When a Good Brain Collides with Bad Religion

…we get a happy ending

Christian fanaticism has been fueled by the apostle Paul, whose absorption in Jesus—whom he met in his visions—approached totality. He was sure that both body and mind had to yield to Jesus: “…those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). And loosely quoting a text from Isaiah 29, he disparaged thinking: “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Corinthians 1:19-20). Even conservative scholar Ben Witherington has admitted that Paul would be considered a fanatic by many Christians today.

I was raised by a devout mother who didn’t take Paul all that seriously. I never heard her disparage sex (it just had to be after marriage!), and she read voraciously, especially biography and history: she couldn’t get enough of the “wisdom of the wise.” But, yes, it was Christian home—church every Sunday, grace at mealtime, reading the Bible together—shall we say, however, everything in moderation. For example, she couldn’t stand Billy Graham. I was fortunate to grow up in this kind of Christian home.

But author Cassie Fox had a much different experience, as she recounts in her highly readable 2019 memoir, Black Sheep: My Journey from Evangelical Christianity to Atheism.

What she describes—at Sunday evening church services—is utterly alien to my experience:

“Sometimes, someone would stand up and shout strange sounds. Everyone would immediately grow silent. As a young child, this always shocked and perplexed me…whenever the person finished, someone else would then begin shouting, but this time it would be actual words.

“Yes, my church was Pentecostal. We spoke in tongues, danced, got slain in the spirit, cast out demons, prayed for miracles, and shouted” (p. 6).

I suspect many devout Christians would say the Pentecostals have it wrong, and Cassie Fox eventually came to the same conclusion. She was by nature curious, and her inclination toward rational analysis proved deadly to the faith that had been forced upon her; but it was a long, agonizing escape.

She had attended an evangelical grade school: “I had been living in an exceptionally tiny bubble, and God was intricately infused into every single component of that bubble. It was all I had known. Teaching about God and obedience had been woven into every subject of study and every aspect of my life” (p. 1).

But at fourth grade—for financial reasons—she ended up in public school, and there she encountered “the first wave of information that caused me to question what I had been taught, even if only so slightly” (p.8). And during fifth grade, a major seed of doubt was planted:

“Nationalism was a core component of our faith. I had envisioned our founding fathers attending church, singing to and praising God, and living the holy lives we were called to live. This was what I had been taught, and I believed it fully. My fifth grade class then revealed a stain upon our history that had previously been hidden from me: slavery” (p. 8). She learned the brutal details of the slave trade and slave auctions. “George Washington approved of this? He was a part of it? How could someone be a Christian and do these terrible deeds?” (p. 8)

But doubts were buried. Fox was sent to summer church camp: “It was firmly pressed upon us that we were the final generation before Jesus returned and God had chosen us to spread the Gospel in these final days. Our generation was extremely special and like no other” (p. 14).

She describes the three milestones young Pentecostals were encouraged to achieve, (1) receive salvation, (2) “…to be baptized in or filled with the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues, (3) “…to be called into the ministry. Now, it was not that we were told everyone must be called into the ministry. However, there was extraordinary pressure to do so” (p. 19). And she followed this course, even as her analytical mind saw problems.

She noticed that those who spoke in tongues commonly did a lot of nonsense-syllable repetition. But not everyone shouted the same nonsense syllables: “If they were speaking in a heavenly language, why did everyone sound so different from one another?” (p. 20) It was up to others to shout the translations: “…the interpreted message was always much more complex than the original message given in tongues…a message in tongues would sometimes be very long while the interpretation was very short or vise versa. It did not make sense to me” (p. 21).

That’s how a good brain reacts to bad religion. But, of course, bad religion employs lockdown strategies: “…it is difficult to pursue such questioning very deeply when one is locked into a mindset that defines her entire identity…” (p. 21) “We were to take God’s word on faith, period. It was not our place to even question it” (p. 22).

Why does bad religion keep winning? “This is the core of why it is so difficult for believers to turn from their beliefs. To ask evangelical Christians to even consider a piece of conflicting information you have presented equates, in their minds, to asking them to sin against God” (p. 22)

Hence we follow Fox on her journey through an unaccredited Bible college and on into ministry. But still, her good brain was at work:

“It was one thing to sit through a sermon at church and hear [Bible] stories presented in an inspiring manner. It was an entirely different experience to sit in a dry classroom lecture and dissect a story about a man building a boat that housed two of every single species on the face of the earth.

