I guess every single ex-Christian out there’s heard this one: “You just left because some ‘bad Christians’ made you upset!” The accusation is all but a joke to some of us by now, it’s so threadbare from overuse.
I hope by the end of this entry to convince Christians of why that is a ridiculous thing to say to us.
I hope you’ve already noticed that when I was a Christian, I was surrounded by Christians who weren’t really very good examples of Christianity. But at the time, I can sincerely say that I didn’t consider their example a reason to doubt. Just as a multi-level marketing drone doesn’t stop to consider all the people who’ve tried and failed to succeed at “the business,” just as a fad dieter won’t be deterred by something as simple as dismal success rates, I thought that these “bad Christians” were just doing it wrong. I could not consider that the message might be flawed and that there might not be a real god in there anywhere transforming people’s lives, though such an idea would have explained perfectly why Christians didn’t have a cornered market on morality and righteousness. The message could not be flawed. Therefore, the people failing at it were the problem.
In the exact same manner, I viewed people who’d left the church or who were being “bad witnesses” as the problem, not the message. And since leaving the church, I’ve met many Christians who considered me the problem, who thought I had some intrinsic failure, because it’s just so unthinkable that the message itself has a problem. They think, just as I did once, that the message is perfect. Therefore, if someone has trouble with it, the person having the trouble is imperfect. But I was operating under an unproven assumption: this idea that the message is perfect. What if it isn’t? Then we have a perfect explanation for why there are so many “bad Christians” in the world and why people are leaving it in such huge numbers. But that’s a very threatening idea, and I can tell you for 100% sure that it did not occur to me during the events I’ve described thus far.
In my mind, Christianity was true and real. Hell was true and real. The Rapture was true and real. Jesus was true and real. Life was but an eyeblink, and eternity was, well, forever. Whatever happened here, whatever bad examples I saw, I was not going to be deterred from the goal. It didn’t matter what people did, because if it was all real, God wasn’t going to care in the end why I faltered, only that I did. It didn’t matter what kind of abuse I suffered at the hands of Christians, either, because temporal abuse pales before eternal abuse. Any person enduring sexual harassment to keep a much-needed job in a horrible economy knows exactly how I felt.
Every time someone left, or we heard about someone doing something really sinful, those Christians remaining would cluster together like 50s housewives did in the wake of a divorce, and try to force that dissenter into a box labelled with what he or she did wrong to end up there. We had to explain it away, just as those 50s housewives had to figure out what the divorcing wife did wrong so they could protect their own senses of security within their own marriages. Once we explained away the failure, we were soothed a little. The now-ex-Christian didn’t try hard enough, or pray enough, or love Jesus enough, or have enough faith. The dissenter was angry at God, or angry at some particular Christian who’d upset him or her. The apostate hadn’t gone to the right church, or mixed with the right Christians, or heard the right Bible verses. Whew! Glad that’s settled!
But in our minds, these simple and insulting bits of condescension lurked and prowled and preyed upon us with one even simpler and way less insulting truth: These heretics weren’t idiots, and they certainly had seemed like they had done the right things at the time. Indeed, there didn’t really seem to be a way to really say for sure who was going to be safe from apostasy and who was at risk for de-converting. There was no way to point to any particular Christian–even ourselves–and say “That one? That one’s totally going to die a true-blue Christian.” I sensed this truth, and I feared it. Nothing really stopped someone from leaving Christianity, any more than anything really totally divorce-proofed a marriage, and these ridiculous ego defenses only highlighted how feeble and lame Christianity was that it had to reduce dissent to such insulting explanations. Why did Christians have to lie and deceive themselves and others about why people left? What about Christianity required such ego-defenses? Why was it so important for Christians to push dissenters into a box rather than really hear them out? Why was it so vitally important for Christians to insist an apostate’s reasons for leaving were other than what the apostate said they were? The answers are painfully clear to me today, and I tell you this: until Christians can treat ex-Christians with honesty and love, until they can stop trying to invent excuses with no resemblance to the truth to make themselves feel better, until they can stop lying to themselves and others about why dissenters leave, the hemorrhage of people from their ranks will only get worse. Nothing good can possibly depend so much on lies.
None of this occurred to me at the time, though. Now that I’m out of the religion, yes, I do regard the behavior of Christians as the best argument there is against Christianity. But at the time, I could barely even perceive such an idea.
