“Exvangelicalism” is a relatively new term for a much older phenomenon: those who’ve been raised as evangelicals coming to realize that they no longer identify as such, and intentionally reckoning with the continuing impact of that tradition in their lives. Philosophers have not had much to say about this phenomenon – until now. These four scholars participated in the panel “Exvangelicalism and Evangelical Philosophy” as part of the Evangelical Philosophical Society group session at the 2022 Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and here they share blog posts based on their panel contributions.
Catching up on the group chat one day a couple of years ago, I had to scroll through an inordinate number of red flag emojis to find the actual conversation. Why? An evangelical had invited one of us out to coffee. It’s not that the members of this group hate all evangelicals. In fact, that inviter was a casual friend of the invitee. It is that invitations to coffee in order to lure us back into the fold or confront us for the sin of being Exvangelical are so common as to have gained meme status. The most common complaint isn’t that our evangelical friends dare to tell us about their own belief systems, or even that they try to present us with the arguments for why we are wrong. It’s that the encounter almost always involves a dismissal of our own accounts of why we have left. This dismissal, common not only in coffee dates but also in the countless blog posts and think pieces about the exodus of Exvangelicals from Evangelical pews, is, I argue, a form of epistemic injustice—one that Evangelical philosophers are especially well-situated to help address.
Last fall, in a surprisingly compassionate Christianity Today article, “My Dad Taught Me How to Love the Exvangelical,” Russell Moore spoke of the legitimate pain experienced by people who have left their faith due to traumatic experiences. He says,
They saw the church turn against them because they wouldn’t adopt as Scripture some political ideology or personality cult. Some had seen people they trusted revealed to be frauds or even predators. Not one of them walked away because they wanted to curry favor with “elites” or because they wanted to rebel. If anything, the posture of many of these people was not that of the Prodigal Son off in the far country so much as that of his father, waiting by the road for a prodigal they loved and wanted to embrace again: their church.
Reading it, I was pleased to see the reality of church hurt, or what I call religious trauma, and its resulting devastation acknowledged, and those affected by it spoken of with compassion. However, Moore goes on to say, “To one I said, ‘If you look at Jesus and the Gospels and you decide you cannot follow him, that’s one thing. But it would be a shame to avoid even looking at the claims of the gospel because you want to avoid at all costs what a church that hurt you said they believed.” Although Moore is no doubt well-intentioned in believing and saying this to his friend, it is an example of a common failure to fully appreciate the nature of religious trauma and why so many leave the church in response to it.
Moore’s comment suggests that leaving in the wake of trauma is primarily an emotional response, as opposed to a rationally and epistemically considered one. Furthermore, it assumes that the interlocutor hasn’t actually looked at Jesus and the gospels and insinuates they would come to a different decision if only they had. But why think that these people, who are by his own admission, like the father waiting for the prodigal church to return, haven’t ever seriously considered the claims of Jesus and the gospel? Given the other things Moore has said about them, this is an oddly uncharitable and incongruous assumption.
In a less compassionate example of a similar attitude, Evangelical blogger Jay Green, writes, “One finds limited talk of theology among these Exvangelicals apart from repudiating the “rigidity” and “literalness” of evangelical faith. The paradigm shifts they have undergone seem more sociological than theological; more concerned with cultural claims than metaphysical ones.” The ultimate conclusion is the same as Moore’s: Exvangelicals have the wrong kind of reasons for leaving.
But if one listens to the actual testimony of survivors of religious trauma and Exvangelicals themselves, they tell a much more robust story—a story in which their experiences of hurt gave them insight into the moral and theological inadequacies of their former faith and communities. So, just what kind of experience do many Exvangelicals have, and why should we think that it offers a unique kind of insight?
While it would be impossible to identify a single experience that captures all Exvangelicals, a startlingly large number identify church hurt or what I call religious trauma as a major contributing factor. In a world where a majority of white Evangelicals supported Donald Trump for president and engaged in COVID-denialism; where Southern Baptist leaders kept a database of over 550 alleged sexual predators in SBC churches, but took no steps to make sure those predators no longer served in leadership roles in the SBC or elsewhere; where Ravi Zacharias, Josh Duggar, Bill Hybels, and Johnny Hunt have become household examples of predatory leaders, it is not difficult to imagine what church hurt and religious trauma might be.
In my previous writing, I have characterized religious trauma as any traumatic experience perceived by the individual to be caused by the divine being, religious community, religious teaching, religious symbols, or religious practices that transforms the individual, either epistemically or not-merely-cognitively, in such a way that their capacity to participate in religious life is significantly diminished.
