Fundamentalism, Psychotherapy and De-Conversion

March 2, 2008 at 10:43 pm 19 comments

Freedom1In my own de-conversion, I found that being in psychotherapy was enormously helpful to me in overcoming some of the indoctrination I absorbed in my fundamentalist church. In fact, I was so impressed with the outcome — I quit writhing in neurotic self-flagellation as a Christian and actually started enjoying life — that I went on to become a psychiatrist.

I do not believe psychotherapy is a panacea for all the ills of the world. However, it surely represents a step forward from the morass that is fundamentalist Christian counseling.

The issue of Christian psychotherapy is complex. In fact, most religions, especially conservative ones, have a built-in psychology. This is the means they use to peddle their wares. Fundamentalism must first convince you that you are sick before its cure will have much of an appeal. To accomplish this task, it utilizes time-tested methodologies. For example, it teaches that your worst feelings of guilt and shame are the truest intuitions you have about yourself, so you should listen to them. In fundamentalist thought, there is no such thing as neurotic or misplaced guilt; guilt is the bite of a God designed conscience. It demands repentance, not an understanding of *why* you feel guilty.

Moreover, in my own clinical work, I have seen untold damage done to those hardcore fundamentalists who come to really believe that God cures all ills and heals all wounds. This can result in enormous psychological pressure to be “over it” – whatever horrible trauma “it” might be – because “I gave it to God.” The logic is sinister: if you are still struggling with this, you are not really giving it to God, because if you did, you would be fine. Failing to give a problem to God is pride or a refusal to trust and, of course, pride is a sin. The upshot: if you suffer from any human pain that is not easily “fixed” by prayer and the like, you are in sin. In my opinion, this is really, really evil.

On the other hand, real psychotherapy can be immensely transformative if we can overcome our indoctrination and allow it to work. It was such a bombshell moment in my own personal therapy when, after about ten months of work, I *finally* told my psychotherapist I was a Christian. I had held off from divulging this because I expected, in my caricature of secular thought, that she would tell me I would have to abandon Christianity in order to get better. I did not think this should be the case, but I perceived she thought it, so I held this nugget of information in for months. The root my perception was found in the us-vs-them attitude fundamentalism teaches: she was not a Christian (by my definition), so she was clearly a godless secular anti-Christian relativist.

However, she did not respond as I expected. She just accepted this part of me like any other, and that was the real beginning of my therapy – of showing another person what I thought were the worst and ugliest — yes, the most sinful — parts of myself and have them be accepted and understood, not condemned. In doing so, it helped *me* to accept those parts of myself, also, rather than trying to expunge them in prayer and self-abnegation. Even more, it taught me that the us-vs-them dichotomy I had been taught and expected to find was just not true. “They” were not mindlessly hostile to ” us Christians” as I had been led to believe. She was compassionate and empathic and accepted me for who I was – something that, despite all my church’s talk about unconditional love, I had never really experienced before.

This started me wondering what *else* I had been taught that was not true.

– Richard

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19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Terry K. Moore  |  March 3, 2008 at 1:23 am

    Wow! The kind of Christianity you were exposed to sounded a lot like a cult. That’s some pretty wacked out stuff (for lack of better terms).

    Also, I agree that Christians (like most of society in general) aren’t too favorable on being transparent (revealing) with each other. Which is sad. It does a lot harm.

  • 2. athinkingman  |  March 3, 2008 at 7:07 am

    Great posting Richard. I suspect that perhaps like me, you too found that that acceptance helps you to accept yourself and makes living much more stress free and joyful.

  • 3. Rob N.  |  March 3, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Excellent. I’d like to have written this in as much as I’ve had similar thoughts and experiences. I lack your technical expertise though.


  • 4. Terry K. Moore  |  March 3, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Another thought came to mind. . .Josh McDowell produced a book, which is a few years old now, called “The Handbook to Counseling Youth” which contains information about some rather disturbing things teenagers face and how to approach helping them. It includes things from emotional issues, abuse, addictions, family issues, disorders, sexual issues, etc. and never does it describe the kind of remedies you experienced from so called Christian counselors, and Josh is mainstream when it comes to apologetics and counseling.

    I’m not in no way trying to minimize your experience, in fact I’m willing to bet that what you experienced isn’t happening only among fundamental “nutty” Christians. I’m sure there’s a school of thought among Christians that are teaching ridiculous things concerning serious things people are going through, turning around and basically making people feeling guilty for feeling guilty and telling them it’s a sign that something is wrong with them (which there may be something wrong but they’ve identified and labeled the problem incorrectly).

    I’m sure this means little, or nothing, but sorry that happen. I would love to punch some Christians in the face (sorry for sounding violent) for the stupid and perverse things they do in the name of Christ.

