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.

September 13, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink9 comments

Book Review: God, No!

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you'd expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who's well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He's also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure - although I have to say that it's often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I'd say it's less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn's life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn's proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as "Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings." It's not hard to conclude that Penn's moral view is superior to the Bible's, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let's start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn't for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn's visiting a gay bathhouse. (It's not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn's own, sometimes others'). Penn claims he's never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn't the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that's likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It's not what you think - or maybe it is...)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn's friendship with three former Hasidic Jews - an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world's most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I've ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal - and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn't already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn't really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, "Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it's still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes." (There's this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn't know enough to know if it's real, if it's dangerous, or if there's anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don't consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say "I don't know" and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it's not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn's refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

September 7, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments

Walking Away from the Watchtower

Last week, I posted a link to my review of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the Watchtower's 1920 apocalyptic misfire, on Facebook. It got a comment from Vanessa Sampson, an ex-Jehovah's Witness who said that her own discovery of the Watchtower's fallibility was a major factor in her ultimately deciding to leave that religion and become an atheist.

Vanessa gave me permission to use her name and to share her story, which I think is an outstanding example of the courage and intellectual honesty required to walk away from religion. That's especially true when, as in this case, the religion in question is a cult that commands its members to cut off all contact with anyone who leaves, even if that person is a dear friend or a family member. But as unjust and outrageous as that policy is, their loss is our gain. Join me in extending a warm welcome to Vanessa, and if you have a deconversion story of your own, feel free to share it in the comments.

I had been studying for one of the meetings, and they wrote to address the problem of false prophecies. The explanation was, "Jehovah's Witnesses do not claim to be inspired prophets. They have made mistakes. Like the apostles of Jesus Christ, they have at times had some wrong expectations. —Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6."

I remembered reading that before, but I was inexplicably struck with a question, as sudden as a lightning bolt: If the Governing Body are not inspired prophets, why are we listening to them? Witnesses are expected to accept the Governing Body's interpretations of scriptures and prophecies without question; failure to do so is a disfellowshippable offense. But, if they are not inspired, then why did I follow them? How were they any different from the Pope or the leaders of the LDS Church, all of them muddling their way through their understanding of scripture. Sure, they all believe that they are guided by God, but why should I agree?

I immediately decided that I simply misunderstood. Perhaps it was speaking of the great crowd of Witnesses, we ordinary run-of-the-mill folk. Of course, new light is always being shed, as more and more Biblical prophecies are being gradually fulfilled. If the first-century Christians, who were most certainly inspired, didn't understand the prophecies, then how could I expect the Governing Body - made of anointed, and therefore inspired, men - to be perfect in their understanding?

I resolved to settle the matter, which seriously bothered me. After all, this wasn't just a simple disagreement over what constitutes modesty or whether this or that person should have seen that movie or whether my room was clean enough. If the Governing Body wasn't inspired by God, then why the hell was I putting my faith and trust in them? And something else bothered me: if I hadn't misunderstood the meaning of the quoted paragraph, then it was a glaring contradiction in Watchtower teachings.

It has been published in the Watchtower - and ingrained in the minds of all Witnesses - that "it should be expected that the Lord would have a means of communication to his people on the earth, and he has clearly shown that the magazine called The Watchtower is used for that purpose" and that "the Watchtower is not the instrument of any man or any set of men, nor is it published according to the whims of men. No man's opinion is expressed in The Watchtower."

It was clear to me that those statements are blatant lies if the members of the Governing Body are not divinely inspired.

I knew, as I was doing the research, that this was a turning point in my life. I had grown up as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I didn't view it as simply my religion; it was my core identity. If I decided to no longer be a Witness, all of my closest friends and family would be required to stop speaking with me or face expulsion. This was not something I could push aside, so - as the hours went on - the list of things I researched grew extensively.

Before going to sleep that night, I had to admit that whenever the numerous prophecies and Biblical understandings that the Watchtower Society purported - such as the various years that Armageddon was supposed to come, and the "new light" that comes - later failed to happen and needed to be changed, the Watchtower Society always defaulted to their "but we're human and we make mistakes" excuse. That was unacceptable for me. If the Governing Body is claiming to be Jehovah's sole channel of communication on Earth, how could they make such mistakes?

Once my faith in the Governing Body had dissolved, I began to question everything. I was not angry, and did not feel intentionally deceived by anybody who had shared "the truth" with me. It seemed to me like just another example of a child that grew up in a religion and discovered it to be different than believed.

