In the last week I’ve had Christians making assumptions about me like five times, so this post just about walked up and yelled at me to write it. Here we go!
“I hope one day you find peace,” wrote the sweet, naive young Christian woman. She meant well and I’m not angry or offended with her, but it made me think about the many times Christians have assumed things about me just this week (many in a way less friendly way than she did), and it got me thinking about assumptions in general and why they’re so bad for Christians to make.
I remember when I was a Christian, I was really good at saying just the perfect thing. In White Wolf’s Changeling game terms, I had the Bard’s Tongue. I used to think it was a spiritual gift. Now, of course, I know that it was really just a knack for cold reading. As a child of an alcoholic and a perennial outsider at school, I got really good at recognizing subtle signs and cues in people. It was a defense mechanism more than anything else. Take that trait far enough and it’s called “hypervigilance” in PTSD therapy circles. But in Christianity it became a divine gift.
Of course, Christians have good reason to like the idea of making assumptions about people, and I was no exception. Jesus, in the New Testament Gospel myths, did it all the time–the woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, the rich young man asking how to make it to heaven, and a host of others. The New Testament’s authors make it perfectly clear that their hero had a gift for perceiving people’s situations. The stories play into our very human desire to know and be known. And when I was a Christian, we were told that the Holy Spirit would inform our tongues and give us the perfect words to say in every situation, just like Moses had gotten sent an angel with a hot coal to touch to his tongue when he didn’t know what to say. If I was acting in the Spirit, then I couldn’t possibly be wrong (of course, this was way before Jesus decided it’d be a hoot to tell Republicans to run in elections they ultimately lost).
I’m telling you this so you know what happened the day I laid the smack down on a guy we’re going to call George. One day I guess about a year before my deconversion, Biff and I drove out to a seafood place out on the Bayou in Houston to eat with a friend and co-worker of mine and her new long-distance crush. Malia was a fairly new convert to evangelicalism; she attended a Maranatha church, a tongue-talking group that wasn’t quite as fundamentalist as the Pentecostals were; they didn’t hold to “modesty” dress and behavior codes and I was a little worried about their Trinitarian leanings, but overall they were good folks. She’d known this guy, George, for a year or so long-distance. I’d been hearing about him almost that length of time. This was well before the internet, so this had been a chance meeting through her new church followed by who-knows-how-many expensive by-the-minute long-distance phone calls. He had finally flown in to meet her from New York City. She was completely smitten and convinced that this guy might be the one Jesus had meant for her to marry. She asked me and Biff, since we were married, to chaperone the two of them and give her our honest opinion of him, because she was super-inexperienced with men and had no idea what to look for, and somehow she’d gotten the idea that we had a perfect marriage.
Something about George set me off from the get-go, and as the lunch progressed I caught a number of cues that told me that he was not up to any good here. He was nice on a superficial level, but also shifty. He evaded questions in painfully obvious ways. He contradicted himself repeatedly and mixed up his own stories. He didn’t seem to have anything strong to say about his own practice or understanding of Christianity. He was a little too free with touching his beautiful date (and Malia was, let’s be clear here, really good-looking as well as wealthy and fashionable) and way too overt about staring at her rear end as she walked to the bathroom. The restaurant was gorgeous–despite my coastal upbringing I’m not into seafood much, but if you like rustic Louisiana-style seafood, this was apparently the best place within 50 miles to get it. We sat outside at a red-painted picnic table and watched the river flow lazily past the patio and I listened to the sleazeball flat-out lie to Biff and Malia over and over again. She was so smitten she didn’t notice, and Biff, well, he was as easy to fool as any pathological liar can be. I seemed to be the only person who wasn’t buying what he was selling.
By the time the dessert plates had been cleared, my cheeks were burning and I was almost in tears from anger at how he was so obviously playing my friend. Then he made the mistake of mentioning that after the lunch, he and Malia were heading over to her place to “pray” together. As she got this really sappy smile on her face and was in the middle of saying “I can’t wait,” I remember looking up at him sharply and standing up and saying “Okay, I’ve had about as much as I can take of this dog and pony show. This ends now.” Biff knew the signs of a fireworks show about to begin and he got this huge grin on his face; he was probably grateful that he wasn’t on the receiving end of my divine wrath for a change.
I let the guy have it. I don’t remember what I said, but I do believe “How dare you lead her on when she’s trying to hard so follow Jesus? She’s trying her best and she doesn’t need to get yoked to a backslidden spiritual leader who’s just going to get her sent to hell!” entered into it. It was a hell of a dramatic speech, one of those proper Southern “Well, mister, yew just let me tell yew something about yew that YEW didn’t know!” rants (to shamelessly borrow the Ron White joke). And I could tell by how he cringed that I was landing more bull’s-eye shots than Katniss Everdeen.
