When I first began blogging, one of my first posts was called “The Cult of ‘Before’ Stories.” It caught on like wildfire (RationalWiki picked it up and it got many thousands of views–super-impressive for a brand-new blog). The post was about how Christians idolize and fawn over those who concoct particularly impressive pre-conversion narratives, which are called “testimonies” in Christianese, but about how these narratives are frequently exaggerated or made up out of whole cloth to get their bearers attention or money.
I don’t trust these tales much–and for good reason. The more lurid and outrageous they are, the better they fit into Christian misunderstandings about reality, and the more crimes their bearers claim to have committed, the more likely you are to be hearing a fish story. But considering how totally sensational they’d be if they were demonstrably supported as true, Christians never seem to doubt these stories, much less to double-check any of the elements contained therein. These stories tickle their ears by pandering to their dearest hopes and beliefs, and they are content to leave it at that. More than that, conversion stories confirm for those who believe them that there is a wonder-working god in their lives who does genuine miracles, that this god can help people do total 180s in their lives and magically change bad people into good people–all things they consider axiomatically true, but which might be inconvenienced by too closely fact-checking testimonies claiming these elements. And, too, the more sin a testimony contains, the more grace its bearer is thought to have been given by “God”–and, a bit less flattering, the more vicariously thrilling it is to listen to it (there isn’t a whole lot of excitement in fundamentalism especially, so I can tell you that back in my day, we listened with wide-eyed, hushed shock and wonder to the most lurid testimonies; I guarantee you that everything most of my peers knew about the secular world came from these stories).
I eventually noticed that these fabricated and exaggerated testimonies often feature whatever boogeymen Christians as a whole hate and fear the most.
When I was Christian, the trendy Christians claimed pasts in Wicca and Satanism in their testimonies. We were at the height of the Satanic Panic, which was a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that claimed that there was a huge network of Satanic Wiccans that had infiltrated every level imaginable of corporate and government power and were influencing society toward debauchery, crime, and general puppy-kicking evil. It worked about like every other conspiracy theory ever has; the total lack of evidence for this vast network–as well as both Satanists‘ and Wiccans’ insistence that their religions were completely incompatible with each other–only confirmed that it existed.
Christians like the disgraced comedian Mike Warnke and the blatantly opportunistic Eric Pryor gained decent money and fame peddling testimonies claiming to have committed absolutely unspeakable crimes while in the service or, more often, the leadership of Satanic Wiccan groups. The fact that absolutely no part of their testimonies was confirmed as having happened didn’t matter; those selling this tinfoil-hat fearmongering got Christians so turned around that there are still those among them that I’ve run into personally who believe that there’s this shadowy conspiracy of Satanic Wiccans running around killing babies and animals and sending demons after good Christians.
But that was then, and this is now, and today the boogeyman has a different face.
Christians of a certain age still buy into the manufactured threats of Satanism and Wicca just as the generation before them bought into the manufactured threat of encroaching Communism, but their leaders have slowly figured out that the threat doesn’t have teeth for most folks. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes-level perception to notice that there simply aren’t a lot of Satanists or Wiccans, and the flocks seem to have generally figured out how ridiculous this shadowy conspiracy really sounds.
Besides, new threats have overshadowed the old ones.
As Slacktivist noted a few years ago (h/t to my lovely commenters at R2D for bringing this to my attention!), Christian zealots adapt with the times. There must always be an enemy. If the flocks figure out that one threat is made up or not really very threatening after all, then a new one will be found. Extremists don’t function well without something to fight. And fear.
A few years ago the trendy threat became Eastern mysticism. Pastors like Mark Driscoll inveighed against practices perceived to be Eastern in nature, like yoga, calling such activities “demonic,” while new hucksters like Tony Anthony crawled out of the woodwork to take advantage of the flocks’ near-total ignorance about the mysterious Far East. I’m sure more than a few testimonies besides his involved pasts in martial arts, but his upped the ante by adding movie-style world travel and glamorous bodyguard work. Violence, demonic and suspicious martial arts, and a decadent lifestyle–of course it totally caught on with Christians who migrated from the earlier idols to this one–likely without even noticing they were doing it. But that threat didn’t quite catch on–especially since by the time it got officially deemed threatening, too many Christians were involved in yoga and other such martial arts and knew it wasn’t demonic at all (I make no assurance about the Biblical certainty of these links because I don’t care either way if they are or aren’t based on sound scholarship, but I’m offering them as evidence that why yes, Christians find ways to justify their passions).
Ah, but now the trendy threat is atheism.
Is it any surprise at all that we’re seeing all sorts of testimonies involving a past as a mean ole dirty ole mean danged ole atheist? It shouldn’t be. Atheism is the perfect candidate for the next Christian boogeyman, combining near-total unfamiliarity with perceived power and many years of demonization by Christian leaders. Christians have been primed to dislike, distrust, and fear atheists for many decades, and now that atheists are growing as a demographic by such dramatic leaps and bounds, many may well see atheism as a specially-prepared threat straight from the hand of Satan himself. That’s why when the rare professed atheist converts to Christianity (rather than the flood of people moving the other direction), that person’s going to get a lot of attention.
