No True Christian: Or, how to remain pious by throwing other Christians under the bus.

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Anders Breivik. Murderer. Terrorist. Brother in Christ.

There’s a certain conversation that repeats itself when the subject of my past in Ireland comes up in conversation. What happened in Omagh when I was ten isn’t the sort of thing that comes up casually, but neither is it something I keep hidden under the bed. The abridged conversation goes something like this.

Me: My home was rocked by attacks and violence by Christian terrorists for years, including one that I was present at as a boy.

Christian: There’s no such thing as Christian terrorists.

Me: Actually, there are, the ones in Ireland were both Catholic and Protestant.

Christian: They were not true Christians. True Christians do not murder other people.

Me: But they went to church, confessed Christ, referred to themselves as Christians-

Christian: They were not TRUE Christians! Don’t confuse people who call themselves Christians with those who actually are!

This is one of the most common exchanges I have encountered, and it is also one of the most obnoxious. In fact, the only conversation I find more annoying usually begins with ‘Oh, you’re from Ireland? I’m Irish too!’ But we’ll save that for a later post, probably around St. Patrick’s Day.

On some level, this is perfectly understandable. For many Christians, their religious identity is more than just a trait. It’s more than being blue-eyed, a cheese connoisseur, or a member of the Springfield Ladies’ Auxiliary. It’s often more than being black, Asian, American, Kiwi, or any other philosophical, racial, or national identity. Most Christians will list their religion as the number one defining feature of their own identity, the thing that gives them purpose, brings meaning, defines them as who they are. The sacred nature of Christianity, like any religion, adds additional fervor to their defense of the elite club of the elect to which they belong. Therefore, any member of the Christian club who is a potential embarrassment to the whole is immediately discarded, disowned, disavowed from club based on an arbitrary standard of what an individual considers to be a ‘true Christian.’

Talking about how Christianity is a religion of peace-lovers and bringers? Don’t mention Anders Breivik, the monster who massacred more than seventy young people a couple years ago. Despite the fact that he referenced his Christian faith hundreds of times in his 1,500 word manifesto and called himself ‘100%’ Christian,’ he wasn’t a true Christian.

Having a conversation about how the gay agenda in America is persecuting Christians? Don’t talk about how Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men who murdered Mathew Shepard in Laramie, were both active members of their congregations. And don’t mention Stephen Ray Carr, the Christian who murdered lesbian Rebecca Wight. They weren’t true Christians.

Is a Christian talking about how Islamist terrorists are waging war against Christians and the West? Don’t mention the National Liberation Front of Tripura, the IRA and the UVF of Ireland, the Ku Klux Klan, the Iron Guard of Romania, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Timothy McVeigh or the Army of God in America. All of them with Christian creeds, all of them confessing Christ, all of them using similar tactics to the Islamist terrorists half a world away, and yet none of them true Christians.

See the problem yet?

It’s a little something called the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. As those who are educated in debate know, the No True Scotsman fallacy makes a universal claim about a general group of people, usually something in the positive. When presented with a counter-claim that refutes the original, the fallacy rejects the counter-claim based on an unsubstantiated or subjective standard so that the original statement can still stand, rather than conceding to the evidence presented and modifying or rejecting the universal claim. The example used to illustrate is generally thus:

Person 1: No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

Person 2: I am a Scotsman and I put sugar on my porridge.

Person 1: Then you are no TRUE Scotsman!

This is of course a ridiculous claim, that a person who was born in Scotland cannot claim his national identity because of his dietary preferences. But how more ridiculous is it when the same standard is applied to religion, specifically Christianity?

Christian: No true Christian murders other people.

Me: The Christians in my home murdered thousands of my people.

Christian: Then they are not TRUE Christians!

By rejecting every single instance where a Christian does something embarrassing, horrific, or monstrous, the Christian country club can maintain that they hold a moral superiority over the rest of us. By labeling murderers, terrorists, rapists, and racists among the ‘unbelievers,’ they are casting the very worst of their own community as part of the group they philosophically and religiously oppose. In this way, the devout can keep the virtue of their claim that Christianity is the highest moral code in the land and that all evil in the world comes from a rejection of Christian principles, even as every single scrap of evidence screams the truth that much of the world’s evil comes from embracing the values laid down in the Bible, not rejecting them.