(Please understand: I am not proud today of how I approached this situation. It was unspeakably rude and confrontational and I had no business talking to a stranger like that. I would never do that sort of thing today. But on that cloudy day in Houston, all I could hear were the trumpets of angels; I was practically blinded by what I thought was my god’s glory. Now, of course, I know that I was simply in one of those hazes that I got into when I got enraged–anger blackouts are part of the carnival of delights that is PTSD, and yes, I did get treatment for it after deconverting.)
I finally took a breath. I was spent and exhausted. I put my hands on the table and rested a moment. I felt like my god had filled me up and then poured me out–like I’d spoken in tongues, but in English. Biff was practically cheering and waving pom-poms. Malia was staring at me in complete and total shock, her eyes big as saucers. George was staring at the now-empty table. I looked at Malia, told her I was very sorry for ruining her date, and asked if she’d please excuse me and Biff. She nodded without a word, and I fled, while Biff raced to catch up.
When we got into the Flying Brick and took off, Biff said with an awed chuckle, “Well, she did ask us to tell her what we thought of him.”
The second-guessing began immediately, of course. I didn’t sleep at all that night; I was mortified at what I’d done. I saw Malia at work the next morning and before I got two words of another apology out of my mouth, she shut me up and told me very quietly and very immediately that I’d been 100% right about everything I’d said. She’d gotten some bad feelings about George too but hadn’t known how to handle her misgivings. After we’d left, he’d confessed everything.
I’d been completely right. Yes, indeed, he was a lukewarm Christian. He didn’t actually care about church or Jesus, but had really dug her and realized that she was naive enough to fall for a good act. Apparently this was his MO–he’d bagged quite a few young women in this manner. My rebuke had been stern and precise enough that he’d realized the error of his ways. He’d confessed, she’d accepted his apology, and they parted at the restaurant never to see each other again. She was a little upset that she’d been so mistaken about what Jesus had told her about her One True Pairing (OTP), but her virginity and honor were intact and she had learned some valuable lessons (the unspoken one was “don’t let Cassidy double date with you ever again,” I’m sure, but she graciously didn’t say so). She even thanked me for being so bold and forceful with George. And I felt like my god had spoken through me–because surely that hadn’t been me; I’d never confronted anybody that outrageously in my life. That’d been Jesus, I was convinced of it.
Now remember, I’d spent about an hour around this guy and I’d seen him in person. I’m incredibly good at picking up social and personality cues, and I’d been married to and dating Biff long enough to know a narcissistic, manipulative liar when I see one. As far as I was concerned, George had told me everything I needed to know well before I stood up at that picnic table. That’s why I was able to get so much right about him.This story I’ve just told you is the polar opposite of what happens when Christians blithely assume things about me now.
The people assuming stuff about me now know next to nothing about me, only what they read of me here or see of my comments on articles online or encounter briefly in real life around me. They come out of left field with these assumptions and accusations and they’re always so positive they’re speaking with Jesus’ guidance. And they’re always so completely wrong that it’s laughable.
Did you know there’s a cognitive bias that covers assumptions like these? The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight makes us think that we know other people way better than they know us. We think we’re inscrutable and enigmatic–but we also think that others, in turn, are easy for us to understand and discern. And we think that we figure others out way faster than they figure us out.
So all in all, it’s not hard for me to understand why, given the examples in the Bible, the teachings of modern Christianity, and our own cognitive biases, some Christians are so quick to leap to erroneous personal assumptions about others.
When a cold reader makes some good educated guesses, the audience feels like that “psychic” or “prophet” has tapped into something primal and true. There’s a trick to it; I learned how to do it long after I’d left the religion and it came in handy when I was helping run online roleplaying games. And yes, sometimes–as I did that day–a Christian, psychic, or prophet gets a cold reading right after careful observation of cues or simple statistical guesswork–and a goodly dose of bluster and certainty.
But way more often, the reading is off by enough of a factor that it’s painfully obvious that the Christian’s not “speaking in the Spirit” but “in the flesh”–and every other thing out of that Christian’s mouth is suddenly suspect. Now, a really good professional psychic/prophet knows how to spin that failure around to get the mark back in pocket, but most Christians don’t have those soft skills, so after botching a cold read, they can often end up drilling down on one idiotic comment after another. After all, if Jesus was speaking through them and said it through their mouths, then it must be true–even if their target is standing there saying that no, it isn’t true. If they said something untrue thinking their god was speaking through them, then that’d have all sorts of implications, wouldn’t it? So no, the only other solution is that I’m lying or delusional. And yes, I get accused of that on a regular basis, just as most ex-Christians I know do.
