Going under cover, Atheist author joins Falwell's church

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Going under cover, Atheist author joins Falwell's church

#1  Postby RichardPrins » Mar 08, 2010 4:10 am

Column: Going under cover, Atheist author joins Falwell's church to try to understand conservative evangelicals
She was raised in a secular Jewish family in California. Her parents were atheists and political liberals, and so was she.

All she really knew about conservative evangelicals was that they were trying to change the country in ways she didn’t like.

Then she found herself living among them when she moved to Virginia for graduate school in 2002.

She found that the more she learned about them, the less she understood.

So she decided to undertake an audacious experiment in the fall of 2005. She would go undercover and pretend to be one of them. And she would do it in — of all places — Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Va., the belly of the beast, you might say.

But the project didn’t turn out the way she expected.

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Gina Welch

She found a world more complex than she anticipated and deeper friendships than she imagined possible. And eventually her deception became so troubling to her that she vowed never to lie to anyone again.

Welch describes her nearly two-year experience at Thomas Road Baptist Church in her new book, “In the Land of Believers,” which was released Tuesday by Henry Holt and Co.’s Metropolitan Books.

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The late Rev. Jerry Falwell is shown here at the Republican National Convention in 2000. Gina Welch observes in her new book that “Dr. Falwell often seemed more interested in politics than religion. Using the same rhetoric as Fox News and the Bush Administration, he preached on current events during every sermon.”

Welch doesn’t become a believer, she doesn’t change her politics and she remains troubled by significant aspects of the conservative evangelical community.

But she discovers that she likes some of these people, treasures the sense of belonging that church provides, gets a powerful feeling of connectedness from communal singing, and experiences a strong desire to believe in God. She expresses that desire almost poetically in her book when she describes her feelings upon hearing Psalm 139.

“The beauty of this psalm unfurled in me like great spools of ribbon. God-love — I felt I finally saw it. ... love with no beginning or end, love that was both calm and complete, unflinching in the face of anything you could reveal about yourself. Who wouldn’t want that? I certainly did. ... But wanting it still didn’t make me believe it.”

Why was that? Why does she think some people view that feeling as a connection with God, but she didn’t?

“I think I am fundamentally lacking in whatever chamber of the brain allows for religious belief,” Welch said in a phone interview Monday. “I had a number of experiences when attending church that I hard time explaining. I would recognize that it was something new and something emotional and something that was rattling my sense of self. I would try to interpret my feelings and try to see if it had anything to do with religion, with the Bible or with a God watching over everything. But I could never make those concepts align. ... I think I fundamentally have more faith in science than anything else.”

The troubles she saw
Welch kept her fundamental differences of belief secret during her time at Thomas Road Baptist Church (a time during which founder Falwell died). In fact, she even was baptized to cement this deception. While impossible to justify ethically, this deception gave her a kind of access to that world that she most likely wouldn’t have had otherwise.

One of the things she found there that troubled her was what she calls “intellectual passivity.” The people she met were generally “uncritical of the institutions they subscribe to,” she said. “They tow the party line. They accept the mythology about gay people, about the environment, about the outside world without testing its truthfulness.”

She was most troubled, though, by the church’s practice of trying to convert children into believers, she said.

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“I had never been around anything like that. For me, the Bible and the gospel message were brand new,” she said. “I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the gospel message and why Christians believe what they believe. It’s a complicated story, and the idea that children could fathom it and understand it well enough to buy into it seemed wrongheaded to me. ... The way I saw evangelicals packaging the gospel message in a way children could understand was that there was a disturbing emphasis on hell. The default position is to frighten them into compliance. ...That really bothered me.”

Yet she chose to go on a mission trip to Alaska to save souls — a trip that left her with a disturbing memory of proselytizing a child so she wouldn’t blow her cover.

Welch also was bothered by what she saw as the church’s emphasis on spreading the gospel over serving human needs. “What about poverty? What about discrimination? What about human-rights abuses?” she writes. “Where was the Christian outrage at so much heinousness in the world? Why was the rhythm of God’s heart Preach the Gospel and not Help the Needy?”

But she tried to understand the motivation of the church members. “When I thought about it,” she writes, “I wasn’t sure I would act any differently if I believed what they did, that non-Christians are going to suffer eternally in hell.”

On Monday, Welch also acknowledged seeing a spirit of generosity in church members. “I’ve been following some people from Thomas Road on Twitter,” Welch said, “and they’ve been incredibly motivated in helping Haitians after the earthquake — fund-raising, sending supplies.”

What she misses
When the time came for Welch to leave the church, she wasn’t thrilled about it.

It meant “no more church music, no more group therapy in the guise of a sermon, no more community I could always count on to be happy to see me,” she writes. “It meant leaving my church friends, probably forever.”

And she still feels a sense of loss. “I missed the people very deeply and still do,” she said. “I miss the sense of community — people receiving you warmly, singing in church. It’s a real sort of balm, a cleansing feeling to express emotion in song. I don’t have any parallel in my life.

