This post is dedicated to all those who were once fundamentalists and are fundamentalists no more. I post here extracts from testimonies of a number of people who have described the changes in their lives since they left fundamentalism behind.
I initially thought I’d dedicate it to those informed lay and erudite scholars who contemptuously snort at anyone who had, let’s say, an ultra-conservative, somewhat extreme religious past and who currently has come to entertain questions about the historicity of Jesus. But are such persons really worth a dedication?
Once a fundie, always a fundie.
That’s their claim. They mean by it that a person who once was mixed up with a religious fundamentalist type of past will, on leaving that past, inevitably switch to some other cause with all the fundamentalist pig-headedness and fervour that characterized their former religious commitment.
It’s a vacuous slogan, of course. It’s nothing but a cheap way to dismiss someone holding a view or asking questions they have no time for.
The truth is that people do indeed change. The number of books that have been published about leaving a sect, cult or fundamentalist religion of one kind or another surely number into the hundreds. Right now I’m sure most people browsing through any sizable general bookstore in the English speaking world will scarcely be able to avoid seeing at least one work about someone having left behind the confines of a rigid Muslim past. Anyone who has recently left or is in the process of leaving a Christian-influenced cult or religion will soon become aware of dozens of helpful titles. Bibliographies on the web abound. Some of my favourite and most helpful authors were Steven Hassan, Edmund Cohen, Marlene Winell.
These names alone belie the trite slogan. They are all fundies who have done much to help others leave behind and rebuild lives after the fundamentalist experience.
Many readers here know of Dr Robert M. Price’s fundamentalist background, current very liberal “Christianity” and of his books such as The Reason Driven Life.
In a future post I should explain what experience and research shows about why people join these religious outfits. There are gross misconceptions about that, and about the sorts of people who do join and endure in them for any length of time.
Both Tim and I have written about our own changes in outlook since we each left our respective religious coffins. Links to them can be found in the Vridar authors’ profiles. I have since written an update to try to dispel some ignorant nonsense being written about me on Hoffmann’s blog.
Hoffmann point-blank refused to let it be posted there as a correction to what he and others were saying. Perhaps such people think anything coming from me cannot be trusted. So here for the sake of the record I want to bring to everyone’s attention the testimonies of thirteen others who have also left fundamentalism behind never to return . . . .
The extracts come from a book available online (or at least via Kindle), Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, edited by G. Elijah Dann. Read them and know just how far ex-fundamentalists do indeed leave behind their former mind-sets. (Bolded emphasis is mine.) I know, I can’t resist my own comments throughout, either, sorry.
It must be time for confession. What do I believe, then? I believe very little in the way of “Truth”— statements about things we can’t see and about someone we can’t ask. . . . .
In the end, beauty is a direction as well as a destination. And beauty does not leave anyone behind. What we need now are beautiful, vital ideas about how individuals fit into groups that can make their way peacefully through this uncertain world. . . . .
I have no regrets about my religious travels. I really am thankful to have “come to the Lord.” But I am also thankful to have found my distance from any fixed ideas about who or what the Lord might be. For me, the Age of Grace will always be right now. It is acceptance and joy.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) . Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
In one sense most of us have much to regret about our fundamentalist past. At the same time, some of us like Joseph Simons learn to look back, learn, and make the most of what has happened. Unique lessons have been learned, and that can be something of value for ourselves and those whose company we enjoy.
L. A. Livingston
Somewhere along the line, doubt became seen as a spiritual weakness, not a sound point of view. . . .
I don’t see the world that way anymore. The world is a much more inclusive place for me now. I no longer see things in black and white. I make and keep friends much more cautiously. God is an integral part of my life and the way I live it, but I don’t feel that I have to be seen to be in the world, but separate from it. My faith is the skin I’m born in, not the clothes I wear. It is with me all the time, and like skin, it ages and wrinkles and stretches. And there is no shame in the way it changes over time.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 1019-1022). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Notice that many ex-fundamentalists maintain their religious faith. That was my experience, too. I did not jump from a fundamentalist sect into “god-hating atheism”. Refer to my update that Hoffmann and his friends did not want anyone to read as a corrective to his disinformation.
