Recently my fellow Patheos blogger Jonny Scaramanga posted about an ongoing debate he’s gotten involved with regarding whether or not Creationism is used by Christians to justify their homophobia. I’ve weighed in on this subject in the past, but apparently there’s still some question about the matter. Let me, speaking as someone who escaped a fundamentalist denomination of Christianity that bought into Creationism, add my voice to agreement with his assertion. Yes, Creationism absolutely is used by extremist Christians to justify and rationalize a number of socially-regressive, oppressive stances they hold.
But more than that, Creationism is a prime example of why our foe is not actually Christianity, which is what I want to talk about today. Creationism’s just the outward sign of that foe, and that foe wears labels besides Creationism.
Sometimes my ex-Christian friends and I get into these discussions where we wonder which came first–the stance or the indoctrination? I’ve been asked by my blog’s readers as well about whether or not my ex-husband Biff would have gotten as bad had he never gotten involved with fundamentalism. Apparently, we’re not the only ones who wonder about this question; Christians do as well. In a thoroughly eye-opening post by the Nakedpastor cartoonist David Hayward, “Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What came first, the thug or the theology?” (come for the amazing post; stay for the shocking comments that follow–YIKES) he asks whether Mark Driscoll was already a thug by the time he began his religious ascendance, or whether his developed theology made him the thug he was by the end of his reign at Mars Hill. Regarding the spiritual abuse that went on at that place, Mr. Hayward writes,
I don’t think Driscoll’s theology made this happen. Driscoll “embraced” his toxic version of theology because it aligned with his moral compass. It fit his personality. It worked for him to achieve his goals. Then it manifested the worst in him. Then he continued to develop his toxic theology in order to make more room for his pathological behavior. Mars Hill Church too.
I agree. People who have the seeds of abusiveness, control-lust, cruelty, narcissism, and other such traits gravitate toward ideologies that let them express those seeds–and those seeds grow into trees as they flourish within a culture that not only does not restrain, condemn, or re-channel their tendencies but justifies those tendencies, celebrates them, and encourages their holders to get even more extreme in expressing them than they ever would have otherwise. People who land in fundamentalism or evangelicalism (“fundagelicalism”) but who lack those seeds will feel uncomfortable indeed with what they see in peers with less probity, and will likely filter out again eventually. Religious people tend to create gods for themselves who feel comfortable to them and express who they are–or would like to be.
If Mark Driscoll became a full-blown atheist tomorrow, do you imagine that all that indoctrination about women, about non-manly-men, about marriage, about how much control he deserves to have over other people lives, and all the other toxic elements of his religion that he’s developed would just vanish? Do you imagine he’d wake up tomorrow and be totally on board with women’s rights, equal marriage, stay-at-home fathers, and all the rest of the stuff he opposes right now as an evangelical Christian? No, absolutely not. Once upon a time I was convinced that my own then-opposition to LGBTQ rights had nothing to do with Christianity itself and everything to do with the natural order of things, and I guarantee you that most Christians who oppose equal marriage for same-sex couples are convinced that their religion’s divinity simply codified what was right and natural and proper anyway. That’s why Christians can try to push what is so painfully obviously a religious ideology down non-adherents’ throats and yet claim, wide-eyed and innocent, that no no, they’re not really making a religious argument at all. They might even believe it, though courts consistently laugh down their lame attempts to make a non-religious case for denying some Americans equal rights.
And toxic Christians are not just taking that approach with equal marriage. Increasingly I’m seeing secular-sounding-ish arguments emerging to bolster Christianist overreach. I think all their creators really want is the plausible deniability of being able to claim that they’re not really taking this position based on religion because it’s begun to dimly occur to them that only secular arguments really matter within a secular government; if we question their charade, they can claim we’re the bad guys. We’re expected to play along and nod politely when they go that route:
* “Religious Liberty” bills that are obviously and purely attempts to enshrine religious-based discrimination into law are popping up all over the place as Christians finally realize, once and for all, that acceptance of LGBTQ people is really a thing and Christian bigots won’t get to publicly shame and humiliate people they don’t like anymore and get away with it.
