The brain-washing, fear-inducing world of the fundamentalism I knew


Sometimes people ask me why I became an Unfundamentalist Christian. Well, the main reason is that I know what real fundamentalism is like. That’s because I was raised in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, home, and school.

In that environment, there was always a very intense focus on the filthy rags verse. (All of us have become like one who is unclean / and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags / we all shrivel up like a leaf / and like the wind our sins sweep us away. —Isaiah 64:4.) We were indoctrinated to believe that we were completely worthless in the eyes of God; and this is how we came to view everyone else, too—which leads to the hubris and judgmentalism so common to fundamentalism.

We were taught that we were dirt: undeserving, untrustworthy, deserving only of punishment. IFB humility is expressed as: “I don’t deserve God’s love; I don’t deserve God’s blessing; I’m so lucky that He doesn’t just strike me dead right here this very instant, because I am so evil and full of vile sin.”

We were taught that Satan will take every opportunity to creep in and trick us away from “the narrow path.” Questions, doubt, and sin were of the Devil, evidence of weak faith, or of no faith at all. If you struggled with sin of any kind, then maybe you weren’t really a Christian after all. Maybe you needed to pray the sinner’s prayer again, and really ask Jesus to come into your heart and forgive you—and this time really mean it.

They preached eternal security—except when they doubted your sincerity of heart, which they did whenever evidence of any change in your life didn’t meet their standard of “Godliness.” You can be certain of your salvation once you are saved, they taught—but they also worked relentlessly to create doubt in the minds of their followers as to whether or not they, the followers, were truly saved in the first place. So we all lived in perpetual fear and doubt of everyone and everything, including, and perhaps most especially, ourselves.

If someone from the outside questioned our beliefs, a standard response was that Satan was using them to try to trick us.

Always the focus was on absolutely unyielding convictions and certainty.

There was such a strong focus on the verse “not of works lest any man should boast” that the IFB people in my world did no works at all. There was no caring for the poor, no helping the homeless, no feeding the hungry, no clothing the naked. Getting people to church was the only “works” any of them cared about. Conversion and “right belief” were the cure for everything. Drug addict? Alcoholic? Smoker? Find Jesus. (It’s your free will to choose to do these things, after all, they taught: just stop doing them, and pray for God to take your sin away.)

Dance, drink, listen to worldly music, or go to movies? Find Jesus. Attend the wrong kind of church? Find the real Jesus. Your husband hits you? Bring him to church; he just needs to get right with Jesus.

About people who were down and out, they taught, “Well, that’s just evidence of them not having God in their life, not living the right way, and God not blessing them because they are sinful. And, anyway, they like their sin; they enjoy it; they don’t want to change; they hate God.”

It’s that attitude that causes IFB congregations to severely marginalize and fear “the other.” In the world in which I grew up, no one ever showed any compassion or grace to anyone outside our circle.

And we were definitely taught not to question authority. “How dare you ask God why that child died?” I heard—and often, “How dare you be angry with God? You just need to accept God’s will.” And most certainly we all constantly heard, “How dare you question our God-anointed pastor?” (who, in the IFB, is always male).

If you had tough questions about things that didn’t make sense, you were told that you just needed to pray and read your Bible more, that clearly you were weak-minded and failing to fight off the influence of Satan. Having questions meant that you weren’t trying hard enough. The implication was that maybe you just weren’t qualified to live the life of a true Christian: you obviously hadn’t fully surrendered your heart and mind to God.

We were also taught to never even think about questioning our parents: they knew what was best for us (even if what was “best” meant reinforcing wrongheaded thinking, destroying our self-esteem, and submitting us to the care of toxically unhealthy people). “Of course your child won’t like corporal punishment,” they taught parents. “But you need to make sure your punishment of the errant child hurts. They won’t remember to do right next time if you don’t hurt them the first time. Your job as a parent is to break the will of the disobedient child, and conform his will to your own—just like we are to conform our own will to the will of God. Punishment isn’t supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to get the child to obey.”