“I miss the opportunity to have someone ask me hard questions about my life and to be forced into accountability in that way, to be forced every week to ask whether I’m living by the principles I subscribe to. ... It feels like a really valuable kind of institution to get together in a group and think about the way we should move through the world.”

‘Ethically dubious stuff’
Leaving Thomas Road church also meant Welch had to confront “all of the ethically dubious stuff” she’d done: “I had proselytized to a little girl, helped lock her into something I didn’t believe in. I had been saved and baptized without believing. I had prayed and been prayed for. ... I had cultivated intimate friendships ... on a foundation of lies. That was what I felt worst about: Deceiving people I couldn’t help but consider true friends.”

She couldn’t eat. She had trouble sleeping. And when she did sleep, she had terrible nightmares.

So why wasn’t she more concerned about the ethical issues when she started out on this project?

“I think it was because I was naive about the real possibility of developing relationships with anybody,” she said. “I think I thought church relationships would be like workplace relationships. I didn’t think anybody would feel emotionally connected with me or that I would feel emotionally connected with them. ... It was sort of a failure of imagination.”

But there was another reason, too: “I thought the value of what I was setting out to do would mitigate any misdeeds I perpetrated getting there. I think my curiosity outran my scruples.”
Yet, she went ahead with the book, still hoping that the ends would to some extent justify the means.

If she had a chance to do it over again, would she use that kind of deception?

“I can’t imagine lying to anybody ever again,” she said. “It feels like something that is so toxic that I can’t imagine doing it again. But it’s hard to say I would undo what I did. I feel like what came out of it is something of value. It holds the possibility of a more authentic understanding of evangelicals. It’s something that could potentially humanize a population that people who share my background have thought of as this mob of clones.”

Happier than ever
Besides sparking a vow to be more honest, Welch’s time at Thomas Road changed her in other ways, she said.

“I’m less judgmental than I used to be,” she said. “It’s easier for me to relate to other people without making snap judgments about them.

“And being around politically conservative people has made me more nuanced in my political viewpoints. I’m not less liberal, but have had to think about why I believe what I do” on issues such as abortion, she said.

Welch said she is also happier than she used to be.

“There is something that evangelical Christians do that I picked up. When something frustrating or upsetting or disruptive happens, they accept that it’s happening and cope with it. It’s not inauthentic or falsely cheerful but even and trusting in your ability to deal (with it). That has made it easier for me to feel a kind of preparedness that makes more space in my life for happiness. There’s no room for bitterness or anxiety.”

And one more thing, she said: “Religious people don’t bother me anymore.”

The feeling may not be mutual. The deception at the heart of her book will probably bother many of them deeply. But Welch’s effort to grapple with religious matters, her willingness to acknowledge her own naivete and ethical struggles, and her attempt to present a fair portrait of a faith community that had been utterly foreign to her may lead some down the road to forgiveness.
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Re: Going under cover, Atheist author joins Falwell's church

#2  Postby GreatApe » Mar 08, 2010 5:12 am

"Intellectual passivity" ... a.k.a Indoctrination and willful self-delusion. That sounds like precisely what is going on in the conservative political and evangelical movements in America right now. I'd bet that reading "In the Land of the Believers" and juxtaposing it with Michelle Goldberg's "Kingdom Coming" would make for a farily wild ride!

One thing which intrigues me is this outright willingness that Supernaturalists have to LIE to themselves and to sincerely maintain and BELIEVE that lie. It goes much deeper than neuroses, I think, and must certainly be tied to a part of the brain--as Welch suggests, and a topic about which Dan Dennett writes extensively. It strikes at the heart of such radical religious dogma as "The Rapure" or the "DoomsDay Doctrine" or the "End of Days" (call it what you will), and, in my estimation, points toward a willful need (and tendency) toward self-destruction AS self-fulfilling prophecy! These types of people NEED to be right (and they are willing to go to any length to prove -- not that they ARE right! -- but that THEY BELIEVE THEY ARE RIGHT)! It strikes me as a form of self-martyrdom which mirrors that of their Savior, but which threatens to drag the rest of us down with it (if taken to its fullest and most extreme conclusion). Interesting how much this type of thinking has in common with radical Islam.

I'd rather like to read this book. Thanks for the post, RichardPrins!
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Re: Going under cover, Atheist author joins Falwell's church

#3  Postby millstone » Mar 08, 2010 7:14 pm

Gina Welch wrote:

‘Ethically dubious stuff’
Leaving Thomas Road church also meant Welch had to confront “all of the ethically dubious stuff” she’d done: “I had proselytized to a little girl, helped lock her into something I didn’t believe in ...


Bad, bad, bad.
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Re: Going under cover, Atheist author joins Falwell's church

#4  Postby Varangian » Mar 09, 2010 12:35 am

Hmm... Going under cover much like the legendary German journalist Günther Wallraff... It can be dangerous to immerse oneself in a community, as one can easily conflate sympathy for the individuals for the goals of their community. Now, the author of the book managed to come out on the other side with her atheism and liberalism intact, but there's a whiff of Stockholm syndrome in the article. With the risk of Godwining the thread, I'm sure that one could've found nice, caring Party members in the Third Reich as long as one kept mum about one's real origins.
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