I want to talk about the idea of “conviction” in some fundamentalist Christian circles. Particularly I want to talk about how it is used by some Christians both as a gas-lighting technique and as a method of manipulation. However, I have not really had time or the ability to put my thoughts together in a coherent fashion. So instead, I think I will just tell a couple of stories. These stories occurred while I lived as a woman, so I am using those pronouns and terms since they are relevant to the stories.
Note: for those unaware of this particular Christianese phrase, I am referring to the following definition: a feeling of guilt or shame that God inflicts on a person that comes with the recognition of having committed a sin.
When I was outed as gay to my family, I was living overseas and working on my Masters degree in Astrophysics. Needless to say, I was already under a lot of stress, even before dealing with my family keeping me up til ungodly hours on the phone arguing, laying enormous guilt trips on me for hurting the family, or sending me books and articles and pamphlets about how I am deceiving myself into thinking that I can be gay and Christian and about how lesbian relationships are all just co-dependent and unhealthy and guilting me into reading them. (And yeah, according to these sources, gay male relationships are all about lust and sex and lesbian relationships are about emotional codependency. I can’t even start to unpack that sexist and homophobic load of shit).
Anyway. I was quite religious at the time. Having this crisis regarding my family’s rejection of my sexuality had actually driven me deeper into my faith rather than away from it; I suppose I was looking for some stability and comfort which I found in god. I would often go to church to find some solace. One Sunday morning, my parents called me and we had a bad argument that ended in them telling me “we don’t even know you anymore.” I was really upset when I left the conversation so that I could take the train down to church. During the worship service I tried to hold things together but I was so overwhelmed I just broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably. One of the women in the pews noticed me and very kindly asked if I was okay and if I needed to speak to someone. I had a friendly relationship with the current pastor, so I said that I would like to speak to him, thinking that maybe I would admit that I was gay to him and tell him what was happening. I was hoping that, even if he disagreed, he would be loving and supportive in the difficult time I was having and maybe would pray for my family and I. However (as is common in churches) women are apparently only supposed to seek counsel from women, so I was directed instead to the pastor’s wife, whom I had barely met before. This left me feeling a bit scared and vulnerable, but I followed her to a back room where she sat me down and got me a glass of water and tried to make me comfortable. Finally she sat down across from me and waited for my tears to subside.
I was still sobbing and was a bit scared about coming out to a total stranger, but I slowly calmed myself enough to begin trying to speak. “First, there’s something you should know about me. I’m gay, and I’m dating a woman,” I said. I then began to tell her that things were going very badly with my family, but she was not looking at me anymore. She was flipping through her bible. She opened it to Romans 1, and then tilted it a little so I could see it while she watched me intently, clearly gauging my reaction. I started to get shaky and nervous again, trying to ignore it, trying not to look at those pages that she obviously wanted me to see. I kept talking but I felt I wasn’t really being heard. And indeed, as soon as I paused, she interjected and began to tell me that I was living in sin and that god was disgusted with my lifestyle. She asked me if I’d read Romans 1. I said yes, but that I didn’t interpret it the way that she clearly did, that I hadn’t come here to talk about whether or not homosexuality was a sin, and that I didn’t believe it was wrong to be gay.
“Yes you do,” she said.
“No, I don’t think it’s wrong,” I stammered, rather flabbergasted.
“Yes you do. You know it’s wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t be crying. You’re crying because God has convicted you and you know you are guilty.”
Never mind the stress and anxiety I was under. Never mind that my family was pressuring me. Never mind that people I loved and trusted were attacking a deeply important part of me. Never mind that my family had just told me that they didn’t know me anymore. No, I was apparently crying because I had been convicted. And, you know, I half believed it, because when you’re that mind-fucked by your family and your church and everyone around you, it’s hard to have any sort of perspective besides “well, everyone is saying it so maybe they’re right.” You lose your ability to judge your own feelings and values. It’s disorienting.
I felt like the breath had just been sucked out of me and I mostly just sat there for the rest of the next hour while she read me Romans 1, she talked to me about how I was disappointing god, my relationship was disgusting, I needed to stop running from the truth, etc. I put up a few weak arguments here and there, but I hadn’t come here to argue about sin. I just wanted advice and comfort and safety. I was in pain and I was crying, and she had chosen to use that expression of my pain as a weapon against me by deciding that my tears were “conviction.”
A very similar experience occurred a few months later at my sister’s church, which she had pressured me into going to in an attempt to convince me to break up with my girlfriend. By this point, my parents had threatened to ban me from coming back to their house if I dared to go visit my girlfriend, and I was in a lot of turmoil about what I should do. My desperation and fear left me vulnerable, so my sister talked me into speaking to an elder that she trusted and having that person pray for me. I feared a repeat of the previous time, but I agreed.
I tried to explain to this woman that I was dealing with a difficult family situation and that I could use some prayer or guidance. I avoided admitting the full circumstance at first, but when she kept asking (and in retrospect, she may already have been informed by my sister) I admitted that I was gay. As soon as she heard that word, she stopped listening and started telling me to pray for god to “release me from this sinful relationship that had a hold on my life.” I told her that I wasn’t going to pray for that because that’s not what I felt was needed. This seemed to bewilder her and she continued to insist that I needed to pray for god to cleanse me of sin. At the time, I started to think that maybe she was just very dense or maybe hard of hearing, because nothing I said really seemed to register. Every time I told her “I’m okay with being gay; this isn’t about that,” she just looked really confused, stammered a bit, and then went back to encouraging me to renounce my sin. I think now that she was not being intentionally dense, but she was doggedly convinced that I knew that I was wrong. She was just waiting for me to drop the pretense and admit it. Why else would I be asking for prayer? Why else would I be in a church? I must have been convicted by god.
It couldn’t possibly be that I was dealing with a traumatic family situation. It couldn’t possibly be that I was about to be kicked out of the house. It couldn’t possibly be that I had been strong-armed and manipulated into coming. It couldn’t possibly be intense pressure and guilt from other people that drove me here. Nope, I was convicted and I just needed to admit it. And so she continued to badger me to pray for the strength to “give everything over to God.” Eventually, I half-heartedly did so because I was tired. At least in this situation, I was less emotionally vulnerable, so I mostly felt frustration and disappointment. I guess that’s what you get when you keep believing people who tell you that a “spiritual authority” will know how to fix your problem and you can’t possibly know how to handle it yourself or be trusted to find your own support.