I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard on how the state and the government, if they had their way, would take children away from their good, God-fearing Christian parents, “just” because such parents “discipline” their children the way they are supposed to. And so we all had ingrained in us a deep fear and distrust of government.

We women were taught to never question or doubt our husbands, or men generally. The man is the head of the house, we learned from birth, the head of the church—and, of course, God himself is male. All IFB women are taught, “What right do you think you have to question authority? You need to submit, and obey, and avoid idle talk.”

And I’m sure I’m not the only fundamentalist kid to have a “Left Behind” story: of waking up from a nap, say, and for whatever reason not being able to find a single soul, which sent me running through the house and outside, looking for anyone who might possibly be born again so that I could relieve my anxiety that the Rapture hadn’t taken place.

Constant fear and doubt: we were weaned on it, and it was never far from us.

This is the patriarchal, ego-fortifying, psyche-destroying, soul-crushing, domineering, brain-washing, fear-inducing, manipulative, spiritually abusive world of the fundamentalism I know so well. They know nothing of an unconditionally loving God—the God that, since I have gotten away from that awful world, I have come to know and love.

It’s for these reasons that I am very pleased indeed to today call myself an Unfundamentalist Christian.

(For more on the IFB, I strongly recommend John Shore’s article The Fundamentally Toxic Christianity.)

(The photo is a still from Marina Abramović’s Freeing the Voice performance.)

  • Martha Foy

    Good for you that you were able to feel enough of God’s love to not “throw out the baby with the bathwater”. Too many kids raised as you were rebel against God as if God is the problem. It is always sad when part of God’s people prevent their children from being able to see the nature of God because of their own fear.

    • Val

      For me, it was emotional abuse – they worked hard to break my spirit. Which they never completely did, but it took about 20 years before I could even bear to think about it, much less talk about it. And then I was angry for about 20 years :) Now that I think about it – yep, still somewhat angry about it.

      • sheila0405

        Me, too. I’m 58 & it’s still so hard to talk about it. Unless ppl are in it, being a fundie can be impossible to explain. It wrecks your ability to think straight. Mind games all the way through.

  • vanative77

    i was reared in a similar setting… though it was a non-denominational church… a “word church”… and today, i’m not a believer at all… but, i do love jesus’ teachings and wish i could have the faith i no longer have… unfortunately, to the critical thinker, losing one’s faith is much like losing a limb… irreplaceable… so- i continue on the journey of being as good and kind and empathetic person i can be… and while i reject religion all together… i have a deep appreciation for faith. and for each religion. :) i’m glad you were lucky enough to come out on the other side of the brain-washing with your faith intact. that is a wonderful thing, indeed. :) xoxo and so much love to you!

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      I have to wonder, having gone through experiences similar, but not as toxic as others, whether our shedding the toxicity of a religious setting is less of a limb losing thing as we’ve been led to believe. I didn’t feel like I’d lost a limb, instead I felt I’d gained my freedom, a freedom to follow God, unrestrained and uninhibited.

      I can appreciate the time spent in a religious setting I eventually found utterly abhorrent to me, because I could appreciate more appreciate the faith that rose from the ashes. I also could better understand why people felt the way they did, even if I sharply disagreed with their beliefs. It also came to not bother me to be considered an outsider, because I knew the constraints that some wanted to bind me with, had no place to take hold.

      • sheila0405

        Each person’s journey is different. For those whose faith was shattered, it is like losing a limb. They haven’t been able to be in a religious setting since. It takes a long time to feel safe again.

        • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

          You are of course right sheila0405. Each of us is different in how we moved, and some are of course more traumatized by their former religious settings than I. Mine was less a total break and more along the lines of taking time to explore to different ways of looking at things. I eventually rejected the newer concept as well, as I moved more towards a more unique, individualized faith.

