Threats are a constant and deeply-woven part of Christian culture. Even the really nice parts of the religion use them in implicit form. That’s why we often talk around here about Christians’ use of threats. They make promises as well, promises that touch on the natural and supernatural worlds. I thought it’d be interesting to pull together some of their favorites–and offer up some link love in case anyone wants to read further about them.
Obviously, the biggest and most potent threat at a Christian’s disposal is the threat of an eternity of being tortured forever and ever by demons. This threat didn’t originally appear in the Christian mythos; it was added much later, and it was added specifically to frighten people into line.
The terrible part about this threat is that it is devastatingly effective.
More than two thousand years later, Christians still use this threat willy-nilly. It’s their go-to threat, in fact. It’s used so often and so freely that sometimes the Christians using it don’t even realize that non-Christians view what they just said as a legitimate threat. They use it that often because it is very effective against people who aren’t aware of its many shortcomings. About all that’s changed over the last couple of millennia is the degree of graphic details added to the threat scenario.
Even years out of the religion, ex-Christians sometimes suffer from a fear of being tortured for eternity–thanks to the “loving” Christians around them who constantly deploy this threat.
The promise that Christians make to counter their threat of Hell is, obviously, that compliance with and adherence to their religious demands–a very earthly subservience masked by the Christianese phrase acceptance into one’s heart of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ–will allow their new victim access to Heaven instead of Hell.
In its turn, Heaven is, according to Christians, the most wonderful place in the universe though to non-Christians that description often doesn’t sound quite so accurate.
“A celestial North Korea.”
Indeed, Heaven doesn’t sound like such a great place to me either. There are so many problems with the notion that if there is such a place, it would have to be the most nonsensical place in the universe, not the nicest. Christians are positive that they will never get bored of feasting and praising Jesus for all eternity–but that short list comprises all we know of what people in Heaven would be doing, if it existed in reality. I can’t think of many things I even like doing for a solid day, these days, much less for an eternity! Further, what about the logistics of everyone having a big ole mansion in the sky and getting around on streets made of gold? The whole thing sounds like a pauper’s dream of a life of luxury, sort of like we see in the song “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains:”
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railway bulls are blind
There’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
When your fantasies are not bounded by firm reality, then a promise can be as grand and as obviously compensatory as you please. In your dreams, you are free indeed. And Christians have just as much evidence for the existence of this boring, weird paradise as they do for their grotesque, inhumanly monstrous vision of Hell.
Obviously, the main problem with this threat is that nobody’s ever discovered a good reason to buy into it. We don’t even have evidence of the supernatural, much less any evidence suggesting that some part of human beings lives on past the death of our bodies. As far as we’ve ever been able to tell, dead is dead and there just isn’t any coming back from it or existing past it. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either exercising quite a lot of wishful thinking or trying to sell you something.
Threat: Financial Ruin.
Often Christian pastors sell tithing and “love offerings” to their flocks as a kind of transaction they’re having with their god: if they will give generously to their churches, then in turn they will be “blessed” by their god with material riches and other perks. But if they fail to donate enough money, they are threatened with financial ruin because their god will no longer protect them from these disasters. He’ll allow demons to cause mischief in these Christians’ lives, because as everyone knows, faithful tithe-paying Christians never face financial disaster. But he’ll protect Christians who tithe–and the Bible promises that those who fulfill this duty will see their money returned many times over. Eventually. But woe betide the Christian who actually tests that promise, because if that test turns out to show no return at all, other Christians are quick to remind that person that that “eventually” could take many decades to materialize–even forever.
Some of the less nasty pastors will phrase their threats about tithing as a sort of natural consequence instead of supernatural retaliation. My first Pentecostal pastor (at the really big UPCI church I first attended) taught about tithing in a way I know now is common: that people who learn to budget well enough to set aside 10% of their income for their tithes will also budget well enough for other things like savings accounts and car repairs and clothes. So, the tortured logic went, people who tithe will, ironically, be much better off financially than people of the same income level who don’t tithe–even if they’re all Christians–simply because having to tithe forced them to learn to better manage their money. Granted, the study that link is talking about might not be that accurate given that Christians tend to vastly exaggerate their level of engagement on self-reports they offer to researchers, but that’s at least the picture that emerges in their self-image.
As one money manager (in the ShareFaith link) explains, tithing teaches Christians to be “unselfish,” which is obviously a good thing, so Christians should tithe and isn’t it just awesome of Jesus to offer that path of self-improvement to his followers that couldn’t be learned in any other way! I suppose it’s just a totally wacky coincidence that tithing also keeps churches active and ministers paid; certainly very few of the religion’s leaders want to come right out and say that this indeed is where most tithes go. One site even declares breathlessly that greater levels of tithing could cure world hunger and illiteracy–as if that’s where increased offerings would ever actually go!
