Frank Schaeffer on Escaping Fundamentalism, and the Death of Fred Phelps

March 24, 2014

Following the death of the Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps, Josh Zepps discusses the state of religious fundamentalism with Frank Schaeffer, the New York Times bestselling author of Crazy for God: How I grew up as one of the ElectSex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics– and How I learned to love Women(and Jesus) Anyway, among many others.

Having recovered from beingraised in a fundamentalist Christian family, and having written multiple novels about growing up in that world, Schaeffer has a fascinating perspective on what he sees as the psychological damage inflicted by angry fundamentalism, and helps us examine how we, as atheists, might respond to the death of those we despise.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 24th, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. 

Fred Phelps, the man who in Kansas in 1955 founded the Westboro Baptist Church, has died at the age of 84. For over a half century, his church has embodied the most extreme version of American evangelical Christianity, picketing more than fifty three thousand events, according to them, from Lady Gaga concerts to the funerals of slain U.S. soldiers, at which a dozen or so church members, including small children, would brandish signs that said Thank God for dead soldiers or God hates fags. Westboro believes that every calamity from war to natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is caused by America’s tolerance of gay people. Today, a conversation about what Westboro meant, what it represents, how atheists should respond to the demise of people we despise, and the state of evangelical Christianity in America. With a man who knows of which he speaks. Frank Schaefer is a New York Times best selling author of more than a dozen books, including internationally acclaimed novels depicting life in a strict fundamentalist household much like the one Frank grew up in. His father, Francis Schaefer, was an influential and deeply conservative evangelical pastor. 

Frank’s latest book, Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God, will be released in May 2014. Frank, thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

Hey, it is always good to talk with you. 

The thing that goals me the most when I think about my attitude towards Westboro Baptist Church is the children, those kids standing there holding signs that say God hates fags. 

I’m interested in what your early religious thinking was. I know that your father was not nasty towards gays, but do you remember when you first started thinking about God and what that was? 

Yeah. I mean, you know, when I grew up as a child, I like all children just for granted the environment that I was growing up in, which had to be a small American fundamentalist community and mission transplanted, talking about unlikely things to a mountainside in Switzerland where my parents had moved in 1947 when dad came over to Europe after the war to work as a missionary in bomb cities. And then he stayed. And we were a very exclusive this little group at that time. Dad was a real fundamentalist in that era. So was my mother. They were kind and good people, not driven by hate. Unlike Westboro or totally different types of human beings in terms of their internal chemistry toward others. That said, literally on any given Sunday, it was my three sisters and I, my mother, a few guests who were staying at the mission as kind of people my parents were trying to reach. And Dad would preach hour and a half long sermons. And I honestly believe that somehow we were probably the only real Christians on Earth that everyone else was of the other in quotes, and that, you know, our way was the right way. And my own background began in these very narrow circumstances. And of course, this is pre Internet. Our parents don’t even own a car. We probably made Westboro pretty cosmopolitan when it came to their contact with the bigger world. It was really just me and my family sitting on that mountainside, you know, with my parents preaching Jesus to whoever came by a crash for a few nights or days. And from there, my dad became an international best selling author and figure here, you know, fast forward into the 70s and the 80s when he was hobnobbing with the likes of George W. Bush, where Jerry Falwell actually literally, personally lent me his jet when I was in my 20s to fly down to be a speaker at Liberty Baptist College. I was my dad’s sidekick by that point. Kind of rare in this environment, you know, very much as a lot of the Westborough family tracked along with with their founder. And then I split. I left in by my dad died in 84. And by the late 80s, I was out and again just before we get to get to. 

Yet I’m interested because the idea of being I didn’t I wasn’t actually aware that you grew up in Switzerland, but the idea of having a missionary of all the places in the world where you would need to proselytize Christianity, I Switzerland’s a pretty Christian country. What what was your parents outlook towards, for example, the Lutherans and the other denominations of Christianity within Switzerland? 