You know what? Neither of these experiences changed my mind about my sexuality. They didn’t teach me that being gay is a sin. They didn’t show me the light. They didn’t convict me. What they did do was capitalize on my suffering to try to manipulate me into changing. What they did do is drive the knife deeper and teach me that church is not a safe place to be. I have never unlearned that lesson and maybe I never will. I am no longer a Christian (for fairly unrelated reasons, actually) but even if I did choose to explore spirituality again, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable in a church. Maybe with some more time and distance that will change. For now, my conviction is that I would rather be anywhere than sit in a pew and anything is safer than being vulnerable in a church.
This thought just hit me like a pile of bricks, and I need to sound off on it really fast.
In evangelical culture, it is often repeated that love is not an emotion. Love is an action. If you google search for those words, a slew of Christian articles pop up. Christian courtship books, books about relationships, evangelical talking heads have reinforced this message. My family said it over and over. Until maybe yesterday I had just accepted this paradigm without question. It made sense. Love isn’t an emotion, it’s so much more than that. Love isn’t a feelings towards someone, it’s doing something to them.
This was rooted deeply in a rejection of emotion and desires in general. After all, feelings are fickle, cheap, short-lived. Feelings are deceitful, like the heart. Feelings are sinful, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life. Wants, needs, feelings, desires… all of these are to be crucified. But love is to remain, so love is not a feeling. Love is action.
And this is why whenever my mom would say “I know this doesn’t feel loving to you, but it is love” I believed her. This is why, whenever I was mistreated, belittled, rejected, and disrespected, I excused it as “just their way of loving me.” Their way of loving, despite the fact that it did not feel loving, had validity because feelings could not be trusted but actions were love. Their way of loving allowed them to consistently wield the power to define what love looked like, regardless of whether I liked it or not.
Accepting that paradigm meant that I could not accept their love while simultaneously rejecting their actions. Each time I tried to insist that I needed them to treat me differently, the answer would be “but we love you. We love you.” And love is action, not a feeling. Whether or not I felt unloved was irrelevant. Whether or not I was hurting, I was scared, I wanted to die, it didn’t matter because those were feelings and feelings can’t be trusted. Love can.
And over and over, I accepted this paradigm. Even as I tried to argue that abuse could be committed with loving intentions, even as I argued that I wanted respect, even as I tried to make them understand that what they were doing was hurting me, I still internally accepted the idea that love is an action as valid and, as such, I had no real ground to stand on. The best I could do would be to quibble over which actions are love, which is a very difficult argument to win since it is so subjective and situation-specific. From me, love looked like trying to still have a relationship with my family after all of the hurt they had caused. From them, love looked like emotional manipulation. Who was I to decide if that was or was not love?
But that’s exactly why the idea that love is an action is so wrong. It gives all of the power to define love to the one loving, not the one on the receiving end. It allows one person to decide that any action done with a feeling of love, is love. In fact, actions can be done with a feeling of hate, and it can still be called love.
I do believe that my family loves me. I think they love me very deeply. But love is an emotion. They can have very deep feelings for me and still act hatefully. They can want the very best for me and still be unbelievably cruel. They are right to say that actions mean more than emotions. But they are wrong to say that love is an action.
It is completely possible to feel love for someone while your actions destroy them.
Because love is only a feeling, it is meaningless to me unless it is demonstrated through actions that make me feel loved. And that’s the difference. If we accept that love is only a feeling, then we must by necessity give the recipient of our love some amount of control over how that love is demonstrated. The recipient gets to define what actions make them feel your love.
And this might seem like a minor distinction, but to me it is so important. Love is not something you can do to me. Love is only something you can feel about me. The actions that you choose to take based on that feeling are separate. They are not love. I can acknowledge and desire your love while simultaneously utterly rejecting the actions you take to demonstrate it.
I left this review on Amazon after purchasing a 1-cent copy of this book to verify for myself some of the stupid bullshit that made up my ‘sexual education.’ Amazon wants me to rate the book, so here it is. Note: I don’t tackle the deeper problems of gender essentialism or unhealthy attitudes about sex here since I wanted this review to be palatable to potential buyers. Most of these potential buyers will be semi-conservative Christians, so I wanted to discuss the book’s shortcomings within that framework. Besides, the review is already too long!
Rating: 1 star
I understand that many Christian parents will feel themselves in a bind when it comes to educating their students about sex, puberty, anatomy, and influences that a teenager may face at school and in their neighborhood. They may want to find an education book that reflects their values while still having a straight talk about sex and bodies. Preparing for Adolescence claims to provide just that, so I can see how it would be attractive.
DO NOT BE FOOLED. This book is packed with misinformation, shame-inducing language, even outright cruelty, and does very little to enlighten teenagers about their bodies, sex, or even modern challenges facing teens. I’m going to break this down into a few topics that the book addresses and bring up some of the serious problems. Full disclosure, I was homeschooled with this book as my only sexual education apart from a few side-discussions added by my mother (which, while limited, were still MUCH more informative than this piece of rubbish). As a result, I was woefully ignorant about sex, bodies, normal behavior, bodily changes, attraction, STDs, and more until I entered college. Needless to say, that is NOT a safe situation for any teenager.
PUBERTY: This is primarily what my mother purchased the book for… to explain my sister’s and my changing bodies, as well as explaining the process that boys go through as well. I am very glad that she gave us her own personal lecture about menstruation, because Dobson does not even provide the bare minimum of knowledge about these topics. His discussion of menstruation reads like a weird fairytale, describing it as a miraculous and exciting time when a girl’s body prepares for pregnancy (he calls the uterus as a “special pouch” for holding a baby and the vagina as a “special opening” for the baby to exit). So much for having a mature discussion. He spends a couple of pages rambling on about how miraculous and wonderful pregnancy is and how it is the most “amazing thing that ever can happen”, but entirely fails to mention what a tampon is, fails to mention that girls may experience cramping, does not discuss what a normal flow is, does not discuss the emotional changes that can happen, does not discuss any other symptoms a girl or woman might experience during her menstrual cycle (like bloating, discomfort, breast soreness, appetite changes, etc). He does say that girls should ask their mother if they think their period is abnormal, but since Dobson never explains what is normal, I have no idea how he expects a young woman to know when she has cause to be alarmed! I know I certainly didn’t! The ONLY other thing he mentions in the female puberty section is that girls will develop larger breasts. He fails to explain that women will grow body hair, may get acne, their body fat distribution may change, etc.* Apparently knowing about the miraculous-special-amazing-super-delight-miracle of menstruation and enlarging of breasts is all women need to know!
*EDIT: I did find in glancing through it a third time that body hair is mentioned (it was easy to miss) and acne is discussed in a different section. I would say that my initial lack of notice of it is mostly because of Dobson’s incredibly poor organization and his disproportionate focus on certain aspects of development that made it easy to miss other details. He in fact spends a short section discussing acne, but it is placed in between the sections for boys and girls so I missed it when glancing through.
