A post in the Raised Evangelical series.
Section 1: Introduction
Question 1: Please introduce yourself before we get started, providing a brief snapshot of your background an overview of your beliefs today.
My name is Isaac. I am a nineteen-year-old male living in the buckle of the Bible belt. I grew up in various states but was exposed to the same culture and beliefs regardless of where I went.
My experience with faith and faith culture is a little different from that of most evangelicals. My family practiced a mix of extreme and mild Christianity which often contradicted itself, and more often than not meant our actions did not reflect our beliefs, or at least the beliefs we accepted in church. I am a “recovering Christian”, and have only recently been able to leave religion entirely. I am an atheist and a bisexual, but not out (as either one) to anyone yet.
Question 2: How did your family and religious community self identify? As evangelicals? As fundamentalists? Or as something else? What did these terms mean to your parents and religious community?
My nuclear family identified strongly as evangelicals, while most of my extended family identified as conservative Catholics. We tended not to get into debates about the doctrinal differences between our religions, focusing instead on our shared values; so for most intents and purposes our beliefs were the same.
Question 3: How did your parents become evangelicals or fundamentalists? Did they grow up in evangelical or fundamentalist families, or did they convert later?
Both of my parents were raised as conservative Catholics. My father remained in his religion but wasn’t very present in my early life or schooling. My mother, who was by far my primary developmental influence and teacher, broke from her Catholicism to become a nondescript evangelical during her 30s.
Section 2: Theology
Question 1: Briefly describe the church your family attended while you were growing up. What role did the pastor play? How large was it? What sort of programs did it offer? What denomination was it? How many times a week did you attend church? How about Bible study or Bible club?
Partly because my family moved several times during my childhood, we never had a single church or community to connect with. I never went to any single church for over a year. My family mostly visited churches with our extended family and friends, who were all conservative Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals and occasionally Quiverfull-type fundamentalists. While I know now that we didn’t always subscribe to a particular church’s ideas, it was a social taboo to criticize anything within religion, so no dissent was permitted no matter where we went.
Question 2: When and how were you “saved”? How did your parents and church community respond? Did you have a “relationship with Jesus”? If so, at what age did you form this relationship? Please describe what all it entailed. Or, if you attended a church that was more liturgical and did not emphasize the specific moment of salvation or having a personal relationship with Jesus, what were considered to be most important milestones of a religious upbringing (i.e. confirmation, etc.) and how did you experience them?
I was taught about God firmly within the framework of a “relationship with Jesus”. I didn’t experience many rituals because of the lingering distaste my mother had for the Catholic Church, and my inculcation into religion was more gradual and liturgical than ritual. I perceived all religious ideas and experiences as completely normal and “right”, just as much a part of the framework of reality as gravity.
Question 3: How did your family and church view the Bible, and what role did it play in your life growing up and in the life of your family and church? How often did you, your siblings, and your parents read the Bible? Were you guided by your parents or pastors in how to interpret the Bible, especially certain passages, or were you generally free to form your own ideas about what the Bible said?
I was taught that the Bible was literally true, but found quickly that I could not believe that the stories within it were accurate. I kept this to myself though, and saw it as my problem rather than a problem with the veracity of the faith. My homeschool curriculum spoke very strictly about what the Bible meant and why it was literally true in every way, including many of the hateful and violent parts of the Old Testament concerning ethnic cleansings, homophobia and sexism (while conveniently leaving out the parts about selling your daughter into slavery, etc).
Question 4: What role did race play in your church? Were there any black or Hispanic families? Were they treated differently?
None of the churches or communities I visited were in any way overtly racist, and my parents recoiled at racism. Racism did crop up through stereotypes, but the black/Hispanic/Asian people in these communities were just as likely to make these mildly racist statements as their white co-believers, and the white majority truly was colorblind to the minorities within their own borders. They simply didn’t see some of their racial stereotyping- such as the oft-used archetype of the “welfare mom” in reference to single-motherhood- as racially-charged at all.
