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The Stench They Can’t Stanch In Cologne

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

According to a Gallup Poll, about 39 percent of Roman Catholics in the US attended church weekly in 2017. In 1955, that figure was 75 percent.

There is not, however, a corresponding drop in the church’s reported membership. One reason for that is Catholics are more likely to “lapse,” for decades, than to actually quit the church. Also, short of excommunication, the church almost never purges anyone from its rolls. But there are telltale signs of a thinning of the flock. One is the closure or merger of parish schools and, in some cases, the parishes themselves. Another, even more telling sign is the shortage of priests — which sometimes leads to closures.

Such a scenario seems to be playing out in the Cologne Archdiocese, Germany’s — and one of the world’s — richest. As in much of the Western world, Germany — and the Cologne archdiocese in particular — doesn’t have enough prelates. For decades, few young Teutonic men have heard the calling to the priesthood. Foreign-born priests filled some of the gap, at least for a time. But even with that influx from abroad — and declining attendance at mass — there aren’t enough priests to keep parishes open.

The Archdiocese has, therefore, announced plans to “restructure”: Church Latin for shrinking the number of parishes. How much? Under the plan, there would be 50 parishes in 2030. Today there are 500. In other words, 90 percent of the Cologne Archdiocese’s parishes would be gone a decade from now.

The Archdiocese would be divided into “communities” led by teams of priests and laypeople. In spite of declining church attendance, each of those communities would serve greater numbers of people over a wider area. That means people will have to travel greater distances to attend mass, or to partake of the programs and services the church offers. The greatest hardship would fall on senior citizens, children, and immigrants — who, perhaps ironically, are the people who are keeping parishes open, as the decline in church attendance is greatest among young adults.

Other German archdioceses have similar plans. The Vatican, not surprisingly, does not want them: It holds that a church can be led only by a priest, not by collaborations between prelates and laypeople. Some church officials believe that such arrangements will lead to greater power for laypeople — and a “back door,” if you will, for women to take more prominent roles and — egad! — priesthood.

German church officials call the Vatican’s rejection of their ideas “absurd,” “divorced from reality” and even “theologically deficient.” But their opposition comes not only from Rome, but from some of their fellow officials, German charitable organizations that have connections to the church — and schools.

Though Germany is nominally a secular country, in that it doesn’t have an official state religion, the Preamble to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany begins thusly: “Aware of its responsibility before God and humankind…” So, perhaps, it’s not surprising that public officials’ oaths end with “So help me God!” — or that members of Catholic and Lutheran churches (the two largest denominations) have a “church tax” deducted from their paychecks. That levy, not surprisingly, is one of the reasons why Cologne and other German archdioceses are among the wealthiest in the world.

To be fair, I should point out that tax also helps to fund social services, such as immigrant resettlement, provided by church-affiliated charities. Those organizations thus have a legitimate — as far as it goes — argument against reorganization, which could hamper the ability of the newly-organized “communities” to deliver those services. It also helps to pay for the upkeep of churches, which include such tourist attractions as the Cologne cathedral.

Oh, and the tax funds the religious education German children, to this day, receive in their public schools. Their parents can opt them out of it, but the consequences can be harsh for both the kids and parents. While there have been calls to abolish this practice, and German Catholics themselves are divided about the tax, church officials say the instruction and tax are necessary to “ensure cohesion” — which I read as keeping tabs on how many members they can claim. I say “claim” because, if you are affiliated with either church, no matter how infrequently you attend, you pay the tax. (It’s all but impossible, short of excommunication, to have yourself dis-enrolled from the Catholic church once you’re baptized).

It will be interesting to see how officials rationalize the continuance of this practice as the number of parishes decreases, and more parents opt out of religious instruction — both of which are inevitable as the church becomes less and less available to the people. That shrinkage will be further accelerated by the church’s inability to recruit priests.

So why is it that young German men don’t want to don the cloth? Well, I’ll pose a question to those of you who are parents: Would you tell your 18-year-old son that he must be celibate for the rest of his life? You might have an easier time if you’re living in dire poverty and celibacy is a ticket to an education and a better life. But, I suspect, such is not the case for most native-born Germans — or residents of most Western democracies.

Even if you and your family were destitute, knowing what you know today, how would you feel about sending your kid off to seminary? Would you blame him for fighting you?

So, the real problem facing the Archdiocese of Cologne, and other church jurisdictions, is that they’re not dealing with reality. Church attendance is falling, and young people don’t want to become priests (or nuns), not because of “loosening morality” or the Internet. As in neighboring countries, the U.S., Australia, and other parts of the world, generations of sexual abuse have come to light in Germany. If the Church could keep it — and its history of collaboration with despots and slave-traders — under wraps for so long, what use do the young — or other people — have for it?

The “restructuring” of the Archdiocese of Cologne will lead to lower operating costs for the new “communities.” But I don’t think it will stanch the bleeding out of church attendance and membership. If anything can save the church (and, I admit, I’m not rooting for such a thing), it has to deal with the real reasons why young people don’t want to attend — let alone become priests or nuns — anymore.

Masked in the City’s Bible Belt

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I think I’m recovering pretty well from my bike accident. Heck, last Tuesday I even rode the 5 miles to my follow-up CAT scan. I hope it will confirm that I’m as well as I think I am!

The day after, I went for another, longer, bike ride. I needed it because, well, I’m a nearly-lifelong cyclist. Also, I wanted not to think about the CAT scan and to think about other things: It was a couple of days after the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Now I’m going to tell you something you may have figured if you’ve read my previous articles: I live, and grew up, in New York. Even though parts of the city, through gentrification and hyper-development, are becoming more homogenized, it is still a city of stark contrasts. It’s still possible, in some areas, to enter a completely different world simply by crossing a street.

