No More Fundamentalism, a manifesto for myself

Blog Posts, Humanism, Secular Grace

This is a manifesto, mostly written for myself, but perhaps it may help you.

The temptation is strong. Fight it!

Coming out of Christian fundamentalism, there is a temptation to jump right to the next fundamentalism. Angry Atheist is the first one that springs to mind, but there are others. Once you are used to having a community that tells you what to think, it is difficult to move away from that and do more of the thinking for yourself.

And that’s the thing. You have to think for yourself, or you may end up committing to yet another ideology that betrays you.

You don’t have to fight Christianity; it doesn’t need to be a war.

No idea is untouchable

Avoid living in a way where some rules or ideas are untouchable. You do or believe things because the group says you do them, but you haven’t dug into exactly why these things are done or believed.

Be curious. Seek to understand. Follow your doubts. Doubt your doubts. But do it all rationally.

Think for yourself as much as you can

Avoid the temptation to follow a group because it’s easier than figuring things out on your own.

Do learn and process things in a community–where you can–but be mindful about it.

People are more important than ideas

Learn to connect to your fellow humans for their own sake. Everyone has a story, some might even share with you. Everyone can benefit from a listening ear. People aren’t “projects and objects.” They’re people (hat tip to Matt, in his episode). People from your former faith are still people, our fellow humans.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. In short: I don’t want to go back to being a fundamentalist.

What Even Is Doubt?

Blog Posts, doubt

We talk about doubt a lot, but what is it? Is it good or bad? Helpful or harmful?

First, “doubt” is almost entirely in relation to religion. Geoffrey Wallis made the point that once you’re out of religion, “doubt” is just a kind of curiosity. Meh. No big deal.

But religious people see doubt as an unfortunate—but inevitable—occurrence; the sort of thing you should expect to happen every so often, but not a place you want to stay for very long. It’s like having “the talk,” or buying insurance. “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike.” – James KA Smith, quoting Paul Elie, in How (not) to Be Secular, p11.

I see doubt as a kind of confusion or curiosity about some conflict between beliefs you hold. Another way of putting it is, “that feeling when you have cognitive dissonance.” As David puts it, “Something doesn’t quite feel right.” It’s a check-engine light.

Is this confusion or curiosity bad? It depends: Do you want to resolve your inner conflict toward finding out what’s really real? Or do you want to defend a position you already hold? Do you want to be a Scout or a Soldier?

So when someone tells us to doubt our doubts, one way of interpreting that is, “Are you confused by conflicting beliefs you hold? You should second-guess that confusion and definitely not investigate.”

Doubt is only bad if you’re committed to a particular way of thinking. Otherwise, it’s just an indication it’s time to dig further–an opportunity to learn and grow and possibly get better!

Double Down and Doubt Your Doubts! A Double Standard

Blog Posts, doubt

Being told to doubt your doubts sets up a double standard, and you don’t have to play along.

A recent commenter in our Facebook group described how they were starting to question their motives in deconstructing their Christianity. What stood out to me was the insight that it might be “the old evangelical self-reproach” at play.

Have you been told (exhorted) to “doubt your doubts”? I have.

I’ve read it in books. I’ve been told it by former pastors. I’ve been encouraged to do it by friends.

First, doubting your doubts works to keep you in Christianity because of the white, Evanglical, God-shaped hole in our hearts that was drummed into many of us through constant teaching, singing, punishment, and other forms of reinforcement.

Doubting your doubts only works because of that hole. Feeling like you should doubt your doubts probably happens because of that hole.

Second, are the people telling you to do this actually willing to doubt their own beliefs? To lean into their doubts? I…er, um…doubt it. They’re setting up a double standard.

So by all means, doubt your doubts! Or, even better, examine why you used to believe, why you no longer believe, and why you believe what you do now. But also–as soon as it’s safe for you to do so–examine the claims of Christianity, why Christians believe what they believe, what evidence that they have.

This is the path of radical self-honesty, and the path of clear and rational thinking, and self-honesty and rational thinking are part of secular grace.

But whatever you do, don’t give your former religion the privileged place it wants to claim. It can have a seat at the table (in fact, it may show up uninvited!), but the only privilege it has is the privilege of that X-shaped hole in your heart, which isn’t something you asked for anyway.


