Among the reasons I decided to start blogging are not just a desire to raise awareness about the dangers of illiberal religion to democratic politics and an impulse to express my own ex-Evangelical voice, but also a desire to help build up the ex-Evangelical and broader ex-fundamentalist community. Many ex-Evangelicals end up feeling isolated, and the issues that result from leaving fundamentalism can be difficult to discuss. Outsiders often find the experiences of those who grew up in the subculture we did difficult to believe; those still in that subculture are often defensive.
Twitter has been indispensable for me in connecting with other ex-Evangelicals in recent months. It’s a forum for important ex-Evangelical conversations around such matters as purity culture and spiritual abuse, and it’s been healing to connect with other ex-Evangelicals and to participate in those conversations. One such ex-Evangelical with whom I’m “Twitter acquainted” is Grete Howland, who blogs about her Evangelical past and her criticisms of Evangelical subculture at Weird Name.
Grete has a powerful voice, and I highly recommend reading her writings and following her on Twitter. At Weird Name, Grete not only details aspects of her story and thinking in ways that are relatable, but also provides helpful advice for those considering leaving a fundamentalist faith community. I thus asked Grete if she would agree to be interviewed here, and the result is what I intend to be the first in a series of occasional ex-Evangelical conversations to be hosted on this blog as a means of engaging in dialogue and building community.
One thing I appreciate about Grete is that hers is the perspective of a true none, someone who left Christianity behind altogether. I believe in validating paths out of conservative Christianity that end in a more nuanced, inclusive kind of faith, as well as those that end outside institutional religion altogether (that’s not always the same thing as ending in atheism, but that’s another discussion). These latter voices, to my mind, do not yet receive sufficient attention in what ought to be the ex-Evangelical “big tent,” if you will, and, with most of the ex-Evangelical discussion centering around people reclaiming Christianity–which, again, is valid–I feel that the experiences of us nones are often erased. Voices like Grete’s need to be heard. And so now, without further ado, I present to you our recent e-mail exchange:
Chris Stroop: Could you tell us a little bit about your story–how you were raised, what caused you to question Evangelicalism, and how you got to the point where you are now?
Grete Howland: While no one is born believing any one thing, I was as close to being born a Christian as you can get. My mom, who was and is a devout churchgoer herself, started taking me to church with her when I was an infant, and Christianity was the explicit belief system in our family–including throughout my extended family on both sides. The church I grew up in was Baptist by denomination, but other than regular full-immersion dunkings (I got baptized when I was 13) I don’t remember a lot of importance being placed on our particular denomination. [This is similar to my experience, something I like to refer to as “the quasi-ecumenism of Biblical literalism,” a variety of “bad ecumenism” – CS.] I also went to a Christian (Baptist) week-long camp every summer in elementary and middle school.
When I began junior high, my mom suggested I start going to youth group at our church, since I had aged out of regular Sunday school. I’d say that was the beginning of my true devoutness; youth group became a kind of second home, and I was at that age when self-awareness and intentionality about personal choices sets in. By the time I was a junior in high school I knew I wanted to go to a Christian college (which I did–Westmont, in Santa Barbara) and after college I joined up with a missionary organization for 6 months (Youth With A Mission, or YWAM). After returning from YWAM I decided to go to seminary, so I ended up in Pasadena, CA, going to Fuller. It was during, or soon after, my time in seminary that I came to see I was no longer interested in Evangelicalism, and eventually Christianity altogether.
There were always things about Evangelicalism that disagreed with me, but it felt like it was on the personality level, not on the conscience level. So, for example, we were taught that being gay was wrong. It never seemed wrong to me personally (I’m straight, but in terms of judging other people), but I took everything the church said as the ultimate truth (as one does when one is taught from infancy that their own mind and heart are faulty and deceitful), so I chose to go along with teachings like that intellectually rather than from the heart. Similarly, I didn’t actually like evangelizing, and I wasn’t naturally good at it; but I believed it was my duty, and I definitely believed that anybody who didn’t accept Jesus as their savior was going to hell.
