Christians and the Law of Conservation of Worship

Christians and the Law of Conservation of Worship June 3, 2016

I’ve been thinking lately about something I’ve noticed about many Christians who are trying to evangelize non-believers: they try to paint our various worldviews as very similar to their own, only inferior. Sometimes the lengths to which they’ll go to establish this commonality seem downright nonsensical. If you’ve ever wondered why that is, then strap into your seat because today we’ll be talking about the Law of Conservation of Worship.

Yes, this is exactly and precisely like St. Peter's. Exactly and precisely, in every way.
The Law of Conservation of Worship tells us that the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is exactly and precisely like St. Peter’s. Exactly and precisely, in every way, totally. (Credit: Dhilung Kirat, CC license.)

A few months ago, one of our Christian readers, Seth, wrote a response to my Easter post and invited me to respond to it if I wished. Today’s post is not particularly a direct response to him, because I think I settled that discussion already, but rather is a point I wanted to discuss more fully later. With the news coming out about yet another deconversion in the Christian world, today seems like a good time to introduce this idea.

One of the reasons why Christians react so poorly to people’s rejection of their sales pitch is that they have trouble understanding why someone would slide away from their worldview to one that they view as identical in many ways to their own–except inferior in all ways.

Such Christians believe that there is a Law of Conservation of Worship.

An Introduction to the Law.

Seth was deeply disturbed by my distrust of Christianity’s supernatural promises. Where I called my Easter post “The False Promise of Rebirth,” he called his response “The Doubtful Promise of Nothing.” I appreciated the humor even while lamenting that he had missed the whole point of my initial post. He saw me saying that Christianity made false promises, and his response was that he didn’t like that my worldview made, in his opinion, “doubtful” promises. He preferred Christianity’s promises instead, as unreliable and demonstrably untrue as they are, because all things being equal he preferred those promises to the ones he thought my worldview made.

I don’t think he understood that my worldview actually makes no promises to those who accept it–or what such a worldview would actually even be like to hold.

Duality, polarization, action-reaction; Christianity is filled with these either-or, black-and-white, with-me-or-against-me kind of ideas. I’m sure it appealed to an ancient culture full of mystery religions just like Christianity when it got rolling, but it doesn’t play as well in the real world of the modern day.

But I’m not picking on him. Again, this is a fundagelical thing, not just one person’s thing. I’m referring to his post only so you can see where my line of thinking began. What he made was a common mistake, something my friends years ago began calling “The Law of Conservation of Worship.”

Here’s what that term means:

For every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief. Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

It’s nothing at all new to Christianity, nor is the term itself original to me. (It’s something Thought2Much said a while ago that stuck in my head–the quote follows in a minute.) Indeed, the concept is hardly even unique to religion. Any time someone is deeply mired in a mindset and can’t look outside their own experience, that person is at risk of assuming that everybody else is just like them. Such a person will project their own worldview onto everyone else and assume that whatever they do or believe, it is a totally common, universal human experience. Calvin & Hobbes lampooned that thinking decades ago:

Calvin: Did you watch the movie on TV last night?
Hobbes: Nope.
Calvin: Did you watch the game then?
Hobbes: Nope.
Calvin: Did you watch any TV last night?
Hobbes: Nope.
Calvin: Then what did you watch?

Calvin can’t imagine someone not watching television at night, so when Hobbes insists he didn’t watch anything, the boy can’t even approach him on that level. He keeps asking what Hobbes watched because in his world, everybody watches television at night. He thinks he just isn’t asking the question correctly, or that Hobbes doesn’t understand it. (You can probably think of a lot of similar situations where someone thinks two groups hold the same views when they don’t at all.)

A lot of Christians today do much the same thing that this comic-strip boy did years ago, and in doing so reveal that they believe in the Law of Conservation of Worship.

This Law is based upon a cognitive bias called the false-consensus effect. People suffering this bias think other people think and believe the same way they do, and that their behaviors and thinking are normal and common. When an unhealthy group falls into this cognitive bias, the effect is compounded because they themselves agree with the thinking and don’t talk much with other people who have different viewpoints, so they’re likely to get entrenched in their beliefs.

Added to the difficulty is the fact that an unhealthy group often condemns any disagreement, so even people who do disagree with the group’s consensus will keep their disagreement under their hats–so nobody knows exactly how common the thinking actually is or who actually agrees with it.

