What ‘All churches are bad’ doesn’t mean

Popular among some atheists and critics of religion as a snappy and incendiary meme, and caricatured by their critics in turn, as an example of atheist arrogance. I try to unpack the context behind the catchphrase.

‘All Churches Are Bad’ doesn’t mean that all churches are equally bad, or even a net bad. It doesn’t mean that many churches aren’t home to many lovely people, or aren’t involved in many important social goods. It certainly doesn’t mean that the problems common in churches – abuses of power, bigotry and dogmatism – can’t also be found in secular institutions. It doesn’t mean the atheist and wider humanist movement shouldn’t focus on harmful actions rather than disagreements of belief, or build positive relationships with Churches.

‘All Churches Are Bad’ means that all churches provide social, political and financial capital to a system that is bad, a system that does very real harm in the world.

Some atheists have argued that all religion is bad because it promotes faith based beliefs. While any promotion of faith based epistemology is problematic, this can overstate the role that belief plays in religion. It’s important to focus on the tangible moral failings of religious institutions, over the theoretical intellectual ones.

#ACAB

The phrase is consciously based on the initials ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) popularized by the 1982 song by The 4-Skins. The phase has been used by racists, but has become predominantly associated with leftist anarchist and anti-racist culture. The way in which #ACAB has inspired ‘All Churches Are Bad’ has clear parallels to the ways that other anarchist phrases such as “No Gods No Masters”, have been used and recontextualised by others in the atheist movement.

#ACAB also doesn’t mean that all cops are equally, or individually personally bastards, or that there aren’t those trying to improve things. The point of #ACAB is that the system of policing necessarily forces even well intentioned officers to work in a certain way, and that the nature of that system necessarily limits the potential for reform. Plenty of nuanced and legitimate criticisms can be made of #ACAB, but these all require scratching below the surface of the catchphrase to engage with what is actually meant.

LGBTQ inclusive churches

Debates over ‘(Not) All Churches Are Bad’ most commonly come up in discussions over LGBTQ inclusive religious spaces. This thread by the activists and journalist Jenna Scaramanga is a great example. Jenna calls out ‘evangelical LGBT allies’ who (despite some good intentions) can never be true allies because they aren’t willing to truly challenge the anti-LGBT power structures and foundational theology of evangelism.

None of this is to say, that we shouldn’t support LGBT allies in religious communities or that there aren’t churches that make sincere attempts at inclusion.

In the UK context it is basically impossible to be a Church without being a member of or affiliated to a more or less institutionally homophobic organisation. This provides direct financial (as well as indirect) social capital for campaigns against LGBT rights.

Time and again LGBT friendly Christians, however sincere their activism and beliefs, gaslight LGBT victims of religious abuse. Their allyship is limited by an understandable, but problematic need to absolve their religion from blame, or pretend anti-LGBT religion is some sort of fringe perversion of ‘real’ religion.

For example, as a campaigner against state funded faith schools, I will point out how the Catholic Education Service promotes an institutionally homophobic approach to relationships and sex education (RSE). Pointing out how many LGBT-affirming Catholic school teachers do their best within that context, or oppose the Church’s homophobia, simply adds nuance to rather than refutes the point. It’s like an abuser trying to claim credit for their victims’ resilience.

Black American and pro-choice churches

I’ve also seen pushback (often in an American context) arguing that the claim ‘All Churches Are Bad’ should only be used with respect to Christian Nationalist churches, white churches, evangelical or fundamentalist churches etc.

It true that Black American churches have played a pivotal historical role in the nation’s civil rights movement, and continue to play a crucial role in resisting White Christian Nationalism. However, these facts simply adds nuance and context to, but do nothing to refute the claim that American Christianity (taken in its entirety) is a white supremacist endeavour. White liberal church communities wishing to support the good fight should first face up to their own history in this area.

Similarly I have seen resistance from pro-choice Catholics and other Christians in America and beyond, to pointing out the religious motivation behind the recently leaked overturning of Roe Vs. Wade. It is true that there is a strong tradition of pro-choice Catholicism. It is also true that the Catholic Church as an institution is anti-choice, that the US Catholic Church has played a key role in the decades long White Christian Nationalist attack on reproductive rights, and that it is no coincidence that five of the six Catholic justices on their Supreme Court support that attack.

#NotAllChurches?

Searches on social media suggest that you are actually more likely to come across people saying “not all churches are bad”, rather than the opposite. ‘All Churches Are Bad’. The slogan comes from atheists tired of hearing “not all churches are bad” from progressive religious allies in response to specific criticism, in a way that shows such ‘allies’ to be more concerned with the reputation of their Church. Making the positive claim, can help call out such behaviour.

I completely understand and sympathise with those well intentioned, often progressive, Christians, who want to defend their own subgroup of Christianity from guilty associations. But I can’t abide that phrase being used to obfuscate specific criticisms or to marginalise and gaslight victims of religious abuse.

We should recognise this as an example of the ‘Not all’ fallacy, of which #NotAllMen is probably the most famous specific form. This fallacy has multiple variants and is regularly “employed in the hopes of shutting down conversation (particularly around social justice) by making the opponent appear to lack all nuance”.

Of course there will be some narrow-minded atheists, or other religious critics, who just use the catchphrase as a simplistic conversation stopper or in an unnuanced prejudicial way that dramatically overstates the case. That is clearly intellectually lazy.

But to argue against just the catchphrase, without acknowledging this whole discourse and context is intellectually dishonest. Even if you have a more positive view of religion, or believe churches as a whole are a net good, it is hard to acknowledge that context without acknowledging ‘All Churches Are Bad’ as an intellectually defensible position.

Religion poisons everything?

Christopher Hitchens famously wrote that “religion poisons everything”. But both his most ardent fans and critics sometimes forget that he also wrote a whole book setting out his case, and that a lot of that book included addressing the good that is done in the name of religion, and why this is still consistent.

‘All Churches Are Bad’ suffers from the same problems as other catchphrases that cover whole political discourses, but which most people on all sides are more likely to hear stripped of that context.

We need to provide space for critics of institutional religion to unpack and explain – and for pro-religionists to understand – that context. Maybe then ‘All Churches Are Bad’ could become a conversation opener rather than closer.

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: Photo of An Empty Church, RODNAE Productions

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