Section 3: Gender and Family
Question 1: What did your church teach about gender roles, the family, and marriage?
The broad swath of my influences taught Christian patriarchy, which you have so accurately described, and in this way my experience was little different from the average Quiverful child. My mother was, for many years, the ideal female in the complementarian worldview- hard working, talented at “womanly” things, submissive, interested only in her child and home, and deeply maternal and self-sacrificing. My father was mentally abusive and distant but otherwise filled the idealized patriarchal roles prescribed by complementarian philosophy. The curriculum I was given for over ten years never ceased to hammer home this worldview either.
Question 2: Describe your parents’ marriage. Was it complementarian (i.e. “soft” patriarchy), or more openly patriarchal, or in practice egalitarian? Did your family or church use any of these terms?
My family never spoke of patriarchy, nor did we use many of the evangelical buzzwords that fundamentalists usually do to euphemize their beliefs. We were nonetheless extremely sexist in practice. My mother was expected to do all of the housework, cooking, and child-rearing, while my father, despite being a hard worker, did not feel obliged to go beyond his duty as a patriarch to earn money outside of the home and do heavy lifting when necessary. Along the same lines, my mother was infantilized and condescended to while my father’s ego was fed by her constant support. This patriarchy had little to do with the nature of my parents and much more to do with the beliefs they were raised with. My mother became a much stronger woman later in life, and found that much of her submissive nature was a form of self-suppression and not her natural personality.
Question 3: In what ways were boys and girls in your family expected to dress or act differently from each other? Were there certain things it was appropriate for girls to do but not boys, and vice versa?
I was raised as an only child, but I likely would have been treated differently if I were born female. We were fairly mild in this respect, however. Based on how we interacted with other families and children, I’d say our beliefs about gender roles were much more relaxed than those of most evangelicals.
Question 4: In what ways were boys and girls in your family raised differently vocationally? Were the girls expected to be stay at home mothers or to hold jobs? Did your mother work, and if so, how was that viewed by your family and church?
Again, we weren’t extreme in this respect, so there wasn’t an outright ideological condemnation of women being “unfeminine” in some way. But we did believe in major, innate differences between genders, and women were expected, as an unspoken rule, to eventually fulfill their “proper” roles as wives and mothers, with a few exceptions.
Section 4: Education
Question 1: What sort of education did you have: public school, Christian school, or homeschool? What reasons did your parents give for choosing the method of education for you that they chose?
I was homeschooled K-10 with a supposedly moderate fundamentalist curriculum (not to name names). We used every cliché you can think of to justify our choice to homeschool, from bizarre fears of secular school indoctrination centers to non sequiters about events like Columbine. To be fair, my parents also used more legitimate concerns about massive class sizes and violent bullying to push them toward homeschooling, but many of our reasons were based on the fear of things which only exist in the bubble-world of American evangelicism.
Question 2: Briefly describe the academic aspect of your educational experience (public school, Christian school, or homeschool), focusing on the role played by religion. If you were public schooled, did your parents try to counteract anything you were learning at school with different teachings at home (i.e. sex education, evolution)? Or, did the public schools in your area find ways to include things like creationism or abstinence only sex education?
I was taught through workbooks and online classes through an attractively-presented and challenging umbrella school. The curriculum was consistently fundamentalist, and seems very extreme to me in retrospect, though it is described as moderate by most people familiar with Christian curricula. Since I’ve now begun to understand evangelical culture more holistically, I think my curriculum was called moderate because it delivered controversial material much more mildly than other fundamentalist courses, striking softly rather than sharply.
Question 3: Briefly describe the social aspect of your upbringing, especially as influenced by religion. How did your educational experience (public school, Christian school, or homeschool) affect your socialization? Was your friend group religiously diverse or more homogeneous? If you were public schooled, did your religious background cause you any social problems in school?
My friends were religiously diverse, but due partly to my schooling and other influences, I never considered them anything more than misguided about religion. I never thought seriously about the Unitarian idea of multiple paths to salvation, despite my mother’s earnest attempts to blend her inherently empathetic nature with a hateful brand of religion. Nonetheless I was not nearly as sheltered as some evangelicals, and I did know that not all non-christians were demons, and that non-believers were just as human as me.
