By Jennifer Shelton, Owning Pink
Last week, I read Lissa Rankin’s article “Make Love, Not Burned Qurans” on OwningPink.com and started to reply to some of her questions: “Why must we let our faith divide us, rather than unite us? Why can’t you let me believe what I believe, I’ll let you believe what you believe, and we can love each other anyway? Why must we let religion, hatred, and fear get between us and the Divine? If God is love, where is the God in this church? And what are we to do about it?” As I got into my reply, however, I realized I had an entire post inside of me. Here goes.
I was raised as a Southern Baptist in a small Kentucky town. My parents, my sister and I went to Sunday school and church every Sunday morning. We returned to church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. We had week-long “revivals” several times a year, and I always spent at least two weeks in Vacation Bible School every summer. I was quite faithful to my denomination until my 20s. At the moment, I consider myself “spiritual but not religious” but I think I’m the only one in my family who has “left” the church. I feel that I have a unique view of a fundamentalist mindset, both inside and out.
What may seem like hate is based in love
A basic tenet in many Christian denominations is that non-Christians will go to hell when they die. This was the focal point of most of the sermons I heard growing up. This tenet is accepted just as one would accept the law of gravity. I once had a friend ask me why people would choose to believe in a God who would send people to eternal hell fire. For many, this belief is not a choice. It’s just the way things are. My church community firmly believed that it was our responsibility to prevent as many people from going to hell as possible, and they went about trying to convert everyone to Christianity. How did they do this? Through fear. It can be quite the motivator.
As an elementary school child, I sat through sermon after sermon describing the eternal heat of hell fire, the smell, the pain, the thirst, the never ending agony. Sermons ended with questions like, “If you left this church today and died in a car accident, would you go to heaven?” Some preachers would even point directly at people in the pews, make eye contact, and say, “Are YOU saved?” I know this sounds horrible and hateful. But, keep in mind that within this paradigm, our mortal life is just a blip but eternity is well, forever. To leave one person unsaved was just cruel. Yes, the basis of these fear tactics (for most), was concern and love.
“But what’s this got to do with me?”
I’ve had many people ask me why some Christians are so determined to “save” other people. If Christians want to believe this stuff about hell, then fine, but they don’t need to force others to believe it as well. Well, let me tell you a story I used to hear in church growing up –
The preacher would ask us to imagine “Judgment Day.” The angels are going through everyone, casting non-Christians down to hell. The Christians are watching it all. A friend of yours is about to be cast down. But, before he goes to hell, he looks you in the eye and says, “Why, why did you not tell me about this? You could have witnessed to me and you never did.” In this belief system, how could a compassionate human being not try to convert everyone? Is there really “one true religion”? Southern Baptists certainly don’t have the monopoly on believing that there is one true religion, or that failure to follow certain beliefs will lead to eternal punishment. In fact, most religions have concepts of “right” and “wrong,” so logically, it would follow that many religions would consider people who believe differently than them to be wrong. If the religion further believes that the “wrong” people are doomed to eternal torture, then to love all people would be to save all people from this torture.
The Southern Baptists that I know personally very much believe in freedom of religion. They realize it’s why they are free to preach their beliefs, and they wouldn’t want the government interfering. However, it is their duty, as individuals, to convert. (And I feel like I have to add that the churches I know are very involved in other loving acts. The money they collect every week goes towards a food pantry for the hungry, towards helping the unemployed pay their bills and towards a wide range of humanitarian causes.)
So, why this background into the psychology of fundamentalist Christians? Because I think both they and their motives are very misunderstood. I’m not saying we should just tacitly accept or even excuse the behavior of someone like the minister who had planned to burn the Qurans; but in order to have a dialogue about love and compassion, we need to fully understand where a person is “coming from.” Attacking the basis of a person’s religion (in the case of the way I was raised – that non-Christians will go to hell) isn’t going to work.
I remember one of my first papers in college was about Descartes. I told my mother that I was writing about his argument for the existence of God. She went completely pale. Even thinking about questioning a religious tenet was far too risky for her. She’s never even been to any Christian church other than Southern Baptist!
My conversion to “spiritual but not religious”
Honestly, I’m not sure when I left behind my religious upbringing. When I went to college, I visited the churches of many different denominations. One of my majors was political and social philosophy. I stayed in contact with my spiritual side but very slowly, released the dogma. I couldn’t “argue away” my beliefs but I was slowly converted to a different way of thinking (Spirit at work!). I am currently very open to other religions and see how different people need different kinds of belief systems to express their individual spirituality. I no longer believe there is a “right” or “wrong” way to approach God. But, I understand why others are fearful to be that open.
In last week’s post, Lissa asked, “and what are we to do about it?” This is a situation where there is no clear answer, especially when different groups express love and compassion in such very different ways. All I can suggest is that we open our minds a little and try to stand in the shoes of those with whom we disagree. It didn’t happen quickly, but that’s what eventually worked for me.
What is your experience with organized religion? Do you still embrace the beliefs of your childhood, or have they evolved over time?
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Jennifer Shelton is a regular blogger for Owning Pink and has been working in education and consulting for over fifteen years. She is the founder of FemCentral, the Virtual Institute for Women, which just launched fabulous online e-courses on everything from Astrology to Life and Career Counseling. Register for Fall Semester now!
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