The Duty of External Obedience
While I was doing research for "The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium", I came across some amazing passages in the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia's article on infallibility. Since it can be safely assumed that these still represent the Catholic church's viewpoint, I thought it was worth calling some wider attention to them.
The article starts out by making the same threats that are endemic to all forms of Christianity: the ominous proclamation that the church is infallible, and if you don't believe what they tell you to believe, you face an eternity of torment:
...the Church is entitled to claim infallible doctrinal authority. This conclusion is confirmed by considering the awful sanction by which the Church's authority is supported: all who refuse to assent to her teaching are threatened with eternal damnation.
(I like to imagine the pope holding a flashlight under his chin while he says that. Woooo, spooky!)
Now, as I mentioned in the previous post, the church doesn't claim that all its teachings are infallible, just the ones that it says are infallible. But from the standpoint of the ordinary man or woman in the pews, it doesn't matter, because the church says that the penalty for rejecting any church teaching, whether claimed to be infallible or not, is the same. Disbelieving anything the church commands you to believe is a mortal sin, and those who die with a mortal sin on their souls, etc., etc. The New Advent article acknowledges this:
...[T]he same penalty is threatened for disobedience to fallible disciplinary laws or even in some cases for refusing to assent to doctrinal teaching that is admittedly fallible.
The obvious rejoinder to this is that it proves the church's allegedly God-given authority is a sham, because in the past they've demanded that people give their assent to claims which even the church now admits are false. The most obvious case, of course, is when a church tribunal censored Galileo's writings, threatened him with torture and consigned him to house arrest for teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. And the New Advent article acknowledges this, but the apologetic they propose is truly staggering in its delusional arrogance:
...in the Catholic system internal assent is sometimes demanded, under pain of grievous sin, to doctrinal decisions that do not profess to be infallible. [But]... the assent to be given in such cases is recognized as being not irrevocable and irreversible, like the assent required in the case of definitive and infallible teaching, but merely provisional; and in the next place, internal assent is obligatory only on those who can give it consistently with the claims of objective truth on their conscience - this conscience, it is assumed, being directed by a spirit of generous loyalty to genuine Catholic principles.
To take a particular example, if Galileo who happened to be right [who "happened" to be right? —Ebonmuse] while the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned him was wrong, had really possessed convincing scientific evidence in favour of the heliocentric theory, he would have been justified in refusing his internal assent to the opposite theory, provided that in doing so he observed with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience.
What this means, if I read it right, is that Catholics are required to believe everything the church tells them to believe - unless they know for a fact it's false, in which case they can secretly withhold their assent. But even so, they're still required to act and speak as if they believe the thing they know is false, and they're still required to obey any command the church gives that's based on that falsehood, which may include a decree of censorship ordering them to never discuss the thing they know is true or even to destroy the evidence that shows it to be true.
And if the church issues an ex cathedra proclamation, even that option of completely ineffectual resistance is taken away. Anything that's taught infallibly, Catholics aren't permitted to doubt, even inwardly. They're required to believe it wholeheartedly and that's that, and if they don't, they put themselves at risk of eternal damnation.
The church's claim of absolute authority over the lives and even the inward thoughts of its members shows how far it hasn't come. In fact, its mindset hasn't really changed at all from its medieval, theocratic past - the days when it really did have the power it now only believes it has, when it could compel governments to obedience and threaten heretics with torture and death. Inside the Vatican, it's as if time has stood still for centuries: the church's rulers dwell in faded citadels surrounded by memories of past empire, and still delude themselves that they command the eternal destiny of the world. They're welcome to live their lives in dreams of the past if they wish, but when they venture out into the present day and pompously proclaim their superiority over the rest of us, the only response they should get is the laughter and scorn they so richly deserve.
Escaping Christian Patriarchy
Ophelia of Butterflies and Wheels has been writing some excellent posts lately about the abuse and oppression of women in Christian communities. One of them led me to an outstanding blog titled Love, Joy, Feminism. Its author, Libby Anne, grew up in an incredibly strict and fundamentalist Christian home that practiced a way of life she calls "Christian Patriarchy" (some might also refer to it as the Quiverfull movement). She and all her (twelve!) siblings were homeschooled, indoctrinated with religion from their earliest years, taught that women's role in life is to obey men and that women must give up their dreams and ambitions to better subordinate themselves to their future husbands.
Despite the endless chores and incessant hard work, despite the perpetual religious indoctrination, despite the beatings doled out as discipline, Libby Anne's childhood wasn't miserable. On the contrary, she remembers it as a blissfully happy time. She genuinely wanted to be a good, submissive daughter, and took pleasure in fulfilling her parents' expectations. She was excited about the idea of her father selecting a husband for her, which she viewed as a romantic fantasy, and she couldn't wait to become a housewife and devote the rest of her life to serving her husband and having as many children as possible for Jesus' right-wing cause. One could, of course, argue that this was the happiness of enforced ignorance; she was happy in this way of life because she had nothing to compare it to, because she literally wasn't aware that there were any other ways to live.
