Sean McDowell and the Cruel Dilemma

Sean McDowell and the Cruel Dilemma May 2, 2020

Hello and welcome back! This week, we’ve been batting around a short Easter video by newbie-ish apologist Sean McDowell. The video touched on the Resurrection of Jesus, which Sean (mistakenly) felt PROVED YES PROVED that various Christian claims were totes valid and true. So far, I’ve focused on the actual D-list bad arguments Sean utilized. But today, I want to show you the other side of apologetics: emotional manipulation. Though it was mercifully brief, Sean McDowell alluded to one of the nastiest bits of manipulation in his business, the cruel dilemma. Today, let me show you what the cruel dilemma is, why it’s so manipulative, why apologists use it, and how it’s backfiring nowadays.

a soggy bull and his horns
(Jacco Rienks.)

(Previous video posts: First Question; Second Question. And here’s the video itself:)

The Cruel Dilemma: Catastrophizing, Evangelical-Style.

Toward the end of the second section of his video, Sean McDowell makes a serious attempt at emotional manipulation. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point it out! At 3:45 or so, he says:

There’s one scene in the movie (2001’s The Body) where Antonio Banderas is first going into the tomb in which they find the body. And you see the dread and fear on his face, that if this is really the body of Jesus, Christianity’s done. You see, 1 Corinthians 15:14-17 says that if Jesus is not risen from the grave, Christianity is false.

Right here, Sean refers to a very common evangelical manipulation tactic: the cruel dilemma.

I’ve talked about the cruel dilemma for years, but it’s been a while. Now seems like a great opportunity to revisit this idea!

Dominance-minded Christians create a cruel dilemma by putting victims into an impossible bind. They demand compliance, perhaps through the acceptance of a truth claim that turns out to be false. To force compliance, these Christians threaten them with Hell or some other totally out-of-scope punishment.

The victims these Christians prey upon generally fear that punishment very greatly, so they contort themselves into knots trying to comply with the demand. Generally speaking, these Christians’ victims can be counted upon to do anything at all to avoid facing that punishment — so it gets trotted out with any and every demand.

Appeal to Consequences.

First and foremost, the main part of the cruel dilemma is its blatant appeal to consequences, which is a logical fallacy. Here’s how this fallacy runs:

  • Here is a claim I’m making.
  • If my claim isn’t true, then gosh, that’d be just awful!
  • You don’t want to face such an awful fate.
  • Therefore, my claim is true.
  • Hooray Team Jesus!

So in this video, Sean sets up an if-then equation that he uses in place of ponying up actual support for his claims. He never gets around to offering real support for his claim, because he counts on his victims’ fear to carry the way. Sure, the punishment is completely imaginary — but Sean knows his target market believes it’s real, so he plays on the flocks’ fear of it.

But evangelicals offer a twist to this standard-issue fallacy.

Very often, the consequences that evangelical manipulators use as threats are completely disproportional to the situation and the claim.

This aspect of their fear-mongering has a name:

Catastrophizing.

The Fine Art of Catatastrophizing.

Catastrophizing is making something minor into a totally-worst-case scenario. For example, when Calvin’s friend Susie faces a potential punishment from school (after an attempt to annoy Calvin, no less), she freaks out hard. Eventually, she escalates the situation by telling Calvin that if she can’t one day seek a master’s degree, he’ll be dealing with her no-doubt-outraged parents:

Calvin and Hobbes.

Adults laugh at this joke because Susie’s fears are very obviously out-of-scope and ridiculous. Whatever happens to her in 1st grade, it won’t matter by the time she reaches her advanced-education years. But to this well-behaved child right then, this consequence seems perfectly reasonable. She sees her childhood through a very narrow focus that entirely lacks perspective. She’s so well-behaved that she’s never faced any real consequences for bad behavior because she doesn’t often exhibit bad behavior.

Calvin, who’s well-used to being a naughty child, has experienced so many consequences for his behavior that he’s not worried at all. His lack of concern only escalates Susie more: Why is he not worried like she is? This is the worst thing ever!

(In the strip, the principal just briefly lectures the pair, then sends them back to their class. It’s not a big deal.)

Manipulation Through Catastrophizing.

This behavior can be easily turned toward emotional manipulation, especially by narcissists who need their marks and supply providers to see reality through a very distorted lens. Used to manipulate, catastrophizing deeply distorts reality by making objectively minor stuff seem major.

When manipulators catastrophize, they turn a minor rejection or disagreement into the worst thing ever — and imply consequences for that dissent that run far, far out of scope to what’s actually happening.

