Out of all Christians, most folks find evangelicals to be the most annoying group. We have plenty of reasons to feel that way. They’re the most in our faces, the cruelest, as well as the most retaliatory, hateful, dishonest, and recruitment-oriented. But one evangelism technique comes to us from both progressive and evangelical Christians. Today, let me show you show you the Christians who profess great curiosity about the god we’ve rejected. And then we’ll see how this tactic actually works for them.
Gosh, Y’all! They Have Questions!
It’s a simple ruse. I saw but could not confirm an attribution of the tactic to G.K. Chesterton, the author who brought us the Father Brown stories. He died in 1936, so if he created it then it’s been around for a while. Here’s how it works:
When presented with someone professing non-belief in their god, Christians ask us, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in.” They almost invariably follow it up with a statement about their own possible non-belief in whatever that version of god might be:
- Maybe I don’t believe in him either.
- I might reject him too.
- He’s probably nobody I’d want to worship either.
Now, they don’t tell us whatever their version of this god might be. That’d be too easy. Instead, they want us to tell them all about what version(s) of the Christian god we reject. They have already decided, before even opening their pie-holes, that whatever answer we provide will be wrong.
Their own version of him is the real and correct one.
And they can’t wait to tell us so.
In the Wild.
We don’t normally see an obnoxious, unpleasant, tedious manipulation tactic beloved of all major forms of Christianity. But here we are, and here it is!
Check out this tweet from Timothy Keller. He’s ordained by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is evangelical. I’ve heard people say he’s a “nice” apologist, though I have no idea how they came by that impression.
Or take a gander at this Unitarian Universalist sermon preached around 2012. The pastor presenting it states that another minister she knew zinged people with this tactic all the time. She said she “really liked it.”
Someone on a sports forum talks about this tactic in glowing terms. The justification offered:
The word “God” can have such a wide variance of meanings to people that it’s probably best to ask people who “believe” or “don’t believe” about their understanding of “God”.
(Someone else tells that poster they “would have made one hell of a theology professor.”)
Last year, hip evangelical megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel (he preaches in jeans and a leather jacket–THAT’S SO RAD, DUDE) wrote a devotional post in which he describes hitting a non-Christian with this line. As he describes it, the man “was happy to oblige.”
See what I mean?
“Tell me about the god you don’t believe in” can be found pretty much everywhere in Christianity. (And even in Judaism!)
Just Asking Questions.
The technique is simple. When a Christian encounters someone expressing non-belief in their god, they oh-so-innocently Just Ask a Question about it: Would you be kind enough to reveal which god is under discussion, just so we’re all on the same page here?
Just Asking Questions (JAQ), as a technique, functions as a deceptive manipulation tactic. The folks Just Asking the Questions don’t do it innocently. They have an ulterior motive. They seek to steer the conversation through these questions to a destination they have in mind.
Their ultimate goal in this case is to make their prospective victims think they’re having a real conversation. At the end of the cattle chute, ideally, victims discover they were wrong all along about whatever they thought about this god.
Of course, lots of variations exist of the tactic. When you encounter a Christian asking you for clarification like this, be wary.
Remember that Christian who got miffed at us recently? He was using this technique in slightly altered form. To paraphrase, he expressed great concern that I wasn’t sufficiently delineating exactly and precisely what version of Christianity I discussed in the posts in question. My disclaimers at the top of those posts didn’t matter at all to him. He wanted me to stop right there and do some emotional labor for him in the comments. He needed to feel assured that his quirky li’l flavor of the religion was completely exempt from my criticism.
The book we’ve been talking about lately, Soul-Winning Made Easy, makes use of the tactic as well.
C.S. Lovett’s third question, remember, was “If someone were to ask you, ‘What is a Christian?’ what would you say?”
Lovett seeks to get the prospect not only “exhausted,” which is his stated goal in the book, but also to shake the prospect’s confidence in their understanding of Christianity–and, of course, to make them curious about the quirky li’l flavor of it that the soulwinner thinks is the correct one out of tens of thousands of competing takes on it.
No matter what the victim says, Lovett’s question only allows for one correct answer: “A Christian is someone who has accepted Christ.” That, literally, is all Lovett accepts. And that’s exactly what we see in this tactic generally: one answer that makes the questioner happy.