PS – I’m sounding a bit polemical lately. Maybe just grumpy? My real goal is to encourage those who are hurting, confused, grieving, and perhaps even being accosted by loved ones and acquaintances. Including myself! Eventually it should fade a bit, and your response to apologetics will hopefully be, “meh.”

Praying is Pretending to Do Something

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Did you know that elevator buttons usually don’t do anything? Yes. They are actually programmed to do nothing while you’re hammering on them, willing the doors to close, dadgummit.

Then why do elevators have them? Mainly to give you a sense that you have some influence over your situation–to make you feel like you can do something. I heard once that ATMs make their whirring noises to keep people from kicking them to make sure they’re doing something, though that may or may not be true.

Elevator buttons and ATM noises are about you, not about elevators or ATMs.

Why am I talking about all this?

Many of us were raised to pray for everything. When you pray, you feel like you’re accomplishing something.

  • When someone says they have cancer, saying, “I’ll pray for you,” gives you a warm feeling of helpfulness.
  • When you hear news of a school being attacked by some terrorist, praying gives you a sense that you’re fighting back against an evil world.
  • When you have an anger problem, parying about it makes you feel like you’re solving your anger problem.

But prayer isn’t helping someone with cancer, making the world a better place or solving your character flaws.

It merely makes you feel like you’re doing those things. It’s fake effort.

Cue Captain Obvious: Life is hard, and having a “thing we can do” in the face of overwhelming complexity may help us cope. So, like elevator buttons, prayer is about us.

At its best, prayer can help us work through our thoughts. But at its worst, it can make us feel like we’re doing something while keeping us from actually doing something.

What other kinds of fake effort are there? Many of us were raised to feel guilty for things. But feeling guilty isn’t undoing the past; it isn’t solving our problems and it isn’t making things right. It’s fake effort.

Like elevator buttons, guilt is about us. At its best, it may motivate us to get up and do something different.

But at its worst, guilt accomplishes nothing and harms yourself in the process.

So, beware fake effort! Don’t forget the real goals you’re going toward and do the work.

– Jimmy

PS – If you want a real mind-trip, look up “moral licensing.” All this fake effort plays right into it.

What Is Guilt For?

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Guilt: that racking, nagging and debilitating sense that you should have done better, been better, that you messed up again. What’s it for? What good is it?

Recently I’ve written about dealing with the past. It’s something I and many others have to confront when coming out of something like evangelical Christianity. One of the biggest issues I’ve had to face is my own sense of guilt: guilt over evangelizing others, condemning gay people, teaching my kids they could burn in Hell for eternity. Yikes.

So again, what is guilt for? What does feeling bad get us? Why do we run ourselves through the wringer like this?

We can’t change the past; it’s not like we can hop in our Delorean, hit 88mph, and go back to fix our mistakes.

We can, however, affect the present, but guilt isn’t action. It isn’t the same as doing something about whatever you’re feeling guilty about.

Is guilt supposed to make you feel like you’re doing something about the problem? Is it supposed to make you compliant with authorities like family, church or society? Is it a way of showing someone you’ve harmed that you care about making it right?

Maybe it’s all those things, but the best I can dredge up is that guilt is usually like a pastor who only ever uses fear as a tactic. You may get some motivation in the short term, but it wears you out. You can’t keep it up over the long haul.

But what if you could do better without depending on guilt for motivation? What if you could be kinder and more gracious without feeling bad about what you’ve done? Or at least obsessively, persistently feeling bad?

My point is this: guilt seems to be optional. It’s probably even harmful and less effective than alternatives, at least most of the time.

So what?

Well, to start with, don’t expect to stop feeling guilty overnight. It takes time.

Also, don’t feel guilty for feeling guilty. (Ain’t the mind a funny thing?)

But do consider whether you should give yourself permission to skip the guilt altogether. Treat yourself with compassion, look ahead to who you want to be, and keep walking!


For Apologetics, You Aren’t the Target Market

Blog Posts, Critique of Apologetics

Like David, I’m not a huge fan of apologetics. I’m also not a huge fan of counter-apologetics. I’m OK that they exist; I just don’t want to participate. It feels like that quip about wrestling a pig, “Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty and the pig enjoys it.”

However, like last week’s post about having an answer, I can’t help myself. In my defense, my main goal is to encourage those of us who are still dealing with remnants of the faith we grew up with.

