Speaking of giving credit to whom credit is due, many thanks to Tamara Rice for helping me solidify some of my thoughts on this topic.
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”
I don’t have health insurance.
Haven’t had for 3 years.
I know this is a weird place to start, but bear with me, okay?
Despite the Affordable Care Act making insurance more affordable*, I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck all of my adult life. Health insurance is just one of many things simply out of my reach, along with things like dental care, a savings account, or regular car maintenance. Coupled with extreme anxiety in the face of scheduling any sort of appointment, let alone a doctor’s appointment, I let several of my chronic physical health problems go untreated for the better part of 6 years. Things like asthma, chronic migraines, and PCOS.
It wasn’t until I literally began to fear for my life after months of intense breathing problems that I found the courage (aided by my mom and my partner) to become a patient at the local free health clinic. I’m relieved and thrilled to report that now, all of my most pressing chronic health problems are receiving treatment, and I’m already seeing so much good from it all.
The reaction to this from many in my life who were deeply concerned about my health has been, “We’re so thankful to the Lord that you’re getting healthy.” In fact, the last time I was at the clinic and was given more treatment for various health problems, I breathed a sigh of relief and instinctively thought to myself, “Thank God.”
Don’t get me wrong, the phrase “thank God” is often just that — a phrase. It doesn’t always literally mean the person uttering or thinking it is actually rendering thanksgiving to a divine being. A lot of times, it’s simply meant to convey generalized gratitude. And for someone who spent over 20 years as a Christian, speaking the language of the religion, of course it’s an easy thing for me to say without thought.
But as I thought to myself, “thank God,” it occurred to me that who I really ought to thank were the volunteers at the clinic who were providing me with quality, compassionate care and treatment free of charge.
That’s why I make sure, during every visit, to express my deepest thanks to those who are volunteering their time, money, and attention for the health of the community.
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.
To God be the glory?
When I was a Christian, I remember being supremely thankful to God every time I found my way on the other side of a hardship, great or small.
Whether I realized it or not, I was giving God the glory for things that weren’t His doing.
I constantly downplayed my own strength (after all, I was nothing without Christ, remember). I constantly took for granted the generosity and support of those around me, because they were just tools God was using to minister to me. Not only that, but this viewpoint encouraged me to overlook the many privileges I enjoyed that helped me overcome hardships: privileges like relative physical and mental health, the color of my skin, the financial security of being part of a middle class family, the support of a community of like-minded believers, and my education, among other things. As a result, I often lacked the perspective required to be truly thankful to those who helped me, to grow in my appreciation of my own capabilities, or even to take into account the luck of the draw of my circumstances. After all, God was providing. To Him be the glory, not any man. Right?
I think this tendency to thank God for good things comes from the distinctly pessimistic belief that goodness can’t exist apart from God; therefore, all good things must stem from God. (Once again, I must link to Dan Fincke’s excellent essay on the topic.) In my former branch of Christianity, we often referred to Mark 10:18 when talking about the possibility of intrinsic goodness in humanity. Not only was no one good but God, but we belived no one was capable of good.
Attributing goodness to God rather than recognizing it in ourselves or our fellow man doesn’t exactly promote healthy relationships. As Neil Carter says, “At its core, the Christian message—or at least the Evangelical Christian message—is anti-humanistic. Rather than affirming what is good within humanity, it begins with a condemnation of all that is bad (even resorting to calling some things “bad” which are nothing of the sort). In order to do this well, it must magnify in us whatever isn’t as good as it could be. It must focus on the human negatives, emphasizing every shortcoming people have.”
What if I had just said, “Thank God!” about my healthcare rather than recognizing it wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of many people volunteering their time, money, and resources? On the small, immediate scale, I wouldn’t have thanked my nurse as thoroughly as I did. Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, or even something largely noticeable to most people. On a larger scale, however, it would have allowed me to ignore the community of good people around me for the belief that God singles me out for blessings above others. It’s difficult to create a meaningful and healthy emotional bond with people when you believe both that they’re inherently evil and only tools in God’s hands.
This necessarily dovetails into talking about prayer and miracles, though I wish to only touch on those things a little bit. I think Cassidy says it best: “when Christians beg their god for a miracle, even privately, even desperately, even from the purest place possible in their hearts, what they are asking is for their god to ignore all the other people needing that exact help to help them.”
Put another way, when we claim that God has blessed us, we’re saying our situation was somehow deemed more worthy by God than the 21,000 children worldwide who died preventable deaths today, or the 293,066 victims of sexual assault last year (not even counting the children under the age of 12), or the 610,042 homeless people in the United States alone, or any number of other atrocities He apparently allows for reasons that are, of course, higher than ours.
Do we not see the arrogance of this sort of thinking? Do we lack the collective social awareness and introspection that would reveal such claims to be jarringly inconsistent at best? Or do we really think that every good gift comes from above in spite of the choices we and the billions around us and before us make?
Of course, maybe circumstances in our lives aren’t all that good. Maybe they’re being influenced by some…other…supernatural being.
Seeking whom he may devour.+
Plenty of Christians attribute lack of blessings or presence of trials in their lives or the lives of others to some lack of diligence on an individual’s part. This is just one of many ways Christians seek to make their faith conveniently impossible to disprove. Maybe there is sin in your life, or God is telling you to wait, or He is trying to teach you patience. After all, as Cassidy says, “When we mistakenly believe that our suffering has some supernatural purpose and cause, we start thinking we can influence the events that lead to our suffering.”
