Christian Radio Station Asks for Money in a Dirty Way


A friend of mine from college who lives in New Jersey saw this on her parents’ kitchen table a couple of weeks ago and sent this picture my way. She says it’s a post card advertisement for Star 99.1 FM, a Christian radio station in New Jersey. I really don’t have a problem with this radio station existing, or with them asking for donations from their listeners. I do, however, have a serious issue with what they’re implying through their word choice in this ad. It says:

“I was without a job for over a year and that was a very difficult time for our family of 4.

We really didn’t have extra to give, but God was tugging at our hearts to support Star 99.1 . Just two weeks later I found the job of my dreams.

God is good, faithful, and He keeps His promises. Thank you Star 99.1 for doing His work and for being His voice, hands and feet in the community.”


Look familiar? It reminds me an awful lot of something John Oliver talked about in his video on televangelists and their tendency to go after desperate people for monetary gain. Here’s that video in case you’re curious.

This is really despicable. I’m currently doing mundane temp work to make ends meet (in other words, not default on my student loans) and someone else in my position or a worse one might read this and think, well, I’m struggling financially but how about I make that worse by donating money! Clearly donating to the right place will get me the job I need.

I mentioned this to my mother, who’s a devout Catholic and a fan of our local Christian radio station, and even she thought this was making an inappropriate suggestion. Donating to a Christian radio station is NOT the same as looking for a job. It’s not the same as filling out applications and networking and revamping your resume and writing cover letters galore. I sincerely hope that no one, upon seeing this ad, thought “Well, I’ll have to skip dinner a few times but maybe God will fix my financial woes if I donate money!”

I know that’s not what the station means for its mail recipients to get from this ad. I also realize that the person making the statement in the ad about finding his dream job is supposed to be a listener, not a representative of the radio station. However, I’m also positive that someone who works for the station still had to look at the ad and approve it. Someone affiliated with them saw this and thought, “Yep. In today’s job market and economy, this is an appropriate way to ask for money.” That’s not OK.

If this had been an organization that wasn’t religious, I don’t think anyone would just stand by and consider this normal. But for too many people, this makes total sense. Of course God is waiting for you to donate to His radio station before giving you that dream job you’re looking for!

Have any of you seen similar examples of religious organizations appealing to desperate people for monetary gain? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


The Trouble with “Original Sin”

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

One of the many things a person raised in Christianity–especially Catholicism–may accept without a second thought is the concept of original sin. You likely know what that is: the sin of Adam and Eve, when they allegedly disobeyed God and got thrown out of the garden of Eden. Supposedly, they ate some fruit God said not to eat; it allowed them to know right from wrong, and suddenly they couldn’t live in the garden anymore. That was their punishment. That, and also every human being from that point on would be considered a sinner, stained with the sin of the first humans, until he or she is baptized. If you’re curious about the way Catholics describe the concept, you can read about it here. (They call original sin a “contracted sin,” which makes it sound like an STI.)

Here are a few major problems with Original Sin:

1) It involves punishing people for the mistakes of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-etc. grandparents.

In any other context, this would not be considered OK. There have been some pretty awful people in this world, but it’s generally understood that the only person who can be held accountable for a crime is the person who committed it, not someone who happened to be born long after it occurred with some relation to the criminal. If Hitler were known to have children, or grandchildren, or great grandchildren, they would not be responsible for what he did. They would only be responsible for their own behavior. This is how civilized society works.

2) It means that babies–who probably have never done anything worse than kick their mothers in utero at this point–are born with sin.

They’re too young to even understand the concept of sin, so calling them sinners makes no sense, especially since even Catholicism also considers 7-years-old, not birth, the point at which a child is responsible for his or her behavior. (This is called the “age of reason.”) Except, of course, their great-great-great etc. ancestor’s behavior. That’s the baby’s fault.

3) The Adam and Eve Story is so ridiculous that many Christians, Catholics included, do not take it literally.

I mean, it has magic trees, a talking snake, and a human being being made out of another human’s rib (seriously, that’s not enough material.) It’s not exactly the most plausible story in the Bible.

My dad, who is one of the most devout Catholics I’ve ever met, once told me that Adam and Eve isn’t necessarily the literal story of creation as it happened, but rather something more like a parable that’s meant to teach a lesson.

(What lesson? That knowledge of good and evil is a bad thing? That God goes a little overboard with his punishments?)

