Since his spectacular public disgrace last year, the once-powerful evangelical preacher Ted Haggard has not returned to New Life Church, the Colorado megachurch he founded. However, a few days after confessing that the allegations laid against him were true, he arranged to have a letter read to his former congregation in which he admitted his guilt and asked for their forgiveness:
Please forgive me. I am so embarrassed and ashamed. I caused this and I have no excuse. I am a sinner. I have fallen. I desperately need to be forgiven and healed.
Haggard’s wife Gayle also wrote a letter to the flock:
“For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case,” she wrote. “My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful.”
She said Haggard believed “with all his heart and soul” the lessons he taught New Life.
“He is now the visible and public evidence that every man needs a Savior,” she wrote.
Some people call this a moving demonstration of Christian love and forgiveness in action. I call it something different, and a glimmering of why can be seen in Gayle Haggard’s last sentence. Yes, Ted Haggard disgraced himself, and by extension the entire evangelical movement. Yes, he has produced yet another blotch on his faith that will no doubt be remembered for a long time along with the other glaring examples of hypocrisy among powerful Christians. Yes, his actions deeply hurt and saddened many people who followed him or looked up to him. And yet, in a strange but important way, he has done them a service. He has provided them with powerful validation of the entire evangelical worldview.
By imposing unrealistic, impossible-to-follow strictures on its followers, Christianity sets them up for failure. And when that failure inevitably happens, it produces guilt and shame among those followers, reinforcing the teaching that all human beings are incorrigible sinners and encouraging them to cling even harder to Christianity for salvation.
I don’t mean that these strictures are impossible to follow in the Christian sense, that human beings are hopelessly wicked creatures unable to refrain from committing evil acts. Rather, Christianity does violence to human nature by teaching people to suppress basic human instincts and motivations, calling them sins that must be battled. (Consider Matthew’s teaching that a moment of sexual desire is equivalent to adultery (5:28), and that a moment of anger or frustration puts one in danger of eternal damnation (5:22)). These instincts are part of what it means to be human, and if we act responsibly and maturely, they are healthy and harmless.
If, on the other hand, we try to deny human nature and suppress these instincts altogether, pressure builds up until they explode. This is what happened to Haggard, just as it happened to many other famous fundamentalist hypocrites. But instead of taking the right lesson from this, Christianity assumes the answer is to try even harder next time. As part of this, many Christian groups attempt to take away people’s access to the information they need to make responsible decisions – abstinence-only sex education being a prime example – making the likelihood of a poor outcome even greater.
This is a very effective and insidious tactic. As I’ve written before, it’s like convincing people that they are sick in order to sell them the cure. But in this case, the cure makes you feel even sicker and sets up a vicious cycle of dependency. Taught by Christianity that they are sinners in need of forgiveness, believers perpetually return to Christianity for the forgiveness they believe only it can give them. Believers can become “addicted to forgiveness”. This is a very common theme in deconversion stories, where former Christians testify how their terror of damnation led them to repeatedly ask Jesus for salvation, out of fear that they hadn’t done it right the last time or had committed some grave sin since then. Religious authorities who promise forgiveness for a price are the pushers in this scheme, and like Haggard, some of them use their own product. (The price need not be monetary – it often includes contributing to a religious leader’s preferred political causes.) And over time, as with all drugs, the effectiveness of the forgiveness “drug” wanes, impelling believers to become even more rigid and dogmatic in their devotions to win the same feeling of relief.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this endless spiral of sin and salvation – a twelve-step plan of sorts. But it is not the twelve steps of religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, whose first step is to believe that you are powerless over your own life and that only God can help you. That attitude is not a cure, but rather the very addiction we are seeking to solve.
The best treatment for this particular addiction is to go cold turkey, and that is exactly what atheism provides. In contradiction to the religious worldview that teaches its adherents to view their own natural instincts as sinful, atheism offers the freedom to accept humanity for what it is and guide your own life as you see fit. In place of constant pleas for forgiveness to an unseen dictator and his self-proclaimed earthly representatives, atheism opens the way to a rational, humanistic standard of morality, where our accountability and our responsibilities are to each other. After bearing the crushing burden of superstitious guilt, many ex-believers will testify to the relief it is to breathe the free air of reason and to live a life of fearlessly self-directed independence at last.