Joshua Grubbs, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and professor at Bowling Green State University, where he researches the psychology of behavioral addictions, psychology of religion and spirituality, and issues related to personality. He’s also one of my favorite follows on #Exvangelical Twitter, and I’m almost surprised at myself that I haven’t featured him in Ex-Evangelical Conversations until now. He’s got a lot to say here about his own path from being the son of a Southern Baptist preacher to becoming a more skeptical Christian and ultimately a professional scholar, after getting his undergraduate degree from Liberty University. Josh also gives us an update on ongoing research relevant to the exvangelical community, and he provides advice for exvies looking to find good theraphists who can help us deal with the issues that come from a toxic Christian upbringing.
Chris Stroop: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Josh. Some readers of Not Your Mission Field may be somewhat familiar with you from Twitter, but for those who aren’t, would you mind filling us in some on your background and how it happened that you went from being a Liberty University undergraduate to a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University?
Josh Grubbs: Well, that’s a long story. But yes, I was born into a conservative evangelical Christian home in the rural South (NC). When I was four, my parents decided to homeschool my older brother and me, making use of the Abeka homeschool curriculum, which, if you are not familiar, is one of the most conservative evangelical homeschool curriculums out there. [See here for some information on Abeka–C.S.]
When I was 5, we left the small Southern Baptist church where we were members for my dad to become the pastor of an even smaller Southern Baptist church in the community. I spent my childhood and adolescence deeply involved in the church. My friends (the very few that I had) were from church groups. My entire social life revolved around church functions and events. Any dating I did as a teenager (there was very little) was with people I met in church. In short, it was my entire life.
Despite this immersion, when it came to matters of faith and the church, I was always a bit skeptical and full of questions. Having said that, though, doubts were discouraged, and I was told—more than once—that my questions were not helpful and that I should pray for stronger faith. When it came time to go to college, I was receiving recruitment materials from a number of prestigious universities. Apparently, my scores on the SAT and our residency in rural NC qualified me as some sort of underrepresented group for some universities.
But, for my family and me (at the time), faith was central. As such, I did not apply to any other universities except for Liberty University. During my time at Liberty, my doubts and skepticism of American Evangelicalism began to grow. Given more freedom to learn and question things (compared to my upbringing), I began to notice cracks in the façade, and I began to understand how little American Evangelicalism had to offer in the face of direct critiques. I wouldn’t say that I started my exit at that point, but the groundwork was laid.
Immediately after leaving Liberty, I started a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Case Western Reserve University. It was there that I began to more seriously question the faith of my childhood and adolescent years. Given distance from the situation, I was free to explore other ideas. What ultimately led me to leave evangelicalism was a combination of diversity training and exposure as a graduate student; the Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice (which happened not too far from Case Western) shootings; and the evangelical responses to those shootings. Watching the absolute hate and bigotry spewed by those who claimed their religion was about love and compassion was too much for me to handle, and that’s when I decided I was done. [For commentary from an African-American exvangelical on white evangelical responses to these racist killings, click here–C.S.]
CS: Tell us a little bit about your academic work and its significance. How did you, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, get into researching the psychology of pornography consumption among conservative religious believers? And out of curiosity, do you see James Dobson as singularly to blame for creating a moral panic around pornography addiction, or are things more complicated than that?
JG: How could I not get into researching this stuff? Honestly, I don’t know that you could grow up as an evangelical man in the millennial or later generations without being bombarded with messages about the dangers and evils of internet pornography. My academic interest in the topic began as an undergraduate at Liberty University. When I was there, there were several “pornography addiction” support and recovery groups. At that point in time, I totally agreed with the goals and beliefs of such groups.
Also, at the same time, a number of Christian anti-pornography “research” groups were pushing statistics saying that up to 50% of Christian men were pornography addicts. Even then, when I still believed in pornography addiction and the evils of pornography, the numbers did not make sense to me. Fifty percent of men? Addicted? That was unbelievable. Literally unbelievable.
These questions and skepticisms arrived at a good time for me, as my graduate advisor at Case Western Reserve University had a lot of research funding and a lot of faith in me. She allowed me to conduct and manage a huge range of funded research opportunities, which made exploring my interests and questions so much easier. My findings on the topic are relatively straightforward.
A lot of people report that they have problems with their pornography use (e.g., they feel out of control or are addicted). For some people, these feelings are a sign of true compulsivity or dysregulation. That is, for some people who report being addicted to pornography, their use is out of control and “addictive” in nature. However, there are also quite a number of people who report feeling out of control even with minimal use. For these people, who may only be using pornography less than once a week, the best predictor of whether or not they report feeling “addicted” to pornography is whether they morally disapprove of pornography use.