But the section for boys is not any better. He describes this much more briefly and without all of the fairytale language (which makes me think that “special” is the word Dobson tends to repeat when the conversation he’s having makes him uncomfortable). He describes growth spurts, growing body hair, and changing voice. He also says that your “sexual organs will grow to look more like that of an adult man’s” but he never explains what that actually means or what that will look like. He also fails to even mention the word TESTICLES anywhere, so presumably a boy will have a startling surprise when those descend. There are no pictures anywhere in the book, so neither sex will have any idea what the body of the other sex looks like and, in my case, I never really even knew what my own body looked like because I was too nervous and ashamed to look down there. But we’ll get to that, when Dobson discusses…
SEX: I think a large reason that Dobson is so attractive to Christian parents is because he holds conservative Christian views, but he actually discusses sex in his book. Supposedly. Let’s see what he actually says about it.
He starts with a full paragraph, explaining that many people are shy about the topic of sex or avoid it, but that he’s going to treat his readers like adults and be open with them and withhold no information whatsoever. He then explains what sex is in two sentences. And that’s it. Two sentences. Those two sentences explain that a penis becomes hard and straight, a man and woman lie together and the penis goes in the vagina, they move some, and then they get a “tingly sensation”. That’s it. He does not mention ejaculation. He does not even have it in him to use the word “orgasm” or explain what that is. He does not make any allusion to the idea that orgasm may be difficult or easy or that sex should be done carefully to ensure that it is comfortable for both partners, since it can otherwise be painful. And, fundamentally, his entire 2-sentence description flew over my head when I was a pre-teen reading this book because I still had no idea what a penis really looked like or how it can get “hard and straight” or how to get it “in there” or anything else that might help me understand. Dobson claims to withhold nothing and treat his readers maturely, but there is nothing here that actually would enlighten a kid that doesn’t already know everything (and thus would have no need for this book).
So, after the first paragraph explaining that he will withhold nothing, and 2 sentences explaining what sex is, what does he spend the rest of this section on? Misinformation and shaming! To his credit, he first states that partners may have sex often or not, depending on what works for them, which I think is a good thing to note and is sometimes overlooked. But then he spends a couple of pages explaining how dangerous and horrible sex is if you have it before marriage. Now, I’m not going to complain too much about his aversion to premarital sex here, because I am sure many readers would agree due to personal convictions. Rather, what I take issue with is the WAY that he addresses it and the disproportionate amount of time he spends on it. Two sentences to explain sex… multiple pages about how terrible premarital sex is. And Dobson goes to horrifying lengths in his attempt to scare kids away from sex, relying on ignorance, misinformation, and outright lies. He claims that if you’ve had sex already, you will NEVER appreciate it with your current partner and will never be fulfilled (how horrible must that be for rape or abuse victims to know that they will never be able to enjoy sex with their life-long partner???) He claims that people who have premarital sex will often experience a change of personality to become cold and bitter and miserable (so having premarital sex is not just bad, it will turn you into a bad person!). He also warns of STDs that could kill you or make your life miserable (although he goes into very little detail) but never actually explains how to avoid them aside from “you and your partner must never have sex until you marry.” Well, that’s nice, but you can only control your own behaviors, not your partner’s. So what if a young man or woman meets a partner that HAS had sex before? There is no discussion of how to protect yourself, get tested, or anything. Just “getting an STD could be a DEATH SENTENCE” and then “but you don’t have to worry about it as long as you and your partner both have never had sex.” How is this remotely safe for a teenager? And throughout all of this discussion, he never once mentions redemption. He never mentions forgiveness or renewal or being able to rebuild a happy life even if you “messed up” and had premarital sex. Nothing. Just “if you have premarital sex, you will never appreciate sex with your current partner, you will become a cold, miserable person, and you might die. So don’t do it.” This is just blatant scare tactics and manipulation based on lies and it is a horrible and unhealthy message for children to absorb.
SEXUALITY: I am separating this from “sex” because I want to discuss Dobson’s ideas of attraction and sexual interest. First, Dobson states that boys will start feeling an interest in girls’ bodies. He says they will become fascinated with “curves, softness, even their feminine feet”. Honestly, I find his description of what makes women attractive to men very limiting and a little ridiculous (not all women are curvy and soft!), but I’ll give it a pass. He then says that girls will not find boys’ bodies attractive in the same way, but rather they will be attracted to personalities. He later repeats this, saying that men are attracted physically while women are attracted emotionally. This is JUST NOT TRUE. Books like Dobson’s led me to believe that women do not experience sexual attraction, only emotional attraction. This is a very confusing and damaging message to internalize. It taught me that if I wasn’t attracted to my boyfriend, that was normal and good. It taught me that if he pressured me for sex and I didn’t want it, that was normal. It taught me that if he wanted to be physical and I didn’t, that was normal. I did not realize that I was attracted to women until I was in my 20’s, because I had always assumed that my disinterest and revulsion at the idea of physicality with men was NORMAL.
And speaking of homosexuality, he mentions it only once in this book (which is probably good). He says “homosexuality is a sign of serious problems, but it is rare and it is not very likely that you will be one.” If your child happens to feel attraction to the same sex, this is a good way to deepen their shame and hopelessness. They have a rare condition that is ominously described as a “sign of serious problems.” How is a child supposed to do anything but hide their sexuality in fear if this is the only thing they are told about it?
Oh, and before I leave this section, I should add that Dobson has a list of questions near the end of the sex/puberty chapter that he says are common questions that young teens might have. One of them is asking if God will punish them for sexual thoughts. Rather than answering the question, he simply states that “you will likely experience sexual thoughts as you go through adolescence. You may feel guilt or shame about this.” That’s it. No indication that a teenager need not feel guilty for their thoughts and feelings or that sexual attraction is nothing to be ashamed of. Just a statement that they will feel guilty and ashamed. I assume this means he thinks the guilt and shame is normal and good. Ugh.
GENDER: Dobson believes in gender essentialism, so he thinks that women and men are inherently very different and their “woman-ness” and “man-ness” is an integral part of their being. I have no interest in arguing with this, as I assume many readers will agree. However, I will again take issue with the way that he addresses this. It is confusing and terrifying as heck.
