The Satanic Panic brought us some truly dramatic testimonies from Christians, didn’t it? They allowed their imaginations to run just wild! After the conspiracy theory had died down, they didn’t lose their affection for wild testimonies. They just moved to a new favorite, ex-atheist testimonies. And they quickly discovered the many appeals of the new hotness. Today, I’ll show you the shared features of these two popular testimony styles, and which testimony I think wins the fight for Christians’ attention and money–for now.
They Know Drama.
Most people know better than to trust advertising copy. We know that salespeople will say anything to score a sale. We might not realize that we’re dealing with motivated self-interest. But we do know that when someone wants a reward greatly enough, that person might do some really sketchy things to get it.
The reward doesn’t even need to be money. People do all kinds of weird things to gain attention, sympathy, or even just the pleasure of imposing on others or abusing strangers online. They want a kind of validation that they can only recognize from others’ hands.
In Christianity, we see that urge amplified to 11 and beyond. Christians craft testimonies to be little sales pitches for their religion, but they’re not just selling their stories to heathens. They seek rewards from their own tribemates, too, maybe even more so than from non-members.
That’s why these testimonies follow certain trends and contain so many common elements. They’re designed to gain attention and maybe score sales. And oh, wow, do they ever.
Anatomy of an Ex-Something Testimony.
By far the most attention-grabbing testimony–and the one considered most persuasive by the tribe if not by actual success rates–is the ex-something type.
Here, Christians create a little three-act play about their lives before, during, and after conversion to Christianity.
- Act One: Christians try to make themselves sound like the worst-of-the-worst of the genre they’re pretending to have belonged to. Whatever their tribemates imagine the worst excesses of the genre to be, the tale-bearers exceed it. If the story’s creator can work wild sex and profligate drug use into the story, then count on both showing up. Lawbreaking that falls outside the statute of limitations might show up too.
- Act Two: BUT THEN a wild conversion appears! If the Christians utilizing this testimony type can work in a miracle, especially magic healings, then they certainly will. Otherwise, they might only imply that miracles occurred. At any rate, they’ll make this experience sound as moving and as profound as humanly possible.
- Act Three: The tale-bearers settle quickly into their new lives as Christians. They abandon their old lifestyles and discover that their new religion fulfills them much more and makes them much happier. If the audience consists of non-Christians, even if only potentially, expect the testimony to end with an appeal to convert. Otherwise, it ends with great praise for their imaginary friend for “saving” them from his own wrath through the indirect murder 2000 years ago of an innocent person who might not have existed at all.
The closer you see a testimony hewing to this format, the more you should distrust its veracity. (Amusingly, even some fundagelical sites recognize some of the flaws in this testimony style.)
The Problem With Ex-Something Testimonies.
I suspect Christians seek to align these stories with their “Amazing Grace” myth.
A great many Christians love the idea of their god reaching down to reform the vilest sinner into a saint. The clear intended meaning of these testimonies is that if their god can find value in someone so awful, then surely he can love and forgive anybody. And if these stories shock and titillate Christian audiences as well, then so much the better.
Stories abound in Christianity of a well-told testimony swaying people to conversion–especially people who belong to the same group targeted in Act One of the testimony. The people who claim to have been thus swayed tend to peddle the same exact kind of testimony in turn–and they spread the same exact mischaracterizations about whatever that group is.
Hucksters build upon hucksters, then, to create a solid, cohesive, false mythology about that group–and about their tribe’s success against that group. Based on this mythology, Christians denounce any critics of their testimonies as liars.
Even reality can’t survive such powerful programming.
Currently, two testimonies compete for Christians’ attention and money. I present them as Christians present them, complete with all the misconceptions they’ve created about the groups in question.
Some Christians favor ex-Satanist testimonies. In these, a Christian conjob claims to have been a totally-for-realsies Satanist. Sometimes they blend Wicca into the mix and claim they used to cast spells on people. Occasionally these tale-bearers claim to have committed various occult crimes. They don’t usually claim to have committed any crimes that could actually provoke criminal charges and investigations, but sometimes they’re really that dense–or that ambitious. Obviously, the Satanism they describe exists only in movies and Christian folklore. It will be easily defeated by Jesus Power. They seek now to illuminate the evils of their most dread enemy.
Other Christians prefer ex-atheist testimonies. Here, the liar-for-Jesus claims to have been a firm, well-informed, totally convinced atheist. The testimony will cover how the totally-an-atheist mistreated people and insulted Christians. Sex and drug abuse might figure into the story, but not commonly. They frequently describe their hero-worship of various atheist leaders (the one I’ve seen most often is Richard Dawkins). Then the totally-an-atheist will describe the dealbreaker to their atheistic faith that zinged them so hard that they just couldn’t believe in atheism anymore. Now they crusade throughout the land to share the flaws of atheism and enlighten current atheists.
Round One: Drama.
Christians don’t get much drama in their everyday lives. I noticed that truth even when I was a Christian. Titillating and shocking testimonies tended to be where we got our excitement. In these stories, we could imagine ourselves as the triumphant victors (and more than conquerors at that) over the forces of evil.
When it comes to sheer drama, nothing beats an ex-Satanist testimony. There, we find demons materializing in front of people, spells and curses flung around, and often hints of huge, dark conspiracies overshadowing the entire world. Sometimes someone’s even idiotic enough to confess to serious crimes like murder and sexual assaults.