          My hope, my prayer is that God helps us all on our journeys, no matter where we end up in regards to the constructs of our faiths, and that we find peace along the way.

  • Lisa Lockard Lewis

    I also grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist environment and the teachings were the same. I don’t think some believe how much one is brainwashed against other people who don’t go to the same church. It took me many years after I left to even be interested in any type of spirituality.

  • Stephanie

    I just have to say “Thanks” to the author for the bravery it took to write and post this article. I say brave because aside from what is almost certain negative fallout from the author’s friends and family if not out right rejection, but also because of all of the painful memories that the author must have had to revisit in order to write such an accurate, honest, succinct summary of this kind of toxic religion. I was raised in a very similar fashion, so many of these things resonate deeply and painfully for me.

    • Stephanie

      P.S. Love the use of the image from Marina Abramovic’s Freeing the Voice Performance.

      • sheila0405

        It figures that you knew that, Steph. Sometimes you simply amaze me!

        • Stephanie

          I’m not familiar with that particular performance of hers, but I am familiar with Abramovic as an artist and the theme of a couple of her performances. I’ve never been able to see her in person. Performance art fascinates me.

  • sheila0405

    Wow, you describe my own upbringing perfectly. My church was a so-called nondenominational church, but its doctrine was identical to yours. Fundamentalism does’t have to be Baptist; it can be any denomination that adopts the “Bible only” way of thinking. But those Bible worshipers twist the Bible to their own ends, which means absolute control over their congregants. I left that world definitively in 2004, when I was 49. For the past 9 years I have continued to struggle with those feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and unworthiness. Nearly a half century of indoctrination is hard to dispel. To this day I am still completely under the thumb of my father’s whims.

    • Patti

      I so hear you! My story is virtually identical. I have found the indoctrination impossible to dispel after so many years–it framed every fiber of who I am and how I even think! Even after seeing a “cult” counselor for the last several months I still fight those ingrained bible-verse thoughts.

      • sheila0405

        I continue to love the Bible, but I am in setting now that it has become clearer to me. It is a beautiful love story of God’s quest to be reunited with his creation. Good always overcomes evil.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Wow, you describe my own upbringing perfectly. My church was a so-called nondenominational church, but its doctrine was identical to yours.

      On a Christian radio talk show back in the Eighties, some guest being interviewed described “Non-Denominational” as “Baptist with the labels painted over.”

  • Val

    I too spent my teenage years in an IFB church. After leaving home I didn’t set foot in a church for 20 years. Today I’m thankful to also call myself an Unfundamentalist Christian. Thanks be to God for leading me to a place of healing.

    • sheila0405

      Me, too!

  • D Lowrey

    Moving to a new community about two weeks ago…am looking for a new church. Unfortunately…I walked into a ultra-fundamentalist American Baptist church which gave me nightmares of the time I spent in Southern Baptist churches in my youth. My roommate and I walked out about 10 minutes after he started “preaching” when I heard “the rapture” being talked about twice…along with telling everyone how evil the world was and the only way to stop it was to elect “conservative christians” to public office. Would’ve loved to see that “pastor’s” face as he saw the back of our heads heading out the door.

    • sheila0405

      I’m just curious–why did you even step foot in a self-identified “Baptist” church at all? I’d never attend any church that calls itself “Baptist” no matter what other words come with it (American, Free, Gospel, Independent, Grace, etc.)

      • Steve

        There are Baptist churches that are quite unfundamentalist. Many Baptist General Conference Churches (Converge), American Baptist, and North American Baptist Churches are as repulsed by fundamentalism as those on this forum. From an ecclesiological standpoint, baptist churches will differ for simply the reason that they are locally governed, allowing for one church to become quite fundamentalist while others not at all.

    • Kate Jacobs

      I am sorry you had this unpleasant experience. After 30 years in ordained ministry in the American Baptist Churches, including pastoring the church Roger Williams founded 375 years ago on the basis of separation of church and state, soul liberty, above all a God of redemptive not retributive justice (that church still lives out those values) — I can assure you that the ABC church you encountered is not the norm. Many blessings as you continue to seek a church home.

