How and Why I Left Christian Fundamentalism
and became a religious refugee

Jim Hutchison

3,420 words. Or so.

Brockville, December 30, 1979, 10 pm.

I made what was at the time the biggest decision of my life. It influenced my thoughts, behaviour, attitude, marriage, and all other relationships for the next couple of decades. I said the sinner's prayer. I committed my life to Christ. I became born again. I felt like I finally came home.

I was a changed man. I stopped swearing, smoking, and drinking, I had inner peace for the first time in my life, I went to church - and loved it! The bible became three dimensional; things made sense to me that never had before. What I didn't know at the time was that I had simply committed to a different world view for the first time in my life, and along with that came the relief of not having to make my own decisions any more. Christ was in the driver's seat now!

Today, thirty some-odd years later, I have a totally different view of life, god, the bible, and evangelical fundamentalism. The personal evolution took decades. It took determination. It took getting "lost". But my search for absolute truth drew me into - then away from - evangelical fundamentalism.

I will say this: if there is one very positive and lasting effect of my conversion experience, it's that it turned me into a purposeful thinker. An amature philosopher or sorts, which has stuck with me to this day.

Where'd it all start?
There I was, about 10 years old, attending a Catholic church ceremony per our regular Sunday schedule. The homily (Catholic word for "sermon") on this otherwise beautiful Sunday morning was about the end of the world. Scared the crap out of me. Can you imagine, this (figuratively) giant authority figure describing the pain and suffering that everyone will experience once God pulls the plug.

Scared me. Right to the bone.

The imprinting was huge, becoming the background to my eventual search for the "One True Religion", so as to be on God's side and not get damned to hell for all of eternity. Because, as you know, every belief system says they're "The One To Believe". A life-long intellectual and emotional search for truth was thus started, thinking that I'd eventually find "the" one true religion.

As a young teenager full of rebellion, I made the claim of being an atheist. Not for any well though-out reasons; I simply refused to walk in my parent's shoes when it came to religion. Then as an older teenager, still forced to attend church, I'd go Saturday evenings to what was called "Folk Mass". It was the Catholic church's attempt at modernizing their otherwise boring service by including folk music, guitars and all... This came in when I was just learning to play guitar myself.

So, I started practicing with them, and was intrigued by the fact that these people, just slightly older than me, took this whole god thing quite seriously. They eventually became my new hang-out friends, and we had lots of fun partying, but also philosophizing. It started me thinking that maybe there was something to all this. So, I delved into Catholicism for a couple of years, but after some time, it didn't really have what I was looking for. Lots of ritual, but not a lot of substance for a truth seeker.

When in college, I washed dishes for an elderly care home that was run by a Mormon couple. They shared what they knew with me, and I was very interested… They make the actual claim that they are THE one true religion. Then, in my early twenties, my wife at the time also developed an interest in the Mormons. Celebrities like Randy Bachman made it appealing to me, being a bit of a music buff. So, we went to a number of their services, made a few friends, but eventually said thanks, but no thanks. It was rife with a lot of weird beliefs that eventually didn't appeal to us very much. "Just another set of rules" I thought. I figured Bachman can keep his religion.

The Big Day
A couple years later we bought a little hobby farm out in the boonies, enticed by the back-to-the-land movement of the sixties and seventies. I quit my job in the city, taking up chimney cleaning as a new career. One of my customers was a born again christian who explained the whole redemption concept and it intrigued me, so we started attending bible studies that he taught. At this point in time, my farm had become a disappointment, so I was disillusioned with life. The experience of carving out a tough living in the country was slapping me in the face with realities I hadn't counted on, naïve as I was. When presented with the opportunity to turn my life around and change from the ground up, I jumped in with both feet. I'm like that... I don't usually do things half way!

With new purpose and vision, I quickly became a full-time evangelizer, converting as many family and friends as I could. My father, who insisted we all be raised as strict Catholics, forbade me from bringing my bible into the house when I visited! My wife at the time couldn't hack it - she left and we eventually divorced. I sold the farm, played guitar and sang in a Christian ministry, opened and ran a Christian coffee house, and preached at church regularly. I was a whirlwind of energy, having fun, and convincing as many as would listen about the need to be born again.

