Finally, the unconversion guide you’ve been waiting for (with Dante! and marshmallows!). Escaping fundamentalism is one of the world’s trickiest psychological feats, and sometimes it helps to see a path. Detailed field notes follow the game board.
Details about how I navigated the terrain.
Growing up an earnest, evangelical fundamentalist, I wanted nothing more than to please Jesus. I eventually saw that man-made, God-themed blueprint of compliance for what it was: a limited view. So I un-converted myself. Like, all the way. I didn’t want to let go of the beliefs but hang onto the patterns — become a judgmental atheist, for example, or a dogmatic yogi. After dismantling my life, I picked back up a few handy concepts, like soul. Now I feel at home in the world, not lost at all. The topography of an un-conversion is wild, and I’m happy to guide you through it.
Cross a river of separation.
Now that you’ve stepped away from the pew, take a cup of coffee and a book to an ocean or lake or creek instead. Any tree or body of water will do. Prepare to feel exhilarated, unsure, confused and disillusioned. You’ll be leaving behind the comfort of community. You may not want to talk about what’s happening at first. You may not even admit to yourself what’s happening. It’s better to keep your own counsel than to talk to the wrong people, that’s for sure. It will be lonely for awhile, but everything will be OK.
Like Dante didn’t say, “Abandon all certainty, ye who enter here.”
Perhaps fundamentalism deserves its own circle in hell, but leaving can feel rough, especially if it’s all you’ve ever known. Feeling sure is downright addictive. (But you’ll come to realize that curiosity is better than certainty.)
Wipe off sticky goop of judgmentalism. Repeat as needed.
I was so immersed in a culture of blame and judgment that I didn’t even know it, like a fish that doesn’t know it’s wet (to swipe a metaphor from David Foster Wallace). See what you find underneath those layers of should. See what it feels like to be open instead of to be in opposition. See what it’s like not to assume something or someone somewhere is perpetually wrong.
Read like a banshee for approximately 5 years. (Assuming banshees are voracious readers.)
I read so many books. Books, books, books. Books by Bart Ehrman and Alice Walker and Marion Woodman and Thich Nhat Hanh and John Shelby Spong and Annie Dillard and Carolyn Myss. Your library card: never leave home without it.
Unearth fear camouflaged as love, judgmentalism as wisdom, literalism as truth.
We talked about God’s love a lot, but we lived in the shadow of fear. Love was for bumper stickers and lapel pins. Fear was our everyday wear. We thought we were doing our duty by judging everyone. We thought we knew how everyone else should live. We thought our rigid, literalist belief structures were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Turns out, nope.
Like Emily Dickinson said, “The truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.”
If you’ve been living with a heavy religious filter, you can’t see everything all at once when you take it off. Know that you’re right where you need to be, blinking in the brightness. You’re getting to know the world, one revelation at a time.
Beware the quicksand of self-reinforcing logic and the rusty metal trap of external validation.
Escaping fundamentalism is one of the world’s trickiest psychological feats. The fundamentalist landscape is rigged with other traps and decoys, but these two are perhaps the most pernicious. You’ve been taught your opinions don’t matter, and you’ve been living in a quicksand of self-reinforcing logic. Each book you read is like an author throwing you a rope. (Also watch out for the trap of thinking maybe fundamentalism isn’t so bad after all. That one’s always near the exit.)
Make a bonfire of your beliefs. Roast some marshmallows while you’re at it.
Examine your beliefs one at a time. The idea that someone who hasn’t asked Jesus into her heart in a particular way will burn in an eternal, inextinguishable fire that never consumes. Things like that. Identify the underlying thought patterns too: the need for certainty, the need to feel special. Things like that. Stack them up & figure out what what they did to you.
Do some excavating. Know what you have to give and what fills you up.
Get your bearings. Figure out what you have to offer. Figure out what you like. Get to know both your light and your shadows. Deal with the feelings you didn’t bother feeling for, say, the first 30 years of your life. Realize that you’re allowed to have feelings and take up space. (No, having feelings does not turn you into a country music song.) (Does not.) Start listening to your body too. (No, you’re weird!)
Try super hard to be an atheist (optional).
