Taking the Religion Out of the Ex-Christian.

You can take the person out of religion, but it’s sometimes much harder to get the religious tendencies out of the person.

Some time ago, about five years after I’d left Christianity, I was reading online about some new anti-pornography censorship group that was growing quickly on LiveJournal (this was back when LiveJournal was popular among Westerners, before dissident Russians discovered it). I looked at the group and it was the typical religious freakout session you’d expect it to be.

To my astonishment, though, I recognized the profile picture of one of the people who was writing a great number of these anti-porn screeds. She wasn’t using her real name, of course, but it was her photo, and her profile indicated that she was from my town and it sure looked like her and talked like her. I realized with a jolt that I knew this person personally. And the arguments she was making were hugely religious Christian-centric arguments–lots of bullpuckey about the Purity Myth and parroted arguments about how porn destroys people and whatnot. Now, I knew she was an ex-Christian, though she was currently involved in a whole other religion that was known for being quite sex-positive. But clearly she’d internalized those earlier lessons to such a degree that even though I knew her quite well in real life and knew she ostensibly rejected every single thing Christianity stood for, she couldn’t quite get away from her old indoctrination.

A bit later on, I met a woman who’d left the same Pentecostal denomination I had, but who, like me, struggled with a certain rigidity in thinking and who, like me, had trouble with thinking in ways that weren’t black/white, yes/no. She tended to be inflexible, judgmental, and more than a little controlling–like me. We even joked about it sometimes. It was seeing that mindset play out in her that made me aware of my own thought processes and helped me get away from that kind of thinking, and I’d like to think that as I crawled out of that mental pit, maybe I helped her crawl out of her own.

So one fine day a few years ago when I finally decided to write an “ex-timony” on a site devoted to leaving Christianity, it wasn’t all that shocking that I received criticism from someone who had similar issues leaving the religion. As you might have seen if you’ve read much of my blog, a big part of my deconversion happened when I realized that the people who identified themselves as “pro-life” were a pack of violence-advocating liars using debunked science and blatant emotional manipulation to strong-arm women to gain control over their lives. Realizing that made me realize in turn that religious leaders did much the same things and used many of the same tactics.

English: Pro-lifers from the 2004 March for Life.

English: Pro-lifers from the 2004 March for Life. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: anything that actually helps women or lowers abortion rates a single bit. But I’m sure they feel good.

I can’t really untangle my departure from the “pro-life” camp from my departure from religion. It was realizing that the one was totally not what it claimed to be that made me realize that the other wasn’t either. So I present the two of them together most of the time. I do realize that for many people, that journey doesn’t happen the same way. People who maybe weren’t gung-ho on restricting abortion access or who didn’t identify so ferociously with the “pro-life” platform from a religious standpoint maybe don’t have that same need to examine them the way I did. That’s okay. But for me, that’s how it happened. So when I wrote my “ex-timony,” that’s how I presented it–the way I’ve always thought of it.

The site had a very strict rule about not arguing with or criticizing these deeply personal stories. But one young woman who’d been on that site for more than long enough to know that rule got so riled about what I’d written that she had to disobey that cardinal rule to announce–rather snarkily, I perceived–that she was a “pro-lifer” (if you’re wondering why I use scare quotes, it’s because I don’t regard forcing unwilling women to gestate fetuses to be an expression of valuing life). She went on to tell me that she wasn’t dishonest or anything like that, and did I realize that not all “pro-lifers” were like the ones I’d run into? She for example was a “pro-lifer” who thought of herself as very honest and she thought that her views had plenty of scientific evidence and excellent arguments backing it up. So what did I mean by calling “pro-lifers” dishonest? What on earth could I possibly mean by that kind of accusation? What untrue things had I possibly encountered?!? ZOMG! SHOCKED, YES SHOCKED SHE WAS!

I wrote her a fairly long and I think thorough post–you know me, right?–about precisely why I found the “pro-life” side to be dishonest and manipulative. I’d already written another post loaded with information, so I referred this “pro-lifer” to that as well. To my surprise, the young woman never replied to either post that I wrote. She got criticized for breaking the rules to grind her favorite axe, so maybe that’s why she abandoned the first thread, but that doesn’t explain why she never seemed to see either thing I wrote. Later on, I mentioned her lack of response in another thread and she claimed to have never seen what I’d written. I linked her to it again, but she never did reply to it, and later on when I curtly mentioned the post being ignored, she requested a link to the post again because she claimed she’d never seen it. I linked her, but wasn’t surprised to see her ignore it for a third time. It’s possible she answered one of them and I was just so new I didn’t know how to check for responses, but when I looked, I can honestly say that I did not see any reply from her to anything I ever wrote.