That’s why Christians need to be extra careful not to get a cold reading wrong. When the sweet little Christian at the beginning of this post wished that “one day I’d find peace,” it would have been very helpful indeed to her case if she’d found out first if I actually lacked peace. She’d have discovered that no, I’m perfectly fine on the peace front, thanks. I’m not singling her out, incidentally. She is far from the only person who’s wished for peace for me when I already have it, just the most recent one. From churches to painfully ignorant apologetics authors to eye-rollingly wrong bumper stickers, Christians are taught at every turn that non-Christians don’t have peace–as the deepity goes, “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace!” It’s a flattering and ego-gratifying idea, the idea that only Christians have the market cornered on peace, joy, love, morality, and a host of other qualities that absolutely are not the sole purview of Christianity’s adherents. There’s no reason they shouldn’t believe it.
No reason, of course, except that their assumption flat out isn’t true, and that even the most cursory of questioning would reveal that it isn’t true. And yet they don’t question. They don’t investigate. They don’t find out before opening their mouths. And there is a reason these Christians don’t do this basic legwork before unveiling their assumptions.
Reality is scary and painful and complicated, and it’s a lot easier to make strawmen that look like non-believers and interact with those strawmen instead of interacting with actual non-believers’ messy realities. What if Christians found out that non-Christians–ex-Christians, atheists, pagans, and the whole barking meowing lot of us–have peace? What if they found out that ex-Christians by and large found way more peace and joy in their lives once they’d left Christianity? What if they learned that yes, we do have happiness? That we love our families and find meaning in our lives? That we follow codes of morality that in many ways are far more nuanced and developed than the ones we encountered in Christianity? What if they confronted the truth: that there is nothing good in their religion that can’t be found elsewhere, no quality in their best expression of religion that is uniquely theirs? What would that mean for their egos, I wonder, to realize that they don’t have the market cornered on the best of the human condition?
No, we can’t have that sort of thinking. Their tribe must be the most superior one. Their god must be the only real one. Their religion must be the only one that has peace, joy, morality, and love. Better to assume that an ex-Christian needs peace. Or that atheists need the morality bestowed from a Creator-god so they won’t murder anybody. Or that a non-believing married man might as well just beat and rape his wife since nothing “really” matters to him (yes, that actually got said, and to this day the vile and disgusting Christian who spewed forth this horrific slime and worse thinks he is an utterly good, rational, upstanding servant of Jesus).
That’s really the worst part of assumptions: usually they’re meant to distance the non-believer and move the believer up a few pegs above us unwashed masses. “Aw, you poor puddy. Ain’t it just terrible that you don’t have meaning/morality/peace/joy/love in your poor, pathetic little life! Look at me! I’ve got plenty of that! Don’t you want some?” is the impression I get when I hear stuff like this. And it rankles, yes; of course it does. Like most folks, I get annoyed when someone makes blanket assumptions about me that aren’t true. Even worse is being told that no, I’m wrong about how I feel, or worse yet that I’m lying, when I rebut or deny these charges. The Christian’s already been wrong once–why not pile it on? As a witnessing tactic, it’s about the worst damage a Christian can do to his religion’s reputation and credibility; nobody who gets this treatment is going to think “Wow, what a totally valid religion that Christian is showing off! I should totally check it out!” No, we’re going to think “Oh yay, another Christian telling me how I feel and think and being totally wrong about it.” Indeed this routine is almost an in-joke with the ex-Christians I know, we get it so often.
I try to remember I was there once and I felt just as challenged by messy reality then as Christians likely do today. I try to judge the heart behind the statement and work with that instead of the words, which were perhaps said in ignorance. And I try to educate graciously when I can. Sometimes the Christian in question retracts the assumption and apologizes, and we can get on with being friendly.
I wish it worked out that amicably more often than it does.
If I could tell Christians anything, it’d be this: ask first. It ain’t hard to do. Stop assuming you know what non-believers are like or what we think. And once you ask, be prepared to hear an answer you maybe weren’t expecting. Communication is such a rare and precious gift in this world; so few people actually manage to make a connection strong enough to really get a dialogue going. When someone is sharing something with another person, that’s a door to friendship and love opening. Assumptions are like a screen over that door preventing anybody from coming in or going out. If this life is all we’re going to get, then folks should connect with others’ reality instead of assuming they know what that reality is. You can’t connect with a life-sized stand-up cardboard figure. You can’t communicate when you’re acting out scenes in your very own action movie. You won’t see someone else’s reality if you’ve got a big strawman stood up between you and the other person.
So yes: I have peace. And joy. And love. And morality. And meaning. And I found most of ’em after leaving the religion. How ’bout them apples?
Next up, we talk about why the reality of ex-Christians’ experiences seems to challenge toxic Christians so much. I’ve been reading articles again about young people leaving the church, and the downright delusional Christian response to the hemorrhage is worth examining. Please join me there. And enjoy your weekend!