Voice of Sanity

Those who have been lucky enough to escape childhood evangelization often wonder why it’s so difficult to discuss issues like evolution and the improbability of god effectively with believers of any kind, and more particularly christian believers.  After all, ignoring scientific evidence about non-religious phenomena is unfathomable to most inheritors of enlightenment philosophy, yet most fundamentalist christians seem determined to make continual asses of themselves by denying even the most reliable scientific evidence.

Prominent atheist scholars and philosophers often promote the idea that all christians are either under-enlightened and ignorant or self-righteous liars who use their religious belief to scam even more ignorant believers out of monthly contributions.  This view of christianity is extremely pessimistic, and as a former believer, I strongly feel the answer to why christians just can’t take the blinders off long enough to hear good science is much simpler and much more disturbing:  The vast majority of them genuinely believe what they profess about god and are terrified of going to hell if they give up that belief.

You mean they actually believe that the bible is true down to the letter? Yep,  every word.  They believe without evidence that god exists, and, more importantly, they believe everything they’ve been taught about the horrors of hell.  I remember thinking often as a child that my constant tendency toward skepticism meant that I was doomed for eternal fire and torture.   Childhood indoctrination can be so sinister, so complete, as to warp the minds of innocent people forever.  In this way, doubt becomes a dark road to an even darker final destination.  When I put myself back into the mindset of my christian friends and remember the continual feeling of standing on the edge of an ominous and horrifying precipice, I have somewhat more sympathy for what appears outwardly to be blind stupidity.  They don’t jump because they are genuinely petrified.

I believe that most christians aren’t overly ignorant, aren’t purposeful liars, and don’t do it all for the money.  They just believe they’ll go to hell if they listen to us, and minimizing this fear of hell is the key to convincing them to listen.  From my copious experience talking with a variety of evangelical christians, I’ve found that they tend to fall into several distinct categories which require different approaches.

The Unconvincables

Scary fanatical fundamentalists like “young earth creationists” often fall into this category.  They believe scientific evidence is open to “interpretation,” and they delight in outdated facts like the unreliability of carbon dating and the irreducible complexity of the human eyeball.  They spend weekends at conventions where they watch videos, hear quasi-scientific speakers, and learn how humans and dinosaurs co-existed when the earth was a newborn planet 6,000 years ago.  Most members of this group assert that absolutely no scientific evidence or proof could ever make them abandon their belief in the literal truth of the bible.  They are the most hopeless of hopeless causes.  They genuinely believe that their understanding of creationism and the literality of the bible is essential to escaping hell, and they’ll do their best to convince you of the same thing.  (Worst of all, they truly believe they will doom their children to hell if they allow them to be taught evolutionary science.)  I’ve never been able to convince any hard-core creationist that they might even possibly be wrong, but I do like to make them think about whether their base assumption (that the literality of the biblical account is essential to belief in god) is flawed in and of itself.

The Ignoramuses

Most ignoramuses (despite the name I’ve given them) are of at least average intelligence.  In fact, an essential characteristic of this group is their understanding of their own ability to reason, which they interpret as dangerous.  Most ignoramuses know, at least on some level, that they are intelligent enough to recognize and be swayed by good, sound arguments; therefore, they avoid exposure to any information that does not support their point of view.  They purposefully and knowingly remain ignorant rather than facing the possibility of going to hell because they allow themselves to have their minds changed.  Most of the non-believers I know have a hard time comprehending this since we have gone to such great and painful lengths to educate ourselves, but the fear of hell is a powerful thing (an abusive thing, frankly) that must be gently undone.  There is hope for those in this category, but the issue of fear must be addressed first.  Would god not prefer a well-reasoned and curious skeptic over a blind, uninformed, intellectually lazy follower?  Is disbelief truly the greatest of all sins?  If god is real can he not stand up to human scrutiny?

The Feelers

Feelers are the least involved in any kind of debate and therefore have very little interest in talking to me.  I find them much more frustrating than other types because they are uninteresting and uninterested.  They know that god exists because they have experienced him or his benefits in some tangible way and need no proof of anything.  They don’t care why the sun rises in the east, or why vaccines work, or who runs for President.  They think of nothing deep or spiritual beyond god’s tangible benefits as they have experienced them.  There are a remarkable number of feelers in 12-step programs (more on how I know that in another post), and most are convinced that their sobriety is evidence enough for god.  (Of course the thought never occurred to them that the placebo effect created by true belief in a higher power would look just like a higher power acting.)  Non-christian feelers insist that they “don’t believe in organized religion” simply because it’s more convenient than actually having to think about what they do believe in.  Inspiring curiosity in the mind of a feeler is difficult but essential, and usually arguments from the evil effects of religion have more effect on this category than the others.

