Fundamentalist Flashbacks

I recently woke up in the middle of the night, gripped by a sudden panic. What if I’m wrong?

If I’m wrong, I’m going to hell.

I’ve spent the last several years campaigning to raise public awareness of fundamentalist Christian schools that I consider abusive. I went to such a school myself, so I have a dog in this fight. If what they taught me is true, then I have spent these years fighting against God himself.

The fear claws at me for a while, and then in my groggy state I manage to remember some stuff:

If the strict Muslims are right, I’m equally doomed whether I’m a Christian or an atheist, yet that has never given me a moment’s worry in my life. My fear is not spiritual, or rational. It’s cultural.

And anyway, the notion of a just and/or loving God sending me to infinite punishment for finite sins is self-contradictory. It can’t be true.

Panic over, I go back to sleep.

I haven’t believed in God for seven years. I’ve openly identified as an atheist for four of those, but there are still situations where I have flashbacks to my fundamentalist past.

I’ve visited the Natural History Museum in London twice in the last year. It’s a fantastic place for anyone, but it’s incredible if you used to be a creationist. All this information that most people take for granted is new to me. Reading it is like inhaling oxygen after holding my breath for twenty years.

And yet…

My first reaction on reading any date older than 4000 B.C. is to start denying it. It’s a reflex. I can’t help it. “Four billion years? They can’t possibly know that! That’s just speculation. How do they know their dating methods are reliable?” The thoughts come piling into my head before I have a chance to engage my brain. Fortunately, scientists have to answer those questions, and their responses are more interesting than “it was a miracle.”

My automatic reaction to my first ten sexual encounters was guilt. Rationally, I knew that sex was nothing mystical. Between consenting adults, it should be a mutually enjoyable experience. But I was conditioned to think that it was only acceptable within a Christian marriage (and even then only within certain limits). I couldn’t turn those thoughts off.

I remember sitting on the edge of the bed as my first girlfriend looked at me.

“You’re sad,” she said, looking at my hunched up body.

“No, I’m not,” I insisted. “I’m glad we did that.” I really wanted it to be true.

“It’s all over your face,” she replied, and she couldn’t help taking it as rejection. The relationship lasted two weeks after that.

I’m mostly better now. I’m doing a PhD which requires me to read a lot of creationist mumbo-jumbo, and occasionally it still wears me down. I’ll be knee-deep in some obscure point of biology, and a creationist will raise an objection I haven’t heard before. Crap, I think, what if they’re right? Then I remember. Even if creationists have found a genuine problem for the theory of evolution – on their millionth attempt – that is no evidence for creationism. I’ve momentarily fallen for the ridiculous argument that if evolution were proven false, literal readings of Genesis would be vindicated. This is like saying that if modern physics turns out to be flawed, Star Trek would be proven true.

But one good thing has emerged from all of this: At least I now question all my beliefs. When I was a creationist, I didn’t stop for a moment to consider that I might be wrong. I knew I was right. Allowing the possibility that I might be wrong keeps me honest. By making me suppress problems which I knew were real, fundamentalism forced me to be dishonest with myself.


I’m now part of the Spiritual Abuse Survivors’ Blog Network! This is my first post as part of this awesome blogging collective. It’s cross-posted at No Longer Quivering. The network is a way for bloggers to support each other in recovering from and standing against abusive religion. There are a lot of awesome blogs in the list, and frankly I’m not sure it’s wise for me to point them out to you, because a lot of them are much better than mine. Still, I highly recommend Libby Anne, Bruce Gerencser, Samantha Field, Lana Hope, Calulu, and Vyckie Garrison. To the others I haven’t mentioned, no offence is intended. I’m looking forward to discovering your blogs.

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 November 21, 2013, in Atheism, Christianity, Creationism, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I know what you mean about automatically contradicting facts in front of you – I’m still the same with dates. You know, if someone was to ask me how old the Earth is, I still wouldn’t know what to say. Although my guess would be several billion years more than it would have been previously…
    I never got over the guilt of sex outside marriage thing. Maybe I would have if I’d stayed single for a while after getting divorced. Who knows. It feels like it’s something that is burned into my brain.
    If it makes you feel better, I often have the “What if I’m wrong” panic attacks…but conversely it’s “What if there ISN’T a God and there ISN’T a Heaven. What if when you die you just stop existing?” God or not, the thought of just stopping existing seriously freaks me out!

    • The thought of not existing doesn’t bother me anymore, although it definitely did at one stage. It’s a shame I won’t know what happens in the future after I die, but there were billions of years before I was born where I didn’t exist, and I was never troubled about that.

  2. My only exposure to creationism was a CofE “Genesis as a nice story” upbringing and people on the internet. Yet I sometimes get the “what if they’re right” fear. Typically it would happen in a lecture on a subject creationists liked to object to where the objections weren’t really dealt with. Not that they’re real objections, the professor might just not feel like reiterating the foundation of carbon dating for the 12th time a semester. But it would be enough to give make me panic.