I wanted to be an atheist at some point along the way, and I still sometimes find intellectual comfort in the idea that, as far as the God I grew up hearing about, I am an atheist. But not believing just as adamantly seemed like the other side of the same coin. I wanted a new currency altogether. Besides, the idea that we somehow have all of life’s answers seemed unlikely. So I eventually let myself have hope again. That was important. You have to rescue those big concepts from the hold religion thinks it has on them. Religion doesn’t own those truths. Their provenance is cosmic.
Be awed by another source. The stars will do, along with the fact that you’re made of them.
I got really into watching science documentaries and reading about physics for a while, probably to make up for the not-science I learned as a kid — you know, how the earth was made in six days and all. So I distilled my belief to this and called it good: “I’m made of the same things as the stars. They’re up there doing their thing, and I guess I’ll do my thing too.” The “doing my thing” part meant taking responsibility for my life. The star part connected me to something big that I didn’t understand but that I appreciated regularly to jaw-dropping, heart-soaring degrees.
Have a dark night of the soul. Do not pass woe. Do not collect $200. Wait it out.
Not to make light of the most painful experience you’ll ever have, but you know you’re making progress when everything drops out of your life. The medieval mystic St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul.” T.S. Eliot wrote about it too: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” Getting to the good stuff seems to require darkness. You can’t gloss over it. Sorry about that.
Hell swirl alert! Kicks up old patterns, like the need to place blame.
These funnels of suffering can dart across the un-conversion landscape and suck you in when you least expect it. Change doesn’t all just happen like poof. Those fundamentalist habits persist. Long after you stop believing in the fiery literal hell, a metaphorical twister can take you straight into the kind of underworld that we create for ourselves right here in reality.
Forget perfectionism. Perfectionism is like a plastic flower. Make like a real flower and get dirty.
Plastic flowers may look nice from a distance, but there’s no mistaking them up for the real thing up close. If I may be obvious, real flowers thrive and grow and bloom only after their roots get down in that dirt. Authenticity trumps perfection every time, mess and all.
Like Mary Oliver said, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Poets are the best, amirite? Your life is precious, and that’s worth remembering. I had to remind myself that the world was a hospitable place. Often. I had to put as much time into filling my head with helpful thoughts as I’d filled my head with judgmental ones all those years. Remind yourself what’s true. Use poems, mantras, pie charts, little booklets that you make with cute illustrations and laminate so you can look at them while you’re waiting in line for a donut, whatever.
Hibernate or go into a chrysalis: take time for your head and heart to align.
Whether you go into a chrysalis or hibernate or take a series of long afternoon naps, your body and your mind and your heart need time to catch up with each other. The changes I made were incremental, but they added up to something mighty dramatic. I know everyone’s tired of butterfly imagery, but doesn’t that transformation seem pretty amazing? A butterfly hasn’t converted from caterpillar-like to butterfly-like beliefs; she has become a butterfly. She doesn’t believe in wings; she has them. She doesn’t rue the day she roamed the earth as a caterpillar or rested in the chrysalis; that’s just how she got here.
Connect with your soul, which Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls your “marriage to the wild.”
A “marriage to the wild” — that’s my kind of commitment. Maybe I’ll never again be comfortable with God language, but soul language came through my religious experience unscathed. Even if I didn’t like where the word God took me, I could get down with my soul. Believing I had a soul didn’t seem intellectually lazy or trite. It didn’t seem as if was believing something at all, but like I was accepting the truest, deepest part of myself and putting her in charge. And my soul definitely didn’t want chicken soup. She wanted a Korean taco truck.
You’ve done a lot of good work. Watch some TV for awhile, why don’t you?
For me, my un-conversion was about putting in the time. For years, I knew I was going in the right direction but still felt a niggling sense that I was missing something. Then I felt a palpable shift — it was a Saturday afternoon, and I was sitting on the floor in my living room — and realized I was no longer afraid of being wrong. That’s the most amazing grace of all because I’ve never felt lost again.
the last remaining bits of brimstone had to be soaked out of my system
with love and hot chocolate. Finally seeing what all the Buffy fuss was
about on TV didn’t hurt either.
Oh, you want a version of this field guide that you can fit onto a piece of paper easily?
OK, I get it! I mean, you get it! Because I have that! You’ll get a free download of the game if you sign up for my occasional newsletter.