These types are, of course, based on informal observation and take little about religious leadership into account.  All the religious leaders I have known fall into one of these three categories themselves but are the most likely to be found among the unconvincables.  Undoubtedly there are quacks among the religious elite, true advantage-takers, liars, and con artists, but I haven’t met many of them.  Most are genuine in their fear of hell and hold this belief so tightly that they really want to help you escape hell too.

So, my dear non-believing readers, remember that not all christians are idiots and charlatans.  Most are terrified and scarred human beings feeling their way through life with a veil of fear pulled tightly over their eyes.  Take pity on them.  You have found a better way and they can too.

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As I’ve mentioned before my daily life is completely saturated with Evangelical Christians.  My Facebook page is overrun with them, oozing with them, forcing me to edit absolutely everything I post.  Braver non-believers would probably just get it out there, but I’m a chicken.  I love and care about these people, and losing my relationship with them all is not something I’m eager to rush into.  And sadly enough, revealing the truth about what I believe (or don’t believe) would almost certainly toll the death knell for the vast majority of my friendships and family relationships.

Lately one of my dear old friends, in a post to a common acquaintance, mentioned how grateful she was to have so many faithful, “God fearing” friends.  As usual, this made me think much more than it should have as to what implicit value this fear holds.

Having been indoctrinated this way for a number of years, I know exactly what she meant on the surface:   She was grateful for friends who share her deep belief in god and who adjust their behavior in a way that indicates they have a deep respect for god’s power over them.  I doubt she’s ever given the statement more thought than this.

What does the term god-fearing really mean? What is the deeper dynamic involved and should this quality be viewed as  a positive one?  The first obvious implication is, of course, that god is something to be feared.  He is omnipotent, holding the power of life and death, ease and tribulation, heaven and eternal torture in his enormous, unearthly hands.   This fear of god can vary by person from a feeling of respect to feelings of sheer terror.

As a child and even into adulthood, my feelings of fear for god, and hell, and tribulation would have fallen toward the latter.  I believed as a young adult that god must have destined me for hell because I simply could not seem to believe as deeply and doubtlessly as my friends.  I couldn’t bring myself to pray for fear that god would remember I was in need of some discipline or trial to strengthen my faith.  (See, I’ve always been chicken!)  I was extremely god-fearing, and this was not a healthy dynamic at all.

Many Christians would read this and marvel that I was raised with such a blind eye to god’s grace and might attribute this fear of god to a failing on the part of my religious educators.  But even with a strong emphasis on grace there is one sin that is simply unforgivable:  rejection of god through disbelief.  And disbelieve I did and always have on one level or another.

So, is “god-fearing” a quality we should all strive to attain?  I certainly hope not.  For me, it bred nothing but feelings of frustrated worthlessness and terror of failure on a cosmic level.  This fear of god is counter-productive and unnecessary, and I am glad to be rid of it.

Any good I do in this world will not be the result of cosmic coercion but of a deep empathy for the plight of my fellows.  No fear or grace will be required.

I’m so glad god isn’t at school.  And, dear Christian parents, you should be too.

As our children grow up, I hear countless complaints from my Christian friends about how secular the holiday program is, and how prayer ought to be an important part of the school day, and about how origins are taught in the science curriculum.  Because of my social and geographical background, 99% of my friends are active professing Christians who expect me to agree with them whole-heartedly and are taken aback to learn that, as a (presumed) Christian, I firmly endorse secular education.  (As I mentioned in my last post, a grand total of 0% of them know about my deconversion.)

I usually tell them that they ought to be thankful that their kids aren’t forced to sing songs from other religious traditions with principles and deities that would have to be “untaught” later.  “What a relief that little Emma doesn’t have to sing a song about Allah at the holiday program!” I always say, more than a little tongue-in-cheek.