But, still unable to accept the idea of leaving everyone I loved and had grown up with, I told myself to just wait and see if anything happened to make me change my mind and decide that I could remain a Witness. I knew that I couldn't just pretend to believe and continue on as before; the thought of it made me sick to my stomach. Within a few days, I accepted that I had to disassociate myself.

Because I was a wreck emotionally - feeling like a dead woman walking, mourning my former self and all of her friends and family - I pushed myself to base my decisions on logic and rational thought. Having decided that I could no longer be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I felt that I had to at least get an idea of what I now believed to be true. A comment from the August 15, 1981, Watchtower, convinced me that mainstream Christianity might just be correct after all:

"From time to time, there have arisen from among the ranks of Jehovah's people those, who, like the original Satan, have adopted an independent, faultfinding attitude...They say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home ...But, strangely, through such 'Bible reading,' they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom's clergy were teaching 100 years ago..."

What I gathered from was that if you just read the Bible, without the input (and mental manipulation, in my mind) of the Watchtower Society, you'll believe what most Christians do. It seemed like they were actually discouraging Bible study! That was one of the realizations that just blew my mind. I felt so stupid, so gullible. But at the same time, I reminded myself that these were the things I had been taught my entire life, by every adult I loved, trusted, and respected who loved me back. What reasons did I have not to believe them?

I mentally noted that I needed to resolve my thoughts on conscientious objections to military service, and just how Biblical the doctrines of the Trinity, immortal soul, and hellfire were. I didn't think I could ever accept the idea of hellfire, and couldn't quite grasp the concept of the Trinity, but if my going over the other Bibles convinced me that those were correct, I'm sure I would have accepted them. I refused to not accept any idea just because I'd always been taught not to.

I had also decided not to just be searching for a new religion to join. If I couldn't find one that matched my to-be-discovered beliefs, then I would become one of those people that reads the Bible privately at home. If the right religion wasn't obvious to me, I couldn't see how a loving God would punish me when I was obviously searching.

I clung to my faith in the Bible because I was firmly convinced that Biblical prophecies had been consistently proven right, and that it had a harmonious message throughout and its scientific comments - such as the earth being round, how the universe was created, and the water cycle - were obviously ahead of its time and divinely inspired.

However, once I realized those were the reasons why, I immediately sought to confirm those reasons in my mind. I wanted to question every assumption I had. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was believing what was right!

I didn't even want to believe in the Bible, or Jesus, or God, without reaffirming to myself that I had solid proof - or at least, beyond a reasonable doubt - of doing so.

But as I peeled away the layers of my belief, I never found sufficient explanations. An online friend of mine, an atheist, correctly explained evolution to me. (Witnesses only accept the Watchtower's skewed explanation.) He spent a good two hours answering my questions - ranging from "How could the world have turned out so perfect for humans to live on by mere accident?" to "Then what's the meaning of life?" - and even though he never once pushed me toward atheism, that laid the concrete foundation. By the time I left home, less than a month after my deconversion, I no longer felt that one must believe in God to live a happy, ultimately good life.

Because I was already 18, once I "came out," I would've been required to move out. I was the oldest of four, raised by a single mother, and I couldn't bear to have to make her choose between Jehovah and her eldest daughter. She wouldn't have wanted to kick me out, and I just couldn't put her in that position, so I moved out first. I was emotionally fragile, so I felt that I couldn't handle the elders meetings for my disassociation, so I left letters and moved out while my family was at the meeting. I made sure to leave them various ways of contacting me so they wouldn't worry, and immediately responded to anything I received.

My mother - who has a mental health history - emailed me and thought it might be best if I went to the hospital, because she believed that I was having a psychotic episode. My best friend IMed me to ask me if I was on drugs, but once I convinced her that I was entirely serious in disassociating, she said that she had to go and I never heard from her again. Another friend e-mailed me to convince me to stay, at least for another year or two, and said that my decision to leave was worse than suicide. But, after about a week, my mother was the only one who would correspond with me, and that lessened to about once every three months, just to make sure I was okay.

Over the next two years, I shed my "Witness subconscious" - as I call my knee-jerk response to view certain things as immoral - and became unrepentantly pro-choice and a staunch supporter of marriage equality. Last year, I started donating blood. I enrolled into college, which is discouraged by the Watchtower Society. I ended up taking a women's studies class as an elective, which helped me gain confidence in myself as a woman, not having to view myself as a subordinate in the "headship arrangement." I gained perspective by having an atheist roommate for one semester, and then a Southern Baptist the next. I feel like a more ethical, rational, tolerant and loving person now that I no longer believe in God.

