Perpetrators and Victims: Religion and "Marjoe"

So when it comes to the harm done by religion, who are the perpetrators, and who are the victims?

Ingrid and I were watching the movie “Marjoe” the other day. Fascinating movie, and an absolute must-see for anyone interested in religion. It’s a documentary about an revivalist preacher, Marjoe Gortner, who had been a celebrated child preacher, gaining fame as “the youngest ordained preacher” at age four. By the time he grew up, he no longer believed any of it, and he left it behind for a while — but when this documentary was made, he was back working the Pentecostal revival- meeting circuit, whipping the crowds into a frenzy to scam them out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. He arranged for this documentary to be made, largely to expose the widespread fraud and deceit in this particular branch of religion… and, to some extent, to ensure that he could never go back to this life, a life that was easy and tempting but that he found morally intolerable.

It’s a fascinating movie for a lot of reasons. (FYI, it won the Academy Award for “Best Documentary” for 1972.) But in particular, it reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while; one of the things that makes atheist critiques of religion so complicated and emotionally loaded.

It’s this:

The people who are perpetrating the harmful things about religion are, for the most part, also its victims.

And vice versa.

The people who traumatize their young children with vivid and horrific images of hell were, themselves, traumatized by those horrors. The religious leaders who fill their flocks with close-minded ignorance and hateful bigotry were, themselves, taught that ignorance and bigotry are divine virtues, dearly treasured by God. The people who are warping the sexuality of their kids and teenagers, filling them with guilt and shame over normal healthy feelings, were, themselves, warped in this same way.

And vice versa. The people who were warped and stunted and scarred are now doing the warping and stunting and scarring. The perpetrators are victims: the victims are perpetrators.

Marjoe preacher
Marjoe is a perfect example. Until he decided to leave his ministry and make this documentary, he was essentially a pure charlatan: someone who made money off religion and people’s gullible belief in it, without believing a word of it himself. And it wasn’t unconscious self-deception and rationalization on his part; it was entirely conscious. He did things like put a special ink on his forehead to make a cross appear when he started to sweat; he sold “prayer cloths” and other religious swag with the promise that they would provide miracles; and the tricks he used to get people to donate more money were 100% deliberately manipulative. He knew every angle of this scam, inside and out: he talked about it at great length and in articulate detail, and even made jokes about it. If it weren’t for the fact that he made this documentary with the intention of exposing the scam — and of making it impossible for himself to ever return to it — he’d be a thoroughly despicable character.

Marjoe child
But Marjoe himself was very much a victim of this brand of religion. He was brought up into this life; taught how to preach from age three by parents who used his talents to make millions… not a dime of which he ever saw. He was threatened and coerced by his parents into performing: not just with the threat of Satan and hell, but with physical abuse. And he never got a formal education of any kind… so by the time he decided to quit preaching, he was unqualified to do anything else. No, preaching was not a sincere calling for him, it was nothing more than a way to make a living. He didn’t know any other way. How do you switch career paths when you not only don’t have a high school diploma, but have never even gone to school?

Perpetrator, or victim?

Now, let’s look at a different example for a moment. Let’s look at someone who’s clearly closer to the “perpetrator” end of this spectrum. Let’s look at Ted Haggard. Liar. Fraud. Hypocrite. Evil bastard.

And victim.

If Ted Haggard had been born and raised into a religion that taught love and acceptance for gay people — or, for that matter, if he’d been born into no religion at all — do you think he’d be the lying, fraudulent, hypocritical, evil bastard he is today? Do you think he’d be quite so full of obvious self- loathing… so full that he had to turn it against others? Do you think he’d have become quite so skilled at mental contortions… so skilled that the contortions just seemed natural, and straightforward thinking seemed like the voice of Satan? Do you think he’d have become quite so adept at the deceit of himself and others… so adept that it became a way of life?