How did she escape this? Despite all they believed about Christian patriarchy, her parents also valued education, and they allowed her to go to college. While she was there, she met people who didn't follow the script, people who led happy, fulfilled lives despite not hewing to the strict rules she grew up with, which she'd always been taught was impossible. She also found herself defending her religious beliefs for the first time, and she kept encountering arguments she'd never heard before, arguments that could punch holes in the beliefs she'd grown up learning as absolute truth. Eventually, the worldview she'd been taught crumbled, and despite intense emotional pressure and guilt-tripping by her parents, she found the courage and the honesty to walk away. (See also her longer account of her deconversion.)
One thing I noticed while reading these posts is the startling number of similarities there are between the Christian patriarchy and the Islamic one: women kept isolated at home, forbidden to work, get an education or travel without male approval. (Libby Anne's parents were unusual in letting her go to college; here's another post by an escapee who didn't, and now laments her inability to support herself.) They're taught that their only role in life is to serve and obey men, treated as property to be passed off from father, to husband, and sometimes to son - this happens in fundamentalist Christian communities as well as Islamic ones.
Another observation, readily apparent, is how absolutely consumed by fear these people's lives are. Parents who follow the teachings of Christian patriarchy are, necessarily, terrified of letting their children come into contact with any idea that doesn't conform with what they've been taught - which is why they go to such extreme lengths to isolate themselves. Despite biblical verses like the Great Commission, we're increasingly seeing believers like Libby Anne's parents conceding the battleground of ideas, propagating their beliefs only by reproducing and not even attempting to convince outsiders. As society becomes more secular and atheism becomes more influential, we're going to see more of this sort of thing: fundamentalists retreating into these isolated, closed-off bubbles and locking the door behind them.
This is just what Daniel Dennett is talking about when he writes in Breaking the Spell that any faith which has to "hoodwink — or blindfold — [its] children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, [that] faith ought to go extinct." But that's easier said than done, and it creates a dilemma for us. How can we effectively evangelize for atheism and teach ideals of human freedom and liberty to those inside these communities? How can we reach people when their entire upbringing is organized to deny them contact with the outside world? I don't have a good answer for this, but I'm open to suggestions.
Rebutting Reasonable Faith: The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory
In "The Aura of Infallibility", I mentioned William Lane Craig's belief in something he calls the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit", which he considers to be the most persuasive, crowning argument for Christianity. Basically, all it boils down to is that Craig has a really strong feeling that Christianity is true, and he believes that that feeling should be privileged above any and all evidence.
As Craig himself puts it, in question #136:
For not only should I continue to have faith in God on the basis of the Spirit's witness even if all the arguments for His existence were refuted, but I should continue to have faith in God even in the face of objections which I cannot at that time answer...
What I'm claiming is that even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.
In essence, Craig is claiming infallibility for himself. On the basis of some warm and fuzzy feelings he's had, he declares himself an inerrant judge presiding over all the cosmos, deciding the truth of every factual proposition his warm feelings tell him about and refusing to admit even the possibility of error. This is a laughable and ridiculously arrogant self-exaltation, although he's by no means alone among religious people in making it; he just does it more explicitly than most of them. (As another example, take this from the official statement of faith of Answers in Genesis: "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field... can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record").
But it doesn't stop there. Craig also insists on believing that everyone else has these feelings too, which leads him to draw a morally outrageous conclusion that insults all non-Christians:
When a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. (source)
In other words, Craig's position requires him to believe that everyone - everyone - in the world who's not an evangelical Christian - every atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha'i, Sikh and Shintoist, every pagan past and present, every member of every indigenous tribe - is fully aware of the truth of evangelical Christianity and refuses to admit this out of a stubborn desire to sin. It forces him to believe in a worldwide conspiracy involving sustained, lifelong deception practiced on a daily basis by billions of people throughout history.
This contorted position arises from the four-part contradiction that all believers like Craig are forced to confront as a result of their theology:
(1) It's immoral to punish people for making an honest mistake.
(2) At least some non-members of my religion are honestly mistaken in what they believe.
(3) God will eternally punish all non-members of my religion.
(4) God never acts immorally.
Logically, all four of these statements can't be true; at least one has to be false. But believers like Craig refuse to surrender any of the theological points, and instead he jettisons the one empirical statement in the tetrad: that at least some nonbelievers are honestly mistaken. He thus ends up with a bizarre, massive conspiracy theory which holds that everyone in the world who doesn't believe as he does is being deliberately deceptive.
This is a paradigm example of how compensating for logical flaws in a belief system lead to immoral views of one's fellow humans. "God wouldn't damn people for making an honest mistake," the thought process goes, "and therefore, no one is making an honest mistake! Everyone who's not in my religion really knows I'm right and is just lying." Not only does this soothe the believer's troubled conscience, it gives them a convenient excuse to avoid having to deal with any nonbeliever's argument on the merits: all such arguments can be waved away because the believer "knows" that they're not being offered in good faith. Bizarre and ridiculous as it is, the evangelical conspiracy theory is one of the more effective means by which religious fundamentalists cocoon their minds away from the world.
Other posts in this series:
Bowing to the Text
By way of The Panda's Thumb, I came across this story that just had to be shared.
