Somewhat by accident, this month turned into an exploration of religious abuse and blindness. I found myself reading, watching, and generally thinking about the abuses of religion. An important note: the title of this post is “exploring religious blindness,” not “the blindness of religion.” Unlike many, I don’t believe that all religion is blind and abusive. In fact, I believe that the very best religion offers us a mystical humility, a flexibility of mind, and a passion to defend and speak for the abused.
However, I’ve found myself fascinated by the other side of the coin: how easy it is for religion to gain power, and how easily our minds succome to it.
This month, I read The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall J Stephens and Carl W. Giberson. Written by two evangelical academics, the book explores the alternate world of evangelicalism, and why, in the face of so many credible evangelical authorities like Mark Noll and Francis Collins, they routinely choose to follow charlatans like David Barton or Ken Ham. The answer, they say, lies in the evangelical worldview itself; a worldview that is suspicious of academics, favors a “plain reading” of Scripture and history over deeper scholarship, and is deeply imbedded with a belief in “anointing”: that God empowers ordinary individuals with remarkable gifts. This belief is, to a certain extent, good and true, but it also has a horribly toxic side-effect. As the authors put it,
Anointing, though it brings great authority, is typically unrelated to intellectual credibility. A winsome preacher who can quote the Bible and tell heartwarming stories of God’s blessings may posess more authority on global warming for believers than an informed climatologist with 100 publications and a doctorate from Harvard.
The antielitist ideals of evangelicalism, though they are admireable and have done some good, have created a culture where ignorance and blind confidence speak as the authority on important global issues to millions of followers. This is, obviously, very dangerous. The authors make clear that evangelicalism is far more nuanced a culture than many believe, and that there are very credible Evangelical intellectuals. However, consistently, millions of evangelicals choose to blindly follow “the anointed” rather than the credentialed.
Along the way, they tell a fascinating history of evangelicalism in America, and how it got into the gigantic mess it’s in today. I encourage everyone to read this book, and to think deeply about its implications for culture and religion.
I also watched four excellent documentaries, each profiling a different religious setting in which abuse occurred. The religious settings are wildly different, but are all united by a common theme: what happens when an authority gains absolute power over its subjects. The movies are nightmare inducing, but also very powerful and must be watched and grappled with.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
This fascinating and well-made documentary plumbs the depths of L. Ron Hubbard’s psyche (it isn’t pretty) and tells the story of abuse, corruption and insanity in the Church of Scientology. It features interviews with former high-ranking leaders of the church: the former abusers and oppressors, whose lives fell apart when the walked away from Scientology.
This film had an otherworldly feel to it. It seems crazy to us that people became so devoted to such an obviously corrupt religion/business, and yet they did. This raises important questions about the human mind, and how easily we believe. It felt like a horrifying sci-fi story written by Robert A. Heinlein, all the way down to David Miscavage, the James Bond villain leader of the church.
This was another peek into an alien and terrifying world. Centering on the manhunt for Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, it explores the sexual abuse, corruption, and unimaginable power one man has over all his followers.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
By the same director of Going Clear, this documentary explores the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. It’s focal point is the first abuse story to ever break: a Catholic school for the deaf where the head priest routinely assaulted the students. The film then goes on to explore the global crisis of priestly sex abuse, all the way up to the Vatican. While horrifying, it was also profoundly moving. The deaf students, now men, stood up to the power of the Catholic church, and tore away the curtain that hid the sex-abuse scandal from the world.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Featuring footage from the hours before and during the massacre, this film is horrifying, horrifying, horrifying. What most struck me about this film was how good it all seemed at first: how radically racially inclusive The Peoples Temple was, and how deeply committed they were to social justice. And then, little by little, it unraveled. Please watch this film.
Finally, John Smid, former director of the ex-gay ministry Love in Action, wrote a A Life Lost to Suicide , a moving post about a former client who recently committed suicide after suffering the trauma of misguided religious abuse. John Smid writes,
I’ve reconnected with close to 200 men and women who were involved with Love In Action during the time I was there (1996-2008) I cannot tell you how many struggled intensely with depression afterwards. As I think back to the overt and covert messages that were communicated through Exodus International and through Love In Action, clearly we are accountable for laying out a message that conveyed that people were broken, deceived and wounded because they were gay.
I’m so very sorry for all of the ways I was involved in communicating these shaming and erroneous messages. Jim’s life was clearly wounded by them. He never found his freedom in this life. For this, I am deeply grieved.
Jim’s struggle in this life is over, but the horrific and negative effects on Jim’s life while he was here, will be remembered for a very long time through those who knew him and most closely heard his pain. Jim’s sweet temperament, his kind soul, his beautiful voice will also stand out as unforgettable.
The effects of blind and abusive religion are all too real. May we continue to expose it, and tell our stories.