If the victim has played this reindeer game before and gives that answer, Lovett covers that base. He directs the soulwinner to ask, “Have you done that?” And if so, then Hooray Team Jesus! That person is already saved and the soulwinner can go find another victim. Otherwise, the evangelism hard sell continues unchanged.
The Gas Lights Dim.
Unfortunately, in the last 30 to 40 years, the fundamentalist Christians have dominated and told the Christian story in such a way that there is only one God to believe in, and it is their concept and their image of God.
Monte Stevens, North Riverdale Lutheran Church, 2012
The funny thing is, Christians on either side of the aisle use this tactic for different reasons.
Evangelicals ask this Just a Question (firstly) because they want to impress their victims with threats of eternal torture. They think people think their god is too nice and lovey-dovey to ever do that to anybody. But they think they know otherwise! Thus, they seek to lead victims around to the idea of fearing what their “loving” god will do to them if they refuse the sales pitch. Secondly, they may want to impress their victims with their god’s personal interest in them and his very hands-on, micro-managing approach, which they’ve confused with being loving. They sell this meddlesome god as one who will protect and care for his followers.
More progressive/liberal/mainline Christians Just Ask the Question because they rankle (understandably, to be fair) at being lumped in with evangelicals. They want their victims to come away thinking that they were totally wrong about whatever they thought about Christians and Christianity. Progressives think the response will describe a version of the Christian god who was way too mean and nasty. If nothing else, they want victims to quit criticizing Christianity without bending over backwards to provide disclaimers that let them, as self-professed nicer Christians, off the hook–though shutting up entirely would also be acceptable to King Them.
Overall, the Just Asking Questions tactic seeks to get victims feeling off-kilter–questioning their prior assumptions–and thus receptive to new information.
And so yes, Just Asking Questions stands as a gaslighting technique.
When you encounter this tactic, recognize it for the power play that it is–regardless of the flavor of Christian attempting to deploy it.
This technique sets the Christian well above the victim. The Christian knows the correct answer; the victim does not. To get the correct answer, victims must play the Christian’s game without even knowing that a game is being played, much less what the game’s rules are or even what its ultimate goal and win condition is.
The moment victims step into the playing field, they’ve lost the game–and the Christian has won it.
And that’s really how the Christians who like this tactic like to play.
If they didn’t care about equalizing what they view as a power differential, they wouldn’t ask the question. They’d come out and set the conversation’s game rules out in plain sight: “Sometimes I run into people who have a really punitive or cruel/overly forgiving god in mind. I don’t believe in that version of the fellow. Would you say you do? And would you like to talk about it?”
Instead, they start a game without telling their victims what the game even is, much less how to play or win it.
Our Attention Focuses.
I’m not the only one who gets super-peeved about this tactic, either. It’s condescending, smarmy, paternalistic, and comes off as enormously evasive. It’s all about Christians appointing themselves the king and then opening King Them’s court–and worse yet, demanding you play court without even asking first if you want to be there.
But it’s also new enough, and hard enough to describe, that I haven’t seen many debunks of it. Indeed, I’ve had this post on deck for a while now and kept coming back to it. Then I’d put it back into the drafts folder because I still hadn’t quite wrapped my head around it.
But I’m here now.
So let’s kick this pig in the butt and do it.
First: Christians Ask Us to Do Their Job.
Tell Me About the God You Don’t Believe In (TMATGYDBI) functions as a subset of evading the burden of proof. The Christians who use it seek to get us to do their dirty work for them. Instead of presenting us with their own claims, they ask us to launch into a long discussion of the claims we’ve rejected.
Christians using this tactic have no interest in hearing about each and every god every non-believer rejects. They want to hear about all the flavors of their own god that we know about and have rejected. (It comes off as special pleading, doesn’t it?)
Even if we reply with the version of their god that they happen to think is more valid, they’ll have some quibble with it. You cannot win this fight. They’re just there to contradict us and try to throw us off-balance.
In that sense, this tactic reminds me of Creationism. Creationists don’t advance or test their own ideas. Instead, they try to poke holes in the best-tested and most-cohesive backbone ideas in the physical sciences, and then hope that they end up as the Last Ideology Standing.
