Monday, October 27, 2014

Moral Midgetry

The defenders of slavery relied on the Bible. The Bible was the real auction block on which every negro stood when he was sold. I never knew a minister to preach in favor of slavery that did not take his text from the Bible.
—Robert G. Ingersoll, Interview in The Denver Republican (1884).
Slave Shackles  [Flickr page]

On a Sunday evening in October 2014, a kind and decent man sat at the pulpit of a Minnesota Laestadian church before a bunch of kind and decent people and asked for God to open His word during their services. The grace of Jesus Christ is a gift that gives perspective to all things in life, he noted in his mild midwestern voice during two minutes of prayerful conversation with the Heavenly Father.

Then it was time to read from God’s Word. The sermon text was the entirety of a “very beautiful letter” of the New Testament, the Epistle to Philemon. This letter was supposed to have accompanied an escaped slave, Onesimus, back to his Christian master Philemon. It requested that Philemon treat the runaway as he would treat Paul himself, charging any wrongdoing to Paul’s account instead of the slave’s.

This text came to mind, the preacher said, because it fit in with the theme for that Sunday: the commandment of love. A haze of peaceful familiarity settled over the proceedings as the preacher’s words about love and grace rang out in the room. And then he started talking about slavery:

But it so happened that this Onesimus departed—left, fled—his post as a slave or as a servant. Of course, we have our own history in our country with slavery that goes back to the time of the Civil War. None of us knew that time, but it was a reality in our country, and has been a reality in many, many areas of the world through the world’s history.1

A reality, yes, and a horrible one. Where was this headed?

In many “worldly” churches—the ones whose pastors fifty years ago had stood arm in arm with protesters against fire hoses and snarling dogs, asking for equality and dignity—the listeners would sit contentedly, knowing they were starting on an uplifting trajectory. In some of those sanctuaries, their ride would be smooth and steady, the brotherhood of all men quietly affirmed by the time they all walked with polite little smiles toward the exits and their separate lives. In other places with words like “Full Gospel” and “Holiness” on the signs outside, the listeners would brace themselves in roller-coaster pews, knowing that they were all ratcheting slowly upward toward a climax of indignation and then wave after wave of praise and pleas for justice and eventual deliverance from this vale of tears.

But those things do not happen in Laestadian services. What happened was the preacher saying slavery indeed had been a reality “and it was acceptable in the time.”

Acceptable to whom? Not to the slaves, one would imagine, or to that Jesus character who said you should do unto others as you would have done unto you.2 But it was certainly acceptable to those who claimed ownership of other human beings. And to the Roman ruling elite whose grudging favor was being courted by the guys writing Gospels and Epistles of this new Christian religion, slavery was an indispensable part of the system.3 Proper moral stories had to be told, a delicate political line had to be walked, or all bets were off for this emerging competitor to the Roman gods.

None of that was discussed in the sermon, nor could it be even if the preacher privately appreciated such nuances. The text was set firm and black and durable on the gilt-edged page that lay open before him, bound tight with all the rest of its pages written by a hundred nameless men but really, We Believe, by God Himself. Human factors, historical factors, simply do not apply to these particular words.

And so the preacher, a fine man who grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood and had recently spoken eloquently about respecting other cultures and people who are different, kept his mouth open while his religion made crazy words come out about slavery:

And, as contrary as it is to our human mind, we see that believing people also had slaves, like this Philemon. And the instruction to God’s Children is: Whatever calling you have been called into, that we would fulfill that calling. God’s word did not give slaves of that time permission to flee their masters. They were possessions, human possessions of people, and so by fleeing you were transgressing the law and the will of your master.

These issues “are too big for us to understand in our time,” he added, perhaps wincing at the ugliness of what he had just left dangling in the air. Better shroud the awful sight from view, add a little of what Daniel Dennett calls the pious fog of modest incomprehension. “But so it was,” the preacher said, and then went on to talk about “something great that had happened in the life of Onesimus,” his conversion to the religion of his slave master.

Poor Onesimus, not yet a Believer, might have had a pang of “conscience over the fact that he fled his master.” We can imagine, the preacher said, “that Paul would have told him that it’s not acceptable that you do this, that you flee from your master.”

The sin, you see, was not on the part of the man who presumed to own another person as a slave, who forced a fellow human being into servitude and treated him as property. Rather, the one who needed repenting was the slave escaping captivity. By fleeing his master, “he did wrong to Philemon.”4 But, happily, Onesimus repented and became one of God’s Children. The sermon then turned to weightier matters, eventually touching on the recent Ministers’ and Wives camp where concerns about contraception, school sports, and certain types of jewelry had been discussed.

———

Is there any rational voice loud enough to be heard in a place where such a sermon is taken seriously? Is there a message clear enough to penetrate such profound isolation from the very basics of human decency? I browse through my catalog of words, deliberate over my tidy and efficient combinations of words, and my sentences are as frail little twigs poking against a concrete dam.

The people who sat and listened politely to this sermon are educated and intelligent. They work and function and raise children in a civilized society of the year 2014. They have smartphones in their pockets and purses. They bid on contracts and buy cereal when it is on sale and consult with teachers about how their children are doing in school.

