An American child is dying at home. The parents are members of a Christian sect that does not believe in modern medicine. They pray fervently but the child grows worse and dies. "It was God's will," says the father. The mother agrees.

A 5-year-old boy said a dirty word. His Christian father spanks him with a wooden paddle. The paddle leaves welts and bruises. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," says the father, quoting the Bible.

Jimmy is bright and sensitive. He loves to go to church and sit in the front pew with the other kids. One Sunday morning, the preacher talks about hell. He says, "Sinners will burn forever in the fires of hell." On the way home from church, Jimmy asks his parents, "What's a sinner?" His mother says, "It's a person who does bad things." His father adds, "It's also people who don't believe in Jesus."  Jimmy asks, "Will they really burn forever in hell?" His father says, "Yes, that's what the Bible says." Jimmy is only eight years old. From then on, his biggest worry will be that he might go to hell and burn forever.

Kristy is eight. Her father leads the congregational singing at church. "When I get big, I want to lead the singing just like Daddy," Kristy says. Her mother tells her, "You can serve God in many ways but only men can lead the singing." Kristy says, "Why?" Her mother says, "Because God doesn't want women to usurp the authority of men." Kristy says, "Oh, I didn't know that."

Mary is 15. She's gay. She wants to date other girls but knows her church would not approve. Her pastor seems like a kind man, so she talks to him about her dilemma. He listens and then says, "Mary, I'm your pastor and must tell you the truth: homosexuality is an abomination and you must never give in to those impulses." Mary doesn't know what to do. She feels hopeless. She falls into a deep depression. Four months later, she kills herself.  

I am 70 years old. I grew up in a fundamentalist church, attended a fundamentalist college, and became a fundamentalist minister. My parents were very loving. My ministers were good, kind men. My professors were sincere and compassionate. The problem was their fundamentalist religion. I was taught that women were second class citizens, that homosexuality was an abomination to God, that members of other world religions were going to hell because they were not Christians. My church taught that God loved me, but I was afraid of him.  s a child, I was so afraid of going to hell that I became depressed when I was 12. While my friends were outside playing that summer, I stayed in my room, overwhelmed by worry about my eternal salvation. Even later, after I became a minister, my biggest fear was that I might think, say, or do something that would cause me to go to hell.  Today, when people ask me if I believe in hell, I say, "Yes. I was there for several years."

I left the ministry and church years ago. My life since then has not a bed of roses. I miss the relationships. I miss the respect of my family, most of whom are still members of that fundamentalist church. I miss the security of thinking that I had everything figured out. I do not miss the fundamentalist doctrines that made women second class citizens, that told me gays and lesbians were going to hell, that caused me so much anxiety and depression as a child, that hung over me like a dark cloud even as a minister in my 20s.

For me, growing up in a fundamentalist religion was not all bad. I believe most fundamentalist Christians are loving, kind, and well-intentioned. But fundamentalist religion has a way of causing even good people to believe and do bad things. Our children need and deserve the best we can give them. Fundamentalist religion can damage their minds, emotions, and souls. Parents in fundamentalist religions should examine their religious beliefs and think deeply about what they are doing to their children. A good friend of mine says, "If your religion causes you to do bad things, then you should reexamine your religion."

About the Author

David N. Elkins Ph.D.

David N. Elkins, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology at Pepperdine University.

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