Christianity’s got a big image problem, and a lot of the reason for that problem comes from its own followers. It’s just so weird to me to see that the Christians who are the most gung-ho about engaging people about their religion seem like they’re the most inept at actually doing it. I’ve been thinking for a while about why that might be–about why Christians seem so very singularly bad at engaging people and why they seem to turn people off so much.
I think I’ve got it at last.
Could it be that Christians share a lot of similarities with Nice Guys™, those much-maligned creatures we’ve been hearing about so much lately?
Why yes, yes, I think they might just do. So today we’re going to talk about Nice Christians™.
A Nice Guy™, just to kinda catch everybody up, is a person who thinks of himself as nice, but who isn’t actually very nice at all. That’s why I use the ™ symbol next to the name as some other folks do nowadays–to differentiate a Nice Guy™ from a person who just happens to be generally polite and kind. By contrast, a Nice Guy™ might be superficially polite, but he thinks of relationships as an exchange of goods and services: if he pumps enough Niceness tokens into a
vending machine woman of his choosing by doing her “favors,” giving her presents, listening to her, complimenting her, and hanging out with her, then she is morally obligated to dispense Sex and Love back to him. If she is boorish enough to enjoy his tokens without making with the sex, then he is allowed to feel angry and put-out by her recalcitrance. He doesn’t normally have the courage to just tell her how he feels, instead pretending to be her friend so he can get close enough for long enough that she’ll realize the depth of his affection and maybe–during a moment of extreme weakness–decide to touch his wiener. That said, friendship is definitely the consolation prize to him; he keeps up the pretense only until he figures out at last that his victim will never touch his wiener, at which point he may well viciously lash out at her for her audacity in taking his self-presentation for what he said it was. (And yes, there absolutely are some female Nice Guys™ as well as LGBTQ situations too.)
A Nice Guy™ has very little to offer this hapless woman except his “niceness,” by which we mean a general sort of inoffensiveness, which he has been told his entire life is all he should need to win any woman he likes. Unfortunately, he’s not even especially inoffensive–most of these Nice Guys™ think they truly respect women, but they’re the first to whip out the sexist slurs and misogynistic insults when they don’t get what they want, and they have some genuinely creepy ways of talking to and interacting with women that come off as paternalistic, boundary-crossing, and triggering. They think they’re absolutely superior to all the “assholes” they think their victims are dating and sleeping with, but in truth they are dishonest, mean-spirited, passive-aggressive, and egocentric on a level that you have to see to believe.
And every woman alive has a Nice Guy™ in her history–that is, if she’s not actively dealing with one now. There’s not really a good way of dealing with them, I’m afraid; if you’re indirect with a Nice Guy™, then because they don’t care about enthusiastic consent, they take that as an implicit declaration that there’s still hope. If you’re direct, then the Nice Guy™ uses that rejection as a springboard for a huge debate about the relative merits of your opinion.
You might have been thinking (or have noticed) that in this mindset there’s an essential disconnect between strategy and goal, and you’d be correct. And it is one that I am long familiar with.
When I was a Christian, the prevailing attitude was “just open your mouth like Moses did, and our god will fill it with just the right words!” (Yes, yes, I know: it’s kind of a lurid thing to tell a teenaged girl, but that’s what I indeed was told.) Even the most hypocritical, weak, monstrously-ineffectual Christian should always be talking to outsiders about Jesus, and the Christian’s god would work some miracles despite those problems. This was the attitude we lived with in all of the Protestant fundagelical churches I ever attended. Stories abounded about how exactly this had happened, about how some very weak Christian had struggled to “share the good news” and had converted someone who then went on to become some godly powerhouse of faith and soulwinning. And I often heard preachers and evangelists humblebrag about how poorly-suited they were for their work and yet look at all these people at the revivals getting converted! The idea was that the Christian god could use any vessel, even a somewhat-weak one, even one not quite shaped for the task. All we had to have was obedience and it’d all work out for the best. Heck, if the Christian was really bad at talking to people or hugely unsuited for evangelism, that almost made the testimony better later on!
But I could also use my eyes and look around to see how untrue this all-too-common delusion was in everyday life. Biff, for example, was always hammering at the atheists we knew in college, but every one of them politely (much more politely than I think Biff deserved, to be honest) declined his blandishments–many specifically because they could see that he was a raging hypocrite and all-around awful human being. I did not know a single person who had converted in real life like people did in the urban legends I’d absorbed; it seemed beyond ludicrous for someone to convert to Christianity when they could see quite clearly that it wasn’t actually doing anything supernatural in the hypocrite’s life. And of the hypocritical, ignorant, misogynistic preachers and evangelists, well, they might swoop up some souls during a super-emotional revival meeting, but that didn’t mean those people stuck around after the rah-rah was over and they’d gone home; it seemed to me that these converts were all getting struck with a case of “refrigerator logic”–that term movie-reviewers use to describe a movie that makes total sense while you’re watching, but whose errors suddenly become glaring and obvious hours later while you’re grabbing a late-night snack out of the fridge and remembering the movie you were watching earlier.