Regular readers of this site are probably familiar with the arch-creationist William Dembski, one of the founders of the intelligent-design movement. When I last wrote about him, I mentioned that he, like other creationists who insist their work is motivated strictly by science and not religion, has somehow ended up at a conservative Christian seminary - in Dembski's case, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
In 2009, Dembski published a book, The End of Christianity. In it, he acknowledged the great age of the universe and the recent emergence of humanity, but argued that Adam and Eve were real individuals whose original sin traveled backwards in time and retroactively corrupted existence from the moment of the Big Bang so that it had always included natural evil. (Neat trick, that.) Although this view represents a dangerous flirtation with scientific fact, he would probably have gotten away with it - except that his book contained one other statement so outrageous it couldn't be allowed to stand:
Noah's flood, though presented [in the Bible] as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local event.
Naturally, this drew the immediate ire of Dembski's colleagues at SBTC. In short order, according to an article in the Florida Baptist Witness, he was called before the college president, Paige Patterson, who sternly explained that Dembski had expressed thoughts which professors at SBTC are not allowed to think:
"Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school," he said.
Surely, this will be remembered as a pivotal moment in the history of the ID movement! One of the godfathers of intelligent design, one of its towering intellectual giants, is called before a religious authority and is told that his views - views which, he says, are based on solid empirical evidence - told that those views clash with the literalist interpretation of the Bible which many members of that particular sect profess. Surely, this would be a chance for Dembski to stand up for himself and affirm his intellectual independence. Surely, this would be the hill where he would plant his flag and fearlessly declare for all the world to see: "Here I stand, I can do no other!"
"In a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part," Dembski wrote. "Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality."
(I can't read that without hearing the minstrels from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Brave Sir Dembski ran away...")
Take a moment to savor the irony. The ID movement has always made a special point of lamenting how unfairly they've been persecuted by advocates of science, how their views have been unjustly "expelled" from academia. Yet here we have William Dembski, one of the most influential modern creationists, experiencing genuine persecution for his views - and it's coming not from an evolutionary biologist, but from the president of a religious institution! (Meanwhile, creationists such as Michael Behe continue to teach at secular universities and haven't been forced out, even though Behe's views are widely rejected by his colleagues.) Doesn't this speak volumes about which side really stands for freedom of speech, which side welcomes an open debate, and most importantly, which side is doing science?
But just as fascinating, I think, was Dembski's craven response. When threatened with losing his job, he immediately recanted, despite everything he had said before about how his views were founded on the evidence. He immediately surrendered those views and, in his own words, "bowed to the text" - prostrating himself before the Bible and confessing that he believes it, not because that's what the evidence says, but because that's what's written and he knows he's not permitted to doubt or think independently. Regardless of what the facts say, he knows his beliefs must be subordinated to the cold demands of dogma. Is this not a total abdication of intellectual honesty?
That said, the only thing Dembski has really done is to say explicitly what all creationists believe implicitly. Their interpretation of scripture must be held as true, trumping all fact, all evidence and all reason. Their conclusions are dictated to them in advance, prior to any investigation of the world, with no possibility that the 21st-century descendants of the scientific revolution know anything more than the Bronze Age scribes who first wrote these ancient books.
This episode also shows the ongoing collapse of the ID movement's efforts to seek mainstream legitimacy. In the beginning, its advocates put on a pretense of doing science, cloaking their religious intent in neutral language to sneak their way past the First Amendment. But no one was fooled, particularly not the courts. With ID advocates failing to win the scientific acclaim they'd sought, they're falling back on their natural allies - the right-wing churches and religious institutions that never had any qualms about identifying themselves as creationist. Naturally, these groups have little patience for the watered-down legal apologia of ID, and demand instead that everything be slathered with a thick frosting of Jesus. With the ID advocates now dependent on these groups for their livelihood, they're doing as instructed. This is a very positive development for defenders of church-state separation, giving us extra ammunition the next time the advocates of ID try to slip their dogma into public schools.
The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy
The world has seen and heard enough about the misery and destruction in Haiti this past week that I don't think I need to dwell on it. But I do want to take some time to address the perennial question of theodicy, which comes up in the aftermath of every disaster like this.
To an atheist, for whom the Haiti quake was nothing more than the result of tectonic plates slipping - a disaster caused by impersonal natural forces and random chance - there is nothing to explain. The laws of the cosmos are not conscious of human beings and don't take our needs into account. No human action caused this disaster to occur, and no one bears responsibility for it. If we want to live comfortably and safely in this world, it's up to us to learn its rules so that we can mitigate their worst consequences through science and technology, and when disaster does strike, it's up to us to care for each other.
Such is the atheist's view, and it is comforting, in a sense. But to people who believe in a personal deity who set these laws in motion and foresaw their consequences, there's a much more glaring problem. In a post titled Why Did God Allow Haiti's Earthquake?, Christian pastor Dave Schmelzer reflects on the topic.
Schmelzer does have a dead-on and even, dare I say it, scriptural response to Pat Robertson's vile mouth:
The heart of the great biblical book on suffering—Job—critiques Job's false friends who are determined to figure out why Job is suffering. It's as if they can't live in the tension of seeing someone else suffer without establishing that somehow the sufferer deserved their suffering, so we, the onlookers, are safe.
I have no argument with that. But there's another section of Schmelzer's post that caught my attention:
The best thing I've read on this subject is Gregory Boyd's God at War. Boyd says that it's our Greek influence that makes us need answers to suffering and evil. The issue, he says, isn't intellectually figuring out evil. That will lead to two bad outcomes: torment (as Bart Ehrmann discovered) and complacency. To Boyd, the world is a thick spiritual battle. When we confront suffering and evil, our task is not to analyze the suffering and evil, it's to fight it.
