There was a time as I was moving away from my Christian fundamentalist past that I simply kept my head down and put one foot in front of the other. I kept anything Christian at arms’ length just so I could survive and work on discovering my own perspective, my own place in the world. And then I came to a point where I felt it was possible to stand up and face the ideas that dominated my past, and to engage with the memories I still carry with me every day. I have not yet been able to return to a Reformed Baptist church or speak about religion with anyone from my past without experiencing almost PTSD-like symptoms, but engaging with ideas is a start.
It’s been an interesting journey, learning how to cope with this alien worldview that inhabits my past. I can’t just forget, unless I effectively block out the first eighteen to twenty years of my life. And I want to believe that those years weren’t just throw-aways, that there is some kind of value in my past experiences. But it can be hard to attempt to start an argument with an all-encompassing ideology that held total sway over so much of my life. Every time I open up dialogue even just in my own mind, I remember thinking and feeling and living like a fundamentalist. The problem is, it’s a complete system of thought, belief, and action, each part of it connecting to every other part so that if an ex-fundamentalist concedes even one premise, she starts to think she needs to step back into the entire system. From the outside, I can see plainly how totally circular their reasoning is, what an insular and irrelevant culture they’re creating and sustaining. But I still remember what it’s like to be on the inside, in every damn detail, and that scares me.
When the enemy is in my own head, I know I have a distinct advantage. I know intimately every argument they will use against me, and I can defeat it before I ever enter a real discussion. But I have a distinct disadvantage as well, because the old ways of thinking are so easy to slip into. When fighting a battle against my own past, there are three essential points of beginning that have given me ground to hold to when the comforting familiarity of the old worldview assails me, begging me to succumb. And I’m sharing them here in the hopes that some people moving away from fundamentalism will be able to arm themselves too.
These starting points aren’t exactly tools to win an actual face-to-face argument with a person from your past so much as they are tools to help you reclaim your own life. There will come a time when you have to face down what’s camping out in your own head and evict it, relegate it to the past where it belongs. And when you start that struggle, these three points may help:
First: Have your own beliefs.
You don’t have to have everything figured out; I know I don’t. But I know my perspective on life, and I have some basic values that I hold to very strongly and can argue articulately whenever the occasion arises.
It’s useless to wage a battle if you have nowhere to return home to. If you’re just fighting against something, instead of defending something, you will lose steam and you will have nowhere to rest at the end of the day. And if you have your own beliefs and values, you’ll still have something to do once you win the battle against the voices from your past. Before you start your battle, you need to be a complete person without that battle. This is especially true when the battle is against your own past, against something that’s inside your own mind and memories. If you’re waging a battle against something trying to take over your very self, you need to have a self that is strong enough to resist, strong enough to win. Besides, mere reactionaries are controlled by what they’re reacting against, and let’s be honest, you’ve let enough of your life be controlled by fundamentalism.
Second: Understand that fundamentalists reached their beliefs and conclusions the exact same way you reached your beliefs and conclusions.
Every human being makes decisions based on experience and reason. Even the decision to accept a system of belief as handed down from some higher authority is made based on experience and reason. I can’t stress enough how powerful this demystification is. Fundamentalists want you to believe you are waging a fight against God. You aren’t. You’re arguing with very human ideas and perspectives. Of course if you bring this up in an actual argument, or if you argue a fundamentalist into a corner where they’re forced to admit their specific views are “because God said so”, you can get into some really ugly arguments about origins and the existence of their specific idea of God. If you want to engage on that level, go ahead. Having spent too much time with such discussions when I was on the fundamentalist side of things, I find them nauseating and at that point I would try to deflect by explaining that many Christians don’t actually think God said that (and I can still argue theology like a motherfucker).
What makes their experience and reason less valid, though? How can you win against equally true experience and equally sound reason? At best, you’ll reach an impasse, right? Nope, because there’s an essential feature that makes fundamentalists who they are: they stop learning. Oh, they think they’re learning, because they keep exploring their own specific take on doctrine and figuring out cool new ways to use it to judge people. But they don’t admit experience, evidence, or reason that contradicts what they decided at a certain point in time is true. They have used experience and reason up to the point where they accepted fundamentalism. Fundamentalism teaches that accepting authority is more holy than engaging one’s own mind, and so at that point the fundamentalist will only allow their experience and reasoning to affirm what has been said by authorities (God, their pastor, theological teachers of their specific denomination, and so on). Sometimes, they’ll pick an arbitrary document from some point in history to go back to, like the freakishly detailed 1689 London Baptist Confession that serves as the doctrinal statement for Reformed Baptist churches. Anything outside of this document, or outside of a traditional interpretation of the Bible, is “error,” so no matter what experience or reason backs said “error” up, it is still an “error” (if not outright sin).
