“Lions, and Tigers, and Fundamentalists, Oh My!” Brenda Frei

The Frei family recently appeared in Morgan Supersize Me” Spurlock’s reality/documentary TV series “30 Days,” which places individuals in a living environment that is antithetical to their upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession in an effort to examine real societal differences.

Brenda, who has been an atheist for approximately 25 years, experienced living with a fundamentalist Christian family, Michael and Tracy Shores of Frisco, Texas, for 30 days.

The atheist/Christian show was the third episode of the second season of “30 Days.” The 2006 series will be available on DVD. The episode can be currently downloaded from iTunes for a small fee.

By Brenda Frei

Warm regards to all readers of Freethought Today. I hope you were able to catch the 30 Days show we were on. I thought you might be interested in some of the ‘behind the scenes” events which were never aired. But first, I would like to give you some personal background.

I originally grew up in the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which merged with the United Methodist Church. I went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesdays. I was also actively involved in Youth for Christ groups as a teenager. We were avid Billy Graham viewers and I “gave my life to Christ” a bunch of times. I was surrounded by Christian extended family and visited my missionary/preacher uncle in the jungles of Bolivia while in high school. I was definitely “into it” and even “witnessed” to my teachers.

I did have some doubts about God when I was around seven years old, but my questions were squelched with threats of being labeled a troublemaker, so I learned to be compliant and shut my brain down about the nonsensical. I was taught and eventually accepted the preaching and bible stories hook, line, and sinker. I knew my beliefs were 100% the truth and the bible was completely true and accurate and that I must follow it entirely. I didn’t begin to comprehend that feat as impossible or undesirable, being cerebrally and emotionally anesthetized to the contradictory and ugly amoral parts of the book.

In college, I was “witnessing” to a boyfriend and he abruptly asked, “What about a Jewish person?” I began to realize how selfish my religion was in sentencing everyone who didn’t believe just like me to the depths of hell. It dawned on me how narcissistic Christianity and most religions are. We are right, you are wrong. Believe like me or else. I also did some reading which highlighted historical inconsistencies in the Jesus story and which raised the possibility of scientific explanations to some of the “miracles.” At the same time, I began to study psychology and learned about conditioning, anxiety, and fears. I began to see how these facts were both the impetus and fuel for religions.

After an arduous process of “soul searching” and thinking about what made the most sense to me, I came up empty with regard to religion and found no “soul.” I learned that I could still function well and happily without talking to an imaginary friend. I was ready to grow up and think for myself. Being an atheist made the most sense to me and I was happy to welcome back the child I once was, allowing for the freshness of honest inquiry and a passion for life, by letting the air out of obsessions about an afterlife.

My husband, Mark, grew up similarly with a “believe or else” mentality within the Catholic Church. After meeting me, he too walked away from the absurdities and into a view that allows scientific, cognitive, and emotional honesty.

The first reason my husband and I wanted to participate in the 30 Days show was to help dispel negative stereotypes and inaccurate perceptions about atheists. Another significant reason was to try to provide some understanding for others as to why we and many others are nonreligious. Unfortunately, a lot of the footage from the discussions about the deeper, more ideological issues, such as original sin and salvation, were not used. I expressed my frustration to the producers about this issue. Hearing my complaints, they eventually admitted (or passed the buck) that they were subject to the more conservative nature of the parent network FOX. My hope is that the next such show, whether by Morgan Spurlock or someone else, will take that risk and go further in depth.

Some of these more poignant issues came up in the many activities I participated in outside of the host family setting, none of which was shown. The activities included meeting with ministers, a Christian civil rights attorney (who helped seniors win a legal fight to allow gospel music nights in their public center), a Christian lobbyist (who is fighting to make adoption for gay or single people illegal), a book promoter and career manager for mega-ministers, and evangelical charities.

Unfortunately not making the cut were three discussions I had with a “theologian” (a.k.a. a young curriculum minister who held a Masters degree). He was a nice young man, but had nothing of substance to offer in our discussions. At one point, when I asked him how he could explain horrible disasters such as the catastrophic tsunami and Hurricane Katrina while believing in an omnibenevolent, omnipotent being, he said the disasters occurred due to “people’s choices.” It would be interesting to see him directly tell those people helplessly stranded on the rooftops and those burying their loved ones that it’s their fault and choice to fall victim to these tragedies.

The minister was trying to refer to original sin as being the root of all bad things that happen. So, because some woman (as the story goes) ate a piece of fruit, we have hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, poverty, child abuse, . . . Anyway, I told him I thought that was “crazy.” I later made a comment on ‘diary cam’ that “I usually tell my children not to use the word ‘stupid,’ but I felt like in this case there was no getting around that.”

