Friday, September 6, 2013

My Advice on How to Cope with the Outside World Post-Fundamentalism

Recently, I ran across a post from Lana Hope of Wide Open Ground about  her struggles in trying to deal with the outside world. Here’s an excerpt:
When I write about cultural disconnect or socialization problems, I am not just talking about some short painful period after high school, where I went to college, experienced intense culture shock, and then got over myself and became a regular adult. If only that were true.
I am bombarded weekly with mainstream cultural references and ideas, and 90 times out of 100, it’s met with a blank “What The Heck Are You Saying?” from me. In other words, my childhood stabs me in the back, constantly.

She then goes on to talk about an incident with a neighbor where the neighbor mentioned the fact that the 70’s band, the Eagles, grew up in a town not far from her hometown, and the neighbor’s astonishment at the fact that she didn’t realize who the Eagles were.

Reading the entire post, I just wanted to reach through the computer screen and hug her (though I don’t know if she would be comfortable with that, lol). I’ve been there, it makes you feel like an idiot sometimes when you don’t know what someone else is talking about, or makes you feel so disconnected and out of touch from everything around you. I’ve had a double dose of that feeling, both because of my fundamentalist upbringing, and the way that my mind works, it can make communication with people in person difficult enough, then to throw in the cultural disconnect makes it far worse.

There is so much that you miss out on being so isolated from the outside world, and it can be embarrassing sometimes to now know what someone is talking about, my biggest problem was the lack of proper sexual education in an environment like that, it’s embarrassing to say that I wasn’t even familiar with what masturbation was until I was 18 years old.

I’m sure that are more people out there who are dealing with this right now, and though I’m definitely not the shining example of fitting into society, but here’s a few things that I have learned, and maybe, I hope that it will be able to help others who are dealing with this same problem. Here’s my biggest tips on trying to adjust:

When trying to learn about modern music, to better understand its influence on culture, YouTube is your best friend.

Just immerse yourself into music, dive into it. It’s especially important to familiarize yourself with classic rock, because it has had quite a bit of influence on American culture, especially among people from the baby boomer generation. YouTube now has entire albums and full concert recordings up on the site. Get familiar with groups like AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, and yes, even the Eagles. You will be surprised just how much their music influences various cultural references.

Learn more about sex and sexual health from reliable, sex-positive sources.

I can’t stress this enough, this is one thing you will need to catch up on. I suggest for a start, the Sex + Show with Laci Green on YouTube, and the Loveline radio show with Dr. Drew Pinsky.

Familiarize yourself with good comedy.

This may not seem very important, but it is. It will help you to understand people a little better in conversations, not necessarily because of cultural references, (though that does help), but it will help you understand speech patterns that people often have, and the way they try to joke around. Growing up in a closed fundamentalist environment, you were likely not made very familiar with things like intentional double meanings, sarcasm, etc.

Fundamentalists tend to not use such mannerisms; they tend to be very literal about most everything that they say. I suggest for a start, sarcastic comedians like George Carlin, the rather deadpan humor of David Sedaris, and watching a lot of sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, etc. Sitcoms tend to use a lot of humor with double meanings, in a more conversational style.

Realize that many aspects of mainstream culture will make you uncomfortable at first.

Rock music will sound like senseless noise to you at first, a racy line from a comedian may make you cringe (especially if it’s something sexual, or poking fun at Christianity), it will be hard for you to handle, but you will get used to it, and even enjoy some aspects of it, some of it you may feel awkward about, but then grow to love.

Also, it may happen that you may actually feel some guilt over watching/listening to all of this. Voices of disapproval may echo in your head, the old guilt machine embedded into you by parents, your minister, and even just the fundamentalist culture in general may spring up to haunt you. Ignore them as best as you can, and keep going.

Immerse yourself in the culture, but give yourself a break at times, take time to be alone.

There will be times it will feel too overwhelming, and that’s OK, it’s normal, allow yourself time once in a while to shut it all out to keep from becoming completely unraveled.

Take a cue from my namesake, the character Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. This clip is from the episode “The 43 Peculiarity”  Howard and Raj were desperately trying to figure out what exactly Sheldon was doing in a storage room during his lunch break at the university that they all work at.

