Another day, another non-solution for life’s universal daily struggles. This particular non-solution comes to us courtesy of Bonnie Kristian, a Christian author. She thinks that lonely people should get their rumps to church. Today, I’ll show you why this is such a ridiculous suggestion.
This turned out to be a longer-than-usual post, but I hope you’ll stick with me here. The author is working with several very big concepts. In essence, she appears to be arguing that deep, fulfilling ritual observances build tight-knit communities, which in turn creates an environment where people can find close friendships. And the only truly fulfilling ritual observances are, of course, the ones she herself prefers. The only truly tight-knit communities are the ones focusing upon the rituals she likes best. And the very best friendships can only happen within the context of the communities devoted to what she herself believes. So if someone’s lonely, they need to consider becoming a member of a church.
(This is completely and utterly ridiculous.)
Everyone, Meet Bonnie Kristian.
Bonnie Kristian is a young-ish Christian. She’s got an M.A. from Bethel Seminary. Her first book just came out last month. In between attending church and all the normal stuff today’s Christians do, she writes for various outlets. Many of them are quite conservative (The American Conservative, which has never really overwhelmed me) and quite Christian (Relevant, one of those chirpy Christian sites where the truth goes to die). Others look fine (Politico, The Hill).
When I look over her work, I see someone who seems to get a lot of things right. She really doesn’t like Donald Trump. Several times, she’s written about racism and police brutality. Over at Relevant, she’s even written a piece about how YES, Christianity is very much a religion and not just a “relationship.” (We’ll be coming back to this last link.)
So she seems all right, at first glance at least.
And then we come to today’s topic. I saw a post of hers pop up on a religion-news alert right before bedtime, and wow it did not make me happy.
“The Vast Emptiness.”
On June 12, Ms. Kristian wrote an opinion piece for The Week. That’s a site and magazine that covers a variety of topics regarding American culture and politics. Religious pieces show up there with regularity, but I didn’t see anything really bad. According to The Week’s advertising page, its owners aim for an audience that is upper-level professional, middle-aged, split evenly between men and women, all with high incomes.1
This opinion piece is called “The vast emptiness that only religion can fill.”
Indeed, what you see in the title is what you get. She talks about lurking on Reddit, where she’s fascinated by how often people on r/AskReddit ask for advice about how to form close friendships with other people. After discussing a few consistent (and good) answers offered to this constantly-asked question, she launches into what she thinks would totally solve people’s loneliness problem.
And guess what it is?
No no, come on. Guess! You’ll never, ever get it.
She thinks that lonely people should totally go to a Christian church!
In The Good Ole Days.
She tells us about “a social structure that used to fill this very real need for community. That structure was church.” Now that people aren’t going to church anymore, however, they’re not able to make and keep friends as easily.
Instead of people figuring out new ways to fulfill our social needs without bending the knee to a religious tradition we increasingly find irrelevant, however, Bonnie Kristian thinks we should just hunker down and go to church anyway.
But wait, Cas, a bunch of you are saying right now.
I don’t believe in the Christian god. Doesn’t that put a kibosh on the whole notion?
Haha! No, it sure doesn’t! She writes:
It is common to think of church as a place for people to gather because they believe the same things about God. That isn’t wrong, but neither is it complete. Congregants are linked by shared beliefs, yes, but were that the only function of church, we could explore and reinforce our beliefs from a distance, reading books and talking about our views online.
So you see? It’s as easy as buying one of those little cherry pies at a bodega! All that “God” nonsense is only a tiny part of the function of a church. Therefore, it shouldn’t be hard at all for literally anybody to trot on into one to find friends and a community to belong to.
“Sad Reverse Engineering.”
Instead, we engage in what Bonnie Kristian calls “sad reverse engineering.” In her view, we bust ass trying to make ersatz communities, but we’re doomed to fail, always. But gosh darn it, bless our little cotton socks, we get up after each failure and keep plugging away at it, because many of us need true community with others. We try to devise rituals; we try to create groups that come together regularly enough to foster community and create that fertile soil in which friendships can grow.
And then we fail, because we just don’t know something important:
But these rituals are not real. They cannot do what we ask of them. A personalized ritual is part of that consumeristic cycle. It cannot fill the lack into which we pour it. . . It cannot return transcendence to our lives where it is missing any more than a board game club can provide a true sense of belonging.
