Evangelical leaders are forcing their followers into a showdown, one that it can ill-afford at this point. That Chick tract we’ve been discussing, “Dark Dungeons,” is a prime example of this idea. I’ve been using the term “Cruel Dilemma” for a while, and it seems appropriate now to bring it up–since it’s part of why I see Christianity losing so many people these days.
The reason the Cruel Dilemma is on my mind lately is that The Bible Reloaded, a YouTube video blog, recently got into a dust-up with fundagelical propaganda producer Ray Comfort over yet another of his cringeworthy movies. His chest-thumping, belligerent attempt to provoke them backfired, though:
It would be easy to simply marvel at how patently dishonest and willfully-ignorant this TRUE CHRISTIAN™ evangelist is coming off in his very own movie. And no doubt many people are! Ray Comfort’s dishonesty and willful ignorance are legendary among non-Christians by this time.
But there’s a deeper story to be seen here. Ray Comfort isn’t just protecting his own beliefs and he isn’t just selling those beliefs in the most hamfisted and deceptive way possible.
In pretending to be reaching out to those outside his tribe, he’s setting his own Christian fans up for a collision between fantasy and reality. That’s a collision guaranteed to backfire–and it was set up by his own predecessors-in-pandering long before he ever got the idea to make his living fleecing Christian sheep.
It must be quite distressing: Jack Chick was the grand-master of pandering, after all, and Ray Comfort has no hope whatsoever of taking that dented tin crown from those cold, dead hands. The tragedy here–if one could call it that–is that now that one of his biggest competitors is gone, the dynasty itself is coming to an end. He is coming to his inheritance the night before Black Tuesday–and he has nobody to thank for this predicament but himself.
The Cruel Dilemma.
The Cruel Dilemma is about the collision of fantasy with reality.
Usually, reality isn’t that big of a problem for people. Even a great many religious people accept reality at least to some extent, and even fundagelicals understand and embrace reality about a lot of stuff, like medicine. As I’ve mentioned, I myself accepted the scientific consensus about the age of the universe and descent with modification even while belonging to a denomination of Christianity that officially firmly believed in Creationism.
I managed to hold both of those opinions at once through a psychological process called compartmentalization. I built mental boundaries around my conflicting beliefs and tried not to think about them both at once or to consider how contradictory they were. (The way Christians use the old story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” to smooth the many jagged edges of the Gospels is a very popular way to compartmentalize Biblical contradictions. Even some Christians understand that it backfires, even if they don’t completely grasp how it does.)
Just about everybody compartmentalizes a little, but the more out of touch a particular belief is with the rest of a person’s education and experience, and the more contradictions to that false belief are encountered, the more compartmentalization has to happen to keep that belief away from the other stuff that’s actually true. Untrue beliefs are often quite soothing for the people holding them, so believers don’t really want to examine false beliefs, much less to dismantle them. A whap upside the head from reality can be very stressful in those cases. So the defenses believers build to keep from ever having to look squarely at those untrue beliefs can be impressive–and all but impervious to correction.
Those defenses make talking to the people holding false beliefs singularly frustrating. When someone really digs in their heels at the prospect of encountering input that contradicts their beliefs, you know you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t want to open one of those carefully-enclosed compartments. People like that don’t come by their beliefs through facts or reasoning, but rather through emotions–particularly fear and greed. Moreover, often those beliefs were pressed upon them in their earliest childhoods, before they ever had a chance of critically evaluating what all those trusted adults were telling them, and may be based, themselves, on beliefs that far transcend religious doctrines (such as a deep-rooted fear of the opposite sex, or a dread of sex itself, or frustration that other people seem to have it so much easier for so much less perceived effort and worthiness).
That said, everyone seems to have a limit to just how much contradictory evidence they can encounter before their compartments’ walls shudder. The amount and nature of that evidence seems to vary by the person, but sooner or later there’s enough there to trigger a crisis.
At that point, the belief itself must be evaluated. The believer must either embrace the contradictory evidence as true even if it means they must seriously-modify or discard the belief, or else they must cling harder to the belief and rebuild their mental compartments. But driving onward in the belief, undisturbed by any issues with it and completely certain that it is true and valid, is simply no longer an option.
That believer has been thrown into a crisis–a dilemma–that must be resolved.
And this crisis never had to happen. That’s what makes it cruel. Christian leaders have very deliberately constructed a worldview that is categorically false, demonstrably untrue, based on pseudoscience and junk history that is patently invalid, and which causes real and actual harm to a great many people. There is absolutely nothing left to chance on this one. Believers must either physically turn away from reality, or else they will, without question and inevitably, come face to face with evidence on all sides that flat contradicts their beliefs.
The dilemma reminds me of a car getting broad-sided at an intersection: if the truth hadn’t bubbled up in a way that was totally undeniable and impossible to ignore, then the car would have just kept going forever in in its erroneous course and ended up doing the driver great harm.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to push back against Christian overreach and believers’ erroneous statements. The more facts and evidence we point out, the more uncomfortable questions we raise, the more pointed observations and corrections we make, the more cars we set in motion on the road going in the right direction–and thus, the more certain we make that collision.
