This past month I’ve amused myself (and hopefully y’all!) by writing about various Christians who are convinced that they know why their religion is failing and what ought to be done about it. We’ve focused mostly on evangelicals and Catholics in our quest to see just how self-deceived Christians can get about the state of their religion. But today we’ve got a progressive Christian who’s here to give us the real skinny about just what’s wrong and just what has to happen to fix everything. I’ll spoiler this thing now by telling y’all that he’s wrong, just in a different direction than we normally see.
In essence, we’re seeing a Christian here who lacks situational awareness. That’s a military term that means living in reality, making plans that reflect reality, drawing upon the real strengths of one’s teammates, and adjusting plans as new facts come to light or things go seriously pear-shaped.
(As always, all quotes come directly from the noted source material–no scare quotes are used.)
Everyone, Meet Christian Piatt.
Christian Piatt is a young, hip, progressive Christian who writes and does podcasts that are apparently at least partially aimed at non-progressive Christians. He’s been blogging with the Progressive Christian channel here on Patheos for a while. He’s also the author of various books seeking to teach his fellow Christians how to be nice people, since “Jesus” sure isn’t doing anything in that department (one of these, postChristian: What’s Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?, is indicative of his oeuvre). He also contributes to Red Letter Christians and some other similar groups.
I think I’ve mentioned this guy at least obliquely in the past. He doesn’t seem that bad, though he often doesn’t understand his own privilege as a Christian in American society and he’s entirely too optimistic about his religion’s future. One viral post of his I read years ago advised his tribemates how to treat people compassionately and decently. His advice was called “Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use,” which you might have heard of; it seemed to travel everywhere at the time. The post turned out to be so incredibly popular he went on to write a couple more posts along similar lines, about other terrible things Christians say and do that they really should stop doing immediately because it was wrecking their credibility and their sales numbers.
The response of Christians to those viral posts was sadly predictable; the ones who got his point already knew that stuff, while the ones who really needed to see it had a million excuses for why they absolutely had to keep mistreating people. And no small number of pickup-artist Christians took it as an instruction manual for how to trick their sales marks into relaxing their guard. That’s been about the extent of his impact on the religion through his career.
Given his social-justice leanings and inclusiveness, his rejection of the inerrancy/literalism party line, and his lack of interest in controlling people’s lives, most fundagelicals and hardcore Catholics would consider Christian Piatt deeply heretical, to the point where he’s written a post about exactly why he’s a Christian at all–and the comments to his post are also sadly predictable. Even though he states firmly that he’s literally heard all the fundagelical talking points by now and rejected them, fundagelicals gotta fundagelical.
So overall, he seems like a likeable enough young man and it’s obvious that he’s trying very hard to bring his more toxic bunkmates up to a standard they are bitterly resisting every step of the way. He simply suffers from the same shortcomings that so many of his progressive peers suffer from: an inability to see his religion and his religious peers the way that many of the rest of us see them.
Today’s post, therefore, isn’t actually a slam or anything on him; I suspect that we agree with him about a lot more than we disagree about (his criticism of how much power his religion’s leaders get is spot-on, though he doesn’t seem to understand why his religion’s entire social system seems to lend itself so well to authoritarianism and unlimited power for its leaders). I’m not criticizing him as a person. Instead, think of this post as an exercise in critical thinking.
What we’re seeing here is simply what it looks like when someone lacks situational awareness and doesn’t have the capacity for double-checking their perceptions against reality.
The “Basic Reasons.”
Today’s essay is called “The Real Reason Christianity is Still in Decline.” Mr. Piatt wrote this post in 2015, not long after that Religious Landscape Study was released that showed Christianity in such a steep nosedive. I briefly checked his written materials since then and haven’t seen anything else on the topic of Christianity’s decline, so I’m assuming this is still how he feels about the matter.
First he dispenses with what he calls “the basic reasons,” which I suspect means the reasons that Christians typically think of and reach for when they finally come face-to-face with that decline. These include:
- People are too busy for religion nowadays.
- People have cars and are used to driving everywhere they want to go.
- There’s “less social stigma about not going to church.”
- People just don’t trust Christians anymore.
And this is a very curious list. He dismisses them as not being the real reason that people are leaving Christian groups and churches, but let’s look at them first.
