Why I’m Grateful to be a Former Evangelical: “What If I’m Wrong?”

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by Neil Godfrey

Another beautiful article by Valerie Tarico urging a positive response to former cult and evangelical members (or an escapee from any toxic religion or community) is turning up in various online media:

Why I’m Grateful to be a Former Evangelical

Tim and I have posted similar sentiments from time to time: it is important to acknowledge and embrace the positives that come from such negative, even life-destroying, experiences. One of the most important is summed up in this paragraph:

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?

And that’s just the beginning. Valerie addresses half a dozen more strong positives.

One thing I am sure about: this blog Vridar would never have been born if it were not for my own lessons learned from years in a toxic church.

It’s not too hard, I think, for most people who have been through the experience to turn it all into positives, despite the losses of the past. What does sadden me is seeing some members of cults or tight, controlling groups, appear to recognize what has happened only to allow themselves to be sucked back into something just as limiting.

In some ways I think many of us who have been through the experience can (not always, but can) have a more acute sensitivity to groupthink, to careless acceptance of simplistic answers, than many other members of our communities, and can be responsible for sounding the warning bells.

We’ve been there, seen and experienced it in a very tightly concentrated form. Potentially greater awareness of the danger symptoms is surely a healthy thing.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Why I’m Grateful to be a Former Evangelical: “What If I’m Wrong?””

  1. Yeah, this is a difficult issue when it comes to parenting too. I went to church as a child up through early high school, around age 15 or 16. I certainly don’t regret that experience, as it was formative in terms of my questioning of religion and learning enough about religion to find it interesting. But by the same token I have a hard time saying that children today should be subject to religion.

    There are many challenging experiences that when you face them and overcome them you are a better person for it, but that doesn’t mean you think everyone should go through those experiences. Religion happened not to be a big deal for me, because I decided it was hogwash by about 5th grade, but I certainly feel for those who don’t “see the light” until much later in life after sometimes dedicating significant resources to a false belief system.

  2. 1. Isn’t there is some redundancy in the phrase ‘a toxic church’? Aren’t they all? (The obverse: don’t even the vilest cults contain some elements of sweetness, kindness, etc, sometimes not 100% twisted and perverted?)

    2. I am an obsessively private person, but I will offer from my own experience a different way in which these cults can have some beneficial effects. I (my family, my schooling) was strongly associated with an established US church (Episcopalian). However when around 11 or 12 I loved to listen, semi-clandestinely, to Garner Ted Armstrong of the World Wide Church of God on the radio. What a wonderful speaker! And how well he pointed out to me that what I was taught in church just didn’t hold water. Practices in the churches I attended–or in everyday life–were absolutely contradicted by his (cherry-picked) passages from the Bible. And yet the Episcopalian Church pretended that the Bible was to be taken seriously! However as I studied (encyclopedias and then more advanced critical references in an Episcopalian-related school) I found his stuff was questionable. Thus I turned his hard-line skepticism on him as well as I began reading about the origins of Judaism and Christianity. I became a hardline skeptic on so much of everything that it has helped and hurt me throughout my life. I might well have turned towards such iconoclasm anyway, but Garner Ted certainly helped. He and other cult leaders do seduce via an appeal to skepticism, but sometimes they just foster the skepticism. (Garner Ted was so very good at what he did however that I am not sure how I managed to escape him–perhaps too much other stuff to worry about and no personal contact with his organization???)

    [Digression #1: Garner Ted and Herbert W came to have another use later in college. A few of my friends loved listening to the shows for fun and then writing crank letters to The World Wide Church of God’s Ambassador College, and receiving free books to mock–not too bad to read passages from in small parties or during long car rides. These friends also liked occasionally calling a local church, presumably evangelical, called the Temple of Fire, and infuriating them by calling them to ask whether they had burgers to go.

    Digression #2: I don’t mean to make light of the cult problem. One thing that devastated my life was a relationship as an adult with a member of a Buddhist-offshoot cult and while resisting it. I can’t believe I mention this in public. Or relatives who lost a granddaughter to as they called them the Jehovah’s Witless.]

    1. Yes, close personal contact and relationships are important factors in becoming a member (so cult and extremist group researchers say) so you were lucky not to have had that personal contact with the organization.

      By “toxic church” I don’t mean to deny that there is much that is “sweetness, kindness” etc as you put it. Even “toxic families” can have that. But it is the “sweetness and kindness” that can be used to pressure one into behaving and thinking certain ways that one would not normally do, and that are against a normal, healthy conscience. One may become so dependent on the relationships within the cult that they cut off relationships with family members. Not always, but that’s one unfortunate state for many.

  3. On my point #1, on all churches being ‘toxic’–some questions–I don’t mean them to be rhetorical (tone and context notwithstanding), I mean for them to be considered seriously since I do not know the answers–

    A recent post treated a scholar with tentative (but in my opinion fair) skepticism or disdain just for being a Mormon (or, as I think one of their officials wants them to be called, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints). Why would we want to pick on this religion? Aren’t there some much more established religions that have asserted ridiculous (or miraculous) things, religions whose scholars would not provoke similar doubt? Is it just that the Mormons tend to add on extra ridiculous (or miraculous) things onto the older ones of established Christian religions? (Now a comment that will earn me no popularity here: how can I be sure that some of the ridiculous stuff in mainstream Christianity or the additional stuff didn’t occur?) I have no strong love or respect for the Mormons, but over their history the cumulative misery they have caused is less than what some other denominations have caused over the years (though cumulative misery load divided by person divided by year for the different religions <-I don't know how that calculation would go with or without correction for joy, comradeship, and other benefits).

    Moreover, at least many leaders and devotees of the 'Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints', of many major less fringy religions, and of out-and-out cults tend to take their organizations' teachings seriously. In contrast are those religions where leaders and lay practitioners just go through the motions — wink wink, nod nod about the beliefs since they all let it be known that they're too modern and sophisticated to believe in this sort of thing really; sing the nice hymns, let the nice fluffy verbalizations float down from on high. Should we consider these to be serious people of deserving of special respect? Are they to be taken seriously by default?

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