Hi and welcome back! I recently caught an interesting YouTube video by Seth Andrews (‘The Thinking Atheist’). It shows people who’ve left Christianity talking about why they left. And it got me thinking about the drastically-different narrative that toxic Christians spin about people who leave their ranks — and why they create such narratives. Today, let me show you a contrast to the simple truths shown in this video: an article by a conspiracy-theory-addled Christian who desperately needs ex-Christians to conform to a script he created.
“It Just Wasn’t True.”
This sweet, charming video comes to us courtesy of Seth Andrews at The Thinking Atheist:
He uploaded it on February 17. It’s very simple and to-the-point: just a bunch of people talking about why they left religion. And their stories boil down to something most ex-Christians can easily understand:
The claims they’d believed for so, so long just weren’t true. None of them were true. It was a faith system built on claims that just were not true. Nothing about their religion appealed to them if its claims weren’t true.
And so they left.
Clumsily Stumbling Toward the Cave Mouth.
A lot of things can lead us to deconversion. Sometimes it’s being shocked by the sheer hypocrisy of a fellow Christian. Sometimes it’s noticing serious problems with the Bible. Or it’s facing the death of a loved one who passes despite copious prayers. I even know a couple ex-Christians who were just bored silly by devotions and puzzled by everyone’s insistence that it was the best, most meaningful, and most fun activity in the world.
It could be anything, though. Reality always jostles very uncomfortably against religious beliefs. The more seriously believers must take their fairy tales, the worse that discomfort gets.
Then, one day the old hand-waving that briefly sorta-kinda reconciled them stopped working for some reason.
This sudden dissonance, in turn, led us to investigate the claims we’d once believed. And our investigations always seemed to land us in the same place:
It just wasn’t true. None of it was true. We’d believed, often very intensely and very fervently. But we hadn’t had all the facts in front of us. Once we got those facts, we re-aligned ourselves with reality — and lost our onetime faith.
Afterward, many of us compare ourselves to kids finding out Santa isn’t real. To the child who blurts out loud that the Emperor’s new clothes do not, in fact, exist. To Neo awakening from the Matrix, often invoking the first movie’s iconic restaurant scene to describe how belief seems to us now:
And yes, some of us describe our onetime faith in terms of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and deconversion as leaving it.
The Narrative That Strikes True.
We talk about our deconversions like that because we’re humans, and humans love narratives. Narratives help us remember stories and organize events. They seem to help us turn events into patterns, and then patterns into lasting memories. Storytelling is part of the human situation, then, and an indelible part of it at that.
But not every narrative is of equal value.
As consumers of stories, we can put up with a lot for a story that strikes close to home, that resonates with the reality of our own experiences, that reflects true human emotions and motivations and needs. We don’t mind if the story involves mermaids or houses that fly or flying elephants. It just needs to describe the human situation underneath all that window dressing.
(I think of game elements as the cloak a game-designer throws over their game’s mechanics. The protagonist can be a tabby cat wielding a machine gun or a clown brandishing a rubber chicken or a space alien dual-wielding San Francisco. Good mechanics drive the game’s quality, not the labels it assigns its pieces.)
So the most ordinary-seeming movie ever, the most slice-of-supposed-life story imaginable, can utterly fail to capture the human situation. It uses a false narrative to push its cardboard characters around — and it gets panned appropriately.
But the most fantastical story ever can become an enduring cult favorite for generations — because its central narrative strikes true.
The False Narrative.
Unfortunately, sometimes people devise really awful narratives that do not reflect reality. Their stories don’t resonate with reality at all or reflect true human emotion. Their narratives are simply false. They describe not reality, but a debased version of reality that their creators wish were real. The people in their stories don’t act like real people, while the situations that arise in their stories don’t even halfway look like anything that could happen in real life.
Awful people create false narratives like these to manipulate people and deceive them. The people they’re smearing and lying about know these narratives aren’t true, but the unwary flocks under these deceivers have no reason (they think) to distrust what they’re hearing. The debased view of reality they get from these narratives pleases them, tickling their ears, telling them that they are the bestest and most powerful-est tribe that ever existed — and their enemies are galactically stupid meaniepies who just don’t know a good thing when they see it.
In great part, false narratives function as a way for awful people to deny reality.
And very few awful people have quite as much to lose from reality as toxic Christians.
(You knew we’d be getting there eventually, right?)
The False Narrative of Deconversion.
Today’s original post (OP) comes to us from The Atlantic. It was published way back in June 2013 by one Larry Alex Taunton. Taunton is a right-wing Christian writer, authoritarian, and conspiracy theorist. He despises compassion and liberalism with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength, just like Jesus ordered. His biography hyucks-hyucks about what an awful person he is, then declares all wide-eyed that gyarsh, y’all, he’d be so much worse if he didn’t have Jesus as his imaginary friend. He’s written a terrible book smearing atheists.
Frankly, he seems utterly insufferable.
Since I’ve no idea if he’s a fundagelical or hardline Catholic zealot, I’ll just call this wingnut a toxic Christian and leave it at that. With no more than a kitten-whisker’s width between Christianity’s extremist ideologies anyway, it hardly matters what label he wears — like the games mentioned above. He uses the lower-case term “orthodox” to describe his faith, which I’ve never heard out of anyone but Calvinist fundagelicals. But who knows.
