Dear Exvangelicals: I’m Rooting For You

Dear Exvangelicals: I’m Rooting For You May 28, 2024

I joined Threads and BlueSky a few months ago, looking for an alternative to the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Almost immediately, the algorithms of both sites started filling my feeds with Exvangelicals: people who are or were part of Evangelical Christianity but who are somewhere in the process of deconstructing their beliefs – questioning the things they were told they had to believe but that are contrary to their reading of the Bible, their understanding of Jesus, and their own good sense.

The Exvangelical movement is in large part a reaction to White Christian Nationalism – a Christianity grounded in exclusivist theology, patriarchy, xenophobia, a hatred of all things LGBTQ+, and opposition to women’s empowerment, especially reproductive rights. It’s a reaction to Evangelical support for Donald Trump, the most un-Christ-like person ever to be President of the United States.

It’s only been in the last few years that the Exvangelical movement has had a name. Before that, it was just “people leaving the church” – as they’ve been doing for the past 60 years. People decided “this just isn’t working for me” and they stopped going to church.

But for some, it wasn’t that simple. It certainly wasn’t for me. When something is a part of your life since birth, and when you’ve been told all that time that the eternal fate of your soul depends on keeping it a part of your life, you can’t just walk away.

And yet something deep inside you whispers “this is wrong and you know it – get out.”

This is not a feature on Exvangelicals for my usual Pagan audience. It’s certainly not an attempt to recruit Exvangelicals into Paganism – proselytizing people who are in difficult situations is evil, and in any case, Paganism is not a proselytizing religion. Rather, this is my attempt to tell Exvangelicals and others in similar situations that I got out of Evangelical fundamentalism and onto a religious path that is meaningful and helpful to me.

And they can too.

Rocky Mountain National Park - photo by John Beckett

Knowing “this is wrong” but not knowing where to go instead

I grew up in a small fundamentalist Baptist church. As a child, I believed what I was taught. Why wouldn’t I? My parents fully believed it and it was part of the wider culture in Tennessee in the 1960s and 70s. I went to Sunday School, I read the Bible, and I sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

When I was a little older I got to thinking about all the children of the world, and how according to Evangelical doctrine, the vast majority were going to “spend eternity in hell” because they believed the wrong things – and most of them never had a realistic chance to believe the “right” things.

This was “God’s plan”??? If that’s God’s plan, then God is either a lousy planner or is unworthy of worship.

At that point I knew I couldn’t stay where I was religiously, but I didn’t have the knowledge and experience to know where I could go. I knew I wasn’t an atheist – the same part of me that knew “this is wrong” also knew there’s more to life than the material world. So while I continued going to the Baptist church (I was a kid and trying to convince my parents to let me not go to church, or even to go to a different church, was a non-starter), in my heart and in my head I became something of a Christian universalist. I trusted that God would take care of everyone in one way or another.

My journey from there to where I am now is another story, one I wrote about a few years ago.

That church wasn’t as political as many right-wing churches are today, but they still preached patriarchy and xenophobia. Their politics were easy to dismiss.

Their theology took more work.

A religious house of cards

Evangelical doctrine is a house of cards. Their whole “metanarrative” of sin and redemption requires a historcal Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve weren’t historical people, then there is no Garden of Eden, there is no Fall of Man, and the whole concept of original sin is meaningless.

If Genesis isn’t history and not myth, Evangelical doctrine is false.

I was a curious, intelligent, and rather nerdy little kid who loved science – it’s no wonder I became an engineer. Geology and astrophysics make it clear that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, not 6,000. Biology and archaeology makes it clear that humans have been around for about 200,000 years and that every living thing on Earth is descended from a common ancestor, not that we suddenly appeared as we are now.

Catholics have managed to hold on to some rather conservative doctrines while still affirming the findings of science. Evangelicals have not. They cling to the insistence that the Bible is “inerrant” and that the myths of Genesis are history, not stories the ancient Hebrews told to explain where they came from, like most every other people on Earth.

They are wrong. And they will twist themselves into intellectual knots to insist that they aren’t.

The fear of rejecting what you were told you have to believe, even when it’s clearly false

I’ve talked to some Evangelicals and read many more who are intelligent, well-educated people who insist on ignoring the findings of science and history and clinging to a literal interpretation of the Bible. How can that be?

Because they’re terrified to do anything else.

