I’m Dani Ward,

and I do lots of things.

For the Well-Meaning Christian

I know as a Christian, you’re really trying to be kind to me and people like me. I know you really want to interact with people outside your spheres in as loving and helpful a way as possible. And you know what? We’re totally on the same page with that! I think we could do such important work in the world around us if we can figure out a way to work together.

Unfortunately, we’re still running into a lot of communication problems. As a former Christian invested in making safe spaces wherever I can, maybe I can help bridge the gap between us a little bit.

The Stories We Tell: Purity Culture and Shame.

I had a very eye-opening conversation with my mom recently.

We were talking about my marriage to my ex, and she asked me if her hunch was correct that I’d have married him anyway if my parents hadn’t given us permission. (You see, in our iteration of purity culture, even as a 22-year-old adult, I needed my parents’ permission to marry.)

I thought a moment and answered honestly: yes, I would have still married him. Then I clarified, “I honestly thought I had to.”

“You didn’t get that from us!” Mom responded in astonished confusion. “You don’t have to marry someone just because you slept with them.

Let me state up front: that’s an entirely true statement. I agree with it 100%.

And yet it was my turn to be shocked.

Because that statement flew in the face the entire narrative of my first 20+ years of life..

The Stories We Tell: Purity Culture Edition

Purity culture: a definition.

As defined by the excellent No Shame Movement,

Within the conservative Christian context, purity culture is simply the view of any discussion of things of a sexual nature outside of the context of heterosexual marriage as taboo.

Those with in purity culture must adhere to a strict heteronormative lifestyle that forbids most physical contact with significant others, as well as engaging in self pleasure, or holding lustful thoughts about another person that is not a spouse. This view is generally enforced and policed by the family and church community. Purity culture includes an insistence on female modesty and responsibility to shield boys and men from sexual temptation.

To be blunt, purity culture is distinctly religious and sexist at heart. As Dianna Anderson states, “Purity culture is, in brief, the linking of religious piety with virginal status, particularly in young people, and the association of sin and shame with sex.”

As such, it operates with an awful lot of assumptions about the world and how people do and/or should belief and/or behave:

Great expectations: basic human decency.

In short: the lowest common denominator in all relationships ought to be basic human decency.

When Christians tell me that it’s not fair for me to expect them not to trample on my boundaries or treat me with disrespect for my autonomy as a human being, all I can hear is, “You can’t expect basic human decency from me or my people.” More than that, I hear, “You don’t even qualify as human enough for us to consider treating you differently.”

Christians? This is a problem.

How will the world know you as loving if you refuse to act lovingly? How can you say you possess the love of Jesus Christ when this is how you treat unbelievers? You claim that you’re no better than us, yet treat us like you’re the Designated Adult and we’re the naughty children you must put back in our places. You insist that for me and other unbelievers (or even liberal believers!) to write and live and share our authentic selves is a direct attack on you, and so you try to control us through silencing tactics and what you must think are counter-attacks. You can’t see the difference between someone being honest about who they are and someone exerting control over a person? How can you not see the disrespect of that? How can you not see the condescension? How can you pretend to be sharing Christ’s love when you refuse to see the image of God in anyone but those who look and think and act like you?

Despite being an atheist, I do think the Bible has a few nuggets of wisdom here and there. And one of those nuggets is this: “Let us not love in word…but in deed and in truth.” In other words, don’t tell me that you love me while showing me that you don’t.

Observations about relationships in Christianity.

What kind of foundation forms a lasting friendship, then? I mean, friendships are a pretty personal thing. There’s lots of aspects that are difficult to pin down, usually including compatible personalities, shared experiences, outlooks on life, mutually enjoyable activities, etc. I think those things are a given, no matter whether you’re a conservative Christian or not. But in my experience, the ingredients that point to longevity seem to be a pretty equal mixture of mutual admiration, respect, and trust. The Christian friends I have now who have been friends of mine for years weren’t my friends just because of our once-shared faith. We became friends through discovering and indulging in shared interests, sure, but we did it while demonstrating respect for each other’s individuality and personhood. Our personalities do click, but we also work hard to be empathetic, trustworthy, respectful people. We care about each other, what demonstrably makes each other’s lives more meaningful and fulfilling, no ulterior motives.

For the well-meaning Christian: the rightly divided word.

Conservative Christian men approach what I say in the exact same way they approach what the Bible says.

I know that’s quite a claim to make, but the more I reflect on how I was taught to approach the Bible and observe how these men approach my words, the more pronounced the parallel becomes. What do I mean, exactly?

  1. They isolate our words from the context in which they were written.
  2. Then they insist that neither context nor authorial intent can meaningfully affect a “plain reading.”
  3. Finally, they assert that any other interpretation is intellectually dishonest.

For the well-meaning Christian: humility in listening.

You’ll approach me with why you think I really stopped being a Christian, as if it’s a huge secret that, if you can just crack the code, you could make sure no one would leave the team ever again. And usually, much like this person said, you assume I just didn’t pick the right flavor of Christianity. Or I just didn’t really know Jesus. Or as a recent reader suggested, I just left the bad Christians behind but not Jesus.

You’re taking ownership of my story, mangling it beyond recognition, then insisting I accept your version rather than my own. You’re saying you’re a better judge of my experiences and life than I am. And when you suppose these things about my life and my beliefs, you are being incredibly disrespectful and unloving. Like Cassidy said. it’s like you grew up in a home where smacking someone upside the head was considered loving, and you’re now indignant that you can’t smack me, too.

I get it. I do. I did the same thing. I believed rather strongly that anyone who left the faith was never a Christian to begin with but had been deceived into thinking they were. And I wasn’t shy about this belief, nor did I falter in said belief.

Until it happened to me.

For the well-meaning Christian: credit to whom credit is due.

I think we really do a disservice to ourselves and the people around us when we attribute the good or bad things actually done by people to the supernatural, or even to some sort of intrinsic goodness like hard work. I don’t begrudge people the comfort they take in believing a divine creator has orchestrated their life to their benefit, or even wanting to believe that bad things have happened due to an invisible malevolent force. I just can’t help but notice how this tendency to credit the supernatural with what man or chance has wrought often serves to create a disconnect between us and our communities.

For the well-meaning Christian: on showing basic empathy and respect.

I really hope you can hear me out about what I am saying and what I’m not saying here, because I absolutely don’t expect any of you to stop talking about your faith in general. It’s such a huge part of your lives, and it’d be really unfair of me to expect you to keep such an important part of your life to yourself and never speak of it. That’s cruel and disrespectful, and would mean that I don’t really care about you in the first place. To borrow the spirit of the words of a friend, “It’s part of your life — and I like your life.”

This is where it could do you some good to learn a little empathy, learn to put yourself in my shoes for a little bit, so maybe you can learn what treating me with respect actually looks like.

To make it abundantly clear: why this atheist is invested in Christianity.

Part of me says, “You’re not a Christian anymore, so just ignore it. It’s not like it affects you anymore anyway.” But that’s not really true. There are lots of things about Christianity that deeply affected me for over 20 years, and when Christianity also tends to play a role in U.S. politics, it sure as hell affects me.

And the thing is, when I stopped believing in God, I didn’t stop caring about people.