What I find most interesting about this is Boyd's claim that we shouldn't try to find an explanation for evil that's compatible with Christianity. Attempting this, he says, can have only two outcomes, both of them bad: either we become convinced that God is malevolent or indifferent, which plunges one into despair (or leads to deconversion, as happened with Bart Ehrman), or we become convinced that God is justified in causing it, which leads to the Robertson-like callousness which believes that only evil people suffer.
Now, I'm not denying the logic of this argument. Those do seem to be the most common outcomes when Christians contemplate the problem of evil. But what I want to point out is his conclusion: therefore, Christians should stop trying to find an explanation for evil. They should just stop thinking about the topic, because it does damage to their faith if they dwell on it too closely.
Schmelzer endorses this conclusion himself:
"Why" never offered anyone any comfort, any power or any answers... So let's not over-analyze "why God allowed" Haiti's earthquake.
This is a rather surprising view, inasmuch as it categorically dismisses the possibility that apologists' attempts to justify evil and suffering could ever assist faith. It seems he agrees with us atheists that conventional Christian explanations for evil are insufficient.
But it's not just evangelical Christians who take this view. A Mormon blog calls the project of theodicy a "poisoned cup", and says:
I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole project of theodicy. On one hand, I want to reject a fideism that insists on belief in the irrational as a mark of true faith. Hence, I want a religion that at least holds out the possibility of increasing my understanding of the ways of God and the nature of the universe through the use of reason. We shouldn't have to crucify our brains in order to believe. And yet there is also a part of me that wants to maintain the mystery of evil... Ultimately... the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.
This blogger, obviously an intelligent person, doesn't want to have to shut off his mind in order to believe. And to his credit, he rejects the Robertsonian argument that black people were justly excluded from the Mormon priesthood as punishment for sins they committed in a previous life:
I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.
This is an eloquent and laudable honesty, far superior to the usual apologists' approach of enshrining contingent historical prejudices as eternal truths. And yet he, too, counsels fellow believers to cease trying to explain evil and "simply let the mystery be" - as though the project of theodicy was a blister, or an unhealed wound: something that we only make worse by picking at it.
What's remarkable is that both these writers, in their own ways, implicitly acknowledge that the argument from evil is irrefutable. There is simply no moral way to reconcile belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving deity with the fact of evil and suffering in our world. This is just what atheists have been saying since the time of Epicurus. But rather than take the obvious next step - that the argument from evil is unanswerable because the atheists are correct - they instead advise their fellow believers to stop thinking about it.
Is this not remarkable? It's as though, for people in these religious traditions, an entire continent of their inner mental world has to be cordoned off and declared a forbidden zone. Their mental landscape is littered with locked doors, fences of barbed wire, and sternly worded "Keep Out" signs - all delimiting the sphere of dangerous ideas which they're advised never to examine.
Can anyone dispute that atheists have nothing like this? Is there any idea we place off-limits for examination, any question we deem too dangerous to ask? Is there any place where we say the free mind must never travel? And if your answer is "no", as it inevitably must be, then I have a followup question: Which kind of belief would need to be protected from scrutiny: a true belief, or a false one?
By Sarah Braasch
I'm scared to expose myself like this. But, I'm tired of the shame and the guilt and the fear. I have something important to say. And, I want to comfort other victims of religious abuse who feel alone and afraid.
I grew up in an abusive Jehovah's Witness home. When people ask me what my childhood was like, I usually describe it, in all seriousness, as something like growing up in a war zone. I don't mean to belittle or demean the experiences of children who actually grow up in literal war zones, but I struggle to find a more apt description.
The sky was always falling. We were constantly under threat of demonic attack. We expected Armageddon to befall us at any moment. As children, these threats of annihilation all around us were all too real. Demons could murder you, rape you and torture you, psychologically or physically or sexually. The desire for the death and destruction of mankind permeated the doctrine. Of course, this theater of horrors was exacerbated and intensified by my father's abuse and my mother's deranged denial.
I cried through my entire high school graduation ceremony. It became a joke amongst my classmates. It was the strangest thing. I just couldn't stop crying. I think I just couldn't believe that I had made it, that I was free. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion.
My father's parting words to me were to tell me that I would amount to nothing without him. He told me that I would come crawling back to him on hands and knees, begging him to take me in. I told him to wait for me. And to hold his breath.
It was a battle to finish my undergraduate education. If I hadn't gone to family court at sixteen to get a restraining order against my father, I wouldn't have been able to secure the financial aid necessary to continue my studies. I had to present a copy of the order to the university to establish myself as financially independent from my parents.
Also, I was in a tremendously fragile emotional and psychological condition. I had severed all ties with my family. I was socially retarded. I was completely alone. I felt totally disconnected from the university community. Interpersonal interactions were difficult and uncomfortable for me. I had trouble making eye contact. And, I thought demons were stalking me.
Being alone in the university dormitory during school breaks was the hardest. I would sit up all night in the lobby watching TV and chatting with the overnight security guards, and I would sleep all day. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what was happening to me, and my childhood had been nothing if not a study in secrecy. But, I willed myself to keep it together, to go to class, to work, to do research. I presented as normal a face as possible to the outside world. I gravitated towards other outsiders and social pariahs. The goth transvestite with pet snakes. The bisexual Jamaican dancer.
