Fear and the Fundamentalist Child

Today is Halloween. Sally is giddy with excitement. I’m taking her trick-or-treating this evening, and she’s been asking every day for a month now if it is “Halloween Day.” Bobby will be going too, his first Halloween, in the matching outfit Sally picked for him. The thing is, I remember experiencing Halloween as a child raised on the border between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. I loved wearing a costume and attending our church’s Harvest Fest, but I also believed that Halloween was Satan’s high holy day, complete with sacrifices by covens of witches and increased demonic activity. Halloween scared me to death.

Of course, demon anxiety wasn’t just a one-day-a-year thing. There were nights I could barely go to sleep I was so scared of demons. I was taught that God had put a “hedge of protection” around our house, but I also heard my parents talking about how that “hedge of protection” could be compromised by things like rock music with sinful lyrics. This concerned me greatly. Was a sinful thought enough? What about disobedience to my parents, would that let demons in? These were questions I pondered most frequently when I was in bed at night, and the house was dark and quiet. Every little noise made me jump. One night I was sure I heard a demon moving around the room, and, my eyes held tight shut in terror, I eventually fell asleep out of pure exhaustion only to wake in the morning and find it had been the cat.

I’ve been told that this sort of fear as a child was only normal, and that if I hadn’t been afraid of demons I would have been afraid of wolves, or monsters under my bed, or some other nighttime bogeyman. The problem with this argument is that no parents teach their children that there really are monsters under their bed, or that wolves really could break into their homes and get them. In contrast, my parents and my church taught me to view demons as literal beings. They told me that demons were real, and out to get me.

As a short anecdote, one evening this summer as we got Sally ready for bed, she told us she was afraid a giant spider would get her. She had just watched one of the Harry Potter movies, and it had giant spiders. So we explained to Sally that spiders that size don’t exist – that they’re just pretend – and that in any case, our house is safe. She went to sleep without a problem. I can’t help but imagine that if we’d told her that giant spiders are real, and could materialize in her room at any minute, the result would have been very different.

Now of course, I was taught that, as a follower of Jesus, I could cast a demon out if I saw one. In other words, I was taught that I had the perfect weapon for fighting demons – Jesus’ name. If I ever saw one, I could say “be gone in Jesus’ name” and it would have to leave. There was one problem with this, of course. For that to work, you had to be saved, really truly saved and not just pretending to be saved. And this brings up another point of fear: salvation anxiety.

My parents always made salvation seem so simple – you just pray the sinner’s prayer and you’re in. The trouble was that you had to really mean it. Saying the words wasn’t enough. Given this, I was constantly second guessing myself. Had I really meant it? I prayed the sinner’s prayer dozens of times, each time afraid that I hadn’t meant it before.

It didn’t help that when a Christian “fell away” it was often suggested that he or she had never been a Christian to begin with. This indicated to me that someone could think they were a Christian, could live like they were a Christian, and could yet not actually mean it, not actually be saved. Of course, the alternative wasn’t much better. I was completely aware that if someone could lose their salvation, that would mean that I could truly mean the sinner’s prayer one day, and then somehow not mean it enough the next day. The prospect horrified me. Did I mention how many times I prayed the sinner’s prayer as a child and teen?

Of course, this anxiety about salvation resulted in another concern: rapture anxiety. What if the rapture were to happen and I were to be “left behind”? This is something I actually worried about. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – there were times when I came upon a pile of clothing on the floor and freaked, thinking that it was the clothing left when one of my family members had been raptured.

I do want to be clear on one thing. Most of the time I felt entirely confident in my salvation. Most of the time I felt confident in my ability to cast out demons if need be. Most of the time I was sure I would be among those raptured. I was taught to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, to have him as my best friend, and I did. I was taught that God was absolutely wonderful and that I should bask in his love, and I did. But the cracks in this facade, cracks I often worked to hide, were there. The times I was afraid I wasn’t truly saved, was afraid a demon might laugh in my face when I tried to cast him out, and was afraid that the rapture might come and find myself “left behind.”

And there were also some things I didn’t experience that other children growing up in similar communities do experience: being told that your illnesses are caused by demons, for example. While my parents always prayed for us when I was sick as a child, they never tried casting demons out of me or told me that I was under demonic attack. And while I overheard them talking about how things like rock music with bad lyrics could allow demons into the home, they put little emphasis on that and instead emphasized the “hedge of protection” God put around our home. If they had spend a great deal of time emphasizing the ways this hedge of protection could be broken, I almost certainly would have felt less safe.

