Why do ex-Christians so often become militant and angry atheists?
As I stand here, outside, looking in, I am amazed at effectively how deep I really was, despite my beliefs to the contrary. It reminds me of the smoker that says “I’m not addicted, I only smoke every now and then, I could quit any time.” I could have quit any time. But I didn’t, I held on, I continued searching for the goodness of religion. I didn’t just want to let go. I wanted to help, I wanted to fix the hurt. Only when the smoker really finally does kick the habit, does he realise how deep the grip of those addictive claws went, how subversive the habit really was.
(This one is relatively long, I describe my journey, my history, that brought me to where I now am, explaining the context of the difficult question “now what?”)
If you have been in too deep, for too long, getting out can be particularly traumatic. You want explanations, you want an excuse for taking it so seriously, for doing what you did, saying what you said, thinking what you thought. It is an interesting phenomenon of the human psyche, an example of cognitive dissonance and justification. Go read about the Forbidden Toy Study. Religion is so powerful because it is a case of “insufficient justification”. There is no evidence, there is no “overjustification”. A distinct lack of extrinsic motivation strengthens the intrinsic motivation.
My childhood indoctrination was unable to suppress my critical faculties. My questioning, inquisitive nature combined with my obsessive-compulsive tendencies ensured that it was not a stable situation, and that it never would be, until I got out and let it go. It was inevitable, the question wasn’t whether it would happen, it was when and where, and how traumatic the experience would be.
I think a lot of the more harmful indoctrination and brainwashing took place at the hands of a couple of books I received from a well-meaning relative on my eleventh birthday, in 1992. These fundamentalist books latched onto the hooks so neatly installed by my more-or-less typical “moderate”, good South African, Christian upbringing. Maybe the science-influence from my father was less than typical, I grew up with knowledge and acceptance of the wonders of science (didn’t everyone?! apparently not…) The two influences staked their claims in my mind, and the scene was set for war.
The first fundamentalist book I read, was “The Cross and the Switchblade”. David Wilkerson did some good work with kids caught up in crime and gangs in New York City. This made quite an impression on me, showing the “power” Christianity has, for helping people change their lives. I was impressed, which opened my mind to further influences, superstitions, fundamentalism. It had me in a strange place. For example, I bought a book of magic tricks, cute entertainment stuff. My rational mind knew there is nothing wrong with it, but my irrational mind had a belief that it is “wrong”. I was ashamed of having the book on my shelf, and I hid it. Bizarre… Two worlds, completely incompatible, in a stand-off in my mind. Extreme cognitive dissonance.
I was lucky there was no fundamentalist support network in the area, such a group might have sucked me in. We were living in The Netherlands at the time, in an international school. I’m rather introverted, and kept the fundamentalism to myself, discussed it with no-one. (You don’t discuss religion, y’know?)
In 1994 a number of interesting things happened. I received another book by David Wilkerson, titled “The Vision”. And my father died in a light aeroplane accident. I was 12. I’m not sure when I read “The Vision”. I glanced at it, but felt a little uncomfortable. It didn’t seem right. I probably only finally read it in 1995, and I didn’t read all of it. Here was an example of David Wilkerson being completely silly, or so my rational mind knew. Apocalyptic visions of earthquakes, economic disasters, etc. Typical street-corner-doom-prophet stuff, which my rational mind had encountered before. For the first time, there was some communication between the two factions in my mind. The rational side was frowning at the irrational side, saying “so this is the kind of nonsense you’ve been listening to?” I had begun to realise things were not that simple. David Wilkerson wasn’t someone I could just blindly listen to…
This was too much to deal with. We had moved back to South Africa, to a small town with intense cliques, to what some people call the “Bible Belt of South Africa”, to an all-boys school, and I had missed the first three terms of high school. I was a foreigner, an odd one out. I had lost my father, and I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was battling middle-class angst. I had built a Great Wall, keeping everyone and everything out, and myself safely protected on the inside. The religion battle in my mind was placed into quarantine, boarded up, shoved into a dark corner. I watched and listened atheists play word games with Christians (creating rocks too heavy to lift, discussions about imaginary friends, all the standard clichés, really), but I remained uninvolved. It all seemed so contrived.
My religion stayed, locked up safely in the corner. Or not quite safe enough… I did not attend church, but I went to at least one “Christian camp” thingy. It was a monster hiding in the shadow, biding its time, waiting for the best opportunity to strike, and devour me whole.
By the end of high-school, I had realised the “Great Wall of Hugo” was harmful to my well-being I needed to broaden my social horizons, and break down those walls. University… It did me well, it took me some time, but I carefully dismantled my walls, and started putting out my feelers, to find a circle of friends. Religion stayed relatively safely out of harm’s way, though I started to attend a nice post-denominational church (Stellenbosch Gemeente, currently taking part in the emerging church conversation, with good influences from liberal theology). It was all hunky-dory… until 2003.
