Christianity’s apologists are very fond of using various arguments from X to sell their religion. That’s a catch-all term for a type of logical fallacy that is often offered up as evidence for Christianity–but it’s not actually evidence in and of itself. In lieu of evidence for their various claims, the Christians using these arguments offer up a situation that they say could only exist if their supernatural claims were true. One of those arguments involves the idea that their religion’s Resurrection myth simply must be true because 1st-century Christians would never actually create or knowingly maintain an origin story that was deeply embarrassing to themselves or their god. But that’s not the only way that they make use of this argument.
I’ll show you why Christians are fond of the Argument from Embarrassment, and why that misplaced fondness matters to the rest of us.
An Overview of the Argument from Embarrassment.
Generally speaking, you’ll hear this argument used mostly to “prove” that the Resurrection account in the Bible is at least broadly correct. The general idea goes like this:
Women in the Gospels’ day were the lowest of the low in terms of their status. So it’s just so mortifying that they were the first people to see Jesus’ empty tomb and to spread the news that he’d vanished! ZOMG! The idea that lowly women would be in such an exalted position was so humiliating to early Christians that there’s no way in the world that they would ever have made it up out of thin air. Therefore, the Gospels’ account is historically trustworthy, and everyone needs to get their heinies to church.
And a lot of Christians are totally all in on this idea. As Bob Seidensticker outlines, everyone from William Lane Craig on down to the lesser-known apologists parrot this notion. Christian Bible scholars even call this line of reasoning the Criterion of Embarrassment, which asserts that someone in ancient times who was copying a book would be more likely to delete an embarrassing detail than to keep it in the copy they were making. Apologists think therefore that if you ever run across those kinds of embarrassing details in books written and copied by people who’d normally want a particular person or event to be glorified, then you can be pretty sure that it’s a fairly accurate detail.
This argument is also used by Christian feminists to at least attempt to explain why they think their religion’s actually very woman-affirming rather than completely misogynistic. They all are just goggle-eyed over the notion that women were (sorta) the first to run into the evidence of the Resurrection, which they take to mean that their god must value women very highly even if he had a wacky way of showing it.
There are a world of problems with this specific argument, summed up neatly by one simple truth: the details that these apologists insist were huge embarrassments to the early Christian church might not have actually been embarrassing to people in the Gospels’ culture. But the idea that the Resurrection contains a number of highly embarrassing details–and is therefore somehow more trustworthy as an account because of those details–remains one of Christianity’s favorite errors.
I’ve noticed that Christians use this argument in other ways, though–not just regarding the Bible. It’s become part of their entire worldview by now–a topsy-turvy one that reminds me of a child insisting that today is Opposite Day–a magical day when everything runs backwards. Socks go on over shoes; pants go on backwards, dessert is eaten first, and most importantly of all, the game’s loser is really its winner.
Christians take it for granted that if something seems embarrassing in ancient accounts, then there’s a good chance that that detail is correct at least to some extent. One reason they are attached to the idea is because of the “black is white, up is down, war is peace” bizarro world that they inhabit. The more right-wing the Christian, the more surreal their doublespeak gets.
By now, though, Christians across the spectrum of Christianity are primed to see unpleasant, embarrassing, or out-of-place stuff as being more trustworthy than stuff that is pleasant, flattering, or expected. The more backwards and topsy-turvy the story, the more potentially divine they think it is.
You’ve probably heard me refer to this kind of thinking as bizarro in the past. The term comes from the DC Comics world, where Bizarro was a sort of anti-Superman. He was supposed to be a clone of the iconic hero, but something went hideously wrong with his creation. He turned out more like a childish, funhouse-mirror Superman. He peppered his primitive speech with words that meant the opposite of what they really mean, wreaked havoc thinking that he was doing heroic deeds, and caused all manner of problems that the real Superman then had to deal with.
So when I see the weird funhouse-mirror world that fundagelicals inhabit, it’s natural for me to reach for the name of that misbegotten anti-hero to describe it.
Their worldview is not just bizarre. It’s a lot worse than that.
If you were hanging out in the comments on the last post, you probably saw a long discussion about a post elsewhere concerning why Christians shouldn’t ditch their churches. The Christian who wrote that post filled it with exactly this kind of thinking:
While writing off the church passes as sophisticated thinking, it’s actually the opposite.
Maybe What Bothers You Should Actually Amaze You [This was a subheading title.]
The Ultimate Consumerism Isn’t Going To Church…It’s Walking Away From It [Another subheading.]
These contradictory statements are a bit like Zen koans–questions without answers that are meant to make people quit thinking so they’ll be more suggestible. But they’re also an insight into a world where everything works the opposite of reality.
Christian Urban Legends.
