Excuses, Excuses: Two Ways Christians Delude Themselves about the Pew Study.

We’ve been talking lately about the “2014 Religious Landscape Study” done by the Pew Research Center (which I’m going to call the Pew Study here). Today we’ll talk about some specific responses to the study and how those responses highlight two of the religion’s biggest shortcomings.

Signs of the times. (Credit: Gilles Douaire, CC license.)
Dear Christians: Get used to sights like this. (Credit: Gilles Douaire, CC license.)

That study had a lot of damning things to say about the current and future projected state of Christianity. But even more damning is the overall tenor of Christians’ response to it. That’s always how it’s been though, with this religion. It’s not so much that the religion’s claims aren’t true; it’s that Christians keep insisting they are to the point of lying to people’s faces. It’s not so much that these zealots’ social stances are so regressive; it’s that the Christians holding those stances keep trying to shove their ideas into everybody else’s lives. It’s not so much that the sourcebook for the religion contains so many morally objectionable things; it’s that way too many Christians demand that everybody see those objectionable things as desirable and perfect.

In the same way, the Pew Study doesn’t actually impact anything about Christianity’s claims. It found that Christianity’s losing a lot of members, that the religion’s skewing more toward evangelicalism, and that the Nones–those not affiliated with any religion–are rising dramatically in numbers. That’s not a surprise to anybody who’s been following the news. It codifies and gives shape to what people had suspected, but it didn’t actually say anything shocking or revelatory.

Nor did it actually affect the truthfulness of the religion. If Christianity’s claims were true, it wouldn’t matter if the religion boasted 5 billion followers or 5 thousand–or five, period, or none. If the claims were false, then it wouldn’t matter if every single human alive or dead was a dues-paying, pew-warming member of one or another of its 40,000 or so denominations. Numbers ≠ validity or truthfulness, and neither–when it gets down to it–does consensus of opinion. So Christianity has neither gained nor lost much there either.

But what this study did do was to shine a line on two particular, self-servingly deluded claims made by the worst elements of Christianity: just how many members they have, and exactly how they view membership numbers.

Here is how these two factors are working against Christianity in general when it comes to comprehending just how much trouble they’re in.

1. An utter unwillingness and inability to even define terms consistently.

Even as a Pentecostal lass, I wondered how many people were in my denomination. At the time, the common wisdom was that evangelicals in general (we considered fundamentalists to be a sort of sub-set of evangelicalism; now I think they’re two totally different branches of the religion that happen to share a number of ideas) were 25% of the population. Gallup, for example, has found that some 40% of the population identifies as evangelical, a figure that’s stayed remarkably steady since 1991–but even they concede that it’s all but impossible to figure out who is really evangelical and who isn’t (as they mention, a large number of Catholics describe themselves in evangelical terms, but I can’t think of many evangelicals who’d take Catholics seriously as churchmates). When Gallup actually asked about buy-in to the three main tenets they’d identified as essential evangelicalism (a “born-again” experience, a belief in the necessity of proselytizing, and belief in the divine nature of the Bible), they got a figure of 22%–which sounds about like the number I thought were TRUE CHRISTIANS™ back when I was Christian.

Christian leaders have always seemed to be strangely reluctant to seriously examine how many adherents they have. The Catholic church famously uses baptism records to keep track of its members, as well as other methods of distorting and exaggerating their numbers, as a commenter over at Ex-Communications, ClevelandGirl, mentioned recently. Protestants also keep baptism records, but their record-keeping is even more lax and mystical than that of Catholics.

Considering how often and to what extent Christians keep trying to insert themselves into their countries’ political processes, their actual number of members and just what those members believe seem like an important details to know. But that might be exactly why they don’t do it. By not agreeing on standard definitions or beliefs, Christians can extend their delusional beliefs about superiority in numbers much further than those numbers would support otherwise.

The problem is that nobody is able to define exactly what an evangelical even is, any more than anybody can define just what a fundamentalist is, or a Christian at all. Protestantism‘s amorphous, non-hierarchical nature works against itself in this case. Catholics have it a little easier–they have a Pope who can tell them exactly what a Catholic should believe and do–though Catholics are marked more by their near-complete indifference to those demands than by their adherence to them.