  • 5. the chaplain  |  March 3, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Many well-intentioned Christians inadvertently harm others by prescribing Jesus as the antidote to all human ills. If only human psychology and relationships were that simple. 😦

  • 6. exevangel  |  March 3, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    LOL Chaplain, many well-intentioned folk also make a huge mistake and prescribe Josh McDowell books for handling human ills! My completely evangelical but hopeless parents cleverly bought me a copy of one of the “Why Wait” books on avoiding teen sex and it took years (of therapy!) to get over the guilt.

  • 7. me and jesus « Cracked Head Blog  |  March 3, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    […] a couple of posts at de-conversion, My contempt for religious answers to psychological issues and Fundamentalism, Psychotherapy, and De-Conversion. One in particular has spurred me to think back on my own recovery, or spiritual journey if you […]

  • 8. Richard  |  March 3, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you to everyone for the kind words. Terry, ita been a pleasure to me over the years to learn *not* to over-generalize my experience to all, or even most, Christians. That has been important for me to remember. For that matter, I would even say that the people in my former church, were almost to a person good and kind and decent folk, who would be appalled if they thought their teaching compounded my then-unhappiness, rather than pointing to a solution.

    The logic seems to follow, though, from the basic premises of fundamentalist psychological theories, and as I said, I am not the only one who took from it the conclusion that suffering — especially psychological/emotional suffering — is an index of sin. Ive seen that more than once in my own patients.

    What I dont yet understand is why some who are exposed to these ideologies suffer from them so much, as I did, whereas many do not seem to. As systems of social cohesion, self-esteem support, defense against painful emotions, explanations for one’s experience, all such ideologies will “work” for some and not for others. Im still trying to understand that difference.

  • 9. cipher  |  March 4, 2008 at 11:25 am

    What I dont yet understand is why some who are exposed to these ideologies suffer from them so much, as I did, whereas many do not seem to. As systems of social cohesion, self-esteem support, defense against painful emotions, explanations for one’s experience, all such ideologies will “work” for some and not for others. Im still trying to understand that difference.

    Richard, you may be interested in this:

    It appears that there is a physiological basis for ideological orientation.

  • 10. karen  |  March 4, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    What I dont yet understand is why some who are exposed to these ideologies suffer from them so much, as I did, whereas many do not seem to.

    I’m with you, Richard. I suffered from a lot of the same things you mention, and yet my husband (still a fundy) claims not to have. I don’t know whether he’s just in denial, or I took it all way too seriously.

    I’ll check out that link, cipher – thanks.

  • 11. Rob N.  |  March 4, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    karen and Richard,

    It’s anecdotal at best, but I think the ones that get hurt (like me) are the ones that tend to take it seriously. I mean, I really tried to do it, believe it, live it. I thought everybody at my mega-church did. I mean, why would you subject yourself to that crap if you didn’t think it was (eternal) life and death?

    As I’ve gotten older I realize that most people, at least most extroverts, are much more capable of “going along to get along”. Things like spiritual terror just roll off of them like water off a duck. My sister was more “active” than I was as a kid, but has managed to walk away relatively unscathed. She’s a social butterfly and was obviously getting some sort of “juice” from the whole church scene that I never got. I just felt either elated or terrible, and mostly the latter.


  • 12. LeoPardus  |  March 5, 2008 at 11:41 am


    The article had some interesting thoughts. Unfortunately when they got to the crux of their “evidence”, they said the following:

    it is the most complex systems that are most vulnerable to developmental abnormalities. In humans, this is the frontal lobes. …..
    There is also evidence that stimulation induced neuronal development can occur in specific areas of the brain. Children who receive musical training at an early age have larger regions of the temporal lobe cortex, which processes sounds, when compared to those who do not receive this training.

    I checked with the neurologist I work with, because this didn’t quite ring right with me. He confirmed my suspicions. Namely that those statements CANNOT be supported. The idea that brain development can be enhanced in any region according to IQ, training, giftedness, etc has been tossed around and investigated for a long time. But NO findings have ever been established to support it.

    So what it comes down to is this: The authors of that article made statements of alleged *fact* that simply are not fact.

  • 13. Brad  |  March 5, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Wow. A compelling article. This is… man… This is a very disturbing problem.

    My wife and I go to a Christian counselor who is also state-certified and well trained. Very little of what we talk about has to do with our faith. It is a foundational aspect of who we are, but God made us in such a way that psychology and psychotherapeutic techniques help us deal with problems too.

    I can’t tell you how helpful therapy paired with our Christian faith has been helpful. Fundies are dead wrong in claiming that Christianity is directly opposed to “everything else.” It’s just not mutually exclusive (thank God!).

    Good stuff.

  • 14. Michelle  |  March 5, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I engaged in this topic during Bible Study today. We were discussing the conscience and the belief that God wipes it clean through Christ’s atonement. I said I hadn’t experienced it quite like that, that I still feel shame. Due to childhood abuse, I daily use cognitive therapy (I think that’s the term) to deal with the lies I tell myself (being worthless). But I also go to God for the sins I know I commit.