August 17, 2011, 5:26 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments

From the Mailbag: Shedding the Burden of Suffering

Earlier this week, I got a lengthy letter whose author gave me permission to share it with you:

Dear Ebonmusings:

I gave a glimpse to your musing about the carrot and the stick - I didn't expect it to talk about morality, mainly because I realized that the latest part of my life as a christian was about pursuing a carrot and a stick.*

Allow me to share my story. Sorry if it's a bit depressing, but I can assure you that I'm much better now (and much better than before, since I embraced atheism and got rid of many prejudices and sick attitudes).

I had always been a devout Catholic. My devotion was fed in a positive feedback loop by my own spiritual experiences. I had thought God loved me and considered me so special that he had given me some visions and experiences that I read about in the works of Catholic saints. Today I just realized it was mere delusion.

Anyway. My problem was when, for health reasons, I had to leave a hellhole called seminary. I was going to be a missionary priest. I couldn't even finish the first year because there was no doctor there and I got ill more than once - worse, I lost around 20 pounds of weight from malnutrition. To make things worse, they made us work and live in very unsanitary conditions - once, the pork we were going to eat was left to rot for around three days under the sun, without us even suspecting it. I fell ill and had to take whatever antibiotics we had at hand. Eventually I got better. During the mission, I slept less than five hours a day for more than a month thanks to my brothers, who always stayed late, and I had to be the one who would wake up first to be able to take a quick shower before Mass at 6 AM. Eventually I got the flu and had to leave everything.

When I returned home, I realized my father had already given up my home to my sister who recently had gotten married and was expecting a baby. So I had to live in a little storage room that was below the ground level. This was bad because it flooded occasionally and sometimes the sewer overflowed, and I couldn't get my own apartment because I couldn't find a job.

Still wondering why God had left me in this situation, I realized I was growing older and I needed to find myself a wife - as I couldn't stand my loneliness... much less the depression that I was going through. I was tortured by my loneliness and my escapes in masturbation (which meant that I sinned)... at the same time, I was going through such horrible despair that I wanted to kill myself. But I couldn't because God would send me to hell. I begged him to kill me or give me a hand, a new room, etc.

Eventually I realized I could no longer live isolated in that room (only to come to my parents' one-bedroom apartment for breakfast and dinner), so I decided to live with my parents and sleep on the couch. There was a little problem... my dad always woke up at 4 AM and I couldn't sleep well. At one point I began dreaming about having my own bedroom. In the dream, I was so happy but I remembered it was just a dream, and I woke up crying and wanting to die.

During that year, I kept asking myself: "Why, God? Why?" Why was the question that God never answered. And I realized today that I had always wanted an answer as why God was testing me in such a horrible manner. At one point I felt abandoned, crushed and hated by God - I felt there was no other explanation.

I sought help which didn't come. Even after being able by mere chance (actually, the landlord increased the rent and some neighbors had to leave, so we moved to a two-bedroom apartment) to finally get my own bedroom, my bitterness hadn't gone away. I kept asking for and expecting a compensation for all my undeserved sufferings. They didn't come.

A believer's life on Earth is always carrying a burden of suffering... seeking a carrot named "help" with a stick named "Faith". In my case, if I ever dared to question God's infinite love, or even his existence, I would doom myself to hell. I couldn't even curse his name (in fact, I haven't, even as an atheist - except that claiming that he doesn't exist might be cursing him). So, I was doomed to suffer if I challenged ("tempted") God, and I was doomed to suffer and wait hoping God would be compassionate towards me otherwise. Also, because I was such a sinner, I felt that God was punishing me and I couldn't get any help.

This is what I wanted to share. Faith is evil, it forces many unnecessary sufferings on people who seek divine help that will never come, instead of seeking the help of our fellow humans and realizing that if you don't help yourself, nobody else will.

Finally I would like to thank Reddit for sharing so much insight on life and helping me realize there is no God. It's been a liberating experience.

Please feel free to post this on your site, as long as my testimony remains anonymous.

Thank you for listening.

* In a follow-up e-mail, he explained: "One note about my testimony... it wasn't a carrot and a stick used to hit (as in reward / punishment), but a carrot hanging on a stick. This is why I called the stick 'faith', and the carrot 'happiness'. You try to move, but the stick moves with you. You cannot get the carrot until you finally get rid of the stick (the faith)."

July 15, 2011, 6:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

Book Review: Losing My Religion

Summary: A hard-hitting and emotionally moving story of a religion reporter's deconversion, despite a few lingering blind spots.