So, at 22 years old, I had spent five years at the University of Minnesota. I had two summa cum laude engineering degrees, in aerospace and mechanical engineering. I had a French minor. Somehow, some way, I made it through. The world was, seemingly, my oyster.
I decided to continue my education. It just seemed like a good idea. If education was good, then more education was even better. I was racking up prizes and awards and scholarships and fellowships and internships and whatever other honors I could get my hands on. I wanted medals and certificates and esteem. Mostly esteem.
I was fueled by rage and hatred. Hatred and rage. It was driving me forward, relentlessly. But no amount of accomplishments or successes could sate me. I was on a mission for revenge and retribution and justice. But, it was not to be found. I was playing a chess game against my parents, except that I was playing a chess game against no one, because my parents weren't playing, because they didn't care.
That was the cruelest lesson of my twenties. I realized that my parents were not sitting up nights worrying about my wellbeing or lack thereof. My parents were not racked with guilt over their mistreatment of me. My mother and my father were continuing their lives as if they didn't have a care in the world, as if they'd never had a little girl named Sarah.
I couldn't even hurt them. They didn't care. My success was not the best revenge or any revenge at all. My success was meaningless to them. They didn't care. I had to let it go. Their gas-lit alternate reality didn't include me, or even a notion of me or even the idea of me. My anger and bitterness was going to destroy me and no one would care.
I headed off to grad school at UC Berkeley. The moment I landed, everything came crashing down. Something inside of me snapped. It surprised me. I wouldn't have thought it would have occurred then. I was further removed from all of my torments, both geographically and temporally. But, all of my demons were still with me — in my head.
I couldn't sleep. I was terrified of the dark. I spent my nights sitting in the bathtub, searching out the corners of the well-lit bathroom for demons. I would pray to Jehovah throughout the night, in an almost chant-like fashion. I did this to ward off the demons, to call upon Jehovah for protection, and to stop the bad thoughts. If I cursed Jehovah God in my head or asked for Satan, I would scream and cry out to Jehovah to save me. Then, I would begin chanting again. Sometimes, a part of my brain knew that what I was doing was crazy, but I couldn't stop. And, sometimes, I didn't know. Sometimes, I knew that there was a demon there, torturing me, trying to hurt me, trying to get me to kill myself.
I stopped going to class. I stopped going to the lab. I stopped bathing. I spent my days either sleeping or writing out rambling tales of demons and demonic possession. I had a complete nervous breakdown.
In a rare moment of lucidity, I realized that I was either going to drive myself totally and irrevocably insane, or that I was going to drive myself to suicide. I knew it. I had to choose.
There was something alluring about letting the insane parts of my mind just take me, just pull me out to sea and drown me in darkness. I wanted to completely disassociate from reality. Insanity would obviate the need for suicide. Suicide was scary. I had no fear of hell. (Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in hell.) But, I had grown weary of violence. I didn't really want to inflict more violence upon my poor, tired body. But, I decided that my insanity wouldn't be a happy or peaceful place. My insanity would be hell, full of pain and anguish. If I had thought that my insane mind would have taken me to a dreamy heaven, full of cotton candy and angels and down-filled cushions, I would have gone.
I wasn't sure if I could still extract joy from life. I wasn't sure if I could find meaning in life. I wasn't sure if I could determine a purpose for my life. But, I decided to try. I decided I needed drugs.
I headed to the student health center on campus. I told the staff psychiatrist how I was feeling about my tenuous grasp on reality, my views on demons and my thoughts of suicide, and he gave me drugs. Lots of drugs.
The drugs worked. I was walking through life in a hazy fog, but I liked it. I could sleep at night. I didn't think about demons all of the time, but they never left me completely. I went to class. I went to the lab. My productivity left something to be desired. I had been drained of any semblance of a personality. I even spoke really slowly. I gained a lot of weight. I was kind of like the walking dead. But, I was alive. Sort of. And, I could function. Kind of.
I got it in my head that I needed to leave Berkeley. I grew tired of living like a zombie. As often happens, I decided that I didn't need the drugs anymore. I decided that I just needed a new environment, a change of pace. So, I left. I took the first job offer I could find, and I moved to Los Angeles. Things were going ok for a while. Then, I decided to save my siblings. With tragic consequences.
I basically strong-armed my older sister and my younger brother into moving out to Los Angeles and into moving in with me. I had grandiose visions of bestowing new lives upon them, of blessing them with new horizons, of freeing them from the shackles of our hellish family and childhoods. I would be their savior. (And, I hoped it would irk my parents to no end.)
This ill-formed plan, of course, quickly turned catastrophic. Three emotionally damaged and traumatized adult siblings living in close quarters and grappling with reconstructing their lives and identities is a recipe for disaster. Trust me on this one. Things quickly spiraled out of control.
My sister was the first to abandon ship. She saw the light before I did. When my sister left so did any hope we had of building a functional family out of the shards of our broken lives and psyches. She was the sane one. My brother and I descended into a co-dependent psychodrama hell of childhood trauma revisited.
I became cruel to him. He embodied all of my worst fears. He couldn't get out of bed. He imploded in on himself. I couldn't allow that to happen. I forced him to get a job. I forced him to pay rent. I forced him to clean. I was all about the tough love.
