A Reader Asks: How Can I Free My Daughter from Fundamentalist Fears?

I recently received a question from a reader, and I thought I would put it to all of you to help answer it:

What resources are there for me to share with my thirteen year old daughter about coming out of the darkness of the culture you write about? I grew up in an independent fundamentalist baptist church.  My parents were completely into it.  I didn’t want to be, but got sucked into it.  The whole “you’re going to hell” stuff, and “God will punish you” is so powerful psychologically.  Long story short, I got out.  But when my life on my own fell apart, I went back and immersed myself and my two precious children completely into that culture.  I finally broke away about three years ago, and haven’t spoken to my family since.  I haven’t kept my children away from their grandparents, but that may not have been the smartest move.  My daughter confided in me last night that even though she hasn’t seen her in months, she can’t get Grandma (and her twisted views of Christianity, behavior, sinfulness, etc.) out of her head.  I want to give her some tools–books, blogs, anything that is age appropriate to help her.

What suggestions, including both resources and general advice, do you have for this reader? I came out of these beliefs as a young adult, over a period of years, and my children are still young. How would you suggest helping children or teens who are struggling with the lingering effects of fundamentalist teachings about sin and judgment?

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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.

  • Karen

    Your blog, No Longer Qivering, and Slactivist.

  • Caitlin

    I don’t know if you are currently practicing a religion, but if not, it might help to replace one tradition with another (rather than leaving a void). If you are still Christian, you could seek out an open, liberal denomination, such as United Church of Christ. Or you could seek out something like the Unitarian Universalists (non-Christian, but you could be Christian there if you wanted–or atheist, buddhist, etc). Or you could seek out something non-religious but organized such as ethical culture/secular humanism (many have meetings, especially in larger urban areas). That way, the kids would have beliefs/principles/traditions that would ANSWER Grandma’s voice.

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira

    I’d suggest The Lasting Supper (thelastingsupper.com). It’s a group run by David Hayward for folks who have left abusive Christian communities.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    The Unitarian Universalists usually have really good RE programs. For age 13, you might see if there is one near you that’s offering the middle-school level “Neighboring Faiths” class. It’s a year-long study of world religions, including as many field trips to various churches and temples as possible, and it might help her put the fundie craziness into perspective.

  • http://smashed-rat-on-press.com/ The Rodent

    I would start with (Cultural) Anthropology 101 and a course in comparative religion. It’s important for young people to understand that “religion” is a pervasive theme in all human cultures. Christianity is just one more mythology, one more set of culturally determined practices… and nobody has “the right answer”.

  • http://hauntedtimber.wordpress.com/ timberwraith

    You could start visiting a progressive Christian church where religious people don’t define “godliness” as obeying a violent tyrant who will torture a person after death if they don’t follow a narrow template of existence. Even as a non-theist and ex-Christian of several decades, it still helped to go to a UCC** church to finally let go of the notion of “if there really is a god he’s going to kick your heathen ass” and “Christianity = abusive, tyrannical authoritarianism”. In spite of so many years of being away from the crappy religion of my conservative, 70s, working class upbringing, I still harbored fears of a hateful, monstrous god. Lo and behold, I’m still a non-believer but being surrounded by progressive religious people with values very similar to mine helped break the spell of the abusive mind control of conservative Christianity. Seeing progressive Christians living out a humane version of Christianity was a healing process.

    **(The United Church of Christ is an extremely progressive variant of Christianity.)

  • “Rebecca”

    If your reader doesn’t mind something written from an atheist perspective, “The Magic of Reality” by Richard Dawkins is a very good book for youngsters/teens. I wish I’d had it when I was young, it could have saved me from years of religious anguish due to the way it offers scientific truth in place of myth.

    Alternatively, if your reader is still a Christian, she could look at how the Bible evolved and explain to her daughter that there are parts of the Bible, even the New Testament, that the ancient writers may have got wrong, are not from God, and people should not take literally today. (I believe Bart Ehrman has some books about biblical history that go into this, but I haven’t read them myself?) She could emphasize the kinder teachings of Jesus, especially the parts that describe his compassion to young people and women.

    Worth noting: The idea of hell or even an afterlife did not originate in the earliest parts of the Old Testament, it only appeared (if I am understanding my history right) after Persian influence on the Hebrews. By the time we have Jesus talking about hellfire, the concept had evolved quite a bit. She could explain to her daughter that the idea of hell is almost certainly just a misguided story that keeps spreading because it is hard to let yourself believe it isn’t true. But no loving god would torture people forever. I think Rob Bell has written a Christian book opposed to the idea of hell. That might be useful.

