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Dear Exvangelicals: I’m rooting for you

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

The Exvangelical movement is in large part a response to white Christian nationalism – a Christianity rooted in exclusivist theology, patriarchy, xenophobia, a hatred of all things LGBTQ+, and opposition to the empowerment of women, especially reproductive rights. It is a response to evangelical support for Donald Trump, the most unchristian person to ever serve as president of the United States.

Only in the last few years has the Exvangelical movement been given a name. Before, it was just “people leaving the church” – as they have done for the past 60 years. People decided this just doesn’t work for me and stopped going to church.

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

And yet something deep inside whispers, “This is wrong and you know it – go away.”

This is not part of Exvangelicals for my usual pagan audience. It is certainly not an attempt to recruit Exvangelicals to Paganism – converting people in difficult situations is bad, 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 have emerged from evangelical fundamentalism and onto a religious path that is meaningful and useful to me.

And they can do that too.

Rocky Mountain National Park - photo by John Beckett

Knowing this is wrong, but not knowing where to go

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 in it and it was part of the broader culture in Tennessee in the 1960s and 1970s. I went to Sunday school, I read the Bible and sang, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

When I got a little older, I started thinking about all the children of the world, and how, according to evangelical doctrine, the vast majority would “spend eternity in hell” because they believed the wrong things—and most of them did. never did. a realistic opportunity to believe the ‘right’ things.

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

At that moment I knew that religiously I couldn’t stay where I was, but I didn’t have the knowledge or 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 was more to life than the material world. So while I continued to go to Baptist church (I was a kid and trying to convince my parents not to let me go to church, or even going to another church was a non-starter), in my heart and in my head I became a kind of Christian universalist. I trusted that God would take care of everyone somehow.

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

That church was not as political as many right-wing churches today, but they still preached patriarchy and xenophobia. Their politics were easy to ignore.

Their theology required more work.

A religious house of cards

Evangelical doctrine is a house of cards. Their entire “metanarrative” of sin and redemption requires a historical Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve were not historical people, then there is no Garden of Eden, no Fall, and the entire concept of original sin is meaningless.

If Genesis is neither history nor myth, evangelical doctrine is false.

I was a curious, intelligent and rather nerdy little boy 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 years. Biology and archeology make it clear that humans have existed for some 200,000 years and that every living thing on Earth descended from a common ancestor, and not that we suddenly appeared as we are today.

Catholics have managed to hold on to some rather conservative doctrines while still confirming the findings of science. Evangelicals don’t have that. They insist that the Bible is “inerrant” and that the myths of Genesis are history, not stories that the ancient Hebrews told to explain where they came from, like almost all other people on earth.

They’re wrong. And they will tie themselves into an intellectual knot and insist that this is not the case.

The fear of rejecting what you have been told to believe, even when it is clearly false

I’ve spoken to a number of evangelicals and read many more. They are intelligent, educated people who insist on ignoring the findings of science and history and sticking to a literal interpretation of the Bible. How can that be?

Because they are terrified of doing anything different.

If you’ve been told all your life that the eternal fate of your soul depends on believing certain things, it can be very difficult to examine the evidence and conclude that those things are in fact untrue. Pascal’s Wager is intellectually dishonest and mentally bankrupt, but the emotional appeal 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 are difficult to contemplate when those in positions of religious authority insist that their beliefs – whether they hold those beliefs sincerely or out of fear – are the absolute truth and that everything else is the work of the devil.

Trust science and the scientific method – we went from the Bronze Age to the Computer Age in just a few centuries. Trust your heart and your brain – they are 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 no problem. But there are some things that have helped me a lot and that I’m pretty sure will be helpful to you too.

Read. A lot of. 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 a story that provides meaning and identity) are similar to the myths of other people in the Ancient Near East. Read Jewish scholars and learn how the people who wrote what Christians call the Old Testament understood these books for centuries (hint: it’s not what you learned in Sunday school).

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

And if it’s not too blatantly self-promotional, I would suggest that you read some modern pagan authors and learn about a religion rooted 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 arrive at 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 technologies are not sufficiently advanced, but because they deal with matters beyond the comprehension of our brilliant but still finite brains.

And so the question for religion is not “what is true?” but rather “what is meaningful and useful?”

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

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

Move at your own pace

I caution you to move at your own pace. You’ll no doubt want to figure this all out as quickly as possible. 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. It takes time to escape a lifetime of fear-based indoctrination.

Expect setbacks. The tentacles that have found their way into your brain and into your soul over all those years in evangelical churches are deep and persistent. They have a habit of reappearing at strange and awkward times.

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

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

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

I’ll be honest: a purely intellectual approach didn’t work for me. The bad experiences of more than 18 years in fundamentalist evangelical churches and in a fundamentalist evangelical family could not be rationalized away. I had to supplant them with good experiences in pagan and Unitarian Universalist settings. Maybe you can come up with some reasoning here. But if you can’t do it, don’t give up. Keep working.

Do you need a baptism? Probably not. But if you do, or if you want one, you can.

Blessings and good luck on your path

My hope for everyone is that you find the religious path and community that works for you: that is meaningful 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 completely different religion. Many of you will probably join the “none of the above” movement of people who are religious at a high level but who reject all doctrines as unnecessary and useless.

I have found my way to paganism and it works for me. If it works for you, great. If not, I wish you the best of luck in finding and following the path that calls to you.

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