Religion

Why do I want to fight fundamentalism?

To help people like this.

I’ve recently met (virtually) a woman who calls herself  Lady Through the Looking Glass. She is an amazing person who is going through the process of de-conversion. On her blog she is open and honest about her many struggles and provides a wonderfully eye-opening view onto the glorious and painful process of leaving faith behind. Reading her blog makes me so sad for what she is having to go through, but happy because she is well on her way to coming out on the other side as a whole and healthy human being. In some small way, everything I write is infused with the hope that it will help others break out of bonds of illusion and manipulation that are so often caused by religion.

In light of the comments on my recent post on how we should talk to believers and a discussion on the Friendly Atheist site, this makes me worry that I am crossing a line. Am I trying to get people to convert to atheism? I don’t think so. I think I am being honest when I say that I want people to think for themselves and use evidence as a foundation for their own decision making. I think I can accept that many people will view the same evidence that I view in the world and come to different conclusions about the existence God. I think I am being honest when I say that I believe you can be a skeptic and still believe in God.

So, what do you think? Am I being a hypocrite when I rant about Christians proselytizing? I know from my own past experience and from my born-again friends and family that fundamentalists and evangelicals think they are actually helping people when they witness to them and tell them about the saving grace of Jesus. The classic explanation is that they know a bridge is out and people are driving forward full-speed to their deaths. Wouldn’t they be remiss not to shout out a warning? But I also know the unhealthy mental and emotional life which often results from the born-again experience. 

Are good intentions enough? How can we know we are really helping people and not leading them into more garbage and confusion? Am I just the same as a missionary when I say that I want to do everything I can to help people recover from the damage that they’ve suffered from religion?

I worry about this a lot.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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38 Comments

  1. “But I also know the unhealthy mental and emotional life which often results from the born-again experience.”

    Ya know, I’m quite heavily atheist myself and even I find this sentence insulting. Really now be a bit more skeptical about your perception of the world — you’re allowing your biases to color your view.

    Sure born-agains hold a lot of illogical beliefs, but there are a lot of perfectly sane and healthy born-agains out there. And considering that most studies show religious people to be happier then average, I would assume that sane and healthy religious people are the norm. Of course, you will find some people with mental health problems among the religious too, and it’s likely that their religious beliefs get entangled in their problems; however, this does not mean that the religion is the cause, anymore then a bipolar guy’s mania is caused by his girlfriend.

    I’m sure you’ve also encountered formally troubled people who have found mental balance by discarding their religion. This is really no different then someone who is better after changing jobs or cities or partners. The new environment allows for a new outlook on life. In fact this is what brings so many people to become born-again: they begin to “accept jesus” and gain a new encouraging social group which helps them out of their rut. Of course as a result, you may also get a preponderance of born-agains who then become troubled again later as their underlying issues bubble back up to the surface, but again this has nothing to do with the religion.

  2. Actually, I don’t think I agree with your statement that you can be a skeptic and believe in God. That is the same as saying you can be a skeptic and believe in homeopathy or the power of prayer in healing. Being a skeptic is intimately tied with a committement not to believe in anything which is unsupported by evidence, and that includes God. To me at least the definition of skeptic is quite simple: Believe only what is supported by evidence. At least as far as tangible, testable things are concerned, and I think God as defined in the 3 big monotheistic religions is completely testable scientifically.

    And to answer your question, NO, good intentions are never good enough. Good intentions coupled with sound reason ARE good enough. Alone they can lead people astray into crazy things. I am sure the parents who sent their 15 yearl old daughters to be married to 50 year old man in that polygamous religion had good intentions, but the results of these good intentions were disastrous.

  3. “But I also know the unhealthy mental and emotional life which often results from the born-again experience.”

    Ya know, I’m quite heavily atheist myself and even I find this sentence insulting. Really now be a bit more skeptical about your perception of the world– you’re allowing your biases to color your view.

    No.

    I do know this and I am speaking from personal experience. Both my own and that of many, many others whom I have met in person and online in several ex-fundamentalist support groups.

    Did you read the blog I linked to? For god’s sake. This woman’s life was totally fucked up by her born-again religious experience.