I received little response after letting this minister know that even if the outlandish stories of original sin and salvation were true, I wouldn’t choose to follow such an awful, all-powerful father figure that allowed or actually caused his own son to be murdered. And for what reason? So that others could get the goodies of getting to be with him forever. No thank you!

One of the Christian charities I worked with for three days involved giving used clothing to needy recipients. I think the female co-owner/director genuinely had positive intentions of helping others. However, it was clear to me that the other co-owner/director, her minister husband, focused on using (or abusing) the patrons’ needs and vulnerabilities to address his primary goal of evangelizing. The center’s publicized goal read as follows:

“The . . . Outreach Center exists to show God’s love to people in need by building relationships that draw people to trust in Jesus and grow to spiritual maturity and economic self-sufficiency.”

The last two words appeared to be thrown in as an afterthought. So much for really caring about others; just make sure they become Christians.

On one of my outings, Christian host Tracy Shores accompanied me on a tour of the American Tract Society. The Shores had previously indicated that they had passed out religious tracts to children when they came trick-or-treating. Our tour guide exclaimed that he gives out tracts as a “tip” for food service workers. As expected, he denied that anyone was ever upset, offended or put-off by his actions.

The best piece of footage, from my perspective, which was apparently deemed too threatening to the majority to show, came when I spotted a teddy bear intended to be given to sweet, impressionable children. On the bear were different colors that represented different things. On the black leg of the teddy bear the card says, “The black represents our sins that darken our hearts and make us live in darkness. . . They loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” Oh yes, you guessed it, the bloody red talked about “the nails in his hands and feet that made him bleed.” Happy cuddling, little Suzie! I repeated the message several times to make double-sure it was filmed. Tracy proceeded to try to couch it in sweeter terms. But I said no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, this is utterly unhealthy for children! To teach children that they are inherently bad and evil and that they have to do something (believe in a Jesus martyr) to get rid of that badness is psychologically inexcusable.

Also not shown was our visit to what is virtually the commune of Ole Anthony, a private investigator and satirist who looks for dirt on televangelists. He spoke about winning some legal cases involving fraud against evangelists. Mr. Anthony calls himself a Christian but is known and despised by the mainstream. He stores literally rooms full of reportedly incriminating videotapes. I was asked to go on a “trash run” to sort through the trash of the homes and churches of televangelists. I refused to go because of my views about what is appropriate behavior regarding personal privacy and respect. But to be honest, I don’t hold it against him.

One day, I accompanied Tracy to her maternity appointment at a local Christian Birthing Center. After a long and detailed discussion about methods to ease painful varicose veins, the nurse practitioner abruptly and oddly piped up in a cheery voice, “God makes our bodies perfect!” It was such an irrational and ludicrous statement, given the context of the situation. Too bad they didn’t air those clips.

During the bible study meetings, the participants would pray about various health problems, as is typical for Christians. They praised “God” for healing some. I asked them if they cursed and blamed “God” when people got worse or died. They predictably explained that it was “God’s will” which won out no matter what happened. I said, “So if he’s going to do whatever he wants to do anyway. . . .” The leader actually jumped in saying, “So what’s the point of praying?” The moment was refreshingly quiet, absent from willy-nilly sayings, and open to a second of genuine thought.

Regarding the bible study footage that was shown discussing evolution, I want to explain why I did not come across stronger at the time. The leader had just told me that they wanted to wait on discussion of any issues until the meeting was over, and that we’d just be focusing on the book they were reading. Then all of a sudden they changed the rules on me, so to speak, without warning. But I really should have and could have said more, and did at other times. In previous footage with other people, I had already talked about my opinion that I think it is okay to raise questions about scientific data, as that’s what motivates us to learn, but that we are set back by dealing with our anxiety of not knowing something by slapping a one-word “god” answer on it. I had also raised the question about what would be next, “teaching that women come from a man’s rib in biology class”?

My husband also spent hours rebuffing Michael’s (Tracy’s husband) support of creationism when our families went for a visit to a local aquarium. None of this footage was used. (Guess the producers thought it was more important to give free advertisement to the not-really-laughable Christian theme park.) Michael was obsessed about creationism and even put this topic on my going-away cake!