Three common characteristics of distinctively religious traumas can be identified. First, the trauma is, in paradigmatic cases, caused by something that the individual closely associates with the religion—when harm is inflicted by someone whom the subject perceives as representative of the divine, is justified on religious grounds, inflicted for religious reasons, or arises from a negatively valenced (putative) experience of the divine being itself or other spiritual reality. Second, the survivor usually perceives the religion to have played a positive or negative causal role in the experience’s coming about, either by motivating the perpetrator, justifying the behavior, or failing to forbid or protect against it. And third, some of the post-traumatic effects (the epistemic or the not-merely-cognitive) have a religious trigger or object. The survivor may come to believe that God is untrustworthy or that religious communities are unsafe. They might experience intrusive memories triggered by religious practices, feel extreme fear, distrust, or revulsion toward the divine being, or internalize a deep sense of self-hatred as the result of religious doctrines.1
Given the symptomology of post-traumatic stress, with its depression, intrusive memories (colloquially known as “flash backs”), and tendency to reenact, it is often easy to write off those who suffer from PTSD as “crazy,” “erratic,” “melodramatic,” “bitter,” or “angry” (and of course we can be all of these things at times), and thus to misunderstand their reasons for leaving as purely emotional. While I think that the not-merely-epistemic reasons for deconversion can be good ones, it would be wrong to see them as the only or the primary reasons, especially when Exvangelicals themselves tell a different story.
There are good reasons to think those living in the wake of religious trauma might have knowledge and insight that others lack. Many who have never experienced life-altering trauma live with the implicit expectation of a just world, even while explicitly rejecting it. Horrors like rape, assault, betrayal, and manipulation by religious leaders happen to other people, not sincere lovers of God and neighbor like them. Survivors know better, not just theoretically, but deep in their bones. Those who have experienced trauma are also often forced to see the logic that connects theology and church practice to the abuse they have encountered. While the average person might never consider what certain theological concepts and Biblical passages entail, or at least be thought to entail, those against whom those concepts have been used for the worst are intimately acquainted with it. Survivors are also privy to what the community truly values: the good and the true, or power and control.
If this is right, dramatic anger or bitterness, taking leave of one’s senses, or running away, might be a morally and rationally appropriate response to the knowledge one has gained. The reasons for leaving are simultaneously emotional and sociological and theological. And this is, often, the story that survivors tell about their own journey away from Evangelicalism. Many Exvangelicals take seriously the claim that you will know them by their fruit. Not only will you know Christians by their fruit, but many Exvangelicals believe that you can know the truth-values of propositions and systems of belief by their fruit. That is, they view the current political and moral state of white evangelicalism as evidence against the truth of the system. As Kathryn Pogin argues, believing the truth about God should not provide justification for injustice.2 Certainly, assessing the validity or cogency of any particular argument from the fruit of a set of beliefs to the beliefs’ badness will be a difficult endeavor.
It’s often hard to distinguish between the misapplication of a true principle and the application of a false principle. But these are nuanced distinctions, that, even if the average Exvangelical and Evangelical may struggle to make, Evangelical philosophers can certainly appreciate. So, why isn’t this more nuanced and more plausible account of Exvangelicals more widely heard?
I believe that it is a form of testimonial injustice that Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial quieting”—a failure to recognize a person as a knower and to communicatively reciprocate.3 Repeatedly, when Evangelicals publish articles about deconstruction and Exvangelicals, they fail to interview, quote, or substantively engage with actual Exvangelicals, who have written a fair amount on the topic. This is an epistemic injustice because it treats Exvangelicals as an object of study and a problem to solve rather than as people who are knowers in their own right. And this failure to take Exvangelicals as knowers cuts Evangelicals who care about the truth and who want to genuinely understand their Exvangelical friends off from an important body of knowledge. This is why Evangelical philosophers must aim at epistemic justice.
Miranda Fricker, in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, argues for a virtue epistemology according to which listeners are obligated to “ratchet up” their credibility judgements when they are presented with testimony from someone who suffers from a “structural identity prejudice” in their community.4 Similarly, Kristie Dotson sees testimonial violence as resulting from a kind of “pernicious ignorance”— the kind of ignorance that causes harm, not just accidentally, but because of structures that track people across multiple contexts.5 Such ignorance might explain why Moore can simultaneously describe evangelicals as a loving Father waiting for the church to return to God and as people who have failed actually to consider Jesus and the gospels. The solution to pernicious ignorance will be multifaceted, but it would involve recognizing the way that the community tends to dismiss and systematically misunderstand Exvangelicals.