    The born again experience does cause very bad results in many people’s lives. If I’d said “all” then you would have a point because that would have been an over generalization.

  4. Actually, I don’t think I agree with your statement that you can be a skeptic and believe in God.

    I think that presupposes a specific definition of “God”, but this isn’t my main concern. It’s that it presupposes a specific definition of “skeptic” that not every skeptic (religious or otherwise) agrees with.

    Being a skeptic is intimately tied with a committement not to believe in anything which is unsupported by evidence, and that includes God.

    This definition of skepticism is way too restrictive, because it means that you can only believe in that which is testable.

    I believe that human sacrifice is wrong, but I have no evidence that this is the case. Why? Because “right” and “wrong” are not testable concepts. They are not empirical.

    Would you doubt the skeptical credentials of a string theorist?

  5. Agreed, and I see no fault in openly sharing and cheerleading for a skeptical lifestyle. I’ve been dealt a great deal of emotional damage from admittedly a moderate, “tolerant,” contemporary Methodist church that prided itself on its acceptance of former prisoners and drug addicts. Being gay was not on its welcome list.
    I also fell prey to various alternative medicines and conspiracy theories throughout my life. Not all nonsense is faeries and acupuncture. Woo will lead people to give up medicine, to deny vaccines to their children, or marry them to 50 year old hucksters. So many people are a case for an adage I like to use, “if you believe one bit of bullshit, you’ll believe any bit of bullshit.” Without adherence to evidence, what someone believes depends entirely on their culture and their own prejudices.

    Finally, I’ll make the case that belief in God is not a skeptical position. The belief in the “3 mono” Gods is entirely a cultural institution. Just look at how religion has evolved over the centuries. If a believer in God views evidence and comes away still a believer, that’s their problem, but I am certain a person from a culture that has no concept of a God will look at that same evidence and conclude that there is a God.

  6. It could be that you’re viewed by them, as just another kind of fundamentalist. It depends on how you go about discussing your opinions and how they are received. Are the people receptive or turned off? Are you annoying people or damaging relationships that are important to you?

    What do you want to get out of your fight with fundamentalism? Is it personally rewarding to you to know you’ve done your part to make the world a more reasonable place?

    I personally don’t mind, too much, when my born again family talk to me about their beliefs, as long as they are respectful and listen to me, and don’t get judgmental. I can take it, but not everyone likes having their beliefs challenged.

    Right now my approach is to live a good life as a non-believing person and simply be an example to others. Given the acceptance and momentum of worldwide religion, it’s going to take several generations to turn this world into a more reasonable place. So I think thats probably the best we can do.

  7. I think I am being honest when I say that I believe you can be a skeptic and still believe in God.

    I agree with you here mostly because I see skepticism as a process. I started out being skeptical of Christianity a long time ago, and then moved onto more pagan style beliefs. At the time, they were new to me and I had to work my way through them. Once I realized that paganism wasn’t what I thought it was, I considered myself spiritual, but still skeptical of most organized religions. Then more recently, I came to atheism. I think all along I was skeptical, but it was a process.

    I think that to accept a skeptical mind-set, to choose to look for empirical evidence but then be expected to immediately give up on long held beliefs isn’t realistic, nor is it being true to skepticism. By this I mean, just because a lot of skeptics are atheists doesn’t mean you should automatically be one. That would be taking the position based on authority rather than seeking out the answers for oneself.

  8. ” and I think God as defined in the 3 big monotheistic religions is completely testable scientifically.”

    I have hered this argument before but never been given clear testing criteria. Im interested in knowing how you would test for this.

  9. I find when it comes to fundamentalism, and proselytizing, and converting, the real tipping point is when someone forgets the difference between “sharing” and “imposing”. If someone wants to share their beliefs, or share the wisdom that they’ve derived from beliefs, or experience, or whatever, then that’s fine. We can benefit from the knowledge or wisdom of our friends, even when we don’t share their beliefs. Likewise, they can benefit from our knowledge or wisdom without it being necessary to give up their beliefs.

    But when you start to impose your beliefs or opinions on others, that’s when it gets a little irritating. And it’s a very subtle line, that too often goes unnoticed until it’s crossed.

    Here’s a wonderful description that I found about a year ago that I’ll “share” with you. It’s from Good Question, Good Answer, from the BuddhaNet eBook Library.