As for prayer in school, I have to ask them which method of prayer they prefer the  school to endorse during the daily indoctrination time?  Even among Christians, attitudes and doctrines about prayer are as different as Islam is to Christianity.  Catholic prayers differ from Orthodox prayers in substance and method, and both differ significantly from Protestant Christian prayers.  I would love to see the look on my evangelical friends’ faces if they learned that their children were being taught to cross themselves (evil Catholic style) and say “Hail Marys” at school.

As the public education system grows ever more secular (ahem, “Praise Jesus!”) more and more of my friends and relatives are making the switch from indoctrination on Sundays to indoctrination every day through the evil brainwashing method known as “religious homeschooling.”  As much as I support a parent’s decision to educate their children as they wish (in theory at least), I have to say that, in my first-hand experience, evangelical homeschooling is not a far cry from blindfolds and sensory deprivation.

God forbid (literally for them) that children be taught real science instead of the intellectual travesty known as “young-earth creationism,” or to respect homosexuals, or how to practice safe sex, or, frankly, how to relate to a single person who doesn’t believe exactly as they do.  Growing up and forming an independent belief system is hard enough without having to start a lap behind everyone else intellectually and socially. The voice of sanity tells us that homeschooling parents need much stricter regulations and closely monitored educational requirements.

So, my dear Christian friends, thank God that god wasn’t at school today.  You weren’t there to make sure the right god was represented, in the right way, to your kids.  I’m sure the Jewish kid in the next row was pretty relieved too.

You might ask, “What’s it like growing up in the soul-squelching form of personal repression known as Evangelical Christianity?”  Or perhaps you won’t, because you were unfortunate enough to be one of more than 11 million children indoctrinated in fundamentalist churches in the United States.

The process of deconversion has been a long and arduous one for me, a journey of many books and many years, and I can’t claim to have yet escaped completely.  I’m actually a coward, you see:  I’ve avoided the tears and ruining of Thanksgiving dinner and the attempts at reconversion by going undercover.  I haven’t told a soul that I don’t believe in god, or that I think it’s all a bunch of bullshit, or that I think most people who are genuine fundamentalist believers are under-educated and shallow.

I still go to church occasionally just to avoid the fuss of breaking it off with god altogether.  Luckily, the denomination I converted to after college is full of people who only show up on Easter (usually with vodka), so while the die-hards might not understand, the rest do.  And I suspect that more of them feel like I do than the sincere half would care to believe.

I don’t even really have a good excuse for being deconverted:  I was never hurt physically by my pastor (although several of my friends were sexual abuse victims at the hands of a particularly amorous youth minister) or beaten by my parents or forced to go to really boring church services against my will.  I actually loved going to church when I was younger.  Why then did I cease to believe?

Answer: I grew up.  I went to college.  I read books.  I learned that religion is just a more dearly held version of the Santa Claus phenomenon, subjective and unprovable.  Not outgrowing the god I was raised with would involve a form of intellectual denial that makes me feel like I just ate a whole cow pat.

I suppose someday I’ll have to break the news to my ultra-conservative mother, or my ultra-evangelical sister, who I’m sure will be the subject of several posts, that I am an atheist or an agnostic.  I tend to think of myself as “athnostic;” I believe it’s highly improbable that god exists and that, for the most part, we can be pretty certain about this.  I also don’t want to make camp with the super-arrogant wing of atheists who believe science is as infallible as scripture and would ignore solid scientific evidence in favor of god, assuming any evidence ever arose.  And by evidence, I mean real evidence; not the virgin Mary in toast or the complexity of the human eyeball.

There are many disbelievers in the world who hold either fully or partially to the “live and let live” tolerance that Oprah has made so popular in recent years, but I can’t claim to be one of those either. I want to deconvert my Christian friends because I believe they are blinded and unaware.  I believe humanity is in peril from religious fundamentalism of all sorts, and that voices of sanity must arise as a moderating force.  Although I think all gods are equally non-existent and all religions equally fantastical, I have the most experience with Christian Evangelicalism, so I will chiefly be directing my comments at this over-represented portion of the American population.

Most of all, I hope to make people think deeply and searchingly about what they believe and why. Many people have never considered whether god exists or not, what they believe about science and origins, and how these beliefs affect the world.  (Those of us who think about little else might wonder what in the world they are thinking about.  Shoes?  Handbags?  Scary a little?)  Most Christians will write me off as a heretic, but a few who are already doubting might be freed.

Blind faith is ignorant, and ignorance is, well, stupid.


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