In this less supernatural way of looking at tithing, it’s not so much demons causing the damage to non-tithing Christians as all the earthly emergencies and needs that crop up that tithing Christians are better-placed to handle thanks to their Jesus-taught budgeting skills. So that 10% tithe becomes a sort of a fee for teaching financial management to people who can’t think critically. It still works out to a threat; it’s simply not a supernatural one, is all. (We’ll ignore that the truth probably runs the opposite way: people tithe because they can afford to; tithing doesn’t magically enable a Christian to afford other things.)
The funny thing is that whatever version of the threat is used, most Christians don’t tithe at all–even if they totally say they do. A few deep-pocketed donors pay the bulk of tithes that most churches receive. Despite constant exhortations from the religion’s leaders, tithing has only fallen in recent years along with membership numbers. That leaves an even larger burden on remaining Christians to support their groups and their various inefficient, haphazard charity efforts. So those leaders have to beg even harder to get the money they want. Notice in that link that besides demanding the 10% tithe that most Christians would expect, the writer claims that 10% is “just the foundation” and insists that readers “take tithing to the next level” by giving considerably more than that. Go big or go home, I suppose.
Laboring under these threats, Christians get really nervous about ending their payment of tithes and other offerings. Poorer Christians are eight times more likely to tithe than wealthier Christians, and for good reason. Even then, rates are low. But for the few who do actually tithe, the threats are extremely potent. As with the other threats, even knowing that the religion’s claims are totally false doesn’t always put the mind at ease. It’s scary for some ex-Christians to consciously not write that check or swipe that card. And like with the other threats, it sometimes takes a little time to get past that fear.
Threat: A Meaningless Life.
Christians are very fond of claiming that non-Christians can’t have any kind of meaning or purpose in their lives. We blew the lid off that threat last month, showing that not only do non-Christians have plenty of both meaning and purpose, but ex-Christians often discover after leaving the religion that both of them improve markedly in quality once they escape the rigid control of their onetime groups.
Despite claiming a monopoly on real meaning and purpose, Christians possess anything but. That said, they’ve done a good job of making their adherents believe they do–and that belief becomes a threat in their hands.
Remember that dumb “22 Questions for Atheists” a few years ago when the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate was going on? Almost all of the Creationists’ questions were lame as hell, really more like GOTCHA! zingers they’ve been taught are real stumpers for atheists (most had nothing to do with Creationism itself). In one of them, a smug guy in a green hoodie asks, “Where do you derive objective meaning in life?” He asks that question in that exact way because he, like a lot of his toxic peers, thinks that what non-Christians get in terms of meaningfulness in life is subjective, and therefore vastly inferior. It’d be very surprising to him to discover just how much better that supposedly-inferior meaningfulness is compared to the supposedly-superior objective meaningfulness he thinks he has.
The promise of receiving a big, totally objective answer that is final, impossible to argue with or deny, and imbued with cosmic, earth-shattering import is a very alluring one to people who don’t have the emotional skills needed to find those answers. I was one of them once. My post-deconversion journal entries show that I wrestled hard with that exact question now that I no longer believed in Christianity’s claims. I’d used Christianity as a shortcut to finding meaning in my life, and even then I’d had trouble figuring out what “God” wanted from me. Now that I no longer was a Christian, I had no idea how to proceed.
It took a long, long time to realize that those answers I sought from outside myself were found inside–and that they always had been so. We are the gurus on top of the mountain; we always had all the answers that we ever needed.
It just takes time sometimes to figure that out.
Dehumanizing the Enemy.
Captain Cassidy and the Cosmic Purpose.
The Big Secret About the Meaning of Life.
Busting the First Myth About Having Meaning and Purpose in Life.
And Yet It Moves.
The Darker Side of Artificial Meaning and Purpose.
Threat: Terrible Romantic Relationships.
One of the big claims Christians make (especially the really awful kind of Christian) is that their rules for relationships work better to produce healthy, happy, productive marriages than the world’s rules. The implied threat that goes along with that claim is that non-Christians’ relationships are total disasters. To hear those Christians talk, their rules work even for non-Christian couples by assigning each person in the relationship specific roles and duties that are all but etched in stone. A couple ignores those rules at their peril.
Christians tend to blame divorce rates on feminism, claiming that it makes women all weird and demanding–and more willing to kick a loving, devoted husband to the curb for no good reason at all and that poor widdle fella doesn’t even get a say in the matter! Little wonder that it’s Christians who are now trying to roll back no-fault divorce laws.
However, for all their opposition to divorce, it is a Christian spouse who seems much more likely to kick a newly-deconverted ex-Christian to the curb without a moment’s thought.
It’s downright heartbreaking to see a Christian spouse confront their newly-deconverted partner by saying that they’d rather be married to a drunkard or a batterer than an apostate. Suddenly the ex-Christian gets suspected of cheating, lying, and all manner of evils simply because they deconverted. A marriage to a non-Christian is supposed to be absolutely terrible–and Christian leaders very irresponsibly perpetuate this myth on a constant basis to keep their flocks from rubbing elbows too closely with a heathen who might encourage their Christian spouse to ask some very uncomfortable questions–and arrive at some even more uncomfortable answers. That’s not the only practical reason for this popular Christian myth (another I can immediately think of is that an ex-Christian spouse will probably want to quit tithing whatever the couple was giving to the church beforehand), but it’s a very potent one.
Unfortunately, the promise doesn’t hold water; Christian married couples get divorced as often as or even more often than non-Christian couples, depending on the study you look at. Their threat doesn’t hold water either–plenty of non-Christian couples (like me and Mr. Captain) are doing great, thankyouverymuch.
Christians’ other rules regarding courtship, dating, and even having friends of the opposite sex are just as unreliable. It might strike non-Christians as downright silly to plunge into a set of social rules without even testing those rules first, but that’s pretty normal for the religion. As long as a proposed new rule sounds Jesus-y enough and it’s got some Bible verses to prop itself up, that’s good enough for Christians.
The Unequally-Yoked Club series as a whole.
The Second Fiddle.
The One Pillar.
The Curious Case of the Undesirable Virgin.
The Difference Engine.
Leaving the Ring.
The Real Danger of Being Unequally Yoked.
How Non-Christians’ Marriages Work. (Um, Right?)
Threat: Poor Health.
Christians like to claim that their religion produces people who value clean, healthy living through its behavioral rules. Fasting, for example, encourages Christians to learn to eat less. Abstaining from alcohol and drugs, of course, prevents addiction issues. Being meek and forgiving prevents stress and fighting. Having a real live god to talk to at any time and give people contentment and joy prevents depression and loneliness. Reserving sexual expressions of all kinds for marriage and only marriage prevents people from contracting sexually-transmitted diseases or getting addicted to porn or masturbation.
In fact, this exact claim is sometimes used to justify the widespread teaching that members do not need to keep the kosher rules in the Old Testament: their god told his chosen people to keep kosher because it was soooo much healthier to avoid pork and all that other stuff, but we have way better food storage techniques so we don’t need those rules anymore! Problem solved! (But that gay stuff is forever. Sorry, that’s just how it is.)
Since non-Christians don’t usually follow Christians’ behavioral rules, they supposedly are simply miserable little pits of ill-health and dysfunction, seeking desperately to feed their god-shaped hole with whatever inferior substitutes the world offers.
However, by declaring all those activities and appetites simply off-limits and not adequately teaching adherents how to manage themselves, Christian groups all but guarantee that their members have only two modes when it comes to doing stuff that’s off-limits: they either totally deny those urges or they go absolutely nuts doing the stuff that is forbidden and then feel ashamed about it. There is a reason why Christians tend to have so many problems with anger management, addiction, obesity, you name it. And because the strictest groups also tend to think that psychology is demonic, they deny their members any hope of finding real and effective help for their problems.
Looking for Boaz in All the Wrong Places.
Medicine vs. Exorcism: The Real Miracle.
The Christian’s Guide to Ex-Christians: Your Testimonies Don’t Really Matter to Us.
Fruitarians and Fundamentalists.
The Demons of Psychiatry (Don’t Exist).
Things the Bible Doesn’t Talk About (Like PTSD).
Abandoning All Hope.
When the Greater Good and Harm Don’t Exist.
The Anatomy of Doublespeak: That ACBC Conference.
Summary: Empty Promises. Emptier Threats.
Most of these promises are instilled in Christians from their earliest years–they really must be, since adults are much harder to sway without evidence. Even so, many Christians eventually learn to put the pretendy funtimes games away when it comes to really seeking and gaining help for their very real problems. The ones who don’t know to do that are the ones whose stories turn out tragically–and often these people’s poor judgment and misplaced faith ends up hurting many other people besides themselves as they crash and burn on the tarmac of Christian promises.
Threats, though, are much more effective than promises. As we talked about last time, people will do a lot more to avoid a threat than they will to gain a promise–and that goes for their threshold of belief as well.
It’s perfectly natural to people to fear a threat on very little proof–even none at all, and even against contradictory observations and evidence. That fact doesn’t make us dumb or gullible; it makes us human. It means that sometimes we have to work harder to crawl out from under a false threat than a false promise. Even then, it can take time for our emotions to catch up with our intellect; we discard the fear of a threat way after we’ve long ago discarded belief in the threat’s validity. The more we learn about the source of our fear, the more we expose the fear to the light of day, the faster it dissipates. Once we do finally discard that fear, we hopefully become that much stronger and more difficult to fool again.
If Christian leaders had any sense, they wouldn’t ever make empty promises, though, because once someone in the pews realizes that they’ve stopped believing in even one promise, that opens the door to start wondering about why they fear the threats either. And that journey ends with a church door slamming behind us (be it metaphorically or literally) for good.
Join me next time for a walk down memory lane, as we look at a case study in discarding belief in false promises.
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