(Content note and important note: Bible verses and myths. Before I could get free of Christianity, I had to examine why I had bought into thought terminators for so long and liberate myself from using them. Though I no longer think there’s any support for the idea of the Bible being a divine document, at the time I mistakenly valued it very much for that exact reason. I know that as people disengage from religion they often struggle with their indoctrinated idolization of holy books, so I want to make very clear that I’m talking about Bible myths here not in the sense that they should have authority over anybody, but rather in the context of how I began seeing them in a very different light from how I’d been taught to view them over the course of my entire life.)
A thought terminating cliché is something that people say to stifle questions, dissent, or criticism. It’s a way for the people wielding it to shield themselves from contradictory information and end an uncomfortable conversation. Once the cliché has been deployed, the person using it fully expects that to end the discussion–in his or her favor. But in reality, the cliché is deeply dissatisfying to the person on the receiving end of it; it doesn’t make sense and defies rational examination. It demands submission and obliterates the possibility of true communication. The person using it is in effect telling the target, “Screw off. I’m done with you now. Go away. Stop talking about this subject.” It is a statement of contempt–and of fear. And the Christians who employ this tactic come by their behavior honestly, because their god–as depicted in the Bible–does the same exact thing.
Here are the most common ones I’ve run into.
“Let’s agree to disagree.” (It’s said as if both sides are equally valid, when they often are not; this terminator is often deployed against a marginalized person seeking justice, such as LGBTQ people demanding equal civil rights or women wanting admission to the ministry of a misogynistic denomination.)
“It’s a mystery.” (Who says it must be? What if it isn’t?)
“God’s ways are not our ways.” (He supposedly made people in his image, didn’t he? He sure sounds a lot like a person in the earliest-written myths about him. Except when something totally inhuman or atrocious happens. Then he’s very unlike us and we just won’t ever understand.)
“Children can’t know everything about their parents’ plans.” (Are we really glorifying a “because I said so” parenting style, when we all know how well that works on real kids rather than giving them honest, age-appropriate information in a timely manner? Is the real problem here that this god doesn’t even do that? I’m not even a god and I can think of better ways to handle people.)
“We just need to have faith.” (No, we don’t. Who says? The Bible? Awfully convenient that it’d say that to support its own claims, isn’t it?)
“You’re just angry at God/you just want to sin.” (Why do you think we’re so ridiculously stupid that we’d risk a petulant god’s eternal wrath just to be rebellious or hedonistic for a few decades? Would you be that stupid? Probably not. So why do you think your target is? Why don’t you try asking folks if we’re angry at your god or if we left purely to sin before assuming so?)
This isn’t something that only Christians do, either.
I heard an educator say once that he started making a lot more headway with the teenagers he was teaching when he realized that “I don’t know” meant “go away”–and when I heard him say this, it sparked one of those moments of crystal clarity for me. I realized that the man I was dating at the time used it all the time on me during discussions as a means of ending all conversation. “Where do you want to eat?” He didn’t know. “Do you ever see us getting married?” He didn’t know. “Well, is there some reason you wouldn’t want to do that?” He didn’t know. “Do you want us to buy a house together since we’ve been living together all this time?” He didn’t know. He didn’t know. He just didn’t know, all right? JEEZ! He was sending me a clear message over and over again, one that I didn’t hear until right then (and yes, we broke up not long afterward, because I needed a partner who does know). He was stopping thought. And he wasn’t a Christian, by the way. Very few things are limited to any particular religion or ideology.
Greta Christina once called thought stoppers the “Because shut up, that’s why” argument. And though it’s not unique to any particular religion, non-Christians hear it a lot from Christians, and it’s not hard to guess why it’s such a beloved tactic. Here’s a whole list of specific Christian thought terminators. When I was struggling with my faith, I fled to my Bible because I thought it’d have some reassurance for me, but when I began studying it I only got more and more confused.