I don’t know. Maybe. Gay people can be brought up in gay- positive households, and still grow up to be jerks. And gay people can be brought up in hatefully homophobic upbringings, and still get themselves the hell out of Dodge. But it’s impossible for me to look at both Ted Haggard and Marjoe Gortner, and not see both of them as both perpetrators and victims. And it’s hard not to think that the main difference is simply that Haggard drank the Kool-Aid. It was Marjoe’s conscious insincerity that ultimately led him to choose moral integrity; it’s Haggard’s apparently unconscious self- deception that’s enabled him to keep living a lie… and to keep passing that lie along to others.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Other than the obvious, namely: What a gigantic clusterfuck. What a huge, messy, impossibly complicated moral and emotional tangle.

Responsible adult
I do think that, barring extreme circumstances like mental illness, adults are responsible for their behavior. I’d even argue that the very definition of adulthood is that you don’t get to blame everything you do on your poor sad upbringing. So I’m not saying that every instance of religious fraud, bigotry, and brutality should be forgiven simply because the perpetrator is a victim as well.

But I also think that, when atheists are talking with believers, or when we’re writing stuff that we expect to be read by believers, we need to bear this stuff in mind, and try to have some compassion and empathy even when we’re at our most critical. Especially when we’re dealing with folks who believe in the more damaging versions of belief. I’m not saying we should always play nice and never say harsh truths — far from it. I’m saying that even the worst perpetuators of hurtful religious belief aren’t cartoon villains. They’re human beings, who have been damaged by religion even as they perpetuate that damage. We won’t get far if we don’t remember that.

Circle two arrows
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I do know that, for me, thinking of religion this way — as a continually self- perpetuating chain of victimization and perpetration — doesn’t make me less passionate about working to persuade people out of it. If anything, it makes me more passionate. It makes me both angrier and more compassionate — angrier at religion, more compassionate with the religious — both of which fuel my passion as an atheist activist. It makes me more eager to make atheism more visible… so more people can see it as an option, earlier in their lives, when there’s a better chance for the cycle to be broken.

Perpetrators and Victims: Religion and "Marjoe"

13 thoughts on “Perpetrators and Victims: Religion and "Marjoe"

  1. 1

    Inspiring post, Greta. You’re right, sympathy for those caught in it is the strongest reason to help people to be able to leave their religion.

  2. 3

    Hi, Greta! I thought I’d de-lurk to put in my two bits on the topic.
    First, I’m going to have to watch Marjoe – that looks very interesting.
    Second – after having lived with a Pentecostal, tongue-speaking, spirit-falling, Jesus-hearing Christian wife for about 8 years (only a few of which were characterized by this description of her), I’m no longer convinced that I do her a favor to preach against her religion. She’s happier, seems to be more in control of her own life, and still manages to take a healthy approach to sensitive issues with the youngsters.
    Obviously, there are brands out there that are screwed up and best avoided – scams for the $$ that give nothing back but the need to give more $$. Those are worth the opposition. But, I’m not sure yet whether they are the exception or the rule. I’ll have to say that my wife’s experiences have softened me significantly to this sort of thing.

  3. 4

    While I was reading this, the story that came to my mind was Peter Popoff – the notorious faith healer whose scam (having his wife feed information about audience members to him through a hidden earpiece, which he presented as divine revelation) was exposed on the Tonight Show by James Randi. Popoff was disgraced and bankrupted – briefly – but he’s bounced back and is now doing the faith healing act again, and making loads of money from people who are either ignorant of his past or are simply desperate to believe.
    Viewing his resurgence, and Ted Haggard’s increasingly desperate attempts to proclaim himself “cured” and get back into the limelight, it’s easy to understand why Marjoe Gortner felt the need to so categorically debunk himself. (Even so, I bet he could get around that if he really wanted to make a comeback.) The ability to make a waterfall of tax-free money while surrounded by worshipful crowds must be a temptation that’s almost impossible to resist. One of the few things the atheist movement has going for it – for a little while, anyway – is that we don’t yet have the money or the influence to have to seriously worry about corruption like that.

  4. 5

    Smijer: yes, I’m with you there. Religion is not, of itself, malign. Certain aspects and manifestations of it are. It’s not having an irrational belief that’s the problem (as Greta points out, we all have that about something), it’s when people use their irrational beliefs as an excuse for bad behaviour that it’s an issue.

