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For many years, Christians have been trying to convince everyone that human beings have a “god-shaped hole” in their beings that cries out for belief in their particular god to fill it. Today I’ll show you what that saying means, why it’s wrong, and how its latest permutation is working out for one batch of Christians struggling to maintain belief long past the point where it makes no sense at all to keep doing it. Yes, today we’re looking at a new breed of Christians who say they “love God, but not the church.”

Sinkhole ahead!

The God-Shaped Hole.

The “god-shaped hole” is something that many Christians think exists in every person. It is, in essence, that part of a person that is designed to love, obey, and worship the Christian god. Only formal association with the form of Christianity that the individual Christian salesperson thinks are the correct ones will successfully fill that hole.

Nobody’s ever seen this void in the human body, nor measured it, and for that matter quite a few non-Christians would categorically deny that it exists in them at all (including me). Nonetheless, it’s something Christians think is there. It sure wouldn’t be the first thing they thought exists that doesn’t, amirite? Why not add another nonexistent thing on the pile?

Because Christians think every human desperately needs their god’s presence in their lives, it gives them the most incredible license to basically mistreat anybody they please and to go to whatever lengths they desire to sell their product–which, again, they think absolutely everybody wants deep down even if they totally deny it. This notion becomes its own self-fulling prophecy: we don’t think we need it, which is of course the biggest indication that we need it a lot. There is literally no way to convince them that their central premise–that everybody needs their product way lots–is incorrect in every way including the most technical one (which is the most important one, let’s face it).

This idea is a big part of why evangelism-minded Christians never believe us when we tell them that we do not want or need the product they are selling with such ferocity and desperation. They think that even if we don’t realize it, we’re completely empty at our cores and that their product would fix that problem we have that we don’t even recognize: that we are broken, and that they have the thing that would fix us if we only let it.

Further, this idea is why Christians think that non-Christians lead meaningless lives. You see, they think that we’re all consumed with trying to fill this hole in our hearts with everything naughty we can find, but we don’t realize that the only thing that can fill it is their god. We scurry around bed-hopping and shooting up and smoking and dancing and drinking and going to monster-truck rallies in the nightlife, totally unaware that we’ll never ever be complete without their god.

Before you ask: no, they don’t actually realize just how condescending and patronizing they’re being. Also, no, I don’t know of any Bible verses that specifically lay out this idea or support it.

Over at Stack Exchange, someone traces the idea of a god-shaped hole to the 17th century, but it probably existed before then even. It seems like this has always been one of the big selling points of Christianity: Come with us, and you will finally fill that hole in your heart forever and be at peace.

And let’s face it: for a long time, thanks to Christianity’s position of dominance in the Western world and its powers of coercion, that sales pitch largely worked well. Even nowadays, apologists sell this idea as hard as they can to their flocks (who are the only people paying for the stuff apologists write and say, and the only people taking that stuff seriously).

The Edges of the Wound.

As Adam Lee points out, however, the idea of a “god-shaped hole” in human hearts is one of those glurge concepts that Christians don’t realize works against them in purely epic fashion.

By saying that their god can fill whatever emptiness all people feel, these Christians are implicitly declaring that believers should be happier, more contented, and more satisfied with their lives than non-believers are. And we know that is not the case. Hell, most ex-Christians I’ve met would say that though life never really turns into a bowl of cherries for anybody, things tend to markedly improve in a lot of ways once we unshackle our feet from those toxic ideas and impossible instructions.

That said, there are people who do feel a sort of emptiness inside, and who try to relieve that feeling through various means. When someone deconverts from a religion–any religion–there is often this feeling of “well heckies, what now?” that permeates our lives for a little while. For some people that feeling lasts only a moment. For others, it may last for a long time. It’s this feeling of being at a loss to know what to do or how to feel that is the one that Christians mean when they talk about their “god-shaped hole.”

But they are totally wrong about what it actually is and what it means when someone feels that lack.

See, that lack isn’t some inborn need put into us by a narcissistic godling who wanted to ensure that humans would pay him the attention he thought he deserved. Rather, it’s way more likely to be the product of a sharply-honed ages-old marketing scheme.

When we grow up in really religious communities and cultures, we get told that there is this Thing That Fills Us That We Must Receive. The source of this thing varies from group to group, culture to culture, but it’s always, always outside of ourselves. And because we grow up thinking that this thing is always externally-located and granted to us by someone else, we never learn how to get that feeling of fulfillment for ourselves–how to fill our own hearts, how to find our own meaning, how to create our own satisfaction, how to feed our own spirits. We never learn self-reliance. We never figure out how to be our own guru-on-the-mountain. We don’t ever learn to listen to, much less trust, our own inner voice or learn to rely on our own discernment. That’s all stuff we think we get from elsewhere–once we figure out what group to join or doctrines we should believe.

When some religious huckster comes along to say Come with us: we’ll fulfill that need, the marks are ripe for the close. Once they buy into the religion, the group then keeps the new converts nice and busy with all sorts of activities, group meetings, and of course evangelism efforts.

(How busy? Well, when I was Pentecostal as a teen my mom was alarmed by how often I went to church; to her, a lifelong Catholic, church attendance meant once a week. To me, it meant almost every day of the week plus twice on Sunday, plus private devotions daily.)

When we deconvert from religion, even when we weren’t nearly that observant, we suddenly have a lot of time on our hands that we have no idea in the world how to occupy. We know that our previous religious ideas weren’t correct, but now suddenly there’s this lurch of emotion as we wonder what religious ideas might be the right ones out of all the millions in the world. We were taught that everybody believes something, after all, so if not this, then what?

