How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

The weekend after George W. Bush’s reelection, I attended a MoveOn.org get together at my friends’ house. The idea of the event was that people would volunteer their homes to host nationally coordinated local strategy discussions. So, it was me, my two friends, and a whole bunch of hard-left Upper West Side Manhattanites all of whom were strangers.

My friends wanted to devote their home’s strategy discussion to the topic of religion and how the Democratic party could address religious voters. Though I would rather both parties take hard-line secularist approaches to the separation of church and politics than see the political left define itself by left wing theology, I was interested in addressing to the others assembled what it was like to be an Evangelical, in order to understand the enemies of secularism on the right wing.

The thing I wanted to stress, having lived in an Evangelical bubble at Grove City College for four years and having spent years devoutly in church before that networking with numerous Evangelicals, was that Evangelical Christians did not sit around hating people all day. I tried to convey how wonderful an experience I had had for most of my time as an Evangelical Christian and especially at Grove City. I talked about studying at Grove City, where our primary daily focus was neither hating gays nor abortion but, you know, the everyday stuff of (religious) life—living together, studying together, delving into abstract theological topics that had nothing remotely to do with politics, intimately praying with each other, worshiping together, talking about ways to be morally and spiritually better people, confessing our sins to each other and being forgiven and loved by each other, etc.

We shared the same values in common, so there was little political or spiritual discord, and back then I usually found nearly everybody to be energetically nice, conscientiously supportive, highly morally accountable, spiritually earnest, and positively joyful. We sure hated sin and racked ourselves over our own sins constantly but we truly (at least in the abstract) loved all kinds of people and rarely if ever did I see someone bully anyone else over his or her sins. No one was beyond redemption and there was no one’s salvation we didn’t hope for.

Some of us (like me) were even passionately upset by, and spent a great deal of energy trying to refute, doctrines like “unconditional reprobation” (the Calvinist interpretation of the Bible in which God deliberately makes it literally impossible that those who wind up in hell could have wound up anywhere else). And even those who defended it didn’t like the concept at all but felt compelled by the plain words in numerous places in the Bible to draw that conclusion. And if they were going to take the Bible seriously as an indisputable source of truth, they couldn’t just go ditching the uncomfortable stuff without serious cognitive dissonance.

What I was trying to do in explaining all this was to humanize Evangelicals and explain that they exist elsewhere in the world besides outside abortion clinics picketing and in the Senate comparing gay love to bestiality, and that when they don’t feel compelled to defend the harsh teachings of their religion or their religious politics on principled grounds that they take to be matters of honesty, that they are, in fact, quite often lovely people to each other and, they think, lovely people to others. I only remember interacting at any significant length with one truly abominably hateful Christian whose theology was unambiguously a philosophical expression and projection of a hollow-hearted-hatred, driven by some deeply problematic (but never explained) relationships in his youth. He is now, unfortunately, making local political bids where he lives and it sends shivers down my spine. He is one of few people I have repeatedly denied Facebook friendship with. He’s a monster.

But the rest of us were just a community of like-minded people who shared a glow of religiously-induced happiness with each other and only intended to spread that to others. It was far more out of dogmatism and thoughtlessness than malice that we prejudiciously assumed that all those outside our fold were “lost” and in need of what we had to offer. Our happiness was entirely constructed in religious categories and practices, so it was hard to see how it could exist in wildly different and alien categories and practices, in which ideas and ethics were shuffled and arranged so differently. Our happiness, as it turned out, sure could be found in different categories and practices, of course, and I feel far happier even and, in retrospect, as an atheist for a decade now, I am amazed at how many negative drawbacks were the price of that Christian joy, though I hardly realized at the time that my mistaken religion was the unnecessary cause of those miseries.

But being at a self-consciously Evangelical college and within the wider Evangelical Christian church, for me, was a joyful experience of tightly knit community. And so I wanted to say to the Move On types that there was a way to understand and to reach out to Evangelicals as entirely well-meaning humans rather than write them off as malevolent hateful demons and that when you describe their motives (rather than the consequences of their actions) as hateful they will simply write you off as clueless.

But my description of what I experienced in many ways as an idyllic and constructive part of Evangelical life was met with horror by the Move On crowd. Everything I described could be summed up to them in one word: “Cult”. Or two words, “Dangerous Cult”.

This stunned me and was a lesson in the differences in the way cultures (and not just cults) structure the lives of their members. You can have a great number of very good things constructed within one culture such that you cannot imagine those same very good things being rearranged and constructed totally differently using a different set of beliefs and practices. What would most completely squelch all the sense of joy and freedom and virtue and love out of one way of life, and so is most feared within that way of life, is the very source of joy and freedom and virtue and love themselves, within another way of life.

This door swings both ways. It is at least part of the psychological reason that both the secularist and the fundamentalist in our culture find in each other the specter of malicious evil and find in themselves the salt and light of the world. Regardless of the abstract merits of one’s positions (and having examined both sides from fully within them, I am confident of the secularist’s superior intellectual, ethical, and political merits), this is an inevitable psychological contributor to exaggerated enmity and to related feelings of deep hostility.

