90. spittle

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I am taking a quick break from NaNoWriMo-ing to post some additional quotations from Emma Goldman, the Russian-American writer, feminist, anarchist and atheist. The following is from an essay that she wrote in 1913 titled “The Failure of Christianity.” Once I am done with NaNo, I want to dive into her writings a bit more as this is precisely the sort of thing I need to be reading in order to purge my mind of the dangerous nonsense I was brought up with as a child and young adult. Enjoy.


Christianity is most admirably adapted to the training of slaves, to the perpetuation of a slave society; in short, to the very conditions confronting us to-day. Indeed, never could society have degenerated to its present appalling stage, if not for the assistance of Christianity. The rulers of the earth have realized long ago what potent poison inheres in the Christian religion. That is the reason they foster it; that is why they leave nothing undone to instill it into the blood of the people. They know only too well that the subtleness of the Christian teachings is a more powerful protection against rebellion and discontent than the club or the gun.

No doubt I will be told that, though religion is a poison and institutionalized Christianity the greatest enemy of progress and freedom, there is some good in Christianity “itself.” What about the teachings of Christ and early Christianity, I may be asked; do they not stand for the spirit of humanity, for right and justice?

It is precisely this oft-repeated contention that induced me to choose this subject, to enable me to demonstrate that the abuses of Christianity, like the abuses of government, are conditioned in the thing itself, and are not to be charged to the representatives of the creed. Christ and his teachings are the embodiment of submission, of inertia, of the denial of life; hence responsible for the things done in their name.

I am not interested in the theological Christ. Brilliant minds like Bauer, Strauss, Renan, Thomas Paine, and others refuted that myth long ago. I am even ready to admit that the theological Christ is not half so dangerous as the ethical and social Christ. In proportion as science takes the place of blind faith, theology loses its hold. But the ethical and poetical Christ-myth has so thoroughly saturated our lives that even some of the most advanced minds find it difficult to emancipate themselves from its yoke. They have rid themselves of the letter, but have retained the spirit; yet it is the spirit which is back of all the crimes and horrors committed by orthodox Christianity. The Fathers of the Church can well afford to preach the gospel of Christ. It contains nothing dangerous to the régime of authority and wealth; it stands for self-denial and self-abnegation, for penance and regret, and is absolutely inert in the face of every indignity, every outrage imposed upon mankind.

Here I must revert to the counterfeiters of ideas and words. So many otherwise earnest haters of slavery and injustice confuse, in a most distressing manner, the teachings of Christ with the great struggles for social and economic emancipation. The two are irrevocably and forever opposed to each other. The one necessitates courage, daring, defiance, and strength. The other preaches the gospel of non-resistance, of slavish acquiescence in the will of others; it is the complete disregard of character and self-reliance, and therefore destructive of liberty and well-being.

Whoever sincerely aims at a radical change in society, whoever strives to free humanity from the scourge of dependence and misery, must turn his back on Christianity, on the old as well as the present form of the same.

Everywhere and always, since its very inception, Christianity has turned the earth into a vale of tears; always it has made of life a weak, diseased thing, always it has instilled fear in man, turning him into a dual being, whose life energies are spent in the struggle between body and soul. In decrying the body as something evil, the flesh as the tempter to everything that is sinful, man has mutilated his being in the vain attempt to keep his soul pure, while his body rotted away from the injuries and tortures inflicted upon it.

The Christian religion and morality extols the glory of the Hereafter, and therefore remains indifferent to the horrors of the earth. Indeed, the idea of self-denial and of all that makes for pain and sorrow is its test of human worth, its passport to the entry into heaven.

The poor are to own heaven, and the rich will go to hell. That may account for the desperate efforts of the rich to make hay while the sun shines, to get as much out of the earth as they can: to wallow in wealth and superfluity, to tighten their iron hold on the blessed slaves, to rob them of their birthright, to degrade and outrage them every minute of the day. Who can blame the rich if they revenge themselves on the poor, for now is their time, and the merciful Christian God alone knows how ably and completely the rich are doing it.

