I guess most ex-Christians have heard this one: “Did ‘Bad Christians’ drive you away from Jesus?”
The accusation is all but a joke to some of us by now, it’s so threadbare from overuse. But as ridiculous as the idea is, it’s one of the first responses a lot of Christians reach for upon hearing that someone’s left the fold.
Anybody who’s heard my story has already noticed that when I was a Christian, I was surrounded by Christians who weren’t really very good examples of the religion. But at the time, I can sincerely say that I didn’t consider their poor example a reason to doubt. Just as a multi-level marketing drone doesn’t stop to consider all the people who’ve tried and failed to succeed at “the business,” just as a fad dieter won’t be deterred by something as simple as dismal success rates, I thought that these “Bad Christians” were just doing something wrong. I could not consider that the message might be flawed and that there might not be a real god in there anywhere transforming people’s lives, though such an idea would have explained perfectly why Christians didn’t have a cornered market on morality and righteousness.
The message could not be flawed. Therefore, the people failing at living the message were the real problem.
In the exact same manner, I viewed people who’d withdrawn from church or who were being “bad witnesses” as the problem, not the message itself (the “message” being Christianity’s claims, demands, threats, and promises, which admittedly vary wildly by the denomination and possibly the phase of the moon). I could not even conceive of the idea of questioning the message. And since leaving the church, I’ve met many Christians who considered me the problem, who thought I had some intrinsic flaw that had led to my being unable to maintain belief, because it’s just so unthinkable that the message itself could ever have a problem. They think, just as I did once, that the message is perfect. Therefore, if someone has trouble following it, the person having the trouble must be imperfect. But I was operating under an unproven assumption: this idea that the message is perfect. What if it isn’t? Then we have a perfect explanation for why there are so many “bad Christians” in the world and why people are leaving it in such huge numbers. But oh, that’s a very threatening idea, and I can tell you for 100% sure that it did not occur to me until really late in my deconversion.
In my mind, Christianity was true and real. Hell was true and real. The Rapture was true and real. Jesus was true and real. Life was but an eyeblink, and eternity was, well, forever. Whatever happened here, whatever bad examples I saw, I was not going to be deterred from the goal. It didn’t matter what people did, because if it was all real, then my god wasn’t going to care in the end why I faltered, only that I did. It didn’t matter what kind of abuse I suffered at the hands of Christians, either, because temporal abuse pales before eternal abuse. Any person enduring harassment to keep a much-needed job in a horrible economy knows exactly how I felt. It’s a theology custom-designed, it seems to me now, to produce ideal victims. At the time, though, I simply tried to keep my eyes on the prize.
I didn’t know anybody who’d deconverted like I had while I was still a Christian, but in the many years since those days, I’ve seen how the Christian Marketing Machine
chews up treats people who leave.
Every time, you can look and see how those Christians remaining cluster together like 1950s housewives do in the wake of a divorce among the group, and try to force that dissenter into a box labelled with What They Did Wrong. Remaining Christians have to explain it away, just as those housewives had to figure out what the divorcing wife did wrong so they could protect their own senses of security within their own marriages. Maybe she didn’t preen enough for her husband. Maybe she was a bad cook. Maybe she went out with her ladies’ clubs too often. Once they could explain away the failure, they were soothed a little. Well, that’s how Christians handle deconversions. The now-ex-Christian didn’t try hard enough, or pray enough, or love Jesus enough, or have enough faith. The dissenter was angry at God, or angry at some particular Christian who’d upset him or her. The apostate hadn’t gone to the right church, or mixed with the right Christians, or heard the right Bible verses. If nothing else there’s the fallback: he or she just wanted to sin (which means to have unapproved sex, remember). Whew! Glad that’s settled! Now we can go back to playing bridge!
