Shutting off the “Wait a minute…” Tap

Once I was in church when the preacher began to tell us a story that he claimed was true. It was about a tsunami and the lives it claimed.

It went like this:

“There was a village in Asia where the church was high on a hill. One Sunday, a tsunami came and wiped out everyone who was on the beach below. This included a number of Christian fisherman, who were working at the shore.

Now I don’t say this to judge those men, but if they had been in church on Sunday like they should have been, they would have been high on the hill and out of harm’s way. They lost their lives because they didn’t keep the sabbath.”

As a member of the congregation, hearing this story was one of those “Wait a minute…” moments. Wait a minute. Something’s really off here. At times like this, the discomfort was a dripping tap: I could zone out the drip drip drip of these constant “Wait a minute…” moments for long periods, but now and again it would get loud and distracting.

I know the preacher said he wasn’t judging, but… wasn’t he judging?

Can you really say “I don’t say this to judge” followed by something that sounds an awful lot like “Those people died in a tsunami because they disobeyed God” in the same sentence?

Can you just put “I don’t say this to judge” in front of literally anything and it automatically makes it a non-judgemental statement? “I’m not judging but anyone with an avocado bathroom suite – and no plans to replace it with a white one – deserves to die“?

Sure, the fishermen died because they happened to be at the beach working that Sunday, which the preacher took to mean they should’ve been in church where they would have been unharmed. But hadn’t he ever heard of a church roof collapse?

Or a church massacre?

Would he accept these tragedies as evidence that nobody ought to have been in church that day (not that we’re judging of course)? If not, then why the inconsistency?

It just so happened that that day there was a tsunami. But what if it had been a landslide, and it had hit the church? Would that have been evidence that God wanted that congregation to have been at the beach, where everyone would have been safe?

And was the church the only place that was high on the hill? I mean is it possible that the whole town, or a large portion of it, was also built on the hill, and the preacher had chosen not to mention that? What if there was also a brothel or a bar or a casino or a dog-fighting arena up there, and what if the fishermen had been up there drinking or whoring or gambling or fighting dogs when the tsunami came – would that be evidence that God despises fishing more than all those other activities?

It’s not just that the story was unreasonable; it was also cruel. Despite the “Hey, don’t blame the messenger – I’m not the one who sends tsunamis” tone of the story, it was clearly designed to scare people into attending church. It used the victims of a tragedy (who for all we know were fishing on a Sunday because they were dirt poor and couldn’t afford weekends and holidays – assuming that the story is true of course), as a moral lesson for relatively wealthy westerners. It wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been presented as non-fiction, but it wasn’t, because that would have lessened the impact of the death threat.

Yes, the story and the motivation for telling it were horrible. However, I can’t really blame the preacher for not seeing how wrong it was. After all, the Bible is full of horrible stories about people getting killed for breaking some arbitrary law or other. Fear-mongering is an effective way to keep people in line.

I do blame myself, though, for sitting there and listening, and for enabling this with my time, my attention, and my (limited) finances. Why did I do it? Why didn’t I push back or speak up until now?

The truth is, I couldn’t have identified the problems as clearly I can now. All I had was a gut feeling that I couldn’t process into words or articulate to other people. I mistrusted myself and my own intuitions. The heart is deceitful above all things.

It’s also because when somebody stands on the platform and preach, their audience is compelled to listen. Maybe the congregation enjoy listening, but ultimately they are there because they think that’s where God wants them. The threats – couched in the language of peace and veiled in promises of unending love – have worked. Our parents, our schools, our communities weren’t judging us, they merely informed us about Heaven and those who don’t get to go there, and the all-powerful being who holds the power of life and death in his hands.

I was also taught that the preacher is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is of course infallible, which made me feel uncomfortable about simply dismissing whatever message I was hearing. However convoluted, pointless, or morally or biblically off-base the message sounded, I had to assume God had divinely inspired it somehow.

But the longer I stayed in church the louder the “Wait a minute…” drips became. That’s why I write about this stuff; it’s the culmination of years of these “that just doesn’t sound right” moments. There are many of them and I have to get them out of my system. I already shut the dripping tap off by leaving the faith, and now I have to mop up the mess left behind. I can only do that by speaking up. I think I’m almost at the point where I’ve written all I want to write about this subject, though. Maybe three or so more posts and I will stop writing about God and religion here.

It’s been very important to me to find my voice on this topic and use it, but I’m going to get tired of writing about what I’m against. I’m going to get bored of writing about something I haven’t been involved in for years. I’m feeling less and less like I’m writing from the perspective of an insider and more and more like a critical outsider. I won’t need to write about this forever; only until I’ve said everything I want to say about that part of my own story.