This means that an actual fundamentalist person is very hard to persuade, but this knowledge works very well against your own past. Because here’s the key: for you, you’re actually pitting your reason and experience against someone else’s experience and short-circuited reason that they’ve elevated to the point of spiritual authority. You don’t have to accept their authority, because everything you’ve experienced and all your logic is telling you they’re wrong. It would be dishonest for you to accept their reasoning as valid when your experience and reason tells you it isn’t. Every single person only has themselves to rely on when arriving at a certain belief (even if they tell you God told them so, they’re still relying on their experience which is no more valid than your own experience that their religion is toxic), and so the fundamentalist beliefs you were taught have no special superiority to the beliefs you yourself have arrived at.
Third: Understand exactly how fundamentalists have redefined every term.
To ensure that they never lose an argument, fundamentalists have redefined all terms so that anything other than their specific take on religion is wrongheaded, misguided, or downright morally repugnant. Such reasoning has a rich history in Christianity. St. Augustine wrote an entire book about how all of history has been a struggle between the “city of God” and the “city of man/the devil.” Ergo, if you’re allegiance isn’t to God, you are fighting against him. There is no middle ground.
Recently, I found a delightful tract entitled “A Warning Against Modern Liberalism,” written by one of the pastors of my parent’s old church. As I read it, it became increasingly clear that, to him, everyone who isn’t a Bible-believing Calvinist Christian had succumbed to “liberalism.” He warns against collectivism and individualism, he warns against feminism, then he warns us that modern “liberalism” actually controls literally everything in modern society, even most churches. By the time he’s through, he’s defined everything except his particular brand of Christianity as pervaded and corrupted by “liberalism.” And it comes as no surprise that the solution isn’t to consider whether liberals might have a point (and I think by the end of the tract that he’s the only one who still thinks he’s actually talking about anything recognizable as a distinct category of “liberalism”), but to stand firm and uphold the faith (i.e. his particular take on Christianity). Fortunately, this pastor does not advocate armed revolt like some on the fringes of Christianity do. His solution is prayer, Bible-reading, church-going, and family values. There aren’t a lot of teeth in that, and as far as I’m concerned, Reformed Baptists can read their Bibles and go to church as much as they damn well please.
The closed-mindedness of this method of argument is clear. Fundamentalists have decided ahead of time that they’re correct about everything, so instead of meeting anyone on normal grounds of experience and reason, they instead define all terms so as to undermine every position that deviates in the slightest from their own. Then they use these redefined terms among one another to bolster their confidence – I am not exaggerating, I used to hear my dad and his friends sit around after church making fun of other churches, never giving any particular reason except one or two of these expertly redefined terms. “They’re Pentecostal!” or “Their service is entertaining!” and the word implied that the speaker had ample reason for his derisive tone. By the time you enter into any argument with fundamentalists, they’re well convinced of their correctness, and the moment you express dissent, they’ve got you pigeonholed and know full well you’re probably one of those liberals they’ve been warned against.
Once you reclaim the definition of terms, the things you know people from your past would be saying about you lose their sting. Reformed Baptists, like many other fundamentalists, spend a great deal of time railing against feminists, which may be why it took me a while to be okay with calling myself a feminist. But now that I know what feminist means and what I stand for, I will proudly tell any fundamentalist that I am a feminist. And then I will duck to avoid getting hit in the head with a Bible.
You may never find yourself in an actual argument with a fundamentalist, and if you do, you’re unlikely to win. I promise they won’t be eager to meet you on the ground of experience and reason rather than authority, and they certainly won’t like you insisting they use the correct definition of the terms they’ve redefined. But this knowledge isn’t primarily for pitched face-to-face battle. It’s for your own mind. It diminishes the shadow this worldview can cast over your intellectual landscape. It makes the voices easier to ignore. Once you know the simple truth behind their logic, you can reject it and move on. You can see their little bubble for what it is and never again be haunted by wondering if maybe they really did have some direct line to God and maybe you really are just a rebellious liberal.
How do I know these three points really help? A few days ago I began poking around in some Reformed Baptist corners of the internet, and I could see so clearly just how delusional they actually are, making their pronouncements that reverberate off the walls of their sick insular little world, judging everyone outside. I haven’t soundly defeated my past yet, but I don’t doubt that I’m headed in the right direction.