Most pathetic of all in her eyes are the atheists and agnostics who keep trying to figure out how to have a ritual-based community group. You can almost hear her agonizing: Oh, why can’t these poor sweet fools just understand that Christians long ago already figured out how to have a meaningful community? We’re right here! They could just come hang out with us! Problem solved!
The Power of Community.
She has correctly named the problem, however. American culture is, indeed, in a state of flux right now. We’re moving away from Christian dominance. Along with that movement, we’re abandoning the well-entrenched institutions that once dominated our communities. We’re discarding the religious rituals that once shaped our weeks and yes, even our very lives.
The simple truth is that we haven’t yet created new communities that replace what we’ve abandoned. Yet. Sure, probably most ex-Christians are actually very happy to be free of an institution that can be oppressive, wasteful of our resources, and authoritarian, but that’s not universal by any stretch. For some folks who’ve left the religion, one of the most hurtful parts of our experience is the sudden and catastrophic loss of our social support network–and the life-shaping rituals we once shared there. These together form community, and many of us miss it.
But Christianity’s communities aren’t often all they’re cracked up to be.
One Person’s Great Meaning Is Another’s Irrelevant Nonsense.
Bonnie Kristian herself loves being part of a Christian community. She writes about it at length elsewhere, for Relevant. Beginning with a typical Christian Y’all, I totally get how you feel (“More weeks than not, I think about skipping church”), she launches into a long explanation of why Christians should totally attend church. (Quotes in this subsection come from the Relevant piece.)
To her, Christianity isn’t something that can be practiced solo. It has to be experienced as part of a community. And she sees that community as bringing significant social benefits of its own:
We run awry when there is no community to carry our burdens, amplify our joys, call out our nonsense and increase our self-awareness when our own reflection is obscured.
Oh, and to all the Christians who have walked away from the religion because they simply can’t trust its groups, or because they’ve been seriously hurt by other Christians, she flatly decides for them that their decision isn’t valid:
One advantage to the modern day wariness of organized religion is that Christians are more willing to be honest about the flaws of the church. Such humility and self-examination is valuable, but it can also be misused as an illegitimate excuse for avoiding church altogether.
I just love it when a Christian salesperson tries to dictate to a customer when they will be allowed to reject their product. Don’t you?
Non-Solutions: A Christian Cottage Industry.
The problem with Christianity is that there’s a lot of stuff about it that makes it look bad. It’s really a bad worldview, even when kinder, more compassionate Christians do their best to defang all the horrible bits. Its bad stuff is not stuff that can be fixed, either. It’s what an old boss of mine called a gravity issue. It’s there, it can’t be changed, and everyone has to deal with the same stupid awful cumbersome thing hanging overhead like a stormcloud.
The situation gets worse when that problem occurs within a broken system. A broken system is a system that long ago stopped being about whatever the group says it’s about, and started being a dysfunctional tribe dedicated to the acquisition (and flexing) of power. The leaders of groups like these don’t want to fix problems. Those problems are exactly what got them to their current position. Those problems benefit them tangibly in many ways. So the last thing they want to do is examine problems too closely–or change anything.
When someone–who will almost never be one of these groups’ top leaders–finally somewhat-acknowledges a problem in the religion, often, then, they have to suggest a solution that doesn’t actually do anything to improve the situation. Any real solution will be downvoted into oblivion. Worse, a real solution suggestion will open the person making it up to retaliation.
Luckily, Christians have a fix that comes easy to hand: the venerated, always-reliable suggestion that offers a non-solution.
The Types of Suggestions.
Smrnda had this amazing thing to say about advice last time. I’ve reluctantly clipped it, but the whole comment is golden:
The first and rarest type of advice is advice that actually doesn’t suck. . . The second type of advice is well meaning but unhelpful advice. You get this with advice on ‘how to find a job’ that won’t apply to the vast majority of job seekers. . . The third type of advice is a scam that tends to benefit the advice giver. The “SBC be in the room” is clearly that type of advice. You have to pay to be in that room, and the SBC is clearly making MONEY off people, and the bigger the numbers, the better they look. It’s like asking workers to show up and put in their own time at some promotional event where they will just get a t shirt.
That’s exactly what’s going on here.
You can probably guess where I put Bonnie Kristian’s suggestion about going to church to help with loneliness. Not only will her suggestion do nothing to really help lonely people, not only will it also cost a great deal of finite resources for anybody trying it, but those spent resources will then benefit her religion enormously.
What she’s talking is a church home, which is Christianese for a church with a tight-knit membership.
