It’s hard to generalize much about Christianity, which is only to be expected for a religion with tens of thousands of denominations and countless individual interpretations of its source material. That said, there is one thing that seems to happen damned near constantly when Christians come face-to-face with non-Christians and especially ex-Christians:
At some point in the conversation, they will state with total certainty that “Bad Christians” made us deconvert–or that these “Bad Christians” prevent people from converting in the first place.
If there were a bingo card for deconversion, then this accusation would surely fight “You Just Wanted to Sin” to become its middle square!
Neil Carter wrote this a while ago and it got my attention in a major way:
Christians behaving badly annoys atheists, yes. But that’s not the reason why we don’t buy their story. Please stop saying that it is.
Today I want to talk a little about why so many Christians seem downright obsessed with the idea of “Bad Christians” driving people away from their faith, and why that idea is dead wrong.
Bad Christian! Baaaad Christian! Bad!
A “Bad Christian” is a Christian whose behavior is so awful that it makes other people think twice about complying with Christians’ demands and threats. They are a stain on the religion, a hit to its credibility. They’re hypocrites, yes, but a special kind: outwardly horrible Christians whose inability to behave properly and love others leads to people avoiding the whole religion simply to keep away from them.
“Bad Christians” are wolves in sheep’s clothing–they are not TRUE CHRISTIANS™ by definition, but they identify themselves with the label and hang around the sheep. The exact behavior they’re exhibiting is left up to the judge, but the funny thing is that it can be markedly similar to the behavior of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ fanatics.
Amusingly, the Christians issuing that accusation rarely stop to consider whether their own behavior would qualify for the label. If the behavior in question is fully approved by the judge, then the accusation shifts subtly: “You just wanted to sin/were in rebellion/couldn’t handle the shocking truth” or the like. So when you hear about “Bad Christians,” know that the accuser is seeing or imagining behavior that he or she doesn’t personally approve.
“Bad Christians” isn’t a ridiculous accusation on the face of it. Hypocrisy is not only endemic to the religion but so woven through it that I am forced to conclude that it is a feature rather than a bug of the system. Every single ex-Christian out there has at least one story of a “Bad Christian” who hurt, cheated, or mortally offended them. Even Christians themselves have been victimized by at least one. They know their peers don’t treat people very well and that mistreatment happens far more often than one would guess among the devoted, fervent adherents of a religion based on the ideals of love and peace.
Considering how often Christians claim to have a stranglehold on morality and the truth, it’s strange that their solution to the problem of “Bad Christians” is to lash out at outsiders for noticing them and not wanting to be around them. It’s even stranger that they don’t realize that people don’t actually deconvert over mistreatment.
I sure didn’t. I can honestly say that though I was very badly mistreated by a great many Christians both before and after my deconversion, that treatment did not actually figure in to my deconversion at all and it’s certainly not to blame for why I’m not ever reconverting to the religion. When I was Christian, I thought to myself that it was very sad that these “Bad Christians” had not better internalized Jesus’ love and message, but their error sure wasn’t going to make me miss out on Heaven and get set on fire forever after I died! Now that I’m out of the religion, I still think hypocrites are sad (I mean, they’re missing out on what I still think is the very heart of the religion, when done compassionately) and I certainly don’t fear their imagined threats, but my objections to the religion go way, way past anything like that.
But that’s what an accusation of “Bad Christians” is, isn’t it?
It’s an attempt to reframe the whole conversation in a way that completely negates our stated objections to Christianity. The Christians flinging this accusation are trying hard to reduce what is usually a very well-considered and thoroughly-thought-out conclusion to a childish, emotional temper tantrum.
Christians are very good at not having ears to hear when it comes to understanding outsiders. I’ve no doubt they’ve noticed how often hypocritical Christians show up in ex-Christians’ stories and how often non-Christians talk about the topic, but they haven’t really figured out why “Bad Christians” are a problem. So they don’t realize that their peers don’t drive people out of the religion all by themselves, because they simply don’t. What actually happens is that Christians get jarred out of complacency by the realization that Jesus isn’t magically making anybody a better person and that this ideology does not produce the type of people it says it should produce, and we start wondering what else our religion got wrong.
“Bad Christians” are simply another brick in the wall of faith; pull out enough bricks and the wall falls down. They’re a pretty integral brick for some folks, but they’re not the whole wall. What Christians should be doing is trying their damndest to keep as few bricks as possible from being pulled out of the wall. But there are a lot of reasons why they don’t do that.
Unfortunately, the majority of Christians don’t realize that the wall is even made of bricks. They are taught that there simply aren’t any reasons that Christians should find acceptable for leaving their religion. They are taught, falsely, that all objections to their religion have a good answer that resolves that objection in favor of their religion–and that these answers are robust and perfectly satisfactory to any and all examiners. They believe with all of their hearts that their religion is not only universally flawless but also perfect for every single human being on the planet.*
So if someone leaves Christianity or refuses to accept its claims, user error is the only explanation for what went wrong. The ideology is perfect, so by definition it can’t possibly fail. The element that failed must be, by definition, something else–in this case, the person who left. Either the person who leaves doesn’t understand the perfectly satisfactory response to his or her objection, or else doesn’t want to accept that response for whatever invalid reason might be offered up. When reality conflicts with their dogmatic beliefs, dogma unfortunately wins.
It gets worse. Christians live in a culture that condemns them for speaking out too much against fellow Christians, so when an ex-Christian even brings up the problem or tries to talk about the damage “Bad Christians” do, most Christians’ solution is usually to lash out at those who left the religion or to try to coax, shame, or manipulate them into returning–rather than fix the problem that touched off their departures in the first place. And if a Christian tries to talk about it, well, that’s why “God” invented gaslighting and silencing tactics, right?
