Look, we’ve been talking for a while now about Christianity’s decline in numbers, but one thing that really springs out at me is something I wanted to address today: that the religion’s leaders 100% believe that there’s some magical way to return Christianity to its former power and dominance through marketing and superior sales techniques. This notion is just another example of magical thinking in Christianity, and I’ll show you why right now.
Coercion: The Sword or the Cross.
Most of Christianity’s history involves it getting sold to people at the point of a sword.
Their mythology about their religion’s earliest years is this happy feel-good pablum nonsense about how oh, people heard about the sacrifice of Jesus and were just so enamored of the idea and enthralled by Christians’ Jesus Auras sooooo much that they converted like crazy! It was so unlike everything they’d ever heard before, so much more loving and kind and awesome, and it promised something no other religion could promise. It was this major grassroots movement of slaves and have-nots that somehow–tee-hee, we know it was JESUS doing it right?–worked its way up to the nobility and all that. It was a religion based on real events and real history, unlike anything else, and it had a real live Savior–unlike any other religion! And gosh, now just look at where the religion is!
But none of that’s true.
I mean, not even a little. Not even a bit of it.
Christianity didn’t get popular because it was just so different from other religions. The whole point to it was that it was pretty much exactly what believers expected a religion to be–and whatever it lacked at first, like a virgin birth, it picked up as it rolled along. It offered everlasting life after death, forgiveness for sins, a demigod Savior who defeated both Death and sin, the idea that only the cool kids Jesus liked would go to the special awesome afterlife, and of course the comfort of an array of rituals designed to ward off harm, keep believers safe from evil influences, and punish their enemies in various ways.
And none of that’s unique or noteworthy.
All of the ideas I’ve presented about Christianity were present in one form or another in all the extant religions of the first century. Though Zeitgeist might go overboard in making its various comparisons, the fact is that Christianity was exactly like every other religion created at the time. It took puzzle pieces from the various religions that people already liked, whizzed ’em together, set up some new catchphrases and slogans, and sent them forth to the global marketplace of ideas. Let me be clear here: there’s not one single idea in Christianity that is unique to Christianity. Not one. At all. So there’s no reason for people of the time to get super-over-excited about yet another mystery religion. Even the Jews of the time, who should have been the most interested in the new religion’s ideas, were decidedly meh about the whole thing–if not openly critical of Christians’ claims about Jesus’ role as the Messiah, a claim whose debunking puts the kibosh on the entire New Testament’s thrust of divine human redemption. (Undeterred, the religion’s earliest salespeople just switched to evangelizing gentiles, who could be counted upon not to know all the reasons why the religion’s claims were idiotic.)
Further, Christianity’s invention by anonymous scribes did not produce this huge whirlwind revival in the Ancient Near East or anywhere else. It wasn’t a fast-moving religion in those early years, any more than it was a unified one.
The real truth is that none of us would be here now talking about Christianity without a considerable amount of coercion throughout the religion’s long and shockingly bloody history. It was neither unique nor strikingly new nor memorable–its creators just opportunistically put together the puzzle pieces in a way that succeeded better than anything else going on at the time–and got super-lucky about what attention they garnered with the effort.
Though the Catholic Church itself has done much to obscure the religion’s first years (particularly concerning the role of women in their earliest groups, but that’s sure not the only place where they erased and invented stuff), we know that within a fairly short time the new Judaic-Hellenic hybrid had attracted the attention of those exact noblemen who were needed to catapult it into the status of a state religion–and from there, decided to extend its reach through coercion.
This legacy of force and brutal control is something that every modern Christian should have to contend with. It flies in the face of the hippy-dippy bullshit lies that believers get told about their religion’s origins.
Definitely this was not a case of the religion gaining adherents through the movement of the invisible hand of the global marketplace of ideas. It didn’t win through intellectual superiority or some monopoly on truth. A sword was behind its entreaties, just like threats are always behind a Christian’s evangelism attempts. This religion wouldn’t even know how to sell itself without some kind of threat. And the more power Christians have had, the worse their threats have been–and the more they were able to physically hurt the people they were evangelizing if those people refused to convert.
So there was never really a time, except in those very early faltering days, where Christianity was sold purely through the basis of persuasion (if even then). Its leaders never learned how to frame the religion in such a way as to retain members naturally, without coercion and threats and force, and certainly never saw any need to learn ways to sell the religion to people who had a totally free choice regarding adopting it or any other faith system–who could walk away without buying the product. After Christianity’s age of coercion had finally dawned, such people didn’t exist anymore.
Coercion was literally the only way that Christians ever had of selling their product. Whatever their sales literature and revised history books might suggest, ultimately people in Christian-dominated countries had no choice at all in accepting the new religion their leaders had adopted. About the only people who wouldn’t face torture and death for refusing to accept Christianity were the rulers that missionaries initially approached in those heady early days of expansion–but those rulers faced other forms of coercion for refusing, like war and loss of rank.
