Every so often I’m reminded of just how surreal and bizarro Christians can be. So much of their thinking and practices come from their own subjective ideas and a vast body of mythology rather than from objective reality. If any new teaching sounds really Jesus-y and can be supported even a little by Bible verses, they’re buying in before they’ve even figured out if the teaching is true in the real world (not just their Christian substitute). If we imagined a Venn diagram whose circles were labeled Reality and Christian Teachings, we’d have two totally unconnected circles. But they’re all like that. The only way they differ is in how far apart the two circles are. I’ll show you the weirdest and worst of those teachings here–and more importantly I’ll show you exactly why they’re wrong.
I’ve talked before about the really surreal nature of Christian culture. Sometimes it feels like Christians are aliens play-acting as humans even though their sole exposure to human nature is through the perpetually and gloriously wacked-out soap opera Passions. And the further to the ends we go along the faith spectrum, the less like reality their culture resembles.
It can be exceedingly confusing for an outsider to Christian culture to see a Christian state a goal like “I want to convert everyone in the whole wide world,” while their tactics are all but guaranteed to stop them from converting anybody at all. Or to hear one of them say “I want to end abortions everywhere forever,” but nothing they’re feverishly working at is going to accomplish that goal. Or t0 see one insist that the very best way to foster marriages that last for life in happy harmony is to set up totally impossible rules and restrictions on it, deny the right to people who desperately want to get married, and create a system of total inequality and injustice for half of those people–all policies and teachings that completely work against that laudable goal.
An outsider to this culture could easily be excused for wondering exactly how Christians managed to completely pare away real-world observations and results from their strategies for dealing with, well, everything. The answer is found within the hallowed halls of magical thinking. It means doing stuff that is totally not going to impact a desired outcome. And Christians do it all the time. The more hardcore the Christian, the worse they do it.
Magical thinking is what naturally happens when someone gets some inkling that their beliefs and behaviors aren’t actually corresponding to reality. That’s a stressful thing to realize. So magical thinking pares away the very need for beliefs to match reality and for the very prizing of real-world results. All that matters to someone who is deep in the trenches of magical thinking is for their beliefs to be on target. The results will be inconsistent to nonexistent, but they’ve got lots of ways of dealing with those failures. (That’s why fundagelicals’ first prophet of abstinence-only miseducation, Pam Stenzel, is very open about her indoctrination sessions’ total failure in terms of persuading teens to hold off on having sex. She’s sure that she’s got totally Jesus-y beliefs and the most Jesus-y behaviors, so the results don’t matter at all to her. She’s flat-out said so.)
Usually someone can double-check themselves by seeing if their actions are impacting their goals. For example, we can test a study technique to see if it really results in better grades. We can measure the impact of a school’s sex-education curriculum by studying changes in the rates of teen pregnancies and STD infections. We can check a company’s sales figures for a product being advertised to see if the advertisements really do increase sales (or, um, make them worse). If one of these measures is found to be counter-productive in Reality-Land, ideally that’s the signal we need to pull back, re-assess the strategy we were using, and find a new one.
But Christians can’t do that for a variety of reasons. And again, the more hardcore the Christian, the more unable they are to correct their own errors and missteps. They very likely think their tactics were divinely-mandated or ordained, and gang, it’s impossible to walk back a proclamation like that.
In the case of today’s topic, Christians’ stated goal is to figure out a way to ensure that their children (or their peers’ children) stay Christian for their entire lives. They want to create a system of teachings that will strengthen their children’s faith and make them committed to staying in the religion. They’ve seen how many kids end up either deconverting or disengaging1. They want to stop that tidal wave. It’s becoming a demographic nightmare, one that seems only to accelerate and worsen (from their vantage, at least!) every year.
The problem they’re having is that they really can’t engage with the reasons why kids are leaving their religion2, so they can only come up with solutions wandering around in search of a problem.
If their beliefs and practices really did reflect reality, then the systems they’ve come up with to keep their kids Christian might actually work. But reality doesn’t cooperate at all with Christianity, so their tactics fail spectacularly and constantly.
About all those systems actually do accomplish is putting money in the pockets of their creators.
A Parade of Errors.
It’s not hard to find thousands upon thousands of guides in print and online aimed at frantic parents who are worried that their kids are falling out of their religion. Most of them are presented in the listicle style that Christian writers favor. And hey, ain’t nothin’ wrong with a listicle now and then. But they should cover topics that can be explained quickly and easily, or else they should be about movie stars. Or cats. Serious parenting advice doesn’t fall under any of those categories.