Dobson discusses this as a side-note at the end of one of his chapters. He states that it is of extreme importance that boys learn to grow up to be men and girls learn to grow up to be women. He expresses many times how IMPORTANT it is that boys and girls learn the correct way to be masculine and feminine. But after putting so much enormous weight on this, he then leaves the reader with absolutely no understanding of what that’s supposed to look like. He suggests only that a child find role models to try to model their behavior after. This is not a bad idea, except that how is a boy or girl supposed to know which role models are correctly “masculine” or “feminine”? Dobson does not care to define it, so teens are simply left with a ringing warning about how improper it will be for them to fail to live up to their gender, but no indication of how to go about it. And, for the record, these sorts of vague admonishments frequently result in girls and boys feeling guilt and shame if they do not fit all of the stereotypical behaviors of “masculine” and “feminine”, even if the parent themselves had no intention of restricting their children to quite such a rigid set of behaviors.
RELATIONSHIPS: I could not bring myself to re-read ever page of Dobson’s relationship section because I was so turned off at the beginning, so my discussion here is limited. All I can say is that he opens up the section by painting an imaginary storyline of a couple that falls in love young and marries. Apart from the couple being young, Dobson seems to paint them as doing everything right. They meet, they find they share interests, they really enjoy each other’s company, their families like them, they spend time together, they fall in love, they get married (no premarital sex). And then, for some reason, Dobson states that they start fighting on their honeymoon. They lash out at each other and then suddenly feel bitter and resentful. Rather than making up, going to counseling, or improving communication, he says that their life spirals into a hell of fighting and hating and avoiding each other for the rest of their days, wondering what went wrong, and inflicting pain on their child who will forever know that his mommy and daddy don’t love each other and will grow up miserable. Wow. That escalated quickly.
This catastrophe is all because… well Dobson doesn’t even really fully explain it, apart from indicating that the couple may have been too young and that their love apparently wasn’t genuine. But honestly, it just isn’t made clear HOW they could have known that their love wasn’t genuine. All that is implied is that it was wrong and somehow the couple involved should have just been more godly or something and none of it would have happened. This is again just blatant scare tactics, trying to frighten teens away from having relationships, without giving them any tools for knowing what actually IS a good relationship. I can understand if his point is to encourage teens not to rush into marriage or to be selective with their dating partners, but that is not what this story accomplishes. It simply says “you might feel like you’re doing everything right, you might love and respect your partner, things might seem to be great, but you might be wrong and you will be miserable for the rest of your pathetic lives!” and then leaves it to an emotional, confused and ignorant teenager to try to figure out how to avoid this catastrophe. Let me tell you from experience: it did not work for me. What is the point of giving teenagers this horrifying picture of what a failed marriage might look like without explaining to them how to avoid it, besides “don’t marry until you’re in your 20’s?” Turning 20 does not magically make you know what makes a good marriage partner!!!
DISABILITY: This part just makes me angry. Much of the book is devoted to discussing avoiding peer pressure and navigating social aspects of adolescence. He talks about not being mean to people and trying not to compare yourself to others. Throughout this discussion, he brings up a couple of children he knew who had disabilities. I was shocked in re-reading the book at how unkind he is in his discussions of this. One boy he discusses as having a hearing difficulty, but he felt embarrassed to wear a hearing aid because it made him stand out. Rather than discussing this dilemma compassionately or actually dealing with the pain and struggle of having people treat you like garbage because of a disability and how horrible that can be, he states that he feels sorry for the boy for being so foolish as to let other people influence his decision to wear a hearing aid. Yes, he MOCKS a child for feeling shame and pain over the torment that his classmates give him about his disability. He gets even more cruel when discussing a blind girl who refused to let people lead her from place to place. He makes a joke of having seen her walk into a pole once, and then again chastises her for being foolish and avoiding assistance because of the way other kids treated her.
THIS IS WRONG. Look, I agree that a disability is certainly nothing to be ashamed of and that we should encourage children not to feel like there is something wrong with them. But the way to do this is NOT by making them ashamed of feeling self-conscious or mocking them for wanting to fit in. Besides, particularly in the blind girl’s story, he makes the assumption that she refused to have people walk her places because she was ashamed. He does not consider that maybe she had learned her way around well enough that she felt confident and had set a personal goal to travel around school without assistance. The possibility that she was trying to become more independent, or had been working towards this for a long time, or that her lack of guidance my be an act of bravery rather than cowardice does not seem to even cross his mind. She is just the butt of his joke to demonstrate that, if you cave in when other kids tease you for being different, you’ll just make a bigger fool of yourself.
Overall, this book is poorly written, woefully unhelpful, full of lies, misinformation, and scare tactics, has cruel and harmful messages for teens, and does not even do a good job of presenting conservative Christian views of sex or adolescence. PLEASE look elsewhere. If you have already decided to use this book, PLEASE at least find other resources to supplement it with because your child will not know what he/she needs to know about adolescence just from reading this book! It is not comprehensive and it is harmful and it is not a good Christian alternative to a proper sex education.
My fiance had a few things she wanted to discuss about Evangelical culture, so I will be offering her space on this blog to add her thoughts and experiences as well. The following post is about the common mythologies of prayer.
I have a problem with prayer: it is selfish.
Prayer is by nature self-centered. I am not saying that that’s a bad thing, per se, but it is only useful when used for the self. It has power to help you find peace, or to center yourself, or to try to figure things out. It can bestow perspective and clarify the mind and relieve stress. Interestingly, brain scans have shown that prayer and Buddhist meditation work in very similar ways, and help the brain to maintain itself and connect with the world.
I am of the general opinion that we may connect with a higher power when practicing these things. I will not completely discount those who say God has spoken to them during these times. I do think that there should be a healthy dose of skepticism when dealing with any such experience or retelling of an experience, however, as thinking or claiming to hear from God is dangerous. More often than not, I have found a peculiar correlation between what someone wants to hear from God and what they claim to hear from God.
There are some limitations I believe prayer has, that many people don’t seem to realize, along with a few things it can do:
- It cannot change the world. People changing the world can change the world.
- It can’t solve world hunger. Donating food and money to food banks, or legislating that the government takes care of the people can. (Not getting into politics here, just stating that that would indeed feed hungry people.)
- It cannot change weather to bring rain or make it leave, etc. The physical laws of this world can. Even as a Christian I believed that God had put in place the physical world and mostly left it alone, because he had created an intricate machine that would work on its own.
- It cannot change a person’s mind. Only they can. You cannot pray for a politician to change his mind or for someone you know to be ‘brought to Christ,’ and expect it to actually happen. That would be a violation of free-will, which is the foundation of Christianity. We were given free-will so that we might know what it is to sin and what it is to be redeemed. Therefore, God cannot or will not change anyone’s mind. It follows that you cannot change someone’s mind by praying for them. You cannot make them choose what you want or leave the ‘lifestyle’ they’re in. If you could do so by prayer, then you would be manipulating them into your will. If you pray for God to ‘show them the way’ then do not be surprised when the prayed-for person does not ‘find the way.’ Think instead that either God won’t manipulate people like that, or he does not agree that your way is the correct one.
