just turn your brain off and step right up here
Reading Time: 15 minutes (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, CC-ND.)
Reading Time: 15 minutes

Earlier we were talking about bait and switch advertising in comments, and it brought up a memory that still makes me laugh and yet frown at the same time. The memory concerns a time that I, as a child, fell hard for a bait-and-switch advertising scam: an ad in the back of one of my comic books for a mail-order flying hovercraft. This marketing tactic is hugely dishonest, yes, but it’s also very effective against the unwary. No wonder so many Christians use it so often in their evangelism efforts: we carry around in our heads a raft of cognitive biases that ensure that even the most skeptical of us can fall for bait-and-switch evangelism. Today I’ll show you what this type of marketing is and why it works.

just turn your brain off and step right up here
(Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, CC-ND.)

Bait and switch marketing is a form of fraud. In it, a marketer offers a product that seems to be of high quality, low cost, or having particular features that are very appealing to their target market. But when the consumer comes to buy the product, they learn that either the business is out of that product entirely (forcing them to buy another product that’ll either be of lower quality or higher cost, or else leave empty-handed) or that the product itself is nowhere near as appealing, inexpensive, or high-quality as it was advertised.

I’ve often described Christianity itself as a sort of business–one that has sellers pushing a product onto consumers roaming the global marketplace of ideologies. Today I’ll show you one outgrowth of that idea: the idea that Christians are engaging in emotionally-fraudulent practices.

A Poor Substitute.

Lambchop found this blog post, “The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity,” which was written by a Christian named Richard Beck to criticize exactly this kind of marketing.

Richard Beck’s post struck nearly as big a chord with us over at Roll to Disbelieve as it did with its original author’s audience back in 2009. (It’s been recommended by Disqus readers over 1400 times.) The bait and switch he identified wasn’t quite what we associate with the term, but it was definitely a growing problem in the religion–and still is. See, Mr. Beck sees the bait and switch as pertaining to the way Christians often see the performance of their religion’s rituals and customs as a quick and easy shortcut to feeling like good people without actually having to behave like good people.

Mr. Beck writes:

The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed “spiritual” substitute.

For example, many Christians learn a long list of behaviors and beliefs that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ must follow and conform to: church attendance, regular private prayer and Bible study, voting for whichever Republican the local tribe likes best, homeschooling one’s kids, even going online to argue with people who don’t buy into Creationism. Many of us could recite a long litany of similar demands from our time in the religion, like going on a mission trip, harassing women trying to access abortion care, bothering people in their private time with evangelism attempts, wearing particular clothes, or listening to or totally avoiding particular genres of music. Indeed, the more “biblical” a group claims to be, the more of these demands they generally set upon their members. Those members might be dishonest about adhering to all of those demands, but at least they pretend to be behaving themselves in order to avoid censure or ostracism–and in their turn they police their peers’ stated adherence levels to rules that even their leaders only pretend to follow faithfully.1

And indeed, many Christians have managed to infuse their every waking moment with Christian swag and behaviors. From the time they wake up and check the time on their Hippie Jesus wall clock to the Crucifixion mug they lift to drink down their sleeping pills before going to bed, they can be so absolutely swaddled in Jesus junk that light won’t even penetrate their bubble. For all this effort to Christianize every nook and cranny of their lives, it still seems like the more fervent they are, the more horribly they treat others–and the grander their unwarrantedly high opinion of themselves seems to be. And why shouldn’t it be grand? They are adhering to a huge list of behaviors and beliefs that they’ve been taught make them better than others!

Alas, that list isn’t what they’ve been taught it is. You’d think that a truly good religion would teach social graces to its members even without them claiming that a god lives inside them and influences their behavior, but that is not the case here. As the Pew Forum has repeatedly discovered in surveys, if non-Christians are asked to name one characteristic that they feel describes most Christians, many of us land on hypocritical, which means (to most folks) that Christians have a moral ideal that they are very open and forward about believing, one that they feel is objective, unchanging, and universal–and one that they’d just love to force on everyone else–but they do not live up to that ideal themselves.

