A draft image of a page from Hemant Mehta's upcoming book "God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and you should break up)".

A draft image of a page from Hemant Mehta’s upcoming book “God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and you should break up)”. Artwork by Tracey Moody, taken from the Kickstarter campaign and used with permission.

UPDATE: One day after launching the book’s Kickstarter campaign, Mehta has announced its cancellation: “Even if I believe the concept behind the book is a valid one, the execution was poor and it upset a lot of good people. My apologies to anyone in that crowd.”

ORIGINAL POST: Yesterday (August 6), “The Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta announced his newest project: a fundraising campaign for a book entitled God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and you should break up).

Featuring artwork by Tracey Moody, the picture book will draw parallels between belief in God and an abusive relationship. While initially describing it as “the most fun I’ve ever had on a writing project,” Mehta acknowledged that the subject might be controversial to some.

“We understand some people will have strong feelings about this project, but it’s certainly not our goal to offend anyone,” he wrote on the book’s Kickstarter page. “If you’re religious, we hope it nudges you to think differently. If you’re not religious, we hope you find it entertaining and informative.”

But a number of atheists did take issue with it. Heidi Anderson, an atheist who has spent much of her life working with victims of domestic abuse, was among them.

“It’s highly insensitive to victims of domestic violence and a gross simplification of the way some people view religion. Many victims of abuse find healing in their spirituality,” Anderson said. “It’s also a really bad example to me as an atheist, because unlike God, abusive partners are real and cause real damage.”

Others took to social media and blogs to express their disagreement. At Skepchick, activist and domestic abuse survivor Sarah Moglia explained why she considers the comparison problematic:

Are there instances where religion is used to justify the oppression of women? Absolutely. But to define someone else’s personal religious beliefs for them while making a hacky joke about domestic violence is just gross and extremely disappointing. And yet, people still wonder why there aren’t more women involved in organized atheism.

Moody’s draft artwork was also criticized. Former fundamentalist Christian Sarah Jones, who recently guest hosted this column for two weeks, commented on it in a critical post on her blog:

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.

After the initial pushback, Mehta added an update to the Kickstarter page defending the project and responding to criticism. I reached out to ask what he thought of the reaction to the book’s announcement.

A draft image of a page from Hemant Mehta's upcoming book "God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and you should break up)".

A draft image of a page from Hemant Mehta’s upcoming book “God is an Abusive Boyfriend (and you should break up)”. Artwork by Tracey Moody, taken from the Kickstarter campaign and used with permission.

Mehta repeatedly stressed that the book is not intended to belittle “actual physical abuse” and defended the concept.

“The first time I heard the analogy of God as an abusive boyfriend, it was when a feminist friend made the comparison during a lecture a few years ago,” Mehta said. “The lecture was humorous in nature and received a very warm reception from the audience. Everyone seemed to understand that the analogy wasn’t perfect, but it made a powerful point: Many people who leave religion come to realize that their relationship with God was not entirely different from an emotionally abusive relationship.”

Mehta also referred to the fact that he posted a YouTube video on the same topic last week, saying that “the reception from viewers who watched the whole thing was overwhelmingly positive.”

But while he said that anyone who thinks the book is “victim-blaming” is employing “an uncharitable interpretation of this project,” he admitted it may have some problems.

“Are the pictures too graphic, like one of Tracey looking very scared when hiding things from God? Unfortunately, that may be true,” Mehta said, adding that he and Moody hope to add a male character to the book and plan to run all of the artwork by others before publication. “If any of them rub people the wrong way, we will change them.”

He also acknowledged some issues with the book’s announcement.

Author Hemant Mehta

Author Hemant Mehta. Photo by Steve Greiner, courtesy of Mehta.

“There are some word choices I used in the Kickstarter that I would love to go back and change because I know they came off the wrong way,” Mehta said. “There’s nothing fun or entertaining about [abuse]. But if people want to pick out words and phrases in an effort to claim I’m misogynistic or delight in abuse, instead of looking at the broader picture of what we’re trying to do, I can’t stop them.”

While it has met with controversy, the project isn’t without supporters; many of the comments on Mehta’s blog are positive, and the campaign is approaching $2,000 from around 50 donors in less than 24 hours.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” can of course be a helpful expression, and we can’t know for sure how the finished book will look yet. As a regular reader, I’ve frequently enjoyed Mehta’s work. But as someone who has professionally counseled people in abusive relationships, I’m very concerned that this cartoonish book might take a flippant approach to a very serious issue. And as someone who knows many people with very different conceptions of God, I’m frustrated that the book’s central argument seems to treat the breadth of theism so narrowly.

