Friday, May 23, 2008

I, Robot

Jon, over at Evangelical Agnosticism provided me with a vivid flashback from my years in Christian youth groups—the Revival.

Every so often, at least yearly, we would have a special speaker come in for a week-long session of Bible study. The speaker was touted as being especially designed for teenagers, with the appropriate accolades regarding all the places he (sorry—no females allowed) had been, or how many lives he had touched, or the size of the venues in which he had spoken.

Most of these came and went with nary a response. A shrug. A “meh.” Back to our life routines. Once in a while—once in a great while—we would have one cause Revival! How or why no one could explain. Perhaps it was on mere teenage whimsy.

At every occasion there was such a speaker you could count on one or two teens feeling the renewal of the spirit, and stepping forward with a sparked interest of re-dedicating their life to Christ. It was always the same two teens. And they went back to being the same people in a matter of days. However, when Revival happened, after the standard teens went forward, more and more and more would pour in the aisles, going up front, confessing their sins, and getting back on the high for Jesus.

One such revival happened when I was in 8th or 9th grade. I hate programmed emotional response. I dislike doing things simply because the crowd about me does it. And I knew that was exactly what this was—an emotional compulsion, with a fear of exclusion. It is one thing when one teenager goes forward and 59 stay in their seats. But when 40 go forward, all of a sudden the 20 left are the minority. The ones being left out.

The worst thing for a teenager is to be “left out.” There is some sort of balance, undetectable, when the impetus swings the other way. When it goes from “those going forward are ‘left out.’” to “those staying behind are ‘left out.’”

We weathered the sobbing, the confessions, the prayer groups, the exclamations, the vows, and the speaker moved on to the next town—pleased to add one more notch to his accolades. (Do I need to say we all returned to our normal teenage selves within a week? I do not.)

The following Sunday, right before the service, our Pastor approached me (He was the father of one of my best friends.)

Pastor: I hear you kids had quite a week of revival.
Me: Uh…yeah. I guess so.
Pastor: I want you to speak to the crowd. Tell ‘em what happened. Tell ‘em how your life has changed because of this week.

My palms went instantly sweaty. I hadn’t gone forward. I hadn’t been part of the sobbing, etc. The Pastor presumed I must have been. (Who wouldn’t want to be part of a Revival? Who would want to be “left out”?) But this was my Pastor. My friend’s dad. An adult I saw at least 3-5 times a week!

Me: [gulp] O…….kay….. [gulp]

Now I had about 10 minutes to think up something to say. Part of my problem is that I wasn’t that bad of a kid. I didn’t have much to confess. I didn’t go to movies; I didn’t play cards; I didn’t cheat; I didn’t have the teenage political power to do any of the cool things the cool kids did; I didn’t drink alcohol. No smoking, no pot, no drugs. Heck, I didn’t wear blue jeans!

I hadn’t murdered, I hadn’t pillaged a village. The closest thing I had come to sex was being repulsed by my girlfriend for daring to attempt to French kiss her.

One thing you must know—despite these teenagers being in the throws of emotional ecstasy, and the competition to confess sins—we were smart enough to not confess too much or too little. Confessing to not putting money in the offering plate which your parents had given you was…too minimal. Confessing to stealing money from the offering plate would forever brand you as a thief. You might get away with something in-between--confessing swiping a candy bar from a store. (But you had to follow up with how it made you feel so guilty, you didn’t enjoy a single bite and threw away half of it, and later went back to the store and put money in the jar for homeless kids to make up for it.)

You never confessed to sex. The closest thing we would hear might be someone saying they went “too far” with their girlfriend/boyfriend. The term “too far” was never explicitly defined, nor examined, and was left for the hearer’s imagination as to what “too far” could possibly mean. Never confess to pornography. Serial murders read pornography. You’d be slapped into a mental institution so fast your head would spin.

Okay to confess to alcohol/smoking if you say only did it once. And didn’t like it. Not good to confess to anything harder than that. Even pot might result in drug rehab.

So we all played this little role of confessing “correctly”—enough so we could see it was a “real” change in the person’s life—not enough to land you in any permanent or serious trouble. Cussing was a good middle ground, too.