All the while, I had unanswered doubts and questions, but would deal with them by trusting that I could never fully understand the mind of god. That's the faith portion of being religious: the believer fully trusts god, and should not question the unexplainable and contradictory facts. And may I add: it is the biggest obstacle to giving serious consideration to basic logic and evidence, which are unfortunately tossed away in favour of faith in "the creator of the universe".

Evidence Wins, Faith is out
This is why logic and philosophy won out with me. I never really did leave my brains at the door when I swallowed the whole religious experience back in 1979. I never really did totally hand over my will to the concept of trusting in god 100%, at the expense of my own logical deductive reasoning. After some big life changes in the early to mid-nineties, I slowly backed away from the whole christian scene, eventually leaving it behind. The final straw that kept me from attending any church was being scolded by a music director for living with my fiancé Moira before we got married, when at the same time she was actually screwing around on her husband!

(Actually, on that topic, I need to state that it was never for people's good or bad behaviour that I either joined or left Christianity. Based on people's hypocrisy alone, I had many reasons to leave long before I did, but I stuck to my own beliefs. Heck, I worked in a bible college were a janitor was screwing his daughter, another janitor was pawning stolen leather jackets, the VP of finance left his wife for his secretary, and a dean left his wife - the aforementioned secretary - for his secretary, a college graduate who had just started an outreach ministry fell real quick when he was caught having an affair with a young girl... I could go on and on.)

So, the slow extrication process began. Both physically by not attending church anywhere, and philosophically by learning about other beliefs and opening up to sources of truth other than just the bible. I began judging less and less, and accepting more of what looked to me like manifestations of beauty, love, and creation. This led to me challenging my long-held acceptance of various beliefs and concepts such as the validity of the bible itself. How can the earth be only 8,000 years old? How can one justify the god-ordained death and destruction in the bible? I began thinking for myself, instead of just living by the often contradictory words from a book written in the Bronze Age, as well as the contradictory words of biblical experts offering their explanations for all the biblical contradictions that exist. And there’s many. Talking snakes and donkeys, virgin birth, 7-day creation, then all the god-ordained murder and destruction of entire cities, including women and children…

The scales fell off my eyes
I began to see that the bible is in fact the best evidence against itself! That being so, no wonder there are over 16,000 different religions based on it, none of which agree with each other. As my eyes were really opened to all this, I began to shake my head and wonder why I ever fell for it in the first place. Which made me pursue that very thought... why does anyone believe and have such unwavering faith in such unbelievable things? There are many reasons, all very interesting, all very legit for reasons I'll cover. For instance, many people will tell of some kind of mystical, unexplainable, perhaps miraculous experience in their life. For others, they'll just say they always believed, accepting it as a part of themselves never to be questioned or challenged. Whatever the reason, it's an extremely interesting - and deep - subject to study and understand, and it has its foundations in the human psyche. Being the seeker that I am, I've learned a lot from observation, experience, and studying. I'm as interested in the "why" as I am the "how".

As a bit of an aside, one thing I learned is that christianity, or any other religion, does not have a corner on integrity and morals. Escaping that life was not fraught with moral decline, backsliding, or temptation. I still live with the same basic rules of life I did decades ago, so the clichéd image of leaving religion and falling into a moral cesspool did not apply to me. Some of the best people I know are actually atheists! Moral compasses are not the sole territory of bible-based belief systems. We don't need church and religion to live with integrity and wholesomeness. The laws of cause and effect work well enough for the thinking person.

