People often talk about fundamentalism like it’s a geographical location, a place or environment where they experienced the dark ills of religiosity. “But thank God I walked away when I did,” they’ll often say. Or they’ll note, “that place was evil! Happy I’m not there.” How they talk about it seems to imply that walking away was all the remedy they needed.
Of course, talking about fundamentalism like it’s an experience one can easily separate themselves from is very normal, but it’s also naive. Nobody walks away from fundamentalism. We might walk away from a church or away from a cult or spiritual abusive situation. But upon leaving a toxic religious experience, we don’t leave unaffected or alone.
Surprising to many is that recovering from fundamentalism is not a simple journey. Healing is a far more complex path than what most of us anticipate. I think that’s because fundamentalism affects the deepest part of who we are, our souls. It infects our spiritual selves. It involves the core of our being, everything from what we believe to be true about the world and about God to who and how we pursue relationships with others. Fundamentalism is a lifestyle. I don’t think we realize that. But it is. Fundamentalism is not simply a creed that we memorized or a good thing gone wrong, it’s who we are. That sounds really dramatic, I know; but I think it’s true: We are the fundamentalism.
Certainly, how fundamentalism effects us after leaving varies according to the brand of fundamentalism we encountered, how long we encountered it, and whether or not our experience was first generation (meaning: we chose the path) or second or third generation (meaning: we were born into the lifestyle). Other factors that can alter the effects of spiritual abuse might include geography, church denomination, and whether or not, our experience included other abuses such as physical, verbal, or sexual abuses.
Today, I’m focusing on five lingering effects of fundamentalism. This isn’t an exhaustive list by no means. But these are five ways that fundamentalism has affected me as well as numerous others I’ve talked to over the years.
1) Approval Addiction: Fundamentalism breeds addiction to approval. Because most fundamentalist experiences involve high expectations, those of us who lasted for any length of time in a toxic church environment know that the joy of toxic belief involves the performance, the following of the rules/creed. When we get it right our treasures on earth is the approval and affirmation from people we admire, usually church leaders or respected peers. Over time, we unknowingly become controlled by how people perceive our behavior and whether or not they offer us praise. Upon leaving, that approval we were receiving no longer exists. And we need it. The thing is, most of us don’t know why. At least, not at first. All we know is that when our bosses don’t praise us for a job well done the way we think they should we feel defeated. We get passive aggressive. We go to great lengths to get their approval. But therein is the catch. Since the approval of our bosses is rarely a “spiritual approval,” even when we receive the coveted “job well done” it doesn’t satisfy the void. Approval from family and friends doesn’t usually fill the need either. Spiritual approval is its own unique brand of affirmation, a kind that’s difficult to fulfill outside of a performance-oriented spiritual experience. To that end, a recovering fundamentalist will often jump into new church experiences quickly in hopes that they’ll find a fast fix for the approval their craving. Our addiction to people’s endorsements bleeds into other non-spiritual aspects of our lives, too. Our relationships, our marriages, our parenting, our personal health and wellness, much of our lives can turn into one big hunt for praise.
2) Disagree Impaired. Fundamentalism is built upon a foundation of agreement. The gathering moves forward, becomes bigger, gets popular because the group agrees with each other. That’s why fundamentalists almost always leave when there’s a disagreement with leadership. Heck, most of the time they run. Because a disagreement is not simply a differing of opinion among fundamentalists. Disagreements are a handicap for fundamentalist sects. They breed fear and distrust. But that’s because agreement is the source blood of a fundamentalist movement. Because of that, a dissenter of any kind quickly becomes an enemy of the movement’s assumed “greater good” or often an enemy of God. Which is why the dissenter usually runs or gets chased off because fundamentalists do not know how to disagree. Upon leaving, a recovering fundamentalist will be slow to discover his or her inability to disagree. “Agreement” becomes the goal in relationships, work environments, etc. They become masters of “proving their points,” and when agreement doesn’t seem possible, they run. Because to exist happily among a non unified gathering feels uncomfortable, wrong, otherworldly.
