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Reading Time: 10 minutes Sleeping tiger in London Zoo. (Ian Griffiths, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Last time, I showed you that a person can have love, or they can have culture wars–but they can’t have both. Unfortunately, a huge number of Christians want both. Such people truly believe that they can totally be loving while they try to rip other folks’ lives apart, rob them of their rights, and discriminate against them–as long as they do it all with a big ole Jesus smile on their faces! But something is changing in the world of religion, and we saw evidence of that coming change this very month. It has to do with Christians’ tendency toward criticism avoidance.

Appropriate. (Jorbasa Fotografie, CC-ND.)
Appropriate. (Jorbasa Fotografie, CC-ND.)

It’s incredibly stressful for someone to keep two completely contradictory beliefs going at once in their mind (this stress is called cognitive dissonance). The more pushback and contradiction they see to their self-perception, the harder they try to keep that perception from busting apart. One of the primary signs you’ll see of cognitive dissonance is criticism avoidance: a pattern of aversion and deflection when that person is presented with criticism they’re not ready to hear and accept.

We talked briefly about this concept last year, but I’ve been seeing some stuff lately that reminded me of how important it is to recognize the signs of someone who is suffering from criticism avoidance.

When someone is dealing with criticism avoidance, it’s going to be very hard indeed to have a productive conversation with that person. They’re going to be struggling hard enough as it is with just maintaining their belief system in the middle of oodles of contradictory and critical evidence against it. This situation indeed is exactly what we’re going through with quite a few Christians these days, but obviously they’re not the only people who are involved in a culture that can’t handle any direct criticism of its beliefs and habits.

You can see the same dynamic at work whenever people ask for an opinion or do something to elicit one, then do everything in their power to  negate the feedback they get if they don’t like it. It’s frustrating and annoying to be the person giving that unwanted feedback, especially if we make the mistake of thinking that our honest opinion is desired. That’s what is happening with Christianity of late: it’s an organization filled to the brim with salespeople who desperately want to make sales, but one that cannot accept the feedback of their sales targets when it’s offered.

As always, there’s a reason why this situation keeps happening.

Cracks in the Bubble’s Walls.

Increasingly, non-Christians (and alienated Christians who have pulled away, or disengaged, from the religion) are making their objections to Christianity clear in a way that would have been simply unthinkable a couple of decades ago. I don’t think there are many toxic Christians nowadays who aren’t aware that a great many people outside their group consider them hateful, petty, controlling, cruel, intrusive, misogynistic, vicious, and bigoted. I suspect there are fewer still that haven’t gotten the memo that we largely consider their culture wars to be horrifyingly cold-blooded and heartless, even sadistic, and definitely ignorant. There is nothing good or beautiful about the Christianity practiced by anybody who has volunteered to be a foot-soldier in the toxic-Christian culture wars; they are in the religion purely to gain dominance over others and to feel like they’re superior to everyone that’s not in the group.

Leaders in the know might even know that toxic Christians’ ill-advised culture wars have cost them thousands–if not millions–of pew-warmers and potential customers alike, as well as lost them a great deal of their credibility in the public eye. I think they’re just counting on the increasing polarization effect they’re creating to gather them a supportive base to hold them through the decline as it continues, and from there they can try to increase their numbers again once everything’s finally stabilized. Their piddling sorta-kinda efforts to halfway mollify their base here and there (such as when Mormon leaders magnanimously decided not to punish women for wearing pants to church that one time in 2012) speaks to their desire to not offend their real bread-and-butter members. But either way, the leaders surely know that they’re taking a big gamble here by deliberately stoking the fires of hatred, xenophobia, and exclusion in their flocks to make any group member they don’t drive away even more fervent.

Thankfully, the work’s already halfway done for them by those exact same polarized, riled-up members, who have been taught exactly what to do when a serious criticism arises of their practices and beliefs.

Criticism Avoidance on Parade.

A week ago, I shared with you the story of Kim Burrell’s homophobia. She’s a singer and minister who let loose a sermon one fine day to her church that was all about how ickie she thought LGBTQ people were. At the time, I noted that I was already seeing both tons of criticism of her sermon and tons of support for it. The support, of course, was coming from her fellow culture warriors, who saw her as a fine, upstanding Christian who was speaking out so very bravely about the (I suppose?) Sparkly Gay Rainbow Mafia or something.