The Barna Group, a for-profit research organization, has developed a nine-point questionnaire to use in evaluating Christians’ beliefs; Christians who meet all nine points are considered by them to be true evangelicals. By that measure, they get 8% of the population. It’s not surprising to hear that most people who call themselves evangelicals don’t fit someone else’s criteria–the vast disparity in definitions and operational terms is a running joke even among Christians–but it was surprising to learn that only 86% of their so-called “9-point evangelicals” actually called themselves evangelicals. So those who might not fit the label use it, and those who fit the label completely might not. However, this nine-point evaluation tool isn’t something all evangelicals would agree is valid.

For one thing, if a standardized label is defined, then Christians won’t be able to indulge in their favorite hobby: revoking labels at will whenever those labels become inconvenient. Scrutinizing and revoking someone else’s right to call him- or herself a Christian (or a woman, or a man, or a conservative) is one of the closest things to a universal practice that the religion has. Did Pastor So-and-So get caught diddling his secretary? He wasn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™! Did a bunch of folks deconvert? Obviously they weren’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™! TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do this; false Christians do that. But the truth is one Christians don’t like confronting: every single Christian alive is a false Christian to someone else, and most people they deem to be false Christians are sure that they’re real ones.

There’s not even a standard definition for what Christians are. There are no monolithic beliefs they all hold–not even a belief in the divinity of Jesus. There are no universal practices they all share–not even Communion or prayer. There are no leaders that Christians universally respect and at least say they should obey–not the Pope, and not a single fundagelical leader, as much as they’d love for that to be the case.

Really, the only definition I can see for “Christian” that really seems accurate is this: A Christian is someone who calls him- or herself a Christian.

But that definition doesn’t fit in with Christian self-delusions about being superior, correct, powerful, or dominant. It’s not enough to call oneself a Christian; one must also fit into a series of other descriptions. The more literalist the denomination in question, the more exacting that description will be.

Fundagelicals really, really, really like to polarize their religion. I’ve had numerous friends say in the past–and some of our commenters have even mentioned this–that their pastors and leaders told them that if they didn’t believe thus-and-such and do this-or-that, then they couldn’t be TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Christians hear this: A true Christian votes a straight Republican ticket and seeks to criminalize abortion access, believes in Creationism and wants to turn the United States into a theocracy for its own good, and opposes equal marriage and condemns non-marital sex. A true Christian has a hard-on for capitalism and thinks shaming the poor will magically fix poverty.

Confronted with all of these regressive and oppressive rules, little wonder that a great many Christians will say “Okay, then you must be right: I’m obviously not a Christian if Christians have to be like that,” and leave without fanfare.

So when fundagelicals gloat about how much more evangelical the future of Christianity seems like it’ll be, they need to remember that the Pew Study didn’t actually use those nine points or ask just how evangelical their self-professed evangelical respondents were. The study’s evangelicals might or might not look like TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to all other evangelicals. The takeaway is the increased polarization of the religion, not the exact details of that polarization.

Instead of being alarmed at how much more polarized his religion is becoming, though, Ed Stetzer and Christians like him are only licking their lips over the slight rise in percentage that their particular end of the religion is claiming of the religious pie. As far as he’s concerned, the others who are leaving Christianity? The tidal flood of people leaving his religion to become Nones? The people leaving weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ anyway, so who cares? He considers what’s happening not a “falling away,” to use the oft-quoted term among Christians, but–in his words– “another indication that Christianity in America is being refined.”

In other words, their main concern is for these false Christians to avoid letting the door hit them on the ass on their way out of the church. They’re not worried anymore about the so-called Great Commission. Having realized that there’s no way they’re going to convert the world, they’ve completely turned away from their previous grandiose, blustering plans to baptize millions and are now concentrating on circling the wagons.

If growth is impossible, then they’ll find a way to spin-doctor stagnation into a win for themselves. That total lack of connection with reality is one of the symptoms of the religion’s inevitable decline, but there’s an even more indicative symptom than that:

2. A belief in prosperity gospel.

Back when we thought a quarter of the population was evangelical, back when I was a Christian, those numbers lent us a certain legitimacy and cachet in society. As annoyed as outsiders seemed with us, they couldn’t deny that our leaders spoke for an awful lot of people. And a great many of my peers viewed those high numbers as proof that our god was blessing our particular branch of the religion.