Losing My Religion is the autobiography of William Lobdell, the religion reporter turned atheist whom I wrote about in 2007. I briefly mentioned the outline of his story in my previous post, but this book is a much more in-depth account of how he found, and then ultimately lost, his faith. Despite some significant weaknesses, which I'll get to, it's a powerful, honest story and definitely worth the time to read.

When Lobdell opens the story, his life was at a low point. By age 28, he was divorced and remarried, his career at a local magazine had stalled, he was in bad health and drinking too much, and he and his new wife were having a son whom he felt completely unprepared to parent. When he confessed his troubles to a colleague who told him, "You need God," he was willing to try anything that promised to change his situation for the better. (He wryly confesses that if his colleague had said, "You need crack cocaine," he'd probably have tried that too [p.4]).

He joined a nondenominational church, Mariners, near his home in Newport Beach. At first uncertain, he slowly warmed to its message of "unconditional love", which he "eagerly lapped up" [p.12]. But more important was his friendship with the right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, who persuaded him to attend an evangelical men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. Lobdell initially resisted, mortified by the thought of sharing teary confessionals with complete strangers, but the exhausting schedule of singing, preaching, work and testimonials gradually wore down his defenses (as, he rightly notes, it's designed to do), and the weekend ended with him unexpectedly having a born-again experience:

When I repeated the line "I invite Jesus into my heart," I experienced what I can only call a vision. Time slowed. In my mind's eye, my heart opened into halves, and a warm, glowing light flowed right in... I felt instantly the light was Jesus, who now lived inside me. A tingling warmth spread across my chest. This, I thought - no, I knew - was what it meant to be born-again. [p.22]

With his conversion and newfound sense of purpose in life, both his career and his marriage improved. When he landed a coveted job on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times, he took this as a sign that God was guiding him, and believed that he'd found his calling: using his journalistic talents to tell stories of how God worked in the lives of the faithful, the kind of story he felt was routinely overlooked in the media.

Lobdell's career was thriving, but he was growing disenchanted with the simplistic theology of Mariners. His wife had been raised Roman Catholic and wanted to rejoin the church, and he found himself drawn to Catholicism's long history and complex liturgy. But fate intervened dramatically: just as he was on the verge of converting, the Catholic child-rape scandal began to break in a big way. Lobdell himself reported on one of the earliest cases, Monsignor Michael Harris, who was so photogenic and beloved in his community that he was referred to as "Father Hollywood" - until the diocese reached an embarrassingly public settlement with a young man who claimed that Harris had molested him. At first, Lobdell dismissed it as an isolated case, but as more and more similar cases broke nationwide, and as he attended survivors' meetings and witnessed for himself how the church treated abuse victims, his mind was changed:

I discovered that as horrific as the abuse was, most survivors experienced the most lasting damage from church leaders whom they approached for help. Instead of receiving protection and justice, these children and their parents were vilified for coming forward, called liars or accused of being bad Catholics for trying to bring scandal upon the church. The victims and their families were routinely told that they were the first to complain about a priest's behavior, though it often wasn't true. [p.102]

At the very last minute, Lobdell decided not to convert to Catholicism after all. Doubt was whispering at the edges of his mind, but he tried to suppress it. Disillusioned by Catholicism, but still a theist, he decided he had a new mission: he would "rebuild the church", finding and exposing the hypocrites who claimed to speak in God's name, and cleanse the institution of Christianity of these evils so that it would emerge stronger.

Now that he was looking for it, he found that Christianity was rife with corruption - faith-healing con men, powerful pastors who were blatant hypocrites, televangelists who lived lavishly off their followers' donations. But the more exposés he reported, the more discouraged he got. He found that most believers didn't want to hear bad news; their usual reaction was to cling even more tightly to whoever was scamming them. The preachers he exposed, meanwhile, denounced him and used his name in fundraising appeals. And it wasn't just him: in one story he tells, a young evangelical named Jen Hubbard tried to blow the whistle on fishy expenditures by the apologist Hank Hanegraaff, who used followers' donations on sports cars and country club dues, only to end up fired from her job and shunned by the Christian community [p.72].

Under the pressure of these contradictions, the proof that Christians lived no more morally than everyone else, and growing fissures of doubt about the irreconcilable contradictions of faith, Lobdell's religious beliefs finally collapsed. "[A]s deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut... I just didn't believe in God anymore" [p.244]. In a moving epilogue, he writes of the profound relief he's experienced, the liberating feeling of freedom and the "tremendous sense of gratitude" [p.278] he now feels at being alive. (He's since written to tell Christians to stop trying to reconvert him.)

