This is the point of view of one who has been religious but has lost faith in organized religion (not necessarily in God.) Every once in a while I encounter a Christian who’s so frickin’ happy it makes my teeth ache. (The last two cases were both female, so I’m seeing a composite female in my mind.)
She wants to talk about Jesus. But she wants to talk about Jesus in a vague and emotionalistic way, as if her emotions are concrete facts that prove something. I have a word for people who do this, whether about Jesus or about anything else: nincompoop.
I may be unusual in this regard: I despise religion but not God. There are militant atheists who hate religion, and more tolerant atheists who take a live-and-let-live attitude toward religion. And there are atheists who say atheism is just a lack of belief, implying that agnosticism is just a subtype of atheism. I’ve never heard anyone who self-identifies as agnostic say that, which makes me wonder. But that can wait for another time. My complaint about religion is it gets in the way when I try to connect with God. It simply doesn’t work as advertised, and complicates life while it wastes my time. So organized religion is one thing I have little respect for and no use for.
Something I have even less respect for is emotionalism, the idea that feelings are valid in themselves. This one takes some explaining. It’s not simply that I sneer at the Wojak types and all their Feelz – although I sort of do. I accept that emotions are information, and it would be stupid to ignore so much information. And I take evolutionary psychology somewhat seriously, so I accept that emotions mean something. But the signpost is not the destination, the map is not the territory, and the evidence is not the solution. This is the crucial distinction the nincompoop fails to grasp. Wojak doesn’t see his feelings as something to be analyzed. He sees them as proof of whatever notions he attaches to them. It’s epistemically imbecilic.
These two things I can do without. Put them together in one person, very sweet and likable, but… dammit. And because she’s so sweet and likable I really don’t want to hurt her feelings. Because her feelings are all she’s got. It would be cruel. I prefer to save my cruelty for truly awful people, of whom there are plenty out there.
Don’t tell me she’s got Jesus to fall back on. The thing she calls Jesus is (as far as I can make out) a pastel-colored blur in her mind and a warm fuzzy in her heart. The radical from Nazareth who chewed out the Pharisees and spoke in riddles to his disciples is alien to her.
Don’t tell me she knows something I don’t, that her faith is real. I’ve been in religion, and I’ve had a good long look behind the curtain. What’s behind there is not God. No, it’s not even a lie in the usual sense. Not a fraud or a swindle, but something more pathetic: it’s plain old human nature trying to be something more, and failing. It’s earnestness and good intentions and flop sweat. You can’t even hate it. You can only pity it.
And she won’t drop the subject. There’s a lot I could say, but I don’t want to say it. I need to get her off this subject or it’s going to get ugly.
It gets worse. She starts throwing Bible verses at me, out of context. It’s always out of context with these types. The Bible is way above most people’s reading level, but it’s got so many verses you can find any sequence of words you want in there, and context be damned. It’s all Bible codes and motivated reasoning.
And this opens up possibilities. See, I know the Bible. And I know it in a way she doesn’t. No, I’m not talking about those Bible contradiction games the atheists love. That sort of thing is just childish, in a nerdy sort of way. I’m talking about what I call the context game. What I do is this: first I say “are you sure that means what you think it means?” Then I read aloud the entire passage containing her verse. Make her see it in context. Then I may offer another interpretation, or two, carefully not saying I believe either to be correct but only suggesting them as possibilities. Aside from this I say nothing. Nothing at all.
Note what I’m doing here, and what I’m not doing. I’m not questioning that God is real. I’m not questioning that Jesus saves. I’m not questioning that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. I make no representations either way, except implicitly to cede all these for the sake of argument. All I question is whether she correctly understands what the Bible says.
This is not an attack on her faith in the Divine. I’m not interested in attacking that. Again, my quarrel is not with God as such. What I’m attacking is her faith in herself and her specific interpretations and her precious religious feelings. I have decoupled the doctrine of her faith from the emotional aspect.
She looks flummoxed. She looks like she’s trying to think, as if she’s sensing that she’s out of her depth. Maybe she even suspects she’s been out of her depth since she first cracked open the Bible, and also that her pastor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Her pastor and her Bible talk leader probably gave her all sorts of proof texts and canned arguments to throw at unbelievers and scoffers, but they gave her nothing at all to counter what I’m throwing at her. Where I’m coming from wasn’t on their maps.
If she’s lucky, they gave her some stuff to counter heretics – that is, denominations other than her own. She might try to use that, but it’s all pretty weak stuff. All I need to say to counter most of it is “that doesn’t really make sense, does it?” If I wanted to twist the knife in, I could say “are you sure your church isn’t the heretical one?” But I don’t want to twist the knife in.
Yes, I’ve hurt her – but only a little. To put a bandage on that boo-boo, I say something or other that expresses a deep respect for God, for Jesus and for the Bible, all in a suitably vague and general sense.
At this point, she’s willing to drop the subject. Which is what I wanted all along.