a pretty Samhain display
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Elena Mozhvilo.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you a post by David Harsanyi about Madison Cawthorn, a very young fundagelical who just got elected to Congress. Cawthorn tries very hard to evangelize Jews. (More details can be found here.) But he’s had very little success with what he calls ‘religious Jews.’ This sheepish admission reminded me very powerfully of a similar experience in my own past. When I was a teen zealot in college, I encountered a group that was similarly completely immune to my evangelism attempts: pagans. Today, let me show you how those encounters went — and what they told me about my own beliefs.

a pretty Samhain display
(Elena Mozhvilo.)

(Fundagelicals are hard-right, authoritarian, fundamentalist evangelical Christians. Their evangelism tactics look like especially shoddy sales techniques, and they push only one product: active membership in their own particular groups. Also, the pagans I knew in college were almost all Wiccans, but there’s lots of different kinds of pagans.)

Missed Connections.

In Jewish Insider, young fundagelical Madison Cawthorn recently discussed his evangelistic focus on Jews:

“I have, unsuccessfully. I have switched a lot of, uh, you know, I guess, culturally Jewish people. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way.”

I found myself zeroing in on that “connecting” bit — that last sentence. When I read that, I flashed back to my own days as a fundagelical.

You see, when I was Christian myself I encountered a very similar group of potential customers: pagans. And I also had a very hard time “connecting with them in that way.”

It’s almost funny that Cawthorn doesn’t realize what his lack of success with Jews actually means for his beliefs, any more than I did. He doesn’t really understand why he can’t score any sales with them, only that he just can’t.

Just as he experiences with Jews, I had so many problems making sales with pagans. Oh, I mean I had problems making sales at all. As far as I know, I never once converted anybody! But at least I could make inroads sometimes with people, have discussions, try to plant seeds and all that blahblah.

It just never happened with pagans. Ever.

All the advice I sought out about “connecting” with pagans seemed to implode on impact with actual pagans. I’m sure this young man can identify there, too!

And there’s a reason for all that difficulty of ours.

(We’ll talk later about Madison Cawthorn and his actual evangelism-success claims, as well as the processes he’s describing here. For now, I just want to focus on the similarities between his difficulties and mine.)

The Pagans and the Bridge to Nowhere.

After being raised a fervent little Catholic, I converted to fundagelicalism in my teens. In my mid-20s, I deconverted entirely. During my college years, I was a true-blue, 100% sold out, on-fire, totally radical fundagelical lass. Oh, I tried soooo hard to make sales for my tribe, to follow the rules, and of course to Jesus as hard as I could.

However, I inhabited a very thick bubble until I reached college.

Until then, I’d never met anybody who was vocally non-Christian. Ever. I don’t think I’d ever even met any Jews or Muslims. Growing up, literally everybody around me was Christian.

Until college.

(In fact, when I deconverted, for years I thought I was literally the only person who’d ever deconverted. That’s how effective Christian propaganda really is — or was, at least, until the internet came along and began blowing those lies out of the water.)

I can easily imagine how Madison Cawthorn’s encounters with “religious Jews” went, because it probably looks exactly like my own encounters with pagans.

College represents the first time I ever met people who I knew were pagans. And they gobsmacked me. I absolutely couldn’t build a worldview-bridge between us at all.

Finding Pagans’ Fear Button, Or Not.

Back in the mid-late 1980s, when I first began college, pagans were already a fairly organized — but low-key — group. My college campus boasted a couple of different clubs made up of pagans. They held meetings and events so the other students could get to know them. They weren’t hard to find, and they readily engaged with Christians on a very friendly basis.

Naturally, I trotted out my fundagelical sales pitches almost soon as I could. As Madison Cawthorn put it in that Jewish Insider article:

“If all you are is friends with other Christians, then how are you ever going to lead somebody to Christ?” Cawthorn mused. “If you’re not wanting to lead somebody to Christ, then you’re probably not really a Christian.”

That’s how my tribe felt about the matter back then, too, and how fundagelicals are taught to think now.

Before, I was using these sales pitches on other Christians. They shared my basic worldview, differing only in a few particulars. Our arguments tended to hinge on nitty-gritty nonsense details and hair-splitting and the original Greek and Hebrew.

Now, though, I ran up against people who didn’t even share my conceptualization of reality. And that proved to be a dealbreaking problem.


Going for Broke on Hell.

So fundagelical hucksters usually go for absolute broke on selling their products through the use of induced terror. Specifically, they sell their product — active membership in their groups — as a way to escape a horrific afterlife. Fundagelicals (scare-quotes) “joke” about this kind of marketing by referring to their product as “fire insurance.” I heard one call it that just yesterday.

The whole notion of Hell is downright macabre, but fundagelicals to invoke the terror of it all the time. It’s perfectly natural for them by now to think of this process as a way of making sales and keeping customers. And fundagelicals might look down their noses at a Christian who buys their product on that basisbut they don’t turn such a person away, ever.

Yes, then. Fundagelicals all recognize the utility of Hell as a concept. It becomes their first and most compelling bridge to build with a potential new customer, and it remains their biggest means of controlling their recruits.

Since most Americans grow up around the imagery and ideas surrounding the idea of Hell, it’s normally not too hard to sell them on fears of Hell. That’s how I myself moved from Catholicism to Pentecostalism.

And I could not move pagans along that same path. Ever. Not once, not even a little. Their worldview contained nothing similar to Hell.

Imagine There’s No Heaven.

That’s really what blew my mind most.

Pagans had no real comprehension of Hell as a potential threat for humans.

Pagans simply did not fear what I feared. I couldn’t make them fear it, either. Nothing I said could bring them to the same terror I felt about Hell.

