Today I was reading this online article about what cis people are really saying to transgender people when they refuse to be respectful about gender pronouns, and it’s a very good article and you should all read it. Not only did I learn some valuable things from it, but I also couldn’t help but notice that part of what the author of it was talking about was about how those cis-gender people are trying to dictate others’ experiences. And I’ve been thinking ever since of how I see that happening in religion, as well.
You’ve probably noticed me using the phrase “dictating my experiences to me” before when talking about a particular thing toxic Christians do around non-believers (or even around believers who aren’t up to their exacting standards or adequately toeing the party line). I use that phrase to describe Christians denying my lived reality to tell me stuff about myself that I didn’t know–and stuff that largely doesn’t seem accurate at all about my life, opinions, and history. It’s like I shouldn’t even bother telling them anything about myself–they’ll just make up whatever they like anyway. And what should I know about my life? I mean, I’m just the one living that life! What would I know?
It’s a lot easier to make up stuff about someone and attack that stuff rather than learn about that person and deal honestly and truly with them. Sometimes you’ll hear that referred to as a straw man tactic–the person who is using it intentionally and deliberately creates a “straw man” of the opinions s/he would rather fight against, and fights that creation instead of the opponent’s actual stated opinions. Sometimes a straw man in action is both cringeworthy and hilarious–like one debate described by Neil at Godless in Dixie wherein a noted Calvinist Christian literally debated sound bites of his atheist opponent’s past speeches rather than engage that same atheist opponent in reality, an atheist who was moreover physically sitting right there next to him for the actual purposes of debating him that evening. “Surreal” doesn’t even begin to cover how that looked!
In the same way, a Christian who decides unilaterally that an ex-Christian simply never was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ can decide all sorts of things about that ex-Christian’s past and argue on those bases rather than just ask the ex-Christian about it and have a real dialogue. They’re not talking to the actual ex-Christian in question but to the ex-Christian who exists only in their own heads, but since their words are meant more to enshrine their own correctness into law than to actually talk to anybody, that’s not really much of a problem–except for the Christian who happens to be under a direct commandment from Jesus himself (apparently) to love his or her neighbor.
I do want to make something clear: I’m not talking about that healthy dynamic wherein a person lovingly shares requested feedback with someone who trusts that person and is receptive to what’s being said. That’s how normal friends and families operate and that’s fine. Nor am I talking about someone sharing an accurate perception with a target who might not necessarily want to hear it–though I’d suggest that if someone’s not receptive, that perception might not be welcome and might not do any good right away to share. As satisfying as it is to tell someone that he or she is being condescending or sexist or hostile or hateful, it may take whole legions of people saying that same thing before the target even starts to think that maybe there’s something to that accusation (and someone who’s really had a lot of Kool-Aid might even take those accusations as signs that he or she is in the right!). I’m talking more about that thing that abusive people do when they quite literally create a backstory and personality for someone else that doesn’t even vaguely resemble reality. And yes, it can be hard for someone unhealthy to distinguish between an accurate perception and an abuse attempt. Sometime I’ll tell you how I learned to tell the difference–because that was one of the things I had to learn after deconverting. For now, just know that I’m talking about when the perception being shared is truthfully inaccurate and being done to accomplish a specific goal.
And oh wow is it done often. It’d be so refreshing to have a Christian actually ask me stuff rather than just unilaterally decide stuff on my behalf, but I know why they don’t. I was like that myself once. It’s really threatening to many Christians to imagine someone being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and still leaving the religion, and the Bible itself does seem to say that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ won’t ever leave the fold. So obviously if I left the religion I disqualified myself from being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ by default. Besides that simple fact, back in my Christian days I seriously thought that Jesus told me stuff about people, so I felt confident in dictating their experiences to them rather than asking them anything. I think a lot of Christians are still like that today. I get that same “speaking in the Spirit” vibe from them sometimes when they try it. A pity it is almost always wrong.
It’s not a gift of the Spirit. It’s actually a form of gaslighting to rewrite someone’s life experiences. When a Christian tries to tell me I was never a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, or that I can’t possibly have studied (insert topic here) when I actually did, or that I must be a non-Christian now because (insert ridiculous reason here) happened in my past when I’ve already said exactly why I’m not a Christian, what they’re trying to do is make me doubt reality itself and wonder if they’re right. It’s horribly emotionally manipulative and abusive, but it’s something I saw happen all the time in Christian churches across the spectrum of the religion–so it’s not like they’re pulling out all the stops just for little ole me. This is something that gets done to them and around them, and they learn that it works to negate people, so they do the same thing to others in hopes of getting the same result.
Here is what I hear when a Christian decides to dictate my life experience to me:
1. This isn’t a safe person to be around. No matter what I say, my honesty will be brushed aside in favor of the Christian’s favorite narrative. It is painful to open up to another person and get brushed aside, so when I see a Christian doing that, I know not to open up to that person. And it’s a good thing I know that, too, because that Christian sure doesn’t care if I feel safe or not. And of those people who say they value “honesty and openness” but routinely punish people who try to be that way around them by abusing whatever honesty is offered (like that odious Christian who says that he or she just wants to ask one tiny little question and then uses it to launch a huge debate that wasn’t wanted in a totally inappropriate setting like a workplace), well, they’re doubly unsafe.2. This conversation we’re having is not a conversation but rather a preaching session. My friend Neil calls these “nonversations”–isn’t that hilarious? But if we’re not having a real dialogue, if I’m totally interchangeable with any other ex-Christian, then I don’t see why I should bother opening up very much. I had a friend long ago who, when confronted with a very difficult, unpleasant old lady’s blathering, literally took a 20-sider out of her pocket, rolled it, declared that she’d made her escape roll, and fled the room–and the old lady just kept talking to thin air. That’s how I feel when I try to engage a toxic Christian doing this: like I could totally just leave and chances are the Christian would just keep blathering to thin air. If I wanted to hear preaching, I’d go to church. As it is, my politeness and sense of decorum in this situation is being taken advantage of by a Christian who would rather talk to a non-consenting target than not talk to one at all.