I felt uncomfortable with how the Golden Rule discussion was aired. The field producer (one who says she’s a Christian because she likes presents at Christmas time) pushed for me to say that we follow the Golden Rule. Although those would not be the words that I typically choose to use, I went along with that because I thought it was generally accurate and I knew that I could explain the preexisting roots of that idea. I explained to both Michael and Tracy that the Golden Rule was proclaimed in pre-Christian times, specifically Confucius, 500 BCE, and the Zoroastrians, around 1500 BCE. Michael just dismissed that very quickly, although he did bring it up in a sarcastic manner again later, so I think it stuck with him somewhat. Unfortunately, with that editing omission I think some people will erroneously jump to the conclusion that my family relies on the bible for principles of ethical living, which is not the case.

The producers also steered clear of the “gender issues” related to Christianity. For example, Michael typically helped very little with work in the kitchen. At one point, I tossed a dishtowel at him and suggested he help out. I asked if his behavior was partly due to their religious views of gender roles. Michael’s quote was that he was to be “a loving leader, not a lording leader.” I got a kick out of this choice of words. I guess in that sense we had some common ground! I explained how my husband and I view our marriage as a partnership rather than one of us being a leader and the other being subservient. As seen in the show, my relationship with Michael was somewhat tense. He was a difficult person to relate to and Tracy even admitted he had anger issues. In fact, while I was there, he told me that if it weren’t for “God,” he would be in jail!

Since the producers ended up choosing a storyline that focused on the Christian hosts questioning the morality and parenting of the atheists, it was a shame they did not include a discussion that happened during one morning devotional. The devotional supported the physical punishment of children. Indeed, Michael and Tracy volunteered how they occasionally spank their children, with a paddle that had scripture on it! Speaking from both the perspective of a mother and a psychologist, I let them know that my husband and I never hit or spank, and that spanking is not only unnecessary to raise responsible, respectful children, but a very negative thing to do to children. And they’re worried about our parenting!

Perhaps the most important aspect that was not shown in depth was Tracy’s behavior and her change of attitude. Tracy was shown to be fairly understanding, or at least tolerant, throughout the episode. In actuality, when I first arrived, Tracy “witnessed” very assertively to me. It was a surprise for me to hear, just a week or so later, that she was “willing to agree to disagree.” You can see a little hesitation on my part to accept that from her, because I was thinking that this was really different from how she had been coming across.

She softened in her approach a great deal and this would have been a valuable development to show. Interestingly, in a later phone conversation with me, Tracy was actually concerned after seeing the edited show that other Christians might think that she didn’t quote the bible enough or that she didn’t try hard enough to “witness” to me. Ironically, I tried to provide comfort and assure her that she in fact did try hard enough! Tracy also experienced dissonance over having said on film that we were good people and she quoted some scripture over the phone to me about needing to have God to be good. I thought how sad it was to hold to a book that precludes you from having these kinds of warm, loving feelings or positive views about others.

Reactions to the show were more positive than I expected, from both the religious and nonreligious. I am frequently running into people now who appear relieved to come out of the closet and talk about such issues. Even local and national responses from a number of Christians indicated that it stimulated conversation and positive dialog with their diverse neighbors. One Christian wrote in a national blog:

“At the very least, I would hope that everyone would come away with a renewed determination that to really love or care about your neighbor, you must understand them and not assume that you do.”

We did receive some “witnessing” and concern about our afterlife, and some twisted logic that we were going to heaven, anyway. Astutely, one atheist responded with, “The atheist doesn’t expect or want to go to heaven. She expects to be buried and rot, and she’s OK with it.” I loved that one! Anyway, despite our frustrations about the show not covering more ground, hopefully it will result in a step forward in decreasing negative assumptions about atheists and freethinkers.

The host family said the experience brought it “closer to their faith” (which they were unable to sufficiently explain). I wonder, were they not very close, or close enough before? Why not? Did they have doubts before I came to visit? No, in my view I think that meeting a happy, healthy atheist family actually triggered some doubts and cracks in their system, even if on some unconscious level. Did they feel the need to profess and cling stronger to their beliefs in order not to lose a grip on their well-rehearsed comfort zone?

The experience did not make me “believe” stronger in atheism. I know that’s not even possible by definition, but not understood by many who are religious. Nothing made me doubt or change my way of thinking in any manner. I did find one motivational sentence in all the sermons and bible studies and meetings with ministers and so forth. The very first sermon on one of the megascreens on the huge stage had plastered all over it the words, “Now is the time to speak up.” Of course, I was interpreting that in my own way, but given that there was a lot of anxiety and risk for my family to speak up in this manner, those were actually comforting words to me. I really think that’s important for all nonreligious people to hear, “Now is the time to speak up.”

Thank you for letting me share with you. Best wishes to you all.

Foundation member Brenda Frei is a 47-year-old homemaker and mother of four who lives in Lawrence, Kan., with her husband of 20 years.

Freedom From Religion Foundation