I discovered Andrew from listening to an episode of the podcast Voices of Deconversion and quickly found his story both relatable and incredibly insightful. His experiences are unfortunately not unique and I believe it’s important his work (and the similar works of others) should be heard as much as possible in a culture that still wants to sweep under the rug religion’s role in negatively impacting human relationships and sexuality. I reached out to Andrew and he graciously responded to my interview questions.
I read on your website, LifeAfterDogma.org, that you were raised Pentecostal in New Jersey. What did that religion teach its members about relationships and sexuality?
In Evangelical Christianity, sex is essentially a curse from God, unless and until you are in a heterosexual marriage. Sex is a problem you must manage because it could potentially destroy you. Expressing your sexuality in any way is a slippery slope into hell. I was taught that if I entertained my natural urges and wandering thoughts in sexual fantasies, masturbation, or pornography, I was sinning against God, my body, and my future spouse. I was held responsible for completely repressing sexual impulses that were beyond my ability to control. Not only is this an impossible double-bind; for the Christian it’s also a life-threatening condition. In the Bible, Jesus associates normal sexual fantasy with hellfire punishment, suggesting that believers castrate themselves in order to avoid temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). This teaching neurologically wires the brains of Christians to associate sexual urges with being tortured. No wonder people coming out of Christianity often suffer from sexual dysfunction!
My religion also taught that divorce, abortion, and homosexuality are great evils. Anyone who had these experiences suffered a huge amount of shame and ostracism from their community. Christian therapists still regularly practice conversion therapy today, which is a traumatizing and ineffective practice designed to change one’s sexual orientation. Additionally, LGBTQ youth with very religious parents are at a much higher risk for suicide than the rest of the population. Moreover, no group has it worse than women. In the Bible, women are blamed for the sexual temptation of men, slut-shamed, and treated as slaves of men. Moreover, because femininity is excluded from the male deity of the biblical God, patriarchy has dominated the entire Western world for thousands of years. Because sex had such serious personal and social consequences in my religion, my church community did its best to stay very religious. Sex-negative messaging is a powerful tool in the hands of powerful people used to keep religious devotees under a system of religious control.
What are some of the ways your church’s teachings negatively impacted your relationships and sexuality?
Most sex takes place only within the mind–and that is where the Bible condemns it. I remember hating myself and my body as a teenager going through puberty because I couldn’t control my evil thoughts. It was so agonizing and confusing, it felt like torture to be in a body with raging hormones that was rigged against me. The Church gave us spiritual tools to treat our incurable sexual condition like prayer, confession, and accountability groups. Accountability groups are modeled after twelve step drug addiction treatment groups, since the underlying belief is that sexuality is an addiction. We met with accountability partners to confess our deviant sexual acts and fantasies to each other and come up with strategies to prevent them from happening again. We even confessed sexual dreams and nocturnal emissions as sins, since they involved sexual fantasies about people we weren’t married to.
I lived in fear of my sexuality. I hated my sexuality and even prayed for God to take it away from me so I wouldn’t suffer any longer. I experienced violent intrusive images of castration and hell. These came from verses in the Bible. And perhaps my sexual repression was a kind of psychosexual castration. I was also very envious of the people around me who were sexually active. I think that religious people preach so hard against sex partly because they want it so badly but are forbidden from having it.
My relationships were marked by a struggle to maintain so-called purity. I was taught that, as a male, I was the leader in a relationship, so it was my fault if things got sexual (the woman was also blamed for being “the temptress”). I was taught that I should break up with anyone who caused me to “stumble” through sexual activity. This resulted in an incredible amount of guilt, as well as broken relationships. When I finally found sexual liberation as an adult, the years of guilt, shame, and fear programming resulted in sexual dysfunction. It took me years to embrace my pleasure and stay connected to my body during sex. And I had so much performance anxiety, with all my baggage and inexperience, opening to sex with people who had many years of experience.
I had no sex education, except for the teaching that having sex would cause me to get an incurable or lethal disease. I was educated through abstinence-only campaigns to “just say no” to sex. Tragically, many Christian youth become pregnant and contract STI’s because the Church forbade them from having sex education. It sure felt awkward learning to use a condemn for the first time at the age of twenty-six. Additionally, we were taught to wait for “the one;” our perfect partner chosen by God. This resulted in unrealistic standards and an unhealthy approach to dating. Many of my friends rushed into marriage out of a naïve infatuation and desperation to have sex. This often ended in strained relationships and divorces.
