Growing up as a Lutheran, I never got fully into the fire and brimstone preaching of other denominations. Instead, I got beliefs presented to me as if they were inherently valid, like learning about gravity, light, or other natural phenomena. This is important, because it gave me the illusion of an incorrect doctrine I preserved myself against: threatening other people. It didn’t register that I actually was partaking of similar ideas packaged differently.
It amounted to lying about what love is.
A little while ago, Bruce Gerencser wrote this post regarding Franklin Graham’s Facebook post capitalizing on celebrity deaths to threaten people with Hell. To me, it’s a reminder of only one part of a culture that thinks these threats are an act of love. These threats are like yelling at someone for drinking and driving, or issuing a stern warning about a foreseeable danger. They’re trying to prevent you from suffering harm.
That still doesn’t justify what Mr. Graham did. The thing is, the threat only carries any traction because it’s an unseen consequence. If someone told me there was a trespasser behind my house, I can go check to make sure. Hell is something nobody can really find out about; it’s the monster lurking invisibly behind you.
Now that I’m no longer a Christian, I can see better that making vague threats isn’t an indicator of what love is. When I love someone, I don’t terrorize them into conformity. I have to respect their autonomy as a human being and operate from there. The only things I can demand of them are things which I have the right to demand. Inspiring fear is not an intrinsic right (that I’m aware of).
After deconverting, it takes a while to figure out how this has messed me up.
For other people who doubt, the process can be simple or complex. Mine is complex, because of the complex systems of belief I shrouded my old faith in. To others that have stopped believing, I have to say that this is a normal part of the journey away from religion. The process will involve emotional highs and lows; all that anyone can do is ride them out.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to learn is that I don’t have to feel remorse or pity for what I once believed. It wasn’t me that convinced myself to believe all people are worthy of destruction by a deity. Indeed, that guilt is merely another facet of my old faith structure still trying to convince me that maybe it was okay. Instead of putting those judgments on it, I just have to accept that it was. Good and bad are meaningless when it comes to this.
I can be happy and maybe even grateful that I’ve learned to abandon such beliefs. Whether it’s overt like Mr. Graham’s Facebook rant, or covert like my Lutheran upbringing, I don’t have to feel inspired to terrorize the people around me to agree with my existentialist views. People don’t have to be worthy of punishment or threatened by an unseen monster. I don’t have to convince people they’re flawed and miserable.