This article was first published on Medium.
Every speaker at the pulpit loves a good show-and-tell. You know the kind. A story to get your knees shaking. A picture to break your spirit. An anecdote to get you weeping like a baby in the pews.
And recently, on the 16th of May 2021 at Hope Evangelical Free Church in Kuala Lumpur, the cherry on the sermon was an excerpt from my article, How Religious Teachers in Malaysia Brainwashed Me as a Child.
In the article published by In Real Life, I wrote about losing my faith. I talked about leaving the evangelical church. I noted the pain of losing something as integral to my psyche as my faith.
I talked about grappling with the little things that caused me to doubt—I called them splinters, a term coined by Mark Karris in his book, Religious Refugees. I explained that the answers I received were unsatisfactory.
The published piece was heavily edited by my editor, but the original draft was linked at the bottom of the page. In it, I wrote about seeking solace in seminary. I shared the rejection I received from well-meaning christians.
You can read my original draft HERE.
I poured my heart into the prose. I’ve written many essays, but few stories meant as much to me as this one did.
THEN. Along came a Reverend from PJEFC, a guest speaker at Hope EFC that day, who cherry-picked from my tapestry of experiences.
During the online sermon, he put up on the screen an excerpt from my article, colour-coded and double-spaced—credit where credit is due, the aesthetics were amazing.
It was a subsection in which I talked about friends I met AFTER losing my faith. Friends who were my support system when hell was breaking loose.
“I found others like me and we bonded.
I met a friend of a friend, and she introduced me to more and more friends. People who grew up in my religious community and accumulated splinters of their own. People who share my values, and are horrified by the same things that petrify me.
We became each other’s community.
We unpacked the trauma together, and read all kinds of faith-themed books.
We are progressives, with values that might shock my religious community, but we feel very strongly about them.
These are other ex-believers. In a way, we redefine our ‘religion’.”
With no context, Reverend read the excerpt slowly, enunciating the first-person pronouns.
“I found others like me and we bonded…”
At the end of the few sentences, he said with a perturbed expression, “There’s no mention of…” pause for dramatic effect, “…God…in her life.”
“It’s I, me, we…”
Then, in a voice thick with patronising sorrow, he speculated on the salvation of my soul, “Is Chow Ping saved? Is Chow Ping saved?”
With a confident voice, he informed the congregation, “…friends, have great influence on us.”
“That’s why Proverbs tells us to be careful with who you mix with. Who you mix with…you become one of them.”
“WHAT???!!” I spat at my laptop when I heard this assertion. I nearly choked on my Americano.
I spent paragraph after paragraph talking about my splinters, about wrestling with the bible. Then the Reverend just ignored the important 90% of my article.
He ignored my splinters, ignored my grappling, the grief afterwards, and somehow concluded that my friends caused me to backslide??
Friends I met AFTER I lost my faith???
I have some serious suspicions as to why he did this.
You see, his theology compels him to put people into one of two boxes: saved or unsaved.
From his point of view, all the reasons why I lost my faith are unimportant, because the only thing that matters is that I’ve jumped into the unsaved box.
In fact, if he kept reading, the very next line was: We removed the toxic ideas about the divine, but that is not to say we skimmed on spirituality. We just stopped subscribing to my old religion’s idea of spirituality.
But he didn’t read that part. And my take on spirituality doesn’t matter to him either, because I’m not in the ‘right box’.
It’s silly. He thinks I’m being silly.
In his mind, what happened to me is the worst possible thing that can happen to a believer, so he had to paint it as such.
And humanising me with my doubts and struggles takes the oomph out of my sin.
So he intentionally left out the bits that made me human, because that was the only way he could demonise me.
He had to paint a caricature of me that is both cautionary tale and villain.
Of course, he didn’t mean to. He probably didn’t even realise it.
He said as much when I reached out to him via email.
After I pointed out that he had misrepresented me, he apologised. And I appreciate the apology.
But I have another suspicion. Although he’s sorry that he took my excerpt out of context, he’s not sorry he took me out of context.
The fact that I’ve left church means that I’m worthy of being demonised and dehumanised—with love, of course. He’s just sorry he did it by misquoting me.
He’s not an evil person. I believe he genuinely means well. But my exchange with him confirmed yet another suspicion: church people don’t know how to deal with ‘backsliders’ like me.
They don’t understand how we think.
When I say ‘we’, I mean exvangelicals (word hybrid of ex-evangelicals).
Evangelicals are the muscled version of christianity. They tend to be militant about doctrines and faith. They’re the ones who live like the bible is the only lifeline out of this wretched world.
So to leave a faith like that is a big deal. That’s why we the exvangelicals are deemed the spawns of satan.
One common assumption is that we, the exvangelicals, lacked firm foundation, so we just fell off when the going got tough. I must emphasise while this might be true for some, it is NOT for many of us.