This is especially true in Brooklyn, one of the city’s five boroughs. Today the name is practically a brand that, to much of the world, signifies hipness (if in an overly self-conscious way). If you spend any time in the waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it’s easy to understand why: In cafes along Kent, Bedford and Driggs Avenues, where I rode, young men and women in tight jeans wash down their $15 slices of avocado toast (!) with $20 craft beers or cocktails.

These young people, nearly all of them childless, are hated or resented, or at least mocked, as “entitled millennials” because, for one thing, nearly all of them come from other parts of the United States and thus, in the eyes of some, can’t be “real New Yorkers.” (I would argue that is exactly what some don’t want to become. But that’s a subject for an entirely different article.) Also, many of them, even before the pandemic, didn’t seem to be doing any work to support themselves. The money for their avocado toast and drinks—and the condos in which many of them live—comes from elsewhere.

One thing I have to say for them, though: When they weren’t eating or drinking, nearly all of them were wearing masks. Of course, they weren’t covering their faces with those generic blue, white or yellow hospital masks: Some, I am sure, created their own face coverings, while others had them made by artisans or designers, whether in the neighborhood or elsewhere.

As I pedaled down Driggs, I rolled under the Williamsburg Bridge overpass as a train rumbled and clattered across. Many see the bridge as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, if you will, dividing North from South Williamsburg. One could also argue that Nostrand Avenue, where East Williamsburg begins, performs the same function. Like the line that separated the Union from the Confederacy, the areas north and west of the “lines” are richer, whiter and more educated (at least in a certain sense) than the areas on the other side.

My ride didn’t take me into East Williamsburg, though I ride into the area often. I will mention, however, that it is the last remnant of Williamsburg’s Puerto Rican community, which dominated the area for four decades or so after World War II. I did, however, spin my wheels south, into one of the two New York neighborhoods that most closely resemble a prewar shtetl.

I am talking about the part of Williamsburg below the eponymous bridge. The description in my previous paragraph is not an exaggeration: If you were to find yourself on the southern part of Driggs, or on Lee Avenue, late on a Friday or on Saturday, you’d have the place to yourself.

Since I was riding there on a Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t alone. The thing is, I was one of the few non-Hasidim in the area. Normally, I don’t mind that: At worst, I am ignored and can ride or go about whatever else I’m doing, undisturbed. On the other hand, the fact that I was cycling through the neighborhood on the day before shabat, I couldn’t help but to notice that I, and the other goyim in the area, were the only ones wearing masks. None of the Hasidic men and women covered their faces.

I noticed the same phenomenon as I pedaled further south, into Brooklyn’s other Hasidic enclave: Borough Park. There, I was even more isolated: I was, literally, the only goyim (all right, I’m an atheist; but in that community, any outsider is goy!) pedaling, walking or otherwise passing through the area. But that was not the only reason I felt as if I stuck out even more than I did in South Williamsburg: I grew up at the edge of Borough Park, where it borders Kensington. Half a century ago, when I was an altar boy (and manque transgender), the neighborhood was more or less evenly divided between Italian-, Irish- and Polish-Americans. Most of the men, including my father, were blue-collar workers who did as much overtime as they could so they could send me and my peers to the neighborhood’s Catholic school, which closed about 15 years ago. And we all went to the same church—which remains open mainly because of Hispanics who work in the neighborhood—on Sunday.

In my old neiIn my old neighborhood, none of the residents was wearing a mask. However, in a neighboring community, populated mainly by Bangladeshi Muslims, nearly everyone — male, female and otherwise — was.

I would like to think that the denizens of my old neighborhood would have covered their faces, if for no other reason than their reverence (really, a combination of fear and obsequiousness) for authority. The funny thing is that, for all of that they (and I, at the time—after all, I was an altar boy) unquestioningly obeyed our church and school, we knew enough to listen to secular authorities when they knew better. Unfortunately, my old neighborhood—along with South Williamsburg and a few neighborhoods dominated by Evangelical and Pentecostal churches—are this city’s “Bible Belt,” if you will. They believe that the power of their beliefs will protect them when the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci won’t. And even if their fealty to the Word of their God doesn’t keep them from succumbing to COVID-19, they believe that God (or Yahweh) “wants” them “now.”

Some pundits have, accurately, observed, that in the US, the choice to wear a mask—or not—during the COVID-19 pandemic breaks along political lines. In my city, though, it has more to do with religious faith—which, ironically is the political “fault line” in the Big Apple. My ride showed me on which side of the line I live.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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A Letter to My Friends: There is Peace Without Certainty

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Guest post by Bill Mathis. Bill retired from careers in YMCA camps and foster care. He is the author of four novels with two more in progress. The following is a revised letter he once sent.

Dear Friends,

Some of you asked how—after years of being an evangelical Christian, after being raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical pastor’s home, after raising my own children in the faith—how can I now call myself a secular humanist? An atheist. What happened to me?

The answer is a long one. I am working on an essay that goes into more detail, but it is taking some time. So, let me first address the comments that some of you were praying for my repentance.

Listen. My siblings and I were bred, born, suckled, weaned, and raised on a diet of Biblical literalism. We had no choice. We were not the only ones raised this way and I do not hold it against my loving parents. However, critical thinking about the Bible was not a part of our upbringing. And sadly, it rarely is in fundy-evangelical homes.

I’m a slow learner. (Save your comments, please.) Now, at age 72, my past 10 years have been a journey of personal exploration. In the process of recognizing and accepting I am gay, I sincerely investigated the Bible. At first, about homosexuality. However, the more I investigated, the broader my search became. You may not know or remember that in high school and college I was a journalist. One of my degrees is an associate’s in journalism. In my explorations about the Bible, I tried to keep the five W’s and an H in mind: who, what, when, where, why and how.

