The marketers in broken systems have this unfortunate tendency to sell two different and diametrically opposed things to potential consumers. It’s not just a Christian thing; it happens in most broken systems. People in them don’t see that they’re doing it, and the people they’re selling to may not even realize that’s why they distrust the sellers and reject their product. But it happens all the same.
Pick a Gear: Love or Terror.
There’s a good reason why nobody talks about a reign of love, only reigns of terror. That reason is that there really aren’t any reigns of love, at least not outside of Jack London novels about half-wolves. The very dynamic of unilateral rulership precludes genuine love between individuals.
I don’t think that we can love that which terrorizes us. The second the object of that love threatens us, our love evaporates. If anything remains, it’s only the naturally self-serving abasement of a slave terrified of being annihilated–not real love. There’ll always be that thought in the back of the fearful slave’s mind: will this master turn on me? When will that shoe drop? Am I really ever safe around this person?
People in a broken system will tut-tut and advise that fearful one to simply obey, and you’ll be fine. But when the standard of obedience is not clearly laid-out, when the threatening force has no checks upon its power, and when the threatened person has no voice at all in the system, that’s an empty platitude and a hollow comfort indeed–as any black person could tell us regarding America’s police force. Totalitarianism is not a friend to humanity; no matter how wonderful its architects’ intentions are at first, such a system devolves quickly into a reign based on fear as force is deployed to keep the masses in line and compliant.
Indeed, Christians know that threats work better than lovey-dovey come-ons. That’s why they use them. They’re happy to start with the Jeeezus loves youuuu! stuff–at first. But when (not if) that fails to close a sale, the threats come out very quickly. And those threats will be monstrous. The religion’s adherents have had literally thousands of years to find the ones that hit home the hardest, and then they polish those turds till they shine “like the top of the Chrysler Building.”
An unsubstantiated idea that requires fear to sell itself is not an idea we need to entertain for even a minute, obviously. But keep an eye on the use of threats to sell an idea, be it mouthwash or religions. When someone has to persuade you to do something by means of threats, it means that there is literally no other way they can get you to come around to their way of thinking.
Machiavelli famously wrote that if he couldn’t manage to be loved, then a Prince should seek to be feared at least. He felt that way because fear was predictable and easy to manipulate–and very objective in nature, while love was unpredictable, difficult to ensure, and way too subjective in nature for a ruler to depend on it. But it’s worth noting that the powerful Medici family that Machiavelli sought to serve threw him in prison and tortured him, and that real-life history and fiction alike abound with counter-examples (obligatory TVTropes Walkabout Warning). A ruler who seeks to rule through fear won’t be able to rule in any other way, and most people get tired of being jacked around with threats and terror all the time.
That’s what Isaac Asimov may have meant when he wrote that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” When I first heard it, this quote fascinated me. For a long time I thought it meant that anybody who ever used violence (threats, fear, etc.) was incompetent. Later I’d meet people who spoke well the language of street-violence, and they were less impressed with it. It took some time to understand that he didn’t mean that someone couldn’t be very competent at administering violence. Some people are very, very good at speaking that language. Nor does it mean that violence is always the purview of an incompetent ruler.
Rather, it means that an incompetent person literally can’t find any other way of persuading and leading others except through fear. That person will perhaps make a few stabs at doing it some other way, but it’ll always end up back at fear. Once violence is deployed, there’s no other place to go; someone can’t walk back a threat to go back to the lovey-dovey stuff. It’s their last refuge because, in using it, people who rule that way paint themselves into a corner.
The only way that a Christian can square that circle is to find a way to redefine love to allow for the wholesale issuance of threats of unimaginable violence to even their own children, thus perpetuating a chain of pain into future generations.
Little wonder so many people are opting out of that cycle of fake love and real fearmongering to discover real love for the first time–and that yes, it does often cast out fear.
Pick a Gear: Facts or Faith.
The second major place where Christians are selling two completely diametrically-opposed ideas, of course, is in their twin assertions regarding evidence for their various supernatural and earthly claims versus the virtue of having faith in their claims for no good reason whatsoever.
As with the stark difference between love and fear, Christians want it both ways here as well. They know that the Bible lauds the virtue of baseless, blind faith for no good reason. But they also live in a world that derides that notion for very good reasons, and they (just like anybody else) can see the practical benefit of having evidence for a claim before betting the farm on it.
Besides, there’s always the very contradictory example of Doubting Thomas, who didn’t believe Jesus had come back from death until he had credible and compelling evidence for the claim. Jesus might have snidely declared blind faith superior to certainty based on evidence, but he still gave Thomas evidence when it was requested of him.