That is, moral incongruence about pornography use (using pornography even when you think it is morally wrong) seems to be a very important part of why some people think they have an addiction. And what leads people to morally disapprove of pornography use? Religiousness, particularly conservative Christian religiousness, seems to be the driving factor. So, in short, our research shows that evangelicals use pornography less than the general population but report greater feelings of addiction to pornography, largely due to feelings of moral incongruence about their use.
CS: What kind of research are you and your graduate student(s) currently working on that’s relevant to the exvangelical community? Are there any findings you can tell us about at this point? What kinds of studies do you think should be undertaken regarding exvangelicals and other former fundamentalists in the future, and what are the prospects for more of this kind of research being done?
JG: Currently, I have two students working on religious exiters. One (Joel Engelman) is specifically looking at religious exit from an immigration paradigm. That is, are those who leave religion more likely to identify with being pushed out of their community (religious refugees, if you will) or being pulled out (religious immigrants, if you will). His master’s thesis is based on this idea and is drawn from research data we collected among exvies and others.
My second student (Shanti James) is looking at political activism and involvement among the ex-religious. Her masters is likely going to focus more on how ex-religious people use public discourse and political activism to work through various issues related to their current beliefs and past struggles. I have a number of other students (Brandon Gordon, Jenny Grant, and Brinna Price), all of whom are looking at important aspects of religion and wellbeing, but only tangentially related to exvie issues (they’re studying e.g. religion and sexuality, religion and gambling addiction, religion and moral incongruence around sexuality).
With regard to direct applications to the exvie community, there are a few points of interest that I would note. Primarily, based on our research, exvies are a complex and diverse group, particularly in comparison to other religious exiters (e.g., ex-Orthodox jews or ex-LDS members). [Update: Asked to clarify the previous statement, Grubbs noted that exvies are more racially diverse, more often have some kind of religious affiliation after leaving evangelicalism, and often grew up less isolated from people outside their religious group when compared with LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ultra-Orthodox Jews–C.S.] This is probably due to the fact that evangelicalism is not a monolithic entity with a centralized leadership like other groups have. What this also means is that all of us that are exvies—though we share a lot in common—have a great deal of differences too.
This is something that, personally, I think we should embrace and celebrate, but it also gives space for conflict. Our experiences are not often as universally shared, which means we need to learn to listen to and respect each other, rather than questioning or doubting.
CS: Ex-evangelicals often experience frustration in their attempts to find good therapists who understand where they’re coming from. In many parts of the U.S., it’s difficult to find a therapist who isn’t a Christian. While I’m sure many Christian therapists follow best practices and will not push religion on their patients, I have heard of those with proper credentials on paper who abuse the system and essentially act as Christian counselors in disguise. Do you have any sense of how widespread this issue is and how to identify red flags or otherwise take steps to avoid it?
JG: This is a big question and, unfortunately, not an easy one to answer. Frankly, finding a good therapist is hard. In general, you are probably less likely to run into this problem if you are seeking out a therapist who is a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. This is not because such therapists are inherently better than social workers or licensed counselors. Social workers, licensed counselors, and marriage and family therapists are all great. However, Psychologists with Ph.D.s tend to be the least religious group of therapists in the country (there’s actual research that shows this!).
Having said that, finding a good psychologist can be hard, because there are fewer of us than there are of other counseling professions. As such, the big thing to look out for is whether or not the agency itself is religiously affiliated or whether or not the therapist lists “Christian counseling” or “religious issues” as aspects of their specialties. Somewhat paradoxically, people with complex religious issues and/or traumas might not be best served by someone who claims to work with religious issues.
CS: I have heard from exvies that even when a religious therapist strives to be perfectly professional, therapists who are Christians can be dismissive of former conservative Christians’ experiences. I have heard of patients being told they need to forgive their parents or others who abused them, which can be further traumatizing to them since the specific toxic Christian context we come from is one in which the concept of forgiveness is used to protect abusers and silence victims. I have also heard of them being told that what they experienced isn’t “real” Christianity. What should people do if they find themselves in situations like that? And if it is indeed necessary to “move on” in some way regarding past abuses, or to “release” the past, what conceptual frameworks might be available that don’t have the baggage that “forgiveness” does for those of us raised in toxic Christianity?
JG: Again, this is complicated, but a rule of thumb that I would offer is this: if a therapist ever tells you what you “must” do, that’s not a therapist you should trust. A good therapist, in general, works through diverse options with you, and lets you decide what’s best for you. With regard to forgiveness, if a therapist tells you that you “need,” “should,” “must,” or “have to” forgive anyone for anything, they are flatly wrong. Forgiveness is a decision and an avenue toward healing for some situations, but not all. It is not the only avenue toward healing and, sometimes, it’s not the right avenue at all.