    I definitely agree with introducing her to world religions, perhaps the DK Eyewitness book about religion would be a good place to start.

    • Kit

      I”d like to add a note here about Bart Erhman; he’s an excellent Biblical historian and scholar, and he writes excellent books about the development of Christianity. I’ve read both “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus, Interrupted” and I really enjoyed both. I found the latter was really helpful because it showed that core Christian faiths today were not present shortly after Jesus’ death and for many centuries, there was vociferous debate over the nature of Jesus, the nature of God and the historicity of the Bible. I’m planning on reading “Lost Christianities”, about early Christian sects that have since died out, next.

      However, Erhman’s books are aimed at a predominantly adult audience. I read Misquoting Jesus sometime in my undergraduate years, and I think you could read these books in high school, but I’m not sure they’ll translate well to a younger audience. Perhaps you could read some with her?

      • “Rebecca”

        Right, I wasn’t clear in my post but Ehrman’s books would perhaps be best for Mom to read, then pass the knowledge to her daughter in an age-appropriate way. :)

  • KayS

    Also left the IFB as an adult, no kids, but the site “Stuff Fundies Like” which reminices about and then laughs at and skewers the twisted ideas I grew up with was really helpful. The letter writer could consider asking on the site’s forum for advice and imput from the members, many of whom have children who where raised in the IFB until their parents left the church/group. Side note: much of the community there is still on the conservative evangelical side so the level of helpfulness to LW may vary. Another thing that helped was actually meeting, getting to know and becoming friends with the various forbidden “Others”. Nothing like being able to say (perhaps just mentally) “Actually I know several gay/athiests/progressive christians/liberals/pro-choice/ (the IFB provides a long list of “dreaded others”) people and they are living loving happy lives, have families, help others and in general manage to be good people without the aid of the scary, wrathful, lightening bolt, send them all to hell god, which rather disproves your rant/sermon/tirade about said people”. Best of luck to you letter writer, I imagine its been a tough road.

  • Hilary

    I’ll second the UCC as a good progressive Christian church to counter act the IFB voices. My mother in law is a retired UCC pastor, I love her and some of her old church friends are the best Christians I know. Kimberly over in the Progressive Christian Channel, her blog is “Coming out Christian” might be a could person to check out, if you asked her on her blog for some suggestions or even pastoral care I’m sure she’d oblige.

    One caveot: the UCC people are just people, and like any organization comprised of people, there are some not so nice people. Even there it is possible to run into a pastor that can be manipulative, but they don’t have the power over the congregation that a fundamentalist pastor does, so there is a lot more checks and balances. And it will give you a Christian place that is not fire and brimstone sinner all the time, either.

    And, kudos to you for getting out, and getting help. Don’t beat yourself up for whats happened, recognize how strong you are, and how brave. Your life fell apart, and you survived as best you could. When that was too toxic, you again found a way to escape and survive. There is nothing that takes more courage then to try again after failure, accept to try again after more then one failure. Remember that and be gentle with yourself when you feel life beating yourself up for existing and making mistakes.

    Hang around here, and read with us as we take apart Debi Pearls “Help meet” book. Fundamentalist Baptists probably have a very close parallel to her beliefs, and hearing other women counter her might help you.

    Take care!

  • Will

    I’d just take some time to go through the Bible with her. Thirteen is certainly old enough to start to see how silly it all is. Have her read through the places where Grandma is getting these nonsense claims, and she’ll start to see that Grandma, like her parents before her, is simply a product of her upbringing who believes what she was told to believe. You and your daughter have first-hand experience with how controlling and manipulative religious faith can be; use those experiences to contextualize why she’s having a hard time shaking the threats of hellfire. She’ll get through it, and the good news is that since she’s been exposed to this garbage and is getting away from it already, she’ll be more or less immune later in life. Good luck!

  • emjb

    Well, I’d say talk with her and talk about her specific fears. Going to Hell? Dying? Being punished by God some other way? Losing her grandmother’s love? Remember that from her perspective, the world was one way, now it’s another, and two of the most powerful women in her life disagree completely about how the world is. This is majorly confusing! Talk to her about how you went from living in one world to living in another, and the fears *you* have had. And reconsider letting her see the grandparents, because you can bet money they are going to be telling her you are going to hell and she is going to hell too unless she repents, and yadda yadda so on. It’s hard to tune that out at her age. If she still believes, then find her a more caring and open church, as others have said; nothing counters darkness like kindness, fun, love, and hope. Help her find those things in *this* life, help her let go of the This Life is Pointless mentality that fundies can have.