My religious education (CCD) teacher told me something similar, and another Catholic-raised atheist, actress Julia Sweeny, was taught to think of Adam and Eve as “a poem on creation.” (I think I’ve linked to it before, but it’s so good it’s worth linking to again. You can check out her deconversion story here.)

Which begs the question, how could it not be a literal story if it results in religious doctrine? Either it provides a valid explanation for the doctrine because it’s true, or it doesn’t and it’s not. This is not a pick-two situation.

What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


ABC’s What Would You Do Portrays Christians as Persecuted by Atheists

If you’re a big fan of ABC’s What Would You Do or are subscribed to Jaclyn Glenn’s YouTube channel, you may already know about this. Jaclyn explains it perfectly. I like this show, so I’m saddened to see it portray something so ridiculous that fits into the Christian right’s propaganda machine, and especially its persecution complex. Check out Jaclyn’s video.

I’ve just sent a complaint to ABC, and the video includes a link showing where to do that if you feel so inclined.

Thoughts on this episode, or the show What Would You Do in general? Feel free to leave a comment.

All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


An Atheist Explains why Catholics are Christians

Image courtesy of artur84 at

Image courtesy of artur84 at

There are a number of Christian groups that claim Catholics are not Christians, and the more I encounter this nonsensical idea, the more I bang my head against the wall.

Disclaimer:  I was raised Catholic and am now atheist, so that’s the experience I’m coming from with this. The arguments I’m using do come from Catholic apologetics, but in this particular instance, I think they actually hold some water.

Here’s the definition of “Christian” I was taught:  a Christian is someone who is a Christ-follower.

Simple. Basic. To-the-point. I think this is an extremely inclusive definition, to the point where fringe groups that Catholicism doesn’t recognize as Christian, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, still fall under the category of “Christian.” I think there can be some argument made for both sides when it comes to those groups,  but when it comes to Catholicism, there’s really no question about it.

To get into more specific details in order to narrow down a definition of Christianity, Christians worship the Abrahamic God, and use the Bible, both the New and Old Testaments, as their holy book. While not all take the entire Bible literally, especially certain parts of the Old Testament, Christians generally take the Gospel literally–it’s the story of Christ, after all. Christians believe Jesus is the son of God, and they believe he was crucified, died, rose from the dead, and will come again someday when it’s time for the world to end.

You will get some variation on things like the Eucharist (literal flesh and blood or a sign?), Mary’s virginity, creationism vs. actual science, religious icons, age of Baptism (adults or babies?), the garden of Eden (was it literal or figurative?), is there such a thing as Purgatory, and position on social issues like abortion, access to contraception, marriage equality, etc. There’s a pretty long list of differences. But if there’s one thing all Christians agree on, it’s Jesus. Jesus is the savior. Jesus is the reason for the season, and all that hooey.

Catholics believe in all those things. Catholicism is the trunk from which Protestantism branched out. To call Catholicism “not Christianity” is like calling a root “not part of the tree.” That’s such a Catholic thing to say that I’m a little embarrassed to write it, but I think in this case the analogy stands. You can read about Martin Luther and Henry VIII. The Protestant Reformation brought about the many branches of Christianity we see today. The Anglicans, (also known as the Church of England) hold a worship service that’s nearly identical to the Catholic mass. The Lutheran services are pretty darn close too (I’ve been to one). This is because their faiths branched directly off of Catholicism, and they retained a lot of the same practices and rituals. Then other churches branched off from them, and with each new branch that got further and further from the earliest one, new traditions were added and old ones were rejected. That’s why you can go to a megachurch and watch the preacher on a big screen between Christian Rock songs, you can go to a Pentecostal church and watch people “speak in tongues,” and you can visit the Amish and leave the 21st century behind. Christianity is practiced in vastly different ways from church to church, but they all believe they’re following Christ, so they’re all Christian.

This is the point where Catholics generally state that Catholicism is the form Christianity founded by Jesus, and its traditions have been carried on by the apostles through the priests and the hierarchy. I am among those who wonder whether or not Jesus even existed, but regardless of whether it was founded by Jesus or just a group of human beings, everyone generally agrees that Christianity had a beginning. It had early adherents. It had to start somewhere. Before the reformation, there was just “Christianity.” There was no need to have a separate name like “Catholicism.” There were no “Catholics” in 300 AD, or 500 AD, or even 1000 AD because it had always been one group (I’m oversimplifying a bit to skip the orthodox churches, but you get the idea.) Once the split happened, there needed to be a unique name for the religion that stayed as it had always been.