  3. J, regarding the Spiritual Abuse Survivors’ Blog Network! have you thought about linking it with The Clergy Project? It seems both groups would have a lot to share. Link below:

  4. It is hard to break away from this kind of thinking. Fear, guilt was installed from birth. There are times I wake up with awful nightmare of hell and abuse that happened in the church. Hopefully one day it will stop.

  5. It takes years to get over the fear of a vengeful god and an eternal hell. I, too, went through several years of worrying about, “what if I was wrong,” what if I was taught was true? It’s terrifying going outside that box, but on the other side there is freedom and true happiness. No more obsessing about the state of your soul. While I can’t say I’m an atheist (more of an agnostic), I can say that, no matter what the “truth” is, I’m okay with it.

  6. I think that the abusive nature of fundamentalism stems from the god they are worshiping.
    They don’t adore the Greatest Being but a petty demon they call “God”.

    I explain here what the logical implications of God’s perfection for doctrines of hell are.

    Like Pope Francis, I believe that God will NEVER punish an honest atheist who is rationally convinced He does not exist.
    And I also believe that many hateful fundamentalists won’t make it to heaven because they don’t truly desire God but an evil demon they created by picking and choosing the worst verses of their Scripture.

    Lovely greetings from Lancaster.

    • Oh, I’ve argued that for years, and I’m not even a Christian. Fundamentalists tend to take the worst of their religions and magnify them. 😦

      • Yeah and I believe that in many cases, there is an underlying moral problem.

        Why do Conservative Evangelicals choose to focus on 0.1% (prohibition of homosexuality) while fighting AGAINST social justice (which amounts for at least more than 30%)?

        Their commitment to the “authority of Scripture” cannot be the entire story…

  7. This is why they want to get you when you’re young! I do think it will go away for good in time. I’m 36 and never wake up to this fear anymore. I sure did ALL through my twenties though. Oh my God! Hell!
    I guess there’s just no substitute for time.
    (Having said that, and I think I may have mentioned this before, about a year ago I was reading a book where the fossil Lucy came up. My first impulse was, ‘That’s a lie’, after which I immediately had to laugh at myself.)

    I know what you mean about the guilt as well. Damn that sucked. So many missed opportunities. So much regret. Shiiiiiiiit! 😉

    Dying still concerns me. I mean, I don’t want to die any time soon. But it’s now a perfectly normal, ‘mammal that wants to keep living’ fear of dying. I do believe that when I’m old I’ll be ready to wander off into the snow and die then. No regrets. And the way I look at it is that it’s most likely nothing is after death. No existence. But if not. Bonus! Certainly our ongoing existence, if any, would have nothing to do with what we believed here on earth. This much I know without a doubt. Either way, my main concern with not existing is that it sounds so damn boring 😉

  8. Stephanie Badeau

    Thank you Jonny for again putting into words how many of us feel who grew up in these restricted fundamental environments. My first relationships after leaving the church (at age 24) all ended deplorably at best because of the stereotypical Christian ideas about non-believing men who only wanted one thing–and I wouldn’t be allowed to give them that one thing unless I married them. I felt so guilty because I had made a “vow” of abstinence to god at a youth conference when I was 16. And I believed there were life-long repercussions if I didn’t keep it.
    Today, I realize fundamental churches still operate because they instill superstition into their young and gullible members. I still think twice when I feel like I saying something “blasphemous” against god because of the curses I would call upon myself: I remember the bible story of the children being eaten by the bears because they cursed the man of god by saying, “go up thou bald head.” (Only a petty god would do such a thing, anyway).
    My older sister still is superstitious–for lack of a better word. She does the fundie lifestyle merely because she has always done it. To do anything else would discount the church she’s been going to since we were little. She also feels that she would lose all her friends (even though she’s lost a bunch of “friends” over time because they got pissed off with some drama in the church and left–and even though the beef wasn’t against her, they still de-friended her on facebook and don’t meet up with her anymore).
    Ok, I will stop now–I could go on…

  9. A SECOND attempt to post this:

    When I was an evangelical Christian – before I fell out with any God that exists – I was never into simplistic creationism and bashing of ‘evolutionists’ and Christians whose theology was not considered sufficiently sound. Unlike the somewhat sneering Dr Jonathan Sarfati (this, which I admit I have only skimmed, may bring further flashbacks but assume YECs sometimes read atheist or sceptical blogs and have their own ‘flashbacks’):

  10. Thanks for the mention, Jonny.

    Rarely do I have “what if” thoughts. I sure did when I first left Christianity. Every once in a while I will have a thought about the nothingness that death brings. The thought that I will no longer exist. It troubles me for a moment and then I say…not much I can do about it. 🙂 We live until we die, end of story.

