When You Argue With a Fundamentalist You Don't Know What You're Asking For
One of the biggest questions I received after writing about Trump, evangelicals, and the end of the world for RD was this: how do we talk to people who see the world as collateral damage in the pursuit of the Heavenly Kingdom? Is it even worth trying to nudge people out of that worldview?
My post-evangelical advice? Be very, very gentle—you don’t know what you’re asking.
Here’s an exhibit. When I was twenty-one years old, someone finally knocked it through my thick head that the earth was old. I was halfway through Geology 100 when, on one otherwise dull afternoon, the professor said something—I don’t even remember what—and a puzzle piece snapped into place. I sat up straight. The earth was old. Not six thousand years old. Billions of years. What did that mean?
I’d grown up evangelical Christian. We weren’t as conservative as some—and, to the outside eye, we probably looked pretty normal—but like so many others, we were fully immersed in the evangelical worldview. While you wouldn’t find us picketing abortion clinics, all the core ideas were there under the surface: we were Biblical literalists and against same-sex marriage. We believed America was God’s country, voted Republican and pro-life, and expected the rapture at any minute. We were also six-day creationists, with science textbooks that warned us to beware of any statement that contradicted the Bible.
That’s why, back at home after my Geology epiphany, I could do nothing but stare blankly out the front door and feel the roll and pitch of the world as it fell from beneath my feet. It seemed, quite literally, as if there were nothing solid under me, only a great vacuum in which to flail. I grabbed the door handle and stood there, dazed, for a long time.
Eventually, I pulled myself together. But there was a chink in the armor. Every time a church leader talked about Adam and Eve or the creation of the earth, I thought about the broad swaths of time that came before humans, of the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, of the fragile fossils behind the glass in the Ohio State laboratory. When someone talked about the layers of sediment in the Grand Canyon or the evolutionary structure of a bird’s wing, I thought, “Well, they have it right. Except for that one thing, and no one’s perfect so it doesn’t really matter.”
That one thing did matter. It was a chemical in the solution that would, over the next decade, dissolve my world.
And here’s the thing: it was the dissolution of a world. People who didn’t grow up in the American evangelical bubble often don’t realize what they’re demanding when they ask an evangelical to accept a fact that is contradicted by their church’s interpretation of the Bible. To those bought in—excepting, perhaps, that small demographic of Christians who identify as evangelical and are truly progressive—evangelicalism is not a collection of facts. It is an entire reality, based not on logic but on a web of ideas, all of which must be wholeheartedly accepted for any of it to work. It is complete unto itself, self-contained, self-justifying, self-sustaining. It’s your community, your life, your entire way of thinking, and your gauge for what is true in the world. Evangelicalism feels so right from the inside.
And, for an evangelical, there are no small doubts: growing up in many evangelical churches means to be told, repeatedly, that the devil will always seek a foothold, and once you give him one you’re well on the road to hell, to losing your faith, to destroying your witness. That’s scary stuff. To begin to doubt evangelicalism is not simply a mental exercise. For many like me, it’s to feel a void opening, the earth dropping out from beneath you. It’s to face the prospect of invalidating your entire existence.
So know this when you talk to an evangelical: in attempting to persuade them to your point of view—even on a topic that seems minor to you—you’re not asking for them to change their mind, you’re asking them to punch a hole in the fabric of their reality, to begin the process of destroying their world. And, as anyone who has had the experience knows, world-destroying is not fun. It is, frankly, terrifying.
That’s not to say that realities can’t change. Mine did. But few individuals can be argued out of an entire worldview. Realities shift when ideas bloom and ideas are slow and patient, creeping in through unguarded portals and establishing themselves without much fanfare. However well-intentioned you are, bludgeoning people with fact after argument after fact will only entrench them in their position and reinforce a perception of being persecuted by the world.
What does work? In my experience, it’s empathy, honest conversation, and a whole lot of patience. Although I’d been probing at the weaknesses of fundamentalist ideas since I was a kid, my ideas only really started to shift as I developed relationships with people who didn’t fit my worldview. These were people who respected me, who accepted me unconditionally, and who stayed in dialogue, never shaming me even when I said things that were ill-informed or demonstrably false. Some of them had been hurt or discriminated against because of evangelical ideology and their kindness to me wasn’t fair or deserved. In retrospect, their acceptance of me looks a whole lot like an uncomfortable word that evangelicals love to throw around: grace.
Such grace is admittedly a lot to ask. I would never demand it of anyone and I frankly don’t know that I’ve gotten there myself. But for those who can manage it—who can listen to damaging ideas and somehow still be tender, who can ask lots of questions and really listen to the answers, who can resist the urge to shame, and who can be in it for the long haul—my experience is evidence that everyday human kindness can absolutely be the catalyst for change. Misconceptions can be worn down by the substantive grit of a real story. But know that it takes time. It takes lots of time.
And, in the end, you should be realistic: for many who grew up as I did, the cost of leaving their worldview, community, and reality will simply be too great, no matter what you say or do.