The interesting thing is that my parents never seemed to be affected by this sort of anxiety. They were always confident of their salvation. They never acted like they were afraid of demons. They knew they would be raptured. I’m not sure whether they were just good at hiding underlying fears from me, or whether they had different temperaments from mine and so didn’t have the fears I did, or whether the fact that they had spent their formative years in more mainstream Christian traditions made the difference.

Regardless, I am reminded once again this Halloween how glad I am that, because I no longer believe in God, heaven, hell, or demons, Sally and Bobby will be growing up without these fears and anxieties. Childhood is difficult enough without extra things to worry about.

The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
Red Town, Blue Town
A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
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.

  • Jason Dick

    This is precisely the reason I no longer believe people who claim religion makes them happy. I remember this sort of anxiety all too well, but I also remember believing I was happier than unbelievers, not because I didn’t feel anxious, but because I was continually told Christians are happier. I only realized just how unhappy I was after I stopped believing.

    • chris buchholz

      Plenty of studies show religion does NOT make people happy, but it’s rather the social support network that makes them happy. People who don’t believe at all get just as much out of going to church than the people who do believe, in fact they probably can get more, since they get friends and support and help, without the emotional baggage

  • machintelligence

    Instilling fear of demons and fear of hell, causing salvation and rapture anxiety — it looks a lot like child abuse to me. I refuse to buy into the argument that all of this is for the good of the child. They terrified a child who only wanted to be good for no valid reason.

    Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

    Steven Weinberg

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      If I might offer a wording suggestion: “For no good reason, they terrified a child who only wanted to be good.” The other way is too ambiguous.

    • Kate

      Interesting that you mention child abuse, because this post kept reminding me of this for some reason:

      Well, really more of an abusive parent than partner in some ways, but still….

  • Aimee

    There are many things about my childhood with Christianity that I can talk about screwing me up, but at least the church I went to didn’t believe in modern demonic activity or the rapture. I didn’t even know some Christians did until we lived with my grandma for a while (age 10). Oddly the church my parents ended up with became more demon-y by the time I left and Halloween was being preached as a Satanic holiday. At 15 I was far too old to be affected by such a silly idea, but I can see looking back that if my parents had gone to a charismatic type church I would have totally believed it and it would have made me terrified as a kid.

    I grew up believing that salvation could be, and often was, lost. But we also didn’t believe that saying the sinner’s prayer saved you. First you had to repent and be baptized, then you had to continually maintain salvation by repentance and public confessions for certain sins. I believed I had committed one of those sins but I couldn’t bring myself to come forward to confess in front of the church so I believed I lost my salvation at a fairly young age. It gave me a lot of anxiety and depression but also sapped my desire to keep the faith.

  • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

    I remember those anxieties, all of that fear. Being a Christian made me happy, until I was 13, and all that garbage got piled in.

    Our coven sacrificed some chocolate chip cookies to the memories of our ancestors and those we loved who had passed. Four women standing around in a park praying is SO scary…

    • Kate

      My Circle threw Post Its in a fire as a symbolic shedding of unwanted stuff in order to prepare for the introspection and quiet of the dark time of the year. Terrifying, I know. Oh, and we bathed in the blood of a virgin.

      Wait. Scratch that last part.

  • Anonymouse

    The local fundagelical sects fall all over themselves this time of year in my area to get trick-or-treating banned. It’s not enough they won’t let their own kids enjoy it–they want to make sure that NOBODY’s kids can enjoy it. They’ve gotten rid of the innocent little parties in the public schools, which still celebrate Christmas but not Halloween. Several local mega-churches have bonfires (the irony!) to try to counter local parties. The local Catholic school is about the only place where kids can still eat their orange pumpkin-shaped cookies and drink the punch and have a nice time in October.

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      I’m curious how exactly that ban would even be worded. “Thou shalt not knock upon thy neighbour’s door”?

