Navigating the Cultural Transition

It’s funny just how much religion permeated every inch of my life growing up. Evangelicalism and fundamentalism don’t just involve abstract beliefs, but are actually cultures with their own phrases, activities, and icons. Bible club, church camp, “quiet time,” jean skirts…it’s all encompassing. Growing up evangelical or fundamentalist, every single little bit of your life is affected by your family and church’s religious beliefs. There are even dialects – jean skirts are more typical of fundamentalists, contemporary Christian rock is more an evangelical thing, and Pentecostalism has oddities all of its own.

If you grow up in one culture and move into another – say, moving from the United States to France, or from India to the U.S. – it will take you a while to adjust. There will be changes in language, clothing, customs, holidays, even figures of speech. The same is true for those like me who grew up evangelical or fundamentalist and are now a part of what you might call mainstream American culture. Sure, it’s often not the same scale – the language differences don’t involve, well, the entire language, for instance – but there are a surprising amount of similarities.

I still use little turns of phrase that are distinctly evangelical, even without meaning to. I have to remain on the fringes of conversations when they involve things I never experienced or can’t understand, like public high school or attending rock concerts as a teen. I shake my head, clueless regarding simple cultural references. I use TV shows like Gilmore Girls or Glee to gain cultural knowledge, and sometimes feel like a foreigner trying to integrate into a new culture.

It’s been some years now, and everything is much easier than it used to be. But like a person who as a young adult moves from the United States to France, or from India to the U.S., there will always be differences. And you know what? That’s okay. I have grown more and more to accept this about myself, and thinking of it like a foreigner learning a new culture helps. I’ll always be different in some ways. But then, there’s nothing wrong with being a little different.

And you know what else? I think that maintaining some of the original culture can be okay. My background will always affect who I am and what I value. And there are little lessons that will stick with me even as I set aside others. One example is Colossians 4:6 – “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” I memorized this verse as a child (along with many others!) and even as may verses I learned have left me, this one hasn’t. And you know what? I like it the sentiment. I find it applicable and helpful. I’m keeping it. And that’s okay.

I’ve heard of second generation immigrants attempting to integrate themselves into the mainstream culture to the extent that they put aside all of their original culture in an almost reactionary sort of way. Now obviously, in going from the evangelical culture to mainstream culture, I’ve done a lot of this. I’ve set aside the beliefs I was taught about sexuality and purity, about heaven, hell, and God, about disciplining children, about the role of women and the structure of marriage, about the origins of the earth and providential history. But I have to remember that I can question and throw out and reorganize things without having to completely throw it all out. To bring the analogy back in, I’ve heard of second generation immigrants realizing after a time that integrating into mainstream culture doesn’t have to mean throwing away everything they were before, or everything they knew growing up.

Having the freedom to choose my own beliefs and what’s important to me and my own values means just that – I get to choose them for myself, not out of a reactionary attempt to simply throw off everything I learned growing up but rather in a conscious effort to sort through and make my own decisions. Reacting against my upbringing by dogmatically throwing all of it out and never considering if there’s anything still worth keeping would in a sense be allowing my upbringing to continue to control me. And I don’t have to let it to do that.

No one can tell me what I can and can’t believe. There is something blissfully freeing about that.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • veganatheist01

    *their own phrases (first sentence)

  • veganatheist01

    Also “every single little bit”, same paragraph. Sorry if I’m being too much of a grammar Nazi.

    I went to public school (homeschooling isn’t a big thing here) and was never that involved in church stuff (we went once every week and sometimes also to youth groups on Saturday), so I’ve had it a lot easier – but I grew up without a TV, and that alone was enough to make me feel very foreign at times, so I can emphasize :D
    In hindsight, though, I’m glad about that, because it definitely had its benefits.

    • Jayn

      It’s amazing sometimes how little it takes to make one feel like an outsider. I’m Canadian-American, and even coming from a culture so close to mainstream American, there’s any number of little things that remind me that I’m different.

    • kagekiri

      Don’t you mean: “empathize”? Not “emphasize”? :P

      • veganatheist01

        Please kill me now. *blush*

  • Karen

    This is off-topic, so please accept my apologies, but I found this horrible thing this morning and thought Libby Anne would make the best possible response.

  • Karen
  • Rilian

    Concerts? I was raised by non-religious people, one of them an atheist, and I still never went to any concerts. Maybe cux we were poor.

  • smrnda

    This makes me think of how there really isn’t any such thing as a shared “American” cultural heritage. I recall once having a conversation with someone in college and I told her that we were not part of the same culture. At first she thought that was a ridiculous thing to say since we were both white Americans, but upon closer examination we found some pretty profound differences.