  11. Allowing the possibility that I may be wrong keeps me honest. I like that. The same thing keeps me both honest and spiritually free.

  12. I like my wife’s take on death:
    ‘It can’t be that big of a deal, I mean, everyone’s managed to do it so far.’

  13. Great post, Jonny. It took me a while, too. In fact, co-authoring a book about the profound incompatibility between evolutionary science and Christian theology (click my name for the link) was an important part of my recovery from four decades of religious fundamentalism. Even for a while after publishing it, I would occasionally turn to a random page in the book, recall all the research behind the points being made there, and remember that there is just no way what I’d grown up believing could possibly be true, for a hundred different reasons. Your own research and subsequent writing will no doubt have the same therapeutic effect for you.

    By the way, if you would like a copy, just let me know. You have my email from my posting this comment, and I’d be happy to send it to you. Who knows, you might find a few more reasons why you could never go back, in addition to the many you surely know about already.

    By the way, regarding the whole “what if you’re wrong” thing that hits in the middle of the night: My former sect calls itself “God’s Kingdom,” the only place where true Christianity and salvation can be found. So you were just as screwed before (according to them) as you are now. And, it turns out, there are a number of other Christian sects all making the same claim. So, cheer up. There’s nothing to even go back to, according to quite a few Christians, unless you somehow manage to find out about the One True Church hidden away somewhere.

  14. Hey – I’ve just come across your blog, and feel so sad for what you (and others) went through. I am a Christian, who believes that the Bible is true – but much of the stuff you’ve written about is very far from what I believe, or anything or anyone I’ve met in churches. I suppose I just wanted to say… don’t write God off because of horrible or misguided people. Although I suspect you’ve probably wrestled with all that already…
    But if you are still open to read/research some intelligent, rational thinking about Christianity (and, for example, how it interacts with science) try Tim Keller’s book Reasons for God, or David Robertson’s Dawkins Letters. With love and (I hope this doesn’t offend) prayers.

    • I skimmed through Reasons for God. I have to admit it didn’t help me all that much 😦

    • You assume the reason many of us are atheists is because of “what we went through.” What we went through is an exhaustive, painstaking, tumultuous, study of Christianity, its teachings, and its practices. We are NOT atheists out of ignorance, because we are angry at God, or because someone hurt our feelings.

      Let me ask many books written by atheist/agnostic/humanist authors have you read? I mean completely read. How many of Bart Ehrman’s books have you read from cover to cover? I am tempted to start a betting pool on the number of the books you have actually read. 🙂

      The Christian turned atheist is in an unique place because they have intellectually been on both sides of the fence. In my case, I was a Christian for 50 years, a pastor for 25 of those years. Ignorance is not the problem. The BIBLE and the claims of Christianity is the problem. How can there be “rational” thinking about the Bible and Christianity when any discrepancy, contradiction, or error is “faithed” away or dismissed through the use of hermeneutical gymnastics? While I am not saying the Bible is completely irrational…many of its teaching are. In the rational world I live in, dead people stay dead, virgins don’t have babies, humans don’t walk through walls or on water, and the universe is billions of years old.

  15. Read the Bible. Look at history. Why would you want to hang around for eternity with the monster described in this book? Or, given the hostility of the universe and the earth to human life, a “creator”?

    Better to just acknowledge the universe is large and does not care.

    • Come on, Brian. The Christian God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. 🙂 Let go and let God.

      or “Better to just acknowledge the universe is large and does not care.”

      And this atheist says, amen.

  16. Thanks for your reply. Bruce, sounds like you have done a lifetime of reading and thinking – not everyone has. Of the atheists/agnostics I know personally, most haven’t reached this point following thorough research of all options – but I acknowledge this isn’t the case for everyone. Also, some of the bloggers here seem to have had horrible experiences which I think would have put me off religion – I was trying to make a distinction between some so-called religious people, and God.

    On your questions, believe it or not, I’m a pretty rational and logical person… and my faith wouldn’t have lasted long if it wasn’t (to me at least) rational and logical too. It is possible! And yes, I read far too much, so I have read quite a few books from other philosophical and atheist viewpoints. 😉

  17. >>>I haven’t believed in God for seven years. I’ve openly identified as an atheist for four of those, but there are still situations where I have flashbacks to my fundamentalist past.<<<

    You're not alone, brother. I was a fanatical fundamentalist, I left the faith, I was an athiest, I was into other religions for a while. Though I am again a Christian (NOT a fundamentalist), there's a very long period of my life when I wasn't.

    And yet every year when they'd run the Peanuts Christmas Special, and Linus would read from the Gospel of Luke, the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up, and I'd be overcome with this numinous feeling that I couldn't figure.

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