The more I read and the wider I researched, the more I came to recognize the importance of the writer’s culture and the context from which they were writing. This became even more meaningful when I began writing novels. Authors and editors write and arrange things to fit their point of view or desired message. I am now persuaded that the mostly unknown Biblical writers were not writing for us today, two to three thousand years later. And that applies to way more than just about homosexuality.

Some of you have prayed for my repentance. I have repented, but differently than what you prayed for. I must be honest and blunt. I am not repenting for being gay or living with a man I love.

However, over time, I have repented for the years I worshipped the Bible—for not recognizing it was written by bronze and iron-age men trying to figure out life while they clung to their tribalism. By men who were trying to survive occupation, who often were trying to control others as they passed down myths and legends. Some stories were mythologies from other cultures and past centuries. Some were from word of mouth shaped to tell a story, prove a point, and were not based on the evidence, or the lack thereof. Naturally, their god had to be the greatest and the most miraculous.

I regret never questioning how those writers, and they alone, could define God. I didn’t ask myself why our religious beliefs are primarily dependent upon where we are born in the world. I never thought about why an all-powerful god didn’t reveal himself/herself to the entire world in a message each person could understand and then choose to accept or reject. I stuffed my concerns about the evidence of science proving the ignorance of the Bible’s authors. Ignorance not because of their stupidity, but because they didn’t have the information that has since accumulated. I never questioned that the New Testament writers may have had differing agendas, even what years their works were written or in what order chronologically. Why did I trust and consider the words of ancient writers over the proven results of science, medicine, archeology, anthropology, history, and all the other ‘ology’s that explain our solar system, our earth and our history?

More so, why did I assume the theologies and precepts of fundamentalism and evangelicalism were the only way to God?

Lastly, why was my sense of judgmental, evangelical superiority of knowing the only way to God so strong? For that I am truly sorry.

I came to realize that most of my beliefs were just that. My beliefs.

I no longer take the Bible literally. There’s too much evidence to take it literally. However, I do try to take some of it literately. Literately, it contains beautiful, inspiring collections of poetry, history, dreams, myths, truths and stories written by men based upon their lives and experiences at their time in history. The Bible is also filled with immorality, prejudice, genocide, and it supports slavery and theocracy—to name a few negatives. Those ideas, visions, superstitions and stories were eventually compiled through a political process to become a religion enforced by government and power.

Valerie Tarico, an author and blogger I highly recommend, writes that moving away from fundamentalism is like peeling an onion. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Slowly stepping away a layer at a time from idolizing something man made. Today, for me, we have too much information, knowledge, and facts to blindly cling to and insist on millennia old beliefs and fears.

So, again, that’s where I’m at. Even with my layers of fat and lack of former beliefs—with one foot on a banana peel and the other near the grave—I am at peace and content with my life. More so than ever. And I’m not done learning!

That’s why it is my desire for fundies and evangelicals to peel their fingers away from their eyes and step back – just a little– from the intensity and certainty of some of their beliefs.

There is peace without certainty.

Take care,

Love,

Bill

She Knew Me

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

For the past month, I’ve been recovering from a bike crash.

After getting stitched up in a local hospital, I was transferred to a larger facility with a trauma unit. Just after I arrived, a doctor asked me a series of questions about my health: No, I’ve never smoked. Yes, I drink: one or two glasses of wine or beer with supper, and spirits on rare occasions. No serious or chronic illnesses. Two surgeries: the first, twenty-five years ago, for a deviated septum; the second, fifteen years later, to align my genitals with my gender identity.

Thankfully, no one raised an eyebrow over my last answer. I think he, and the nurses in the room, realized that I was speaking slowly because I was tired and in pain, but that I was coherent. Ironically, that may have been exactly what raised that doctor’s alarm when I unequivocally answered one of the mental-health questions: Yes, I have attempted suicide. But, I explained, not recently: I tried to kill and caused other kinds of harm to myself because of some experiences—including sexual abuse—in my childhood.

The doctor called in someone else —a psychiatrist, I believe. They asked, several times, whether my accident was not an accident. I insisted that my mishap was just that: an unfortunate circumstance. One of the nurses, a native of a Caribbean island, looked into my eyes. She interjected: “No, she wasn’t trying to kill herself. And she’s not going to try anything like that now.”

The other nurse in the room—also from the Caribbean—nodded. The doctor and psychiatrist stopped their conversation and note-taking. The psychiatrist glanced toward them, then at me. “I don’t think she needs to be under watch,” he declared. The doctor scribbled something, which I took as agreement.

Then he asked whether I wanted a chaplain. No, I’m not religious, I explained. I didn’t mention my atheism because I didn’t want to risk a debate for which, at that moment, I didn’t have the energy. I glanced back at the nurse who advocated for my sanity. She looked at me, knowingly.

Two days later, I went home. The nurse and I have stayed in touch. “It was a priest, wasn’t it?”

She didn’t have to pose it as a question. She knows; I think she knew it that night we met in the trauma center.

I’d like to know how she knew. Or do I already know?

My Experience with Religious Fundamentalism and Bipolar Disorder

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Guest post by Steve

For 18 years, I considered myself a Christian. My family raised me in the Disciples of Christ denomination, generally known as a progressive and inclusive branch of Christianity. Love, service, and respect for others were baked into the framework of my parents’ religious philosophy. So too were dysfunctional aspects of Christianity, such as taboos around sex, drugs, other religious frameworks, et cetera. For sixteen years I lived relatively peacefully under such a framework and the moderately strict rules it imposed.