    You can also say things like “I’m your mom and no matter what you did, I wouldn’t send you to hell for eternity, because that’s wrong and sadistic. It doesn’t change anything, and it would just make me a monster. So how can I believe in a God that *would* do that?”

    You might also try the book Love Wins, which I haven’t read yet but have heard good things about, in relation to its approach to hell.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    I liked the book Raising Freethinkers by Dale McGowan. I plan to let my kids decide what their faith should be if any.
    Within the UCC there are also Congragationalists. And I had positive experiences with the Presbyterian church and mainline Lutheran church, (ELCA not Missouri Synod). And don’t be afraid to church hop for a while. I’m finding it really rewarding- especially all the info I’m gaining on specific denominations.

  • ewok_wrangler

    Skip the books (unless they are really about subjects the girl is enthusiastically into) and websites and focus on people and activities. Lots of non-church-oriented people, and lots of activities in settings that are not even remotely church-related or church supported. Sports — any kind, and there are so many, from archery to water polo and all the letters in between — and clubs, like debate or drama. Just concentrate on wider horizons and more varieties of experience, more excitement in living, and many more opportunities for achievement.

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana

    It depends a lot. Depend on the teenager’s personality and also whether the mother is still religious and wants to maintain a more healthy balance to Christianity. Disciples of Christ is a progressive Christian denomination that is affirming of any kinds of families. I personally like the Vineyard church. They even prayed over me for the lies that I had gotten from religion, and allow women to teach. Both of these churches might possibly have a more balanced youth group.

    If she is scared of hell, I would walk her through eastern religion and tell her that in the east they motivate people through karma. I would explain that people are scared to do bad because they might come back as a dog, fish, snake or even a ghost, and how Christians have used hell for much the same way. Religion wants to control people and shame people into performing; that’s why we have karma and hell.

    I don’t know any books written at a 7th grade level unless she is really into heavy reading. People mentioned Jesus Interpreted. Its really not that heavy. When I was 14, I started studying eschatology, and I was reading books much heavier. I don’t think most teens would be interested, but it is available if she really wants intellectual answers.

    On a similar note, perhaps its also good to understand that not all religions distinguish their people by what they “believe.” That’s what the protestant church does. But the Catholic church is more on participating in the sacraments and symbols, and so are many other religions, such as Buddhism. Since I like intellectual answers, knowing this would have helped me a lot when I was 13 so I would have understood that even if I’m wrong about XYZ, I won’t go to hell for being wrong, and that doesn’t mean I can’t be spiritual.

    Finding an adult mentor, someone else besides just mom, is also helpful. More or less that’s what I’m trying to do with teens.

    You have given me a good idea that more information needs to be written for young teens. She’s not alone.

  • David

    The graphic novel ‘Blankets’ would be perfect for older teens (possibly for younger teens if they’re mature enough) – it’s a memoir of a guy called Craig Thompson and his coming of age in fundamentalist Wisconsin. It’s as much a love story as it is about the church, but the final chapter titled ‘Footnotes’ is about him leaving the bad influence of his local fundamentalist church. There’s quite a lot of spiritual abuse in it (and one scene of sexual abuse) so it might be a bit triggering for some people.

  • Noelle

    “Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret.” by Judy Blume. The book’s a classic, and a good read. If she’s interested, looking into a UU church’s teen programs might be a nice stepping stone. I’d also encourage her to keep a journal.

    • Noelle

      Blume’s book shows up on banned and challenged book lists often. I’m not saying every book challenge is done by a religious fundamentalist, but it does seem to be their kinda thing. She might like looking over lists of banned and challenged books and picking some out for herself for some leisurely reading. Even when those books have nothing to do with religion, they all challenge a way of thinking or delve into topics that are supposed to be taboo. Exploring these realms is good for anyone, and 13′s a great age for most of these books.

      How to find some lists? http://www.ala.org has a good number. A simple Internet search will get you some. Many of my favorite books I discovered by browsing banned book lists.

  • http://complicatedfeelingsabout.wordpress.com Katherine

    I think that the most important thing to do, especially at 13, is to encourage her to think for herself and come to her own conclusions. At that age, because I wanted to be religious and I didn’t see a lot of other options besides christianity, I was DEEPLY drawn to certain, very conservative, Christian lines of thought. I came out of it because my interest in the Bible led me to actually READ the bible, on my own, without anyone there to interpret it for me, and after reading so much of it, I came to the conclusion that it absolutely wasn’t “a perfect roadmap for life” but actually just a collection of stories, laws, and traditions, that often contradicted each other. I came to the conclusion that my own thoughts and opinions were more valuable, and that I had the ability to reason, and that if God was going to punish me for trying to use my brain then he was not a loving God.