When dealing with apologetics, one thing to keep in mind is this: You are not the target market. Apologetics is not for unbelievers. Apologetics is for believers. David calls this dynamic The Bubble.

The bubble is a way of expressing the self reinforcing nature of faith. Everything points towards the center: god. Most of the people a believer comes into contact with are believers. Most of the content believers choose to consume is from other believers. Everything the believer experiences is interpreted in light of the bubble of faith. All of the experiences, people and content that do not reinforce the bubble are cast as sinful, outsiders and “worldly.”

Apologetics isn’t about convincing people on the outside that Christianity is true.

Last year, I had lunch with a former pastor. My honest-to-goodness goal was to try to keep bridging gaps—to rehumanize atheists in the eyes of the Christian and to rehumanize the Christian in my own eyes.

My fantasy: I would listen to understand. I would try to honestly portray what I believed. I would gently push back when appropriate. I would be a Graceful Atheist, by gum!


What actually happened was what felt like a caricature of a conversation between an Atheist and a Christian. The kind of conversation the Christian goes back to their Sunday School and says, casually, “Yeah, when I was having lunch with My Atheist Friend…Oh, did I not mention I have an Atheist Friend? So, about My Atheist Friend…”

Past Jimmy wrote: “A bit tropey…didn’t feel like a real conversation. How to get to something that really matters in a situation like this?” I talked to people afterward, and the consensus was: These conversations aren’t worth it. If it starts taking turn toward apologetics, change the direction.

In the end, Apologetics is about protecting an identity, and protecting an identity is something people will do with great violence. And the further away you can keep the conversation from the vulnerable core, the better. It’s not the path of self-honesty, or grace.


PS – Counter-apologetics often suffers from the same problems as apologetics. You’re defending something rather than attempting to honestly find out what’s real. (See “Soldier Mindset” in Scout Mindset)

Having An Explanation Doesn’t Make You Right

Blog Posts, Critique of Apologetics

When Christians say, “You have a God-shaped hole in your heart,” that can be interpreted as, “You know that uncomfortable feeling you sometimes get when you wonder, what’s the point of it all? We have an answer: You need God.”

We humans are meaning-makers. “Significance Junkies,” in the words of Carl Sagan. We find meaning where there isn’t any, and are dissatisfied until we have answers. “We need to get to the bottom of this.” “Heads must roll.” “They must have forgotten their lucky socks.”

As Captain Obvious would say, life is hard. Making sense of things makes things a bit more tolerable. It can blunt the force of an often overwhelming number of details.

Given that, what’s more satisfying: someone who says, “Yessir, I’ve got your answer right here, ” or someone who says, “Gosh, I’m not sure we know enough to answer the question”? We’re pitting simple, powerful confidence against wishy-washy, weak-kneed evasiveness.

We itch when we don’t have an explanation. We have to know why. It may feel like we are wired this way, but it can land us in very comfortable but very wrong places.

Here’s the thing, just because you have an answer for something doesn’t mean it’s a true answer. Just because you have an explanation doesn’t make you right.

When Christians tell you they know…

Where matter came from. God did it.

Why the universe exists. God did it.

Why children die of cancer. The Fall did it. God’s mysterious, unknowable, but wise sovereign plan did it. Our need for free will did it.

Why you deconverted. Your desire to sin did it. You never being a true Christian did it.

It does NOT mean they’re right.

When you don’t have an answer to those questions, it doesn’t mean their answers are right.

Sometimes we need to sit with the uncertainty. Recognizing we don’t know something–and sometimes we can’t know something–is radically more self-honest than pretending that we do.

– Jimmy


The X Shaped Hole in Your Heart

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You probably have a God-shaped hole in your heart.

The saying goes something like, “Everyone has a God-shaped hole in their heart, and just like you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole, we can’t fill that hole with worldly things.” I’m guessing that most people reading this post are current or former Evangelical Christians. So yeah, God-shaped holes for all of us!

Here’s the thing: A better way to say it is, “Everyone has a Whatever-They-Were-Raised-to-Believe shaped hole in their hearts. Just like you can’t easily fit a soft, squarish peg into a roundish hole, we can’t easily fill that hole with anything other than Whatever-We-Were-Raised-to-Believe.”

Doesn’t quite trip off the tongue any more.

More importantly, it no longer makes the evangelist’s case: You need their god.