I now had about five minutes to come up with some “safe” middle ground that the audience would cluck their tongues disapprovingly, yet not permanently ostracize me. What to say; what to confess to? Poor “Rock ‘n Roll” got the chop. I found myself, at age 13 or 14, standing in front of what seemed like a terrifying audience of 1-2 Billion people (probably 250 or so), confessing to listening to the “devil’s music” and vowing to never do so again.

The people simultaneously frowned in disapproval for the sin while nodding their heads in approval for the repentance (an art we master), and I had managed the gauntlet. Not too much sin; not too little. Goldilocks and I had found “Juuuust Right.”

Obviously I went right back to listening to Rock ‘n Roll (careful, kiddies. In my day this meant the Bee Gees. Perhaps that WAS the devil’s music!), which was not a difficult feat, considering I never gave it up. One particular parent hounded me for years—reminding me how I had stood up in front of the whole church and vowed to never listen to that awful music, and why was I listening to it now?

How does one say they felt coerced into confessing something? One doesn’t.

Yet as we continued to grow up out of the teenage years…we didn’t. Even as adults, the sins being shared were in that safe middle ground. No one confessed to having an affair (even though we knew it was happening.) No one confessed to stupid little sins like flipping off the driver who cut us off.

We picked safe middle grounds. “Impure thoughts”—undefined, unexplained, but universally understood. “Not being loving enough”—again, safe. Like robots, we never showed too much emotion, never showed too much error, certainly never showed too much sin.

The ones who never confessed to gossip (but should have) would have a field day if we dared confess to anything horrible.

And we have developed of generation of “middle sin” Christians. Christians who never commit the gross atrocities, but never solely sin the light ones. It has become accepted practice for Christians to accept other Christians who are committing these “middle sins.” As if this is what a de facto Christian is—a robot with some minor malfunctions which occasionally need tinkering.

Do you know why people cannot tell the non-theists in the crowd? Because for so long Christians have acted like humans there IS no difference. Just like Christians, we atheists commit these “middle sins.” Sure there is an occasional non-theist who commits an atrocity. Sex as a teenager. So, too, Christians. An occasional non-theist who is better than most. So, too, Christians.

The failure of Christianity does not stop at the lack of proof. The failure of Christianity is confirmed by the lack of moral difference. With or without a god-belief; we look the same.


  1. Great post! Wow, you nailed it - the whole 'middle ground safe Christian' experience in a nutshell - a pseudo reality was created if you will.

    Christians are some of the most judgmental people because their faith teaches them to not handle this urge in a 'good way'. So we get stuck with people who say little to nothing about repairing relationships torn by real problems (ie: adultery). And pastors that don't know how to deal with real life.

    I saw this when I was in church and my best friend committed adultery - and I didn't like it. I couldn't say much - I was trying to bed the friend. But the church blew this thing out of the water and made a mess of it. They excommunicated someone - kicked her out - I was like 'that's harsh'. Meanwhile, my friend married and working through the problems was left quite alone on the issue (being one of the guilty parties in the whole thing). I was fairly sickened by what I saw - it was church politics in full swing and they expended the person with 'no family in the church'.

    The whole ordeal was never solved and it showed the weakness of the pastor to deal with something 'real and messy'...he took an easy way out. He got used to 'safe sins' also and one real sin came to his door - one person played scapegoat for the rest. Makes sense though - considering the theology of judgment the church wields.

    I see that in your story also - this coercion tactic and fake reality people push themselves into. I have sensed the church is a lot about 'peer pressure' - even faith articles were 'voted on'. That's rather dumb when you think about it - if it is true - we really wouldn't need the vote.

    It's also my qualm about church - the rigid acting going on - some of it is legit - most of it is for the 'perpetuation of the on-going show'.

  2. I hate programmed emotional response.

    I agree. Religious excitement is very deceptive.

    Have you read "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James?

  3. I never quite understood the need to confess to sins in front of other people. Growing up Catholic initially, I can remember being in a similar position - trying to figure out exactly which sins I was going to have "committed" when confessing to the priest. Never liked priests.

