As an ex-Evangelical, I typically prepare to cringe when current Evangelicals decide to pontificate on why people leave the church. This piece by Roger Olson is better than most. That’s likely because he’s experienced religious abuse. His Bible college sounds eerily similar to mine: my alma mater has now relaxed some of its more insane rules, but the anti-intellectualism and legalism sound identical to what I experienced at a Southern Baptist university. So Olson left fundamentalism, as did I. Unlike me, he exchanged one version of Christianity for another.
And this is where I begin to take issue with his piece. Olson implores other survivors of religious abuse not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In some ways, he’s correct. Religion isn’t without value. My first lessons in social justice may have been framed by “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God,” but that doesn’t mean that those lessons are somehow less profound or relevant because theology defined them. But I left the church completely, and I haven’t regretted it a day since. Olson assumes that those of us who leave ignore the good that is in Christianity, and that simply isn’t the case.
I left Christianity because I couldn’t think of an intellectually compelling reason to remain. It was an incredibly rational and difficult decision to make, it took me years, and this is probably why I don’t regret it now. Did emotion play a role? Without doubt. Religious abuse definitely contributed to the cracks in my faith. It’s a bit difficult to belief that salvation is this transformative, regenerative process when all available evidence indicates that Christians are really just like everyone else: prone to prejudice, and capable of great harm as well as good. Human, in other words. Still in need of redemption.
Olson writes that now that he feels more “comfortable in his own skin,” he’s able to reconcile theology with his traumatic past. That’s admirable. But I take issue with the implication that those of us who have left the church are somehow not just as comfortable in our own skins, or that we can’t also learn to reconcile the beneficial aspects of religion with the aspects that are demonstrably negative outside the framework of belief. For me, it’s simply maturation. It’s what allows me to heal. I can’t exist as two people, as an Evangelical girl and an agnostic woman. In a real way, I am both at once, and so for me, peace is the ability to admit that I’ve been shaped by Evangelical culture, and that I also possess the ability to adapt as I see fit. It’s the most sustainable peace I’ve found in my life. It certainly never came from the church.
Olson has some valuable insights. His story of religious abuse is valuable and is a narrative that needs greater play in religious circles. I applaud him for his closing statement, that evangelicals should “find ways to reward and not punish those courageous souls who dare to ask ‘why,'” even if I’m not optimistic that the sentiment will find much traction. But I’d ask him to seriously reconsider his characterisation of those of who do leave.