Hi! Recently, we’ve been talking about Joshua Harris‘ recent life developments. It all reminded me of one of the most potent and important cultural changes to hit the Western world in about 1800 years. Everything altered for Christians and many other people–and it altered forever. That change centers around the loss of Christians’ onetime powers of coercion. Today, I’ll show you why this breathtaking shift spells the absolute end of Christian domination everywhere it spreads.
But first, we need a quick history lesson. Yay! My favorite! Hopefully yours too:
The Myth of Original Christianity.
Many Christians–even very decent-hearted ones–cherish in their hearts a myth about the earliest days of their religion. The myth goes like this, if I may paraphrase what I once believed and have heard from countless Christians of all stripes:
When Jesus established his Church, at first everything ran smoothly and wonderfully. The religion spread like wildfire among the poor, enslaved, and dispossessed because it was just so wow, you know, I don’t know, just different, I guess. Nobody’d ever heard of anything like it. The earliest church’s explosive growth came to a screeching halt–as did its amazing unique different-ness–when big ol’ meaniepies got ahold of it and warped it into the cruel and inhuman engine of suffering that most flavors are today (EXCEPT MINE OF COURSE).
Thus, our job today is to find or create that TRUE ORIGINAL CHRISTIANITY™. If we could only get back to that original flavor that Jesus himself set up, then Christianity would totally experience amazing growth again.
Amazingly (to paraphrase Luke Skywalker), literally everything in that blockquote is wrong.
Of course, the people pushing this belief have something to gain from being wrong. They (seek to) sell their flavor of Christianity to others. So they benefit from the adoption of this belief.
We encounter this belief everywhere. Every fervent Christian out there thinks they’ve somehow found that first-edition Christianity. Many Christian leaders blame their religion’s decline (as Thom Rainer does) on church leaders’ failure to “get back” to that idolized original flavor. Denominations like the Church of God focus tightly on this myth. Others, like the Pentecostals I joined, simply use it as a marketing tool. Meanwhile, the cult I almost joined claimed that they’d refined the almost-correct beliefs and practices of the Pentecostals into the real deal.
And all of those Christians are wrong.
The Dogwhistle and the Permission Slip.
But original Christianity goes to the Apostles and [the] gospels.
—A Christian Disqus rando trying to silence a dissenter
As I just hinted, I struggled hard with this exact myth once.
My entire path through Christianity could reasonably-if-uncharitably be described as one long deepening spiral into wingnuttery and wackadoodle-osity. I progressed through increasingly-culty and increasingly-authoritarian (and increasingly-scary) flavors of the religion to find Original Christians.
Eventually, I realized that the closer I drew to what I thought was Original Christianity, the more abusive and authoritarian the groups got!
The leaders of these groups used that concept as a selling tool. At the same time, they borrowed a lot of power from it. Who among their flocks could deny their demands? Those hornswoggled sheep thought that Jesus himself had set their group up that way. Leaving the group meant leaving the absolute truth. It also meant rebelling against the will and desires of a real live god. The mere idea became a cruel dilemma with impossibly-high stakes.
Even today, this clever marketing ploy filters down to the flocks. They flatter themselves by leaping upon the belief that their preferred flavor is Jesus’ own preferred flavor out of many tens of thousands of competing flavors.
What fine and discerning little bunnies they must be!
(Mr. Captain: “TASTE THE JESUS-Y GOODNESS!”)
First: The Reality About Original Christianity.
In reality, nobody actually has any idea what Original Christianity even would mean in a real-world application. The earliest Christian groups that we know about can’t even be conclusively shown to have existed before about 70 CE. Whenever they finally appeared on the scene, we know this about them: they squabbled endlessly over what they each viewed as the correct doctrinal beliefs for Christians to hold.
They couldn’t even agree on who or what Jesus even was, much less what the Crucifixion meant or what his teachings meant. (See endnote.) Some of those earliest Christians thought he’d been fully human; others believed he’d been a spirit operating on a spiritual plane that only looked like our world.