In the real world, car collisions are obviously bad. But here, it’s a good thing when reality checks us and stops us from believing something untrue. Even Christians pay lip service to that idea, with one of their most popular talking points coming from a Bible verse advising them to “test everything, and hold fast to what is good.” (Though most of them promptly forget about this verse when admonishing others for “testing ‘God'” in what are apparently the wrong ways–but we’ll talk about that later on.)
When nobody and nothing in a Christian’s environment is offering that feedback, and everything and everyone around them are all saying all the same things, then it can be almost impossible to break free of a wrong and harmful belief. We depend on feedback–even when it’s critical–to improve ourselves. When we’re only hearing one side of things, it’s a lot harder to make those course corrections (for a variety of reasons).
And I can certainly attest to that truth!
I didn’t know any non-Christians when I was deconverting; all of my friends were fundagelical, the internet didn’t yet exist like it does now, and I didn’t know of any books that were even a little critical of the religion. When I realized that Christianity’s claims weren’t true, I felt like I’d just discovered that the laws of physics weren’t true–and I seemed to be the only one in the world who had worked that out!
I was alone, with nobody to talk to that I trusted. Thanks to intensive gaslighting and indoctrination, I felt very reluctant to voice my doubts. I didn’t trust my perceptions at all–and my tribe was perfectly okay with me not trusting myself.
Things are a lot different now, though still far from ideal. Thanks to that increase in visible dissent and criticism, people are finding stuff out earlier and more easily than they ever did back when I was Christian. That collision between fantasy and reality is happening sooner in a Christian’s life than it ever has before–and it’s more of a game-changing event than those whispering doubts and lingering questions could be. Simply put, any verifiable claim whatsoever that a Christian puts forth can be refuted almost as soon as the Christian finishes speaking.
But Christian leaders haven’t quite come to grips with this new reality.
Kids Today: Get
Offa Onto My Lawn!
It’s not hard to find Christian pastors expressing admiration for how smart and perceptive “kids today” are. They speak about young people’s perceptiveness and aversion to fakery in terms that sound all but reverential. “Children are Definately Smarter Than Adults,” declares one Baptist pastor, and one certainly would hope they at least can spell “definitely” better than he can! Another minister tells us earnestly that “our kids are smart, often much smarter than we give them credit for,” and goes on to suggest that techniques that might have worked for earlier generations don’t work quite as well for this one.
These Christian leaders are nearly unanimous in their observations. Kids today are smart. They’re perceptive. Authentic. Honest. Creative, well-read, and innovative. Better at assessing claims and weighing evidence. Far less willing to put up with lies and hypocrisy. Openly scornful of false fronts and pandering. Able to see right through attempts to sell them stuff, especially stuff that isn’t in their best interests, and oh extra-especially stuff relating to their elders’ stupid, pointless, brutal culture wars. They are, to borrow one writer’s awed description, “bullshit-proof.”
They’re also damnably tech-savvy.
It’s a scary idea to fundagelical leaders: a whole generation of kids who are largely immune to the threats, bullying, thrown-around authority, fearmongering, and bigotry that worked so well to get their elders in line!
Not all of these young people are so evolved, of course–many are still mired in the culture wars and enforced ignorance taught by their families and churches–but a lot of them are as I’ve described.
And it might just be that enough of them are.
The bullshit that worked on the leaders themselves doesn’t fly as well with these kids. When a pastor recites an urban legend up on the pulpit during a Sunday sermon, those kids know it’s fictional before the service has even let out–because almost all of them hold in their hands a connection to damned near the sum total of all human knowledge.
More importantly, that connection also leads those young people to other human beings, bringing them into contact with tons of people outside their own social circle. They’re seeing, in a way that tons of older ex-Christians never could without leaving the country, oodles of non-Christians who are doing just fine thankyouverymuch without their supposedly-essential religion, who have already discovered the hard way that there’s no there, there in Christianity. We had to figure out on our own that the party lines simply aren’t true. We had to learn piece by agonizing piece that there is no answer from the ceiling to all those wailed and whispered and wept prayers, no divine touches or reassurances in response to overwhelming need given voice at last.
Every one of us who’ve already left the religion are a raised middle finger rebuking its leaders’ myths about what “apostasy” is like. And increasingly, we’re not shy about talking about our experiences and discoveries. As each voice joins the chorus, it swells and grows louder and more insistent.
As we move forward as a culture, it’s going to be harder and harder to run across a Christian who literally doesn’t know a single soul who has left Christianity or outright rejected its claims. That level of social insulation that I faced still happens (in fact we talked about it a while ago), but it’s becoming harder to find every day.
Most damning of all, Christians can see real-time rebuttals and debunks of all those talking points that fundagelical leaders peddle as sure, foolproof zingers.
And that’s bad news for Ray Comfort!
The Bumper Stickers on the Car.
Ray Comfort, like Jack Chick before him was, is very fond of bumper-sticker-style slogans and arguments, even though they’re not actually very zinger-y. They clearly make him quite a lot of money, enough that he doesn’t care what routinely happens when one of his marks unwisely decides to leave their padded bubble to try out those zingers on actual non-Christians.