She’d already lost a potentially very lucrative guest spot on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show by the time I ran that post (Ellen gave her all the time in the world, I think we all decided, to issue an apology–seriously classy, that lady). Since then, she’s also lost her equally-lucrative radio program. The show was called “Bridging the Gap” and was broadcast out of Texas Southern University’s radio station, KTSU-FM, before being dropped without much comment. She was also uninvited from even attending a gospel music awards ceremony.

That radio show link–or really any link about the story that allows comments, but let’s just look at that one–shows us exactly what the playbook is for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ when confronted with criticism of their hatred:

Commenters declared Kim Burrell a modern-day martyr, though she’s anything but,

Whined about how the evil mean ole libruls are just intolerant of bigots’ intolerance, because they really hope non-Christians will play along,

Hinted about freedom of speech violations, though none occurred,

Grumbled that the majority (which they clearly believe they still have at this point) should be allowed to determine rights for marginalized members of minority groups, despite that specifically being something our secular government wants to avoid (and which would backfire dramatically on toxic Christians if we did allow such a tyranny to occur),

Pointed to Christian pseudoscience regarding how “unnatural” gay sex is (and really, they obsessed to the point of weirdness about gay sex generally, by which we mean anal sex and girl-on-girl sex. Bigots-for-Jesus are more obsessed with both ideas more than actual gay and lesbian people are), despite the fact that the whole concept of “unnatural sex” doesn’t exist in the animal kingdom, and finally:

Declared that Kim Burrell is getting pushback purely because Jesus said that all TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would, and therefore what she said is as Christlike as it could ever get and it’s just the mean ole sinful world that is reacting to her Jesus Aura like a bottle of Diet Coke responds to getting a Mentos mint dropped into it.

Some things in life are best subtitled with "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Some things in life are best subtitled with “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

They can say all of this and more, but it won’t silence the people criticizing them. That’s absolutely what they’re trying to do, you know. They want everyone to just shut up and let them grandstand like the bunch of hypocritical painted sepulchres they are, swanning around congratulating themselves for having made all the correct decisions and imagining that their breathtaking JESUS AURA is the only thing stopping legions of converts from clawing their way into every church in America and facing up to their horrifying sins.

What’s funny is that the criticism they’re fighting so hard to reject is the much-needed feedback that any business should be grateful to receive from potential and alienated customers. Rather than face that much-needed feedback, they will do literally anything to avoid it and destroy it before it hits too close to home.

It’s a Gift, Not a Goddamned Attack Drone.

How many Kitchen Nightmares episodes involve a clueless manager/owner reacting in complete bafflement to Gordon Ramsay’s criticism because “nobody ever complained before about the food”?

Answer: Pretty much all of ’em. They all think their food is incredible and that customers love it. Don’t put that question on the KN drinking game unless you have exceptional alcohol tolerance.  Other restaurateurs react explosively or aggressively to his or any guests’ criticism, then clean forget they got any when questioned later. It was baffling to me to see it happen in episode after episode, until I learned about criticism avoidance.

Indeed, learning to welcome criticism and consider it seriously is an important skill that many of these human fix-it projects never learned. But it’s a skill that any business owner needs to succeed. And it’s one that we often have to learn later in life if we never figured it out in childhood. Dysfunctional business people will find ever more imaginative and innovative new ways of deflecting it and rationalizing away the behavior that inspired it, thus protecting themselves from having to face up to any deficiencies in their knowledge or character or to realize they must fix any destructive behaviors they might have picked up in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, a successful business owner will learn from criticism and be grateful that someone took the time to be honest with them about their experiences. They’ll learn and grow from the feedback given, even if it was painful to hear, and move on in a way that incorporates their knowledge and tries to prevent those shortfalls from occurring again.

Not so, Christians. They can’t really engage with the criticism honestly and squarely because it involves huge changes to their entire business model of fear, hatred, exclusion, discrimination, bigotry, authoritarianism, and narcissism. They’ve been taught their whole lives that being wrong about anything means: being less than Christlike, being subject to humiliating examination and criticism, being found wanting, and very obviously missing the mark, which is Christianese for sin. Wrongness equates to sinfulness and to being less-than. Godly people, people who get all their ideas and inspirations from what they imagine to be Jesus, they don’t mess up. They do everything right because (they think) an eternal and omniscient god inhabits them and directs them. That god can’t make mistakes and can’t improve upon perfection, goes the thinking, and so therefore someone who is “living in the Spirit,” as they like to say, will make very few mistakes themselves.