Question 4: Did you attended Sunday school, youth group, Bible club, or church camp? Please describe your experiences.
Thankfully, I never attended these kinds of things regularly. Other than a short time in the Cub Scouts, which was an implicitly religious group, my only involvement in religious activities consisted of occasional visits to my cousin’s sunday school. When I attended both of these groups, I was too young for any of the really controversial material, so my experience with them was fairly uncontroversial.
Section 5: Purity
Question 1: What were you taught about physical and emotional purity, and also about modesty? What did your family believe about dating and/or courtship? How was sex education handled?
I was taught the standard fundamentalist line about physical and emotional purity, though modesty wasn’t discussed much since I am male. Sex education was dealt with only through uncomfortable chats. I hate to be so boring, but it really was that stereotypical.
Question 2: How did the things you were taught about purity, modesty, and dating/courtship work out for you in practice? Did you date, and at what age? Did you have sex before marriage, and if you did, did you experience guilt? In essence, explain how belief met practice and with what results.
I was largely isolated, for various reasons, during my post-pubescent teenage years. I didn’t have much of a chance to date or have sex, or fall in love for that matter. However, I carried (and still carry) a considerable amount of guilt about sex, alone or with a partner, as well as sexual thoughts and activities. I don’t know to what extent being less isolated (and therefore more likely to date/etc) would have done to influence my feelings on the subject, but I get the sense that it would have only made the guilt worse.
Question 3: How do you feel about your family and church’s purity, modesty, and dating/courtship teachings today? Do you think there are any parts of these teachings that still have value? How do you plan to handle these issues with your own children?
I feel that almost nothing I was taught about sexuality has value. I find nearly all of it to be hateful, self-denying, condescending, simpering, self-righteous and utterly unfounded. I could see myself teaching my children to respect themselves and their bodies in issues of sex and love, which I will admit is taught consistently by evangelicals. But I could only do so in a far different context than the one fundamentalists use.
Question 4: Do you feel that the purity, modesty, and dating/courtship teachings you were raised with still have lasting impact on your life today? If so, how? What do you feel is the most detrimental effect of purity teachings?
Yes. Although my mother didn’t inculcate sexual self-hatred into me the way most conservative Christians do, nearly all of the media and philosophy I was exposed to- especially my homeschooling curricula- did.
It would have been bad enough if I was straight- or even simply gay- but I feel there is nothing worse than being a bisexual raised in this way. I believe that bisexuals who are raised evangelical not only have the self-denial and repression that both gay and straight individuals feel, but are also faced with confusion and a tremendous sense of self-illegitimacy.
I went through some of the self-denial and self-hatred that’s common among all children taught evangelical sexual morals, but it became truly complicated when I began to discover my sexuality. As I developed, I was dogged by a horrified confusion, since nothing I was taught about the world could explain what was in my own mind. I found that I had desires for girls and boys, and not only that, but I could desire them equally. I didn’t always see males as dominant and females as subordinate, which was extremely confusing given the binary view of the sexes I had been raised with.
Since I (like most of us) was raised in a pretty heteronormal culture, my first sexual development surrounded only females. But bisexuality grew onto me slowly, and eventually I couldn’t pretend I didn’t have feelings towards males as well. At times, I would spend days thinking that I was gay, then realize that I couldn’t repress my attraction to women any more than I could to men. It wasn’t right to think about girls, yet it was worse to think about boys, so I just cycled furtively back and forth, trying to find a comfortable place where I would sin the least.
The whole thing left me repressed, angry and scarred, and it’s hard to describe my experiences with it fully. Leaving the sexual beliefs I was raised in has been a very long and painful exercise, but is nonetheless the most important thing I’ve ever done in recovering from fundamentalism. I still feel dirty and sinful about my own sexuality, and only recently have been able to admit my nature to myself without my heart racing and a tinge of guilt and fear running along my back. But I find that now I’m able to feel at peace with myself, contented almost, for the first time I can remember since my childhood.
