As you know if you’ve read my “deconversion story”, I was raised Charismatic Catholic. Hm? You don’t know what that means? Yeah, neither do 99% of Catholics.
For all of their weird cannibalistic rituals (eating and drinking the body/blood of Christ) and Sunday Sitting/Standing/Kneeling Olympics (known as Mass), Catholics are one of the more liberal sects of Christianity. Most everyday Catholics are perfectly fine with equal marriage (now known as just “marriage!”), not going to church every Sunday, and pre-marital sex (just ask any ex-Catholic school girl 😉 ).
Most are what I used to call Sunday Catholics — they went to church, maybe confessed their sins, and then went right back to living life not thinking about God or the Bible for six days during the week. It’s even a running joke that most only attend church on Christmas and Easter.
Then there’s Charismatic Catholics. Charismatics are basically the Catholic version of evangelical Protestants or Baptists. We would go to church on Sundays like regular Catholics, then have our own prayer services sometime during the week where we would have praise and worship music, speak in tongues, be “slain in the spirit”, etc. Yes, exactly like those worship CD infomercials you see late at night. Funnily enough, even though everyone I knew was Catholic and even went to Catholic school, others thought I was in a cult because it was so different (and intense).
Once or twice a year, we would hold and/or attend “conferences” that were sort of like what mega-churches must look like every Sunday. If you were raised in one of these similar sects, you might know what I’m talking about. I especially encourage life-long atheists or those ex-believers that had a pretty lax religious upbringing to view these with an open mind and understanding. Children and teens are especially susceptible to such manipulative pandering. Maybe you can understand how people can fall for this stuff. I hope you guys watch these clips because my describing it absolutely cannot do them justice. Take a quick look:
Let’s break down how this works. These events were packed with talks from KidsJustLikeYou! who had found Jesus and turned all their problems around. Hip priests who played the guitar or drums. Skits and songs and line dancing. Glow sticks. Spot lights. Beach balls. Clapping to the beat in the sign of the cross. All of this is very attractive to young teens who would otherwise fall asleep during Sunday services.
Some of these events I attended were honestly the best times of my life. I loved the feeling of community, the laughter, the friendship, the songs and the music. I felt close to God and others. But they had a dark side, too.
I’m not sure how some of these other denominations handle guilt and forgiveness, but if you even know a Catholic or ex-Catholic, you know there’s a running joke about Catholic guilt. From what I understand, other denominations have simple crosses in their churches, while Catholic churches often feature various depictions of the crucifixion. Hideous, isn’t it?
Charismatics take the guilt thing to a whole new level.
Remember that documentary, “Jesus Camp”? I honestly could not get through it because it bubbled up such intense feelings for me. Imagine being shown graphic depictions of torture and being told, as a child or teen, that YOU did this to Jesus. Whenever you lie to your parents, or hit your brother, or give in to natural sexual urges, be it with yourself or others, YOU drive the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. Remember those children sobbing in the movie? Overwhelmed with guilt and self-loathing? My little prayer group would put on these guilt-inducing skits that had teens and grown adults crying in shame and begging an imaginary being for forgiveness.
Kids are told that they are broken and need fixing. They’re told that normal every day issues that almost all teens face are not only dangerous to themselves but hurting the imaginary God that watches them all the time. That only Jesus can save them.
Notice how Jesus doesn’t save this girl? She “saves” herself. I have seen many variations on the theme in the skit above — usually varying “sins” placing chains on a teen, until they can finally get to Jesus. Jesus almost never saves them. They have to come to Jesus themselves, of course. We wouldn’t want them thinking Jesus can actually do anything, now would we?
Check out the 4:30 mark. At the bottom right corner, you can see a young man put his head in his hands during the crux of the skit. This is usually what happens. I have seen grown men and women crying over stuff like this. One of the comments I saw on one of these videos was, “You should show the people afterward”. Then they are usually presented with the opportunity to be prayed over / accept Jesus… yadda, yadda.
Teens are in such a vulnerable state already. Often, they are dragged there by well-meaning parents who are attending the attached adult conferences, or friends who are already heavily involved in the cult. Yes, it was a cult. I can see that now.
As an atheist, of course, all of this seems exceedingly silly. I can recognize now the dopamine rush that felt like a spiritual connection. I get the same highs listening and singing along to other types of music I love. I can see how so much of this is targeted at kids who think singing hymns in church is, like, totally lame. I was one of those kids. I thought my faith was special. I felt like I wasn’t part of a religion – it was a relationship (I know you’ve heard that one before!).
People sometimes accuse internet/Twitter/Facebook/blog atheism of being an echo chamber. You know what? Sometimes it is, and sometimes I’m okay with that. Sometimes I need that. Because, believe it or not, sometimes when I watch these videos or hear this type of music, I can feel the tug at my heartstrings. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s a longing to be able to wish all my problems away like these kids are told they can. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s there.
Of course, Christian believers would say this is Jesus calling to me, and I’m rejecting him. But you and I know that I am trying to protect myself from returning to a toxic cult mentality. And I am forever grateful to my internet atheist “community” for keeping me grounded.