That would all change shortly after my sixteenth birthday. For some reason, I felt the urge to dive deeper into the tenets of my faith. Enter the Internet, which, as of 2009, was a long way from the juggernaut it is today. Feeling as though my parents’ and grandparents’ explanations of biblical concepts were lacking, I turned to Internet websites and forums, as well as a teen study bible my grandparents had found on their doorstep one day and given to me as a gift.

That would turn out to be one of the most painful and consequential mistakes I would ever make. After reading through the study bible and its perverted explanations of biblical phenomena and excuses for genocide and murder committed in God’s name — which I didn’t notice at the time but can see oh, so clearly, now — I went down rabbit holes on the Internet, looking up the answers to important questions such as, “Is it a sin to listen to secular music?” among others.

My readings left me isolated from my family, feeling as though I had discovered the truth and could not admit it to them. This caused a great deal of tension in my relationship with them, as I began to believe that if I wanted to be a true Christian, I should cut myself off from my family and their liberal interpretation of the Bible and seek the companionship of others who believed as I did.

However, my beliefs did not usually translate to actions. There was a powerful dissonance between the person I was up until I stumbled upon all of this poisonous fundamentalist posturing and the person I was afterward. I did not think to question my beliefs, thinking that doing so would be a blasphemy towards God. Instead, I lingered in them and the conflict between my two selves — one a burgeoning fundamentalist and one a rational secularist — came to a head. It was truly as if the devil and god were raging inside me, and their warfare tore me apart.

I can vividly remember the crushing pressure in my chest from those early battles, a pain so fierce and unrelenting that I would fall asleep in the middle of class as my body started shutting down to escape it. I was stuck in a limbo, but I could feel the flames of hell eating away at my soul. I vividly believed that if I did not give up everything I once loved, the secular pursuits that did not glorify God, I was hell-bound.

My rational side fought like hell to keep my rising fundamentalist zeal at bay. For the most part, I excelled in school, bringing home As and Bs with every report card. Yet I felt isolated from my peers. I attempted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I am so grateful to say that they did not manage to get their claws into me and I bowed out after several meetings.

I cannot pinpoint when exactly my mood started to shift, but after several long and arduous months, I began to feel good again. I started to put myself out there and make friends. By doing my best to intentionally avoid the bible and all forms of fundamentalist rhetoric, I began to feel somewhat normal and happy. However, maladaptations would present themselves. I would become obsessed with certain girls as a coping mechanism, a way to cling onto the unstable safety of my current state. The flames of hell were further below, but I could still feel their heat. Magma still churned in my chest.

I had to cling to something for dear life, and as a male adolescent with a decent sex drive, I chose women. Now mind you, I was 270 pounds at the time, so I didn’t have a good shot at all at getting most of them. My social skills were also substandard. I was definitely what you would call a nerd, maybe a geek, and it showed. Still, for a few months, I felt good enough to resume a normal pattern of activity and engage in the secular pursuits I once felt so guilty about.

In the same vein, I cannot pinpoint exactly what pulled me down again. While this depressive episode was shorter and somewhat milder than the last, I desperately wanted to escape. That escape would come in the form of a forum one of my classmates showed me in the library one day where an “alien” delivered sacred knowledge to the world. After reading this, my mind latched onto it and used it as a weapon to beat back the flames that were once again searing my soul.

This time the depression may have been milder, but the high was even higher. I excelled in my last semester of high school. I visited seven colleges and got accepted to the college I wanted the most. I got all 5s on the three AP exams I took that year. My mind was as sharp as a tack, as clear as a bell. Everything clicked. Things just came to me. I was at my peak level of performance. It was an absolutely thrilling time to be alive and active in the world. I was filled with a spirit of hope and love. I graduated ready to take the world by storm, even if I had no clue exactly what it was I was going to do with my life.

Sadly, this wouldn’t last either. One Bible verse about not cursing later (I don’t remember which one it was and I don’t care to relive that again), I crashed hard. Instead of entering college feeling healthy and alive, I entered college a husk of the self I was just a few short months before, drained and lifeless and struggling to keep up with the myriad tasks and activities that come with the first few weeks of freshman year. I felt so alone and isolated, though I did try to reach out.

Several times, I was awfully close to embracing fundamentalism again, as the college I went to was in a fairly religious city in the southern United States and it was easy to find people who believed passionately in Christianity and to talk with them. I felt I would need to make a decision about what I was going to do soon, and I was leaning heavily towards embracing fundamentalism.

My lowest point in college came when I dropped a class without notifying my professor I was going to do so. I almost lost both my scholarships and had to pay back some $350 dollars to one of them. Thankfully, I was able to keep both of my scholarships all the way through college from that point on.

The end to all of this madness would come swiftly and miraculously. One day, after a three-hour class in which we had been watching a documentary, I decided to browse online to see what other documentaries were out there. That decision would change the course of the rest of my life. I was out of the house. I had my own laptop. I didn’t have parental figures hovering over my shoulder. I was angry as hell about being so depressed again, and felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided to watch the Youtube docuseries by a man named Evid3nc3, Why I became an Atheist.

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Approximately three hours later, my mind was shattered. Everything I had ever known was wrong. There were good, rational, justified reasons for not believing in God. There were good, kind people who did not believe. Hell, there were thousands of preachers who no longer believed! With this knowledge in mind, the knowledge that I did not need a god to be good or to live a good life, I gave Christianity and the toxicity of fundamentalism and evangelicalism the boot and I have never had good cause to look back since.

