This post is part of a dialog, In Two Minds: The Anatomy of a Christian Hate Letter, between former minister Brian Worley and psychologist Valerie Tarico . In the series, Brian Worley, an ordained Baptist, describes some of his encounters with Christian friends and family since he deconverted. In Letter One, he asked Dr. Tarico to comment on an exchange with his brother and in Letter Two, Valerie Tarico responds.
Your experience, I’m afraid, is familiar to many former Evangelical believers.
Even though I have researched some of the worst of Christian history, the Evangelical child in me continues to marvel at things that are said in defense of the God of Love and Truth. After all, I believed in the fruit of the Spirit. I believed in Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek. So, I was shocked when I first read profanity and threats of personal violence against the stewards of exChristian.net, losingmyreligion.com, and even the Ontario Center For Religious Tolerance (religioustolerance.org)!
Somehow, even though 20 years had passed since I could last call myself born-again, a part of me still believed that Christians were better than ordinary people. It was only when I caught myself and stepped into my adult psychologist mind that I remembered: we all are ordinary people—Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and non-theists alike.
Being ordinary means that we all have a tendency to become aggressive when we feel threatened, and that is what I believe is going on here. In your brother’s email, he interprets your prior letter as a threat—you are trying to provoke a “hate fest.” He then moves against you with sarcasm, distancing, and a posture of psychological and spiritual superiority.
Why is your deconversion and that of so many others threatening? Why does even the concept of religious tolerance threaten fundamentalist Christians? Why would anonymous followers of Jesus, incredibly, make death threats against former Christians who speak out?
The primary reason is that traditional Christianity is brittle. You and I both spent years of our lives seeking to understand the will of God. But sometimes even when people are working very hard to keep the edifice of belief in place, it crumbles. That is because it doesn’t correspond very well to what we know about ourselves and the world around us. At the time Christian doctrines were emerging, they were basically consistent with the prevailing world view – one that included hereditary dynasties, animal and human sacrifices, magic, and supernatural beings like winged messengers and desert djinns (demons) who meddled in human affairs. They were also consistent with humanity’s level of moral development. But now we know better, and that makes faith more fragile. Once little cracks allow light to fall on the contradictions, we see that they are legion. So the whole thing depends on not letting those first little cracks start.
The structure of traditional Christianity has evolved to protect itself against these threats. For one thing, it makes exclusive truth claims. It doesn’t take the risk of assuming that other spiritual traditions offer complementary insights. Fundamentalists teach that “tolerance” is a code word for being indifferent to right and wrong. It is a slippery slope, a tool of Satan. Another protective strategy is that Christianity seeks to isolate believers from nonbelievers. “be not unequally yoked.” Even settings like public schools are described as havens of secular indoctrination.
Another protective mechanism is that it sneers at the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. “Thinking themselves wise they become fools.” Christians are taught to mistrust and ignore their own rational capacity when it leads them into disagreement with Christian dogmas. Fundamentalist Christianity is based on belief in belief, which means that doubt, our best guardian of truth seeking, must be relabeled as a sin or vice. In addition, because of how our brains are wired, Christianity taps some of our deepest most yearned-for emotions: love, peace, forgiveness, absolution, spiritual healing and transcendent joy. Humans can and do experience these feelings in many contexts, but Christian practices trigger them, and then Christian beliefs offer an interpretive framework that says “You get it here, and you won’t get it anywhere else.” Finally, all of this is given existential proportions, meaning that people are taught (and then feel desperately) that this is all a matter of highest urgency—protecting these beliefs literally feels like a matter of life and death.
Your brother is merely responding as any of us do when our very existence feels threatened. The fight/flight response gets triggered. He experienced a sabre-toothed tiger outside the cave, and he responded in the way that has helped to guarantee the survival of our species: he bared his (verbal) fangs and used his adrenalin rush to roll a rock across the opening. The problem lies not in your brother. Or rather, I might say, it is in him but not of him. He is caught by a belief system that activates his healthy defensive structure for its own preservation. Having left the faith, you and I both know that we lost neither our joy nor our moral core. We are as capable of love and generosity as before. He would be fine on the outside – still himself with many of the very same strengths and weakness that bless and curse him now. But your brother, in the throes of belief cannot know this.
Want to review another letter in this series? Click here for Part I.