My first real crisis of faith came right after I started seminary. I went through a terrible breakup that made me question everything I believed about God’s benevolence, God’s power, and God’s communication with me. I didn’t leave my faith then, though; on the contrary I took comfort in my studies and the church services I attended. But I started learning things in seminary that got me questioning other parts of my doctrine–for example, I had one professor who said he didn’t believe in an afterlife. That was startling. I came to see, over those two years, that the version of Christianity that I knew was not the only version. I learned about Quakers, and started going to a very liberal Episcopal church. I kind of just slid out of Evangelicalism–it began to feel so… juvenile, to me. I also spent the latter half of seminary living with some loving, fun, passionate ex-Evangelicals who showed me how much joy there was outside of the confines of the traditional church.
Within a few years of graduating from seminary, my commitment to my faith had faded significantly. Without the insular cult-like life of Evangelicalism, I didn’t really see any point in following Christianity anymore. I realized my life wouldn’t be much different–and might even be better–if I stopped saying I believed in a bunch of stuff that I had to admit was scientifically unlikely (perhaps even impossible). I realized I’d been fostering a belief in God and Jesus and such–that is, putting work into keeping the belief alive–rather than the belief coming from some innate, primordial place in my heart. So I decided to stop “doing” belief and found that when I left my mind to its own devices, the belief was gone. That was about five years ago now, and I have to say I’ve never felt more free.
CS: Why did you call your blog “Weird Name”?
GH: I spent so much time trying to think of a name that was obviously connected to the subject of my site (leaving Christianity), but I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t either taken or painfully cheesy. “Weird Name” came to me while I was brainstorming in a creepy coffee shop in the South Park neighborhood of San Diego. I might have even said to myself, “I need some kind of weird name.” For whatever reason, the phrase stuck out to me. It seemed appropriate because my first name is really unusual (the spelling of it anyway) and I feel like that’s a good representation of my life experience too: that of a person who doesn’t quite fit in, but not necessarily for bad reasons. I thought it was representative of me, and of some of the reasons why I couldn’t stick with the church. And, it wasn’t already taken. So I went with it. 🙂 [Feeling “weird” seems to be a common experience for ex-Evangelicals. For a discussion of this issue, see my conversation with Blake Chastain on his podcast, Exvangelical. – CS]
CS: What are your goals in blogging about your Evangelical past and your current criticisms of white Evangelical subculture? Self-expression? A desire to raise awareness with those who did not grow up Evangelical about the real threat of theocracy? A hope of reaching conservative Evangelicals themselves? Something else?
GH: My goals have changed–or rather become more nuanced–over the last year and a half. When I began the blog, I had two things in mind. One was that I wanted to be writing more seriously (it’s a vocation I had been putting off for a long time), and the other was that I wanted to process what I’d experienced in and in leaving the church. I wanted to see if I could turn it into a narrative. Creative nonfiction has always been my genre of choice, but what did I have to write memoir about, as a relatively privileged woman of only 35 years? Evangelicalism was the thing–the thing I both knew about and was ready to speak critically (and hopefully fairly) about.
As I began to write more and more, I realized that my story wasn’t just a potentially interesting read–it was something that other people had been through, or were going through, and that it resonated with them. I also realized that there were a number of people who thought their experience in Evangelical Christianity was unusual, or their fault; and that their were a lot of people who didn’t believe in the doctrine anymore but couldn’t or wouldn’t leave the church (though perhaps they’d left in their minds and hearts). So once I’d processed and found the voice for my own story, I felt the conviction to keep writing it to let people know they’re not alone, and to give voice to a strange experience for those who aren’t inclined to go public with their de-conversion.
I also want to let people know that not only are they allowed to leave Christianity if they want to, they will also be okay if they do. So much of the teaching in Evangelicalism is about how miserable everyone is without Jesus; it has to be, or the religion doesn’t work. But I–and so many people I know–are so much happier without church than we were with it. And there’s community to be found, and support, and love. I want people to know it’ll be okay if they decide to leave. (Granted, I wasn’t really disowned by anybody, so I understand my situation was particularly fortunate.)
