March 03, 2015

Dear Christians: Why Fundamentalists Who Breakaway Do So Entirely

Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.

Usually, my Dear Christians columns are geared more towards conservative Christian beliefs, but today, I'm addressing liberal Christians.

Most of the time, liberal Christians are the most accepting of my non-belief, and that's something that I truly appreciate. But I've also found that I get some pushback when I state my experiences--there's the infamous #NotAllChristians, and there's also some residual feeling that maybe instead of going "whole-hog", as we say 'round here, I should have just backed up and become a liberal or progressive Christian. Maybe I could just try the Episcopal church on for size?

There's also a variety of positions in between there, such as the idea that if you approach the search for truth with an open-mind, you'll find God in some way. Even the idea that God loves my questioning has been brought up, in a way that still completely rolls over the fact that I don't believe in any such being.

I was recently listening to a podcast (I know, they've spawned a lot of posts lately!) that was an interview with Linda LaScola who worked with the Clergy Doubt project and has authored a couple of studies looking at doubt among clergymen, and she made the observation that it's often their most fundamentalist minded clergy members that cut ties with religion fully. As I was listening to LaScola, I was struck by how much sense that made to me, as a former fundamentalist myself.

It's often been joked that if you don't agree with the fundamentalists of your religion--those that hold most tightly to its basic tenets--you should find a new religion. I don't really agree with that sentiment, but I do think it makes a key point. Those who have experienced fundamentalism have experienced that religion taken to its absolute logical conclusion--and it's a scary place to come back from.


The absolute foundation of fundamentalism in Christianity is that the Bible is the inerrant, literal, inspired, infallible Word of God on Earth. There's no room for argument with that perception in fundamentalism--it's just accepted. Even pointing out works that have been established as forgeries, or the numerous translation errors in places, is seen as disparaging the Word, and is absolutely frowned upon.

You are taught that there is only one right way--yours. If you are a Baptist, as I was, you won't really see much difference between your church and the Presbyterians or Methodists or others, but you'll still feel a vague sense of sorrow that they can be so close and yet so wrong.

If you are a questioner, as I was, you'll feel like you are failing in your heavenly mission to reveal God's message here in a fallen world. I remember once, leading a little girl in my cabin at church camp when I was a counselor to God, and thinking, "I don't know if I even believe this, how can I expect her to?" I hoped in that moment that she'd have an easier time accepting that faith than I did.

To me, then, it makes perfect sense that once these beliefs crumble, you cut ties entirely from such an oppressive institution.

It's also, I think, a reason that fundamentalists push back so hard against scientific theories such as evolution. When you dismantle the Garden of Eden, fundamentalists have nothing left to justify their belief. I've seen liberal Christians who can compromise between their beliefs and what the science says, but fundamentalists often have no such ability.

For instance, we were taught that if you didn't believe in Jesus, you would go to Hell. We learned that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice and that everything in the Old Testament was pointing to him--thing like the brass serpent and animal sacrifices in the temple or tabernacle were simply pointing to Christ's eventual sacrifice. We learned that you would go to Hell even if you had never heard of Jesus, because you had to believe in order to make it into Heaven. We learned that the sacrifice of Christ was necessary because of sin. Sin only existed because of the Fall and Original Sin. We also learned fun things about sin, like that it is passed through males and that is why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. But I digress.

It's easy to see, when you break down these beliefs, why the churches we joined pushed back so hard against evolution. If we evolved, there's no such thing as original sin. If there's no original sin, there's no need for Jesus. It's a simple as that.

Other denominations are able to justify that continued need for Jesus--but fundamentalists that doubt find that difficult because of the hardline stances, stances that really seem to make sense in the religious context.

This post isn't a diatribe against progressive Christianity. I really hope that it doesn't come across that way.

But I do think that it's important to point out that for some people, Christianity was a painful place to be. When they leave, there's a sense of freedom--and simply moving to a more liberal belief system doesn't always accomplish that. When you see your most basic beliefs as flawed, it's hard to just tweak them. Rejection is often the only path that we feel comfortable on.

And really, to me, it just makes sense. Those that have seen the faith at its most basic find it the most illogical in the end.

It's almost poetic.

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