* Attacks on women’s freedom to choose have been largely secular-ish for a long time.
* Most of the attacks on science in public-school classrooms try to have at least a veneer of secular-ish-ism about themselves to give their pseudoscience a little more respectability in outsiders’ eyes.
* Racism, strongly associated with religious fervor, typically gets painted in terms of biological inferiority or superiority rather than in overtly religious terms.
Though you’ll find non-Christians holding all of these opinions from time to time, every one of these fights is owned by Christians and the main tone of their conversations is carried by Christians, to the point where sometimes they won’t even let non-Christians volunteer or contribute to their causes (which you’d think would tell those non-Christians something about the real priorities of the charities and groups in question).
Every single thing I’ve mentioned here happens in conjunction with or because of Christians getting hung up on a literal reading of the Bible. Creationism itself, being as it is a literal reading of Genesis, is an umbrella belief that justifies and rationalizes away all of those positions, which in turn gives the Christians holding those beliefs permission to be that way.
Obviously, a great many Christians are not forced-birther, science-denying, sexist racist bigots, but at this point I think it’s safe to say that if you run into a Christian who thinks the world literally got made from magic in a week about six thousand years ago, or that human beings were magicked up out of dirt, or that a talking snake is why we can’t have nice things, then that Christian is almost certainly going to buy into the positions named above to one extent or another.
And I think it’s really important for us to notice that it’s not buying into Christianity that led to those regressive beliefs being formed; it was buying into Biblical literalism, which led to Creationism. If you convince a Christian that being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ means idolizing the Bible to the point of believing it is 100% divine and inerrant, then Creationism can’t really be avoided.
Creationism is the Just-So Story that makes sexism into “complementarianism,” that makes racism into “separate but equal,” that makes the hate shown toward LGBTQ people into “love,” and the science-denial involved in Creationism itself into “an alternate theory” when it isn’t even a theory itself. And Creationism gives Christians a goal to work toward, as odious and incomprehensible as that goal might be to outsiders’ eyes.
Fundamentalism is the perfect storm in a lot of ways; it combines a huge need for rock-solid certainty with black-and-white thinking, raging egocentrism, more than a little indignant or innocent ignorance, and a desire to organize everything into its proper place in a long-established hierarchy. Someone who is angry about seeing a loss of privilege or cultural dominance might wander into Biblical literalism and discover validation for all those feelings of frustration and fear, all that rage, all that impotent bellowing grabbiness. Nothing less than a god stamps approval upon The Good Ol’ Days, so getting society back to The Good Ol’ Days* becomes the focus of these Christians’ efforts (BTW: excellent writeup, hugely recommended). Without literalism and that belief in Creationism it produces, these Christians wouldn’t have the utter certainty that they do that they know exactly what society, men, women, relationships, kids, sexuality, governments, everything should look like.
And I have personally heard Biblical literalism–by way of Creationism–used as the basis for every one of the social positions I have outlined in this post, though it’s largely not discussed in public in out-loud voices because plausible deniability must be maintained.
Women are unequal because they ate the Forbidden Fruit. They are “helpmeets” for men because Eve was made second. It’s wrong to let them handle their own reproductive choices because they got cursed forever and ever (in a very, very, totally fair and just punishment, obviously) to bear babies in agony. They must be controlled carefully because left to their own devices they ruin everything just like they ruined the Garden of Eden. But because a god basically made women that way, obviously that means that people should not go messing with the natural order by paying women equal pay or giving them self-ownership of their own bodies; that interferes with “God’s” law and plan (and he’s terribly weak so just about anything can totally wreck his plan).
People of color (POC) are unequal because a god made all populations, cultures, and peoples exactly the way they are right now, somehow. Adam and Eve were white just like Santa and Jesus are, and obviously they were superior human beings. “God” created the hierarchy of people, and it cannot be denied or altered. You’ll see the Tower of Babel invoked to deny mixed-race couples marriage rights, but it’s Creationism that seems to justify the actual racism between people that so many fundagelicals seem to exhibit.
