Downsides to the Hope Offered by Christianity: Complacency and Magical Thinking

Downsides to the Hope Offered by Christianity: Complacency and Magical Thinking July 19, 2018

Let’s continue our list of reasons why Christian hope is not a good thing (part 1 here).

3. Complacency

Christian hope can be beneficial, but it’s beneficial like a pain killer, not like medicine that can cure you. This was Karl Marx’s point when he said that religion is the opium of the people. Marx agreed that religion helped but only in the same way that opium does, by reducing pain. Opium (and religious hope) do nothing to solve the problem. They produce complacency, an acceptance of the status quo.

Religious complacency encourages believers to leave things alone and make do rather than become impatient with the status quo and improve it. And the religion meme likes it that way.

Religion thrives in poor social conditions. Improve the conditions, and the need for religion fades. Religion is the opposite of the canary in the mine, and thriving religion is our warning that social conditions are poor.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Society doesn’t benefit when its citizens use opium (or religion) to dull the pain of social problems to quiet the desire for progress.

4. Magical thinking makes you easier to take advantage of

You want hope? There are televangelists happy to sell you hope. They simply ask in return for you to remain dependent on their message. (And they’d also like “your most generous love offering,” weekly if at all possible.)

As a specific example of televangelists making ridiculous claims, consider John Hagee’s hysterical declaration, “God is literally screaming at the world, ‘I’m coming soon.’ ”

The slow-motion fireworks—four “blood moons” (lunar eclipses), six months apart—came and went three years ago. Where’s my apocalypse? We got no evidence of God, just evidence that Hagee is an opportunistic fraud. (More on Hagee’s greedy stunt here, here, here, here, and here.)

Another example is the annual War on Christmas®. Ah, what I wouldn’t give for some brave politician to take the tough stand and make it legal to say “Merry Christmas” again . . .

Politicians are another group eager to take advantage of Christians. It’s easy for them to tune a conservative message to an eager audience—they just handwave about imminent social disaster and declare that they are the only hope. Just give your vote to the candidate and lots of money to their campaign. For example, in the 2004 Bush/Kerry presidential campaign, voters said that of seven areas of concern, the biggest concern was “moral values” like same-sex marriage and abortion. Economy and jobs came in second place.

Abortion makes baby Jesus cry, so apparently Christian voters must step into the breach since Jesus is just a baby and can’t do anything about it. But notice the irony: the last thing conservative politicians want is a society with no abortion because they thrive on anxiety about abortion. If they couldn’t claim that the sky is falling, these Chicken Littles wouldn’t know how to rally their base.

While this political strategy might seem fairly new, it’s actually a well-worn path. Social critic H. L. Mencken said a century ago, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed—and hence clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Here’s another way of seeing the enemy that politicians push against. Christian and conservative political leaders play up the imagined threat of gays, liberals, women, foreigners, Muslims, science, and so on to keep their group focused inward. They need someone to push against, lest they fall over. We must circle the wagons, people! Michael Shermer illustrated this with the rhetorical question, Who needs Satanic cults? Answer: “Talk-show hosts, book publishers, anti-cult groups, fundamentalists, and certain religious groups” [1].

Being a sheep can be comforting, but remember that sheep can be led to slaughter. There are costs when you let someone else do your thinking for you.

If the world will end in your lifetime, why bother about long-term issues like the environment, third world health issues, or infrastructure projects? Contrast that with the attitude of the Greek proverb that says, in a great society old men plant trees under which they know they will never sit.

Continue with reason 5: anxiety.

Why can’t God just defeat the devil?
It’s the same reason a comic book character
can’t defeat his nemesis—
then there’s no story.
If God gets rid of the devil, there’s no fear.
No reason to come to church.
— Bill Maher


[1] Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (Freeman, 2002), page 106.