So as evangelical Christianity swept into the modern age, a number of threads got woven into its fabric: its simultaneous idolization and dread of real-world evidence, its distrust of education yet its admiration of self-proclaimed experts, its emphasis on discernment yet its stripping-away of all critical thinking skills, its yearning for certainty and absolutism yet its worship of a holy book whose writings contain neither quality, and more. There’s a very good reason why some folks these days think that evangelicalism may well be the root cause of America’s inability to tell fake news from the real thing: its religious leaders have been carefully training their congregations to be susceptible to false claims and insufficient evidence for decades.
This uniquely Christian divorce from reality is referred to by the dogwhistle term “Biblical worldview.” And the holders of this “Biblical worldview” think that if they indoctrinate their children hard enough and fervently enough, then those kids will grow up thinking that there’s all this PROOF YES PROOF of the Bible’s various mythological stories, so there’s every reason in the world to believe its version of history and science are true and really happened.
Then, for good measure, they teach their kids and converts alike that while blind faith is very nice, and if someone can muster it then that’s very good indeed, there’s not actually any reason to have blind faith in Christianity’s various claims because there is actually totally tons of evidence for those claims that any fool could see is both compelling and credible.
This exact teaching has filled their libraries with bunkum, balderdash, pseudoscience, junk history, and fallacy-laden arguments. It’s also given hundreds if not thousands of apologists a lucrative career selling those materials to eager Christians who need to be reassured that their faith isn’t actually based on nothing at all–and who want surefire sales techniques to trot out on their marks.
Having successfully taught their adherents that any error in any part of the Bible means that the Bible is totally untrustworthy, Christian leaders must now surmount greater and greater hurdles in a culture that is getting more and more savvy about false claims.
Unfortunately, the battle between evidence and blind faith is like the one between love and threats. Once someone’s played the “no no we totally have evidence” card, they can’t fall back on “well you just have to have blind faith.” It looks like a lame cop-out, which it should because it totally is.
All Christian leaders can do in response to the growing dissatisfaction with their fakery is step up their demonization of formal education and the scientific method and the like–while simultaneously creating their own ersatz cargo-cult versions of both to satisfy adherents who’ve been taught by them since childhood to want evidence for claims and to respect the trappings of real evidence (even when their leaders can only offer their doctored-up fakery in response to that created need). And then those leaders can only watch in astonishment as their second-class homebrew version of reality fails to hold adherents in the pews or to persuade new people to join their ranks.
Pick a Gear: People Get Fixed vs. People Don’t Change.
One of the nastiest turnarounds you’ll see in a Christian group happens when someone mentions that Christians don’t actually appear to be better people than non-Christians are.
A main teaching in fundagelicalism is the notion that their god magically fixes and changes people for the better. He lives inside them, goes the teaching, and inspires them to behave in better, more moral, and more compassionate ways than that person could ever manage to do on their own. Christians’ testimonies frequently paint their pre-conversion lives in the most unsavory and unsettling ways, making them out to be criminals committing every manner of dark deed. But then Jesus came along and saved them and now they’re great and marvelous pillars of their communities! Hooray Team Jesus!
Except Jesus doesn’t change people. That’s a simple fact. A liar before conversion will still be a liar after conversion (though their testimonies are routinely more exciting, to say the least). A violent person before conversion still resorts quickly to violence afterward. A thief still steals. A con artist still grifts–though they’ll find Christians to be far easier marks than any other group they preyed upon before their miraculous conversion.
There’s sometimes a nice honeymoon period after a big spiritual “breakthrough” (that’s Christianese for a serious catharsis experience), but sooner or later that high wears off and the Christian is left right back where they started–or even further behind, since now they’re putting faith in magical thinking to fix their problems.
That said, should anyone make note of that simple fact, one of two things will happen without fail. The Christian(s) hearing that mention will:
- immediately launch into a recitation of the standard-issue denials of that teaching: “a church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints,” or the like, to support the notion that Christians must still work hard to fix themselves; or
- try to make the case that either they or someone they know very well would have been much, much worse if not for the tender, calming influence of Jesus upon their restive spirit.
I’ve heard both of these attempts to hand-wave away reality many times. The pity is that the Christians using these rationalizations don’t realize that they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
Either Christianity tangibly changes people in a way that cannot be ignored or denied by anybody who beholds its believers, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then it’s morally wrong to market it as if it does–and even more wrong to gaslight people who notice that fact in an attempt to make them feel like they’re doing something wrong by even taking seriously this promise that Christians routinely teach adherents.
And by the way, that fixing process doesn’t actually have to be supernatural. If their ideology itself, even ignoring the supernatural nonsense, was a good and valid one for people to follow, then that would count in my opinion as the religion helping people to change. There’s no reason at all to think that anything supernatural can be found at the heart of Christianity, so anything it’s doing is by definition purely natural and earthly. By that standard it still fails: its mechanics and rules do not actually produce good people or help to fix anyone’s problems.