Well, let’s start with the Roman Catholics. They were the horror of Babylon. They were lost and they had to be evangelize. My dad would go down every two weeks to Milano in Italy on the train, about a five hour ride. In those days and do a Bible study for the people he regarded as the only real Christians in Italy. I mean, the mind boggles when you think, you know, Italy, the Vatican and all the rest. But from the from the narrow fundamentalist position, you know, Dad had to go down there and make converts and the same in the other European countries when it came to Switzerland. He would have said by the time we were there, the Swiss had sadly departed their Calvinist heritage when. Came to this, the Calvinist Protestant parts of Switzerland, of course, the rest was Roman Catholic. He would have pointed liberal theologians like Karl Baat, other Swiss as people who had, you know, veered from the narrow path. So I I grew up very much in a in an embattled kind of mentality that somehow we were grimly holding onto the truth and everyone else was in error. So I totally get. That dynamic. I mean, I lived I lived within it. So this is not foreign to me. I don’t feel like I’m. When I when I look at people like Phelps and Westboro and all the rest of it, you know, their theology of hatred is not one my parents share. They welcomed all people who came to Labrie, including, by the way, gay people who came in feeling welcome. They may not have agreed with dad’s theology, but they certainly were shown genuine hospitality and kindness. That said, when it came to the theology, it was us and it was, you know, Schaefer family, Contre Mendham. We were we were right. And we had to share this. Now, I have to quickly add that as the years went by and my father also changed his opinions, he didn’t go where I went, which was to the left and to a much more secular vision of the world. But he certainly became far less fundamentalist. He actually grew as a human being. He got interested in art and culture. He started going to museums in Europe. The traffic that came through his Ministry of Liberi fellowship in the 60s, you know, more and more people with long hair beat generation came in and then the hippies and, you know, in the final days you’ll be interested in this. He had folks like Timothy Leary actually winding up sort of Eila Beatles going to the Meyera Ricci in India. During that time, we had kind of our own version of that with a few real figures from the, you know, the 60s capitalized. Who would show up to talk to this, this guy sitting in the Swiss Alps who believed in Jesus. But by that point was also talking about art and culture and so on. So my early childhood is very much like the people in Westborough. My later youth as a teenager was in a different kind of environment. And then when dad got into the religious right for him was only on the abortion issue. He never got into the gay bashing. He parted company with people over that course. He died in 84 before everything. You know, all hell broke loose in terms of certain aspects of the gay bashing was already taking place. But it has accelerated since then. 

And, you know, I got out and as you mentioned in the introduction, started writing books. 

A lot of people, for example, who split who part company with their parents beliefs or plot cut part company with the church of their childhood. 

We’ll find some kind of an awakening in there. I guess mid teens, you start thinking about things, just ask them questions. You start noticing anomalies in the scripture. 

Then towards their late teens, maybe early 20s, they read some books and their their minds get opened. And that’s the kind of age at which people challenge. You were saying that when you were in your 20s, you were flying around on Jerry Falwell’s jet and being your father’s really your father’s son. What was the period like between your mid teens and early 20s that you weren’t troubled by the certainty that your parents had? 

Well, I was troubled and now I’m very brutally honest. I was very troubled. But I was also given a an American Express credit card by the people working with them. And all of a sudden we were being flown first class and all of a sudden mom was swimming laps and in the Ford White House pool. And, you know, we were getting handwritten Christmas cards. 

President Reagan, it was so it it always seemed like it was a pragmatic kind of thing, because obviously the Westboro Baptist Church family, a lot being courted like that. They’re among the most hated people in America. They don’t have any to any charge cards. There is the ones who are left in that cult, and I’ll call it that, presumably sufficiently brainwashed that they’re doing it for purely theological and ideological reasons. But where was your head at theologically and ideologically during this time? Are you saying that you kind of knew it was all bullshit, but for the purposes of maintaining this this fantasy life and the opulence, you’re willing to play along? 

Actually, it was more complex than that. I think what happened was, is that I had, you know, like any other thinking person, you had doubts, which I then sort of subsumed and pushed away through the years. But, you know, the sheer ugliness of the religious right as it was, it was coming forth. You know, I liked art. I liked films. And, you know, my idea of a good movie was Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or eight and a half. You know, this is not a world which you can thrive if those are your tastes. I grew up in Europe. I may have been the son of fundamentalist Christians, but in the end, I was sent off to a British boarding school. My horizons expanded. That said, I believed in what my father taught as a child. And that was the slow theological intellectual transition away from that. 

But the first break was really an emotional one, and that was that the evangelical fundamentalist world on an esthetic level alone is an ugly world. 

You know, when you when you when you’re hanging around backstage in places like Jerry Falwell’s college, you know, it’s all sheet rock and praying hands and pressed muck and various versions of bad neorealist art, which is kind of, you know, it looks like the kind of Christian version of Stalinist realism. You know, it’s propagandistic garbage. If you have some kind of artistic or esthetic sensibility, the first thing that checks out before the theology is just, you know, if two lines are forming, you know, who would you rather be spending the rest of your life with on a desert island? You know, some some interesting artist or filmmaker or musician. And you met somewhere or these crazy crack. Evangelical people who forget just the hate. 

Just just just the sheer esthetic of it. I think that’s so. I think that’s so interesting. 

That was my own point of departure. 

And so it’s not an accident that I wound up as a writer who takes his writing seriously. I’m a real writer. I’m not just someone who’s written a few memoirs and I write novels and other things and I’ve gotten some acclaim. And obviously that was in there somewhere and it had to be developed later. 

What? What I find artistic sensibility. Frank, what I find so interesting about that is that part of I think what drives people like Westboro, the Westbrooke Church members and also other evangelicals is a sense of being. 

Ascetic course, but not esthetic, but like the asceticism of it, the the self deprivation, the austerity of the. 

The fact that they’re not going to jump into the easy path of flamboyance and and pushing us, that they’re they’re dedicated to a pure a more holy vision of life, which is which is without the bells and whistles. And that helped. The reason why the world’s going to hell in a handbasket is because everybody is so caught up with what looks nice and what feels good instead of being committed to the book. 

