Most of us don’t think about the ideologies that drive us, but how we behave because of them is telling.
Last week I published the article Why I Stopped Teaching My Kids to Believe in God and then watched people come undone. The comments became a fascinating show of how deeply we feel about our religious beliefs, though we hold vastly different beliefs. A lot of assumptions were also made about me and how I raise my kids. “So basically this guy doesn’t tell them what to do, and let [sic] them grow freely, naturally?” (I’m not sure what he meant by “freely, naturally.” My children are not Foster Farms chickens.) Then there were the Bible verses, the warnings, and the reprimands.
As I stepped back from the toxic mix of volatility, I saw fearful pandemonium. The overriding message from it all was that people were afraid to let other people simply exist without feeling the need to control them in one way or another. Ironically, it was the very message I pointed out in my article: “I don’t want [my kids] to be bigoted, prejudice, hateful, exclusive, or fearful, which is what I see much of the evangelical world…has become.” And there it was. Playing out in front of me once again.
After 25 years in the evangelical church, I began to rethink what was really true. I know for the faithful, that’s not usually an acceptable thing to do. We’re told that we’re being deceived by the devil if we have doubts, or questions. Scriptures are tossed out and explained to us, as though we’ve never heard them before, or as if we just aren’t able to grasp their meanings. Presumably because the devil is deceiving us. I never realized how much of my beliefs were based in utter fear until I was finally able to look at it from the outside.
Bertrand Russell said in his 1927 lecture, Why I am not a Christian:
“Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”
As a minister, I often quoted and frequently sang the chorus from 2 Timothy 1:7, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and a sound mind.” At the same time, I feared having the wrong theology, interpreting my Bible wrong, not reading my Bible enough, not praying enough, and worse, being too lenient on non-Christians. I kept my distance from non-Christian friends because the Bible warned about being “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
That, of course, spilled over into my religious-political life. I voted against protecting gay people, because I didn’t want to legitimize their “lifestyles.” If we allowed gay people to be like everyone else, God would rain down his judgment on America. I believed it as I’d been taught. I felt I needed to preserve the righteousness on which our country was founded.
The weirdest part of all is that I would have adamantly denied my religion was based in fear. If confronted, I would have argued it was based on a relationship with God, whom I felt, and based in love for everyone. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (John 3:16).
However, most of what we believe is based on how strongly we feel about something. Reason and facts are always secondary, which is what makes conversations about ideologies, political or religious, so difficult to have. We will argue our beliefs to the death, though they may be completely devoid of reason.
Working in ex-gay ministry gave me a different perspective than most people. I watched politics and religion meld into one. Our message, “there is freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ,” was picked up by groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, groups with strong political ties to lawmakers. These groups hold theocratic mentalities and our message was just what they needed as “proof” that God, the way they believe Him, was real. Their cause was proliferated throughout much of the evangelical Christian community in the 1990s and 2000s, with the belief that God wants conservative Christians in politics to run the nation. In other words, what can’t be accomplished through prayer and fasting might be accomplished through political lobbying and coercion.
People like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan all used fear as the basis for gaining power. They spoke of the declining morality in America, pointing fingers at the gays, who could “obviously change if they wanted to,” abortion, and sexual immorality. This is not new. Historically, preachers, using the Bible and fear, preached against the evils of abolishing slavery, allowing women to vote, and desegregation. As recently as March, 2016, one pastor was still condoning slavery because the Bible condones slavery and, “the Bible’s always right about every subject,” he said.
The Bible can and does say practically anything someone wants to interpret it to say. As religious scholar Resa Aslan points out, “People don’t derive their values from their religion—they bring their values to their religion.” And then they often use their religion to justify their beliefs and actions.
Control never pans out well. Whether it’s a boss demanding it, a spouse fighting for it, or a kid fighting against it, control is almost always fear-based and it never brings its desired result. In fact, it usually does the opposite, breeding resentment, which causes people to rebel.
On the contrary, human beings come with their own moral compass, according to professor Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: the origins of good and evil. Bloom states, “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.”
The idea that humans can be moral beings without divine interception terrifies certain groups. More terrifying for them is to contemplate that perhaps God doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist in the preconceived way our culture has been taught.
The big, unanswered question to all if this is, why does it matter if I or someone else disagrees with your belief, or interpretation of God? Is it fear that my beliefs or actions will make God angry? Does it strike a chord with your own doubt about the divine? Why do you feel the need to call me names, argue with me, or lash out? Are you truly terrified that if someone doesn’t believe God the way you do, all hell will break lose? Is your God so small that what I think, or how I live my life, is really going to cause him unequivocal pain?
For my American audience, let me put this in perspective. While around 70% of the United States claims to be Christian, there are still some 41,000 denominations, which hold vastly different views. Some Evangelical Christians, which make up about 25% of the self-identified Christian population don’t consider other parts of the Christian community to be Christians (e.g., Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, etc.). Worldwide, Christians only make up about one third of the world’s population.
To declare that one must be a certain kind of Christian to stay morally pure doesn’t pan out. Case in point, the United States, which has by far the largest numbers of professed Christians, also boasts the largest prison population than anywhere else in the world. We are number one in cocaine use, and the Bible belt consistently shows the highest use of pornography, and leads in divorce, murders, teen pregnancies and STD’s.
Statistically speaking, “Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread,” according to research by Phil Zuckerman. Additionally, Zuckerman cites a 1999 study showing that atheists and agnostics have lower divorce rates than Americans. Overall, he finds, secular nations report the highest levels of happiness, altruism and are less racist.
No one can prove or disprove the existence of God, let alone speak with absolute certainty about the nature or character of God. Our feelings are not evidence; they are feelings. Muslims feel as connected to their Supreme Being as Christians feel connected to theirs.
I do believe that love casts out all fear and if our faith is based in love, there is truly nothing to worry about – not what someone else believes, not who someone else loves, and not even if he raises his children “to grow freely, naturally,” like Foster Farms chickens. As I said in my last article, God is big enough to take care of himself.
Photo – Flickr/ JD Warrick