But they can’t start that game that till they see our cards.
Second: It’s a Magic Christian Tactic.
And these Christians feel positive that we don’t know about their flavor, so that makes this tactic a subset of the Magic Christian trope. They know about their flavor, and they have embraced it. Thus, they think it’s the most reasonable flavor of that god, the most believable, the most comprehensive and cohesive version out of all of them.
If we’d known about their flavor, goes the logic, we’d have embraced it like they did. Whatever we rejected, therefore, it couldn’t have been their flavor of that god. So obviously we must not know about it.
After they finish impressing us with their exalted Christian wit, they hope we’ll be so impressed that we ask more about it. Maybe we’ll even be so impressed that we eventually convert to their flavor!
That’d be SO COOL.
Third: It Backfires Hilariously.
Christians constantly shoot themselves in the feet with their attempted zingers. This tactic definitely qualifies as one of those times.
Here are the backfires of TMATGYDBI:
Do Christians really want to remind us that there are tens of thousands of competing Christian denominations, most of which completely contradict the rest and think the adherents of those other flavors are going to Hell?
Do Christians really want to remind us that there is literally no way to come out of the Bible with any kind of coherent idea of its notion of divinity, thus allowing Christians to build for themselves whatever kind of god toodles their fancy?
Most of all, do Christians really want to remind us that there’s literally no way for any Christian to define Christianity itself? After all, that’s what they’re asking us to to do: to define their god in a meaningful way. They can’t even do that (and some of that difficulty is intentional–see mysteries like the Trinity). Do Christians really want us to butt up against the simple impossibility of defining what they themselves cannot?
Yep, seems so!
Turning It Around.
I gently recommend that we not play games with dishonest people.
If someone asks you to tell them all about the god you don’t believe in, refuse to answer. Ask them instead to make their case about their quirky flavor of their god–if you want to talk about the topic. Or bow out of the proposed non-versation: “Sorry, I don’t want to discuss this topic with you.” Change the subject: “I’d rather hear about [new topic].” Or excuse yourself entirely.
Or turn it around on them: “I’d rather hear you tell me what version of this god you believe in–and why you think this version beats all the other versions other Christians construct for themselves.”
Better yet, perhaps say “I reject all of them.”
It ain’t your job to scramble for explanations to satisfy people who want to play dishonest games with you. You don’t owe Christians any explanations at all, and you don’t have to justify or earn your non-belief with any of them. (Like that Christian I mentioned earlier–he told me he’d be “impressed” with me if I could demonstrate competent understanding of his quirky li’l take on Christianity. Ugh–just wow.) You won’t be able to make them happy anyway unless you fully capitulate to them, so why bother trying?
Customers and Salespeople.
Remember who you are in this equation.
Think of recruitment-focused Christians as you might, say, a cell-phone vendor in a kiosk at the mall, or one of those perfume ladies in a department store. Actually, don’t. Those people actually have some business ethics buried somewhere in there, and they’re getting paid to do what they do. They likely wouldn’t be doing it if they could be doing anything else for money. Your relative statuses–as salesperson and customer–fit this comparison all right, but the dynamic isn’t quite the same. So I don’t want to throw them under the bus.
No, think of Christians trying TMATGYDBI as you would one of those mean kids on Facebook that you despised 15 years ago who reaches out to you in private messages with “Hey hun!” And you see that and get this sudden burst of schadenfreude. You know they just want to manipulate you into joining “their team” shilling terrible diet shakes or awful makeup or dubious supplements or shampoo that might make your hair fall out. And you know they’re doing it because they think they can scam you and get rich at your expense. And they don’t know you called their ruse from the first moment you noticed their message in your inbox.
Yes. That’s better.
Folks, you are the one who decides what happens in encounters with Christians trying to sniff you out as a prospect for their various groups.
If they don’t like that, they can go find some other potential customer to bother.
NEXT UP: It’s a vision of peace, love, serenity, and gentleness: a divine baby, born in a stable and laid in a manger, born to poor parents who were strangers in a strange land. But it’s a false vision that shrouds what Christianity is all about. Come join me for a Christmas reverie–next time. See you soon!
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