What Happens When You Mix Martian Logic with Low Church Attendance?

What Happens When You Mix Martian Logic with Low Church Attendance? September 3, 2013

It’s hard to explain exactly what Martian logic is, so I’m going to use an example and hope the meaning conveys.

In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, young Calvin one day decides to back the family car out of the garage at his house so he can use the newly-cleared garage for secret club meetings. His tiger, Hobbes, points out that Calvin’s mother won’t like him messing with the car. Calvin responds very logically that they both know how much his mother hates being bothered, so she will actually be very pleased that he got the car moved without disturbing her. Against such overwhelming logic, Hobbes has got nothin’, so they get to work moving the car. (And accidentally ditch it.)

Yes, as Dan Fincke (who I can’t help but think of as “the Camel with Hammers”) pointed out to me, it’s just rationalization. But it’s a specific type of rationalization that we’re going to talk about a little today. Not much, it’s a holiday, but I couldn’t let it go without saying something.

Most parents–and indeed anybody who deals with a childish person of any age–are well aware of this particular type of reasoning, which sounds very logical and compelling until one remembers whatever major fact got totally ignored or glossed over to get there and whatever complete denial of reality happened to make that logic work. And unfortunately, religious people show up with this sort of logic all the time, like this gem from the Center for Marriage Policy: “Gay marriage will make lesbians trick men into marriage and then child support.” Or “My god created the earth looking this old because he wants scientists to work together to learn new things,” which is something a creationist told me just yesterday.

Normal people will look at those sorts of arguments and go “wait, what? That doesn’t even make sense.” But there are whole hordes of people who buy this stuff completely and totally don’t understand that it’s beyond insane to think that gay marriage would magically make men into second-class citizens (sort of like how toxic Christians treat women, actually–weird, huh? Giving gay people rights would make them treat these men the way these men already treat gay people and women). It’s thinking like “If evolution is true then that obviously means that human life has no meaning at all,” which is something you run into a lot if you talk to creationists.

That’s the kind of logic I’m talking about. It’s irrationality dressed up in rationality’s old prom dress and heels. It’s complete lunacy disguised as common sense. I first heard the term in the 80s in one of my mother’s child psychology books and immediately thought, Hey, wait, I never did that, but you know I did, and you know all of us did to some extent or another. Martian logic makes perfect sense to the person saying it and to a listener who buys into the same mindset as the speaker, but to outsiders, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

So when I apply that term to the Christian world, you know I’m about to come out with something really fun. And you would be right.

Christians have a new excuse for why people don’t go to church like they used to.

Now, let’s preface this whole thing by saying that there’s not really a good way to tell just what church attendance nationwide looks like on any sort of reliable basis. About 40% of people consistently tell pollsters that they attend church every week, according to a Gallup poll that’s been running for decades, but other polls that use other markers than just self-reporting come up with numbers closer to 20% or so for actual church attendance–or even less. We may say we attend church regularly, but the reality is that most of us do not. The question is whether or not things are changing from how they were a few decades ago, and if so, why that might be happening.

Unfortunately, aside from anecdotes, there isn’t a lot of hard data about church attendance. Some church leaders deny that there’s any sort of problem or even claim that attendance is increasing; others admit the problem’s existence but dispute just how bad it is, or else refuse to acknowledge that churches should need to change at all to regain their dominance. This guy thinks the problem is just more infrequent attendance of regular members, but doesn’t say how he arrives at this idea, and his solution is depressingly authoritarian: track membership and attendance, and also force new members to attend newbie classes. The Barna Group has some data suggesting that women’s involvement, especially, is dropping dramatically. And here’s a nicely-written piece about how one city’s church population is aging, and about how its church leaders are trying to get younger people involved. Overall, it looks like young people and women are abandoning church in droves but that every demographic except old people are declining in involvement, and churches are scrambling to figure out how to get people involved again.

Of course, any church pastor (aside from the pastors heading the huge megachurches that make up just a small percentage of congregations) could tell you that church attendance is not doing well these past few years. A while ago I saw this piece about how evangelicals especially are declining in both numbers and influence, and it was eye-opening to see just how serious the drop in numbers is for that group.

See, if there just aren’t as many butts in pews, then a bunch of things happen. Obviously, and first off, the church loses money. All those multimedia presentations, fancy buildings, and slick websites cost money, and that money comes straight from the pockets of the people attending that church. If someone decides to stop tithing in a church with thousands of parishioners, that’s not awesome, but the church can compensate fairly easily. If someone stops tithing in a church with maybe 50 adults in it, then the pastor of that church has a genuine disaster on his or her hands.

But there are other costs as well: as more people leave, the social costs and penalties of leaving become smaller for those left behind, and they may end up leaving as well, creating a domino effect. From civil rights to liquor laws to restrictions on the sexual behaviors of consenting adults, the Christian majority has used its sheer numbers to force through a variety of controls over society, and if they just don’t have a lot of numbers, it’s a lot harder to justify the tyranny-of-the-majority thing they’re pushing. But worst of all, if a church is shrinking, that’s a huge strike against it in Christians’ minds. The church gets seen as being ineffective or doing something wrong, since a church’s membership health and size is a direct reflection of how blessed it is.

