What is a Toxic Christian?

Sometimes I use the term “toxic Christian” to describe particular people, and today I want to talk about what that term means and why I use it.

Some toxins are very good about announcing themselves. (Credit: dany13, CC license.) An Indonesian crater witnesses on a street corner at passersby.
An Indonesian crater witnesses on a street corner. (Credit: dany13, CC license.)

Something toxic is harmful to others. A toxic thing poisons and infects whatever it touches, killing life and destroying good things. It spreads like a sickness and must be fought and contained.

And I see this toxicity in a big part of Christianity and other religions today.

I know there are lots of people who are decent and good in this world. Some of them subscribe to one of the many religions humankind has devised over the eons, with some of those choosing or falling into Christianity. Others don’t choose or fall into any religions at all. Being Christian has nothing whatsoever to do with being decent and good for any of those people, just as being decent and good has nothing whatsoever to do with being Christian. There are decent and good Muslims, pagans, Christians, atheists, Jews, Pastafarians, you name it.

Part of being decent and good is realizing that religion doesn’t make someone decent or good.

Such a person is aware that there are lots of different ways humanity’s come up with to seek and connect with our spiritual sides, and that nobody really knows for sure which way is the best way. Maybe there isn’t even a best way for everybody, just a best way for each individual person, and that one person’s best way might not be another person’s best way. A decent and good person is already aware that the best expression of religion is always going to be in how it encourages its adherents to treat other people and how to live with integrity and authenticity, and that almost all religions agree with those two ideals in the main.

It’s important to remember that though religion has harmed a lot of people in recent years, religion’s not the enemy in and of itself, and that simply being a member of a religion–or not being one–does not make someone good or bad.

If there’s an enemy at all for us, it is zealotry, not religion.

Zealotry is Toxic.

Zealotry takes the good parts of religion and shits all over them like a barn animal on its own bed. It demands compliance and conformity. It must destroy and silence dissent. It cannot tolerate the existence of other religions or even the presence of dissenting voices within its own religion. It insists that its way is the only proper way and that there are no other proper ways.

Zealotry demands control over other people’s lives even if those people aren’t even members of its group. It is not love but hate, though zealots may relabel hate as love to make its members think that by harming others, they are really showing love to them (though the people being harmed are not fooled in the least).

Zealotry doesn’t care about facts in its rush to push its bizarre understanding of “truth;” it will do whatever it must to spread itself, because spreading itself is what is important. Love, truthfulness, faithfulness, a servant’s heart, charity, none of it matters to a zealot. The ends justify the means. When I was a Christian, zealotry was considered a good thing; it meant the Christian was “on fire.” None of us really thought about just why we thought being on fire was a good thing (but we still conceptualized Hell as being a pit of fire; now there’s a philosophical musing I’ll be chewing on all day).

Zealotry-infested systems attract people who are either zealots themselves or who respond to its message of control and savage suppression. It attracts not people wanting to serve and love its god and their fellow humans, but who instead crave power and see that zealotry-infested system as as the best way to get what they want.

Zealotry is what makes religion toxic, not gods, not rituals, not buildings, not organized hierarchies. Zealotry is what we must fight and what we must stop.

Zealotry is Not Loving.

If you’re a Christian and you recoil from such ideas as zealotry, then you and I have no argument. If you’re personally pro-life but would never deny another woman the right to decide for herself what invades and utilizes her body, then we’ve got no beef at all. If you believe in your heart of hearts that 6000 years ago your god created the whole wide world, but you respect that kids need to learn real science and so you don’t get in the way of education, then I don’t especially care what you do in the sanctuary of your own mind. If you believe that fairies are in your garden and that unicorns are real but are not trying to pass legislation based on what sex acts make fairies angry and unicorns sad, then nothing I say here, on social sites, or in person is ever directed toward you, and if I mess up and lump you in with the bad eggs, then feel free to say something, because I try to be really careful to delineate and keep from tarring allies with the same brush as offenders.

But if you proudly call yourself a Christian “zealot,” as I’ve seen Christians do lately (and like I saw back in my own Christian days), then I’m going to assume that you either don’t know what zealotry is or that you’re proud to be a toxic Christian who is actively destroying your own religion’s credibility and holding back the rest of our society from progress.

A few days ago, I noticed that a Christian wrote a list of things Christians should say more often. It goes along with his series about things Christians should quit saying.