A Christian House Party.

Twenty years or so ago, when I was Christian, the tribe’s dread enemies were Satanists, and I remember being totally floored by how many of their practices–as described by my own religious leaders–resembled our own, only backwards: upside-down crosses, backwards chanting, a lewd and hypersexualized “Black Sabbath,” high priests instead of pastors, and of course a supposed holy book, I think The Satanic Bible, that I thumbed through briefly out of curiosity once in a Waldenbooks (remember them?) and immediately dropped like a hot potato because of how shocking that one paragraph was to my virgin eyes.

My brief sorta-introduction to Satanism, being so biased and incomplete, left me with the impression that Satanists were like teenagers having a house party while their parents are away: rebellious and shocking purely for the sake of being so; provocative without having anything substantive to say; reacting rather than acting. It didn’t make much sense to build one’s worldview around a reaction to Christianity; it felt like Satanists still believed, but were in that state my tribe called “rebellion,” which was a state of denial that would eventually end with them becoming persuaded of the folly of their actions and trotting meekly back into the fold. (Remember, I didn’t actually know anything about Satanism except what my religion taught about it. The reality is much different, but I didn’t know that then.)

Now the dread enemies are atheists, and though I wasn’t around for fundagelicals’ transition to this new crusade, I have no doubt that it was both swift and seamless. All one would need to do is change a few names around, and the rants, misconceptions, and campaigns against Satanism in the 1980s could easily be taken for the ones we see nowadays against atheism. In the same way, as we’ve discussed before, Christians’ culture-war enemies tend to be interchangeable–for a reason.

How It Plays Out.

Christians worship their god, so atheists worship either themselves or Richard Dawkins or Charles Darwin. (You’ll notice a surprising amount of Creationism in this line of thought.) Christians go to church; atheists go to science labs or colleges. Christians have Bibles; atheists have On the Origin of Species. Christians believe in their religion’s supernatural claims; atheists believe in the equally ludicrous claims of science. Being an atheist is supposed to be exactly like being a Christian, except in the opposite–and, it goes without saying, inferior–direction.

Well gosh, if you put that way….

Oh wait.

That their definitions and understanding of atheism don’t appear to line up with reality in the least doesn’t bother Christians at all. Nor does it matter how often real atheists try to tell them that their apologists’ and “ex-atheist” members’ definition of atheism doesn’t look a damned thing like anything actual atheists think–but sure appears to look exactly like the form of atheism that fundagelicals believe exists because of the Law of Conservation of Worship.

The truth doesn’t matter to toxic Christians who are, they think, accomplishing something by behaving in this way (and who like being hateful more than they like being truthful or compassionate). More loving adherents might struggle with their discomfort over mistreating others, but in the end they’ll still often believe their indoctrination over the lived experiences and statements of actual atheists.

The tactic is thought to be enormously effective, unfortunately, so a tribe that is as deeply locked in groupthink and denial as Christians often are can have a lot of trouble understanding how badly it backfires in the real world when they make those assertions around people who aren’t programmed to agree and play along with them.

Seeing It In Action.

One can see this Law in action on pretty much any loosely-moderated forum or comment-board where atheists and Christians mingle. A couple of years ago, Thought2Much did a great job of fleshing out the Law over on Godless in Dixie in response to a Christian trying to evangelize people using that tactic:

It’s also really fallacious to believe that just because I no longer worship your particular barbaric deity that requires human sacrifice to be placated (and not even then!), I have to then automatically worship something else. It is quite possible to not worship anything at all. And before you twist that around to mean, “I worship nothing,” no, I really and truly do mean that I don’t worship anything. There is no Law of Conservation of Worship, in which there is a certain amount of worship that is neither created nor destroyed, but just shifts from one thing to the other.

Knowing about their belief in this Law, it’s a little easier for me to understand why Christians keep coming out with such bizarre assertions about atheists and non-theistic worldviews. Not only are they getting in what they think (mistakenly) are digs at their tribal enemies, but they are also “planting seeds” of what they hope will one day be a renewed curiosity about Christianity, because obviously all a Christian must do to convert an atheist is to make that person doubt their faith in their religion, which is of course atheism.

