Reading Time: 10 minutes 401(K) 2012
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. What’s not to like about a day devoted to celebrating romantic love? But I like it a lot more now that I’m out of Christianity. It didn’t take me long at all to realize that I had been stone-cold wrong about almost everything I’d learned from my religious leaders about love. Today, let me show you five things my old religion got completely wrong about love.

Even flowers can be bleeding heart liberals, apparently. (Credit: Salem Eames, CC-SA license.)

Even flowers can be bleeding heart liberals, apparently. (Salem Eames, CC-SA license.)

Error 1: Love Can’t Possibly Exist Without Faith in Jesus.

The authors of the book Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore get quite a few things right about that topic. But right out of the gate, they get one thing completely, totally wrong (emphasis theirs): “we simply can’t love without God.” It’s an incredibly common idea in the religion, and one I bought into wholeheartedly.

But what does this patently ridiculous pseudo-intellectual Christian deepity even mean?

The authors do not explain themselves in this particular example. Do they think that humans were created with the capacity to love, so whether or not they believe in the Christian god, that’s where they get the ability? If so, then it doesn’t make much sense for them to bring it up in this context, since they’re trying to outline how believers differ from non-believers.

It seems much more likely that they mean the same thing that my religious leaders taught, which is that only Christians are capable of feeling true love.

Sometimes you discover Christians who know that there isn’t much difference at all between believers and non-believers. But they’re rare. Many ex-Christians in the Unequally Yoked Club would attest that our Christian mates are often totally positive that someone who rejects Christianity also instantly loses the ability to love. (I describe this teaching more fully here.) This teaching produces smug /r/iamverysmart assholes like this self-important Christian who holds forth extensively about how atheists in particular cannot possibly feel love because they don’t believe in any gods.

Non sequitur much?

Christians dehumanize and vilify non-believers in this way to frighten their sheep out of forming close relationships with people outside their bubble, and also to make themselves feel smugly superior to the unwashed masses because They Have Something Wonderful That Non-Believers Simply Can’t Ever Have (with an implied “Neener Neener”).

And it’s bullshit, as any non-Christian could tell these people. Love existed well before Christianity (or even Judaism) existed, and billions of non-Christians around the world love their mates. Discovering exactly this fact may well be one of the first and most dramatic in-your-face examples of contradictions to a Christian’s indoctrination, which may well be, itself, why forming those sorts of relationships is condemned so harshly.

The truth: The status of someone’s belief in the supernatural does not predict or predicate that person’s ability to love.

Error 2: Love Can Be Totally One-Sided (and Is Often Painful).

YouTube video

“Love is a battlefield,” sang Pat Benatar in the 1980s, and this song, along with countless similar examples, taught me and my peers that love inevitably brought with it heartache, conflict, and torment. Thanks to parents who bought into the idea as well, I grew up expecting that my own future marriage would be marked by endless dust-ups. Though Christian leaders insist that their teachings will produce harmonious marriages, complementarian teachings produce way more conflicts and tension than I’ve ever seen (or experienced, with few exceptions) in non-Christian relationships.

While I was Christian, I never once considered that maybe my entire paradigm was wrong; I didn’t have any examples of truly happy relationships to compare mine with except those of the oldest married couples in my religion. Our church leaders sold injustice as the will of the divine, and unfair treatment as a bonus plan that women should be damned grateful to have.

Married men, meanwhile, were advised to perform half-assed measures to ensure that their wives didn’t get so outraged about being assigned second-citizen status that they entirely bolted the traces. The idea was to perform just enough of these measures to cause wives’ seething resentment to subside long enough for their husbands to get laid (after liberal applications of additional presents and favors), but not so many that a husband was seriously inconvenienced by their frequency.

Add to this teaching the idea of “tough love,” which in Christianity means “to be an asshole in a way that nobody’s allowed to criticize,” and the concept that love can be totally one-sided (just like how “Jesus” loves those who reject Christianity!), and you’ve got serious potential for damage. A Christian can hide behind the magic shield of “tough love” or the current trendy Christianese term for it, “speaking the truth in love,” to get away with doing anything that might be seen as hateful or cruel.

It’s not hard to imagine why Christians had to strip out the reactions of those they mistreat, removing the essential mutuality inherent in romantic love especially, in order to define their desired mode of behavior as “love.”

The truth: Love is not defined solely by the person doing the loving, but also by how the person being loved feels about it. If both people don’t come out of an encounter feeling loved, then it’s not loving. Love is mutual, consensual, and reciprocal–or else, as Tim Minchin has said, it’s more stalking than anything else!