Here’s what that might look like:

  • “If you won’t buy my subpar multi-level marketing scam (MLM) stuff, then you obviously don’t “support” me and are not a good friend/sister/etc.”
  • “Sit with me at lunch or we aren’t friends.”
  • Making a quiet request for respectful behavior during a disagreement = having a total tizzy fit tantrum

So if Calvin had wanted to really tweak poor Susie, he could have done a number on her in that strip:

Yes, you will totally miss out on a master’s degree! Everyone in the admissions department will totally laugh at you! And then you’ll end up homeless and alone forever! And you’ll totally die in utter poverty, all because you got caught passing notes in 1st grade! Aren’t you sorry NOW?

However, Calvin isn’t actually evil. At heart, he’s a decent little kid with an unexpected streak of goodness and compassion running through him. He might tease Susie, but he’s not that kind of cruel.

Guess who is, though?

The Christian Art of Catastrophizing.

Dominance-minded Christians don’t hold back from any kind of manipulation. They live by the same maxim Winnowill named in Elfquest: “All forms of power should be at the disposal of the powerful.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, we find all manner of catastrophizing in their ideology and tactics:

  • The tiniest, silliest little “sin” can land a person in eternal Hell with no hope of release.
  • Teaching kids real science in publicly-funded schools leads directly to rape and murder in the streets.
  • Real religious liberty, not the redefined kind evangelicals endlessly seek to enshrine into law but the real deal, leads only to the chaos of moral relativism, and from there to outright atheism everywhere. (Source)
  • Parents who refuse to beat their children will raise absolute wild-child criminals. (Source)

I’m sure you can think of way more than this, too.

We find another example of catastrophizing in Sean McDowell’s Easter video.

Sidebar: Christians vs. Christians: Resurrection Edition.

Anybody else think this whole manufactured crisis has a funny side?

Christians: Gosh, Christianity is so totes awesomesauce that even if Jesus never even existed, we’d still totally be Christian anyway because it’s just soooooooooooooooo amazing!

Also Christians: If Jesus didn’t really raise himself from the dead, then ugh, what even is the point of being Christian at all?

Compliance Through Ultimatum.

The cruel dilemma works to gain compliance. I won’t say it doesn’t.

Or at least, it worked for a long time.

When I was Christian decades ago, I faced cruel dilemmas. I feared even evaluating some claims because my Dear Leaders had elevated them into utter dealbreakers for the entire religion. If one of our Dear Leaders told us that if we didn’t do and believe XYZ then we might as well not believe at all, we believed them.

Part of me wonders, though, just how effective the technique is nowadays. It seems like young adults in particular can spot this kind of emotional manipulation a mile away.

Diminishing Returns.

Back then, Christians were scared silly of losing faith. Manipulating them was much easier.

Nowadays, if young adults get told that in order to be Christian, they must believe and do XYZABCWTFBBQROFLCOPTER, they seem way more likely to shrug and reply:

Fine then. I guess I won’t be Christian.

We’ve already seen this kind of showdown fail dramatically a few times. A while ago, some Calvinist guy got his shorts twisted into knots after his cruel dilemma failed to gain compliance. He presented his Twitter followers with two options: either supporting Paige Patterson, or supporting Satan himself. Obviously, he fully expected evangelicals to swallow back their disgust for Paige Patterson, because the alternative was so ickie.

To his obvious consternation, however, almost all of his fellow evangelicals voted for Satan.

Even worse (for the Calvinist), many of his tribemates noted their distaste for his blatant manipulation attempt in their replies to him.

As a result of this kerfluffle, I hope at least a few of those evangelicals learned to spot this technique in other contexts — like in apologetics and preaching.

Why Apologists Use the Cruel Dilemma.

As Sean sees it, if Christians don’t have a real live Jesus who really truly lived and died and rose again and really truly worked miracles and floated away into the sky eventually, then gosh, they might as well not be Christian at all.

It’s simply a threat utilizing artificially-raised stakes, and Sean makes it specifically to terrorize evangelicals into compliance. His claims don’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, so he does everything he can to scare his victims out of even wanting to scrutinize them.

That’s exactly why apologists use manipulation techniques like this one. Everything they do is geared toward either silencing questions and doubts or frightening their flocks out of seeking real answers to their questions.

If Christian apologists had real evidence to offer in support of their claims, they’d offer those instead. We wouldn’t be able to shut them up about it! However, they don’t have any real evidence, so this is what they offer instead.

The cruel dilemma, as a manipulation technique, demonstrates pure intellectual cowardice, and I expect nothing else out of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like Sean McDowell.

NEXT UP: Sean McDowell’s third question and answer. I’m taking bets now about how accurate, compelling, honest, and rational it’ll turn out to be! What do you think? Will he somehow luck into a combo breaker? Or will this third attempt just result in another big L for this tryhard’s overly-tanned forehead? See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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