    To share your religion with others is a good thing, but I suggest that your friend doesn’t know the difference between sharing and imposing. If I have an apple, I offer you half, and you accept my offer, then I have shared with you. But if you say to me ‘thank you, but I have already eaten’ and I keep insisting that you take half the apple until you finally give into my presure, this can hardly be called sharing. People like your “friend” try to disguise their bad behavior by calling it “sharing”, “love” or “witnessing.” But by whatever they call it, their behavior is still just rude, bad mannered and selfish.

    The distinction is not lost on our Christian friends. I’ve heard priests and ministers when talking about sharing the Gospel warn their followers to be careful not to impose their beliefs on others. But it’s too easily forgotten sometimes.

    And we can be just as guilty if we’re not careful.

  10. I usually fall on the side of not “preaching” (except occasionally to very close friends or family, and even then it doesn’t usually go well…), but trying to make my personal choices open, and leaving it at that. I hope that if people have questions or if they want to talk, they’ll feel comfortable bringing it up with me, because I haven’t been confrontational about the issue.

    It’s not a very *happy* place to be (I want to wring some of my family-member’s necks sometimes, and just shake them until the sense comes back into their heads), but I like to think that it keeps me on the moral high ground, so to speak. No preaching from me means that if THEY start preaching, I can point out that I don’t do that to them. ;)

  11. To answer the original question:

    “Am I just the same as a missionary when I say that I want to do everything I can to help people recover from the damage that they’ve suffered from religion?”

    I run into this same problem at times, and I have to say that as long as you are not spewing illogical nonsense you aren’t preaching. personally, as a professor, I don’t think I’m preaching when I teach about psychological or statistical methods.

    At the risk of offending everyone, consider the effects of religion on this woman to the effects of alcohol on an alcoholic. In order to cure the alcoholic one could preach psuedoscientific or spiritual nonsense to them in the hopes of curing their addiction (or, more appropriately, changing their drug of choice). On the other hand, you could show them how their behavior affects others, how their bodies react to alcohol, how their minds change, or even how neurotransmitters play a role. This is clearly not preaching, this is informing the individual of objective reality.

    Also, I applaud your efforts to reduce your own levels of cognitive dissonance. This is a key part of being skeptical. I wonder sometimes how the heads of credulous individuals don’t explode due to all that dissonant tension.

  12. I think the line that we have to worry about not crossing can be defined by what we tend to find most annoying about anyone proselytizing. There’s a subtle but very important difference between stating your views, and perhaps even discussing them, and trying to convince someone at any cost that your view is the only true way. I actually really like speaking with Christians (and others) about religion as long as it’s framed as an equal exchange of viewpoints where we’re attempting to understand each other.

    So, if you’re just saying, “This is what I think and how I feel, and you don’t have to agree but you do have to respect it,” then I don’t think you have anything to worry about. :) We just have to always be wary of the line of “I’m right, you’re wrong, and you should think the same as me.”

  13. The reasons you have for doing what you do are what counts. Believing as much as, and no more than, the evidence warrants is what counts.

    Imagine two people who believe completely opposite things, and who believe those things strongly. It doesn’t have to be about religion. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of a case other than a religious one when thinking about epistemological matters, to examine ones own preconceptions and weed them, if necessary.

    To make the situation as simple as possible, let person one believe a statement of the form A and person two believe a statement of the form ~A, where ~ represents logical negation. Then they cannot possibly both be right (unless you buy into Graham Priest’s stuff, but I don’t, and there’s not enough space to get into that here).

    They are “both the same” insofar as they try to convince others of what they believe, but that is not what counts. What counts is how well each person has apportioned their believe to the evidence that is available to them.

    If, because of the state of your knowledge, and after having looked into the matter as objectively as you could, it really seems to you that A, then you are reasonable in believing A, even if A = “God exists”. I do not think that most theists fit into this category, but I’ve known some that seem do, especially, younger ones.

    Be careful not to confuse action and strong feelings with unjustified belief. That’s all.

  14. Great discussion everyone. I’d like to follow up on one question:

    From awbranch:

    What do you want to get out of your fight with fundamentalism? Is it personally rewarding to you to know you’ve done your part to make the world a more reasonable place?

