What it’s like to be an English teenage fundamentalist

The worst thing about growing up as a fundamentalist in England was that I didn’t have any friends. This was partly down to introversion on my part, but it was mostly because I hardly knew any other fundamentalists. Now, I’ve previously estimated the number of Young Earth Creationists in the UK at up to 1.2 million. I’ve also put the number of Christians who are at least sympathetic to my old cult, the Word of Faith, at six figures. But those numbers don’t consider the sheer divisiveness of fundamentalism.

The trouble with fundamentalism is that all fundamentalists believe they interpret the Bible literally, and they also believe that everyone else’s ‘literal interpretation’ is wrong. If you didn’t believe all the same things as me, I regarded you as a bit suspect. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to socialise with less extreme Christians. The brainwashing was so thorough, I didn’t want to.

At one point, I did have a real friend at Sunday school, but in the quest for pure doctrine my family drove 15 miles to church, so I never saw him on weekdays. Later, we went to a church where I was one of precisely three teenagers aged 13-16. The others were girls, and I didn’t like them. They weren’t even hot, which – to a teenage boy steeped in Christian patriarchy – made their value close to zero. Then we left that church for one that was just starting. There, the youth group numbered precisely one. Me. 

I wanted to hang out with guys who liked the same Christian metal bands as me. At my ACE school, I converted one other boy, and then immediately hated him for buying all the same CDs as me.

Being a fundamentalist hipster is tough.

After I left my ACE school, and found myself in a church youth group, I had exactly zero friends.

American fundamentalists don’t have the same isolation. I spent the summer of 2000 staying with the pastor of a smalltown Bible Belt church. Over there, it was a different story. The population of the town was 5,000; of those, 500 attended this church. The youth group was enormous and close knit. There were successful companies in the town that seemed to employ only members of that church. It was possible to live your entire life without touching the outside world. And, best of all, these guys believed all the same things I did.

I spent a glorious fortnight hanging out with the youth group. The best times came after dark, when the temperature was finally low enough to be bearable in a T-shirt and shorts. We drank soft drinks and played basketball, and listened to Christian rock bands. The Christian rock they had was better than the stuff in English Christian bookshops. It sounded good in the way that supermarket cola tastes good if you only have a vague memory of real Coke.

We went on a float trip down a massive river which flowed through gorges and forests. At night we made camp and hung out. Everything was perfect. The many girls in the youth group were hot, which – to a teenage boy steeped in Christian patriarchy – made them very worthwhile indeed.

Then I had to return to the UK, and to my suicidal thoughts, which were compounded by that glimpse of an idyllic life I would never have.

If I’d grown up in that church, I’m sure I would still be a fundamentalist. I would have been happy playing guitar in their awesome band. Eventually, one of the southern belles would have taken a shine to me, and we’d have been married, and as long as I never read any books I would have lived happily ever after.

Some ex-fundamentalists say they always had a questioning nature, but I don’t think I was really one of them. When I had doubts, my first response was to look for reassurance, not to rock the boat. I did eventually abandon my faith for rational reasons (well… largely rational), but I only began to ask questions when I realised my faith made me miserable. If I’d grown up in the American south, I don’t think that would have happened.

So I suppose I should be extremely grateful that I grew up in England.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on June 3, 2013, in Atheism, Christianity, Fundamentalism. Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Social opportunities can make or break a person. You’ve done well, Jonny.

    • Thanks!

      Well, I’ve been trying to work out what my readers enjoy reading about, and judging from the rate at which today’s post has received views and comments compared with my last few, I think I can confidently say the answer is “not this.”

  2. Small town America is nice but I think you still would have gotten out eventually. You’re smart and probably would have left that small town to go off to a nice Bible university. That would have allowed you to mix with other fundies who came from other areas and had slightly different ideas. Then you would have gotten access to the Internet and even more new ideas. Chances are you would have had to move from the small town since a lot of those businesses are drying up because of the economy. Then you would have ended up in a bigger town with non-Christians or more liberal Christians. Seeing people enjoy life and apparently not paying the price for their sins is a huge wake-up call. Plus a lot of those fundy churches are horribly corrupt on the inside and take advantage of well-meaning members. A few too many questions of “Why does the pastor keep harping that the church is low on money and people need to tithe when he drives a Mercedes,” and that has gotten people kicked out and lost their faith too.

    It’s easy not to question when you’re a kid and don’t know any better but harder when you are an adult, have a brain, and have some inkling that there is something different out there.

  3. Nothing to add as yet. I’m just posting to subscribe, ’cause the conversation here is always interesting to follow.

  4. “I’ve been trying to work out what my readers enjoy reading about”

    here is my 2 cents…
    How do we effectively engage with a person of strong beliefs without talking about those beliefs..be it angels, pseudoscience, tarot cards, Elvis is alive, aliens visiting earth, unicorns, conspiracy theories, etc etc

    How do we speak to these people without mentioning the subject?

    and How do we only talk to them about Knowledge, acquiring knowledge, how do we know things are true?, what is truth?, what is authority?, what is mind?, what is evidence?

    In my humble opinion, if you don’t start the conversation under a common language, a common ground of definitions of certain terms, the rational person and the believer will not get anywhere because you are both speaking different languages !!


  5. I found this very interesting! I can identify. Though I am American, I grew up in small fundamentalist churches with almost no kids my age and I had no friends. I knew a fundamentalist in public school, and we could have been friends, but, as you say, we did not agree exactly so we had doctrinal fights. It was not until my last year in high school in 1969 that I began to have a few friends, and they were not fundamentalists

    The year after I graduated, I disappointed my parents and joined an evangelical church, and that was the first time I had interaction with a group of kids my own age. Eventually, I married one of the girls.

    Another thing that was different from what you describe is that I WAS questioning. I left my fundamentalist denomination, and fifteen years later my wife and I left the evangelical denomination because my views had changed so much.

    It is good to hear from someone with similar experiences.

  6. Yes the problem is fundamentalists don’t even always agree. My parents wouldn’t have let you be friends with me if you listened to rock music, and I didn’t get friends with the opposite gender. (which my mom denies that she did, but she did.) Our area has a lot of fundamentalists both homeschooled and ACE or private schooled. But the problem is when the egg cracks and suddenly your no longer in a fundamental community. Then its painful, and that was what college and post college life has been like for me.

  7. ILeftTheFold

    well I grew up on the East coast of USA and with my brand of fundamentalism I experienced what you experienced in England.

  8. Timothy Allman

    This is an interesting perspective. One of the reasons I like following people outside the US is for their view of us from the outside. Before following this blog I did not know that Jessie Duplantis had any followers outside the US. I was a fundamentalist in a small mid western town in the bible belt. I was also in an ACE school. Social interaction was limited and there were times when I had no others my own age around for months. Being a judgmental fundamentalist and having no real social skills drove away most possible friends. What I try to remember when talking to fundamentalists now is that they are following the only path open to them in many cases and getting out would cost them everything. Next time I speak to one I will try to imagine that they are Jonny Scaramanga but with more childhood friends.

    • Timothy Allman, I hear what you are saying. I was a normal well-adjusted school child in first and second grades of public school. In third grade, I began to feel different than other kids and did not know why; now I realize that it was because we had become fundamentalists. By fifth grade, I was definitely at the stage you describe: “Being a judgmental fundamentalist and having no real social skills drove away most possible friends.”

  9. even though there are more fundamentalists around where i live, the point you make about fundamentalism being divisive still holds. if people were more conservative, they were probably selfrighteous pharisees. if they were less so, they were liberals stomping on teh gift of christ instead of acting on obedience. anyone who wasn’t in the very similar degree of radicalism and biblical interpretation was suspect, and might not make a very godly friend. add to that that i was a girl with lots of siblings to help with, (and my parents were against having many same age friends, unless there was a family our family was friends with who happened to have a kid my age) and that i was taught because of emotional purity to be careful around boys, and i didn’t have many friends, either. I married a boy from a family my family was friends with. but that part actually worked out well for me 🙂 the rest, not so much. i still have trouble with peers.

  10. I love blogs like these that are wrestling through spiritual abuse and trying to stand for truth! Keep it up. You are in my prayers.

  11. Do you describe girls as “hot” in the UK? I thought “fit” was the British term…

    • “Fit” is indeed the more English term, but I wouldn’t hear it for another couple of years after I left that youth group. We had no interaction with English non-Christian teenagers, so our vocabulary was uninfluenced by them. We were allowed to watch some American TV though, so I was more culturally influenced by that than my peers.

  12. Hi Jonny, just a few short comments –

    I do not know all of your story, but I presume it was when you left the environment in which you had been brought up, and began to mix with young people who professed no Christian beliefs that your own professed faith totally fell apart. I would also assume that some or all of your grandparents or great-grandparents were Christians.

    Such an experience is quite common in the second and third generation. Sociology shows that with the passing of generations, strong beliefs decline, becoming firstly passive, then becoming simply nominal and finally disappearing altogether. A belief that one holds simply on an inherited basis will disappear when faced with any sort of opposition, or with a lifestyle that appears much more attractive – you speak often of girls, alcohol, etc. Obviously these held an attraction for you. However those individuals who are fortunate enough to possess a belief system which they view as fully their own, which is not just inherited but also deeply personal and of immense importance to their lives, will be the only people who will successfully be the moral leaders and characters of this decade.

    Jonny, you never were truly a Christian and that is essentially your problem. You have much talent but unfortunately you are jumping onto a bandwagon which is already carrying many disgruntled people who are childishly looking for some way to air their personal grievances. What a pity that, in your attempt to become famous, you have to attack a belief system you never truly understood in the first place.

    • Hello Aisling.

      It’s charming of you to come here and start making wild guesses about me, but actually, you’re entirely wrong.

      • That’s funny. “A belief system you never understood in the first place.” Wow, I always thought it was about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? But apparently it’s some kind of crazy complicated secret that you can NEVER learn if your grandparents were Christians.

    • That last paragraph is amazing. I filled half my Fundamentalist Tropes bingo card in one go!

      • “Real Christians never change their minds, therefore anyone who leaves the faith was never a Christian in the first place.”
      • “The atheist bandwagon.”
      • “Childish rebellion.”
      • “Attention seeking.”
      • “Lacking understanding of the Sophistimacted Theology™.”

      My applause on a true work of art!

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