  • http://facebook.com/scottsvger Scott Hicks

    I agree with my two sisters that our upbringing was quite similar to yours. I’d like to ask, when did you break away from the groupthink? The day my mind was freed was a Sunday morning at my current church, when my pastor broke down the Golden Rule. We are still considered Fundamentalist Evangelicals, but as a church have dropped the legalism and religious rituals.

    • sheila0405

      It sounds like the author broke away from the groupthink after being completely beaten down by it. The length and depth and width of the hurt caused by this nonsense can be beyond words.

  • Momof4

    Having lived in that world for 11 years, does not seem like a lot, but we raised our children in that mind set too and we still see the repercussions within ourselves and in them. I do have to say that the most freeing idea that has formed in my mind after being free from “fundamentalism” is that I cannot and should not judge my God by His people. They will always disappoint (as will I) and be less than perfect…which makes Him all the more desirable to follow as He is always faithful. Trust in Him and look for Him in all you hear, see and do. If you seek Him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, He will be found! Blessings <3

  • Phlix

    I might as well make this a family affair. I grew up in the church with your Dad. We both rejected the constraints of the congregation where we were raised. However, we both returned to faith in Christ and belief in the truth of God’s word. He sooner than I. My problem with what the writer says is on many levels.

    The author appears to reject the idea of Scripture being the source of our foundation. It, in my view, is the anchor that establishes the basis of all our theology. With out that as a foundation we are merely giving our opinion. Much of what formed the teachings of fundamentalism is good and true. Those areas where the writer has problems with the church are mainly attributable to the same problem that the writer has. They were not scriptural. A parallel example from recent days in the marriage debate would be; the Constitution makes no mention of marriage therefore for them to rule on the constitutionality of a ban on same sex unions is not within their jurisdiction, but that of the states that license an regulate it.. However, as we have seen, the court has constructed a scenario that supposedly allows them to intervene and in doing so have wreaked havoc on the social structure of millenniums. The same happens when “no dancing or smoking or whatever” is imposed where the Bible is silent.

    I could go on, but I think that the bottom line is this; God is not willing that anyone should be lost. His Word shows the way to salvation through Jesus Christ. Don’t modify what Jesus said; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we all do that the rest gets a lot easier.
    God Bless,

    Uncle Phil

    • sheila0405

      Uncle Phil, I hope you’re feeling okay. We got a text that you were nearing the end of your life. As to this article: nowhere does the author mention same-sex marriage. (Marriage is, IMHO, the province of the individual states) The author cites Scripture that was used to torment people. The verse she cites in the beginning, from Isaiah, that all our righteous deeds are like dirty rags is of particular ire for me. Pastor Conover at Linwood Community taught us that when God looks at believers, he really sees Jesus. We are so terrible that God can’t even look at us at all. This is the foundation of the “Good News” of Christ? How does this type of thinking square with being made in the image of God? It is taken out of context. Your Bible is only as good as the one who interprets it for you. And, since the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible, and since he is the author of truth, then why are there so many different interpretations of the Bible? Is the Holy Spirit being cruel? Are some ministers deaf, or even stupid? Those of us who fled fundamentalism didn’t run away from our faith in Jesus Christ. We ran from those who twist and/or cut & paste the Bible so that it looks absurd.. But we remain one sarcastic remark or one arrogant proclamation away from being squashed like bugs. The damage can last a lifetime.

      • Phlix

        My demise has been greatly over blown. I am as close to death as my God deems the event to take place…So are you.

        I mentioned the marriage issue as an illustration of the absurdity of the author’s argument. (The same can be said of yours.) Scripture is meant as a guide and a tutorial for those who would be considered “the lost” as well as those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. If you read Paul’s explanation of the value of our earthly works (ie; those aimed at gaining salvation) you will see that Paul is talking about how God views the works, not the person performing them. God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.