    It might be more difficult for you since the culture you grew up in was united not by ethnicity but ideology. People can share a culture but have some pretty major differences of opinion but still feel like they have a bond because of the culture they share, but when culture also defines what is right or wrong to believe on almost every conceivable topic, it’s a lot harder to feel any sense of closeness with someone from your former culture. Many cultural artifacts and traditions don’t have much to do with beliefs, but when everything is permeated by belief, it’s also as if even though you share some of the traits of the culture you came from, because you don’t believe the same way your an outsider.

    • Jenny Islander

      I read a book years ago–I can’t remember the title–that was an introduction to “American” culture for foreigners, focusing on the things that Americans never put into tourist guides because they seem so commonplace. IIRC, there were four main areas treated as near-nationwide Americanisms:

      1. People providing a service (this was years ago!) treat you with courtesy and attention because they were trained to do so, not because they desire a closer relationship; no matter what interest they show in whatever you care to discuss with them, they don’t expect to ever see you again when the transaction is complete. (The examples they used of situations that misled foreigners to believe that they had found a friend seemed like basic manners to me. But I haven’t traveled much.)
      2. Americans like to eat outdoors. A lot.
      3. Most people expect to be doing something “crafty,” in a “craft room” or in their garage, in their spare time, but they don’t seem to see it as a money sink even if the stuff they make never gets used. (Again, this was years ago.)
      4. Waitstaff are attentive, eager to please, and just amazing here because they get paid squat. They need tips to pay rent. Please tip them generously. Don’t forget a little something for the chef.

      Anyway, that was about it. Oh, I think there was something about the amount of daily living people are set up to do in their cars.

  • Rebecca Newman

    I still have quite the Christian way of speaking – and cursing still doesn’t come naturally to me. (Not, of course, that I WANT to have a dirty mouth, but sometimes I want to call someone something worse that “that so-and-so.”) The expression I use most is still, “Oh my word!” And then I have really proper grammar even though I grew up the South as our family was so isolated and my mother is a stickler on grammar. I’m sure it’s my speech that gives me away, what makes even casual acquaintances not be surprised to hear of my background.

  • kagekiri

    Yeah, I still tend to use Bible verses in arguments even with people who know I’m an atheist, and I’m still pretty dang conservative in front of others when it comes to swearing, so some friends have yet to realize I’ve deconverted. My atheist in-the closet “act” is turning out to be more how I am naturally.

    As for keeping parts of Christian culture, I definitely still hold some values as an atheist that were also the core of my Christianity. The verses about hypocrisy, especially the “plank in your own eye” bits, are probably never going to leave me. I’ve had to tone down my self-critical-ness a bit, because I had taken it to ridiculous levels as a Christian, but hypocrisy is something I’m still quite sensitive to in myself and others. Doing to others as you’d have them do unto you, and not judging (well, until you’ve understood where people are coming from) have made me considerably more tolerant and empathic and concerned with social justice, and I see no reason to give up those values either.

    Heck, caring about hypocrisy, justice, and truth was essentially what led to my doubts and eventual deconversion, so of course those values would stick around. At first, I WAS tempted to swing into outright hedonism and nihilism, to try and stop caring about anything and totally reject what I had mistakenly identified as “Christian” values.

    I’m glad I found a level of humanism that grounds my values again, and in a way that makes me even more tolerant, empathic, and clear-eyed than my Christianity did. Lacking dogma definitely makes me more mentally free, able to think clearly about things that once just caused me to throw up mental barriers and self-admonishments (even things as basic as watching kissing scenes in movies).

  • Kacy

    It is difficult trying to sort through the cultural artifacts. I recently found my old MP3 player from college, which was an exciting find because I can’t afford one now, and I wanted one to use while running. It had a lot of Christian music on it because that’s what I listened to at the time–CCM, a bit of X-tian rock, and gospel music. I listened to these songs with a bit of nostalgia, but deleted a few that bothered me (songs about original sin and wickedness).

    It’s weird that I still keep Catholic icons hanging on my walls. I have no other art to replace it, and the walls need something. Obviously, I can’t un-learn all the Bible verses I was taught as a child, and some, as you mentioned, are pretty good. I’m still trying to figure out the cultural transition process, and wondering how to decide between what to keep and what to throw out. Right now I’m making these judgements purely on the emotional baggage attached to the thing. It’s not exactly a rational system, but it’s working for where I am at the moment.