From Christianity.com, as a start, we get a list of “5 Traits of Kids Who Keep Following Christ as Adults.” Here’s their list in short form:
- “They developed a love for God’s word.” (Meaning: they read the Bible often, attended early-morning Bible studies, loved hearing sermons, and asked questions of their elders when they failed to understand one of the many contradictions and confusing passages in the Bible.)
- “They deeply grasped that they were sinners in need of grace.” (Read: Well-meaning adults traumatized their young, beautiful, curious, spirited little children into thinking there was something so fundamentally wrong with them that nobody but a god could possibly fix or love them. Unless they were LGBTQ, in which case all bets were off even with a god.)
- “Their parents served in the church.” (This means that their parents did gruntwork at their church and thus had less time for their kids–which in Bizarro-Land translates to the kids somehow turning out more fervent.)
- “They didn’t give themselves over to sexual sin.” (The author goes on to say that “sexual temptation is a key contributor to young people falling away from the faith,” which is why Christians tend to just hammer this idea into kids to the point where the poor kids grow up totally confused about sex and dating. They can’t even talk to people of the opposite sex sometimes. And that’s fine by the adults.)
- “They were legitimately Christians.” (Meaning they were TRUE CHRISTIANS™, of course, like the writers of this list. Not nasty fake Christians or Christians in Name Only–CINOs. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never, ever deconvert.)
And if a parent can ensure all of these things, their kid will, guaranteed, maybe, probably, possibly, hopefully stay Christian for life!
How easy is that?
Reckoning Without One’s Hosts.
Are you wondering how to force a child to “have a love for God’s word” or to totally mean it when they say they’re miserable little sinners? Did you want a little more information about why church-related volunteer work translates into the kids staying Christian forever? Did you ask yourself why having sex means that a person can’t be Christian forever when most people, even Christians, have non-marital sex all the time (check this study out to see what I mean) and still manage that trick? Did you wonder how to make a fake Christian into a TRUE CHRISTIAN™? Or perhaps were you just wondering what these suggestions looked like in everyday life?
You’d be right to wonder about all of that stuff and more.
Alas, you’ll get no answers from Christianity Today.
About the closest they get is in the last bullet point, when whoever wrote it declares that one way you can tell who’s in and who’s out of the Jesus Fan Club is by how well they can recite Bible verses and parrot the the fundagelical party lines. Seriously. Rote memorization = TRUE CHRISTIAN™ for sure. If a kid can’t recite stuff upon demand, then that kid is probably just a cultural Christian.3 And cultural Christians are abandoning the religion in greater and greater numbers, according to the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ remaining in the pews, so they are just the worst.
Otherwise, except for that quick definition, about all you’ll get if you’re interested in keeping your kids Christian is just a list of traits with no explanation of how to get a kid to fit into that list–and a bunch of party-line slams against “cultural Christians” and ex-Christians.
It’s All the Parents’ Fault.
A lot of people are taking advantage of Christians’ desperation by offering advice to them. Most of this advice is not free, either.
The creators of these materials generally advise parents to walk a very narrow tightrope between being permissive and strict, micro-managing or hands-off parenting, spoiling and neglecting kids, or guiding and forcing them.
Often we see these would-be advisors insist that parents must themselves be very fervent so their kids will catch that bug, or that parents should force children to attend church even if they dislike it because when they’re older they will totally thank Mom and Dad for making them go. Sometimes a Christian even shows up in their comments to say that they were forced to attend church and attribute their faithfulness to the coercion they endured as children. And no, the people talking like that totally don’t see what the big problem is with that idea. They’re like the people who stoutly insist that they got beaten as children and they turned out just fine.4
Real talk here: An ideology that can only be passed to the next generation through coercion is not a good ideology at all. It’s not an ideology that is worth passing on. It’s certainly not one that is divine in origin. It’s not worth preserving, not worth any deference, and not worth our resources. If a parent literally can’t find a way to communicate religion’s benefits to a child (as they could indeed find to explain why eating a balanced diet is good, or getting enough sleep, or learning to share–all very good habits to cultivate in their own right, with tangible benefits for compliance and tangible repercussions for noncompliance), and can only get the kid to church through force, then I’d suggest that that parent is only complying as well out of having been conditioned through coercion.
