We’ve talked here about the “Christian bubble.” The Christian bubble is an insular world with its own customs, language, in-jokes, references, worldview, attitudes, and social customs–a world that only very minimally touches upon the real world that non-Christians inhabit. Today I want to devote more time to the idea.
A Familiar World.
If you’ve ever been on a military base, we’re talking like a big one like Keesler Air Force Base, then one thing you notice immediately is that someone stationed there would never, ever have to leave the confines of the base. I used to love visiting Keesler in the 80s with my mom on her monthly shopping trips (we weren’t Air Force, but we were allowed to visit the base and go pretty much anywhere we liked). It was a long haul to get there, but the savings were worth the gas and time–and it was always a nice mother-daughter outing for us both. We’d get there in the early afternoon, get lunch at one of the restaurants there, marvel at the base’s movie theater and other amenities, then hit the PX and Commissary and load her station wagon down with groceries. We’d swing by a fast food place on the way out and gloat over the savings her couponing had brought the family, and drive home with food and treats like comic books. Our own base back home wasn’t anywhere near this extensive. Keesler had it all–from hair salons to swimming pools, from bookstores to nightclubs, from libraries to schools, from liquor stores to volleyball fields, from hospitals to self-help groups. Spouses and kids usually tried to find jobs on-campus, so to speak, and often they did. (But remember, folks: socialism is baaaaaaad.)
I grew up in a military family and even I was totally in awe of those bases. Even so, eventually I grew uncomfortable with that very insularity. My parents didn’t mind living on-base in housing provided by Unca Sam for free when they could, but they seemed a lot happier and more “normal” when we were living off-base in our own house. I felt safer on-base as a kid and teenager, but there was something really weird about living in a little miniature country like that. It felt like being in a fishbowl in a lot of ways–and it can be supremely uncomfortable to be living so close to not only one’s boss but also all of one’s co-workers, especially when those co-workers aren’t always the epitome of maturity and rationality. And yes, it can feel a little like being at a 24/7 high school pep rally, all MURKA MURKA MURKA! all the time. These are pretty common complaints. For all the many benefits of military service and all the respect I feel toward those who elect to defend America’s interests and freedoms by serving, I still can look at military-base culture and see room for improvement.
When viewed from the lens of experience, though, I look back at military-base culture and can see how I might have felt adrift after my family quit bases for good when I was in my mid-teens. We moved to a city that didn’t have enough base housing for every family stationed there, and they had an extremely generous housing allowance so families that couldn’t get on-base could find a really nice house off-base. We ended up renting a substantially nicer house than we’d ever had in my entire life, one that was located in a upper-middle-class subdivision in Houston, and I began attending the local (fucking HUGE) high school. None of the kids around me were military brats. None of them even knew anything about the culture I was used to. For all my family’s normalcy when off-base, we were also cut off from the exact culture that’d been most familiar to me growing up.
What I’m saying is that maybe my conversion to evangelical Christianity and later fundamentalism makes more sense than I’ve ever given it credit for having. Joining the Southern Baptists and then the Pentecostals definitely gave me a distinct identity, a purpose, a mission, a sense of structure, and a group culture that I probably found very familiar. When I walked into a church, I felt like I belonged there in a way I never felt like I belonged in school, or at university, or in the various clubs I belonged to. When I converted to right-wing Christianity, I put myself back into a bubble, and I probably found that bubble very comforting.
The Matrix movies really summed it up well: that there’s this world we inhabit that we don’t realize isn’t the real world. We go about our lives immersed in this culture and world that is totally familiar and yet imperfect enough to keep us busy and distracted. A lot of people I knew didn’t understand why the treacherous Cipher might want to be put back into that bubble–to become a slave again–but I did. Oh, yes, I did. When I realized Christianity’s claims weren’t true, I had to struggle with that information and figure out what I’d do about it. I know some people come to that realization and still remain Christians to reap the rewards of the bubble; in college I was flabbergasted when a young Mormon man I knew finally admitted that Mormonism was started as a congame by a scammer and he was aware that not a single one of its historical or spiritual claims was true, but he’d be staying Mormon so could I please get off his back. Now, I understand a lot better why he might choose to remain in the religion even knowing none of it was objectively true. I know people in a lot of religions who know that their religions’ claims aren’t true, but still choose to remain in their religions–and I am referencing religions as disparate as Islam, Christianity, neo-paganism, and Buddhism. The bubble isn’t just a Christian idea.