This is Nietzsche’s point in his section on “One Thousand and One Goals” wherein his character Zarathustra marvels that what is “decked out in purple” (i.e., treated as royally supreme) in one culture is decried as the worst evil on the tablets of the neighboring culture, and vice versa.

Now I bring none of this up to argue for simple cultural/moral relativism which says we cannot criticize Evangelicals since their thing works for them. I am a moral pluralist who wants to say that while in some ways different virtues and values and beliefs can work objectively better better for some individuals and groups, sometimes they can be objectively worse for those same individuals and groups in other ways.

Evangelical Christians do hurt gays, women, minorities, transgendered/transsexual people, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Muslims, atheists, indigenous peoples whom they evangelize, and countless other groups who live both within their churches and outside of them. And they hurt people in ways that are distinctively Evangelically Christian. Their faith beliefs and practices which contribute most distinctly to their strength of conviction, which is a catalyst for precisely their fervor in their beliefs and in their virtues, also indisputably are to blame for the strength of their vices and the damage they unwittingly do to non-Evangelicals (and even to many of their own). I say unwittingly because I do think Evangelicals, like most people, hardly can conceive that what they are doing is as destructive as it is.

On net, having lived both within Evangelical beliefs and values for a solid 16 years of my life and outside of them for twelve years since, I have no doubt that I and many other Evangelicals, ex-Evangelicals and total non-Evangelicals alike are, or would be, far better off without Evangelical vices than they would be with Evangelical resources for the cultivation of their virtues. I left Evangelical Christianity for primarily intellectual reasons and from the moral epiphany that it was just wrong to believe without evidence and especially wrong when religious beliefs had undeniable real world moral consequences (most notably to me at the time for gays). At the time I never imagined that overall greater virtue could exist outside the faith than within it but I have since become quite convinced of that too.

Before I ever left the faith, the dark underside of Evangelicalism began to be clear to me through the strain it put on my relationship with a close, suicidal, gay friend and since then I have learned of the antipathy some of my now uncloseted gay fellow alumni feel towards Grove City. And I have spoken up to try to get Grove City to think about its reflexively thoughtless, unintentionally cruel, but nonetheless deeply harmful treatment of its own gay community. (Read my interview with the brave and commendable senior who founded a gay group on campus: Meet Jesy Littlejohn, Founder of “Rainbow Bridge”.)

The dark and damaging extremes Evangelicalism can slip toward in its treatment of women are heartbreakingly chronicled nearly everyday on sites like Butterflies and Wheels and No Longer Quivering, which I hope that openhearted, thoughtful Christians will challenge themselves to read and take seriously.

But for all this, except for the most insincere/huckster/sociopathic preachers who prey on their flocks, I do not think that the very real hurt that Evangelicals do is usually inspired by very real hate, or at least that their hate is much different in kind than any other political, ideologically driven demonization of outgroup members when thinking abstractly is. There are layers of oblivious privilege of course, but no community is immune to that, as the atheist community has recently done a spectacular job of proving through “Elevatorgate”.

Now in saying that Evangelicals are no more intrinsically hateful than anyone else, I could be speaking only from my own experience. But I am inclined to think it is, more generally, the human experience—one in which ignorance and thoughtlessness about the effects of one’s own ideas, words, and actions, is far more often the motive for destruction than self-conscious hate could ever be.

Your Thoughts?

For more of my reflections one my former life as an Evangelical Christian and my deconversion, and on the downsides of Evangelicals’ treatment of non-Evangelicals and of Evangelical gays and women themselves, read posts such as the following:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers The Idols of Faith”)

Sex And Apostasy

Confronting Conservative Christians With The Consequences Of Their Homophobia

Why “Loving The Sinner But Hating The Sin” Is Not An Option When Dealing With Gay People

Gays, Jesus, and Judging

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?

What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?

Defending Apostates’ Intellects Against A Dismissive Christian Apologist

Love Virginity

Christian Anti-Kissing Propaganda

The Complicated Relationship Of An Apostate To His Religious Friends And His Reilgious Past

Sympathies for the Religious

A Follow Up Post on Gays and Christianity

Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Atheists

How Religious Bullying Makes Atheists So Angry: One New Atheist’s Story

Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Before I Deconverted:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

Before I Deconverted: My Grandfather’s Contempt

How I Deconverted:

How I Deconverted, It Started With Humean Skepticism

How I Deconverted, I Became A Christian Relativist

How I Deconverted: December 8, 1997

How I Deconverted: I Made A Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith

How I Deconverted: My Closest, and Seemingly “Holiest”, Friend Came Out As Gay

How I Deconverted: My Closeted Best Friend Became A Nihilist and Turned Suicidal

How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)

As I Deconverted: I Spent A Summer As A Christian Camp Counselor Fighting Back Doubts

How I Deconverted: I Ultimately Failed to Find Reality In Abstractions

A Postmortem on my Deconversion: Was it that I just didn’t love Jesus enough?

When I Deconverted:

When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

After I Deconverted:

After I Deconverted: I Was A Radical Skeptic, Irrationalist, And Nihilist—But Felt Liberated

After My Deconversion: I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me

After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

Why a secular safe space is still important to me.
Before and After I Deconverted: The Development of My Sexual Imagination
What to Make of our Natural Dispositions to Supernaturalism?
Are Religions Unfair to Women?
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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