Image via rizuan.j, CC license

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  • If the fundies get their SCOTUS and a conservative Supreme Court somehow overturns Roe v. Wade, what will be the next big galvanizing issue will the GOP and evangelical leaders seize upon to rile up conservative voters enough to actually vote? Will it be restriction of gay rights, or pushing forced sectarian prayer/teaching into the public sector? I mean, what can be as galvanizing as “murdering innocent babies”?

  • Otto T. Goat

    Most atheists are more concerned about same-sex marriage and abortion than they are about the economy and jobs, and liberals play up the imagined threats of white men, racism, sexism, Russians, “rape culture”, and police brutality to keep their coalition together.

    • Raging Bee

      Most right-wing racists just make shit up about other people whenever they feel like it, and keep on repeating it to keep their echo-chamber together.

    • Michael Neville

      Most conservative Christians believe Lying for Jesus to be a sacrament and indulge in it as often as possible.

      • Otto T. Goat

        Did they also run over your dog?

        • Michael Neville

          You think you’re a wit. You’re half-right.

        • al kimeea

          if that

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Nope. They killed Heather Heyer, though…

    • Otto

      Wait…you just blamed liberals for playing up the ‘imagined threat’ of the Russians? Are you new to the USA?

      • Kit Hadley-Day

        he seems to be only a visitor, at best to reality.

    • RichardSRussell

      “Imagined threats”? Wow! If you think that, for example, police brutality is an imagined threat, what do you consider to be a real one?

      • Otto T. Goat

        Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, look them up.

        • RichardSRussell

          Did I understand you correctly? Are you seriously contending that Michael Brown and Freddie Gray are what you think of as “real threats”? (I’m assuming aside from the fact that they’re both dead.)

        • Otto T. Goat

          No, they demonstrate that police misconduct is not.

        • Michael Neville

          Cops killed both of those guys and got away with it. You’re not only a disgrace was a commentator, you’re a disgrace as a human being.

        • Otto T. Goat

          The officer who shot Brown didn’t “get away” with anything, it was completely justified. The police didn’t kill Gray. You live in a fantasy world.

        • Michael Neville

          Darren Wilson, the cop who killed unarmed Brown, literally got away with murder. And like the good racist you are, you approve. None of us who’ve seen you in action are the least bit surprised.

        • Otto T. Goat

          You are literally denying reality.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Did Wilson shoot Brown? Did Brown have a gun on Wilson, or was he otherwise menacing somebody with homicidal intent?

          If not, then Wilson committed murder.

        • Otto T. Goat

          You should familiarize yourself with the facts of the case.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Rhetorical questions. You KNOW the answers, but you don’t want to accept the conclusion.

        • Otto T. Goat

          You clearly don’t know the facts of the case.

        • Susan

          You’re not only a disgrace as a commentator, you’re a disgrace as a human being.

          Yes. And look. He’s decided to grace Cross Examined with his presence.

          I won’t waste commenting space engaging with him.

        • epeeist

          Yes. And look. He’s decided to grace Cross Examined with his presence.

          Otto T. Goat, aka the little Nazi cabbage you mean.

        • Michael Neville

          I should have done this as soon as I saw his dumb ass in this blog:

          Comment by Otto T. Goat blocked.

        • RichardSRussell

          Considering that police officers killed both of those young black men, I guess I’m still waiting for you to answer both of the questions I posed to you above, namely “What do you consider to be a real threat?” and “Do you think that Michael Brown and Freddie Gray qualify as such?”, because that sure looks like what you wrote.

        • Otto T. Goat

          You should learn how to read.

        • RichardSRussell

          So, basically, you either can’t answer the questions or you won’t. OK, thanks for letting me know who I’ve been dealing with so I don’t have to do it any more.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower


      SHOW ME.

      Sounds like you’re claiming mindreading ability, when all you’re demonstrating is your own lack of anything more than minimal mind.

      • Otto T. Goat

        Job and economic growth have been excellent thanks to Trump yet I don’t see many atheists supporting him.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          You’re talking about the piggyback effect from President Obama’s 8 years, even with the Repugs trying to hobble him at every turn.