There was never a need to learn how to sell this religion. Christians could count on their power to hurt dissenters and apostates to keep everyone in line–and could count on their legal and societal powers as a group to force new people to convert into the group whether they wanted to belong or not.
No wonder Christians look longingly back to the Good Ole Days, before their tumble from power had even begun. When you hear a Christian whining about how much better things were “back then,” you’re hearing a Christian who yearns for that power to coerce and force others to comply with their demands. Those “good ole days” weren’t good for anybody but a very narrow subset of Christians, but they could certainly inflict much more suffering on others than they’re allowed to do now.
(This truth is also why we must not relent at all on our insistence that Christians follow the laws that every American must follow. Slip even a little, and they will grab for everything they can–all in the quest to reinstitute the “good ole days” they think were so much better.)
The Law of the Marketplace.
Given power, coercion is the natural next course of action for Christians–their history has shown us that, in spades. The only reason they aren’t using physical and legal force now to gain converts and retain existing members is that secular laws won’t let them do that anymore.
That change is fairly recent, moreover, which tells me that they didn’t stop using force because they realized how totally non-Jesus-y it is to gain converts that way, or because they realized that a forced conversion doesn’t fool Yahweh. The change happened purely because they aren’t allowed to do it anymore.
Instead, now they must contend for their few victories in the global marketplace of ideas: that vast shopping-center full of religions, philosophies, and ideologies, where people can wander up and down its many aisles and examine each package of religion at their leisure–and either put it in their shopping cart or set it back on the shelf and walk away.
Christianity exists in that shopping center alongside every other religion in the world, past and present. It is given no special place of honor. It’s not set into an endcap as some special or unusual or particularly meritorious product, thus allowing it to look more interesting or competitive to consumers. Instead, it competes right alongside all those other products.
This is the first time in Western history, these past 30 years or so, that Christian leaders and fervent followers have lacked some of their previous ability to push their religion to the forefront of all those other religions–to enjoy a privileged position at the endcaps of the marketplace of ideas, so to speak. This is the first time in our history that Christians have had to compete on even terms with everyone else. This is the first time Christians have had to endure the sight of people glancing at their product and then being totally free to examine it or not as they please–and then reject it, often for reasons that its salespeople don’t approve of.And Christians really don’t like this new normal at all.
A Product That Can’t Sell Itself.
We often hear a salesperson claim that their product “sells itself.” This claim means that the salesperson’s job is largely simply presenting the product to people, who will be so interested in it that they will snap it up. There is a whole mythology built around that phrase, for good or ill, but it boils down to a product that is so necessary to people and so appealing that even a terrible salesperson can close a sale for that product. No tricks are required; no serious sales techniques are needed. The product is just that awesome.
I can say that a few things in my life were products I bought without even having to wonder about it. I have a very striking silver cat necklace that went from something I didn’t know existed to something I owned so quickly it made my head spin. My conversion to paganism went along very similar lines. The forum software that Dangitbobby and I settled on this week was a no-brainer as soon as we saw how well it handled.
Christianity is not that product that sells itself, however.
And it never was.
It never needed to be so.
Its adherents and leaders simply had the power to coerce people into accepting their come-ons and then remain in the pews. Now that they lack that power, we see exactly how well Christianity sells itself.
There’s been this entertaining 180 that Christians have had to pull regarding how they market themselves and their religion, now that they must switch from the lords and masters model to the salesperson-supplicant model. It’s clear to see that a great many of them deeply resent the necessity of making that switch.
Many others simply refuse to make it at all.
Kicking and Screaming.
One Catholic who refuses to make that shift is Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Illinois, who has decreed that his priests may no longer perform basic services for Catholics in same-sex relationships.
Particularly, he means that people in such relationships may not receive wedding services, nor their weekly Communion rite, nor funeral services. All of these services are completely and totally non-optional for Catholics seeking to avoid Hell after their deaths. One reporter said that the only time he can ever remember someone being denied a Catholic funeral “were mafia bosses, when they were shooting at each other.” In Bishop Paprocki’s view, a couple in a same-sex committed relationship are apparently worse than a violent criminal in organized crime; such people are so terrible that he must use his ultimate power over their afterlives to force them into compliance with his demands.
The same journalist said that he estimated that 95% of other American bishops are “horrified” and “think this is too far.” But they’re not openly criticizing him for doing it–yet. (A broken system’s members will always put their system’s protection ahead of the victims of that system’s teachings.)
What he is expressing here is similar to the power to declare an interdict upon a community. In the past, Catholic leaders did that to the recalcitrant rulers of nations and leaders of groups who opposed their overreach. (It can also be declared upon a person, of course, but it’s usually a community thing.) A group of people under an interdict could not have those basic services performed for any of its members. Often the citizens’ outrage over not getting those services could be counted upon to bring their recalcitrant leader to heel again. Even the threat of it was enough to rein in those leaders, once but long ago.