        The Bible is not written so that someone else can interpret it for you. We are instructed to “Study to show yourself approved unto God; a workman, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.” In other words, we are to be diligent in OUR study of the Bible and by doing so we will be able to discern the validity of the teachings of those who profess to be spiritual guides to their congregation. You will remember that Paul applauded the Bereans for doing just that.-

        As I remember, you ran from the Protestant church to the Roman belief. Both have their areas of false teaching based on the interpretation of the leaders of the various branches of thought. I could state many for both. The point of all this is this; we will not be considered righteous by what denomination we follow, but by our faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ and what we do with that faith to obey Christ’s commands. Regardless of what you call yourself, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Friend (my current church) or whatever; what Christ asked the disciples is still the burning question: “Who do you say that I am?”

        • sheila0405

          I don’t accept the premise that the author’s argument was absurd. The passage I cited was the same one the author did–Isaiah’s statement that all of our righteousness are only filthy rags. I didn’t cite Paul. When I say that one’s interpretation of the Bible is only as good as the one who interprets it for him, I was referring to Jesus’ discourse on the Holy Spirit in John 17. It is the Holy Spirit who is the author of truth. He cannot contradict Himself. So, if your premise is accepted, that every church has some false teaching in it, that means that the Holy Spirit is inept by not proclaiming the truth effectively enough. I don’t accept that for a minute. If we can agree on that much, we have moved forward. If we don’t agree on that, then there’s nothing more to talk about. Oh, and BTW, I absolutely love the Bible. I believe I understand it now better than I ever did. But there’s that pesky “what does it mean?” thing. So, the author is not absurd at all. She honestly put words to paper about her own upbringing, and how she was taught when she was growing up. I think it took a lot of guts for her to do it. I don’t agree with every word she wrote (I don’t think the church is anti-female) but I believe that she was hurt by how the Bible was used as a weapon of control against her.

  • kirsten zielinski

    what an awful way to grow up. there is nothing worse than parents that use god as a punishment or a reason to punish everything. glad you got out.. hope you find a church that teaches what jesus really is.. not the punish every thought church you were brought up in.

    • sheila0405

      Fundamentalism is a peculiar understanding related to the Bible. It’s pretty complex, and generally this complexity is taught to children from a very young age. Unfortunately, the cut & paste approach to coming up with dispensations and a rapture that will leave millions behind to suffer in a great tribulation engenders real fear. I, too, like the author, would panic if I entered my house and no one was there. My family didn’t leave notes letting each other know our whereabouts. And since salvation is based on a sinner’s prayer, which had to be sincere, there was always this nagging fear that perhaps I didn’t really mean it. I can’t remember how many times I asked Jesus to come into my heart. All it took was one sermon that was pointed right at one’s sincerity to raise the fear of an eternity in hell. There’s a whole lot more to it, of course, but it can really mess with your head.

  • Brettany Renée Blatchley

    Yikes, fundamentalism looks even more stark from outside…I think I can safely say I am a “recovering fundamentalist.” (**THANK YOU ABBA**!!!)

    God used the most unlikely thing to bring me to great trust, dependence and security in Christ Jesus: you see, I am a married Christian woman, a transsexual woman. He has been healing me through the “scandal” of my gender transition.

    Most of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters cannot permit themselves to imagine that one could be Christian AND transgender (this is *MUCH* worse in their eyes than being gay). They forget the work of God is to believe in the One He sent: trusting Him and casting myself upon Him in utter dependence is more important to God than my being “right” in my fellow Christian’s eyes: relationship with God is more important than “religious correctness.”

    So, here I am, a paradox of grace in both the Christian and transgender communities in which people are experiencing the *extravagance* of God as He works through my weaknesses. Christians cannot understand *how* God could be in my life (but they see the evidence), and transgender people cannot understand how Jesus could love them, and they experience Jesus loving them through me.