Error 3: Love Exists–and Can Only Exist–Between Unequals.

This error, like the others, exists to some extent in secular culture, but it is a lot more common in the misogynistic atmosphere of most churches. The more right-wing the denomination/church, the more invested it is in the idea of a divinely-mandated hierarchy, and the more angry its adherents get when someone rejects that idea. One can see why. If someone refuses to do his or her job as either a leader or follower, then the whole Jenga tower tumbles. A leader can’t lead if his followers refuse to follow.

In this hierarchical view of societies and relationships, leaders are supposed to do everything possible to lead, educate, and, if necessary, discipline their followers to improve them. In the same Happy Christian Illusion, followers are expected to submit with grace to this guidance and to any correction or discipline their leaders see fit to bestow upon them.

That utopian ideal is not actually how it usually works on either side, obviously.

The Christians around me constantly proclaimed that egalitarian relationships were doomed because nobody in them ever knew who was in charge. I never wondered why anybody even had to be in charge, or why our system produced so many more failures than successes, and so much more contempt, disrespect, and conflict than happiness, respect, and harmony. Like everyone else I knew, I blamed any dysfunction I saw and experienced on the people who’d failed to live up to the system’s demands (which meant me too).

Women are expected to fix their partners too, in a very subtle, sneaky way that won’t make men feel too challenged as the dominant group. For all their powerlessness and inferiority, women are seen as the tamers and civilizers of men, as is alluded to on one blog, which I’m not 100% sure isn’t satirical or trolling, though it preaches exactly what I was taught. When I complained to my pastor that Biff was being an idiot, I was told to pray to make him into a decent husband, and to submit extra-fervently to him as a way of, apparently, shaming him into being a better leader for us (guess how that turned out?). But at no point was outright disobedience–or dumping his silly ass!–an option. If something about Biff was completely unacceptable, then I had to do my best to change it within the rules of our religion, or else accept it as a cross that “God” had created for me to endure.

Now I understand that for me, love is unconditional; it embraces rather than divides, accepts rather than rejects. There may be stuff that I might wish a partner did a little differently, or some aspects that are more or less lovable than others, but when I love someone, I want to love him as he is, not how I see him in my mind’s eye after I’m done fixing him. If there’s aspect of a man that I dislike so much that I simply cannot accept that part of him, then maybe I need to not be in a long-term, exclusive romantic relationship with him. (Mileage may vary, though in Christianity it sure doesn’t.) If someone really wants my help to change, then they’re welcome to ask, but I don’t get to unilaterally decide that I’m going to change someone–and I won’t put up with a man making that kind of decision about me without my consent.

I’d rather find a man who is what I want right out of the box (hi, honey!) than work my ass off dragging someone, kicking and screaming, an inch closer to being what I really want in a partner to begin with.

The truth: Humans are not do-it-yourself fix-it projects, and I’m not sure that love can exist in people who are that disrespectful of their partners’ boundaries.

Error 4: People Can Will Emotions Into Existence (and Poof Them Away at Will).

My religion taught me that emotions, beliefs, and opinions can be changed at will through the simple desire to do so–and if necessary a little jolt of Jesus Power. Sexual desire and even attraction itself can be denied through prayer and self-discipline, while both these and love itself can be conjured out of thin air simply by wanting to feel love.

Most non-Christians are already aware that Christianity teaches that belief itself can be conjured from thin air, which is why so many Christians mischaracterize conversion and deconversion as voluntary decisions, but people who’ve never been involved with the religion might not realize just how far this teaching extends, which it does to everything a person might feel, want to do, or desire to avoid doing–and this includes even romantic love.

Most folks can manage to do and say loving things to people they don’t love, and sometimes people will actually start feeling affection through doing them, in the same way that smiling often makes people feel more cheerful. But a gay person is not going to magically become straight simply by praying extra-lots and wanting to be straight, as just one example, and one cannot force oneself with willpower to “make love out of nothing at all,” as another popular song went back then.

But that willpower is exactly what is expected for Christian women especially, who are expected to be able to go from being a Mom Jeans-wearing housewife to a red-hot smokin’ sexpot tigress in seconds. Many Christian men gloat about having sexy wives, and Biff was no different. It’s a status symbol, even, in many groups! If women are too angry at or resentful of their husbands to summon sexual desire, or if they have perhaps endured a trauma or physical problem that makes it difficult for them to have sex, their culture will remind them in a million different ways that they are “missing the mark.”

