Why Do Churches Treat People Like Kids?

After hearing a megachurch pastor treat his congregation like “a group of nine-year olds,” popular Christian writer Don Miller discovered that church is not the place to go if you want to hear anything intelligent:

To say evangelicals are dumb is to say too much. It’s hard to imagine a greater academic culture than evangelicals enjoy. We literally have thousands of schools and even more annoyingly combative scholars, always at each others throats over whether the anti-christ will enter the world on a thursday.

So here is what I surmised: American culture has become a consumer culture, and a large demographic within the culture simply does exactly what they are told, as long as what they are told promises a pay off of some sort. They do not ask questions. They trust you if you seem trustworthy. Many evangelical leaders, then, simply become info-mercial-type salesman, selling their understanding of the truth to this large demographic. Most of them are extremely well intentioned, and do remarkable ministry around the world for the poor. The dumbing down of what we must loosely call truth is just a sign of the times.

I can’t tell how sarcastic that first paragraph above is… but I’ve never associated evangelical Christianity with anything academic… unless they were trying to destroy the education system by inserting lies about evolution and Intelligent Design, trying to suppress information about sex education, or wasting time by inserting moments of silence in the classroom.

But Miller is right about a certain segment of America that doesn’t ask questions and trusts anyone who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.

These people go to church on a regular basis.

They’re not the skeptics who question authority and search for the real truth instead of the one that’s spoon-fed to you by some guy on stage who doesn’t know any more than you do, but sure as hell sounds like he does.

Not all atheists are smart, and there are plenty of intelligent Christians, but if you want to get a real education that’s based in reality and evidence instead of mythology, church is not the place to go.

Come to think of it, what would a pastor have to say that wouldn’t be considered dumbed-down?

It’s interesting reading the comments on Don’s post and watching Christians try to defend the rhetoric they hear in church.

It makes you wonder: How many of them know it’s bullshit but never say a word about it? How many refuse to challenge the pastor over what he says? How many of them keep attending church even though they roll their eyes at the idiotic things these pastors want them to do?

You’re better off reading a book about science. Or going to a library. Or you can do just about anything you haven’t done before.

To answer Miller’s question, “Are Evangelicals Getting Dumber?” I can do it without snark.

They’re not getting dumber. They’re the same people they’ve always been.

If anything, the pastors are getting smarter. They’re better than ever at convincing large masses of people that they know what the Truth is. And the people are falling for it.

  • Rob

    They treat them like children because they want them to stay that way. When someone becomes too “of the world” they must be “born again” instead of just growing up. Grown ups don’t need Jeebus or the church. It’s all about control over the weak.

  • http://theehtheist.blogspot.com The “Eh”theist

    The evangelical church is one of the most market-savvy movements that exists. When learning held influence for people they created colleges and seminaries and insitutes, etc, etc. When it was caring and compassion, they created charities and missions and foundations.

    Now it is sensitiveity and relevance, so they disdain learning (their brand of it) and rework the scriptures to make them all into feel-good object lessons. Why?

    Evangelicals are the ultimate pragmatists-there isn’t anything that they can’t rationalize as a way to “win the lost”. While catholics do the same thing over centuries, evanglicals do it over years and decades.

    As a result, emotional appeals and manipulation can be “justified”; also shading the truth, and “loving” someone to “win” them.

    The amusing flip side of this is the fact that their deep acceptance of pragmatism is what allows evangelicals to get fleeced and conned by charlatans. “Preachers” who can provide a rationalization for their behaviour, no matter how strained, get the benefit of the doubt from their church until the bank account is empty and half the congregation’s wives are sharing the same STI.

    Why did they add degrees and letters after their name in the past? It worked.

    Why do they come across as a Tony Robbins/Mr. Rogers hybrid now? It works.

    evangelicalism-pragmatism dressed up in its Sunday best.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Interesting:

    Many evangelical leaders, then, simply become infomercial-type salesman, selling their understanding of the truth to this large demographic.

    I actually visited an evangelical church last Sunday. Instead of a sermon, they had a prerecorded presentation from a motivational speaker about how to get out of debt, with little bits of god talk thrown in. I kid you not. Weirdest church service ever.

    Makes you wonder what “evangelical” even means anymore if they spend all their time preaching to themselves.

  • Demonhype

    Gah. This just reminds me of a couple days ago. My mom’s watching Oprah and they’ve got this blond lady on who gives some kind of advice. I’m overhearing a bit, and it sounds like bits and pieces of common sense interspersed with BS, and a heavy amount of pointless religious crap, all stated with an affirmative, “you’d better do this because I know more than you do” tone. The most important advice–worded and delivered to sound more like an order than anything–was that the advisee had better get her ass to the nearest church and pray pray pray to the Holy Lord in Heaven, that nothing at all is more important than getting right with Jesus or God or some such crap, and that her life can never be better without religious devotion.

