I was thinking today about Christians who accuse ex-Christians of treating their god like an automated teller machine (ATM). They level this accusation at us whenever we remind them that prayer doesn’t do anything in the real world. A while ago, they decided that if we mention this shortcoming, then obviously we deconverted because we didn’t get a pony upon demand. Today, let me show you how I figured out why Christians keep accusing us of this imagined shortcoming.
Set your Wayback Machines for about 2003, friends, for another thrilling episode of Adventures in Apostasy with CAPTAIN CASSIDY!
My mother entered her last hospital stay that summer.
She spiraled into the endgame of oblivion before my very eyes. Cancer slowly destroyed her from the inside out. Oh, I mean, it’d been doing that for years by then.
It was just getting more serious about the mission statement, is all.
I deconverted in the mid-1990s, so I was barely under 10 years out of Christianity by then. However, I’d only just begun the long task of detangling all that programming. A few years previously, I’d become a Hellenic reconstructionist (a pagan concentrating on the re-creation of traditional modes of worship). Mom didn’t know that, but she knew I wasn’t particularly Christian anymore.
Obviously, I spent a lot of time at the hospital. And at first, I just went down to the hospital chapel to get some alone-time for myself.
I never saw anybody else in there that I can remember, so it felt like my secret treasure, my respite from worry. When Mom needed to rest or have tests done, I’d steal away to that room to just breathe. It was just a simple little room–some pews, a stained-glass backlit window, a little table by the door.
The Binder on the Table.
Eventually, though, I got curious about a three-ring binder on that little table.
I opened it up on her last day alive, though I didn’t know that was what it was. Not yet anyway.
Inside, I discovered that it was not in fact a visitor log. It was in fact a sort of prayer journal. Each photocopied page contained spaces for people’s names and the date, who they prayed for, and what they wanted done. Someone had taped a pen on a string to the binder’s ring clasp.
Christians sometimes keep these journals to write down the prayers they make to their flaky, inconsistent god. I can’t imagine they do it for all that long, though. Even not keeping track of mine, I figured out early enough about how good his track record is. They go back and note when and how the prayers got answered, if at all (though often I’m betting they have to write down “maybe” or “not yet,” which is one of their favorite ways to deflect criticism about prayer).
Many Christian sites and leaders recommend the keeping of these journals. They think it encourages accountability and consistency. (Yeah, because worshiping a real live god-of-the-universe isn’t enough to do that, I guess?) And they talk about how keeping one can “change your life.”
The Power of Writing.
Kira: “What is writing?”
Jen: “Words that stay.”
The Dark Crystal
Maybe it just feels more official somehow to write down prayers. We’re only a few dozen generations removed from ancestors who considered literacy a skill held only by the blessed elite. In the Renaissance, illiterate people paid money to literate people like priests (!) to write Bible verses like spells (!!) on little scraps of paper, herb-leaves, or even Communion wafers (!!!). Then, the purchaser of the written-on object used it to cast magic of various kinds. (One variant, carte di voler bene, involved feeding the target of the spell the scrap disguised in food; many love-spells worked that way.)
Similarly, we consider a written contract to be far more binding than a purely-spoken agreement (though this cultural norm doesn’t apply everywhere).
Writing just feels really official somehow. Like errybody look out: the sitch just got real.
I really don’t know what Christians do when they begin noticing that nothing they pray for seems to turn out the way they wanted. That was a big problem for me when I finally noticed it, and I wasn’t even writing down what I prayed for. And given the Bible’s very clear language around prayer, this situation really should be a big problem for believers.
Thankfully, their peers give them instant instructions through the ether of shared belief: blame anybody who dares mention the truth.
What, did you wonder why so many Christian movies include atheist characters who lost faith because a relative died despite being prayed for? They need to demonize that whole idea so hard that none of the flocks get any weird ideas.
The Prayers in the Binder.
So now, stand beside me in the chapel as I open the binder. Realize, with me, what it contains.
And now, perhaps with your cheeks burning like mine were, read it with me.
I don’t know why I read it. Maybe I was distracting or self-soothing myself. Smartphones and digital readers didn’t yet exist (cell phones just barely did; I didn’t yet have one–but amazingly, Mom did), and reading has always been a mechanism that helps me calm my thoughts. When I was a kid, I read literally every written word that entered our family home. I’m still like that. I CAN’T GO TO BED NOW… THERE IS WRITING SOMEWHERE IN THIS WORLD THAT I HAVE SOMEHOW NOT YET CONSUMED. It’s a problem!
So maybe I just wanted to distract and soothe myself at a time of great worry. Or maybe I wondered what Christians wrote in these things. I’d never seen a prayer journal and probably hadn’t even heard of anything like one.
Whatever the reason, I read it front to back.
Very quickly, I noticed a big, serious trend in this binder.
The pain coming off each page felt palpable to me–powerful, visceral, and aching in its rawness and depth.
But the people writing their requests offset that pain with nonstop demands directed to their god. They all went along similar lines:
LORD, we’re trusting you to bring Nana back home all healed!
Jesus, I plead the blood on my son’s leukemia!
God, right now I claim a healing for my husband’s heart!
Lord Father Jesus, I just know you’ll fully heal my newborn baby! I know I’ll take her home with me today!
Many went on for the entirety of the page with one after another of these sorts of statements. Some cited Bible verses about prayer–the same ones that years ago had helped deconvert me.
I felt so dizzy all of a sudden. I took the binder with me to a pew and sat down, off to the side, to continue reading.
YOU’RE A MONKEY, YAHWEH! DANCE, MONKEY! DANCE!