If you’ve been told all your life that the eternal fate of your soul depends believing certain things, it can be very hard to examine the evidence and come to the conclusion that those things are, in fact, false. Pascal’s Wager is intellectually dishonest and spiritually bankrupt, but its emotional pull is strong.

Dear Exvangelicals, I want to give you credit for making it this far. These questions are hard to ask and even harder to wrestle with. They’re hard to contemplate when those in positions of religious authority insist that their beliefs – whether they hold those beliefs genuinely or out of fear –  are the absolute truth and anything else is the work of the devil.

Trust science and the scientfic method – they’re how we’ve moved from the bronze age to the computer age in just a few centuries. Trust your heart and your brain – they’re gifts from the Divine, however you understand or will come to understand the Divine.

Read!

Your journey out of Biblical literalism, Evangelical doctrine, fear-based religion, and nationalist politics may take a different direction than mine. That’s OK. But there are some things that were very helpful to me that I’m pretty sure will be helpful for you.

Read. A lot. From a wide variety of sources and traditions. Read science and learn how a historical reading of Genesis is intellectually dishonest. Read mythology and learn how the myths of the Bible (a myth is not a “made up story” – a myth is story that provides meaning and identity) are similar to the myths of other people in the Ancient Near East. Read Jewish scholars learn how the people who wrote what Christians call the Old Testament have understood those books for centuries (hint: it’s not what you were taught in Sunday School).

And then read some Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, and Confuscian writers and get a whole different perspective on religion. Learn about the world’s remaining indigenous cultures and get a glimpse into how your ancestors lived and thought thousand of years ago.

And if it’s not too blatantly self-promoting, I’d like to suggest you read some modern Pagan authors and learn about a religion grounded in Nature, the Many Gods, the Self, and Community.

All religious questions are inherently uncertain

When you understand that the Bible is not inerrant, that the Evangelical “metanarrative” is false, and that many different people have many different approaches to religion, you come to one inescapable fact: all religion is inherently uncertain. The Big Questions of Life – where do we come from, what comes after death, how should we live – are ultimately unanswerable. Not because our technology isn’t sufficiently advanced, but because they deal with matters that are beyond the capacity of our brilliant but still finite brains to comprehend.

And so the question for religion isn’t “what is true?” but rather “what is meaningful and helpful?”

Good religion isn’t about which set of unprovable supernatural propositions you affirm and which ones you reject, but rather about who you are, what you do and how you live, and perhaps most importantly, whose you are. One of the etymological roots of the English word “religion” is the Latin word religare, which means “to bind together.”

Who do you wish to be bound together with, not with chains or with claims of religious and ethnic superiority, but with mutual commitments to love and support each other as we make our way through life?

Move at your own speed

I caution you to move at your own speed. You will no doubt want to figure this all out as quickly as you can. Work diligently toward that goal, but understand that this is a process that takes months and years, not days and weeks. Don’t give up if you don’t get to where you want to go right away. Escaping a lifetime of fear-based indoctrination takes time.

Expect setbacks. The tentacles that got into your brain and into your soul during all those years in Evangelical churches are deep and persistent. They have a way of reappearing at odd and inconvenient times.

“But what if I’m wrong?” “But what if they really are right?” “What if I’m going to hell?”

This isn’t a sign of failure. It’s just a reminder that anything worthwhile requires sustained effort. Remind yourself of what you’ve learned, remind yourself you no longer believe what the Evangelicals told you, and remind yourself why you no longer believe it.

Recommit to escaping toxic religion and to living the kind of life you want to live and that you’re called to live.

I’ll be honest: a purely intellectual approach didn’t work for me. The bad experiences of 18+ years in fundamentalist Evangelical churches and in a fundamentalist Evangelical home couldn’t be rationalized away. I had to crowd them out with good experiences in Pagan and Unitarian Univeralist settings. Perhaps you can reason your way out of this. But if you can’t, don’t give up. Keep working.

Do you need a debaptism? Probably not. But if you do, or if you want one, it can be done.

Blessings and good luck on your path

My hope for everyone is that you find the religious path and religious community that works for you: that makes sense and that helps you deal with the realities of life and death. For some of you, this will be a more reasonable and inclusive form of Christianity. For others, a different religion entirely. Many of you are likely to join the “none of the above” movement of people who are religious at a high level but who reject any and all doctine as unnecessary and unhelpful.

I found my way to Paganism and it works for me. If it works for you, great. If not, I wish you well in finding and following the path that calls to you.

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