God Isn’t Abusive. People Are.

Hemant Mehta would like you to fund his new project. It’s a book, with pictures: God Is An Abusive Boyfriend (And You Should Break Up With Him).

I am going to tell you why this isn’t true. Allow me to present my credentials: I, unlike Hemant Mehta, had an abusive boyfriend.

That girl on the cover, with her eyes shifted, her body language stiff, is not an abstract concept to me. When I saw that image, I thought of myself. I thought of the night my alcoholic ex-boyfriend got trashed and embarked on a mostly incomprehensible rant about all the people he’d beat if they touched me. I sat next to him, very still, remembering the raccoon he’d let his dog rip to pieces in front of me.

He’d thrown ice and snow at it while it cowered and forced me to do the same. When it screamed, he laughed. When I begged him to pull the dog away, he refused.

And so I knew better than to try to run. All animals know when they’re trapped.

I defended him in public. I ignored my own screaming instincts. I didn’t even leave him when he assaulted me.

That’s what Mehta’s turned into pictures for his book. That’s what he’s comparing to religious belief.

This is, among many other things, quite an obvious logical fallacy. He’s asking us to compare apples and oranges.

As an atheist, I believe that God is an entirely fictional concept. Like any concept, it can be used to justify oppression. But because it’s merely a concept, and not a real entity, it can be interpreted any way a person likes. God, the idea, is not abusive, cannot possibly be abusive. God as Pat Robertson markets Him is another matter altogether, but even in this scenario it is Robertson, not God, that deserves the blame for inflicting trauma on his followers.

The concept of God isn’t a monolithic one; the concept my parents worship can’t reasonably be compared to the one my feminist Muslim friends worship, or the Light that dwells within my Quaker friend.

My abusive ex-boyfriend belongs to a separate category. He is real. He’s responsible for his own actions; no third party commits deeds on his behalf. There is nothing to be interpreted here.

Like all survivors of abuse I am familiar with blame, and how it is typically directed at survivors themselves and not the perpetrators of violence. I am familiar with all the usual questions.

Why didn’t you leave him? 

For a number of complicated reasons that include fear, blackmail, and an upbringing in a fundamentalist subculture that taught me to accept male dominance and female submission as norms.

Maybe you’re exaggerating.

If so I’ve wasted quite a bit of my life in therapy.

Why did you date him at all? 

Because he was very charming, and I wanted to believe he meant it when he said he’d be there for me.

Looking at my answers I can see there might some parallels between them and the answers I typically give when asked about my experiences with religion. But surviving an abusive romantic relationship and leaving organized religion are two fundamentally different processes, even if you’ve experienced religious trauma. The roots are different. The triggers are different. The recovery process is different. Things can overlap; that doesn’t mean they’re identical.

I am exceedingly weary of discussing my experiences with abuse. I have a BA in International Studies and an MA in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. I have presented papers on human rights and revolutions at institutions like the London School of Economics. As a writer, I’ve covered everything from Tea Party rallies in coal country to Hobby Lobby v. Burwell and in 2014 alone, I’ve been profiled in the New York Times and published in the Guardian.

But here I am, talking about something that happened four years ago.

We are all more than the professional faces we present to the world. And as long as the imagery of domestic violence is used in such a simplistic manner, I will speak out against it. I want you, if you care at all, to think of my face when you look at that book cover. I want you to imagine how frightened I was when I defended my abuser the way the girl in Mehta’s picture book defends God, when I cowered at the end of a couch the way she cowers in a corner.

And I want you to think very carefully about whether or not this is how you want to promote your belief tradition to the world.

I don’t.

I am an atheist. And God did not abuse me. My real boyfriend did.



11 thoughts on “God Isn’t Abusive. People Are.

  1. Thanks for speaking for the victims, especially for those of us in the unusual position of being former fundamentalists who are nonreligious as well as abuse survivors. It is not a comfortable position. I appreciate your perspective as always.

  2. I think your personal experiences are making you miss the point. Everything you say about God is true especially the part where he is not real and cannot actually be abusive but that is not the intent of the book. The perspective is from am person who actually believes God is real. That changes everything. If you believe God is real as a given in this discussion, then he is abusive. If you believe God is real, then all the horrors of your life, including abusive boyfriends, are the will of God.

    The book idea is sarcastic metaphor. Since God cannot be an abusive boyfriend, maybe the real answer is that there is no God. It is a message to believers, not to atheist.

    There is one thing you should really consider before apposing this book idea. A young woman who believes in God thinks her abusive boyfriend is the will of God. A young woman who doesn’t will understand that her boyfriend is just an asshole. As a discussion point, step back from your personal perspective and consider which direction do you think this book would push a Christian woman with an abusive boyfriend and why?

      • My comment was pleasant and inquiring. Your reply was abusive. You certainly know about abuse. I am sorry that I didn’t understand that your comments section is for supportive comments only.
        Don’t worry, I won’t be back and won’t mention this or your blog to anyone. Please unsubscribe me from notifications if you are not interested in my input.

        Please find your peace as best you can.

      • Your comment was not pleasant. Your comment–even your handle–assumed I hadn’t considered any of the questions you posed and, indeed, was unable or simply unwilling to accurately judge the project’s value because of my personal experiences. That, despite the fact I quite clearly laid an logical argument against the project’s theme. I will further note that you did not respond at all to my follow up post on the matter. Instead, you resort to whining that I simply don’t tolerate non-supportive comments, and accuse me of being abusive.

        Color me totally unimpressed.

  3. This is great. I’m always happy to find atheists who aren’t making a cult of atheism. Your experience is personal, but this is exactly what “atheism” seems to bypass so easily – that people are all different, and therefore also believe differently. I recognize myself in this, because even while there is a lot to hate about my own religious experiences, I always realized it is not “god” who did that. Sometimes it’s like atheists believe more in “god” (as a toolbox for explaining the world in terms of bad-believers-versus-good-atheists) than many progressive believers out there do.

    Talking about progressive believers, I’ve been reading the 2 books written by Gretta Vosper, and her first book had this remarkable title “With or Without God – Why the way we live is more important than what we believe”. She still calls herself Christian – although of the atheist kind. This movement is growing – but some atheists really think they can change the world. In reality I think Christians are doing that a lot better than most atheists can.

    But tell that an atheist who has made a cult of his atheism. I’ve read a few times that atheism is not really the thing you have an interest in. I so agree with that. Atheism for me is just my ground zero – it is where I found myself when I stopped falling. It’s not a big deal.

    Great blog.

    Also great article you wrote on Faithstreet

    I felt sorry I couldn’t comment anymore there. But such pages are good references for a different kind of atheism.

    Take care.

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