The ethics of leaving fundamentalism

Fundamentalism isn’t an ideology, it’s a habit of thought patterns. Fundamentalism is based in fear. Fear of not being heard, fear of being invalidated, fear of attack, of erasure, of silencing.

Fundamentalism can be present in any community regardless of ethics or system of belief.

The reason that I started questioning the Christian fundamentalism I grew up with was because I saw people valuing the system of belief as more important than having compassion for hurting people in our community. I was upset that our value system put being right over sitting with someone in pain and empathizing with them in their vulnerable place.

I think that’s why most of us left the system of legalism, fundamentalist Christianity, Christian patriarchy—whatever you want to call it. We saw the system steamrolling people in pain—either us or those we loved—and realized that the system didn’t work for outliers, for those who didn’t fit the boxes or couldn’t follow the rules. We suddenly saw the marginalized, and realized that we were in a broken system and needed a new paradigm to stop marginalizing people if we wanted to have integrity in our claim to love as an ethic of life.

And so we stepped out of the too-small shoes of whatever ideology we’d been living in, and tried to listen and learn and practice consistent compassion and fight shame. We learned about self-care and about boundaries, we learned to question authority structures and say no. We learned the value of listening to those less privileged than us, and we adopted the language of feminism and intersectionality—clumsily at first, for most of us, but with sincere desire to be different from what we’d been before.

But fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding you’re LGBTQ* affirming, or by reading bell hooks, or by finally expressing the anger you felt when you were marginalized in your former world.

All of these things are good, but being “feminist” or “progressive” or even coming out as atheist can’t really do a thing for unlearning fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is fundamentally a defensive position. It is not easily open to nuance, it uses synecdoche on first impressions to assume that one or two interactions is the sum of a person’s essence. It is too interested in self-defensive labeling of everyone and everything to have the patience to sit with someone and try to learn how much their good intentions are reflected in their actions over time—it doesn’t have time for those who are learning or need to ask a million questions before they can grasp concepts that may have come quickly to us.

In the book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Nathaniel is talking to a woman about teaching the sailors complex math tricks to navigate more accurately, but they’re not picking it up very quickly and he’s impatient. She chides him, saying [I’m paraphrasing] “Don’t kick the chair because you ran into it in the dark. It’s not the chair’s fault it’s like that.” She goes on to encourage him to try to get to know the sailors individually to understand how their different personalities might inform how he can best approach teaching them to navigate the stars well.

I think about this scene often, because sometimes I’m the quick one who picks things up intuitively, and I don’t always remember that not everyone else is like that. And sometimes I’m the one with clumsy emotional intelligence, and I step on toes without realizing it, and need to have things explained to me in nice, small words so I can understand.

I am not advocating re-traumatizing yourself for the sake of helping someone who you find triggering. That is not your job. Boundaries are good. Take care of yourself.

But: I think it’s inconsistent and a bit mean to have believe you’ve left Christian fundamentalism and to rail against its treatment of the underprivileged and to claim that you’re an ally—and to choose to publicly label someone as “unsafe” for some intent-to-action clumsiness despite evidence that they’re trying to change and learn, just like you. They may very well be unsafe for you or for others and I’m all for eliminating negative influences from one’s personal life. But I can’t help but think how grateful I have been for the kind people in my life who have chosen to sit with me in my ignorance and inconsistencies and help me unlearn my bigotry without labeling me or shaming me.

Compassion is an act of the imagination, right? Shame is the tool of fundamentalists to silence and control the borders of a community. I don’t want to be right and educated well about intersectionality and feminism and my privilege, and fail to have compassion for those who are not as far along in the learning curve as I might be. I remember what it was like to be there. Do you?

Leaving fundamentalism is more about a laying down an irrational craving to be right (oh, I love you my darling Gryffindors, but…) and a taking up of compassion and imagination and epistemological humility than it is about learning and using the right labels and theories. The ethics of unlearning fundamentalism must go much deeper than just jumping to the other side of your line in the sand.

Safe people aren’t relationally fundamentalist. Safe people are compassionate people.

43 thoughts on “The ethics of leaving fundamentalism

  1. Wow, Hannah. This is so wonderfully expressed. I’m amazed you’ve been able to reach this point so soon after “leaving.” I wish I had had this wisdom much earlier on.

  2. Note: the term “fundamentalism” means different things in different circles. I was raised as that, but I think I look like you look now. (Behaviors, thoughts , I mean). Check what kind is the fundamentalism before you quickly fear them. Glad to hear of your progress!

  3. I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree. Sometimes, compassion isn’t actually the right response, and those of us who take strong stances on social justice are unfairly called out as abusive or fundamentalist when it’s not true.

    1. I’m not saying it’s always the right response, and I appreciate and respect what you do in terms of social justice. My focus here is more in terms of positive community building and collective recovery, rather than reactive. There’s a place for both, and I’m not using the term fundamentalist to erase either your role or the difficult necessity of drawing healthy boundaries.

      But it is definitely frustrating to see a fundamentalist-like response becoming the default reaction among our circles to anyone who may not be as far along in recovery as you or I am.

