In Defens(iveness) of Religion

This article first appeared in The Good Men Project March 1, 2015In-Defensive-of-Religion

True religion doesn’t need defending. What’s true can stand on its own.

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Growing up in a Pentecostal denomination, passion came with the territory. My grandfather once prayed over a meal for so long he broke into tongues, only to be scolded by my grandmother for turning dinner into a revival. It was all in good fun on her part. As far as our family was concerned, anytime was a good time for a prayer meeting. And for over 25 years, as an Evangelical Christian minister, I sang, preached, and told others about my beliefs with fervor.

But like many people whose realities don’t match up to their beliefs, my viewpoints began to change. I couldn’t reconcile how God would let my wife divorce me and allow my family to become another statistic. That was the first crack in the armor of faith that once covered me like a custom-fit suit. More unanswered questions led to more cracks, until I realized I could no longer believe in the religion in which I was raised. The armor crumbled. I was free.

I soon discovered, however, that my newfound freedom made people uneasy. Some of those with whom I’d ministered and/or been friends, no longer spoke to me. They attacked the simplest of statements and discarded my decades of experience as a Christian and minister. It was as though my mere existence was an affront to God and He sent them to ridicule and dismiss me. Seemingly overnight I went from a loved, valued and esteemed member of a family to a disdained outcast.

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It’s one thing to disagree with someone who holds a different, or no religious, point of view, but verbal assaults are something else. My good friend, straight ally and LGBT advocate, Kathy Baldock, once posted a comment in an Evangelical Christian forum. (She still identifies as an Evangelical Christian.) She had spent years researching the information she shared. But because her point of view was different than a majority of the readers and commenters, she was met with:

“You ignorant dbags are treating a sin like it’s something they are born with…Please pull your heads out of your butts and actually talk to God and read his book.”

“You are a ‘Christian’ but you believe people are born gay? So you believe in science over our creator?”

Dr. Richard Beck describes this defensiveness as “Terror Management.” He wrote that when religious people “feel existentially vulnerable” they “respond by reinvesting in, defending, and shoring up…cultural worldviews (the source of our meaning in life). These defensive responses, collectively called ‘worldview defense,’ have been measured in a number of ways, from denigrating outgroup members to harshly punishing those who violate our cultural norms.”

In other words, when the very core of someone’s existence is called into question, it leaves him or her feeling exposed. The natural response is to cling even tighter to those intrinsic beliefs and lash out at the person, or group, threatening to challenge them.

There is something about questioning one’s core beliefs that is unnerving. Someone likened it to being a stray dog with a broken leg, perhaps one that is not well socialized. When you try to help the dog, he bites at you because he is in a vulnerable situation. Dr. Beck quotes Freud as saying; “The believer will not let his belief be torn from him, either by arguments or by prohibitions.”

As a society, we’re seeing religious defensiveness play out particularly in response to equal rights for LGBT people and gay marriage. The notorious Alabama’s Chief Justice, Roy Moore, said in an interview, “Our rights do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.” In spite of the interviewer’s in depth knowledge of the legal system, Judge Moore would not, or perhaps could not, see the situation from any other point of view. His defensiveness short-circuited his ability to reason and this otherwise intelligent man was incapable of engaging in a thoughtful conversation. (See the 25 minute interview here.)

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Dr. Joseph Burgo noted one of his favorite therapists’ thoughts on defensiveness as “lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings.” He went on to say, “What makes them so difficult for us to recognize [them in] ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain.”

Do religious people not truly believe what they preach? Not necessarily. However, where there is faith, there is at least some level of doubt. For Christian fundamentalists, for example (of which I was a part), the belief that the Bible is the Word of God and contains all truth, leaves many unanswered questions. It presents an angry God who, on one hand, says His love is everlasting, but, on the other hand, if you don’t accept it, will send you into a fiery hell for all eternity. Theologians and Christian apologists have built complex explanations and word plays to account for the Biblical discrepancies, but even people with the strongest of faith feel something is off.

Many of the more “evangelistic” religions use this defensiveness as a way to deputize their followers. Rather than sitting around questioning the outright authority of the faith, their job is to win people “into the Kingdom” through Coercion, threats, or force. We see this currently happening with ISIS. However, it is also a part of Christianity’s history. Interestingly enough, when President Obama pointed this out, the religious right who dismissed the horrific murders and crimes against humanity in the name of God verbally assaulted him. (See Religious News Service; Was Obama right about the crusades and Islamic Extremism?) Denial is easier than justifying incongruences of the faith.

Unfortunately, changing one’s worldview is a difficult process, even in light of mentally conflicting information. We need to look no further than the U.S. congress to see a battle over ideologies, each side believing they are right and the other is wrong. Gridlock ensures that no one gets anywhere and nothing changes. Indeed, defensiveness is not found only in those who hold strong religious beliefs.

I’ve always found it ironic that those who believe in an all-powerful God work so diligently to silence those who don’t. What they can’t do through evangelism and prayer, they accomplish through political action committees and legislation. True religion doesn’t need defending. What’s true can stand on its own.

Photo – Flick/David Wise

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