That's the summary, and I hope it shows what I liked best about the book: a painfully honest deconversion story, interwoven with devastating first-hand reporting about the Catholic child molestation scandal, as well as some hard-hitting takedowns of other Christian preachers. Lobdell chronicles both how he came to faith and how he ultimately left it in detail, with a reporter's practiced eye and an undeniable, disarming sincerity.

That said, there were a few passages in the book that irked me. One was his treatment of Rick Warren, whom he's met in person and whom he describes as a warm, friendly and genuinely sincere person who remains "grounded" [p.71] "different from most" Christian leaders and "careful to keep clear of controversy" [p.70]. This is the same Rick Warren who's rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay and doesn't think an atheist is qualified to be president. He even refused to denounce a Ugandan law, sponsored by one of his proteges, that would put gay people to death, relenting and offering a grudging condemnation only after an onslaught of bad press.

Second: I'm not sure Lobdell fully realizes the extent to which his former religious beliefs affected his coverage. He says that "My only agenda was to make religion as fascinating to others as it was to me... I didn't think my role was to promote the faith" [p.46]. But some of his old stories which he quotes with pride - including one in particular about an investment manager who says he uses the Bible as his financial guide - sound like they could have come from a Christian apologetics pamphlet. He writes that he still believes there's a "liberal slant" in the media, a long-debunked trope, but doesn't seem to notice how his own beliefs shaped the tone of his writing.

Third, and the one that piqued me the most: Lobdell has scornful words for the New Atheists, saying things like, "I am not as confident in my disbelief as [Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens] are. Their disbelief has a religious quality to it that I'm not ready to take on" [p.271].

This tiresome, patronizing rhetoric is especially strange because, from reading the book, it's clear that he agrees with every argument they make: the moral culpability of an all-powerful god who permits evil, the way believers rationalize the failure of prayer as God's ineffable will, the abundant harm caused by religious beliefs which Lobdell himself has exhaustively chronicled. But even though there's nothing he disagrees with the New Atheists about, he still doesn't feel as comfortable as they do saying so in public. I think this is a remnant of his past theism: the idea that religious beliefs deserve "respect" even when they're patently false and harmful. But despite this lingering blind spot, Losing My Religion was a hard-hitting and emotionally moving story, and well worth my recommendation and endorsement.

June 27, 2011, 6:32 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink13 comments

You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments

The Mormon Test

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider's Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it's hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven't been steeped in it.

Sometimes I've tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it's easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God's nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It's also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier's replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I've got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney's first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you're a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad "I Believe" from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream ("I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin") but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America...

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn't have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can't take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn't convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly ("I don't understand how...." rather than "Bet you can't explain...") could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

May 27, 2011, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

Adapt or Die

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.  If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad.  Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful.  Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there's a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

Most atheists won't meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked, so few of us will plausibly shake their confidence by being the first person not to give their claims automatic credence.  There may still be misconceptions you can be the first to correct (I've heard plenty of "Why are you angry at God" and had to explain I don't believe in a God that would attract my ire), but you're less likely to get to a productive conversation about nuances if you open with anger.

And if Christians have been criticized before, why do we expect it will be our sneer that does them in.  After all, even if they aren't particularly well versed in their faith, they've probably heard the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:10-12.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it.  Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they're ready to take advantage of it.  And they didn't last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection.   Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

In the long history of the various Christian traditions, those who couldn't offer something plausible enough to hold on to followers (or those who had unsustainable teachings, cf. the Shakers) died out.  Plenty of smart people have been Christians, and they've had a long time to kludge together apologetic responses to objections.  Sometimes, the relentless expansion of theology results in cruft that I like to label scriptural fanfiction, but the end result is a tangle of ripostes to any entry-level criticism you have to offer.

The simplest (and worst) response are the ones we're most familiar with, the fundamentalists who deny the scientific method, the legitimacy of any kind of statistical analysis, and even any human grasp of causality.  It's well nigh impossible to argue with these people.  You can always try pointing out they trust the conclusions of scientists in their day to day life, and ought to give them credence on bigger questions like evolution or the age of the universe, but you'll find some sects (esp Christian Scientists) have already embraced the reductio ad absurdum you were trying to set up and have rejected any semblance of an intelligible world in the here and now.  You're not likely to get very far with rational argument, and, although mockery may give you a spiteful pleasure, it's not likely to do the self-deceived much good.