It’s convenient to assume that we fell away because we didn’t read our bible and pray, or simply care enough about God. But that’s not the reality.
The half-past-six christians are happy to sit in the pews and swallow whatever the pulpit hurls at them.
But the ones who fall away are those who genuinely care. We are the ones that devoured the bible, who stood in the front row during praise and worship, begging for the holy spirit to fill us up.
We’re the ones who woke up at 5am to pray; the ones who listened attentively during the sermon. We are the ones who stayed back after school for recess meeting.
We are the ones who were once ready to die for the gospel.
We’re the ones who CARE that it doesn’t make sense anymore.
From the looks of it, the church has zero idea on what to do with us. Worse still, they don’t understand us.
So, I hope to offer you a simple guide to dealing with exvangelicals (backsliders).
Before I continue, I must say that my faith is constantly evolving. What I believe today is not necessarily what I’ll believe tomorrow, let alone next month. As I read, think, and dialogue, I constantly update my beliefs.
But as of now, I will interrogate a rough description of my belief system.
Of course, not every person who has left the evangelical church thinks exactly like I do. We come from a whole spectrum of beliefs. But many do think like me, and I hope to present you with an aggregate of our convictions.
I hope that you will find the following lists helpful.
Firstly, here are 4 things you should understand about us:
1. We view spirituality as horizontal
I believe that the significant switch from evangelical to exvangelical is when a person stops viewing spirituality as vertical and starts seeing it as horizontal.
The evangelical christian faith is vertical. In a vertical spirituality, obeying God comes first. To obey is better than sacrifice. (1 Samuel 15:22b)
We don’t murder because God said so. Vertical spirituality is the reason why evangelicals are happy to explain away the injustice in the bible. It’s the root of bible-based homophobia and misogyny. Because if God said so, that’s all that matters.
In vertical spirituality, when we sin, the victim is God. Young me spent many nights praying, “God, sorry I hurt you,” when in actuality, I hurt my friend. See, that’s vertical spirituality.
On the other hand, exvangelicals see spirituality as horizontal. In horizontal spirituality, when we sin, the victim is the person we sinned against. We don’t murder because it hurts the victim, and not necessarily because ‘God said so’. It’s about how we interact with the environment around us. God comes secondary/equal.
I see you jumping and shouting, “But we believe in loving thy neighbour!” Indeed, but that’s not the same. If I ‘obey God’ first and ‘love thy neighbour’ second, I’ll still murder them if I think ‘God said so’. I’ll still be homophobic because ‘God said so’.
If you think about this, suddenly, a lot of progressive christian values will make sense to you.
2. We don’t interpret the bible in the way you do
The early stages of one’s unraveling of faith often comes with the recognition that the bible is not inerrant and infallible. Possibly inspired, if you accept horizontal inspiration.
It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to accept the bible as inerrant. Some people can do it, and I respect their point of view, but many of us can’t.
Honestly, people like me are secretly relieved that the bible is not historically accurate. Imagine if God did actually commit genocide by sending a flood to kill all his creation? Shudder.
Nonetheless, we still see value in the bible. We still exhaust books, podcasts, journals, etc about the bible.
But we typically don’t see it as a personal message from God anymore. To us, it’s a collection of origin stories, biased war records, folklore, stories through the grapevine, letters, and—let’s face it—John’s writings from when he had too much to drink.
3. We likely don’t define God the way you do either
There was one line in the Reverend’s email that made me guffaw. He said, “I’m just talking from God’s point of view.”
Gosh, what does that even mean? More accurately, how does he know what God’s point of view is?
Evangelicals are very confident about their views on God. They are also confident that they know God’s view.
We exvangelicals are not so sure. For many of us, God is an unknown.
Furthermore, we are put on guard when somebody profess to know things there is no way of knowing (eg. the afterlife, or ‘God’s heart’).
The suggestion that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent at the same time sounds suspect. And many of us have wrestled endlessly with this—the question of theodicy.
I know much ink has been spilled on this topic, and many exvangelicals have spent our share of time scouring through the material. But clearly, the explanations don’t sit well.
Often, exvangelicals do see God in the world around us, just not in the way the evangelicals do. Like the line in my essay that the Reverend intentionally ignored: We removed the toxic ideas about the divine, but that is not to say we skimmed on spirituality. We just stopped subscribing to my old religion’s idea of spirituality.
Some of us move away from theism, and that’s okay too.
4. We are recovering from the abuse of sin theology
There’s a central doctrine in the evangelical christian faith. It goes like this: we are all worthless sinners deserving of hell. That’s why we need Christ, because faith in Christ will save us from eternal torment.
This is harmful theology. It teaches us that we’re good-for-nothings. We have no value and deserve no love, but thankfully God loves us nevertheless.
Generations have internalised this type of self-loathing. Failing to do so is deemed as ‘pride’. This is toxic.