The first three reasons he gives as “basic reasons” boil down to people recognizing that the former coercion that compelled them to attend church is no longer quite as powerful a force as it was once. People are rarely “too busy” for something that’s really important to them. They make time for stuff that they value and cherish. If they’re not making time, then they’re saying that they are prioritizing that thing way lower than stuff they value more highly.
The last reason–Christians’ loss of credibility and trust in the public eye–almost flutters into view in his mental model of reality, but because of its position in the “basic reasons” list it’s clear that he doesn’t think it’s the real reason for his religion’s downfall. Rather, the inclusion of this glaring off-note in his list is more of a sign that he edged up to the ledge of understanding and then skittered away from it.
They’re Just Not That Into You, Christianity.
He’s talking about people re-prioritizing their lives in his first three “basic reasons.” If you’ve ever heard about that old standby brush-off “I can’t accept a date for that evening–I’m washing my hair then,” then you probably immediately realized that it’s actually a serious insult (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!). The woman saying it isn’t just rejecting a date; she’s also declaring that a paid night out with this potential suitor means less to her than taking care of a routine hygiene task. Granted, in the age when the brush-off was invented that task was considerably more time-consuming than it is now, but still, nobody even then was uncertain about exactly what was meant by the rejection. Christian Piatt is hearing the exact same brush-off now with regards to his religion, but he’s not seeing it for the statement about priorities that it really is.
The fact that Americans (he’s only talking about Americans in this post, I’m pretty sure) can get in cars and drive pretty much anywhere only adds to the brush-off nature and full extent of their rejection of church.
As a teenager, I had no car. Getting one at 16 was by no means a guarantee in my culture (only really wealthy kids got one, in the mid-80s–and it’d probably be a total beater); I didn’t own one until just before my sophomore year of college. So yes, getting transportation to church was a big concern for me. I couldn’t just hop in a car and drive to whatever church I wanted to attend. I had to find friends who not only lived in my area but also attended the same church. That wasn’t always a sure thing. Because church was important to me at the time, I found a way. I figured it out, just like my friends did when they really wanted to get somewhere but didn’t have a car.
I’ve gone even further in the past to get to church. As a child, I dragged my kid sister out of bed and forced us to walk what had to be a couple of miles down the road to our little Catholic church in Northern California. It was always freezing cold even in the summer, in my memory, but I rousted her out of bed every Sunday morning without fail. We went to church without our parents, who slept in on the weekends and had only one rule while they were sleeping: don’t for the love of orange kittens ever wake them up. Set the house on fire, fine. Stay up till 5am watching animated movies way above our age level, fine. Invite 100 friends over, fine. Just don’t wake them up. (I’m not saying this was awesome parenting, just how things worked.) And I followed that rule and still went to church and strong-armed my sister into attending church because it was important to me that we attend church.
People go to trouble for stuff that is important to them. The more important that stuff is, the more trouble they’ll go to over it. Conversely: the less important something is to someone, the less trouble they’ll go to over it.
Increasing numbers of people are just not going to particular pains to do Christian stuff anymore, is all. And this writer we’re looking at today, Christian Piatt, kinda knows this. He reveals as much when he notes the lowered social stigma associated with withdrawal from church attendance. I wonder how comfortable he is with the notion that this social stigma is literally the only thing that kept his religion’s dominance alive for the time it had it–and that the tidal wave of disengagements and deconversions* we’re seeing now almost certainly would have begun much earlier if people had felt free to accept or reject his religion’s “good news.”
A Catastrophic Loss of Credibility and Trust.
His fourth “basic reason” is “folks just don’t trust us.” And if you got the same mental record-scratch noise in your head that I did when I saw that, well, your situational awareness is better than Christian Piatt’s.
He equates all of the “basic reasons” with hypocrisy–with Christians not “practicing what they preach.” In the next section he goes on to develop this idea further by plaintively asking why Christians pretend to be perfect when they obviously aren’t. But the first three of his “basic reasons” are about people feeling less forced to participate in Christian showboating and being more free to reject the religion. They’re about people re-prioritizing their lives to reflect what they really enjoy doing and what they really find more meaningful than doing Christian stuff.
That fourth “basic reason” has only a tangential link to the first three, but it’s obviously the one he really wants to discuss in his post. He writes regarding the corruption in the upper ranks of Christian leadership,
The bigger problem is honesty.