And the poor? They cling to the promise of the Christian heaven, as the home for old age, the sanitarium for crippled bodies and weak minds. They endure and submit, they suffer and wait, until every bit of self-respect has been knocked out of them, until their bodies become emaciated and withered, and their spirit broken from the wait, the weary endless wait for the Christian heaven.

– Emma Goldman, ‘The Failure of Christianity’ (1913)

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11 thoughts on “90. spittle

  1. Phillip

    Goldman’s critique of Christianity sounds a lot like Nietzsche’s: Christian theology fetishizes suffering and victimhood, elevating them to virtues. I wonder if Ghandi or MLK were ever in dialog with Goldman about pacifism as a form of power.

    I’ve been reading your posts with great interest. As I think I’ve told you I’m hoping to get a MA so I can be a counselor but if I ever get a PhD I’d love to do a dissertation on the psychological dynamics at play in the children of fundamentalism (myself included…. navel-gazing, I know!).

    I went to church this morning down the street at Missoula’s local emergent-type congregation because, frankly, living in a new town it can be lonely and I really miss the sense of community that these churches strive for. But visiting that kind of church makes me wonder if I’m not like the person who keeps returning over and over to a bad or abusive relationship because it never-the-less holds the memory of belonging and love. The psychology in these churches can be so much like a pressure-cooker: this particular community attracted me with it’s explicit invitation to Christians and non-Christians alike to build authentic and meaningful friendships. Awesome. I’m down with that. But then there’s always the nagging suspension that you are more of a project than a person to them.

    I wanted to ask the people I met today (but didn’t) “would you love me even if God doesn’t exist?” As long as the answer to that question is “yes” I can happily participate in the community… any community. But I can’t help but wonder if if the true answer to is “you are loved not for who you are but to the extent that MY God is active in YOUR life.” Sounds like a formula for self-esteem issues for the evangelical kid for whom whom God always seemed absent…

    And yet it’s a beautiful world. Fall in Missoula has been spectacular. I hope you’re finding some joy and lightness amidst the struggle my friend.

    • David

      It is a beautiful world! At the end of the day, we find ourselves in a marvelous universe.

      Actually, earlier in the essay Goldman refers to Nietzsche, but also to Max Stirner: “[they] have hurled blow upon blow against the portals of Christianity, because they saw in it a pernicious slave morality, the denial of life, the destroyer of all the elements that make for strength and character.” She died in 1940, so I don’t know what her thoughts about Gandhi were, but she certainly never met MLK (unless there’s some sort of time travel we don’t know about)!

      Honestly, I find it unimaginable that any non-theist (atheist and agnostic alike) could attend a church, not believing in any of it—and even, like myself, believing that it’s toxic, deadly and dangerous nonsense. By very definition, those who attend a church believe in the active existence and presence of a God. Frankly, I’ve never understood the allure of wishy-washy denominations like Universalism that don’t care what you believe so long as you believe something—why even bother with God at that point? Why not just call it what it is: a social club! And there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we’re being honest and forthright with our definitions.

      Lurking beneath the compassionate or contemplative veneer of the Christian – even the emergent hipster – is the self-same arrogant, hypocritical face that the Evangelical wears much closer to the surface; who, as you said, views you as a nothing more than project, another soul to save for Jesus. Not even the deepest loneliness that I have experienced as an atheist could drive me back to the community that was present in the church. Because, let’s face it, atheists are by nature an individualist bunch, and trying to get a group of them together is like herding proverbial cats. I do miss the sense of belonging that it provided, but it was all based on fictions and lies; and I couldn’t ignore that, not with the knowledge I have now.

      If you’re interested in doing work on the effects of fundamentalism on children, and perhaps you already know about this, but you might be interested in the work that Jill Mytton has done and is doing in helping former fundamentalists escape and recover from the mental and psychological abuse of being raised Christian. She’s quoted in The God Delusion when talking about leaving Christianity: “The process of leaving is extraordinarily difficult. Ah, you are leaving behind a whole social network, a whole system that you’ve practically been brought up in, you are leaving behind a belief-system that you have held for years. Very often you leave families and friends… You don’t really exist any more for them.” This would be a marvelous topic for you to engage in on the PhD level!