      • Anonymouse

        They try to get the various homeowner’s associations to ban trick-or-treating as “soliciting”. Failing that, they’ve tried to get the police department to issue warnings about how dangerous it is for children to be outside. Because, you know, a bunch of adults sitting on their porches/front yards/steps chatting and handing out candy are all a bunch of child molesters in disguise. @@

      • littleblueheathen

        Nah, the Jehova’s Witnesses would get that one stuck down/snark/

    • Rando

      Of course the Catholics celebrate Halloween, it is a Catholic holiday after all specifically an Irish one. http://www.halloween-history.org/
      Now if you want to laugh yourself to death with this “Halloween is satanic stuff,” look no further than the very bible these clowns “follow” Jeremiah 10:2-4 explicitly says that it is a HEATHEN tradition to cut down a tree, set it up in your house, and, decorate it with silver and gold. Doesn’t that particular habit sound familiar?

    • Blue Camas

      What a bunch of killjoys. In my neighborhood, Halloween is a big party – there are a lot of kids, and many people bring their kids over from other neighborhoods. Last night I took my daughter & a neighbor kid out to make the trick or treat rounds, & it was fun! Lots of families going door to door, smiling and laughing. Lots of houses with fun decorations. Everyone was having a good time.

      Poor ol’ ‘fraidy cat Fundies just don’t know all the fun they are missing.

    • Carys Birch

      It’s so depressing! This year we got two trick-or-treaters. TWO! :(

      My parents church soaked up all the kids with some certified Satan-free party. /sigh

  • http://yeswesam.wordpress.com Sam

    I wonder how much of the fear in Fundamentalist children is simply a reflection or result of fear in their parents. I always believed that Fundie parents were simply overbearing for the sake of it, and to “protect their kids” but as I’ve grown older and witnessed other parents around me, I’ve come to see that parents are freaked out and emotionally fearful too. They are scared of demons at Halloween, or the evils of other “worldly” children in schools, and pass that fear on through restriction. It’s especially noticeable in second-generation Fundamentalist parents.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    I went trick or treating one time in my childhood, and it was also the only time I wore a costume for Halloween. After that we stopped due to it being a pagan holiday. Even tho my church did teach about demons and the rapture I don’t remember having these anxieties. The only concern I had was whether or not I was Christian enough to go to heaven.

  • MM

    Thankfully, my parents were never particularly concerned with the evils of Halloween and, for as fundamentalist as they were, they never bought into the “demons are flying around your head right now!” BS. But every year at my christian school you always knew that the chapel (we had chapel once a week, on Wednesday IIRC) sermon before the 31st would be about the history of Halloween and demons and all that crap. Personally, I blame authors like Frank Peretti for giving less well-educated Christians their ideas about demons and angels…sure, it was fiction and meant to be more allegory than anything, but soooo many of the people I grew up with really thought that demons and angels were engaging in invisible swordfights all around us.

    Also, does anyone remember the movie Hells Bells? That had to be the epitome of Christian anti-rock music hysteria, and I’d say it was delightfully bad were it not for the millions of christians that take it 100% seriously…”zomg, if you listen to this track backwards at 3x speed, you can clearly make out demonic incantations! Wham! is Satanic!!1!one!!”

    • dawnofthenerds

      Ha! We watched that in Sunday School. One totally weird thing is that one of the bands they show as an example of teaching rebelliousness is MXPX, which is a Christian rock band.

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    “hedge of protection” that can be compromised by rock music? Casting out demons by reciting a formula (but only if you’re in the right frame of mind)? This is where Christianity stops even pretending to be about the Bible and starts to resemble Harry Potter or D&D — it’s all magic spells and monsters.

    • “Rebecca”

      That bit about rock music made me laugh, since many nights when I lay awake in bed crying in terror of demons, I would put on my Christian rock music to ward the demons away.

    • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

      Well, these are the same people who won’t read Harry Potter because they believe the spells are real and they could be opening a door to demonic activity if they wave a stick and say “Accio random object!”

    • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

      My fundie-leaning boss used to pray for me because I played role-playing games like DnD. My retaliation was to bring in some of the source books with highly provocative covers (like the vampires feasting on corpses) and read them during lunch break. He used to quiver when he saw them. Snerf, snerf.

  • Steve

    It’s nothing but a control mechanism. Instilling fear in people makes them easier to control and manipulate. And if you can target that fear at specific group of people it increases the cohesion of the cult.

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

    You know, I think Halloween is a good holiday because it helps kids confront fears. I feel like it serves a good developmental function.

    My neighborhood is totally decked out and I’m excited to pass out candy, which makes me feel very grown up.