That’s my take. What do you think about this book and the response to it?

48 Comments

  1. The main problem with dark humor is that it tends to draw ire of the self-righteous. People afraid of nervous laughter because they are too caught up with being serious to the public.

    Dark humor such as what Mehta is employing uses ridicule and humor to highlight something ghastly and repugnant. One laughs but one is also painfully aware of how grim a situation really is.

    In many ways this approach works better than deadly seriousness on many subjects. Overly earnest approaches always threaten to border on ridicule and undermine a message.

    • thankfully Larry is here to contradict actual folks who’ve experienced intimate partner violence and tell us that, actually, this project is extremely good. thank you larry. you are one of the good ones.

      • This is exactly the kind of smug self-serious, self-righteous half-thought out attitude that I was talking about. There is a certain level of nervous humor to be found in broaching subjects which are deeply disturbing.

        Some find it cathartic, some find it offensive. I find its a great way to keep people from dismissing important issues as being overly “hysterical”, like domestic violence. Some others do not. Opinions are great that way. So varied.

        Those people are entitled to their opinions. I did not contradict them. Not everyone is comfortable with dark humor. That is kind of the point.

    • Mehta is such a liar.

      He continually heaps ridicule and scorn on opponents and then tries to hide behind saying “Of course I am not trying to offend anyone.”

      Pure B.S.

  2. When will someone finally write a book that shows the end result of society adopting atheism. It would include the fact that every mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was an atheist. (Oh, I forgot, there’s one exception: Hitler. He was a pagan.

    Chapters on Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc would be required. And maybe some on the little atheist dictators: Castro, Ho Chi Minh, etc.

    • Every time a smug believer trots out this argument, it is just a sure sign the poster is ignorant or deliberately misstating history. Since it is usually done repeatedly by the same people, we can safely rule out ignorance.

      The destruction and disaster wreaked in the name of religion pales in comparison to any example you may try to trot out.

      Unfortunately for you your examples are also clear proof of what happens when one replaces the magical thinking of religion with some other form of magical thinking. Centuries of blind faith and socially sanctioned excuses for atrocity made it easy.

      Yes irrational appeals and dictatorships are bad. Too bad your beliefs are more likely to support them than atheism in this day and age.

      • Mass murdering atheists have outdone any crimes ever committed in history.

        They have even provided enough nuclear weapons to every country that could afford them and have made it possible to not only destroy civilization in a day but to poison the earth for millennia.

        • Your ignorance of history and the world is duly noted. I can safely say there is no point in a rational intelligent discussion with you. So I won’t even bother. It is obvious you have your own little fictions to peddle and insults to hurl. Showing you the error of your statements is pointless because you won’t bother to read it and just repeat the same nonsense later. Lying and hating for God is a common practice.

          All I have to say is the mass murderers we are seeing today do so in the name of God(s). It is the fanatical religious people right now who are posing the most current and greatest threat to the liberties of others.

          Say what you want, but right now fanatical religious belief is the main problem in the world today.

        • Only one country has ever actually used a nuke on people, and that is America, which you lot keep telling us is a Christian nation.

          Also, that is the nation most singularly opposed to doing anything about climate change or pollution in general. If you want to talk about poisoning the Earth, think about where your country comes into it.

      • [The destruction and disaster wreaked in the name of religion pales in comparison to any example you may try to trot out. ]

        Yes, it does. (Read your sentence again.) Atheist governments have slaughtered more people in the last hundred years than theistic ones have in the last two thousand. In fact, I think there is not a single officially atheist government (atheist, not secular) that HASN’T slaughtered people, and didn’t begin doing so immediately upon being established.

        And they have achieved none of the contributions of theistic governments, which pretty much created Western civilization.

        • Actually the theist states killed more, it just wasn’t counted the same.

          You can see this in the average lifespans.

          Under Stalin for example the average lifespan rose to around 50, before he came along it was closer 30.

          The very Christian Tsarist government was actually worse, it just didn’t get counted as genocide because poor healthcare and manmade famines were the norm in religious royalist societies.

          Under Stalin, they were the exception – thus got counted.

    • While they haven’t “adopted atheism,” which nobody is actually wanting anybody to do because that’d be just as wrong as trying to force the world to adopt one particular religion, many countries are way more secular than they are religious. Perhaps it would be enlightening to take a look at their statistics?