The god depicted in the Bible’s various myths doesn’t like people to think. He doesn’t want to give people the information they need to fully assess a situation and evaluate it. A whole bunch of myths and Bible verses concern themselves with exactly this topic. And once I discarded the notion that I simply wasn’t allowed to question anything in the Bible, I found questions flowing like water as I read and studied.
1. The Garden of Eden. “Don’t touch that fruit I put there right in the middle of the garden for absolutely no reason except to tempt you to eat it, or else you’ll die.” (Genesis 3) Interestingly, the serpent told them the flat truth about that fruit: that far from killing them, it would make them wise and help them understand the nature of good and evil. Indeed, that is exactly what it did. The Bible’s god didn’t like that. Why not? Why would he want to keep people so ignorant? What parent wants his or her children to remain childlike and to be ignorant of good and evil? For that matter, the Tree’s fruit also made them realize they were naked. Many children seem like they go through a phase where they think it’s awesome to run around naked. Learning about when it is and isn’t okay to be naked is such an important part of our development into responsible adults. But God didn’t want to teach his children that lesson. He wanted them naked all the time, but he wanted them not to know they were naked. I’ve got no words for how weird that sounds.
2. The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), which can be summarized thusly: “Yikes! I’d better do something quick or else those humans will reach heaven and become competition for me!” God sounds downright terrified that his ant farm might actually reach heaven because he thinks if they complete their project then “nothing will be restrained from them.” So he sabotages them. What kind of parent does that to a child? What kind of parent thinks it’s okay to destroy a kid’s curiosity and ambition so the kid won’t develop further? God clearly wanted to demonstrate that his children were not supposed to get too advanced technologically and especially not to band together, because such development might make them more powerful than he was. So much for omnipotence!
3. “Don’t think too much because that’s really bad.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2). Knowledge is viewed with suspicion. Anybody who says he or she knows something is actually an idiot. Only “love” of God is important. Why? Why can’t we have both? Who says?
4. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit” (Colossians 2:8 and also 2:4 which gives stink-eye to “fine-sounding arguments”). Why is philosophy so bad? Why is it lumped in with “vain deceit”? Why is philosophy seen as the enemy of Christianity? What could it possibly do to steer people away from the truth? Could it possibly be–and I’m just spitballin’ here–that when someone’s faith springs entirely from the strength of fancy arguments, an even fancier argument poses a distinct and tangible threat to that person’s belief?
5. In 2 Peter 3:16, we’re told that it’s bad to try too hard to understand the writings of Paul. I might agree with that, but why would the writer of 2 Peter advise not to try too hard to do so and instead “grow in grace” and in “the knowledge of our Lord” instead? Why was it so bad to try to understand Scriptures? And how does this conflict with Philippians 4:8, in which Paul informs us that whatever we “have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do”? Paul certainly thought that he was a great purveyor of his god’s wisdom and a fount of information about how to best do Christianity–but the author of 2 Peter doesn’t seem to think so and discourages dwelling too long on the matter. Why? What does he fear so much?
6. And in James 1:5, we’re told that if Christians lack wisdom, they should ask their god for it rather than seek it elsewhere. Why wouldn’t all wisdom lead straight to that god? Why should we have to ask for something that fundamental to our own development, anyway? Why wouldn’t this supposedly benevolent father-figure just give it to people without our having to ask for it?
7. In 2 Corinthians 5:7, we’re told that it’s a valuable thing to “walk by faith, not by sight.” This god doesn’t care about evidence, and Christians who do are doing it all wrong. If something is objectively seen to be contradictory, it’s a Christian’s duty to ignore it and continue to walk by faith. Why? Why would we have to ignore contradictory evidence? Why can’t we rely upon our eyes and the evidence of the world around us? Why is it a virtue to ignore such a preponderance of objective, credible facts? Is the problem here that there are so many contradictory facts? How many of these should we have to see before we go “now wait just a dang ol’ minute here…”?