    • http://somaticstrength.wordpress.com somaticstrength

      That’s how I feel about it too. The Christians I know often say that Halloween is bad because it’s “celebrating death” but I think that misses the point. It confronts death, and darkness, and scary things, and makes it seem less scary. Honestly, I think I need Halloween now for my mental health, because I never got to confront those fears as a kid – I was taught to fear even more instead.

      • RowanVT

        That amuses me. Isn’t all of Christianity basically about celebrating the fact that they’ll be dead and in heaven eventually?

  • http://somaticstrength.wordpress.com somaticstrength

    I had those same fears as well. And then on top of it, because our family was violent and abusive, often my family, or the pastor, or other religious people would decide that our house did, in fact, have demons that needed to be prayed away. The fact that they could so easily breach our house left me constantly fearful that they were always around.

    For me, the salvation anxiety also stemmed from the idea that being anxious was a sin. You didn’t “trust god” enough.

    As a kid, I was constantly burdened by all the family’s problems – the abusive relationships, but also the financial ones as well, because my mother believed that if I just prayed for these things, my child-like faith would make it happen. And as a kid, of course you pray when your parent tells you too, and of course you believe and trust what your parent tells you too, but really all it did was cripple me with anxiety over lack, and a fear of homelessness and a mistrust of people, with no way to be able to express that because as a kid (or even now) I’m in no way allowed to say “I’m afraid” because that’s considered a moral failing.

    It’s pretty easy to get lost in that loop those fears create. Because you’re afraid, but you’re also taught to be afraid of voicing your fears. It’s hard to get out of that.

    • http://somaticstrength.wordpress.com somaticstrength

      Also, I think the most telling conversation I ever had with my mother was back when I was first getting out of fundamentalist thinking but still a Christian and I said, “I think that fearing Satan just gives him more power, because if we have God, why should we fear Satan?”

      And my mother said, “I think you’re underestimating Satan.”

      Because fearing Satan was considered far better than trusting God.

      • Stephanie

        I have had that exact same conversation with my mother. God really doesn’t get much credit from these people.

  • Hannahbanana

    I got the exact same thing growing up, demons and all. Especially on Halloween, I remember crying for all the poor black kitties being sacrificed in satanic rituals (yes…my parents would talk about stuff like this in front of their 7 year old daughter). I would pray and pray and pray and pray all evening, that nothing bad would happen to anyone I cared about because of Satan’s Holiday.

    I also remember feeling jealousy. I was jealous that my little friends could “trick or treat” with their parents or go to Halloween parties with silly games and fake eyeballs floating in the punchbowl. Why couldn’t I have been raised goddamn NORMAL? I still ask that question, to this day.

  • kagekiri

    Yeah, I must’ve done the salvation prayer dozens of times during my childhood. Fun scripture like the sheeps and goats being separated on judgement day extended that fear of unexpected damnation even further into my teen years.

    “The goats thought they were sheep! The gate is narrow! God says many who think they’re saved aren’t! Only 144,000 saved in Revelations? That means most modern day Christians are damned too! AHHHHHHH I don’t WANNA go to hell!”

    As for rapture, I did have a few times where I started to get a little freaked if my family was unexpectedly not at home or not picking up phone calls, but nothing with piles of clothes.

    And demons…oh geez. “Sleep paralysis is demons possessing you” was one bit that freaked me out, along with Bill Gothard’s crap about giving up territory in your soul to demons by sinning. The one time I had sleep paralysis, I was praying frantically and scared out of my wits, trying to cast out the demons, and I was constantly trying to cast things out in Jesus name (like thoughts, or doubts, or worries…just gah) and stressing when those thoughts wouldn’t go away.

  • smrnda

    I never did much Halloween stuff when I was young – I think Trick-Or-Treating has kind of died out in many areas, but it’s kind of a fun holiday. It takes stuff that’s scary and makes it comical and sort of domesticates it. You realize that something that’s scary can just be all theatrics in the end. At least all the scary stories at Halloween aren’t as banal and dull as the inspirational ones that pop up around X-mas.

    But on the whole demons deal, seriously, I’m afraid of kids getting hit by cars, abducted by strangers, being exposed to toxic chemicals, molested by authority figures – you know, things that actually happen in the real world. The whole demon business is great business for the heads of Christian media – they create a fear of something you can’t really see, but they convince you they can tell you how to protect yourself from it.