Section 6: Politics
Question 1: In his book Broken Words, Jonathan Dudley argues that a fourfold opposition to abortion, homosexuality, evolution, and environmentalism constitute the markers of evangelical tribal identity. What role did opposition to these four issues in your fundamentalist or evangelical upbringing, and would you agree with Dudley?
Absolutely. While my family had nothing against gay people in practice, they didn’t abandon biblical teachings on the subject and didn’t cringe when anti-gay hate was spewed from the pulpit unless it was extremely violent. In their view sexuality was binary, probably to fit in with complementarian patriarchy’s justification of sexism. Gay men were equivalent to transgender women in that they were perceived as being women in men’s bodies. No one acknowledged the existence of lesbian women, bisexuality, or any kind of nuance in sex or sexuality at all since acknowledging these people as real would subvert their belief in gender roles.
I was taught that abortion is murder, and life begins at conception. It was as simple as that. Even a tiny ball of three-day-old cells was held to possess and soul and presumably a consciousness, while a great ape or an elephant couldn’t. No one discussed the science behind pregnancy beyond showing photo galleries of bloody fetuses, and unless a woman was raped, she was tacitly expected to be abstinent until marriage (and, presumably, until she wanted children).
We were okay with mild environmentalism, such as litter cleanup and recycling and vague support for alternative energy sources. But we were only environmentalists in the dominionist sense- the earth was given to humans to use, and it was our responsibility to make sure future generations could also use it. At no point did we consider the livelihoods of other human cultures or other advanced social animals, and we chuckled at those who did.
Evolution, along with abortion, was a big issue. Anti-evolution rhetoric was presented to me incessantly through books, media, and educational materials. I was taught an exhaustive list of arguments made against evolution, split about halfway between moral and scientific claims. Having researched the issue quite a bit, I can confidently say I was taught every major creationist canard in existence. This proved to be self-defeating in the end, since seeing through the ruse of creationism was a major factor in my deconversion.
Question 2: What role did you, your family, or your church community believe Christians should play in politics? What did your family or church hold was the end goal of Christians’ involvement in politics? What were your family and church community’s beliefs about the end times, and how (if any) did these beliefs affect their view of Christians’ role in politics?
Most of our churches believed that Christians should lead the world and were inherently more righteous than non-Christians. By and large they advocated the Christianization of the globe as the solution to all problems, and very often urged everyone in the church to be messengers of Christianity to everyone.
They further stated, almost universally, that Christianity was under attack by “secularists” who were engaged in a grand conspiracy to indoctrinate our children and bring about the moral decline of the world. The “secular agenda” they talked about was a sort of lumped-together mishmash of vaguely leftist things the church disapproved of, mostly originating from stereotypes of the 1960’s political left.
Most of the churches I visited were also protestant premillenialist, and they preached all of the political implications that philosophy holds. My family didn’t necessarily believe all of this, but it was never criticized in our house, which left me more than a little confused when various churches seemed to disagree with each other.
Question 3: Were you, your family, or your church community involved in politics? What all did this involvement include? Did your pastor ever preach a political view from the pulpit? Did you ever picket an abortion clinic, attend a “defense of marriage” rally, or participate in any related activities? Describe your experiences.
Our family tried to define itself as apolitical and my parents never really mustered the courage, and perhaps the conviction, to attend rallies or activist events in favor of conservative Christian causes.
Church leaders, on the other hand, regularly preached about sexuality, abortion, science, and the “secular agenda”. Though their words were not explicitly political, it was obvious who you were supposed to vote for.
Question 4: What political issues did you, your parents, and/or your church community see as most important in deciding who to vote for and why?
We were typical fundamentalists politically, and called ourselves values voters. Abortion was a big issue, gay marriage less so but still relevant. The president’s personal life and “relationship with Jesus” counted quite a bit. We weren’t very political people, in the sense that we didn’t understand history or politics very well, and to an extent we were single-issue and/or low-information voters. Liberals were perceived as permissive, secular and untrustworthy, so Republican candidates nearly always won our support. In retrospect, this is amusing to me, since very few Democrats presented themselves differently than Republicans with regards to religion.
