Christianity, and Fear of the Big Bad World
A distinct trend I’ve noticed about groups of people is that those who dedicate significant amounts of time and resources toward insulating themselves away from the rest of mainstream society sure do love to turn around and speak with authority on what “The Worldᵀᴹ” thinks about stuff. While baseless paranoia over who is perceptually out to get them is a time-tested staple of garden-variety ideologues and conspiracy theorists of all flavors, of course, no group has collectively enjoyed what we might call the “gated community version of reality” more so than today’s evangelical church. The zeitgeist of western christianity at large is saturated with, if not defined by, exclusivity. Along with pre-packaged, likeminded community on offer from its churches, christianity also has its own segregated bookstores, summer camps, news programming, and music industry. Between consumer goods and entertainment outlets, take any given space in the attention economy, and there almost certainly exists some sanitized, knock-off version marketed specifically to christians. After all, eliminating any threat of exposure to potentially sinful contrarian ideas requires a whole lot of safe spaces, and the christian market is happy to cash in on all this relentless demand. Sure, “Christian Netflix” starring alt-right ex-Hercules Kevin Sorbo might sound like the punchline of a harmless joke, but, lest we forget, authoritarian information control runs deep beyond just the superficial.
As it turns out, the demographic who’s “Truth-with-a-capital-T” reliably feels most threatened by the scientific and academic consensus of relevant experts is also quite fond of fundamentalist homeschool curriculums and private universities. The staggering numbers boasted by each of these speak for themselves, calling attention to more alarming implications. For example, if their parents were to feel so theologically inclined, a thoroughly sheltered christian student would be about as unlikely to encounter comprehensive sex education or any of the overwhelming, undeniable scientific evidence for biological evolution as they are to hear an f-bomb watching Pureflix after sitting in church four days a week. How’s that for the full armor of god?
In fairness, the bulk of the faithful, much like myself, were never quite this intensely indoctrinated. But, to pretend as if christianity as a whole doesn’t lie somewhere on that side of the spectrum would be disingenuous. The underlying message within church circles couldn’t be more clear: isolate within our community and keep “bad influences” at arm’s length. Beneath the wholesome pretense of encouragement to “guard your heart” and stay above reproach, information about the outside world will inevitably come not through lived experience, but from insider rhetoric. Since I know how much of what passes for wisdom in online Christianese is about turning common language on its head for a good counterintuitive, fake-deep zinger, here’s my best shot at one: There is a strong case to be made that christians today are of the world, but not actually in it. Unashamed xenophobia toward the very society they are called to serve seemingly fails to generate much curiosity toward whatever it is they’re supposed to be so scared of. Christians’ self-equipped intellectual blinders and societal training wheels are then what make it all the more bizarre to hear them unironically attempt to explain what depraved horrors supposedly lie waiting on the other side of their bubble.
Nowhere is it more apparent that christians are hopelessly out of their depth than in the Church’s ongoing campaign to discredit and misrepresent spiritual deconstruction. Specifically, there is a popular narrative that abandoning the faith has become a fad — “trendy” if you will. In a statistical sense, it certainly is true that young people are leaving the Church in droves, but besides the fact that christianity still remains comfortably at the top of the charts, attributing such a weak motive to a complex personal issue is counterproductive at best. Perhaps in a subconscious admission that “it just seemed like what everyone else was doing” is, in actuality, a striking depiction of the typical religious indoctrination experience, gatekeepers and apologists reveal their lack of imagination for any better reasons which might catalyze the inverse process. One could just as easily argue that blindly conforming to the christian faith they just so happened to have been born into, primarily out of familial loyalty and childhood social expectations, is a much more appropriate conviction to simply be dismissed as “trendy”. Regardless, what the broader “deconstruction=clout” non-argument fails to consider, is the multitude of difficult consequences for leaving the fold, all of which substantially outweigh any hypothetical internet attention or acceptance from the outside world. You won’t hear about any of them from the pulpit, and that’s the point. Preachers use non-threatening misconceptions to explain away our motives, while cringe-worthy, bad-faith caricatures put words in our mouths (because god forbid any reasonable christians be subjected to actually listening to what we have to say for ourselves, right?) with the express goal of painting deconstruction as an uninformed flippant decision to avoid moral accountability and selfishly seek affirmation from that naughty temptress we call “The Worldᵀᴹ”. This fantasy scenario apparently also comes with zero negative repercussions, because…well, damn the details — of course it doesn’t.
If only it were really that simple.