I’ll also mention here that out of all the “I used to be an atheist” conversion stories I ever read, I have never once heard of an atheist-turned-Christian who converted despite the total hypocrisy of the person talking to him or her. I’m sure it’s happened–it’s a big world–but I’ve never once encountered the beastie. You know what I do hear though? I hear about unflinching love, devotion, honesty, and charity. It’s hard to turn the other cheek and love someone unconditionally. It’s hard to identify oneself with the downtrodden and defend those who are defenseless. Someone who manages to be like that stands out from the crowd. Whatever it is they’re doing, whatever it is that they have, we get curious about it and we want it for ourselves. It’s human nature. When someone is a hypocrite, in the same way, we see what is leading that person toward that hypocrisy, and we feel more repelled by it. But you’d never know that to talk to Christians. Not long ago I asked one of the decent Christians I know, TQC over at The Quiet Christian, if he’d ever heard of someone converted by one of these hypocritical types, and he said no, he never had heard of such a thing himself. I haven’t either. I just don’t think this conventional wisdom works as a witnessing mindset.
Even before I came into contact with such stories, I could see that all this “broken vessel” nonsense was just that: nonsense. It was not borne out by the real world or what I could see happening around me. So I discarded that thinking well before my deconversion. It was so obviously wrong. If I was the wrong Christian for the task, then it seemed very clear that I would only make the situation worse–that I’d only drive away the potential convert, and make it that much harder for that person to convert later, and that much harder of a task for the Christian my god really did want to talk to that person. If my god really wanted me to talk to that person, I figured there’d be an obvious opening. I would take the opening if I saw it–I’m not a shy person by nature and don’t have trouble talking to people even about controversial things–but otherwise, I’d trust in my god to open a heart first before I tried to meddle with it.
That sounded really nice, but it meant that now I had a whole new problem.
If we did not engage with outsiders, went the thinking, then we were in a way dooming them to Hell. So I lived in fear that I might miss a chance to witness, that I might not recognize that opened door, that offered hand, that opening, and then my target might just die in a fiery car accident that very day and get doomed to an eternity of torture because I’d been too worried about having an opening first before intruding on them. What if I was “the one” meant to talk to them and I missed my shot? What if their blood for eternity was on my hands? Would I remember them while I was partying in the Jesus Bus in Heaven? Would I feel bad knowing their screams of agony were all on me? This was stuff that actively worried me back then. I was never one of those Christians who seems smugly pleased at the idea of people
getting what was coming to them suffering the torture they had knowingly chosen for eternity.
The more I thought about those similarities between toxic Christians and Nice Guys™ though, the more I realized how many there were–and I really wish Christians would understand this stuff before they walk up to me and try to engage me.
I’m not against people talking about stuff that interests them. What a terrible world it’d be if someone could never, ever speak about things they like or opinions they hold! That said, nobody is guaranteed an audience, and nobody should be forced to listen. It’s unfortunate that the vibe I get from both Christians and Nice Guys™ is that if they want to talk, then the rest of us are morally obliged to entertain them and be receptive to them. As more people become aware of both groups’ overreach, that’s happening less and less often–and I hear people in both groups reacting to this sudden rejection of their entitlement in predictable ways. So I want to talk about this situation. If Christians really want to engage me, if they really want me to be even halfway receptive to just a conversation about religion (let’s ignore conversion and just concentrate on “a civil conversation, period”), then they need to be aware of how I perceive them and why I am not always receptive to them.
First Similarity: Both groups share a marked lack of self-awareness, but this lack of self-awareness may be a front for self-serving egocentrism. Here’s what I mean: we’ve done studies that show us that men actually completely understand and perceive when women are not receptive to their advances, even “nerdy” or “socially awkward” men. Those cues are almost impossible to mistake. But there’s a subset of men who totally ignore those cues and press past them to deliberately make women uncomfortable or force them to either be uncomfortably direct, which can feel downright unsafe, or else reluctantly acquiesce to their demands for attention. And if those men get a lot of negative pushback, then they whine that they’re “just” socially awkward to excuse their refusal to acknowledge the cues they’ve received or even demonize women for not being more “straightforward” in communicating rejection. As the book unChristian makes clear over and over again, in the same way as Nice Guys™, Christians seem to have no understanding whatsoever of how they come off to outsiders–but do they really not understand? Because it seems to me that they do.