Whatever devotions Christians claim to be pursuing to ensure their own safety in the afterlife, those devotions are not translating into them being better people in this life on this planet. And the only folks who don’t seem to recognize this truth are, well, Christians themselves. For all their pious proclamations of everyone being a “sinner” in their god’s eyes, it’s clear that they do in fact think that some sinners are better than others.

Christian Love.

So when Mr. Beck released that excellent blog post into the wild, you can guess that he got a nice big heaping helping of Christian love in retaliation.2

And oh, sure, yeah, a lot of Christians agreed with him and were thankful that he’d called attention to this problem in the religion. A few even said it’d helped them see a shortcoming in their own lives. But if you look at the comments, you’ll soon notice that a lot, as in a lot a lot, of Christians were furious with him for daring to suggest that Christians should put at least as much effort into being decent human beings as they were putting into their religious devotions. This latter group prizes these devotions far more highly than they prize being a decent human being–and it’s easy to see why, given that one set of duties will protect them from eternal torture at the hands of their “loving” god, while the other set has been marginalized and minimized to the point where many Christians don’t even bother with them.

Nonetheless, many Christian groups advertise themselves as wonderful people–kind, compassionate, generous, merciful, you name it–and often they claim that they are this wonderful because of their devotions and their strong beliefs. Any wrongdoing their peers commit, be they Christian or not, they are certain happens only because of a lack of devotions and weak/nonexistent faith, while the opposite is true of the very best and most successful Christians. This thinking is on display every day, from laity on up. Remember Preston Sprinkle, the Christian who wrote that terrible book about his tribe’s anti-LGBTQ rights crusade? He literally thought that the bigotry and oppression he saw going on in his religious bunkmates was happening because those Christians simply didn’t know exactly what the Bible taught (he thought) about the topic. Once he showed them why bigotry-for-Jesus was totally in the Bible in his (erroneous) opinion, he was totally convinced that all their nasty bigotry would vanish because properly indoctrinated Christians couldn’t possibly ever be cruel to anybody.

Many Christians feel that only they and their fellow Christians can possibly understand morality or live in an ethical way; they often accuse ex-Christians of having deconverted because we just wanted to sin, ignoring that if that was really our goal then we sure wouldn’t need to leave the religion to do it. Often Christians limit their social interaction with those who don’t share their beliefs lest we infect them somehow with our disbelief, or even restrict their children from playing with the children of heretics so that they don’t pick up any bad habits thereby. And many Christians want to impose their belief system on their entire respective countries in the (drastically mistaken) belief that the totalitarian, authoritarian theocracies they want are safer and more prosperous. If they’re even aware of current governments that practice these ideas already and the abuses that erupt because of that overreach, they insist that the problem there is simply that those governments are not run by TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like themselves.

These Christians believe to their bones that the way they do Christianity and the beliefs they have about Christianity help make them better people than everyone else. This notion forms the very central pillar in their sales pitches.

Flies in the Vaseline, We Are.

But when we examine the groups that those Christians belong to, we find that their devotions appear to have no correlation at all with becoming a better person. Some Christians are indeed really nice people. Some of them are terrible people. And it seems like most of them are just regular folks trying to get through their days as best they can, and they’ve latched onto this religion as a way to gain the most rewards for the least effort that they can manage in this uncertain world. At all levels of fervor one can find all three sorts of Christians.

But Christians themselves don’t realize that. They are quick to assume that anybody who seems fervent is a good person that anybody can trust. “Good Christian” is used as a shorthand phrase in our culture even now to describe a goodhearted and trustworthy person. The whole reason that there are so many predators and hypocrites within Christianity is that Christians absolutely cannot recognize evildoers in their midst as long as those evildoers at least act like they’re toeing all the correct lines.3

Given Christians’ glaring and obvious inability to even perceive deception in innocuous-seeming people, much less their equally glaring inability to reliably identify and eject harmful people from their groups, combined with their own inability to live up to the strict rules they want to impose on others, they turn out to be the very last people we should grant deference to when it comes to setting the tone of our cultural conversation about morality. Up until recently, though, that is exactly what everyone did–out of obligation and with fear of retaliation for dissent–for a long time. It’s only now beginning to change.

But oh, what a change it’s turning out to be!

A New Era For Christians.

The bait-and-switch that Richard Beck noticed certainly applies in a great many other places. Christian culture is filled top to bottom with marketing that fits that bill, especially marketing aimed at persuading non-Christians to join up.

Remember, until the last few decades Christian groups could rely on coercion throughout their history to gain members and keep them. That only began to change when Western countries decided to start peeling away the religion’s unearned and unwarranted privilege, divesting Christians of the power to force compliance from others (this is the process that outraged American Christians refer to as persecution). So Christians underwent a massive paradigm shift that they weren’t ready for and never wanted. In an astonishingly short time, they’ve gone from cultural rulers wielding their religion like a sword and sceptre to struggling salespeople pushing a product that doesn’t exist to customers who’ve demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t need or want that product.

I don’t mean to imply that Christian leaders aren’t trying their hardest to get that power back. But it seems unlikely that they ever will–they seem to have hit a tipping point in terms of membership and resources; even with breathtakingly generous perks and shockingly lax oversight, most groups are struggling simply to keep their mortgages current and the lights on in their buildings.

Little wonder their marketing seems so childish, desperate, hamfisted, and clumsy; they’re still in the infancy of their post-coercion existence–this new normal for Christians wherein they’re forced to win and retain members through persuasion. As many Christian leaders and communities have shown, they’d far rather use coercion!

Because Who’ll Stop Them?

When it comes to advertising in the non-religious world, overseeing agencies and watchdog groups fulfill an invaluable need in our culture. They ensure that advertisers do not make false claims about their products, that their pitches are not sent to vulnerable children who can’t yet discern predatory advertising, and that even the images of their product are realistic.

The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is the most powerful of those groups. It maintains a strict list of rules that all businesses must adhere to lest they face serious penalties. Voluntary overseeing committees exist as well for various industries–like alcohol manufacturers and vendors–to ensure that their members follow ethical practices in advertising. Often these committees are only formed in hopes of preventing tighter oversight by the government and their members do not adhere to the comparatively-mild rules their committee comes up with, but they’re there at least.

But churches have almost no oversight at all regarding the claims they make. The few laws that specifically govern members’ behavior or Christian leaders’ political blatherings are ignored at the drop of a hat. Unless or until those leaders break the criminal or civil law codes that all secular people have to follow anyway, like laws prohibiting them from punching people, nobody dares prosecute them–and sometimes even then nobody’ll stop or penalize them. As far as advertising goes, as long as churches don’t make false medical claims (as this UK page describes), the sky’s the limit.

This Is All More or Less Totally Legal and Acceptable For Some Reason.

Here’s only a partial list of the bait-and-switch advertising that Christians engage in to win and keep members.