What do you make of that? Because that would have been another way for you to interpret the the the better esthetics of the secular world. You could have turned around and said, yeah. Well, that’s precisely why we have to be more dedicated to God, because this is temptation. 

Well, you know, there’s a whole strain of Christianity, of course, that goes far past any evangelical or North American Experience Summit, which does follow that ascetic path. And some of it is producing results that are the opposite of hatefilled. For instance, I was in an NPR program not long ago out of Chicago called World View, where there were two guests. I was one and another was someone called Lozar Puello, who’s a retired archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Canada, who has been silenced by the Russian Orthodox Church because he’s come out so strongly in favor of gay rights and kindness to transgender people and all the rest of it. And that, you know, he’s an 80 plus year old man and that comes directly out of a heart which has been shaped by genuine asceticism, which is the simple life, the fasting and prayer. And it’s had a complete the other result in him. So the skepticism that some folks have practice have taken in the direction of compassion and live and let live and a tremendous empathy for other people. But then sadly, you have this kind of horrible strain that goes through all historic Christianity and certainly not just North American fundamentalist. I mean, obviously, you know, the ancient churches burning people and chasing on streets there. Speaking of Russian Orthodox Church, their origin organizing pogroms in and Russia and killing Jews. And today you have those same folks, you know, the Vladimir Putin supporters, because he’s, quote unquote, conservative about gay rights or whatever it may be. So I think it’s a kind of a checkered mix. But where south where where the the Phelps and those guys kind of got off the boat that my dad was on as they for some reason. And, you know, it goes into the kind of reconstructionist theology and Calvinism that they held in the extreme. They D-Link themselves from the compassionate thread that runs through a lot of Christianity, which which may not have changed the crummy stupidity of the theology of thinking. You know, gay people choose to be that way as a kind of a simple lifestyle. But it did moderate the reaction of people like my parents because they had also, you know, drunk very deeply at the well of a kind of a basic spirituality which said, you know, do unto others and so forth. 

And and that moderated their theology. So the way I put it about my parents in this book of mine, as I say, you know, they were kind of than the mythology. My parents, in a sense, were better than the God they worship. They they yes. Their innate human empathy transcended their ugly theology. 

Now, obviously, when I get to do to some evangelicals and fundamentalists who have been leading this horrible crusade against not just gay people, but anybody with whom they differ, you know, they’ve they it’s it’s almost like they have they have edited out the portions of their own scriptures, which which countermand or at least would slow them down when it comes to the pure hatred. 

And when you say that your parents were, in a sense, better than the nastiness of their theology. One of the great reasons why people believe in God and why people are religious is because they think that it’s from the script, the scripture, from their religious texts, that they get morality from. 

Right. I mean, the most common probably argument for religion is without religion, everyone would just do anything and there would be no grounding for ethics. Do you see it as almost reverse to that? That I mean, when you say that you’re. Yeah. 

I argue the exact opposite. Then I say basically, look, you know what the real lesson here is, is, is, is the evolution of consciousness and empathy. That’s the reason we have morality and religion has come about because people want to formalized rules that protect them. Look, you know, I don’t want you bashing in the head if we’re in the same studio arguing. And so we have rules. And so I say, well, listen, you know, God says or we have to have a liturgy which emphasizes this, but essentially the function of empathy is something that came through evolution and the religion came second. And what it does is it formalizes just like the law does. It’s not just a matter of religion, but our attempts to formalize arrangements by which you and me can survive is the prime evolutionary directive of a genetic code. Survive. And that’s what every. That’s what every mutation chance mutation in evolution favors. So it comes from night where I think religion can be beneficial and inform people is that if you can if you can plow through the detritus and the muck, which is 90 percent of everybody’s holy books, whether that’s the Bible, the Koran, the poor or whatever, these horrible rules, whether it’s stoning women who lose their virginity or just the insane mythological kind of stuff that has to be believed in order to be saved. You know, and so many of these religions, if you can wade through that, you can come to the evolutionary core, which would I would just call is the common wisdom of what our primate human tribe has learned so far, which, by the way, isn’t much. I’m not over, you know, I mean, we still have a long way to go. But where I think some atheists make a mistake is where they look at religion as entirely negative because of things like the hatred that has come through. And they reject what really is the same lesson that Shakespeare teaches and or that any wise, you know, connect collection of human sayings, wisdom, habit, teach. And so there is there is a very positive part of religion, too, in that if you take something, for instance, like book Chapter six, where Jesus talks about this whole idea of forgiving your enemies, someone asking you for a loan, and they say, give me your coat. And so, OK. Give them your cloak, too, where they hit you. Turn the other cheek. You know, this is the stuff on which the Enlightenment was based. Know when Voltaire in the Enlightenment went up against the church, interestingly enough, what he used as his prime argument was that the church was hypocritical not living up to the teachings of Jesus. 

