My Kzinti name will never be Checker of Inboxes. But last week letters turned up in my mail that really encapsulated exactly what Christians do when they are confronted with someone who’s left their ranks–and why even they know they’re doomed as a major power in modern culture. Here are the lessons that Christians never understand they’re giving when they talk like Tim did here.
Here’s how someone like me reads a drive-by evangelism attempt, basically.
A Cardboard Standup Figure of Me.
I don’t really get a lot of letters from Christians. I know some bloggers get just tons of them, but I really don’t. It happens maybe once every few months. These exchanges rarely last very long. At first, when the blog was still really new (before Patheos found me), I’d get letters from Christians piously advising me that they were praying for me and hoped that one day I’d “find peace,” as one young woman suggested. Or they’d ask me to regurgitate my entire deconversion story for them so they could pick it apart and tell me that they were totally thrilled to announce that they could resolve all of my concerns so I could skedaddle my pale shiny hiney on back to church.1
So yes: a would-be evangelist’s entire outlook is like that of an MLM-bot looking for a sale; they are 24/7 looking for an “in” to help them sell us their religion. They want to make us like themselves. What we actually are doesn’t matter because they want it to change regardless, and so they don’t concern themselves with learning about us as we really are. Further, it takes time to forge a good friendship, the kind that allows for those deeper conversations.
They find it so much more convenient, instead, to create a cardboard standup of us and then fling their evangelism at that.
Their own abysmal lack of success doesn’t concern them. Once in a very blue moon they might find a person who gets a little of that evangelism stuck to them and listens to their message for a change. Maybe that person even listens longer. Maybe that person even converts. Maybe the conversion lasts. And maybe that stuff doesn’t actually happen to that one Christian, but rather to another Christian who simply claims that it happened–that’s more than enough. Those lottery wins keep them going and fuel their efforts. Like a pickup artist who’ll happily annoy, frighten, and alienate 999 women to find the one who is dysfunctional enough to respond to their lines, Christians know that theirs is a numbers game–and that to win they must play it like that.
Last week I found myself looking back at one of these Christians.
Salvo One: My Big Problem.
Tim’s first letter wasn’t long, but it contained quite a few inaccurate statements and manipulation attempts.
Taking as his cue my recent post about why I rejected (and continue to reject) Christianity, Tim opened with a classic “You seem to” accusation. When it’s said by a Christian or other asshat, that is a very, very good sign that I’m about to hear something about myself that won’t sound terribly familiar.
And that’s what happened.
Tim decided that My Big Problem Here was that I’d listened to “what people told [me] about religion as [my] basis for disbelieving.” I was, he asserted, willing to “bet [my] eternity on what (fallible) people told [me] is or is not true.” And that was totally unacceptable to him.
Well, it would have been unacceptable to me too–if it’d happened that way. Except that’s not why I deconverted, and it sure isn’t why I continue to reject Christianity today. Even if I had, I sure wouldn’t be listening to another fallible human being–Tim himself–to correct that oversight, if it existed.
Tim exists in a world where anybody who reads the Bible correctly (like he does) and understands the doctrines involved in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ (like he does) is totally safe from deconversion. I did those things, and I thought I’d made clear that I had. But he never saw those parts of my ex-timony. Even if I held him by the chin, looked directly into his eyes, and intoned that yes, I’d done those things, he’d only think that I was somehow wrong–that I was lying–that I couldn’t possibly have done them the right way (like he does).
He confirms his total lack of reading comprehension by asking if I’d ever actually “prayed to God for the ability to do HIS will instead of asking for stuff. Did [I] pray earnestly for belief and a willing heart?”
These, too, were all contained in my ex-timony. My last night as a Christian was spent praying earnestly–till my throat cracked2–for exactly those things. I know many other ex-Christians who experienced much the same thing in their last days in the religion. But in Tim’s world, that effort can’t possibly be rewarded by anything but a divine granting of renewed faith and divinely-granted purpose.
And the biggest problem Tim saw was that by deconverting, by his reckoning I’m now heading straight for the wicked and perverse realm of Hell that his lord of love and prince of peace has set up for his own beloved children. The condescending “wow, that takes faith” is meant to belittle me for having so little sense, and that is exactly how I took it.