LGBTQ people are unequal because “it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” As Jonny Scaramanga has pointed out, this is probably the most overtly Creationist belief outside of the Genesis narrative itself, and it is the stance that Christians justify the most often with overtly religious language–outside of courtrooms, of course. Then suddenly they fall over themselves to find non-religious arguments like “it’s for the children!”, but that’s backfiring in predictably hilarious ways.
So which came first, the thug or the theology?
The root problem, the fatal flaw here, is not Christianity itself but the traits that lead people into Christianity and into that kind of it especially. There are way too many non-Creationist Christians out there–including fervent believers like David Lack who have been instrumental in advancing biological science!–for me to imagine that the problem is the religion itself. And there are enough people who buy into pseudoscience and harbor bigoted or racist or sexist tendencies who don’t identify as religious for me to think that even if people are free of religious labels that’s no guarantee that they’ll be decent human beings. Certainly it’s much more common to see folks with those traits in extremist Christianity for the same reason that it’s much more common to see French people in Paris than in Missouri: that kind of Christianity speaks their language, more easily forms and shapes them, gives them an instant community of peers, and provides an outlet for ideas to transform them to action. But its deeper ideas transcend the mere label it offers.
It’s a little insulting to Christians as a whole to lump them all in together with fundamentalists and that rather simplistic view of the Bible, and most non-believers are well aware that there are two Christianities (if not more), diametrically opposed and distinctly competing with each other. We can do better than that. Christians need those of us willing to do so to be the safe harbor for their doubts and questions about the pseudoscience they’ve been fed. If we approach the teaching of science as an either/or thing, like it’s either lose the Christianity or lose the pseudoscience, that’s going to be a tough sell. If we quit worrying what the label is and concentrate addressing the traits and blind spots in education that led those folks to the extremist belief in the first place, we won’t be able to stop them from coming to certain conclusions. The religious zealotry takes care of itself at that point. Creationists know that, which is exactly why they terrorize their adherents into fearing the loss of their entire belief system if they so much as question Creationism’s errors.
If we attack Christianity itself and consider the Christianity itself to be the major issue, then in a best-case scenario we’ll end up with people who may technically lose the label but will retain the indoctrinated deeper beliefs that led them to that flavor of Christianity in the first place. And gang, I’ve seen what that looks like in people and I don’t really like it.
In the end, it may well be that Creationism is, itself, why I’m not an anti-theist. I try not to think of Christianity itself as the foe that progress must either fight or drag along behind itself like a dead weight. There are a lot of aspects of Christian culture–oh, yes, a lot–that I absolutely despise and will fight to the very end. But the religion itself is so amorphous and so non-monolithic, and there are so many Christians with such varying opinions, that I personally want to avoid becoming an out-and-out anti-theist and attacking the phenomenon of religion itself.
Which is why I’m also not an anti-anti-theist. Or even an anti-anti-anti-anti-theist.
Nobody is required to agree with me, of course, and obviously friendliness and generosity can be taken too far or mistaken for a toehold by extremists. Indeed, extremists cannot be appeased with partial measures; to borrow P.J. O’Rourke’s ear-tickling phrase, if you give them “chunks of an Archduke at Sarajevo” then they’ll still want nothing less than a world war. But I’m asking us to think about what our goal actually is here. Recovering from the worst effects of religion and awakening to one’s mistakes doesn’t mean deconversion necessarily, and I don’t think that it should. If that’s all we care about, then we risk turning into yet another faction with an agenda, and that’s not going to be helpful to the people who need our compassion and help the most to figure out just what the hell is going on for themselves. We’ll talk a bit more about this idea next time, but be thinking about the goal till then.
* Obviously, there’s no such thing as “the good old days,” but I’ve met a great many Christians who secretly think this is the case–that there was some magical time in the near past (the 1950s is usually the pinpointed timeframe, but sometimes you hear it put as the Victorian era) when everybody was Christian, nobody got divorced, women and POC were totally happy and domestic and not even a little uppity and knew their place compared to men and white people, LGBTQ people didn’t even exist or were damned quiet about it, and Everything Was Totally Perfect And Wonderful.