3) Paranoia. Fundamentalism breeds paranoia. Often an effect of the fear that a fundamentalist environment emotes, being paranoid is so common among faithful fundies, it’s like one of the gifts of the spirit. In some ways, perceiving the potential of evil in big and small situations is considered prophetic, a gift of discernment that’s very versatile, helpful foretelling what’s going to happen in the Middle East or imagining the true intentions of a president they didn’t vote for or becoming a useful commodity for understanding the “true” motives of church members, friends, spouses, kids, or pastors. Upon leaving, a recovering fundamentalist will often drive themselves crazy trying to predict, perceive, and control the world around them. While their obsession for world affairs and politics is still very much alive, the most crippling kind of paranoia involves how one interacts with people they see everyday. The “gift” that was considered so useful in a toxic church environment will become far less celebrated in the outside world. That’s because the “gift” begins to define how you interact with people. For instance, you’ll start to assume you know what people think about you. You’ll begin to assume what it means when you’re not included. You’ll assume that you know the true intentions of those whom you call your friends. Your assumptions will come with details, history, a narrative, and seem very convincing. Among fundamentalist cultures, paranoia is nearly invisible because it’s such an integral part of the experience. Everybody is paranoid to some degree! But once you’re in recovery, the habit will fill you up with anger, make it difficult for you to trust people, potentially cause you to make terrible choices, and overwhelm you with questions: What if so&so doesn’t like me? Why isn’t so&so returning my text messages? Where is so&so tonight and why didn’t they invite me? What often happens is that recovering fundamentalists will attempt to control, manipulate, and create environments that they feel safe inside. That might work for a while. But eventually the questions come back and the insecurity returns. Anxiety takes over because we’re not in control or we’re out of control, so we run. We find new friends. We start a clean slate. We start fresh with a good attitude! And that becomes a pattern that the paranoid former fundamentalist will repeat over and over and over again.
4) Passive Aggressive Behavior. Fundamentalists usually hate conflict. That hardly stops conflict from arising. But they will usually go to create lengths to put a stop to the conflict. Much like the inability to disagree, fundamentalists are terrible at arguing too. Whenever they do present their thoughts in a heated emotional fashion, they are silenced, put in their place, or shamed. Since the movement’s future depends on people getting along or “keeping the peace,” fundamentalists become very passive aggressive. In fact, in many ways, passive aggressiveness is almost a form of Christlike behavior because a passive aggressive person makes their point without rocking the boat. At least, in theory. But unless you’re an adult (usually a man) who is in a semi-leadership position of authority, the only way to handle your frustrations among fundamentalists is to do it passive aggressively. Upon leaving, that’s the only way you know how to interact with conflict, passively, only allowing your frustrations to come out in small portions, at the expense of others. To get mad feels ungodly. To be direct and express exactly what’s on your mind seems too hard, uncomfortable, or disrespectful. Passive aggressiveness is so common in society that those of us who are recovering fundamentalists rarely connect our tendencies to indirectly handle conflict with our fundamentalist roots. Healing comes only when we learn or relearn how to be angry, then learn how to not feel guilty becoming angry, then learn how to not run away after becoming angry, and then learn how to let go of that anger and move on. And that’s a long difficult journey that many of us do not want to endure.
5) Exhaustion. Fundamentalism affects people far more deeply than we realize. It seeps into areas of our lives that we didn’t expect or know about. The path toward recovery is long, difficult, cumbersome, often unforgiving, and absolutely exhausting. At some point, sometimes with and sometimes without faith intact, we quit. Because we become tired. We get tired of every choice we make to move away from our old way of thinking turning into a fight among friends and/or family. We get tired of having to explain and explain again why we feel broken. We get tired of fighting the pride we must overcome to be honest about our brokenness. We get tired of every step away being more difficult than we imagined, often creating more drama and more conflict than we thought possible. So we quit. Only to feel guilty about quitting and deciding to start again. But then we quit again. In many ways, that is what the path toward recovery from fundamentalism looks like. There’s no equation for the healing process, at least, not one that works for everybody. Churches don’t often offer a program for spiritual abuse recoverers. Most of the time they become a part of a new problem. Or you end up feeling like you’re the problem. Exhaustion hits you time and time again, often leading us to feel depressed, unmotivated, and alone. And I’m not gonna say “But you’re not alone” because that will just piss you off. Trust me, I get. The journey is indeed exhausting.
To be continued… (Next up, I’ll cover the five things recovering fundamentalists should never do.)
What other effects of fundamentalism have you experienced?