Here I can’t help but think of my onetime pastor, Brother Gene, in that little mauve-carpeted startup church in Texas. One day he confessed to me and Biff, who was the “youth pastor” of the precisely-three-kid-strong Sunday School program, that he felt that our god wasn’t blessing him or even hearing his prayers for some reason because church attendance was so lackluster. He was such a sweet man and it was hard to hear he was hurting; I still remember everything about that afternoon so clearly (we were eating his wife’s special recipe, pork tenderloin with collard greens drenched in cream of mushroom soup, while her 25+ year old Siamese cat, Flip, who was older than either me or Biff, glared at us for invading “his” house).

Given that at the time I was really struggling to maintain my faith, it was really astonishing to hear him talk so frankly, but I’m glad that he had folks he trusted so he could talk about his fears and insecurities; most pastors do not have that luxury. Apparently the denomination was looking askance at the little startup because its numbers were not growing as quickly as they thought should happen if our god were indeed blessing the venture. He was at his wits’ end. And as far as I know, not much changed; I don’t think the church lasted long after Biff and I left for Japan, since we took with us about 20% of the church’s membership.

I’m getting somewhere with all this. Obviously to solve a problem one must identify the problem. And once the problem is identified, its causes must be addressed. Of the pastors who acknowledge that yes, attendance is a serious issue, what is the latest cause they’re blaming for the drop in numbers? Why so serious?

Youth sports.

I’m so not kidding.

Youth sports. You know, organized sports that little kids play. Parents get so involved with these Little League-type things that they just don’t have time to go to church anymore. No, seriously.

So the Martian logic goes like this: people are giving up eternal life and ignoring the threat of penalties ranging from “really unpleasant but temporary” (some forms of Catholicism) to “horrifically torture-porn-ish and lasting forever and ever” (most forms of Protestantism), and when the pastors of these churches are asked why they think those numbers are falling so fast, they say the main problem…

is organized kiddie games.

This rationalization beats the pastor who blogged a few years ago blaming lack of parking spots for the falling attendance at his church. I never thought I’d see that one get topped. But here we are. There are some other excuses in that link I just gave you, and I’ve seen others besides, but this one seems like the lucky black feather that leaders are seizing with all their might. This was the result of a poll of church leaders, and this was the top response they gave. It’s just unbelievable to me.

All this carnage, all this destruction, this bleeding hemorrhage of numbers and privilege and dominance, and they’re blaming youth sports. It’s just so disrespectful and so hugely oblivious. People make time for what’s really important to them, and Christianity’s hugely imperative message just isn’t important. Why not? One would think that with the stakes it’s threatening and the promises it’s making, nobody would ever miss a single chance to make sure to get to Heaven. Maybe people know, deep down, that it’s not true. Maybe they realize that they have better things to do on a bright Sunday morning than troop down to a building filled with people they don’t really like to waste half their weekend to listen to some guy talk about stuff they are increasingly suspecting isn’t true.

A decade or three ago, someone who felt that way might have stayed in church simply because it was the good and moral thing to do. Now, though, we know that church attendance or non-attendance doesn’t make someone good or bad, and with churches getting increasingly involved in the suppression of others’ rights and the denial of science and history, attendance has baggage attached to it that goes far beyond what most pastors maybe imagine. Dissenters have very little reason to stay despite doubts.

But one thing I can tell you for absolutely sure: No, Virginia. They’re not missing church because of youth sports.

A lot of Christians think that ex-Christians are shallow, vain, hypersexualized, “sinful,” and proud. It can be hard to imagine that we left not because we wanted our Sundays freed up, but because we gave it a lot of thought and just decided it wasn’t where we wanted to be.

Look, sometimes you just want to grab your friend by the shoulders and cry out, “He’s just not that into you!” Well, churches, Christian America, evangelicals of the world, we’re just not that into you. It’s time to stop demonizing those who’ve left. Is it really that danged hard to consider that we just figured out it wasn’t true? Is it really this necessary to make up all these flimsy and ridiculous excuses to explain why we’re walking away? How valid is this faith system if its adherents can’t face the truth when it’s shouting in their face?

If you ask me, not very.

Thanks for joining me today. I hope you folks are having a nice holiday–thank a union worker! When we get back, we’re going to talk about DragonCon, since it wound down today. I went a few times in my sordid youth, and it’s hard to think of “stop demonizing people” and not flash back to the Satanic Panic around roleplaying games that struck America back in the 80s. I have a story of persecution and redemption to share, and I think you’ll like it. I hope you will. Plus there’ll be all sorts of talk about Chick tracts, and Chick tracts are never not funny.

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