By contrast, totally-an-ex-atheist testimonies sound so picayune. That might be the intention–but it lessens the drama level considerably. OMG YOU GUYS, they totally insulted Christians and acted snooty! Ugh. Wake me up before you go-go, okay? The worst I’ve ever heard an ex-atheist claim to have done is drug abuse and unapproved sexytimes. Occasionally someone throws in totally-also-ex-gay as well, but that only adds to the weirdness.
Winner by Lots: Ex-Satanist Testimonies.
Round Two: Celebrities.
When we look at the people who claim pasts in Satanism, we note a sad trend. These are not people who were destined to excel anywhere else but in lying for Jesus. Consider the fates of Mike Warnke, Zachary King, Benedict Atkins, Glenn Hobbs, Doreen Irvine, John Ramirez, Bill Schnoebelen, and a host of others. Some of them enjoyed quite a heyday.
Unfortunately, ex-Satanist claims have proven painfully easy to debunk, as well as completely uncompelling to non-Christians. Enough Christians buy into the trope to make a resurgence of the Satanic Panic a real risk, but they don’t enjoy widespread popularity. Christian leaders might be unwilling to explicitly denounce testimonies claiming these pasts, but they certainly aren’t hugely promoting their creators overmuch.
By wild contrast, a number of very influential Christians claim pasts in atheism. Lee Strobel, the bestselling author of The Case for Christ, is very fond of promoting his past as totally-an-ex-atheist. As RationalWiki notes, his account of his time as an atheist certainly doesn’t sound very well-informed. Instead, it sounds exactly like the mischaracterization of atheism his tribe likes best.
Other prominent Christians claiming ex-atheist pasts: Peter Hitchens (the brother of Christopher Hitchens), Warner Wallace, Ravi Zacharias, even C.S. Lewis! It’s little wonder that so many up-and-coming Christians grab those coattails.
Winner by Lots: Ex-Atheist Testimonies.
Round Three: Demographics.
As the saying goes, demographics is destiny. And nowhere is that saying truer than in Christianity.
This round, however, was hard to call.
Before recent years, I’d have said that ex-Satanists’ time was finished. Normally, a faded moral panic retains only believers who were young adults during the panic’s heyday (which is why fundagelical retirees still rant about Communism). But in recent years we’ve seen some young upstarts looking to separate Christian fools from their money. There’s clearly enough money and attention there to support a few hucksters. If enough hucksters notice the potential profit involved, we can expect them to leap into the water.
Similarly, ex-atheist testimonies attract Christians of all ages. A few years ago, we covered the testimony of Shane Hayes, an elderly “ex-atheist” Christian who wrote an apologetics book aimed at atheists.
But the trend caught on with younger people too. Over on Reddit, which skews right through that college-to-middle-age demographic, a great many Christians discussed their pasts in atheism. Most of the accounts I saw there conform to that misunderstood version of atheism that Christians have created. But they do attest to the popularity of that trope across age groups.
So I must award the green star of victory to ex-atheist testimonies!
Round Four: Pushback.
Here we evaluate both the cringeworthiness and the amount of pushback against these mischaracterizations.
For example, when we look at the pushback against ex-Satanist testimonies, we see some purely eviscerating and humiliating smackdowns. I still sometimes re-read the takedown the Christian magazine Cornerstone offered of Mike Warnke back in 1992. Their devastating exposé should be required reading for anybody who still buys into the Satanic Panic.
Kerr Cuhulain, a pagan police officer, used to write similar takedowns of Satanic Panickers, since their testimonies often merge pagans, Wiccans, and Satanists together. His corner of the WitchVox site makes similarly excellent reading.
Then we mosey over to ex-atheist testimonies. Actual atheists do push back–constantly–against Christians’ mischaracterizations of them. Last year, Lee Strobel stroked his ego by repeating his lies about atheism. Atheists aplenty showed up to set him straight. As atheists’ numbers continue to climb and dissent becomes ever-safer, atheists’ pushback will only become more visible.
So in terms of sheer cringe factor, ex-Satanists win handily. But in terms of amount, ex-atheists win by a landslide.
I award both testimonies a green star.
THE WINNER: Ex-Atheist Testimonies!
Our Golden Triple Double Bird Award, then, goes to:
The Christians shilling totally-an-ex-atheist testimonies.
CONGRATULATIONS! We hate it!
The Nature of Power.
I strongly suspect that a lot more atheists than pagans or Satanists live in the countries where toxic Christians run roughshod. That level of familiarity–and the way milder offenses against society Christians accuse atheists of committing–might well explain why so many of them think it’s safer these days to malign atheists.
It also would explain why so many Christians view atheists as a stronger enemy. They might guess there aren’t too many Wiccans hanging out at Liberty University (or wherever they want to send their kids to college). But undercover atheists might lurk around every corner and parents know that more and more young people are withdrawing from Christianity.
Such testimonies are also way less obviously fabricated. People who would never buy the idea of summoning demons or flying can easily believe that someone was rude or had unapproved sex.
Sure, actual atheists push back harder and harder against Christian claims like that. But it’s not like Christians listen to anybody anyway–especially when the rewards are so great.
This song’s kids are now entering high school. Feel old yet?
NEXT UP: Building on this same topic, we’ll be looking at Christian cold readers and Magic Christians! Oh, they do love to pretend they know our lives better than we do. I’ll show you how–and why–they do it. See you soon!
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