You can see every one of these attempts to armchair psychoanalyze ex-Christians in this news story about an ex-Newsboys musician, George Perdikis, who recently went public with his deconversion. In that link, he actually says exactly why he deconverted: he discovered that science and history debunk the Bible’s truth claims. But you won’t hear that from Christians in the comments. I looked and didn’t see a single Christian engage with what he actually said led him to lose his faith. Instead, these TRUE CHRISTIAN™ commenters belittle him for getting distracted by Bad Christians, for wanting to live “the easy life,” for wanting fame and glory (because, as all ex-Christians know, declaring one’s deconversion is such a great way to garner fame, legions of fans, and fortune), and wanting to indulge his sinful desires. And you won’t hear Christian “news” sites engaging with his real reason either; Christian Post spends quite a lot of time belittling him for being shallow and accusing him of never having been really saved, while someone over at Charisma News mentions ex-Christians’ stated reason for deconversion (“it was not true”) only to hand-wave it away so she can get to what she really wants to do, which is to accuse ex-Christians of being “deceived” and “deluded.” (Don’t look for a single one of these TRUE CHRISTIAN™ accusers to offer one single believable, credible reason to believe in their threats and fairy tales, though.)
But these simple and insulting bits of condescension lurk and prowl and prey upon Christians with one even simpler and way less insulting truth: These heretics weren’t idiots, and they certainly had seemed like they had done the right things at the time. Indeed, there doesn’t really seem to be a way to really say for sure who is going to be safe from apostasy and who is at risk for deconverting. There is no way to point to any particular Christian–even ourselves–and say “That one? That one’s totally going to die a true-blue Christian.” When you talk to ex-Christians, one thing you discover immediately is that the vast majority of us never, ever expected this to happen. We never thought we’d ever leave the religion. We never thought we’d deconvert. But here we are, deconverted. What a world, huh?
I sensed this truth even as a Christian, and I feared it. And I was right to fear it.
Nothing really stops someone from leaving Christianity, any more than anything really totally divorce-proofs a marriage, and these ridiculous ego defenses only highlight how feeble and lame Christianity is that it must reduce dissent to such insulting explanations. Why do Christians have to lie and deceive themselves about why people are leaving their ranks? What about Christianity requires such ego-defenses? Why is it so important for Christians to push dissenters into a box rather than really hear us out? Why is it so vitally important for Christians to insist that an apostate’s reasons for leaving are other than what the apostate says they were?
The answers to these questions are painfully clear to me now. None of it occurred to me at the time, though.
Now that I’m out of the religion, yes, I do regard the behavior of Christians as a whole to be the best argument there is against Christianity being a valid or even beneficial religion. But it’s important to note that I no longer require my religions to be objectively true. No religion makes valid, objectively-true factual claims about the supernatural (and most of their history is likely to be made-up as well), but if the religion’s good for its society and its followers and it’s not making a pest of itself, then I’m pretty chill about it. Christian hypocrites don’t make the myth of the Exodus any less ahistorical, just as legions of obedient and kindhearted Wiccans wouldn’t make the Triple Goddess any more likely to be a real trio of people.
Now it’s interesting to me to see how quickly the “Bad Christians” card gets played. Often it is the very first card slammed onto the gaming table. I’m removed enough from my own deconversion that I can look more dispassionately at this flailing and see it for what it is: an attempt to steer the conversation towards me and my perceived shortcomings rather than focus on the arguments I have against the religion’s truth claims. Can you even imagine someone saying that to Dr. John Snow, a doctor whose experiments helped push Germ Theory to prominence? “Did Bad Doctors drive you away from Miasma Theory, Dr. Snow?” Or someone saying that to Albert Einstein? “Did Bad Physicists drive you away from whatever came before General Relativity?” It’s ridiculous.
The use of the “Bad Christian” trope is meant to belittle my decision to leave Christianity by painting me as a shallow, immoral, or short-sighted person. The stakes involved in Christianity are so monumental, so huge, and so all-encompassing, its threats so grossly punitive, so cosmically cruel and out-of-proportion, that only a total blithering idiot would get distracted from the goal if its claims were thought to be true. Indeed, when I began to realize just what a dark, seamy underbelly existed in my religion, all that resulted was my determination not to let “Bad Christians” cost me my entire eternity in Heaven. It was not until I came to understand that Christianity’s claims are categorically and completely false in every single objective way that I finally began to lose belief; hypocrites really had nothing to do with it.
