As you know, I once was an evangelical megachurch pastor and my pastoral career stretched over many years. Eventually, I could no longer teach Christian doctrine with a good conscience and realized this teaching was not truly changing people’s lives… and so I walked away from the whole enchilada.
Below are 14 things that the misguided religious establishment doesn't want you to know. Speaking for myself and my personal experience, I was not able to see or admit these things to myself. I truly got into ministry initially because I wanted to make a difference and help people, and I relied upon the belief-system I learned as the proper framework to achieve this. It took a lot of post-religion reflection to see the ways this belief-system was hurting people.
I offer the below list in hopes that you might disentangle yourself from harmful beliefs and attitudes impacting your life.
14 things the misguided religious establishment doesn’t want you to know:
1. Toxic religion is rooted in fear, especially fear about the afterlife. It leverages the false doctrine of hell to win converts and demand holiness. The fear of God's disapproval, rejection, abandonment and punishment is another hallmark of toxic religion.
2. Clergy have no innate authority. Holding a church leadership position or having a theological degree does not imbue a person with special divine authority or superiority. The terms "anointed", "called", or "chosen" or titles such as "pastor", "priest", "bishop", "elder", "evangelist" or "apostle" do not confer any innate authority on an individual or group.
3. We hold sacred what we are taught to hold sacred, which is why what is sacred to one community is not sacred to another.
4. The stories in our sacred books aren’t history, nor were they meant to be. The authors of these books weren’t historians but writers of historical fiction: they used history (or pseudo history) as a context or pretext for their own ideas. Reading sacred texts as history may yield some nuggets of the past, but the real gold is in seeing these stories as myth and parable, and trying to unpack the possible meanings these parables and myths may hold.
5. Prayer doesn’t work the way you think it does. You can’t bribe God, or change God’s mind through obedience, devotion, or groveling. The underlying theistic premises of prayer are untenable.
6. Anything you claim to know about God, even the notion that there is a God, is a projection of your psyche. What you say about God—who God is, what God cares about, who God rewards, and who God punishes—says nothing about God and everything about you. If you believe in an unconditionally loving God, you probably value unconditional love. If you believe in a God who divides people into chosen and not chosen, believers and infidels, saved and damned, high cast or low caste, etc. you are likely someone who divides people into in–groups and out–groups with you and your group as the quintessential in-group. God may or may not exist, but your idea of God mirrors yourself and your values.
7. Nobody is born Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, etc. People are born human and are slowly conditioned by narratives of race, religion, gender, nationality, etc. to be less than human.
8. Theology isn’t the free search for truth, but rather a defense of an already held position. Theology is really apologetics, explaining why a belief is true rather than seeking out the truth in and of itself. All theological reasoning is circular, inevitably “proving” the truth of its own presupposition.
9. Becoming more religious cannot save us. Religion is a human invention reflecting the best and worst of humanity; becoming more religious will simply allow us to perpetuate compassion and cruelty in the name of religion. Because religion always carries the danger of fanaticism, becoming more religious may only heighten the risk of us becoming more fanatical.
10. Becoming less religious cannot save us. In fact, being against religion can become it’s own fanaticism. Becoming less religious will simply force us to perpetuate compassion and cruelty in the name of something else. Secular societies that actively suppress religion have proven no more just or compassionate than religious societies that suppress secularism or free thought. This is because neither religion nor the lack of religion solely nullifies our human potential to act out of ego, greed, fear, hostility, and hatred.
11. A healthy religion is one that helps us own and integrate the shadow side of human nature for the good of person and planet, something few clergy are trained to do. Clergy are trained to promote the religion they represent. They are apologists not liberators. If you want to be more just, compassionate, and loving, you must do the personal work within yourself, and free yourself from the conditions that lock you into injustice, cruelty, and hate, and this means you have to free yourself from all your narratives, including those you call “religious.”
12. Religious leaders claims that their particular understanding and interpretation of their sacred books should be universally accepted. Religious leaders often say, “My authority is the Bible.” It would be more accurate for them to say, “My authority is what they taught me at seminary the Bible means.” People start with flawed or false presuppositions about what the Bible is, such as: the Bible was meant to present a coherent theology about God or is a piece of doctrinal exposition; the Bible is the inerrant, infallible and sole message/"Word" of God to the world; the Bible is a blueprint for daily living. Too often religious leaders make God about having "correct theology." There are a lot of unhappy, broken, hurting, suffering, depressed, lonely people in church with church-approved theology.
13. If your livelihood depends on the success of your church as an organization, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that you will mostly define and reward Christianity as participation in church structures and programs. Christian living is mostly a decentralized reality or way of life, not a centralized or program-dependent phenomenon. Church attendance, tithing, membership, service, and devoted participation, become the hallmarks of Christian maturity.
14. You are capable of guiding your own spiritual path from the inside out and don't need to be told what to do. You naturally have the ability, capacity, tools and skills to guide and direct your life meaningfully, ethically and effectively. Through the use of your fundamental human faculties such as critical thinking, empathy, reason, conscience and intuition, you can capably lead your life. You have the choice to cultivate a spirituality that doesn’t require you to be inadequate, powerless, weak, and lacking, but one that empowers you toward strength, vitality, wholeness, and the fulfillment of your highest potentialities and possibilities.
Jim Palmer was a former evangelical pastor who served at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He also founded and served as the senior pastor at Springbrook Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
Palmer received his Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Divinity School in Chicago. He was also an author, speaker, artist, and spiritual director.