    It’s more personal for me. I want to help other people escape the same kinds of traps I escaped and, ultimately, to prevent other kids and teens from falling into the same traps in the first place.

    I would like the world to be a more reasonable place, but I’m not sure I can do anything about that except by helping one person at a time.

  15. Seems to me that Christians are supposed to try and win converts if they want to follow the basic teachings of their religion. I don’t think atheism is something that one converts to, at least it wasn’t for me. In the end I decided that there was no compelling evidence to rationally support a belief in anything supernatural. I changed my mind after having a long think about things. In some sense it wasn’t much different than choosing a car that best fits my life style, budget and taste. Some choices are rational and others are not, and we make decisions for any number of reasons. Religion just no longer seemed rational to me.

    I don’t think Christians are “driving full speed toward their deaths” though they surely think we are. Convincing a Christian that Religion and belief in a god not rational can have a big impact on their lives… like less guilt, not having an authority structure telling you what to do and a hell of a lot more time on weekends! Conversely there are times when “de-converting” can lead to a loss of friendships and community, family conflict and isolation. Not very pleasant options for many people. Which is a reason why, I expect, many bright rational religious people never take the step of applying rational thought and intellectual rigor to their religious beliefs.

  16. “Are good intentions enough? How can we know we are really helping people and not leading them into more garbage and confusion? Am I just the same as a missionary when I say that I want to do everything I can to help people recover from the damage that they’ve suffered from religion?”

    ————

    There is a long, long list of things to worry about. This isn’t one of them.

    Skepticism is a way of approaching information. If any particular god claim (theism) is approached skeptically, the result may be atheism, or a lack of belief in that claim. Anyone who is a skeptic and a theist is likely not approaching the theistic claim with skepticism.

    But that is beside the point. The main point is that skepticism is NOT a religion. Its just a way to approach the claims that people make. And encouraging people to approach claims that way is not evangelism. You aren’t encouraging them to accept any given belief, you are encouraging them to approach truth claims in a particular manner.

  17. And considering that most studies show religious people to be happier then average…

    So how can religious people be happier than average when they form such an overwhelming majorityof the world? The only way that makes any kind of sense is if the small minority of atheists are such mind-bogglingly unhappy people that they significantly drag the world average down. Sounds like the sort of thing religious people would want us to believe, but it seems to me that poor, starving religious third-world people should be the ones dragging the average down, making atheists much happier on average.

  18. Yeah, I think the “religious people are happier” thing is a load of crap. If it’s true, it’s because they think they’re going to live forever. I’d rather know the truth than take a delusional happy-pill. Matrix, anyone?

    OK, TTYL. I’m getting crabby. :-)

  19. writerdd,

    In the book True to Life: Why Truth Matters, philosopher Michael Lynch uses the red pill/blue pill thing from the matrix to argue for the conclusion that truth has inherent value. It’s a good read.

    Many people who subscribe to the so-called “beneficial reasons” for belief (e.g., as described in Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification) seem to ignore this inherent value.

  20. “Am I trying to get people to convert to atheism? I don’t think so. I think I am being honest when I say that I want people to think for themselves and use evidence as a foundation for their own decision making.”

    Good point! I think a lot of skeptics preach this ‘Think for yourself’ idea. If you realize you don’t believe in God, that’s great. If you still believe in God, that’s great too, but at least you thought about it.

    I was raised Lutheran and was usually told what to believe and that what I was told is infallible. For me it was natural to be turned off by religion when I started questioning and thinking about the principles I was being taught.

    But Fundamentals might not like the idea of ‘Thinking for oneself’. Most of the ones I’ve encountered have a very if you’re not with us, you’re against us attitude. I’d imagine most of everything outside of their beliefs has the potential to offend them.

  21. Truth and value, now there’s an interesting topic for discussion.

    And boy isn’t it easy to say it’s crap that religious folk are happier. Perhaps they really are, so what! That doesn’t in any way denigrate your view or make them more likely to be right. They socialize more, have more stable families and find comfort in conformity. It’s hard to imagine many of the folk posting here find much comfort at all in conformity and if we were church goers we’d skew the statistics the other direction because of how unhappy we’d be!