    Now if someone was issuing advice to me that included such a bit, I would tell them to get the hell out of my house and never come back. But that’s just me.

    Later, Momma starts going on about how brilliant this woman is, how intelligent, how everyone should listen to her words because the world would be a better place if they did. I had the gall to disagree and then point out some of the bullshit parts of what this woman said. The response I got was angry, sullen, and reproachful. I was informed that not everyone is an atheist (as if objecting to an order for religious worship is somehow inherently a form of atheistic evangelizing, and as if atheists are not commonly advised/ordered to “get to church and pray to the Lord in Heaven”, in complete contempt and disregard for their atheism), that my assessment is completely uncalled for (as if her preaching the word of Blondy was “called for” itself), and that “she prayed and her life got better” (as if following some of the snippets of common sense that Blondy had injected in-between the bullshit couldn’t have had anything do do with it–after all, wasn’t she just going on about how Blondy there is some kind of genius with her advice?). Not “well, that part might not have been kind of dumb, but some of the practical advice was really good and often eludes people”. Nope, I got the full on “How dare you question my god(s)? How dare you disagree about the greatness of my blond prophet and how totally right everything she says is! How dare you question her Tone That Says I Know My Shit! Blasphemer!”

    But that’s all you need to do in America these days. Feed people feel-good evangelistic bullshit, try to inject a small bit of common sense, and state it all as if you know what you’re doing, and people will follow you right off the cliff or drink the Kool-aid with a right good will. Point out the problems and out come the sullen rationalizations accompanied by the reproachful glares that you should have put them in a position to defend themselves instead of just drinking the Kool-aid like everyone else, just like a good girl or boy should.

    Worst thing is that I keep losing more respect for my mother every day, as she thinks and behaves more and more like a common dupe. I used to think she was the smartest woman ever, right up until my early twenties when I got interested in logic and reason. It’s been downhill from there.

  • Villa

    Come to think of it, what would a pastor have to say that wouldn’t be considered dumbed-down?

    It seems like there’d be a lot. For instance, church history and the philosophy of the various early-church heresies would be interesting.

    Their moral messages could even be a bit more sophisticated. Utilitarianism has a pretty simple pinning. But applying utilitarian ethics to real-world problems isn’t trivial. That could be worked into a sermon with a facade of ‘doing good by one’s neighbor.’

    And, right now, social issues seem to be discussed on a purely ‘us’ versus ‘them’ framework. For instance, homosexuality bad, thus gay marriage bad.

    But, there’s no reason this has to be the case.

    Basically, there’s little to say about proving god. But there’d still be a lot that one could say within a Christian framework.

    But, this would all require a bunch of introspection. It’s way easier to just condemn the outside world.

  • Secular Stu

    I can’t tell how sarcastic that first paragraph above is…

    Very. He’s discussing a vibrant academic culture where you could likely find many mathematical treatises on the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

  • Cameron

    I went to the site, and was surprised at how wimpy their rationalizations really were. I responded to one commenter, who aptly pointed out that a great deal of congregations don’t even know what’s in the bible (Good Point, it’s true). It seems to me that if people actually bothered to know, they would not come anymore. Because the story doesn’t even hold up to the standards for a good fictional narrative, let alone truth. We’ll see if I accused of trolling.

  • Claudia

    If you base your religion upon people accepting on faith something for which you can offer no evidence, you cannot be surprised if people….unquestioningly accept whatever you say on faith with no evidence.

    You asked for the unquestioning faith of a child-like mind, and that’s exactly what you got.

    Some religious faiths do encourage questioning and argument. There’s an honorable tradition of this in Judaism, which I’m guessing is why you see so many atheist jews all over the place.

  • Richard Wade

    Junk food for our bodies, junk ideas for our minds. Junk television, junk movies, and junk books for our entertainment. Junk news. Junk politics. Junk remarks pointlessly texted and twittered back and forth for our junk friendships. Junk products and junk activities for our consumption in every possible way. The fast, the cheap, the simple, the easy, the mediocre, the unchallenging.

    So no surprise we have junk religion.

  • Bob

    @Richard:

    “Junk religion” – is there another kind?

    But otherwise agreed. Junk media is an endless stream of noise to distract and dilute individual thought.