Struggling free of our bubbles is a common enough experience that I want to include it in our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted.
Elements of the Christian Bubble.
Ever since the days of the ancient Hebrews, religions have understood that a distinct appearance separates one group from another. Ultra-conservative Christian groups like the Pentecostals of my youth are probably the last standouts here; I sometimes got asked if I was Amish because I dressed like a prairie-girl. When you see a Pentecostal woman, you know immediately what she is; between the awkward uncut-hair styling, total lack of makeup, and strange way of wearing dresses and skirts (often with socks and tennis shoes!), they can look like time-travelers in a way. We took pride in looking so different, too (though we’d never have admitted it, what with pride being a sin and all)! I heard men in my denomination get all bummed out because they had no real way to stand out the same way women did.
Nowadays even women who identify as fundamentalists, even Pentecostals, don’t go in for that stuff. But where excessively Puritan dress codes have largely become unfashionable and passé, the Christian marketing machine swung into gear. Now a Christian man or woman can dress head to toe in ostentatious, showboat-y religious gear. T-shirts and other clothes illustrated with slogans shamelessly ripped off from secular companies, or huge calligraphed Bible verses, or pictures of Bible characters can be had at any Christian bookstore–which sell swag that can Jesus-fy every single part of a Christian’s home, car, workspace, and closet. They even sell Jesus-ified snack food, so people can know them by their Testa-mints and footstep-shaped gummy candies.
Specialized language is a very definitive marker of a bubble. Just like in the military there was a lot of slang that would be unintelligible to outsiders, Christians have a very distinct way of speaking that separates them from–and makes them unintelligible too–non-Christians. That jargon is called Christianese, and most Christians aren’t even aware that they’re using it. How oblivious, you might ask? Well, the extremely sweet fellow who writes and researches that dictionary I just linked you to includes a page describing how Christians are busily redefining what the word “religion” means, but completely misses that while (rightfully) criticizing his peers’ self-serving redefinition of “religion,” he is himself busily redefining the word “relationship.” I can’t blame him. I didn’t realize I was doing it myself until I left Christianity.
I just feel like Daddy God wants us to take a break.
Strange–but not too strange–behavior.
A bubble’s members have their own customs, taboos, rituals, and mannerisms–but these can’t be too extreme or else the people in the bubble will feel too strange. Just as the conventional wisdom is that the main difference between archaeological dig sites that were Philistine and those that were Israelite involved the presence or absence of pig bones (that’s a paper that discusses the matter in more detail), but that there weren’t a lot of other big differences at all, modern Christians engage in practices that are a little weird but not too different from mainstream culture. They talk a big game about being pro-life, but go to abortion clinics about as often as their peers, according to this rather hand-wringing post from Charisma News. They talk glowingly about virginity, and even make public vows to abstain from non-marital sex, but get downright petulant and indignant if anybody gives them any kind of perceived side-eye for being virgins.
My own denomination of Pentecostals had entire handbooks detailing what “worldly” pursuits were okay for us to indulge in. Parades were out; high school pep rallies were okay provided we didn’t curse or drink beer. Movies and plays were out; symphonies were fine. Christians often worry a great deal about being “in the world but not of it”–a phrase which speaks to how far they’ll engage in non-Christian behaviors and practices. This mindset can make them look arrogant to outsiders, but I don’t think it’s going to change much anytime soon.
Penalties for noncompliance with the group’s culture and opinions.
Ostracism and shunning are extreme examples, as are the occasionally-lethal ways ancient people handled dissenters, but there are lots of other ways the residents of the bubble can force noncompliant people into line. I’ve talked before about the frightening “intervention” I got for being childfree, and I’ve seen other Christians get the full hammer-swing of Christian “love” for acts of defiance that can be as minor as saying that maybe Christians should maybe possibly listen a little to what the victims of their “love” are saying about how Christians’ “love” negatively affects them, maybe.