Ultimately, Tim needs to think that I deconverted for invalid reasons. He just needs to figure out what those reasons are, and then he can usher me back into the sheepfold alongside him–or at least privately confirm his own suspicions about those mean ole apostates. He doesn’t realize that he’s not the one who gets to police what are and aren’t valid reasons for any customer to reject a sales pitch from any salesperson–but he’d sure like to reserve that right for himself.
So these, then, are the lessons Tim was imparting to me:
- He’s totally okay with using threats to score points and make sales.
- He thinks that a total stranger will care if yet another Christian rando thinks she did everything wrong.
- He doesn’t care enough about me to actually read anything I wrote about my deconversion.
- Love and compassion figure nowhere in this letter–only fear and demands for compliance.
After taking in all these points, I decided to address the threat at the center of his short letter. But I don’t think he was expecting me to address it in quite the way I did.
Christian Reindeer Games.
I wasn’t really interested in dealing with his specific accusations. I know they weren’t coming from a place of receptiveness, and I know this Christian reindeer game very well.
Remember: You can’t appease a fanatic. So I never let myself get drawn into that kind of bickering. I know where his accusations are coming from, and I know that once you start trying to gain the approval of a Christian seeking your reconversion, you’ll never reach the end of it. A really dedicated/pushy salesperson won’t ever accept any reason for rejection as valid because it means they will have to concede that their product simply isn’t a fit for someone, somewhere on this good dark earth. Eventually all you can do is block them or shut the door in their faces.
But there’s another secret I know about these sorts of drive-by evangelism: they are driven by fear, always. These sales pitches are always more about the evangelist and their feelings and needs than they ever are about the prospect and their own.
Consider this plaintive little plea from “Rose,” replying to a comment on a Thom Rainer blog post about evangelism:
You can just hear the dread she feels about the idea of evangelism. She’s just more afraid of what might happen if she doesn’t do it. That’s the look of a customer who’s really bought into the salesperson’s pitch and become part of the downline.3 And the folks in her upline are all very happy to have her, I have no doubt. She absorbs all of the social risks of person-to-person evangelism that they refuse to face, but they get to reap all the benefits of the few sales she might ever make in her lifetime. It doesn’t occur to her that she’s been sold a bill of goods.
That’s how powerful fear is in Christians. That’s why, when they talk to us, they’re not able to really engage with us. Our voices can’t drown out that kind of fear.
You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned, Tim.
One of the things I’ve noticed about Christians is that when they evangelize, typically they do it from the standpoint of whatever would most matter to themselves if they were hearing a Christian sales pitch. Remember, they have no idea who they’re evangelizing. The cardboard cutout they talk to might look like us, but it is actually based upon themselves and a narrative they’ve absorbed about who they think we are.
So what they say to us, they’re really saying to the voices in their own heads. Tim has no idea in the world why I deconverted, as he’s demonstrated amply. So he has to make a lot of assumptions. Those assumptions are, at root, his own fears.
In this case, the fear sure sounds like the idea that someone might well deconvert for a valid reason. Every time we express our reasons, we remind Christians that deconversion happens even–and maybe even especially–to people who take their religion as seriously as they do. That means that anyone could be at risk. So Christians take a deconversion ex-timony in the exact same way that 1950s housewives took news of a divorce in their neighborhood, or–perhaps more on the nose– in the way that Strawberry’s home warren in Watership Down took news of a rabbit lost to a nearby snare.
Negating us–or shutting us up, if that can’t happen–becomes a pressing concern. If Tim negates and silences me successfully, he feels safer. His worldview is affirmed; his ideology is validated. So his pitch was, in essence, Because you deconverted under terms I feel are invalid, you are now at great risk of eternal torture from my “loving” godling. If you’d done X and Y instead of deconverting, you wouldn’t be facing that great risk now.
And implied: I’d never, ever do that myself.
That thing you just noticed was a Christian talking way more to himself than to his prospect.
So I took him seriously.
I wanted to show Tim that I understood that fear and that I’d come out through the other side of it–and that life was so much better now. And I was trying very hard to be kind to someone who had just wickedly threatened me with eternal torture–simply for vocally disagreeing with his tribe’s ideas and practices.
(Aw, lookit there! I found some “Christian love!”)