While I’ve made plenty of posts bemoaning the Catholic Church’s refusal to keep up with the times, their rigidity really helps this particular argument. If you’ve ever sat in a western civilizations history class, you’ve probably learned about the church hierarchy as part of your study of medieval times. And you know what? The church has the same hierarchy today, the same structures, and the same basic rituals with only minor changes (like saying mass in the vernacular instead of Latin). All in all, Catholicism is as Christian as the Anglican church, and its people are as Christian as the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherens, the Evangelicals, the Amish, the Mennonites, and the whole kit and kaboodle.

Don’t get me wrong. I despise the Catholic church, and wish they would get with the times and stop raping children and covering it up, but if there’s one thing I’d like to impart to its critics, humanists included, it’s that they are definitely, without a doubt, Christian.

Have any of you encountered this “Catholics aren’t Christians” idea in person? I seem to only encounter it online, at least where I live. Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


When Christians Aren’t Biblical Literalists: a Video Recommendation

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Blimey Cow. Yes, they’re Christian. They’re also former homeschoolers, so they get me. They’re pretty down to earth, and they seem to genuinely use their brains. Their content walks a fine line, avoiding topics that would offend most liberals and conservatives alike, and I generally get the sense that regardless of what their religious beliefs are, they like to observe the way things genuinely are, things everybody knows are there, and talk about them. I get the impression that they aren’t literalists when it comes to the Bible. Sometimes their own religion isn’t off limits, and I appreciate their openness to talking about that. Their latest video is a great example. It’s called “Five Awkward Things in the Bible,” and I think the points they make are spot on.

If you’re a homeschooler or know any homeschoolers, they’re known for their “You Might be a Homeschooler If” videos. Here’s the first one:

The Exclusivity of the Catholic Pro-Life Movement

Found this photo on an old phone of mine. I believe this is from the 2008 March for Life, which was extremely well attended because Obama had just been elected for his first term.

Found this photo on an old phone of mine. I believe this is from the 2008 March for Life, which was extremely well attended because Obama had just been elected for his first term.

I used to make it no secret that I was, as I used to say, “vehemently pro-life.” In the past year, since my deconversion, my opinion on abortion has evolved significantly. I’m definitely in the pro-choice camp now.  With that being said, I used to be a proud member of the Catholic pro-life movement. I’ve attended the Washington D.C. March for Life twice (I took the above picture at one of them several years ago), and prior to my deconversion I had every intention of going again. In high school, I was president of a teen pro-life club in my area, and sometimes joined prayer groups outside of abortion clinics. There’s something about the pro-life movement today that I discovered during my time as president of that pro-life club in high school, and it’s something that still bothers me about the movement, at least in the areas of the east coast where I participated in protests:  it’s predominantly Catholic, to the point of near-exclusivity.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of non-Catholic pro-life organizations. But in my experience, the Catholic ones seem to have the loudest voice, the most prominent posters and protests, and the biggest groups.

Some of that may be thanks to the fact that being pro-life is part of Catholicism. It has literally been written into the religion at this point, so much so that throughout my Catholic upbringing, I often heard my parents and their church friends declare that they vote primarily based on whether or not a candidate is pro-life. “That’s the biggest issue,” they would say. “Everything else comes second to that.”

Naturally, a religion like that would easily band together to protest what they believe is a terrible injustice. But they aren’t the only ones who think abortion is wrong, and sometimes pro-life organizations run by Catholics, even ones that aren’t affiliated with a particular church and exclusively seeking out Catholic members, can end up being fairly exclusive. Take the club I ran, for example.

It was fairly small. About 10-20 members. Because of this, we were always looking for ways to get new members. Some advertised to their parishes (we came from several different ones). Others proposed inviting Catholic homeschoolers they knew. I, however, suggested something that shouldn’t have been terribly radical:  why not just invite pro-life friends, regardless of whether they’re Catholic or not?

I was met with blank stares, and some mumbling about how we weren’t a secular organization.

“I don’t know if non-Catholics would fully agree with our message,” one person said.

“We pray at the beginning and end of meetings. How would we do that with non-Catholics?”

“We could branch out to just Christians at least,” I suggested. “Come on, we could read Bible verses and say the Lord’s prayer. Most Christians wouldn’t object to that.”

“We pray the rosary in front of abortion clinics. We’d have to change that too.”