- It cannot save a life. Doctors and rescue workers can. Prayer can help the pray-er by calming and de-stressing them, but there has never been any evidence that a prayed-for person recovers any faster from ailment than one who is not prayed for. See the natural laws thing with the praying to change the weather paragraph. Medical science has advanced a long way, and sometimes can work ‘miracles,’ but it is the resilience of the human body and mind and the skilled people and medicines and machines that save lives.
- Prayer can also make a person complacent. “Why donate money or time when I can pray for the person? God can help them better than I can.” This I liken to the facebook ‘slacktivism’ that has people change their profile picture or repost a sentence to supposedly end violence or child abuse or whatever it is. It is so, so much easier to send up a nice thought than it is to do something, or to sacrifice something.
- It can allow you to start believing God spoke to you. That only you know what is true. It’s easy to feel feedback from ‘God’ while praying. The funny thing is that it’s very often either what your conscience is saying, or simply something you want to be right, anyway. While it could be God, it is far, far more likely that it is your brain practicing its powerful sway over you. It is also entirely possible to have multiple people, all saying God spoke to them, and all saying different things. This is impossible if there is one true God: either some are lying, or they all truly believe that they heard God’s will. Related to that is that prayer leads to a lot of confirmation bias. You want something, you pray for it, it happens, your prayer must have worked. You tend to forget all the times that it didn’t work, or explain them away by God saying no. You tend to recieve the answers you want, or expect, when you ask for guidance.
So prayer has a lot of limitations and downfalls. There is another part of it that is problematic: the saying “I’m praying for you.” By itself, there is nothing wrong with this phrase. I had a Bible study teacher once say “we may not know if prayer works, but praying is how we know we care.” That is true. While I don’t believe it actually does anything supernatural to help someone else, praying about something is a way to show you care. Saying that you’re praying is a nice sentiment and expresses sympathy, if it’s done in a caring manner at the right time and with the right tone.
It is often joked about in the south, how you can say anything bad about a person, and if you follow it with “bless his heart,” it makes it okay. Suddenly you weren’t mean or hurtful. In southern culture, you are not allowed to be angry or impolite, or to express dislike in any way besides passive-aggressive measures. Similarly, anger and related emotions are practically taboo in Christianity. They have to be tamped down and only released with the select passive-aggressive words.
Telling someone “I’m praying for you,” becomes annoying or downright hurtful when they know that it really means “I don’t like what you did. Only God can save you now,” or “I’m praying for God to make you straight so we can love you again.” “This person did these awful things, but see how I am better than him? I can pray for him!”
I like how Jesus says we should pray in closets, in secret, so that no one knows. I heard in Sunday school how in those times the Pharisees would go around praying loudly so that everyone could know how holy they are. These days, I often see posts on facebook asking for prayers, with twenty people replying saying “praying for you!” Or posts saying “Praying for so-n-so.” “Praying for America.”
I have heard that some believe in power in the number of prayers, which is their explanation for why they post that they are praying for someone. This either gets into a weird ‘spiritual warfare’ area (which has its own problems, to be discussed elsewhere), or makes God one of those attention-whore parents who posts pictures of their kids holding a ‘If we get two-thousand likes Mom says we will go to Disneyland!’
The only other reason for trumpeting your prayer life to the public is because you want the attention, the kudos, the feeling of being superior. Christianity is like all other cultures, and in each culture there are status symbols. Unfortunately, actually following Jesus and helping the needy and praying privately are difficult to turn into status symbols, so then it becomes who prays the most/loudest, or who has a fish on their car, or how many ‘souls you saved.’
Now, onto the spiritual warfare. When I was younger, I read a book by Frank E. Peretti. I don’t remember which one, but that doesn’t matter, because after reading the summary of another book by him, I realized they were all the same:
Bad things start happening in town. Bad things are due to demons. Angels come to fight demons, can’t until local Christian population starts praying hard enough and with enough people that they are given power-ups and can drive out the demons.
This is what I believe people mean when they talk about spiritual warfare: there is always a fight going on over souls between heaven and hell, and prayer helps the good guys win.
I concede that if you believe in God and heaven and angels, it follows that there is a hell with demons and Satan. An interesting side-note is that Satan wasn’t always the super-bad-guy he’s portrayed as now, but seemed to have more of the role of a being who tests the faithfulness of God’s people. He only appears in a few texts, and not usually is directly named. The idea of spiritual warfare is problematic: it is not biblically-founded, besides the mentions of casting out demons. Prayer never was a big role in it, that I can recall. In any case, much of what is now used as a biblical basis for it was more metaphor than instruction, like Paul’s ‘armor of God’, or the entirety of the book of Revelation.
I can give that we don’t know what else may be out there, in another dimension or what have you. Perhaps there are angels and demons battling. The problem comes when a person claims that someone else is experiencing ‘spiritual warfare,’ or demons, or what have you, and then uses that to completely invalidate that person’s own viewpoint and memories. Telling someone that their experiences are invalid because they were besot by demons is demeaning and almost laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. Believing that if only you had prayed harder and the demons would have left must be a horrible burden, but it also must be nice to have an easy excuse for any bad in the world: demons did it.
If God expected people to pray in order to bolster his forces, he probably should have said so. Otherwise we are just writing our own fanfiction of the Bible to make ourselves feel more important than we likely are. Yes, it is written that we casted out demons and did miracles. Never does it say that was done with prayer alone. Not even in the story of Peter being freed from prison is it clear that prayer was the cause of the angel’s arrival. Even if we do implicate prayer in that miracle, that is the only instance (that I am aware of), and it is not theologically sound to base an entire doctrine off of anything that is only mentioned once in the Bible.
Prayer is a healthy activity, a useful tool, and a calming exercise for the brain. It is also an easy route to feel better about yourself for not doing anything, a tool for abuse, and a badge of honor. It can harm as much as it heals, and it is promised to do much more than it does. As with much Christianity, if what you prayed for didn’t happen, you weren’t praying hard enough or your faith wasn’t strong.
Links to the brain scan research:
Here’s my next post on I Love You But You’re Going To Hell! This time I discuss the manipulative arguments that are made to ensure Creationists stay Creationists.
Why is Creationism so appealing?
Last installment, I spent some time discussing my Creationist curriculum. Through five years, I learned science alongside Young Earth Creation apologetics. No small amount of time was spent on discussing the evidence for young earth, explaining the Grand Canyon as a result of a global flood, reinterpreting the geological record, and more. Over and over, it was repeated and reassured that Creationism was a viable theory based on the evidence alone. Yes, the Bible made assertions regarding the origin of the world, but all of the text books and apologists emphasized that the theory could stand on its own merits and that even atheists should be able to see the evidence and agree to it.
