Christian opportunists know that nobody ever went broke betting on Christians’ propensity to believe anything they’re told, as long as it comes from the right sources and confirms their pre-existing opinions. Sure, they might want to help ease or (in their wildest dreams) reverse their decade-long decline, but even more than that, they want to do it without changing anything they’re doing. As a result, conjobs in the religion still pursue the same strategies their predecessors did in the 1970s and 1980s. Today we’re going to look at the super-trendy Christian testimony these days, and why it works so grandly at fooling today’s Christians.
Buckle up your hip waders!
A Refresher Course: Testimonies.
Christian leaders encourage their flocks to create short little sales pitches based upon their own personal experiences with Christianity. These pitches are called testimonies. Entire books, seminars, and websites exist to help Christians create compelling, convincing ones.
In particular, Christian leaders want everyone warming their pews to have a testimony. Despite having no reason to believe it, Christians think these obviously-biased anecdotes are hugely, enormously effective at impressing heathens with both the supernatural might and transformative power of Christianity. Consequently, a soulwinner1 wouldn’t dream of omitting one from their toolbox.
These pitches typically follow three acts. In Act 1, the Christian recounts their life before conversion. The more dramatic that life sounds, the better. The Christian describes their conversion in Act 2, hopefully working in a miracle if at all possible. In Act 3, the Christian talks up how happy they are since they converted–and demands that the listeners convert too, if they’re not Christian already. If they already believe, then the end of the testimony will be an invitation to them to sing or cry aloud to the ceiling about how wonderful their mutual imaginary friend is.
Lifelong Christians can get in on the fun too, of course. They just call it something else, like rededication, or being a prodigal son/daughter, or going through a period of rebellion.
Or, as we’ve seen in the last few years, they can call that phase of their lives atheism.
The Cult of “Before” Stories.
But some Christians don’t have an enthralling, fascinating conversion story to tell.
They grew up Christian, decided to get baptized at a fairly young age, then simply remained in the faith. They’ve never done anything really bad, and they’ve never seen anything they could rightly call an impressive miracle.
Their peers receive adoration and tons of attention–or even parlay their testimonies into lucrative careers in performance Christianity. Meanwhile, these more pedestrian Christians don’t even receive requests to share their story at a local small-group level.
Well, thanks to the Cult of “Before” Stories, they don’t have to keep feeling left out!
All they have to do to gain the same rewards their peers are raking in is to lie about their testimonies. It’s as easy as pie to do. Best of all, Christians won’t ever question a testimony, no matter how out-there or iffy it sounds.
The risks are low-to-nonexistent. The rewards are huge-to-astronomical. I suppose the real surprise is that some Christians don’t indulge in a little lying-for-Jesus on their spiritual resumes, not that so many do.
How to Craft a Successful “Before” Story.
In order to join the Cult of “Before” Stories, a Christian must carefully (one might even impishly suggest prayerfully) consider the current major tribal enemies of their religion. An opportunistic testimony ages incredibly poorly, because those tribal enemies shift from year to year.
Along with considering tribal enemies, the savvy Christian conjob-for-Jesus will also carefully consider what the tribe’s currently-popular delusions are. The kinds of Christians who put great store by testimonies as sales tools also buy into an astonishing range of conspiracy theories. And they’re always trying to one-up each other with new ones. So it pays to keep up with the trends. Choosing an old, dated conspiracy theory will alienate Christians who’ve moved on to the new hotnesses.
Just try listening to, say, Mike Warnke’s testimony, if you want to see an example of a woefully, even cringefully dated testimony. He’s a product of the Satanic Panic, so his testimony bogs down amid orgies, drugs, Satanists, black magic, and a monstrous Illuminati-style cabal of Satanist Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists) that controls everything and seeks only to subvert young people from the One True Faith. It sounds absolutely ridiculous now. Even worse, decades after he faced a humiliating expose of his almost-completely-untrue story, he still peddles it.
(For that matter, I’ve run into much older Christians who still believe the ex-Catholic “testimony” that so effectively fooled Jack Chick. Younger Christians seem more likely to reject these bizarre allegations.)
So the testimony must contain both an au courant tribal enemy, and a new-enough underlying delusion that the tribe-at-large won’t have encountered numerous debunks of it.
The rest is simply theatrics.
The Super-Trendy New Hotness in Christian Testimonies.
For the last few years, the Christians in the Cool Kids’ Club2 have been swearing by testimonies containing pasts steeped in atheism. And those testimonies perfectly fit the parameters for a “Before” Story.