This song and dance keeps the focus off the system itself and stops Christians from examining it too closely for flaws.
And hopefully nobody will notice the big, glaring problem with the mindset behind the accusation itself.
Christians are using this accusation as an excuse of their own, nothing more.
Christians do not actually care about the endemic proliferation of “Bad Christians” in their ranks who are, according to their own evaluation, destroying people’s faith, driving them away from the church body itself, and ultimately damning them to “Hell.” They might know on some level that “Bad Christians” infest their religion, yes, but they’re not really interested in doing more about it than using them as an accusation against others. Here’s how you can tell:
They aren’t doing a damned thing about the problem they themselves have defined as serious enough to cause brothers and sisters to stumble, which is such a serious concern that even the Bible condemns this behavior.
The only time they seem concerned about “Bad Christians” in their ranks is when they need to accuse someone of being unduly influenced by them. They do not look for, bring into line, or drive out the people they think are “Bad Christians” even after people complain about them or they are exposed in some glaring, unmistakable, and dramatic fashion. As an example, Ed Stetzer of the Southern Baptist Convention was quite content to have all kinds of false Christians in his churches for years. He only got fussy about them when it came time to whine about his sour grapes because he was convinced that the Christians leaving his churches were all in-name-only Christians and “Bad Christians.” One certainly doesn’t hear about pastors throwing out “Bad Christians” on the regular or anything, either.
But way worse:
These accusers’ stated non-solution to the problem of “Bad Christians” is for us to excuse and overlook their existence and, worse, put ourselves back into harm’s way by exposing ourselves to people that our accusers themselves have implicitly agreed are problematic enough that any sane person should want to avoid their presence.
When Christians’ solution to a given problem is “shut up and let yourself get victimized (again),” that tells me where their priorities are. They want to stop being reminded of this serious, glaring inconsistency in their witness, and they want to stop hearing our objections to their religious claims. They want their Happy Christian Society illusion. They want everything in their gauzy, fuzzy little bubble to stay cozy and bright. And they don’t care if their comfort and smugness comes at the expense of all the people that these “Bad Christians” hurt and prey upon.
If Christians really cared about “Bad Christians,” they wouldn’t be (erroneously) blaming non-believers for supposedly rejecting Christianity because of them, but rather would be spending their time fixing the problem! But as it stands, “Bad Christians” are just too excellent of a scapegoat–too wonderful and perfect of a way (they think) to reframe unpleasant truths in a way they can actually overcome.
All that said, even if someone did choose to leave Christianity entirely purely because of poor treatment, I wouldn’t blame that person or even be all that surprised. We’re allowed to make our own decisions, and just because Christians don’t accept “Bad Christians” as a valid reason for leaving their religion doesn’t mean it’s an invalid reason in and of itself. We are the only ones who get to decide what a valid reason is for us to do anything related to religion. We don’t need to justify our decision to Christians–especially when dealing with someone whose entire worldview is primed to say that any reason we offer is invalid.
We are under no obligation to allow anyone to reframe our life experiences in ways that don’t sound valid to us. Nor are we under any obligation to prove anything to anybody, or to let someone else’s opinions override our own.
Nobody will ever look out for us as well as we ourselves can.
Once we notice that Jesus isn’t making Christians, as a whole, great people and filling churches with safe, dependable, reliable, trustworthy adherents, then we are perfectly in the right for wishing to protect ourselves.
Once we have gotten the impression that Christians are sometimes very predatory and also extremely poor at policing their own ranks, then we’re fully in the right to decide that in the interests of protecting ourselves, we’ll absent ourselves from their company and will not even consider rejoining their ranks until they have fixed this terrible, endemic problem of theirs–and probably not even then.
We ourselves are the best advocates we could hope to have regarding our safety. That doesn’t mean we’re at fault if we get victimized–the fault for predatory and abusive behavior lies with the predators and abusers, not ever with victims–but it does mean that when our Spider-Sense starts tingling, we’re allowed to take that intuition seriously and do what is necessary to protect ourselves. We’re allowed to trust our own judgment and perceptions of reality. We’re allowed to refuse to allow Christians to decide anything related to our own safety, protection, and security.
Christians do not set the tone of the conversation or make its rules, and it’s okay for us to politely push back when they try to do it.
When Christians lob untrue accusations at us, we’re allowed to bring the focus back to our real objections to their religion or behavior, and to set them straight about the truth. At no time in history have they been as surrounded as they are now by people whose lives and experiences expose and put the lie to their erroneous thinking–and every one of us who manages to push back and speak up is one more brick pulled out of their walls.
I’m optimistic enough to think that if enough of us speak up, some of them will start listening eventually–because all it takes to start the journey is one moment of wondering, one moment of being puzzled about why reality never seems to line up with their beliefs, one moment of wondering why the emPHAsis is so much on the wrong syLLAble with regard to the parroted party lines Christians get trained to spout on command. So yes: let them fling accusations all they want! But the response is going to be, less and less often, what they expect or want.
* I once read a Christian’s blog post describing how indignant and outraged he was over being told by a non-believer (who wasn’t me), “I’m glad your religion works for you.” He didn’t like the idea that it “worked for him” because that wording implied, first, that he was only an adherent of Christianity because he liked it, which it didn’t sound like he actually did, and second and far worse in his eyes, that his religion didn’t “work for” everybody in the world. He wasn’t even interested in examining these two erroneous assumptions of his: “working for him” doesn’t have to mean he loves it, and why no, it doesn’t, as billions of human beings alive today could tell him. Trust me, he was having none of that.