Christians: if nothing else, please understand that I speak for countless thousands of others when I assure you that my personal journey out of the faith I had built my life upon was a traumatic, involuntary process. It ultimately cost me my home, my job in ministry, my relationship with my family, my entire sense of personal identity, and my only network of friends and social support. The fact that there are christian influencers delusional and insulting enough to even entertain the idea that someone like me would give all of that up for reddit gold and a few hundred retweets on my anonymous twitter account, is laughable. But seriously, what other perks or external validation do you imagine came along with my initiation gift basket into the fraternity of worldly heathens? What exactly do you think we stood to gain from any of this? If your argument has a leg to stand on, we are long overdue to speak openly and honestly about the culture you seem to simultaneously condemn and fetishize like some discount liquor store on the sketchy side of town or a woman swimming in a two-piece. Consider that your preconceived notions about life beyond the kingdom walls are likely uninformed to say the least. Since one of us now happens to live here, I’ll be happy to indulge you with a tour. It’s time to talk about the big bad world.
First, it is worth addressing certain half-truths which conveniently enable the Church’s misplaced hysteria. For example, it is accurate to recognize that we have seen both emergence and growth of communities and support groups for an ever-increasing number of apostates in need. Leaving fundamentalist religion leaves many people suddenly vulnerable, confused, and isolated, seeking to share their experiences with anyone who can relate and empathize. Women’s shelters, rehab clinics, and soup kitchens offer similar “attention” to those in need, yet it logically goes without saying that these resources themselves are a response to existing demand, not a dangling carrot meant to entice new recruits. It is also true that certain high-profile deconversion stories have made the rounds in popular media. The obvious point of emphasis here is to recognize which outlets are platforming them. If you haven’t noticed, unbelief from the likes of Marty Sampson, Jon Steingard, or Rhett & Link isn’t exactly a headline anyone considered worth plastering across Scientific American. It’s being used as a fear-mongering prop by Fox News and Christianity Today. The loudest among those feigning disapproval at these stories being made public are the same ones exponentially multiplying their reach in exchange for cheap hate-clicks and boosted ratings. Criticizing our former faith (primarily amongst ourselves) has become popular enough for christian audiences to take notice and go on the defensive only to the precise extent which christian media has made it so. Obviously, our qualms are not arbitrarily aimed toward an innocent group for the sake of prejudice, but a shared experience being vocalized by the very people the Church has failed. Another major factor in shaping the Church’s perception of outsiders is the specific context of their already limited exposure to us. A typical christian is very likely to have their primary insight into non-religious life supplied to them via dramatic conversion stories in church or christian media. Nearly all of these lean into clichés about how the convert was at their darkest, lowest, most self-destructive point in life before surrendering to Jesus. While christians are meant to feel inspired and superior to this very narrow and deceptive portrayal of non-belief (even though these stories come mostly from former lukewarm or backslidden cultural christians in the first place), skeptics recognize that a sample size of the hurting, the desperate, and the emotionally-compromised represent virtually the only circumstance where anyone ever converts to christianity as an adult. We are then free and able to see this for the red flag that it is. Lastly, there are even remote parts of the globe where mostly islamic or similarly high-control regimes do legitimately persecute christians. This tragic consequence of violent tribalism is nothing if not a testament to the necessity of state-church separation and tolerant religious pluralism for any sufficiently moral society. Instead, these optics play into all the right sensationalized talking points for the American Church’s pathetic attempt at cosplaying victimhood. Remember, isolated ignorance toward the outside is paramount for anyone forbidden from realizing a simple truth that the rest of us already know:
The big bad world is aggressively christian.
If you are a believer in this country, consider that you do not live in a world where there is a mosque on every street corner. You don’t live in a world where every sporting event and graduation ceremony opens with a public prayer to a god that you don’t believe in. You’ve never sought treatment in a hospital named for a patron saint of a religion you don’t follow. You do not live in a world where classrooms, government buildings, fast food packaging, and even your colleagues’ email signatures are routinely adorned with scripture from the same holy book that implies your cosmic destiny is to burn in hell for all of eternity. You don’t live in a country where it is possible for someone who holds meaningfully different religious beliefs from your own to be elected president. You’ve never had atheists proselytizing uninvited at the front door of your home, never accidentally tuned in to the local hindu-rock radio station on a road trip, and never passed a giant billboard demanding in less than polite terms that you must radically change your worldview in order to get into heaven. You’ve never experienced faith-based legislation preventing you from marrying the person you love. You don’t need to avoid having your loneliness or addiction exploited as a predatory evangelism opportunity. You don’t have to wonder whether certain friends value you as anything more than a pet project, or if their casual invite to coffee is just a thinly-veiled ambush for spiritual intervention. You don’t overhear slogans or mission statements unreservedly toss around condescending and dehumanizing slurs like “lost people” and know that they are referring to you. You’ve never had prominent leaders assure their supporters that they consider people like you to be second-class citizens, or even no citizen at all. You will never have to come out of the closet as a christian to your loved ones, let alone fear the very real possibility that it will mean being disowned or excommunicated by your own family. You don’t live in that world, and you never have. But we do.