In Act 1, the Christian relates how they were totally atheistic. Then, in Act 2, they totally got gobsmacked by some Christian. In Act 3, they share how they are totally happy now, as well as content that they have found a faith that is intellectually defensible, demonstrably reality-based, and morally-superior to all other worldviews–are you totally convinced yet?
Out of all their many imagined enemies, Christians likely hate and fear atheists the most. They’re so kneejerk hostile to atheists that they often automatically assume that any and all pushback is coming from one. Their various polemics and sales pitches are usually written with an atheist audience front and center in their minds. All of this happens despite the relatively low percentage of atheists in America.
Most of that hatred and fear comes from a place of profoundest ignorance, of course. It’s like most of the other hatreds and fears Christians fall prey to. Their culture wars couldn’t survive a minute without copious doses of “fake news” about whoever and whatever they’re battling this time. Their crusade against atheism springs from the same source.
So Acts 1, 2, and 3 all contain that Bizarro World, revised form of atheism. It’s the version Christians created, trade in, and think is the real one. They’re knee-deep in this delusion by now. In fact, they’ll get downright offended if a real atheist shows up to tell them that it’s unrecognizable!
The Key Differences Between Atheism and Christians’ Version of Atheism.
We can spot some very key differences between the version of atheism most atheists seem to embrace, and the one that Christians invented.
FIRST: The definition itself.
Most atheists embrace a definition of their worldview that involves a simple lack of belief in any gods. Some atheists are hard atheists. They’ll say outright that gods don’t exist. Others content themselves with concluding that no evidence supports the notion of deities.
By contrast, many Christians believe that atheism is simply a childish desire to rebel against a god that atheists totally still believe in. They think that this form of atheism requires the same level of faith that they have for their god. They even insist that atheists still perform all the same kinds of faith-based rituals and devotions that Christians do–just in service to atheism’s idols rather than to Christian ones.
SECOND: Its susceptibility to the most childish of Christian apologetics ruses.
In reality, atheists often offer extremely robust responses to Christian apologetics and sales tactics–one might even say eviscerating. Their knowledge of the Bible–and of apologetics in general–almost always far outshines Christians’ own. With the advent of the internet and mobile access, that knowledge went into hyperdrive.
Christians prefer to ignore those responses entirely. Instead, our legitimate and well-reasoned objections to religious claims become, in Christians’ hands, puerile excuses that even a Christian child can destroy by accident.
In Christians’ testimonies, look for these differences.
In the Wild.
“Here’s the ultimate reason unbelievers don’t believe. . . It’s because they love their sin more than they love God.”
By reducing atheists down to pathetic whiners who just can’t cope with the idea of a god who rules everything, even themselves, Christians defang their mortal enemies. By making their objections to Christian overreach and claims into easily-managed, childish tantrum-throwing, Christians assert dominance and superiority over those enemies. We see the exact same dynamic at work in Christian movies these days.
Christians listening to these stories thrill to the defeat of an enemy they can see growing stronger and stronger by the day. As you can imagine, they look at the crafters of these stories like rock stars. These are the brave, hardy souls who looked their enemy in the face, even walked among them for a time. Then they escaped to tell the tale. These are the boys who lived.
It’s almost a pity that Christians give all this adoration and respect to grifters and conjobs, and that they learn in return a version of atheism that doesn’t really exist.
But there’s something worse–or more comical, depending on whether or not you share my point of view–about the situation. These Christians are also learning strategies for apologetics and emotional manipulation from these stories. And sometimes they get so excited, y’all! They can’t help trotting those strategies out on actual atheists sometimes, like a teakettle simply must let out a squeal from steam’s pressure.
And then they get eviscerated by their tribal enemies.
The Last Thing They Need.
But Christians gonna Christian. They are simply fascinated by atheists and atheism itself, but their fear makes them seek out that defanged, denatured, debased version of it that feels so familiar. This past March, Christianity Today offered up a plea called “Why Christian Theology Needs (Former) Atheists.”
In this plea, the author–who was totally an atheist once himself, y’all–sweeps through his fellow self-declared ex-atheists: C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, etc. He even offers up his own “Before” Story, which runs along the exact same lines we expect:
- He was oh-so-evolved and intellectual and HMPH! PISH-POSH ON TEAM JESUS.
- He was totally miffed by Bad Christians and became a “cynical” atheist at age 20.
- Opting out of seminary, he attained instead a secular higher degree.
- His reason for “reconverting” wouldn’t even make sense to actual atheists, but it does totally confirm his tribe’s party line about atheists. He found a book in France that included Tacitus’ long-debunked “evidence” for the existence of Jesus. Right there, our TRUE ATHEIST™ decided that IF Jesus truly existed, wow, that’d be like totally deep, dude, and that’s what made him reconvert. Yep. Not kidding. Not exaggerating.
