Reportedly, the Jesuits say, "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man." The idea being that if you can indoctrinate a child early enough, he/she will never question the underlying belief system.
John Van Dixhorn says, "It strikes me as a tragedy, even a form of abuse, that my radiant intelligence, available to all healthy children, could create an adult of feeble intelligence because I was indoctrinated into a belief system before I could think for myself. By the time my intellect awakened, I was already imprisoned in that belief system." His memoir, Prisoner of Belief, is an account of how he broke free. The subtitle gives away the story: "One Man's Odyssey to Reclaim His Soul—from Evangelical Minister to Searching Psychologist."
Dixhorn, now in his late 70s, was the middle of nine children, brought up in rural Wisconsin, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church. Religious training dominated his life, a Calvinism that dwelt on the perfection of God and the imperfect and deprived nature of man. When his grandfather was dying, John blurted, "Grandpa, I know I'll see you again in heaven." The old man rebuked him, pointing out that only God determined who would be in heaven. He learned about sex from watching a bull service a cow, and was mortified by his own sexual thoughts and desires—mortification the church encouraged. His Youth for Christ leader told boys that "masturbation was sinful and that he could tell if we were masturbating, because the whites of our eyes would yellow."
Dixhorn studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and was ordained with the Evangelical Free Church of America. As such, he was committed to a belief in biblical inerrancy; the Bible as the word of God, without mistakes, without contradictions. If there is an apparent contradiction, the fault is with the believer, not the text. Unfortunately, "the gospels are not biographies of Jesus but statements of religious belief written by Christians for Christians." Gradually, although Dixhorn was a pastor to churches in New City, NY; Naperville, Il; and Orange, CA, his doubts about the Bible and questions about his beliefs grew. And he saw how belief could torture parishoners.
The son of a couple in the church was sent to Vietnam during the war. The boy's parents were naturally concerned, but his mother was comforted by a verse of scripture she read the day the boy left. "She felt it was a sign from God that he would keep her son safe." He didn't, and Dixhorn met regularly with the parents for months to help them in their grief. One day the mother made an individual appointment. "She knew why God had not spared her son, and it was destroying her emotionally." She'd had a secret abortion at sixteen—not even her fundamentalist father knew. She'd killed her baby, and that's why God had taken her son. Knowing her Bible, she said, "David had a man killed in battle and God took his baby. I took my own baby, so God had my son killed in battle." Dixhorn was trapped: "How could I comfort her and honor the Bible at the same time?"
In time Dixhorn realized that he had "cherry-picked my own way through scripture all the time thinking I was taking the Bible at face value.... How could I be a true, Bible-believing Christian without acknowledging that biblical writers presented very different and contradictory views of God. How could I follow the teachings of a God that advocated something I knew was wrong, even downright evil?" He couldn't and eventually left the ministry, earned a master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a doctorate in clinical psychology. He did post-doctorate work in psychoanalysis and became a certified psychoanalyst in California.
I found the book to be a engaging intellectual journey and the paragraphs above barely hint at the story's richness. We come to realize with Dixhorn that fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Communist, Fascist—is anti-intellectual and totalitarian. "My own experience and self-reflection gives me better insight into the motivations and pain involved in giving one's self over to a totalitarian system," he says. "As a psychologist I can listen more deeply to the religious and ideological ruminations of my patients." He sounds like a fascinating and caring man.