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If the Catholic Bishops, their Evangelical Protestant allies, and other Right-wing fundamentalists had the sole objective of decimating religious belief, they couldn’t be doing a better job of it.
Testimonials at sites like ExChristian.net show that people leave religion for a number of reasons, many of which religious leaders have very little control over. Sometimes, for example, people take one too many science classes. Sometimes they find their faith shattered by the suffering in the world – either because of a devastating injury or loss in their own lives or because they experience the realities of another person’s pain in a new way. Sometimes a believer gets intrigued by archaeology or symbology or the study of religion itself. Sometimes a believer simply picks up a copy of the Bible or Koran and discovers faith-shaking contradictions or immoralities there.
But if you read ExChristian testimonials you will notice that quite often church leaders or members do things that either trigger the deconversion process or help it along. They may turn a doubter into a skeptic or a quiet skeptic into an outspoken anti-theist, or as one former Christian calls himself, a de-vangelist.
Here are some top ways Christians push people out the Church door or shove secret skeptics out of the closet. Looking at the list, you can’t help but wonder if the Catholic Bishops, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman and their fundamentalist allies are working for the devil.
Gay Baiting. Because of sheer demographics, most gay people are born into religious families. In this country almost half are born into Bible-believing families, many of whom see homosexuality as an abomination. The condemnation (and self-condemnation) can be excruciating, as we all know from the suicide rate. Some emotionally battered gays spend their lives fighting or denying who they are, but many eventually find their way to open and affirming congregations or non-religious communities.
Ignorant and mean-spirited attitudes about homosexuality don’t drive just gays out of the Church, they are a huge deconversion issue for straight friends and family members. When Christians indulge in slurs, devout moms and dads who also love their gay kids find themselves less comfortable in their church home. Young people, many of whom think of the gay rights issue as a no-brainer, put anti-gay churches in the “archaic” category. Since most people Gen X and younger recognize equal rights for gays as a matter of common humanity, gay baiting is a wedge issue that wedges young people right out of the church. That makes Fred Phelps a far better evangelist for atheism than for his own gay-hating Westborough Baptist Church.
Prooftexting. People who think of the Bible as the literally perfect word of God love to quote excerpts to argue their points. They often start with a verse in 1 Timothy: All scripture is given by inspiration of God. (As if this circular argument would convince anyone but a true believer.) They then proceed to quote whatever authoritarian, anti-gay, or anti-woman verse makes their point, like, Whoever spares the rod hates their children . . . Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being. or Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination or Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. In doing so, they call into question biblical authority, because the Bible writers so obviously got these issues wrong. Literalists who prooftext are a tremendous asset to those who would like to see Bible worship fade away – because prooftexting on one side of an argument invites the same in return, and it is easy to find quotes from the Bible that are either scientifically absurd or morally repugnant.
Many liberal or modernist Christians see the Bible as a human document, an attempt by our spiritual ancestors to articulate their best understanding of God through the lens of imperfect human cultures and minds. Suppose such a Christian gets confronted with a verse that says, for example, Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man (Numbers 31:17-18), or No man who has any defect may come near [to God in the temple]: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, . . . (Leviticus 21:17-23). He or she can simply shrug and say, “Yeah, that’s ugly.” A couple of years ago a group of liberal Christians even kicked off an internet competition to vote on the worst verse in the Bible. Their faith doesn’t stand or fall with the perfection of the Bible. Biblical literalists, on the other hand give someone like me an excuse to talk about sexual slavery or bias against handicapped people in the Bible – in front of an audience who have been taught that the good book is uniformly good. For a wavering believer, the dissonance can be too much.
Misogyny. For psychological and social reasons females are more inclined toward religious belief than males. They are more likely to attend church services and to insist on raising their children in a faith community. They also appear more indifferent than males to rational critique of religion, like debates about theology or evolutionary biology. I was interested to notice recently that my YouTube channel, Life After Christianity, which focuses on the psychology of religion gets about eighty percent male viewers. Women are the Church’s base constituency, but fortunately for atheists, this fact hasn’t caused conservative Christians to back off of sexism that is justified by – you got it – prooftexting from the Old and New Testaments.
Evangelical minister, Jim Henderson, recently published a book, The Resignation of Eve, in which he urges his fellow Christians to take a hard look at the consequences of sexism in the church. According to Henderson, old school sexism has driven some women out of Christianity permanently, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For those who stay, it means that many are less enthusiastic and engaged than they would be. Churches rely on women to volunteer in roles that range from secretary to director of Children’s programs to missionaries. That takes a high level of confidence in Church doctrines and also a strong sense of belonging. Biblical sexism cultivates neither. Between 1991 and 2011 the percent of women attending church in a typical week dropped by eleven points, from 55 to 44 percent.