- NOW OMG YOU GUIZE, FOR REAL
If he was an atheist at all, he sure wasn’t an impressive one. His time as an atheist lasted a very short time–he doesn’t say how long, but his “reconversion” occurred well before he was finished attaining that higher degree. So… one year? Two? His reasons for reconverting don’t even begin to make intellectual sense, either.
And he thinks his religion could sure use a whole bunch more “atheists” like himself!
It’s the very last thing they actually need.
But sometimes people get exactly what they wish for.
The Indignation of the Liar.
When Christians talk about how tooooootally atheist they were in their testimonies, they model atheism after what their pastors and apologetics idols describe. (If they’ve bought into that model thoroughly enough, they might even sorta kinda think they were really atheists!3)
And then these folks repeat their testimonies around other Christians, who absolutely won’t realize that this is a gross mischaracterization. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
By the time they trot the testimony out to someone who does know what it’s like, likely they’ve gotten validation for their error-riddled testimony from countless sources. The testimony conforms to their cultural imagination about what atheism is and looks like, and oodles of Christians have signed off on it.
You can just about see their indignation when they finally get serious pushback to their false claim. How dare we!
But they’ve trotted that story out to so many Christians by then that they can’t possibly recant it.
Not even to themselves.
Slamming Down the Antiprocess Shields.
These tale-bearers’ efforts are already backfiring–gloriously, dramatically, and definitively.
Take a look at that Peter Guirguis link again. He admits, right in the post itself, that when someone takes his ideas into the wild and trots them out on real atheists, often the results are disastrous–for the Christian.
I have people who write to me that even though they’re Christians, they’re going through a time of doubt. That’s because someone they’re speaking with challenged their faith in some way, and they didn’t know how to respond. If you don’t know the ultimate reason people don’t give their life to Jesus, then you might experience doubt too when someone provides you with a “good excuse”.
He thinks that he can offer his readers a pat, surreal rationalization for what he always refers to as excuses. He thinks that his rationalization will quiet and soothe the doubts raised by these encounters.
They just wanna siiiiiiiiiiiiin. That’s why they’re rejecting my sales pitch. It has nothing to do with whatever they actually said as a reason for rejecting it. They’re either self-deceived, or lying. Those are just excuses, and they don’t look like anything to them.
Sure, his childish thought-stopper will probably work on a few of his readers.
But more than a few will realize that people’s motivations don’t invalidate good reasoning. Someone can communicate a perfectly reasonable, sound objection to something even while hyperventilating with rage and screaming at the top of their lungs.
And someone can be as wrong as wrong can be–and a massive dillweed in the process–without once breaking his Jesus Smile.
It Just Takes One Brick, Pulled From the Wall.
All it takes for a Christian to escape the religion is to realize that one claim is absolutely, categorically false. The genie escapes the bottle at that moment–and cannot be returned to it ever again. At that point, they’ll know that their thought leaders can be dishonest–or at least hugely wrong–about something important. And that realization in turn will cascade into wondering what else their leaders are being wrong or dishonest about.
But liars-for-Jesus are still causing damage to others while that happens. I won’t minimize the harm they do, nor dismiss it. I’m just saying that they’re destroying their own chances of survival as a world power for a very fleeting short-term and mostly-illusory gain.
In the end, I reckon the best thing to do, when thoroughly malevolent people are making a humongous mistake, is to get the hell out of their way. The Christians lying about atheism are not only advertising how weak their own position is, but also accelerating that decline.
While we scramble to protect ourselves against their overreach, perhaps we can take a little comfort in knowing why so many Christians misrepresent atheists, and how their dishonesty is working toward their own religion’s downfall.
NEXT UP: I wanted to talk about the No True Scotsman fallacy, but realized I had to lay groundwork first. That was today. Next time, we’ll look at why we’re safe in pushing back against Christians’ assertions of having “totally been atheists once, y’all.” See you soon!
Yes, a few atheists do convert to Christianity. But if they’re pretending that they had a purely intellectual or evidence-based reason for it, and they’re maligning strawman atheists, we can safely assume that they have no idea what atheism really is. And next time we’ll be exploring why it’s okay to be up-front about our skepticism in this regard.
3 I was similarly confused about orgasms when I was married to Biff. I had no idea what one felt like, so he very helpfully told me all about them. When I really had one–after we’d broken up–I thought I was having a heart attack. (I’ll re-run that post sometime soon.)
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