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Why it is Not Insensitive to Compare Fundie Religion to an Abusive Relationship

August 7, 2014

I’m making a departure from my usual practice on this blog to address some complaints about the latest project by Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist. (If you haven’t checked out that site yet, do. It’s a great blog that helps keep track of violations of the separation between church and state, but it also provides many great resources to help people who are leaving religious faith and having to deal with hostile families and their own feelings of “what now?”) This project is an illustrated book currently being crowd-funded, called God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and you should break up).

Chris Stedman, on his Faitheist blog post (Atheist picture book will compare belief in God to an abusive relationship) on the Religion News Service site, summarizes some of the complaints about Mehta’s new proposed book. Some say the project is insensitive to victims of physical abuse. Some say that the expressions on the face of the young woman in the artwork remind them of themselves when they were in abusive relationships. Stedman himself says, “as someone who has professionally counseled people in abusive relationships, I’m very concerned that this cartoonish book might take a flippant approach to a very serious issue.”

First of all, I don’t consider any of the illustrations I’ve seen so far to be “cartoonish,” unless by that word you mean that the drawings of the characters don’t look like photographs. They still look quite real, in fact, but not so real that they look like you are viewing a real young woman in an actual threatening situation. So I would suggest that “cartoonish” is a judgment that viewers bring with them when they look at these illustrations (perhaps for the purpose of discrediting them?); that quality is not inherent in them.

Secondly, I believe that the critics are missing the entire point of the book. It’s only because Mehta takes abusive relationships so seriously that he can make the point he’s making in the book, at all. If one’s relationship to God features all the characteristics that make a relationship so truly, awfully abusive — then it means that the relationship to God is abusive too. And if it’s as bad as a human abusive relationship, you should escape it, run away from it as fast as you can, and probably get counselling to help you recover from it.

Think we’re talking nonexistent “abuse” from a nonexistent being, so it can’t be harmful? Would we tell a psychologically abused woman whose husband never laid a hand on her that she “hasn’t really” been abused? It seems to me that when even some atheists criticize the idea behind Mehta’s book, because you can’t really be harmed by a nonexistent being and therefore you are “making light” of real human abuse, they are the ones who are being dismissive of psychological abuse, which is just as real a form of abuse as being beaten up by a spouse. It took me years to recover from the psychological abuse I experienced as an evangelical Christian.

And if you think that there is no physical abuse, you may not have read about the fundamentalist Christians sending death threats to people they disagree with theologically (and usually politically). This is a regular, frequent occurrence. Nor perhaps are you aware of the strict, usually right-wing churches who, for example, force a teenaged girl to stand up in front of a congregation and “repent” of “having sex” with the youth pastor after she was raped and made pregnant, while the youth pastor is “rebuked” and keeps his job with no further punishment. And often, the physical abuse is very real indeed. I read a statistic a few years ago that said that of all the subgroups in North American society, the group most likely to engage in spousal and child abuse was fundamentalist Christians. (Theologian William Rice, early in the twentieth century, said he would rather beat his child until she was blue, rather than leave her spirit unbroken and amenable to God. Nice.) And who would protest, these days, that you could not make similar observations about physical abuse or death being inflicted on some people who aren’t following the Islamic deity the way they are “supposed” to in certain fundamentalist sects?

Stedman also says, “And as someone who knows many people with very different conceptions of God, I’m frustrated that the book’s central argument seems to treat the breadth of theism so narrowly.”

So…he wants Mehta to criticize all forms of religion in exactly the same way, rather than criticizing just this one abusive form of it? I don’t know why Mr. Stedman would want that. It seems to me that it would make much more sense to point out the characteristics of an abusive relationship to God, so that people who are in one will recognize it and escape, rather than try to address the entire “breadth of theism” in a book about one type of relationship. Following Stedman’s criticism, Mehta is kind of damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. I am absolutely confident that Mr. Stedman is not trying to put Mr. Mehta in that position, so he’ll be “unjustified” no matter what he does. But I think that is what, inadvertently, Stedman has done.

Rather than “dismissing” or “making light of” genuinely abusive relationships, I think the fact that an abusive relationship is an abusive relationship is the entire point. And abusive relationships of any kind are an abomination and should be stopped.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2014 2:28 pm

    Greetings! I traveled over here from Chris Stedman’s post.

    I think I can glean an answer to the following from your writing, but I wanted to be sure. You’re not of the opinion (nor do I actually think that Hermant Mehta is of the opinion) that all theists are in an abusive relationship with their god (or gods), right?

    I think that’s where things have become most volatile; i.e. the assumption that the book is meant to indicate that all religion is like an abusive relationship.

    • August 7, 2014 3:11 pm

      Hi, and welcome! Sometimes I admit that I tend to that opinion (that all religion is ultimately abusive), but I always have to remind myself that the evangelical/fundamentalist very political version of Christianity was what I was raised in and what I knew as “true Christianity” for my whole life. (Even some Presbyterians weren’t “really” Christians, and Catholicism was way out there in hell territory, ha!) But since I became an atheist (ironically), I now know a great, great many Christians who I wouldn’t classify as being in an abusive relationship with their deity. And a very kind and gentle cousin of mine converted to Islam when he got married, and there’s no way I’d describe him that way either, nor most Muslims I know here in Toronto.

      I think all of Christianity gets erroneously conflated into one big thing probably because the loudest, most yelly voices we hear in society are indeed the fundie, abusive ones. And they are the ones trying to turn North America into one big totalitarian religious society, with them as the rulers. So they’re the ones we have to fight the hardest, and they’re the ones who tend to claim that they are the only “real” Christians. So a lot of us kind of “forget” the kinder, gentler Christians (or, for that matter, the majority of Muslims who are also good people) because they tend to go along on their own without making a horrible fuss, while the yelly ones are attacking nonstop.

      That’s an error on our part. But it does help when people remember that for most nonpractising or “nominally religious” people in society, when they hear the word “Christian,” it’s the abusive, yelly, totalitarian ones they think of first.

      (And from what I’ve read of Mr. Mehta over the past couple of years, I would say that you are right — he doesn’t lump all Christians into the “abusive” camp.)

      Thanks so much for commenting, and for your very thoughtful question.

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