I wanted to call this post “Toward a New Vision of Interpersonal Relations” but that was too college-sounding even for me (admittedly, not by much). One of the biggest shifts I had to process in my thinking after my deconversion was my understanding of consent. Not to make it sound all dramatic or anything, but it was about the biggest 180 I could possibly have made, and chances are some of y’all are facing that same challenge now. I run into ex-Christians often who haven’t quite made it that far yet either, and are instead clinging to some of their old programming like those baby monkeys did to the fake mothers in those awful experiments years ago.
Simply put, our old religion didn’t really care much about consent. It certainly didn’t care much about what the target of our actions and words thought of anything we did, and it definitely did not train us to care about getting permission before we emotionally manipulated or even verbally assaulted the people we were trying so hard to “save.” Instead, we were trained to try to convert people no matter what, by any means, and to pull out every single stop in the name of the “greater good.” We were taught that might makes right (and we always had the most might, obviously, so we were always the most right) and that the ends justified the means (but only when we were doing it).
In other words, any offense or overreach was okay if the cause was important enough and we were sincere enough in our intentions while doing it.
The Bus Gambit.
Moreover, only we were equipped with the necessary and correct discernment to tell if the cause was important enough.
When a bus was barreling down on some poor oblivious schmuck on the street, went a popular analogy I heard near-weekly with my own two pretty pink ears, we sure didn’t stop to ask permission or discuss the matter rationally and with great dignity and care, did we? No! We instead knocked that person down to get them out of danger, right? There wasn’t time to do anything else! Sometimes we might skin someone’s knee doing it, or break some bit of property, but wasn’t that person’s life worth more than a bit of injured pride or a mild scrape? Why, really they should be thanking us for caring so much about their mortal lives than about stupid, temporary niceties like manners. And they would thank us, yes, once they saw what a great danger they had escaped with our help.
They would thank us.
We were so sure of that. And if they didn’t now, if they didn’t see the bus we saw, then we were still morally obligated to knock them down to save their lives.
Except there never was a bus except in our own heads, and it turned out that knocking people down repeatedly for no reason they could see did not actually win us any friends or help us influence anyone. In fact, I never met anybody who converted because they got knocked down by me or one of my fellow Christians. Getting knocked down appeared to actually be one reason why many of them actively rejected our message.
The real mystery is not why Christians take seriously a threat they’ve never seen credibly verified, but rather why Christians even now still frequently use that exact same type of analogy to rationalize why they’re still knocking people down despite the fact that it almost never actually converts people.*
And if the tactic does not work to convert people, then why the fucking hell are they still doing it with such obvious pride and relish?
The Rules of A Broken System.
A system works in the way its owners want it to work.
When we look at how Christians treat people, we need to remember that it’s not an accident; they’re doing it for a reason. Their leaders think that given every alternative, this particular pattern of behavior is what will achieve their goals. They teach their flocks about this pattern, and the flocks rush out to parrot their leaders’ instructions. I really wish I could tell you that I was any different as a Christian, but I’m sure I wasn’t.
I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say this setup is totally intentional, but I think Christian leaders have hit upon this style of interaction because it feeds into their desire to be dominant over others, to have special privileges that other groups don’t get, and to feel more correct than others. I noticed pretty early on that people didn’t convert as a result of the tactics I was taught to use, but in the many years since my deconversion I’ve realized that winning souls might not actually be Christian leaders’ entire goal here.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: I really think that what they want is to act like they’re finding answers and creating solutions, and then have their stated goal results fall into their outstretched hands, but without their actually changing a single thing about their tactics. They’d absolutely love it if hordes of heathens suddenly came clamoring to their churches for baptisms while waving tithe envelopes in the air, but they’re not so eager for it to happen that they’re willing to materially change anything they’re doing right now even if what they’re doing right now is categorically failing to gain new converts.
The reason they can’t change what they’re doing hinges on the idea of consent.
If Christians started caring about consent, then that would mean they’d have to find some other way to warn the rest of us about their invisible buses. They’d have to give us credible evidence that the bus exists, that we are really in danger of being hit by that bus, and that they know how to help us escape the bus. But they can’t do a single bit of that. So it’s a lot easier to knock us down and pretend that there just isn’t any other way of handling the matter. Negating our consent means they can keep treating us the way they do.
This negation breeds a certain arrogance. Just as Christian leaders deny entire swathes of people the right to consent to achieve a specific set of goals, individual Christians do it because they are convinced that their concerns significantly outweigh the needs and desires of their non-Christian targets.
I spent many years in a religion that genuinely thought that what it was doing was not only right but required. We called our meddling by euphemistic names and wielded Bible verses like bludgeons to rationalize it all: this young woman’s clothes were a “stumbling block” and that young man needed his friends to force him into “accountability.” We thought we were supposed to meddle and pester and poke and prod and shame and strong-arm those around us into compliance. And because we thought we were oh-so-moral and oh-so-much-better judges of what was right and wrong, we took it upon ourselves (with all humility, of course–*snerk*–sorry; I couldn’t hold that in) to try to force every single person in our world to comply with the rules that we followed (or rather failed dramatically and constantly to follow but still thought were workable rules for society) because we thought those rules would make a perfect society full of perfect people and we had been scared shitless by our leaders about the idea of a godless culture.
Constructing a Bubble.
What we were really trying to do was enact a sort of Mad Men community with Little House on the Prairie clothes and sexual mores, and I wish I could say that we didn’t know it–because in my little corner of Christianity, we most certainly did know that was what we were trying to do, and we were quite proud of the fact. We just didn’t know what Mad Men was yet, but we were all fascinated with the 1950s anyway.
What we didn’t know was that stripping away people’s self-ownership and treating them like little children we were parenting led not to a perfect society full of perfect people but to a complete mess: shocking abuse against women and children, lies and deceptions, constant streams of scandals and crimes leaking out of the most fervent of these society-changers, and a populace that is slipping further away with each passing day because it is so revolted by what it sees in this “loving” religion. Even within Christian communities, the more committed the group is to this kind of hierarchical, ownership-minded thinking, the more likely it seems that there is rampant abuse involved there. With no Jesus magically making people better or more moral, it seems like handing someone that much power over others just leads to a greater likelihood of harm being done.
Who’d’a thunk that the mean ole secular world, with its rules about non-discrimination and diversity, its insistence on equality and self-ownership, and its emphasis on personal liberty and freedom, would actually be a lot healthier for people and better for societies? Weren’t those “worldly” values supposed to lead to hellish nightmare dystopias of “selfishness,” greed, sloth, and immorality?
And when we deconvert from Christianity, I’m sad to say, sometimes we get into this mistaken mindset where our agendas and desires outweigh those of the people we’re trying to strong-arm. People don’t deconvert and become magically enlightened. We got taught certain things about how society should work and how men and women should behave and interact, and those lessons don’t die easily. It’s really, really, really hard to let go of the idea that we can and should dictate other people’s lives to them, and even to endure such dictation in our own lives.
You Own You, Always.
If you’ve only recently left Christianity, then know this:
You own you.
Your body is yours. Your life is yours.
Put your hand on your chest.
That’s your body. It belongs to you.
You are allowed to run it as best you see fit.
Tell yourself all of that as often as you need to hear it.
Nobody else gets to tell you what goes into it, what comes out of it, or what contortions it will or won’t go through with any other consenting adult–as long as all of that happens within your own body and doesn’t get in the way of others exercising their own rights. Nobody has some expectation of care that requires you to give blood, donate organs, gestate, fuck, marry, not marry, touch, or endure the touch of anybody else. Even if someone would die without your blood, you still have the right to refuse to donate it for any reason whatsoever–even for no reason whatsoever. You don’t even need to tell the person asking for your blood why, or to argue about it. Just not wanting to do it is reason enough.
In the same way, you do not have the right to demand another person endure a violation to benefit anyone else. Even if that beneficiary would die, you do not have the right to essentially enslave someone into donating part of their body to anyone. You do not have the right to demand that other people not have sex or to have sex only how you like it. You have no say whatsoever in other people’s lives. You do not have the right to touch others without their permission, nor to push yourself into their personal space, nor to manipulate them even for the very best of causes. You don’t get to make that decision for someone else. You do not have the right to force others to give you their attention or their time, either.
No matter how much it bothers you, no matter how much you think you would do so much better at deciding something for someone else, no matter how much more correctly you think you’d handle a problem, no matter how angry or sad or upset you are about other people not doing things your way, no matter how much you think you want or need to commit a violation upon someone else, or how justified you think you are–or what the fallout would be if you refrained–they belong to them.