I’m not just talking about leaders lying about their transgressions. I mean that all Christians, as a whole, have a tendency to promote a false veneer of flawlessness to the world, as if somehow once you are a Christian, your hair is perennially straight, teeth are white, and your bodily functions magically smell like roses.
He goes on to laud the honesty of the totally hip-and-happenin’ Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber for declaring to new members of her small church that yeah, sooner or later either she or the church’s membership itself will disappoint those new folks and she wants everyone to be totally aware of that up-front. He clearly thinks that her example is one that all Christian leaders should follow.
And here’s where a full understanding of reality would have come in handy for him.
A Foolproof (Broken) System.
What Mr. Piatt is doing here is criticizing his fellow Christians for not being totally honest about their shortcomings. And he’s right: they’re not. Every one of us who were Christian probably lied about something to someone. And those of us who were never Christian probably encountered plenty of that same dishonesty in Christians. The religion itself promotes that kind of dishonesty and firmly punishes those who try to be more authentic and honest–while richly rewarding people who are obviously lying to themselves and others. Christian Piatt isn’t saying anything new when he brings up this dishonesty.
His goal is to convince Christians to be more honest about their shortcomings so that their god’s supposed divine grace can flow through them to heal those shortcomings. He wants them to reveal their deep need for a cosmic handyman to come in and fix them to make them seem more authentic to non-Christians. He thinks that if Christians are more honest about their flaws and struggles, that’ll make their sales marks trust them more and maybe purchase his product to get this divine healing/fixing for themselves. He thinks that his tribemates are so busy pretending they’re perfect to impress and gain admiration from their sales marks that they sacrifice their main sales pitch of absolutely needing a supernatural friend to make them better and to save them from themselves.
He ends with a flourish about how it’s soooo much more important to be trusted than to be admired. Hooray Team Jesus!
But he’s criticizing the wrong people for the wrong reasons–and the cause of the problem isn’t even vaguely related to what is actually happening.
How This Could Have Gone (But Didn’t).
When we look at Christian dishonesty, we first have to understand that this dishonesty is baked right into the system of the religion. Even really nice Christians get taught from earliest childhood that sales–ie, conversions of others–matter more than anything in the world. Mistreating others, being blatantly dishonest, whatever they’ve got to do to “save” people from an eternity in Hell is A-OK–even laudable.
So yes, absolutely. Most Christians will lie at the drop of a hat if they think it’s for a greater good.
But the place to lay criticism is not at their feet; it’s at the feet of the architects of their broken system. In other words, Christian Piatt’s hating on the players when he should be hating on the game.
You can see the exact same mechanism at work with people who criticize women for spending too much time on their appearance–rather than criticizing a social system that penalizes women for both spending too much time and not spending enough time on their appearance. In the same way, women get criticized for not explaining themselves fully when they reject a man’s attention–but then they are penalized doubly when they actually do make that attempt because their reasons are never acceptable to the men they’re rejecting.
In this case, Christian Piatt is demanding that his tribemates be strictly honest about their flaws–but he’s not dismantling the system that leads to that urge to be dishonest. Indeed, he cannot dismantle it; he doesn’t have the power in the religion to change anything about its overarching flaws. The Christians who are not honest already about those things will be hugely penalized by their peers because this honesty is seen as interfering with sales.
Further, Christians are taught to be dishonest about how happy they are in their groups–and how well their membership in that group is turning out for them. More than simple belief in Christianity’s various supernatural claims, Christians are selling membership in their groups. If they present those groups as they really are, in all their petty, backbiting, vindictive, mean-spirited glory, then nobody’s going to want to join! No matter how dysfunctional and toxic a group is, the Christians in it will downplay its flaws and invent virtues if they must in order to make the group look so great that anybody sensible would want to join it. And they will viciously suppress the few Christians who make those groups look any different. Once those new members are through the doors and have taken the plunge into the group and the religion (literally and figuratively), the group has a variety of tactics at hand to try to keep those people firmly planted in the pews. The ends, these group members are taught, always justify the means.
So the Christians who are honest already aren’t making a lot of sales, but they’re not part of groups that police sales as hard as the others do. They have the freedom to be more honest. Just as we find in multi-level marketing scams, the more sales-oriented a Christian group is, the more dishonesty you’re going to find in its members.