Not only is sexuality not a bad thing; it is the closest thing in existence to the idea of God. Sexuality is a kind of creative life energy that seethes through the entire universe, powering the evolution of matter into stars, atoms, galaxies, planets, and all life. Sexuality is our aliveness and power to create, and through sexual healing we can also connect with our creative purpose. Keeping people from sexual expression is a way to keep them from realizing their “divinity;” their own creative, spiritual purpose. Many of us have learned to associate sex with hurtful things. Reclaiming sexuality from religion means breaking those negative associations by giving yourself healthy, life-affirming messages. Sex is not about shame, abuse, or fear. This is what sex means: Love. Life. Pleasure. Connection. Passion. Healing. Set-exploration. Giving. And so much more. But especially love.
You are a Religious Trauma Recovery Coach and Clinical Psychologist in training. Your work is incredibly important, especially in a world that often doesn’t want to acknowledge or confront the damaging effects of religious beliefs. What “ah-ha” moments led to you leaving the religion and subsequently led to your current work?
I was a radically devoted Christian for my entire life, born the son of a minister. I studied world evangelism at Wheaton College and earned my Master of Divinity from Princeton Seminary, later becoming a minister and missionary. Yet my relationship with God looked just like an abusive relationship. This deity, known as Jesus, possessed my body and my soul, constantly policing my thoughts for sin and threatening to burn me with fire if I didn’t follow him perfectly. All the while, he kept me in the relationship by claiming to love me unconditionally. Still, I never imagined that I would leave Christianity in a million years. However, my religious beliefs resulted in an anxiety disorder, along with tremendous emotional pain.
My therapists didn’t recognize my religion as the cause of my suffering because they had no training about religious trauma, and I always blamed my distress on something else. One day I determined to rid myself of fear. I quickly began to see that the Bible was the source of my psychological distress. After a slow painful process of denial, trying harder, and switching to less extreme versions of Christianity, over the course of a few years, I left religion entirely and became an atheist. Although I still don’t believe in God, I have learned to appreciate the healing, world-changing power of spirituality. Through psychotherapy and spiritual experiences (non-ordinary states of consciousness), I healed and experienced myself as connected to all life, the whole of nature. My experiences helped me overcome my fear of death, connect with my intuition (the “voice of God”), and find my life’s work. I started a blog, http://www.lifeafterdogma.org, where I write about healing religious trauma and spiritual development. I am currently studying for my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology in San Francisco, and I speak and hold workshops about healing and sexuality.
Looking back, I can see cracks in my system of belief earlier in my life. Teachings about rejection of homosexuals and eternal torture in hell never really sat right with me, but I kept myself from questioning the faith with surface level rationalizations like “God’s ways are mysterious.” But they are not mysterious: they are abusive. I think we can help people who are trapped in harmful religions through exposure and relationship. Religious people are often very sheltered, and while they may claim to know about other belief systems, they have never really been exposed. Relationships with other people, for instance a happily married homosexual couple, can shock them out of their rigid thinking. Intellectual arguments are often also effective, though not necessarily instantaneously. It is also important to take an approach to relationship opposite to religious judgmentalism. We can demonstrate genuine, non-judgmental acceptance in our relationships, sharing the joys of our freedom without being pushy or manipulative. Moreover, many religious people long for spiritual experiences but don’t have them. I believe that mystical experiences can help people heal from dogma and awaken to something indescribably more profound.
I’ve received many letters here at The Naked Advice from people who were raised to remain virgins until marriage and are now dealing with major incompatibility issues with their spouses. What do you find to be the most common issues affecting sexuality and relationships?
I think it’s important for these people to try professional counseling or couples’ therapy. Relational communication is an advanced skill that most of us didn’t learn growing up. A method called Non-Violent Communication is a great place to start. Additionally, we all have unresolved emotional issues that we project onto our partners. Ultimately, only you can decide whether to leave or stay in a relationship. This is a personal decision that should be made with careful consideration, and there isn’t always a “right answer.”
