The first crime of religion is to convince us that the world is not okay as it is. Let’s think about the real immensity of this crime. Picture the canopy of stars on a clear night when you can see hundreds of faraway galaxies along with familiar constellations, beautiful shades of color on planets, and the occasional “shooting star.” Imagine the billions of light years it took for light to reach you from those remote parts of the universe and think about the exploding stars that once dispersed the same chemical elements that you have in your body.
Now take a trip in your mind to soar above the Grand Canyon viewing the kaleidoscope of layers of rock carved around a river; now a trip down the mighty Amazon with jungles that contain more species of life than can be identified while birds cry and flash by in brilliant color; now beneath the sea at a coral reef where all is silent and the world is a liquid sonata and the stunning sea creatures large and small move among the amazing structures, which are unmoving but growing and spawning and spreading, because the coral is also alive.
Now imagine a warm day – you have a swim in a tropical ocean, dry off in the sun and then stroll in the forest. You come across a wild mango tree, and you eat a ripe mango, the juice dripping down your hand. You pick a few more mangos and go back to the beach to share with others. There is a mother holding a baby to her breast. Three children are digging a hole in the sand and laughing each time a wave brings more water into the hole. Some boys are playing soccer down the beach. A man is fishing, and already has two fish in his bucket. Out in the water, seals bob their heads up curiously.
What is wrong with all this?
Anything? If that question confused you, it should. Because there is nothing wrong. A next step in the beach scenario, in some places, would be for a religious person on a mission to come along and start up a conversation. It could start with something like, “Do you have a few minutes for a survey?. . . Do you believe in God?” This “survey” would be a ruse to “witness” and move on to convince the person that they have a “god-shaped hole” in their life. Whatever unhappiness or dissatisfaction they might have would be interpreted as lacking God. The evangelical Christian message goes on to say that their role in the problem is their sin, which separates them from God. Then, voila! The messenger has the solution, which is Jesus.
When people reject Christianity and deconvert, they are usually clear about debunking the doctrine of original sin. A big part of healing is reclaiming self-worth, which includes valuing your own thoughts, feelings, and intuitions. One saying for this is: “Born fine the first time.” It can take effort, but for most people, they can see that they need to change the messages they have internalized about the self as bad and sinful and needing salvation. There are so many of these, both in scripture and in hymns, which can be haunting.
In other words, healing from the damage of religious indoctrination means finding a way to return to normal. If only we had a “reset” button to make it easy. But it’s not necessarily easy, because religion teaches us to hate ourselves, hate the world, and hate life itself. That may sound like overstatement, but didn’t Jesus say his followers needed to hate their families to be worthy to follow him? And we are quite familiar with Bible verses telling us how unworthy we are, denigrating this life, and condemning everything about “the world.” It’s as if the goal is to get this life over with as soon as possible and get to the afterlife. Get off the planet and get to heaven.
As I’ve worked with people in recovery, the need to help them heal from the harm of “original sin” has been obvious. No matter how much pain or fear or guilt or depression a person might have, I will confidently say with regard to being a “sinner” in need of redemption, “There is NOTHING wrong with you.” This doesn’t mean people don’t have problems or make mistakes, but that’s very different. I consider it emotional abuse to teach children (and adults) that they are basically bad.
But the teaching that is incredibly insidious has to do with convincing people that the world is full of evil and pain – that it is fallen and the domain of Satan. (Any effort to make it better is hopeless.) Human life is meaningless if there is no cosmic purpose in following God’s will, since everything else is small and pathetic in comparison, according to this view. Even the beauty of nature is simply attributed to God’s handiwork and seen as a temporary thing ready to decay.
As a result, reclaimers (people reclaiming their lives after religion) struggle tragically with meaning in life. The Christian indoctrination is so thorough as to convince adherents that the Christian worldview is the only one even possible. Giving it up can feel like jumping off a cliff, free-falling into complete groundlessness with nothing to hang on to for a sense of reality, much less goodness or purpose. In other words, if you were thoroughly marinated in the toxic juices of fundamentalist Christian doctrine, you were set up for existential crisis if you decide to think for yourself.
Christianity is in a number of ways simply a death cult. While Jesus, presumably the central figure in the belief system, had a great deal to say about how to live, fundamentalist Christianity is entirely obsessed with his death on the cross. In denigrating life and denigrating the world, Christians look forward to death and thereby neglect and miss out on their lives! Hoping for the catastrophic End of the World with massive death and destruction is ok from a Christian’s view because it means their own salvation. Churches do not get involved in serious environmental issues and Christians with their fatalism and blocking of action actually hasten the destruction of the planet. The colossal selfishness of this is rarely mentioned. But the message is there – this earth is not good enough, it’s expendable, and not worth the trouble of saving. Christians are also not at the forefront of diplomacy and peacemaking. War, after all, is another sign of the end, which is welcome.