In a best-case scenario, a church home is perfectly lovely, with lovely people who are lovely to each other. The members support each other, grow close together, and hang out together all the time. They observe rituals together that build community and foster close friendships.
But that best-case scenario doesn’t pan out often.
What most people encounter is more like a work environment. Members come to church at the appointed times, then socialize with one or two people they really like, then leave. They might eat lunch after church with those few people they like, but they don’t socialize during the week.
If someone leaves the church, they often lose the friends they made while there. Often this loss occurs immediately upon leaving. Chances are nobody from the church will even reach out to the person who left to find out what happened, or to wish them well in future endeavors.
What I’m describing here sure sounds a lot more like work friends. Work friends aren’t like real friends. They are completely dependent upon their shared context. Outside of that context, they don’t see each other, interact, or care about anyone from there. They’re not terrible people; they just don’t feel like they have much in common with people from work. Nor do they particularly enjoy dealing with those other folks on an extended basis. So they limit how much of themselves they share–and what kind of interactions they’re willing to have.
Sometimes an enterprising person can turn a work friend into a real friend–but it takes mindfulness and dedication, as well as a work friend willing to play along.
Alone in a Crowded Room.
And sometimes in a church situation people won’t even find it an amenable atmosphere even for making work friends. They might actively dislike the other people there, or feel alienated while in church. They might be the focus of directed malicious gossip or rumors, or simply ignored. And, too, let’s not forget that in all too many cases, the pastor and other ministers aren’t genial and sincere.
Particularly when there’s a big mismatch between political opinions, or if a member suddenly comes to a realization that some major doctrine the church follows is incorrect or even harmful, suddenly that church home and church family don’t feel so loving. Christian congregations aren’t exactly famous for tolerating differences in their own groups, and the further right that congregation is, the less tolerant they are. (And the more conditional their “Christian love” is.)
The situation gets considerably worse after deconversion. Now, suddenly, the congregant doesn’t believe anything that the pastor is teaching or that their fellow group members believe. Bonnie Kristian hand-waves aside the fact that a church’s primary function is to talk about the Christian god and to provide adherents a space and time in which to worship that god. It’s absolutely bizarre to see a Christian hand-waving that function away.
Is this Christian really trying to sell Christian churches as being only marginally focused on sharing observances relating to their shared belief in Jesus Christ?
Am I the only person who can tell she’s pissing on her own shoes here?
The Power of Suckage.
Where Bonnie Kristian sees poor, sad, pathetic wrecks trying and failing to recreate the wheel that her religion’s already perfected, I see brave people struggling to overcome one of Christianity’s worst offenses against humanity: that its institutions basically sucked up entire countries and dominated them so thoroughly that their decline has left a serious vacuum behind.
If any of these brave people had ever discovered church membership to be an adequate solution to their loneliness despite lacking belief in the Christian god, we’d surely have heard about it. And yet somehow nobody’s ever indicated such a thing that I’ve ever seen. I personally can’t imagine a worse personal hell than to go to a church that will probably simply look like a hundred new work friends–at best–who’ll pretend to like me until I step out of line or need them for anything serious, and who’ll abandon me if I ever need to leave the church. Christianity fooled me once with promises of a church home; it won’t fool me twice.
Worse, since my beliefs about, well, everything generally are diametrically opposed to the teachings of almost every single Christian church on the planet, what am I supposed to do when the pastor is blathering on about nonsense, or when I see a group of people earnestly squinching up their eyebrows and singing joyously about a worldview that actively disgusts and repulses me? Am I to be honest and authentic and tell them how this display makes me feel, or am I expected to close my eyes and think of England?
Does Bonnie Kristian think I should just shut up and play along despite these empty charades making my very heart scream, or am I allowed to “sit out” until the church starts doing something that’s actually meaningful to me? When will my church home do something that I (as a non-believer) find meaningful, or will I always be conforming myself to whatever they find most meaningful?
I get the feeling that her answers to these questions will only make me feel more hostile toward her religion.
I wasn’t sure that was even possible until today.
Will wonders never cease!
Her Rituals Aren’t Real Either.
Possibly one of the worst things in the entire post is her blithe dismissal of non-Christian rituals–especially new, mindfully-created ones. See, she thinks that her rituals are deep, satisfying, meaningful, and beautiful. They are real. But the rituals everyone else creates and observes are as fake as a spray tan. To reiterate:
But these rituals are not real. They cannot do what we ask of them. A personalized ritual is part of that consumeristic cycle. It cannot fill the lack into which we pour it.