So actually, you know, the best the best weapon against hatred borne by religion, especially in terms of biblical Christianity or Judaism, which I know more about. 

It’s my tradition is not to say the whole thing sucks, but is to rather say what sucks most about this is that the common thread of human wisdom that comes from our evolutionary ancestral past, which is buried in the teaching of Jesus and all these other people, simply because that’s where human wisdom took us. 

We don’t want to throw that out. It’s nice to have people running around who believe that they should follow someone who says if your enemy hits, you don’t hit back. 

Would the whole world was like that. And if you want to criticize Vladimir Putin, for instance, for what he’s doing. Wow. He’s pretending to be a good, loyal Orthodox Christian or say his bishop who coddles him while he while he sends Cossacks with whips to hit people, you know, even in front of cameras at the Olympics where where Pussy Riot. Didn’t you just say, you know, a tomorrow when you go into your church and light a candle in front of the icon of Jesus? Do you think this is what he was talking about? And Luke said. 

Well, I mean, the problem with that, of course, is, is that then you just get into a circular cherry picking argument where we say I say that we should focus on sex and he says we should focus on Leviticus and no one has any grounding. So it sort of I feel like in defense of atheists, A, we shouldn’t forget the contributions of the ancient Greeks to ideas of moral philosophy, which Christianity then pilfered a lot from and then be. I think a lot of atheists would recognize that there are a lot of great things written in religious texts and that if you if you treat them as text, as non holy texts, they interesting artifacts. 

They’re certainly interesting artifacts simply because in the case of Christianity, so many of the metaphors with so many of the things that that are told in the Bible, then get then spill on through all other kinds of culture throughout the past two thousand years from architecture to art. It’s very it’s a literature. It’s difficult to understand the world that we live in unless you understand some of those allusions. So I can experience the grandeur of a Greek Orthodox Church just as much as the next man. I can experience a sense of uplift when I’m at a bar mitzvah or something or joy when I’m, you know, when I’m in the presence of some great religiously inspired art. But but I have to think of my religious text in that context as secular texts that were written by secular people about fantasies and then say, well, yes, there are aspects of these things that actually are fruitful, like, look, six, perhaps. But the fact that it’s in the holy book can’t be the reason why I’m saying it’s fruitful, because I’m not. If I get into an argument with Putin, I need to have another leg to stand on other than it’s in this book. 

I think you’re completely right. And that is if you just around in circles at the Bible or any other holy texts, the argument doesn’t come circular, which is why I think what we need to do is look at a kind of a general standard of empathy which which which transcends individual traditions, including scientific traditions. I mean, obviously, there are a lot of secular folks who who behave badly as well as religious people. So I kind of reverse it. And my view is that the parts that fit in with the kind of an empathy that makes the world livable for you and me and any one else are the parts that we would take from any tradition and kind of follow the logic of those. But I think it’s a cart and a horse, and I think the empathy comes first and the religious expression of it comes second. Marriage, religion is useful. Is that it can. Restate things that we know to be true because they work in human relationships and in society. 

And you know what? We should be open to and take the good stuff from wherever we can get it ethically. That’s my point of view. 

Is that what you mean when you write? I mean, the title of your book, Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God is sort of intentionally provocative because you don’t really believe in God. 

But is that the God that you’re talking about? The God of supposed empathy, of uplift, of a sense of the transcendent? 

Yeah, I think so. And I think I would divided into two parts. And that is, first of all, you know, we have this wonderful science unfolding even as you and I speak here today where where people are looking at the the reflected radiation from trillions of a second after the big bang and actually seeing the waves and hearing the echo, as it were, from the beginning. And and I think there’s a philosophical question which I guess gets into religion, too. But I look at it more as philosophy of cosmology, of saying, well, you know, before that second, what was the energy that drove the whole thing that’s kind of worked out. In our consciousness here and wherever else it appears in the universe, which results in love and empathy. Art appreciation for beauty. You know, I hope I’m not saying I believe. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was sort of some overriding, purposeful directive within the evolutionary process, not just biological evolution, but the entire expanding universe where the logic of empathy and human relationships that we enjoy as as as Homo sapiens was somehow rooted into the fabric of things and in that sense, a God. But that’s a philosophical question that doesn’t have any impact on what we’re talking about, because there’s no way to know that. 

So in a sense, the sense that I believe in God and an atheist is that I think things like prayer, relationships, people taking gettle teaching of Jesus, because I happen to be in the Christian tradition. 

That’s what I come out of, that these things can be folded into a moral, ethical, humanistic approach that can make sense for someone like me. That doesn’t want to pretend that I don’t have that psychological baggage. In other words, I’m not saying you should do this, but for a kid who grew up in a mission in Switzerland to pretend that I don’t have the baggage, as it were, echoing in my mind that I grew up with the need pray or the need to go to church to celebrate things in a just way. I am trying to accommodate the reality of who I am. Not by choice, but how I was raised and and the way I look at things and make it work for me and for other people who come from a similar journey. 