  • “Pizza blasts” used to be a major part of churches’ sales pitches to teens, back in my day. They advertised these evenings as just fun nights of pizza and maybe a Christian music concert. Once the teens had gotten to the churches throwing the party, they learned that to get the pizza they’d have to first sit through a really awful sermon and hard-sales pitch to scare them into joining. Some churches are still doing it, too–see that note about the “Speaker” for this event? He’s not going to be there just to read a bulletin to the attendees.
  • I’ve heard from a great many ex-Christians that often their relatives will invite them over for friendly-sounding reasons, only to turn the occasion into a sort of intervention aimed at reconverting that person. Lambchop described one of these that she had to go through–and I’ve heard plenty of other similar accounts. Other forms of this bait-and-switch involve Christians innocently asking ex-Christian friends or family members to read or watch apologetics materials simply to get the apostate’s opinion about the material, only to reveal afterward that their goal was actually to expose their ex-Christian loved one to apologetics in hopes of reconverting them.
  • Church advertising often includes twaddle about them being a real live family (to cite just one example) to their members. Members are encouraged to speak of their “church family” and their “church home” and even to call each other “Brother This” and “Sister That.” But this is an untrue claim. It might take quite a long time for members to realize that their churchmates could be much better classified as work friends–people that we see and socialize with only at work, and who we will inevitably lose contact with after we leave that job.
  • I’d bet that most ex-Christians can remember, as I can, being sold on the religion’s supernatural claims: we’d be communicating with a real live god, who would answer our prayers all the time. We’d have access to perks that non-Christians wouldn’t get. We’d ensure our safety in the afterlife from the obscene threat of eternal torture that awaited everyone who lacked our luck or discernment. And all we had to do was AcceptJesusAsOurPersonalLordAndSavior! What was easier and better than that? But we eventually discovered upon joining that there was a very long list of requirements for all of these supposedly “free” gifts–and that there was actually a lot of work involved in being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Often Christians try to claim that their religion has very low costs to members, but only the most liberal churches can say so truthfully.
  • Obviously, as Richard Beck pointed out, Christians market their religion as making people better human beings, but it sure won’t take long for anybody to notice that in reality, churches can be major drama factories. I’ve been noticing for years that Christians online particularly treat people way worse than anybody back in my day would have. We’ve seen Christians literally tell non-Christians that they’ll be praying for terrible things to happen to these dissenters. And if their impatience for their god to act wears too thin, they’re happy to threaten them with real harm and destroy their property.
  • On a more amusing note, evangelism-minded Christians often insist that they can totally demonstrate the truth of their claims without resorting to evidence-free arguments drawn directly from apologetics–but once we delve into their “evidence” we discover that it’s nothing of the sort. As an illustration of this truth, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, two of the worst liars-for-Jesus in the whole religion, once claimed to be able to prove their god’s existence without resorting to the Bible itself. They made this remarkable claim in order to lure some well-known atheists into a public debate about the topic. Once the debate had begun, it turned out that all of their “evidence” came from either well-worn apologetics arguments or the Bible itself. They didn’t even pretend to have anything else in their toolbox. The Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate ran along very similar lines; though Creationists like Ken Ham claim that their opinions are based on evidence and push their blather as a real live science, scratch their surface and they will, as Ken Ham literally did in that debate, eventually resort to waving their Bibles in the air as if it’s some kind of authority on the topic.
  • Christianity itself is almost always marketed as a religion of love. But its adherents almost always use threats of the worst kind of violence to sell it to non-members–and many of its doctrines and elements of its worldview are hateful and destructive in the extreme.

Here’s the really ghastly part of it all:

If anybody objects to a bait and switch they’ve perceived in the religion, that person is the one vilified and demonized by Christians for taking those promises seriously in the first place.

Why Does This Style of Marketing Work (Sorta)?

Bait-and-switch marketing has long been identified as a predatory tactic. It often works, which is why unethical advertisers love it. Even when they comply with laws forcing them to honestly depict their product, as the food industry does, they find ways to work around those rules to make those products a lot more appealing than they really are–as the following video from Facts Verse reveals:

YouTube video

Regarding the image at 6:06: my mind doesn’t just hang out in the gutter–it parties there.

This kind of marketing works because human beings suffer from a variety of cognitive biases that make us susceptible to the bait and switch. And like we see in all cognitive biases, even the most educated or intelligent person can suffer from them. They’re programmed deep in our minds, far more deeply in fact than the relatively less meaningful labels we might use to describe our opinions regarding the supernatural.

First, most of us like to think of ourselves as fairly consistent, reasonable, rational people. It’s embarrassing to be caught out as being inconsistent with that self-image. If we’re very enthusiastic about something one day but scornful of it the next, we know that it lowers our credibility in other people’s eyes (consider the mockery that frequently-divorced-and-remarried people often get). Realizing that we’ve doing or thinking something inconsistent can make us stressed out, so we’ll employ a raft of thought patterns to keep us aligned with our image of ourselves.