I am done with religion, even though religion’s effect on my psyche will always remain to some extent. I am free of the chains of dogma and ideology. I am free of the flames of hellfire, the judgement of a wrathful god, and the intercession of His son, who suffered a needless and preventable death on the cross for something nobody asked him to die for in the first place. Good fucking riddance.

The next time I was home from college, I came out as an atheist to my parents and destroyed the study bible that had sent me down this road to madness. Nobody will ever be infected with its poisonous interpretations again.

But my story is not done. For you see, nearly a decade later I have a new chunk of knowledge, a new insight that has rocked my world just as much as when I found out Christianity was not true.

A few days ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a mental illness in which your mood swings between a manic state (a euphoric, happy, joyful, blissful time) and a depressed state. I believe that my bipolar disorder was the cause of so much dysfunction in my life during my late high school and early college years. Looking back, my mood swings make so much sense when viewed through that context as I altered between hypomania (milder than manic) and depression.

One facet of bipolar disorder is that those who have this mental illness often suffer from delusions, which can come in both manic and depressed states. While I have never suffered from delusions in my manic states, I have in my depressive states.

And that has led me to ask myself: would I have been able to catch this disease earlier if not for the Christian framework that I believed for those last couple years of high school? I firmly believed I was in danger of going to Hell. I felt it so vividly. There was no way you could convince me that that belief was not a delusion. It was supported by the Christian cultural framework my life was based around at the time.

Did my Christian worldview mask my delusional depressive symptoms? That is definitely a question that deserves a lot more thought. Who else with undiagnosed mental illness is laboring under a Christian framework that amplifies and exacerbates it? Is it the preacher at the pulpit? The choir director? The youth pastor? The worship leader?

How many religious folks are undiagnosed simply because their worldview masks and adapts to their symptoms, leading them to believe that they aren’t ill in the first place while still struggling mightily through life and sometimes hurting those closest to them with their often inexplicable and unjustifiable actions? What if the true burden of mental illness is not fully known because of how well religion can adapt to it? These are all questions I hope to answer one day, or at least make progress towards answering.

Life after Christianity has not been easy. I’ve been to the psych ward, twice. I missed my college graduation after a major depressive episode that led to multiple suicide attempts before my roommate finally called the police and EMTs. I had a second stay in the ward this past September, due to another suicide attempt. No, life is not a cakewalk.

But that doesn’t mean I need to lean on God or religion to help me cope. I have friends. I have family. I have my own kind of faith in the world. I have myself and all the beauty and confidence I possess. And now I have closure about why I am the way I am and why I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t need fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or any of the baggage they bring, any less than I do now. All I need is to love — to love myself and to love others zealously. The rest will take care of itself.

If you think you may have a mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a mental health professional and discuss your symptoms as soon as you possibly can. Living with mental illness, especially one as severe as bipolar disorder, is no joke and we must take the needs of those suffering from any mental health condition seriously. For so long, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and now I do. You don’t have to suffer in silence. It may be a long road to finally get the treatment you need to live a relatively normal life again, but there is hope. And my hope for you is that you keep fighting and realize that you only have one life, one you and you alone can choose how to live.

Life in a Homeschool — Part Two

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Guest post by Ian

Part One

It‘s been several years since I wrote my original Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series. I had wanted to finish out my experience memoirs, but the homeschooling portion of my ACE experience still hit a lot of nerves in my life. There were a lot of flux and upheaval going on throughout my homeschool years. Dad started believing in Calvinism (or Sovereign Grace), we changed churches, we were put out of a church, my parents split up for a while and other generally disrupting things happened in my life.

Some of these things are still raw, even 30 years later. I have thought about writing this off and on for a while, but could never do it. Then Bruce had a post where someone looked at, but didn’t read, my ACE experiences. (Please see Fundamentalist Man Strains at the Gnats and Swallows a Camel.) I re-read what I had written and decided I needed to finish the story.

As you read this, remember that it is my story and my experience. People may have had similar experiences, but no two people process things the same.

This is the last installment in my ACE schooling series. The first four installments were about being in actual schools that used ACE curriculum, the last two are about my homeschooling experiences along with the use of ACE. 

In tenth grade, my parents decided to homeschool my brother and me. This was due to two issues: separation from the world (and worldliness of the churches we had attended) and my brother’s dyslexia. The one-on-one instruction helped my brother; the separation issue was another matter. 

Eleventh grade started out more relaxed than tenth grade. Although we were being held to school standards, we didn’t have to wear ties or recite the pledges of allegiance to the USA and Christian flags and the Bible. Morning devotions went by the wayside, too. A lot of learning how to operate in a homeschool environment had been done, so things were just much more relaxed.

That year, we did have a major change in the school schedule. The church school we were affiliated with and my parents both decided to use a trimester school year. This consisted of the school year being in three major sections, rather than two; each trimester was 12 weeks long, with one week off in between. The pastor and my dad used the argument that long summers off were only needed for people working on farms, due to tending cattle, weeding, etc. All I knew is that this was just one more thing that made me and my brother “unique.” No TV, no Christmas, no movies, no secular music, being homeschooled, trimester school year, yep, we were unique. But we were told that we were a peculiar people, called to show God’s light. I just wanted to be normal. 

Trying to explain all of these things to neighborhood kids was like trying to explain why you had 3 legs. They knew me when I went to the Christian school. That was no big deal, there were a lot of private schools in town. Homeschooling was weird for them, but they got used to us always being home. The trimester thing was almost too much for them, though. Our breaks didn’t coincide with their breaks, so I didn’t get out with them much. 