The Westboro Baptist Church standing on the curbside, screaming that fags will burn in hell? They’re simply citing 1 Corinthians 6: 9 -10, which affirms their claims one hundred percent. The Christian militias in Africa who massacre Muslims? They’re following Deuteronomy 17: 2 -5, which demands the execution of the worshippers of false idols. The man who uses his own underage daughter as a sex slave? Exodus 21: 7 – 11 is God’s specific affirmation of his right to do so. Who are you to say that he’s not a true Christian for following instructions that God himself gave?

The strange thing about all of this is that when the situation is reversed, when you turn to a Christian and cite their own wrongdoings and evil deeds back at them, you will never, not once find a Christian who is willing to admit that they might not be a true Christian. It is one of the areas where Christian hypocrisy is displayed in all of its stagnant glory, where its stench reeks to high heaven (no humour intended). You see, the very principle of the Gospel in Christianity is that all men and women are sinners. All are wretchedly evil. That there is not one righteous man in the eyes of God, not one. And that’s why Jesus came down to die on the cross, so that Christians would be absolved of their sins and not have to worry about the evil they commit against themselves, their families, and the rest of us.

Here is the curious thing about it. You’ll find an invisible line, a sort of glass ceiling, between what is forgiven sin and what disqualifies someone from being a true Christian. This woman cheated on her taxes! Well, that’s why Christ died on the cross, to forgive her of her sins. That man is fighting a drug addiction! With the strength of his Savior, he will overcome his sins. That husband beats his wife in anger! He has a lot to repent for and some serious sins he’s struggling with, but Jesus died for even the worst of sinners, people who would repulse the rest of us.

Those Christians are lynching black men and Jews, or blowing up car bombs, or gunning down children in the name of their god! They’re not true Christians! They’re not true Christians! You will know them by their fruits!

Tell me, someone. Preferably a Christian. If all sin is worthy of eternal damnation, why are there some deeds that preclude you from the salvation that your church is offering? If the only precursor to being a Christian is believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9), why then are you throwing the people who need the salvation you preach the most under the bus? What makes their sin any worse than yours? Why is it that if you Google “Gays can’t be Christians,” you’ll get millions of hits of clergymen claiming that an entire subgroup of people are disqualified from your Gospel? And why, why, why do you think that the rest of us take you seriously when your moral superiority depends on arbitrary standards that change with every single one of the 40,000 different denominations and synods that exist in your church?

If there is one defining feature I use to identify myself, it’s that I’m an Irishman. And as such, I face the same dilemma that Christians do concerning certain members of my identity group. The men who killed thousands of us? Christians, yes but they were also Irish. The men who let Savita Halappanavar die on the operating table? Irish. The rabble who start riots in Belfast every year or so? Irish. They are a part of me, my people, my very identity. And as such, it is a call to arms, to fight against those who mark what it means to be Irish with their evil and cruelty. It’s an incentive for me to speak out, to act, to make sure what has been done by my countrymen does not happen again. It is not helpful or truthful to say ‘No true Irishman is a terrorist, or let’s miscarrying immigrants die, or vandalises property.’ Because not only is it not true, it destroys any credibility I have and any chance I have of making a difference.

It’s time to face the truth. It’s not that people doing horrific things are not true Christians. It’s that you wish they weren’t. Because it’s easier to label them as us, the non-believers, than it is to clean up the rot inside the heart of your religion.

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Omagh

 

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I lost my Christian faith on 15 August, 1998, in the village of Omagh in County Tyrone around 3:00 pm.

It was one of those summer days where you could be glad to be a ten year old. Sunny and warm, a rarity in Ireland where we get clouds and rain nearly every morning. I was celebrating my recent progression to open champion in Irish dance, the highest level achievable. It was only three weeks till my eleventh birthday and my mate Johnny, also a competitive Irish dancer, invited me to his home for the weekend. My grandparents were nervous about it at first. It wasn’t as though I was camping out with one of my cousins across the county. Omagh was nearly an hour away. In addition it was in Northern Ireland, and my grandparents had lived three decades in the shadow of the Troubles. But after much begging and cajoling, and with my grandfather’s reminder that Omagh had been virtually untouched by the violence, my grandmother finally relented.

