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We might laugh about or mock Christians who have entirely too high an estimation of themselves or too dramatic or fictionalized an interpretation of their experiences, but the problem of inaccurate self-perception is real–and it doesn’t go away upon deconversion from religion.

(Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC.) Camillo Mantovano, 1560s, Palazzo Grimani, Venice.
Hints of persecution. (Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC.) Camillo Mantovano, 1560s, Palazzo Grimani, Venice.

The Scope of the Problem.

We’re social animals. Though I’m not a major fan of evo-psych as most people employ the ideas these days, it does seem clear that most of us need people around us–not only for company, but also to keep ourselves from sailing into treacherous waters. The course corrections we get from the subtle social cues we receive from others can help guide our thoughts and move us in the right directions–and deflate any overly-swollen egos we might be inflating for ourselves.

Christians are famous for having a tough time handling their own internal squabbles. If someone dares speak against another Christian, especially a high-ranking one, the group usually closes ranks immediately. Change is very slow to happen, if ever at all, and must be couched very carefully to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of criticism-averse Christians.

No matter how horrible the deeds are, Christians have a tough time correcting one of their own or accepting criticism as valid. Their entire system, broken as it is, was built from the ground up to preclude this necessary group activity.

The Bubble.

The Handbook: Soaking in a Bubble Bath.
The Handbook: Soaking in a Bubble Bath.

First, the echo chamber that Christians create for themselves all but ensures that their behavior can only become more and more extreme and polarized. Christians tend to hang out in a social bubble. A Christian can literally spend the entire day, waking to bedtime, surrounded by other Christians and religious ideas and swag. The more outside culture pushes back against their ideas and grabbiness, the harder Christians retreat back into their comforting bubble. The fewer dissenting ideas and different people the Christian encounters, the further they get unmoored.

Second, their ideology is tethered only by compliance and depth of fervor, and the Christian who acts the most fervent and compliant wins the game. Little things like objective facts don’t ever penetrate the bubble, while pseudoscience and junk history abound inside its confines. The only way to stand out from the pack is to find some even-more-extremist way to say or live out an existing Christian idea, or to find a new idea that is so extremist that it out-extremes all the other ones.

Third, their system exists to keep power in the hands of the people who wield it. The status quo never changes much in Christianity–and it’s not meant to or supposed to. Their system is built to consolidate power at the top of the hierarchy, to quell dissent, to keep believers ignorant and fervent, and to ensure that dissenters remain quiet.

Outsiders have no clue just how deep that rabbit hole goes. Insiders, however, know that there’s no bottom to it.

When Christians talk among themselves, they profess total mystification about how anybody could see all this “evidence” they have and still be unpersuaded–and they’re being perfectly honest there. They literally have no clue in the world what real evidence looks like, much less that there is not a single shred of it that supports their various claims. We usually think of their lack of evidence in terms of their supernatural claims, but we shouldn’t. It applies even to the bubble of their insular society. Because they have artfully carved away from that bubble any dissenting opinion or contradictory fact and created an environment in which even its own members aren’t allowed to dissent too much, its sanctity remains intact.

It takes a lot to punch through that membrane. Christians’ masterfully-made house of cards can withstand quite a lot of shaking. And they live in that house with a boatload of other people who are all convinced that their house is made of stone and that all those naysayers are simply wrong.

As you might guess, if we’re surrounded by really dysfunctional people, then no matter how supportive they may seem, the social cues they provide aren’t going to help us much, nor will the support they offer be very meaningful. If we’re still learning to speak Human, we won’t learn it from such a social group–which is why many ex-Christians report a long period of adjustment after deconverting as we learn a new language that is largely alien to us.

In that environment, the group’s dysfunction, whatever it is, will be amplified. There has to be some kind of tether on the ideology driving the group–some hard-line stop that keeps them from crossing the line from good to horrific. And there has to be a way to correct others without it turning into the Salem witch trials, where the accused hadn’t actually done anything wrong but got accused of it anyway and had no way whatsoever of refuting or fighting the charges.