Only one thing stopped this proliferation of beliefs and this exponentially-expanding list of different doctrinal beliefs and practices, and even then it couldn’t completely stop it. And as we’ll see in just a moment, that “one thing” was not Christians themselves.
Those first Christians found themselves just as incapable of consolidating and harmonizing their beliefs as today’s Christians are, for exactly and precisely the same reasons. Nothing about the religion touches upon reality so there’s no objective way to establish anyone’s ideas as more-correct than anybody else’s. No central authority existed to lay down the law.
Second: The Reality About Christianity’s Amazing Uniqueness.
In reality, Christianity also wasn’t much different at all from the other mystery cults and pagan faiths swirling around Jerusalem. It whizzed together a bunch of existing beliefs along with Jewish ideas and more than a few heaping spoonfuls of the philosophy being developed right there at the heart of Judaism.
The particular blend of beliefs involved in Christianity might have been unique, but then again, so was the particular blend of beliefs involved in Mithraism–another popular religion that competed with Christianity for a while. When two religions coincide exactly with each other we don’t usually give them two completely different names, after all.
Thus, the baby sect felt familiar more than anything else. Oh sure, it contained enough differences that most fervent Jews rejected it out of hand (and very much still do, to evangelicals’ frustration). But it appealed to a few of the less-fervent or less-educated Jews and some pagans.
At least, it appealed to them at first.
And Third: The Reality About Christianity’s Early Growth.
The early growth of Christianity is anything but explosive or weird. Sure, Christians like thinking that because they think such growth indicates divine approval–even evidence of divine meddling in human hearts (so much for free will, right?). But they’ve completely forgotten all about Justin Bieber’s fanbase and multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs), I suppose.
It’s extremely easy for members of a dominant group to believe that their group appeals to tons of people and that its growth and coming-to-power simply must be divine in nature. In reality, however, early Christians had a lot of trouble retaining the few people they could persuade to join up. Just as they do today, their converts kept wandering off!
That truth became those Bible verses in 1 John 2:18-22. Its author sought to explain why so many people kept leaving the new religion, and secondly to advise how to emotionally reconcile their leaving with the doctrines being established around that time. So many people were leaving the religion that he was totally positive it meant the world was ending soon! Those verses hardly represent a glowing endorsement of popularity.
In summation, Christianity grew about like any new religion might be expected to do–neither way slower nor way faster. It attracted wingnuts willing to invest in something new and different. As long as religion remains a more-or-less free choice, wingnuts will flit from group to group. That’s how they roll.
Fire and the Sword.
Unsurprisingly, since nothing about the religion actually smacks of divine inspiration, its members certainly didn’t behave like divinely-possessed worshipers of a real live god of love, mercy, justice, and charity.
From the get-go, people noticed how eager for power Christians were–and how hypocritically they behaved whenever they got any, and what unspeakable deeds they were willing to commit to gain and wield it.
Things became much easier for those early evangelists once the religion picked up steam. Eventually, it became a pawn of warring emperors. And when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, oh, all bets were off.
They maintained their hard-won dominance through fire and the sword, literally and brutally murdering dissenters whenever possible. Along with that retaliatory power, they exercised almost-complete control of Christianity’s doctrines and practices. (See endnote.)
The Inevitable Decline.
Christianity has never been a religion. . . it has always been a predatory imperialism par excellence.
Inevitably, as governments came around to realizing how important it was to defend human rights against overreach, these zealots’ days as the arbiters of life and death became numbered.
The literal only reason why super-authoritarian Christians don’t outright torture, imprison, and murder dissenters today (like they used to) is that the governments they once tightly controlled no longer allow them to do that.
Christians didn’t stop hurting people–and condoning this mistreatment–because they heard Jesus telling them it wasn’t loving and therefore he wasn’t okay at all with it. No, they stopped because real people with even more power stopped them. They knew that they needed the power to hurt, maim, and kill people to maintain their dominance. When they lacked it, they knew they couldn’t achieve anything close to that level of power.