In the second case, a halfway healing seems about as bad as no healing at all. If this god can only manage to somewhat mitigate someone’s dishonesty, tendency toward violence, or whatever other shortcoming they face, then he’s not terribly powerful. Considering that if someone really wants to change that we’ve developed perfectly natural and earthly ways to help that person learn to change, the slim chance of a halfway healing by an incompetent godling is a piss-poor substitute for an effective intervention.
Pick a Gear: Interventionist God or No-See-Um God.
The last place where Christians sell two different and competing ideas is in their product description itself, and this is the most insidious of all of their contradictory marketing attempts.
On the one hand, evangelicals tell us that their god is “an awesome god” who works miracles and wonders for his people, comforts them, keeps them from harm, and helps them accomplish the impossible. Just the other day I saw a Christian asserting her buy-in on this widely-marketed teaching in the comments to this post on TGC. It’s a very common sentiment.
But when someone expresses dissatisfaction with this teaching and asserts that their prayers went unanswered, their pain untended, their cries unheard, and their loneliness unabated by any giant magical invisible friends in the sky, or worse yet mentions that there’s never actually been a credibly-demonstrated and verified miracle, then evangelicals will beat that person up emotionally for wanting a cosmic ATM and divine grandpa–or blamed for some shortcoming in their spirits that blocked their god’s attempt to give them what was promised.
For an example in the wild of this exact blame game, look no further than Christian writer Jonathan Merritt, who advises Christians to quit viewing Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) as a promise to give them free stuff that non-Christians won’t be getting. He looks down his nose at Christians who interpret the verse as meaning that they can go out and succeed at anything they want. Notice, however, that he still relies upon the idea of his god giving him strength to emotionally endure bad times, which is still something that any ex-Christian (and honest Christian) could tell him isn’t a given by any means–which anybody can see in his peers’ rates of substance abuse and suicide.
In describing the actions of their god, Christians must resort to metaphors that compare him to unseen forces: gravity, love, the wind. But all of these comparisons are invalid–we’re getting a handle on what gravity is and how to measure it. We know what love looks like (and, devastatingly for Christians, what it doesn’t look like). The wind can be physically measured or felt on the skin or seen in the trees.
By stark contrast, Christians possess absolutely no method of objectively measuring their god’s movements in the world. They must rely on their own subjective interpretations of their feelings to figure out if he’s spoken to them. They must cock their heads and squint to figure out if any random event happening to them or someone else is a miracle or not.
There’s a reason why the mainstay of apologetics arguments is the argument from ignorance: that assertion that if an individual Christian can’t understand something, then that thing must have been done by their god. The problem with Christians’ overuse of that argument is that the more humanity learns and grows, the fewer nooks and crannies their god has to crawl into. He can exist only at the far fringes of human knowledge.
Little wonder, then, that Christian apologists who wade into science to demonstrate their god’s existence must garble and misuse all kinds of very fancy ideas and terms–pulling the multiverse card, for example, or attempting to throw other wonky metaphysical ideas at their audiences in hopes that something–anything–will stick to the wall.
It all sounds very exotic and esoteric to fundagelicals, but they’re missing one very, very important point that their critics and doubters will not fail to miss:
If Christians have to resort to those kinds of arguments in the first place to make their god sound more real, then he sure isn’t doing anything else that’s more tangible in our reality. If he was, then they’d point to that instead as credible evidence for his active hand upon the world.
Christians Don’t Get to Have Things Both Ways.
Either theirs is a god of love, as many Christians claim, or he is a god who rules through fear.
Either their claims have facts to back them up, as many Christians claim, or their claims must be taken on blind faith.
Either their religion–through supernatural or earthly means–fixes people and changes them for the better, as many Christians claim, or it doesn’t actually help people in their progress through life.
Either their god meddles in our reality, as many Christians claim, or he doesn’t.
There’s not a way to half-ass any of this stuff. Either it’s true or it’s not. In every single case, the Christians making these claims have painted themselves into a corner–and now their only strategy for dealing with the fallout of all those false claims is to blame the people who don’t buy those claims for not being
open-minded gullible enough to bunk down with them in that corner.
I don’t think there’s a fix for their self-created problem. The only one I can see is for them to drop those claims. But doing that would fundamentally change a religion that views all change as “compromise” or worse, which would enrage their adherents, who’ve been taught those indoctrinated points for many generations now. Such a dramatic change certainly wouldn’t guarantee that enough people would start joining up to replace the enraged fundagelicals who’d be leaving the tribe over those changes.
It’s a simply dizzying view from this mountain-top, looking down at the religion and its fussing-about far below. We truly live in interesting times. It’ll be fascinating to see what fundagelicals do as their numbers and dominance continue to slide. We’ll be looking next at what one of them at least is doing — see you then!