Someone raised in a Hindu context is not going to have a white, American, Evangelical God-shaped hole in their heart. The message only works if you were raised in the church, or raised with even a vaguely Christian worldview.

What’s the implication?

If you feel a pull to Christian things: You can’t quite let go of Hell or Biblical inerrancy. You can’t overcome the idea that there’s no meaning without God, it may simply mean you were raised to believe Christian things (This is a fact you can’t change.)

So try asking yourself a couple of questions:

  • If I cannot let go of the existence of (white, American, Evangelical) God, does that necessarily mean that he exists?
  • How about a Hindu in the middle of Gujarat? Does he have trouble letting go of the existence of (white, American, Evangelical) God? If not, what does that mean about the existence of God?

– Jimmy

PS – For more on the parents’ effect on the religion and culture of their kids, here are some articles:

Three Yous

Blog Posts, Deconstruction, Deconversion, Secular Grace, Thought Experiments

Imagine a genie walks (floats? sidles?) up to you and says, “See that guy over there? Yeah, the 80-year-old that looks like he’s having a great time. If you say yes, I’ll make him sad and lonely, riddled with guilt, obsessing over the past. So, shall we?” How would you react?

Assuming you react with disgust or shock, why is that? Seems obvious: It would be awful to do that to someone.

Or try this: someone walks up to you on a playground and says, “See that mom over there? She used to yell at her kids, like super angry stuff. You should go over there and tell her to undo it.”

That’s also inhumane, but why? Again, seems obvious: she can’t do anthing about it. Plus, she’s doing better now. It’ll do a lot of harm, and what good would it do?

Now imagine the 80-year-old guy is your future self, or the mom is your past self. We do those things to ourselves all the time. We beat ourselves up over the past, even though we’re doing better. We shortchange ourselves now, laying the foundation for sadness and loneliness in the future.

For that reason, I like to think of myself as three different people: past Jimmy, Jimmy, and future Jimmy.

With past Jimmy, I try to be kind. An arm-over-the-shoulder, kindly uncle to my past self. Sure, past Jimmy screwed up, but he knows it, and he’s working to do better. Plus, you see how much progress he’s made? Cut him some slack, present Jimmy!

With future Jimmy, I try to be kind. I invest in friendships, knowing that friendship is key to human flourishing. I try to do healthy things, knowing that future Jimmy is the one who’s going to pay for today.

In the end, all we have is right now. The past is unchangeable and the future is unknowable.

I like how James Clear put it, though he’s coming from a self-help perspective:

Be forgiving with your past self.
Be strict with your present self.
Be flexible with your future self.

Being forgiving with your past self sounds pretty healthy to me.

– Jimmy

PS – I literally speak in the third person about past and future Jimmys. (Jimmies?) Try it! it’s weirdly helpful.

You Can’t Change the Past

Blog Posts, Deconversion, Philosophy, Purity Culture

Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.

Meditations 3.10 (Hays)

One of the hardest things about deconverting is coming to terms with the fact that there’s so much time already spent: time spent doing what now seems like a complete waste; time spent not doing the things that seem to actually make up a life. So frustrating. Such a waste. Why did purity culture have to happen when I had youth and energy? Why did I spend that youth and energy building up hangups and trauma around sex? Why don’t I know how to have friends?

It’s like Plato’s allegory of the cave was somehow tangled up with that urban legend about waking up after a party, missing a kidney. Or does that metaphor only work for me?

And it’s harder the later in life you deconvert.

One of the most helpful things I’ve found is to accept that the past is gone. Nothing I can do about it, nothing I can do to get it back.

Easier said than done.

First, why is it helpful? If I know I can’t do anything about the past, I can shift my focus on the present moment. The present moment is something I can do something about. Sure, I can learn from the past, but when it comes to making choices, what matters is the here and now.

Even better, if I accept the past as unchangeable, I can be kind to myself, cutting myself some slack for the road ahead.

A thought experiment to take away: What if you were dropped into your current situation? What if you were unceremoniously plopped into the body, memories, life, history, and family of someone else in this situation? What if you knew it wasn’t your life? What would you do? Would you do anything differently? Would you feel differently about the past? How?

– Jimmy

PS – I asked one of these new AI programs for a suggested title for this post. My favorite: “From Kidney Theft to Puritan Lessons: Surviving Unappreciated Time.” …success?