But that’s really all a Christian parent has in their toolbox. Coercion is writ all through Christianity, so it comes easily to hand for many believers.
When All Else Fails, Lay Down the Law. Apparently.
Focus on the Family is a hate group that spun off from the Family Research Council (one of the FRC’s leaders, Tony Perkins, famously announced that floods are his god’s punishment to gay people–and then had to do some major hand-waving when his own house got flooded!). Their writer concedes that forcing a kid (especially a teen) to attend church against his or her will could “turn [him or her] off to Christianity for good.” In such a case, the writer suggests figuring what on earth is wrong with that kid, so the parent can get it fixed and the kid can be happy to attend church again.
What he’s talking about here is pretending to go along with a person’s doubts by trying to steer that person into the defanged version of doubt that Christians think is the real thing. But I don’t think their substitute will fool many young people. There’s actually not much in this post that a parent can actually use; it’s all very high-level advice that doesn’t ever get to the ground by showing the advice in motion.
Then we have Natasha Crain, who positions herself as “the Christian mom” in apologetics circles. She has some very strong advice for parents: yes, you should force the little darlings to go to church and that’ll make them believe eventually. On her blog, she very frankly advises parents to lay down the “law” (her term) demanding that all people in the house attend church.
Continuing in that vein, she wrote a lame book on the same topic, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side, which Steve Shives has been eviscerating lately. She thinks she’s offering a book subtitled “40 Conversations to Help Them [one’s children] Build a Lasting Faith,” but it really ought to be subtitled “40 Pointless Regurgitations of Common and Easily-Debunked Fundagelical Talking Points and Logical Fallacies That Natasha Crain Mistook For Good Reasons To Believe in Bullshit.” (I guess that isn’t nearly as catchy.) But I’ve no doubt that it sells pretty well among fundagelicals, who are desperate enough nowadays to grab at any straw offered to them–and who will take Ms. Crain’s suggestions as Jesus-y sounding enough to buy into.
There are a bunch of these and I recommend every one of them to both Christians and non-Christians. Natasha Crain, like most apologists, provides a great example of what not to do in selling Christianity.
The implied truth in every one of these Christians’ posts is that if a kid leaves the religion, be it as a disengaged Christian or a deconverted ex-Christian, the blame for that errancy is often laid at the feet of that kid’s parents.
I don’t think that any of these advice-givers notice or care that their comment sections are littered with the wreckage of that advice. The people writing those comments have tried all the things that they were told to do–only to see their kids fleeing from Christianity the second they are physically able to do so. I don’t think these advice-peddlers care if they did notice that, though. Apologists are the most hard-selling of all hard-sales salespeople. They simply don’t (can’t, even) accept that there are very good reasons for rejecting both church culture and Christianity itself, any more than they can accept that all their apologetics arguments are just window-dressing and useless words without any backing in reality. They always have some comeback for every objection, in the wacky world of apologetics. But parents operate in reality, and they see in realtime the real truth about how well those talking points and lofty bits of advice really work on real young people.
Or rather, how they don’t work.
Overclocking the Blame Game.
It’s not easy to read stuff written by these sanctimonious soup-chewers who masquerade as reputable sources of parenting advice. Take a look at this bit of textual dribble from the piehole of Chuck Snyder, a Christian who (verrrry over-optimistically) bills himself as a “relationship expert.” Someone made the misstep of writing to him for advice regarding her teenaged stepson, who doesn’t want to go to church anymore and is growing further and further apart from both his father and her.
As Vivian Ward would have said, Big mistake. Big. HUGE. I have to go shopping now.
First Snyder shakes his finger at the letter-writer for committing “the sin of divorce,” since that is obviously why her blended family (mom, dad, his teen son, her younger son) is having so much trouble and why the older boy doesn’t want to go to church. Then he sternly warns her that her sin will cause her own younger son to eventually rebel like the older boy. He laments that her situation is “almost impossible” thanks to her sinfulness in divorcing her previous husband.5 Then Snyder sighs about how nice it’d be if the teen son “could start a new life with his Mom or a Grandma or foster home…but I assume your husband wouldn’t take too kindly to that.” (YOU FUCKIN THINK? And what about the stepmother’s opinion there? MAN this asshole is quick to leap to the idea of separating a child from his parents, considering some of the books he’s written.) And he follows up with a Jesus threat that “everyone is in mortal danger” if the teen son isn’t brought to heel quickly.