    Some ladies had a hard time with the fact I would see a therapist and not just “appropriate” scripture. I feel I’ve got the best of both worlds, and they are not in conflict with one another. As a Christian, can’t I use the advances we’ve learned in understanding the human mind? Why does it have to be “a tool of Satan?” And as a human, can’t I reach out to the God I believe is there to help? Why must we always throw the baby out with the bathwater?

  • 15. Richard  |  March 6, 2008 at 1:45 am

    Thank you to everyone for your thoughts on this difficult issue. Karen and Rob, its interesting to hear you suggest out loud the same thing I have suspected — at least, so far my best working theory — about the difference between those who are hurt by fundamentalist theology and those who arent.

    Im a pretty obsessive guy. When I take a mind to do something, I want to do it right, I want to take it seriously, and I want to do it to the Nth degree. Thus when CS Lewis (my main influence back in the day) said that a created being in right relationship with God is **perfectly** selfless — totally evacuated of the self, so that God’s will can fill the vessel of the soul — well, man, I took that to heart and promptly starting rooting out every last pebble of self interest as “evidence” that I wasnt fully surrendering myself to God.

    But of course one cannot submit the will by force of will. I tried to, and it made me miserable. Thing is, I dont think any of this came within 100 light-years of occurring to the other people in my church. For them, CHristinaity was a way of life, yes, but also in a way just the ambient cultural assumptions. They were, in other words, not purists like I was. They took it seriously, but not neurotically seriously, and so could go about their lives with all the rough edges of their faith smoothed over.

    And this is, I think, the difference. Evangelical theology, taken in pure form, is pretty toxic stuff. I do believe that. But a lot of people just dont seem compelled to drink it straight, and I think that was why it was so detrimental to me. Maybe something like that is what happened to you guys, too?

  • 16. Richard  |  March 6, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Brad and Michelle – I agree that most of Christianity is not imimcal to such value judgments as exist within clinical psychotherapy. There are a few — such as when Jesus teaches that to feel something is to do it (e.g., lust, anger) and thus sinful. Clinicians will generally reject that assertion, believing instead that (a portion of) mental health consists in being able to draw a sharp distinction between the two — to feel is *not* the same as to do. Much neurotic unhappiness consists in fearing that they are the same.

    But other than that, there is no necessary contradiction. Its just a matter of how the theology gets translated into action, and that (in my view) tends to be a function of how conservative the theology is. Your experience with your church ladies is representative, Michelle, with the idea that Jesus/prayer/the Bible/(fill in the blank) is the answer to everything. Ive had people tell me that and it is a wildly unempathic thing to say. Christianity does not have to be like that. In fact, I know many Christians who would say that is a very immature form of Christianty.

    It reminds me of a story (parable?) I sometimes tell to patients who are reluctant to get treatment on religious grounds, “God will heal me.” Its a bit goofy, but I like it:

    A man was in his house when it started to rain, and rain hard. Someone drove up in four wheel drive and said “Get it, its going to flood.” But the man said, “No, God will provide.”

    A bit later the flood waters rose. The man had to go up to the second floor. Someone came by in a boat and said, “Get in, its flooding!” But the man said, “Nope, God will provide.”

    Finally he was forced onto his roof. A helicopter came by and dropped a rope ladder down. “Climb up!” they said. “No” the man shouted over the roar. “God will provide.” So the helicopter left.

    The man drowned.

    A few moments later, he was in heaven talking to God. “God” he said. “I trusted you! I had faith! Why did you not save me?”

    “Well, I sent you a jeep, a boat, and a helicopter; what more did you want??”

  • 17. Rob N.  |  March 6, 2008 at 11:09 am


    Yes, it really sucks “not to be doing it right” when everyone else apparently is. I had real problems, and in my case at least, probably needed something more substantial than prayer, scripture study, and traipsing back and forth to church. I think the realization that most of it was BS was the hardest part for me. The disappointment. No one likes feeling like they’ve been duped.

    Had I been more well-adjusted, perhaps I’d be on my third marriage, the produce manager at Wal-Mart, and a church leader of some description. Instead, I live with my mother and am plagued with depression, in addition to my substance abuse problems. I don’t really think the whole evangelical scene hurt me. When I needed help, however, they essentially offered me a baby aspirin when I need brain surgery. The results disappointed everyone concerned. I think the backlash on my part hurt me more than anything else.


  • 18. karen  |  March 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    And this is, I think, the difference. Evangelical theology, taken in pure form, is pretty toxic stuff. I do believe that. But a lot of people just dont seem compelled to drink it straight, and I think that was why it was so detrimental to me. Maybe something like that is what happened to you guys, too?

    Definitely. I took it 1000% seriously, and I assumed that everyone else in the churches I attended did, too.

    However, when my (still fundy) husband and I had a conversation about this as I was deconverting, some of the things I talked about taking seriously elicited a sort of “pishaw” comment from him, like he wasn’t buying it all fully. I was rather shocked by this, because I hadn’t seen any of it as optional.

  • 19. Michelle  |  March 6, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks, Richard. Yes, I have heard your “parable” before – at church actually – rings true for me. 😉

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