The group PrairieNymph escaped from is sometimes referred to as "Sharonites" but they prefer to be called a non-denominational group.
In a recent conversation, an acquaintance was talking about how frustrated he was that intelligent people could believe ridiculous things. He started with creationism and went on to cults.
“I understand how that can happen. I was born into a cult.” I said quietly.
He eyes widened. “How did you escape?” he asked.
I'm sure he was imagining me running for my life through the jungle while
snipers and people in robes chased me.
It's an amusing picture since I grew up in a small prairie town and the only robes I saw were in the Sears catalog. However, the jungle existed in my mind. Snipers were the emotional roadblocks of fear. I had to overcome the mind training to find the courage to question to escape the robed figures.
To be fair, the church group I grew up in was in many ways positive – a tight knit social group. While we were aware that other people considered us a cult, we never did. We felt sorry for them and waited for the day that had been prophesied when all the world would be one. When they would be like us. They would adopt our style of authoritarian government: a special group of elders and deacons sat at the top of the pyramid. They were the world-wide leaders and God would tell them how the church should be run through “revelations”. Below them were the local elders and deacons who would spread the teachings of the global leaders. Next were the fathers of homes who were elders and the mothers were considered deacons- the ones who carried out the father's orders. Then were the kids whose job was obedience. If the whole world lived like us, it would be perfect. God's order. God's peace. Everyone obeying someone.
Jan Groenveld has a succinct summary of cults here
“Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God;...and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.“
Of Jan's eleven characteristics, the first nine describe my group very accurately. It was hard for me to read this list, so many years later. I still have a hard time using the word 'cult' to describe my group. It sounds so nasty. Yet, everything matches up. I tell myself it wasn't so bad. I am trying to convince myself.
I thought back to his question. How did I escape? I didn't do it on my own. I didn't want to escape. My church was my safe place from 'the world', a dangerous place I heard about in sermons. I had poor social skills and was encouraged to view other church members as the only people I could be really close to. My church gave me a purpose. We were to become perfect, as Christ is perfect. If we truly surrendered to the Holy Spirit, we were assured this was possible. I failed everyday, but at least I had something to work for. I didn't want to escape but I wanted a longer leash. I wanted to preach. I love public speaking. But I am female. My church has strict gender roles and many reasons why women are not allowed to be in positions of authority. None of them helpful in learning respect for women.
I got married, had a daughter and dropped out of school to be a wife and mother. I sank into depression. The depression was worse on Sunday mornings. We would bike to church. Even out in the cheery sun, I could only think of dying – I hated my femaleness so much I could not think of why I deserved to live. Some days I could not enter the church hall. I hid in the bathroom trying to contain the pain that was too deep for words or tears. Another woman in that church told me she also went through dark suicidal times as a young mother. What kept her from driving in front of a semi was worrying how her children would cope with a mom who committed suicide. She prayed for a truck to hit her instead. I did too.
A friend of a friend told me to examine the bible to see if it really had such a dark view of women. I was terrified. What if it did? I preferred to live with the possibility the teachings were wrong than the certainty they were right. I did take another piece of her advice and went back to school. One class we had a guest speaker who was a former pastor and now a nurse who worked with trafficked women in Africa. After class I asked him why he left pastoring. He told me how he deconverted because it broke his heart to see how Christianity treated women and other people groups. He had to much respect and compassion to stay. I was floored.
I went home and googled deconversion. I found a deconversion website and read and read. I was terrified. I found the Common Sense Atheist blog. I tried to stay away from them. I couldn't. I read and read. John Shelby Spong, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carol Christ, deconvert bloggers... Finally the bible was beginning to make sense. I didn't have to reconcile the hatred, the inconsistencies or the logical fallacies. I could look at them for what they were.
I was still scared to tell my husband what was happening. I was sure in order to stay married to him I'd have to remain a Christian, but I couldn't stop. My husband was glad when I said I was done with my church. As he didn't grow up in it, he saw the red flags but stayed assuming that when I was ready I'd move on with him. He was disturbed by the church's devotion to Paul's teachings and the way church authorities were almost worshiped. He didn't like the elitist attitudes or the anti-intellectualism. However, he didn't expect me to move on so far so quickly. He challenged everything I read and saw our old beliefs were shaky. While he still considers himself a deist and maybe a very liberal Christian, we are both out of fundamentalist Christianity.
The intellectual reasons for leaving Christianity were the easy part. It was a relief to be free of the cognitive dissonance. The emotional snipers I had to dodge to get there were much more difficult. I had been trained to obey authority since I was born and view any questioning as sinful rebellion. My particular authorities were given by God himself to protect me from myself. By questioning them, I was questioning God. The fear and guilt that came with this had kept my questions quiet for years. It wasn't until I was in a safe place with a husband who didn't view them as God's ordained messengers that I could too. When you think you will be tortured eternally just for saying “is that right?”, you don't ask lightly.
When you are told as a female you are more prone to deception, you learn to question yourself more than other people. I had to fight my training that told me I was incapable of understanding, sinful and rebellious for asking questions, and doomed to destruction if I thought for myself.
I also felt like I was betraying my family. My grandparents were both elders in this church. Going to a church camp was like going to a family reunion. How could I challenge them? Didn't they love me? What if I found out I had been taught to think and feel things that were not only wrong, but harmful? How could I do that to the people who love me? By then, other people had befriended me who weren't in my family or my church. They helped me see how sad my fears were and gave me the confidence to risk losing my family and childhood friends.
I turned back to my acquaintance. “I needed to be in a safe place so I could gain the courage to ask questions. Then I learned I had been taught wrong.”
Anti-climatic - but in some ways, just running through a jungle would have been easier.