Right. I mean, it’s interesting that you say that because what you’ve what you’ve essentially done is you’ve said it’s impossible for you to not be you and to not have that baggage because you are who you are, but you are. What you are capable of doing is taking a step back, being one level more meta, recognizing that that is who you are and that that’s not the totality of everything that there is to know. The thing that I think irritates a lot of atheists or certainly me about religious people is when they don’t take that extra step and say no. I mean, you said you alluded to Jesus and then you said, because I come from a Christian background, that’s a sentence. That’s a sentence that a lot of religious people simply refuse to acknowledge or accept. 

I mean, you look at the sheer number of people who have not even had the revelation available for them to know because they just were born into India. And they said, why would God bring down his his son in one particular area? At one particular time so that all the Chinese and Indians wouldn’t even know that they had the potential to be saved. 

How did you how did you. I’m interested in your parents. Right. They they thought they had an insight into into this very they knew the truth, but it was a truth, presumably, that they had been raised. And I assume that their parents were also evangelical. What did they think, do you think, about the contingency of just having happened to be born into the one true faith and all the other ones were wrong? 

How do you reconcile that? A lot. Then them step back and think, well, hang on a second. All of that surely is just accidental baggage. 

Yeah. They would make a leap of faith at that point, which they would say something to the effect that, well, you know, of course we can’t we can’t imagine how God could do this to people, condemn people to hell just because they were born at the wrong place at the wrong time. So we’re just going to take it as a matter of faith that somehow he will work this out. Or in my mother’s phrase, she passed away last March at age 98. You know, she always had this lovely turn of phrase that I can remember as a child saying, well, you know, well, dear, we won’t know this, but we get to heaven. In other words, they would just draw a curtain over it and say, this seems impossible. But obviously, you know, we’re gonna be able to find a way to to somehow reconcile these things. So let’s just vote on the side of leaving well enough alone. You had people who were if they’d been given basic intelligence tests, these were genuinely, intellectually, you know, aware folks with that with a real power of perception. There is something that happens, the human brain. I mean, we’ve been you know, you as you well know, there’s all these studies saying that that we actually shape our own brains by the way we use them and and change them. And I and I don’t want to make this sound too unkind and pejorative, but I think that, you know, there’s a certain extent where your brain actually breaks. You can’t think in rational terms anymore. So you have this duality of embracing a theology that’s immensely cruel. But at the same time, trying to be a kind person yourself and laying this thing aside in the area of sort of, well, this is just mystery. We don’t understand it. Yes. It sort of makes our God look terrible. That said, you know, you kind of snap and you live on the same level. And I don’t want to draw the parallel. You know, God forbid we draw the parallel with certain things that happened in Germany in the 1930s that said no. 

When you read these accounts of of of some of the leaders of the National Socialist Movement and the Nazi party loving Bach and listening to concerts and Beethoven and all the rest of it on one and one afternoon and then the same time running a concentration camp, you can understand how you can have a compassionate evangelical war on one side acts as if they are humanists while holding the theology, which if you look at it nakedly for what it really is, is exactly what happens when people picket funerals or scream God hates fags at a people they know. And I and I and I think you can’t understand fundamentalist faith until you realize the brain damage it does. And so look at me now. 

I’m 62 years old and I’m trying to figure my life out and I’m writing this book. So what I have to do is not just take that step back. I have to admit. Like some alcoholic has to admit it and every AA meeting. You know, I am an alcoholic, but I’ve been sober for 25 years. I have to actually start in my own head. When I think about these things, I have to say to myself, I am a fundamentalist and I have been sober, as it were, for, you know, going on 40 years now, 30 some years now. But all the knee jerk reactions are right there on the surface. And the way I combat that is to admit my own psychological baggage. Try to deal with it. 

And then at the same time, when it comes to things like even the way you write a paragraph about Jesus or what he said, rather than saying what Jesus said doesn’t. So as if somehow you’re assuming that what’s reported in the Bible is actually historical. 

I’ll say, as Jesus was said to have said. Or as is reported by the gospel writer. 

And I will just use that enough so that I’m always trying to keep that daylight between the brain that got broken conditioned as an evangelical Christian, as a child at my mother’s knee and the brain I’m trying to choose to have now. I don’t know if that makes sense. 

No, it does. It does. I mean, if you sticking with the analogy of alcoholism, then how did you get clean initially? 

So you were you know, initially you were saying that it was an esthetic thing, that you just thought that it was more beautiful to live in a secular way than to live in an evangelical way. At what point did you theologically think this is just intellectually untenable? And what did that do? What did the breaking away from your parents faith do to your relationship with your father? 

Well, I won’t take that in order that you asked it. I’ll just sort of riff on it one. One thing is this. 

When I got my girlfriend Jeannie pregnant when we were 17 and 18 and we had the child, the child’s Jessica Jessica is my daughter. She lives in Brussels. She works at the United, not the United Nations. 

The European Union now watching that little girl grow up. 

The first huge departure from me as a teenage father who hadn’t make a break with my father yet. 