But what a thick wall of devotion encloses their otherwise functional minds when the preachers start talking! It is an environment designed to suffocate all independent thought, and does so with marvelous effectiveness. It so completely blocks anything said from “the world”—no matter how clearly written or loudly shouted—that people with tender consciences remain sitting in their pews while a man tells them about the need for submission to the ownership of human beings as property.

I give the preacher credit, at least, for not sugarcoating or avoiding the reality of his chosen text. Perhaps a few of his listeners might consider, if nothing else, what some other parts of the Bible have to say about slavery.

Exodus 21 provides God’s Children (you know, those “Old Covenant believers”) with detailed instructions on slave ownership. They could force one of their own people into slavery, so long as freedom was made available after six years. But if one of those Believing masters had supplied his Hebrew slave with a wife during that time, neither the wife nor any children they had together could leave with him. They were the master’s property, the result of his divinely approved slave breeding program.

Only if “the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man’” could he remain with them, in permanent servitude that was marked by a hole punched in his ear.5 Thus the system twisted the bonds of ordinary family love into chains around its victims’ wrists. It reminds me of the way cult-like religions keep their troubled followers within the walls. Sure, you can leave, they say. Everyone is free to believe or not believe. But your family stays with the Master, and the relationship between you will never be the same again.

God’s unchanging, eternal Word makes some further provisions for when “a man sells his daughter as a female slave.” Yes, his daughter. She “is not to go free as the male slaves do” after the six years are up. Not unless the new master first explores his three additional options: to get a refund on the merchandise (“he shall let her be redeemed”), to pass her off to his son, or, if “he takes to himself another woman,” to keep feeding, clothing, and screwing the slave as well.6

Slaves could get beaten, but not to death. At least not immediately. “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”7

Those who adopt such madness as the Word of God forfeit all credibility about matters of morality. When they shrug and accept the idea of people being consigned as chattel in the forced service of others—because an ancient Book says so—you can ignore their proclamations about right and wrong. When they tell you that it is human reasoning that makes you hesitate to join them in their conclusions, you may rightly suspect everything else you are hearing from them as nonsense.

And when they preach about a Heavenly Father who approved slavery but frowns on kids playing sports at school or desperate mothers slowing their endless floods of pregnancies or young women putting jewelry in their ears, you might consider what kind of company you are keeping.

———
“Moral Midgetry” was also the title of Episode 8 in Season 3 of HBO’s TV program The Wire. My watching that program is of course a sin, unlike the enslavement of human beings in the ancient world. I am wracked with guilt.

Notes


  1. I am reluctant to give a citation for these quotes because I think this preacher really is a good and loving person, far better than the doctrines he is called to preach. But a defense of slavery is just not something I’m willing to let go unchallenged. Nor will I critique it without leaving a reference to the source that people can check out for themselves. As of this writing, the sermon is available here, and this first portion of interest starts at the 9:45 mark. Today’s writing has saddened me. But I feel a moral imperative of my own, no less urgent than the stirrings of the Spirit that drive these guys to say often fine but sometimes outrageous things. 

  2. Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:35-40. See Wikipedia’s article on the Great Commandment

  3. Ever wonder why the Gospel of John goes on so much about “the Jews,” in that faintly menacing tone? It was written late, long after Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and lost patience with its Jewish subjects. Christianity was trying to distance itself from its Semitic roots and doing its best at political ass-kissing. The fourth version of its hero’s history pointed the finger of blame about the crucifixion in a convenient direction, away from the Romans who were the ones routinely ordering and carrying out brutal executions of insurrectionists. 

  4. So, apparently, did the Israelites cheat Pharoah of his due when they escaped from Egypt. Oops, never mind—that time, God was on the side of the slaves. 

  5. Exodus 21:2-6. Scripture quotations taken from the NASB

  6. Exodus 21:7-11. 

  7. Exodus 21:20-21. 

 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Neighbor Encounters

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And [the lawyer] said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
The Gospel of Luke
Finally got a print of this to the homeowner  [Flickr page]

My first stop on this evening’s brief walk was to a house I’ve gone past many times since taking a picture of it last winter. It’s a beautiful old place. Christmas lights lining the edges of its front porch windows put a nice sharp border on them. A sodium-vapor street lamp suffused the fresh snow with an amber glow. Blue-gray clouds hung low in the night sky behind it all, lit up by stadium lights at the school nearby.

I’d been wanting to give whoever lives there a print of that picture, and tonight I did. The homeowner was quite happy to get it, thanking me several times and saying how nice it looked. I thought so too, I said, and we wished each other a good night. Then I continued my walk, toward another house in the neighborhood.

This was the home of a good Samaritan who had found something of ours with enough identification on it to give us a call. I rang the doorbell and a woman about my age answered, holding a baby. He was a cute little guy, at that perfect age where they are light and round and eager to smile about nothing. After identifying myself, I surprised the woman and me both by asking if I could hold him for a minute.

