I know what it’s like to grow up in a religious fundamentalist household because I, essentially, grew up in a cult.
It wasn’t a bad childhood, per se, in context of the bigger picture of world history. I had food, clothing, running water, and a safe, indoors place to sleep. Yet beyond provision of these basic physical needs — which were generously given by genuinely caring parents — I was brought up in a repressive environment ruled by paranoia about the outside world, rigid dogma, and authoritarian structure.
Home was a place where fear and hatred of “the other” was encouraged and normalized. For years, there was a constant concern about an impending catastrophe — particularly the Y2K problem, or Millennium Bug, which my parents were convinced would bring about societal collapse. Meanwhile, as deeply religious people, they moved deeper and deeper into the countryside as they hopped from church to church to church in an endless search for the “right” place of worship.
Getting it “right” was crucial. Exclusivity was essential. Elitism was the name of the game. We few, we proud, we elect were the only enlightened ones. Dogmatic rigidity required adopting an ever-expanding list of esoteric theological labels with which the enlightened ones must label themselves as evidence of being the elect. The list was so long — and the terms so abstract — I can only dimly remember a few of them today. The foremost was “Calvinism” — not a reference to Hobbes the Tiger’s best friend but rather a 16th-century French theologian who articulated a cold, graceless, fatalistic philosophy. We were raised to call ourselves not Christians, but “Calvinists.”
It was a closely guarded home where interactions with those who are different — even those merely of another gender — were forbidden. People of another race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, or even educational background rarely crossed paths with us, by deliberate design of our parents. Even outside media was carefully screened. Harry Potter, for instance, was banned in the home (not because it is bad literature) but because it “encouraged witchcraft.” The Lion King, Aladdin, and various other Disney productions were similarly black-holed as “worldly propaganda.”
Nor do my family confine themselves to merely propagating this isolationist outlook within their own home. They stepped into the outside world to spread the philosophy that children should be raised without any influence from the outside world. My mother, in particular — who has since rejected her once firmly held convictions regarding all this — even took to the lecture circuit to, as a woman, “educate” others about the virtues of patriarchy. My politically involved parents further maintained a hardcore right-wing outlook, eventually abandoning the Republican Party in favor of the far more radically conservative Constitution Party.
What can we do after such an upbringing? We cannot control who our parents are, or what we are told to think or do as minors, or the environment in which we are placed as children. But we can learn and grow, evolve and change. We can arise to resist the supremacy we were taught.
For a time, cheered on by my parents, I partook in propagating some of their ideals. Long before I ever met an immigrant, a person of another religion, or anyone of another sexual orientation, I was encouraged to join and organize teenage political activism groups. Coming from a repressive and isolated environment, at the time it seemed like a nice opportunity to get outside the house for a rare, parent-approved activity. Inside the home, I was encouraged to write about my parents’ ideals and propagate them online as my own. That also, at the time, seemed like a nice opportunity for rare, parent-approved engagement with the outside world.
Little did I know that, as I grew up, I would discover the poisonous nature of the ideals pressed upon me as a child — and the true danger, manifested in the real world all around us, of fundamentalism and religious nationalism.
More so than anyone else, I believe it is the duty of those who once were fundamentalists — especially anyone raised to believe in hate or supremacy — to dedicate their lives to specifically denouncing and opposing such wretched ideals. To stand for equality and liberty.
We see beautiful stories of this redemptive experience all around us. The man who was once in the KKK but abandoned and rejected it and spoke out. The man who was once an Islamophobe or a homophobe but then renounced it and reached out to heal any hurt he caused.
We can devote ourselves to the spiritual evolution of the human race. To consciously and deliberately advancing love rather than hate, diversity rather than homogeneity, unity rather than division, equality rather than supremacy, tolerance rather than bigotry, cooperation rather than force, peace rather than war.
As Ashok Swain, a Hindu professor who studies peace and conflict, told me, “We evolve, otherwise we are not humans.”