Schooling, itself, was better. I had a better attitude, which meant that I wasn’t in as much trouble. Math was easier, since I was taking a business math course. Social Studies was still a chore, though. The rote memorization was horrible. Speeches, quotes from documents, dates, wars, peace treaties, it seemed that there was no end to what I had to memorize. I spent many hours learning these things, only to promptly forget them, once they were no longer needed. 

English was something that I enjoyed. The literature portion used the books Adventures in Appreciation and Adventures in English literature. These books were a great relief for me. The stories weren’t all religion-based, and, because the books were ACE approved, I was able to read all of the stories in them, with no parental interference. I also became good at diagramming sentences and putting words together. Those skills have helped me greatly in my various jobs — report writing has been easy for me. I attribute this to all of the practice I had in chopping up sentences and then putting them back together. 

It was during this school year that our family was put out of our church. My dad’s constant need for separation and closely following the scriptures were causing issues. That is a whole different story, but things finally came to a head that year. The fact of our being put out of the church was literally just ahead of my dad saying we were leaving. Kind of like the boss firing you before you could quit. 

We finished the year out with no other great issues. Just a couple of kids on with a weird school year who suddenly weren’t going to church anymore. Yep, the neighbor kids noticed that, too. 

Twelfth grade brought some big changes. I was no longer required to wear dress clothes to school and scripture memorization was a thing of the past. We went back to a semester school year, too. My step-mom got a job that year, so my brother and I were left to do schooling by ourselves. Now the conflicts came from me trying to make him do his work. I was responsible for making sure things got done, and I took it seriously. Probably a bit too seriously, but that is what older siblings are for. 

During the school year, I started working for my grandparents after school, as well as working part-time at the construction/environmental company my dad worked at. I would rush to get my school work done and head off to work. Fortunately, my senior year was a pretty easy year. I was able to get things done quickly, usually before lunch. My poor brother would be stuck doing his stuff, though. He had a hard time that year. I helped when I could, but I was doing my own stuff. 

In the middle of that year, my dad and step-mom split up. The weeks leading up to this caused a lot of friction at home. My brother and I stayed with Dad, while Mom moved out. It was about this time that Dad’s work started taking him out of town on a regular basis. So, my brother and I spent a lot of time staying with other people while Dad was out of town. 

By the spring of my senior year, I was working every day, part-time. School in the morning, work in the afternoon. Brother left behind. Not good. Looking back, I am amazed at how well he did on his own. I’d come home from work and help him with whatever he needed. We got him through the year, but he did a lot of it himself. 

On my final day of school, I took my last test, scored it, put it up for my dad to review, and headed out to work. I remember that I stopped by a hardware store on my way to work and bought a carbide scribe pen for a project I was doing. I’ve still got that scribe, and use it quite often. My graduation was just another day in my life. 

A week later, some friends had us over for dinner and a graduation cake. The wife gave me a couple of pencils with my name on them and a scripture-based graduation card. 

This finishes my personal experience with ACE, through regular and home school. I’ve tried to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned a lot using ACE, but I also know that I missed out on so much. Literally 2 years ago, I was in a museum looking at Chinese exhibits. The dates given coincided with the time of the Exodus. It hit me, like a ton of bricks, that I had never given any thought to what else was happening in the world while reading my Bible stories. All I knew was what I had been taught by a narrow, prejudiced system. 

Math and English were okay for me, but that system won’t work for everyone. 

Spelling was easy for me. 

Social Studies was a joke. I learned so many things that were either twisted to fit a narrative or outright lies. Very little that I learned has been applicable in any way. It was only after studying history for myself that I began to have an understanding of how and why things are the way they are. 

Science made no sense because it didn’t have a grounding in real world application, for me, anyway. It wasn’t until I started working in a job that required using chemicals that I really began to understand those principles. 

The scripture-based studies, Old and New Testament Survey, Life of Christ, etc., are pretty much useless in the real world unless you are going to have a job at a church or Bible college. 

Those of you who have gone through ACE will be able to relate to my experiences. Those of you who haven’t will just shake your heads. Thank you for following along, though. 

Thank you, Bruce, for allowing me to share. 

Liberty University Ignores Counseling Intern Sarah Leitner’s Abuse Claims, Expels Her Instead

sarah leitner

Sarah Leitner is a regular commenter on this blog. What follows is her story about being abused while a counseling intern and how Liberty University ignored her personal and legal appeals for help. You can read more about Sarah’s story at the Thou Art the Man blog.

From Fall 2015 to February 2016, as a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision student [at Liberty University], I was a counseling intern at a Navy brig. Due to my site supervisor’s actions, I feared for my life on two occasions, leading to PTSD. Many other occasions were filled with lower levels of abuse. Simultaneously, my daughter’s mental crises worsened leaving me with constant crises at an abusive internship site and constant crises at home.

Dr. [Melvin] Pride, the Clinical Supervisor at Liberty University and part of the leadership of the Counselor Education and Supervision program, refused to assist, even as I described the unsafe situation in multiple emails, including an email in mid-February 2016 where I explicitly stated I was not safe. Often it seemed as if Dr. Pride did not read my emails as he responded late or not at all. Sometimes he would respond to crises with irrelevant statements, such as how busy he was, instead of responding and/or removing me from the internship site. When I resigned from the site in February 2016, Liberty University continued to deny the abuse had occurred. I wondered how a professor who was supposed to have at least some experience with counseling trauma could miss the traumatic experiences I was undergoing, experiences that made me feel as if I was an indentured servant at the internship site.

In Fall 2016, after asking for an investigation from the department, Title IX, and multiple other departments of the University, I reluctantly went to a second internship site. Simultaneously, in Fall 2016 I filed a complaint with the Inspector General for the Bureau of Personnel (IG BUPERS) and again attempted to file Title IX within Liberty University. The Interim Dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences, Dr. [Steve] Warren, agreed, in writing, to postpone the final grade appeal until the IG Report was complete.

