The Hotline for Doubters Isn’t What You Think It Is

shutterstock_131310224Last weekend Recovering from Religion’s Hotline Project (1-84-I-DOUBT-IT) went live and immediately began receiving calls from people seeking help. Even though it’s only been in operation for a few days, volunteers have already fielded over 100 calls and have logged more than 24 hours of conversation with inquisitors.  True to their training, call agents have only offered a sympathetic listening ear and have pointed those who have asked toward resources that will help them process the questions and concerns they bring to the conversation.

The Hotline doesn’t even require that all agents share the same belief system; they only require that volunteers come with an intent to help callers without trying to push them into or out of anything.  Sometimes all people need is a non-judgmental person to talk with who doesn’t see their questioning as a weakness or a threat to be neutralized.  This hotline exists to provide that for them, and I can’t think of anyone else who’s doing that.

Of course as soon as this announcement went out, the cries of blasphemy began rolling in.  News sites reporting this story got the obligatory “Burn in Hell!” comments and a few were quick to attribute the project to the Prince of Darkness.  One radio personality voiced a concern that I knew would be on most Christians’ minds:

I believe the ‘I DOUBT IT’ atheist call center is a recruitment tool…preying upon people who are questioning parts of their faith.

They should ask their priest about it…(not some atheist volunteer who has sad, self-absorbed thoughts).

Then they should make up their own mind…not be recruited to join some anti-God club for moral support.

Believe or not believe. That’s up to an individual. I know misery loves company, but there’s no need to recruit someone who needs clarification and support from their priest who has studied theology and history for hours and hours.

Poor, sad, self-absorbed atheists.  It’s a wonder we have any friends at all. While this person didn’t exactly do a fantastic job of articulating her concerns without bathing them in condescension, her sentiments are certainly shared by many.  I see two glaring problems with her reaction to the news of the hotline’s existence:  one major inconsistency and a clear double standard.

The Double Standard of Faith

Christians aggressively canvass neighborhoods seeking to convert their neighbors to their specific brand of religion.  They make a habit of inviting new residents to church and they encourage each other to invite friends, classmates, and coworkers to special events on a regular basis.  Evangelical Christian theology teaches that anyone who is not an evangelical Christian will not even make it to heaven because he or she doesn’t believe the right things.  Consequently, it is incumbent upon them to try and make everyone else believe the same things they believe because they see it as their responsibility to do so.  This is normal behavior for them, and they feel entitled by their faith to do it as loudly and proudly as the circumstances demand. For some, their boldness is a badge of honor.

It’s something altogether different to start a hotline operated by people from varying places on the belief spectrum in order to help people who are struggling with their doubts but can’t find anyone else to talk to without fear of being “outed” and being ostracized for their concerns. In this case they’re not even showing up at other people’s houses.  Quite the opposite, they’re letting other people call them.  I’ll grant that a majority of the volunteers working on this project naturally will be non-believers who feel the strongest about offering something like this, but they only stand out because believers themselves are doing such a terrible job of offering the same kind of non-judgmental help.  If Christians could learn not to see questions and doubts as threats to everything they hold dear, they might be able to listen to their friends and family without intentionally or unintentionally making them fear that they will be rejected.  As it stands, that’s just not something they’re able to do.  Questions are fine as long as you always end up with the answers prescribed by your tradition.  Really honest questions are dangerous and they know it.

Notice the double standard operating here.  If non-believers offer to speak with people who call them because of doubts, that’s predatory. But if a Christian shows up uninvited on someone’s doorstep, that’s just being a good Christian. Yeah, that’s totally fair and balanced. It’s not predatory at all.  In fact, churches start in on children as soon as they’re able to speak, teaching them to believe the central tenets of their faith.  The Hotline Project isn’t even going after kids.  It’s primarily directed at grown folks who read the news and it does nothing to intrude into the personal lives of the people who aren’t already showing interest.  If Christians operated this hotline, they would be calling the prospects themselves to pitch their message whether it was requested or not.  But of course it’s the unbelievers who are being predatory.

This Is What Non-Coercive Help Looks Like

The writer I quoted above says in one sentence, “They should ask their priest about it” and then in the next sentence “they should make up their own mind.”  Huh.  Well, which is it?  She goes on to say, “Believe or not believe. That’s up to an individual,” but then she says that individual “needs clarification and support from their priest.” It’s like she can’t make up her mind whether or not people need to be left alone to figure these things out for themselves or if they should be assisted by someone else.  Or perhaps it’s just that she is completely blind to the fact that seeking the help of a priest is still seeking help and not just flying solo. Again the double standard that says it’s okay for Christians to do it but it’s not okay for non-Christians.

One could perhaps argue that her point is that people shouldn’t tell others what to think and should instead let them decide for themselves.  But even if that’s the case, what makes her think that in a counseling situation nonbelievers would tell others what to think while a priest would be hands-off about the matter?  Having interacted extensively with both clergy and nonbelievers, I can tell you that as a general rule most freethinkers shy away from telling others what they should think while ministers feel duty bound to inform people of The Right Thing to Think™.  One group bears the weight of divine decree while the other admits that we’re all still trying to figure the world out the best we can using the tools that we’ve got.

I happen to know that the Hotline Project adheres to a strict policy of non-coercion. The CNN story about the hotline launch even listed the “Ten Commandments” for hotline volunteers:

  • Don’t argue or debate
  • Don’t command or persuade
  • Don’t criticize or preach
  • Don’t threaten, blame or criticize
  • Don’t display negative emotions
  • Don’t make assumptions about callers
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Don’t make any promises
  • Don’t multitask (wait, what were you saying?)
  • Don’t assert your own worldviews, beliefs or stories into the caller’s situation

I don’t know about you but I find that list fantastic.  It codifies the non-coercive ethos of “freethought” into concrete guidelines to remind volunteers that they’re not there to lead anyone into or out of anything.  What callers need most is a sympathetic listening ear while they work through sharing what they’re going through. I find it telling that even that is threatening to the guardians of Christian orthodoxy. Incidentally, lest you suspect that these are disingenuous platitudes, I’ve signed up to take calls as well and having followed the discussion of hotline agents I can confirm that they all take these guidelines very seriously.  Frankly I’m proud to see them do what they’re doing, and I’m deeply impressed.

If you’d like to know more about the hotline you can visit Recovering from Religion’s page for more information.  If you’d like to volunteer you can access an application here.  If you’re someone needing to speak with someone for help of your own, feel free to call their number: 1-844-368-2848.

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