But there’s another possibility that never fails to astound me, despite the fact that I entertained this possibility regularly, though quietly, as a sincere Christian.
Satan wants to ruin your day, your testimony, or your life.
“The devil has certainly been playing mind-games with me.” #MyFundyJournal I forget that I SERIOUSLY thought stuff like this.
— Dani Kelley (@danileekelley) December 27, 2013
I’ve heard the devil credited for trying to tear a family apart when a victim of incest steps forward about their abuse. He’s also apparently interested in delaying the travel plans of God’s anointed, particularly if they’re going somewhere to colonialize the heathen…I mean, to do God’s work. Did you know that Satan can cause car problems, financial distress, marital trouble, and health problems both physical and mental? It’s almost like Satan is the anti-god: just as powerful as the almighty, but totally out to get you.
Ignoring that this attribution of so much power to Satan utterly negates the so-called belief in an all-powerful God, there are more reasons this view is pretty awful and has serious real-life ramifications.
They’ll never own up to it, of course, but a lot of Christians use this excuse when they think that they’re too spiritual for sin in their own lives to be the cause of their problems. Being an atheist who finds the concept of sin utterly unhelpful, I totally think sin has nothing to do with it. But maybe it’s neither sin nor Satan, but the result of a decision you made? I mean, maybe Satan isn’t targeting you and dismantling your car because you had an important mission to accomplish for God…maybe you just ignored the “check engine” light for way too long. I’m just saying.
It ignores the autonomy of yourself and others.
In my view, this lack of awareness is part and parcel of Christianity. Nevertheless, attributing something to Satan that’s a direct or indirect result of choices that humans made strips people of all autonomy and responsibility for their own lives and their duty as humans to the community around them.
It encourages a lack of personal responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a “boot-straps” kind of person. I absolutely recognize there are social systems in place that provide a framework for circumstances to unfold in generally predictable ways. I also recognize that sometimes bad things just happen. But as I pointed out in the previous point, sometimes bad things happen because I made a bad decision. Whether I knew that decision was bad when I made it or not, the situation that unfolds as a result isn’t because God is testing me, and it certainly isn’t because a supreme fallen angel intervened in my life.
It glosses over abuse.
In any case of abuse — sexual, physical, emotional, financial, mental — please, please hear me out. Abuse is not Satan trying to tear a community apart or trying to get a stronghold somewhere. Abuse is the fault of the abuser, and to attribute that damage to anyone other than the abuser enables a system where abuse can flourish unchecked. This is damaging to individuals and communities both, and is a really frightening and unacceptable way of interpreting the evil things humans do.
It enables people to be unthinkingly insensitive.
I’m largely thinking of physical and mental maladies here, like the times when the Bible says Jesus or His disciples or apostles would cast demons out of people who seemed to be clearly exhibiting signs of physical or mental illness. In fact, because I noticed this correlation even as a child reading the Bible, I grew up believing most mental illnesses were demon possession** (or other Satanic influence, if the sufferer was a Christian — Christians can’t be possessed, of course). It’s what those who hold healing services exhibit when they tell various demons to be gone so healing can be enjoyed. It completely ignores genetics, circumstances, and basic respect for others. It views people as mere vessels and not whole humans, and treats them in a really creepy, voyeuristic and objectifying way. They cease being people and become projects, then stories we can tell to prove God’s greatness.
“Facts don’t care how you feel about them or what your religion is. They are the same regardless.”
Coming from the Plymouth Brethren, who tend to be decidedly more pragmatic in their admittedly fundamentalist approach to Christianity, was certainly helpful as I deconverted from the faith. I was used to looking at charismatic claims with skepticism — we didn’t put much stock in claims of a super involved Holy Spirit or Satanic influence. So it wasn’t as difficult as it otherwise might have been to extend that skepticism to all supernatural claims, even the ones I upheld. And as I began to rely more heavily on empirical, observable evidence, the more I realized that supernatural causes for natural occurrences just could never make sense.
More importantly than that, though, I began to be a more active part of my community both online and offline. The generosity of friends and family is no longer simply a tool in God’s kit, but is the result of human kindness. The harm perpetuated by systems of oppression, even in my spheres of influence, is no longer something I can just pray about or blame Satan for: it’s the clear result of the biases, bigotry, selfishness or ignorance of people individually and at large. Neither God, Satan, or my own hard work alone help or hinder my life — I recognize there are social systems and physical/mental capabilities I enjoy or suffer from that sometimes benefit me and sometimes work against me.
I’m no longer a special snowflake, chosen by God or targeted by Satan. I’m a person, actual and whole, and I’m part of a larger community that depends on its members to function. The health of a community isn’t determined by an invisible supernatural realm, but rather by the actions of its members. And that’s one of the strongest arguments for humanism I can think of.
*If you seriously just read the first two paragraphs and jumped to the comments to argue about “Obamacare,” your comment is going to be deleted. Just a heads up. It’s beside the point of the post and you can opine about it to your heart’s content on the social media of your choice. Just…not mine.
**The belief that mental illness was often caused by demonic influence is not a belief I shared with many people. That’s kind of how I did the messier bits of my Christianity: the beliefs I held that I knew were particularly heinous I tended to keep to myself unless asked directly, which didn’t happen often, to my utter relief.