Neither of those conditions exists in Christianity, particularly not in the far-right end of it that we usually discuss here.

Being Terrified of Being Wrong.

Many Christians are raised and indoctrinated to be terrified of being wrong. Their culture places great value on correctness–in ideas, ideology, doctrine, practice, and many other topics. When such Christians speak of some plan or conviction they have, often there’s an implication that their god personally gave them the wisdom, direction, and information that led them to that plan or conviction. If you listen to one speak of a decision, like one regarding marriage, often they’ll talk about it in terms of “being led” to the idea by their god. And when you read or hear them talk about some doctrinal assertion or religious project, often it’s stated as happening after very fervent prayer.

Their sense of being correct about everything leads them to put great faith in certainty. They just know that their god is real, that their religion makes true assertions and claims, and that their prayers accomplish miracles. When the reprehensible makers of the Creationist screed Expelled interviewed Richard Dawkins, they made a big honking deal out of the fact that he wasn’t 100% certain that their god didn’t exist. Because they were 100% certain that their god existed, went the logic, they were clearly more certain than he was–and therefore, their views were more compelling than his could ever be.

They aren’t allowed, ever, to admit that they aren’t sure about any claims their religion makes. Christians who make the mistake of admitting that uncertainty in public learn quickly and rarely make that mistake twice. Everyone has to act totally certain, all the time.

But that fear of uncertainty trails far behind the horrifying spectre of being wrong.

Not knowing something is bad, but being wrong about something is far, far worse. Being wrong means that a Christian mis-heard their Master’s voice (which is impossible for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ according to Christian doctrines!). It means “missing the mark” somehow, which is a Christianese phrase for sin, and there’s only one penalty for sinning.

Every Christian couple that stands at the altar on their wedding day is there because they think that Jesus wants them to get married–that they are soulmates, picked by hand for each other by a god from the beginning of the universe (6000 years ago). But when they divorce, as a great many of them do, very few of them have the strength to admit that clearly they mis-heard Jesus somehow and aren’t really soulmates. They join in shame a whole gaggle of failed Presidential contenders who all declared that “Jesus” wanted them to run for office, any number of failed Christian business owners, and the Christian victims of untold financial scams.

Either the god telling all these Christians this stuff is a trickster, or else Christians have no way whatsoever to know that they are hearing him correctly. Whichever it is, neither these supposedly-divine messages nor the people conveying those messages can truly be trusted.

When a Christian starts suspecting such an unthinkable situation is occurring, of course, it’s totally their own fault. It’s not happening because their god isn’t actually talking to any of them. No Christian wants to think about that. I sure didn’t. I evolved some truly impressive mental gymnastics to avoid coming face-to-face with the terrifying realities of my situation: that I didn’t know for sure how to tell what Jesus was saying–if he was saying anything at all! Whenever evidence smacked me in the face with the fact that nobody really had any idea what “Jesus” sounded like or how to know he was telling anybody anything, I did what all those divorcees, failed politicians and business owners, and scam victims do: I pretended that my earlier declarations of certainty hadn’t ever happened–or worse, I made this total lack of objectively-verifiable response into my own fault so I didn’t have to engage with the idea that he wasn’t talking to anyone. 

In the same way, when someone told me that I wasn’t being loving or that a fact I considered true wasn’t true at all, I found some way to negate that person or argue with their opinion. At all costs, my self-image as correct and certain had to be maintained.

Issendai calls this mindset criticism avoidance, and it’s one of the symptoms of narcissism that she’s identified. Someone who is criticism-averse can’t accept criticism, but it goes much further than that. They sometimes can’t even hear criticism. They ignore any facts that contradict their internal narrative, spinning whatever does somehow sneak past their myriad defenses into a bizarro-world support for their positions.

It can be dizzying to be around someone like that.

It’s not much more fun being someone like that.