At any rate, the year 2013 was quite a heady time for toxic Christian reality-deniers. Christians wouldn’t face reality until 2015, when Pew’s Religious Landscape Study came out. But in 2013, their religion was already well into its decline — I think it began around 2006. However, very few of them had yet recognized that fact, like this site did early on. The studies and surveys were there giving quiet testimony to the reality of decline, though, and I was seeing a lot of mystified-sounding pastors’ blogs asking where everybody had gone. More importantly, I was seeing a lot of purely delusional conjecture about the matter.
It is in this environment that King Larry Taunton farted out a terrible essay about how TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like himself, natch) can and should totally learrrrrrrn from deconverted atheists.
(Spoiler alert: he’s in no danger whatsoever of learning anything from atheists. I wanted to tell you now in case you died of shock in a few paragraphs.)
The Polemic as Narrative.
Taunton’s essay begins with a totally-for-realsies atheist named “Phil.” Phil complains about the exact same bugbear that Taunton himself hates: touchy-feely churches that focus too much on fellowship and kindness. It is not that stuff that Phil misses about church, however. No, Phil, the totally-for-realsies atheist, misses his old youth pastor, who “actually knew the Bible.”
That sentiment might make a lot of atheists’ eyes go all side-squinty, and it should. In all my years, I’ve never met an actual ex-Christian who’s said anything like that. Usually, ex-Christians point to the few people we miss from our church days and talk about their good personal qualities. Why would an atheist treasure a Christian for his Bible knowledge? Especially because Christians don’t tend to know the Bible very well at all. For that matter, youth pastors in Larry Taunton’s end of the Christianity pool tend to get chosen for their ability to connect with teenagers, not for their vast and far-reaching Bible knowledge.
But that’s what we’re in for with this essay. After assuring his readers that he’s only interested in a respectful bridging of gaps between extremist Christians and atheists, he talks about wanting to know why ex-Christian atheists keep deconverting from his religion.
He says that atheists’ answers have “startled” him. But they haven’t, really. In every single way, his interpretation of whatever he heard has only reinforced his own worst opinions of atheists and ex-Christians alike.
In turn, he uses that wackadoodle interpretation to craft a narrative about deconversion.
He tells his tribemates that they are right (and great), atheists are wrong (and bad), people deconvert over silly emotional reasons, and gosh, y’all, those ex-Christians just wanted TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ all along!
The Narrative of the Frustrated TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
I chose this essay because it represents one of the first examples of the big Christian narrative I saw about the growing waves of ex-Christians coming out of churches. We can call it the tale of the frustrated TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Larry Taunton does a good job of serving it up like a 70s party dish. Oh, sure, he writes:
To hear them tell it, the choice was made from a philosophically neutral position that was void of emotion.
But see, see, in (his version of) reality they’re dead wrong and he’s right.
(Interestingly, he repeatedly claims that he’s after gentle and respectful dialogue. Nothing he says about atheists sounds like either. I suppose if one wishes to lie, one should do it often and loudly so it all becomes true. #JustChristianFacts)
After engaging with “Phil,” Taunton moves on to dismissing Phil’s entire stated reasons for deconversion. He hammers Phil into a hole that utterly dismisses whatever concerns he might have about Christianity. Then, he labels that hole:
This guy couldn’t find TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, so he stomped away in a snit and then adopted a worldview that King Larry Taunton gently and respectfully thinks is “historically naive and potentially dangerous.” Gosh! If only we’d shown him TRUE CHRISTIANITY™! He’d have been a seminary student today!
Speaking of: I’d love to know who Phil was. Taunton says he was the president of his college campus’ Secular Student Alliance. Does that name/story ring any bells? Anybody remember a young man holding that role from the 00s or so who talked glowingly of the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ of his past who totally “knew the Bible” and wanted nothing to do with that woke stuff, and how saaaad he was that today’s Christians just aren’t hardcore anymore?
Somehow, I doubt anyone will recall ever meeting any such person — or that, if he exists, his true viewpoints look like the ones presented here. His story just runs so counter to the lived experience of ex-Christians and atheists alike.
The Audience for This Treasured Christian Narrative.
In a lot of ways, we still see elements of this exact narrative in play about ex-Christians. Toxic Christians, in particular, cannot accept that there might just be a perfectly virtuous and obvious reason for why people keep deconverting out of their religion: namely, that it was based on a lot of claims that turned out to be utterly untrue. That idea is quite challenging to their own faith, jostling as hard as it does against reality.
So instead, toxic Christians want to hear Happy Pretendy Fun Time Stories about how their faith is totes for realsies. How it’s perfectly reasonable to have faith at all in their imaginary friend. How the people who reject them aren’t doing it for virtuous reasons at all. And most importantly, how they can deconversion-proof themselves and maybe even win back those prodigal children.
But all of that’s untrue. It’s all as untrue as untrue can get, especially that last bit.
I say that because Christianity is a belief system built upon a whole bunch of untrue claims.
It just isn’t true.
Worse, Christians themselves provide no real reason to want to hang around them if their claims aren’t true. Thankfully, they lack the power to force us to stay against our wills.
NEXT UP: The myth of the virtuous reason — and why so many of us think if we can offer one up, we’ll be off the hook with toxic people. See you tomorrow!
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(Gentle encouragement: If you haven’t talked about your deconversion or want to tell it again, this seems like a good time for it!)