The Ultimate Threat.
The reason that sales-minded Christians can’t let go of dishonesty is that they are almost all terrified of Hell–and if they are among the few who don’t fear Hell, then they are grabbing for power over others and know that this terrifying threat is an easy way to achieve their goal. Fear and greed lie at the blackened heart of Christianity–and always have. That’s why coercion has always been a major part of Christian culture, and why so many Christians today can’t let go of their desire to use coercion. Oh, they’re happy to try the lovey-dovey stuff first, by pushing the image of Jesus as this gentle and meek shepherd who only wants to lurrrrrrve his sheep and gosh won’t you just let him into your heart to help you withstand the stuff he’ll do/allow to happen if you don’t let him in, but if that attempt fails then they know there’s a much bigger–and more effective–gun they can haul out.
Coercion works, and it works grandly. It always has. That’s exactly why so many Christians are happy to use it as a tool against others. It’s only begun to fail in the last couple of decades–and there are still plenty of people who aren’t wise to this form of Christian salesmanship.
That is why Christian leaders have not managed to produce a single bit of credible evidence through the entire run of their religion for their various claims–both supernatural and non-supernatural. If anything in their religion were true, they’d be able to do that–or would be hard at work on it. Instead, they’ve spent their time honing their threats, nonsensical apologetics, and come-ons to scare, bamboozle, and entice the people they’ve marked as sales prospects. If someone has coercion, they literally don’t need a good and valid selling point. They’ve already got something more powerful. And it overshadows anything else that these salespeople could use to persuade others.
As a progressive Christian, Christian Piatt probably doesn’t believe in a literal Hell. Most of that lot don’t. The ones who do generally err on the side of compassion in discussing the idea, defanging it as a threat as much as they can. That’s largely why so many of their more conventional peers are so angered by what progressive/emergent Christians are saying: they know that without the threat of Hell, most of their sales tactics suddenly don’t work at all.
You Always Knew I Was Awful.
Something that really bugged me about Christian Piatt’s post about the “real reason Christianity is still in decline” is his assertion that it’s a great idea to warn people up-front about how flawed and terrible Christians are so that they won’t leave when they see those flaws. The pastor he admires so much, Nadia Bolz Weber, tells her congregants that they should “stick around” when they’ve been deeply disappointed in her or the church itself so they don’t “miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. It’s too beautiful to miss.”
I’ve got a really great idea: how about creating a social system that isn’t so reliable about producing “brokenness?” And how about defining what it means for their god’s activities when this “brokenness” occurs?
Christians can be absolutely terrible people. Some of them are really nice, but most are not anywhere close to living up to the ideals they say they want to cultivate in themselves. Overall, it’s a very fair observation to make that Christianity seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the creation of good people or harmonious groups. If anything, it seems to make decent people worse and to create and foster dysfunction in groups. At its best, one could say that it is totally superfluous.
The obvious solution for Christians worried about their image is to fix their group’s problems first, then to go sell the group to others. But for some reason that doesn’t ever occur to a single Christian in the religion–not even the nice ones like this fellow. They’re trying to sell membership in groups that anybody with perception could tell is struggling even to live up to a basic standard of morality and decency toward others.
It really reminds me of those gaslighting jerks who tell potential romantic partners about all their flaws, so that later, when those flaws become too glaring to ignore, they can get mad at their partners because they knew about those flaws to begin with and apparently consented to enduring them forever without comment. If someone knows they have flaws, the thing to do is address them like an adult–not to use them as permission slips to act out.
I’m not even going to get into how preposterous the idea of “God’s grace” is and how no Christian ever really defines it–or “brokenness” for that matter–in a satisfactory way. This concept is simply one of the many, many nebulous and poorly-defined ideas in Christianity that sound great but are never explained. If by this term Christian Piatt and his pastor friend mean the natural generosity of people and their tendency to forgive errors and overlook flaws for various reasons, well, that’s sure not uniquely Christian. That’s part of what good friends and solid groups do anyway–no matter what their ideology is or what common interest binds them together. I suspect very strongly that if he could actually define exactly what he means here, he’d stumble into the truth. But he’s content to use these common Christianese thought-stoppers.
In essence, he’s not saying anything different from “We’re not perfect, just forgiven.”
And that’s unacceptable.
Cause and Effect.