That Saturday, Johnny and I insisted on being allowed to go to the town centre unaccompanied. Market Street was a popular tourist destination and we wanted to see the sights and play with the lads. Naturally, Johnny’s parents refused our perfectly reasonable request. But after much begging and cajoling (a skill we had perfected down to an art form) they agreed and let us go, provided that Johnny’s fourteen year old sister Maeve accompanied us.

It was every lad’s dream. We played tag and pop-around-the-barrel with a group of local lads, as Maeve stood with her girlfriends and sniffed over our desperate immaturity. Johnny and I kept a close eye on her, and when her back was turned for a moment, we scampered off, headed down toward the courthouse to have our own adventure, congratulating ourselves on our daring and bravado.

We hadn’t gotten fifty yards down the side way when we heard the car bomb go off behind us.

We stared at each other for long moments, the shock turning our faces ashy white. Johnny sprinted off first, headed into the carnage, screaming for his sister. I was immediately behind him, but we lost sight of each other the moment we entered the boiling mass of people. The smoke stung my eyes as I pushed my way through, the fires that had broken out sending people into a panic. I stepped over falling, crying people, bloodied shrapnel, bits of masonry, bits of bodies. I fought the crowds, screaming for Maeve, for Johnny, for anyone, my voice lost amongst the hundreds raised, all crying for Jack, for Aodhan, Alan, Mary, Osla, Aoife, Michael, Padraig, Brigit. A swell of people pushed me to the cobblestones, and I lay there stunned for a moment, unsure if it was from the impact or from the bloody, charred arm that lay a metre from me.

“Oh god,” I whispered. “Oh god, oh god, oh god.”

But no god heard my prayer, nor did he hear the prayers of hundreds of other people around me screaming for their loved ones. I picked myself up and brushed the dirt from my jacket and trousers, and fought my way back into the crowd. I never prayed again.

I didn’t leave the town centre for another hour. When I did, Johnny was at my side, dusty and red-eyed from the smoke and from the sobbing. I looked down at the road as we stumbled away towards his home where his parents were waiting, oblivious to what had happened until Maeve came home moments before us, hysterical but unharmed. As I pulled my trainers from my feet, I noticed for the first time that the white leather strip above the soles had been stained a dirty, blackened red.

Twenty nine people died in the town centre of Omagh. Twelve of them were children and teenagers.

No one ever ‘officially’ claimed credit for the bombing of Omagh. But the acknowledgement came soon after nonetheless. They called themselves RIRA, the Real Irish Republican Army. They were Christian militants, angry about the recent Good Friday Agreement that had been signed back in April that had called for an unequivocal ceasefire between the opposing Catholic and Protestant forces. They had given the village of Omagh a warning earlier that day. They told them an inaccurate location for bomb, one that would push the evacuating crowds into the actual target zone.

My childlike faith was shattered that day, like a stone thrown through a cathedral window. The truths that I grew up with, that God loved me, that he loved all people, that we were his children and that he was watching over us, seemed more than silly as I was lying in the dust of Omagh surrounded by the dead and dying. Was God there? Perhaps. Did he love me? Of course not. No loving father willingly allows his children to be killed or maimed without action. I have heard every explanation that the Christians have thrown at me since then. That God was testing my faith. That he never promises to protect us. That our world is sinful and we must live with the consequences. And to each I say, show me a human father that would allow his toddler to stroll into a construction zone. And when that toddler gets an arm sliced off, he wraps his arms around it and says ‘I never promised to protect you. I knew what was going to happen, but I felt the need to remind you that my arms are safer than the world out there and now you know better than to walk away from me.’

That may be your god, but he is not my father.