He became more and more detached from reality. He would stay out all night, wandering the streets of LA. He would tell me that he had broken into people's homes. He brought home swords, which I quickly re-gifted. He would tell me that he saw a girl, whom he knew from back home, at the restaurant where he worked. He thought he might have raped her during a drug binge. He told me that she sat at the bar and stared at him without saying a word. He told me that she had come to LA to tell him that she was pregnant. He told me that he could hear the thoughts of the customers at work. He could hear them thinking about him, laughing at him. He told me that the patrons in the restaurant were always talking about him, making fun of him. He told me that he often met and saw demons as he wandered LA in the middle of the night. He told me that he challenged Satan to a fight.
I knew he was schizophrenic, but I thought I could talk him out of it. I know it sounds ridiculous. He would have moments of lucidity. I would try to reason with him, to get him to see the distinction between reality and psychosis, to teach him how to recognize the difference.
Then, one night, my brother snapped. He was asking me pointed questions about whether or not my sister and I had been sexually abused by our father. And, I was giving him pointed answers. He responded violently. I had to call the police. I was never afraid of him until that point. I probably should have been, but I wasn't. Even when he told me he was hearing voices and seeing demons, even when he brought home swords.
The next day, I kicked him out. I gathered up all of his belongings after he left for work, and I dropped them off at the restaurant. And, I've never forgiven myself. But, I was scared. I panicked. I was afraid that he would kill or rape or hurt me if I let him stay. Eventually, he made his way back to the Midwest.
My brother is currently being heavily medicated, so that he does not pose a danger either to himself or to anyone else. I tried to save him, but I drowned him instead.
When I think about my brother, I think about how he held me as I cried out my testimony against my father in family court, about how my words became sobs, about how he put his arm around me. And, I hate myself for abandoning him.
Religious abuse exists. Religious abuse is real. Who knows how many unacknowledged walking wounded limp through early adult life, struggling to put themselves back together again. Of course, there are varying degrees and types of religious abuse, just as there are varying degrees and types of sexual and physical abuse. Religious abuse is a form of psychological abuse. As a society, we are loath to acknowledge this fact. We are loath to acknowledge that raising children in religion is abusive.
We are sending millions of young persons out into the world handicapped by religious childhood traumas and indoctrination and social retardation, including religious idiocy, delusion and hatred. For the greater part, these psychological and emotional pains remain unaddressed by our mental health profession. Religion is not addressed as the prime mover.
I am not an aberration. I am your high school friend. I am your co-worker. I am your law school classmate.
I am not unintelligent. I am not crazy. I have two engineering degrees and a law degree. I have traveled the world. I am well educated and well read. I am a human rights activist. I am a writer.
I am an adult survivor of childhood religious abuse. And, so are you.
Mental Slavery and Creeping Atheism
Evangelical pastor Ray Stedman knows the root cause of everything that's wrong with the world:
It is not nationalism, it is not racism... it is the human heart. It is the pride of man that fancies he can get along without God.
But not to worry, because he advises us how we can conquer this obstacle. To achieve that, we must
...take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ. This is extremely important.
...It is absolutely necessary to do this if you want to have permanent victory. Allow these unChristian thoughts to remain unconquered, and you will soon have to take the fortress all over again. They will creep out of their hiding places and take over and you will find that that which God has delivered you from has taken control once again.
Granted, the job of "taking every thought captive" can be difficult, even for a believing Christian. Stedman observes that:
...the intellectual life is often the last part of a Christian to be yielded to the right of Jesus Christ to rule. Somehow we love to retain some area of our intellect, of our thought-life, reserved from the control of Jesus Christ. For instance, we reserve the right to judge Scripture, as to what we will or will not agree with, what we will or will not accept. I find many Christians struggling in this area.
One of our women told us, a few years ago, of a struggle in this respect in her life. She said she would read through the New Testament and sometimes write in the margin opposite a verse, "I don't agree!" Well, she was honest enough to put it down in writing. There are many of us who do not agree but we do not write it down, or even admit it to ourselves. It was honest of her to do that, but it represents a struggle with the Lordship of Christ; his right to rule over every area of life, his right to control the thought-life, every thought taken captive to obey him.
...Dr. Francis Schaeffer has put it very accurately beautifully in these words:
I am false or confused if I sing about Christ's Lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous. This is true if it is my sexual life that is autonomous, but it is at least equally true if it is my intellectual life that is autonomous, or even my intellectual life in a highly selective area. Any autonomy is wrong.
Similar to C.S. Lewis saying that obedience is an "intrinsically good" habit to get into, or the Pope saying that a Catholic's only role is to obey the Vatican with sheeplike docility, both Stedman and Schaeffer agree that "any autonomy is wrong" and that we must never question, disagree with, or doubt the teachings of the Bible, lest we lose faith and be overcome by atheism. We atheists often say that religion "hardens hearts and enslaves minds", but it's interesting to see theists who openly agree with us and admit that this is exactly what they are trying to achieve.
