8 Ways the Religious Right Wins Converts – To Atheism

Note: Este articulo es disponible en español aquí.

Christian truck at XXX BookstoreIf the Catholic Bishops, their Evangelical Protestant allies, and other Right-wing fundamentalists had the sole objective of decimating religious belief, they couldn’t be doing a better job of it. 

Testimonials at sites like ExChristian.net show that people leave religion for a number of reasons, many of which religious leaders have very little control over.  Sometimes, for example, people take one too many science classes.  Sometimes they find their faith shattered by the suffering in the world – either because of a devastating injury or loss in their own lives or because they experience the realities of another person’s pain in a new way.  Sometimes a believer gets intrigued by archaeology or symbology or the study of religion itself.  Sometimes a believer simply picks up a copy of the Bible or Koran and discovers faith-shaking contradictions or immoralities there.  

But if you read ExChristian testimonials you will notice that quite often church leaders or members do things that either trigger the deconversion process or help it along. They may turn a doubter into a skeptic or a quiet skeptic into an outspoken anti-theist, or as one former Christian calls himself, a de-vangelist.  

Here are some top ways Christians push people out the Church door or shove secret skeptics out of the closet.  Looking at the list, you can’t help but wonder if the Catholic Bishops, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman and their fundamentalist allies are working for the devil.

Gay Baiting. Because of sheer demographics, most gay people are born into religious families. In this country almost half are born into Bible-believing families, many of whom see homosexuality as an abomination.  The condemnation (and self-condemnation) can be excruciating, as we all know from the suicide rate.  Some emotionally battered gays spend their lives fighting or denying who they are, but many eventually find their way to open and affirming congregations or non-religious communities. 

Ignorant and mean-spirited attitudes about homosexuality don’t drive just gays out of the Church, they are a huge deconversion issue for straight friends and family members.  When Christians indulge in slurs, devout moms and dads who also love their gay kids find themselves less comfortable in their church home.  Young people, many of whom think of the gay rights issue as a no-brainer, put anti-gay churches in the “archaic” category.  Since most people Gen X and younger recognize equal rights for gays as a matter of common humanity, gay baiting is a wedge issue that wedges young people right out of the church.  That makes Fred Phelps a far better evangelist for atheism than for his own gay-hating Westborough Baptist Church.   

Prooftexting.   People who think of the Bible as the literally perfect word of God love to quote excerpts to argue their points.  They often start with a verse in 1 Timothy:  All scripture is given by inspiration of God. (As if this circular argument would convince anyone but a true believer.)  They then proceed to quote whatever authoritarian, anti-gay, or anti-woman verse makes their point, like, Whoever spares the rod hates their children . . . Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.  or Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination or Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.   In doing so, they call into question biblical authority, because the Bible writers so obviously got these issues wrong.  Literalists who prooftext are a tremendous asset to those who would like to see Bible worship fade away – because prooftexting on one side of an argument invites the same in return, and it is easy to find quotes from the Bible that are either scientifically absurd or morally repugnant.

Many liberal or modernist Christians see the Bible as a human document, an attempt by our spiritual ancestors to articulate their best understanding of God through the lens of imperfect human cultures and minds. Suppose such a Christian gets confronted with a verse that says, for example, Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man (Numbers 31:17-18), or No man who has any defect may come near [to God in the temple]: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed;  no man with a crippled foot or hand,  or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, . . . (Leviticus 21:17-23).  He or she can simply shrug and say, “Yeah, that’s ugly.”  A couple of years ago a group of liberal Christians even kicked off an internet competition to vote on the worst verse in the Bible.  Their faith doesn’t stand or fall with the perfection of the Bible.  Biblical literalists, on the other hand give someone like me an excuse to talk about sexual slavery or bias against handicapped people in the Bible – in front of an audience who have been taught that the good book is uniformly good.  For a wavering believer, the dissonance can be too much. 

Misogyny. For psychological and social reasons females are more inclined toward religious belief than males.  They are more likely to attend church services and to insist on raising their children in a faith community.    They also appear more indifferent than males to rational critique of religion, like debates about theology or evolutionary biology.  I was interested to notice recently that my YouTube channel, Life After Christianity, which focuses on the psychology of religion gets about eighty percent male viewers.   Women are the Church’s base constituency, but fortunately for atheists, this fact hasn’t caused conservative Christians to back off of sexism that is justified by – you got it – prooftexting from the Old and New Testaments. 

Evangelical minister, Jim Henderson, recently published a book, The Resignation of Eve, in which he urges his fellow Christians to take a hard look at the consequences of sexism in the church.  According to Henderson, old school sexism has driven some women out of Christianity permanently, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  For those who stay, it means that many are less enthusiastic and engaged than they would be.  Churches rely on women to volunteer in roles that range from secretary to director of Children’s programs to missionaries.  That takes a high level of confidence in Church doctrines and also a strong sense of belonging.  Biblical sexism cultivates neither.  Between 1991 and 2011 the percent of women attending church in a typical week dropped by eleven points, from 55 to 44 percent.

Hypocrisy.  Christians are taught – and many believe—that thanks to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit they are a moral beacon for society.  The writer of Matthew told his audience, “You are the light of the world.”   That’s a high bar, and yet decent believers (along with many other decent people) try earnestly to meet it.   But the added pressure on those who call themselves “the righteous” means that believers also are prone to hiding, pretending, posing, and turning a blind eye to their own very human, very normal faults and flaws.    People who desperately want to be sanctified and righteous, “cleansed by the blood of the lamb” – who need to believe that they now merit heaven but that other people’s smallest transgressions merit eternal torture—have a lot of motivation to engage in self-deception and hypocrisy.  High profile hypocrites like Ted Haggard or Rush Limbaugh may be loved by their acolytes, but for people who are teetering, they help to build a gut aversion to whatever they espouse.   But often as not, the hypocrisies that pose a threat to faith are small and internal to a single Bible-study or youth group.   Backbiting and social shunning are part of the church-lady stereotype for a reason.   They also leave a bitter taste that makes some church members stop drinking the Kool-aid. 

Disgusting and Immoral Behavior.   The priest abuse scandal did more for the New Atheist movement than outspoken anti-theists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith) or Bill Maher (Religulous) ever could. To make matters worse—or better, depending on your point of view– Bill Donohue of the Catholic League seems to be doing everything possible to fan those flames:  On top of the abuse itself, followed by cover-ups, he is now insisting that the best defense of Church property is a good offense against the victims, and has vowed to fight them “one by one.”  The Freedom from Religion Foundation publishes a bi-monthly newspaper that includes a regular feature:  The Black Collar Crime Blotter.  It features fraud, drug abuse, sex crimes and more by Protestant as well as Catholic clergy.  The obvious purpose is to move readers from Religion isn’t true to Religion isn’t benign to Religion is abhorrent and needs fighting.  Moral outrage is a powerful emotion.  

Science denial.  One of my former youth group friends had his faith done in by a conversation with a Bible study leader who explained that dinosaur skeletons actually are the bones of the giants described in early books of the Bible. Uh huh.  Christians have come up with dozens of squishier, less falsifiable ways to explain the geological record: The ‘days’ in Genesis 1 were really ‘ages.’  Or God created the world with the fossils already in place to test our faith.  Or the biblical creation story is really sacred metaphor.   But young earth creationists who believe the world appeared in its present form 6- 10,000 years ago are stuck.  And since almost half of the American public believes some version of this young earth story, there are ample opportunities for inquiring minds to trip across proto-scientific nonsense. 

Like other factors I’ve mentioned, science denial doesn’t just move believers to nonbelief.  It also rallies opposition ranging from cantankerous bloggers to legal advocates.   It provides fodder for comedians and critics: “If the world was created 6000 years ago, what’s fueling your car?” It may produce some of the most far reaching opposition to religious belief, because science advocates argue that faith, even socially benign faith, is a fundamentally flawed way of knowing.  The Catholic Church, perhaps still licking wounds about Galileo (they apologized finally in the 20th Century), has managed to avoid embarrassing and easily disproven positions on evolutionary biology.  But one could argue that their atheism-fostering positions on conception and contraception similarly rely on ignorance about or denial of biological science –in this case embryology and the basic fact that most embryos never become persons.   

Political meddling.  If you look at religion-bashing quote-quip-photo-clip-links that circulate Facebook and Twitter, most of them are prompted by church incursions into the political sphere.  A spat between two atheists erupted on my home page yesterday.  “Why can’t ex-Christians just shut up about religion and get on with building a better world?” asked one.  “Why can’t we shut up?!” screeched the other.  “Because of shit like this!”  He posted a link about Kansas giving doctors permission to deny contraception and accurate medical information to patients.  

I myself give George W. Bush credit for transforming me from a politically indifferent, digging-in-the-garden agnostic into a culture warrior.  He casually implied that, when going to war, he didn’t need to consult with his own father because he had consulted the big guy in the sky, and my evangelical relatives backed him up on that, and I thought, oh my God, the beliefs I was raised on are killing people.   The Religious Right, and now the Catholic Bishops, have brought religion into politics in the ugliest possible way short of holy war, and people who care about the greater good have taken notice.  Lists of ugly Bible verses, articles about the psychology of religion, investigative exposes about Christian machinations in D.C. or rampant proselytizing in the military and public schools –all of these are popular among political progressives because it is impossible to drive progressive change without confronting religious fundamentalism. 

Intrusion.  Australian comedian and atheist John Safran,  flew to Salt Lake City for a round of door-to-door devangelism after Mormons rang his doorbell one too many times on Saturday morning.   More serious intrusions, in deeply personal beginning- and end-of-life decisions, for example, generate reactive anti-theism in people who mostly just want to live and let live. 

Catholic and Evangelical conservatives have made a high stakes gamble that they can regain authoritarian control over their flocks and hold onto the next generation of believers (and tithers) by asserting orthodox dogmas, making Christian belief an all or nothing proposition.  Their goal is a level of theological purity that will produce another Great Awakening based largely on the same dogmas as the last one.  They hope to cleanse their membership of theological diversity, and assert top down control of conscience questions, replenishing their membership with anti-feminist, pro-natalist policies and proselytizing in the Southern hemisphere.   But the more they resort to strict authoritarianism, insularity and strict interpretation of Iron Age texts, the more people are wounded in the name of God and the more people are outraged.  By making Christian belief an all-or-nothing proposition – they force at least some would-be believers to choose “nothing.”  Anti-theists are all too glad to help.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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20 Responses to 8 Ways the Religious Right Wins Converts – To Atheism

  1. Pingback: 8 Ways the Religious Right Wins Converts – To Atheism | Away Point | Christian Dailys

  2. Robster says:

    It’s good that you’ve recognised and noted the self destruction so loved by the pious. When you’re flogging a rotting carcas, as those afflicted with religion have to do, they can’t help but look childish, petty, hateful, bigoted and just plain silly. Perhaps those free of the fraud should assist. We do, look at the internet, our second secret tool, the bible’s a goody too.

  3. When you break it down into categories, as you have, it’s interesting to see just how many significant ways traditionalist Christians are showing the inadequacy of their worldview and theology. One excellent resource showing the often-missed reality that conservative church involvement is dropping rapidly now, not just “mainline,” is “Christianity After Religion” by Diana Butler Bass.

    I will add that, in the “science denial” category, the severe polarization over creation-evolution is pushed along, I am convinced, by a kind of “fundamentalism” among most scientists as well (or their institutions). An excellent book showing the development of the problem over nearly 20 centuries, but especially since Galileo, is “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith,” by David Ray Griffin.

    I’ll purposely give away the “ending”: Science has distorted the great truth of naturalism by restricting it to the “five senses,” atheism and materialism. Christianity has distorted the great truth of God’s persuasive and loving direction (never coercive or interventionist as in supernaturalism–i.e., all things are IN God, but not all things=God). To Griffin, and a good number of other deep scholars, Process Theology is a well-developed “middle road” that makes more sense and solves more problems than either typical scientific naturalism or religious supernaturalism. It gives us a way forward and largely OUT OF the constant shouting matches which go nowhere.

    • The Truth Seeker says:

      I would like to know what is the great truth of God’s persuasive and loving direction. Please give some examples. I don’t know anything about Process Theology. Perhaps you can explain how it makes more sense and solves more problems than either scientific naturalism or religious supernaturalism. Some examples please. Does Process Theology contain Jesus or is it only God. I noticed you only talked about God. Is Jesus and the Holy Spirit included in your mention of God?. Is there no Trinity in Process Theology?. Maybe we’re too ignorant to know of these great truths of Process Theology. A little explanation wouldn’t hurt you know.

      • The Truth Seeker,

        There is a good quick way to get an overview of Process Theoloy in mostly non-technical terms: the summary at Wikipedia under that search term. I say “non-technical” terms because the system worked out initially by the philosopher Whitehead and then Hartshorne, does include such language and is quite complex–nuanced. A number of writers have simplified it for non-philosophers and other lay people, but it still tends to be difficult for some. I see that as inevitable, to a degree, because the data to work with, and the nature of reality IS complex and often puzzling to even well-educated people.

        As to examples, I’m not sure if what I’ll briefly mention will fit what you’re asking for, but I’d say the way that Process makes sense of the creation-evolution issue and the “problem of evil” (a good God creating a world with so much evil in it) solve more problems than more traditional views from either naturalism (as science generally defines it) or supernaturalism (as most of religion defines it). If you do have an interest, it’s a small investment of money and time to get/read the book by Griffin I mentioned above–only about 150 pages or so. Even reading the first and last couple chapters will give you a good idea… it does go into some historical detail in the middle that is not crucial to the major points. However, that all does add support to his case. Griffin is one of the most logically and carefully “argued” of writers, without unnecessarily using technical or “in house” terms.

        As to Trinity, I think if you check the Wikipedia article, it will help clear that up. God is “personal” in the sense of being “relational” but not via a traditional Trinity concept. Sorry, but it’s too involved to go into now, to answer all your questions simply and directly.

    • Have you been to Michael Dowd’s site, Evolutionary Christianity? I think it might be an awesome fit for you.

      • Thanks for this referral, Valerie. I am fairly familiar with Dowd’s work, tho I haven’t visited the site lately. I was working through his fairly long “Thank God for Evolution” a few months ago, but put it down again (2nd time), as I was focusing more on my specialty areas, one being Christian origins (interdisciplinary study–more as history of religion, tho I still study the primary texts some and scholars writing about them–fascinating period and processes!). The other is psychology of religion/spirituality (which I see as the broad rubric for your work as well). As you know, these are closely connected. I’m really focusing on writing a short and basic book on that area right now… trying to have it ready for the market as an ebook in 3 months.

        Thus, while Dowd’s work is indeed a great fit, as you say, I’m going to have to come back to it later (except where I may find it helpful to quote or draw from him in my writing–so many good sources!).

  4. Pingback: 8 Ways the Religious Right Wins Converts – To Atheism | Away Point « Religious Leaders: Misogyny is NOT a virtue! And Civil Law trumps your faith!

  5. thats me the guy who questioned his faith over the bible difficulties, guilty as charged

  6. Ferdi Businger says:

    Great article Valerie!

    In so many ways Christian fundamentalists shoot themselves in the foot, exposing the emptiness of their suit. But nothing beats the recent spate of videos in which Baptist ministers call for the killing of gays and lesbians. These Hitler-like appeals for genocide freeze the blood in my gay veins – so chillingly evil it makes God and the devil seem as one. And who wants to worship a devilgod?

  7. Steven says:

    Valerie, I tried to post a link to this essay on FaceBook. FaceBook is blocking you. It seems they consider you spammy, unsafe, and abusive.

    • Hmm. Thanks! . . . . Maybe it was a fluke or a glitch in the facebook sharing widget. To test I just pasted the link ( http://awaypoint.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/8-ways-the-religious-right-wins-converts-to-atheism/ ) into my facebook to test it and it worked.

      • Steven says:

        Yes, it worked for me the first time too. And a friend even commented on the post. But then, a few minutes later, FB removed the post, comment and all, and I’ve tried to re-post several times since. Every re-post attempt has been met with a popup that says they, FB, think I’m linking to an abusive, unsafe, or spammy website. I did finally go to exchristian.net, found your essay there, and posted a link to it. This time FB appears to be allowing it.

      • Steven says:

        Perhaps a ninth way is up for inclusion: cowardice.

    • Very wierd. Other links from awaypoint seem to have stuck. Maybe someone flagged the article as spam? I’ll try posting it and leaving it. (I didn’t do that earlier because I had shared the alternet link a couple of days ago.) Thanks again for helping me to figure this out. — and for your persistence in sharing the article!!

      • Steven says:

        Flagged as spam? Ah, that could be it. I’ve a few Christian FB friends; I wouldn’t be surprised if one did that.

        And, you’re welcome. From “Trusting Doubt” to your essays, I enjoy hearing your point of view. Thanks!

  8. Pingback: Ocho maneras hacen que la gente se convierta al ateismo | publicogt.com

  9. When local Jehovah’s Witnesses harassed me mercilessly for leaving their Kingdom Hall, I was still uncertain about remaining a Witness or not. The constant pressure to do what they wanted actually pushed me to really think about the problems I had with their “truth” and to put together a new world view just so I could stand up to them. Over a period of years, I began researching their literature and found many of the claims made in the publications to be factually inaccurate. (Their “Creation Book” was the poster child of how badly researched their literature is.)

    Along the way, I kept running into articles written by atheists and skeptics. Not because I was looking to become an atheist, but because atheists were among those writing about the issues I was digging into. I became an atheist, in part, by accident, because I kept reading what they had to say and agreeing with it.

    It’s weird, but I might not have become an atheist without the help of overzealous evangelists who were trying to coerce me back into their religion. I don’t really feel like thanking them, however. Not sure they’d appreciate it even if I did.

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