“It’s been a while since I’ve held one this small,” I said. She thought about it for a second and then handed him over. I stood there for a while, bouncing a stranger’s baby in my arms, looking in at the warmth of her home and hearing the racket of little voices in the background. I said, “Would you like to guess how many I have?”

There were other young faces appearing now, along with her husband who had called me about my missing stuff. Somebody guessed, “Seven?”

“Nope,” I said. “Go higher.” I handed the baby back.

The woman was surprised and pleased at this development. She had thirteen, she said, and it was nice to meet somebody who had a big family, too. Finally, after a couple more guesses, edging upward and then overshooting the mark, my own statistic was revealed: eleven kids.

We talked for a while, the bunch of us standing at their threshold with the pleasant air of an Indian summer evening leaving everybody indifferent about the door hanging open. There was a blur of little bodies whizzing back and forth pushing toy trucks on the wood floor. Smiling faces everywhere. It’s a beautiful family, I told them, and meant it. We compared notes, touching on highlights of experiences that the other would understand.

I told them about when I’d seen a red-headed guy with his line of red-headed offspring following behind in the aisle of a Wal-Mart. A bunch of stuff was stacked on pallets in between us, so he didn’t notice me and my own crew of little followers as he made his way toward the auto parts and sporting goods. I looked over and said, in that loud rude voice I’d heard many times myself, “Look at all those kids! And they’re all so young!” He turned to glare at me, and then saw me smiling with all my kids standing right there, and he laughed.

These neighbors of mine did, too, and then they shared a story of their own, as Jesus looked at us all from a painting hanging on the wall behind them. I gave them my phone number—again, as they hadn’t kept it once they got hold of me—along with my address down the street, and invited them to call.

I think they just might. Who knows; perhaps we will get together sometime and enact one of those chaotic Sunday afternoon scenes that were so familiar in my life. Two big piles of kids merge at the front door in a cloud of chaos and then pairs of them go off to play or swap stories in the barracks downstairs. Meanwhile, the four parents try to sit and talk.

Our home doesn’t have any crosses or religious pictures on the walls. No Bibles sit on our shelves anymore, stuffed with Sunday School homework papers that will remain untouched until the drive to church next week. I hope that absence wouldn’t trouble them, any more than their Jesus portrait bothered me. Whether they believe like I did for many years or like I do now, people are valued here just the same.

Welcome, neighbor.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Getting Out

“Relax,” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!”
—The Eagles, Hotel California
The world beyond the gate. Can you make that first step and keep going?  [Flickr page]

I spent the first forty-odd years of my life in a fundamentalist Christian sect that considers itself “God’s Kingdom,” the exclusive repository of grace on this earth after 2,000 years of Christianity. Leaving it was one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done.

Conservative Laestadianism attracts few converts and retains fewer still of those, with the notable exception of some vibrant missionary activity in Africa. In Finland—where most of its 100,000 or so adherents reside—and in North America, almost all new members arrive at the maternity ward. There are plenty of them, since birth control is frowned upon.

The church safeguards the souls of its new arrivals by instilling into their small brains its doctrines and all the nuances of a uniquely closed and controlling subculture. Its own survival is at stake. These are the innocent little lumps of fresh clay that this religion, like so many others, molds and shapes into the soft living stones of its shaky spiritual house.1

A substantial portion of them last through early adulthood, until young marriages can start producing their own fresh batches of new members. The cycle continues anew, as it must. These blocks of flesh and blood wear out, sometimes even slip away, and must be replaced if the structure is to stand.

———

Until recently, it was very rare for anyone beyond their twenties to walk away from this “living faith.” The few cases I’d heard about were older singles who despaired of having their nets come up empty in a stagnant little pond of church-approved prospects, and a few spouses who had been faced with or created problems in their marriages. Then a friend of mine left the church, staying happily married and with kids, for reasons that focused on the church itself. That sort of thing just did not happen once you reached a certain age.

Then it happened to me, too, and my wife. And now it has been happening to quite a number of people, both in Finland and North America. Even more than the open defections, there seems to be a lot of private grumbling, questions no longer so easily tamped down. Pressure slowly and silently builds inside the minds of troubled believers—sermon after sermon, baby after baby—and the familiar preaching of forgiveness for “sins and doubts” no longer seems to provide much relief.

But the believing brain can withstand a lot of pressure. Those who make it through all those years of indoctrination and cozy familiarity—of family, friends, and social setting—have strong containers in their heads to keep it all bottled up. Sundays pass, more children are born and taught sound doctrine, and for every person who manages to leave, there are probably a dozen who want to but do not.

Pine Droplets and Webbing  [Flickr page]

A Finnish correspondent who did manage to leave describes a web of stuff that he had to cut through before he could finally set himself free. The first strand of it is social dependence.

“My whole life I have been ‘rooted into God’s Kingdom,’” he says. That made him “almost completely dependent on this religious community.” He was taught that most of his “friends should be ‘other believers,’ meaning other Laestadians,” and spent his childhood being brought to services, church camps, Sunday schools, Bible classes, and church youth activities. Molding and shaping the clay.