What I find most revealing about all this is the sentiment that if you allow un-Christian thoughts to "remain unconquered", they will soon gain strength and overcome you; that the only way to maintain your faith is to crush all doubts and skepticism and force "every thought" into the Christian mold. It's bizarre that so many preachers say this is necessary. In what other areas of life do people do this? Do scientists tell each other that they must take captive every thought to the reigning theory, that even a seed of doubt may grow out of control? Do doctors constantly struggle to persuade themselves that they can heal sick people? Do chemists grapple with belief in the periodic table?
A New Yorker book review, Prisoner of Narnia, makes a similar point about C.S. Lewis' writing:
A startling thing in Lewis's letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes — the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn't really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.
It seems that many believers wrestle with doubt; and since they haven't been able to get rid of it, they've elevated it into a virtue, saying that by its nature faith is hard to hold onto. In fact, this sentiment is so common that they don't realize how strange it is, or what it implies: that their reason is not entirely dormant, that it rejects the absurdities of faith, creating mental tension and doubt when it comes into contact with the will to believe. I've noted a similar phenomenon in those theists who feel flickers of conscience that cause them to agonize over their faith's cruel teachings of punishment and damnation. Neither the moral nor the rational sense, it seems, are easily quieted, and that is a heartening thought.
I'm aware this is anecdotal, but what strikes me is that I've never seen a comparable phenomenon among atheists. What atheist books or websites speak of atheism as something that's a constant struggle to keep up, or warn that if we read the Bible or consider arguments for the existence of God, religious thoughts may "creep out" and overpower us? I grant that many theists who claim to be ex-atheists assert that this can happen, but evidence for the phenomenon among actual atheists, in the same way Stedman discusses seeing among Christians, is conspicuously lacking.
And this leads to a simple, stunning realization: our apologist opponents are afraid of us. They boast of how their church is founded on the solid bedrock of the word of God, how their faith is strong and impregnable to contrary argument. But look past the surface, and in many cases, you'll find them constantly advising each other how best to stifle doubts, warning each other that our arguments must not be considered, our case not given heed. You'll find sermons sternly warning about the dangers of autonomy, of independent thought, and of using one's own best judgment. Why would they write so extensively about the necessity of taking your own mind captive - unless they fear what it would uncover if it was free?
Maintaining the Mystery
In last year's post "The Default", I quoted this astonishing concession from theist Andrew Sullivan:
I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life - and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus' birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.
This is the kind of honesty one doesn't often see in discussions of religious faith. Sullivan admits, as atheists have long said, that people's religious faith is shaped and molded by the culture they grow up in. To quote myself, "Whenever and wherever [religious experiences] occur, they are almost invariably believed to be manifestations of the local god, whichever one that is."
From the memetic perspective, it's understandable reasons why this happens. Religious beliefs thrive in large part because they're taught to children, who in turn have sound evolutionary reasons for being susceptible to believe whatever their parents and authority figures tell them. Children make willing converts to almost anything, and few people shake off the beliefs they're taught early in life. If, for some reason, there arose a fair-minded religion that only sought converts in mature and rational adults, it would rapidly be outcompeted and driven to extinction by the faiths that seek to get a foot in the door before the powers of reasoning are fully developed.
The religious practice of child indoctrination has stacked the deck against us atheists. If we're to win the culture wars, we need to put a stop to it. For both moral and practical reasons, it's not feasible to outlaw the religious indoctrination of children. The next best thing is to do what several of the new atheists have set out to do, as Richard Dawkins aims to do with The God Delusion: we need to engage in consciousness-raising. We should enlighten people to the evils of this practice: exposing children to one perspective and no others, keeping them ignorant of alternatives, teaching them not to question, teaching them to act as if they were faithful members of a religion when they cannot possibly be old enough to give informed consent.
Religious groups can be expected to fight fiercely against this, for the simple reason that if children were taught objectively about all the various religious beliefs, it's inconceivable that they'd find one far more compelling than the others. What would make Yahweh or Allah stand out from Zeus or Poseidon? What would differentiate Jesus from the many other dying and rising gods of the corn? Why hail Mohammed as the supreme prophet rather than Zoroaster or Apollonius of Tyana? These questions are unanswerable unless parents, teachers and religious leaders make a conscious effort to maintain the mystery - to teach children that their particular religious belief is unique and supreme and beyond questioning.
What religions fear - what they must fear - is a fair and unbiased comparison of the options. After all, how could they ever stand out from the crowd? The idea of a "leap of faith" seems a lot less compelling once you realize that there are thousands of religions each urging you to take a leap in a different direction.
When you investigate and compare different religions critically, it's inevitable that their pretense of mystery and authority will soon be pierced. There really is nothing substantial setting any one of them apart from all the rest. This truth is atheists' greatest asset, and making it clear to everyone should be our mission.
Extinguishing the Fear of Hell
The other week, I received an excellent suggestion from a Daylight Atheism commenter via e-mail. He suggested I write a post on the following topic: How can a former believer overcome the vestigial fear of Hell?
I suspect this is a common problem. Many religions go to great effort to inculcate in their followers an instinctive terror of breaking the rules, and this irrational fear can often linger and continue to traumatize a person even after they have consciously and rationally decided that those religious beliefs are false. No blame attaches for this; it's just an intrinsic part of human psychology. Cold fear, unfortunately, is often a more powerful force than dispassionate reasoning.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes one victim of this psychological abuse who wrote to him seeking help:
I went to a Catholic school from the age of five, and was indoctrinated by nuns who wielded straps, sticks and canes. During my teens I read Darwin, and what he said about evolution made such a lot of sense to the logical part of my mind. However, I've gone through life suffering much conflict and a deep down fear of hell fire which gets triggered quite frequently. I've had some psychotherapy which has enabled me to work through some of my earlier problems but can't seem to overcome this deep fear.
