Close, but not quite: an Evangelical weighs in on ex-Christians.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Close, but not quite: an Evangelical weighs in on ex-Christians.

  1. One of the most helpful things I’ve accepted over the past couple of years has been David Bazan’s self-imposed label of a “non-believing evangelical.” That makes a lot of sense to me. I left the evangelical church almost three years ago. But, I can’t deny the amount of influence that whole world has and will continue to have over my life.

    Just for my two cents: I’m not sure that Dr. Olson was meaning to imply that we have made the wrong decision. I think he was just telling his own story, rather than projecting that upon everyone else. I might be wrong, but I didn’t read it that way.

  2. Just stumbled here to follow your SGM piece. This is really a nice article, glad I read more.

    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.”

    “…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.

    So well said. The problem I’ve experienced is that “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” usually does not mean “keep what is good in religion/evangelicalism.” It means, “don’t throw out baby Jesus with the bathwater.” In other words, you are free to change your Christianity as much as you need to, as long as you don’t leave it behind. What’s an agnostic to do? :^)

    …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.

    I still struggle with the “shaped by Evangelical culture” part, but intellectually I know it is true. When you struggle so bitterly to cast something off, it’s hard not to hold grudges.

  3. Thank you for the comment! I too struggle not to hold grudges. It’s difficult. I’m really good at holding grudges. And American Christianity has provided me with so much fuel for them. The trick is that I don’t want to adopt the same negative behavior patterns I witnessed throughout my years in that subculture. I want dialogue. A conversation. And that can’t happen if I’m stockpiling grudges. But equally, that conversation remains impossible as long as the other side characterizes a thoughtful decision to exchange theism for nontheism as ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’ It implies we’ve made an irrational choice and that’s intrinsically offensive.

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