    Fast forward a couple years to a generic Christian church, and I found that instead of the one-on-one confession I had to deal with group confessions within the youth group. Much like your speech in front of "a billion" people, this was designed to show everyone around you exactly how special you were. The kids that would light up as soon as they were out of visual range always had the most to say, often looking down on those of us who were most hesitant to share.

    The tactic has its positive and negative points, though, depending upon your outlook on the subject. The church continues to shame its members and give them a need to return on a weekly basis. If overused (or used against a really stubborn subject) the opposite can happen. The church is put in the position of bullying its members and drives them away.

  4. Technically isnt "Christian" a term of derision? Jesus was talking to people. And now, as it was then, we're all a little Whacked. ;)

  5. DaGoodS,
    I have a good friend from my Christian days - one of the few who knows the full extent of my de-conversion. We had a discussion the other day about miracles, where she claimed that the greatest miracle God performs today is the transformation of the lives of the Christian convert. This is also the same girl who has a small note to herself pinned on her desk that says something like, "I should live in such a way that people see Jesus greater in my life than myself".

    She is a sweet girl, but I gotta tell you.. she is self-deluded. Because outside of her occassional GodTalk, she acts and conducts her life no different than any other sweet girl her age.

    It is just bizarre to think that she actually believes it is only by the miraculous and transforming power of God Almighy that she is a decent human being.

  6. I did chuckle when reading this, since we Presbyterians are famous as the "Frozen Chosen". I prefer to think that we treat a worship service as one would an audience with the Queen (our doctrine is built around the sovereignty of God, after all).

    We always feel incredibly awkward when faced with situations like you described. And growing up in Georgia surrounded by Baptists and Pentecostals, I faced it much more often than I would have liked.

  7. HeIsSailing!

    How are you? I think about you a bit. Don’t pop over to much anymore. Our paths of deconversion always seemed so similar…

    Odd once you are out to see how little difference there is, huh? What we thought (and were taught) was such a clear demarcation between “flesh” and “spirit” or “righteousness” and “the world” becomes an obvious self-label more than an actual difference.

    I hope all is going well with you.

  8. Jim Jordan,

    No, I haven’t read it. Anything in it that is particularly interesting to catch our attention? Thanks.


    Odd. We always thought of ourselves, the Baptists, as the “Frozen Chosen.”

  9. Aw, hell, no! You guys are the noisy ones! We faint at the mere mention of "dunking" or "altar call"!

    Couple asides:

    There's a wonderful book (may be out of print) called O Ye Jigs and Juleps, a collection of essays written by a young girl from Leesville, Virginia, about 90 years ago. They're hysterical, especially with her discussions on the Religions of Leesville (Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and "Holly Rollers"). Her Episcopal church was next door to the Baptists. She relates in an essay on being ladylike that the Episcopals sing very proper hymns that talk about ladylike things like crowning the King of Kings, but that the Baptists were always singing loudly about plunging around in a bloody fountain drawn from Emmanuel's veins--nothing ladylike about that. Once she had a sore finger and used the cotton from it to stuff in her ear on the side closest to the Baptists, but her mother scolded her and made her take it out.

    Another old Southern joke: "Do you believe in infant baptism?" "Believe in it? Hell, I've even seen it done!"

  10. Thanks DaGoodS - yes our de-conversion paths do seem very similar. I don't post at any more (I am listed as an ex-contributor), and rarely visit the fabulous Internet anymore either. The Internet and blogging sites were there for me during the tumultuous two years or so that it took to adjust to a life without Christianity. Now that I am more comfortable with my new outlook in life, I am spending more time away from the ol’ computer. But I still browse around the old sites every now and again.

  11. Fly, That book is available at for 8 cents. here. I'm going to buy it. Thanks for the tip.

  12. Coming from a religious tradition (Judaism) that doesn't do the whole public confession thing, this whole thing sounds so incredibly dysfunctional at so many levels it isn't funny. The idea of pressuring people to go up and tell an audience what they did wrong... of course you aren't going to get genuine details.