Little wonder so many non-Christians see toxic Christians as arrogant and narcissistic! Their entire religion is predicated upon the notion that the human situation is something undesirable, so they spend their entire lives trying to escape it and its quirks. Death, hardship, and making mistakes is all just part of being human. Everyone alive will face them all at some point. Anyone who tries to tell you that they can help you escape any of those things is just trying to sell you something–or to maintain a very careful facade for their own protection.

The Cruel Dilemma, Revisited.

After decades of being carefully taught that being wrong is the worst thing ever, and that their worldview is the one that a real live god wants them to have, toxic Christians can’t change course at this point without losing a big piece of themselves. They lay this whole stinking mess at the feet of their congregations and the people they wish to persuade, and we see clearly what a stinking mess it is. We avoid it like the plague, and increasingly speak up about our distaste for it. The people directly injured by Christians’ culture wars are also feeling more and more safe about opening up about just how much this extended smear campaign has hurt them.

And the more people speak up, both LGBTQ people themselves and those who want to be allies of theirs, the harder it is for compassionate Christians to remain ignorant of the effect of their culture wars.

Imagine now a Christian who comes face-to-face with the sheer hatred of their peers in church. It’s a devastating moment. They’ve felt uncomfortable about it for a while, perhaps, but they didn’t say much. Then, suddenly, something made them acutely aware of just how fucking much Christians fucking hate LGBTQ people, atheists, women, immigrants, the poor, you name it.

They have two options, they think.

The culture wars were, remember, handed to flocks with the admonishment that this is literally what a real live literal god wants Christians to do to marginalized groups. A person is judged completely in that community by how closely and fervently they hew to the culture war messaging and how vehemently they support it. Someone who refuses to support it is accused of being a fake Christian. Even just being nice to people the group hates will get someone in trouble.

Told that it’s either fall into line with the rest of the troops or leave, a lot of people are going to say “well, okay,” and walk out the door. Others might fight against the culture war, trying to reform their religion from the inside, but eventually these kind and hardy souls get driven out by the outraged tribe. Insecure people need not only constant flattery and self-congratulation, but also ideological purity. We’re seeing a major drive for exactly that purity in toxic Christianity right now, with them circling up the wagons as the whole world reacts in shock and horror to their antics.

We’re also seeing what appears to be an uptick of people leaving their onetime religion since the election. One of them, Brandi Miller, is a 26-year-old campus minister in Oregon. After the election she wrote on social media, “Evangelicals have decided who and with what they will associate. It’s not me.” And she got immediate support from her friends there. One woman told her she’d done the same thing. I’m sure those two are not the only two who have pulled away from their church families and homes over the culture wars this past winter.

I am curious to see what 2017’s surveys say about membership levels in the religion after events of the last few months. I sure haven’t heard about any great resurgence of converts in any conservative denominations this past year. Ironically, I have heard anecdotal evidence that some liberal churches are seeing an uptick in attendance, as their staggering members return to find some sense of community and shared grieving. This election might actually have helped liberal, progressive Christians figure out just what their identity looks like. But even the most optimistic of their ministers don’t expect that uptick to last very long.

What seems like it’ll last much longer is the fallout from this latest example of Christian bigotry. Intersecting as it does the twin fundagelical weaknesses of racism and homophobia, it brought out both the worst of Christian bigots and the best of everyone else. In addition to being immediately condemned by everyone decent, Kim Burrell’s outburst has gotten her near-universal censure. The fact that her own group is stoutly defending her bigotry is looking more and more grotesque by comparison.

Kim Burrell’s opened a great dialogue in America about the role of black Christian groups in perpetuating homophobia, reopened a national dialogue about Christian hypocrisy in clinging to that tired old “love the sinner/hate the sin” nonsense that fools nobody, and brought forth a number of very loving declarations of support from both straight and LGBTQ artists in the black community. This is one homophobic rant that didn’t just get shushed up and forgotten–and that’s not only new and refreshing, but it’s clearly the face of the future that we are seeing. Bigots-for-Jesus can no longer count on their hatred to be a cheap marker belief like Creationism is–something they can wave like a virtue-signal flag to their peers without a single word of pushback or criticism from anybody who disagrees with their stance.

The one thing I don’t expect to see is culture warriors suddenly realizing just how much irreparable harm they are doing to themselves with their hatred. Change comes very hard for people like that, and introspection is even rarer. Someone might want to tell them that sometimes the customer actually is right.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...