In general, when someone in a subculture is afraid to voice an opinion for fear of what his or her tribemates will do in retaliation, the bubble’s residents have successfully silenced noncompliance. And I’ve read some convincing stuff lately about how, as the bubble’s influence on popular culture continues to wane, its silencing retaliation may grow more concerted and extreme. I can see why. If Christians want their culture to stand out–but not too much–then it makes total sense for them to be seriously bothered by how far secular culture is moving away from Christian culture. They want to stand above mainstream culture, not be viewed as lagging far behind it or holding opinions and practices that are markedly inferior to those in that mainstream culture. When an older Christian woman shouted “I want my country back!”, she resonated with a bunch of other Christians who felt, like she did, that what they’d always considered as their country was pushing dangerously far from their grasp. It’s not theirs anymore, and they would like it to be theirs again. That it belongs to all Americans is irrelevant. They were happy to talk like that when they felt that all Americans were People Like Them. Now that they’re becoming aware–however dimly–that all Americans are not People Like Them, they’re getting increasingly, explosively angry at their loss of influence.
Encouragement to live entirely in the bubble and not associate with dissenters or expose oneself to dissenting ideas.
One thing a bubble does very successfully is isolate its members so that they’re only talking to and hanging out with each other. I know a number of Christians who rarely–or even never–hang out with non-Christians unless it’s with an agenda to “save” them. I was a lot like that myself. I went to church most days and nights of the week, and the ones where I wasn’t at church, I was hanging out at the homes of fellow Christians–or hosting them at my own home. If Biff, my then-husband, hadn’t discovered a “burden” for atheists (that word is itself Christianese, meaning that he was extremely interested in converting atheists in particular), I probably never would have talked to anybody who wasn’t Christian.
We have that burden to thank at least in part for my deconversion. Reaching out past the bubble is dangerous, and Biff lamented it toward the end because he realized that those atheists, in talking to me when they visited our place, had put ideas and questions into my pretty little head. In the same way, I’ve run across a number of Christians who are scared even to look into ideas their churches don’t approve–like the Theory of Evolution, or feminism, or whatever their church’s boogeyman of the hour is. That terror of what their kids might encounter in the big bad world is also why we’re seeing a lot more fundagelical parents homeschooling their kids than we used to see (a trend which is itself another reaction to how far popular mainstream culture is slipping away from Christian culture). I was mostly deconverted the first time I walked into a hair salon as an adult, and even then I felt like I was walking into some Ancient Roman brothel. I was scared! And I’d been to hair salons as a teenager, so it’s not like I had no idea. I’d just been programmed over time to think that hair salons were evil, Satanic places.
Once we leave the bubble, we can start feeling adrift. I’ve mentioned before that when I deconverted, it was largely due to stuff I’d figured out on my own–and I had a lot of work to do in deprogramming myself, work I largely did for myself because there just wasn’t a lot of information out there debunking Christianity’s various claims.
Escaping the Bubble.
Recognize that it was a bubble, not the real world.
Once we realize we were in a bubble, we can start recognizing the many ways that we got programmed to differ from mainstream culture–sometimes artificially. There are a lot of subcultures in our world that seem to make such arbitrary distinctions, from how Ancient Israelite settlements decided not to eat the most common and easily-available meat available to how hipsters refuse to get caught listening to any well-known bands. Christian culture’s distinctions are just as arbitrary, and like other subcultures, they do it because they genuinely (but mistakenly) think that there’s some good and overwhelming reason for doing things that way. Over time, they’ll internalize those reasons and consider that anybody holding opposite opinions is either ignorant of the good reasons for acting like Christians say they should act, or knowingly defying and resisting Christian conventions for reasons that are usually considered shallow, vain, or self-serving.
For example, Christians generally think that non-marital sex is morally unacceptable, and I’ve heard a variety of reasons for holding this opinion, all couched in the language of concern and real-world consequences–but all of those reasons are ridiculous if not outright factually incorrect. Claiming to abstain from non-marital sex is just one of the behavioral distinctions that Christians think mark them as being non-secular, that’s all. It’s an in-group marker that Christians believe marks them as being better, more superior human beings compared to those who are not in the bubble alongside them. Trying to force and terrorize non-Christians and noncompliant Christians alike into not having any other type of sex is part of how they gain pleasing feelings of control over secular culture. That most people–even Christians–have non-marital sex distresses Christians very greatly and is a sign to them of how far secular culture is escaping their control. So they clamp down even harder.
Question the bubble’s programming.
