When I was Christian, I was quite highly-regarded as being well-informed and educated in the doctrines and apologetics around my faith. At the time I thought it was divine aid, but in truth I simply had a great memory. That’s how someone as socially-awkward and hugely-repressed as I was kept getting roles in the school’s Drama Department before I abandoned it for religion: I could and did literally memorize entire major parts in plays in a couple of days. My memory is largely contextual in nature, maybe moreso than most folks’ is. Even now I could probably rattle off the Apostle’s Creed from my Catholic days, if someone were nearby to recite it with me, though I have not darkened a Catholic church’s doors in many years. Apologetics really was right up my alley.
I never attended seminary or Bible College (that’s very different than a seminary; at their worst, these schools are just longer-than-usual and much-pricier versions of Vacation Bible School), largely because the evangelical denominations I got involved with didn’t like the idea of women in their ranks. That didn’t stop me from reading everything I could to absorb the information available, as nonsensical and irrational as it was. I got invited to speak sometimes at church and in Sunday classes; I got tapped for Sunday School teaching; I had a pastor tell me once that it was a major shame I was born with the wrong plumbing because man I’d have made a great preacher. I was moving forward in this religion and doing well enough to be decently-regarded by the church leaders.
But the second I deconverted, I discovered that all that effort and knowledge was apparently thrown into a pit because I had come to the conclusion, after studying it so diligently, that none of it could possibly be actually true.
All those apologetics, which I was slowly starting to debunk and unravel? To go by how my peers treated me, it was all gone from my memory entirely. All those Bible verses and studies I’d memorized and absorbed? Obviously I hadn’t really understood them at all. I went from “well-regarded local expert” to “blithering idiot with no sense at all,” and all I had to do to make that transition in their opinion was to leave Christianity. Anybody who comes to a similar conclusion will figure out very quickly just how loving their onetime tribe can be when faced with such a transition.
Indeed over time I would discover a variety of ways that I get disqualified from speaking or having the right to an opinion about anything. Christians’ rush to disqualify me from being a legitimate part of the conversation would be shocking if I didn’t know why it happens. At this point I can almost predict how it’ll go. Some book somewhere must be teaching Christians how to do this, because it seems like it’s gotten worse and more codified as a tactic over the last few years.
How I Get Disqualified:
(Lest you think I am strawmanning here, I have personally faced every one of these numerous times over the last 20+ years.)
* I’ll get disqualified for not being a Christian. Only Christians are allowed to have legitimate opinions or a right to speak about Christianity. Of course, this doesn’t disqualify straight or white Christians from pontificating and trying to control the conversation about LGBTQ people or people of color (POC)–or their very lives. Sometimes this disqualification will take the form of a Just Asking Questions question: “Why do you care so much about this if you don’t believe in it?” or “Why can’t you just leave Christians alone?” Sometimes a Bible verse will get trotted out to try to clobber me, insinuating that only Christians can possibly “rightly divide the word” and know what it really means. That one’s especially funny because when I was Christian, I knew exactly what the verses meant–and nobody ever once said otherwise. I do not receive in turn, either, the right to demand that Christians quit talking about atheism or deconversion–topics they manifestly do not understand–or say that if they’re not either of those things then they’re not allowed to talk about them. That only works if you’re a Christian.
* I’ll get disqualified for some turn of phrase or bit of profanity I used. This one’s just tone policing, really. “Talk nicer and wear your best dress, Missy, and then maybe Daddy will listen to you!” This sets the Christians saying it above me in every single way, making me have to work to get their approval so they’ll deign to consider the actual arguments and protests I raise. It demands that I defer to them to be heard, like them listening to me is the grandest possible act of concession I could possibly get. Of course, I am not, in turn, allowed to demand that Christians quit threatening me or treating me like garbage before I’ll listen to them. I must listen to them despite their presentation–listen to what they say, not what they do or how they treat people. But I do not get the same right in turn to be heard out despite offending someone’s widdle fee-fees somehow. That tactic only works, as well, if the speaker is Christian. If I do not defer enough to the Christian in question or capitalize the correct letters or act at all times like I am the inferior sub-human scum that I truly am, then the Christian may feel free to totally brush me off.