This suggests that evangelical philosophers, interested as they are in the giving, receiving, and evaluating reasons, may be particularly well-situated to lead the movement toward epistemic justice. Evangelical philosophers can help challenge the identity prejudices that encourage their communities to see Exvangelicals as a monolith of angry, bitter, emotionally-driven, truth-rejecting apostates. They can help their communities to understand why listening carefully and giving heightened credence to what Exvangelicals say about their reasons for leaving their former Evangelical faith is a Christian duty. And they can set an example of respectful dialogue focused on understanding rather than on being right. Absent this commitment to respectful listening with appropriately-raised credences, every Exvangelical knows that the cardinal rule of being safe while Exvangelical is that you never walk into a coffee shop with an Evangelical.
- Michelle Panchuk, “The shattered spiritual self: A philosophical exploration of religious trauma.” Res Philosophica 95, 3 (2018): 505–30.
- Kathryn Pogin, “God is not a man?” in Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, ed. M. Peterson and R. Vanarragon. (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2019).
- Kristie Dotson, “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 33,1 (2012): 242.
- Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 86-98.
- Dotson, “A Cautionary Tale,” 248.
Thank you for your lovely essay—it is quite thought-provoking!
I’ve been bothered in recent years about what the term evangelical even means (and your essay brought all that back to the surface for me). I know a lady in our community who identifies herself as a committed evangelical Christian (CEC). She loves Jesus and is committed to her church. But she also indicates that if one is indeed a CEC one always votes for political party X. So, yes, unfortunately for some the term evangelical can even take on a political character these days. This is not good.
What even is an evangelical? I ran across a nice article in The Atlantic (12/7/2015 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/evangelical-christian/418236/ ) discussing the term. The article mentions Billy Graham’s desire to know what the term meant. If defining what the term “evangelical” means is problematic, then I’m not sure I know what an “exvangelical” is either.
I’ve read a few essays and recently a book by people (some of whom still faithfully attend church) who love Jesus and who identify themselves as exvangelicals (well, they don’t all use that term, but they do reject the term evangelical for themselves).
I’m a simpleton, I guess. Loving God and people is enough challenge for me—I’ll work on that. I’m not an evangelical or an exvangelical- I don’t need a label anymore (I labeled myself evangelical when I was a young Christian). In struggling through my Christian life while reading the Bible through my own lens, I just want to emulate Jesus as best as I can manage, and I find that struggle enough.
I should hush! Thank you again for blessing us with your excellent essay. I must (and will!) read it again.
Thank you, this is very helpful.
Dear Ms Panchuk:
I turned 93 the other day and I need some of this kind of dialogue to keep me alive. Sort of. But I wonder how many Black evangelicals are in that bar. If you want to really extend this discussion, try listening to some of us who have been a part of this evangelical network for years. We are now trying to explain to younger black believers why we still call ourselves by that moniker. I do it from my living room. No more faculty meetings at Fuller Seminary and beyond. But it has been a good ride.
Thank you for you good work.
Thanks, Mr. Pannell, for your comment. At some point in writing this I had specified that I meant to target specifically white evangelicalism in this article, because of the political association with that category in particular. But looking back now I think I must have cut that section and failed to put that clarification back in somewhere else. I think it is an important distinction because traditionally Black Evangelical churches have a different set of strengths and weakness, and a lot of what I write here doesn’t apply. For some interesting work on religious trauma and church hurt in Black evangelicalism, i would recommend Alicia Crosby’s popular work (she has a great Twitter presence), and Theresa Tobin and Dawn Moon’s academic work on Sacramental Shame among Black LBGTQ+ Christians. I think your point about the value of holding on to the label “evangelical” is fraught and difficult, but one that individual communities have to work out for themselves. One of my friends says that exclusionary Evangelicals will have to pry the label out of her cold, dead hands, but that she isn’t giving it up. I respect that position, but as someone who came from white evangelicalism, I struggle to find any desire to hold on to it.
Thank you, Michelle. This is a discussion that is so sorely needed, and having it published in this sort of forum gives it a legitimacy in and of itself. Another twist in this discussion would be those of us who firmly self-identify as exvangelicals, but who have also converted to another denomination (in my case Roman Catholicism), and therefore are ‘doubly damned’ and marked. We have not only left the fold, we have gone over to the ‘dark side’, as it were. I have quite literally been ‘damned to hell’ to my face, as well as having numerous ‘coffee dates’ with those who wanted me to ‘get back into the Word’ as if any decision of that import would have been made without much prayer and LOADS of time spent sitting in the presence of the Divine, with or without a copy of the bible present. So much arrogance, so much hubris expressed as ‘certainty’, so little self-examination – it’d be hilarious if it hadn’t been so incredibly painful.