  22. “This definition of skepticism is way too restrictive, because it means that you can only believe in that which is testable.

    I believe that human sacrifice is wrong, but I have no evidence that this is the case. Why? Because “right” and “wrong” are not testable concepts. They are not empirical.

    Would you doubt the skeptical credentials of a string theorist?”

    If you read through the next paragraph, I was careful to specify tangible things. Good and Bad, Right and Wrong are philosophical concepts and do not fall under what I was talking about. There are things that have a truth value, regardless of any interpretations people may give them, and there are things which are completely dependent upon premises and interpretations. Lots of philosophical issues fall under the second category.

    When I think of skepticism I think of the real world, not feelings and ideas. I cannot be skeptical about someones feelings. If someone says “not living with your parents in their old age is wrong” I can’t be skeptical with that statement because it simply has no universal truth value.

    On the other hand, if someone says “here’s a miracle performed by God” I can be skeptical because there is a universal truth value, which can be investigated and not just theorized about.

  23. To Chem Man:

    ” and I think God as defined in the 3 big monotheistic religions is completely testable scientifically.”

    I have hered this argument before but never been given clear testing criteria. Im interested in knowing how you would test for this.

    The specific testing criteria would depend on the specific claims. If someone proposes that there is a God which is always meddling in human affairs, then they should be able to make predictions based on their theory. Such predictions can be tested scientifically.

    Take the healing power of prayer for example. It can be tested if prayer is effective in healing war wounds for example or not.

    Of course God can be defined in such a way as to completely be out of science’s reach, just an unicorns are.

  24. I just want to back Donna up about the born-again life being unhealthy, mentally and emotionally. It’s anecdotal, sure, but that’s exactly what my experience was being raised by a fundie Baptist father.

    If you follow fundie-style Christianity, you almost don’t have any options other than living with a constant self-loathing. Because you’re a sinner. Everything you do is sin. The most natural and most human experiences you have become disgusting and shame you in the eyes of God.

    It’s a world view that encourages you to live your life in subservience to a being for whom you are never good enough, who will never be satisfied with you. Christians sometimes talk about the church as the Bride of Christ; for fundies, it’s more like the battered wife. The same psychology is at work. No matter how hard you try to be perfect, you will always fail at it.

    And that’s not even to mention the constant fear it instills in you. I used to lie awake at night utterly terrified of Hell… but even more so of Heaven. The fundie Heaven is a place of zero individuality, where literally the only action you can take is to kiss God’s ass. Nothing else is permitted. And that’s supposed to be your fucking reward! That’s the encouragement to stick with it and do everything right!

    And, Jesus, just look at people like Haggard or any one of the prominent ex-gay people. Look at these poor souls who live in denial because they honestly, truly believe that God hates them for who they are.

    That’s what it fucking means to be born again, ok?

  25. writerdd I don’t see what’s wrong with helping people who feel damaged to recover.

    If you’re trying to persuade people who are perfectly happy “No, you’re damaged – you have to change beliefs!” then I’d say you’ve crossed over into inappropriately levels of coercion.

    I think this is the same as my view about Christians – if someone wants to hear what Christians have to say, then sure, tell them. But if not, don’t try to persuade happy people that they are actually unfulfilled and empty and desperately need Jesus. Wait until they are interested in what you have to offer.

    I assume you don’t inflict your help where it isn’t wanted so…I don’t see anything wrong with what you’re doing.

    I mean, I don’t see anything wrong in principle since I don’t actually have any knowledge of what you’re doing specifically :)

  26. “I do know this and I am speaking from personal experience. Both my own and that of many, many others whom I have met in person and online in several ex-fundamentalist support groups.”

    This is exactly what I’m talking about: your experience is gathered almost strictly from ex-fundamentalist support groups. This would be like experiencing alcohol use only by going to AA meetings and reading DUI reports. You’d walk away with the assumption that alcohol destroys almost everyone’s life it touches.

    I agree that there is a preponderance of vicious ostracizing that occurs in tight nit religious groups like born-agains whenever one of their members “goes astray.” On reflection, it’s almost like the mob in that way. However, there are religious circles — even born-again ones — where faith (ie. cultural or groupthink) transgressions are reacted to with little in the way of venom.