David L. Rattigan
Today I inhabit a different story. It is a story that often changes as new things and experiences come to light. It is a story that is not afraid to engage with those whose stories are different from mine. My world now has room for ambiguity, doubt, and uncertainty without fear. I am a liberal Anglican, and after three years outside fundamentalist circles I have found the courage to be an openly and unashamedly gay man.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 1272-1275). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Margaret Steel Farrell
I’m very happy in my life right now but I also yearn for something to fill what is missing in my spiritual development. I would like to find a church where . . . where men, women, and children are all respected and valued for what they can contribute. Where people are not just encouraged but expected to think for themselves, to challenge not only what they see in the world around them but also what they are hearing from the pulpit. I want to be part of a church that encourages respectful argument, that is understanding, kind, realistic, and demanding. One that wants people to develop in their spirituality to meet the difficult challenges of living today. I don’t know if it exists. But that’s what I want.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 1476-1484). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Keith DixonIt was an insight that provided me a great release. Instead of going on a blaming-the-world trip . . . I look honestly for what is real and true. That truth has to carry either scientific objectivity or the inner knowing that comes from intuition. At the slightest hint of stagnation I look for where I got off the path of honesty, then try to correct my course. . . .
This reminds me of my own experience. I, too, was confronted with the stark realization of just how much effort it really does take, and courage, to maintain intellectual honesty at every step of one’s thinking.
Once I laid blame down, gratitude sprang to replace it. I’m delighted with how easily that happens. I still question the fundamental assumptions of Christianity, but I also find myself admiring the skill with which some Christians carry love into the world. . . .
Yes, laying aside blame. Accepting responsibility for one’s own life, one’s own choices, even the bad ones. That’s the main message of Marlene Winell’s book that has helped me so much.
Where does this bring me?
On my bad days the past grumbles at me from my life’s receding horizon. I hear the pain and fear and confusion in its pleas, but I don’t buy into the drama. It’s just not real. On my good days I have a diminishing belief in doctrines and a growing delight in people. On waking I give minimal thought to my calendar and let today’s sunrise take over. I eat and drink and touch and smell and hear and see and love and care, not because I must, but because I can. . . .
From here on the path is blissfully uncharted.
Yes, uncharted waters! Life becomes an adventure. And one will always accept the hard with the soft. Being honest and true to oneself is far more important than seeking a false assurance in a fantasy or thinking “happiness” is what it’s all about.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 1709-1718). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
When I now look at the story of my conversion I can see I needed to belong to a community. . . . . Today the memory of what was positive in the traditions that I left causes me pain, even though I have no desire to return to the life I once led. I do not deny this pain now, nor do I deny the story of what I had to leave behind. That is the difference between my life as an evangelical and my life outside evangelical Christianity.
. . . . If the price of obedience is your dignity and integrity as a person, then obedience to a tradition that marginalizes the essence of who you are is going to result in spiritual death. A religion that refuses to consider the existence of complexity and ambiguity in its stories will blame its adherents for any problems they are having. . . . There is more than one story for all of our lives, and we need to let all versions of our story grow within us, to teach us what we need to know.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 1922-1939). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Jeffrey W. Robbins
Over time I grew increasingly skeptical of basic evangelical tenets, such as the inerrancy of the Scripture and the exclusivity of Christianity. Yet while eventually I would be repelled by the militancy and wilful ignorance of fundamentalism, in no way did this translate into a rejection of the living and dynamic faith as revealed throughout the pages of the Scripture, nor did it lead me anywhere near to repudiating Jesus. On the contrary . . . . the basic truth remained that when I conceived of God, when I imagined the fullness of human potential, and when I dreamed of what society could become, Christ was not so much the answer as he was the image through which my answers were inevitably filtered.