The Psychology of Archetypes
So, I began questioning how believers have such assurance of their "rightness". I learned about archetypes, which help lay the foundation for understanding many things, including subjective religious superiority. Here's a short list:

  • We have an inherent need to reduce the world to an understandable, comprehensible set of principles and rules that make sense to us. The more black and white, the better.
  • We have an inherent need to have boundaries and rules; to have answers to behavioural, moral, and philosophical questions. The bible and the 10 commandments provide just that.
  • We have an inherent need to be right, to the point of arrogance if need be. It's a survival mechanism with its roots in #1.
  • We have an inherent requirement to belong. We are social animals, and a large portion of our identity is rooted in the social bonds with family and community. Even for the socially disconnected, think Facebook. Church life provides such connectedness. I put this one at the top of the list.
  • We have an inherent need to be religious; to be involved in religious ritual; to worship and submit to something bigger than us; to appease this unseen force that rules the universe. This has been described by human behaviourists as having the "god gene".
  • Finally, sometimes we just need the comfort that comes from believing that we're taken care of; that everything will be okay. I call this adult thumb-sucking.

All of us have some or all of these 6 elements to one degree or another, some less, some more, and in various priorities. Regardless of whether each of the 6 is an actual archetype in and of itself, they are at least based on some archetypical foundation, and are the reasons and explanations for why belief and faith exist in the first place. I have been a student of human behavioural psychology and social anthropology for half my life, and this distillation of the motives and reasons for faith and belief are commonly accepted and widely held by psychiatric, psychological, and mental health professions.

One more element that is personal to me, and fits into #5 is my family history. I was abused emotionally and physically by an alcoholic father, which I learned from a psychologist that the majority of born againers come from this background. After having one's will broken once already, it's easy to submit again, but this time to a loving heavenly father. It's a no-brainer actually. The gospel message is so often pitched to the broken, the downhearted, the disenfranchised.

Do I still believe?
I do not see enough evidence to support the bible's claim of a monotheistic entity that created the universe in seven days... but neither am I saying the bible is all hogwash... the lessons and directives regarding behaviour are good things to live by, like many other "golden rule" teachings from other sacred writings. But, to the outsider, the bible’s origins and subsequent claims of inerrancy are highly suspect. And, there is no physical evidence, historical or otherwise, that Jesus Christ ever existed. The one secular historian - Josephus - who lived in the first century mentions Jesus, but those references have been effectively proven fraudulent. I understand this to be a bold statement for many; just realize that no "truth" is true unless it can pass the test of any newfound evidence.

So, suffice to say, religion is a relic of my past that I'll always have fond memories for, and acknowledge as a very important part of my growth, but now place it on the shelf labelled "Been there, done that - time to move on".

What my powers of observation do tell me is that the universe is a powerfully creative force. The evidence to me is the existence of biological life, with DNA at center stage. There is no agreed-upon theory of its origin, but the fact it exists tells us some form of creativity - moving from the simple to the complex - is at play.

Explanations of mystical and religious experiences (...and I've had a few) are coming to light thanks to research into quantum physics, all beginning with Einstein and a host of others in the early 20th century. Things such as non-local coherence - which explains the phenomenon of distance viewing and energy healing over vast distances - are well understood and documented. As an explanation of the mechanism behind this, it is now understood that a person's intent can have a positive or negative effect on many things other than just healing. New scientific research is very supportive of many aspects of religious healing experiences such as the laying on of hands, prayer, meditation, and the power of positive thinking.

So, I certainly haven't just given up on spirituality - even after all the negative experiences within Christianity itself, there's far too much evidence to become jaded, throwing out the baby with the bath water. More and more real proof is being uncovered that is causing the false dichotomy between spirituality and science to fade. That is, unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist that still believes the earth is 8,000 years old.

Ya ya, I can hear them now...
Christian believers will call all this satan's way of enticing me away from god by tickling my ears with things I want to hear, labelling it "new age pop spirituality". Not that I believe in all the things purported by this new wave of interest in spiritual things, but I do reel at the broad strokes of condemnation that are so easily handed out by these right-wing fundies. They have an answer for everything, justifying their perspective with a narrow and restrictive world view based on their own interpretation of the bible.