  5. 6

    I’m sorry but I’m still going to view the likes of Fred Phelps as cartoon villains. I might extend an ounce of pity on his children and his extended clan of fuck ups. The man himself lacks only a cloak and twirly moustache to be a Disney villain. My sympathy for the path that led these people to their magical fantasy land is finite.
    I may feel compassion for a victim of sexual abuse but it ends when they perpetrate that abuse on another. I may similarly pity the little kids dragged out to the roadside to hold up signs abusing homosexuals but when they go out of their own volition that pity ends. They are no longer solely a victim.

  6. 7

    You know, Greta, you have seriously one-upped Dawkins.
    I have always found his comparison between religion and child abuse very unpersuasive and a rather repulsive rhetorical technique.
    You, on the other hand, by carefully explaining the differences, have made the similarities shockingly clear.
    As we know, people often treat their children like their parents treated them, even if they know it’s undesirable and wish they could break the cycle.
    The threshold where we call it “abuse” is fuzzy and subject to interpretation, and I think most religion falls below it, but the pattern is eerily reminiscent.
    The most toxic pattern of evangelism seems to be people being told they they’re sinners and “not good enough” internalizing that logic, turning around and using their righteousness to find others to feel superior to.
    Wow… it’s like Amway!

  7. 8

    hoverFrog, I agree with you up to a point, but surely someone raised in that kind of hideous, toxic atmosphere has much, much more of a struggle to become a decent human being than a person who was brought up in a less unpleasant environment.
    Supposing I’d been somehow snatched from my parents as a baby and raised by Fred Phelps (my, what a hideous idea), I might well be standing out there abusing homosexuals with the rest of them. I don’t know if I’d have had the strength to break away, not if I’d been told from practically birth that obedience was the only way to avoid an eternity of torment.
    And because I don’t know what I’d have done in that situation, I don’t feel comfortable about passing judgement on people who *were* in that situation, and who couldn’t break free of it.

  8. 10

    “angrier at religion, more compassionate with the religious”
    Alright, I can’t resist: Love the religious, hate the religion. (I don’t mean a serious comparison of your words to that cliche, by the way, just a little teasing.) I agree about the perpetrator-victim connection, and the need for compassion. Compassion is so much more influential than it gets credit for, not for sugarcoating difficult truths but for ensuring that people receive them. It’s so easy to dismiss people we think we have nothing in common with or who mock us but when someone who takes interest in us as fellow humans has criticism to share we are forced to face it (or at least, more often than the alternative). Harsher approaches have their place but compassion is a more versatile tool of persuasion and also keeps us focused on the point of arguing in the first place.

  9. 11

    It’s impossible for me to read this without drawing links to child abuse.
    I have about a dozen comments I want to make all at once, but I think perhaps I should digest it a little more to sort out my reactions to this.

  10. 12

    Claire B, you make a good point but we have only the hand we a dealt to play with and must make the best of it. If you had been Phelpsnapped or otherwise indoctrinated I would certainly sympathise and might even understand why you were standing on street corners being all crazy. I’d still ignore the insane message and be driven away from the view that was expressed.
    If you broke free of the craziness I might even be more inclined to forgive you given your lack of control and choice in the matter. Your breaking free might be enough to absolve you of much of what you may have done while indoctrinated. That’s a matter of forgiveness rather than judgment though. As long as the hypothetical Phelpsesque you acted like a Phelps then I would judge you as a Phelps. Stop acting like that and you won’t be judged that way in future and can be forgiven for past actions…potentially.
    You’re right that it might not be charitable or compassionate to judge people on their actions when we don’t know the full circumstances that led to those actions. I’m still comfortable doing so though. I don’t owe an arse the time and effort to discover how they got to be an arse. I just need to know that they’re an arse and I can move on. If that makes me an arse then I can live with that.

  11. 13

    What is Marjoe Gortner doing these days by the way? I remember he did a string of bad movies in the 1970’s, like “Food of the Gods” that made animals and insects really large.

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