Tim’s Response: A Lesson He Wasn’t Expecting Me to Hear.
Literally all Tim said in response was this:
We’re going to talk more next time about this exact topic of Christians advising us that they’re praying for us–it’s something I really want to devote some time to exploring and forms most of my last reply to him, so we’re definitely going there! But there’s more going on here than that.
A piously-intoned “I’ll pray for you” is a standard-issue last salvo for a Christian, you see. And the meaning is crystal-clear: Because you have rejected my manipulation attempts, I will now ask my invisible magical wizard friend to forcibly change your mind. He gets points for not making another more-explicit threat as in the first letter, but what he wrote is still intended to make me nervous. It didn’t, but I can just imagine him thinking I’d be walking on eggshells in fear of a magical bolt from the blue making me into a mini-Tim again!
Oh noes! What was that? Is it an angel about to whap me upside my head with a Jesus-by-four?!?
Moreover, this threat is based on another great fear of many Christians: being forced to do something they don’t want to do.
It’s totally okay for them to force others to do stuff or think that their god is strong-arming them into compliance over something, so they’re well aware of how it feels to be powerless. That’s what this implied threat speaks to. When you hear Christians fantasizing about the terrible future of their religion, they’re not talking about irrelevance, which is what is actually in store for them. They’re all talking about being murdered and imprisoned by the Evil Atheist Government. They’re talking about being “silenced” by the Fabulous Gay Glitter Mafia. They’re talking about having their personal property confiscated and their personal rights to assembly being negated by any number of perceived tribal enemies.
When a Christian under that kind of fear threatens outsiders to their tribe, typically that’s the form their threats are going to take: an abrogation of rights; a nullification of liberties; compulsion of what should be a freely-made decision. Being that they are the ones doing every bit of that to people in and out of their tribe–or least, trying hard to seize for themselves the ability to do so!–it’s definitely a bold strategy, Cotton, but projection like that is a big part of why they’re toxic Christians in the first place.
I was trying to make my last reply more of a “gentle answer” that “turns away wrath.” I also made sure to note that I was aware that we were finished with this correspondence. But I only briefly touched on his use of a less-lurid but still-intended-as-threatening Christian catchphrase; I think I made my point already in the first reply.
We’re a Very Knowledgeable Family.
Tim imparted a number of hard-won lessons to me this week. I don’t think he even realizes what a perfect distillation of modern fundagelicalism he is, but gang, he’s the real deal. Not benign, but not way-out-there-lots obviously malevolent; he’s what you’re most likely to encounter out here in the big bad ole skept-o-sphere.
First, he’s totally unaware of how to effectively sell his product. Hell, he’s not even aware of how to conduct himself around non-tribemates. He’s still operating in the headspace of a salesperson selling a product that is already an object of coercion by a dominant power. Without the power of coercion propelling his efforts, he is totally lost.
Second, he’s not a Christian for any of those lovey-dovey reasons we sometimes hear out of that lot. His sales tactics are based upon fear, emotional manipulation, and strong-arming. His conversion was very likely the result of the same.
Third, he was never particularly interested in the questions he claimed to want to see answered at the outset. I was right to ignore them. Despite his request for personal information from me, moreover, he was not happy about me turning the spotlight back on him. A genuine two-way communication was never his goal.
Fourth, he–like his peers–has caught on to the absolute ineffectiveness of even talking about some unique monopoly on real true awesome love, or of even trying to sell mercy or forgiveness or anything else.
Last, despite Christianity’s absolute nosedive in credibility and membership, evangelists’ tactics ain’t changed a single bit from my days in the religion. If anything, they’ve polarized more into fearmongering.
Next time we’re going to talk more about the “I’ll pray for you” jab. Such a short phrase, but it is large; it contains multitudes, and you’ll see just how appropriate that reference is then! See you soon, bat-friends: same bat-time, same bat-channel!
3 In multi-level marketing terms, a downline is someone who is recruited to sell under the main seller; the upline is the person who recruited that main seller. An MLM salesperson wants to have a whole lot of people in their downline–the more people in the downline, the more potential for profit (though it doesn’t always work out that way). The further up the pyramid an upline sits, the more money they make, moreover. That’s in fact one of the ways you can spot a bad MLM; they’re way more focused on recruitment than on sales of their product.
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