There was plenty of time for it. He was kept from the “‘worldly’ leisure activities that non-Laestadian kids attend.” No team sports at school, no dances, no TV or movies.

Next is moral dependence. There was little emphasis on any individual conscience. Rather, he was taught about a “community conscience: An individual may be erring but ‘God’s congregation’ cannot.” From childhood, he had been told

that ministers and Laestadian publications are God’s Word. When they say that God is Almighty, and that he doesn’t want us to use birth control, that he tortures the disobedient people infinitely, then I have no other option but to believe. I have also been warned that I can’t make decisions based on my own opinions and thoughts, because I should ask the congregation for advice.

He was also made spiritually dependent on Laestadianism. His “own will and conscience” was “crushed and replaced with a gospel”—a formulaic preaching of absolution central to Laestadian doctrine and practice—“that only this community can provide.” Laestadians preach “the gospel” often, regular believers in private conversation and ministers from the pulpit: Your sins are all forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood.2 My correspondent was

taught by these minister-gods that I get my sins forgiven by the absolution gospel. If I don’t go to Laestadian services, I won’t hear this sermon and the gospel, and therefore I remain a prisoner in sin. And if I remain a prisoner in sin and die in such condition, I will be condemned to eternal perdition and torture.

Light at the End of the Tunnel  [Flickr page]

“Wouldn’t a smart individual, living in modern Finland, be able to question these doctrines?” he asks. “Of course, but everything is not always as simple or easy as it may seem.” Indeed not. My own process of questioning and eventually rejecting that same inherited faith compelled me to do a year of full-time research and writing, spending “thousands of hours researching seemingly every aspect of Conservative Laestadian history, doctrine, and practice, plus Christianity in general, plus the Bible and the very nature of God,” as I put it in the resulting 700-page book, An Examination of the Pearl. It was “a labor driven by love, but also by the mental anguish of being unable to avoid questioning a doctrinal system that demands firm confession of belief, on pain of eternal damnation.”

Leaving the faith I had inherited and cherished for 40 years was not an easy thing for me to do. Nor was it for my Finnish correspondent. He “had been made dependent on the community in every possible way.” And when he “started to question a small portion of this doctrine,” he “was immediately faced with the alarm mechanisms in the community.” Structural damage, one of the building blocks is slipping out of place!

He got rebuked and heard about people’s worries that he was on the wrong path. “The community that now pressured me threatened to take away all the good that the community was giving me, if I continued to question these matters” (my emphasis). Because of this threat, he says, “most Laestadians don’t let these questions arise even in their own minds: They stifle these thought processes immediately, and ask for their sins and doubts forgiven like they have been taught to do at services.”

Now he happily reports that he’s been able to build a social life outside the church. The old “Laestadian-based network was getting thinner,” anyhow, because of his questioning things. And he’s noticed that he just doesn’t “need the spiritual nourishment in this community” anymore: “I was able to break free from this dependence and obey my own conscience.”

The church social network doesn’t readily extend far outside its narrow confines, and that’s certainly true among Conservative Laestadians in North America, too. One man who left the LLC (Laestadian Lutheran Church) has managed to stay somewhat attached, though only after dealing with a huge outcry from church friends and family. It was, he says, “one of the most painful experiences I ever went through.” But the “constant badgering only reinforced the thought that I made the right decision.”

After a few months of heated arguments and accusations about not loving family, of hearing about people’s prayers “for me to have restless days and sleepless nights so I would see the condition of my heart,” it finally started to get better. “People must have finally realized that I no longer wanted to remain inside the LLC box.”

The same thing happened to a correspondent from another branch of Laestadianism, the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church. She got “calls, texts, voicemails, old-fashioned letters, and even emails.” (The Internet is mostly a no-no in the OALC.) “A majority of what I received was genuine concern—for my soul, my life, my eternity.” There was some coercion and manipulation there, too, she says, but believes that was done out of concern. “Though it hurt me then, I understood where they were coming from, and still feel the same today. They know only what they know. I think Maya Angelou said, ‘We did then what we knew then, we do now what we know now,’ or something along those lines. That is all that they know, and I pity them for it.”3

There are a lot of religious groups filled with people who “do only what they know” and make life difficult for their friends and family who have learned a bit more. I’d like to give some perspective and encouragement to people facing a difficult path out of their inherited religions—Laestadian and otherwise—by discussing two extreme examples.

The Exclusive Brethren

The first of these is a Protestant Christian sect that holds what Wikipedia calls “an uncompromising ‘separatist’ doctrine.” David Tchappat’s fascinating book Breakout (official excerpt available here) describes the difficult departure he made from their midst. This fascinating half-hour audio interview with the author is highly recommended, especially for troubled Laestadians; you will hear a lot of things that sound weirdly familiar.

Social dependence was certainly a factor for Tchappat. Being “born into the Exclusive Brethren,” he says, “ensured that your small following of fellow churchgoers was your society whether you liked it or not. Having a social circle outside of this was not an option.”4

Journalist Michael Bachelard estimates the number of worldwide members at 43,000, Australia being home to about a third of them.5 Tchappat provides the same estimate, adding, “Almost all growth comes from births, as conversions into the faith are practically unheard of.”6 It is indeed a “small following,” as Tchappat puts it, at least when compared to most Christian denominations. But that’s a matter of perspective; the closed church society in which I grew up has about half as many members in my country as Tchappat had in his.