In the same way, nobody gets to dictate those things for you.
And if one of you impinges on the other, whichever of you is doing the impinging is the one in the wrong and the one who needs to stop and withdraw.
When we leave Christianity, recognizing that people (including us!) own themselves and have a right to go about their business unmolested is one of the biggest lessons we’ll ever learn.
Re-Framing the Situation.
Re-framing social issues in terms of consent shifts quite a few things.
Some issues–like abortion and equal marriage–vanish entirely. They become issues of personal sovereignty, at which point nobody has the right to force others to endure violations of their bodies against their wills no matter what the potential benefits might be, nor to tell others how they will or won’t conduct their most intimate relationships. Christian efforts to do precisely that start looking downright grotesque and cruel when viewed through the lens of personal bodily integrity and ownership. (And when non-Christians do it without even benefit of “but but but the boss told me so! I have a memo from the top right here!” as an excuse, they look even worse.) That’s why when you see court cases regarding equal marriage lately, you’ll notice the judges involved ask for–and never get–evidence supporting Christians’ oft-made claim that equal marriage would somehow harm all of society, force all straight married couples to divorce, and maybe cause a meteor to hit the Earth. And that’s why studies about abortion stress the very real personal harm that results for women when abortion access is halted. There’s no truly good way to override another person’s self-ownership and private decisions without it resulting in nightmarish and scientifically-ludicrous scenarios, as we are seeing now even with miscarriages.
Others–like mandatory vaccination–fall into uncomfortable new territory. At that point we have to start talking about herd immunity and the very real and demonstrable harm to all of society if people don’t vaccinate their kids; we have to present real and credible evidence supporting our claim that lack of vaccination can harm vast numbers of people, such that yes, we have to ask people to get a vaccine of negligible risk and pain in order to fully participate in society with the rest of us sane, rational people–or they will have to deal with not being able to fully participate in society (such as: kids not being allowed into schools; them not being allowed to report to their workplaces; not being invited to group activities). Conscription in times of war falls along those lines as well; the military has its own ramifications regarding consent. Consent adds new ripples to issues that maybe were cut-and-dried back when we just automatically assumed that everybody was owned by somebody in some vast feudal society headed by a god.
It can be really hard, as well, to realize that our emergencies do not constitute someone else’s emergencies. Just because we want something or need something from someone else does not obligate that person to do it for us or give it to us. We’ve talked here about Nice Guy™ entitlement mentalities, which is where we see this attitude most starkly and obviously presented. I once talked with a Nice Guy™ who genuinely thought that random women “owed” him (his word) explanations for why they didn’t want to date or talk to him, and they “owed” him their help in becoming a better person. As far as he was concerned, it was these strangers’ binding obligations to drop everything they were doing right then to stop and educate him–to his satisfaction and so that he totally understood at last–about how he could fix his shortcomings so he could better present himself to women, stop creeping them out so much, and finally get some dates. He had a very elaborate social contract in his head that he was literally and explicitly demanding these total strangers uphold, telling them (and me, later) that it was their obligation as human beings and fellow travelers on this muddy rock called Earth to go through all of this hassle on his behalf. He didn’t realize he was making this demand as a way of punishing women for rejecting him.
Shockingly, he was getting neither dates nor the education he claimed he so desperately wanted, and he was mystified–as well as increasingly angry that the women he was daily trying to guilt-trip that way just laughed at him for it. Nothing I said could convince him that no, actually, he did not have a right to anybody’s time or to an “education” upon demand (which I doubt they’d have had success at if they’d even wanted to try; I sure didn’t). We parted ways; I don’t know to this day if he ever understood how unreasonable his desires were or what kind of overreach he was perpetrating against these poor young women he had targeted to become either his fuckdolls or his completely unwilling teachers. But it did illuminate a lot of truths for me about how religious people operate because this guy had never been Christian at all, yet he was acting exactly like toxic Christians do.
Overzealous Christians are the Nice Guys™ of the religious world. But with them it runs both ways. Many Christians don’t understand that someone else’s emergencies do not have to constitute their emergencies. They may have a tough time saying “no” to others, becoming people-pleasers who have a difficult time carving out room for themselves in their own lives. They get taught every single day–from infancy sometimes–that “selfish” is the worst thing anybody can possibly be; they are taught that their bodies are not their own and that they will always belong to somebody else, so they cannot say “no” when asked to do something–and they may believe that others are entitled upon demand to their time, attention, and bodies. They are taught that this slavery is actually freedom, while the freedom of “the world” is really actually debauched slavery–to sin, to Satan, to pleasure.
When they leave Christianity, Christians indoctrinated to think that way still have those ideas in their heads, but now those ideas are floating free without a deity.
That’s when we discover the real horror of this beast, namely: that the concept of negating someone’s consent transcends all religion.
Challenging the Old Ideas.
At its core, a lack of respect for consent is no more Christian than the Golden Rule is Christian. It is an ideology of control and power, one that was co-opted very early on by Christianity and now falsely presented as some uniquely Christian idea. So when we stop being Christian, we do not automatically shed that Deeper Magic ideology we were taught. I’m sorry, friends. We don’t escape it that easily.
But we do eventually if we keep working at it.
One by one, these once-sacred ideas must be challenged.
Consent may be the first thing we come to, or it may be one of the last, but it comes eventually. Eventually we start to learn to mind our own goddamned bidniss. We start to let others make their mistakes–and sometimes we’re astonished when whatever it was turns out not to be a mistake after all. We cautiously stop going to such pains to voice our disapproval when our friends do stuff we don’t like; we stop thinking our advice is needed or necessary in every single situation. We stop trying to fix people and start listening to them.
And eventually we learn that we belong to ourselves and that we have a right to refuse overreaches and requests if we don’t want them. We learn that impinging on someone else’s autonomy is almost always totally unacceptable and that if we see a bus barreling down on someone, then we goddamned well better be able to prove that there is a bus if we’re going to hurt or control someone for what we believe is their own good. (This last part may well be where we also start figuring out what credible evidence actually looks like, and how to sift delusions from reality.)
And when we start moving in that direction, we start thinking of consent as being valuable. We start seeing Christianity’s overreaches in terms of how they violate others’ consent, and we start seeing just why the religion is failing so hard, why it is losing so many people, why it faces so many scandals, and why it seems more irrelevant and ridiculous with every passing year.
There’s just not going to be some magical way that Christian leaders are going to sell a worldview based around slavery and ownership to a world that values consent. It’s really that simple.
The Important Questions.
Questions to Ask When the Urge to Control Rises Like Dread Cthulhu From the Sea.
1. Did this person ask for my input or approval? Is this person an adult? Is this person living under my roof? Is this person in some kind of distress that I can materially demonstrate in a credible manner to anybody’s satisfaction?
2. Is this person’s behavior or words impacting me personally in a negative and meaningful way? (Stepping on my foot; making so much noise I can’t sleep next door; taking my stuff; touching me without my permission.)
3. If not, then what kind of material harm could result if this person continues to do whatever it is s/he is doing? (Spreading diseases like crazy; physically harming clients who don’t realize that the services they’re receiving are actually really dangerous.)
4. What is the actual goal desired here? (Stopping spread of disease; stopping the spread of misinformation; protecting consumers.)
5. Is there a way to accomplish the goal without physically touching the person doing whatever it is we’ve figured out is materially harmful? (Not letting the unvaccinated person be around others; making sure that people are educated better about whatever it is that is possibly dangerous.)
6. Is the big problem here really that we’re just not comfortable with this person doing stuff we wouldn’t personally choose to do? (Usually, the answer is “yes.” Just warning you now.)
And folks, these questions can run in reverse, too. If you feel like someone’s trying to negate or override your consent, then you can run through these questions to see if this overreach is okay or if you’re within your rights to refuse whatever is being asked of you. Almost always, you will be.
Obviously these questions won’t cover every situation, but once we start learning to let go of our need to control others, once we start recognizing the sheer overwhelming importance of getting consent from those we interact with–and the importance of our own consent as well!–our lives will start to change for the better.
In a very real way, our post-Christian lives don’t really begin till we start learning this lesson.
And learning it really does inoculate us like any vaccine against falling back into something harmful to us.
* We’re going to challenge the bus analogy at some point. (EDIT: We finally did. Here it is.)
Other posts about consent: