Imagine being 13 years old, sitting down at a gathering for young people where you are watching a movie outlining how horrific the end of the world will be for those who do not believe the way your group does. Many of us don’t have to imagine, because that’s exactly the kind of experience that we were subject to growing up in the church, where the ideas often had to be reinforced with the kind of propaganda presented in B-grade movies like A Thief In The Night. Too serious to be categorized as campy, this absurd, over-the-top apocalyptic drama was meant to provide a cautionary tale for non-Christians, but also hammered home to believers the perils of being outside the group.
For many years I believed that at some point in the near future, Christians would spontaneously disappear in a worldwide “rapture” event and be taken to heaven, similar to what was presented in that movie. This is but one example of my miseducation in the church during the first 30 years of my life.
Below are nine more beliefs that I had to unlearn as I stepped away from Christianity. I’m not going to drill down too much on each of these, but if you’d like to comment on any of them, I’d enjoy the discussion in the comments section below.
“If you are outside of God’s will, horrible things may happen to you as a result.”
While this wasn’t said directly, it was a subtle message conveyed with stories and implications. A specific example I recall is the story of a minister who left his ministry to go into business and ended up with cancer. At best, this was a careless story told without recognizing the fairly obvious implications. At worst, it reflected an actual belief about the consequences that supposedly await those who don’t stay in the group. The Bible itself in Ecclesiastes teaches that “all things come alike to all,” regardless of whether or not your decisions line up with a particular religious persuasion.
“It’s wrong to question the Bible.”
“You think too much,” said the Minister of Education at my church after I asked some questions about a controversial Bible passage. I’ll never forget that moment, because it planted a question within me: Is it ok to question something I read in the Bible? I have written on this before, but eventually my belief in the authority of the Bible crumbled, which opened the door to reconsider the basis of most of my beliefs.
“People who disagree with us are rebelling against God.”
This one is a real doozy. To frame those who disagree with us as evil and to frame our side of the issue as “in alignment with the ultimate all-powerful creator being of the universe” is a bit on the arrogant side, no? Watch for those moments in a disagreement when you start attributing alternate motives to account for their difference of opinion instead of actually addressing their ideas.
“Homosexuality is wrong.”
Not only was I taught that the Bible is “clear” about how homosexuality is morally wrong, it was also regularly reinforced with comments about how we should view it as “gross.” There are so many problems with this, and I have intention to write about it at depth, but the biggest issue is that the Bible not clear about homosexuality once you study the text outside of the very biased interpretations of the Biblical language on this topic. There are plenty of helpful resources on this, but two that I have found enlightening are below:
God Believes in Love – Gene Robinson
God and the Gay Christian – Matthew Vine
“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Fortunately, this one didn’t follow me into parenthood, but kids who are not hit with rods are not automatically spoiled, and I can’t believe the above was ever presented as a viable concept. The idea of striking kids on any part of their body as a way to punish them and correct their behavior is repulsive to me and while I understand it was simply an accepted part of culture in the last century, there is plenty of research and reason to support the idea of abandoning this parenting approach forever.
“We need to ‘Put prayer back in schools’ ”
If kids want to pray, they’ll pray. If they don’t, they won’t. To formalize this and make it part of a publicly-funded school schedule is to ignore the fact that we live in a country with more than one religious persuasion. Usually the response to this is, “You are trying to take God out of schools!” If God wants to be there, then God is there, if you are into the concept of omnipotence and omnipresence. This was one of many examples where Christianity was framed as being involved in some kind of war. It’s much worst today, with the rise of Christian Nationalism, but this kind of thinking has come in waves throughout the last 100 years.
“If you die without accepting our interpretation of salvation, you will be endlessly tormented in a place called hell after you die.”
This one is the nuclear bomb of religious persuasion. If nothing else is working, just go with the fear-inducing story of eternal torment and you can usually get people over the line, especially if they are young and impressionable. My extended thoughts on the teaching of hell can be found here.
“If you have enough faith, God will heal.”