“So? We could still pray, and we’d have more people doing it. They worship the same God we do.”

“I don’t even think I know anyone who isn’t Catholic who’s pro-life,” one member said.

“I do,” I offered. “She’s a really  nice person, and I’m going to invite her.”

But I never did. I was too stunned by the negative response I’d received. Too surprised that a club I had thought was focused on a political, not a religious agenda, would rather be exclusive than increase its membership.

A popular pro-life poster from

The club didn’t last long after that. Dwindling membership as some went off to college, and dwindling interest wore us out. But I did talk to my pro-life protestant friend a bit once, just to see what she thought about protesting with Catholics. Her response shocked me. I had been taught that I was part of a pro-life generation, and that most young people were pro-life. It wasn’t mainly Catholics, I was sure of it. She said,

“I’ve been to the March for Life before. It was mostly Catholic people. I felt really out of place.”

“Would you consider going again?” I asked.

“Not really. There are other ways to protest. I agree with the people protesting there but it felt so weird that everyone was Catholic. They were all praying the rosary and stuff.”

And suddenly I understood. At the time, I didn’t realize that not as many people in my generation are pro-life as I had been taught to think. But I did realize what was happening. My movement, my glorious movement to save the babies, was being run by too many people who couldn’t let go of their religious superiority complex long enough to partner with people who agreed with them, but didn’t necessarily share the exact same faith. I’m not saying this validates the pro-choice argument, or invalidates the pro-life one, but this is not the way to run a movement. Seriously people, if you want something to happen, you need to partner with all kinds of people. You need to secularize your argument so you can appeal to non-religious people, but more importantly so that your argument doesn’t involve anything that conflicts with the first amendment.

The word “secular” was thrown around my club like a negative thing, but it’s the type of government we have for a reason.

Have any of you been involved in the pro-life movement, or another political movement that gets bogged down by faith?

Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


My Childhood Delusion

Image courtesy of jannoon028 at

Image courtesy of jannoon028 at

While growing up in a devout Catholic home, I encountered a lot of stories glorifying belief without evidence. A common theme running through children’s books and movies is the notion that belief itself can lead to something real, something tangible. I firmly believed that, and that led to some pretty ridiculous beliefs.

I thought fairies were real, and engaged in some major conflicts with evil witches.

Yep. Fairies like Tinkerbell. I thought that was real.

If you remember play-acting as a child, you might be able to picture how that came to be. Sometimes the lines between play-acting and reality can be blurred. While I always knew what was real and what was not when I was the one leading the game, it was much less obvious when a friend of mine lead the way. From the age of six to when I was about nine or ten, I encountered several friends with pretty wild imaginations, and over the years, their play-acting solidified into its own belief system in my mind.

The first friend who contributed to this was Jackie. She liked to watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a totally harmless show my parents hesitated to let me watch because it had the word witch in the title. I would watch it with her when I went to her house, and then we would go play in her backyard–and that was when she would spin the  most elaborate fairy stories. She pretended that circling a tree three times could take us to the fairy world, and even though the world around us never changed, I believed in the power of imagination, and willed it to be real. I thought if I just believed hard enough, maybe it would be as real as the food that the lost boys eat in Hook. When I took a good look around us, the bush we hid behind to evade “evil witches” was still just a bush, not a magical shield, but maybe it was a MAGICAL bush, and I just couldn’t see it, kind of like how when the bread became Jesus at mass, it didn’t change in appearance at all. If that was real, couldn’t this be too?

Jackie and I stopped attending the same dance academy, so I stopped playing with her. But my neighbors down the street were always around. There were three of them, all older than me. One day, one of them came over and played a game with the magic wand my parents had bought me when we went to Disney World that summer. It had a blue handle with a five-pointed star on one end, and the star was covered in glitter. It was as close to magic as any toy I’d ever owned, and my friend scooped it up and waved it over my head.

“It’s time I showed you the fairies,” she said.

“The fairies? Where?”

“In the tree, over there.” She pointed to the enormous beech tree in my front yard. It had had one of its branches removed at some point, and the place where the wood was exposed had a hole where some of it had rotted away. The hole was too high for me to see into it, but my friend could reach. She swiped it with her hand, which she gingerly carried over to mine, and tipped it ever-so-slightly, as one does when passing a firefly on to a friend. I cupped my hand over hers and looked. “What is it?”

“You don’t see it?” my friend seemed incredulous. “It’s a fairy tree. You’re holding a fairy.”