If you could only stop clutching your pearls, you would not only realize how trivially and obviously true this is, you would also realize that you probably already believed it was true. That’s part of the whole schtick, right — that America is “a christian nation”? To any degree that you don’t simply take it for granted that christianity is the textbook definition of a privileged majority, you make it a point of pride that things have always been this way. Never mind that the United States holds the only secular constitution in the developed world, or those few dozen recorded quotes from various founding fathers affirming the sentiment in the Treaty of Tripoli that the U.S. “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”. Everyone knows that for all intents and purposes, none of that really matters. Lip service to freedom of religion and the written words of dead historical figures could never have stacked up against real power in numbers. Christianity established dominance and society assimilated accordingly. Then it started behaving the way that every group who has ever been in power starts to behave.
Vocally wondering why it’s become more “politically correct” for christianity to finally take some of its fair share of well-deserved criticism, especially from your former brothers and sisters in Christ, is akin to posting the typical mouth-breathing facebook rant about why we don’t have white history month or straight pride parades. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the outside world to teach you an ounce of self-awareness here. A whole lot has changed since the first century. You are categorically the opposite of a marginalized group. You are the entity most directly responsible for creating marginalized groups. Pushback comes with the territory, and the former members of your churches who’ve now discovered for the first time what it feels like to be part of a publicly ostracized religious minority are keen to take charge. Suppress our voices and co-opt our conversation if you must, but realize that without exception, you are punching down. “Out of touch” spectacularly fails to convey the sheer hypocrisy and doublethink required to self-identify with the most popular religious affiliation in the world, then label anything outside this belief system as “worldly”. In your haste to avoid viewing “The Worldᵀᴹ” as your fellow human members of the societal collective, and to instead objectify their otherness as some conceptual boogeyman responsible for the moral decay of society, you forgot to step outside your bubble and actually take a look at the world we’re living in. It is still very much the same as it’s always been: built by people like you, for people like you.
Christian supremacy isn’t just reinforced via our currency, federal holidays, license plates, tax exemptions, and national pledge, but deep within the subtext of everyday social interactions, where even the most passive non-conformity is often viewed as militant and radical. Dominion theology and christian nationalism fitting neatly under the blanket dogwhistle of “patriotism” within popular political talking points says all that needs to be said about just how American the idea really is. Even our language itself has yet to progress beyond the label of “christian” being colloquially synonymous with, and, in many cases, a prerequisite for, simply being a good person. Because of norms like this, atheists consistently poll as one of the least approved and least trustworthy demographics in America despite solid data showing traits such as their disproportionately low incarceration rate and general proclivity to follow certain alleged traditional family values more strongly than christians themselves do. Gaining populist command of the ethos then allows for the Church to dictate moral terms and reduce nuanced analysis into the binary of “godly” and “worldly”. By this warped definition, all of what would generally be considered immoral behavior even from a secular standpoint is casually redefined as godlessness from an outside world under the dominion of satan. When selfish or immoral actions are denounced as “worldly” to a society who largely understands and accepts this label as a pejorative, we are left with a self-defeating logic that only further illustrates just how thoroughly christian our culture actually is. It seems more than fair to say that the only reason why most christians can’t clearly see this is because they just don’t want to. They have a narrative to protect.
My naive younger self would have once insisted that sanctification and obedience were what prevented me from acting recklessly selfish like those unsaved souls who “just want to sin”, but healthy introspection has since lead to an understanding that this was never the case. People outside the church use basic empathy and respect to live by ideas such as the golden rule, which transcend the teachings of Jesus even more than they pre-date him. I had also been conditioned to swear by misguided anecdotal testimonies — such as those from a lifelong christian who spent one regrettable semester of high school buzzing on gas station wine coolers and getting to third base with his girlfriend — as a source to enlighten us all with an airtight perspective on how hopeless life “without Jesus” is. Regardless of their questionable legitimacy, we all know the tropes and stereotypes. But this prodigal son can assure you that it’s not all money obsession, rampant substance abuse, and sex scandals out here. Most people, regardless of christian faith or not, are trying their best to live a decent life and not harm anyone else. And we all measure this by nearly identical standards. There are sufficient pragmatic and altruistic reasons to behave ethically for its own sake, and plenty of disincentives for breaking the law of the land. But if you’re still secretly tempted by the same debauchery you like to imagine we are, trust me, you’re just as likely to find it in the baptist pews as in the nightclub or dive bar. Then again, what would I know? I’m just somebody who’s actually spent plenty of time in all three. Anyone looking for a more reassuring take might need a second opinion from a pastor who hasn’t.
The essence of fear is nothing more than the unknown. Any intro to film course will explain why not showing the monster is scarier than showing it: When our perspective remains ignorant toward a perceived threat, worry and uncertainty consume our thoughts. It’s only after exposure that we are able to narrow down and properly assess any danger for what it truly is or is not. Ideologically this works the same way — we often default to assuming that our out-group is whatever we need them to be in order to reinforce our biases instead of actually seeking to understand who they actually are. For anyone in the Church, I’m optimistic that you can do better. Give the real world a chance. What you’re likely to see is much more familiar than you would expect. And to any extent that you would like to see some changes, no group is more well-positioned to make them than yours is. After all, it’s your world, and the rest of us are just living in it.