It’s not that these pagans didn’t know what Hell was. They all did, just as they do today. In fact, in my direct experience they tend to know much more about Christianity than actual lifelong Christians do, though fundagelicals usually try their level best to obscure that fact.

After all, almost all of them had grown up in the United States, where fundagelicals have always (until recently) exerted a great deal of cultural power. Indeed, most of these pagans had grown up in Christian households, I soon learned, so they’d already more than reckoned with those ideas already — and had rejected them.

Overall, then, pagans perceived Hell from an angle I simply couldn’t imagine. They easily noticed how ridiculous Hell was as a concept — how ludicrously illogical, how incompatible even with Christian mythology as a whole, how obviously made-up and embellished it was, and even how it functions as a control tactic.

And they flat rejected the whole idea. 

No Hell Below Them.

Nor would pagans accept any of the other ideas I tried to set up as bridges to belief.

When I was Christian, I bought into the idea that everybody secretly, deep-down believed in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. I still encounter fundagelicals who believe this, too. It’s another lie taught by the Bible. Under that thinking, pagans just needed to understand that they already totally believed, and they’d slide right into place.

But that was not what I encountered in pagans.

Whatever wound exists in Christians’ hearts that makes that religion’s come-ons and threats work, it was not present in those college pagans. They really, truly didn’t believe at all in anything involved in Christianity.

I might as well have been asking them to frimfram the jibjab, for all the sense I made to them.

Seriously, nothing made me more uncertain of my footing than insisting up and down that the equivalent of an oncoming bus was about to flatten us all, and get back a quizzical look and a reply that my target couldn’t see anything at all — along with a request that I demonstrate the truth of that claim before they worry about the thing that had me so worked up.

That’s why gaslighting is so devastatingly effective, by the way. Humans rely on their groups to affirm and modify their perceptions of reality. When someone questions those perceptions or accepted interpretations of them, it can have a powerful effect on those who value that person’s opinion. For fundagelicals, gaslighting is especially effective because nothing they believe tethers to reality. Thus, their perceptions and beliefs are always shifting, almost always along more-wingnutty lines.

Worse and more devastating, however, was how pagans treated me when I tried to create the same fear in them that I felt.

Pouring Hot Coals on My Head.

The pagans I encountered in college were nothing but kind to me. They were, in fact, distressingly kind — much more so than any Christians I’d ever met.

That judgment especially includes fundagelicals. Unless they are actively on the pull for customers (and often even then), they’re the most obnoxious, entitled, and cruel group of people imaginable. Even as one of them myself, I grasped that fact fairly early on. Just per capita, the pagans I knew were considerably better people. And they showed it by treating me with nothing but grace and kindness.

When I worked myself into a lather trying to tell pagans about the huge eternal risks they were running, I got back only gentle smiles and comfort. They weren’t laughing at me at all. Rather, in hindsight I know that it saddened them that I was so very afraid of boogeymen and magic curses. They wanted me to lose that fear so I could start living for real.

It was confusing for me.

Fundagelicals understand power-struggles, dominance fights, and aggression. They expect evangelism efforts to be rejected hard, with insults or whatever else (which is why many of them don’t evangelize much). Most of their counter-moves are based on overcoming hostile responses. But that’s not what happened here.

Out of all the groups I ever knew in college, pagans respected my beliefs and never sought to change them. They just made it crystal-clear that they wouldn’t ever purchase what I was selling. 

Pagans Handed Me An Answer I Couldn’t Perceive — Yet.

Oh, I mean yes, definitely, atheists definitely helped me escape religion. Don’t get me wrong. But they weren’t at all part of my cosmology. Pagans, in believing in something supernatural imaginary even if it was very different, at least sat down at the same gaming table I played on.

If I thought Christians who believed different doctrines than I did were a big problem, pagans proved to be an even bigger one. They showed me that no, actually, all people did not always secretly believe in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And they showed me that different religions had vastly different conceptualizations of the afterlife. This troubled me in ways I couldn’t even put into words back then. But I can now:

No religion contains credible support for its claims about the afterlife (in fact, all the signs point to there just not being one at all). All of their claims have equal support, which is to say none at all. And all these religions say completely different things about the afterlife. In fact, many of these afterlife beliefs are completely contradictory.

So which one was real? How did I KNOW which one was real? What if I was wrong about Hell and I was just wasting my time on something totally imaginary? Was I just buying into this version of the afterlife because it made the most outrageous threats and thus rejecting it represented the biggest risk, versus the risks I ran in rejecting other religions’ demands?

The answers would turn out to be: none; nobody can, and there’s a reason for that; yep, that’s sure a big problem, all right; and yes, absolutely yes, and wasn’t it nice that I was finally correctly understanding my own beliefs, motivations, and processes?

What Does a God Need With a Starship “Connection?”

I didn’t deconvert during college. No, that wouldn’t happen for a few more years. That said, this immovable, bulletproof group certainly set me back on my heels in a way that not even atheists could. And they weren’t even trying to do it.

So just as Madison Cawthorn couldn’t “connect” with his own target group of “religious Jews,” I couldn’t connect with pagans when I was about his age. We both went through the same problems, and likely got the same treatment in return: respect and kindness, but no sales at all.

It’s little wonder to me that Cawthorn crows like he does about his few very dubious successes with Jews. They were also difficult to evangelize, from what I heard when I was Christian (I knew almost none myself). Even non-religious Jews would be considered quite a victory for a fundagelical huckster. And they’re likely about the only Jews who do convert.

There’s a reason why Cawthorn even needs to “connect” to make sales, and that reason speaks very, very poorly of Cawthorn’s claims. I wonder if he’ll ever realize what that reason is, as I did and as so many of his peers are nowadays?

NEXT UP: This young man also gives us a very good peek at how the sausage of evangelism gets made. We’ll check that out next. See you tomorrow!

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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,...