“No I’m not. I don’t feel anything.”

“Open your eyes and believe.” She insisted, and touched me with the fairy wand from Disney World.

Now, I already suspected that wand was magic. When she said that, something clicked. I think it was because she used the word “believe,” a word I associated with my faith.  Believing was a concept I had been encouraged to stick to no matter what. I was supposed to believe. Belief was a good thing. If my friend said fairies were real, I should believe in them. If my parents said Jesus loved me, it was true; he was real. I should believe them.

So I did.

“I think one spot on my hand’s a little lighter than the other ones–do fairies glow?”

“Yes, they do!”

“I think my hand feels a little heavier too.”


“I believe in fairies!”

My friend was playing, but I truly, genuinely believed. I believed in fairies, and witches, well into the years when I had my first real crush, around age nine or ten.

He was the next friend to add to my belief in fairies. To this day I don’t understand why he did it–maybe as a way to tease me for being a drama queen. Maybe he had a crush on me too. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is, every time I saw him, he would tell me fantastic stories about his adventures evading three witches, who wanted to capture him for some reason I can’t recall. Even at his age, he was a wonderful storyteller, and I soaked in every word as though it was the gospel truth. Yes, indeed, there were three witches chasing him! I even had nightmares about them a few times, and couldn’t fall asleep because of them. They had keen senses according to his stories. The only exact words I remember from them are from a harrowing moment when he said he was almost caught, as one of the witches sniffed near where he was hiding and said,

“Shh–I smell something…shampoo!!!”

Yes, even cleanliness put a person in danger of the evil witches! I can’t remember how, but there were fairies involved in the story. I think they were helping him in his adventures or something like that. Anyway, one day I went up to him and asked if anything had happened. Had he had any more adventures? Were the witches still chasing him? I was dead serious. I was that delusional.

He said, “They’re not chasing me anymore. They never were chasing me. There are no witches.” I wonder if it had taken him that long to figure out I really believed him, or if he was just tired of telling that story. At any rate, he eventually apologized for lying to me about the witches. I forgave him.

Over the years, I stayed friends with him, and with the friend who worked psychological wonders by the beech tree, the “fairy” tree. Both of them seemed to have little to no delusions. I let mine simmer. I eventually stopped proudly proclaiming my belief in fairies, but I held on tight to it. It lasted into middle school, when I encountered yet another friend with a wild imagination. This one proved to be a habitual liar in high school. She tricked me with a fairy story too.

What I’m getting at here is, while it’s pretty embarrassing and crazy that I believed all these things at such an old age, the truth is, my mind was primed for it. I had been taught to believe in things I couldn’t see, and encouraged to do so to the best of my ability. How was belief in Jesus so different from belief in fairies, or witches, or anything else for that matter?

Did you believe anything crazy when you were a kid? Do you think religion played a role in this, or is this just kid stuff? All opinions are welcome. Feel free to leave a comment. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


What’s in a Name?

Image courtesy of Rosen Georgiev at

Image courtesy of Rosen Georgiev at

My boyfriend and I are talking very seriously about marriage, and recently the topic of name changing came up. Now, I’ve never liked that it’s automatically assumed that when people get married, the woman changes her last name to her husband’s, end of discussion. If true gender equality is to exist, then a name change should be up to the couple to decide–and legally it is, but socially, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I understand the logistical reasons why making both members of a couple (and potential future children) have the same last name makes life a lot easier, and that’s why I think I’ll most likely be changing my name when I get married–but now that it’s looming closer (quite possibly within the next few years), I’m having trouble with the idea of letting go of my name.

I’m a writer. The first time I got published, it was under my name (which, in case you’re curious, is not my blog name.) I’ve held editorial positions at school, and my last name is listed with my work there as well. If I change my name, I have to continuously tell people to look me up under two different names. It splits me between my pre-married self and my married self, and I don’t like that.

Name changing fits well with the ancient practice of considering women the property of men. From birth to marriage, a woman used to be the property of her father, so she had his last name. When that property was essentially sold to the husband, she’d take the husband’s name. In a culture like that, this name change was like a brand on a cow. It meant, “She’s my property now. I bought her fair and square.” My boyfriend is not the sort who would think that way at all–but the tradition really does remind me of that time period.