His suggestion is that this stepmother needs to find a church “with a fabulous youth program,” vet it to make sure it’s fundagelical-approved, and then ask a minister from that church to take the teen son out “for a Coke sometime and begin a relationship with him.” But it’ll take someone with more JESUS POWER than the mom and dad have, he’s sure. It’ll take a date with a minister to repair whatever that teen’s malfunction is.
JFC, even with a young person’s entire future with Christianity at stake, these asshats can’t get away from their goddamned coffee dates. Or their blame game. Whatever is going on with that teen, it started long before his dad remarried (and everything the stepmom describes sounds like he’s reacting in a very normal and expected way to his situation). But Snyder can’t resist taking a dig at her for stepping afoul of his tribe’s party line. Nor can he even begin to conceive of a universe where a teen’s disbelief can’t be corrected by developing a “relationship” with a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. (Life Pro-Tip: Relationships don’t actually have any bearing on a claim’s truth or validity. If a person is claiming that 2+2=5, then it doesn’t matter how many coffee dates he dishonestly obtains with those who disagree–that belief is still objectively untrue.)
It’s a good thing Mr. Captain isn’t in the room right now, because I keep yelling things at my monitor.
The Scary Truth.
The scary truth is that a parent can try to put into action every single list in the world of Things To Do To Keep One’s Kids Christian, and yet all this effort will in no way ensure that a child will remain Christian forever. Indeed, most of the ex-Christians I know fit those lists to a tee growing up and still ended up realizing that the religion’s claims were false.
There really isn’t a way to totally inoculate a child against losing faith in Christianity because the one thing that parents might do, they absolutely won’t do because they can’t.
That one thing is to offer a single really credible reason to buy into Christianity’s various threats and claims–just one solid, verified, measurable, observable bit of evidence for the whole shebang.
That is because there isn’t one.
I’m not exaggerating there. I’m not using hyperbole. I mean that if you go look at your local big-box bookstore’s entire vast and impressive range of apologetics materials, you will not see one single resource there that offers one single good reason to become or to stay Christian. Only Christians think their resources do that, and they only think so because they are indoctrinated to think so and are repeatedly told so by these resources’ creators–and then they are actively discouraged from developing and employing the critical thinking skills necessary to objectively evaluate these materials’ validity. There’s no reason whatsoever for anybody to come to that conclusion independently.
Young people are growing up in an environment where critical thinking is a survival skill. This maturing generation of media-savvy, advertising-immersed, bullshit-detecting young people can easily weigh Christians’ lack of credible evidence against the very tangible and verifiable harms that they see being committed in the religion’s name, its adherents’ dishonesty, and the baldfaced hard-sales tactics those adherents use to push the religion onto the unwary. They can clearly see how little the religion seems to be doing in the way of creating better people and better groups and communities. They take promises seriously and can tell when one is broken.
They’re increasingly walking away from Christianity for a simple reason: Its adherents make untrue claims, and Christians themselves are such an unpleasant and regressive bunch of people generally that if their claims aren’t true then people don’t want to be part of their groups.
All those Christian adults who have successfully bullshitted themselves into believing all that nonsense–who swallowed whole all the fallacies and hard-sales tactics and pseudoscience and revised history that passes for evidence in Christian circles–will be left totally astonished that their debased version of “evidence” doesn’t impress people who can see through all those deceptions.
Oh, I don’t mean to say that I think the religion will ever totally die. But I do think that within the lifetimes of the people reading this post, we will see some huge shifts there. We may well see Christianity reduced to isolated pockets, sorta like snake-handlers are seen today. The gods are not winning this fight. That’s a promise you can actually count on, unlike the one Jesus gave his pals!
Hmmm…. is it FULL KITTEN UPDATE time?
I rather think so!
See you on
1 Disengagement means staying Christian but opting out of all that Christian stuff like prayer and church attendance. Often it’s a stopping point on the path to deconversion, but that’s not universal; not all ex-Christians are disengaged, and not all disengaged Christians ever fully deconvert.
5 Notice: she doesn’t say why she divorced her first husband. Maybe he was hitting her. Maybe he was an addict. Maybe he was even (GASP!) deconverted. Snyder doesn’t know or care. That’s how we can tell he’s got Christian love in him!