Her main arguments against abortion were that fetuses are actually just “pre-born” babies. And babies are very cute and small so they should always win any conflict between their “rights” and those of the women carrying them in their bodies. She had some old obstetrics textbooks a relative of hers had used and then given her that mentioned developmental terms that she thought were terribly impressive and which she thought proved that fetuses are “persons” from the second of conception, but when I countered that I’d seen other, newer educational materials from more reputable sources (like Harvard Medical School!) that specifically avoided talking about “personhood” in the context of whether or not abortion was “murder” and which presented fetal development in a manner that more accurately suggested that there really wasn’t some magical dividing line between “person” and “not-person” and didn’t give zealots any excuse to restrict abortion access, she spun away like she was dancing on an oiled floor. The arguments she was using were entirely secular, but to someone like me, who’d cut her teeth on Pearson manuals and 80s- and 90s-era debunked arguments, they were exactly what I’d heard from religious nutballs, and they were all so very easily countered and destroyed. Her science was not only out of date but completely wrong–like saying that oral contraception is an abortifacient, so using it is just like “strangling” babies to justify her position that women shouldn’t have access to the most reliable class of contraception either.

And you can bet that she was very, very proud of the fact that she held this belief system despite having left Christianity, like that somehow proved that it was the correct position for her to take and force upon other women. This isn’t a new or unusual pattern to see at all. I’ve often seen people cling to this or that dogmatic view after deconversion for quite some time. That doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact those are the beliefs we need to examine the most closely, because they cut to the heart of what it means to be a man or a woman, and right to the core of what we, as people, think about how humanity should function (and indeed there is an astonishingly large number of MRAs who identify as atheists–and these atheists can be some of the most vicious misogynists out there). But even if she didn’t want to examine them, the rest of us did; every time she trotted out one of her wearisome talking points, I’m happy to say, it got demolished by other commenters on that site. It was all just so mind-numbing and exhausting, as I’m sure she intended it to be. Any time someone mentioned abortion, you could count on her to come sailing in to chirp her junk science, outdated non-facts, false platitudes about adoption, and searingly sexist demands, like she simply had to represent her much-maligned minority faction at every single opportunity.

Then she mentioned that she was so excited! She was going to Texas to take part in an atheist convention and she was going to represent forced-birthers! Hooray! Of course, she didn’t mention–that I remember–that she’d be taking with her a bunch of ultra-violent, grisly videos of purported abortions and fetuses to use to manipulate her audience (just like Crisis Pregnancy Centers and religious forced-birthers do), nor did I realize that she was going to be doing some kind of formal debate on the topic with one of atheism’s big names, but to our credit, the folks on that forum did take the time to warn her that if she trotted out the same arguments there that she’d been trying on us, then she was going to be completely destroyed. Most of us wished her a safe journey, hoped she wouldn’t humiliate herself too much or do too much damage to women’s bodily rights, and that was about the last we saw of her for a while.

Now I reckon I know why she kind of dropped off the radar.

Yes, you probably know who I’m talking about at this point, if you keep up at all with skepticism blogs. A “pro-lifer” named Kristine Kruszelnicki wrote a very ill-advised and poorly-thought-out post on the popular Friendly Atheist blog about why she was a “pro-lifer.” I admit, I’d completely forgotten about my previous encounters with her until seeing her pop up there. And yes, she apparently got destroyed.

PZ Myers, a science professor, has very ably knocked down her untrue scientific claims as well as shed light on how dishonest and shady her reaction was to his criticism and request for her “scientific” sources.

Libby Anne, meanwhile, has discussed why Ms. Kruszelnicki’s pride in being oh-so-very-secular isn’t really that special considering that even the most rabidly religious forced-birthers use the exact same arguments she does. True, incidentally. It’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it?

The awesome Amanda Marcotte, over at Pandagon, has weighed in with just how damned tiresome these retreaded forced-birther arguments are–and she’s right; in 25 years of dealing with forced-birthers, I can tell you that they are still using the outdated, debunked fake science, manipulation tactics, quote-mined statements, and false claims that they were using back when I was in college. I shouldn’t be as astonished as I am to find just how little has changed. You’d think they’d at least have gotten more sophisticated or something, but no, it’s all quite literally the stuff I heard and knew was a lie back in the 1990s.

These are some pretty big names, overall, and obviously they aren’t even the only ones who’ve taken exception to the dishonesty on display here.