Name changing also stinks a little bit of religion to me. In Christianity, a name change signifies a change in a person. That’s why babies are baptized with a middle name, formerly called a “Christian” name, and at confirmation, thirteen-year-olds choose yet another name, symbolizing their step into Christian adulthood. It’s why, in the Bible, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon becomes Peter as they each take on their new leadership roles in the faith.

Am I changing as a person by getting married? I’m changing my habits. I’m making a lifelong commitment. Maybe I’ll change over time, but I somehow doubt that at the moment I tie the knot, I’ll be permanently a different person from my single self. I’ll still be Nancy, I just won’t be single.

I know the other options to name changing: don’t change it at all, convince him to take YOUR name, or hyphenate. Each of these presents its own problems. I haven’t asked him what he would think about taking my last name. But to be honest, I don’t really want him to have that last name. I associate that name with my extremely flawed, deeply religious, conservative family, and I don’t want that to be his. At the same time, I don’t want to permanently change something that has been part of who I am since the day I was born.

Why do we put women through this? Why do we expect them to change their identity as soon as they get married? Would divorce rates drop, or would marriage rates increase, if women were allowed to just be themselves permanently?

This whole crisis was floating around in the back of my mind, but it came to the forefront today, because I just learned that my state requires a shit ton of paperwork and hoops to jump through if you want to do anything more complicated than replace your maiden name with your married one. I had hoped to tack my married name on to the end of my current one, and simply have an extra name without losing my old one completely. I’m not going to lie–I was kind of banking on that as a way to subtly maintain my identity. And now that I know that I probably can’t do that because my state is absolutely fucking ridiculous, I’m kind of freaking out. I’m not even at the point where I need to be dealing with this stuff, I’m just trying to get through the last finals week of my undergraduate education, but I’m pretty upset right now.

What do you guys think about the whole name changing thing? Feel free to leave a comment.

All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


A Tough Question

easter eggs

Image courtesy of jannoon028 at

In honor of Easter, and to make up for the fact that I missed my post last week, here’s a bonus. Easter is one of the holidays (Christmas being the other one) with a made up figure that parents pretend is real. They actively lie to their children in order to do this. Some say it’s all in good fun. Others feel this discourages critical thinking and encourages belief without evidence.

Personally, I lean towards not lying to my (hypothetical) kids because I don’t want to do either of the aforementioned things. I realize that means my kid may ruin it for someone else’s kid, but I also feel like, why lie to a kid if that can be avoided?

I don’t have kids right now though, so for me this is all hypothetical. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through first.

Happy thinking!


Religious Retreats and Emotional Manipulation

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at

A few weeks ago, I received a last-minute text from my dad asking me to write my youngest brother a letter. Why last-minute, you ask? And why the request? Well, my brother had gone on a (Catholic) retreat for teens, and as part of the retreat, the teens receive letters of encouragement from their friends and family members. True to their typical disorganization, my parents failed to inform me before the day the letters were due. I had about an hour of time between classes that I could have used to quickly compose one and e-mail it in, but it would be very rushed, and I wasn’t sure that as an atheist I was really the best person to write this letter.

I really don’t have a problem with writing something encouraging in general–I think most would agree that’s a very nice thing to do–but I faced a bit of a moral dilemma about this because I knew what it was for. This was not simply a nice gesture encouraged by the retreat team. There was an agenda behind it, an agenda that I don’t support. I was essentially being asked to participate in emotional manipulation, meant to induce a “spiritual” experience in these teens, specifically my brother. I, an atheist, was being asked to “help” my brother find Jesus.

“Woah there,” you say. “What makes you think that? Maybe these people just want to help build self esteem in these teens.” I wish that were the case, but I’ve been to a few religious retreats and conferences myself, and even had what at the time I considered “religious experiences” there. As was true with many things in religion, the more I thought about it, the more I realized something fishy was happening.

If you’ve ever been to a retreat, you may have some idea what I’m about to say. There’s this phenomenon I like to call retreat euphoria, which is that happy, “Jesus is awesome!” feeling that makes you want to be very religious, that at most, generally lasts a week or two after the retreat. I’ve experienced it firsthand a few times, and the time I experienced it most strongly was when I attended the Steubenville Catholic Youth Conference in 2010 with a group of homeschoolers from my area. These conferences are quite well attended, and they do a lot to try to create that retreat euphoria in their attendees.

