By Valerie Tarico
Perhaps it’s been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the “Good Book.” It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that praying believers don’t avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn’t so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the bible is a jerk — or worse.
But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure.
Here are 10 mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians, even when we think we’ve done the work of moving on. None of these is unique to former Christians, but all are reinforced by bible belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.
1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You’re either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are “lukewarm.”
This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn’t enough; you need to be all in. No pain, no gain. Work? You’re a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you’ll gain a following.
2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-and-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes — good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent — just fallen (“utterly depraved” in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan.
3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between “I’m awesome” and “I suck.” Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn’t perfect, and that’s the biblical standard.
4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of “confessing our sins one to another” turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.
5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people, but also straight guys who like sex, it’s impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more a matter of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor’s wife. Then there’s virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don’t forget God hates fags.
6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn’t the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues. The consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small everyday wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to breathe in, center in the moment, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.
7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large, nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown and unknowable.
8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what’s right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don’t share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated.
9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side — just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks!
Fiction, in particular fiction from Christian-dominant cultures, often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes. And it’s all too easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren’t that simple, but it’s so much easier to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, orcs and elves.
10. Incessant what-ifs. And so we struggle. We tell ourselves it’s OK; that we’re OK. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I’m wrong? Many years ago, I told a therapist that I didn’t believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn’t talk to anyone about it because I didn’t want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real. The journey out is — a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting, a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn’t mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.
In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence: Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out.
I often find myself quoting one former bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the present — a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas . . . and Other Imaginings.