What I saw in this whole thing–then and now–is someone who left religion, but who still deeply believes in some very primal elements of her indoctrination. I’m guessing that she didn’t come by her fake science and erroneous arguments after conversion, but that she’d heard this stuff while still a Christian and held onto it after deconversion. A lot of people do that with various bits of indoctrination. The ideas aren’t unique to religion. Controlling people’s private lives, especially those of female people, isn’t some unique thing that only religion does. Moralizing and paternalistic pandering aren’t things that Christianity or Islam or whatever has a monopoly on. You don’t have to be religious to suppress someone else’s rights; religion gives people more permission to do it, but without religion, someone who really thinks s/he can or should control someone else is going to keep doing it. If someone leaves religion but doesn’t critically examine that indoctrination and mindset, then that ex-Christian may well hang onto a lot of old, bad programming.

You don’t walk outside from your old church and the next day wake up enlightened and whole. The process of disentangling from that indoctrination is very slow and at times painful. It’s hard to think that you believed something that was, top to bottom, nothing but lies and a waste of time. It’s a lot easier to latch onto some particular bit of programming and say “Everything else here was totally, absolutely wrong. But this, right here, this little bit, this was the one true thing out of everything else. They were totally right about this one thing even if they were totally wrong about absolutely everything else.”

Sex and sexual things tend to be the major stuff that ex-Christians hold onto the longest as their “this little bit” thing they think was the one true thing out of a mountain of lies. Women, especially, can have a tough time moving past those old mental tape-recordings. Feeling responsible for others’ behavior, blaming themselves for their own victimization, having trouble being sexual or “selfish,” feeling like sex is somehow filthy or wrong, these are complaints I’ve heard many, many times from ex-Christian women and men who realize that they shouldn’t feel this way now that they’ve rejected the religion, but have trouble escaping those feelings.

And that’s normal. It can take years to really unpack our feelings and figure out how many of our positions are based on the faulty religious programming and which ones are really based on truth. I wish I’d known that Kristine was a fairly new ex-Christian way back when; I might have been able to tell her to take a little time to seriously listen to opposing arguments before she charged ahead into her new field of activism. At the time, though, she presented herself as an authority on the concept of “secular pro-life activism.” And by now, she’s established herself as a sort of “Catholic League” of anti-abortion activism. It’s going to be very hard for someone that entrenched (and reveling in so much attention, both positive and negative, either of which are fine with her) to question her views or challenge them. She is well on her way to becoming the pet darling of the forced-birther crowd, the one they trot out in response to charges that they are trying to peel away women’s rights as part of their over-arching goal of sliding theocracy into America. It’s going to be difficult for her to wake up to what she’s doing with the attention she’s getting and the various rewards she’s being given for being the token atheist in an overwhelmingly religious tent party.

I don’t know what it’s going to take for this particular “secular pro-life activist” to figure out that what she’s doing is objectively wrong and demonstrably hurtful to women. I know what it took for me to realize the same, but when I brought that evidence to her, she flat-out ignored it just like she seems to be ignoring everybody else who’s brought her dishonesty to the surface and confronted her with it (indeed, she is gloating about PZ Myers’ criticism with a “Yay!” and calling it “free publicity at last”). It takes something different for us all, maybe. The things that made me realize what a pack of lies I’d digested might not ping someone else’s radar at all.

It’s important for us to challenge someone who’s left religion but who still suffers from rigid, dogmatic thinking. As more and more people leave Christianity, we’re going to have to be alert for folks who haven’t quite shaken free of that programming. Being an ex-Christian or an atheist doesn’t give someone a magical dose of rationality all by itself. And it’s important for us, ourselves, to see that thinking in ourselves and challenge it.

Let me give you a head start on that, if you need it: if a position that has you controlling other people’s private lives, using lies and debunked science, and sounding exactly like crazy religious zealots sound, that position is probably not the morally superior position to take.

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About Captain Cassidy

Cassidy was raised Catholic, converted to Pentecostalism in her mid-teens, married a preacher, and deconverted after college. She blogs about religion, deconversion, video and tabletop gaming, psychology, modern culture, and other such topics at Roll to Disbelieve and contributes to Ex-Communications for Recovering from Religion, both hosted at Patheos.

  • https://plus.google.com/107455964121845109652 alix johnson

    Love what you do Captain.