    It also seems like the ‘battle of angels and demons’ can get carried to a point where it starts being ridiculous to believe people are even *doing* anything – they’re just puppets that powerful supernatural beings take control over from time to time.

  • lucrezaborgia

    I never had to deal with that about Halloween though I never had to deal with salvation anxiety either. You see, I never believed, even as a child. It all seemed to fishy to me and it isn’t like my family is atheist either.

  • “Rebecca”

    I had so much anxiety about demons as a child. I was aware of a story in which my mother had seen a gray alien outside her window, and I spent countless nights crying and paralyzed with fear in bed, thinking about the aliens. Of course, instead of being reassured that aliens aren’t real, I was taught that aliens were really a kind of demon. It’s basically the equivalent of parents telling their child that the monsters in her closet are truly real and out to destroy her family, and giving her nothing to cope with that fact except her own desperate prayers.

    I don’t think people who didn’t grow up strongly religious can understand how scarring it can be for a young child to believe in this stuff. In my case, my parents (who converted to Christianity as adults) didn’t seem to care about how terrified I was, since as far as they were concerned they were simply teaching me the truth. They didn’t realize that their adult ability to handle supernatural terror was worlds beyond a child’s ability to handle it. I’m increasingly of the opinion that teaching your kids that hell and demons are real should be considered child abuse.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    When I was little, I had a minor eating disorder, in that I didn’t want to eat unless I was absolutely starving. That lasted up until I was about 13 or 14 and we moved to Canada from the USSR. So, to motivate me to eat, my mother made up the story that if I wasn’t going to eat, the CHIMNEY SWEEP was going to come and get me. I wasn’t too afraid of the chimney sweep, however, so my eating remained very sluggish. One day, I didn’t want to eat and my mother said, “Well, I guess I’ll go call the chimney sweep.”

    Unbeknownst to my mother, a chimney sweep was actually working the building across the courtyard and at that moment actually climbed up the roof and started doing whatever chimney sweeps normally do. I took one look at him, squeaked like a baby and started wolfing down my food.

    Seeing how terrified the coincidental appearance of the chimney sweep made me, my mother never brought it up again, even though my fear of him soon vanished and I returned to my usual MO of staring food down and daring it to eat itself.

  • A Reader

    I remember this anxiety! Not fun. There was a period in elementary school when I prayed the sinners’ prayer every night. Thank you for posting this & reminding me how nice it is not to worry about this stuff!

  • Frank

    As if happiness is he point of life. That’s what you get when you reject God. A false and unsatisfying purpose in life.

    • Carys Birch

      I had TOTALLY forgotten how satisfying unhappiness is. Thanks Frank.

      /rolls eyes

    • WFS

      One can lose a sense of meaning and purpose when one learns the truth about religion. People like you hold on hard to your beliefs and truly fear the consequences of losing those beliefs. Sometimes I envy people like you, but most of the time I am thankful that I no longer believe any of that garbage. Am I happier for it? Not necessarily. Am I facing reality for better or worse. Yes.

      Which is more important? Ignorance is bliss. The truth shall set you free.

    • Liberated Liberal

      I love that when Christians see people very happy, successful and functional without God, they simply and randomly claim it’s false happiness to justify their own beliefs in Christianity. It’s extraordinary.

      And the proof you have for that is…?

  • Jordan

    I had terrible anxiety as I grew up in an environment very similar to this one. I have OCD now, and I think these belief systems definitely helped me develop it…. being terrified to have doubts and and even more terrified for others to know I doubted.

  • RavynG

    I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness and frequently saw my dolls and toys burned for demonic possession and was not allowed to eat Lucky Charms cereal(they were MAGICALLY delicious!) or (of course) Count Chocula. No yard sale purchases–for how were we to know if our neighbors were demon worshippers just waiting to pass it along or not? No smurfs. Halloween was literally spent huddled in a dark house praying if we were not at the Kingdom Hall. We were not even allowed to say “God bless you” when someone sneezed because we were told that was the (false) churches’ way of protecting people from demons and it did not work because all other churches were under Satan’s power. Now? I celebrate Halloween, Samhain, Shadow-Fest, Dios de los Muertos, and anything else you want to call it. My favorite holiday! Boo!

  • Joni

    O_O I am so glad the church I grew up in wasn’t completely bat sh*t crazy. How can people tell their kids stuff like this!?!