The Australian TV program A Current Affair recently aired a scathing documentary, twelve minutes of which you can watch online, about what it bluntly calls a “secret cult.” Bachelard describes the Brethren as having erected “a wall between themselves and the outside world.” Since 1960, he says, there has been a rule against “eating, drinking, or socializing with any outsider.” What that means, he says, is “there are no friendships, no social intercourse whatsoever with outsiders, and sect members are encouraged to behave with an air of being impervious to the outside world and aloof from it.”7

A fascinating book

Tchappat refers to his life in the group as a “fishbowl existence.” He fantasized numerous times about leaving it before finally doing so. But that was a daunting prospect: “I knew no one in the outside world and had no idea how to look after myself. Since birth, every decision had been made for me. My life was regulated by rules and laws set in place by the Man of God, which were in turn implemented and policed by the local priests.”8

Some of the prohibitions he lists are the same as those from my own upbringing: marrying outsiders, physical contact before marriage, contraception, TV, hair coloring, make-up, gambling, and attending “anything that could be deemed as fun or entertainment.” As I did in my childhood Laestadianism, it seems Tchappat felt an urge to confess any infractions of all those rules: “After church when the rest of my family had gone to bed, and my dad was tidying the kitchen, I approached him and told him I had to speak with him. He shut the kitchen door and I immediately broke down, pulling out my list of sins and confessing them to him.”9 And this part sounds uncomfortably familiar, too: “We were told that we were the chosen people and should feel privileged to be born into this group.”10

“It was only the courageous and inquisitive minority that ever dared to leave the Assembly of God,” says Tchappat. That is also true in the Kingdom of God, my old group’s informal self-designation, though the number of defectors is growing surprisingly fast. In my own case, the fear was more of eternal rather than earthly consequences. After many dark and bloody centuries under the Church, secular governments are finally forcing Christianity to leave its exit doors unlocked. But most of them still have the awful eternal threat written in fiery letters overhead. Abandon all hope, they read, in a twist from the words inscribed on Dante’s gates of Hell, you who leave from here.11

According to Tchappat’s account, the Brethren are no exception. More than a year after leaving, he “would wake up in the dead of night dripping with sweat and would dream of the burning pits of hell.” Going back, he thought, “was the only way to avoid eternal punishment.”12 Though “the Brethren do not officially believe that they are the only Godly people,” in modern times, anyhow, Bachelard says they do “believe that those who leave the sect will not be saved.”13

While still in the group, Tchappat had worried about being excommunicated for having sex with his girlfriend. Those in that position fared no better in the eternity department. They were, he says, “described as being worse than people of the world because they had known the light and turned their back on it. It was considered an eternal damnation to die out of fellowship and only the grace of God and forgiveness of the Brethren would redeem such people from the pits of hell.”14 Here is his harrowing description of “massive guilt attacks” he suffered several years after walking away from the group:

I would lie in bed on my days off staring at the ceiling and crying to myself. I was falling apart. I had my [friends] but I could not confide in them about my inner personal turmoil. All my teachings from childhood were coming back to me. I was petrified that I was going to the gates of hell if I did not fall down and repent. I began to read my Bible constantly and could not sleep for fear of dying and entering eternal damnation. I was seriously entertaining the thought of returning to the Brethren. I did not know how I was going to cope with such a life change but I did not care. It was a way of escaping my problems.15

That is some heavy shit. Eternity has a way of messing with people’s heads. But he also describes dire consequences right here on earth, in this brief life, for those who “enter the world” from the Brethren:

If caught planning an escape, the local priests would place them under house arrest along with their families and have them put under assembly discipline, revoking any rights to attend church or socialise with those in the inner circle of the Brethren. Those over sixteen years of age who made it to the outside world without detection, would be ex-communicated and starved of all monetary assistance and family support, forcing them to return or find alternative methods of survival.16

Bachelard’s book is full of tragic stories about family breakups occurring because one spouse was excommunicated from or voluntarily left the group, about parents devoid of contact with their children. Tchappat’s own story is much the same—a final letter he sent was “the last form of contact I would ever have again with my family.” His gripping and sad narrative has an upbeat ending of sorts, though: “There has never been a time in my life where I have experienced such inner peace, happiness and satisfaction as the present day.”17

Islam

One way. You’d better believe it.  [Flickr page]

Leaving the fold is also serious business for the nearly one fourth of the world’s population who are professing Muslims. In addition to social coercion and the prospect of their own version of Hell, there is often a serious threat of physical harm.

Just look at this comment thread on a web forum calling itself “the online Muslim community” to see how real that danger is. Some guy with over 2,000 comments posted at that site states that death is preferable over continued life to people who claim to be of Islam, leave it, and then call others away from it. Presumably, the actual preferences of the apostates themselves are of little consequence. “It’s a mercy,” he says, “for if they continued, their place in hell would be lower, and lower, and lower. We judge law by the belief of an afterlife 100% without a shadow of a doubt. Thus, death is not a ‘bad’ thing if it is done to prevent chaos.”

