ multiple times, even hundreds of times, because of unrelenting fear.
A variation on this is fear about missing the ‘rapture’ when Jesus returns. I have heard many people recount memories of searching for parents and going into a sheer panic about being left alone in an evil world. Given that abandonment is a primary human fear, this experience can be unforgettably terrifying. Some report this as a recurring trauma every time they couldn’t find a parent right away.
Finally, believers simply cannot feel safe in the world. In the fundamentalist worldview, ‘the World’ is a fallen place, dangerously ruled by Satan and his minions until Jesus comes back and God puts everything right. Meanwhile, it’s a battleground for spiritual warfare and children are taught to be very afraid of anything that is not Christian. Much of ‘the World’ is condemned at church, and parents try to control secular influences through private and homeschooling. Children grow up terrified of everything outside the religious subculture, most of which is simply unfamiliar.
Self as bad
Second to the doctrine of hell, the other most toxic teaching in fundamentalist churches is that of ‘original sin.’ Human depravity is a constant theme of fundamentalist theology, and no matter what is said about the saving grace of Jesus, children (and adults) internalize feelings of being evil and inadequate. Most of these churches also believe in demons quite literally, some to the point of using exorcism on children who misbehave. One former believer called it ‘bait-and-switch theology — telling me I was saved only to insist that I was barely worth saving.’
Believers are always in the crazy-making situation of a double bind — having a heavy personal responsibility to adhere to religious rules but not having the ability to do so. Never is God blamed for not answering prayer or empowering the faithful as promised.
To think you are good or wise or strong or loving or capable on your own is considered pride and the worst sin of all in this religious worldview. You are expected to derive those qualities from God, who is perfect. Anything good you do is credited to God, and anything bad is your fault. You are expected to be like Him and follow His perfect will. But what if it doesn’t work? Fundamentalist Christianity promises to solve all kinds of personal problems, and when it does not, it is the individual that bears the paralyzing guilt of not measuring up.
Cycle of abuse
A believer can never be good enough and goes through a cycle of sin, guilt, and salvation similar to the cycle of abuse in domestic violence. When they say they have a ‘personal relationship’ with God, they are referring to one of total dominance and submission, and they are convinced that they should be grateful for this kind of ‘love’.
Like an authoritarian husband, this deity is an all-powerful, ruling male whose word is law. The sincere follower ‘repents’ and ‘rededicates’, which produces a temporary reprieve of anxiety and perhaps a period of positive affect. This intermittent reinforcement is enough to keep the cycle of abuse in place. Like a devoted wife, the most sincere believers get damaged the most.
Don’t think, don’t feel
Fundamentalist theology is also damaging to intellectual development in that it explicitly warns against trusting one’s own mind while requiring belief in far-fetched claims. Believers are not allowed to question dogma without endangering themselves. Critical thinking skills are under-valued. Emotions and intuitions are also considered suspect, so children learn not to trust their own feelings. With external authority the only permissible guide, they grow up losing touch with inner instincts so necessary for decision making and moral development.
Abuses of power
Added to these toxic aspects of theology are practices in the church and religious families that are damaging. Physical, sexual, and emotional harm is inflicted in families and churches because authoritarianism goes unchecked. Too many secrets are kept. Sexual repression in the religion also contributes to child abuse. The sanctioned patriarchal power structure allows abusive practices towards women and children. Severe condemnation of homosexuality takes an enormous toll as well, including suicide.
The pressure by Christianity to conform and adhere to impossible requirements, to deny my true being, and to submit to abuses of power caused me great suffering. Sensitive and artistic personalities like mine are particularly vulnerable to significant psychological and emotional damage.
If this post strikes a chord and you are interested in further thoughts, I have written a brief book called My Confession which extensively delves into why I no longer call myself a Christian. You may also enjoy my memoir: A Renaissance Redneck In A Mega-Church Pulpit They are both available on Amazon.
I am currently finishing up a new book called: The Loss of Belonging: Ten Steps To Finding A New (and Better) Tribe. It chronicles the journey of losing my Christian friends and the long road to finding new (and better) ones outside the church. Watch for the release soon on my social networks.