Many Former Evangelical Christians Battle Toxic Positivity


I realize that atheists in the United States have a variety of experiences with evangelical fundamentalist Christians, depending greatly on where they live. They are relatively uncommon in some areas and impossible to avoid in others. Still, I couldn't help being surprised to recently learn that some atheists in the U.S. were unfamiliar with the sort of toxic positivity that is common among evangelical fundamentalist Christians. Several ex-Christians have been talking about this recently on Twitter, and I saw more chiming in to say they were unfamiliar with it than I would have predicted.

Although I was not indoctrinated into an evangelical form of Christianity, I am very familiar with the toxic positivity that afflicts many of them. I have encountered it in both my personal and professional life countless times. I've seen the kind of damage it can do and how long it takes some people to recover from it. For people fortunate enough not to be struggling with mental health problems, it serves to distance them from their emotional lives in an unhealthy way. For those who are struggling, it often seems to amplify whatever problems they have and interfere with treatment seeking.

There's nothing wrong with being positive, but I think most atheists will agree that positivity has its limits. Being positive in a delusional sense is not a good thing. That kind of positivity quickly becomes toxic because it involves a pervasive denial of reality and of the validity of one's own feelings. The saddest encounters I have had with this involved evangelical Christians who were clinically depressed but had convinced themselves that this was not permissible, typically because it was an insult to their preferred god.

For those who haven't personally battled clinical depression, it is hard to overstate the degree of pain and suffering it involves. Add the notion that one is offending one's god by being depressed doesn't help one bit. I've known some clearly depressed evangelical Christians who refused to seek help because of the shame they felt. Some went as far as to deny that Christians could be depressed because of how much their god had given them (i.e., Jesus). I've known others who finally made it into treatment when things got bad enough and struggled mightily to acknowledge their own feelings. Many described an overwhelming sense of guilt on top of everything else because they were convinced that they were being selfish to feel the way they did. They beat themselves up for not feeling happy as a result of having some sort of god in their lives.

I will leave it to the former evangelical Christians to explain how and why this sort of toxic positivity develops. Their personal experience with it puts them in a better position to teach us about it than I can. But this doesn't mean I haven't seen it and can't appreciate the damage it can do. When former Christians talk about "religious trauma," I think this is often part of it. Imagine going through life telling yourself (and being told by others) that it is not okay to feel how you feel or even that you are risking hell by having negative emotions. That is clearly abusive and traumatic. Is it any wonder that some former Christians spend years recovering?