That conference I experienced is structured similarly to a retreat, only on a larger scale. It has music performances by Christian (Catholic even) artists, and speakers there give talks about purity, callings to priesthood and religious life, and other Catholic topics. As is the case with many large conferences, there are some parts of the conference that everyone generally attends. Everyone, for example, attends mass, and adoration. Other parts of the conference consisted of simultaneous talks and workshops that people could choose from. In a given time slot, for example, conference goers might choose between simultaneous talks on chastity, prayer, or abortion.

Some parts of the retreat are just appeals to reason, and those don’t bother me terribly. I respect speakers who try to build an argument for prayer, or abstinence. I get frustrated when I later realize that some of their information is incomplete or false, but at least they’re trying to get people to make up their own minds. That’s not what I’m frustrated about.

What frustrates me, is when they seize the fact that everyone attends mass and adoration–especially adoration–and use that to artificially generate what many there will quickly consider a religious experience. Here’s what happened to me.

They had gathered as many of the retreat attendees as could fit into this large space filled with extremely uncomfortable folding chairs, and they started with something very entertaining. I think adoration came immediately after mass, if I remember correctly. It was the most fun mass I’d ever seen, and would ever see during my years of being a practicing Catholic. Between the typical rituals were periods of pure entertainment. The priest who gave the homily (sermon) at mass was the epitome of the pop culture preacher from my last post. He did martial arts during his homily. We were all very focused on what was going on at the altar, because so many jokes had been told and so many exciting things were happening. We were so entertained, in fact, that we were surprised when after mass had ended, the lights began to go dim, and the music slowed down.

Ever been to a concert where there’s a big mood change, and the whole crowd reacts to the new music? It’s kind of like that. We didn’t know it yet, but it was time for adoration.

Adoration is what Catholics call special time devoted to prayer and reflection during which the Eucharist (holy communion), which they believe is really Jesus, is displayed in a monstrance (see the shiny gold thing in the picture below). Adoration may be accompanied, as it was that day, by a benediction (blessing). The priest may even choose, as he did at that event, to parade around the people with it, which was a common practice in some places historically. There’s a lot of ritual involved. For example, the priest does not touch the monstrance with his hands, but rather uses his robes, as you can see in the below picture. The Eucharist is the most sacred thing to Catholics, so it only makes sense at a Catholic retreat to use the Eucharist in your emotional manipulation scheme. Bear with me.

As the priest began to parade around us, the already hushed audience began to murmur, and a few people started crying. The focus on the Eucharist was so strong, and the rest of the retreat had been so successful at getting positive emotional reactions–laughter, entertainment, from us–that we began to expect something similar from the Eucharist. When we didn’t experience anything special initially, (as it’s just a piece of unleavened bread), we began to question why the audience was reacting in such a hushed manner–never mind the tendency to do as we’ve been taught since kindergarten, to focus on the authority figure and be quiet when someone is presenting something to us. A few more people started crying. Then more. Eventually, someone in my group started, and as we rushed to console her, we began to succumb to the same plague one by one.

I was one of the last ones to cry. I felt strange that I wasn’t crying like the people around me. They were experiencing some deep, moving religious experience, weren’t they? I don’t know how they got the first people crying. Maybe they’re just easy criers. I don’t know if they were placed there by the conference planners, or if there just so happen to be so many people who cry easily in every large crowd, but when they do, the sympathy criers join in, and then people like me–who just want to fit in–start looking for reasons to cry too. And I had nothing. I felt nothing. Then a thought occurred to me. I pictured the saddest thing I could imagine–at the time, a close friend’s near suicide which had happened shortly before we met–and there I was, one with the crowd, crying with the rest of them. I was immediately comforted by the chaperons and the other students in my group. I was hugged, my back was patted, and I was essentially being rewarded for faking a religious experience.

Then came the screamers.

At least two wailing people were carried out by a group of conference staff to another room. One of the people in my group told me they might have demons in them that would be exorcised. I don’t know for sure if that’s what actually happened because they were taken away, out of the room with everyone else in it, but seeing those people wail really did it for me. At the time, I believed in demons, and that only God could cast them out. I started to wonder if maybe my crying was an act of God, not me forcing myself to cry for the group–which only a second ago I had consciously acknowledged. Then I did it to myself again. I started imagining, what if my friend had succeeded at suicide? And holy crap, the tears kept coming. That was God, I decided. God had saved my friend, and God was making me cry now to tell me that. That had to be God. After enough repetition, your brain eventually begins to form the connection they’re looking for. The good things in your life come from Jesus. From Jesus. From Jesus. Not luck, not courage, hard work, or skill. Jesus.