Many of the most groan-inducing catchphrases that fundagelicals repeat came from him or his pals. Say what you want about the intellectual pretensions of William Lane Craig and Sye Ten Bruggencate; they will never be as favored by low-information fundagelicals like this gee-shucks-aw-whillikers down-home country-boy with the cartoonish Aussie accent (he’s from New Zealand, however, and Wikipedia classifies him as American; your guess is as good as mine). They’re just not the shameless hucksters that he is. Like medieval mountebanks who stood up on their wagons and belted out songs and quips and ditties about their snake oil to lure in the unwary, Ray Comfort–like Jack Chick before him– sells a cheap, adulterated, gimmicky Christianity to anybody foolish enough to believe that there’s some angle to becoming a successful “soulwinner.”
And yes, for all their sophistication as a group, there are still some young people who fall into that trap. They get distracted by the bright sparkly lights he waves in their direction and wander in to listen to his showman’s spiel. They hear his condemnation of atheism and his various attempts to shift burden of proof and dishonestly present his foes, and while their peers snort and move away, they get all starry-eyed and grab for the potions on sale.
He does not warn them about how flimsy his foundations are, nor how easily torn apart his arguments tend to be–or how humiliated they’ll feel when his surefire, foolproof routines don’t work for them like he claims they work for him. He does not present them with any kind of real opposition in his various mockumentaries, so they have no idea what happens in the real world when a Christian parrots that he or she simply hasn’t got enough faith to be an atheist or that an atheist is just angry at “God.”
He doesn’t care. He makes a good living strutting and preening shamelessly as he sets believers up for the Cruel Dilemma.
An Abyss, Looming in the Road.
When a kid raised in a more progressive version of Christianity encounters a Ray Comfort effort, he or she rightly concludes that it’s laughable, simplistic, and childish. They can see very clearly that his work is filled with lies, fallacies, urban legends, and prevarications. They know what dishonest video editing looks like. They know that non-believers don’t act like the ones he presents in his work. They may already know how to spot a logical fallacy, and certainly they’ve already heard or can easily locate the rebuttals to his PRATTling. They’re as put off by Ray Comfort’s patter as the rest of us are. They know he’s giving a bad name to their religion, and they dearly wish he’d stop it.
Such a kid won’t be at as much of a risk of falling into his trap. Their car is already going generally in the correct direction; the truth of his hucksterism and dishonesty travels parallel with them instead of slamming into them. He doesn’t threaten their faith or startle them into examining their entire worldview when they learn one of his talking points isn’t valid. They may eventually disengage (“pull away” from the religion) or even deconvert outright, but it won’t be quite the painful experience for them as it is for kids who deconvert out of more extreme flavors of the religion, nor will they likely be as hostile to Christianity as those other kids often are. The religion might turn out to be irrelevant for them, but it won’t have harmed them as much.
But when kids raised in a very strict, controlling, oppressive version of Christianity hear what he has to say, they get a gleam in their eye and start looking for an opportunity to use what they’ve learned. Such a kid is only grateful to have found this invaluable resource. They’ve been told their whole lives that apologetics talking points and arguments are compelling and persuasive. Some of them have even spent years learning the courtroom-lawyer debate technique favored by their religion’s heroes, not realizing that it got popular because it was a way of avoiding and evading the burden of proof upon Christians.
When they encounter undeniable contradictions to their beliefs, a larger percentage of those kids are going to buckle down and rebuild the walls–and thereby become even more reality-denying and extremist. They’ve got a lot more riding on staying in the religion.
But when even they eventually can’t deny what they’re learning, the dilemma catches them in its teeth all the same.
A Collision That Doesn’t Have to Happen.
The worst part of the dilemma is how actually unnecessary it is.
It wouldn’t take much to sell these perceptive, authenticity-craving, media-savvy young people a theology that doesn’t require them to deny reality or to compartmentalize their beliefs too far from it. A smart apologist would be working on that angle rather than repackaging pseudoscience and coming up with more talking points.
I’m noticing that some Christian leaders are actually going that direction, hammering out a theology that’s feminist, LGBTQ-friendly, science-embracing, and service- and charity-oriented. They might not be making as much money as their loudmouthed counterparts, but at least they’re doing way less harm–and provoking way less polarization.
Those leaders are distinctly in the minority, however.
Fundagelical leaders might profess awe at “kids today,” but most of them seem more angered and frightened by this cultural shift than they are pleased by it. They aren’t yet ready to change their entire marketing model. They’re still hoping that if they just keep doing what they’re doing, eventually it’ll start working again. They’re willing to take a chance on alienating a certain part of their audience as long as they come out of the fight with enough of an audience to pay their bills. They simply aren’t counting on exactly how many Christians are going to end up alienated. I also really don’t think they’re aware of just how bad the churn rate has gotten.
All Ray Comfort can do now is pander as hard as he can before the Cruel Dilemma he loves so much finally claims his “ministry.”