A friend wrote to me (used with permission): “Evangelicals are so full of themselves. They think they’re the only people that are really happy.”
Yes. This is exactly what I remember from my years as an evangelical.
When they encounter others who are happy, this disconfirms their belief that you have to “have Jesus in your heart” in order to be happy and that everyone should have the same religion they do. This produces a great deal of cognitive dissonance, so they engage in all the standard strategies to ease the stress of cognitive dissonance:
- Deny disconfirming evidence: Others aren’t really happy. How can you be happy without Jesus? Or as in a post on my timeline: “How do people do it? How do they survive with any essence of joy or peace in life without being part of a God-centered community?”
- Select confirming evidence: We told so many stories of broken sinners. We felt satisfied and validated, sometimes even happy, when a non-Christian reached the end of their rope, enough to see that they needed to be saved. (Explain to me again how this is not abusive?)
- Repackage disconfirming evidence in order to confirm the belief: Others may seem happy, but they’re pursuing temporary pleasures rather than eternal joy. You know, “the wages of sin,” “deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross,” “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it,” and on and on and on. (Often anti-theists focus on the Old Testament’s penchant for divinely inspired violence and hatred, but this sin crap comes 100% from the New Testament.)
These strategies also keep them separated from happy, healthy non-Evangelicals because those people’s very existence disconfirms the belief. The first two strategies make the believer feel physical discomfort in the presence of a happy non-believer and keep them from talking to and hearing the stories of non-believers. I think this is why, even though Evangelicals don’t normally have a formal shunning policy, the end result is often as if they did.
The third strategy lets them completely dismiss the lived experience of the non-believer even when that truth is staring them in the face.
This story about non-Christians being miserable supports a high-control environment. I remember believing that if I was unhappy, it was because there was something wrong with me, not because there was something wrong with the religion—or even because it was a poor fit. This is spiritual abuse. I’m so glad that’s no longer my normal.
Compare this to a healthy relationship. Plenty of my relationships have ended, just because they were poor fits or because we moved on. Some of those former friends and partners I no longer hang out with. I’m still close with others, but our relationship is of a different sort than before. My best friend is a former girlfriend. Another dear, close friend is someone I dated a few times. This is all normal: connections, missed connections, the ebb and flow of life. It’s normal to move on after a branch of one’s journey has reached its finale. In a healthy relationship, it’s okay to leave at any time.
In the realm of religion, it’s normal for one religion or another not to fit what a person wants in their life at any given moment. Not everyone needs to be an Evangelical to live a happy, fulfilling life. Evangelicalism just isn’t for some people, and that’s okay.
But within the Evangelical world, it’s not considered normal to leave, and people are shamed for taking advantage of the exit. This is a hallmark of an abusive relationship. The abuser never freely allows his victim to leave. Rather he tries to lure her, guilt her, shame her, badger her into staying, even enlisting hoards of flying monkeys to perpetuate the abuse. This is exactly what fundamentalist religions do, including Evangelicalism.
So just as in an abusive relationship, the victim thinks they’re happy. They have to believe they’re happy, for their own survival, like a Stockholm Syndrome. And they live in a restrictive environment that supports them in confirming that belief and keeping out reminders of their own misery. Meanwhile, they know that emptiness and loneliness await them on the other side. They know this because that’s all they’ve ever been allowed to see. It’s kind of amazing that anyone escapes abusive relationships.
But some of us do escape. Little by little, bits of truth get through the filter. And the cognitive dissonance and internal misery pile up to the point that we finally take action and draw some healthy boundaries against the abuse.
One of the most powerful things someone in an abusive relationship can do is to be kind to oneself and to start meeting one’s own emotional needs. For the abuse victim, it starts a pattern leading to a healthier self-image.
And that’s how it was for me leaving Evangelicalism. A decade ago, on the heels of a deep depression—which wasn’t caused by my religion, because Christians are always happy, right? Rather, I was depressed because there was something wrong with me and how I was living my life. And then I discovered a book on depression by a pair of psychologists who suggested that I might be depressed because my emotional needs weren’t being met. They promoted the idea that I had emotional needs and that it was healthy for me to meet them. And at the time, I wrestled with that idea. It seemed revolutionary to me, and somehow it felt wrong. But I was desperate, beyond the details I’m revealing here. So I took their advice. I believe this began my five-year journey out of the fundamentalist prison.