And, too, Bad Christians get trotted out like the ghost of Banquo to make me look like a quitter. It’s like the Christian saying this is gloating, “Look at me! I know there are tons and tons of hypocrites in my religion, and it sure doesn’t slow me down! Guess you just couldn’t go the distance, LOSER.” Indeed I read a book by a young gay Christian a while ago who criticized a onetime gay teacher of his who had left Christianity after a great deal of emotional abuse at the hands of “loving” Christians; the Christian’s main question was something like, “What about the perseverance of the saints?”–which is the super-fancy way of saying “Why’d he let Bad Christians drive him away?” And the funny thing is that I don’t think Bad Christians themselves drove this onetime teacher of his away from Christianity.
What Bad Christians can do to committed Christians is jolt them to awareness. When someone grows up thinking that one cannot be “good without God,” as the saying goes, then that may put the idea in that person’s head that Christians are more moral people intrinsically. All the excuses and rationalizations in the world can be–and are–employed to explain away why Christians are not in fact more moral than non-believers. But once a Christian realizes that there are plenty of good people outside of Christianity and plenty of bad people within it, that may make that person wonder just why Christianity, a religion that promises a real live god meddling with and filling the hearts of his followers, doesn’t seem to produce followers who are markedly different from non-believers.
Notably, what is happening is that people who point out Christian hypocrisy get told not to let Bad Christians stop them from believing, rather than trying harder to stamp out and speak out against hypocrisy in their ranks. I see Christians hiding behind excuses like “sin nature” rather than honestly engaging with why so many of their peers have trouble abiding by the religion’s relatively simple demands.
So let’s recap.
Nobody deconverts because of “Bad Christians.” And I don’t think Christians are really thinking this one through very well.
Some people may pull away from churches because of “Bad Christians,” but they don’t generally fully deconvert because of them. I’ve sure never met anybody who did. And outsiders who have no reason otherwise to buy into Christianity’s claims may be put off by the sheer overwhelming number of hypocrites in the religion. But to someone who truly believes in Christianity’s claims, hypocrites are just another stepping-stone to be navigated on the way to eternity in paradise.
We should be giving significant side-eye to a religion that seems to spend all of its time hand-waving away people’s real reasons for deconverting in its rush to belittle and demonize them for doing so. We should be suspicious and critical of a religion that expends as much energy as Christianity does in making excuses for its people’s categorical failure at following its precepts.
We should be extremely wary of a religion whose adherents know so well that they often treat people like shit that accusations of it are the very first thing they say upon hearing about an ex-Christian.
Christians who yank out the “Bad Christian” card are acknowledging that why yes, they know that many of their peers treat people very poorly. They know it. They know that normal, rational people would not want to be involved with a group that treats people like so many Christians do. They sense that their behavior alienates people and pushes others away.
For some weird reason, though, their stated solution to the problem is not to fix the very real problem they dimly sense exists but rather to blame those who they think were defeated by the problem. And I want to be clear here:
Even if someone did quit Christianity over having been treated poorly, Christians’ focus should be on resolving the issue and making their religion less prone to abuse, not on where it is now: trying to emotionally manipulate that person back into a sheepfold full of vulpine predators and abusers who are all licking their chops at the idea of getting their old victims back again.
We need to call this behavior out for the abusive control technique that it really is. Christians who belittle ex-Christians for leaving over poor treatment are really saying they want us to willingly surrender ourselves to poor treatment again and face very real earthly predation and abuse for the sake of eternal rewards whose existence have never once even been verified as credible. If they ever come up with anything really credible, I’ll revisit the equation; for now, I see these insinuations that I should just trot back into the wolves’ arms to be abusive and mean-spirited–especially because the actual issues I have with Christianity go way, way past those hypocrites.
In the end, I see “Bad Christians” as a symptom of the problem with Christianity, not the big problem in and of themselves. We’re going to be talking next about why “Good Christians” are actually a much bigger image problem for Christianity, so I hope you’ll join me on Wednesday!