To refer to that earlier example, if we start to question seriously the idea that non-marital sex is bad, then we’re starting to question the ingrained subculture of the bubble. That was really hard for me personally as I deconverted. Pretty much every single political and social position I held in the first half of my entire life turned out to be just part of the arbitrary programming I’d received while in the Christian bubble. And gang, nobody wants to believe that they got programmed to believe something arbitrary, much less something flat-out untrue. I was no exception there. When I left that bubble and rejoined the real world, I discovered very quickly that nothing in that real world worked the way my Christian programming said it did (and should).
Every time we say to ourselves, “X is wrong,” where X is something that doesn’t directly and clearly physically impinge upon another person’s personal space, rights, or property (like murder, rape, theft, or child molestation), we should follow that up with “Why do I think X is wrong? What real-world repercussions will result from X becoming acceptable?” Talking–and listening–to others who disagree with our views is a very good way to get a little perspective. Every time we say to ourselves, “Y is morally right,” we ought to be asking if there is a competing view that Y is wrong–and we should be paying attention to that view.
Seeking those competing viewpoints might not change our minds–or change them right away. But at least we’ll be hearing some opposing viewpoints, which will make us aware of how the real world may differ from the bubble’s programming. A big part of why bubbles are bad is that they insulate those in the bubble from ever doing that. Their residents start thinking that the programming reflects reality, when it probably doesn’t.
I’d also gently suggest not being That Guy who shows up on a forum announcing that he or she is there purely to expose themselves to differing viewpoints. Nobody likes being treated like a freakshow of mutants, or like the volunteered educators of someone who might well not actually want to learn anything or change. It also comes off as “oh, well, normally I’m totally aboooooove this sort of thing…” If you’re really there to learn, then you should be able to do it without announcing yourself. And if you get offended by something there, then just leave peacefully, without flouncing. (Has a flounce ever produced any reaction but hoots of laughter? I’d like to answer that age-old question: No. No, it has not.)
Refuse to believe that those outside the bubble–those who dissent with the bubble’s culture and opinions–are somehow inferior morally.
It’s really easy for people in a bubble to start believing that their own arbitrary rules and opinions are not only what’s best for themselves but are also best for society at large–and to see those who disagree as immoral and inferior subhumans who must be controlled, corralled, and confined for their own protection and good.
People who disagree with any “X is wrong” position (as defined above) probably have a damned fine reason for disagreeing. They may be very moral people who arrived at their opinion using different rules and facts than you got yours. Or maybe, much more distressingly, they looked at the same facts you did and still came out with a different opinion. Opinions are fine to have. The danger is in thinking that those opinions are facts, and worse yet in trying to impose those opinions on someone else.
It’s very important to learn early on what is our business and what is someone else’s business. The generalized “won’t someone think of the children?” scaremongering tactic doesn’t fly here. A metaphorical sense of harmfulness is not the same as categorical and direct harmfulness. Eyeball tattoos may indeed be harmful to those who get them on a moral level–but according to optometrists they are physically harmful and hugely risky as well, which is why a lot of folks want them made illegal. If they were perfectly safe, then that’d be a whole other matter and I would oppose efforts to ban them. Nobody gets to decide for other people what is moral or immoral for them to do with, put into, or tolerate in their own bodies.
Refuse to buy into arbitrary rules unless they work for you personally–and recognize in turn that they don’t work for everybody.
Want to stay a virgin until you get married to an opposite-sex spouse, refuse to use birth control, and have a bunch of kids, all because that is what you, yourself, want to do and are convinced is how you will best be able to use your finite lifespan on this good dark earth? Want to live in a bubble with all your kids? Well, then, you go on ahead with your bad self, you crazy diamond. I am 100% behind you. Your body, your life, your choice. It’s all yours.
But do you want to drag me into your bubble with you?
Want to imply that anybody who doesn’t follow that same life script is immoral?
Want to criminalize anything that falls outside that approved life script?
Want to put yourself into a position of adjudicating and judging those who don’t live the way you want to live?
Want to create and/or perpetuate a culture that demonizes any other way of handling one’s private life?
Then it’s fucking on.
I will challenge your insistence that your opinions are valid for anybody but yourself. I may demand support for the real-world claims and ideas that led you to form that opinion in the first place. I will fight against your attempt to lodge those opinions into public policy or to write them into laws. I will publicly dissent and I’ll be loud about my reasons for doing so. And there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it.
I’ll do all this because my personal opinion is that bubbles belong in bathtubs, not in people’s lives, and the second your bubble pokes at my life, I get to resist its overreach as much as is necessary to get it to retreat away.