* I’ll get disqualified for being a woman. Gender-based slurs, attacks on my femininity, and insinuations about my private relationships abound here. What do I know? I’m too emotional. I’m just too sensitive. I don’t understand the bigger picture. Man, they feel sorry for my husband! What am I, some kind of feminist or something? I vote with my vagina. — If I can be shut up out of fear of looking like some strident feminist, then the argument can’t even really begin. This one’s not really fixable, alas. I refuse to pretend to be a man just to get the right to speak, and there really isn’t any way I can persuade some stranger that since my deconversion I’ve been enjoying hugely successful, happy relationships that are much healthier and more joyous than anything I experienced in Christianity. So I get brushed off.
* I’ll get disqualified because of some emotion I’m displaying. The astonishing thing is that Christians themselves are not furious about the injustices going on in their religion. Yes, I’m angry about what Christians are doing to try to turn my beloved country’s government into a Taliban-style theocracy, how they are trying to sneak pseudoscience into kids’ minds before those kids are old enough to recognize how ridiculous Creationism and abstinence-only education are, how they are trying to control my very body and make my own medical decisions for me out of some sanctimonious insistence that I’m too dense or immoral to do those things for myself, how they are trying to strip people’s human and civil rights from them, and the host of other horrendous, Orwellian overreaches and missteps that modern Christianity is gleefully, giddily engaging in to try to regain its lost power. Yes, that makes me angry. Why does this festering mountain of putrid shit not make more Christians angry? I know that it’s wrong to hold every Christian responsible for those evils. But I’m angry at the system itself that has this Christian here locked in its grip. This disqualifier is also a very safe bet: Christianity as a religion doesn’t like shows of anger at all or know what to do when one occurs, especially out of women, so the second someone displays any kind of anger at all, that person can be completely brushed off. Sometimes I even hear the Christian cheering with relieved joy as they say it. “Whew! That was close! She allllllllmost got in past the gates…. then I noticed she was getting annoyed! Hooray! Can I get an amen, everybody?”
* I’ll get disqualified because I didn’t read exactly the right books, belong to exactly the right denominations, get exactly the correct education, or do whatever it is the Christian thinks that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do when I was Christian. There’s a truly tribal aspect to a lot of the worst sorts of Christianity today; ex-Christians often refer to that tribalism as “the Christian bubble.” If information is presented by someone who is Not One Of Us, then it can be safely disregarded or even viewed as dangerous, its bearer attacked outright and any measure necessary taken to obliterate that person’s ideas. If I’m not outright dismissed as ineligible to speak because I’m not Christian now, then I can always be dismissed on the basis of having been the wrong kind of Christian then.
There are a lot of other ways that people get dismissed by Christians, but you get the point–and could probably add to this list the things you personally have experienced. There is always, always, always a way that a determined Christian can find to rationalize ignoring someone who is saying subversive or unwanted things.
When I was Christian, eventually I learned that nobody would listen to anything I said unless it was 100% the party line about whatever the topic might be, and I subsided and stopped agitating or trying to speak against the numerous systemic injustices that I saw going on around me.
What’s Happening Here:
These attempts to disqualify ex-Christians are ad hominem attacks. None of them actually engage with anything that was actually said. Instead, the Christian in question is simply silencing someone, implying that there is no right to speak or even to have an opinion if it differs from the party line. We’re not talking about a genuine hole in your knowledge base that has been exposed (that’d be totally different); we’re talking about a wholly arbitrary, self-serving decision that Christian has made to turn away from everything you’re communicating.
Loving, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t.
But what it is is a show of dominance by a privileged group that is finally, however dimly and slowly and incompletely, recognizing the end of its dominance approaching and lashing out to get critics to shut up. They can’t really engage with the argument itself. Maybe they don’t have any idea how to respond, or they’re too angry to do so, or they know that no response is going to do anything but make them–and their religion–look even worse. Whatever it is, brushing off uncomfortable arguments is a lot easier than finding some decent reason to do so.
