Often when an ex-Christian leaves religion, every stop gets pulled out to try to get that person back into the fold. Everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown at us to read, watch, or listen to. We get invited to “casual dinners” that turn into full-blown interventions. We can’t even visit a friend’s house without discovering a minister there to try once more to “just talk to us.” And then, once we think we’ve weathered all of it, along comes just one more Christian into the fray, often totally convinced that “God” told him or her to say some particular thing to us*.
Such Christians think of themselves as “Magic Christians”– you know, like how movies use stereotyped black people as narrative vehicles to dispense wisdom and epiphanies to white protagonists. I’m hugely uncomfortable with using the outdated term for this plot device, but it’s actually a recent term and one that’s used deliberately to describe how black people often get treated in these movies as props who exist only to dispense folksy wisdom, archaic aphorisms, and nonsensical deepities whenever a white protagonist is having trouble. There’s an exhaustive list of offenders over at TVTropes, and the comedy duo Key & Peele recently lampooned this offensive racial stereotype beautifully.
This trope is offensive because not only does it consider an entire group to be ambulatory vending machines dispensing wisdom while doing menial labor, but it also reduces what are often very complex troubles down to the sorts of sayings you could fit on a cross-stitched throw pillow. Got some catastrophic problem? Along comes a cleaning lady to share something her grandmother once said to her. Experienced a great loss? Along comes a janitor to off-handedly recite a bit of old folk wisdom that will, in thirty seconds flat guaranteed, totally turn everything around. These mystic advisors show up exactly when needed, tell the protagonist exactly what would fix the whole situation, and then wander off.
In the same manner, I seriously think that even though ex-Christians almost always know Christian doctrines backwards and forwards and are well-acquainted with the Bible–atheists especially tend to know more about it than Christians themselves do!–“Magic Christians” think that there’s this one little detail that we simply didn’t know, this one little spin-doctoring of an atrocious concept that maybe we just didn’t think about in the right way. Once we hear this detail or this spin-doctoring, the expectation is that we will smack our foreheads, say I never thought of that! and reconvert immediately. They’ll charge in, fix our little misunderstanding, soothe our moral outrage, and everything will be jussssst fine again.
Whether this act is done out of the most sincere heartache and worry or out of a power-tripping desire to display one’s superiority, it’s an ultimately terribly disrespectful display. They know that it’s not welcome, but they justify doing it because they’re totally sure that this time they have the magical way to phrase some standard apologetics bullshit line to us that makes complete sense and fixes whatever shallow silly problem we were having with Christianity. Often they even think “God” told them what to say. Once we’re back in the fold we’ll thank them for their presumption, right? And even if we reject their divine wisdom we’ll totally excuse them because we know they’re acting out of “sincerely held beliefs,” right? So how could the attempt go wrong?
Lots of ways, as it happens.
First, most Christians really don’t understand why people deconvert in the first place, so their understanding of our objections are, at best, going to be distorted and flawed.
Every single one of those hand-wringing articles from Christians about why so many people are leaving Christianity lays the blame at a variety of doorsteps–and not one of them is right. They blame parents for not indoctrinating kids hard enough; they blame ex-Christians for not understanding the Bible enough or for “wanting to sin” (which means, remember, to have unapproved S-E-X), or assert that ex-Christians are “mad at God” or miffed about some offense made by a Christian, an accusation that actually came up just yesterday on the comments I saw on a news story about just how sharply Christian numbers are falling. Every single reason under the sun comes up except the one that actually sums up most deconversions**. (Here’s a semi-complete list of these false reasons and why they’re wrong.)
If Christians don’t understand what the problem is, then their pithy wisdom, exhortations, and advice will seem, well, irrelevant and tone-deaf. They’re offering a solution that is in search of a problem at best, and blatantly trying to cold-read us at worst; a Christian trying this stunt once went through like four or five different “reasons” that her “god” was telling her had caused my deconversion, and every single one was laughably inaccurate. I felt like I was sitting across from a psychic palm-reader!