Similarly, if I advocate a God that will use harm as a means of manipulation, I am advocating abuse. If I say, “God allows you to go through this difficult time because he wants to draw you back to him,” I’m suggesting that this God will use pain to keep you in line.
Think about this in human relationship terms. If a man injures a woman so that she will have no choice but to depend on him, is it abuse? The courts might even call it premeditated assault. And no, saying that ‘allowing’ is different from ‘actively harming’ does not fly. For an omnipotent God, it is the same thing.
Please understand that for many exvangelicals, years of internalising this self-hate has done us endless harm.
I hope I’m making sense. It is my prayer that this gives you a peek into our minds.
And if you’re still reading (thank you!), and you care, here are 3 things NOT to say to exvangelicals:
1. “Everybody has a choice.”
This is another thing the Reverend told me, and I double guffawed.
He doesn’t really believe I have a choice. If he did, he wouldn’t ask the congregation in that suspenseful tone, “Is Chow Ping saved? Is Chow Ping saved?”
A real choice has no coercion. “Give me your wallet or I’ll slice your neck with this parang,” is not a real choice. “Sleep with me or I’ll fire you from your job,” is not a real choice for the employee strapped for cash.
Likewise, “Believe in Jesus or he’ll send you to hell for all eternity,” is not a real choice either.
So please don’t tell us that. You mean well, but it doesn’t feel that way.
2. “Have faith.”
Evangelical christianity thrives on this mysterious thing called ‘faith’.
Faith sounds fuzzy and warm, until you properly dissect it. Then you realise that ‘faith’ in this context actually means to ignore the nagging feeling that something is off.
Of course, ‘faith’ can be a temporary hypothesis. For example, I have faith in this medicine now—until my body breaks up in hives and I puke my stomach out. And then I decide to move my faith in this medicine somewhere else. To survive in this world, we must have some extent of faith.
But evangelical christians don’t mean that. They mean ‘accept claims without evidence’. They mean ‘switch off your brain when it doesn’t make sense, because we can’t trust ourselves’ (related to sin theology).
“Don’t use your human understanding to discern,” we’re told, because “his thoughts are higher than our thoughts,” and “his ways higher than our ways.’
They do try to brand this faith as intellectual though. That’s why we have people like William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, etc.
I’ve listened to countless debates by esteemed bible scholars and apologists. I’ve tried to consider their contentions, I really have.
But I, like other exvangelicals out there, just can’t.
So kindly don’t tell us to “have faith”.
3. “Don’t sacrifice your salvation because people failed you. No church is perfect.”
People who say this just don’t. Get. It.
It’s not like I had a bad batch of curry puffs and now I’m hesitant to eat another one.
Exvangelicals didn’t leave because people behaved poorly in church. Sure, bad experiences inched me towards the door sooner, but ultimately, I didn’t leave because people failed to behave ideally.
I left because the IDEAL is messed up. The ideal of sin theology, purity culture, homophobia, misogyny, the emphasis on faith over intuition, the portrayal of God as an abusive partner—it became too much to take (splinters). That’s why I left.
If you’ve made it this far into the article, know that I really appreciate it.
If you’re curious, here are 2 things you can do to reach out to us exvangelicals:
1. Deconstruct faith with us
From our perspective, evangelical christian faith shouldn’t be protected, especially because it’s full of toxic ideas. Instead, faith should be deconstructed.
To deconstruct means to dismantle cherished doctrines. To look at them again through critical eyes.
Together, let’s deconstruct and reconstruct from the ground up. For people like me, the only way to keep a faith is to deconstruct it.
My faith had to evolve to survive.
But faith evolution does not come easy. It’s painful.
There will be sleepless nights, panic attacks, empty days, nightmares, and buckets full of tears.
Thankfully, we have each other. And in place of ‘faith’, we have hope.
2. Lock your bible away for a year (maybe throw away the key)
During my 20+ years in the evangelical church, I noticed something. The bible has consistently gotten in the way of genuine conversation.
People were always so eager to throw verses out, to keep each other ‘aligned with the gospel’ that real conversation got lost. We were so obsessed with what we thought the bible said, so ready with an answer (1 Peter 3:15), that we forgot to listen.
So here is what I propose. We lock our bibles away for a year and just focus on listening. We don’t quote a single bible verse. We read anything and everything. Watch movies. Talk deeply. Cry hard. Get drunk.
Camp in a playground under the night sky. Go hiking. Eat so much durian we puke.
And when somebody says, “I don’t believe in God,” we keep quiet, nod our heads, and actually CONSIDER the possibility.
We don’t say “I would like to go back to the bible…” In fact, let’s make it a drinking game. Every time someone tries to quote the bible, we take a shot of tequila.
We won’t pretend to know what God wants. So if someone says, “God says…” DRINK!
We’ll ask lots of questions. Plenty of whys? And we’ll ask them because we genuinely want to know, and not because we’re ready to whip out some fancy apologetics response.
And then we rebuild.