          And if you’ve been watching, prices are up, and real wage growth is down 1.5% for the first 7 months of 2018, so tRump is even fucking up the good thing he got handed, like all the casinos in Atlantic City he killed by financially raping them.

        • Otto T. Goat

          I’m talking about the beneficial economic effects of Trump’s policies, which most atheists don’t care about because they care more about moral issues than they care about jobs and the economy.

        • If we’re talking about a president who inherited an economic mess and turned things around, I think you’re thinking of Pres. Obama. Conditions were pretty fantastic when Trump arrived. If he sticks with his trade war, I wonder what that’s going to do to the economy.

        • Otto T. Goat

          I have a hard time believing you would be defending eight years of anemic growth while dismissing current conditions if the moral values of Trump and Obama were reversed.

        • I found this chart of economic growth. Is the economy now doing remarkably better?

          I suspect that if the economy turns down you’ll just forget about who’s at the helm and declare that economies just do that–they’re good for a while and then bad, regardless of who’s president.


        • Otto T. Goat

          It’s doing better. If jobs and the economy are your main concern, and not moral issues, you should be happy.

        • Jobs and economy were doing fine with Obama, thanks. I see nothing praiseworthy about any of Trump’s policies.

          And, of course, his leading the Christian right around by the nose is pretty ridiculous. I can only hope that their sycophancy will be punished in 5 or 10 years.

          Perhaps the most wrong-headed view that I see from the Christian Right at the moment is the idea that overturning Roe or even making abortion illegal will create a lower abortion rate than working on reducing the demand.

          Not only do Christian motives have no role in government policy, but Christians’ attempts at pleasing God (who apparently is too inept to do anything himself) are confused.

        • Otto T. Goat

          Why should we care about “Christian motives” in government policy as long as jobs and the economy are “doing fine”?

        • Uh, because the Constitution says that you can’t? Or is this a trick question?

        • Otto T. Goat

          The Constitution doesn’t say that.

        • “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”

        • Otto T. Goat

          Don’t be dumb. Having Christian motives isn’t an establishment of religion.

        • It’s precisely an establishment of religion.

          Looks like this conversation has run its course.

        • Otto T. Goat

          It’s literally not.

        • Thanks for sharing.

        • Why should we care about Muslim motives in government as long as jobs and the economy are doing fine?

        • ildi

          Huge, immediate gains for wealthy shareholders combined with tepid increases in business investment and decreases in real wages [emphasis mine] don’t paint a flattering picture of the tax cut’s impact so far. There is, however, a possibility that the tax cut has acted as a Keynesian fiscal stimulus, helping to push down unemployment.

          But that’s not exactly the long-term structural improvement that the bill’s supporters advertised. And as a recent research note from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco points out, fiscal stimulus in good economic times is less effective than in recessions. And growth hasn’t really sped up either — real per capita gross domestic product growth was only 1.34 percent in the first quarter, below 2017’s pace, and considerably less than in 2014 and 2015:

        • Otto T. Goat

          Ask Noah why he got fired from his academic job.

        • ildi

          The latest data show that wages declined instead. The PayScale Index, which measures the change in wages for employed U.S. workers, updated last week and showed that wages declined 0.9 percent last quarter.

          The earnings picture is worse when you take inflation into account. Real wages dropped 1.8 percent from Q1 to Q2 — the largest decline in seven years. Eighty percent of industries saw wages decline.

          “The Q2 Index shows the benefits of recent changes to the tax policy are largely reaped by business owners, not employees. Many corporations are using the additional money to buy back stock rather than increase wages,” said Katie Bardaro, Vice President of Data Analytics and Chief Economist at PayScale, in a statement.

        • Otto T. Goat

          Terrible, terrible, terrible: “U.S. Jobless Claims Hit Lowest Level Since 1969. Initial claims fall to seasonally adjusted 207,000, lowest since December 1969’s 202,000”

        • Wow–that’s right. And I think back to the jobless rate at the end of Obama’s term. What was it–triple digits, wasn’t it?

        • BlackMamba44

          That article doesn’t quite say what his quote mine imples.