Another commentator (4,000 posts) clarifies, “The death penalty for apostates is for those apostates that leave Islam then work against Islam in some way.” It’s the same as treason, after all, and the “penalty for traitors throughout history has been death.” Still another commentator (not quite 500 posts) adds, “The apostate should not be put to death until he has been asked to repent three times,” generously allowing him three days to think things over first.

What a disgusting little attempt to defend medieval intolerance and barbarity. And there it is, polished with a veneer of twisted logic, showing up on an Internet discussion forum built by the technology of a more enlightened age. Seeing that sort of thing helps us outsiders appreciate why an American ex-Muslim highly regarded on reddit was moved to post a “Public Service Announcement” warning about coming out. If you are considering telling “your friends and family that you are not a Muslim anymore,” he says, you should only do it if:

  • You are 18+ years of age
  • You are old enough to live on your own
  • You are financially independent from your family
  • You know where to go if you get kicked out
  • You do not live in a religiously conservative country like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.

If even one of these conditions is not met, he adds with sober emphasis,

do not tell anyone you are not a muslim anymore. Seriously. I understand how hard it is to live a lie and to put up with bullshit, but in the end, you are going to have a bad time. This can’t be stressed enough. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read self-posts by young, financially dependent ex-Muslims in Muslim countries that want to do this or have done this and felt deeply worried for them. It’s not a rational decision to make, and it’s not gonna do anyone any good if you end up hurt or even killed over it. Don’t put yourself in danger like that. Believe me, it’s not worth it at all. Please be considerate of your safety and well-being, and don’t be a hero unless you’re fully capable of facing the consequences.

Those consequences are very real for one high school student in Saudi Arabia. I hope he’s been careful about keeping his identity and IP address well concealed when posting to public discussion forums online. Out of an abundance of caution, I will just paraphrase his comment without a link. He hates living in the closet, he says, but coming out to his parents mean that he’ll be shipped off to Mecca to study Islam for the rest of his life or get beheaded. And his parents will grieve about his apostasy. Only if he can become financially independent and move to a country that respects religious freedom will he even consider it.

Reading this stuff does have a way of putting things into perspective. Your family has sent you emails and texts expressing sadness for your soul and offering some self-righteous prayers? You’ve lost most of your oldest and dearest friends? You miss having a place to go see familiar faces every week? Yes, that sucks. But at least you don’t need to worry about being sent to a religious re-education camp or having your head chopped off. Count your blessings.

Heina Dadabhoy

Islamic states are not good places to be when you don’t enthusiastically share the state religion. (Or when you are in the female half of the population, or when you have been accused of a crime, or when you would just like to have a little enjoyment in life, but that’s another blog posting.) These anonymous comments from fearful closeted nonbelievers often express a longing, sometimes even hope, to live in secular countries.

As an American citizen, Heina Dadabhoy had that good fortune, at least, when she told her family she was leaving Islam. They thought she was “turning [her] back on them,” she said in an interview with the New York Times, her parents accusing “her of thinking that she was better than her grandparents and other ancestors.” They “reacted the way they knew how, which was to freak out.” Public defections from the faith are still very rare, and her parents “had never heard of anybody leaving Islam. We were raised with the idea you can’t leave, that nobody can leave. Leaving Islam was something somebody incredibly deranged would do.”18

At a conference a few years ago, I asked Dadabhoy if the fear of Hell is also a factor for those considering leaving Islam. It definitely is, she said. Indeed, you can see the eternal fate of the ex-Muslim spelled out in the Quran itself:

Whoso desireth any other religion than Islam, that religion shall never be accepted from him, and in the next world he shall be among the lost. How shall God guide a people who, after they had believed and bore witness that the Apostle was true, and after that clear proofs of his mission had reached them, disbelieved? … Their recompense, that the curse of God, and of angels, and of all men, is on them! Under it shall they abide forever; their torment shall not be assuaged!19

Moving On

There are countless other examples of the difficulties people experience trying to get out of the religions that were foisted on them at birth. The ones I’ve read in books and on Internet discussion forums are so numerous and compelling that this blog posting would turn into a book of my own if I were to venture too deeply into any of them.

Indeed, even thinking about that makes me recall a whole genre of books about Leaving the Fold. That, for example, is the exact title of both Edward Babinski’s fine collection of stories about people deconverting and Dr. Marlene Winell’s thoughtful guide to doing so.

People are leaving these high-control religious organizations—slowly and at great cost, and often left thinking they are the only ones going through such a difficult process. Many more stay behind, wishing they too were in the right circumstance to leave, biding their time until they can. Here is a brief listing of a few groups I’ve read about, with quotes from former members who have walked away and told their stories. I recommend every one of their gripping, illuminating books.

