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.