8. The character of Jesus himself, in Matthew 18:3, tells his followers that if they don’t “change and become like little children,” they “will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” In the next verse he goes on to say that what he really wants to see is his followers “humbling” themselves like very young children do. I’ve got to wonder how many young children the anonymous author of Matthew encountered, but it’s not their humility that Christians idolize nowadays but rather their gullibility, their trusting natures, their complete lack of experiential knowledge, and their ability to believe absolutely anything as the gospel truth. Thankfully, not all children share these characteristics; of the rest, it is our outgrowing of these traits that marks our passage into adulthood. (Also, contrast with how Christians are told in another Bible verse that they should “put away childish things”.)
I came out of those Bible studies with a sure and certain conviction that the god of that book is not actually a good parent. I was downright rattled. He glorifies ignorance, wants to keep people childlike, makes it a virtue to ignore evidence, sees pursuit of knowledge as deeply questionable, and values “love” and obedience over any wisdom gained outside his glorification. And even questioning God’s ways is a sin (as the entire Book of Job demonstrates).
If I were going to deliberately create a false religion, this is exactly the kind of system I’d set up to keep people from scrutinizing things too carefully or resisting my authority.
I’d make folks downright terrified to question me; I’d tell them to just blindly accept whatever I said. I’d make compliance and obedience the chief virtues of my false religion. I’d set up elaborate ways to discount and demonize not only contradictory observational evidence, but even the very desire to have any observational evidence for my claims. I’d manipulate people into viewing gullibility as an asset and teach them to distrust their own senses. I’d manufacture needs for my followers, then sell them my religion as a way of fulfilling those needs. I’d thoughtfully redefine big words like “love” and “charity” to make abuse and chest-thumping totally within the rules. I’d make up totally arbitrary and random laws to keep my followers guessing and uncertain of themselves, then also make up punishments for not following those laws that would be so completely disproportional that people would be scared even to wonder why those rules existed. You can bet I’d keep people far, far away from any education that might help them learn to critically weigh my religion’s claims.
And I’d end up with something very much like the worst denominations of Christianity.
The awful part is that having also learned by then about compartmentalization, I also knew even then that Christians have a great many apologetics tricks meant to wash away the stress of cognitive dissonance, itself caused by finding out stuff like I’ve mentioned here. I’d even used some of those tricks myself. The Bible’s simple, except when it’s not. I’d missed the context. I had not rightly divided the truth. I was letting Satan trick me somehow. I’d understand everything at last after I died and went to Heaven. Oh, there’s always a way for folks to keep themselves from plainly seeing what the Bible plainly says. By the time of my deconversion I wasn’t satisfied with those contortions anymore.
I think a lot of ex-Christians can point to a moment like that in our own lives when we finally take off our blinkers. It’s a scary moment–and a powerful one. It feels like taking a step out into an abyss without knowing if there’ll be anything under our feet. I still remember taking that deep breath before opening my study Bible for that last Bible study I ever undertook as a Christian, and that last prayer I said to the Christian god to please, please, please give me a good reason to believe. It’s amazing to me now that I fought as hard as I did to hang onto my faith and went to the lengths I did to preserve it. I’ve talked to countless ex-Christians who’d say the same.
The big problem with thought terminators like “it’s a mystery” is that whatever “it” is, it is not usually actually a mystery at all. Not even a little. It’s actually quite clear. I finally perceived that my religion did not create spouses and children of a living god but rather pets and slaves willing to bankroll a false, harmful ideology. I had finally seen that this god, according to the holy book supposedly inspired or second-hand written by him, did not want us to flower in the full brilliance of our human potential but rather to cower and shiver in ignorance and witless stupidity. This religion glorified blind obedience and compliance. It encouraged abuse and excused predators at the total expense of victims every time. And my peers and I had evolved a complex series of thought-stoppers to avoid seeing any of it, or even from realizing that there was absolutely no good reason to think any of it was even remotely true.
I was no longer content with the clichés that had once kept me afraid to learn and grow, the ones meant to keep me in the traces. I finally stepped out into the abyss I’d once feared so much.
And you know what?