        • I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.

          That’s a first.

        • ildi

          Prices rose at their highest clip since 2012 over the past year, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

          The 2.9 percent inflation for the 12-month period ending in June is a sign of a growing economy, but it’s also a painful development for workers, whose tepid wage gains have failed to keep pace with the rising prices.

          The cost of food, shelter and gas have all risen significantly in the past year. Gas skyrocketed more than 24 percent, rent for a primary residence jumped 3.6 percent and meals at restaurants and cafeterias rose 2.8 percent.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Ad hominem, anyone?

          Critique the *point*, not the *person*.

        • Riven

          Points for the best user name ever!!

  • Riven

    Look, I left evangelical Christianity and I don’t disagree with almost any of this article series. It’s spot on. BUT, you need to be careful about lumping all Christians together. The issue is with EVANGELICAL Christians. In point #3 you said, “Religious complacency encourages believers to leave things alone and
    make do rather than become impatient with the status quo and improve it.” While this may be largely true inside evangelicalism, it is most certainly NOT true with some mainline denominations. I have friends that go to the United Methodist Church, which is open and affirming, and they are working hard on social justice issues for LGBTQ, homeless, and refugees. It’s intellectually dishonest to represent all Christians the same. I may be an atheist now, but you need to do better on not doing the very thing THEY DO TO US — lump us all into one category. You don’t combat black and white thinking, with black and white thinking.

    • Otto

      I get your point, but it is not just Evangelical Christians, though I would agree #3 does not apply to all Christians. But I will say that ‘complacency’ due to theology may be found in different places depending on the version of Christianity. For United Methodists social justice is very important so you will not find it there, that does not mean it will not be found somewhere else, I am not familiar with the UM Church enough to speak to it in their case. As an example of what I mean is the Catholic Church, they are very social justice oriented as well but they call homosexuality ‘disordered’ and end up marginalizing people because of that theology.

    • That’s quite true. I grew up in the very liberal Presbyterian Church USA. They accepted gays and declared other faiths valid too. Of course they did have some conservatives that objected, however this was very much a minority view. Yet at the same time I was troubled over how much their liberalism depends on ignoring much of the Bible. Then again, I can’t recall ever really believing that God exists and the rest, so it wasn’t hard to depart.

    • Michael Neville

      The Anglican Church is still debating about LGBT clergy and bishops and same-sex marriage. Concerning transgenders Pope Francis said: “In their schoolbooks gender theory was being taught. This is against natural things…Changing the mentality: I call this ideological colonization.” The Eastern Orthodox Church in America allows LGBTs to be members, i.e., pray and pay, but not receive the sacraments until they renounce their “sin”. The Missouri Synod Lutherans do not allow LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage.

      Your favorite United Methodist Church has proposed allowing individual pastors and regional church bodies to decide whether to ordain LGBT clergy and perform same-sex weddings. The 2016 UMC Book of Discipline (which is effective until 2020) prohibits the ordination of “practicing, self-avowed homosexuals,” forbids clergy from blessing or presiding over same-sex unions, forbids the use of UMC facilities for same-sex union ceremonies and prohibits the use of Church funds for “gay caucuses”, or other groups that “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” Despite this language, members of the Church are not of one mind on this issue. Preceding the incompatibility clause, the Book of Discipline clearly states that “homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are individuals of sacred worth.” The Book of Discipline affirms that all persons, both heterosexual and homosexual, are included in the ministry of the church and can receive the gift of God’s grace. While the Book of Discipline supports the civil rights of LGBT persons, and rejects the abuse of LGBT by families and churches, it also calls for laws defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

      • Michael Murray

        That last paragraph sounds like “love the sinner but hate the sin”. So instead of accepting homosexual persons they are accepting persons struggling bravely with the terrible affliction of etc, etc, …

    • I agree that “All Christians think that” is a phrase best avoided, and I do my best to avoid the problem you raise. I’m not seeing the problem in this post, however. In the quote you cite, I would simply think that United Methodist is not complacent. Can you point to other sentences that are problematic?