Anna’s Nightmare: How Courtship Makes Things Worse

So, I don’t mean to flog a dead horse by singling out I Kissed Dating Goodbye (IKDG), but I almost inevitably will, at least a bit. The wildly popular Christian anti-dating guide has come under a great deal of scrutiny in the last few years, as those who entered adulthood at the height of its popularity have started to assess its impact and legacy. Its author, Josh Harris, has apologised for the damage IKDG caused to a lot of young people, and is currently undergoing a process of listening to criticism, examining the ways the book caused harm to its audience. Its failings have been widely brought to light and discussed. However, I’m writing about it here because, thanks largely to IKDG, the themes and theories of the what has been called the “courtship” movement (or the “purity” movement), had an impact on lives far beyond its birthplace, the US conservative Christian subculture, even making their way across the pond and into some relatively mainstream UK churches. It’s hard to separate the book from the movement it played a massive role in promoting. Besides which, the story about Anna’s nightmare from IKDG, which I relate below, serves as a vivid encapsulation of the thinking behind the courtship/emotional virginity movements.

So from here on in, there is going to be at least some small amount of horse-flogging. I can’t help that. Because between blows, I wanted to reflect on my own experiences, from my own perspective, having grown into adulthood listening to the rhetoric of the purity movement. And I wanted to write about three concepts promoted by IKDG and the broader courtship movement, (even if the terms they use differ from what I’ve used here): emotional virginity, courtship, and the heart as a finite resource that can be given away. Read More

The Reason I Write

I’m having a sick day today, and I just thought I would write a quick note about why I do this. Why do I write so much about a religion I left several years ago and so little about other things?

Well, the first thing to note is that this blog isn’t the only thing I write.  I try to retain a measure of anonymity here so that this can be the platform where I can write whatever I want to put out there.

But why do I choose to put my thoughts on Christianity “out there”? If you leave you leave, right?

Well, sure. I left a religion and I no longer have any faith in a God or any belief in the supernatural. My mind has totally and utterly changed. But that, in itself, is something that left me with a lot of questions. Why did I believe this God stuff was real? Why did other people assure me that this was true, and why did I believe them? How could I have experienced the “presence” of someone who doesn’t exist – how could I have thought I loved this being? In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this wasn’t real – how did I miss those signs? How and why did I explain away the indications that not everything was as it seemed? How do I make sure I don’t fall for nonsense again and how do I help others avoid it? When a Mormon or JW knocks on the door how do I explain my stance to them?

Added to these questions, there is often a strong emotional component to leaving one’s faith. You lose an awful lot: the foundations of your worldview. A community that you were part of. A certain identity. Your assuredness that there’s a benevolent force at the heart of everything and that one day, things will come up right and there will be a final justice. Looking back, I can see that losing my faith was something akin to a bereavement. I experienced grief and heartache – made all the more difficult because no one else knew that I had been bereaved. No one else knew that anything had died; I’d merely changed my beliefs and stopped attending a church on Sunday, which doesn’t sound quite as drastic and devastating as “She’s lost everything she believed in and a community she was deeply invested in”, but the latter description is how I experienced it. I had no one to talk to about it because no one was going through the same thing as me and no one could quite understand; if they were Christians they wouldn’t understand how I could possibly turn my back on God (as they saw it); if they weren’t, they didn’t have the faintest clue what I was going through.

So I write because this is something that really mattered to me, and I’ve pretty much kept my thoughts on it entirely to myself for a long time, and I want to express them. It’s that simple.

Also, you wouldn’t be getting the full picture if I didn’t add one other thing: I have always found religion interesting, and even as a kid was very curious about whether or not there was a god and what that god might be like. I think that’s a big part of who I am, and that’s why I enjoy writing here.

(Two useful organisations for people who have lost their faith: The Clergy Project helps members of the clergy who no longer believe but may need to stay closeted so they don’t lose their jobs. And the Freedom from Religion Foundation helps people with the transition out of religion.)

What Do You Mean?: Justin Bieber, Jabez, and Christianese

So I came across this video of Justin Bieber and his pastor friends at a recent Hillsong conference. Hillsong, for those who don’t know, is a very trendy chain of churches, with a worship band that makes incredibly popular praise music. One of the men featured in the video is Carl Lentz, quite simply the hippest of the current crop of hip pastors, whose Hillsong campus has famously been visited by celebrities like Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Chris Pratt.

Now obviously the video is mocking them, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. However, I’ve shared it here because of the phrase Chad Veach, a pastor (and amateur drummer?), says again and again in various ways starting at 1:17: Read More

I’m Nice and You’re Confused: On “Compassionate” Homophobia

We have reached the anniversary of an important landmark on the road to equality for LGBTQ people. It has been fifty years this week since the Sexual Offences Act was passed, which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. Despite some great leaps forward for LGBTQ people around the world, the last five decades have sadly not been an unimpeded march of progress: Only this week, Trump announced via Twitter that trans folk are no longer welcome in the US military. Meanwhile, Russia is denying the torture and murder of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. Despite all the progress made in some nations, the big and small injustices and indignities endured by one of the world’s most misunderstood and beleaguered minorities, continue apace.