      • Phillip

        I haven’t been been wounded as deeply by religion as you have. And I’ve had many experiences in religious communities that I’ve found to be healthy and ennobling. So it makes sense that I have more cognitive dissonance when it comes to reengaging with my religious past – I feel conflicted about it rather than opposed to it. Even as an agnostic.

        When I was in Minneapolis I participated in a couple Unitarian Universalist small groups. In the services the message did tend to either cater to “the lowest common denominator” or to just leave some people out. It could feel wishy-washy. But the small groups were where we actually built relationships. It’s where we were able to be authentic and vulnerable with each other (to use some very evangelical lingo). That’s really important, I think. It’s hard to find groups with that kind of commitment to understanding and caring for one another. It’s something religious communities often do with very mixed motives, and sometimes do very poorly. But it’s something very few other groups try to do at all. The desire for that kind of community is what keeps me poking my nose back in the church door, despite being suspicious and exhausted by it all. I don’t want to presume that everyone needs that kind of community to find meaning and fulfillment. But it still seems important to me.

        Thanks for tipping me off to Jill Mytton. I’m more interested in helping people heal from harmful religion than simply assembling statistics about it, so she sounds interesting to me.

        Your blog really makes me think. I’m not always very hard-headed (I’m an INFP!), so that’s a good thing. Thank you!

        • David

          Yeah, definitely check out Jill Mytton. I’d love to fly to England for a month to be with her because I feel like there’s still a lot of deconversion work to do – just dealing with a lot of the dogma and teachings of the church and my parents that have shadowed my life so far, and is still shadowing. And I’m glad to make you think. There’s always a lot going on in my head so it’s fun to share and know that others might be thinking about some of the same things.

          I’m glad that you’ve had healthy, ennobling experiences as of late, and that you have found a place to make community. And I wonder what that’s like, to be amongst religious people and not feel like you’re always being judged, or that “if they really knew who you were” that they wouldn’t throw you out or sic Tony Perkins or James Dobson on you or something dreadful like that. For me, that will most likely never happen again. Like Julia Sweeney says at the end of Letting Go of God (I know, I quote her all the time on this blog), “I can’t rejoin this church. I would start listening to the words again and it would just drive me nuts. I do wish there were a beautiful building where I could mark the transitions in my life with ancient rituals and great art, but where what we know about the world isn’t ignored.”

          Unlike some people, I was never physically or sexually abused by anyone affiliated with the church, so in some ways I feel like there isn’t much to complain about. There are some species of ant that take slaves. Dawkins describes it in The Selfish Gene: “The slavers mount an attack on a nest of ants belonging to a different species, attempt to kill the defending workers or soldiers, and carry off the unhatched young. These young ones hatch out in the nest of their captors. They do not ‘realize’ that they are slaves and they set ti work following their built-in nervous system programs, doing all the duties that they would normally perform in their own nest . . . The slaves are, of course, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are unrelated to the queen and to the brood that they are tending. Unwittingly they are rearing new platoons of slave-makers.” I feel as though for twenty-eight years I’ve been kept in a Christian nest when all this time I was supposed to be in an Atheist nest. Looking back on my life, I always had too many questions for my Sunday school teachers and other pastors. Someone would say something, and instead of being comforted it would just lead to more questions or unassailable doubts. And they would tell me to pray for faith.

          Then, of course, there’s the whole gay thing. Had I grown up in a non-Christian family there might have still been the prejudice against homosexuals, but it would’ve probably been from the cultural bias towards majority heterosexualism. But there would have been none of the “homosexuality is a sin and an affront against God and the natural order of things” that we get from the bible and biblical teaching. Had I grown up in a non-Christian family, I would’ve probably gone to public school much sooner than I did and recognized who I was much sooner, and attended a secular university where I could have come out sooner and begun exploring my adult identity as a gay man earlier and got a lot of those painful experiences out of the way that most people in their teens and early twenties deal with and bounce back from much easier. Now, however, I’m having to basically try to go back and rewrite all of the scripts in my mind, and make up for lost time. It wasn’t “abuse” in the classical sense, but it was abuse of a much deeper and more insidious nature.