And yet, when it came down to it, the evidence was truly secondary. On some level, I think that the most devoted creation “experts” still realize that Young Earth might not stand up to honest scrutiny. This is why almost the entire YEC battle is fought for children. Creationists have already lost in the arena of mainstream science. They can’t influence people there. But children are easy to influence. Children are much more trusting. And if they start kids with these theories early, perhaps they can build walls around them that will keep them there.
Read the rest here.
I feel like something needs to be said about hate-speech. I don’t mean Westboro Baptist Church picket signs or the crazed ramblings of TV show hosts trying to blame natural disasters on a small minority of the U.S. population. I’m talking about the polite words, the “loving” phrases that may Christians use that they may not realize are extremely hurtful and cruel to the recipients. I want to talk about all the ugly messages and meanings that are often conveyed through this speech that many probably aren’t even aware of.
Let me be clear that the purpose of writing this is not that I can’t handle hearing anything negative or that I’m trying to avoid getting my feelings hurt. Although I think those are valid reasons to avoid offensive language, this isn’t just about me. I can handle a little rudeness. My real interest is being able to clear the way for a more open dialogue between Christians and members of the LGBT community. This dialogue will not be possible until people on both sides learn how their language is impacting their fellow human beings. I want a conversation that inspires understanding, good-will and trust. Instead, so many conversations breed defensiveness, hurt, and anger. If you are a Christian and you are really interested in being welcoming and accessible to your gay, bi, or trans peers, please listen. This is for you.
Note: in this installment I am focusing on the LGB of LGBT . There will likely be other articles in which I will spend more time addressing more trans-specific issues.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This phrase has long since worn out its welcome in the LGB community, but it is still commonly used by Christians hoping to voice their objections to homosexuality in a loving, non-threatening way. It seems the most popular go-to phrase for religious people to make their convictions known without lumping themselves into the group of hate-mongers. “I cannot betray what I believe, but that does not mean I am unloving about it.” But to someone like me, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is the opposite of loving. If good will and dialogue is to open between LGB folks and Christians, and especially for those that straddle both groups, this phrase needs to be permanently retired. Here’s why.
1) However kindly and respectfully you treat us, I promise you, there is someone else who has used that exact phrasing as a shield behind which to bludgeon us. It is more common than you might think. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that many of us have a reflexive recoil reaction to those words. However, if the sentiment itself were a good one, then a few extremists misusing it shouldn’t be reason enough to abandon it. Unfortunately the sentiment is not good. It is toxic.
2) The word “hate” is loaded with negative meaning. LGB folks are at high risk of hate-crimes, hate-speech, and hate-group fueled harassment. We are told that “God hates fags” and were possible treated with hatred by our families, friends, or communities. And you want to introduce the word “hate” into a conversation about us that is supposed to be loving? It doesn’t matter that your hate is directed at our “sin”. We can all agree to hate evil acts, but remember, many of us may not believe that our orientation is evil. You are targeting an important and meaningful part of our identities and telling us that you hate it. Imagine being told by a supposed friend or colleague “I hate Christianity.” Does it make you feel startled, uncomfortable, defensive, and uneasy? Yeah, we feel the same way when you do that to us. Hate never feels loving.
3) Why don’t you start hating your own sins instead of mine? I know, I know. Every time I bring this up, most Christians will insist that they do hate their own sins and will hurry to assure me that they are an imperfect sinner too, and they have sins that they struggle with. But that’s generally where the conversation ends. They may pay lip-service to the idea of treating all faults equally, but in honestly, they generally have no desire to talk in depth about these alleged sins. Indeed, I generally don’t want to hear about your pet sins because I recognize that it is personal and it is not my place to force you to face whatever private demons you have in your life. I would appreciate the same respect in return. Saying “I’m a sinner too” does not give you free pass to be everyone else’s personal sin police. Instead of focusing on homosexuality as the #1 sin that needs to be hated vocally, why don’t you spend that time hating your own sins in private? Start with the sins of judging and pride (and if those accusations make you feel defensive because you don’t feel you are guilty of them, now you know how it feels when Christians accuse me of sins that I do not believe are wrong.)
4) These words make a major assumption that the LGB person you are talking to is actually engaging in homoerotic activities. This is not necessarily true, and it is insulting and degrading to reduce a person soley to a stereotype of their assumed sexual habits. I had people telling me how they loved me but hated my sin long before I ever engaged in some form of homosexual activity. So that begs the question: is it just being attracted to someone of the same sex that is the sin? Is it loving them? Kissing? Just existing as a gay person? Or do you honestly assume that when I say “I’m gay” I am having sex every night? Regardless, inferring and judging my actions based on my orientation is pretty much as insulting and ignorant as meeting a Hispanic person and asking them which part of Mexico they’re from.
5) We really don’t need to know whether or not you approve of our identity or relationships. It baffles me why people feel the need to comment on some personal part of my life uninvited, even in a “loving” manner. Trust me, I am aware that there are plenty of people who believe that homosexual acts are a sin. I’ve heard it before. Not a single gay person can really get away from it in this country. So why do you feel the need to tell me “I love you, but I really don’t agree with what you are/do?” I do not immediately feel the need to de-convert Christians when I find out they are religious. I don’t make disparaging comments to my friends about their husbands or wives simply because I do not approve. I would never tell someone “well, I think blacks are inferior, but I still like you.” So why has it become socially acceptable for Christians to single us out for disapproval? It is disrespectful and uncalled for. We don’t need your opinions on our lives, we just want your respect. And respect, by the way, is worth a hell of a lot more than passive-aggressive “loving”.
I know that Christians have a need to be a little defensive around the topic of homosexuality since there are many loud voices in the religious community that have sullied Christian beliefs with hate. Many Christians just want a way to state their beliefs while simultaneously distancing themselves from these extremists. But if there is to be healing and unity, LGB people need Christians to back away from the dogma a bit. How about you set the doctrine aside and just focus on love and respect? I promise, it will be a lot more fruitful than “loving the sinner and hating the sin.” And didn’t Jesus say that you will know what is good by their fruits?
I have been asked to write a series of guest posts on the blog “I love you but you’re going to hell”. I have been following this blog almost since I first started on WordPress. I love the balanced viewpoints that Adam Laats expresses, so I am thrilled that he has asked me to write a series on my journey from science-denying to scientist! Go check it out and check out the rest of his blog as well!
In this installment, I am discussing my Creationist curriculum. Here’s a short excerpt.