Worst of all is what this mindset does for Christians in the bedroom. Grudging or painful sex is still, in many (but not all) men’s opinion, sex; little details like enthusiastic consent and mutual pleasure might be nice, but they’re far from required. Even compassionate Christian husbands often feel entitled to their wives’ bodies–and my husband wasn’t especially compassionate, so you can guess what my sex life looked like as a Christian. Any anger Christian women feel over mistreatment is resolved by telling them to “give that bitterness to Jesus,” which means to wish it away. Oh, was I still angry? Must not have wished sincerely enough!

If you think I’m exaggerating about this grotesque view of the human condition, mosey over here to Removing the Fig Leaf (note: I’ll be writing a few things for them soon), the new blog on Patheos’ atheist channel about rediscovering sex after religion. Or check out Love, Joy, Feminism, a blog that regularly discusses Christianity’s warped view of sexuality and love. You’ll quickly see that, if anything, I’m glossing over a lot of the worst aspects of this particular teaching.

The truth: For most people, it is not possible to ignore blazing resentment or dread and simply summon lust, desire, happiness, and love out of thin air, even with Jesus Power.

Error 5: People Are Above Their “Flesh.”

Christian leaders teach that people should be able to decide to love and even lust. These same leaders teach, as well, that Christians should be able to dismiss unwanted feelings through sheer willpower.

Ultimately, they teach that people are supposed to exist on a level that is far above their brute, animalistic impulses and drives. Creationists, especially, are prone to this kind of thinking, as this excellent paper makes crystal-clear, with a belief in Creationism strongly linked by Christians to the ability to exercise self-control, to resist engaging in unapproved sex of any kind, and to maintain monogamous relationships with the opposite sex–all amid constant assertions that embracing evolution leads to sexual profligacy and other forms of immorality.

The link between Creationism and Christians’ obsession with policing sex might seem totally nonsensical, but it isn’t at all. It makes perfect sense, within the weird world of the Christian bubble. Even I, a fervent Christian who didn’t buy into literal Young-Earth Creationism, still thought that humans had been specially created somehow by my god, which meant that we had a special ability to rise above our baser urges–and the obligation to do so. I believed, as all of my peers did, that this divine spark, which animals lacked, was expressed and cultivated by the denial of those urges. This idea is axiomatic in the religion by now; nobody even questions it.

People who have unapproved sex aren’t just defying the Christian god by sinning, in that worldview; they are also debasing themselves as human beings by behaving as if they weren’t any better than animals. If willpower in sexual matters isn’t exercised to bring it in line with Christians’ rules, then a person can fall into a very undesirable and dangerous state of barbarism and brutality.

This debasement doesn’t simply put a single individual in danger of going to Hell and being tortured forever as their just punishment for noncompliance; it also puts all of society at risk for increased dysfunction because this debasement also extends to every other part of society. A person who allows their animal side to take over in matters of sexuality is thought to be less honest, less hardworking, and less trustworthy, and far more likely to commit criminal acts, divorce their nice Christian spouse for no good reason, get involved in substance abuse, and deconvert from the entire religion.

That’s why rigid, authoritarian control of sex is so important to Christians. (And you wondered why “you just wanted to sin sexually!” is one of the first and most common accusations Christians lob at ex-Christians?)

The truth: There’s still quite a lot about humans that is deliciously and frighteningly primitive–and instead of denying that side of ourselves and trying to bottle it up, we should embrace it so we can manage it more effectively and constructively.

A Few Treasures Hidden in the Dung Heap.

Chances are y’all could add plenty of other terrible teachings you personally encountered in the religion, either as a participant or bystander.  Moreover, the stuff that turned out to be disastrously wrong for me might not be so wrong for you. Contrary to what I learned as a Christian, there are as many ways to run a relationship and life as there are people!

That said, it’d be wrong to say that every single teaching in the religion was erroneous. There were some things I took away from my time as a Christian that have proven useful to me over the years. And that’s okay. Just because one or two things about Christianity weren’t total bullshit doesn’t mean that the religion has some kind of divine blessing or authorship.

Next time, we’ll be talking about a couple of those teachings about love that weren’t totally wrong that I’ve kept long after deconverting, and I hope you’ll join me.

(You know, The Princess Bride would make a much better life guide than Christians’ interpretation of the Bible. It got only one thing wrong: love really is the best thing in the world, better even than cough drops! Happy Valentine’s Day, however you spend it, and may the coming week be filled with the things and people you love best. See you Tuesday!)

Perfect peace, and a sunny patio window. (Bother on left; Bumble on right about to get his butt bitten.)
Perfect peace, and a sunny patio window. (Bother on left; Bumble on right about to get his butt bitten.)

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(Cas slightly tidied up this post on February 14, 2019.)

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...