As is to be expected, I’ll get messages now and then from current, devout Evangelicals trying to argue with me, telling me I’m doing something evil, telling me God still loves me, etc. The “God still loves you” I ignore, as it’s pretty condescending. The “you’re evil” I laugh at–and then proceed to ignore. And the arguments, I shut down. People assume I’m up for a debate, but I’m really not. I know allll of the tactics, all of the apologetics. And I’ve specifically chosen to not believe. My point is that I don’t write about my story in order to “reach” true believers. If they want to be in the church, if they really have that faith, that’s their choice–or their indoctrination, but whatever. I’m only interested in those with whom my story resonates. The others can leave it behind. I put in my time with the debates over theology; I’m done with that… for now.
CS: Have you experienced social costs or other problems as a result of abandoning Evangelicalism? Has it been worth it?
GH: As I alluded to in a previous question, I think I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard compared to others whose stories I’ve heard. For the most part, the cost to me is awkwardness. There are certain things I just don’t bring up in conversation with my family or certain friends who are still believers. So, there is more of a divide, but it is not anywhere near a total separation. Sometimes they will say things that assume my belief, and I choose not to push back. I don’t feel it’d be worth it. That said, if they were to ask me point-blank about what I do or do not believe, I would be honest. But I haven’t completely lost any family or very close friends over my de-conversion (that I know of).
What I have lost more of is the larger community. Church does a great job of providing regular, intimate community in a society that is both individualistic and couples/nuclear family-oriented. I do miss the ritual, and the events, and the way Christianity gives you something profound that you automatically have in common with a bunch of people.
There’s a lot of comfort and belonging that’s lost in the leaving, but–at least for me–it is and has been worth it. It’s a growing up. Did it kind of suck to move out on my own and have to figure out all the logistics of an adult life and not have the company and support of my parents and hometown friends available to me every day? Yes. It was similar taking leave of the church, but the trade-off is pride in oneself, and confidence, and–in terms of beliefs–being able to be honest about what I do and don’t know about the universe. I prefer the maturity of secularism to the juvenility of Evangelicalism, and I prefer being self-possessed to always sacrificing my identity and self-worth at the foot of the cross.
CS: You identify as an atheist, but, unlike many in the New Atheist inspired atheist community, you understand from the inside what it’s like to live with a deep-seated religious worldview and to undergo a long-term, complex process of the breakdown of that identity-forming worldview. You know this can be painful and traumatizing for many. Is there anything you might like to say to atheists who don’t have firsthand knowledge of such experiences, or to the atheist community at large?
GH: Great question. I think, first, I want to acknowledge my need (and desire) to be humble vis-à-vis the atheist community, as I thought and acted aggressively toward them for a very long time. I said judgmental, patronizing, massively arrogant things to people who have chosen not to believe in God. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I know how demeaning and offensive it can feel to be on the receiving end of that, whether it’s directed at you personally or at non-believers on the whole.
For those atheists who do not just fit under that label technically (a simple lack of belief in God based on lack of evidence) but who are really fired up about atheism in a way that they want to tear down Christianity (what I feel is characteristic of “New Atheism”)… well, I have say I don’t know that perspective from experience, so I want to be careful in making a judgment about it. I know some people have a strong moral conviction that theistic religion should be done away with–that it’s a human rights issue. Fair enough. However, people in that camp need to know that arguing with Evangelical Christians is not going to get you anywhere. They looooove to argue. They are trained to argue. Not only that, they are trained to be bolstered by the fact that you disagree with them. There are verses in the Bible, verses they know by heart, that say they are doing something really right if everyone is arguing with them. Not only that; they are often fully convinced–I mean down to the bone–of their metaphysics. You’ve got to believe that they are just as likely to be convinced by you as you are to be convinced by them. There is literally nothing that matters more to an Evangelical than their religion. Nothing.