      There’s a difference between drawing healthy boundaries to distance yourself from unsafe, but well-meaning people and telling everyone to ostracize someone who made a faux pas and isn’t done learning how not to do that again. It’s the difference between a gay man being unsure about how to safely and supportively talk about bisexuals and is clumsy about it, but well-meaning, and say, Hugo S.

  4. PREACH.

    In my experience, living in a world of dualisms and switching sides isn’t actually leaving fundamentalism. It’s learning to see color, vibrancy, shape, and hues in life and finding that the dualities aren’t capable of containing the world.

  5. thank you for articulating this. i have felt for a while the sudden shame of realizing that i have left fundamentalism and that in leaving it left so much of myself there. i want more than just rejecting all of it, and that means unlearning the very real fears of being a broken and horrible person. it means unlearning the isolation. it means unlearning a million things i just accepted as a child.

    it means growing up, and trusting myself that the new way i think will not be overwhelmed by fundamentalism if i try to approach the church and g-d again.

  6. Yes. This. I still fight the urge to judge, out of the fear that I too am being judged. Compassion takes such a long time to learn when you grow up fundamentalist.

  7. This is a wonderful post. My fundamentalism days were 50 years ago, but I’ve never seen such a clear description of the path from having to believe you are right to compassion and tollerance while continuing the journey of faith.

  8. I really appreciate this post, Hannah. My parents weren’t fundamentalist, but lingered very closely to it. My father in particular was extremely conservative and authoritarian. He was the driving force behind my parents’ decision to put me in a private Christian school from third to eighth grade, which operated VERY similarly to fundie homeschool co-ops. There was very little structure or accountability for the school. It was a very isolating environment and very academically lax. My father didn’t care about any of that – he cared about protecting me from secularism. (And that’s putting it kindly.) I’m lucky that the school closed for lack of funding and that I was able to attend a public high school from ninth grade to graduation. A lot of what you’ve written about fundamentalism has struck a chord with me because of how closely aligned our experiences were, although very different.

    Anyway, it was a big wake-up call for me when I realized a few years ago that even though I had safely extracted myself from my father’s conservatism, behaviorally I was employing the same authoritarian and oppressive tactics that he always did with me, especially in my marriage. I was growing more and more liberal politically and religiously, but I was dogged in my need to make the people around me believe as I did. It’s a big reason I’m still in counseling, because learning new ways to navigate conflict, relationships, politics and faith is a long, painful process.

    Compassion is indeed an act of imagination, even for oneself. Thank you for offering it to us.

    1. This is epic. Getting rid of a belief system is one thing, reworking the outlook is another. Many people struggle with this without realizing they have the problem. I still do. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. i want to agree with this. i sort of do. yes, fundamentalism is bad, and compassion is good. but if the subtext is Why Certain Feminist Bloggers Are The Worst, then i’m not on board. fundamentalism has become the go-to, one-size-fits-all way of dismissing anyone who may just engage or perceive things a different way, and i find that to decidedly less than compassionate or true.

    1. Ah, yes. But that is not the subtext. The subtext is: Why I Am Interested In Listening Before Labeling [Perhaps Unlike Other Feminist Bloggers]

      I understand the role and function of whistleblowers and watchdogs, and I have fit that space before myself, and expect to again. But I am discouraged when in-fighting and drawing lines becomes more of the focus than helping each other up out of the muck of fundamentalism, because we’re all leaving this shit together.

      1. ok, but how does painting people as fundamentalists work to combat labels/labeling?

        i know vague indictments power the internet and all, but i think it’s more honest to cite examples and let folks decide for themselves if your specific categorization is warranted. with a post like this, people read in whatever confirmation they want to, all the while patting ourselves on the back for not being like Those Bitches who are direct with their criticism.

        your post is fine. you’re entitled to your opinion, of course. i’m just not convinced your model is any kinder or more constructive.

        1. I deliberately didn’t cite examples because I’m not interested in pointing fingers here–I’m interested in curating a discussion of introspection, where humility and compassion about Being Right are valued as part of defending the vulnerable.

          I’m not calling people fundamentalists, I’m recognizing that fundamentalist relational thinking is harder to unlearn than the tenets of belief that I used to hold.

          1. conversation is great, but i don’t believe for a second that you aren’t pointing fingers. seriously, how big is this “fundifeminist” niche we’re all dancing around? and what if this listening and compassionate desire to understand went both ways?

            i actually don’t think pointing fingers is necessarily wrong. i generally prefer it to vaguely specific indictments that throw folks under the bus from an illusorily gracious distance.

            none of us has clean hands. we all mess up. we all have different perceptions, pitfalls, and gifts, and we’re all learning.

      2. “But I am discouraged when in-fighting and drawing lines becomes more of the focus than helping each other up out of the muck of fundamentalism, because we’re all leaving this shit together.”

        I love that sentence, especially the end of it.

    2. Yes, this is why I can’t cosign this post either. Not all claims are equally valid and there are, unfortunately, quite a few post-evangelist/Emergent Christians who love to fling accusations of fundamentalism and abuse in response to valid criticism.