Dr. Dawkins suggested a therapist, Jill Mytton, who herself escaped a cult called the Exclusive Brethren and now counsels people in similar situations. Yet even she still bears the traces of her former indoctrination:
"If I think back to my childhood, it's one dominated by fear. And it was the fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation. And for a child, images of hell-fire and gnashing of teeth are actually very real. They are not metaphorical at all." I then asked her to spell out what she had actually been told about hell, as a child, and her eventual reply was as moving as her expressive face during the long hesitation before she answered: "It's strange, isn't it? After all this time it still has the power to... affect me... when you... when you ask me that question. Hell is a fearful place. It's complete rejection by God. It's complete judgement, there is real fire, there is real torment, real torture, and it goes on for ever so there is no respite from it."
Reading about the horrible suffering that so many believers experience, anyone with a conscience would want to help. I'm well aware that there's no quick fix for a psychological trauma like this, and not having had a cult upbringing to break away from, I don't claim to be an expert on this. But I do have two suggestions, so I'll give them out in the hopes that they may do some good. Anyone who has more experience than me and can improve on them is invited to do so.
First: Most religious groups, for understandable reasons, try to instill into their followers the belief that their particular teachings are the only ones that are real or worth caring about. To counteract this, I suggest it may help to put those teachings into their proper context in the pantheon of world mythology. What I'd recommend for a struggling ex-believer is to read about all the afterlives that have been proposed - Greek, Egyptian, Buddhist, Hindu, and everything else that's out there. Once you can compare them side by side and are used to seeing them just as stories, it will be easier to do the same with the religion you were brought up in.
Second: The best way to conquer the phobia of Hell, as with any other phobia, is to induce extinction. Expose yourself to whatever idea or image triggers the fear - in small doses at first - and prove to yourself that no harmful consequences follow. Repeat this often enough, and the mental link between the stimulus and the fear is eventually broken. Of course, rationally speaking, this wouldn't disprove a punishment that's claimed to only arrive after death - but because we're dealing with an irrational fear and not a reasoned belief, I think it may be effective.
So, readers, what do you say? Can anyone improve on these suggestions?
The Evangelical Outpost, a major Christian blog, last week published a positive review of Nancy Pearcey's book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity. In it, Pearcey argues that true Christians must purge their thinking of evolution and all other secular ideas and philosophies:
Most Christians are more secular then they realize, and this must change if the Church is to have any sort of significant cultural impact... Christians must counter the affects [sic] of secularism by developing a comprehensive biblical worldview.
It's no surprise that Pearcey, a young-earth creationist, believes it is vital for Christians to reject evolution. But her goals, and the goals of the movement to which she belongs, are broader than this. The modern religious right's plan is not to defend their various beliefs in piecemeal fashion. Instead, they seek to create a self-contained world within the real world, one where all the channels of information present only the views they approve, and believers are never exposed to dissenting opinions.
Slacktivist, a far better kind of Christian, has an insightful article on this phenomenon, discussing the many "Christian worldview" groups. This phrase, as he explains, is code for the fundamentalist enclaves like Bob Jones University that seek to instill a rigid and all-encompassing dogma into their followers' minds. The intent is to create believers who automatically distrust any information that does not come from "safe", approved sources of religious indoctrination, but who will unquestioningly obey the leaders of the fundamentalist movement.
If we freethinkers believe in the marketplace of ideas, a thriving realm of debate where different viewpoints can freely clash and mingle, the dominionist right has a different vision. They do not want to be just another participant in the marketplace; they want to withdraw from that broader sphere and create their own marketplace, one where only their voices are heard. Like a memetic analogue of "bubble boy" syndrome, they want to enclose their followers in a protective bubble of sterilized information, allowing nothing that might disturb their preconceptions to pass through. (A commenter on the Evangelical Outpost clearly conveys this when he expresses desire for "a return to filtering our thoughts and conclusions about reality through God's word").
When fundamentalists wave the banner of "liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity", what they really mean is that they want to "liberate" Christianity from the burdensome constraints of objective reality. They want to limit and restrict their followers' thoughts, to the point where they create a legion of faithful believers who are perfectly immune to contrary evidence and argument. And once that is achieved, then the final stage of their plan:
Evangelicals, explains Pearcey, have traditionally thought of salvation only in terms of individual souls. The idea that we are to have a redeeming influence in every area of culture is new to many... People need to learn how to move beyond a merely privatized faith and apply biblical principles to areas like work, business, and politics.
Like most of the religious right today, Pearcey and her ideological comrades are not satisfied to see Christians having the freedom to practice their own faith. They want to dominate society and impose that faith on others who do not share it. The wish for Christians to have "a redeeming influence on every area of culture" is just a thinly disguised wish to eliminate all ideas that do not conform to their narrow and dogma-blinded vision.
How, then, can freethinkers overcome this strategy? How can we pierce the bubble of dogma and persuade believers to give us a fair hearing? An upcoming post will address that question.