Now, if all you want to do is debate (in which case, how are you actually different in ideological orientation from an Evangelical?) then go for it, I guess. Obviously they can go on for a lifetime and then some. But if what you want to do is figure out a way to convince people that life is better, good, more moral, etc., outside of Christianity, argument is not likely to get you far. In my experience, living by example is the only way to do that. That’s part of what convinced me–when people were so over religion that they didn’t even want to argue about it, just loving their freedom outside the church, that was intriguing to me. Willing to talk about it, yes, but not going out of their way to evangelize their atheism. And, quite frankly, it only convinced me because I was ready for it. No one person flipped the switch for me; it was a collection of circumstances over many years, most of which were not the result of anyone’s intention to de-convert me.
People will leave Christianity when it seems like it will be safer, more loving, more logical, and so on, to do so than to stay. Regardless of what one thinks of specific doctrines, the church offers a lot of positive stuff when it comes to daily life, and combating it with negativity–especially abstract negativity in the form of reasonable arguments about what makes sense scientifically and so on–is failing to get at the root of why people are there and why they might ever be okay with leaving. Be more loving, be more just, be more accepting, be more fun–AND be more logical and sensible; that, perhaps, is a convincing demonstration. People will leave when they are ready, if they are ever ready; but they might not ever be, too.
Now, all of that said, I DO think that fighting against Christian hegemony in the United States is a significant social justice issue. One doesn’t need to be an atheist to do so, but I know many of those working on this issue are. Fighting for the separation of church and state, and for human rights, and against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are movements that should not be tempered. I don’t have the answers as to how to hold back the Christian empire successfully, I only know, and agree, that the institution of the Christian church needs to be put in its place.
CS: How would you like to see the ex-Evangelical and broader ex-fundamentalist communities develop? What should the goals be, what challenges do we face, and what might help us make progress?
GH: I’d love to see these communities offer the good stuff of the church without the doctrine/theology/metaphysics, etc. Specifically, is there a way to have ritual, and regular face-to-face connection, community service, emotional vulnerability/intimacy, education, and so on as a community simply because we’re people and not because we all believe the same thing? Society in the United States is so focused on the nuclear family unit, if you’re not partnered up by a certain age what wider support systems can you count on? The church, though not perfect about it, can offer a really meaningful support network (emotionally, financially, spiritually), and I think a lot of people don’t want to give that up even if they’ve stopped believing. When, where, and how can ex-believers offer the same resources to their neighbors and extended connections, not in a clique-y way but in a way that acknowledges the complexity of our needs and desires and what makes us our best selves?
I also really want non-belief/secularism/atheism (whatever label a person prefers) to become a legitimized perspective in the eyes of formal religions. Of course, that’s up to those institutions themselves, but I write that to say that I have a vision that one day people can be comfortable and not feel shy about being an atheist or an ex-Christian. I would love for as many people as possible to be open about their non-belief–as well as their disagreements with the fundamentalism in which they were raised–so that it’s normalized. And I think those of us who are relatively safe, such as myself–who won’t get disowned or slandered or worse–should do it as much as we can. The Christian church is not above or beyond reproach, and it should get used to being just another religion.
The challenges are both political and personal. The Evangelical Christian church is a huge lobby in the United States, basically, and on top of that Christianity has enjoyed being the religion of western empire since the 4th century. It is oppressive and bigoted, and there are so many “not all Evangelical” voices that refuse to clean their own house. In addition to the big picture societal stuff like that, Christianity is exclusionary by nature (Jesus is the only way to heaven), people are not accepted by Christians unless they are Christians. Is that very Jesus-like? No, of course not. But everyone knows that’s how it actually is, and this is a major barrier in people being able to be honest about what they do and don’t believe if they’re coming from inside the Christian community.
Progress comes, I think, from, again, openness and transparency on the part of those of us who are able to be out there with our de-conversion. And making sure we’re not just focusing on criticizing the church but taking care of each other. So much harm has been caused via spiritual abuse, and we can name that for each other. And there’s so much fear and loss in the leaving; we can be with each other through that too. I mean, I’m new to this ex-Evangelical community myself, so I’m also just starting to work out where it could take me and what it could be, but I would hope at least that I can offer camaraderie and commiseration to my fellow ex-fundamentalists.