Was the the the fact that I was a shitty father, you know, typical evangelical lording it over his wife and children at that stage of my life, thinking, you know, I was the head of the household. 

However, in a love that I had for that little girl did not mesh with my theology. I just couldn’t take it emotionally, thinking if Jessica doesn’t accept Jesus, at some point she’s going to burn in hell. And I was thinking, listen, you’re a shit, you’re an asshole yourself. And yet, you know, here you are, a shitty teenage father who’s not even good at this. And there’s nothing this little girl could ever do to you in her entire life that would make you want to kill her, let alone burner forever. 

And you’re worshiping a God who will burn your child for ever. She doesn’t get his name right or thinks he has six arms or doesn’t believe in him. You have to be kidding me. 

And so for me, the emotional response to my own children, which is, by the way, has just continued with my grandchildren, is, listen, you know, I refuse to worships what amounts to a fiend. 

And it was nothing to do with theology. It’s just like I’m not going I don’t care if this is real. Count me out. I don’t care who’s in charge. I’m not worshiping this God. Whether he is here, is there or not, I’m done. So my departure really came, first of all, like an alcoholic father, you know, who realizes that when he’s drunk, he’s beating his children. Say when he wakes up from the drunken stupor, he’s feels such shame. 

The idea of saying in a church service and then trying to explain to a little girl, three or four or five years old, that you love that. Yes, you know, this crucified Christ who died for our sins. 

If you don’t buy into this, by the way, the way he’s going to love you is burn you forever. Just trying to explain that to a child. My own child, in a way, it was like someone who grows up and will accept things for themselves that they cannot accept being done to their own children. That’s where I began to really part company. It was an emotional distance. I felt like I cannot pass this on to my kids. 

Secondly, I cannot imagine a God, you know, until I had my own children. It was like, well, all this business of God, the father and, you know, here he’s your heavenly father. He loves you. These were his words to me when I was a father, even before I got out of this whole thing. It was, listen, on my worst day, you know, as a complete jerk who loses his temper, you know, I’m sitting here feeling guilty and apologizing because I slapped my daughter when she was little. 

And I’m still sad about it. Well, you know, they’re asking me to worship a God who wouldn’t be satisfied till he had burnt her fraternity. 

You have to be shitting me. So I’m beginning departure was simply just picking up these little children, feeling guilty at my own shortcoming and realizing that I was a Sunday school picnic compared to the God I was supposed to be worshiped. 

I mean, it’s no more basic than that. 

I wonder what you think about. 

Evangelic, what do you think about the state of evangelical Christianity in America? 

I mean, what does Westboro tell us about that faction, about the influence that it wields, if any? 

And about why here and not in so many other? 

Smart, educated, rich countries. 

Well, one thing that Westboro did that I think is terrific. I mean, this is gonna sound odd. It’s like basically, you know, they the emperor just really finally showed up naked and people could see what what this emperor is. You know, a lot of evangelical Christians. I mean, the big evangelical machines, you know, the Billy Graham organization, Franklin Graham, Christianity Today magazine, they all hide behind this nice gossamer double talk of theology. At heart, though, if they took their faith seriously, in other words, the theology that they subscribed to officially in their statements, what we believe they would be out there picketing funerals and calling gay people fags, too, because the fact is all all Westboro was was he Van Jellico Christianity minus polite behavior. That’s the thing. 

Now, that said, there is a whole generation of evangelicals coming along that I happened to run into because they read some of my stuff and I hear from them. 

Who are the young, mostly the younger generation who are not buying into what their parents are saying. They’re not leaving the faith in totals, but they are certainly, for instance, when they get polled, they think gay people should be allowed to marry. They are not, you know, into American exceptionalism. They’re not buying the idea that somehow American power should be used globally all the time. They don’t buy into, you know, the lies that are told by the Koch brothers and others about climate change and these other things. And so there is there is some daylight showing up on a generational basis. You have people who are talking about the fact that they don’t believe in a literal hell anymore. They are much more inclusive in the theology. 

And these may be small steps, but generationally, it’s sort of like the Republican Party. I mean, yes, it’s you know, people watching Fox have a lot of control of our culture right now. But when you look at the demographic shift or you look at the age shift, the future does not belong to angry white 60 and 70 year old men in in Georgia. It belongs to, you know, someone from Central America who’s who’s mowing along somewhere right now, who’s 33 years old and just starting his family. That’s the future. Or a gay man or woman, you know, getting married and wanting to adopt children. That’s that’s where that’s where our culture is going. Thank thank goodness. But. So I think there’s a big generational shift coming, so you don’t want to paint all these folks as the same or bad. That said, when you look at at at at the people picketing gay weddings or whatever it may be or screaming things or filled filled with the hatred and the revulsion that drives a child to suicide because his parents just hate her, him or her now and drive them from their church. 

These sorts of things are still happening. So I think we have to call it like we see it. But at the same time, realize there is a generational shift coming along. 

