The Making of an Anti-Theist Mom

Chiseling BrickWhat makes a Seattle mother spend her days trying to chip away at Bible belief rather than digging holes in the garden?

When my husband sent me the Pew Report news that the percent of Americans who call themselves Christian has dropped from 78.4 to 70.6 over the last 7 years, I responded jokingly with six words: You’re welcome. Molly Moon’s after dinner?

Not that I actually claim credit for the decline. As they say, it takes a village. But I have been busting my butt for a decade now—working as hard and smart as I know how—to undermine the corrosive influence of a weaponized Bible on communities and people I love. So I’d like to pretend that the poll results mean I deserve ice cream.

Two scoops. Stumptown coffee and melted chocolate, please.

If the past is any indicator, conservative Christian commentators will go batshit over the Pew numbers, citing them as proof positive that Christianity is under siege, that the hordes of darkness have broken through the gates of Hell.  Only by electing Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal to the White House can True Christians restore America to her [fictional] glory days in which every red blooded American went to church in his or her Sunday best and there was prayer in every school and children behaved because they got hit and the Earth was 6000 years old by fiat.

The predictable frenzy of doomsaying is likely to ignore two rather obvious facts:

  1. Seventy percent is a supermajority.
  2. Conservative Bible-believing Christians (and, to be fair, fundamentalist Muslims) have done far more to bring on that that eight percent decline than outsiders ever could. From a marketing standpoint, a lot of believers are playing for the wrong team. Acting like you have a direct line to God . . . proclaiming that your tribe alone holds the keys to heaven . . . assuming that everybody else lacks a moral core . . . behaving like this beautifully intricate Earth doesn’t matter because God will create a brand new one when this one’s paved over. . . .and then trying to make your religion the law of the land . . . It’s just unappealing.

Satan’s not the problem.

So, if fundamentalists are running their own anti-marketing campaign, why does someone like me spend half of each week in front of a computer writing, unpaid, on topics like twelve really bad religious ideas that have made the world worse or why the Christian heaven would actually be hell or the common root of religious child abuse and the pro-life movement?

Evangelicals of the sort I used to be might say Because of Satan. Obviously. Or they might say that I hate the God that I no longer believe in.

They might, but they would be wrong.

I don’t hate God. You know what I do hate? People acting like douches.

When the Christian Coalition decided in the 1990s to take over America’s political system and impose their moral and spiritual values top down, some outsiders felt offended because, believe it or not, we actually have deeply held values of our own. When Evangelicals realized in the 2000s that they could get taxpayers to subsidize evangelism via public contracts and “faith based initiatives,” things got worse. And then when a whole Pandora’s box of hobby lobbyists discovered that by claiming “religious freedom” they could get excused from rules and responsibilities that otherwise apply to all. . . well here’s where we’re at.

From Incredulity to Activism

Losing my religion didn’t make me an anti-theist.

I left Christianity more than twenty years ago, when I got tired of making excuses for the God I had worshipped since childhood and then realized there was little left of my God but those shabby, worn out excuses. At the time, I was working on a children’s cancer ward. Enough said.

But when I stopped believing, I didn’t go public, let alone go activist; I simply moved on.

Some people’s journey out of their religion leaves them wounded or traumatized, but at the end my own departure was pretty painless. I had a great community of secular friends, and my Evangelical relatives were and are loving to this day, even those who think I’m slated for eternal torture.

I did and still do find spiritual kin among people whose call themselves Christian. I was honored to sit on the board of the Washington Association of Churches as a bridge builder, a non-theist who nonetheless believed in the mission statement they had drawn from the words of the prophet Micah: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Years later, I worked together with a broad coalition to create an “Interspiritual Day” during a week of events called Seeds of Compassion that brought the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu to Seattle for conversations with business leaders, educators, religious leaders and ordinary citizens.

To be clear, I have never, since that time on the cancer ward, ascribed to any sort of supernaturalism, no matter how soft and kind. I have never thought that What- the-Bleep-type mysticism was anything other than woo. But at some point I realized that my own version of secular spirituality wasn’t about beliefs. It was about who and how I served, and there were people who shared that center point across the spectrum of religious belief and disbelief.

After the last vapors of my Evangelical faith evaporated into the cancer ward at Children’s Hospital, religion simply faded from my life. In my naïve narcissism, I assumed that since the Bible God had stopped making sense to me, everyone else was probably drifting in the same direction and I could just get on with the business of working and loving and making sweet babies.