It reminded me so powerfully of a scene in the 2001 movie Zoolander, where the hero, a male model, reflects on how conditioned he is to obey orders:
I got the overwhelming impression of these Christians ordering their god around like he was a recalcitrant child.
Story time: I had an ex who was so picky as a child that his parents had him sign an agreement about what foods he promised always to eat. They kept it on the fridge door. When he tried to refuse something on the list, they’d show him his signature and remind him of his promise. The tactic worked beautifully on the ex, but forever after I would think about that story when I heard Christians reminding their god of his promises.
It always sounds like they’re leaving unsaid a little kick-in-the-pants reminder: “You SAID you’d do this… remember? You’re a loving god… remember?” It’s like they know he’d never uphold his promises without being goosed to do it. And maybe not even then.
The needs written in the journal were immense–though of course for an omnipotent god, they should have been meaningless! Many of the illnesses sounded terminal, and many of the injuries sounded beyond traumatic. Grief and worry had led the writers to over-disclosures on a scale most folks would likely consider WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION (TMI) today. And they all acted like they were 100% sure that their god would totally ensure their relatives’ safety–even though the problems they described sounded absolutely dire.
And something suddenly began making sense to me. Just then, I made a mental connection between two ideas.
When Christians tell us we’re just mad cuz Jesus never gave us a pony on demand, they’re projecting their own fears and frustrations onto us. They’re the ones demanding ponies–every day in fact.
Now, they’re not getting ponies either, not any more than we did. But they think they’re superior to us because they’ve somehow reconciled themselves to the way their prayers turned out. WE lost our faith because we hung too much on answered prayers. THEY hung onto their faith because they are way too evolved to care about how their god answers prayers. When their prayers got ignored, they could look past it and leap onto the next ice-floe without a backward glance.
If we had trouble doing that, clearly we were the problem here, not them and definitely not the religion. See? Here they are dealing with things so well! What defect in our character led to us not being able to do the same?
It’s like we’re getting gaslighted into thinking we were the ones in the wrong for taking their constant stream of promises seriously.
Despite almost all Christians getting roughly the same instructions and promises about prayer, we’re the ones who failed because we trusted them. Remember that line in Animal House where Flounder gets blamed for trusting his frat brothers to keep their promises to him?
Yeah. It’s just like that. Or maybe that line from 1980’s The Blues Brothers, when Elwood explains to Jake why he fibbed about them getting the band back together:
Elwood: Well, what was I gonna do? Take away your only hope? Take away the very thing that kept you going in there? I took the liberty of bullshitting you, okay?
Jake: You lied to me.
Elwood: It wasn’t a lie. It was just.. bullshit.
(In this case, of course, the Christians “bullshitting” us also ache for the promises to be true for their own sakes.)
Thus, in their recasting of our life stories, we turn into the petulant pouty-pants who got all upset and “lost our joy” because we didn’t get a cushy enough life from Daddy Jesus. But we’d never have expected or even wanted anything like that if we hadn’t been told constantly that we could “name it and claim it.”
However, that’s exactly what we got promised, even by leaders who even today hedge their bets by simultaneously claiming all those perks and answered prayers are just optional and nobody should expect it. Even leaders who denounce prosperity gospel do this.
Making Sales, Or Not.
This whole problem is to some extent intentional. They make promises because promises sell. By the time the marks realize the promises of divine aid don’t pan out, the hucksters are long gone with another notch carved into their Bible covers already.
And our disappointment actually helps the very worst Christians in a way that perhaps their leaders might not even have imagined. By blaming our deconversions on our imagined shortcomings as Christians, toxic Christians seek to invalidate our deconversions altogether. That kind of judgment occurs all up and down the religion, and it’s always done by the very worst Christians.
In fact, we recently saw an example of exactly that kind of judgment handed down by exactly that kind of Christian. Catherine very kindly linked up the story of a Christian blogger who decided that someone’s deconversion happened because the ex-Christian in question was just too lazy and dishonest to follow Christianity anymore. That is 100% not what that deconversion story actually sounded like, but King Him couldn’t handle the idea that someone might have a valid reason to leave his religion. This is how people like him soothe cognitive dissonance and get back to equilibrium in beliefs.
At all costs, they want to get the conversation off our actual objections to their religion and onto something they can more easily turn against us.
By telling us that our deconversions aren’t valid because we got angry about unanswered prayer, Christians seek to make us–and anyone who might overhear us talking about our experiences and discoveries–question the validity of our reasons.
But here’s the problem.
Even if we were 100% non-virtuous in our reasons, even if we deconverted over what Christians would consider the very silliest and shallow reasons ever, the reasons we remain outside of the religion remain the topic of discussion.
Our sincerity ain’t on the shelf to discuss. (Anyway, Christians guess so wrong so often about our motivations that it starts making their “discernment” look exceedingly questionable.) It’s not up to them to judge how TRUE of a CHRISTIAN™ we sounded like.
The moment they even try, they lose the whole fight–by definition.
Soon, I’ll tell you about what I ended up writing in the prayer journal in the chapel, and what happened afterward. (Spoiler: I was verrrrry pagan at the time.)
For now, I wanted to concentrate on what it was like to read all those prayers all in one place and to see the striking similarities in tone and word choice–and then to realize what that binder said about the accusation I’d already heard so many times from aggrieved Christians.
So many of these awful people want to keep the focus off the fact that the results of prayer look like anything but divine intervention. Worse, they want people to forget that promises of divine aid of one kind or another feature in most evangelism attempts. I recommend that nobody let them run off into the weeds with the football, is all.
Facts are, they themselves make promises constantly–and rely upon them in times of extreme need. We blow their whole pretense wide open when we call attention to the failure of the promises. That’s exactly why they seize on this element of our deconversions like they do.