  • Scientology: “All of a sudden, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. These were things I didn’t have to worry about … a radical thought formed in my head. Because I am not a Scientologist. It felt good to think it, to say it, to scream it. I am not a Scientologist. … If something is wrong, I can say so, honestly and openly, without fear.” —Jefferson Hawkins, Counterfeit Dreams (2012).

  • Non-Denominational Christianity: “When you’re five and contemplating Hell, concepts like ‘proportionality’ exist far out of reach, well beyond climbing range, unknowable. No young child can digest or discern whether such overt sadism is an appropriate punishment for the heinous act of simply being born as a descendent of Adam.” —Seth Andrews, Deconverted (2012).

  • Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity: “I had developed some kind of gag reflex for my brain. I just couldn’t think clearly or objectively about my childhood or my surroundings. I felt like if I acknowledged things done to me in my childhood that were negative, I would be guilty of breaking a great commandment. I would be dishonoring my parents or somehow loving them less. Love entailed a lot of denial.” —Timothy Michael Short, Preacher Boy (2011).

  • The People’s Temple (Jim Jones, thankfully defunct): “When our own thoughts are forbidden, when our questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts and friendships outside of the organization are censored, we are being abused for an end that never justifies its means. When our heart aches knowing we have made friendships and secret attachments that will be forever forbidden if we leave, we are in danger. When we consider staying in a group because we cannot bear the loss, disappointment, and sorrow our leaving will cause for ourselves and those we have come to love, we are in a cult.” —Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison (2010).

  • Evangelical Christianity: “Imagine what it would cost you to give up your faith tomorrow morning; if it is unbearable even to think of it, then you ought to consider how much the cost of leaving your faith is influencing your ability to judge your faith critically and objectively.” —Kenneth W. Daniels, Why I Believed (2010).

  • The Churches of Christ: “I was deprived of showing spiritual compassion to others because I was taught that if they were not in the CoC they were not ‘real’ Christians, and the CoC didn’t seem to have a lot of concern about people who weren’t real Christians in their eyes. I was deprived of the fellowship of my classmates on their religious turf.” —Charles Simpson, Inside the Churches of Christ (2009).

  • Mormonism: “I had been taught early on that the only reliable evidence about the Church—in fact the only evidence at all worth looking at—comes from the Church itself. This evidence can be undeniably confirmed, not through logical, deductive reasoning, but by the emotional feelings we were taught from early childhood to recognize as being from the Holy Ghost.” —Jack B. Worthy, The Mormon Cult (2008).

  • The Jehovah’s witnesses: “[T]he only way out of this dilemma was to acknowledge my feelings and doubts about the organization that I had suppressed for so long, and what it meant that I was having them. But doing so was extremely frightening to me, because trying to face up to my doubts nine years ago only resulted in panic attacks and anguish, which ultimately drove me back into the organization. This time, though, I knew I would have to see it through, as my body would not cooperate with the charade any longer.” —Diane Wilson. Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness (2002).

There is a lot to learn and think about for people who are considering the exhilarating but terrifying possibility of leaving their childhood faith. Are you one of those people? If so, let me offer you my respect and encouragement, whatever you ultimately decide. Even without taking another step, you have allowed yourself the delicious freedom of thinking for yourself, in the privacy of your own brain.

Take your time. The church is right to say that this is the most important matter of your life, even if its own web of dependencies—social, moral, spiritual—is what made things that way. Don’t beat up on yourself for acknowledging how strong that web is. Cut through each strand at your own pace, however slow that is, or not at all.

———

And in the process, if there is still a God in your heart that is the object of your private devotion, give him a little more credit than your hellfire preachers ever will. Would you ever torture anyone, for five minutes, even for some terrible crime? You’re better than that, aren’t you?

How about a child who wandered into your office where she didn’t belong and messed up your papers, and, after being scolded, angrily told you she didn’t love you anymore? Would you throw her little body into a pit of flames and watch the smoke of her torment swirl and rise as you listen to her scream?20 For five minutes?

“What kind of a monster do you think I am?” you say. The thought upsets you, and it should. Think about how slanderous it is against anything remotely resembling a loving God. Or an omnipotent one: A God that could stop such horrors but stands aside, unmoved and doing nothing, is no better than whatever diabolical force you might imagine feeding the fire.

How about five hours? Five days? Let her scream and burn for five long days. Disgusting, isn’t it? How about forever? Unrelenting agony, pain without end, utterly pointless suffering with no hope of relief. And for what? For not knowing better, just like everybody outside the particular group you are thinking about leaving? There is simply no way that anyone—person or God—with the slightest shred of decency could do such a thing.

Whatever else you do, take that awful and impossible idea off of your shoulders and quietly put it down. It is not worthy of another moment’s belief.

Incandescent Forest  [Flickr page]

Step up from your computer, put down your smartphone. Look at your innocent child, look outside. See the blue sky and the green trees and all the good things that you have joyously attributed to your God. Leaving a controlling religious group does not make all of that disappear. There is still wonder, there is beauty, there is joy. And there is a whole lot less guilt and fear.