The people doing the brushing-off and dismissing are going to be setting themselves up as the superiors in the conversation. They are the judges, not the judged; they are the dismissers, not the dismissed. They are the ones deciding exactly how the conversation will go and what tone it will take, and those who do not comply simply do not get heard. They are used to cloaking themselves in borrowed authority and power, and in being shown deference if not outright reverence. And it’s hard not to think that they may have been taught, sometimes for their entire lives, that if they want to be heard by those above them, they have to act and talk exactly the right way–so this may well be a tactic that they find personally effective and deploy now that they perceive themselves to be in a superior position (remember the rule: people tend to use tactics, argument styles, and talking points they personally think are effective and avoid ones they personally find ineffective or unpersuasive). Though they themselves will demand to be heard regardless of how they present information or how hypocritical the information makes them seem, that is not a grace they will often afford non-believers.
If such Christians can disqualify someone right out of the gate from being a source of information, then that saves them from an uncomfortable conversation and an even more uncomfortable period of reflection. Nobody likes to be wrong, especially not a religious person. In a lot of ways, the appeal of religion is precisely the sureness and correctness that it confers upon believers, qualities that become so prized that any threat to them must be annihilated. “Easy certainty”, as Ron Suskind wrote years ago in a piece about George W. Bush, starts to take the place of nuanced self-education and inquiry. I definitely found that to be the case myself.
Short-Circuiting the Disqualifier.
(It’s not easy, but these ideas might help.)
* If you know the dismissal is invalid, then call it out for what it is. “Are you seriously disqualifying me from this conversation on the basis of X?” or my favorite, “Are you saying that I have to talk super-nice and wear my very nicest hair-ribbons before Daddy will listen to what I have to say?” Make clear that you did not find this treatment very loving or rational.
* If you let your anger spill out into a personal level or did something wrong, then own it and apologize. It’s important that we show Christians how a healthy conversation works. Nobody should need to sit through personalized abuse and that includes Christians.
* Try to re-rail the conversation. “If I weren’t sounding angry/hadn’t called the Christian god a magical sky fairy/wasn’t a feminist, how would you respond to the points I raised about the Problem of Evil?” is something I’ve found to be generally effective.
* If someone doesn’t want to hear you out, then they’re not obligated to do so, in the end. Show whatever respect you can to the person who’s just demonstrated that this conversation is clearly not wanted. You have the same right, incidentally. If a zealot is trying to shoehorn you into one of those interminable “logical Christian” discussions, you’re allowed to remove yourself from the conversation. The right to speak does not entail a right to be heard. If someone doesn’t want to listen, you can’t force them to listen.
* That said, you always have a right to speak your mind, and your opinions and perceptions are yours. Trust yourself. Disqualifiers are a silencing tactic as well as a personal attack. They are meant to make us question our opinions and perceptions, to make us wonder if we should speak at all. Religion–especially the worst sorts of it–is very good at silencing people and making them doubt themselves; people have to be cowed to get them to accept ideas like “hate is actually very loving the way we do it” and “you have no idea, but I sure do so listen to me.”
That said, you probably won’t get yourself re-qualified. But at least you can make that person who disqualified you aware that you know what happened and that you don’t appreciate it. Maybe the encounter will make that person think twice about doing it to somebody else later.
At first, I got very angry and hurt by being disqualified–especially by people who had once clearly considered me more than qualified to speak. Eventually, I learned that a disqualification says more about the person doing the disqualifying than it does about the person who got disqualified. It’s wasn’t me that got brushed off, but rather the concept of what they thought I had become by deconverting. That concept was a powerful ghost that obliterated not only the memory of what I’d once been but obscured the reality of how little had really changed in me. The people who do it to me now, who didn’t know me when I was Christian, are reacting not to me personally but to the image in their heads of “someone who deconverted.” These images and ghosts are borne of ignorance about just what deconversion does to people and how much changes (and doesn’t!) afterward, which is something we’ll talk about soon. For now, just know: try not to take it too personally even if the person brushing you off is someone close to you. The old saying is in this case true: it isn’t you, it’s them.