Even though the illusion of a loving, compassionate deity had fallen away for good, it took some time for the same thing to happen with organised religion. I still attended Mass, took the Eucharist, listened to the homily. But now every time I heard a passage about Christ’s love, my mind swept me back to the streets of Omagh. And without that comfort, I began hearing those things that the warmness of God’s love had hidden from me. I heard the prayers for defeat of the Protestant militants. I heard the warnings about the ungodly, the apostates, the homosexuals, the single mothers, the divorcees. I went to the wake of a man who died from complications of AIDS and heard the minister proclaim ‘If any man here denies that this man is burning in all eternity in hell, I encourage him to examine his life and seek repentance with his god!’ The family had no idea what was going to be said and the brother of the deceased nearly attacked the minister. I found out later that the family never stepped foot in a church again.

And through this, I watched my fellow church-goers, listening intently, nodding. Praying. And the knowledge slowly took root in me, deeper and deeper, like the weed that grows between a crack in the walkway. That the men who had bombed Omagh had gone to a church just like this one. That they had heard the same homilies about the superiority of the Faith and the Protestant menace. That they had prayed, knelt, sang, just like I was. And that it had been there to lead them to take twenty-nine lives in a village an hour away. And the cold truth dawned on me. That every time I stepped in a church, dropped a few coins into the collection plate, took the body of Christ into my mouth, I was rubbing shoulders with the butchers of my people. With those who supported them. With those who had funded them.

And so began the transition from non-practising Christian to atheist. There was a four year venture among the Midwestern Lutherans stuck in there. I’ll touch on that later.

I’ve seen quite a few blog posts recently on why people, especially young people, are leaving the Christian church in droves. They range from everything from too many cliques to pastors wearing skinny jeans to the liberal education of the universities. But each one has totally missed what I feel is the biggest reason. Its’ the reason I left, why so many of my peers have abandoned their childhood dogma for good, and why churches are left half empty, desperately trying to lure us back in with promises of acceptance and meaning and healing for the hurts they themselves inflicted.

I left the Church because I could no longer associate with the sort of people who fill the churches on a weekly basis and still look at myself with any amount of respect. I left the Church because the tacit approval of remaining would have stained my hands with as much blood as once stained my shoes. I left the church because I have seen what hatred does, and I will not hate. I have seen what condemnation does and I will not condemn. I have seen what fighting the good fight has become and I will have no part of it. I have seen what it means to love the sinner and hate the sin, and I prefer to love the Christian and set myself in opposition to Christianity. It has a lower death toll.

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Onward Christian soldiers march indeed.

Epistle the First: In the Beginning.

My grandfather was an open, honest man. Like many men and women in the countryside of Connemara, he wore his emotions on his face without reservation. When he was happy, his eyes crinkled, when he was angry, his sideburns would quiver. There were only a few certainties in the childhood I spent growing up on the farm that he and my grandmother owned, but one of them was that I would always know what Granddad was thinking. And that when he spoke in his gruff, staccato manner, he would say exactly what ran through his mind, no more and no less. With one notable exception.

Whenever someone brought up the subject of his brother, my grandfather’s eyes would glaze off, like chips of ice. His face would turn to stone, his hands would idle over whatever they were doing. He would stand like that until the subject of conversation changed. Sometimes he wouldn’t move for long minutes afterwards. Finally his eyes would clear, his smiles would come easily again. The sun would rise and set, the tides would change, and I could almost forget that the icy spell ever occurred. But I never had the courage to ask him what had happened to my great uncle. Every time I talked myself into trying, I would remember the ice in his eyes and lose myself in my chores, cursing myself for been seven kinds of a coward.

It was long years until my grandmother set a pint of beer in front of me, stoked the fire and began talking. My great uncle had been young and newly married in 1981. His business was taking off, he and his wife were looking to start a family, they had just bought a new car, something that was still a novelty in certain parts of Ireland where we keep lorries working for thirty years. He seemed to have his whole life ahead of him. And then he made a terrible, terrible mistake.

He sold a horse to a Protestant. And Catholic militants from the Irish Republican Army found him and his wife, dragged them out of their car, and shot them to death. First her, so that they could hear him plead for her life. And then my great-uncle. They stole the car as well.

By the time I heard this story, I was thirteen and had been painfully aware of the Christian militant presence in my homeland for years. I never knew my great-uncle or my great aunt, but my family was a close knit unit, and I could see as clear as a cloud over the sea the pain my grandfather felt at his brother’s senseless murder. And I took that pain into myself and opened my eyes even wider so that I could see what was happening in my home. And over time experience and education fermented that pain into anger, and from that anger came a will to speak out.