Hypocrisy. Christians are taught – and many believe—that thanks to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit they are a moral beacon for society. The writer of Matthew told his audience, “You are the light of the world.” That’s a high bar, and yet decent believers (along with many other decent people) try earnestly to meet it. But the added pressure on those who call themselves “the righteous” means that believers also are prone to hiding, pretending, posing, and turning a blind eye to their own very human, very normal faults and flaws. People who desperately want to be sanctified and righteous, “cleansed by the blood of the lamb” – who need to believe that they now merit heaven but that other people’s smallest transgressions merit eternal torture—have a lot of motivation to engage in self-deception and hypocrisy. High profile hypocrites like Ted Haggard or Rush Limbaugh may be loved by their acolytes, but for people who are teetering, they help to build a gut aversion to whatever they espouse. But often as not, the hypocrisies that pose a threat to faith are small and internal to a single Bible-study or youth group. Backbiting and social shunning are part of the church-lady stereotype for a reason. They also leave a bitter taste that makes some church members stop drinking the Kool-aid.
Disgusting and Immoral Behavior. The priest abuse scandal did more for the New Atheist movement than outspoken anti-theists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith) or Bill Maher (Religulous) ever could. To make matters worse—or better, depending on your point of view– Bill Donohue of the Catholic League seems to be doing everything possible to fan those flames: On top of the abuse itself, followed by cover-ups, he is now insisting that the best defense of Church property is a good offense against the victims, and has vowed to fight them “one by one.” The Freedom from Religion Foundation publishes a bi-monthly newspaper that includes a regular feature: The Black Collar Crime Blotter. It features fraud, drug abuse, sex crimes and more by Protestant as well as Catholic clergy. The obvious purpose is to move readers from Religion isn’t true to Religion isn’t benign to Religion is abhorrent and needs fighting. Moral outrage is a powerful emotion.
Science denial. One of my former youth group friends had his faith done in by a conversation with a Bible study leader who explained that dinosaur skeletons actually are the bones of the giants described in early books of the Bible. Uh huh. Christians have come up with dozens of squishier, less falsifiable ways to explain the geological record: The ‘days’ in Genesis 1 were really ‘ages.’ Or God created the world with the fossils already in place to test our faith. Or the biblical creation story is really sacred metaphor. But young earth creationists who believe the world appeared in its present form 6- 10,000 years ago are stuck. And since almost half of the American public believes some version of this young earth story, there are ample opportunities for inquiring minds to trip across proto-scientific nonsense.
Like other factors I’ve mentioned, science denial doesn’t just move believers to nonbelief. It also rallies opposition ranging from cantankerous bloggers to legal advocates. It provides fodder for comedians and critics: “If the world was created 6000 years ago, what’s fueling your car?” It may produce some of the most far reaching opposition to religious belief, because science advocates argue that faith, even socially benign faith, is a fundamentally flawed way of knowing. The Catholic Church, perhaps still licking wounds about Galileo (they apologized finally in the 20th Century), has managed to avoid embarrassing and easily disproven positions on evolutionary biology. But one could argue that their atheism-fostering positions on conception and contraception similarly rely on ignorance about or denial of biological science –in this case embryology and the basic fact that most embryos never become persons.
Political meddling. If you look at religion-bashing quote-quip-photo-clip-links that circulate Facebook and Twitter, most of them are prompted by church incursions into the political sphere. A spat between two atheists erupted on my home page yesterday. “Why can’t ex-Christians just shut up about religion and get on with building a better world?” asked one. “Why can’t we shut up?!” screeched the other. “Because of shit like this!” He posted a link about Kansas giving doctors permission to deny contraception and accurate medical information to patients.
I myself give George W. Bush credit for transforming me from a politically indifferent, digging-in-the-garden agnostic into a culture warrior. He casually implied that, when going to war, he didn’t need to consult with his own father because he had consulted the big guy in the sky, and my evangelical relatives backed him up on that, and I thought, oh my God, the beliefs I was raised on are killing people. The Religious Right, and now the Catholic Bishops, have brought religion into politics in the ugliest possible way short of holy war, and people who care about the greater good have taken notice. Lists of ugly Bible verses, articles about the psychology of religion, investigative exposes about Christian machinations in D.C. or rampant proselytizing in the military and public schools –all of these are popular among political progressives because it is impossible to drive progressive change without confronting religious fundamentalism.
Intrusion. Australian comedian and atheist John Safran, flew to Salt Lake City for a round of door-to-door devangelism after Mormons rang his doorbell one too many times on Saturday morning. More serious intrusions, in deeply personal beginning- and end-of-life decisions, for example, generate reactive anti-theism in people who mostly just want to live and let live.
Catholic and Evangelical conservatives have made a high stakes gamble that they can regain authoritarian control over their flocks and hold onto the next generation of believers (and tithers) by asserting orthodox dogmas, making Christian belief an all or nothing proposition. Their goal is a level of theological purity that will produce another Great Awakening based largely on the same dogmas as the last one. They hope to cleanse their membership of theological diversity, and assert top down control of conscience questions, replenishing their membership with anti-feminist, pro-natalist policies and proselytizing in the Southern hemisphere. But the more they resort to strict authoritarianism, insularity and strict interpretation of Iron Age texts, the more people are wounded in the name of God and the more people are outraged. By making Christian belief an all-or-nothing proposition – they force at least some would-be believers to choose “nothing.” Anti-theists are all too glad to help.