Another aside: There are more well-intentioned religious people than there are fundamental extremists, who give religion a bad rap. My decades-long observation of these people is that given another time and place, they would adhere to any other belief system - one that contains the same basic golden-rule principles of brotherly love. Most of these people don't dwell on the dogmatic, technical details of their faith - their particular brand of religion is a medium and context for their good works, compassion, ministry, and outreach, all with the goal of helping their fellow man. Nothing wrong with that. My bone to pick with religion itself is how it provides safe habour (and justification) for extremeists.

Important points here
So, all this is my pragmatism at play. If it works, don't mess with it. If there's something better, look into it. Too often we'll avoid challenging our own beliefs for fear of change, or worse, condemnation from family and peers. Especially when such changes will involve extreme consequences such as social ex-communication. But, as I say - there is nothing more sacred than truth itself. Misconceptions, partial truths, peer pressure, whatever - they can all work to keep a person content with the status quo. Not this guy. My pursuit of truth will keep me changing beliefs as often as I change my underwear. I jest, but it's true. I simply cannot remain stagnant in a world view that doesn't acknowledge all known truth, and that's not judgement talking - that's me looking at proof and evidence. That is what I have always lived by, and will continue to till I die. I will never actually commit to one single belief system. That’s for people looking for religion.

So, like, what IS truth?
I've heard people say "But that's YOUR truth; other people have THEIR truth". As well, I've heard people relinquishing their own judgement by saying "You can't know the mind of god." - in essence, submitting to him cart blanche. To them, I say this: truth is absolute. To disagree with that one crucial point is to effectively agree with every other truth out there, which is nothing more than nonsensical new-age babble. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be to say "But that's your belief; other people have their belief". At least that reduces it to what is likely meant. Now, there are various kinds and shades of belief, starting with hard core facts that we all can agree on, such as the color of the sky, or the shape of an object. Such directly observable qualities are non-negotiable in their universal reality. This characterizes my strict approach to judging what is and isn't true (and therefore its believability factor): deciding on a truth's negotiable quality. If it's iffy, then so is my commitment to it. If it's 80% provable, it has an 80% commitment from me, irrespective of anyone else's prejudices, world view, or judgements.

I'll answer the big philosophical question of "what is truth" by simply stating that truth is what is real. If you want to argue that your reality is not mine, then go back to philosophy school and learn the basics. Go sleep on a bench in the park overnight and tell me your stiff muscles aren't real.

Perhaps it's polite to let people have their own beliefs, but question me on mine, and I'll argue that non-negotiable truths are just that - non-negotiable. I dislike the relativistic "everyone's truth is true" bullshit. It doesn't get past the most basic rules of logic.

An example of being properly judgemental of "truth" is to picture a terrorist suicide bomber who thinks they'll be blessed with 72 virgins in paradise by blowing up a crowd of infidels. We all know that such extreme beliefs are fostered in a cocoon of hatred, anger, and revenge, far from the ideal beliefs of love and tolerance. Which most civilized people believe in. So I do, because it has the best of intentions of love, security and safety for the world. That simple. Few intelligent people will minimize such horrific acts with a generalized statement that lets them off the hook... "Oh well, that's what THEY believe". Pure bunk. The search for truth does include some moral absolutes.

The mainstay of religion and spirituality is faith, not intellect. Faith to accept things that would otherwise be impossible to believe. Therein lies the problem, simply because of the subjectivity we all have when viewing what we think is reality - but it's really faith. And, interpretation is everything. So, when new evidence appears that contradicts our world view, we dismiss it in any number of ways... until it lands on the consciousness and intellect of a true seeker. Anyone who is willing to look beyond their prejudicial outlook and make yet another jump... another shift in paradigms because, damnit, that new evidence is simply too overwhelming, well, they're the courageous ones. Those who don't are cowards; ostriches intentionally with their head in the sand. I could introduce you to a few...

I'll end by stating some non-negotiable truths that I hold to:

  • Nothing is more sacred than truth itself.
  • I believe in the absolute supremacy of love.
  • It is good to allow new truths to challenge your old ones.
  • Faith does not trump truth.

1 Corinthians 13:13

Jim Hutchison
Burnstown, Ontario