Section 7: Questioning
Question 1: In what ways did the culture of your family and church differ from “mainstream” American culture? To what extent were you integrated into or isolated from “mainstream” American culture? To what extend do you feel that evangelicalism creates a sort of self-contained culture of its own, with Christian bookstores, Christian music, etc.?
We were generally a picture of the evangelical lifestyle. We didn’t swear, listened only to classical and Christian music, went largely to Christian bookstores (especially for nonfiction), and so forth. Even though we associated with some families who were not part of the evangelical movement, we still lived within very narrow cultural lines and I lacked a great deal of cultural knowledge upon entering the world as a young adult.
Question 2: What first made you question evangelicalism/fundamentalism? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?
I would say that doubt and even a sort of anti-theism had been simmering within me for a long time before I finally had a break from faith. I can remember little pieces of doubt that I hid away, and short moments in which I felt horrified at God’s words or actions, but I tended to gloss over these thoughts when I could. I tried to see them as roadblocks to salvation and not legitimate feelings, and as such I repressed a lot of doubt and indignation about religion until, one day, it reached a boiling point.
I remember going into my public library to research science, and eventually giving in to the temptation to read some of that “evolution” nonsense I had been learning to argue against for so long. But as I began to read scientific works on human history, as well as explanations of what evolution actually was and how it fit into biology, I realized that almost everything I had been taught about science was a complete lie. None of the arguments I had so passionately amassed over the years could work against the facts I was presented with, and that shook my faith to the core. Once that first chip was made, the entire foundation of my belief began to crumble as I remembered all of the things that I had repressed, all of the doubt and indignation and moral horror I had once felt at the teachings of my faith. From that moment on, everything changed.
George Carlin and Bill Hicks helped prevent me from regressing to self-hatred, and it was probably through their work that I first began to feel liberated rather than horrified at losing my faith. As I grew into my own identity I began to be more aggressive in rejecting religion, particularly when I realized what an unnecessary torment it had put me through because of my sexuality.
Question 3: What did you struggle with most when you were in the midst of questioning and leaving evangelicalism/fundamentalism? What was the hardest part?
The hardest part was understanding the complexity of the world; the fact that everything is on a spectrum, everything is painted in shades of grey, and nature doesn’t have any particular interest in human affairs. Growing up in an environment that emphasized absolutism in nearly everything, it was very frightening at first, almost like riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time.
Like a child learning to ride unassisted, I had to relearn the world, and develop a new perspective on everything around me. But in leaving those training wheels behind, I became completely liberated. I no longer feel chained down by anything, and I’m free to see the world as it is- in the end, this has given me more peace than religion ever did.
Question 4: Among those you grew up around who were also raised evangelical/fundamentalist, what proportion still hold those beliefs and what proportion have also left them?
Most of my nuclear family, extended family and former friends remain fundamentalists or conservatives. Only one of my aunts is irreligious, and she has always been something of a black sheep.
Section 8: Relating to Family
Question 1: How did your parents and siblings respond to you questioning/rejecting evangelicalism/fundamentalism? How did the friends you grew up with respond?
I am not currently out as an atheist, so I can’t truthfully answer the question. My instinct is that most of my extended family will simply throw up their hands, blame everything they don’t like about me on the evils of secularism, and move on. I don’t know what my close family will do when I come out, and that makes up part of the reason I have remained a closeted unbeliever.
Question 2: Now that you’ve questioned and left evangelicalism/fundamentalism, what is your relationship with your parents and siblings like today? What is your relationship with the friends you grew up with like?
Since my life involved moving around throughout childhood and not technically being in a single church, I don’t really have contact with the friends or even extended family I had growing up.