    • Naomi

      David and Phillip, I am so sorry that you have been hurt so by the very people who are supposed to love you the most. Poinant questions. “Would you love me even if God doesn’t exist?” Or, “even if God didn’t tell you to.” There’s nothing better than being reminded that you are being loved out of duty.

      I would be fascinated to see a study about children growing up in fundamentalism. I have been very recently rewiring pretty much all of the facets of my faith, and am blown away by how those early years mold us…all the unspoken messages and subtle shame (or blatent). It’s totally freaky now that I have my own kids, as I want so desperately to not continue the abusive patterns.

      I only recently have started reading on the topic in the blogosphere, and have found it intriguing and sad. The process of leaving is indeed extraordinarily difficult. Whether Christianity or any other religion (I imagine) it is so complex and personal to journey away from something formerly held so dear, to gradually become the person I used to judge.

      Here’s to the celebration of what is beautiful, and to the destruction of that which causes harm.

      • David

        Thanks for your kind words, Naomi. If one good thing has come out of this whole experience, it’s finding Christians who are thinking new thoughts, or at least realizing that there might be a different way and a different religion than the one they inherited from their parents, and from their parents’ parents (and so on). It just would’ve been nice to find these people sooner, but I wonder if it would’ve made any difference. My best friend Emily told me the other day that it’s probable that I was always going to be an atheist; that, even when she first met me at Northwestern, it wasn’t likely that I’d stay a Christian. Part of me wonders if that’s true: if I’d grown up in a different family or a different church that was more progressive, and was more embracing of doubt and questions, and encouraging people to find their own way of connecting with and finding God, if I’d still find myself an atheist today. Who knows. Wondering what might have been only makes you crazy, and I’ve got enough of that. All I can do is face and deal with today’s questions today.

    • David

      This song sounds nice on the surface (except for her voice, which is reminding me of Mary-Louise Parker for some reason), but it contains a subtle fallacy: Everything is not fine. Everything is a mess, and what does it matter if you’re loved or not if it’s all falling apart at the seams? This is just another example of toothless hippie love songs, written by people who are desperate for answers and meaning in their lives, even if that meaning is ultimately a lie.

      • Phillip

        The song was an afterthought… I’d been listening to it and found comfort in what I heard as – on a purely surface level – an attempt at expressing love that is just that, sweet and simple. Certainly all is not fine. But maybe we make things harder and more complicated than they need to be to? Anyway, it was just a nice song, not really a statement. And I happen to like weird voices. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth

    Wow. Ms. Goldman has completely misunderstood Christianity in every way, shape and form. If anything, she’s attacking Buddhism–not the Christianity of the Bible or modern day workings out. Not to mention, she says nothing in her whole diatribe but “Christianity is evil because it is bad”; there’s little substantial anything to what she’s saying. It’s eloquent emptiness.

    I’m all for good debate–hope this doesn’t sound too defensive. 🙂

    • David

      Fair enough. I can see how you might feel your faith to be unfairly assailed by someone who “doesn’t really understand it.” And a few years ago I might’ve said the same. But (to paraphrase the film V for Vendetta), “I see this chain of events, these coincidences… and I have to ask: What if all I’ve ever believed about my faith is really just a cleverly written story? What if the story of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ is nothing more than a metaphor? And what if that story has been responsible for Inquisitions and Crusades and mass murders and the misery of billions of people? Would you really wanna know?” I would go into a more in-depth explanation of what I think Goldman is saying here, but am pretty busy right now and also have a policy of not debating with fundamentalists since we’re arguing from completely different positions and those discussions usually don’t lead anywhere but to hurt feelings.

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