The most common issues affecting sexuality and relationships are unresolved personal issues and shame. We bring everything we are and all our life experiences into our relationships and sexuality. If we truly want better relationships for ourselves, we must take ownership of our lives and do the hard work of healing, looking firstly at ourselves and then at the other person. It is also essential to develop a sense of personal identity and purpose: Are you living out your highest pleasure in the world? If not, what’s holding you back? I can’t overemphasize the necessity of deep, inner work and facing the parts of ourselves that make us feel uncomfortable. That’s the only way to healing and healthy relating.
Additionally, many people struggle with sexual dysfunction and experiencing pleasure or orgasm. Practices like tuning into touch and sensation and making the goal being present rather than achieving climax can be powerful. Self-love is essential. We also struggle with relationships when we don’t know our “yes” and our “no.” We need to communicate our desires and our boundaries, which we cannot do if we don’t even know what they are. And our partners can’t read our minds. We also often have unrealistic expectations. Learning how to meet our own needs and find our own happiness enables us to meet our partners in a healthy, giving way.
You’re planning a Missionary De-Conversion Trip to India and have a Go Fund Me to help raise the money needed to make it happen, which I think is amazing! Tell us how you came up with the idea and about what you’ll do when you get there.
Thousands of missionaries travel to India and other countries every year, spreading a message of fear and spiritual colonialism even as they preach love. Six years ago, I worked as a missionary in India, converting Hindus and Muslims to Christianity under the pretense of charitable work. I’m going back to tell my story of de-conversion from Christianity and reconcile with the people I used to evangelize. I will be documenting my journey.
I felt called by God to be a missionary from an early age. During my sophomore year of college, I went on my first missionary trip to India with a group of students. We lived with a Hindu host family under the pretense of Hindi language study. Missionary work is illegal in India, so we worked undercover, making friends and inviting ourselves into their homes in the hopes of converting them (this is known as “relational evangelism”). Our host family welcomed us as if we were flesh and blood. We ate meals with them every day, received a tour of their village of origin, and even attended a traditional Indian wedding in their extended family. I fell in love with India and traveled there four additional times, sharing the gospel and inspiring indigenous Indian ministers to evangelize their country. Back in the US, I preached about the need for evangelism to India at my college, in my churches, and to all my friends regularly. I refused to date women who didn’t share my missionary calling to India because I didn’t want to get pulled away from my divine mission.
The family I lived with in India turned out to be leaders in a highly influential Hindu caste. Our strategy was to convert and train influential high-caste leaders to become evangelists and change-makers, so we believed this was a providential opportunity. Our strategy was part of the Bible’s Great Commission, which states that Jesus will come back to rule the Earth once every ethnolinguistic people group has heard the gospel. I worked with Christian organizations who view India as a strategic place to do evangelism because it has more unreached people groups than any other nation. Many Christian churches around the world are devoted to sending missionaries to India in order to accomplish the task of global evangelism. They start orphanages and rescue sex slaves, using charitable work as a cover to target India’s most vulnerable populations, resulting in the exchange of one form of oppression for another.
During a recent mystical experience, I had a vision about going back to India; not as a missionary, but as a learner. I will reconcile with the people I attempted to convert. I will travel various places where I conducted evangelistic efforts, sharing my story of deconversion and bringing awareness to abusive missionary practices. My story is not just my own; it represents the stories of countless missionaries and religious who have de-converted and suffer from the aftermath of guilt and shame, and the millions of people who still suffer today under the oppression of religious imperialism. If you are interested in doing media or documentary coverage, please reach out to me. I need to raise $6,000 to cover costs. Please donate generously and share my story with others who will benefit from this work: Missionary Deconversion Go Fund Me
If one of my readers is interested in your help as a Religious Trauma Recovery and Spiritual Development Coach, how can they contact you?
I work with people who are healing from the impact of religious indoctrination, which includes issues like anxiety, sexual healing, grief work, PTSD, rebuilding community, and communicating with family. I also help people connect with spirituality. Do you struggle with a sense of meaninglessness or emptiness? Do you desire to have spiritual experiences and find meaningful work? Spirituality is part of your basic humanity and unlocking this aspect of yourself can bring you incredible joy and fulfillment. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about coaching.
Subscribe to my blog http://www.lifeafterdogma.org for talks and articles on religious trauma, psychology, psychedelics, spirituality, and much more. I can also be booked to speak at events, interview for videos and podcasts, and put on workshops. For more information on religious trauma, see my talk “What Is Religious Trauma?”
Follow Andrew Jasko on Twitter @andrewjasko