Plenty of other Christians believe that their faith is compatible with the more ordinary truths of the world they live in, and they've been working to harmonize their dogma with the data on the ground.  Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition.  It's  no good raising questions and smirking if you can't rebut the next reply.  When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn't.  You might know that WLC's arguments are bunk, but if you can't make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image.  Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can't back it up with argument, you're handing weapons to the enemy.

If your goal isn't deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I'm not sure why you're having hostile confrontations in the first place.  Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule.  I disagree.  If you're in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.  It's one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

I've spent more of my time here at Daylight Atheism talking about poor deconversion tactics than I planned.  Tomorrow, you can count on a more constructive post on strategy inspired by my recent trip to see Broadway's The Book of Mormon.  In the meantime, I do have a list of three avenues of questioning I offered in argument with a campus ministry group.

May 26, 2011, 10:30 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn't believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they've caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I'm skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I'd love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won't do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you're joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn't accessible to the people you're ostensibly trying to help, it's hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don't think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we're criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can't be trusted.  We're either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn't be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can't, it's time to hit the books).

What's the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won't have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it's worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don't lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It's sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it's scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren't deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you're going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you'd best make sure:

  1. You're actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

May 25, 2011, 6:43 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments

From the Mailbag: Deconversion Saturday

It's not every day that I get awesome letters like the one I posted last Saturday, but this makes two weeks in a row now. If this keeps up, I may have to make it a regular feature!

This letter is from a commenter who's posted here in the past as 5acos(phi/2). Although it's from a country I don't have first-hand experience of, it has a lot in common with the kind of letters I get more frequently, just with a different set of culturally dominant religious beliefs in place of Christianity. It just goes to show that religion causes the same kinds of harm wherever and whenever it becomes the dominant political power in society, and that every society has a need for secularism. Thankfully, it also shows that every society has skeptics and freethinkers to hold the torch of reason up high!

Hello Adam,

I noticed your latest mailbag post and felt compelled to finally write you a thank you note and share my story, after I have been lurking on your site for so long. Unlike other great personal stories that have been posted on your blog, I think mine is in no way emotionally moving, but I suspect that you might find it a bit unusual considering the context of your site.

I come from Thailand, where the majority of the population identify as (Theravada) Buddhists, and so did I. So by definition, I have never been a theist, nor did I know what it is like to live in a theist-dominated country. And although everyone in my family is a Buddhist in name, we lead a mostly secular lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was not a skeptic - I accepted things that were taught to me without much questioning, and though I questioned and rejected some fantastical claims, I still occasionally fell prey to some of the benign ones.

Before coming across your site, I have already rejected or treated as allegory most of the absurd claims that are rampant in my society, such as reincarnation, karma, the Hindu gods that Thai people still worship, etc. But I did not take the next step to declare myself nonreligious, nor did I feel the need to do so. Being used to a secular life, religion simply was not a big issue to me. I still went along and participated in Buddhist ceremonies and prayers when it would seem rude not to.

Then one boring day at work, I stumbled upon your "Carrot & Stick" essay after clicking through a few links on morality without religion. I found your argument extremely compelling, and by the end of the essay I had crossed over the fence to nonreligion. I then continued reading further into both of your sites, and then I perused the links to discover other atheists' and skeptics' sites, as well as ScienceBlogs (long before "PepsiGate"), and have diligently followed them until today. I have learned how to truly think critically. I have learned what the scientific method really is when school have failed to make that point clear to me. It was perhaps only a chain of coincidences, but you were my gateway to science and skepticism.

Thanks to you, the other bloggers, and the Internet, I have come to realize that there are so much brilliance in the world, but also so much insanity. I read about the religiously-driven conflicts in the US with amused curiosity like I would observe an alien life form, but it was not long before some parallels are drawn. I realized that my country is also full of craziness, from the mostly harmless astrology to the Dhammakaya Movement, our Buddhism-flavored counterpart of the Church of Scientology, but the most fearsome and influential of all are the ultra-loyalists. They are, in many aspects, the Thai equivalent of the American religious right. Politically powerful and active, they may not oppose science, but they do try to support absurd political agenda and silence dissenting opinions, and at least for a while they infected most of our brainwashed middle class, including myself. I also have to thank someone else for deprogramming me, but it was no less helpful to read about similar conflicts from abroad, which I could objectively evaluate and compare.

Thanks to you, I am now a skeptic, and I will try to spread rationality into my part of the world.

April 9, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

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