The beginning of the end
Pity it took so long to end. I had my first relationship at age 21, towards the end of 2003. It was a rough ride, I learned a lot in the process, though not exactly what I had wanted to learn. I was confronted again with the question “do you think you are going to heaven after you die?”, and religion got dragged out of the corner it had been hiding in. I investigated the traditional “NG” church, attended with my girlfriend, and found out about their perspectives and what membership there would mean. It didn’t work for me, a tradition does not make very much sense to people raised outside of that tradition. It was Stellenbosch Gemeente, or it was something else…
The end of my first relationship left my defences in tatters, the Great Wall of Hugo was stripped to the foundation. I was vulnerable. I was probably where most first years were, out of the home, out of my comfort zone, in a new environment, looking for my identity, looking for a support network, a circle of friends. Until then, my walls had pretty much prevented me from forming deep, lasting and satisfying friendships, and had prevented me from finding my true identity. My lack of personal identity was strongly illuminated by my first relationship. It was hell. And there was this group, spending heaps on marketing, promising heaven…
This is my skeleton in the closet, the thing I wanted to share with no-one, I wanted to keep top secret. This post ran in a direction I had not intended when I started it, but it is time. I… spent… three… months… in a fundamentalist cult… *shock*, *horror*. I lasted three months. It is not a long time, but it doesn’t have to be. It is scary to look back at myself, autumn of 2004, and think back to the thoughts I thought, the hopes I had, the fervour with which I threw myself into the experience. It is a trait of their marketing. It was a “spiritual camp” I went on, where they prey on past experiences and buried emotions, to get you bowled over and sucked in. I lasted three months. And then it all came crumbling down. I heard a confirmed lie uttered from the pulpit. It was a case of “The Vision” all over again. Winter came…
All in that same semester, I had two pre-graduate subjects to finish, started on two post-graduate subjects at the same time, was on the “HK”, the group of people in charge of running the residence, started ballroom and latin dancing, and sung in a serenade group that nearly won the national serenading competition. (We lost on a technicality.) That winter came hard. The pendulum had swung, that term, I became, uh, “tipsy”, for the first three times in my life, being the first time I tried out the “party scene”. Studies were forgotten, it was time for a late-adolescence and an early-midlife-existential-crisis. My mother was battling with cancer, and starting her second marriage.
This is where you start looking for excuses, for justifications. You either reject religion completely, and become an angry militant atheist, trying your best to destroy the pest, or you refuse to accept religion is completely evil, and start looking for the goodness. The first was not an option, indoctrination had me too “respectful” of my (extended) family’s religion, so I dropped it back into the dark corner for a while, had my second long-term relationship for just under a year, and realised I’m still without a strong identity. 2005. I had a lot to deal with, and at the advice and encouragement of my mother, I went to talk to a lady, once a week… for too long. She was the wrong person. She was a fundamentalist. What a nice piece of work that was, for my mind, trying to believe there exists “good religion”, when I’m confronted with “bad religion” once a week. Absolutely no wonder I was unable to get my mind off the religion topic.
Progress started when I began reading again. Why did I ever stop? 2006. Donald Mackay’s “The Clockwork Image”, then CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. That was interesting. I was finding “good religion” (assuming it exists). I was discovering what the good bits were, what makes it tick, what gives it its value. From there, Brian McLaren’s “Finding Faith”, I had discovered the “Emerging Church conversation”, religion evolving again, to cope with this post modernistic era (don’t think of it as post-modernism, just think of it as “that which comes after modernism”). Brian McLaren’s “Secret Message of Jesus”, stunning book, “Adventures in Missing the Point”. I glanced at Rob Bell’s “Velvet Elvis”, and I attended Stellenbosch Gemeente quite regularly. This was the best of religion. Marcus Borg, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”… liberal theology, I love the stuff, “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” and “The Last Week”. It exposes the sensible, rational, positive aspects that religion has, and made it survive so long?
No, I’m lying, it lasted this long because of evil religion, not because of good religion. What liberal theology showed me, was where it came from, why it got started in the first place. The movement started by Jesus two thousand years ago was stunning, and something I’d have wanted to be a part of, back then. And then it lost its way, and ironically became the very thing Jesus seemed to abhor. Such is the story, the pendulum swing, throughout the ages. What modern religion needs most, is to hear the message he gave 2000 years ago. It is so sad, and so ironic. Having found the goodness I had searched for so hard, I was set free. Yea, more irony. Jesus set me free from Christianity. In searching for, finding, and then following Jesus, I found it is fine to be an atheist. (Atheist, agnostic, deist, whatever. I do not have a belief in a personal God that answers prayers through supernatural influences. I’m a naturalist.) Jesus was my cure for Christianity… now I am a Humanist.
If I didn’t want to spare other people the pain and suffering I went through, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Humanist. I wonder, “couldn’t anyone have helped me out, earlier, and easier?” Why did I have to go through all this on my own? Why couldn’t I have had some support, somehow, somewhere? Many people do not know how to help others out. If you haven’t been there yourself, you will have no idea how to help. And every person’s journey or destination can be quite different.
Are there other people out there who could do with my support, to help them with what they are going through? Could I help them somehow? Could I save them the anguish by helping eradicate religion? On the other hand, many people find value in their religion, it makes them happier people. I would feel bad to take that away from them, that would also cause suffering. Neither solution is perfect. What to do, what to do…
If it does no harm, need we worry about it? It does do harm though. I have seen harm all around me, I have both first and second-hand experience of that harm. Is this sacrifice really necessary? Is there no solution that can put an end to needless sacrifices once and for all?