The domino effect for evangelicals

As a lapsed religious believer, I find interesting the stories of how other people lost their faith. I was a very devout Christian, an ordained lay preacher in the Methodist Church back in Sri Lanka, but it was a progressive liberal church and by no means fundamentalist. It went a long way to accommodating scientific beliefs, which is perhaps why it took me so long to give up belief in the idea of gods.

But Nellie Smith grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical community. She explains why something that other religious people or non-believers may think is an easy step, such as giving up an absurd idea like a 6,000 year old Earth, does not just involve removing a single awkward piece of belief. Each piece, each item of belief, is instead seen as a thread that if pulled away will cause the whole fabric to completely unravel. Or to use a different metaphor, their beliefs are like a row of dominoes.

People who didn’t grow up in the American evangelical bubble often don’t realize what they’re demanding when they ask an evangelical to accept a fact that is contradicted by their church’s interpretation of the Bible. To those bought in—excepting, perhaps, that small demographic of Christians who identify as evangelical and are truly progressive—evangelicalism is not a collection of facts. It is an entire reality, based not on logic but on a web of ideas, all of which must be wholeheartedly accepted for any of it to work. It is complete unto itself, self-contained, self-justifying, self-sustaining. It’s your community, your life, your entire way of thinking, and your gauge for what is true in the world. Evangelicalism feels so right from the inside.

And, for an evangelical, there are no small doubts: growing up in many evangelical churches means to be told, repeatedly, that the devil will always seek a foothold, and once you give him one you’re well on the road to hell, to losing your faith, to destroying your witness. That’s scary stuff. To begin to doubt evangelicalism is not simply a mental exercise. For many like me, it’s to feel a void opening, the earth dropping out from beneath you. It’s to face the prospect of invalidating your entire existence.

She says that this is why they cling to everything, however hard it may be, and badgering them with counter-evidence just makes them did their heels in, convinced that you are an agent of Satan come to lead them astray. But she also suggests what approaches might work.

What does work? In my experience, it’s empathy, honest conversation, and a whole lot of patience. Although I’d been probing at the weaknesses of fundamentalist ideas since I was a kid, my ideas only really started to shift as I developed relationships with people who didn’t fit my worldview. These were people who respected me, who accepted me unconditionally, and who stayed in dialogue, never shaming me even when I said things that were ill-informed or demonstrably false. Some of them had been hurt or discriminated against because of evangelical ideology and their kindness to me wasn’t fair or deserved. In retrospect, their acceptance of me looks a whole lot like an uncomfortable word that evangelicals love to throw around: grace.

In general, it is a good idea not to badger people about their beliefs. Disagreeing with them without making them feel defensive is usually a more productive path as long as you realize that change will come slowly over time, though the final epiphany may be sudden. In her case, what moved her away from fundamentalism was an introductory geology course in college when something, she does not remember what now, suddenly caused her to realize that of course the Earth could not be just 6,000 years old. And that, as preached to her many times, did in fact cause the whole fundamentalist belief structure to unravel. She does not say what her beliefs are now, whether she is still a believer but not a fundamentalist or whether she has abandoned religion altogether.


  1. Matt G says

    My father grew up in a small, rural church and finally gave up belief after a philosophy class in college. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist home, and knew I didn’t believe in God by age 8. Stories like this are completely foreign to me. I guess I’m lucky, and perhaps should be more patient with those who endured this kind of upbringing.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    Fred Clark, a.k.a. Slacktivist, is one of those ‘small demographic of Christians who identify as evangelical and are truly progressive’, and he’s been writing about exactly that sort of evangelical fragility issue for years, and how much of the teaching of those churches sets their own children up for a future crisis of faith.

    See You can’t have a 10,000-year-old house in a 7,000-year-old universe for one such, where after a discovery of an ancient house during a highway expansion project, he concludes:

    You can’t be a young-Earth creationist in Israel. Such a rigid, brittle scheme couldn’t survive in a land where every highway expansion project could easily turn unearth yet another crisis of faith.

  3. says


    Growing up in rural Southeastern Ohio (Washington County) Smith’s story (and advice) ring perfectly true to me.

    In the world of my youth, If you believe that the Christian bible is the unerring word of gawd then it ALL must be the unerring word of gawd.

    Remove even a single jot or tittle (Matthew 5:18) and the whole tower must fall.

    If you don’t believe that the Christian bible is the unerring word of gawd—that you can pick and choose what to believe—then you are a pagan heathen and doomed to the eternal fire of hell.



  4. Mobius says

    I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church. At that time it was conservative, but not fundamentalist as it is today. Still, it had aspects of the “one world view” you speak of. One of the things that led me away from religion was their insistence that certain things just could not happen without a god. I had always been a science fan. In my mid -to-late teens I was learning of a number of things science could explain, without a god, that my church insisted could not possibly be explained.

    So it was clear to me that the church could be in serious error on something, which led me to see what else it was in error about. The end result was becoming an atheist.

  5. rjw1 says

    I can’t remember ever, as an adult, being a believer, religions just didn’t make any sense. Some people have expressed scepticism—“You must have been a believer at some stage” No never.
    The problem of theodicy seemed to be a killer argument against Christianity. I was educated at a Christian school, it didn’t make any difference to my attitude to religion. I didn’t study science subjects past year 12 btw. Science isn’t necessary for atheism.

    My father was an atheist and my mother had no interest in established religions, perhaps lifelong atheism is genetic.

    If I’d been raised in some brainwashing cult perhaps my attitude would have been different.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *