Christian mythology is filled with absolutely stunning examples of bizarre reasoning, and today we’re talking about one of the very worst examples of the breed: the idea that its claims are very easily proven true using credible, reasonable, rational arguments and observations, and therefore don’t need any kind of dishonest tactics to shore those claims up or support them, so Christians don’t need to lie or misrepresent anything about their religion in order to persuade others.
This idea is not only a myth but an especially toxic and harmful one to both believers and those around them.
You’ve probably heard the story circulating around about the waiter who got a religious tract from a Christian instead of a tip. Thanks to the kind courtesy of Hemant Mehta, we have an update. The restaurant owner and the pastor of the church that was involved in this incident have spoken up, and in so doing have clarified some points and made matters even worse for the religion.
A Brief Explanation of Tracts.
A tract is a small handout or booklet created and purchased by churches and individual Christians for the purpose of evangelizing non-members of their groups. It makes a quick doctrinal point, often with colorful or appealing little images, and then makes an emotional appeal to the reader in hopes of converting that person to the church’s way of thinking. (The more lavishly produced of these remind me of Tijuana bibles.)
These little booklets are put up in racks or tables in some visible spot near the door in many churches, and members can either take a few with a specific need in mind, or they can go buy a bulk order for themselves from a bookstore or online supplier and then use them for wider-scale evangelism. And, of course, visitors to the church can see this display and take a few tracts too, though I don’t remember seeing any visitors take any.
Tracts’ actual usefulness remains a matter of great debate. Like most other things in Christianity, their effectiveness is taken on faith. Considering the expense of tracts and the emotional investment required to use them (to buy them, carry them around, give them to people, and talk about them when absolutely necessary), you’d think that someone in the religion would want to conduct studies and surveys to ensure that Christians’ money was being spent in the best possible way, but if anybody has, I sure haven’t heard about it. Instead, we get countless opinion pieces like this one–which one might notice comes down heavily against the use of tracts.
But such pastors’ mildly-worded concern won’t stop Christians from using tracts. They’re just too cheap and easy. Fundagelicals’ focus is on evangelism, and tracts let them get that burden off their consciences in a quick and painless way.
Tract publishing and sales is clearly big business. Though I couldn’t find a lot of statistics about precisely how much money is spent on these little booklets, it’s got to be plenty–because the more fundagelical the church, the more ubiquitous tracts seem to be.
Churches could no more imagine going without tracts than a hotel could imagine going without travel brochures. They are a part of the culture. But when pressed, most people would be hard-put to remember a single person who ever actually converted on the basis of these booklets. Even Chick tracts, likely the best-known of the breed and among the most expensive to buy, have a piss-poor track record. I did not use tracts myself as a Christian because I thought they were tacky and impersonal, but Biff loved them and took for granted, as 99% of our church did, that they were useful in evangelism. Our mythology abounded with legends about people who’d been “saved” as a result of this or that tract, and sometimes a particular tract would gain a reputation as magically effective because of the stories associated with it. I never saw evidence for these beliefs, and knew that a few people’s anecdotes did not change the fact that most people converted not because of some impersonal mass-market advertising drive but because of personal, one-on-one and often very close contact with a Christian.
But because they are such a quick and easy form of interaction, cheap in every single way and involving almost no personal risk for the hope of untold gain, tracts hold a great appeal for Christians. One popular apologetics site declares (without any citations or evidence, as if I needed to clarify that point) that they are indeed effective because one never knows what their coy, mysterious god will do to force a stranger’s mind to change, and because some Christians are really bad communicators and need to be able to simply hand a stranger something small instead of actually talking to people. The subreddit TrueChristian (no, really) had a fascinating argument about the topic a while ago that raised a lot of both hopes and concerns about the booklets’ effectiveness.
What really makes the whole situation laughable is thinking about all these Christians wasting precious hours of their finite money and lifetimes handing tracts out and strategizing around them, all while not having the faintest idea if they are being effective “stewards” of their “god-given” resources. And because of the whole mindset of “who knows what our coy little godling will do in a fit of pique or capriciousness?”, even if a study came out saying that they were a pointless waste of time that just annoyed people and alienated them further from conversion, fundagelicals very likely wouldn’t listen to it because of their churches’ decades of anecdotal folklore to the contrary–and because many churches now devote considerable resources to so-called “tract ministries.”
Add to this unjustified faith a decent dose of Christian narcissism, and you get a group of people who feel that tracts are necessary despite having no rational reason for thinking so, and who have a lot of trouble putting themselves into other people’s shoes to see why non-members might not feel kindly about being evangelized like that, or understand why most people are less than intrigued or convinced by tract evangelism.
If you’ve lived in America for a decent length of time and you’ve never gotten a religious tract, then count yourself fortunate and buy a lottery ticket, in short.
Tracts as Tips.
I wrote a couple years ago about Christians’ terrible reputation in the restaurant industry as bad tippers. One of our recent commenters used the term “Visible Christians” for them, and I love that terminology–most people in the United States are Christian, but it is the most visible (loud, weirdly-dressed, ostentatiously Bible-waving) Christians that restaurant staff hate and dread to see walk in their door.
One of the most hated and dreaded results of seeing Visible Christians in one’s restaurant was (and still is) receiving a religious tract in lieu of a tip for one’s hard work and good service.
Even when I was a Christian myself, I didn’t do this or condone this, and even Biff, as bombastic and callous as he could be, wouldn’t ever have done it to a restaurant worker. We were very Visible Christians and both understood the importance of maintaining what folks in the Biz call “a good witness” before all people, especially those who served us with no choice in the matter. We refrained from evangelizing waitstaff or other patrons unless specifically asked, tipped lavishly, and on the few occasions when we felt moved to include a tract with our tip, we made sure the monetary tip that accompanied it was downright excessive.
By far one of the most offensive examples of the tract breed even then were the ones designed to look like folded-up money. It’s hard to imagine what Christian publisher saw this design and went “Yeah! That’s perfect! That’ll totally get people interested in seeing what we believe!” I’m guessing whoever thought that also thinks highly of negging as a flirting technique. To narcissistic Christians, any attention is good attention, and remember: “one never knows” what their god will do. Even something as blatantly deceptive and offensive as a fake-money tract might work to convert someone–even though it really doesn’t.
But this tract type has a long and respectable pedigree in fundagelical circles, and is still being printed and distributed to Christians. Notice that on the description page, the group distributing this tract specifically tells those using this tract not to give it to servers in lieu of a tip, but look at what the tract actually says, according to this same group:
Disappointed? Don’t be. You have just found something worth a lot more than money. There are some things that money can’t buy.
Obviously the tract is indeed meant to trick people into thinking it’s money, which we can tell because it begins its emotional appeal with an admonition not to feel disappointed that the tract isn’t really a $10 bill–because the writer of the tract is perfectly aware that it will be given to people who will be misled into thinking that it is one before having their hopes crushed. So I regard the disclaimer on their page itself as being just as deceptive as the tract itself is.
In the case of the Friendly Atheist update, we learned from the pastor of the Christian involved (at least it’s claimed) the tract didn’t look like money and says they left a “small monetary tip” of about 7.7% with the tract. I don’t consider this news to be much of an improvement, but what makes the pastor’s protest noteworthy is this interesting closing statement:
To reiterate, we have never used tracts that looked like money; we feel that that is offensive and cruel and would never fool a server with fake money. The gospel is real and does not need trickery to be communicated.
Oh, it doesn’t?
Is he totally sure it doesn’t?
Because I’m not so sure it doesn’t.
Trickery as an Evangelism Tactic.
It’s difficult even to count all the different ways that Christians use deception to communicate their “good news” with non-believers.
When I was a teen, the favored form of deception was the bait and switch, wherein “pizza blasts” and concerts were used to lure unsuspecting and unwary young people to churches. Oh, yes, it was held at a church, but (we were told) that was just because it was a big venue that could host the crowd. Once the teens got to the “venue,” of course, they’d rapidly discover that the “free pizza” was only available after a rousing revival service and that the concert was Christian Contemporary Music on par with “Faith+1” from South Park. And at the end of this pizza feed and concert, there was always an altar call where teens would be evangelized with hard-sell tactics (without their parents’ permission). Nobody in the church seemed to have a problem with this bait-and-switch.
When I got older, I noticed how often Christianity made promises to people to evangelize them, promises that were not keepable. Did you hear any of these? I heard every one of them, and experienced the italicized disclaimers myself or in my immediate circle of real-life friends:
Christianity will make you happy, except when it doesn’t, in which case you’re being tested or the Devil is trying to defeat your faith, or you’re secretly sinning and need to get right with “God.”
Christianity will give your life meaning, and if it takes you years and years to figure out what that meaning is, then obviously you’re just doing something wrong. Or you’re being tested.
Christianity is all about love and grace, except when its adherents use fear, dread, wrath, bullying, threats, and terror to sell their message when the wooby-lovey stuff doesn’t work.
Christianity will heal your physical and emotional pain, except when it doesn’t, in which case please see this page-long list of asterisks regarding magic healing.
Christianity makes people more honest and peaceful, except when they lie about and smear their self-created enemies (feminists, women generally, LGBTQ people, atheists, and Muslims) to win battles that wouldn’t even be battles without them picking fights–and except for extremist Christians’ well-known affection for guns, torture, war, and capital punishment. Oh, and except for how “lying for Jesus” is now so common that a phrase was needed to describe the phenomenon.
Christianity will make you a better person, except when it doesn’t–because either you are not magically made into a better person, or you are already a decent person but become persuaded that you must “lie for Jesus” by exaggerating or outright fabricating claims to evangelize more effectively.