I am a conservative, anti-government-educator’s dream. Because I was homeschooled, my family had the unique opportunity to control every aspect of my education completely. Part of this included being taught with a Christian science curriculum that supported Biblical 6-day creation, denied Evolution, described scientific evidence for a global flood, and opposed modern environmental policies. When I tell my secular peers this, the reactions of shock, horror, and amazement are often rather comical. Very often, I am told that I must be remarkably resilient or intelligent to be able to make a successful science career for myself after being handicapped by my early education. As much as I’d love to accept the accolades, I simply don’t see it that way. My seemingly-bizarre education did not hamper me much at all, and in some ways, I must credit it for inspiring me to become a scientist in the first place. Although I cannot defend the inaccuracies in the curriculum, I still have fond memories of it, and I can highlight both the shortcomings and successes of the book series.
TW: Mild self-harm
I was spanked as a child. I was a well-behaved youngster who needed little discipline and was generally obedient and respectful to the best of my ability. I can probably count the number of times I was spanked on my fingers. I was not scarred for life by this ordeal, I am well-adjusted, and I have never reacted by being violent to others. To all appearances, I am a testament to the value of the practice of spanking.
And yet, I oppose it. Vehemently.
This was not always so. For most of my life, I assumed that spanking was a generally useful practice that taught kids to expect consequences to their actions. It promoted personal responsibility, I was told, and enforced respect. I fully expected that I would spank my own children (hopefully not often). I further expected that children who were not spanked would likely be unruly, disrespectful, and lack a sense of responsibility and self-control.
However, as I began to reassess the value of the authoritarian parenting style that I was raised with (which did NOT leave me well-adjusted) I began to confront my perceptions of spanking as well. What lessons had I really learned from these punishments? Were the changes it wrought in my behavior actually positive? Or can I contribute my good behavior primarily to other parenting methods instead?
I clearly recall how the punishment was carried out. I was informed of my error and I would generally apologize. My mother would accept my apology, but if the error was severe enough, she would indicate that I was to be spanked as a punishment. I would be told to fetch the big wooden spoon from the kitchen and I would go into her bedroom. She would close the door and tell me that she loved me, but she needed to do this anyway. I would be told to bend over and she would strike my backside with the spoon. Generally, I would feel humiliated enough that I would not want to cry in front of her, so I would hold my tears in as long as possible. However, before long, I would always give in and cry out, and my mother would hit me only one more time before setting the spoon aside and then holding me. She would tell me again and again that she loved me and calm my tears until I had stopped crying. The punishment was now over.
By the standards of most spanking advocates, my mother did everything right. She never left marks or bruising that I was aware of. I was no longer sore within 5 minutes of the spanking or so. The punishments were always coupled with loving words and assurances that I still had her affections. And yet, they did me absolutely no good. Indeed, they taught me several lessons that were quite counterproductive to my moral and ethical development.
Spanking did not teach me to accept consequences; it taught me to avoid them.
Spanking causes pain and humiliation, but more than anything, it causes a fear and dread. Most children will avoid that fear at any cost. Sometimes this meant behaving well to avoid punishments. But at other times, when I had either misbehaved or simply made a mistake, I learned to try to silence my conscience and hide my misdeed rather than owning up to it. As a clear testament to this, I recall an incident when I was probably only 4 or 5 years old. I had just been playing around in the bathroom and somehow ended up getting toilet paper strewn around the floor. I left the mess behind when I got distracted by something (I was a very absent-minded child) and it was discovered later by my mother. She called the whole family into the bathroom and asked who had made the mess. I distinctly recall a pang of fear as I considered the possibility that an admission of guilt could result in a spanking. I wanted to tell my mother that it was me and to apologize for it, but the fear was too great. Instead, thinking myself very clever, I asked “what will happen to the person who says they did it?”
“Nothing except they will have to clean it up,” she responded.
“Oh, well in that case, I did it.”
And there lies the first problem with spanking. I was fully willing to take responsibility for my mistake and even make it right by cleaning up the mess I had left. But while the threat of physical pain and humiliation was held over my head, I shut my conscience off and was ready to lie. And lie I did, about the glass bowl that I broke years later. I was never found out.
This is not a productive result of a training method that is intended to INCREASE personal responsibility. Reasonable consequences that allow the child to make up for the mistake that they made are much more likely to be effective. That leads me to my second lesson.
You can’t make up for your mistakes; you can only suffer for them.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of mistakes in real life that cannot be fixed. Sometimes you just have to deal with the consequences. But even so, approaching every mistake with this defeatist mindset is a sure way to destroy your life. A healthy person approaches every mistake with an openness to correcting it, or at least making the best of it. Anytime we fail at something or harm someone, our response should be to say “I am so sorry… how can I make it better?”
But spanking was a discouragement of this kind of thought, for me. I was not spanked often, but when I was, it was always a sign that my crime must have been too grievous to make right. Apologies, offers to fix things, attempts to ease the damage that I had done were useless. All that was left for me was physical punishment. Pain would atone for me. I could not atone for myself.
The last spanking that I can remember occurred when I was probably 9 or 10. I had gotten distracted while doing my morning chores before school and started goofing off. Again, absent-mindedness and distraction were common themes in my childhood… and adulthood for that matter. My mother always required that we start homeschool at precisely 8:00am. When my goofing off led me to miss that deadline, I was due for punishment. My mother came upstairs and saw me laughing with my sister while I fidgeted around with the bed I was supposed to be making. She scolded me angrily and told me that I was already late for school and my bed wasn’t even made yet. Startled, I apologized, told her I had lost track of the time, apologized some more, and then offered to make my bed faster. She did tell me to finish making my bed. And when I was finished, she said, I should come downstairs for a spanking.
That was always a heart-wrenching feeling. It didn’t matter if I was sorry, or if I promised to do better, or if I made my bed on time for the rest of the week, or if I even offered to make hers for her to make up for it. I had sinned, and the only proper punishment was physical pain. Indeed, forgiveness could not be obtained from my mother until she hit me and made me cry. It seemed unjust to me, but more than anything, it was heartbreaking for a young child. I truly wanted to make my mother happy and to do right by her. But, when spankings became involved, there was no way to make it right anymore. It was only my fate to accept the pain in order to be forgiven and returned to my valued place in the family. That is a horrible lesson to teach a child. It is also a dangerous lesson, because…
Spanking teaches children that violence and humiliation can be deserved.
I have never been physically abused by anyone. I suspect I am quite lucky in this regard. However, I have physically abused myself. And when I did, I thought of it as a method of atonement. Can I trace this mindset reliably back to my parents spanking me? Perhaps not. I suspect that many other factors played a greater role in my self-destructive habits, including sheltering and authoritarian principles. However, I think it is likely that the mindset instilled in my by using spanking as a punishment was a contributing factor.