Yes, so true. Again, I left behind cultism/fundamentalism but at the same time clung with unshaken assurance in God and the Bible. It was not a matter of an “on-off” switch or a “for-against” position. What was being left behind was a self-assured way of thinking, a black and white world of pat answers and absolute Truths.
I am not saying this is the way things should be, nor am I saying this is the way others ought to think. Or that those who see the world and imagine possibilities differently are somehow wrong or misguided. I am simply saying that is this is the way it is for me. For that, I am unapologetic; indeed, I am eternally grateful to the living witness of Christ as preserved within the all too human tradition of the church for providing such an inspirational, but equally challenging, image toward which I can strive. . . .
. . . . To be a fundamentalist is not only to accept the laudable responsibility of knowing what you believe, but more dangerously, believing that you know with an absolute certainty. . . . . As my mother is so fond of saying, “When God closes a door, he always opens a window.” The securities offered by a self-certain faith have been closed to me, but not without opening a window into the integrity of the human experience, and by extension, into the soul of the mystery of God. . . .
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 2119-2150). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
. . . . Though I have struggled with the fundamentalist beliefs taught to me since early childhood, only in recent years have I been able to say I have been completely liberated, left free to question and challenge, think and explore, without fear of condemnation. No longer do I struggle with an archetype Christianity to which I feel I must conform. Yet it would be irresponsible to suggest that the journey is without difficulties. Life always presents new challenges to overcome. But these challenges are far easier to face when one has confidence in oneself. . . . .
Life is not about answers, but about questions. As Kierkegaard noted, life is about passionately pursuing what could be, not simply focusing on what is. Take opportunities to challenge old ideas, to read new books, to think forbidden thoughts. Do so without fear, knowing that if we seek God, we will find God. . . . For those reading this work out of interest, or because they know someone currently within the fundamentalist camp, please understand that the problem is neither with people nor with faith. Where fundamentalism errs is in turning God, faith, and Christianity into a static system of propositions that must be accepted. . . .
Ha! That’s just what I said, too. I used to say, Questions are more important than Answers! Only someone who has been through the fundamentalist experience understands why that is not a nonsense statement and what it really means.
I have sometimes wavered on whether faith itself is or is not “the problem”. Either way, I certainly do not look down on those with faith. I understand completely where they are coming from and do respect that.
And I do recall so well how much more liberating, exhilarating it is to face life “alone” as a truly mature adult and not like a “little child” asking and praying for Daddy to make it all work out.
I hope my story helps others discover that life is not about the destination, but the journey; that it is not about the answers, but the questions. As Nietzsche wrote, truth can be reached in many ways and by many ways. That is a notion worth living by.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 2391-2410). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Andrea Lorenzo Molinari
On the other hand, I think I understand people’s impulse to seek definitive answers to life’s most difficult questions. This same desire for the good is what created myths like Santa Claus. . . .
Yes again. One of the valuable lessons that can come from the fundamentalist experience is an understanding of those who are there, and why. Too many outsiders make facile and ignorant judgments. One characteristic is an idealism, and a self-sacrificial idealism at that. Now if that quality can be diverted into a more mature outlet instead of the confines of fundamentalist absolutes then surely some good can happen.
From a religious and philosophical point of view we may wish that we had all the answers, that things were black and white, that this universe had logic and a formula. In reality, we find that we have more questions than answers, that grey seems to be the colour of choice for this present reality, and that many times there seems to be a terribly random and chaotic character to events. The truth is that things are not simple here on earth. They never were. Perhaps that is where saints as “heroes and heroines” can be of most help to us. They provide us with real examples of real people who faced real problems yet managed to remain faithful to God despite all they suffered. . . . .