    It’s like putting Newton’s ‘Principia’ in a blender with Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ and other textbooks, then expecting you’ll get meaningful content out of the shreds.

  • Mr Z

    Now here is a topic I have something to say about. The dumbing down of America in particular and the west in general. We teach some bits of info about renaissance men but NEVER encourage people to be copycats of such.

    Robert Heinlein has a few ideas on this which are good for ALL of society: A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    We can add more items to that list, but the idea is unchanged. When we let ourselves become reliant on others we become a consumer society which will be unable to deal with life without the conveniences that cost so much. No, they are not the same people they have always been. 100 years ago, as the scam email goes, an 8th grader knew more than college graduates today – and in some ways this is true. In fact, more ways that should be.

    The western societies have dumbed themselves down to a sound bite clique, where bullseye’s on a map mean political assassination is the point; where idiots can make national acclaim by ‘keeping it real’ or ‘being apple pie americans’ and all of it destroys a little part of all of us. I heard a commercial today use the non-word ‘gooder’ … The disdain for scholarly effort and intelligence is destroying the good parts of this planet.

    I fall into two categories of people not welcomed in America: Intelligent and Anti-theist. If there was some place to go I’d probably leave. This is a sad statement about the world. I don’t think I’m better, far from it. I think I’m more prepared for any eventuality that does not include grocery stores etc. Most of my society would not survive if we lost electricity or moderate weather. Not because nature has ill adapted them, but because they refuse to participate in life as nature presents it. Potatoes come in a box and peas in a can. Chickens do not have feathers. They give you a driver’s license without requiring you to know anything about how they work. That’s a tax, not a license. Think I’m wrong? When should you dim your lights for oncoming traffic? Don’t remember? hmmmmm did you pay a tax or get a license to operate a deadly vehicle? How do you change the oil? Can you make potato soup.. from raw materials? What plants in your neighborhood are poisonous? Here is the problem… people do not want to learn anything more than they have to .. to get by. People do not force them to learn anything. The end result is dumb people. If you are reading this, you are probably on a computer. How do you replace the power supply? How do you install the OS? There are millions of questions that well informed people should know the answer to but do not. Those that get by on their looks and friendly manner are producing nothing for society. uhmmm the clergy are such people. That old saying: give a man a fish… teach him to fish and ….

    You fscking have to know how to fish to teach someone else how to fish. When peak oil hits, it will be the poorest nations that survive. They still know that chickens have feathers and you have to pull them to eat the bird.

    ’nuff said.

  • Demonhype

    @Richard:

    Totally. Thank you. That’s been my point for so long. I can’t watch anything or do much with the people around me because it’s hard for me to sit and be quiet and polite and not MST3K-out when I see something mind-numbingly idiotic. Can’t I just enjoy the media/movie/etc. for what it is? Well, I am, aren’t I? It’s crap, and this is how you derive enjoyment from crap because it offers nothing else of value besides an opportunity to riff. It’s a kind of metaphoric toilet humor, if you will. :)

    Strangely, they tend to admit it’s crap just before asking “why can’t you enjoy it for what it is?” without any irony or sarcasm or anything. I’m never sure what to make of that or what to think of the poor jerk who actually says that. If you don’t want me to comment on crap, don’t put crap on a plate and set it in front of me. And don’t ask me to pretend it isn’t crap even as you admit that it is. Geez, you invite me to dinner, knowingly lay a huge turd in front of me, and then get upset because I didn’t chow down on it and compliment you on your wonderful roast beef dish.

    Well, I think they’re lying. They didn’t know it was a turd, and now they’re trying to save some face and shut me up.

    I’m just glad they eventually permitted me to opt out. There’s nothing worse than being told “if you don’t like it, leave” and then get a lot of petulant screaming and whining when I take them at their word. They don’t want me to make comment about what I’m seeing, and they don’t want me to leave, but somehow I’m the bully? Apparently I was supposed to sit down and shut up, same as with my atheism, and suffer through the idiocy or insult on the screen the same way I should suffer through the idiocy or insult of the religious majority–always in silence and submission, always present and pretending to agree so they never have to face any kind of challenge to their precious opiate.

    Most insulting thing about both the religious and the junk-culture-junkies? In both cases, they will express exactly what they think about what you love or how you think with presumed authority, even if they have sketchy knowledge of the subject at best, even as they insist you “lay off” of their precious beliefs or favored part of pop culture which they are shoving down your throat as hard as possible.