    I deconverted as a child and without any family or institutional pressure, so I certainly didn’t go through all the difficulty someone like you did. Still, For a while I sort of stayed in this weird state as an apologetic “There Might be a Jesus” agnostic. But then I read this very clever internet post from a very intelligent agnostic whose basis was “If the Catholic God really did exist as depicted, a monstrous creature that would send one of my best friends to hell just for being a lesbian, then send me to hell. I’d rather be there with her than forced to spend eternity with a being of pure evil.” That really helped me along from that head-space the church instilled in me as a child.

    Abortion was kind of a weird one for me. First I was pro-choice for reasons I thought of as pragmatic, reducing crime, poverty, and population. And then I heard someone say “My body, my choice” and finally got it despite certainly having heard it countless times before, and all was well.

  • http://cookingwithdogs.wordpress.com cookingwithdogs

    I think I’m going to start labeling pro-lifers as forced-birthers from now on. After all, that’s the only thing they are pro life about anyway.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    That’s about how I felt too when I heard it the first time. Their exact ideology might differ (some also want to restrict contraception access, others might want both of those plus other things), but all of those folks want one thing in common: to force women by any means fair or foul to give birth if they become pregnant. We all know what George Carlin said about that…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    Isn’t it just remarkable what finally makes it (belief in a religion, reproductive rights, etc) click? It seems like it’s different for everybody. That’s so neat. Thank you.

  • SM

    Isn’t that the reason most religions try to get people when they’re young and their worldview is still forming? It’s remarkably difficult to extract oneself from these kind of childhood learnings, especially ones so pervasive throughout the entire community. And there’s a fairly high rate of recidivism, such as I’ve heard.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    Absolutely. I’ve literally heard this exact idea from religious zealots. They’re terrified about not being able to proselytize and preach in taxpayer-funded schools because they know those kids might not be hearing this nonsense otherwise, and if a kid reaches maturity without buy-in, the chances of that kid suddenly deciding to buy into a religion’s claims are a lot smaller. That’s why right-wing parents are not only really gung-ho about indoctrination of children, but view the slightest amount of dissent as World War III. Their entire parenting philosophy revolves around the idea of suppressing dissent and independent thought so completely that when that child gets older, s/he will never think about questioning anything. And yeah, there’s a big risk of someone returning to that thinking after leaving Christianity. The more education someone gets in the interim, the less likely that is, but it’s not uncommon at all to run into zealot Christians who claim a bit of a “rumspringa” in their testimonies. It should probably be a box on the Bingo card at this point, this claim of having been an “atheist” for a few years. It’s the trendy proselytization tool these days.

    Thankfully, from what I can see, most of the folks who leave stay left, or drift into less extreme flavors of the religion.

  • http://villainousintent.wordpress.com Psycho Gecko

    I saw that debate on Youtube, as I was curious what secular arguments there could be. I was disappointed that they were basically using the same ones as the religious folks. Then the recent stuff on Friendly Atheist brought her out there to comment some. I remember telling her that while I didn’t agree with her at all, her debate performance suffered from its utter inflexibility. She was still reiterating points that the other side accounted for and pointed out didn’t matter to their argument, which she had nothing to counter.

    I’m starting to notice this trend too. Over there, they talk about libertarian atheists, and then the CPAC thing and atheists talking about being pro-life. Sounds like there’s being increased rightwing outreach in general over there. I won’t condemn them over it, just taking a moment to note what appears to be a recent thing.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    Yep, that’s about what I remember about tangling with her as well; I told her from the get-go on that forum that I didn’t think she was ever going to be able to counter my arguments either, and she never did. It’s a common failing. Most forced-birthers don’t have a lot in their toolboxes–if you remove fetal development and personhood from the discussion, you’ve just demolished 99.999999% of their talking points.

    I think you’re raising an interesting point here about secularism. And I think you’re totally right. At this point, right-wingers have got to try to look more secular. People are increasingly seeing right-wing overreach as part of an overall religious agenda–especially with regard to civil liberties and political squabbles. Most folks know that we’ve got this pesky thing called the Separation Clause that stops that overreach dead in its tracks. If an argument can be shown to have a significantly religious component rather than a factual or rational one, it’s not going to get far. So these groups trot out their secular versions of scientists, ethicists, or whatever, so they can point to those token atheists and say “Hey! We can’t possibly have a religious agenda–look, here’s our secular person to say he or she buys into our arguments just fine without religion!”

    It’s a sort of inverted argument from authority. It’s the same thing Vox just did by hiring that Ambrosino weirdo to write for them–it gives bigots permission to be bigoted because the token gay guy is bigoted too. That the arguments against abortion access and equal marriage are primarily religious, that the fights are almost exclusively led and funded by religious nuts, and that the effects of those nuts winning either fight would be a significant advancing of fundagelical dominance and dominionist agenda do not make these things suddenly a “secular” squabble just because some secular kook or small group of secular kooks happen to buy into the arguments. I’m not fooled, but I do recognize that for them to get even the slightest bit of traction, they have got to recast their arguments in a less overtly-rabidly-religious light. This outreach is the frantic effort of a dying and drowning movement to retain relevance and dominance.