As such, therapists who claim that it is the only pathway forward are deeply misguided. Similarly, it is NEVER a therapist’s place to argue with a client’s experiences. The therapist’s job is to provide warmth, empathy, positive regard, and structure for growth. A therapist that invalidates a client’s emotions or experiences is a bad therapist, plain and simple. If they fail that most basic level of being a therapist, I am highly doubtful that they will be able to help you in any other respects.
With regard to how to move on, I am personally a big advocate of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy based techniques. The whole premise behind these techniques is that we cannot control or avoid our past, present, or future experiences. We can influence the present and future, but control and avoidance will get us no where. As such, we have to accept what has happened, and choose to identify the values we now have that make life worth living. This does not mean forgiving, liking, endorsing, or encouraging past abuses or hurts, nor does it mean resigning ourselves to a present state that we do not like.
Rather, it means learning to accept what is while working toward what we want. It’s complicated and difficult, but learning to live in the present, listening to our bodies and our minds, and choosing to act intentionally in accordance with our values is a path forward. If folks are interested in those ideas, I highly recommend the following books by Russ Harris: The Happiness Trap, The Confidence Gap, The Reality Slap.
CS: Many exvangelicals have the variety of CPTSD that Marlene Winell calls religious trauma syndrome. Do you think that RTS ought to be recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual? Related to the above questions, many well-intentioned and fully credentialed therapists seem unfamiliar with religious trauma and thus unprepared to treat patients suffering from it, even if they don’t reopen wounds by insisting “real” Christianity is good or that one cannot move on without forgiving one’s parents. What can be done to increase awareness of religious trauma among psychologists and social workers who provide therapy? And do you have any tips for how those with religious trauma can find therapists who can help them effectively?
JG: Trauma is one of my research interests, and it is certainly an immensely complex topic. At this point in time, the notion of RTS is not being studied by any clinical psychologists or psychiatrists in any systematic way (that I am aware of). I think it’s an interesting idea, but how we currently conceptualize PTSD is based very heavily on the presence of a clear “Criterion A trauma,” which almost always requires some sort of literal physical violence.
All of this is to say, the psychiatric/psychological communities probably won’t recognize RTS as a unique disorder now or any time soon, but that doesn’t mean that psychiatrists/psychologists or other mental health providers cannot treat someone dealing with those issues. At their core, most trauma-related issues (RTS or otherwise) have a lot of things in common with anxiety disorders. However, rather than fear of specific things (like phobias) or situations (like social anxiety or agoraphobia), trauma often involves a fear of memories that are painful and hard to live with.
As such, one of the best paths forward is to find a therapist that can help you learn to live with the pain, rather than trying to avoid the pain, drown it out, or control it. This sounds difficult, because it is difficult, but painful memories and hangups that we develop out of developmental traumas don’t just “go away.” They are often a part of who we are for our entire lives, and the key is learning how to live well with them. The pain will subside with time, but we may never be rid of it. But, that does not mean we cannot be happy and healthy and thriving, even with old scars.
CS: Is there any gossip you’re willing to share about people you know from your time at Liberty University who are currently exerting influence in American politics and/or in evangelical institutions? Or anything you didn’t say above that you think it might be worth noting here about Liberty?
JG: That’s a huge question, and I’m sure there are stories that I could tell here. Ultimately, however, I think the only thing about Liberty that really matters is that it is operating now like it has always operated and likely always will operate. It is an institution that has always aligned itself closely with conservative evangelical ideals and right-wing GOP politics.
Jerry Falwell Jr. has long been a fan of Trump and has been a friend of Sean Hannity for much, much longer than most people realize (he used to speak at Liberty when I was a student 10 years ago). For those of us who graduated from the school, nothing about the past three years has been surprising.
CS: You’re still a Christian. What exactly does that mean to you, and how does your faith impact your life?
JG: I’ve lived my whole life as a Christian, and I do still think it is a central aspect of my identity. Have my beliefs fundamentally changed in the past 4-6 years? Undoubtedly. But, I still consider myself a Christian. Black liberation theology—particularly the works of James Cone—have shaped my beliefs over recent years, as have the writings of more progressive Christians such as Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nothing about my beliefs are as rigid or as permanent as they once were, and I find that I am often struggling with or doubting some aspects of my faith. Ultimately, however, I find meaning in struggling with doubts and choosing to believe in things that my rational, scientific mind does not understand.
CS: Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers of Not Your Mission Field?
JG: Just a few things:
1. You are not alone, and your struggles are real and valid, regardless of what others may have said!
2. It can get better! It takes time, but it can.