  • Demonhype

    @Mr Z:

    Totally to you too. You have no idea how often I say “I want to learn [something]” and am asked “what the hell do you need that for?” I want to learn something about car engines “what the hell do you need that for?” I want to learn a foreign language “what the hell do you need that for?” I would like to return to school someday and take a couple more chemistry classes (though I don’t think I have the interest to get a degree) “what the hell do you need that for?”

    The only thing that doesn’t evoke that response is when I want to learn another computer program, because everyone around me sees computer knowledge as a valuable money-earning skill (most of them are computer illiterate or semi-literate, so they imagine that mastery of this arcane discipline will ensure one’s multi-millionaire status).

    Or my mother expresses her absolute contempt for those arrogant bastards who have college degrees–and in the next breath expresses her pride that I have a Bachelor’s and am six classes away from a second one (no I am not collecting degrees–it’s a long story). Not because of the value of getting an education, but because of the social status implied in having one. A degree is like having a sports car or a fur coat to her, and the concept of getting educated is shit. And she couldn’t see why I considered having a degree from a private liberal arts university to be better than getting a degree from a vocational school, because in her mind they are wasting your time teaching you anything about philosophy or science or art or literature or anything other than the bare minimum you need to earn a paycheck in your field. Learning more than you have to is for suckers and is highway robbery on the part of the school, apparently. I had an extra chunk of grant money in my senior year and had exactly two classes and a Senior Seminar class and nothing else I really needed to take–or had a burning desire to take. So I decided to enroll in a couple of math classes and make an attempt to conquer the demon (yes, I’m one of the math-shy). She couldn’t understand why I would take any math classes if my major didn’t explicitly require them, even if they were essentially free. She couldn’t understand that I wanted to challenge myself to take a couple of classes that were out of my comfort zone and see if I could overcome my math intimidation.

  • Bob

    @Mr Z:

    Spot on. I have always been (or strived to be) a bit of a Renaissance man, and it has served me well in both life and my professional career (television news). I always advise new interns to take advantage of the environment – we’re in a large market, and there are opportunities and experience you can tap here, but you have to ask questions.

    An avid gamer (originally tabletop RPGs, but now also console/PC games), I described my hobby as sparking an interest in science, history, philosophy, and other subjects. My broad base of knowledge impressed my father-in-law, who was another intellectually curious man, his bookshelves filled with books on just about every topic imaginable.

    Now it seems we know less (in terms of having knowledge immediately to hand from study or experience) and access more (Google/Wikipedia). But we’ve lost critical thinking skills – urban legends, hoax e-mails, misattributed speeches, etc. spread like wildfire, sometimes even by way of ‘intelligent’ people.

    It is this odd combination of gullibility and degradation of critical thinking skills that is rapidly digging society’s grave. I remember watching the George Pal film of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine,’ and the scene where Weena asks the Traveler, “Books? What are books?”

    As we lose the ability to reason, we lose the ability to solve problems around us. We lose the ability to communicate higher ideals and concepts. I almost wonder if we’re coming to an evolutionary break … there will be those who can still think and reason, and those who stubbornly cling to their concept of an unchanging world, seeking solace in religion.

  • http://www.phoenixgarage.org/ cr0sh

    As we lose the ability to reason, we lose the ability to solve problems around us. We lose the ability to communicate higher ideals and concepts. I almost wonder if we’re coming to an evolutionary break … there will be those who can still think and reason, and those who stubbornly cling to their concept of an unchanging world, seeking solace in religion.

    Bob, I’m pretty certain we’re already there.

  • http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com Michael Caton

    I would actually agree that consumer culture has been damaging for critical thinking in the West and in particular the U.S. That at least some Christians recognize this is good news. Most atheists I know are annoyed by consumerism and materialism (the latter term as it’s understood in mass media rather than philosophy.) I would argue that this attitude comes from people who try to live according to consistent principles and don’t need to show off their brand-name belongings to feel like they’re “winning” at life. Many young and honestly exploring/examining Christians are similarly and sincerely off-put by consumerism, and shared values are always good as a starting point for conversations.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I don’t know many Christians in the real world. True believers are rare in England so the handful of theists I do know are hardly representative. Anecdotally though they are no dumber than anyone else.

    Playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment I would think that the focus of church activity wouldn’t be science, history, politics, or even current affairs. It would be theology. Now in my opinion theology is a branch of philosophy that deals with “What does God want?” type questions and is therefore pretty useless. I say useless because gods don’t exist as far as we know. Then again philosophy often uses things that don’t exist to test our thinking so I’m OK with that. What I really doubt is if a congregation has the grounding in basic philosophy to differentiate a theological discussion from one pertaining to current affairs.

