“It’s Not Just the Messengers, It’s the Message, Too”: I tried being a progressive Christian

I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize, something is fucked up.
~ George Carlin

I’ve read a few good posts by now-atheists that have made me reflect on my own journey. The first is from Neil Carter at Godless in Dixie titled “It’s Not Just the Messengers, It’s the Message, Too“:

Whichever camp people belong to, whenever they hear a negative evaluation of their faith, they naturally conclude the problem is that people must be doing it wrong, and any fault we find must be with the messengers, not with the message itself. The belief system cannot be wrong, so if anybody has a problem it must be with the people who communicate it.  My Christian friends routinely pass around this much beloved quote by Brennan Manning:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.

Pardon me, but no, it isn’t.  As a card carrying atheist I can certify that very few atheists will agree to this.  This is just something Christians say to each other because they’ve grown so accustomed to guilting each other over things that it makes them love this kind of talk.  Preachers shout it from their pulpits and friends share it on their Facebook walls, but I’ve never once heard an actual atheist say any such thing.  Even when debating the subject of theodicy (“Why is there suffering in the world if God exists and is good?”), I’ve never once heard an atheist argue that the question hinges on the behavior of Christians.


There’s a reason these people are being so pushy.  Their theology has taught them that we mere mortals can’t make good decisions for ourselves—we aren’t qualified.  We can’t see the bigger picture, we are told, so it’s not up to us to determine what’s true and what really matters. We’re fallen and broken, you see, and “our hearts are wicked and deceitful above all things.”  No wonder they don’t care what we think or feel.   They don’t see it as a valid concern. How could they?

Oh sure, some of them do anyway, despite their theology. Some people have such a humanistic core that they continue to be decent people in spite of how their religion tells them to behave.  I’m pleased to say that people’s instincts often lead them to rise above their own dogmas.  But they’re still there, hanging around their neck like the proverbial millstone, weighing them down.  They could do so much better if it weren’t for their anti-human thinking. It’s not their fault, they were taught to think this way since the time they were too young to evaluate these things themselves.

The second post was from “Libby Anne” at Love, Joy, Feminism:

I find that more progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans sometimes say things like this—that God is a mystery and that we can’t (or don’t have to) understand—as a way of asserting how different they are from fundamentalist Christians. The thing is, whether or not they realize it they’re actually using the same rhetoric fundamentalist Christians have long used themselves.

[…] I appreciate that progressive Christians don’t use this “God is a mystery” statement to shoehorn people into accepting a specific set of doctrine, I really do. Perhaps the problem is that when I hear this “God is a mystery our brains cannot grasp” rhetoric coming from progressive Christians, I think of myself and my own journey, and the way this rhetoric made me feel boxed in.


I am very glad many people find room to breathe and explore within progressive Christianity. Truly, I am! I just didn’t find the call to “embrace the mystery” as comforting as others seem to, perhaps because for me it began to seem as though this rhetoric had the same goal as that of the rhetoric I heard growing up—to get me to believe something that does not make sense to me, just because.

It wasn’t just fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christianity that ceased to make sense to me. Progressive Christianity didn’t make sense anymore either. I didn’t go straight from evangelical to atheist, I actually explored Catholicism first. I found much about it that I liked, and over the course of my time as a Catholic I found myself moving from conservative to progressive, finding role models across that spectrum. Before my faith picked up and left, I was a universalist. I understood the history of Christianity and the huge variety of Biblical interpretation and understandings of the Bible—I found all of this fascinating.

What bothered me was that my experience didn’t line up. I had trusted God on some things I thought he was telling me, and those things turned out to be flat wrong. And no, I hadn’t simply “misunderstood.” I was no longer sure that I was able to listen to God and hear what he was saying to me, because I couldn’t tell his voice apart from my own internal monologue. Suddenly the “mystery” became painful. Was God playing a cruel joke on me? In the midst of this, all those times I had let go and embraced “mystery”—whether as a conservative or as a progressive—began coming back to haunt me. “It’s a mystery our brains cannot understand” began to feel coercive. It hurt.

These stories completely resonate with me. Despite my disbelief in god(s)/goddess(es), I held onto Christianity for decent amount of time (and to an extent, I continue to hold onto it for cultural and social reasons). I wanted to believe in God, I tried to believe in God. But, I also saw the bullshit that surrounds Christianity. So, I tried to get rid of all of the “bad” stuff and keep all of the “good” stuff. But, at the end of the day, I was being just like the fundamentalists — I was trying to “purify” Christianity into what was “really” Christian and what was “Christian in name only.”

I finally had to force myself to realize that the problem isn’t with a “few bad apples” in Christianity, it’s Christianity itself. The drive to do things because “God” told you to, and the hesitation to do other things out of fear of hell is necessarily intrinsic to Christianity. Conveniently abandoning human reason to explain who God is, what the Church is, why we should/should not do something by resorting to “It’s a mystery,” or “…because God” is intrinsic to Christianity.

This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate what progressive or humanitarian Christians do in the name of their god. This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the what the character of Jesus teaches us in the gospels. But, at some point there’s only so much you can strip down Christianity before there’s nothing left. There’s only so much you can create god in your own image before it’s all just a figment of your imagination. And, I’m finally beginning to reach a point where I’m comfortable that I can be empathetic and humane to others without religious teachings or the threat of hell, but simply because I’m a fellow human. And, I have to say, it’s quite liberating.


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