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The Heavy Burdens that Create Atheists

Trent Horn

In the 2007 horror film The Mist (which is based on a 1980 Stephen King novella), a group of small-town folk in Maine are trapped in a grocery store surrounded by a dense mist they later learn is full of monsters. But the most unnerving monsters of the story are some of the townsfolk in the store who become increasingly unhinged as the nightmare wears on.

One of them is a religious fanatic named Mrs. Carmody who believes the mist represents God’s wrath upon mankind’s sins. At one point she says the monsters were sent because man went against God’s “forbidden rules of old” by “walking on the moon” “splitting his atoms” “stem cells” and “abortions.”

When I first saw the film, I laughed out loud (in spite of the horror elements) because this was just such an insane caricature of Christians . . . at least in general. But given the sheer number of Christians in the world, I can’t say there aren’t any who think atomic fission and moonwalks violate God’s law. I mean, the 1984 film Footloose was based (in part) on the true story of a town in Oklahoma that didn’t permit dancing (because many residents considered it Satanic) until a group of high schoolers narrowly got the city council to vote for it in 1979.

I thought of these films when I read a post from Reddit whose author was grateful to leave Christianity since he was now “free” to have all kinds of sex his Church considered immoral. Now, that’s a pretty well-worn story of leaving the faith, but something else he wrote in his post caught my eye.

He said he would engage in sexual escapades while drinking alcohol, listening to secular music, and reading science books. It’s a small detail, one that may not have been a huge part of this poster’s deconversion, but I think it represents a common thread in many other deconversions. Specifically, it involves doctrines or practices that require people to act against reason or carry moral burdens Christ never intended. This happens among both fundamentalist Protestants and overly traditionalist Catholic who say you can’t be a good Christian if you also:

Some of these “heavy burdens” are unique to Protestants, such as saying drinking any amount of alcohol is sinful. Others are distinctly Catholic, such as saying Catholics must pray the rosary or even that they must pray it every day. But they all have in common a spiritually healthy practice that becomes unhealthy when it is mandated for everyone.

For example, some people struggle so much with sexual temptation that they choose not to watch films (or even look at classical art) that have nudity of any kind, even if it is brief and tasteful. In that respect, they are like someone who struggles so much with alcohol that they cannot have a single drop. For people who struggle with temptation, it’s praiseworthy for them to set a limit that keeps them from engaging in destructive behavior. It’s also praiseworthy if someone experiences spiritual gain from good practices like a daily rosary.

But these good practices can become destructive if they are mandated for everyone, because not everyone benefits from them. They can cause people to become neurotic, legalistic, and scrupulous, always worried about sinning instead of just enjoying a nice glass of wine in a classical art gallery. And if someone mistakenly thinks these unreasonable universal rules are a non-negotiable part of the Christian faith, they may choose to ditch what they think is an equally unreasonable faith in the process.

This is, sadly, a pattern that has been with the Church since its inception.

St. Paul was so angry at Jewish Christians who demanded everyone be circumcised in order to be saved that he rhetorically suggested that they should completely emasculate themselves since they cared so much about circumcision (Gal. 5:12). And our Lord mourned for those who were exploited by the legalism of the Pharisees, who would “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” (Matt 23:4).

So, when people talk about why they aren’t Christian, we should be on the lookout for mistaken views of what Christianity even is. In some cases, you might say “Yeah, if that’s what the Church teaches I wouldn’t be Catholic either! Then you can show, as Fulton Sheen once memorably said, that “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

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