The Troubles were a terrible time for Ireland. Academia will list the Troubles as the series of shootings, guerilla warfare, demonstrations, segregations, and terrorist attacks that plagued both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from the late 60’s till 1998. However, the Troubles didn’t happen out of the blue. They were the result of centuries of invasion, oppression and warfare. They are as complex and sorrowful as the history of Ireland itself, and difficult to fully explain in any form of brevity. Some will claim that they’re a result of history, of centuries of bad blood. Others will cite it as a geopolitical movement, opposition between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and British military forces. Still others will coldly denounce it as gang warfare between groups of malcontents and misfits who cared more for headlines than other people’s lives.

All of this is true. But at the heart of the issue, like a tattered standard waving over a bloody field, is one constant. Religion. Specifically, Christianity.

Not even my remote corner of Western Ireland was unaffected by the groups of militant Christians who waged war against each other. My village of Clifden, in County Galway, had been burned down by the Black and Tans (Protestant militants) decades before I was born. Clifden was a sleepy village, often called the “Capital of Connemara.” We spoke Irish, raised ponies for racing, played the tunes on Saturday nights. I went to Mass on Sunday for my grandfather, said prayers to the sea god Manannan and some of the other gods at night for my grandmother.

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The village of Clifden, directly between the mountains of magical leprechauns, and the forest of fiery redheads.

As I grew older, I began to hear more and more about the Troubles raging around us. In Mass, the priest prayed for the deaths of the Protestant oppressors of our Catholic brothers and sisters. On the television, I would see Protestants in the north burning the Tricolour and screaming for the deaths of Catholics. I began to learn more about what was happening in Ireland. Men and women killed for walking out of the wrong church. For marrying someone of the wrong religion. For suspected Loyalist sympathies, for associating with the wrong denomination, for simply being in the way of the true targets, and for no other reason that the Christians wanted some more press. Thousands of bloody, pointless deaths.

And then came Omagh. Nothing was the same after Omagh. But more on that later.

Can it be any small wonder that today I am an atheist? I have quite a bit to write about and a whole mess of blog posts planned. Who knows, I may actually get someone to read it eventually.

But let me clear up one thing right now. I am not an atheist because I am angry at God. Or because I love my sin too much. Or because I hate America, hate family values, and am determined to destroy everything that is good and right in the world. For everyone’s benefits, I’ll spell it out right here. I am an atheist because I saw the blood that militant Christians splattered across the streets of my home and swore that I would fight in any way I could so that what happened in the country of my birth would never happen in the nation of my adoption.

That nation is America, where I moved when I was a fifteen year old man. Just in time to start American high school. I ended up going to a conservative Lutheran high school at my mother’s insistence. By then I was already a non-believer, which just added to my collective oddity ( the fact that I called an eraser a ‘rubber’ in class one day didn’t help matters either). It soon became quickly apparent that the Christians in America were little different than the ones who terrorised my homeland. They had the same prejudices, the same hatreds for the same people, the same determination to see their religion triumphant at the cost of the rest of us.

As a result, this blog will mostly concern my own opinions and observations concerning American and European Chistendom. So before I get the cries of “What about Islam!? Why are they getting a free pass? Why don’t you comment on them?” let me say that I could and probably will criticise Islam at some points. However, I did not grow up among Muslim terrorists, I grew up around Christian ones, and I don’t live in a Muslim country, I live in a dominantly Christian country with a strong Christianist influence. It only makes sense for me to write what I know.

I am told that makes me a militant atheist. Mainly because I comment on many different blogs, and now I’m starting one of my own. Which really doesn’t make sense. Rachel Held Evans writes a blog and no one calls her a militant Christian. I’ve seen militant Christians. Rest assured they were not armed with copious amounts of coffee and a succession of fashionable cardigans.

I despise coffee, and my cardigans would give my poor mother heart failure if she ever saw them. Which I guess makes me the least militant atheist you will ever meet.

So ends Epistle the First.