Of course, some countries today still permit such barbarity. Almost all of them are tightly-controlled by religious zealots of different kinds. There’s a reason why theocracies are not noted for their robust support of human rights.
As people’s liberty expands, zealots’ religious control weakens.
Membership Optional–At Last, Again.
So now we find ourselves at the dawn of whole new age. Suddenly, membership in Christianity has become almost entirely optional. At least in huge swathes of North America and other (mostly) human-rights-respecting regions and countries, people can come and go as they please. They can tithe whatever they want and attend church whenever they wish. They can adopt whatever doctrines and practices they like best.
Or they can say bugger off to all of it and go do something else.
And all their leaders–onetime, hopeful, and current–can do in response is rage. Sure, they can try to shame people into joining and staying and obeying. And they can insult their ex-members and harass and annoy them after they leave–like evangelicals do now to Joshua Harris.
But that’s about all they can do, in most areas.
A membership-optional Christianity offers too few real incentives for most people to join and stay. It can’t attract and hold anywhere near the same number of people on its own merits. It never could.
That’s exactly why its leaders stopped depending on their religion’s own merits the second they could.
Today’s Big Points.
Here are the biggest takeaways I see in this topic:
First, Christianity simply can’t maintain its momentum or dominance without temporal power. The religion’s leaders absolutely depend upon possessing enough real-world power to coerce people to join up, obey, and stick around.
Second, Christians find themselves losing that power–and with it, experiencing a serious decline in both credibility and membership.
Third and perhaps most importantly, I know of no credible expert or survey house who thinks they’ll regain it–much less regain the credibility and membership they’ve lost along with it. Nobody gives them a chance in hell of recovering. Nobody even thinks they’ve quite hit bottom yet.
In and of itself, any single defection from any religious group represents neither a loss nor a victory for anyone. Individual people gain and lose belief for all kinds of reasons.
The sheer number of people leaving Christianity, though, does represent a response to a major cultural shift.
A couple of decades ago and for many centuries before that, all those people might have stayed quiet and warming pews for life, keeping their dissent to themselves out of fear. Even now, in communities that are still tightly-controlled by authoritarian Christians, people must step very carefully in expressing any non-conformity.
All the same, those Christians can only retaliate against so many people at once. Their own time and resources have limits. Thus, every single person leaving their ranks represents another point of potential attack.
They’re simply spread too thin to focus on much of anybody, unless it’s someone close to them or extremely high-profile.
And the more people join in that tidal wave of dissent, the easier it’ll be for others to break free.
NEXT UP: Remember how we’ve talked about businesses that trumpet their religious affiliation? We’ve got a couple of those coming up next. If you use this boutique salon haircare line, you might have a surprise in store. See you soon!
Then there’s this odd thought that just came to me: Interestingly, Christian leaders never achieved complete control over the religion’s belief system. Some dissenting doctrines took many centuries to stamp out, like those that became Catharism. Even then, Cathars just kept popping up! But man alive, those leaders achieved almost complete control over dissenting people. I guess that tells us where those leaders’ priorities were, eh? Murdering people is much easier than stopping the signal. (Back to the post.)
About the problem of moving from belief to practice: J.R.R. Tolkien’s work suffers the same flaw. When I helped build and administer a Lord of the Rings-themed online game, we ran into what I viewed as a serious problem. Tolkien’s writing can be quite lovely to read, but he wasn’t trying to create a gameworld. He was creating a mythology. And hooboy, it shows. After reading one writeup, I asked, “Okay, so where are these guys getting their food from? Where are their farmers? Or do endless wagons full of food just roll into that huge city every day? Is that level of self-insufficiency even possible?” Everyone went dead quiet. Eventually someone declared by fiat that it just happened behind the scenes. I wasn’t a Mordor admin, so I checked out of the discussion after that.
I’m not trying to imply I’m ruthlessly realism-based; I’m not at all. Nor is my game design approach automagically superior to anybody else’s. But dang, at least pay lip service to how things work.
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