———
Thanks to Heina Dadabhoy for her photo and the suggestion to “go with the more modern transliteration of ‘Quran’ rather than ‘Koran.’” Also thanks to my anonymous correspondents. Several opined that there have indeed been more departures of late from the SRK, which added to my own impressions about the recent state of affairs in the LLC. I am grateful to the one in Finland who provided an insightful analysis of the various dependencies established by religious groups, and to his able translator. The two in the U.S. have never heard of each other, and come from different groups that call each other heresies, yet they expressed so well the same difficult experience of leaving.
A note of continued appreciation, too, to my dear friend and mentor Robert M. Price, who helped me stay, and then, when I was ready, helped me leave.
I neither have nor claim any inside knowledge about any of the religious groups discussed here except my own former faith, Conservative Laestadianism, and, to some extent, its rival branches. Everything written in this essay about other groups is quoted directly from various published works or publicly available materials. Those who are seriously interested in particular groups should consult the footnotes, read the sources cited as well as the many others available, and form their own opinions accordingly. Those intrigued by Laestadianism may wish to consult the hefty volume I spent a year researching and writing, An Examination of the Pearl, and its 180 or so references.
Click on (most) individual images to enlarge, or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. All except for the cover of David Tchappat’s book and Ms. Dadabhoy’s portrait are Copyright © 2014 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Notes


  1. “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). 

  2. Suominen, Edwin A. An Examination of the Pearl (2012), §4.6.2 (“Forgiveness of Sins” / “The Sole Means of Grace”). Available at Amazon.com and for free online reading at ExaminationofthePearl.org

  3. OALC members are “spiritually dependent” on the proclamation of absolution, too. But the SRK/LLC considers the preaching of forgiveness in the OALC to be just the empty words of “heretics,” without the Holy Spirit behind it. The person proclaiming the absolution needs to be the correct kind of Laestadian for things to work. That raises an interesting dilemma. One correspondent from the LLC says he’d had church friends come to him countless times with serious sins for absolution, and he preached it to them without actually believing himself. According to Conservative Laestadian doctrine, they are, to use a theological term, shit out of luck. 

  4. Tchappat, David. Breakout: How I Escaped From The Exclusive Brethren, New Holland Australia (2011), Amazon Kindle ed., loc. 3213. After being known as the Exclusive Brethren for many years, the group has recently started calling itself the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church

  5. Bachelard, Michael. Behind the Exclusive Brethren, Scribe Publications Pty Ltd (2008), p. 2. 

  6. Tchappat at loc. 3467. Same with my old group, except for 600 or so conversions in Africa over the past decade or so and a handful elsewhere that have stuck around. It’s plenty “exclusive,” too, at least in a spiritual sense. Outside of that one little flock—the correct one of a dozen schismatic branches of a 19th-century revival movement of Scandinavian Lutheranism—you cannot be saved. It’s not a doctrinal tenet that is discussed much in public. 

  7. Bachelard at p. 49. 

  8. Tchappat at loc. 105. 

  9. Tchappat at loc. 300-350, 842. The Brethren seem to go quite a ways beyond even the moral conservatism of Conservative Laestadianism, whose confession expectations have also diminished substantially since I was a kid. Brethren marriages must be pre-approved by their top leader, the “Elect Vessel”? No computers, except, says the documentary from A Current Affair, approved ones purchased from an official Brethren supplier? No domestic pets, including goldfish? The rules make my strict upbringing sound positively libertine. And some of what Tchappat says sounds just bizarre to me: “Cordless telephones and remote control-operated garage doors are also outlawed. Prestige vehicles such as BMWs and Mercedes Benz are not permitted and any vehicle red in colour is banned. Personalised number plates are not allowed and the ownership of a motorcycle is also not acceptable with farmers being the only exception.” Wow. 

  10. Tchappat at loc. 109. In my own former church, I heard a preacher say that giving up “this most precious gift of living faith” is the worst thing a person could possibly do—even worse than murder. It’s an outrageous statement, and not one that most Laestadian preachers would make—at this point, probably not even the one who originally made it. But it does accurately convey the importance Laestadians place on being “God’s Children.” And the punishment for murder is not an eternity of unspeakable torture. 

  11. Those still troubled by the Hell idea might take a look at my December 2013 blog posting on the subject, “Healing from Hell Horror.” 

  12. Tchappat at loc. 2681. 

  13. Bachelard at p. 56. 

  14. Tchappat at loc. 2129. 

  15. Tchappat at loc. 2929. 

  16. Tchappat at loc. 110. 

  17. Tchappat at loc. 2602, 3258. 

  18. Oppenheimer, Mark. Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers. New York Times, May 23, 2014. 

  19. Quran, Sura 3:80 (J.M. Rodwell trans., Ballantine Books, 1993). Liberal apologists for the supposed tolerance of Islam like to toss around another passage that states, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Sura 2:256). Regarding that, one ex-Muslim on reddit cites the passage I quote here and asks, “If there really was no compulsion in religion, then why does Allah not accept those who desire religions other than Islam? The Quran is one big contorted contradictory mess from which nothing consistent is ever going to emerge.” The same can of course be said about the Bible, Old and New Testaments alike. 

  20. “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name” (Rev. 14:11).