      1. Believe me, that’s not what I’m saying here. Valid criticism is great! Healthy discussions of hard issues is GOOD. Being called out on privilege is important. Tone policing is unhelpful.

        But there’s a flip side to all that, and I’m just scratching the surface of it with this post, but I think it’s worth talking over, because there are ways of drawing conversational borders that can be just as much bullying as those we criticize for ignoring power differentials.

    3. What in this blog post says anything remotely resembling the statement “Wy Certain Feminist Bloggers are the Worst”? Where is that “subtext? Or is it so “sub” that it is invisible except to those who magically know where to find it?

  10. In an old saying my father loved, “the boy may leave the farm, but the farm does not leave the boy.” So often for those of us recovering not just from fundamentalism but from a fundamentalist spirit that is so true. We may easily leave one conception of truth for another, while still living with the same spirit in the new belief system. In this sense I think there are fundamentalists within every belief system. But surely a life of faith accentuates compassion while struggling with the walls we try to build to create our own brand of security.

  11. Add me to the people who agree with this post. I don’t think having compassion means we listen to them or don’t set boundaries. But I do think we need to show compassion.

  12. You’ve put words to much of what I’ve been feeling/experiencing in my own life. My home wasn’t a fundamentalist one by any means, but I was certainly surrounded and influenced by people in my church who were very dogmatic in their beliefs. In trying to move away from those mindsets, I’ve found it hard to shake some of the perfectionism and self-hating tendencies I learned along the way, and I often inadvertently treat my loved ones the same way. Even though my beliefs and convictions have become more loving and compassionate, my actions are often the exact opposite- growing angry with my husband when he doesn’t get as riled up as I do about certain injustices, for example.

  13. Even when I point out the poison and highlight the failures in an ideology. Even when I unveil the secret, mass graves beneath the stately whitewashed walls of a fundamentalist construct. Even when I protect the wounded. Even when I am rightly angry at abuse, deceit, and corruption.

    There is no victory in using the same weapons as the enemy. Such attacks only anchor them deeper into their foundations. I see the effect of their methods on myself, as well. Is it useful to entrench them further?

    I don’t know how to love some people. Honestly, I’m figuring this out, as I stumble into life. — My response got so long that I chose to turn it into a blog post. Thanks for the prompt into deeper thought.

  14. I constany fight the urge to trade my modest long skirts for vegan, fair trade, living wage clothes. I trade working at home for working at community promoting, living wage paying, local business. I trade passiona right politics, for passionate cynicism about governmentaltogether. And I feel so guilty if I deviate, and feel that I am so much better a person. It is the Pharisee nature in all of us to trade our righteousness for another form of our own righteousness.

  15. This sentence really struck a nerve: “We learned about self-care and about boundaries, we learned to question authority structures and say no.” I appreciate this so much. I felt growing up that “questioning” wasn’t always accepted and that there was a single way to “be” a Christian. Fortunately, my parents worked with me through this, though I couldn’t stand “youth group” at my church for a longggg time and I still hesitate in church, almost because I want to put my “feelers” out there first.

  16. Hannah, I appreciate this post. I’m unaware of what’s been going on in the bloggosphere and seems to be adding some consternation to the comments section. But from the realm of my experience and my heart, it makes sense that the more negative aspects fundamentalism would still influence HOW we think and respond, even if WHAT we think has changed. To me, your post seems like an invitation to greater healing. A pattern that I’ve seen in my own life has been a tendency to feel things and people must be all good, or else they are all bad.The world opens up so much more when we can see the development of those around us and when we can acknowledge what needs to change even within our favorite paradigms.

  17. “I don’t want to be right and educated well about intersectionality and feminism and my privilege, and fail to have compassion for those who are not as far along in the learning curve as I might be.”

    Beautifully said. What a powerful post. I feel like this really hit home. This is definitely something I’ve been trying to work on, myself: remembering that not everyone is as far along in the process as me, and that I never would’ve gotten anywhere if people (for me it was mainly college professors) hadn’t of been patient and willing to answer my many, many questions. I never would’ve known who bell hooks was or what feminism was (beyond the bra-burning, man-hating stereotypes) or what intersectionality meant if someone hadn’t taken the time to teach me without judging or labeling.

  18. Hannah, I am so on board with you about this. There is so much hurt in the church because people are obsessed with controlling truth and controlling each other. Matt and I read Adventure and the Way of Jesus, a book for people in outdoor ministries but all about community, fear, trusting in God and letting go of the need to be right and in control. It has changed my life.

    1. Also, I find it deeply ironic and sad that SOVEREIGN Grace Ministries has not trusted God to shepherd his children as much as it has sought to control their relationships and spiritual walks.

  19. This post reminds me of a line in a movie I saw recently, “The Counselor.” Brad Pitt’s character said, “you don’t really know someone till you know what they want.” The movie wasn’t that good, I’m not recommending it, but it did have a few philosophical gems that made me think. This was one of them.

    And it kind of agrees with what Hannah is saying here. One way to express compassion is to pause long enough to ascertain the motive behind a person’s thinking – what is it they really want – before passing judgment.

    Now if I could just learn to do that!

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