  • Sophia

    I am a teacher, and in the private high school where I work, the students read actual accounts of Puritans (historical original documents) when they study the early years of American history. What strikes me most about your story, is the crude similarity between the hyper-focus on salvation today, and the hyper-focus on it 400 years ago. Members in the community would be watched carefully for their “conversion experience”, which was usually a coming over by the Holy Spirit. it had to be witnessed by another and recounted for the church, who would then vote as to whether you could become a member of the church. They were so focused on Predestination, the idea that God chooses who is saved, that you yourself could not choose. You could only be chosen by God, through an experience with the Holy Spirit.

    It is different today in that we are hyper-focused on having exactly the correct beliefs, which you mention your church members having to the total exclusion of any good deeds! It is the same though, in its craziness and exclusivity.

    • AtalantaBethulia

      Hi, Sophia. I’m the author of the piece. In the Christian school where we were taught, they revered the faithfulness of the Puritans, commonly referring to them as the Separatists. Thank you for adding your insights.

  • Cat

    I realize this is an old post, but someone please give me some input.
    So, for those of us raised in these environments, who rationally understand this is toxic and untrue, but can’t, like, erase the fear and punishment programming and brainwashing: WHAT TO DO?

    • AtalantaBethulia

      Cat,

      I’m the author of the piece. Erasing the fear and punishment programming and brainwashing takes time and distance from this environment and from the people who are in this environment and who continue to think and live this way. Setting boundaries with the people in our lives who are still in this environment protects us from incurring further injury and gives us the space we need to heal. It takes finding wise guides and surrounding oneself with healthy people and getting healthy ourselves, often with the help of a good, understanding therapist. It is important to have a knowledgeable, objective, healthy person help us peel back the layers of our life and examine what was very much our truth, but which was not at all grounded in reality. For me, it also took reading books on spirituality and psychology and a great deal of time spent thinking and wrestling with and questioning everything I had every thought and known to be true and being willing to follow the Spirit wherever those questions led. This, at time led to some dark places, but as with most difficult things in life there is no away around them. To get to the other side, successfully, we must be brave enough to go through them.

      Find people who are trustworthy. Find healthy people who have lived through this and come out of it and who aren’t still stuck and mired in anger and resentment over it – which can be just as unhealthy and toxic as being with those still in this environment. Allow yourself to love and be loved. Learn to trust people worthy of your trust. Tell your story to those who are willing to listen and worthy of hearing it. And know that it can and does get better. There are healthy, loving, caring people of faith in the world who will not hurt us. There are healthy congregations who truly value people who will love and support and nurture your faith without hurting you. And we can still have a deep, abiding faith without the fear and shame and guilt. and in that space we meet the God we never knew, who loves us like we were never taught.

      I write more about this journey at http://leap-of-fate.com/

      I also highly recommend the following books:

      Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown
      The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
      Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston
      Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

      Love to you as you navigate this part of your journey and know that you are not alone.

      • Cat

        Thank you. I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this advice many times yet (because I have been trying to break free [geographically and psychologically]). Knowing I’m supported and not alone somehow makes the burden half as light.

  • Darryl Corcoran

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  • Timothy Shrout

    Even more moderate conservative churches convey these ideas. I lived in it until recently as a teacher, trying to inject compassion, love and…well, real spirituality in my lessons. The idea of anything experiential or contemplative was viewed as un-scriptural (isn’t that how God communicated with those in the Bible?) It finally caught up to me as some began to say I was teaching un-Biblical ideas. So, I have now “come out” and I must confess, my accusers were right. I was not teaching the view of the Bible as they believed. However, rather than causing strife in the body, I decided to quietly step out of that church. The church is full of good and loving people. I am great friends with the pastor. This was our community…this hurts. It is also the best thing I have ever done. To respond to Cat, “What to do?”…Love the people, forgive them, and love them some more. That is following the example of the Savior.


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