This past weekend I had to cut a much needed vacation short in order to make it home in time to catch my youngest daughter being baptized by her grandfather at my family’s megachurch. While I quit attending more than three years ago, their mother still faithfully brings them to church two or three times a week. They are being raised to be good Baptists who almost certainly are fighting a fair amount of shame and disappointment because their father doesn’t even attend. In the Baptist hierarchy of values, that makes me a failure of a man. The preacher essentially reiterated that during his sermon that morning.
On top of that, my girls are being told by people in their lives that because their father doesn’t believe in God anymore, he is going to be separated from them for eternity, almost certain to burn in everlasting fire and anguish. That’s a lot to have on your shoulders as a child. My second youngest and I have now had multiple conversations like this one here in which I’ve tried to assure her that she doesn’t have to fear for my soul, but it doesn’t seem to be calming her fears. I’m fighting an uphill battle because her surrounding culture speaks with one voice, telling her that she now understands something that her own father does not—and cannot—because an evil spirit has pulled the wool over his eyes. It seems to me that would make it harder to trust your own father’s judgment. How could it not?
My family greatly appreciated my presence there that morning because they know by now that I do not enjoy sitting through a church service. They probably still don’t realize how many triggers I encounter on a typical Sunday morning because it’s the water in which they swim, even though thankfully I know they are trying. They are so used to hearing the guilt trips and unattainable personal expectations that they wouldn’t sense how odd and unrealistic they strike the rest of us who don’t live in their alternate reality. Even the style of music and the gushy way church people talk about invisible things seem surreal to me now that I’ve been out of that world for a few years. If you didn’t grow up in this, I don’t see how anyone could just walk into it and think, “Oh yeah, this is totally normal.”
Some will protest that I inadvertently validated that alternate reality by my presence throughout the day’s festivities. At some level that may be true. But I attended my daughter’s baptism (and the after party) because the people around her make a big deal about these things, and I didn’t want her to look around on this day and see everyone who matters to her except her own father. From their point of view, she’s just reached an all-important milestone and has become a new person. She’s just been “born from above,” and now she’s going to be admitted into heaven, provided she doesn’t later renounce her faith as her pitiable father did, may God have mercy on his fallen soul. Perhaps my presence only reinforced for her a system of beliefs which I no longer endorse. But life is complicated and we apostates have to make decisions based on things that matter most to us. I have no regrets about my decision to be there.
There’s so much I’d like to say about my first Sunday morning back in church since the day I left more than three years ago. I’ve been to several kids’ programs because my girls are still very involved in the church’s activities, but I’ve managed to stay away from Sunday morning because it makes me physically nauseous. I find it emotionally exhausting and it can take a couple of days to feel completely normal again. People like me can’t just shrug off what people do and say in church because I used to be one of them. I used to be a leader myself and I can’t avoid being passionate about what people are being led to believe in that environment. It’s just a part of who I am and maybe it always will be. I’d like to pick apart the sermon and the music and oh so many things, but I think I’ll table that until later. Today I want to make one single point about this gesture I made and what it tells me about people and their systems of belief.
A Gesture That Cannot Be Returned
I have had several friends and family members go out of their way to make sure I know they disapprove of my atheism. It’s bad enough that I don’t go to church anymore, but beyond that I also write and speak about why I left my faith. That crosses a line for them. One family that used to welcome me into their home for Thanksgiving and Christmas no longer allows me on their property. What felony did I commit which merits this kind of exclusionary treatment? I left their tribe and then had the nerve to admit it out loud. I might have been forgiven for leaving the fold, but evidently the unpardonable sin is talking about it out loud in front of other people. That makes you “militant.” Doesn’t matter how nice or respectful you are when you speak, the very act of speaking earns their strongest disapproval.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed for a national news segment (I’ll let you know when it’s ready to air) and I needed the use of a large, well-lit living room for the interview. I asked another part of my family if they’d let me use their living room since they weren’t going to be around at that time and my living room is cramped, but I was told that would not be allowed. “We just want to make sure you know that we don’t support what you’re doing.” Yes, I know, thank you for stating it out loud just in case I hadn’t gotten the message. I passed along the complication to the news producer who is himself a man of faith, although not of the evangelical variety, and he expressed his deepest sympathies. I imagine it’s hard to remain generous to someone engaged in activities of which you do not approve.
Why did I do that? Because I’m a decent person, and it was the charitable thing to do. It’s how kind, grown-up people behave. They find a way to look past their differences and show support for the people they love. Granted, not everyone would agree that I should have gone so far as to attend a ceremony that I believe is based on imaginary things. But that’s my business and that’s how I decided to handle it. I would never look at my daughter and tell her, “I just want to make sure you know that I don’t support what you’re doing.” What an uncharitable way to relate to someone you love.
Evangelical Christianity Has Messed Up Priorities
The evangelical Christian vision of heaven is based on right belief, not on right behavior. For evangelicals, it’s not the loving, caring, hard-working people of the world who get into heaven. I mean, sure, the people who get there may or may not possess those qualities, but good character isn’t what gets you in. You have to believe the right things, which is to say your theology must match evangelical theology on at least a handful of key doctrines which you can find on the back of any Billy Graham tract. Showing people love doesn’t get you in, but believing the “plan of salvation” does.
Consequently, evangelical culture rewards right belief over right character because in the end that’s what determines your eternal destiny. According to them, heaven will be filled with all kinds of unsavory characters who converted to the right theology before they died, while hell will be full of good, ethical non-believers. Because right belief tops their priority list, that’s what gets rewarded the most. Good behavior is nice, but it’s not the most important thing. Loving people matters, too, but even that seems to be reserved most for people who are already inside the fold. Loving people who are outside of it gets expressed primarily in invitations to become one of them. People on the outside must be willing to join the group if they really want to enjoy the full benefits because that’s the example that Yahweh set for them (depending on which verses you read, of course). That’s why evangelical Christianity fails to produce better people than any other ideologies. They reserve their highest rewards for things that frankly have little bearing on a person’s ability to love and accept other people.
One could even argue that this kind of exclusionary theology makes it harder for people to be accepting of others who are different from them. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’ll admit that the church can be very good at caring for its own, but once you find yourself on the outside of their tribe, even their acts of charity seem laced with an expectation that the gift you are receiving is intended to convince you that you must become like them if you want to be fully accepted. They naturally recoil at this charge, but think about it: What message would unconditional acceptance send to those who they believe must change or be punished forever? Can people’s kindness exceed that of the object of their worship? If God isn’t really going to accept those people as they are, why would the church?
Fortunately there are some whose natures override their theology. Some even leave their old churches in search of communities whose values better match their own. Some are currently churchless because their own moral compasses have driven them out of their insular religious clubs, but they still can’t find any other churches which embody the values they live by. They’re beginning to embrace what Bonhoeffer prophetically called “religionless Christianity.” In many cases what they’re really embracing is a form of humanism, but I’m not one to get too hung up on labels, useful though they may sometimes be.
Atheism doesn’t make you a better person any more than Christianity does. Humanism might do better than most, but I suspect it really boils down to something else. Maybe it’s some combination of genetics, upbringing, a series of healthy relationships and maybe the will to make good choices and to act charitably toward your fellow human beings. You’ll find kind, loving people in each tradition, including the one I stepped back into this past Sunday morning. But I don’t credit those traditions for making those people good. Some traditions actually inhibit charitable behavior because they burden people with exclusionary categories and teach them to judge people despite themselves. My hope is that they will learn to trust their own human instincts, which are likely nudging them to be better people than their own theology is telling them to be.