    Now again, I wasn’t raised in fundamentalism, and I had ALWAYS been taught to think for myself, so perhaps it’s different for someone raised partially in the faith. But I would say give her the space to question, give her the space to think for herself EVEN IF she comes to conclusions different than yours, and talk to her about your reasons for leaving AND your reasons for going back honestly and openly. My worry is, that if she’s viewing the world through a lens her grandmother has given her, and you present her with say an atheist perspective or a very liberal christian perspective, she’s just going to see you as “fallen” and that as a threat. above all, talk to your daughter, and let her think. That will be good for her no matter what conclusions she comes to right now.

    Also, and this is pretty general and has little/nothing to do with religion per se, but ROOKIE (www.rookiemag.com) is an amazing resource for teenage girls. Depending on how deeply into fundamentalism she is right now, she may see it as too worldly right at first, but it could be a good resource for her down the line. The best part is the editor in chief is a teenage girl herself.

    GOOD LUCK TO YOU AND YOUR DAUGHTER BOTH! You can and will make it through. <3

  • http://thegloriousliberty.Blogspot.com Kay

    Martin Luther was freaked out by exactly those things, and the Lutheran church does not share the fundamentalist scare tactics. Luther was known for repeating to himself that Christ had saved him& he had nothing to fear, when he got really freaked out. The publishing house of the biggest, most liberal Lutheran church in America is called Augsburg Fortress, the have lots of resources. I especially suggest the Ignite Bible studies.

  • Jaimie

    Does she like science? My kids loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series as well as the beautifully done Universe series. There are many others that are secular, entertaining, and informative. Help her strengthen her worldviews apart from that community. There is a whole wide world out here.

  • ecolt

    My boyfriend’s kids live primarily with their mother, who is currently practicing a sort of extreme fundamentalist Catholicism (a mix of the worst of evangelical Christianity and Catholic dogma). His daughter’s about the same as age yours so when they’re at our house we have a lot of discussions about religion and the scary things their mother tells them.

    I agree that videos are a huge resource for us. Like one of the earlier comments said, things like Cosmos are very popular in our house and help the kids see that there’s a lot more to the world than their mom’s dogma. The same goes for NOVA, which is great because it touches on a lot of different fields in the sciences.

    Have a dig around YouTube. In our case, my boyfriend is much less concerned about “age appropriate” material than a lot of parents, so his older kids have watched videos by people like Thunderf00t and Non Stamp Collector. He’s pretty flexible with things like that anyway, and he figures that the horror stories taught in their church are hardly age appropriate either. Take some time to go through various atheist channels and you’ll find some very informative videos that your daughter will understand and you’re comfortable with her watching.

    But I would say the biggest thing you can do is educate yourself. One thing that never ceases to impress my stepdaughter (and convince her that daddy knows what he’s talking about) is that her father and I are actually much better versed on the Bible and well as science. When she comes to us with something terrible the church or her mom has said, we can point her to teachings in the religion that contradict that, and give her the scientific resources to understand the truth. I think this comforts her more than anything because, while we are giving her the freedom to make her own decisions about religion, she is assured that there is another way of looking at things than the scary dogma that her mother subscribes to.

  • Nancy

    Thank you all for weighing in on this topic. I pulled this up on my computer and had my daughter read all your posts. She was touched that I had posed the question and that so many people responded. That was empowering in itself–that she is not alone and that there are other points of view. Thank you, Libby Anne, for posting this.

  • John Moriarty



    Coming late to this question but I want to refer to William Fowler’s STAGES OF FAITH. http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/fowler.htm (This is a three page outline of his book and thinking.)
    Faith, like any learning and growing experience is progressive and there are stages where some get “stuck” and some move along. Think of numbers. A child comes to mommy and says “I can count. Watch. One, two free, four, six, lebben, forty two, eight.” A few weeks later comes to Mommy and says, “I can count. Watch.” and starts “One, two, three …” and proceeds to 600 for the next hour. That is developmental learning. Fowler says that many people only progress to very immature and underdeveloped stages that are magical or fear based. The article may not help the little girl but certainly gives the mom and you and I a better understanding of how faith (and so belief) develops and grows. Try it. You will like it.