Everywhere you look, Christians assert that non-believers are just like themselves. Apologist James Bishop falls into the common Christian belief that atheists have faith just like he does–only in evolution rather than Jesus. In this he joins Creationist website Creation.com, which insists that atheism involves “belief in biological evolution of some sort.” Christians very commonly tell atheists that they “worship science” just like Christians worship Jesus.

What they’re really trying to do is make their own beliefs sound a little less wacky and foolish–and more believable and relatable. There are several reasons why they do it–sometimes they just want to make themselves feel less wacky and foolish despite believing some wacky and foolish things, or they want to signal and affirm their membership in their group–but the main one I encounter is them trotting out the Law as part of their evangelism.

Winding Up For the (Sales) Pitch.

Like all salespeople, Christians know that establishing affinity and commonality will hopefully give them a better chance of making a sale.

One large Christian group sets forth their own false consensus by telling adherents to assume that everybody in the world is “hungry for the Gospel,” but that Christians often can’t tell because those people haven’t been “properly approached” yet (by them, naturally). Billy Graham’s group goes the same route and further advises Christians to be “a friend and good listener”, doubtless to achieve the same end. Ray “Banana Man” Comfort builds his entire evangelism strategy around building affinity and commonality with his targets–and he takes for granted that his conceptualization of “sin” is something that others will find equally compelling and troubling.

What they’re all doing is trying to put their own beliefs, practices, ideas, and fears up along with those of the people they’re trying to sell Christianity to. They’re hoping that they can persuade their targets to see Christianity as not-too-weird, not-too-different–and more than that, to see Christianity’s way of doing things as superior to their own.

That’s why Seth tried to make his religion sound like it was making wonderful promises and my worldview sound like it was making “doubtful” ones. He was trying to paint his religious ideas and mine as similar. But they’re not in the least similar. My worldview doesn’t make any promises at all–but that thinking doesn’t make sense to someone raised in a culture that insists that people should want promises, that all worldviews make promises, that everybody relies on promises, and that people should be bothered by not having the sort of pie-in-the-sky promises his religion makes. His sales pitch can’t even get off the ground if I don’t buy into those ideas.

One can see similar sales failures worldwide, such as in the continued failure of missionaries to convert people in East Asia. Part of the problem is that the entire worldview of Buddhists in those countries tends to be so different from that of American Christians that they don’t have anything close to a common experience from which to issue a sales pitch. The people in those countries don’t see why they should adopt Christianity–and so they do not.

The blog “A Life Overseas” talked about this exact problem. The missionary in this case discovered that the people she encountered abroad had “such a vastly different framework than the one I was used to that I was at a loss as to how to even begin to communicate the gospel effectively.” In order to successfully “witness” to such people, Christian salespeople first have to bring those targets around to their own way of seeing the world. If they can’t, then their targets will not see any reason to purchase their product.

As, indeed, increasing numbers of Americans themselves do not.

When we see the Law of Conservation of Worship in action in an evangelism attempt, we should connect that behavior to an attempt to make a sales pitch. When Christians misrepresent our lives, experiences, and worldview in order to make us sound more like themselves, that’s a desperate attempt to create a common ground where (they hope) Christianity’s claims might start sounding a little bit more plausible.

They think that tearing down our worldview will make us forget that they aren’t actually offering any evidence that their claims are true. They’re not giving us any good reason to believe in their god’s existence. They’re just trying to make us think that we’re already just as irrational and silly as they are, only in different ways, in the wild hopes that we will think it wouldn’t be quite so weird to consider their claims.

Obviously, we can short-circuit this sales attempt by drilling down on their lack of credible evidence for their claims. Nothing could be simpler. Remember: people tend to use arguments they think are effective. If we keep showing them that it isn’t effective to try to equate their Christianity with our non-belief and that they only make themselves and their religion look worse when they misrepresent atheists and atheism, then eventually they’ll flit to the next apologetics trend. (There’ll always be one, alas, as long as gullible, eager-to-be-fleeced Christians keep opening their wallets to apologetics authors and speakers.)

Christianity makes a lot of promises to adherents, and when we examine those promises by the cold light of reality we discover that all of them are false. When someone’s mired in a false ideology, be it religious or whatever else, it can be really hard to examine that ideology and start untangling those false promises. We’re going to talk soon about how that process can start–and how it started for Shannon Low, that Christian musician who recently deconverted. See you then!

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