The religion teaches you to value an imagined life somewhere in the beyond, and in order to be worthy you have to live a constrained life now and constantly repress your desires for the present. That is, you are to deny yourself normal human satisfactions and pleasures and consider all personal hopes and dreams and ambitions to be selfish and wrong. Essentially you are asked to give up your life; you are supposed to “die to self.” So when you think about Pascal’s Wager (asking you What is there to lose by believing, compared to the risk of not believing?), the answer is: “Quite a lot. My whole life! A whole world of possibilities!”
From a secular point of view, humans are considered amazing and admirable as well as deeply flawed. In our language, when we say to someone who has been having a hard time, “it’s what makes you human,” we don’t mean it as a criticism. And when we quote Alexander Pope saying “To err is human,” we are expressing compassion, not judgment.
Likewise, nonreligious people expect life to be mixed and for the world to have good and bad in it. They do not seek the perfect will of God. Christians are told God has a perfect plan for their lives! They are promised a perfect place for eternity and a perfect intimate relationship with the Lord of the universe. If they follow Jesus, they are led to believe they can become “perfect, as He is perfect,” and they strive for perfect mind control as they “take every thought captive to Christ.” The promises go on and on – becoming a new creature, doing all things through Christ, etc.
Leaving this mindset, while freeing, can also feel like an incredible letdown. If you are no longer part of a cosmic mission, a soldier in the Lord’s army, a person with a calling, then what? “Just” living one’s own life can seem small and the world so tawdry. This is what I mean when I call it a crime. All of that perfectionism nonsense poisons the mind. The idea of God Almighty having a perfect blueprint of your life hidden somewhere while you sweat it out trying to find it like some kind of life and death treasure hunt is the most ridiculous yet cruel hogwash. With such high stakes, why on earth is it so difficult anyway? Is this some kind of “hunger games” entertainment for heaven to watch? It makes no sense because it isn’t true, that’s all.
A reclaimer has to let go of the master plan idea and get used to making decisions. Just the skills for that are hard enough, aside from figuring out what you want. Healing includes reclaiming your right and your ability to think for yourself, have your own feelings, and trust your own instincts. Then you have to gain some existential muscle, i.e., gain some courage in making choices and owning them. For the exchristian, this means accepting that choices are never perfect. They aren’t even “right.” They’re just choices. We make them and then make them right. If you agonize about whether you are doing God’s will, you will make yourself miserable. A common “leftover” from being a Christian is to agonize about making “the right” decisions, and that too can make you miserable.
Personal responsibility is actually a big subject we are only touching on here. Decisions and direction are issues for everybody to an extent. There are losses of course and that’s part of it. When you pick a flavor of ice-cream, you lose out on the others. But if you choose a chocolate ice-cream cone and then while you are eating it, think about how you might have enjoyed strawberry better, what does that do to your experience of the chocolate? Or what if you stood at the shop trying to figure out the “right” flavor? Or the flavor God would have you order? I don’t mean to trivialize this topic by using ice cream; it’s just a metaphor. I wish I had easy answers. One thing I do know is helpful is to acknowledge the extent of the brainwashing.
The biggest issue is when your mind has been so poisoned with religious purpose pablum that just living your life on this glorious earth isn’t good enough. You feel compelled to ask what the (larger) meaning of it is. I’ve concluded that religion creates in people the bad habit of asking huge questions that shouldn’t even be asked. In my view, the question about the meaning of life is the same as walking down the street asking yourself “What is the purpose of this chocolate ice-cream?” If that question got a blank from you, then you might understand the blank stare from a secular person when a Christian tries to evangelize by questioning the purpose of life. The thought in response is “To live!” and those of us reclaiming our lives have been learning to embrace life as it is – without perfection. We also try to pay attention to our ice-cream because ice-cream is “To eat.”
In a similar vein, Alan Watts once compared life to listening to music. He said we don’t sit waiting for the music to end in order to do something better; we enjoy the music while it is playing, remembering to sing and dance while we can. In working with former Christians, it has been a pleasure to share this most amazing, healing metaphor. There is hope. There definitely are other worldviews and other ways of approaching life. It does not have to be a formula with answers for everything that you get from an authoritarian system. Life is more nuanced and subtle and mysterious than that. Perhaps having some responsibility for creating the meaning in our own lives is challenging, but it can have wonderful results. After all, we actually exist, here and now. Right?
Some helpful resources:
Alan Watts, “Music and Life” Animated short with a
selection from a lecture by Alan Watts, produced by Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
What the Hell do People Believe in if They Don’t Believe in God? Video by Stephen Fry on “How Can I be Happy?”
from a humanist point of view.
Another worldview: A Guide to Naturalism, by Tom Clark.
Another worldview: Humanism and its Aspirations.