It’s Not Just the Messengers, It’s the Message, Too

It’s Not Just the Messengers, It’s the Message, Too May 6, 2015

shutterstock_187549562I recently wrote a post highlighting the colossal failure that Christianity has proven to be when it comes to respecting personal boundaries (see “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem”).  I personally feel that’s inescapable when your starting point is that people are so wicked they deserve to be tortured forever.  To be fair, some versions of Christianity reject the idea of posthumous punishment (despite their own source material), although even those still can’t seem to shake the notion that people aren’t whole as they are. They can’t drop the idea that we need fixing somehow.

Whichever camp people belong to, whenever they hear a negative evaluation of their faith, they naturally conclude the problem is that people must be doing it wrong, and any fault we find must be with the messengers, not with the message itself. The belief system cannot be wrong, so if anybody has a problem it must be with the people who communicate it.  My Christian friends routinely pass around this much beloved quote by Brennan Manning:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.

Pardon me, but no, it isn’t.  As a card carrying atheist I can certify that very few atheists will agree to this.  This is just something Christians say to each other because they’ve grown so accustomed to guilting each other over things that it makes them love this kind of talk.  Preachers shout it from their pulpits and friends share it on their Facebook walls, but I’ve never once heard an actual atheist say any such thing.  Even when debating the subject of theodicy (“Why is there suffering in the world if God exists and is good?”), I’ve never once heard an atheist argue that the question hinges on the behavior of Christians.

Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t bother us when Christians behave badly, because it does.  I’m not even saying that there aren’t some people whose questioning of their faith was initially prompted by mistreatment at the hands of people claiming to represent God in their lives.  My Christian experience may have been overwhelmingly positive, but many of my friends could tell stories that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  But even those whose departures began with mistreatment by the devout would likely say in the end that it was other things that settled the issue.

Maybe it was the inconsistency of the biblical record, or the incoherence of its moral vision.  Maybe it was the stop-gap nature of the Christian approach to science, predictably replacing every unknown variable with the same answer (“It was God”).  Maybe it was the lack of demonstrable difference between prayers that get “answered” and those that don’t. Most likely it’s the sheer lack of tangible evidence that invisible beings are real things at all, having any existence outside of our own imaginations.  There are so many things you could cite, but the behavior of people would not be the determining factor, not by a long shot.

A Predictable Response

Take the issue of overstepping boundaries which I brought up on the Ex-Communications blog earlier this week. I explained that Christians routinely assume the role that Captain Cassidy calls “the world’s Designated Adults,” telling the rest of us how we should live. They push their message into our faces whether we want to hear it (again) or not, and they teach it to our children whenever our backs are turned. To the rest of the world this is seen as bad behavior—an overstepping of personal boundaries—but not so to them.  From their viewpoint they are living out a calling and woe to them if they do not discharge their responsibility before God. It’s their solemn duty.

But then it never fails. I write about this treatment and people respond by saying, “It’s too bad those people aren’t doing it right.  Don’t let the bad behavior of a few bad apples impact your evaluation of our message.  The church makes mistakes because we’re imperfect, yada yada yada…”  Yes, I know that explanation. I’m sure I used it myself at some point in the past. I’m sure I pled with people not to judge God or the gospel by the poor behavior of his people.

Here’s the thing, though:  The problem isn’t really them—they’re only following orders. They’re just doing what they were told to do.  We’re not having an adverse reaction to them because they’re getting off script; on the contrary, they’re simply following their message out to its logical conclusion.  They believe that after we die we will be brought back to life again (I see no good reason to believe that but let’s not get distracted) and that after that we will spend trillions upon trillions of years either in never-ending bliss or else in never-ending torture (unless they have adopted Hell 2.0, which is just sitting in a dark room forever alone or something, like interminable solitary confinement).

