It stopped me cold.
Sometimes a reader makes a comment that turns into a blog post, because he or she raises such a compelling or broadly applicable topic.
A reader named John left just such a comment on one of my posts on religious brainwashing. You can read the original post here.
In a nutshell, John shared about his own Christian Fundamentalist background in a spiritually abusive family. The hypocrisy and violent finger-waving caused him to walk away from his parents’ hurtful faith.
Eventually by 16 or 17 I had a gut instinct that I wanted nothing to do with my parents’ values or churches. But it was a gut instinct that I was not willing to face for many years because of the brainwashing. Plus I loved my family and didn’t want to become the outsider – the “heathen,” the “world,” the “them” that needed to be “saved.” But their spiritual, emotional and physical abuse finally gave me the push to estrange myself.
The biggest problem with such people, really, is an unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions. To use the words “please forgive,” instead of “sorry but…,” “didn’t mean it like that,” etc.
And so it is that while I admire your website greatly as a source to understand my sad family and upbringing better, the greatest “get out jail free card” of any Christian is the idea that the other
kind of Christian is not a real Christian – that such people misinterpreted or misunderstood the Bible and that God meant “it” differently.
The supposed contradictions of the Bible [are] actually Christianity’s strength – no one will ever take responsibility for acts in its name—cherry-picking is the name of the game.
So even though you write “Christians should strive to follow Christ and not compare themselves with other believers,” Bible cults/Fundamentalists could say the same of you. It’s a never-ending cycle and it keeps the Bible myths alive.The only sane route for me out of that mad entanglement was that of atheism. I do feel far “safer” on a page written by a (calmer) theologian than a (crazed) Fundamentalist, yet I find it interesting that Christopher Hitchens always had a kind of respect for the latter in at least being honest that their beliefs are all about faith and not reason, whereas his theologian counterparts never could, yet could also not “reason” without the Bible.
From all those YouTube debates, one doesn’t know who to feel sorry for the most: the Bible cult preacher or the supposed “rational” theologian who couldn’t admit that he didn’t actually have facts – only faith.
John raises some really good points, don’t you agree? Maybe you feel the same way. Indeed, I have friends who have walked away from Christianity because they were spiritually abused. Readers often write to me expressing their disillusionment with the faith. How would you respond to John’s questions?
Here’s how I would:
Welcome to the discussion. I value your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to write about your own background and your reasons for doubt.
I am so sorry that you were raised in a spiritually abusive home. As a Christian–and as a former member of a legalistic Bible cult–I can only offer my deepest sympathy and apologies. No child or young person should have to endure such a twisted and harmful belief system.
If I understand your comments correctly, you have decided that a humanistic, atheistic belief system offers you a safer, more solid place to stand. That way you can rely on reason rather than faith. You believe that calm theologians (such as me, thanks for that hat tip) are not much different than fundamentalists, since we all judge each other and decry each other as false. But to the fundamentalists’ credit (according to Christopher Hitchens), they at least admit their faith rather than mislabeling their belief as based on reason. Christians shouldn’t point fingers, since they are all equally misguided.
Have I more or less caught the gist of your position?
You raise important questions. Here are my thoughts:
1.) We should avoid judging a belief system by its abuse. Every system has its confused practitioners, twisted interpretations, and abusive applications. Yet we don’t burn dollar bills just because counterfeits exist. Any belief system—atheism included—should be judged on its purest form, as it was intended to be interpreted and practiced. If we are to judge God, we must judge him as the Bible portrays him, not as we misperceive him.
2.) The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in, either. He is a distorted, misrepresented, sadistic tyrant. In this belief we have much in common. Both of us have suffered abuse from people who misperceived God and misinterpreted his word. Such a God certainly does not exist.
3.) Someone is not no one. You said that “no one will ever take responsibility for acts in [the Bible’s] name.” But real Christians accept responsibility for their misdeeds. While it is true that I cannot accept responsibility for actions I never committed, I strive every day to admit, apologize for, and make right the wrongs I have committed. While I practice this imperfectly, I still try. And there are many others more righteous than I. You may have encountered precious few of these people, but they exist, and so your categorization cannot hold true. Some Christians do accept responsibility. And someone is not no one.
4.) Interpretation is a science, and thus a biblical interpretation may be judged more or less true. I can understand if this makes your skin crawl, since everyone initially believes that his or her own interpretation must be true. But I now find this concept comforting. The Bible doesn’t mean whatever we want it to mean, or whatever our abusive pastor says it means, or whatever our misguided parents perceived it to mean. No, instead it has a meaning which is derived from the clearest sense of a passage when the cultural background is understood and when all of scripture is taken into account.
The science of interpretation is called “hermeneutics,” and a lot of misguided, archaic, and flat-out wrong interpretations get thrown in a large trashcan when we apply proper hermeneutical principles. I hope that this blog never turns into a bashing contest, but I don’t hesitate to point out false and harmful interpretations of scripture when I see them go against normally accepted hermeneutical principles. Other issues are open to a wide variety of interpretations—you’ll never see me paint them black.
5.) Every worldview stands by faith. Worldview is the cloud of beliefs and perceptions—often unconsciously held—which inform a person’s beliefs about life. Every worldview strives to answer the greatest questions of life (origins, purpose, etc.), and the chief question is: Why is there something rather than nothing? After studying all of the major worldview options (Theism, including Monotheism and Christianity in particular; Pantheism, including reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; and Atheism), I find that Christianity offers me the most satisfying answers to the origin of the universe, the purpose of life, and the reason for moral living.
The atheist must also take his beliefs by faith, rather than by reason, since it is impossible to prove a negative or observe the beginning of time. Since Science deals with the observable or reproducible, atheists enter the realm of faith when they seek to answer life’s ultimate questions.
The theist also stands by faith, yet he has much historical evidence for his beliefs. Both Jewish and Roman historians refer to the person of Jesus Christ, and many biblical accounts are contextualized and supported by archaeology and world history.
John, you ask good questions. I can sympathize with your doubts– The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in, either. I invite your discussion either via email or in the comments section below. Thanks for posting your comment and starting such an important discussion.
Best Regards, Steve