3. This Christian mistakenly thinks he or she knows my life better than I do. And moreover, won’t take kindly to being told there’s a serious lack of truth to that assumption. When such Christians hear that why yes, I prayed a lot and went to church and lurrrrrved Jesus and did whatever else it is they think is on the list that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do to qualify for the label, they think–and I’m so not kidding here–that I’m just lying to them about it. There’s nothing quite as offensive to most folks as being called a liar to their faces, and ex-Christians aren’t an exception to that rule. A Christian who cares about being loving will accept correction about errors and mistakes in perception, not try to argue and strong-arm me into accepting his or her Bizarro version of my life.
4. This Christian values being right more than s/he values being loving and compassionate. This one’s a big one for me personally. A Christian who is trying to dictate my life to me generally argues quite a bit when I raise the point that nothing being said about me is accurate. A Christian who cares more about the truth than about preserving their correctness and certainty will ask me about stuff rather than assuming it, and won’t be afraid to hear challenges to those assumptions.
5. This Christian values cherished illusions more than reality. I’ve talked before about the Happy Christian illusions. The Happy Christian Marriage Illusion is the main one I see, but there’s also a Sad Ex-Christian/Atheist Illusion too, and that illusion is more important to the Christian talking to me than I am. Nothing could make that truth more obvious than repeatedly ignoring my honest statements about who and what and how I am. These illusions certainly make that Christian more comfortable–no jagged sharp edges of dissonance to brush up against here! But they make me extremely uncomfortable.
6. I can’t trust this Christian to deal honestly with me. This implication has a great number of facets. Not only can I not trust this Christian to evaluate anything I’m saying objectively, but experience has also shown that I can’t trust this Christian to be honest about much of anything else. Because the illusion is more important–because being right is more important–because feeling comfortable is more important–because converting me at any cost is more important–this Christian will almost certainly lie to me about anything and everything necessary to get me to agree with him or her.
7. This Christian cares more about dominance over me than about loving me. When a Christian tries that hard to rewrite my life, it’s being done to paint me as an inferior human being who totally did everything wrong so that Christian can safely discard everything I say and all challenges I bring. It’s done to negate me, in other words, so that whatever I have to say can be ignored. I’ve never seen it done to elevate me or make my words more worthy of heeding, that is for sure, not in twenty years! If I really am some kind of rutting animal in the sewer, then certainly I couldn’t possibly have anything valuable to say. So toxic Christians try their hardest to paint me as one.
8. This Christian is probably objectively wrong about a great many other things about his or her religion. I’ve never run into a sane and loving Christian who did this stuff to me. But I’ve run into a lot of chest-thumping, tribal Rapture enthusiasts who did. The Christians who use violent threats to get their way, who are convinced that there’s a War on Christmas™ and that their god hates gay people, who have reams of reasons why “Biblical slavery” is totally different from real slavery and who seriously think the Bible is a very plainly written document whose directives are perfectly clear, these are the ones who try so hard to negate me and rewrite my life that they start ignoring their Bible’s direct command to love me. So when I see this behavior start up, I know it’s linked with a variety of other Christian errors and the chances are extremely good that I know more about this Christian’s religion than he or she does. The abuse is meant in great part to cover up that fact.
When I run into a Christian who is absolutely convinced that he or she knows everything there is to know about my life and is in the process of telling me all about it, these are some of the thoughts that go through my head–and this is what dictating my experiences looks like from a religious perspective, but there are other perspectives wherein this same tactic gets deployed. Negating someone is just a human thing, not a religious thing. It’s done out of self-defense, and it’s not just Christians who can get really defensive. But I belonged to a religion that taught that its people were morally superior to non-believers (even while parroting that all people were sinners–Christian sinners far outranked non-Christian sinners), so it was especially hard for me to recognize this abuse happening from within its ranks.
It can be really threatening to look another human being in the eye and hear something challenging to one’s framework. Sometimes what is heard will destroy a poorly-formed opinion or create a need for action–or even become an impetus for personal change. And we know how much religious people adore change! But ignoring it to create a much more comfortable illusion certainly isn’t very loving, and the people this tactic is used against know we aren’t being loved.
I’m glad to be out of a religion that kept me from really loving people and that made me value all the wrong things. Now I can see this stuff from a mile away, and you can bet I call it out when I see it. Even if the Christian in question can’t adjust course when informed that he or she is being abusive, it at least puts the brake on that particular tactic most of the time and alerts bystanders and lurkers who might not realize what’s going on or know the name for what is done to them in turn.
Please join me next time as we talk about one of the weirder things that happened after I’d deconverted, and how I learned from it that a religion based around “prove me wrong!” has some serious-ass drawbacks.