“While I sat in chapel one day, a thought burst into my mind. What if these stories were not true? In a way, they sounded almost silly. What if they were basically no different than stories like Jack and the Beanstalk?” (pp. 26-27)

But this thought was a sin. “I refused to allow myself to think about such things further” (p. 27).

Fox’s experience in the ministry also chipped away at her faith. Her good brain remained alert: “The ministry soon revealed much of the inner workings of the church to which before, I had not been privy. I observed extraordinary amounts of conflict. I saw many people, both ministers and lay people, vying for control.

“There always seemed to be money to spend on fixing up the building to keep it in pristine condition, but there was never funding for outreach to areas affected by poverty and various forms of social injustice.

“It became clear that the church was working very hard to invite white, wealthy people who were leaving one church and desiring to join another” (p. 31).

“I was experiencing enormous frustration. As time passed, I became more and more disillusioned. I was forced to serve a building rather than God. I wanted out” (p. 33).

Fox describes the really tough uphill battle to reinvent herself. This involved attending an accredited college, with the goal, initially, of getting a degree in psychology and becoming a Christian counselor. But her good brain sabotaged that! She enrolled in a class, Brain and Behavior. “I expected that I would learn about the beauty and magnificence of God’s design in this class. I was certain that I would see God’s work in every piece of information I learned. I could not have been more incorrect. What I was about to learn would slowly and irreversibly change the course of my life and my perception of the world” (p. 36).

In Fox’s nice conversational style, she takes her readers through her discovery of evolution science, and the gradual erosion of her faith—especially because she found that the preachers she’d known had simply lied about evolution; primarily because they knew nothing about it. Understanding how nature works, indeed, can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying, if one is on the hunt for God. Is God—or the Devil—in the details? So far, the evidence has yielded nothing to suggest either.

“As I learned more and more about the brain, I saw no hint that a soul was necessary for it to function properly. There was no sign of a spiritual connection at all. The basics were explained through natural, physical means” (p. 44).

In struggling to hold onto her faith, Fox thought Intelligent Design might provide help. In one of my favorite chapters in the book, she presents her verdict:

“Intelligent design is a statement of belief. It does not even qualify as a hypothesis. A hypothesis is based on knowledge we currently have. However, intelligent design is not based on this. It is based only on the hopes and fantasies erected by our conceit” (p. 115).

“Since the proponents of intelligent design claim that nature reveals to us the involvement of a creator, if we were to accept such a proposition, we would have to accept what nature reveals about this creator. What we see is a creator who is apathetic, cruel, careless, and lazy. Any designer performing in this manner should be swiftly fired and sent on his way” (p. 119).

“If we take the time to observe the extreme amount of pain, death, and extinction that has occurred on this planet…the idea of a design will be hard to grasp. Can a design with a 99.9% failure rate be considered a design at all? (p.91)

In her chapter, “The Real Bible,” Fox shows her good brain at work disassembling the theology that had been installed in her brain as a child.

“…it became clear how easy it was to piss God off. This was not a mild-mannered, stable being. The kinds of orders he gave would give no other indication than a severe case of psychopathy. This guy was nuts. I had never seen a better example of an individual, whether human or otherwise, with an ongoing anger management problem” (p. 135).

And, of course, the killing of God’s son to enable the forgiveness of sins must be jettisoned:

“Nothing about this makes any sense whatever, yet is it the foundation of the Christian faith. We are cursed because of the sin of someone else. We are depraved and incapable of not committing sins. God then demands punishment be thrust onto an innocent, sinless being so he can forgive those sins. Understanding what even the sacrifice of Jesus Christ says about God rendered the New Testament an appalling testimony of the character of this God” (p. 139).

Cassie Fox’s book provides insights into what we’re up against. At one point she mentions the political component: “Supporting the Republican Party is preached from the pulpit on a regular basis and is considered the duty of all Christian people. To doubt this is to doubt God himself” (p. 29). What chance is there for change? One of the reasons Fox wrote this book, she states, was to “…help others outside this faith to better understand why it is so difficult for those raised in evangelical Christianity to recognize the irrationality of their beliefs, let alone accept it” (p. 174).

This memoir provides dramatic testimony that, yes, it’s hard, but it can be done. But there is a catch. Fox was curious; as it turns out, tenaciously curious. She was determined to explore and learn; without that obsession, it won’t happen. She has told us that story, and along the way revealed her pain and isolation; but there is a happy ending: the rewarding life that was the eventual outcome.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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