Of course, every time a “Magic Christian”‘s attempt at wisdom and divine discernment fails so comically, I get reminded anew that Christianity isn’t based on true supernatural claims. I mean, surely a god would actually give a divinely-sent Christian actual relevant things to say to me and would know what I’d consider credible support for Christianity’s many claims. Right?
Second, most Christians don’t understand that a person’s deconversion is a response to a number of concerns, not just a simple yes or no question that can be settled by establishing or debunking one truth claim.
It’s not just that we discovered that Creationism is bullshit or just that we figured out that the Bible’s assertions about its god are nonsensical when they’re not outright barbaric. Most Christians have a dozen different legs on their belief-tables. Knock one out, and given enough time that Christian will either find a way to rationalize it or to work around it and build a new one. It’s only when a lot of those legs get knocked out at once that someone is in a serious pickle, most times. We might be able to point to a “straw” that finally made us realize that the religion wasn’t a good fit for us, but there’s usually a lot more going on than just that straw.
But the Christians who walk up to ex-Christians trying to “fix” us generally only concentrate on one thing they think we disagreed with. They act like all they have to do is find a way to convince us that they’re right about this one thing, and we’ll just fold on all the rest of the other problems we have with Christianity.*** It doesn’t work that way. If it did, we’d likely still be Christians; the religion’s evolved quite a number of quick bumper-sticker-wisdom fixes for the major objections to its claims. That their fixes tend to involve Christian revisionism and pseudoscience also doesn’t help their cause when someone’s aware of the flaws in both. (Fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo warned Christians about making a laughingstock of themselves in this manner, but hey, he was Catholic so he doesn’t count. Right?)
Often this misunderstanding of our real reasons for deconversion leads Christians to create straw men to proselytize at, which further undermines their “Magic Chrsitian” act’s credibility.
Third, the power dynamic they’re introducing here is not loving.
Nobody likes being treated like a fixer-upper project, especially by someone we don’t remember having asked to fix us. The unmitigated arrogance involved in charging up to another human being and trying to set them straight about this or that religious point should shame Christians. Doing it to a stranger or someone the Christian only knows from online is even worse. But that isn’t even the big problem here; the Christians doing this are presenting themselves as gurus. They’re the ones fixing us. They’re the Designated Adults, the parents, the oh-so-evolved clever bunnies who are here to set us poor little
children apostates straight again. They’re here at the behest of what they genuinely believe is a god to dispense wisdom that this god personally sent straight to them and tailored especially for us (or so they think!).
When this intrusion happens while the Christian knows for absolute certain that such a conversation (or “non-versation,” as Neil Carter puts it!) isn’t going to be welcome, or worse if the “word from ‘God'” involves a threat of Hell or a strong-arming attempt, then it starts feeling less like love and more like abuse and overreach.
Last, these Christians never seem to realize why they’re unwelcome or take rejection well.
It’s sorta like being hit on in public. The first time it happens (provided things don’t turn ugly, of course), it might be a little flattering. But after it happens over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, always along the same lines and bearing the same risk of abuse for our refusal, it gets tedious. So it’s not surprising at all to notice that the Christians doing this don’t respond well to rejection; we can start feeling like the lady having the panic attack in the movie Airplane! Asking them to back off doesn’t usually work well–and no wonder; Christians who do this are often so busy starring in the movie in their heads about their own lives as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that when we go off-script and refuse to play along, they react very poorly.
That’s why their response to all of this, just as those of Nice Guys™ are to women’s objections to getting hit on in public, generally fall along the lines of But are you saying we can’t “just be Christian” and express our faith and just have a simple conversation? You’re persecuting me! Religious liberty! Benghazi! You’re being wooed! WOOED, I tells ya! And the answer of course is that yes, of course they can “just be Christian,” as long as they respect other people’s boundaries, and if they can’t do that, then hopefully they’ll realize at some point that not only did their attempt to “woo” me fail, but that it backfired in that I got reminded yet again that to them, “just being Christians” can only happen if other people’s boundaries are stomped on repeatedly. (I don’t need to guess what their real-life relationships look like; I was married to someone who acted like that and yes, he was as bad in private as he was around those receiving these “words from the Spirit”.) If we get lucky, as they flounce away–having finally gotten the hint–they’ll limit their retribution to the snide flinging of smiley-laden threats of Hell and Bible verses at us, or post passive-aggressive Vaguebook whines about us. Hopefully the rejection of a “Magic Christian” won’t lead to harassment, stalking, or the vandalizing of our stuff to demonstrate how true and “loving” Christianity is. Once they realize they’ve been fully rejected, they become emboldened to unleash their rage and control-lust; I’ve personally heard Christians rationalize abuse by saying that they know they’re not hurting our salvation at all so who cares if they’re loving or not toward us? We’re lost, after all!
