Breaking Their Will, my religious upbringing was a “watered-down version of Judaism.” Therefore, I feel ill-equipped to help survivors of religious child maltreatment move on with their lives.
But now there are two books that reach out to these individuals, albeit in very different ways. Both are written by women who grew up in fundamentalist Christianity, so they know firsthand how such teachings can be woven throughout the fabric of a child’s life and leave him or her with persistent feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and self-doubt—feelings that often extend into adulthood.
In Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion (Apocryphile Press, rev. 2007), psychologist Marlene Winell explains how her faith was “central to my life for many years. . . .The benefits were real, especially as an adolescent.” Winell grew up with parents who were missionaries in Asia. Despite being so far from the United States, Winell was “largely sheltered by the American subculture in Taiwan and had little contact with the Asian culture around us. Our family was in a foreign, heathen land for the purpose of teaching, not learning. Sadly, I remember strong sights, sounds, and smells in the Buddhist temples [that were] associated only with pity and disgust.”
Things began to change for Winell when she attended high school in Southern California where she read modern poetry and philosophy. Then she attended University of California at Irvine, which, like most other college campuses in the 1960s, was exploding with free expression about everything from the Jesus Movement to the Vietnam War. “Encountering other ideas gave me new options,” writes Winell. “As I became armed with alternatives, I was more willing to confront the problems in my religion, such as sexism, the notion of original sin, and the dichotomy of [being] ‘saved’ and [being] ‘damned’. Allowing myself some intellectual integrity was an enormous relief.” However, breaking from her religious past was also accompanied with confusion, fear, anger, and grief, writes Winell, as her departure became “a long and wrenching process, which tore at the fabric of my existence.”
In trying to help others who are thinking about leaving—or have already left—fundamentalist Christianity, Winell discusses what lies ahead. She explains that the process involves five phases: Separation, confusion, avoidance, feeling, and rebuilding. To bring things down to a real level, she frequently inserts quotes by others who have struggled with the transition. For example, a man named Daryl says he feels “like a scared, lonely, abandoned little kid . . . who must be a real ‘bad boy.’” He explains that this view of himself is connected to what he was taught when he was very young, that he was “nothingness in the eyes of God.”
In her chapters devoted to healing, Winell invokes the “healing the child within” model, one that was originally developed for adult survivors of childhood trauma. She stresses the need for readers to develop a new relationship with their inner child. For instance, she suggests they keep track of their daily activities, note what kinds of feelings come up, and even buy a doll to represent their inner child. “This may seem corny or unnecessary,” says the author, “however, it can be a very powerful tool in helping you feel that your child is real.”
Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light (Oracle Institute Press, rev. 2010) is written by Valerie Tarico, a counseling pychology scholar who consults with churches and secular groups on the subjects of morality, psychology, and spirituality. She also oversees WisdomCommons.org, an interactive website that allows for discussion on these topics, and a Youtube channel.
Like Winell, Tarico struggled with religious doubts while growing up in her Evangelical Christian community in Scottsdale, Arizona. “When I first started having misgivings about my faith, I did what any good Evangelical would [do]: I prayed. I was fifteen at the time, earnest and devout.” And there were plenty of opportunities for prayer, since Tarico’s life as a youngster was steeped in faith. In addition to church services, she belonged to the Evangelical Girl Scouts, attended Bible study classes, and went to Christian camps and other youth programs. She even participated in the “I found It!” campaign, an Evangelical 1970s billboard media blitz. Yet Tarico had doubts, terrifying doubts. “I remember kneeling one night on the floor of my bedroom, crying, pleading for God to take them away, and then crawling into bed with some sense of relief.”
Tarico attended Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, “a bulwark of conservative Christian education” since 1860, as she puts it. Still, as Tarico continued to question the Christian doctrines she had been brought up to believe, she began to psychologically fall apart. She developed an eating disorder—a youth minister advised her to pray on it—and she “plunged into absolute despair and self-loathing.” After she tried to take her own life, Tarico was hospitalized for a month. When she returned to school, her unstoppable desire for reason and scientific knowledge continued to chip away at her religious mindset, until “there weren’t many [religious] conclusions that made much sense. I no longer had clean answers about what was true, but my old ones clearly contradicted both morality and reason. The only hope I had of pursuing goodness and truth was to let those answers go,” writes Tarico.
Unlike Winell, who tries to connect with readers using an emotional approach, Tarico appeals to their intellectual side. She does this by examining traditional Christian doctrines the way a scientist might inspect a meteor that dropped to Earth from an unknown galaxy. “When one examines the evidence related to Evangelical beliefs . . . when one examines all of [its doctrines] together through a lens of empiricism and logic, the composite suggests some kind of reality that is very different from the ideas that dominated my thinking for so long.”
In conducting this examination, Tarico scrutinizes various doctrines of Evangelical Christianity from the the existence of “one truth”, to original sin, to the concept that children reach a preset age of accountability. For instance, Tarico points out that Evangelical doctrines were inherited from Protestant orthodoxy, and before that, from Roman Catholic orthodoxy. “Evangelicals often deny this heritage and pretend they are only distant relatives. But don’t be deceived. After all, children rarely like to acknowledge how much they are like their parents.” Providing context to these ideas—describing their place in history—runs counter to Christian orthodoxy, which tends to presume that nothing of theological significance occurred before its appearance and anything afterward is the work of cults. (Evangelicals cast a wide net in determining what constitutes a “cult”, writes Tarico. She states that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Christian Science Church fall under this category.)
In another example, Tarico points out that the Bible codifies sexism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and racism, and this creates a quandary for the scriptural literalist. Evangelicals “have little choice but to embrace these three attitudes, thus arguing that inequality is God’s will” or to adopt the position that these ideas are acceptable, she writes. “The one stance pits them against morality and the other against reality.” Tarico explains that Christians need not feel obligated to choose either. Rather, they can employ critical thinking and a moral compass and ask, for instance, does a passage reflects societal progress?
Despite their different approaches, the authors of Leaving the Fold and Trusting Doubt both seem to have a complete understanding of the mindset of individuals who have come from fundamentalist Christianity and are thinking about leaving it behind, or have already done so. But even those who declare that they no longer want to be part of that religion face ongoing struggles. For instance, many wonder: What will happen if I am unable to discover a “truth” that is as clear-cut as the belief system I grew up with? Will I go to hell? What if my doubts about faith are wrong?
Both authors seem to respond to these worries with a similar message: You have the strength and the intelligence to know how you feel and to think for yourself. You, more than anyone else, can and should determine what religious or spiritual beliefs give meaning to your life and which ones do not. What’s more, even as there is a burgeoning fundamentalist Christian movement underway in America, there are also many progressive Christians who passionately oppose this trend.