When I was 23 years old, I came out to my family. I was already in graduate school on the other side of the Atlantic from my parents. We spent many hours discussing the topic of homosexuality on the phone, arguing over scriptures and opinions, and often crying over harsh words and cruel remarks. Despite all of this, I felt compelled to come home for a Summer to try to talk to my parents face-to-face, help them come to terms with my sexual identity, and heal the family wounds.
Instead of offers of peace, however, I was met with militant efforts to fix me. My access to the internet and phone were restricted, I was shamed into being silent about what was happening, I was harangued and bullied daily by my parents, and I was blamed for “destroying the family”. I honestly believed every accusation they threw at me, and I began to feel I had made myself too worthless to be redeemed. I couldn’t make things right. So, I decided I deserved to be hurt.
I restrained myself from causing too much damage, largely because I didn’t want my family to be able to recognize the marks. I would kick my shins against the end-table in the living room to raise welts and bruises. I would scratch at the skin on my stomach, upper thighs, and arms to make myself bleed. I felt like I deserved to hurt; I deserved violence. I deserved their humiliation. I deserved their emotional abuse. All of it, I deserved.
And why shouldn’t I? My family had always taught me never to let anyone hurt me, always to respect myself, and always to stand up for myself. But yet, they crossed those boundaries repeatedly when I was a child. I was taught that there WERE situations where violence, humiliation, and a lack of self-respect were deserved. Those were the situations when I had been bad. I was a bad child. I deserved pain. Is it so hard to imagine that these toxic thoughts could have carried over into my adulthood? Is it possible that I was horrifically susceptible to abuse by my parents because of some of the lessons that corporeal punishment taught me? I think it is likely.
Let me offer some fundamental pieces of advice. You should always be honest enough to own up to your mistakes. You should always try to make those mistakes right. And you NEVER deserve violence or humiliation… not from anyone else, and not from yourself. I think most people would agree with the statements above. But then, if I truly believe these things, why would I advocate for a form of punishment that taught me the opposite?
I do not believe my parents abused me as a child. They were loving. They were faithful. They were gentle. They were wonderful parents, in many ways. But their choice to spank me was unwise. It didn’t ruin me. It didn’t cause me to become violent or socially repressed or less intelligent. But it was not healthy. We need not talk in extremes in order to still condemn a practice that is teaching children unhealthy lessons. I can do better than the last generation. I will not spank my children.
The non-religious have long been discussing the toxic environment that evangelizing and proselytizing can create. Common complaints are attitudes of hostility, harassment, implicit threats of eternal torture, and a refusal to desist when asked. All of these are important problems, but I want to draw attention to the less-examined side of the issue: the culture of proselytizing hurts its own members.
Surprisingly, it only recently dawned on me how unhealthy the mindset of evangelizing culture is. Growing up, it was impressed on me that the world was lost and dying; each person was wallowing in a temporary hell, just waiting until the afterlife to suffer eternally again in a permanent hell. The picture painted was pretty dire, and it broke this child’s heart. I wanted so badly for these poor, suffering people to be happy and avoid this dark fate.
But the true danger comes from the expectations that the church places on its congregation. We were given the “great commission” to witness to all nations and people of the good news of Christ. If this had been taken more in the spirit of John 13:35 (“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” NKJV) it would not be much of a problem. Christians could be a shining example of love and kindness, joy and a devotion to justice and the defense of the underprivileged. Witnessing could be accomplished by our attitudes and actions towards our fellow man, without a word being said about hellfire or demands being made for them to follow your particular creed.
But that wasn’t how it was billed to me. Witnessing was the act of pressuring a person to convert to your religion. “I’m a Christian” was supposed to always be on my lips. I wasn’t supposed to stand out from the crowd just by my kindness and selflessness, but also by pushing my faith onto others at all times, regardless of whether my advances were welcome or not. After all, in the evangelical culture, I was personally responsible for the lives of all of the lost people I encountered. If I failed to “share the gospel” with atheists, sinners, or liberal “Christians” then their blood was on my hands.
This is a horrifying amount of pressure to put on any man, woman or child. Needless to say, it can have a lot of dangerous results. Some of my peers responded by becoming militant proselytizers. I still see them crowing on Facebook about each person that they harangued with the “good news” of hellfire and damnation. Every time they bring up religion in a conversation they become offensive and disrespectful. They seem incapable of self-reflection, and truly believe that they are presenting a godly image to the world, even as people flee from them and curse the judgmental asshole of a god that they purport to serve.
Then, there was me. I quickly recognized, once I entered the real world, that any attempt at conversions would not be well-received by my non-Christian friends. In fact, most of them were fully aware of the Christian doctrine and had simply made the conscious choice to reject it. I felt like it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to argue this decision without even being invited or asked for an opinion. But this flew in the face of everything I had been taught. I wallowed in guilt as I imagined all of the friends that I was failing by “hiding my light under a basket.” I knew that, if I became the virulent evangelist that I had been taught to be, I would likely have no secular friends (and, by extension, have less opportunity to witness to them.) But I was still taught that refraining from actively converting my friends was being selfish: trading their immortal souls for my momentary comfort. I would have moments of shaky, sweaty panic as I would tell myself over and over again to just force the issue on them before it was too late! But my voice wouldn’t come and I would beat myself up in my head for weeks after, lamenting the blood that was slowly soaking my hands, clothes, and entire body. I was responsible for so many souls and I was failing them all. It was nightmarish to imagine.
It still makes me a little sick just remembering the amount of cognitive dissonance I felt. I had been set up with an impossible choice, and neither option seemed to be serving the Kingdom of God. On one hand, I could congratulate myself on my aggressive proselytizing, even if it left me isolated and utterly ineffective at being a good witness. On the other hand, I could maintain relationships and shine as a good friend, but be guilty of the souls of my friends that I wasn’t actively recruiting to my religion.
Eventually, the Guilt became such a constant companion that I grew numb to it. I went through a period of years where I no longer evaluated the moral rightness or wrongness of anything, because I was too spiritually exhausted to try. I will write more on that in another post. After those years, however, it finally occurred to me that my entire view of “witnessing” was disturbingly flawed. I was not responsible for anyone’s soul. We were all our own people, with our own decisions and our own experiences, and it is not my job to force others into heaven. I do not need to hide my decisions and beliefs, but I also don’t need to feel guilty for respecting other peoples’ decisions and beliefs. Indeed, I think that is something to be proud of. After all, who is a better witness of rightness: one who offends or one who heals?