So when it comes to the harm done by religion, who are the perpetrators, and who are the victims?
Ingrid and I were watching the movie “Marjoe” the other day. Fascinating movie, and an absolute must-see for anyone interested in religion. It’s a documentary about an revivalist preacher, Marjoe Gortner, who had been a celebrated child preacher, gaining fame as “the youngest ordained preacher” at age four. By the time he grew up, he no longer believed any of it, and he left it behind for a while — but when this documentary was made, he was back working the Pentecostal revival- meeting circuit, whipping the crowds into a frenzy to scam them out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. He arranged for this documentary to be made, largely to expose the widespread fraud and deceit in this particular branch of religion… and, to some extent, to ensure that he could never go back to this life, a life that was easy and tempting but that he found morally intolerable.
It’s a fascinating movie for a lot of reasons. (FYI, it won the Academy Award for “Best Documentary” for 1972.) But in particular, it reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while; one of the things that makes atheist critiques of religion so complicated and emotionally loaded.
The people who are perpetrating the harmful things about religion are, for the most part, also its victims.
And vice versa.
The people who traumatize their young children with vivid and horrific images of hell were, themselves, traumatized by those horrors. The religious leaders who fill their flocks with close-minded ignorance and hateful bigotry were, themselves, taught that ignorance and bigotry are divine virtues, dearly treasured by God. The people who are warping the sexuality of their kids and teenagers, filling them with guilt and shame over normal healthy feelings, were, themselves, warped in this same way.
And vice versa. The people who were warped and stunted and scarred are now doing the warping and stunting and scarring. The perpetrators are victims: the victims are perpetrators.
Marjoe is a perfect example. Until he decided to leave his ministry and make this documentary, he was essentially a pure charlatan: someone who made money off religion and people’s gullible belief in it, without believing a word of it himself. And it wasn’t unconscious self-deception and rationalization on his part; it was entirely conscious. He did things like put a special ink on his forehead to make a cross appear when he started to sweat; he sold “prayer cloths” and other religious swag with the promise that they would provide miracles; and the tricks he used to get people to donate more money were 100% deliberately manipulative. He knew every angle of this scam, inside and out: he talked about it at great length and in articulate detail, and even made jokes about it. If it weren’t for the fact that he made this documentary with the intention of exposing the scam — and of making it impossible for himself to ever return to it — he’d be a thoroughly despicable character.
But Marjoe himself was very much a victim of this brand of religion. He was brought up into this life; taught how to preach from age three by parents who used his talents to make millions… not a dime of which he ever saw. He was threatened and coerced by his parents into performing: not just with the threat of Satan and hell, but with physical abuse. And he never got a formal education of any kind… so by the time he decided to quit preaching, he was unqualified to do anything else. No, preaching was not a sincere calling for him, it was nothing more than a way to make a living. He didn’t know any other way. How do you switch career paths when you not only don’t have a high school diploma, but have never even gone to school?
Perpetrator, or victim?
Now, let’s look at a different example for a moment. Let’s look at someone who’s clearly closer to the “perpetrator” end of this spectrum. Let’s look at Ted Haggard. Liar. Fraud. Hypocrite. Evil bastard.
If Ted Haggard had been born and raised into a religion that taught love and acceptance for gay people — or, for that matter, if he’d been born into no religion at all — do you think he’d be the lying, fraudulent, hypocritical, evil bastard he is today? Do you think he’d be quite so full of obvious self- loathing… so full that he had to turn it against others? Do you think he’d have become quite so skilled at mental contortions… so skilled that the contortions just seemed natural, and straightforward thinking seemed like the voice of Satan? Do you think he’d have become quite so adept at the deceit of himself and others… so adept that it became a way of life?
I don’t know. Maybe. Gay people can be brought up in gay- positive households, and still grow up to be jerks. And gay people can be brought up in hatefully homophobic upbringings, and still get themselves the hell out of Dodge. But it’s impossible for me to look at both Ted Haggard and Marjoe Gortner, and not see both of them as both perpetrators and victims. And it’s hard not to think that the main difference is simply that Haggard drank the Kool-Aid. It was Marjoe’s conscious insincerity that ultimately led him to choose moral integrity; it’s Haggard’s apparently unconscious self- deception that’s enabled him to keep living a lie… and to keep passing that lie along to others.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Other than the obvious, namely: What a gigantic clusterfuck. What a huge, messy, impossibly complicated moral and emotional tangle.
I do think that, barring extreme circumstances like mental illness, adults are responsible for their behavior. I’d even argue that the very definition of adulthood is that you don’t get to blame everything you do on your poor sad upbringing. So I’m not saying that every instance of religious fraud, bigotry, and brutality should be forgiven simply because the perpetrator is a victim as well.
But I also think that, when atheists are talking with believers, or when we’re writing stuff that we expect to be read by believers, we need to bear this stuff in mind, and try to have some compassion and empathy even when we’re at our most critical. Especially when we’re dealing with folks who believe in the more damaging versions of belief. I’m not saying we should always play nice and never say harsh truths — far from it. I’m saying that even the worst perpetuators of hurtful religious belief aren’t cartoon villains. They’re human beings, who have been damaged by religion even as they perpetuate that damage. We won’t get far if we don’t remember that.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I do know that, for me, thinking of religion this way — as a continually self- perpetuating chain of victimization and perpetration — doesn’t make me less passionate about working to persuade people out of it. If anything, it makes me more passionate. It makes me both angrier and more compassionate — angrier at religion, more compassionate with the religious — both of which fuel my passion as an atheist activist. It makes me more eager to make atheism more visible… so more people can see it as an option, earlier in their lives, when there’s a better chance for the cycle to be broken.