We were buying into prosperity gospel.

Most of the time, this term is more a description of leaders who teach that “God” wants them to have private planes, fancy cars, and luxury homes. It’s a way for Christians to legitimize, validate, and rationalize their own naked greed despite being involved with a religion whose Savior had some completely unequivocal things to say about the pursuit of, and possession of, great wealth. Most people think of prosperity gospel as “name it and claim it,” and to a large extent that is true. It’s also what most folks see on television and hear about when inevitable scandals break out in churches that preach this doctrine.

But there’s a foundation to prosperity gospel that is even more insidious than that teaching: the idea that the Christian god materially blesses those who conform to his leaders’ demands, and withdraws or withholds material blessings from those who do not. Even churches that completely reject the flashier, showier forms of prosperity gospel fall into this thinking. Because we were one of those groups that rejected the overt forms of the doctrine, me and my peers didn’t even suspect that we actually bought into its premises wholeheartedly. Healings, for example, were considered totally contingent upon the recipient’s status of grace with Jesus; even the tiniest sin could stop someone from being magically healed. If someone wasn’t healed upon demand, our go-to explanation was sin of some kind.

The place that most reflected our belief in prosperity gospel was, without a doubt, our churches’ growth and membership. A church that was booming in population was obviously blessed; a church that was declining was obviously not blessed. A pastor whose church hit mega status was clearly doing something right by “God,” while one whose congregation fell apart must be somehow sinning. A particularly rowdy Sunday night revival service was obviously touched by “God,” while one that went without a peep of dancing or shrieking in tongues was obviously filled with people who weren’t quite “right with God.”

Success is one of those utterly unfalsifiable claims that Christianity makes, though. Usually good fortune is the doing of the Christian god. But when the news is bad, that might also be the doing of the Christian god. Or either one might be the doing of demons, depending on the Christian looking at the situation. There is completely, totally no way to tell whether this god or demons are behind anything that happens–it all really depends on the Christian looking at the situation.

So to one Christian, the drop in numbers is a sign that the world is ending. But then again, a rise in numbers might well have meant the same thing to that exact person. To others, according to that AL.com link, the study’s results are “a lifting of the fog,” in the best sense; in one pastor’s words, church culture in modern America is “forcing the hand of individuals to say, ‘Are you in, or are you out?'” and in some ways could be seen as a very good sign for the future because the Christians left standing will be the super-dedicated TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that many leaders think the religion needs. One Episcopal minister even calls this study’s findings “the good news of decline.” Rachel Held Evans concedes that church attendance is down, but insists that her god “knows a thing or two about resurrection,” as if church attendance is a direct reflection of her god’s existence and power. Exhausting, isn’t it?

I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m getting damned tired of Christian self-delusion.

We’ve got a ways to go, though. Overall, the general reaction I’ve seen after reading many Christian responses to the Pew Study is that of annoyance that it made the situation seem so bleak, condemnation of all the false Christians who have apparently left their ranks, and a stated, sincere-sounding belief that Jesus will magically reverse the trend if everybody just prays hard enough and is dedicated enough. (Because prayer and dedication have worked so well already, right? I don’t think they even realize what they’re saying when they talk like that.) By holding these two delusions, Christians can avoid engaging with what’s really happening and what they, specifically, are doing to cause the drop in numbers.

Like the Bible, which means all things to all Christians, this study’s results can be spun into absolutely anything the interpreter desires. At least we’re not seeing many Christians outright deny its findings, which to me is a step in the right direction. But in their different ways, they’ll be kicking and screaming about what the findings mean–and what its findings imply for what they need to do–all the way to the bottom of the ride.

We’re going to talk about how to reverse a trend in popularity next. I was an online game admin for a while, and I saw a lot of the same sorts of denial and false optimism in that world as I see now in Christianity. So we’ll be talking about a couple of those games, and what worked, and what didn’t.

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