Here’s one very representative testimony, written by someone who claims to have authoritative knowledge of atheism but presents her story in the standard-issue Christian style. She reinforces the trope that atheists do indeed put faith in something, just not “God” (as she mentions in half-a-dozen equivocations around the word “faith”), and relates how she methodically came to the conclusion that this “God” exists in the form that Christians imagine he does. Bonus points if you spot all the completely irrational arguments she makes–I saw an argument from design, an appeal to emotion, and an argument from ignorance. As well, we can see more than a touch of confirmation bias in her description of her friend’s “answered prayers”–which itself would be subject to all the various cognitive biases that go into trusting self-reports a little too much. The truly comical part of this entire farce is that she presents herself as having come to this oh-so-logical, oh-so-rational conclusion based on (misunderstood) science and (faulty) arguments, but it is absolutely crystal-clear that she is presenting the form of atheism here that Christians believe atheists hold, not the one that atheists actually tend to hold.
If even this greatest threat can be nullified by the magic power of Jesus, then any threat can be, they imply. But a host of other implications are being made by these stories and testimonies.
Atheists are seen as rational, so a Christian claiming to have once been atheist is laying claim to a sense of rationality that his or her peers might lack. You can trust me; I know how to assess claims and think critically, they are saying by claiming this past. That there are plenty of irrational atheists doesn’t seem even to occur to these Christians. Everybody can fall prey to a blind spot. But you won’t hear that from “ex-atheist” Christians.
Atheists are seen as the most evil people ever, so a Christian claiming a past in atheism is seen as having been to the very nadir of the human experience–and come out of it again. I’ve been to the other side and gotten back, so you can trust that I have the experience to make my claim about Christianity’s validity, they are telling others. Of course, atheists are not evil as a group; I find them pretty damned decent as a whole–just like every other group. But the testimonies and stories need atheists to be evil so the 180-degree turnaround will sound more impressive.
When surveying these implications I almost start seeing such Christians as scammers trying to find some sort of common ground with a mark to establish more trust, so the mark will be more likely to purchase what is being sold. There’s another name for this kind of predation: an affinity scam. And according to the SEC, Christian churches are especially prone to this kind of scam. And why not? When someone they view as an authority figure tells them something, they’re very likely to believe that person. Little wonder, then, that so many Christians sincerely believe that an atheist “denies that God even exists” and “hates the very idea of there being a God”, just as there’s little wonder that Christians repeatedly claim that atheism is a belief system. Their leaders tell them this total lie repeatedly. A pity that their religion doesn’t frown upon bearing false witness, isn’t it?
These mistaken ideas are completely taken for granted by Christians as a whole–in large part because they don’t really know a whole lot of actual atheists. So it goes without saying that the definition of atheism that these Christians are using is almost never the one that actual current atheists tend to use for themselves: a lack of belief in any gods. As our dear friend and co-contributor Neil Carter’s discovered, their definition reinforces their cultural impressions about atheists, and as such it plays beautifully to crowds who don’t understand the way the concept is understood by actual atheists.
When Christians’ claims fail to impress anybody outside the bubble, though, you can just about hear their minds’ clutches grind and pop. These claims that get them so much acclaim and applause from their peers at church don’t seem to have nearly the same impact on actual atheists. I’m not even surprised anymore to see such claimants getting downright sulky when it happens.
That’s why movies like the inexcusably execrable God’s Not Dead and its ilk are positioned as fights between atheism and Christianity: atheism is the big threat of the current age–to dominance-minded Christians. That’s why they’re far more focused on fighting with atheists and defeating their arguments than they are on the stuff Jesus is supposed to have told them to do: care for the poor and hungry, comfort the hurting, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, all that boring stuff that doesn’t get Christians turned out in elections or see their butts parked in movie-theater seats.
These “I was totally an atheist” testimonies we are hearing are Christians’ attempt, as a culture, to negate the threat they perceive against their number. They’re an attempt to nullify that which frightens them and conquer, at least in fantasy, that which looms ahead. See who the boogeymen are in these stories, and you’ll learn what Christian culture as a whole hates and fears the most.
And the funny thing is, even if we did run across a convert who had previously been an atheist who actually was an atheist in the sense that atheists themselves use the word, that doesn’t make their stories more persuasive. Personal testimonies aren’t objective evidence. The problem is that it doesn’t really matter what someone’s past is or what label someone claims to have; it matters what the argument is, and how the person came to the conclusions involved. Someone can claim to have been an atheist a million times, but if the impetus for conversion is still face-palmingly irrational, that’s not persuasive to anybody but those who are already favorably inclined toward the argument anyway and/or who don’t know better.
Really, you’d think an actual atheist would know about the huge difference between compelling objective evidence and fallible subjective perceptions. But until Christians pull their heads from the sand and quit demanding ear-tickling stories in lieu of the truth about those they’ve vilified, we’re going to keep seeing these fairy tales. I’m all for it, personally. A big part of my conversion was realizing that my religion was wrong about something taught as true. When a believer runs across actual atheists who are totally different from the party line about atheists, that might well be the spark needed to make that Christian wonder what else the religion is wrong about.
Thankfully, some Christians get it. To combat this distortion of the truth, some pastors invite atheists to speak to their churches, while others I’ve heard of go out of their way to read books by atheists. Others find themselves married to or the parents (or children!) of atheists and have to scramble to figure out what atheism really is. One relationship and listening ear at a time, people’s negative perception of atheists is changing whether those dominance-minded Christians like it or not.
Don’t you wonder what the next big manufactured threat is going to be? They’re already losing the fear of LGBTQ people and the anger about women’s rights as control tactics. If they lose atheism too, what’s next?
* 7 Things Not to Say to the Atheist in Your Family, written by an actual atheist for a Christian website.