Consequently, to their minds persuading us to embrace their belief system supersedes all other matters, all other rules of engagement, and all other social norms and standards of propriety.  Boundaries schmoundaries. They don’t care.  This is a matter of life and death—no, more than that, it’s a matter of eternal significance!  Who cares if you’re offended or feel your personal space has been invaded, right?  Your soul is at stake here, man!  What else would you expect?

There is No Cliff and That’s a Terrible Analogy

I swear, if I hear one more time that it’s like you’re running toward a cliff, and they have to warn you…

NO.  It’s NOT like that. It’s not like that at all, and I’ll tell you why it’s not. First of all, cliffs are undeniably real things.  I’ve seen cliffs. You can go visit one.  You can throw things off of it.  Cliffs make sense and they are demonstrably real.  Telling someone they’re headed for a cliff will be fairly well-received because everybody knows what cliffs are and they don’t want to die.

But this posthumous torture thing?  Forgive me but I see no good reason to believe in such a monstrous concept, and I’m getting less and less patient with watching grown adults defending the idea.  It just doesn’t even make sense.  And you can’t go visit such a place. You can’t show me what you’re talking about.  It’s not even a “place” at all—it’s like an entirely different kind of existence that you have to imagine in your mind because there’s nothing like what you’re talking about in real life at all.

In other words, it’s nothing like a cliff.  Or an oncoming train. Or whatever terrible analogy you pick to compare a made up thing to things we know are real because we see them every day.  You repeat these analogies because to you they justify treating us badly.  But they don’t. They don’t because they’re terrible analogies, and this approach shows such an utter disregard for our own wishes that it makes us not want to talk to you at all.  Even from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, shouldn’t that warn you away from this approach?

Paul once asked, “How will they hear if no one will tell them?”  Well, I’ve got a corollary question:  “How can they hear you if no one wants to hear what you have to say?”  If you treat people badly and disregard their personal boundaries, you sabotage your own mission.  Stop and learn to think about how what you are doing is perceived by the people to whom you are doing it. If you really care about them and aren’t just putting another notch in your evangelism belt, shouldn’t you be concerned that you’re starting to become a trigger for them?

Not the Messengers but the Message

There’s a reason these people are being so pushy.  Their theology has taught them that we mere mortals can’t make good decisions for ourselves—we aren’t qualified.  We can’t see the bigger picture, we are told, so it’s not up to us to determine what’s true and what really matters. We’re fallen and broken, you see, and “our hearts are wicked and deceitful above all things.”  No wonder they don’t care what we think or feel.   They don’t see it as a valid concern. How could they?

Oh sure, some of them do anyway, despite their theology. Some people have such a humanistic core that they continue to be decent people in spite of how their religion tells them to behave.  I’m pleased to say that people’s instincts often lead them to rise above their own dogmas.  But they’re still there, hanging around their neck like the proverbial millstone, weighing them down.  They could do so much better if it weren’t for their anti-human thinking. It’s not their fault, they were taught to think this way since the time they were too young to evaluate these things themselves.

But they’re not young anymore. Now many of them are grown, and it’s time they start taking responsibility for critically analyzing the things they were taught to believe. And keep in mind, I’m not suggesting they do something I haven’t walked through myself, because I have.  It was hard at times, I’ll admit.  But it’s completely doable.  And I’m glad I forced myself to follow it through to its logical completion.  I was taught so many things that in retrospect are baseless and fanciful.  It’s embarrassing at times to recall what I used to accept as fact. But that’s what happens when they get to us so very young. They can teach us to believe just about anything, and once we’re older we still hold to the same things we thought when we were tiny and a lot more trusting.

That message is not above reproach, however.  It deserves to be scrutinized just as much as the people who keep teaching it.  And yes, sometimes they behave badly. I suppose I see how from the Christian perspective that’s a discredit to your own claims of regeneration and empowerment by the Spirit. But that’s your hang-up, not ours.  We don’t bring to this the same expectations about Christians behaving better than others because we don’t believe in benevolent indwelling ghosts.  Our problem isn’t just the messengers, it’s the message itself.

[image credit: Shutterstock]

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