In religious terms, a person might join Christianity because they became convinced that its claims were totally true and for real. That person tries to convert their friends and family members and commits a great deal of their resources to the furthering of the religion. But after a while, that person might start noticing all kinds of holes in those claims. If they admit that the religion has nowhere near the credible evidence that they thought it did, then they might be mocked by other people and even rejected by either their new “church family” or their real families and friends. So they read up as much as they can on the religion’s vast amount of pseudoscience and apologetics to maintain their belief–and they might not even be aware they’re doing it, thanks to anti-process filtering out those dangerous perceptions before they can even rise to consciousness.

Second, we tend to be unwilling to walk away from something we’ve actually put resources into–and the more resources we’ve plunged into the thing, the less willing we are to abandon it. This mental glitch is called the sunk cost effect (or loss aversion) and it’s responsible for a lot of drama and misery in our lives. It keeps us driving old cars that cost us thousands in repair fees rather than buying new ones, playing freemium games that we don’t even enjoy anymore, toiling in relationships that are no longer fulfilling in the least, and sitting in church pews long past the time we’d want to leave. Sometimes this glitch makes us value that thing way higher than we normally would, or it convinces us that we’ll get the return on our investment of resources any day now so we can’t possibly leave the religion walk away yet!

Third, we’re very susceptible to threats even when there’s no evidence backing them up. This truth is called negativity bias. It means that people remember negative things more easily and are more likely to take action on something negative (to avoid harm) than on something positive (to gain reward). Sometimes I call this the What If? threat, and it forms the basis for quite a lot of Christian evangelism. I’ve seen even ex-Christians who’ve been years out of the religion who get anxious about the baseless threats they once believed as Christians, even though they know very well that nothing in the religion has been credibly supported with real evidence. It’s that powerful of a bias! So even after realizing that we’ve been had, fear keeps many of us frozen in place.

(Here’s a big long list of cognitive biases, if you’re anywhere close to being as interested in the topic as I am. The ones I’ve listed are only a beginning–there are lots more, like this one.)

How Do We Escape Those Biases?

Knowledge is power–and nowhere is it more powerful than in helping us fight off the influence of these powerful biases. Learning about them and learning how to spot them being used in the wild helps us guard against falling into the same patterns.

Further, if we have around ourselves friends or allies who are willing to tell us when they see us going down one of those destructive paths, that helps a lot too.

But Christians lack both of those.

They are not taught to evaluate all situations critically. If they’re taught the skill at all at any point in their lives, they learn also not to apply those lessons to their religious beliefs. And they tend to surround themselves with people who think exactly the same way they do–in fact, they deliberately limit their engagement with people who think very differently, so if they rub shoulders at all with non-Christians (or even with Christians who don’t share the same indoctrination) it is on the most superficial level possible.

When we deconvert from the religion, two of the most important lessons we can possibly learn are to think critically about everything we think we know and to accept feedback without fear. Learning how to be wrong–and to correct our mistakes in thinking–might not totally protect us from predatory marketing like Christians so often utilize, but it’s a very good start regardless.

If I’d known about all this stuff 30-some-odd years ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of time that was spent fantasizing about flying around in my brand-new totally-for-real hovercraft.

my sister got mad that I wouldn't let her ride in it
One such ad–there were a ton of them though.

See you next time, when we decipher and decode some of the many threats that Christians use to sell their religion–and gauge their relative validity! 

1 Boy, you can just imagine my shock in my Christian days when I discovered that my pastor’s family did NOT follow the same rules church members had to follow.

2 The modifier is there because even Christians know that their adulterated, redefined version of “love” is way different than what non-Christians think that word means.

3 My Evil Ex, for example, was quite the golden boy in our church, praised by even the highest muckety-mucks in the entire denomination. They totally had no idea what kind of person he really was and they sure weren’t interested in finding out as long as he at least pretended he was doing all the right things.

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,...

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