Christianity will make marriages stronger by introducing rules to both spouses that, when followed, guarantee a joyful and smooth-running relationship, except when those selfsame rules turn out not to work for someone’s family, in which case they’re not trying hard enough or are secretly sinning which makes them disobedient because that is “God’s plan for marriage” and everyone can and must follow it or else terrible things will happen.
Christianity will keep obedient women safe from abuse, except when they are victimized by people within the group, at which point they will learn that their group has no protections in place whatsoever to prevent this abuse, and except when they are blamed for having provoked their abusers somehow.
Christianity will make America strong again, except that forcing it upon people is the dead opposite of what its ostensible founder demanded his followers do, and that every single area in America that is very gung-ho about the religion is a picture of misery, ignorance, injustice, and dysfunction.
Christianity will give you a circle of friends and a new church family to care for you, except if you ever really need to count on them for anything important, or share with them anything that is not on the list of approved topics–like any serious doubts you have about the religion, long-lasting trials you are facing, serious pain you feel, or disappointments with the religion as a whole.
We’ve had plenty of time in which to examine Christians’ promises, and have discovered every single time that those promises fail. They fail utterly, catastrophically, and consistently.
When we point that out to Christians, their reaction every single time is to blame us for treating their god like an ATM, you know, like they have specifically said that people should, and an idea that forms the basis of their evangelism, and like they do themselves in countless ways, starting with petition prayers (that means “prayers where the Christian is asking ‘God’ for something”) and moving on up to demanding magic healings, the strong-arming of non-believers in various ways, and showers of money from nowhere. The expectation is that Christians will act upon these promises, trust in them, and make them constantly, but when the promises aren’t kept, then nobody’s allowed to say a word about it, much less get upset or angry about it. Indeed, making noise about all these unkept promises in the religion is grounds for instant accusations of having Done Christianity All Wrong (or of Misunderstanding What Christianity Is All About).
Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine a more dishonest group of people than professional apologists. The only way one can possibly take them seriously is by either not knowing the Bible, history, or science very well, or by engaging in the same soft-shoe wishful-thinking act some of them do.
Last, missionary work could well be the ultimate form of deceptive marketing. Honest missionaries do exist, of course, though they’re nowhere near as successful as their less-honest peers, but how many missionaries sell only the best-case scenario to potential adherents and ignore all the times that their expectations don’t work out? How many of them promise things to foreign targets that not only won’t happen but can’t happen? How many of them use fear and lies, like Scott Lively did in Africa to export his own homophobia there, when they see how effective these tactics are against foreigners too enamored of American ideas and attitudes to critically evaluate these promises?
A Gospel of Deception.
You know how we can tell that the Gospel actually needs trickery to be communicated?
Because Christians use trickery constantly to communicate it.
Christians are under the threat of eternal, inescapable, purely-punitive torture for disobeying their religion’s demands. The Bible is a lot clearer about lying than it is about being gay or about marriage being between only a man and woman! But the very Christians who are completely, totally, 100% sure that they know for totally for sure what their god thinks about gayness or marriage, and who are equally positive that Hell is a real live place that every person ever born runs the risk of reaching after death for disobeying their god, sure do seem terribly dishonest as a group. (How many people see a fish symbol on a business nowadays and avoid it as a result for fear of being cheated? How many people seriously think that a politician bleating loudly about his or her Christian credentials is anything but a rank hypocrite?)
If Christians actually had honest and truthful facts that could be used to sell their religion to others, then we’d know because they’d be using them.
But even when I was Christian myself, I felt very uncomfortable about the realization that the Gospel seemed to need the crutches of deception, unkeepable promises, exaggeration, and outright fabrication to sell itself. I knew that evangelists’ anecdotes were almost entirely made-up or exaggerated, as were all the miracle claims I heard. I’d had to tell my then-husband that if he kept completely fabricating miracle tales and his testimony then I would not corroborate anything he lied about if asked.
My reward for suggesting to my peers that Christians use only honesty to evangelize was being yelled at for “muzzling the oxen” and accused of wanting to see people go to Hell.
So when I saw that pastor’s blustering and self-important exclamation about not needing trickery to “communicate” his religion’s good news (read: to evangelize), I had to laugh. One big reason why I’m glad to be well away from Christianity is that I no longer need to feel trapped between the hard rock of needing and wanting to be honest and the deep blue sea of knowing that honesty simply doesn’t sell Christianity to anybody–or keep butts in pews. I don’t need to lie about anything. I’ve got nothing to sell and no emotional stake in whether or not someone starts believing just like I do about the supernatural.
Life’s so much better now that I don’t need to worry about all that.
Here’s an excellent anecdote told by the late, great Christopher Hitchens about just how trustworthy he felt Christians are: