I had a terrible experience with Christianity growing up. I was lied to, pressured, and scared into believing things which turned out to be nonsense. Because of this, I hold a lot of resentment and bitterness towards the Christian community. Though I am persuaded by the philosophy of Jesus Christ, I believe it stands in contrast to the philosophy of most Christians I’ve ever met.
I grew up in the stereotypical Christian evangelical household. For this article, I’ll use “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” interchangeably. My mother, with the best of intentions, decided to homeschool her children for religious reasons. She started in the middle of the 1990’s, when homeschooling was almost entirely underground. She was a trailblazer. I was the youngest child, so my entire pre-college education came from homeschooling.
The education was superb, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I learned the principles of self-study; I learned how to learn. I learned to question authority and come up with my own conclusions about the world, and I progressed at my own pace. If anybody doubts the quality of my homeschool education, for what it’s worth, I started college at sixteen and got my bachelor’s degree at twenty from Alfred University.
But my education was not purely academic; it was religious, too. To be frank, I was indoctrinated as a child – by my parents, by my peers, by the broader homeschool and evangelical community. I am not saying it was a cult or anything, and I know many individuals who had a stricter religious upbringing than I did, but by my standards today, it was indoctrination. My education was crafted around Christian ideas; it was supposed to be the bedrock of my entire worldview.
I don’t blame my parents. They were acting in accordance with their beliefs. Non-Christians were in peril of burning in hell for eternity. Of course they would want their kids to avoid such a fate. I have no doubt, if my mother could only teach us one thing, it would be to “believe in Jesus”. And, as much resentment I hold towards Christians, my mother was one of the few exceptions. She was aware of the disconnect between the philosophy of Jesus Christ and the rest of Christendom. She always struck me (and everybody else that interacted with her) as a “true Christian”, for lack of a better term.
My intention in writing this piece is manyfold. Four years ago, I had a profound spiritual experience, which convinced me that God exists, that life has meaning, and that Jesus Christ is incredibly important. Prior to that, I was something like a Deist, for philosophical reasons – a position I will defend at length in the future.
My spiritual experience also came with the clear understanding that a) the Bible, and every other holy book, is horribly misinterpreted and is not the “perfect Word of God”, b) most religious people are full of shit, and c) religious ideas do not necessarily have to be irrational – i.e. there is such a thing as “good religion”.
So, because I intend to defend many religious ideas in the future, I must first deeply criticize religion. And I admit, this could be an easy task. Religious ideas, as they are frequently articulated, are often cringeworthy. Laughable, even. But this is not my goal. The world is already filled with enough religious mockery, most of it juvenile and ignorant. What lacks is clear articulation of sound, philosophically precise religious ideas. I will write several pieces on this topic, both defending and attacking such ideas. But I need to start at the beginning: my personal experience with Christianity – and all the errors, misinformation, and nonsense that accompanied it.
The Dreaded Sunday
The worst of it came on Sunday mornings. I despised going to church. Specifically, going to “Sunday school” – the morning “classes” that taught the basics of evangelical Christianity to children – impressionable children, many of whom went to Christian schools and mainly hung out in Christian circles. The walls of the social bubble were thick. Outsiders were seen as lost souls, who could be “saved” with enough persuasion and kindness. Or, from many parents’ point of view, non-Christians were seen as corrupting influences on their children.
My Christian circle wasn’t too extreme. My parents didn’t want us to listen to “secular” radio and were fairly protective about the media we consumed. Our textbooks were written by Christian organizations. But I knew families who were far stricter; some poor kids weren’t even allowed to watch “Toy Story” – their parents thought some of the characters and themes were Satanic.
While my parents sheltered us as best they could (I remember Mom being upset I started the Harry Potter series at a friend’s house – witchcraft and sorcery shouldn’t be glorified!), I must say I saw plenty of Jerry Springer shows when she wasn’t in the room. My siblings and I got away with a fair amount of mischief, at least by comparison to other Christian households.
