We’ve talked before about this thing that we often see in broken systems: the group’s stated goals don’t match up with members’ actual behavior. The reason for this mismatch is that the behavior actually matches up with the group’s real goals, not the stated ones. When we free ourselves from taking a group’s members at their word about their goals, we can look at their behavior and see where it logically leads–and judge for ourselves if that goal matches what they say they want to accomplish. In Christianity, we’re seeing this situation come into clearer and clearer focus regarding their stated goals. I’ll show you what I mean today–and how to evaluate a group’s behavior to see how it matches up with their stated goals.
Stated Goals and Real Goals.
If the Catholic Bishops, their Evangelical Protestant allies, and other Right-wing fundamentalists had the sole objective of decimating religious belief, they couldn’t be doing a better job of it.
Valerie Tarico, “Here are 8 ways the religious right wins converts – to atheism“
A group commonly has a stated goal that members believe they are working toward. The group offers a system to members that its leaders promise will help those members achieve that goal. The system consists of recommended behaviors, beliefs, and talking points or ways of thinking, as well as products that members are usually advised to acquire that will help them reach the group’s stated goal. Members expect that if they follow the system obediently, then they will achieve the goal of the group they’ve joined.
A good, solid, harmonious group will direct its members’ actions toward that goal. A dysfunctional group, by contrast, will either not direct members’ actions toward that goal or else it’ll offer them a system that runs totally off the rails to produce some other result entirely.
For example, a group that claims to be working toward recovery from substance addictions might have millions upon millions of members all believing that they are working toward that group’s stated goal. They may follow its system to the letter: they attend meetings upon meetings; they accumulate oodles of contacts, mentors, and disciples. They evangelize for their group and buy all the materials the group produces as part of its system. And yet the group might not be any more effective at its stated goal of helping members break free of their addictions than attempting to quit by oneself.
Or consider multi-level marketing scams. Often these scams can be spotted easily in the wild because their members have this long list of things they’re told to do in order to be successful at their “business” (scare quotes because it’s not much of a business), and yet only a few of the group’s salespeople actually make more money than they spend.
When someone realizes that their actions are failing to accomplish a stated goal, often the group’s other members tell that Doubting Thomas to work the system even harder and to put even more faith into the directions laid down by the group’s leaders. If the doubter doesn’t fall back into line within a fairly short time, then the group will start to exert more (and increasingly cruel) pressure upon that person to either re-persuade them of the directions’ value or at least shut them up about the matter.
Why Does This Mismatch Happen?
The self-esteem movement has done an entire generation a deep disservice. It started with the best intentions.
Steve Baskin, “The Gift of Failure“
I’m a firm believer in Hanlon’s Razor, or cockup before conspiracy, which is to say that most of the time, people aren’t vicious or malevolent.1 But they can be very wishful sometimes–and often seem eager to be misled as long as they’re being flattered in some way or are given permission to keep doing whatever they like doing best. Wise group leaders are well aware of that wishfulness in people–and either work with it or exploit it, depending on what kind of people they are.
Thanks to that wishfulness, Christians are particularly vulnerable to groups that make big promises or feed their egos in some way. Given a choice between joining what Michael Emerson and Christian Smith called “The Church of Meaning and Belonging or The Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging,” you know which one most Christians will join. In this, they’re like everyone else–when given a choice between undertaking a set of directions that promises huge rewards for next to no effort or undertaking directions that promise smaller rewards after great effort, most folks will go for the one that maximizes promised returns for the effort expended.
That exact emotional arithmetic forms the heart of social exchange theory, in fact. If we see a relationship’s demands as low but the potential rewards as high, we’re happier with the relationship; if we notice that the demands are much higher than we expected for rewards that aren’t actually as high as we thought they were initially, then we become unhappy.
Because there’s no “Jesus” making Christians any different from anyone else, they’re going to act like regular people when they evaluate a group’s promised goals and the system the group’s leaders have set up to achieve those goals. They might even be more vulnerable to blatantly pie-in-the-sky promises and ineffective systems than non-religious people are, given that they’ve typically been taught for years to believe that even the most preposterous promises can really happen in the real world and to believe that magical thinking actually works to accomplish anything in reality. If I were trying to create a group of people all but guaranteed to fall into obviously-false promises, I don’t know if I could possibly come up with a better one than Christians.
That’s why critical-thinking skills are so very important.
One of the easiest ways to see if a group is good or not-so-good is evaluating its stated goals and how its directions and rules work (or don’t!) to achieve those goals. So one of the smartest things anyone can possibly do is to keep tabs on how close a match a group’s stated goals are to its system.
When the Goal Doesn’t Materialize.
Society is becoming increasingly secular and post-Christian. Christian churches have become more insular and hostile to the ‘secular’ culture. Their ability to interact with the general public is becoming increasingly compromised. They have largely given up on recruiting and now ‘making a stand’ no matter how badly they alienate others is an end in itself.
smrnda, Disqus (on one of those rare occasions when it played nicely with us)
In these mismatch situations, the promised rewards don’t materialize at all no matter how fervently the group’s system is applied. But a broken system has plenty of ways to deal with those disappointments.