Little wonder that after I deconverted, I had to un-learn that ancient terror of being wrong. I had to learn that when it comes to proclamations that require people to take action somehow, those proclamations should be something we can test and verify objectively–or else we run the risk of falling into a mass illusion.

With a Little Help From Our Friends.

You’ve likely heard a quote that is rapidly approaching “that old saying” status: “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Christians and other dysfunctional people have a weird relationship with consensus. Where it agrees with their self-image or beliefs, they’re happy to believe that a consensus opinion is valid. Hell, some apologists base whole arguments on the idea of the Bible’s declarations being adequate proof for its own claims, and “how could so many people be wrong?” is one of the more egregiously-fallacious arguments that apologists make.

But when they get consistent pushback from others or face a mountain of contradictions to their claims, suddenly these same Christians all seem to turn into little Galileos–that grandiose self-characterization that nutters and cranks love so much. All that pushback they get morphs into reasonable evidence that they are correct and that they should stay the course because just look at how everyone treated Galileo when he was alive, and see how vindicated he is today! Given a choice between “totally wrong zealot getting justifiable pushback” and “totally legendary genius getting unfairly persecuted,” a group of people under orders to be humble and meek on pain of eternal torture go for the latter option every single time.

The more consistent the pushback and the greater the amount of contradictory evidence to their claims, the more they think that their status as underdogs is justified and that their crusade is the correct path to follow. It can really irritating when they start implying that the people pushing back against their claims and overreach are just like the Catholic Church mistreating Galileo!

I know they get this delusion of grandeur semi-honestly; the Bible talks about how people will despise them for their faith and their mythology is filled to the brim with exactly this sort of groundless hatred and persecution, so Christians–especially the toxic variety–tend to think that if anybody is criticizing them about anything at all, that’s automatically evidence that they are doing everything 100% perfectly. It’d absolutely crush them and destroy their self-image to think that the hostility and dislike they’re reaping come from seeds of misbehavior and nastiness that they themselves sowed.

Becoming Bulletproof.

As self-deceptions go, this one’s all but bulletproof. If Christians do manage to construct a society in which nobody dares speak against them about anything, then they take this silence for consent to their overreach and proof that a Christian-dominated society is super-functional. If people manage to push back against that overreach, the Christians take this pushback as proof that they are in the right because (they think) Jesus said this would happen to them.

That’s how a fundagelical can look at a Bible verse that seems to clearly order Christians to care for the downtrodden and decide it means that actually, “the least of these” are the poor widdle persecuted fundagelical bigots-for-Jesus getting sued for discrimination–and that it means that “Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers” such as, presumably, the bakers who make and sell wedding cakes. And as that Christian’s extensive spluttering arguments updates attest, he at least thinks that his interpretation isn’t new or outlandish–or contrary to the verses’ meaning. (That’s the big problem with TRUE CHRISTIANS™, really; there’s no way whatsoever to say who’s right or wrong in these sorts of squabbles.)

This viewpoint got quite a bit of pushback, amusingly enough–it was a bridge too far even for a number of Southern Baptists! But the author of it is Denny Burk, a “Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville” according to his byline. He’s not some nobody in a basement screaming at his monitor. Whether they like it or not, he’s one of their leaders–and is shaping the opinions of leaders to come.

The rest of us can stand in utter astonishment at Mr. Burk’s interpretation, but then again, we’re not members of a culture that is so stuffed full of itself and so beyond-blitheringly, stupefyingly arrogant that it can look the world in the face and say, as William Lane Craig did a while ago, “Actually, we’re totally the real victims here, not the people we’re abusing and discriminating against, so stop wasting your time feeling sorry for them,” though Mr. Burk adds a gratuitous threat to his spin-doctoring, saying in effect: oh, by the way, our bully pal is going to kick your asses for not letting us have our way.

It’s just amazing to me that a group of people can style themselves the most humble and compassionate people on the planet while in actuality being among the least so. But there’s a very striking explanation for how they got to that state. We’ll be coming back to that explanation next time–and see how to climb out of that pit. See you then!

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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,...