I guess I missed that Bible verse.
Oh, but who am I kidding?
The Christians who intrude on others with their sage advice don’t usually care that their intrusions aren’t welcome. They privilege their religious desire to proselytize above their victims’ need to feel safe and unmolested. They don’t care that we find what they’re doing to be creepy, unloving, and off-putting. They don’t care that they’re doing a lot of damage both to their religion’s credibility and to their own relationships. Because their culture is so full of these sorts of stories that end with a conversion and a happy ending, they’d rather take the chance that their behavior is unwanted (asking forgiveness rather than permission), and then get miffed or sullen when we don’t play along. If they cared about any of these errors they make, I’d expect an apology and change, but I’ve never even had a Christian apologize for trying to “Magic Christian” me so I wouldn’t know what that looks like. (Your mileage &c.)
In the meanwhile, my words are directed not to Christians who think they’re magical, but to those who face “Magic Christians”:
We are right to feel annoyed or angry when this happens. We are allowed to preserve our boundaries. We are not obligated to entertain every nut with a story or to listen to stuff that offends or aggravates us. We are not required to humor zealots at our own expense. We’re allowed to bow out of conversations we don’t like. While maintaining civility, we’re allowed to refuse proselytization attempts and remove ourselves from situations that aren’t good for us. We’re not obligated to justify our refusal to anybody or to “earn” our escape.
When this happens to me, I try to remember that the folks doing it often don’t know better. They’re steeped in a church culture and mythology that constantly pushes the urgency of doing exactly what they’re doing, and that falsely stresses the successfulness of this tactic. They’re indoctrinated to believe that if they don’t go to every length possible, that they are responsible for the eternal fates of everyone around themselves. They’re trained to think that the end justifies any means. They’re not taught to care about consent and they don’t tend to have the faintest idea what love really looks like. Worst of all, they’re taught that they have to scramble a few eggs to make an omelet, which is a phrase I heard personally while Christian. Could there possibly be a more certain recipe for abuse than this?
“Got it,” “Glad you’ve got that off your chest,” “I appreciate your concern,” and “If I have any questions I promise I’ll come straight to you, but until then, please let me be the one to initiate any future religious discussions we have” are all polite but unmistakeable refusals. Repeat them as often as you must.
Sincerity doesn’t excuse overreach; meaning well is not a magical shield that renders Christians immune from all criticism. But because “Magic Christians” tend to believe both of those things, I don’t think we’ll see an end to this form of overreach anytime soon. Because there’s no “Jesus” making Christians better people, it’s on us to make sure they know how intrusive and unwelcome this act really is.
We’re going to talk some more about respect next time–see you Friday!
* In Christianese, you’ll often hear it phrased like this: “Sister Deanna, God laid a burden on my heart to share this with you today.” Sometimes the Christian will even pretend to have nooooooo idea why this particular tidbit to “share” was dictated: “I can’t even imagine why, Brother Neil, but God told me to tell you…” And sometimes the Christian will try to distance him- or herself from the wisdom being imparted, as if it’s perfectly clear that it’s ridiculous but whaddayagonna do, it’s orders from the top to say it: “Oh, Brother Daniel, I know this is going to sound really strange and perhaps even offensive, but about this claim about you being the Latin God of Thunder–well, God told me to tell you…” The information will be presented as if directly received from a god and commanded to be presented, which has its own implications when the recipient fails to be impressed.
** The truth claims made by the religion turned out not to be, um, well, true, and we didn’t want to be part of something that bad for us if it isn’t true.
*** The funny thing is that there actually is one thing that most of us would actually find compelling, but it’s the one thing that no Christian is able to offer anyone!