Prosperity Gospel believers fail to achieve their goals all the time–and yet they only drill down all the harder on their clearly-wackadoodle ideology, as most true believers in any dysfunctional group do. Though a great many Christians reject the worst and most obvious forms of Prosperity Gospel–the Creflo Dollars whining for private planes, the televangelists crying crocodile tears on TV about how their god will totally murder them if they don’t get millions of dollars in donations–they still accept the basic premises of this system (which, ironically, may be rooted in Americans’ belief in the so-called Protestant work ethic): that their god desperately wants them to be happy, healthy, loved, and wealthy; that obedience to their god’s demands will gain them rewards in the form of happiness, health, love, and wealth; that the tithes they pay to their churches are really a sort of weird spiritual investment that will return dividends to them somehow; that rich, healthy, and loved people are particularly favored by their god, while poor, lonely, and sick people are being punished by him somehow. They seriously think that they’ve got this foolproof system that they can apply to their lives, and if they only live out that system well enough and fervently enough, then they’ll be rewarded.
And, too, we see the same dynamic in the Christian marriage-advice market–which, like apologetics and Prosperity Gospel, makes very clear claims and promises, has a similarly clear laid-out system for adherents to follow, and results in exactly the same disappointment. In The Love Dare, which we covered extensively a couple of years ago, one thing that kept leaping out at me while I read that book was that most of its “dares” were pretty small and one-sided gestures that the authors promised repeatedly would totally get a marriage back on track to the health, passion, and harmony that the Christian god totally wanted for his favored children. Most of the “dares” consisted of writing a few things down in the journal, asking one’s spouse a few questions, or reciting magic spells in private. And midway through the book, a wild altar call appeared–which the authors presented as a necessary part of healing serious rifts in a marriage. It’s all presented with breathless, all-caps import by the authors, who totally lack any formal training or education in counseling–and yet who present their system as being of monumental power. That’s exactly how their followers took the system, too.
When I then looked at review sites like Amazon to see how customers of the Love Dare had fared after putting that system into place in their own lives, I wasn’t really surprised at all to see that most of them had seen either no change at all or else a change for the worse. More than a few reviewers even said that after doing the whole program, they’d decided that their marriages were not salvageable. They were all but drowned out by reviews that were weirdly optimistic and glowing–many written by people who’d only just gotten the book and hadn’t actually done much of anything in it yet, but who’d been suitably impressed by the authors’ promises alone. Amid those accolades, negative reviews popped up here and there like canker sores that the charlatans writing the book couldn’t ever quite get rid of–and these are heartbreaking stories of people who really think that the Love Dare system will actually fix their problems.
(Apologetics, as a field, is so perfectly illustrative of the ideas I’m putting forth today that I’m just going to have to run a post just about that next time!)
Ultimately, wise Christians avoid making any kind of claim that can actually be tested. But that leaves a lot of unwise Christians who make big, huge, bombastic claims constantly–and don’t even appear to be concerned about what’ll happen when the game catches up to them.
So be thinking about what the goals are of the groups of Christians that you run into–and how effective those groups have been at moving toward those goals, and what they do when someone mentions being disappointed that the system isn’t working at all for them.
Which Way Did They Go?
When we notice that a group’s categorically incapable of matching its behavior to its goals, we have to see where the group members are actually going instead, and where their behavior is logically going to take them.
To draw an example from recent events, one argument that Christian bigots-for-Jesus employ in pursuing their court cases is that they must be allowed to viciously discriminate against their tribal enemies and seize control over other people’s lives in order to preserve their religious freedom. Similarly, one popular tactic for Creationists seeking to sneak their twiddle-twaddle trash science into public schools is that they were simply trying to “teach the controversy” that they mistakenly believe exists between their pseudoscience snake-oil peddlers and real scientists. (For added drama, you must imagine all these Christians giving the judge goo-goo innocent blinkie eyes from across the room while making these obviously disingenuous pleas.)
But courts routinely deny such arguments, saying that regardless of what excuse Christians use to try to grab for power and enshrine their religion into law, those are the results that actually happen–and their suits are, therefore, denied. Indeed, if bigots-for-Jesus really cared about religious freedom, or if science-deniers really wanted to help schoolchildren “decide for themselves” where they stand regarding Christianity’s long-debunked mythology, there are far better ways to go about both.
Christians aren’t taking any of those other ways, however, which is a big sign that they’re not really after what they say they’re after. Their actual behavior is taking them somewhere else entirely–into what amounts to the early steps of a Christian theocracy in America.
What We Should Do When We See a Mismatch.
It can be very painful to realize that we’re in a group that’s got a serious mismatch going on between its goals and its system, especially if we’ve been in the group for a while and are really invested into it. I know that feel–so much, so much.
Often times we come to that realization after we make a few rudimentary efforts to push back against the group by suggesting a change in the system to bring it more into line with the group’s stated goal. For example, if the group says it wants to help Christians improve their marriages, someone might suggest that the group ask for advice from actual accredited marriage counselors instead of having a pair of hack moviemakers with no formal education or training in marriage counseling come up with a book that just sounds super-duper-Jesus-y and incorporates dozens of fundagelical teachings about marriage. If the group devotes itself to converting atheists, then one might ask for some studies regarding the group’s strategies–or one might ask actual atheists what they think of the topic, as revolutionary and shocking as that might sound!
A dissenter will be able to tell a lot by how the group responds to such suggestions. If the group freaks out and clamps down, or leaps all over the dissenter, then the best thing to do is probably to walk away. Remember, a dysfunctional group is not one that a mere member can usually fix from the inside. Only the leaders have the power needed to make those kinds of changes, and they don’t normally ever want to do that because they fear losing power themselves through those changes. A group that’s sufficiently broken won’t change till there is literally nothing else they can do!
We’re going to look next at how the mismatch I’ve described here applies specifically to how Christians try to recruit and retain members–and why that mismatch exists, and what they’re actually working toward instead. We’ll see you soon!
1 The official wording, of course, is “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
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