My relationship with my nuclear family is somewhat shaky at the moment, largely as a result of my views on religion. I haven’t been able to keep up the facade as well with my close relatives as I have with other people, so they may suspect I’m an atheist, but they know for certain I’m not a conservative Christian. I’m not out as bisexual, nor have I really discussed my social activism with family, because I know the problems that revealing both of them will cause.
Question 3: For those who are no longer Christian, are you “out” to your parents or siblings or friends from growing up? If so, how did you do it and how did they respond?
I’m currently not out to anyone, and fear of how others will react is a large part of my unwillingness to tell the truth. My mother knows definitively that I am not a Christian (though not that I’m an atheist) and even that has made our relationship tense.
Question 4: Have any of the rest of your family, including parents and siblings, left evangelicalism or fundamentalism? How do you approach the relationships with those who have not?
No one has really left the beliefs they were raised in except for my aforementioned aunt, who has been agnostic since her teenage years. My current approach to relationships with those who haven’t left the faith is unhealthy to say the least, and I hope I can change it as I evolve away from my old beliefs. I have difficulty speaking honestly about personal issues with anyone who isn’t already a confirmed nonbeliever, and I continue to pretend when I’m around groups of the faithful.
Section 9: Coping
Question 1: Does having being raised evangelical or fundamentalist has made you feel “different” from the rest of society, or like you stick out or don’t fit in in some way? Explain.
Yes. I would make a distinction between types of social differences here though. Atheists and bisexuals are both highly misunderstood minorities, so more often than not those of us in these groups don’t fit into mainstream culture’s boxes and therefore stick out a little wherever we go. This isn’t necessarily bad though. I don’t see anything wrong with not being in mainstream culture or fitting into the boxes that a particular culture puts in front of you.
However, evangelicals live in a bubble world and more often than not do so because they can’t defend their ideas in a truly open and fair forum. As a result, they have almost no useful knowledge about cultures beyond their own. You are not permitted to even glimpse at the vast swathe of mainstream or minority non-christian culture, since it is perceived to be secular and vaguely evil. Nor are you allowed to learn any real science or history, since it inevitably contradicts the beliefs of your church.
Having to relearn, from the start, your own cultural history is a strange experience that seems unique to recovering fundamentalists, and to me it’s very distinct from merely breaking a social archetype or being “weird”. The way evangelicals distinguish themselves from the rest of society is extremely unhealthy, because, by their nature, they don’t let anybody else in.
Question 2: What do you think is the biggest way being raised in an evangelical or fundamentalist family and church community has influenced who you are today?
As I grew away from my religion I realized that it had inculcated in me an intense self-hatred that I barely noticed while I practiced the faith. I had grown to hate my curious and at times trickster-like personality, my sexuality and my own doubts, and I repressed them mercilessly until I was a very unhappy person. Even though I’ve worked through many of these issues, to this day I continue to feel dirty and guilty for thinking the wrong thoughts, doing the wrong things and being attracted to the wrong people. In addition to this, I retain a great deal of underlying anger towards fundamentalists, religions in general, and cultures that tolerate them, and I have continuously tried and failed to avoid becoming an angry person because of it.
Question 3: How did you perceive your childhood and evangelical or fundamentalist religious upbringing at the time compared to how do you see it now?
At the time, I saw everything I was taught as perfectly normal and righteous. I didn’t see it as the only way to live, but certainly viewed it as the best. Now I see the religious element of my upbringing as destructive and distinctly negative, with a few exceptions here and there.
Question 4: What do you think were the most beneficial things about being raised fundamentalist or evangelical? What were the most problematic things?
I can confidently say that there is nothing I perceive as uniquely useful in fundamentalist beliefs. All the good ideas I could cherry-pick are equally present in other philosophies, and are often enough just instinct and common sense.
I believe that fundamentalism tends to repress your true nature, since regardless of your personality, sexuality, or intelligence, you’re always sinning and living in fear of sin. It’s hard to have peace- or a consistent identity, for that matter- when you are expected to hold an impossible and inhuman standard of behavior as ideal, and out of all the problems with fundamentalism, I see this as the worst and most universal.