      Japan, most of Scandinavia, quite a big chunk of Europe, England, and a variety of other countries do not enshrine Christian privilege into law. And somehow they are not hellholes of oppression and dysfunction. To the contrary. The people you named were not trying to enforce atheism so much as trying to enforce a particular ideology, which they had elevated to religious status. The debunk to your apologetics myth is easily accessed; I found it within 30 seconds on Google. Perhaps you should research more before you write?

      There’s a very good video on YouTube as well that discusses what would happen if all the atheists left America–as many fundagelical Christians have openly said they wish would happen. I’m thankful to live in a secular society that doesn’t care what religion I adopt or don’t adopt. And you should be as well, considering the steady decline of your religion’s numbers. To be totally honest, the atheists I know are a lot more moral, kind, and law-abiding than the Christians I know, and way more passionate about civil rights and the right of every single person to believe whatever that person wants to believe about the supernatural. They would give you that right. Would you give them that right?

      • [England, and a variety of other countries do not enshrine Christian privilege into law.]

        The Archbishop of Canterbury has a seat in Parliament. The Book of Common Prayer cannot be changed without an act of the legislature. That’s why they still use the one from 1620.

    • Sam Crawford

      But they didn’t kill in the name of atheism. And even if they had, that wouldn’t be a reflection on other atheists any more than the Lord’s Resistance Army represents all Christians.

      Many of the least religious countries in the world today, such as theScandanavian nations, are among the most prosperous and safe. In the US, nonbelivers are 19 percent of the population, but just .02 percent of the prisoners.

    • Hitler was a Catholic, and frequently mentioned Jesus in his speeches. Such as “I believe my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator” Mein Kampf, Chapter 2

      “we are a people of different faiths, but we are one. Which faith conquers the other is not the question; rather, the question is whether Christianity stands or falls…we tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity. In fact, our movement is Christian. We are filled with a desire for Catholics and Protestants to discover one another in the deep distress of own own people.” October 27, 1928, Passau, Bavaria. You can find lots more quotes and writings in the same vein.

    • Hitler (the holocaust) – was Catholic.
      Juvénal Habyarimana (The Rwanda genocide) – was Catholic
      Robert Mugabe (The Matibililand genocide) – is Catholic
      Leopold II of Belgium (Congo genocdie) – Catholic
      Yakubu Gowon (Biafra genocide) – Christian

      But hey, if you weren’t a lying shitstain, you wouldn’t be religious.

    • Are you seriously going to imply every communist that carried out atrocities under Stalin was an atheist? Or that no Nazi officers pulling strings at death camps were Christians?

      The idea is simply ludicrous. For all of the “non-believing” mass murdering dictators, there were far more religious believers carrying out their orders.

  3. Mehta repeatedly stressed that the book is not intended to belittle “actual physical abuse”.

    Maybe Richard Dawkins can help him with his wording?

  4. I think the people who take exception *are* missing the point. The fact that abusive relationships are so genuinely and truly awful *is* the whole point — so if your relationship to a so-called “loving God” has those same characteristics, you should get out, run far away, and maybe get counselling to help you recover.

    Far from making light of abusive relationships, the book (and its author) takes them very seriously and says that if you find yourself in that sort of relationship with God, then it, too, is abusive and harmful and you should get out. If you don’t have a relationship with God that has those awful characteristics — it is not abusive. And the book is not talking to you. (That’s the “breadth of theism” right there. The book IS only talking to the abusive relationships, not the others.)

    Read some of the accounts of death threats from fundamentalist Christians to people they disagree with theologically (or politically) or the way some churches call a raped teenager (in front of the whole church) to repent because she “had sex” with the youth pastor (while he’s given a slap on the wrist and forgiven for his “mistake”) — and tell me those things aren’t abusive. **Those** are the people this book is for. And it’s trying to show them that they can be emotionally (and sometimes physically! death threats!) abused in their church and the interpretation of God that is foisted on them just as much as in their home by a spouse or significant other.

    • The problem is people think that God, who created us and knows us best and has a way of life that is in our best interests, is abusive if they can’t live exactly the way they want. They just deny the real God and substitute a god of their own making. Enter atheists….

      The greatest tragedy of all is when people think they know better than
      God.

    • The Great God Pan

      “I think the people who take exception *are* missing the point.”