Bishop Paprocki still thinks he’s the lord and master of his little fiefdom. He thinks that this new rule will cow those desiring services of that nature–that people in committed same-sex relationships will be so panicky about not having those services, and so frightened of going to Hell, that they will eschew their deepest, most valued, most dear personal relationships to make him happy–and of course to remain Catholics in good standing.
Apparently his exorcism back in 2013 didn’t expel the demons he sees lurking behind every corner in every LGBTQ person’s relationship. That isn’t even the worst that he’s done, I’m sure; that’d probably be his attempt in 2015 to force the parents of children attending Catholic schools to attend weekly Mass and tithe to a Catholic church even if they aren’t Catholic. This bishop is balls-out nutters on a level that normally we have to go to Appalachian Pentecostal churches to see.
But he doesn’t know that he is really the salesperson-supplicant in this model, not the lord-master, and the real outcome is going to be people leaving his religion and never looking back.
A guy who co-edits a website for young Catholics hit the nail on the head: “A church that excludes the LGBT community is a church without a future.”
We can only hope.
Here’s How That Overreach Really Goes Nowadays. (Also: Illinois Catholics, Seriously.)
I mentioned my sister as a footnote last time we met up. She was Catholic like I was growing up. She wanted to marry in her Catholic church. The priest forced her and her husband-to-be to attend their tedious premarital counseling session that all couples have to attend, which involved the priest demanding (among other things) that her husband-to-be promise to raise any kids the two had in the Catholic faith. Her husband-to-be, who is very hostile to organized religion, refused. The priest, thinking he had something to hold over their heads, said that if my future brother-in-law kept refusing then the couple could not marry in their church.
The two left that meeting, found another venue, and as far as I know never looked back at that religion. They’re coming up on 25 years as a couple and have two wonderful kids who are doing very well–and are both nonreligious as far as I can see.
That’s 25 years of missed tithes and four lost butts that might have warmed pews had the priest in that situation handled them humanely and compassionately. Those are four total people that are not fans of the Catholic Church and know now that its leaders are not an authority figure that must be obeyed. And it’s four people who know that they can easily live without Catholicism.
How many Catholics just like my sister do you suppose are out there?
The comments in my post reveal that a number of other folks had a minister try to strong-arm them similarly–and got similar results.
So when I look at Bishop Paprocki kicking and screaming about how terrible it is that gay people exist and aren’t afraid of him anymore, I wonder how many Catholics are going to check out emotionally from his leadership and go find greener pastures in which to graze for their spiritual sustenance. I especially wonder how many people are going to look at him and wonder why he’s not going after the criminals in his own ranks with that kind of fervor.
But we don’t need to speculate about the results of his overreach and heavy-handed attempts to rule. We can actually look at how Bishop Paprocki’s leadership and management style are doing! Here’s a press release from his headquarters that tells us that there’s been a 30% decline in attendance between 1996 and 2012 (with a very slight bump in 2013; for reference, Mr. Paprocki got there in 2010). Enrollment in Springfield Catholic schools is trending downward just like it is everywhere else in the country. People are voting with their feet in a way that is unmistakeable. His stunt in 2013 with the stupid exorcism may have led to a tiny bump in attendance, but it doesn’t seem to have done much over the long term.
Dude must be desperate by now.
I wonder if he prays every night for a return of the Inquisition.
A Poignant Reminder.
Unfortunately, Christian groups still maintain a hold on power in some parts of the world–even in the United States, as I pointed out last time we met up. We can see exactly how they’d act if they were given more power to coerce people in our own country. We must take the lesson to heart. This overreach is what we fight–because if we do not resist, we will be trampled. And there is very obviously no “Jesus” holding back his followers’ grabby little hands.
In short, I have no reason whatsoever to believe that any Christian group given power over others wouldn’t immediately start using it to the fullest extent possible. They’d mean only the best, of course. While they reached for our rights they’d have their eyebrows squinched up to maximum droopage and they might even cry a little about how much they knew they were hurting us. Mr. Paprocki himself has attempted to use the analogy of him being the parent to all the silly little toddlers that he oversees–like many overreaching fundagelicals we’ve seen.
But those hands would be grabbing for our rights nonetheless.
That, literally, is the only way that toxic Christian leaders know how to act.
Good luck to the ones trying to reform their marketing model from the sword to the marketplace. I just don’t see how it can be done. Christianity offers very little in exchange for the demands it makes upon adherents, and makes no logical or emotional sense compared to other ideologies (including and especially humanism). There’s a reason why its salespeople through history were happy to rely upon force to push their ideas onto people; there was literally no other way they could have succeeded at it.
Now they don’t have the same ability to force anyone to listen to them–and we’re starting to see the results. Unless they regain the ability to force people to listen to them, they will continue to fail.