When I look back at my walk through Christianity, what stands out the most for me is that I moved in a series of steps from a more liberal Christian outlook to a much more rigid and fundamentalist one. I know now why I did it, and more importantly I know why that was a mistake. I only wish I’d known about this error in thinking before I almost ended up in a Waco-based cult the year David Koresh’s group was besieged, which we’re going to have to cover next time because this post started getting embarrassingly long even by my standards. For now, I just want to talk about the idea of “hardcore” religion and why it’s such a bad thing.
Set the Wayback Machine for the early 1990s. I was a perky, bright-eyed fundamentalist lass by then. I was graduating from college, had been married for a couple of years, and was seriously questioning a lot of things about my faith by then.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the whole shebang was fictitious. Just as I had thought while Catholic, just as I’d thought while examining more liberal denominations whose labels I forgot long ago, just as I’d thought in the Southern Baptist church I briefly attended, I thought the reason I was ultimately dissatisfied–the reason I felt spiritually starving-hungry after attending one of those church services–the reason nothing made sense–was because these churches and denominations were doing something wrong. The solution was, therefore, obviously to find a group that was doing things more correctly.
I’m not sure exactly where I got the idea that a Christian group’s correctness could be measured in how hardcore its members acted, but that’s what happened.
When I say “hardcore” I’m talking about a lot of things all rolled up together: fervor, vehemence, eagerness, self-assurance, confidence, certainty, rigidity, personal sacrifice, and a certain ability to articulate one’s beliefs in a convincing way to others. You can see this quality in a lot of different groups; in my day, we had jocks, nerds, and preppies, soon joined by goths and a whole variety of others, and never the twains could meet. The more invested someone is in whatever that chosen identity might be, the more hardcore that person is–and the harder it is to move away from that identity to something else.
Christians face this group identity formation the same way other folks do. When you hear a Christian wistfully declare, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” (when their ideology bears every single hallmark of a religion) or insist, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” (when that Christian’s belief system looks 100% like a religion and 0% like a real relationship), you’re seeing someone trying to be more hardcore than the other normal Christians, who get painted as pitiable pew-warmers who just aren’t as fervent, invested, or gung-ho as our Jesus-smile-wearing Christian is. This sort of assertion is simply an attempt to gain dominance, credibility, or authority over others, and it is done because there aren’t a lot of other ways to accomplish that goal. The Christians who are acting this way are playing the exact same game as almost all the other Christians around them are; every one of them just wants to think they’re following the religion in the best possible way. These more-hardcore-than-thou Christians just want to be judged by their own idiosyncratic criteria, like a child who demands amendments to a board game’s rules if a loss seems imminent. What I describe is not something limited solely to religion, obviously; it’s human nature to jockey for superiority in a group.
I didn’t know any of that stuff then. I just knew I was frustrated with what I saw as a lack of investment around me, and I yearned for a group that lived–really lived–the Bible. I was so hungry for what I thought was Jesus back then. I was actually seeking not Jesus but rather a sense of certainty in response to my dim perception of a downright alarming lack of correspondence between the Bible’s claims and the real world. I had this idea in my head that if I could only find a church like the one I imagined the very first Christians had created, all these roiling doubts and problems I was having with Christianity would just vanish. All the hypocrisy–all the misogyny–all the unfairness–all the celebrated ignorance–it was all happening because I’d accidentally fallen in with Christians who were living by men’s rules and not “God’s” loving guidelines. I really thought that the reason I saw so many people sinning and acting so decidedly un-Christian was because they just weren’t invested enough in Christianity, and obviously that was because their particular version of Christianity wasn’t compelling enough to make them want to be more invested. And I wasn’t certain enough because I hadn’t yet found the right teachings and church, so I flitted from place to place trying to find something that made sense.
That’s how I ended up in a Pentecostal church. For a few years everything was about as good as things get in that environment. I can’t really say that I had a really tough time or anything especially bad happened to me. What was making me struggle with my faith had nothing to do with them and everything to do with my dawning realization that this group was, if anything, at least as uninvested as all the other groups were–despite their incredible energy during church services. Once church was over, they went about their normal lives and were largely impossible to tell from “worldly” people. I tried very hard not to care about that, but it was hard not to notice. I assumed that truly compelling Christian teachings would lead to hardcore Christians. Maybe the problem was that, as extreme as this group was, it wasn’t extreme enough.
I decided that clearly I needed to be more hardcore.
There’s a really big problem with wanting to stand out in a group of extremists. There are no checks whatsoever on the extremism of the people involved with that group. The only real way to stand out from the crowd is to get more extreme than everybody else. Extremist groups don’t become less extreme over time. They always get worse, for the exact same reason that abusive, controlling domestic partners become more abusive and controlling over time. There’s no god pulling them back from the brink of outright toxicity, so they’re free to get worse and worse as time goes on.