Christian Piatt is setting up an if-then statement in his post as well, and his lack of situational awareness has caused him not to notice that statement or to test it. If we can’t or won’t test our ideas, we’re not going to get a clear picture of reality and we’re not going to be able to adapt our plans to that reality–or recover from inevitable failures.
His statement could be worded this way: If Christians are perfectly honest about all of their flaws and struggles, then more non-Christians will buy the product Christians are selling.
He’s assuming that his tribe’s inability to be honest about those flaws and struggles is the cause of their declining membership.
But it’s not.
He’s also hypothesizing that honesty about those flaws and struggles will halt that decline.
But it won’t.
I cannot recall one single deconversion story that ever involved dishonesty about flaws and struggles as a tipping point for anyone deconverting. Nor can I remember honesty about flaws and struggles as a tipping point for anyone entering the religion. He’s speaking here against the Jesus Aura myth: the idea that non-Christians are so blinded by Christians’ connection to their god and their general sanctification that obviously they’ll want the same connection and sanctification for themselves.
Putting the Cart Before the Honey Badger.
Hypocrisy itself does tip people into doubts, since a big part of Christian culture and salesmanship is the creation and promotion of myths about how much better Christians are than non-Christians. I literally ran into a guy on a comment box yesterday who’d just stumbled into a major realization about his religious tribemates that he could no longer ignore or downplay. But I really can’t remember anybody saying that dishonesty about hypocrisy was some kind of huge problem.
For a start, we may just be too used to Christian dishonesty to be concerned about that specific form of dishonesty. We don’t expect used-car salesmen or politicians to be totally honest about anything they’re pushing, after all, and most of us are well aware that Christians will say and do anything to close a sale.
Second, most people are well aware that Christians’ Jesus Aura is a myth. We’re far too familiar with Christian hypocrisy to buy the idea that Christians have easier lives, that they’re happier, that they’re better-adjusted, or that they’ve got their lives more figured out. If they were suddenly totally honest about all of those things, it’d be nice, but it wouldn’t make us believe their various supernatural claims.
But third and most importantly, the decline that Christianity is experiencing in America isn’t going to be solved by Christians being honest about their flaws. People are leaving Christianity because it doesn’t offer them nearly enough benefits for the demands it makes on their time and resources. They’re leaving because they figured out Christianity makes a lot of false claims, and they don’t want to be in Christian groups if the claims undergirding the religion aren’t even true.
The decline will be halted if Christian leaders can find something to offer potential customers that makes their demands an acceptable burden. They’re never going to make true supernatural claims; they can’t. No religion ever could. The smart ones avoid even going there (and yes, there are some smart ones out there). There’s no evidence that anything supernatural even exists, much less anything supernatural that’s specifically Christian. So instead, Christians are going to have to focus on making their groups so attractive that they’re worth joining.
The problem is, that’s not going to happen.
Most Christian leaders seem to be totally indignant over the idea that they even need to find something to offer potential customers. They act like they’re entitled to congregations’ time and resources, like if they build it, believers will come. They’re still ruling like lords rather than behaving like salespeople, deciding from their positions on high whether or not those congregants will be allowed to leave–and what circumstances constitute an acceptable reason to leave. They aren’t thinking like people who are operating in a free market; they’re thinking like people who own monopolies. That’s a big part of why Christianity is so broken as a system.
Without dismantling that broken system, Christian Piatt can’t change his tribe’s inherent dishonesty–or reverse his religion’s steep decline. But he can’t see that–yet. He isn’t situationally aware of his environment enough to see it. And so he’s offering a solution in search of a problem–and it will fail. Only by engaging with reality could Christianity be saved, but that’s the one thing that most of its followers can’t do.
We’re going to talk some more about situational awareness next–how to get it, how to keep it, and how to avoid falling out of it. This is Life After Deconversion 101! Keep that PDF link about it handy, because we’re circling back to it–see you then!
Disengagement is a term religion researchers use to describe someone pulling away from Christianity and its various observances. Someone disengaged isn’t always deconverted–they’re just not doing Christian stuff anymore. They’re not praying, going to church, talking about religion with their pals, or studying the Bible in that way that only religious people do. A deconversion, of course, is what happens when someone totally rejects the religion. Some deconverted people still attend church for a variety of reasons, so they’re not fully disengaged (yet).