So in light of all this, I’ve been thinking about how my own views on homosexuality have changed over the years, and I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for a while now. I’ve been remembering back to the homophobic attitudes I not only encountered when I was a Christian, but even held myself to some extent. People of all religious persuasions and none can be homophobic, of course, but most of my firsthand experience of homophobic remarks, attitudes, and actions occurred when I was a Christian spending time with other Christians. Read More

Bitter Truths: The Fear of Resentment and the Dismissal of Critics

A couple of months ago, my mum told me that a colleague had confided a shocking secret to her: a man they both knew, who was well-known and respected in our community, had sexually abused this colleague decades ago when she was a child. Although shocked, my mother had believed this woman’s account straight away, and had never doubted it.

I didn’t say so, but my horror at hearing that this man was a child abuser (thankfully now tried and found guilty) was mixed with my pride in my mum for believing the victim. I wasn’t proud of her just because she believed the woman, but also because of the reason she gave for believing: “She came across as a very bitter person.” It might sound odd to say that I’m proud of her for that, but it’s because too often, someone’s bitterness is used as a reason to dismiss them out of hand. An example that springs to mind is that of televangelist Lori Bakker insisting earlier this year that most of the women who participated in the Women’s March on Washington had been abused as children: Read More

Science, Religion, & the Uncomfortable Newsboys

My partner and I had a visit this weekend from my aunt. She stayed for three days, during which we took in a few of London’s finest museums. I rate the Imperial War Museum very highly, but the Natural History Museum has got to be my favourite. We managed to spend a couple of hours there, at the dinosaur exhibition and the human evolution exhibition. For reasons I can neither comprehend nor defend I hadn’t ever seen the human evolution exhibition before. It was wonderful; human evolution blows my mind. It’s incredible to think of having a connection to something as familiar, yet as alien, as another hominid species. I’m enthralled by the sense of looking at something so physically and cognitively foreign, yet seeing so much of myself looking back at me. That feeling is the reason that, when people get to know about cephalopods, they become fascinated by them, and I think it’s also why I love having pets and learning about animals. Ironic as it is, I always imagine Adam experiencing that feeling when he saw Eve for the first time, and declared her to be “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone”.

Then there are the big questions that arise from us being here while the other hominid species aren’t. How did we survive and thrive so well while they died out? Should we be proud or ashamed? When and how will we go the same way?

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Shut Up and Think: Prayer as Peace and Prayer as a Gimmick

Three days ago, the centre of my wonderful home city, London, became the scene of a terrorist attack in which four innocent people were murdered and many more were injured. The aim of the attacker was to incite terror, so it was immensely satisfying to visit the city centre the very next day and see for myself precisely how hard he’d failed. London is a huge and resilient city and, as always, the centre was jam-packed with shoppers and commuters, tourists and photographers, buskers and dancing Hare Krishnas. Walking the pavements from Regents Street down to Embankment, I didn’t for so much as a moment remember to feel afraid – that is, until I approached Trafalgar Square. A shiver of anxiety ran through me as I saw that dozens of police vans and personnel in high-viz vests had formed a formidable ring around the iconic plaza, where people had come together to remember the victims. The police kept a protective watch as the crowd observed silence, lit candles, and gave strength to one another.

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Meaning and Morality: Thoughts After Watching the Debate Between Craig and Kagan

I’m a fan of watching formal debate. One of my favourites is William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan debating and discussing the question “Is God Necessary for Morality?”. because it’s a topic I find pretty interesting, and both men are lively, engaging debaters. I was struck by how poorly Craig argued his case in comparison to his usual performances, but then the loosey-goosey format didn’t seem to play to his strengths. I’d never heard of Shelly Kagan before but after hearing his passionate defence of animal welfare I’ve decided that I probably love him. Anyway, the discussion made me think about some things: Meaning and morality, the priorities we hold, and the different ways I thought about them both pre- and post-deconversion.

At the outset, I have to admit that I might have found Craig’s argument to be difficult to fully comprehend. Craig stressed that his argument wasn’t “life, if it is finite, is meaningless” but rather “life, however long it is, is meaningless if God doesn’t exist”. But then, he also kept on talking about how our existences are rendered meaningless by the eventual end of everything, and at the same time, he didn’t appear to make a very robust argument that only the existence of God can bring meaning to human actions; he asserted it, certainly, but without much in the way of supporting arguments. That being the case, I have understood his argument that “human life is only meaningful if God exists” to be much the same as the argument that “human life is only meaningful if it is infinite”, and have responded accordingly. So if what I write appears to be a strawman, it’s unintentional. Listen to the debate yourself before deciding if my characterisation of Craig’s argument is fair. I certainly did intend it to be.

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Where’s the Bar?

After I “came out” as an atheist, I started noticing something about the responses I got from Christians. Here’s the kinds of things people would say:

“How sad that you don’t believe anymore!”

“Doesn’t it make you miserable to think that your life doesn’t have any purpose?”

“Wouldn’t you like to believe that there’s a God who really, really loves you?”

“But Christians are happier than atheists!”

Read More