    Again, while I think much of the dogma and tyranny inherent in fundamentalist religion is BS, I won’t go so far as to say that it inherently “often” results in an “unhealthy mental and emotional life.” Sometimes yes, but it depends on the social circle and family. In comparison, nor would I would say that alcohol often results in an unhealthy mental and emotional life — even though I know several people who have had to go sober due to their destructive use of it.

  27. I used to be engaged to a woman who is strongly fundamentalist. (I can’t honestly say I was ever fundamentalist..I did try, but it always felt like a bad fit, something I wasn’t able to admit for far too long.) We still correspond on a semi-regular basis. It’s obvious to me that she truly worries, even now, that I’m going to suffer a horrible afterlife. So she tries her best to show examples from her life to convince me to be what she thinks is best for me.

    Aside from the fact that I think it’s bad that she has such worries (and guilt, I suspect), I do think the strategy of ‘evangelizing by example’ has some merit that I think activists of any stripe can use. (I try to do this in return, if I ever respond to examples she gives, I try to put them in a light that shows that the good things in question spring from humanity, not some outside force.)

    Oh, and let me just say that TheCzech’s comment at #27 had me laughing for quite a bit.

  28. @writerdd I’m just saying that your approach needs to be formed in a way that it doesn’t instantly insult those you’re trying to connect to.

    If your only goal is to help those in ex-fundamentalist support groups recover, then sure be as anti-religious as you want and point out the “garbage and confusion” and the damage caused by the religion. The people in those support groups have already stepped over that line away from their religion and a little anger might help them get back on their feet.

    However, if your goal is instead to enlighten people who have yet to cross that line, you need to approach it differently: In order to help the woman with breast cancer who thinks god will save her or to help the family in conflict with a pregnant out of wedlock daughter, you need to another approach that requires a different outlook. In both the above situations, which appeared in the aforementioned blog, there are probably other issues separate from religion.

    The woman with breast cancer probably has a bad relationship with health care in general. Surgery and chemo is scary and it’s easier to just ignore it than confront it — and who knows she may not even have health insurance. It sounds from the post that people in her congregation have tried to convince her. And while she’s relying on a miracle rather than medicine, I’d say there are probably reasons beside religion why she doesn’t want to go under the knife. In this instance the religion is just being used as a convenient crutch to support her fears and stubbornness, and even without religion she may have found another crutch. Hell, I remember my family trying to get my grandmother to get her hearing checked. No religion mixed up there, but even so it took years until she finally admitted she had a hearing problem and then it took several more years to get her to go to the doctor for it.

    The family with the father who bawled till he threw up obviously has some mental issues besides religion. I mean wow that’s not just your typical religious fatherly “I raised my daughter a sinner” guilt that’s an panic attack level anxiety disorder.

  29. There is no such thing as converting to atheism. Just deconverting from religion.

    They also don’t know the bridge is out.
    They believe it is.
    And since they have no good evidence you can ignore them.

  30. “and I have to say that as long as you are not spewing illogical nonsense you aren’t preaching. personally, as a professor, I don’t think I’m preaching when I teach about psychological or statistical methods. ”

    yes,yes,yes!!

    I don’t understand the whole “fundamentalist athiesm” thing. I guess that also makes me a fundamental a-invisible-elephants-that-control-my-destiny-and-must-be-praised because I don’t believe in that? How is not believing something that 1)doesn’t make sense and 2) can’t be demonstrated to exist outside of one’s own subjective experience somehow be some kind of fundamentalism? Am I a fundamental bipedalist? I could walk on all fours…

  31. “And boy isn’t it easy to say it’s crap that religious folk are happier. Perhaps they really are, so what! That doesn’t in any way denigrate your view or make them more likely to be right.”

    good point,and also, I may add,I have seen many a jubilant person afflicted with down’s syndrome. I’m not conflating, I’m just sayin’.

  32. Hi TheNerd, you’re right. As are other comments here — I’m not going to churches or knocking on doors trying to de-convert people. I just want to help people who are already in the process or who want to leave the church but don’t know how or who are afraid.

    Anyway, best wishes on your own de-conversion and I hope to talk to you more around here!

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