But church was the worst. The people were judgemental. The ideas were shallow. The culture was toxic. I’ll just be honest: most Christians are unbearable. They are arrogant, hypocritical, authoritarian, inaccurate, and foolish. They make grand conclusions about ideas they do not understand – both their own ideas and others’. (Of course, most people in general, not just Christians, fit this description.) Yes, there are exceptions.
Don’t get me wrong: most interactions with Christians – especially if you meet their criteria for being a good person – won’t be sour. But from my experience, the hypocrisy and judgement lies beneath the surface. Scratch your average evangelical Christian, and I think you’ll find something foul.
So what did we learn in Sunday school? In a nutshell: there is only one way to God. One path leads to heaven. The rest, to hell. That one path is Christianity – specifically, protestant Christianity. (And if you get into to denominational disagreements, potentially only a small group of protestants, at that. Whether or not Catholics are Christians is an open question to many evangelicals.) There’s a line in the Bible in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes unto to Father but by me.” And let me tell you, they take this literally. It’s Jesus Christ or the abyss. So you’d better get your theology straight.
Now, these ideas are not self-refuting. They aren’t obviously wrong – especially to a young person. I don’t want to mock them. It’s not the ideas which I have an issue with; it’s the way they were taught. For example, the existence of God was never treated as a serious philosophical issue. It was taken as a presupposition – one which you weren’t allowed to question. Doubting was tantamount to heresy, and reflective of a lack of Christian character. Absolute devotion – blind faith, as I’d put it – was expected of each young Christian.
We used to sing songs, every Sunday, about Christianity. They’d be about stories in the Bible. Or about the majesty of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, they were practical; I can hear the tune to the “books of the Bible” song in my head. (Gen-e-sis, Ex-o-dus, Lev-it-i-cus…) To a child, when all of your peers and their parents are singing the same song, it’s powerful. It’s your community, united together in the same beliefs, with the same presuppositions, so confident that they are willing to sing about it. It’s like the national anthem or pledge of allegiance – a public commitment to the same ideology. And if that’s the only world a child knows, they are practically destined to believe, at least for a time, those same ideas. Thus, I call it “indoctrination”.
Western culture is a bit desensitized to Christianity. Take the same process – the singing, dancing, praying, preaching, believing – and apply it to a different religion. Imagine children all holding hands a praying to the god Marduk on Sundays. Or, instead of “Vacation Bible School” in the summer, imagine children attending “Summer Adventures through the Tibetan Book of the Dead”. People would be horrified. But, because Christianity is popular, people don’t think twice about kids attending the same church, presented the same ideas, with the same peers, who believe the same thing, every Sunday for their entire childhood.
I don’t know what happened. But at some point, a few ideas seeped into my young head. There was a problem; I started to question things. Not necessarily the conclusions of evangelical Christianity, but the method. Take the same method – faith, trust in elders/parents/holy books – but a different environment, and I could see how you’d end up with different conclusions. The Muslim, following the same method as me, wouldn’t believe Christianity was true – he’d believe in Islam! But how could this be possible? I started asking people, and I received only crummy answers.
This was the first seed. I started examining the why behind my beliefs. If a method was faulty, then the conclusions couldn’t be trusted. Take a clear example. Say some guy tacks up a bunch of propositions to a dart board. Wherever the dart lands, that’s the propositions he believes are true. Well, after throwing a few darts, it’s possible that his conclusions about the world are accurate – but it’s a dubious method, and only a fool would trust them.
Now imagine he didn’t throw the darts, but his parents did. Then, whatever their resulting worldview, he was raised to believe. The ideas became essential to their family and community. His peers also believed the same things, for the same reason. Would he be any more justified in believing? Of course not – the methodological mistake is obvious.
But unfortunately, many religious communities make a similar error. Your average believer doesn’t scrutinize the beliefs he was taught as a child – he merely assumes they are true. A disturbing thought is never grappled with: what if my parents, my pastor, my peers, my teachers – what if they are all wrong about the basics? What if nobody critically examined these ideas? Why would I believe them to be true?
The Word of God
I’ll give you a concrete example, nearly universal in evangelical circles: the perfect accuracy of the Bible. Supposedly, the Bible is the word of God and contains no errors whatsoever. Many Christians take this a step farther and say the book should be taken literally. Meaning, the stories in Genesis about giants and talking serpents – those were historical facts and should not be taken metaphorically. These ideas are possibly true, but they run into some difficult problems.
First of all, which Bible is the perfect word of God? Is it the English translation from the Greek? And which one, the NIV or King James version? What about the different interpretations we have for words? My understanding of the word “justice” is not identical to yours. The same is true for “heaven”, or “God”, or even “turning the other cheek”. Can two Christians have different definitions for words, while still believing their interpretation of scripture is divinely inspired?
And speaking of which, why would we assume the Bible is perfect in the first place? If we can’t even communicate perfectly amongst ourselves, what reason would we have for believing this-particular-translation-with-this-subjective-meaning is infallibly true? The sad reality is this: most Christians believe the Bible is the word of God because the Bible says so. I cannot tell you how many Christians have quoted scripture to defend the inerrancy of the Bible.
But here’s the reality, folks: Christians are not alone. They don’t realize that the fundamentalist Muslims, Mormons, Hindus – they all do the same thing. Their holy books are all divinely inspired, and yet mutually exclusive with the others! The Muslim insists his book is perfect – not even one line can be improved upon. It must be from God; it says so within the text.
When I first understood this, my heart sank a bit, and my skepticism started to emerge. Here we have a gigantic problem. Billions of people claiming their holy book is perfect, all for the same reason (because their book says so), while making mutually exclusive conclusions. The Muslim won’t be persuaded by the Bible’s claims to perfection. The Christian won’t be persuaded by the Koran’s claims to perfection.
But the Christians and Muslims make the same error – the exact same methodological mistake. And I’m sure, with few exceptions, these religious folks only arrive at their conclusions because of the happenstance of their birth. Take your average Christian, birth him in Malaysia to Muslim parents, and I can guarantee he’d be a Muslim. The same is true in reverse; this methodological error results in people believing whatever their larger culture believes. And to the extent they base their ideas on circular reasoning – that scripture is inerrant because it says so – they will never be convinced otherwise.
Every question regarding holy texts has a simple resolution: all books are written by men and aren’t perfect. Merely stating, “The words contained in this book are divinely inspired,” doesn’t mean they are. Problem solved.
The Faith Escape
There are a hundred different problems with evangelical Christianity; Biblical inerrancy is just one. These errors do not seem to stop many Christians; instead, they embolden them. Enter the next gigantic religious error: faith. Getting caught in a poor argument – or even a logical contradiction – is an opportunity for many religious folks to proudly turn off their rational faculties and proclaim, “I do not need critical thinking; I have faith!” I will devote an entire post to the unnecessary, toxic errors of “faith”, but for now I want to focus on my experience with it.
Many Christians use “faith” as an excuse for aggressive anti-intellectualism. My Dad was a good example of this. We had countless arguments about Christianity, and he would frequently end up raising his voice, making dramatic (ridiculous) pronouncements about how he didn’t need limp-wristed philosophizing; he had faith! The same nonsense was peddled by pastors and preachers. But this odd anti-intellectual aggression seemed especially popular amongst Christian fathers (many of whom, I don’t think coincidentally, had military backgrounds).
Just when I would try point out an error, or a contradiction, I would so frequently be met with the same, boisterous claptrap – quoting scripture, getting emotional, creating dramatic storylines invoking Satan/angels/Jesus/heaven/hell. Quite often, my frustration with these answers would be met with a condescending pat on the head. “You’re just searching,” or “You’re just going through a natural rebellion.” Essentially, “You’ll grow out of it. In time, you’ll see it our way.”
If you don’t mind, I’d like to respond after all these years: I don’t see it your way, folks, and I never will. You’re wrong, deluded, and dangerous; I understand why, but you don’t. I have grown into spiritual knowledge over the last several years, and it reveals just how wildly inaccurate and toxic evangelical Christianity is. Good riddance.
It’s clear: the reason Christian evangelicalism cannot stand up to examination – and the reason they are so often anti-intellectual – is because the ideas are inaccurate. The worldview collapses under scrutiny; so it’s distressing for many to scrutinize.
Authority and Violence
I do not mean this hyperbolically: Christian evangelicalism is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. It’s a net-negative on society. Why? Because a huge number of evangelicals blend their religion into their politics; they merge nationalism with fundamentalism. They want the government to enforce their religion on the rest of society – and unfortunately, the rest of the world.
Authoritarianism is important to the evangelical mindset – the authority of scripture, pastors, parents, laws, and leaders. The Bible, and the laws within, are supposed to give a structure to all society. This includes the relationships within the family, within marriages, within local communities, within governments, and even within the international community. I know evangelicals who want – sometimes explicitly – a theocracy. They want people to follow the rules as they perceive them, whether they are a neighbor or somebody on the other side of the planet (whose never even heard of the NIV version of the Bible).
As a result, the United States military is seen as doing God’s work – literally. No exaggeration. Fundamentalist families will often thank God for the military, ask God to bless military operations, and see soldiers as missionaries for Christian civilization – carving through the world of barbarism that lies outside of Christendom. I know Christians who will say, with a straight face, that the Middle East should just be nuked – except for Israel, of course. They hold their religion so strongly, and couple it with nationalist zealotry, that they enthusiastically support military adventurism overseas, even at the expense of innocent lives.
To me, there couldn’t be a greater disconnect between the philosophy of Jesus Christ and the Christian evangelical. “Turn the other cheek” is turned into “nuke the savages.” “Love your neighbor” into “kill your neighbor for the greater good – assuming he’s foreign.” These Christians love power. They love crusading around the globe, imposing their ideas on anybody who disagrees – in Jesus’s name, of course. It’s a nauseating mix of self-righteousness, anti-intellectualism, confusion, ignorance, and hypocrisy.
As Ghandi put it:
“I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
But to their credit, hypocrisy isn’t always a bad thing in this context. After all, the Bible says – quite clearly – that you shouldn’t eat shellfish, and that men shouldn’t grow their hair out. Right next to the verses about not getting tattoos. But for some reason, evangelicals are frequently anti-tattoo but will give you a pass for eating shellfish. There’s also a bunch nastier, more violent recommendations in the Bible, and I’m glad these Christians apply the lens of Biblical literalism inconsistently.
An Alternative Exists
Growing up in the community, I had lots of Christian friends. Today, I know I am not alone in my criticism. While I might be particularly anti-authority (politically, intellectually, personally), I know plenty of calmer folks who have also outgrown evangelicalism. As loud as pastors or fathers might shout, seeds of doubt are hard to erase from a young mind.
To any truth-seeking evangelicals reading this: don’t be afraid to question authority. The resulting doubt you will feel is good. It’s healthy, and it’s for a reason – the foundational ideas of all religious fundamentalism are wrong. But don’t take my word for it. There’s no reason to fear skeptical inquiry; if an idea is true, it will hold up to criticism and doubt.
And, more importantly, I am convinced spiritual truths do exist. I think Jesus (and many others) spoke about them. They aren’t mutually exclusive with philosophy or logic. They don’t require blind faith or trust in authority. In fact, I think spiritual truths are incompatible with deference to authority. They must be discovered by each individual, for their own reasons, during their own journey.
I have much more to say on this topic.