And by the way, I think that some of those guys are going to, you know, respond. For instance, somebody like me writing in this book, I’m, you know, even in the title. I’ve gotten e-mails from folks who still consider themselves Christians who are saying, well, I don’t want to admit this, but you’ve described to me this is where my journey is taking me. 

You know why I’m an atheist who believes in God. Now, they may give it a very different interpretation than I do, but 30 years ago, I would have just been denied. Obviously, I would have been seen as someone who, quote, has gone over the edge to the other side. Now I’m just the enemy. There’s enough people in the middle. So that’s not necessarily true anymore. 

What do you think, tactically speaking, this debate among the secular community about how best to advance secular causes and how best to moderate religion? On the one hand, you’ve got this sort of new atheists who who advocate unapologetically announcing our nonbelief and dismissing religious nonsense for the religious nonsense that it is. 

Then there there’s a school of thought that thinks that that’s only likely to inflame people and make them make them cling to their religion a little bit more. And that you’re better off providing a kind of a middle ground in which people can in which you can make allies and in the moderate religious movement and try to isolate the extremists. What do you think tactically is the best way to have a more secular future? 

Well, the first thing I think is for people like you. I mean, literally, you know, one thing that you do set a good job with the times you’ve interviewed me on Half Live that I really appreciate is that you do try to include other opinions. I mean, just one of the deadly things about this kind of division between, say, the new atheist movement and the fundamentalists. I don’t mean the crazy the people who are going to picket funeral type fundamentalists. I mean, people who have a little human compassion and decency is that there are no venues in which any of these guys meet each other other than, say, watching a YouTube rerun of a. Christopher Hitchens debate with some fundamentalist minister. You know, there has to be places like Halflife where there’s four or five people who are drawn into the discussion in a polite way, where they’re allowed to have their say, where, you know, they look into each other’s eyes and if nothing more than through a strain and said, well, you know, he didn’t he or she doesn’t really have two heads. I guess if this person was their neighbor and they called me and said, can I borrow, you know, a gallon of milk because my mother in law is coming over and I haven’t gone shopping, I might even lend them the gallon of milk. In other words, there has to be kind of some human interaction. We mustn’t close the door to that. 

And then I think the other thing is, is that the people on the new atheist side, and I don’t mean make a generalization here, but they could do with a little bit of that daylight and distance between their own presuppositions that I’d been trying to bring to this book where I’m saying, look, I know what my psychological baggage is. You’re I’ll give you a point of say here would be something someone saying, look, I came from this abusive evangelical home. I am full of anger and bitterness. That’s who I am. That’s my profile. However, when I enter into discussions with people who are still stuck in this world, I’m going to recognize I bring a certain level of internal damaged hurt to this, and I’m going to admit it and say, hey, listen, some of this is based on my intellectual idea. As I’ve read books by Chris Hitchens and and Dawkins and others, they have convinced me and or I was always there or I did my P. 

D in neuroscience. And of course, you cannot study these things and still not, you know, and question whether we have an old earth or not. 

That said, I bring certain personal human baggage to this. 

If we could all lay that out honestly and just say, hey, listen, I not only disagree with you, I’m really angry with you because you remind me of my mother in law who got on my case about going to Sunday school or my father who beat me because he found out it was gay or threw me out of the house. I am her. 

If we could say honestly where we’re coming from, instead of always pretending that the only reason we’re arguing this is because we have good reasons and it’s the truth. And that’s where I sometimes fault the tone. By the way, myself and some of my passbooks. So I’m not. It’s mea culpa all the way here. But I think that, for instance, someone like Dawkins would admit his own psychology occasionally, which, by the way, I don’t know what it is. 

What I am saying is I think the tone of the discussion, not the the international points made, but the tone of the discussion can go a lot further in all directions if everybody admits that their baggage in the sense of the pain that they had suffered at the hands of other people. 

And and and I think the gay community, the evangelical community, these other folks, when you find people within those communities who are willing to communicate on the basis of, look, there’s more than one of us in each human frame we carry around, none of us are single minded. 

I’ve never in that sense. One of the things I really believe and you may disagree with me, Josh, here and I and maybe my terms are too categorical here, but I’ve never actually met a Christian or an atheist or a Hindu or a Muslim or a feminist or for that matter, a gay person or a transgender or a heterosexual. 

I’ve only met people who are complicated. And yes, we can wear we can wear labels so we can find our group. No problem. We can identify ourselves in some general way. No problem. 

But but whatever atheist my my atheist friends are, you know, whatever they call it, they pray. 

They may not. They don’t. They may not believe there’s any God hearing them. But that instinct to beg for help somehow is human. I’ve never met an evangelical who actually believes all the time. I mean, Billy Graham was a family friend of arts and he would sit around at Mayo Clinic when my dad was dying and perhaps because my father was dying, was having slightly aren’t more honest talks with him than he would with other people. And Billy told him repeatedly, I’m not there preaching the gospel. 