      • Riven

        Thanks for your reply, Bob. I think my overarching point is just not using languaging that paints a broad brush over an entire class of people, even Christians. I am recently deconverted (actually, still very much in process) and I’m pretty sensitive to this given we had so many people that we made “the other.” It’s so freeing to be out of all of the crazy, but I’m also finding that on the atheist side, there are those same tendencies. I’m just in a place where I need peace from it all! 🙂 Again, I appreciate the personal reply.

        • not using languaging that paints a broad brush over an entire class of people, even Christians.

          Unless one is very careful to ensure that that broad statement really does apply to the group. Yes, I agree. I’ve become more careful but I”m sure I still make this mistake.

    • Otto

      I just found out Jeff Sessions is a United Methodist too…yikes.

      • Greg G.

        I saw that recently. It seems the Methodists were not happy with him.

      • Riven

        I actually didn’t realize that either! I then found out that the United Methodists are split, with some choosing to be open and affirming, and others not. I guess it’s the Eastern part of the denomination that’s still very conservative. I’m in Washington state, so West Coast.

        • Otto

          “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

  • “Religion thrives in poor social conditions. Improve the conditions, and the need for religion fades. Religion is the opposite of the canary in the mine, and thriving religion is our warning that social conditions are poor.”

    How many times have I heard the lament that when things are going well, people don’t need God anymore, or don’t think they do. That was used throughout the 60s and 70s to explain declining church attendance (along with the excuses that some people just wanted to sin).

    The fact that so much progress has been made in eliminating poverty throughout the whole world goes a long way toward explaining why people have abandoned their mythology!

    Also, I want to see a lot of bumper stickers next December that say “Keep Santa in Christmas!”

  • Doubting Thomas

    Religion is the opposite of the canary in the mine, and thriving religion is our warning that social conditions are poor.

    Religion is the coal mine. Except that you can actually use the coal you mine for something useful. Maybe a better analogy is that religion is a kryptonite mine. It’s dank, dirty, dangerous, and the thing you’re looking for is fictional.

    • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

      Maybe because the person singing is crazy they thought the other person ever called them “Superman”? Been too long down in the mine of their mind.

  • Michael Murray

    Can you get a bumper sticker saying “Keep Christopher in Christmas!” ?

  • Greg G.

    It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church. –Martin Luther

    Probably better to think of most anything in an ale-house than church.

  • al kimeea

    Fear is the mind killer, hence Trumpolini

  • Jim X

    Magical thinking is officially part of the Trumpublican platform.

  • BobInBpt

    While I agree with most of the issues raised in this article, I might remind the author that the false hope held out by the Left is just as ridiculous and even malevolent ! Why? Because many Socialist simply skim off the top of all of the Social Safety Net organizations and make themselves rich at other people’s expense.

    Socialism and Communism failed in all of the nations that made up the USSR. It also failed in Cuba and more recently in Venezuela and yet leftists keep holding out the dream of a “chicken in every pot”, paid for by those who work, and eaten by those who won’t lift a finger to help themselves. You cannot solve the world’s problems with a Robin Hood mentality of robbing the rich to give handouts to the poor. Eventually you will run out of OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY and then everyone will be equal because everyone will be poor and hungry; except of course, for the Party Leaders.

    So when Marx boldly proclaimed religion “the opiate of the people”, he should have at least been honest enough to admit that Communism and Socialism and Progressivism are the Fentanyl of the People !

    • Otto

      While what you say is to some extent true, the USSR and Cuba, etc. did not fail because ‘all of the lazy losers bottom feeding off the rich’. They failed because the vast majority of the wealth and power was situated with very few people at the top. Unfortunately that same situation is happening in this country. I happen to agree with you that complete socialism/communism is not the answer, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that we are going to avoid a similar outcome by ignoring the discrepancy either.

    • Or, you could look at where socialism actually works–northern Europe, where the social metrics are far better than those in the US.