However, Dean [Lisa] Sosin, part of the Ph.D. program’s leadership, falsely told the IG that I had not reported abuse until I left the internship site. Based on this as well as statements from the offenders, the IG closed the complaint in late December 2016.

Simultaneous to the IG investigation, in November 2016, I attempted to withdraw from the internship course, now taught by Dr. [Mary] Deacon, due to the PTSD and my daughter’s quickly deteriorating mental health. The request was quickly denied. I was forced to continue the internship. I would find out later that Dr. Sosin had told the Investigator that I had not said I had been abused at the site while I was at the internship, despite the many emails I had sent to her and the department.

Around December 5, 2016, days after I found out my child was not safe at school and had been assaulted daily at camp in Summer 2015, Dr. Sosin and the leadership of the Ph.D. program – likely Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride – sent me a letter of concern with many inaccurate statements. The letter also stated that all of my grade appeals were over even though one was remaining. When I emailed Dr. Sosin, I was not allowed to dispute the inaccuracies. I abandoned the last, final appeal with Dean Warren because I believed I would be expelled if I continued that appeal.

From late November 2016 to January 2017, I was an intern for Win4Life, working at Shield Ministries. This was arranged because most Shield Ministry clients lacked transportation to come to Win4Life. Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride were notified of this in December 2016 and did not reply. In December 2016, my supervisor at Win4Life and I met with Shield Ministries discuss how Win4Life could work with Shield Ministries in the future beyond my internship. At that point, my supervisor at Win4Life, myself, and Liberty University did not know that David Truluck was a sex offender as he was not forthcoming with this information. In late January, David Truluck of Shield Ministries texted me, telling me that he had to get board approval for me to be an intern there.

February 2017: My licensure supervisor and I notified Dr. Deacon that the Win4Life partnership with Shield Ministries would be dissolved due to the actions of an erratic individual (David Truluck). Even though Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride had previously been appraised of the situation in two emails, and had responded to one of the emails, in February 2017 Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride chose to expel me from the Ph.D. program when David Truluck at Shield Ministries denied a contract with Win4Life existed. Liberty University decided that Shield Ministries had been an “unauthorized” internship site, even though at that time Liberty University gave no guidelines or examples in the course manual that would give me, Win4Life, or any other individual any reason to believe I was at an unauthorized internship site. Although my supervisor at Win4Life and my licensure supervisor both spoke to Liberty University on my behalf, Liberty University refused to change its decision.

In Fall 2017, the official grade appeal process was completed. I attempted to file with Title IX on at least two more occasions. In early Spring 2019, due to a FERPA request, I received additional documentation from Liberty. The documentation I received from Liberty University due to my FERPA request was extensive, repetitive, often incorrect, and missing key details. Thus I do not believe this documentation was in compliance with federal law. I also found out, much to my surprise, that Liberty University had decided I had been “unethical” because I didn’t have a license as a counselor – when I did have one!

As my attempts to seek justice and to ensure the safety of future Liberty University students, I emailed Jerry Falwell on October 21, 2018, notifying him that I had been “ordered to return to an internship site where I was not safe,” and “was not allowed to withdraw from the internship course when I found out my child was not safe at school and had been sexually assaulted every day at camp 15 months earlier.” Furthermore, I asked Jerry Falwell, “How is it okay that mentioning a safety issue means I went round and round with the university and no department at the University has authority to do anything?”

Jerry Falwell responded on October 25, 2018, stating: “I have looked into this situation and understand that there are several trustworthy people at the University that have already been diligent in working with you. …” — which left me wondering who these people were.

On October 26, 2018, David Corry, general counsel for Liberty University, responded to me via email, stating: “…I am also aware of your allegations regarding our faculty interactions with the Inspector General… We are satisfied that at this time all your concerns have been handled and addressed appropriately…. Under the circumstances, any future communications you send may not be responded to by the University. We wish you well.”

Sarah is taking legal action against Liberty University. You can read Dr. Charlotte Murrow Taylor’s report about Sarah’s claims here.

The Blood is on Their Hands

bloody hands

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Three weeks ago, my cousin passed away.

I learned of his death in a text from his sister. Seeming to anticipate my question, she said it had nothing to do with COVID-19. Rather, he had fallen asleep for the last time.

By today’s standards, he was young to have died that way. Still, it somehow wasn’t a surprise: Given his condition, it’s almost surprising that he made it into his mid-50s. He never learned how to speak or feed himself; he never acquired the basic day-to-day skills most of us have — whether through instruction or osmosis — by the time we’re about three or four years old. Lacking in motor control, he could not walk without supervision, and even with help, those walks were brief. Other kinds of exercise were out of the question, so he — who was naturally big — became obese, which may have led to other conditions he developed.

For most of his life, he was institutionalized. In fact, he was a patient at one of the most notorious mental hospitals — Willowbrook State School, in Staten Island, New York — when a local Eyewitness News reporter exposed conditions that would have made Hard Times seem like Pollyanna. (I once told someone, only half-jokingly, that my cousin helped to make Geraldo Rivera famous.) At the time of his death, my cousin — whom I’ll call Randall — had been living in a group home for more than half of his life.

Although he didn’t succumb to COVID-19, his demise seems — at least to me — connected to a colleague, a student and a friendly acquaintance of mine who died that way. And their deaths all made me angry for the same reason.