    By way of example recently a gunman murdered six people and wounded thirteen. There are theology questions about how a just and loving god could permit this that are quite different from questions of secular justice and healing and questions of gun control and political opportunism. I doubt if a church is equipped to separate these questions and I further doubt if a typical congregation has the wherewithal to address these questions.

    That doesn’t mean they are dumb though. It just means that they’re focused on different questions. It might mean that American culture (and Western culture in general) doesn’t have a high enough emphasis on education but that is a different point entirely.

  • http://thebrunettesblog.wordpress.com Ginny

    About evangelicals and intelligence: there is actually a subset of evangelicals which are quite intelligent, and rational up to a point. If you imagine drawing a big wall around the realm of human inquiry (a wall which excludes all questioning whether the Christian God exists and the Christian Bible is authoritatively true), within that wall there are some very bright and active minds. The Bible studies I went to when I was a Christian often featured some intense intellectual debate about some point of theology or another.

    From outside that wall, the omission of bigger questions is glaring. How can they question, argue, and reason through all these things without once questioning their premise? But from the inside, the wall is almost invisible. It took me about five years of being part of an intellectual Christian community to start to feel hemmed-in by the boundaries, and even then it was more a desire for intellectual freedom, the ability to ask questions about whether God existed and the Bible was true, than a strong sense of doubt.

    Upshot, my guess is that first paragraph of Don Miller’s was not at all sarcastic.

  • Sean

    @Mr Z:

    While I share your disdain for the general intellectual sloth of society at large, professional specialization, at least, is necessary to enjoy the numerous luxuries we have as a society. My particular specialization is mechanical engineering, so I understand how mechanical systems function and could design at least rudimentary machines of a wide variety. However, my knowledge of computers, and computer science, is woefully small. I can use a computer, but there is no way I could design a computer from the ground up, as I don’t know how to build transistors or program an operating system. Without specialization, we would never enjoy the use of so many things we take for granted.

    However, I agree wholeheartedly that critical thinking are in inexcusably shot supply. I don’t expect everyone to be able to do everything, but I do expect that people should be able to figure or find out how to do it, if the need arises.

  • Chris

    At the Roman Catholic church I used to attend, there was a wide range of quality in the preaching. Most of it was as you describe: low-level, unquestioning, etc.

    For a short period, however, we had an assistant pastor who went on to become a Canon lawyer and professor at a local seminary. Very occasionally he would give a saccharine sermon, but most of them were really quite fascinating discussions of the historical and textual meaning of the Bible, which could be quite distinct from its religious context. I learned a good deal about Greek and Aramaic, the culture of the Mediterranean during the Roman Empire, and ancient through medieval philosophers by listening to him.

    Anyway, it’s at least possible for pastors to educate their audience–they just have to stay away from religion to do so.

  • Bob Carlson

    You’re better off reading a book about science. Or going to a library.

    This was the premise of the Julian Huxley book Religion without Revelation. I was surprised, however, to find a blog post by a Presbyterian pastor with the same title. He discusses the need for traditional theology to undergo a Copernican revolution. This seems a bit like the thinking of John Shelby Spong who aspires to getting Christianity out of the ugly religion business. See, for example, this interview concerning his book Jesus for the Non-religious. I have a little trouble wrapping my mind around this idea, given that Spong not only believes in the historicity of Jesus but also in his divinity.

  • JD

    I think some people here are generalizing a bit much, some of the descriptions are more of an emergent rather than evangelical church, though there is some blurring going on.

    Having been subjected to numerous sermons from numerous people, weekly for a couple decades, preachers that are actually educating are very rare. Despite more than a decade of being preached to weekly, I learned more in any given week of a religion class than I did from all the preachers in my life up to that point. In one sense, there’s only so much they can do in 20 minutes, but the subject matter is never dealt with broadly or deeply, and reading is rarely assigned. They may be trying to mollify the flock, keep them weighing down the pews and donating a bit than watching football. Given that the religion class (at a Christian college no less) was one of the key undoings of my faith, maybe they’re worried about that.

  • DA

    Ginny, good point, and true within almost any religious setting. That’s one of my key problems with religion; not that its adherents are dumb (which I don’t believe) but that it turns so much human intellectual energy in such completely worthless or even harmful directions.

  • Demonhype

    @Bob Carlson:

    That sounds suspiciously like the “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” semantic game that so many believers try, making an attempt to distance their own favorite beliefs from the perceived stigma of “religion” while maintaining the stigma for other people’s beliefs. Not that I’ve read his justifications, but when someone believes in the historicity and divinity of Jesus, that’s how it usually works out. At least in my own experience.