Second Similarity: Nice Guys™ and Christians both blame their target when their presentation fails; it keeps them from having to make uncomfortable changes or recognize their own errors. Nice Guys™ will blame women for not “giving them a chance” or for refusing to argue with or educate the Nice Guy™ she’s just so cruelly refused access to her heart and vagina; Christians in turn blame demons or people’s desire to sin or some other ridiculous thing. The Nice Guy™ and the Christian are themselves faultless, blameless, and flawless; the problem is not the message or the person presenting it, because obviously the person presenting it is “nice” or “loving” and the message is completely untouchable, so obviously the problem here must be the target. Yes, that is it. It must be. This error is especially self-serving.
Third Similarity: Both groups seem extremely recalcitrant to learn new behaviors that do a better job of displaying the qualities they think they’re broadcasting. Nice Guys™ could easily learn exactly what about their behavior puts women off, but a lot of it will revolve around showing respect for social cues that may feel like rejection. So, surprisingly, they don’t do that and instead claim they just have noooooo idea why women never seem interested in their advances. Christians could, in the same way, learn the social skills their churches and culture have denied them. It isn’t rocket science; people have been interacting since before we were technically people. It’s almost laughable to see how mystified Christians get when they realize just how hostile society is getting toward them–while they’re actively engaged right that moment in alienating, offending, and annoying everybody within earshot. The problem here is that for both groups of people, they have a stated goal that doesn’t even remotely match their methods of reaching that goal. The Nice Guy™ wants a romantic partner; the Christian wants a convert. But neither of them will get those things by offending folks and making them feel threatened and unsafe.
Fourth Similarity: Both groups employ emotional manipulation to try to strong-arm their targets into doing what they want. Nice Guys™ will whine, when told that no, actually, approaching women who don’t want to be approached isn’t actually very nice, “But but but how will the human race ever survive if you say men can’t talk to women?!?” as if what they’re doing is in any way going to help them procreate, and also as if there’s no other way in their little worlds that they can “talk to women” without being creepy Milady trilby-wearers. In the same way, Christians will whine about free speech as if that compels individuals to stand there and listen to them whenever they feel like talking (or to give them cable-access TV shows). There are a variety of other equally odious techniques used by both groups to excuse their predatory techniques. The main thing here is that they want to make their targets feel guilty for not letting them have their way, which is a lot easier, faster, and in their minds more effective than doing all that hard work of self-improvement to make people want to listen to them.
Fifth Similarity: Once people of either group figure out what’s going on and do the work required for their methods to match their goals, they get a lot better success. That success may not be measured in attractive sex partners or eager converts, but at least they’re not actively damaging their credibility with their target audiences and those audiences are at least friendly to them–where before they were hostile, distrustful, and wary.
We’ll Be Leaving Out: Tribal dress and markers like clever T-shirts with religious or gaming-related slogans on them, trilby hats and crosses, and in-group slang. All groups have their little in-group markers and I don’t really care. But someone who speaks in that slang at people who won’t know it or who thinks less of me because I think trilby hats look silly with gamer shirts and lumberjack beards is going to further annoy me.
Upshot: I’ve heard Nice Guys™ described as a perfect storm of entitlement, narcissism, and self-pity. That sounds like a pretty good description of modern toxic Christians too, doesn’t it? These similarities are important to keep in mind. When I encounter a Christian who gives off those narcissistic, self-important, entitled vibes, I get put on guard, and it isn’t easy to have a meaningful conversation with someone who’s on their guard.
I wish with all my heart that I could say that I was different back then. I don’t remember even once thinking about whether or not I had the consent of the person I was trying to talk to! That didn’t even come up for me. Nor do I think it does for most Christians. I wanted to be a “good witness,” as the Christianese puts it, but I didn’t really think about people’s specific reactions to me personally very often. I should have. And Christians today should. One luxury the privileged classes get is that they don’t have to think about what those lacking privilege think of them. They don’t have to think about how they’re coming off or wonder if they’re overstepping boundaries. The only impression that matters is the one they think they’re giving; if any other impression is actually given, then obviously the problem is me, not them.
You can imagine I’m a little gun-shy about Christians nowadays, but I really try to be open-minded. There are some ways I think that I’d be open to Christians talking to me about their religion, and ways that definitely do not work on someone like me. This post is not about all ex-Christians; I’m just filing it under the Guide because it seems like it fits better there than elsewhere. You can’t really say anything much about ex-Christians as a group (except that we were all once Christians of one type or another). But I’ve been thinking about this for a while, thanks to some very offensive and unpleasant run-ins with Christians of late, and I wanted to clear the air a little bit.
We’ll be talking next time about how a Christian can maybe overcome this mindset and become someone worth having a good conversation with. I was going to put it all in one post, but wow, this got long. I know y’all don’t mind my longer posts, but even I have my limits. I think I overheard WordPress talking about using its safe word if I didn’t break this one up, so we’ll continue this topic next time–I hope to see you there. Have a wonderful rest-of-your-week and have some kitties–you’ve earned them!