This wasn’t taught as directly in my Baptist environment, but I was exposed to it in more Charismatic circles, where it was a staple of their beliefs. It may have been one of the things that most rattled the foundations of my theology when I discovered it to be untrue. When my cousin Mark was in the hospital after a motorcycle accident, I remember this last gasp of faith where I had this subconscious thought: “Ok, if this stuff is true at all, now would be a good time for it to be evident.” In fact, as an act of “faith” I refused to jump on plane to go see him in the hospital in Florida. I just believed God would pull him through. He had a wife and a toddler, so it seemed easier to “believe God for his healing.” Mark was 33 when he died from his injuries on April 10, 2005. Somewhere in me, a part of my beliefs died with him.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
This is a very common phrase that can be heard within or outside of the church walls. A non-religious person might say this to mean that there is some unknown purpose for good that moves through all the events of our lives. For Christians, it is often said that while evil things happen, God means them “for good.” In either case, it is a way to sidestep the pain of horrific or cataclysmic events by trying to attach meaning to a meaningless circumstance. It is perfectly normal to search for some kind of meaning in traumatic or painful events, but that doesn’t mean there necessarily is a meaning. Pauline Boss, author of Loss, Trauma and Resilience, says that while these events are nonsensical, “The fact that it’s meaningless is a meaning.”
Not every church teaches every one of the above ideas; some are rejected outright as bad theology. And by no means do I think that every person who is a Christian believes all of the things above. What’s interesting is that many of them are “unofficial” teachings that are delivered between the lines, not as direct messaging. This is why we have to be careful when we submit ourselves to a community that has set of official and unofficial dogmas. Both should be examined with care and critical thinking.
Do you have any abandoned beliefs from your religious upbringing that were particularly memorable? Feel free to share them in the comments below or respond to these I’ve highlighted here.
9 thoughts on “10 Religious Teachings I Had to Unlearn”
At least one thing I’ve had to unlearn is that women must be submissive to men. That direct teaching of the church deserves deep exploration and unraveling, but I’m working to unlearn that manipulative, anti-Christ teaching in my life.
That was definitely another ubiquitous, but harmful teaching that I was subjected to. Interesting that it didn’t end up in this post, even though I am aware of it and you and I have discussed it often. Goes to show how different the impact of that one is depending on gender.
nice post. I was a Prebyterian christian and then ended up a little more free will than calvinist. And now I’m a out and proud atheist. 🙂
the religion is no more than gaslighting, using fear and ignorance.
My observation in religion is that fear is sometimes used to get people into the fold and keep them there and ignorance is a way to “shut the windows” to what’s outside the intellectual walls of the church and create an environment that is safe from the supposed dangers of the outside world.
You case with Christianity is definitely not one of “Better Late Than Never”.
Your gain (of becoming a born-again atheist and freethinker) is their loss (of one spiritual soldier).
I agree with you that religious indoctrination can be very insidious and damaging. Religious ideology is definitely anti-thought-provoking or thought-terminating for those who aspire to seek truth via reason and logic as well as holistic (re)examinations. A lot of Christians would have great difficulty in accepting the messages and teachings of the late John Shelby “Jack” Spong (June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021). I have known of the late John Shelby “Jack” Spong (June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021) for more than two decades. He was an American bishop of the Episcopal Church, whose “Twelve Points for Reform” were elaborated in his 2001 book entitled A New Christianity for a New World:
– Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
– Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
– The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
– The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
– The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
– The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
– Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
– The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
– There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
– Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
– The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
– All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
Spong was one of the first American bishops to ordain a woman into the clergy, in 1977. He was the first to ordain an openly gay man, Robert Williams, in 1989. In his 1991 book entitled “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture”, Spong argued that St Paul was homosexual.
Wishing you a productive December doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most, including but not limited to composing highly commendable blog posts!
nice post, soundeagle 🙂 I knew of Spong but hadn’t known he has died.
and thanks for the compliments. Much appreciated. May you have a lovely december too. I’ll be feasting and brewing. Alas no holiday tree this year since the kittens would simply drive me crazy knocking it over repeatedly.
Hi Jason, I am a humanist too but I don’t like to criticise genuine belief in God because I know that there are inescapable aspects of human nature that cause it. What I would criticise however are the various, sometimes frightening, forms of control that the religious hierarchy likes to impose. These have nothing to do with religious belief and their purpose is simply to acquire power. So, calling them out is a good thing in my view.
I agree that the various forms of religious control are harmful to individuals and society. It’s often quite subtle. While I don’t like to criticize belief in God(s) in general, there are specific religious teachings that have been problematic for my own personal development and quite difficult to release after years of indoctrination.