And here we might ask: who the hell appointed her the judge? Of course, a die-hard salesperson is going to think her own product is the best product of all. I wouldn’t expect less. But it’s not acceptable for her to decide on behalf of the rest of the human race that all other rituals are inferior to hers.
See, as we’ve discussed in comments before, most of our best-loved rituals don’t have a Christian context. Like think about Christmas, as Lambchopsuey has advised before. Take out the Jesus nuttery, and you’ve got a beautiful, ritual-laden, awesomely-non-sectarian holiday: trees, singing, presents, family reunions, the Macy’s Parade, a feast, Boxing Day, and hopefully thank-you notes. Take away all those non-sectarian rituals, however, and all you’ve got is a long church service with a bit more singing and pageantry than usual. Indeed, when people try to Jesus-ify the holiday too much, the results are purely cringeworthy.
In reality, I think Christian rituals are the ones that are fake, empty, and unreal. Taking Christmas, above: if Christian rituals were all that fulfilling and meaningful on their own, they’d have already replaced and eclipsed the non-Christian rituals surrounding the holiday. It’s crystal-clear that centuries ago, people tolerated all the empty Christian blahblah additions loaded onto Christmas precisely because they still got to have their truly fulfilling non-Christian rituals too.
There’s a very good reason why Jesus-focused rituals never replaced the other ones.
They couldn’t. And they still can’t.
But Bonnie Kristian would sure love it if we took her word for it that they are the only “real” ones.
A Three-Part Failure.
So let’s look again at the entire premise here. Bonnie Kristian thinks that meaningful rituals bring people together to form tight-knit communities, which in turn allows for close friendships to form. And obviously, she thinks Christian rituals are the only really meaningful ones, that church communities are the only truly tight-knit ones, and that Christian church communities thus offer the best chance of finding a good friend.
She looks at people’s difficulty in finding friends–and finding meaningful communities–as a sign that they need to look again at her religion, a sort of Argument From Are You Lonesome Tonight.
Here’s how the situation actually looks for many of us:
A non-Christian will not generally find Christian rituals meaningful at all. They’re based upon a religious worldview we no longer share, one that might actively emotionally harm us just to be around.
Nor are most Christian church communities tight-knit at all. Most are simply a rigidly-contextual environment, at best. Some are nightmares at worst.
And many of us can attest to how “easy” it was to find friends in that environment, even when we believed wholeheartedly.
But even if we had a great time in Christianity–and again, many of us did–that doesn’t negate one important problem that breaks the deal. It’s not based on the truth, and we know that. No matter how lonely we get, we can’t make ourselves believe no matter what we think the payoff might be.
Giving Away the Game.
At the very end, Bonnie Kristian accidentally gives away the game she’s playing. She ends her post thusly:
Still, any satisfaction that may be obtained here is a signpost. It shows you are not where you are meant to be. You have not found what you are seeking. It is, as C.S. Lewis puts it at the close of Surprised by Joy, a “pointer to something other and outer.” Look and keep looking where it is pointing you.
Oh! And I’m guessing she’s very, very certain that our dissatisfaction will point our feet straight toward a church’s front doors!
Ultimately, a solution to loneliness dangles ahead of us still. We’re starting to find real answers to this question. However, none of those answers look like “go to a Christian church even if you can’t trust them and don’t believe anything they believe.” But that won’t stop Christian charlatans from offering their snake oil bunkum.
Let’s just not forget that they are salespeople, and that this is their product. Inflating a product’s value and abilities is a scam that is as old as religion itself. If she wants us to attend her declining churches, she needs to give us a reason beyond blatant emotional blackmail–and friendship evangelism.
And if she had a real reason to offer us to consider her product, well, she wouldn’t have written this post.
NEXT UP: A Lord Snow Presides, and then we’ll examine the fruits of complementarianism! See you soon!
1 On that page it mentions that its readership is “69% AB profile.” That’s advertising terminology. AB people will be wealthy or well-to-do senior-level managers and professional people. Sometimes advertising wonks call this customer segment “affluent greys,” with the jargon here indicating their age.
And finally, we close with a quote from democommiescrazierbrother that neatly sums up the entire situation:
I used to sing in the choir at the Unity Church I attended for five or so years without any notion other than spending an hour or two with some folks I liked, once a week. . . Now that I’ve learned what odious bastards the vast majority of major KKKristStained sects’ leaders are I wouldn’t get involved with any of them, even to spend time with people I love.
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