Nowhere do we see Bizarro World thinking better than in Christian urban legends:
Two people who have no business whatsoever being in a relationship suddenly decide (or are told) that “God” wants them to marry each other. A guy gets a burr up his butt about going to a faraway country he’s never visited before then, a place where he can’t speak the local language and maybe even hates the food, with little to no practical preparation, all because he thinks “God” told him he’ll convert millions of people there. A person with no leadership skills at all is (apparently) divinely-chosen to lead a church.
Christian folklore is absolutely thick with these sorts of stories. Christians are just enchanted with the idea of their deity choosing, for his little projects, humans who seem totally unsuited for the task at hand–and yet somehow everything turns out perfectly!
The couple told to marry live happily ever after. The missionary converts millions indeed. The novice pastor’s new church overflows with congregants.
At least, that’s how it works in the folklore.
You can probably guess the reality.
But nobody’s allowed to remember or mention the many times that exactly these scenarios turn out completely disastrously. Yes, that person seems completely unsuited to the proposed project–but gosh, ain’t that just like that silly-billy ol’ Jesus to set up a situation that’ll glorify him all the more when the project succeeds?!?
(When one of these mismatched ventures inevitably fails catastrophically, the whole incident is swept under the rug and never mentioned again.)
Just as they use the argument from embarrassment in other contexts, Christians apply bizarro thinking to a lot of other situations.
The more mismatched a person is to a venture, the less intuitively successful and coherent the idea is, and the more obviously doomed to failure the whole proposal is, then the more Christians find themselves drawn to it and rooting for it–and they only remember the successes.
The Sky is Falling!
That’s why, when you hear Christian leaders bad-mouthing their own religion or predicting its total downfall, or sharing some other bad news, tread very carefully before taking it onboard. They might just be overstating something to make their flocks panic.
We’re long used to Christians overstating good news or quote-mining data to find anything possible they can point to as a good sign of divine favor or potential turnaround of decline. That’s nothing new. I’m going to treat y’all to a fisking of You’ve Lost Me once I’m finished digesting it, and you’ll see a lot of that. Talk about an exercise in looking on the bright side of life while you’re hanging on a crucifix!
But we sometimes forget that Christians also overstate bad news–news that is unflattering to their religion, news which should rightly embarrass them.
To people in the non-Christian world, we know that when risks and problems are overstated then people quickly stop taking similar dire predictions seriously and might even find themselves getting very curious indeed about whatever the threat involved. (Reefer Madness created what was arguably one of the biggest backfires of the War on Marijuana.) We know that people need full, accurate information so they can make informed decisions. And most of us know that if an idea needs lies to support itself, it isn’t worth supporting in the first place.
To way too many Christian leaders, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to overstate or exaggerate stuff if it gets the results they want. So if they need opened wallets, butts in pews, and votes cast the correct way, they’ll gladly say whatever it takes to get their flocks sufficiently motivated. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Christians share terrible news among themselves, too, precisely because they often think that bad news is actually great news. At the very last second, “Jesus” will swoop in and fix everything. Just when the moment is darkest, that’s when the biggest miracles will happen.
That’s a common idea in the religion–see this interview for a Christian saying this almost verbatim. This trope is both Ed Stetzer’s favorite sermon topic and wildest hope at this point. And huckster televangelists the world over cry doom and gloom for their ministries, threatening to shut down unless they get a lot of donations from listeners and viewers. The threats can get as lurid as their creators want to be–there’s literally no checks on them, and no fear that anybody will start asking nosy questions about how they know there’s a problem or danger ahead.
Sometimes bad news gets exaggerated because the person doing it wants the audience to feel agitated enough to do something about it–giving them in the process a feeling like they personally have skin in the game and thus a hand in the victory that will follow. Sometimes the exaggeration is done to make the audience feel their convictions more certainly, or to get them to drill down harder on the group’s beliefs. And sometimes it’s done because the person doing the exaggerating is creating an artificially-inflated need to better peddle a solution to that need–such as a book that teaches Christians how to apply a special, surefire technique to fix the problem the book creates.
For a religion that is failing as hard as Christianity is, there’s still not a whole lot of solid, credible, trustworthy research about what’s going on behind church doors. Often I find myself having to correlate what I find from the most reputable sources I can locate and then make sure it fits with what I’ve already established is trustworthy and with what I see happening in reality.
When we see a Christian pastor or denominational bigwig spouting numbers that look way too high or way too low either way, especially in a context where one is talking to other Christians rather than expressing an idea for general audiences and most especially if there’s a product being sold, it’s a good idea to find out where that person got that information. It’s entirely possible that we’re seeing a Christian who’s just trying to rile up the sheep so they’ll start moving in the desired direction.
Being aware of Christians’ tendency toward bizarro thinking will keep us out of their eternal game of Opposite Day. If they want to put their socks on over their shoes, let them do it without us.