IN TWO MINDS:               

The Anatomy of a Christian Hate Letter                                

 Letter Six:                                  

Webmaster's note: This is a series that should be read in sequence to be understood.

It is strongly suggested that you begin with the introduction first!

this letter was written by Valerie Tarico

Dear Brian, 

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?"

 (As 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 future.)  

In 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. 

First, "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.  

Second, 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. 

But, 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.  

So, 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. 

What, 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.  

When 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.   

We 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."   

One 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.   

Fortunately, 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.   

The 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.  

Christians 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.  

Warmly, 

Valerie

Want to review another letter in this series? Just click the link below. 

Introduction Letter   Letter 1  Letter 2  Letter 3 Letter 4  Letter 5 

  www.spaces.live.com/awaypoint 

Valerie Tarico         February  2008        All rights reserved.

posted by  Brian Worley   Ex-Minister.org    

 

Away Point

Valerie Tarico

 


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