Communicating with people primarily online may be easier, but you have to practice in person as well.

It maybe easier, and more comfortable to only communicate online, because it is so much easier to understand simple text without reading tone of voice, body language etc, but you need the practice of speaking to people in person.

I’ve gotten this practice because of my job, getting out in the workplace forces you to interact with people in person constantly. Dealing with 80-150 truckers in a 12 hour period several days a week was uncomfortable, and frustrating, but it sharpened what little ability I had to carry on basic conversations.

Realize that you may understand the outside culture intellectually, but it will never fully feel like home to you.

This may seem like a depressing piece of advice, but once you learn to accept it, you will have more peace of mind. You will often feel like a foreign in a strange land, or a cultural anthropologist studying a native culture somewhere, and that’s OK.

To use the example of the anthropologist, you can learn the habits and practices of the culture around you, learn plenty about the behavior of people around you, understand what they are doing, maybe a little of why they do it, but you will not understand everything about the culture, because it is not truly your home culture. There will always be gaps in what you understand about it, even if you can advance to the point to where you can blend in and become rather accepted by the outside culture.

Trying to hard to understand everything will result in plenty of unneeded frustration, and will end up with you stressing yourself out trying to overanalyze everything and everyone. Here’s a secret: Most people don’t understand themselves why they do the things that they do, or why they act a certain way.

Like Winston Smith in 1984, you may understand how but not why. You may learn how our culture works, but not why it operates that way.

Reach out to fellow former fundamentalists.

It’s essential, they are the only people that can understand what you have been through, and can tell you what they have done to help get them through these struggles, learn from them, reach out for support from them.


  1. "You will often feel like a foreign in a strange land, or a cultural anthropologist studying a native culture somewhere, and that’s OK."

    I always feel like this as a progressive nonbeliever observing fundamentalist events for my blog ... but I rarely stopped to consider that fundamentalists and former fundamentalists might feel that way in my culture.

    This post was eye-opening. I understood that Christian fundamentalist was its own subculture, but I didn't realize how far removed it was from the mainstream. Thank you for enlightening me.

    1. "I understood that Christian fundamentalist was its own subculture, but I didn't realize how far removed it was from the mainstream."

      It's kind of a spectrum, going from conservative to all out extreme. Some people cope better because of the specific circumstances of their family and church. If someone came from a evangelical church that was conservative, but mild in it's tone/rhetoric (a few do exist, lol), went to public schools, and had decent, laid back parents, then you can turn out alright, and well adjusted.

      However, if you had any combination of the following situations while in fundamentalism, this advice would apply: abusive parents (includes physical/sexual/psychological abuse, as well as an isolationist attitude towards the outside world, I consider that a form of abuse), homeschooling for most of your childhood (homeschooling is OK by itself, but combine it with fundamentalism, and the results are toxic), and belonging to a cult, especially one that teaches you to stay away from outsiders, (like the IFB).

    2. For example, my recurring characters in the Undercover Agnostic series, "Sam and Rose", have adjusted alright, even though they grew up in the same fundamentalist church that I did, but they had parents that weren't as extreme as mine, and more laid back (though Sam's father does really take advantage of him financially/emotionally as I have talked about before), and they both went to public schools, and you could definitely consider Rose neurotypical (unlike me), Sam is dyslexic, I don't know if he would qualify as a neurotypical for that reason.

      Rose's parents also didn't get involved in fundamentalism until she was 12, and maybe because of that, aren't as rigid about following some of the rules.

    3. Headless Unicorn GuySeptember 12, 2013 at 6:33 PM

      "You will often feel like a foreign in a strange land, or a cultural anthropologist studying a native culture somewhere, and that’s OK."

      This is called "Growing Up Martian", where you find yourself outside mainstream culture looking in (and WTFing about things everyone else takes for granted. Fundies are not the only examples; I'm an ex-kid genius (and possible borderline/low-end Aspergers) who's had to deal with the above all my life. Any sufficient amount of "different" can cause it.