And by the way, he was he’s a sincere person. As far as I know. And he says about Francis, I’m unafraid of death. I don’t know if there really is even a heaven. So here you have America’s premier evangelist who in a quiet moment with my father at the Mayo Clinic, when my dad’s dying of cancer, comes to him and says, I don’t even know if there’s a heaven. 

J. Frank, wouldn’t it have been nice, though, if he’d just said that publicly? This is this is the thing that gets me about religion. It’s humility. And it it puts it with humility on its sleeve so much at the same time as it’s making such bold, bold claims about the nature of the cosmos and what happens after we die. 

And all these things that we all know, deep down, we don’t know. Everyone knows. We don’t know what happens after we die. And if he, too, knows that, then he shouldn’t be giving up on the pulpit and pretending that he does. 

Yeah, exactly. And so when I talk about people’s self brainwashing and their brain snaps, you know, there’s two kinds of people out there who are on the religious market that there’s people like Billy who really believed it and would push his doubts back, thinking that that’s the part of his brain that was sick. If you want to, he would say, well, you know, I’m a fallen creature because of the fall and original sin. 

Now, the fall is manifesting itself in my doubts, whereas I and say this is the moment you’re saying, Billy, this is when you’re saying what your doubts are, your sane brain pushing through for 10 seconds that you’re now going to push back again. That’s your sane moment when you have no doubts and you’re forging ahead, preaching this stuff with certain. Sure. You know, conviction. You have snapped. This is where this is where religion has made your brain ill and not in some metaphorical sense. But I mean, literally, the brain scans show differences the way they do in in in in, you know, their patika logical liars or sociopath, you know, different parts of the brain light up and get stimulated. Everybody knows this about children. Now, this is why you don’t want to hand a kid an iPod in their crib. Just entertain them because you want their first connection with the real world to be tactile and, you know, more Montessori school like I mean, these things are real. 

So just before before we go, I want to briefly touch on how we respond to to death, because I think it’s an interesting moral question. A lot of people are responding differently to the death of Phelps and the speculation about what’s gonna happen to Westboro Baptist Church. There’s a Facebook page that wants to pick picket his funeral. There are there’s a Satanist group that wants to have gay sex on his grave and thereby retroactively proclaim him to be converted to Tom’s sexuality. And then there are the people who think it’s better to forgive, and there are yet other people who think it’s better to ignore, not a forgiving nor hating. How should we deal with people who are really horrible, noxious bastards when they die? 

I think that there is not one answer. I think there’s several. The first is to really tell the truth about this guy. I don’t think our punches should be pulled at all just because he’s dead or his grandchildren mourn him. The guy was a bastard and a sociopath. And as an evil, I mean, straight out wicked. You don’t treat people this way and you don’t say things like that, and I speak with some emotion because, you know, while they were picketing these funerals, my son John came back and went to the University of Chicago and now works in Boston and everything’s fine. 

Was a Marine. And I actually went to a military funeral and literally had the feeling if any of these bastards shows up, I’m going to attack them physically. I’m not saying I thought it out rationally and that would have been the thing to do. But in my head, it was like watching this father collapse next to his son’s casket. I was thinking, you know, if anybody even comes in here thinking these things, I’m going to, you know, go after them physically. I just wouldn’t be a hard times stopping myself. And that was just as a as a father who had a son in combat, just just pure empathy. How would I feel? 

So these are horrible people. 

I think that the best way to deal with this be personally is for anyone who has any sort of not just a platform, but whether it’s a, you know, your Twitter account or just talking with your your sister or whatever it might be or your lover or friend. Let’s use this as an example to strip away the layer of respectability that covers the theology of people like Franklin Graham who believe exactly the same thing about gay people. But they are they have the political savvy, the public relations savvy not to show themselves up as such total idiots. 

All they do is lend Sarah Palin a plane when she’s on a book tour the way Franklin Graham did. All they do is make these nasty asides, a prayer breakfast. And what we need to say is, hey, listen. Religion does not deserve respectability when it holds these views, and we don’t care how it’s buried in theology or quiet voices or polite behavior, or on the one hand, this and on the other hand, that it has to be seen and exposed. So good that can come out of these folks. And the media attention to his death is for us to strip away this layer of hypocritical good behavior that so many Christians and Jews and Muslims. It isn’t just Christians. All the people wandering around the globe declaring religious war, however softly or kindly or politely, on gay people, on women, on the other, you know, all in the name of their religion. We have to say, hey, you know what? 

You are, in essence, what the editorial board of Christianity, a magazine, is, in essence at it as an editorializes against gay marriage, etc.. You are this guy. He is your mirror. How do you like yourself? Now, if we can do that, something useful comes out of it. 

Frank Schaefer, thanks so much for being on Point of Inquiry. Your latest book, Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God will be Available and making people preorder it now on Amazon. 

I don’t think it’s up for preorder yet. Maybe a couple of weeks from now. But we’re getting close. 

All right. We’ll keep our eye on it. Thanks, Frank. Great to talk to you. Josh, always good. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.