Yes, one of the experiences that helped prise me away from fundamentalism was finding myself in a position where life was not ordained to go well if one “kept the commandments” — it was not about blessings and curses for being good and bad. And it was not even about suffering curses when good to build character. Life sometimes does become as random as walking through a battle field. One learns not to be surprised when a bomb explodes wherever and whenever. That was a fatalistic time in my life. I have learned to accept that the universe is random. That life is about having the courage to face it as it is, and to help our fellows as best we can along the way.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 2632-2647). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
It has been almost ten years since I went through the divorce from fundamentalism. I still have an uncomfortable, somewhat separated relationship with the church. There are parts that still pull me in, but not the fundamentalist, “victorious living” parts. It is too sure of itself. It has lost the mystery . . . It’s too caught up in Absolute Truth . . . . This absolute certainty about life and its meaning, about what is right and wrong, now seems to me to be a serious form of abandoning the need to grapple with the real complexities of life.
. . . . Fundamentalism worked its escapist magic for a time. It was a period I had to go through. I had to have one last-ditch effort to fit in and one more opportunity for acceptance. It didn’t happen, and I’m now more “me” than I’ve ever been. I’m now finding my way back to a spiritual life. . . . There is a beauty and a quality to life broader and more illuminating than the pathways of our everyday existence. . . .
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 2811-2827). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Glenn A. Robitaille
I have often said that I have ten good questions for every religious answer that can be proposed. Perhaps this is the greatest difference in my spiritual evolution. Where I once traded in supposed certainties and sought grounding in perceived absolutes, I now revel in the great mysteries of existence. I no longer fear the ambiguity. Rather, I let it enrich me.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 2991-2994). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
When my senior year was over I went off to graduate school to study philosophy, eventually earning my doctorate. My dissertation was on David Hume, the great skeptic. Like Hume, I felt that philosophy’s principal function was to debunk outrageous claims that people make about reality. I’m now a tenured philosophy professor at a mid-sized university. Though God and religion always come up in discussions, I avoid telling students my personal views on the subject.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 3214-3218). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
Nowadays, I’m defined less by my beliefs than by the way I see and think about the world. I’m able now to maintain passionate yet loosely held beliefs. The capacity to listen, to truly converse, and to change your beliefs when you find yourself in error does not mean you can’t take a stand or believe something passionately. . . . .
It isn’t as if there are only two possible camps: fundamentalist and relativist. There’s a middle ground— or perhaps more accurately a higher ground— where you can debate, argue, and deny the legitimacy of some beliefs without holding too tenaciously to any one belief or system of beliefs.
For me nowadays, debates about ideas and beliefs remain just that— debates about concepts. They don’t turn into character attacks, and I don’t shut people out for fear they may question my purity, stare in disbelief, or begin screaming at me. For some beliefs, such as my belief that God exists, I no longer think there is irrefutable proof. No longer do I balk at my atheist or agnostic friends. Instead, I happily admit there is no absolute proof for God’s existence, and then add that I choose to believe because I believe.
I continue to attend church because [of] its value to me . . . . . Pat answers no longer satisfy me . . . . The retort usually goes something like this: “You’re wrong, but don’t worry, I’ll pray for you. I have to go. Bye!” Or their objections are accompanied by an expression of sympathy and veiled spiritual superiority. Followed, of course, by the reluctance or even outright refusal to discuss it further.
Oh boy! Doesn’t that just remind you of those people who themselves say “Once a fundie, always a fundie”? A Hoffy, a Larry, a Morry, whoever . . . always saying “You’re wrong, but don’t worry, that’s your world and you can’t help it. I have more important things to do than engage you in a serious discussion where I would risk opening up my own assumptions to you or myself.”
I’m left with an awareness of the inconsistencies in fundamentalist thought and, in general, of life’s paradoxes. I’m left with the recognition that though Truth may be absolute (whatever that means), we can never be utterly certain what that Truth is. I’m left with core beliefs that nevertheless may change in the future. . . .
Yep. That’s about it.
Most of all, I’m left with a feeling of awe and wonder at the world around me as well as the spiritual realm. . . . Now I understand this being we call “God” as unlimited. Not limited to our human conceptions of good or evil, but far surpassing what we might hope to understand.