    4. Hey! It's the Unicorn Guy! I know you from The Wartburg Watch, and The Way Forward. I have to tell you, I got a large laugh out of you calling John Calvin the Ayatollah Khomeini of Geneva once, lol.

      Are you familiar with the autism site Wrong Planet? That's the way their founder felt.

  2. Is blending in important?...someday, will it be possible to be proud of your background and just be yourself?

    There have been interesting conversations in Europe with some accusing Muslims of not blending in and others saying diversity makes for a better/tolerant society.......


    1. Proud of my background? I don't quite think that will ever happen. As for being myself, I really have no choice about that, I'm not good enough of an actor to be anyone else, or put on a good persona. ;)

      The problem with trying to live post-fundamentalism is that people are so isolated from the outside culture, it becomes hard to relate to anyone, to have everyday conversations, to get to know people at a deeper level because it's hard to understand anything that they say or do, since the sub-culture you came from is so radically different, and you were never exposed to the outside culture enough to understand it at all. You become a foreigner in your own nation.

  3. "You become a foreigner in your own nation."--While I understand what you mean, perhaps you might someday recognize that you bring a unique and valuable perspective and the way you see the world is a contribution precisely because it is different.

    Consider your life---perhaps change occurred because you began to realize there is another way to think, to see the world. Likewise, the unique perspective that you might bring to a conversation may open someone else's horizons and perhaps bring change for the better.....?...

    Consider also, that perhaps the "outside culture" may also be made up of many sub-cultures---for example, minorities such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and many others who may also not quite share fully in this "main" culture. Are they foreigners too? or are they an equal and contributing part of your country?

    It is not my intention to dismiss the anger, regret, pity or the myriad other emotions you may be going through in this difficult period of change....I only want to appeal that there may be many ways to see the same situation....

    Have you heard of the blog "Non Prophet Status"? They are Agnostics and Atheist who share their perspectives in interfaith work.

    Just curious---are there things that you find funny or strange about the "outside culture"?
    On a visit to the U.S., something that I found different and somewhat amusing was that Americans talk a lot. It seems they are uncomfortable with silence and try to fill it up with conversation, even if that conversation is just noise. A less amusing difference was the degree to which Americans view others actions with suspicion in their conversations---which was actually in stark contrast to their behaviors which were generous and kind.
    When I brought up this point to an American, it was explained to me that the concept of original sin colored their view of human nature.


    1. You will notice that people are often suspicious of each other in the US, it's the worst at either extremes, extremely poor/violent neighborhoods, and in very wealthy neighborhoods. In the poor neighborhoods, crime and violence are common place, and in the rich neighborhoods, people are scared of being robbed. The US does have some of the highest violence rates in the Western world, so I'm sure that's on everyone's mind.

      I'm sure the whole concept of original sin and Christianity's dim view of humanity and human nature can't help any, as much of Christianity has permeated the culture.

      I've never heard of the non-prophet status blog, sounds interesting.

  4. These are all great pieces of advice Sheldon, I am sure it will help a lot of people adjust as they escape religion from a very conservative background. This made me think a lot "Realize that you may understand the outside culture intellectually, but it will never fully feel like home to you." While I do fit in really well, my own personality disorders do make me feel like an outsider a lot of times, so this struck home.

    1. It's hard for a lot of people with mental illness to feel like we fit in. It's hard when your mind doesn't work the same way everyone else's does.

  5. Yea I think we will always feel a bit like a foreigner. For example, we have to keep in mind that mainstream culture is really like a second language. If you grow up speaking English, and then learn Spanish as an adult, odds are Spanish will never feel like a first language. For some people, Spanish does start to feel like a first language. But for most people, it doesn't.

    And that's just it. I can learn about mainstream culture all day. It sort of always feels like a second language.

    Also, Sheldon, I didn't know about masturbation until I was 18, either.

    1. The way some Americans speak Spanish makes me cringe, since I've heard it so much from native speakers, and know the proper pronunciations (though not much of the language itself). Americans usually wreck the accent and pronunciations.

      I like the second language comparison, I can often understand it in some ways on an intellectual level, but never from an emotional, first hand experience.

    2. Glad to know I'm not alone in missing out on the sex ed btw.......


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