Pulling back from a overzealous edge makes the extremist seem like he or she is getting soft–or worse, lukewarm. Extremism always encourages its adherents to push harder, push further, always. It’s like those workplaces that keep pushing their workers to go faster and faster, to do more and more, even past the limits of normal human endurance because every single year the metrics have to look better than those of the previous year.
If a young woman at my church began insisting on only wearing skirts that reached below the knee, then you can count on that length becoming the fashion–until another began wearing only skirts that were a few inches longer so she could seem more “modest.” And they’d only get longer and longer. I owned skirts that I had to pick up just to walk in because anything less was seen as lukewarm. That’s just one example of the spiritual oneupsmanship that happens in extremism. That’s why you see those super-sexist Muslim clerics demanding women in their religion cover their whole bodies with black robes–and then one will demand these women wear gloves, too–and then another will demand they cover even the slit across their eyes with mesh–and then yet another will demand that women cover up one half of that mesh with opaque fabric because two eyes are way too immodest to display around lustful men. When I saw that story I wasn’t shocked at all; I’d lived that reality for years as a Pentecostal without even noticing the slope I was sliding down. Not for nothing do even some Christians bravely acknowledge that “purity culture” doesn’t actually produce purity but rather control and abuse, but when they make that assertion you can count on the tribe to insist that this extremism is necessary for society to function.
I’d gotten the idea that being more extreme than everybody else indicated greater spirituality, when actually the opposite tends to be the case. Making things considerably worse was that all of the extremist stuff I encountered was presented with oodles of Bible verses to back itself up. Non-believers may joke–with a disturbing level of justification–that any position whatsoever can be supported with the Bible in some way, but I didn’t realize then just how true that joke is. I thought anybody who could quote a Bible verse was obviously right (I know a great many people reading my words are cringing right now, and trust me, I know).
The fact that the Bible was written by a great many men who had a great many purposes and goals, coupled with the Bible’s lack of objective veracity, meant that there was no real way to dispute someone’s interpretation of a Bible verse–except with another Bible verse, or perhaps with an apologetics argument. Oh, me and my friends would hole up in a dorm room or apartment living room with study Bibles and argue and hash out “the original Greek and Hebrew” so many times that even I got sick of it. It did not even occur to me that maybe this inability to pin down anything in the Bible for sure was a big indicator of trouble brewing ahead.
And you can’t really get that way with objective stuff without heading into junk science, pseudo-archaeology, and pseudo-history. I once got into a argument with someone on a historical-costuming forum about the colors of clothing in a particular culture, and eventually it came down to dueling sources. And because I could cite primary sources for everything I was claiming, there wasn’t much room for argument. I knew another costumer who, in response to “pink’s not period” from SCA garb snarks, carried around index cards in her bag at events bearing color print-outs of pink dresses from Renaissance portraits to shut those people up. That’s because those assertions are about objective things, not subjective things. “Did people in the 1500s wear pink clothes?” is an objective question that we can objectively answer. By wild contrast, “Just what clothing is modest for Christian women to wear?” is maddeningly subjective. (I’m a history wonk, so I use history examples. If you want astronomy or engineering examples then you’re in the wrong place, but the same principles work in those fields too.)
There’s a reason why subjective justification for zealotry is so bad, ultimately, and it’s the same reason that subjective justification for “purity” and “modesty” is bad. The persuasiveness of subjective justifications rests solely on just how persuasive the person arguing that case can be.
Ultimately, just as I was to discover with this nebulous vision of “hardcoreness,” when it comes to something subjective like how Christians should act or dress or live or love or whatever else, it all comes down to the fancier argument. That’s why so many Christians act like lawyers when they talk to non-Christians: being an effective lawyer is about creating and deploying persuasive arguments. When someone doesn’t have any actual credible support for a position, then a fancy argument is about all that person really has in the ole toolkit to use in constructing a case for that position. That’s why some of these arguments can get downright convoluted. Heck, the more convoluted the reasoning, the better it’ll sound, which is why Endtimes eschatology turns so many Christians into conspiracy theorists who, without religion, would be out panicking about alien abductions instead of the Rapture.
But that’s all that’s really at the base of extremists’ arguments: subjectivity. There’s no objective evidence there, and that’s why those arguments are dangerous to people who have been primed their entire lives to accept fancy arguments in lieu of credible support for claims.
And I was one of those folks. I had literally never been taught how to assess claims and how to seek (and demand) objective support for those claims. I’d been raised on “another way of knowing”, “that’s true for you but not for me,” “science isn’t the only way to figure out what’s true”, and pithy deepities like those from my earliest years.
Essentially, I had no defense whatsoever against extremism because my world was a highly subjective one. My solution to problems like the dissatisfying nature of my religious observances was to get more and more fervent and zealous about them, but in doing, I found myself sliding further and further into extremism to try to find what I sought. We’ll talk later about how that metaphysical search finally ended, because it did sort of end at some point, but not before I almost got sucked into an honest-to-goodness violent apocalyptic Christian cult during that fateful year–which is where we’ll pick up next.