Exactly. Even liberal Christians sometimes find it hard to accept that atheists can find true awe and wonder in the world. Awe and wonder are actually expanded when not filtered through a construct of a magical being, I think. Either way, such feelings come from an openness to the world and all its ambiguities and goodness and pain.
As I continue on my journey from fundamentalism, hope grows. . . . A commitment to leave fundamentalism is a commitment to read, to maintain humility, and to engage fellow passengers on the journey we call life. . . .
I really do wish there was a lot more humility. One thing that the fundamentalist experience teaches us, as Tim also has pointed out, is that it teaches us how wrong we can be (how wrong we have been) — and that really does breed humility, I think. It makes one more willing always to be open to admitting one has been wrong. It is so easy to be wrong. That’s perhaps one good lesson that does come from the experience. Those who use the “Once a fundie, always a fundie” retort don’t seem to understand or ever admit the possibility that they just might be wrong.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 3311-3342). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
G. Elijah Dann
Those who have devoted themselves wholeheartedly to a political or religious movement, who have dedicated every waking moment to its ideals, views, and beliefs— and who then have somehow fallen away, by their own or another’s impetus— will understand how traumatic the experience can be. It was no different for me. I no longer believed that God’s love for me was based on my adherence to fundamentalist blue laws. And because my entire notion of what constituted a “sinner” also dissipated, gone as well was the thinking that it was on my shoulders to convert all sinners. But it was a Devil’s Bargain: the removal of these beliefs, so intertwined with other beliefs that had become central in my understanding of the world, religion, and God, left me hanging in what seemed like empty space.
Yes indeed. My experience exactly. It was truly traumatic to step out from that world. I even prayed to God as if he were the Devil! 😉 I said, “If you are going to send me to Hell because I am being as honest as I can possibly knowingly be with all I know and understand, then I have no respect for you.” Yes, I remember walking through life for several days — in a daze — feeling that I was floating weightless, alone, in the black emptiness of the universe, with no more sky or stars above me and no earth below my feet. All the “fundamentals” that had been my life were stripped away. That was traumatic for a time. I had no idea where or when I was going to land on a new terra firma. What would life be like once that happened?
Soon after leaving fundamentalism in 1984, I abandoned theological studies for philosophy. Yet even twenty years later I couldn’t open the Bible without returning to the old ways of understanding and filtering the passages I read.. . . . That other interpretive grid— the fundamentalist world view— took all that time to lose its force.
Though my fundamentalist years are long over, their effects linger, negatively and positively. I find myself still a Christian, but in a way that would require another chapter to explain. Perhaps in another year or two, in another book, I might be ready to try. Above all else, mine is a faith in progress, complete with doubts and thoughts that religion might all be a ruse.
Yes, I cannot deny there are few effects lingering. But I have made efforts. I had to force myself at first to acknowledge what had for long been those “pagan” days like birthdays and Christmas. I had so conditioned myself to eat only kosher food in my fundamentalist years that I still find the smell of shell-fish and ham nauseous. But I figure that’s a very small negative and I have far more important and more interesting projects to work on. Why waste time and energy on a little thing like that that doesn’t matter?
There were also good effects, and those cannot be dismissed either. Click on this link then scroll down till you see The GOOD legacy of the fundamentalist and cultic life — there are 12 posts in that series or that series addresses 12 good legacies of the fundamentalist experience. (I should write them up for a single archive to be indexed more easily.)
It now seems clear to me that religious fundamentalism works particularly well, though not for the reasons that religious conservatives think. It’s not so much that it works effectively with, as they call it, the spiritually “hard hearted.” Quite the opposite. The message of fundamentalism works best with the spiritually sensitive. The most susceptible to the message of guilt preached by the fundamentalists are those who hold preciously to their spirituality. Only by leaving fundamentalism will they regain the integrity and joy of their faith.
Dann, G. Elijah (2009-07-30). Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories (Life Writing) (Kindle Locations 3833-3850). Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Kindle Edition.
So there! Next time you hear or read of someone scoffing, “Once a fundie, always a fundie”, direct them to this post.
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