No, I’m going to tell you what was far, far worse for my resolve than seeing “bad Christians:” seeing Christians who seemed very earnest and sincere and who were very good people who believe something categorically different about all these topics than I did. If Christians had any sense at all, that’s what they’d be focusing on. The problem isn’t dissidents, it’s allies who aren’t on the same page.
Think about it. According to Wikipedia (yeah yeah, I know), there are some 41,000 denominations or so in the world. These denominations are all convinced that their take on the Bible and Christianity is the correct one. Some of them flat-out believe dissenters are not just hell-bound but even demon-possessed; as a teenager, I saw a brochure from a local Baptist group that claimed that speaking in tongues was a sign of demonic possession, while of course the Pentecostals believed speaking in tongues was a requirement, a verbal/somatic component (to use the D&D term) that completed the magic spell that was salvation. And if you want to see a good fight, ask a group of multi-denominational Christians about the Trinity (the belief that the Father/Son/Holy Ghost are separate beings) versus “oneness” (the idea that these names are just facets of one God who has many facets including “the way” and “a burning bush”). Many Christians do this sizing-up routine when they meet each other–I used to tease my husband about it, because he was so much more blatant about it than most Christians. You have to know if the Christian you’re talking to is deluded or mistaken, after all. And since there is no uniform definition of just what makes a person a Christian, the sizing-up is required if you’re to know which of you is more hardcore and correct.
While some of these denominations believe things that are kind of reconcilable, like how prayer should generally be done or the importance of reading the Bible, most of their beliefs are diametrically opposed. They can’t all possibly be correct, though obviously their adherents all think they are and all of them have Biblical verses supporting their views. And the more sure they are that some element they believe is absolutely essential and that other views are “false teachings” that are only going to send their people to hell, the more obvious it seems that they might just all be wrong. The likelihood of just one of these denominations having the real deal totally correct and true take on the Bible seems like it gets slimmer and slimmer the more of these denominations there are and the more diametrically its view opposes that of other denominations.
In college, I mixed it up with a number of Christians from other mostly-evangelical faiths. I had a brief flirtation with a Southern Baptist guy angling for music ministry who often ate at my place after I got married, and who invited me and Biff to visit his parents’ place in a tiny Texas town. Several of my best friends hailed from Maranatha–you know, the one that beauty queen was from. There was a bit of a scandal in the early 90s when photos leaked of Maranatha members holding their arms out like “Heil Hitler” Nazi salutes during prayer, and yes, I saw them doing it, though obviously they stopped after that scandal. Though some people said Maranatha was a cult or somehow harmful, I didn’t think so at the time. They met in a run-down converted warehouse and seemed very sincere and well-educated, and all the ones I met from there were very moral and kindhearted people. I was on friendly terms with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and thought they were all good men and women too. We all visited each others’ churches to get an idea of what other denominations believed and were up to, though I don’t remember anybody switching allegiances because of this so-called open-mindedness.
But they didn’t all believe in Oneness, or have uniform opinions about speaking in tongues, or about when the Rapture would occur. They all had Bible to back them up in whatever they thought, and they were all totally, completely, sincerely convinced that they were right and I was wrong. I wasted a lot of hours locked in debates with them, and nobody, in the end, won these because such arguments are intrinsically unwinnable; they’re always going wind down to “well, I just like it better this way,” though couched in higher, loftier words. I could not doubt their desire to love and serve Jesus, nor their intelligence, nor the Bible verses they wielded as effectively as I did. I don’t think any of us ever changed anybody else’s minds, but it did trouble me that someone could read the same verses, pray to the same god, and feel the same sincerity and come out making such different conclusions than I did.
So I’ll tell you what influenced me far more than “bad Christians,” and it was these “good Christians” who had such markedly different takes on the same Bible we all loved and cherished. How could they all be convinced of such radically different things? How could one source document be twisted in so many different ways? Why wasn’t God a bit more clear and coherent about the one record humanity possessed about his wishes for us? If it was so divine, how could it cause so much division? Just imagine, just imagine!–what the Body of Christ could do if it were totally united in his service (I know, I know–we already have the sterling example of the Roman Catholic Church here to show us what a forcefully-united church body was like, but remember, they weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in my mind anymore). But instead we were divided and squabbling over stuff that really shouldn’t have been so mysteriously vague. That vagueness bothered me a lot.
There was one more thing that would need to happen to show me just how mistaken I was about what I thought was the truth. And it was a big one.