His two lists are really things that anybody should be doing (or should stop doing) in the interests of being a good and decent person. They’re not religion-specific. It’s hard not to think that maybe he meant things that way.

I approve of the lists, but knowing what I do about zealots, I suspect that despite his very best efforts to warn Christians reading his lists that these aren’t witnessing tips, a sizable number of his readers are going to see these hints as precisely that: tips for how to trick unwitting friends and strangers into sitting still long enough to get witnessed at. To zealots, instructions for how to be a good person function as tips for how to stealthily sneak religion into a friendship.

Christian Nice Guys.

Reading things like this reminds me of that misogynist myth about the “friend zone” — that thing that entitled, narcissistic Nice Guys insist that mean, cruel women “put” them in to keep them from becoming romantically entangled when the men really want to become so. To many women, it’s crushing and disconcerting to discover that a man was friends with us purely to get into our pants. We often feel betrayed and hurt by the realization that it wasn’t our friendship the man wanted, but access to our Magic Vagina, and to get to it, they must first pass its gatekeeper, which is the Magic Vagina’s annoying, maddeningly confusing owner. So they make nice as long as there’s hope of wearing us down and passing that gate with their sheer niceness.

Worse, the victims of these attentions know that the second we are forced by these Nice Guys to be direct and thus unequivocally decline their interest, these men may well become abusive, unkind, and insulting toward us. Romantic entanglement is the goal, not friendship, which becomes seen as a consolation prize. And I don’t know many women who enjoy thinking that their friendship is just the consolation prize.

In much the same way, when I’m friends with a Christian, it’s hard not to wonder if or when that Christian’s going to get sick of being secular-zoned and make a play for religion to enter our relationship somehow. It’s certainly happened before. When someone’s got an overwhelming mandate to bring others to the fold, then it’s hard not to always be “on” and alert for opportunities. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a religion, romantic urges, or a multi-level marketing scam. And I felt the same way when confronted with the reality of being just a witnessing target or potential MLM “partner” when I thought I had a friendship going on as women feel when a Nice Guy finally shows his true colors. (I sort of wonder how the targets of Flirty Fishing felt when they realized the beautiful women they were having sex with just wanted to convert them to a cult.)

I can’t even claim I’m better or different than the sorts of examples I’ve mentioned above. When I was a Christian, I remember feeling that way–wondering when (not “if”) I should mention something about Jesus to try to win this friend’s soul, and feeling like I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I mean, if I never mentioned that my friend needed to get saved and this beloved friend went to Hell, that’d be at least partially my fault. But if I mentioned it and did it wrong, then my friend would feel alienated and upset with me, and I might lose the friendship entirely. It was hellish to be stuck in that emotional trap, though it was my own fault that I was there at all. (And no, don’t be silly; of course I didn’t wonder why I was following a god who’d let my friends end up in a place of sick torment forever.)

It was good to escape that mindset. At first I had this reactionary response to any and all Christians, but over time, I came to realize that it wasn’t Christianity itself I really didn’t like, but rather some of the biggest-name and loudest fans in the club. Christianity itself, as practiced by most Christians, isn’t so bad. Most of us want to be good people and do good to others, and most of us aren’t insane or evil by nature, so whatever religion we land in, we’re going to be all right in it. I don’t think Christianity was a good religion for me, but if someone finds comfort and delight in its mysteries, that’s all right. I’ll defend that person’s right to believe whatever he or she wants. But when someone starts thinking that this right to believe means that s/he has the right to trample over me and my own right to believe what I want, that’s when we’re veering into that toxic territory I’ve mentioned.

So when I talk about a “toxic Christian,” I’m talking about that narrow subset of zealots who harm others in the name of their religion, want to force their narrow interpretation of their religion’s dictates on everybody else, confuse love with hate and abuse with caring, and care more about proselytizing than they do about following their religion’s primary commands. They are a poisonous cloud of gas seeping over every surface and poisoning everything they touch, and their form of religion just spawns more people like themselves: zealots ready for the cause.

The danger in this zealotry is that people who feel hard-done-by, who see their dominance threatened, who fear the changes coming in our society, those are the people who are most likely to fall into toxicity, so it’s of vital importance that not only non-Christians and ex-Christians speak out against this abusive form of religion, but that also the legions of sane, kind, loving Christians do too, so the people who might otherwise be lost to zealotry will rein themselves in and find some other, more constructive way to deal with their feelings of hurt pride and fear of change. Remember that saying?

All that is required for evil to win is for good people to do nothing.


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