My aunt was a devout Roman Catholic who later became an Evangelical Christian. When Randall was a toddler and his sister — whom I’ll name Lorinda — was entering school, they had serious problems. Randall, as I mentioned, wasn’t developing in normal ways. Lorinda, on the other hand, was very intelligent and articulate, but had difficulties that, as it turned out, were related to her vision. Then, as now, my aunt believed that faith and prayer could heal. That also meant that her children’s maladies were a signal from God that she had been, in some way, sinful. In the milieu in which I grew up — pre-Vatican II Catholic in a post-Vatican II world — such beliefs were still common.

Lorinda nearly went blind. Only intervention from a social worker got her the treatment she needed. That same social worker helped to secure a place for Randall at Willowbrook, apparently unaware of its dire conditions. To be fair, at that time, half a century ago, there was little, if any, effective treatment available anywhere in the US for profoundly retarded people.

My anger over what Lorinda and Randall endured at such a tender age re-surfaced with the deaths of my colleague, student and friend because, at bottom, one cause of their deaths was misguided and manipulated religious faith. One reason why leaders at every level of government in the United States have responded to the threat of COVID-19 in ways that were ineffectual, duplicitous, or simply callous is pressure from fundamentalist religious organizations, whether Evangelical Christian in “red” states or Ultra-Orthodox Jews (whose political and social stances are all but identical to those of Evangelical Christians) in large “blue” cities. Some of those leaders are fundamentalists; others, like the President, have allied themselves with the Christian equivalents of Wahhabis because they know their election (or re-election) prospects depend on doing so. That is why mayors, governors, and the President have been willing to throw science to the wind and allow religious gatherings — as if such congregations are any less likely to spread the virus than, say, a concert, art opening, or sporting event.

I am angry today because cynical, rapacious political and religious leaders are still playing on people’s insecurities, and stoking their fears, to inculcate them with disproved notions about who or what is causing illness and pandemics—and how to deal with those things. The blood of my cousin, colleague, student and friend is on their hands.

COVID-19 Is God’s Love. Deal With It

god loves you

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Yesterday morning, Brian Lehrer did a segment on how people are celebrating their holy days during the COVID-19 epidemic. One of his guests was Jacqueline Lewis, the pastor of a “social justice” church in New York City. Lehrer asked her how she squares her faith with the terrible inequalities and injustices the pandemic has exposed. She said, in essence, that “God has a plan” and that “while we may not understand it, we have to trust it” because he is a “God of love.”

She is far from the only clergy member, or believer, to express such sentiments. I don’t doubt the pastor’s commitment to serve the underserved or question the sincerity of her belief that her faith is central to her work. However, she did not — could not? — explain how a “God of love” allows people of color, immigrants and the poor to be over-represented among the victims and casualties of the coronavirus. 

Because we’ve all heard variations of what she said, I wasn’t disappointed. I was, however, angry. Later, I realized why: in her own way, she wasn’t so different from pastors like Rick Wiles or the fundamentalists of other religions who warn us that the epidemic is “God’s punishment” for whatever you care to name. While she doesn’t preach hate, she says that God’s “justice” can, in times like these, burden those least able to bear it. Rev. Wiles wouldn’t disagree. Nor would Pat Roberts, who said the devastating earthquake in Haiti was payback for their “pact with the devil” that allowed them to defeat their French colonizers two centuries earlier. (That “pact,” he said, is the reason why the island’s people have endured so much misfortune.) Nor, for that matter, would other preachers who claimed that any number of natural disasters were “divine retribution” for “sins” (like legalizing same-sex marriage) committed by people thousands of miles away.

In other words, they are all saying that God unleashes his wrath and sometimes innocent people are collateral damage. The only difference between Lewis and the others is that she says that we can’t understand, but we should trust, God’s will, while Robertson, Wiles and the others are basically telling us that God is like the parent who punishes his kids because he had a bad day at work and that we should just get used to it. 

Oh, and they tell us that we should continue to pray to God. Maybe, just maybe, he will listen to our pleas for mercy and justice. 

Or will he?

God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us

And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

It’s easy to imagine those lines coming from someone questioning his or her faith in the face of the current pandemic. Or the Holocaust. Or World War I. Or almost any other tragedy you care to name. As a matter of fact, they are part of a response to another collective trauma that bears at least a few parallels to our situation: the Black Death of Medieval Europe.

Those lines come from Piers Plowman, an epic poem that is an allegory of the narrator’s quest for a “true” Christian life in a world of medieval Catholicism. It is commonly attributed to William Langland, about whom little is known besides the fact that he witnessed the Black Death during his youth. Although the poem seems to be intended as a tale of the triumph of Christian virtue and charity, it often lapses — intentionally or not — into social satire. (Perhaps, not surprisingly, it also contains the first known literary reference to the Robin Hood tales.) Langland, or whoever wrote Piers, undoubtedly saw how some within the Church used the Black Death to exploit fears and prejudices about Jews, gypsies and “others.”

Those hatreds are not new. Nor, apparently, is the notion that God is an abusive parent who will tear the house apart and his innocent children might get hit with the flying objects — and that we simply have to understand that it’s “his way” and live with it. In Langland’s time, there wasn’t anyplace else to go if you left the church — that is, if you lived to tell about it. Likewise, they internalized the blame and shame and believed that their parents — and God — knew what was best for them.

Today we don’t have to accept the guilt of someone else being punished for sins or mere misdeeds we may or may not realize we’ve committed. In short, we don’t have to lie to ourselves about love or justice or mercy —whether God’s or a parent’s. And we don’t have to believe they’re listening when they’re not. All we can do is to listen to those who are crying and do what we can to ease their pain, and ours.

(By the way, here is the original of the Piers Plowman verse:

For God is deaf nowadays and deigneth not us to hear

That girls (children) for their guilts (sins) he forgrint (destroys) them all.)

Bruce Gerencser