This post is part of a dialogue, In Two Minds: The Anatomy of a Christian Hate Letter, between former minister Brian Worley and psychologist Valerie Tarico .
In the series, Brian Worley, an ordained Baptist, describes some of his
encounters with Christian friends and family since he deconverted and
Valerie Tarico responds. In Letter 3 Brian talks about what attracted
him to the Christian faith and he puzzles over why Christianity
provokes such intense and even violent reactions toward apostates and
As a former minister, you find
yourself searching for the best way to talk with friends and relatives
about your Christian deconversion. You look back at interactions with
your friends and brother and wonder if you should have done something
differently. And you ask: “If someone’s faith is working for them
and others without showing toxic results, should skeptics then just
avoid the religious subject altogether?”
an aside, you also expressed disappointment that your new Christian
neighbor lost interest in friendship once he realized that you weren’t
a possible convert. If you don’t mind, I will address this
experience with the “friendship missionary” in another letter.
For now, let’s focus on your question about yourself, what you might
have done differently, and how to approach these conversations in the
our culture, perhaps in most cultures, religious faith is guarded by a
powerful set of taboos. Primary among these is a taboo against
questioning assertions that are based on religion. If someone
makes a statement about the efficacy of Prozac or the best route to
peace in the Middle East, or the competence of the local school board,
any of us feels like we can respond with assertions of our own. In
fact, we often feel free to put forth opinions even when we know very
little about the matter at hand. But if someone makes a religious
assertion, the rule is: If you think what they’ve said is
mistaken or even harmful, keep it to yourself.
Many former believers respond
to this taboo instinctively. It seems that you prefer to take a
public stance and hit Christianity hard by writing articles for your
website. Personal acquaintances know that generally you will keep a low
profile with them about their Christianity otherwise, unless they decide
to push the issue. For years after my Evangelical beliefs crumbled, I
practiced a form of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But, for two
reasons, I no longer think that this is the solution.
“faith” when it is a euphemism for beliefs without evidentiary
basis, is not inherently benign. I am reminded of the quote from
Voltaire, “Those who can get you to believe absurdities, can get you
to commit atrocities.” Time and again, history has documented
benign, peaceful forms of Christianity flaring into outright
violence. But even in between these dark ages, dogmas can have a
corrosive effect on the moral priorities of believers. As Sam
Harris has said, dogma separates questions of morality from real
questions of suffering. It distracts genuinely decent people from
the real world contingencies that govern our well-being and that of the
web of life around us.
our silence creates a tremendous imbalance. Traditional
Christians, particularly Evangelicals, believe they have a divine
mandate to speak openly and frequently about their beliefs. Their
highest moral imperative is to save others from hell by convincing them
(kindly and graciously, perhaps) that their beliefs about what is real
and right are lethally mistaken. This means that if the rest of us
honor a taboo against religious critique and dialogue while Christian
missionaries follow a higher calling, we end up with a public monologue
on matters of morality and meaning.
you might ask, isn’t it possible that some forms of Christianity in
some people are beneficial? Mightn’t they provide a sense of
internal purpose and peace that leads believers not only to feel good
but to do good in the world, more than they would do otherwise? This is
not only possible, but seems to me to be true–of both Christianity and
most other religions.
shouldn’t we leave this kind of Christianity unchallenged?
No. I would argue that the kinds of Christianity that lead
to personal and community benefit without the risk of Voltaire’s “atrocity”
often are based in large measure on faith rather than belief.
They have at their core the essence of things hoped for, a humble
awareness that all theological understandings are provisional.
Consequently, they tend to center themselves in a set of values and
practices, rather than a set of exclusive truth claims. This kind
of religion doesn’t need to be sheltered by taboos. It participates in
our collective struggle to understand the Reality that some of us call
God and some of us don’t. Approached with genuine warmth,
adherents of this kind of Christianity often are able to see their moral
and spiritual kinship with outsiders and to take part in learning that
is genuinely reciprocal.
then, is the right role for you and me and others like us? I
think the solution is neither bold confrontation nor silence. Like
you, I’ve tried both. And in my experience, like yours,
confrontation and arguments simply don’t work, even when we former
believers are trying to be calm and rational. In past letters, you
and I have talked about how brittle belief can be and why believers need
to slam doors. But sometimes the fault is ours.
any of us decide to break old taboos we tend to do so
dramatically. Think about early feminism. Think about young
teenagers. Think about the civil rights movement. The first
phase of breaking free is often empowered by an intense defiance.
Otherwise it just wouldn’t happen. I’m reminded of the comic book
hero, the Hulk, who must sense mortal danger before he can transform
into a great green monster. Then he can break through handcuffs
and prison doors and stop all manner of evil, but he also smashes
through a lot of ordinary buildings and offices and cars, and he
frightens people as he goes.
former Christians are like good kids who turn into fifteen-year-old rule
breakers. We break the rules dramatically because that’s the
only way we can know we’ve really done it. Often we’re angry
at the harm done to us, the unnecessary control, our own compliance with
it – and even when we try to be calm and polite, the anger comes
through. In the otherwise benign invitation you sent to friends
and family, most readers probably never got past the title of the
article you alluded to, “The God of the Bible is a Sheep Beater.”
Similarly, my own family members can’t get past the title of my book, The
Dark Side. I’ll never forget a comment by my dear Christian
friend, Katherine, who read an early draft of my book cover to
cover: “Just because something is true, doesn’t mean you have
to say it.”
of the great things about the community at ExChristian.net is that
people can be as mad and defiant as they need to be for as long as they
need to be. But what works for venting isn’t the same as what
works for communication. When we are far enough along in our
healing and growth that we want to participate in healing and growing
the world around us, then a different approach is needed.
when you are breaking a taboo, it doesn’t take much of a break to
rattle the status quo. Sometimes all you have to do is to have
your face uncovered and refuse to sit in the back of the bus. Just
being willing to identify yourself as a former Christian – and
then to continue being the decent person that you are messes with people’s
categories. Just being willing to say quietly and
respectfully, “I don’t believe in gods” or “Actually, I do
believe in coincidences” can give people food for though. Just
being willing to say, “Hmm, that doesn’t seem moral to me.” Or “I
think that the universe is so wonderful it doesn’t need supernatural
explanations” –simple statements like these may be enough.
goal is not to change someone’s mind but simply to let them know that
within their community there are alternatives. The most important thing
is to ask yourself is whether your words sound like an invitation or an
argument. What kind of words create an invitation depends on your
relationship with the other person and the context.
will give you the openings by saying things like, “I’ll pray for
you.” Or “Praise the Lord.” Or “God bless you.”
The presumption always is that your silence means what they’ve said is
ok, that the rules stand. Taking that opening as an opportunity to
say anything that offers an alternate view, however mild, is radical.