If you’d asked me then, I wouldn’t have told you I had doubts. I would have sworn that the crowd around me was right, and that my tears were the result of an encounter with the Lord. But the same night that I had my religious “experience,” at adoration, I once again wondered if it was all in my head. I had consciously done something to make myself cry in the first place, and I hadn’t forgotten that. I am generally someone who likes to fit in, and that’s something I genuinely would do pretty much automatically. I began to wonder, what if I’m not the only person who’s like that? It wouldn’t have to be everyone, but enough people to get the room going. Group psychology is a pretty interesting thing, and it’s very powerful. Without even realizing it, we take social cues from everyone around us. What if that’s what happened to me?

But no, like they said, it was Jesus. I convinced myself when the crowd wasn’t there to convince me, and I did it over and over again for about a week after the retreat, while the euphoria lasted.

The next day, when they called up people to give testimony to how they would live their faith better, I heard The Addict and The Purity Pledger, and I wanted to join their ranks. I swore something that in hindsight turned out to be true: that I wouldn’t be Catholic only because it’s what’s expected of me. I also said I was going to LIVE that faith because I wanted to! Because Jesus!

Funny how things turn out.

Flash forward to last week. I was home for spring break and remembered my parents’ request to write that letter, so I asked my brother how his retreat went. Remembering my experience at the conference, I asked, “Was there a strange moment where they somehow got like…three quarters of the people in a large room to cry?”

“Yeah,” he said. “How did you know?”

I hadn’t been to that particular retreat, but I had a feeling. He told me he and a friend of his who attended felt very weird seeing everyone cry. They didn’t cry themselves, but they could tell that something strange was happening.

If you’re not an easy crier, you see the experience for what it really is:  the retreat planners manipulating you.  They dim the lights and/or play soft music to set the mood, right after you’ve been riled up for Jesus in a more stimulating way. You’re also probably a little tired from not getting enough sleep. It’s a retreat after all–you’re hanging out with your friends. Everyone knows not much sleep happens at sleepovers, but they don’t talk much about how not much sleep happens at retreats. I’ve got news for you:  it doesn’t, and it takes its toll. You become increasingly susceptible to the power of suggestion. After all the entertainment–the music, the talks filled with jokes by Pop Culture Preachers–you’ve spent a lot of energy participating in those audiences, and you’re asked to spend the last dregs of your batteries on Jesus.

It’s little wonder that when asked, attendees at the Steubenville conference tend to list adoration as their favorite part of the event. The conference staff probably thinks that’s because these people are finding Jesus, but that’s really not the case, as you probably know if you’ve ever met someone who went on a retreat and didn’t feel it. The vast majority (not all, but most) don’t maintain retreat euphoria, even if they experience it.

You can see a pretty boring clip of the conference that the staff must have put together at the link below. Start watching at 3:29 to skip the drawn out montage with Jesus music and go straight to the student interviews at the end where they talk about adoration.

This post started with my qualms about writing a letter to my brother, which I eventually decided not to write. How does a letter of encouragement play into this emotional manipulation, you ask? It’s simple. You know that pleasant sensation you feel when you get a really nice compliment? For me, maybe because I’m a writer, it’s especially powerful when I read it. A feeling of contentment washes over me briefly, and while it isn’t orgasmic, it’s extremely pleasurable. It’s my brain rewarding me for doing something worthy of a compliment, and what happens when that feeling is triggered at the tail end of what you’ve already decided is a religious experience? It’s simple behaviorism. You are being conditioned to associate religiosity with two things:

1) Positive feelings of self esteem and self worth

2) Familial (and community) approval

Who wouldn’t want to be part of the religion that the important people in your life approve of, and compliment you for? The religion that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside is surely the right one for you.

But it wasn’t the religion that did that. The letters did. The soft music, dim lights, and crowd psychology did that.

Fuck no, I was not writing a manipulation letter.

I briefly considered though, what I would write if I didn’t think my parents would read it beforehand. I settled on a direct quote from several years ago, when one of my favorite professors substituted for my freshman English class, and had to play a very boring video for 50 minutes. It was so long and dull that he stopped it about 20 minutes in and said “Did you like it? Was it crap?” and we had a class discussion instead of continuing with the misery. His exact words are probably what I would have written to my brother.

So here’s my question to you if you’ve made it this far:  have you ever been on a retreat? If so, did you like it? Was it crap?

As always, all opinions are welcome. Just be sure to be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!