      Well, they are PRETENDING to miss the point. They oppose both the promotion of atheism and the criticism of religion, and they are trying to shut Mehta’s project down for that reason.. They are just using “social justice” rhetoric as a smokescreen because that’s what is currently trendy with the cool kids.

    • I have a religion blog myself. I normally refer to that being as “the Christian god” or “the god of the Bible.” There are lots of gods, and I see no reason to refer to that one as if he was the only one in the world or to give him some kind of special status.

      (If they’re going to make pagans sit out in the hall, they’d better realize we’re going to take the punch and cookies with us on the way out and have a lot more fun than they’re having in the main room.)

  5. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    To read some of the hate-filled modern atheist writings is like reading the hate-filled atheist, anti-Christian writing that flooded Russia before the Communist Revolution. The consolation for believers is: where is the Soviet Union now????.

    • Militant atheists write on blogs and file lawsuits that are usually joined by members of minority faiths. Militant Christians kill people and demand that the government do it for them. Like AMERICAN Evangelicals are doing in Africa and Russia.

      As someone obviously ignorant of history, John, you should know it didn’t take much for the Russian people to bare their hostility towards the Orthodox Church. For centuries its support of the oppressive monarchy alienated them from the public. Of course the irony is, thanks to Putin, the same church is bringing back the pogrom after a century of its absence.

      John, why must you constantly spin lies and misrepresent people who do not believe as you do?

      • The only explanation for the negative behavior of anyone toward those who think or believe differently than they is the insecurity of the ideas or beliefs of those who act negatively.

    • How about all the hate-filled Christian stuff coming from the mouths and writings of evangelical Christians? Non-theists are foolish to be like that in any way, but the history of Christianity and current events certainly display plenty of ignorance and hatred, so let’s not start casting stones at non-theists.

  6. I understand Mehta’s analogy, and I agree with it to an extent. But the whole thing seems like it’s done in bad taste. Judging by the few emails I’ve exchanged with Mehta, I’m sure he doesn’t mean any harm. But the whole thing just seems problematic to me.

  7. If you’re offended fine, but Chris, please stop letting people like Moglia and Jones use their personal trauma as leverage to guilt-trip other people and make them censor themselves. You should be able to make a rational point without inserting token “I was abused so I am right” people into your article. Lots of us have experienced abuse of some form or another, but we don’t all automatically agree on what is offensive or distasteful.

    Frankly, Skepchick in general is a catty gossip factory, the bloggers there are incredibly divisive, they offend many people daily with their own toxic rhetoric, and I’m not sure why you would even wish to associate with them at all.

  8. The spiritual/emotional/social abuse inflicted upon people by churches, religious communities, and certain forms of theology are quite real and quite harmful. The topic needs to be talked about in an open, honest, sensitive, and mature way. There is a great need for this.

    Metha’s proposed book, however, seems unlikely to provide that kind of medium. From the few sample’s he’s presented, it unwittingly comes off as a tacky trivialization of a very serious problem. Honestly, it looks like an atheist version of a Chick tract (you can Google it—the blog won’t allow me to link to the wiki article). When your literature begins to resemble the low grade pulp productions of yesteryear’s religious fundamentalism, it might be time to step back and reassess your methods.

    Furthermore, to intermingle such a poor approach with other issues of abuse, such as domestic/partner abuse, really doesn’t do those issues much justice either. I can certainly see how that would anger and alienate people who’ve suffered through such horrific experiences.

    I’m certain there are many in the atheist community who can do far better than this. Hopefully, they can find the funding and time to offer such writing in published form.

  9. I’ve often thought of the religion that I was brought up in as very like an emotionally abusive romantic relationship: I’ve experienced both. The brand of dogmatic, retrograde Catholicism practiced by much of my family had a very negative, lasting impact on my life (and that of other children in my family), by attempting to instill in me awful ideas about women, human nature, and sexuality, denying me a quality early education, placing me in an atmosphere of constant fear with threats of eternal torment, and so on.

    In this comment thread, I’ve seen many people attack Mehta on the grounds that he trivializes abusive relationships by comparing them to religion. But many people subject others to terrible emotional, even physical, abuse on religious grounds, and I’m seeing that many of these attacks on Mehta could be just as well interpreted as trivializing religion-based abuse.

    All these forms of abuse should be critiqued, and humor is among the most effective tools of criticism. It helps people recognize and face up to the absurdity and horror of beliefs and human behavior in a way that plain prose and logical arguments often fail to do.

    On the whole, I endorse Mehta’s project, it could just use a little tweaking.

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