I maintained that assumption until George W. Bush started using Bible belief to justify war. Not OK.

More personally painful was the realization that my otherwise kind, decent Evangelical relatives found G.W.’s willful ignorance of foreign policy a matter of indifference. The fact that his gesture to the Big Man in the Sky before invading Iraq actually satisfied them became a pivotal sore point. If religious belief could make good people like them intellectually sloppy and casually cruel, something needed doing. And I’ve been working ever since at doing it.

Look. Nobody wants to have to take on the Vatican or the Southern Baptist Convention or ISIS in order to have there be a little more kindness in the world and a little less pain. Most outside critics of Christianity fully grasp that their quest is Quixotic. Picture me, a stubby, middle-aged Seattle mom wearing an REI fleece with campfire-burn-holes, pounding small rocks against a walled city that has endured for two thousand years. It’s so inane as to be embarrassing.

I really would rather dig holes in the garden.

But if I care about what I say I care about and love who I say I love; if I truly believe that each of us gets one precious life, and that together we get one precious planet, and that biblical Christianity utterly fails at stewarding either, I feel like I have no choice but to keep pounding.

And so I do.

Inspiration

Do you know anyone who cherishes the Christian tradition and would like to see it reformed and revitalized rather than beaten back? If so, please tell them this: Ideologues who care more about law than love, who get more charged up about injury to biblical authority than injury to a fellow creature, who think that harms done in the name of Christ are somehow lesser evils—believers like this are a far greater threat to Christianity than outside critics ever could be. They also provide the inspiration that keeps folks like me at it:

So What?

Why should anyone care about my evolution from Christian to critic? Not because it is important but because it is illustrative. The marriage of biblical Christianity with Right wing politics has cost the Church more than a few Seattle moms.

In October 2014, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer published an analysis of declining religious affiliation between 1987 and 2012. Their most counterintuitive finding was that political conflict over social issues like non-marital sex and gay marriage caused almost half of the change. Women are hit hardest by conservative policies that block reproductive rights and prioritize the free market over flourishing families, and nonbelief is growing faster among women than men. According to a new report by Christian pollster, Barna: “In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women. By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent.”

In 2013, Barna asked believers a series of questions about their own attitudes and behavior and then rated whether they were more like Jesus or more like the legalistic, judgmental Pharisees of the New Testament stories. Across the board, Christians looked more like Pharisees than like Jesus. But those with conservative political attitudes were among the least likely to rate high on Christ-like attitudes and behaviors (8 percent).

In the words of David Kinneman, president of Barna and author of the book, UnChristian, “This study points out a sobering possibility: that the perception so many young people have of Christians contains more than a kernel of truth.” In separate research he found that only 15 percent of young non-Christians thought that the believers they knew were different in a positive way.

The Price of Political Success

On one level, the culture wars have been a smashing success for conservative Evangelicals and Bible believers. Republican Presidential contenders are tripping over themselves in their haste to position as devout Christians and defenders of religious freedom. An Indiana woman recently received a twenty-year sentence for self-aborting her secret pregnancy. The Texas Board of Education endorsed Moses as one of America’s founding fathers. Religious organizations have unprecedented rights to government contracts and the use of public facilities for expressly religious purposes. The Supreme Court has given the thumbs up to religious exemptions from laws and duties that otherwise apply to all Americans.

But one can’t help but wonder if, in the long run, Christians will look back and regret the seduction of political power. Nineteen percent of adults are former Christians, and resources for ex-Christians or believers “in recovery” are mushrooming. And among the youngest adults, thirty-four percent don’t affiliate with any specific church or religion, up from twenty-five percent in 2007.

As Christianity loses moderate believers, those who remain appear increasingly narrow minded and dogmatic. No less a figure than the Pope has called rigid ideology an “illness” within the Church, one that drives people away:

“The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: his tenderness, his love, his meekness. . . . Ideology frightens, ideology chases away.”

Rigid and judgmental ideology chases away young people in particular. But it also turns former Christians like me into writers and speakers who are intent on exposing ugly realities that religious institutions might prefer to downplay. The illness within the Church, as Pope Francis called it, demands that I keep writing and talking because—for the life of me—I can’t figure out how we can move toward a better future, one grounded more deeply in compassion, inclusion and discovery, when the world’s supermajority religions are anchored to the Iron Age by rigid book worship, sick with ideology and aspirations of political dominion.

Can reformers within Christianity reclaim their spiritual tradition from the Pharisees and political operatives and bring it forward? Can they articulate a Christian worldview that puts love over law and is compatible with what we know about ourselves and the world around us? Certainly some are trying. Rob Bell, for example, and Rachel Held Evans. Fred Plumer. Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong. Maybe, possibly, even Pope Francis himself.

I have no idea if they will succeed. In the meantime, I intend to be here at my desk criticizing fundamentalism, extoling doubt and awaiting my next excuse for Molly Moon’s melted chocolate.

______________________

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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30 Responses to The Making of an Anti-Theist Mom

  1. Loved it Valerie, and respect you keeping strong to your conviction. In the 80s at a friends house where we both gathered certain mornings for intense and sincere prayer we discussed doubt. I made it clear that if I ever found out I had been deceived and Christianity was a sham, I’d fight it with all my life .( i hate being deceived) My friend said if he realized it wasn’t real he’d commit suicide . That has always stuck with me. Some people have an amazing amount of emotional identity/baggage wrapped into their faith. Christians are led to believe that without their Christian faith life is truly meaningless…which is so very sad

    Liked by 1 person

  2. windotoucher says:

    Thank you once again for your activism on behalf of humanity I had to look up Moon’s. You deserve many many many scoops!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lbwoodgate says:

    Please … keep pounding. It let’s us kindred spirits know we are not alone

    Liked by 1 person

  4. paineite says:

    Valerie, you are “the bomb!” LOL !! (shared far and wide)

    Like

  5. A most excellent piece. I love your writing style.

    Get yourself a half-gallon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Evangelicals of the sort I used to be might say Because of Satan. Obviously. Or they might say that I hate the God that I no longer believe in.” – You left out an old favorite – “You were never a true Christian in the first place –“

    Liked by 1 person

  7. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Ideologues who care more about law than love, who get more charged up about injury to biblical authority than injury to a fellow creature….” – 15 girls die as zealots ‘drive them into blaze’

    Liked by 1 person

  8. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Across the board, Christians looked more like Pharisees than like Jesus.

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
    — Mohandas Gandhi —

    Liked by 2 people

  9. archaeopteryx1 says:

    “So many Gods, so many creeds,
    So many paths that wind and wind,
    When just the art of being kind
    Is all this sad world needs.”
    — Ella Wheeler Wilcox —

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Rob Jones says:

    As another commentator said, I also like your style. Keep up the good work.
    The Pew poll was taken before the current GOP presidential contenders showed their extreme views. Hopefully this will accelerate the rise of the nones.
    Support of same sex marriage also encourages me. We have the vote in Ireland this week. But here in Australia where polling shows a 70% support for same sex marriage we have a Roman Catholic prime minister vehemently opposed to it. How can this be in progressive Australia?
    We are witnessing the collapse of religion and I’m excited to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Perry Bulwer says:

    …”I can’t figure out how we can move toward a better future, one grounded more deeply in compassion, inclusion and discovery,…”

    That’s the problem. How do we get there from here?

    I think that the principles of secular humanism set out the goals to strive for. http://bchumanist.ca/about/humanism

    Except for the ‘secular’ part, I think most progressive believers could probably get behind most of those principles. After all, they include the right to believe anything you want, or not. But those among them so stuck in absolute, supernatural worldviews that they can’t get past the emphasis on rationality and science would probably prefer a religious humanism. So we would still be left with divided societies. I’m not sure how other religions express that division but the New Testament says: “So there was a division among the people because of him [Jesus].” John 7: 43

    It seems to me all religions divide rather than unite people. The only thing we all have in common is that we are human.

    Like

    • I’m sometimes asked , “If you believe in tolerance and pluralism, why do you pick on Christianity so much?” Partly because so much Christianity is intolerant. Its claims can not respect other paths as equals. One is either right or wrong, saved or unsaved, of God or of the devil, which is strong evidence that love is NOT the main message, but instead a spiritual conformity and submission. It even means feigning tolerance (friendship evangelism) with the sole purpose to convert. Those of us who came out from under this know exactly what I’m talking about and its deceitful. My martial arts sufu taught “if your opponent attacks you hard, you go soft. if he attacks soft, go hard!” Christians like to feign the soft attack…and to work its hooks into the lonely, the fearful, and easily intimidated. If we allow it with a shrug claiming tolerance…we don’t really understand tolerance.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. gwpj says:

    Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
    Valerie Tarico’s article speaks for itself. To me, it’s a must-read article.

    Like

  13. gwpj says:

    Wonderful article Valerie, which I’ve reblogged on my “Musings” blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: The Making of an Anti-Theist Mom | Freethought

  15. tiffany267 says:

    Your courage doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated :)

    Btw it’s interesting that my religious friends dislike and distance themselves from the way that their leaders and fundamentalist representatives portray Christianity. I have read that Muslims feel the same way about ISIS.

    Like

  16. Valerie, just want to let you know you have a kindred spirit on the other side of the world. I’m a stubby middle-aged Australian mum, also a psychologist. I also lost faith 20 years ago, but still believe in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Thank you for pounding away.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Ron Taska says:

    Stay out of the garden and keep writing.

    Like

  18. Stephen UHL says:

    A:hover { COLOR: red } A { TEXT-DECORATION: none; COLOR: #0088cc } A.primaryactionlink:link { COLOR: #fff; BACKGROUND-COLOR: #2585b2 } A.primaryactionlink:visited { COLOR: #fff; BACKGROUND-COLOR: #2585b2 } A.primaryactionlink:hover { COLOR: #fff !important; BACKGROUND-COLOR: #11729e } A.primaryactionlink:active { COLOR: #fff !important; BACKGROUND-COLOR: #11729e }

    Good morning, Valerie:

    I have appreciated your writings for quite a while; today’s was somehow specially encouraging. Perhaps this reaction of mine is due to the deepening realization that we are quickly now reaching toward that important tipping point. This is most heartening for those of who have worked for several decades to undermine superstition.

    We all keep chipping away in our smaller or larger arenas; and you are to be congratulated and thanked for your contributions. I do not get involved much with the newer social media, but, if I had my druthers, one of them would be that your contribution of today would go viral so that the youngsters could ever more deeply appreciate the efforts that have gotten us this far. Perhaps their response would be to get more actively involved themselves in this most challenging, yet most important, venture in our post-Christian time.

    Keep up the good work,

    Steve Stephen F. Uhl, Ph.D. 13401 Rancho Vistoso Blvd., #174 Oro Valley, AZ 85755 “Treat others as U want 2 B treated.”

    Like

  19. RALPH HARRIS says:

    If your want more information on the untold history of Christianity read The Myth of Christ which is posted on Amazon.com for a nominal fee.

    Like

  20. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    By all means, keep writing! I’ve enjoyed your articles immensely, especially those on reproductive freedom and “biblical morality”.

    However, for some time now, I’ve suspected that something far more insidious is going on with the religious right.

    Example 1: Dinosaurs. The religious right has changed from the (clearly false) claim that dinosaurs didn’t exist to the claim that humans lived alongside them (again clearly false but perhaps more palatable to some).

    Example 2: Reproductive rights. In one of your previous articles (many moons ago :)), you pointed out that the countries that have the lowest abortion rates are the countries that provide full information regarding reproductive options, and make abortion safe and legal. It doesn’t make sense to me that those who vehemently oppose abortion would advocate policies, e.g. “abstinence education” or defunding Planned Parenthood, that would result in an increased number of abortions. (Of course, I’m assuming rational thought processes; admittedly, that could be a bit generous. :))

    Accordingly, I suspect that some ulterior motive exists. (Protecting the fortunes of religious right leaders or opposition to women’s rights come to mind.)

    Lowell Bushey

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Next time you’re in Vancouver, WA…let me know and I’ll buy you that cup of Stumptown :)

    Like

  22. Tina Hartley says:

    I want say thanks for writing for those of us that are not as book smart. I have been a Certified Nursing Assistant for 20 years. I have been through a lot of bad stuff and seen a lot of bad stuff. I have also visited all kinds of different churches growing up and as an adult. Both of my parents are against everything although my father has passed away 9 years ago. I have developed my own type of golden rule that I have lived with my entire life although I haven’t always stayed true to it some people you are not always wanting to be nice to. My golden rule is this. If you treat others the way you want to be treated then you will always be kind it doesn’t matter what religion or non religion you are.

    Like

  23. mriana says:

    Awesome article, Valerie!

    Like

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