  • http://ithinkilostgod.wordpress.com Butterfly Flower

    “If the Catholic God really did exist as depicted, a monstrous creature that would send one of my best friends to hell just for being a lesbian, then send me to hell. I’d rather be there with her than forced to spend eternity with a being of pure evil.”

    When I still blogged, I once wrote a post comparing the Catholic interpretation of God, to the Superman villain Darkseid. There’s a disturbing amount of parallels (to the point where I wonder if Jack Kirby was snarking on the Judeo-Christian God when he created “The Fourth World”).

  • http://ithinkilostgod.wordpress.com Butterfly Flower

    What I saw in this whole thing–then and now–is someone who left religion, but who still deeply believes in some very primal elements of her indoctrination.

    I find “Alien/Illuminati/NWO conspiracy theorists” are often ex-devout Christians. They merely replace “Satan is out to get you/lead you astray/plotting doom for the evulz!” with evil aliens conspiracies, like David Icke’s “Evil Invisible Reptilian aliens” theory.

    A major part of deconversion for me, was accepting that sometimes bad things just, well, happen. They aren’t a part of some divine plan, they aren’t punishment for a sin, they aren’t the result of the Devil’s evil schemes – they happen, because unfortunately life isn’t always fair.

    I suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis; i.e. I was born with a genetic defect that makes my joints highly susceptible to inflammation. When Christians learn of my condition, they always devise elaborate justifications for my suffering. The most common being “God is testing me” and the infamous “you are being punished by God for sins”.

    I can see why people are prone to elaborate justifications – it can be comforting, in a way, to think bad things happen (like hurricanes, or earthquakes) due to some hidden evil mysterious force; instead of just accepting that the universe is a chaotic place.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    I hadn’t even thought of that! Good catch! Mind officially boggling now.

  • le

    First i would like to say that i believe in absolute freedom, and that people are highly capable of deciding for themselves what they consider morally right or wrong. I also agree with you on the fact that christian anti abortion activists manipulate rather than inform, probably feeling that the end justifies the jeans, lying for Jesus etc.

    That said, i feel that in some way, you are manipulating your readers as well, for you seem to present me with only two options: either you are still the believers paradigm, or you abandon your religion in favor of the latest scientific paradigm. This is a false choice, because i, having left christianity, would much rather enjoy my regained freedom of mind together with the ability to search my OWN answers and follow MY intellect and MY inner voice rather than hand it over yet again to soms f#cking priest-scientist.

    My view on abortion is this: although i cannot say anything scientific about the personhood or non-personhood of a foetus, it just strikes me as weird, that human animals would not be able tot come up with a beter solution than aborting potential children. It seems barbaric and not in sync with being one of the most intelligent and morally conscious creatures on earth. Personally, i feel that if a women feels forced to have a child and consequently aborts the fetus, something bigger is at play here, on a societal level, forcing a woman into making such a unnatural choice.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    I don’t disagree. It’s up to you what you believe; there are plenty of spiritual people who accept and embrace science, though zealotry–what I was actually talking about here–tends to reject science for various reasons. The important thing is to make our own journeys and to learn to sift the objectively false from the objectively true, and then to build a paradigm out of the truths we glean. But saying abortion is “unnatural” is simply incorrect, speaking of being objectively false. Every single animal race aborts its young (or commits infanticide) when necessary, and abortion, like contraception, has existed in the human race since we figured out what pregnancy was. It’s about the most natural thing in the world! I’d love if we could ensure that unwanted pregnancies just didn’t happen, since unwanted pregnancies are the leading cause of abortion. It does seem barbaric that unwanted pregnancies occur at all. It blows my mind that it’s 2014 and we haven’t come up with a foolproof method of preventing unwanted pregnancies. Until then, though, we’ve just got to do the best we can.

    To that end, abortion is neither unintelligent nor immoral. Abortion is a private medical decision that many women make in response to a variety of things going on in their lives. Many women would tell you that their abortions were the only moral action that could be taken in the circumstance in which they found themselves, and they certainly thought about it before doing it. I’m going to ask you to read the Rules of Engagement, and in particular, I’m going to ask you, if you want to play here, to please be conscious of making those kind of judgement calls against others. Thanks.