That is how we  discover that this “god-shaped hole” is really much more of a religion-shaped wound. It is raw and open and bleeding, and often it hurts when it’s first torn asunder. Oh, yes, it hurts. No wonder so many folks want to plaster it over with something–anything–as fast as possible.

That’s a big part of why I plunged into other religions after leaving Christianity. Yes, yes, I knew Christianity wasn’t true. I’ve never second-guessed that conclusion (nor had any reason to, more importantly)! But surely something else was. All those people in the world couldn’t be totally wrong, could they? More than that, though, I felt that emptiness inside my heart crying out for something to fill it. I wasn’t used to not having supernatural beliefs; I wasn’t used to not having a time set aside for devotions of some kind. The idea of there simply being nothing in terms of religion didn’t even occur to me–not for a while.

When I finally realized that I didn’t have to be any religion, that I could just be me and figure this life out for myself, and that I did a fine job of it once I listened to my own common sense, I felt like I’d grown wings. It’s the most liberating thing in the world to realize that you are sufficient where you are now to figure this stuff out. Once you know this one thing, you know everything you need to know: whatever it is that you need, whatever emptiness you might feel, the answer to that emptiness lies within you, not outside somewhere to be handed to you.

Nobody  can give you that feeling of completion; nobody can hand it to you and it still matter. You can’t earn it from someone else, not even a god (if one existed). When you get handed what you are told is your completion, it’s as meaningless as a reassuring hug from a stranger–yes, it’s nice for a minute and one can appreciate the sentiment, but it doesn’t fix the problem.

As you can imagine, the very last thing that Christian salespeople want folks to know is that their product is completely, totally superfluous–even detrimental–to achieving a happy, contented, and satisfying life: that people can and do muddle along just fine without Christianity, that whatever positive benefits some Christians find in the religion’s ideas are ones that they could get elsewhere for far less effort, time, money, and drama.

That’s the terrible secret this religion’s salespeople will do anything and everything to obscure. If people figure that truth out, if they realize that the marketing Christians do around their religion is totally bogus, then the religion has, literally, nothing tangible to offer sales marks that they absolutely must join the religion to obtain.

All the religion’s salespeople have at that point is stuff about the afterlife–and sure, some folks will respond to those threats and promises. There’s always some, aren’t there? But most potential customers will vanish once they realize how little this product–Christianity–offers them in the here-and-now that they cannot get elsewhere with less hassle and pain.

Old Wine in New Bottles.

Knowing what I know about the powerful marketing involved in the religion, I’m not surprised at all to see that many Christians are trying to figure out how to stay Christian while at the same time rejecting the worst aspects of the religion.

Even back in college, I heard of people who said they were spiritual but not religious. That phrase was meant to draw a line between man-made religions and honest-to-goodness spiritual relationships with whatever supernatural agents the person using the phrase thought were real. The idea is that people get caught up in mechanical expressions of piety but don’t ever really plunge into the real deal–and thus never fill the need in their hearts for a real and true communion with the supernatural. The people claiming this kind of spirituality are talking about a very idiosyncratic, personalized, eclectic kind of belief system that doesn’t really conform to any formal notions of religion.

Christians use the term man-made religion (or man’s religion) in much the same way–to mean anything except Christianity, and often any other denomination or doctrine except whatever that particular Christian thinks was the right one. Often, too, they’ll accuse ex-Christians of having been led astray by following one of these man-made religions instead of finding a church that offers real and true Christianity (like, um, theirs, obvs).

You will never hear a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ assert that whatever they happen to believe and whatever group they happen to belong to is a man-made religion, but you’ll soon notice a certain–shall we say–subjective element to any particular Christian’s take on what is and isn’t man-made religion. The term means exactly what they wish it to mean, no more and no less, and they deploy it whenever they’re trying to assert their own superiority over whatever form of Christianity anybody else follows. Whatever they’re doing is the real deal; whatever anybody else follows isn’t, and whatever an ex-Christian believed and followed definitely isn’t–which the TRUE CHRISTIAN­™ knows because that person deconverted.

Often people use these terms to mean that they’re wayyyyyy better than all those sheeple following-the-leader in formal religious groups: Oh, that’s well and fine for all of those drones, but I’m too special to fall into line with that! I’ve got my own thing that I like to do. You wouldn’t understand.

Every few years, some Christian reinvents the idea of being spiritual but not religious to sell a new kind of hipster Christianity that assures its purchasers that it will really fulfill all those promises that the religion makes but cannot keep. None of their sellers or purchasers seem to notice that if their religion did one-tenth of what it promises, nobody’d need to keep reinventing it to come up with some new OMG NEW FRESH flavor that actually manages the trick this time.

A few years ago, a young Christian named Jefferson Bethke came out with a YouTube video about how he hated religion, but loved Jesus. Opening with “Jesus > Religion,” Mr. Bethke insisted that Jesus “came to abolish religion” and that religion had failed the world in various ways by starting wars, failing to help the poor, and never getting “to the core.” That core is the god-shaped hole that Christians imagine everyone has, if you’re wondering; the belief is so endemic and so baked into Christianity that he never actually defined what the word “core” referred to–nor did he need to do so.

His video was just a lot of blahblah straight from the blahblah factory, as I pointed out a while ago, but Christians ate that deepity-derpity two-faced horseshit UP. He’s sitting at 32 million views on that video currently; he used it to build a viewership that propelled him into a position as a leader of this new-but-not-really flavor of Christianity. All he was offering was a new spin on being more hardcore-than-thou, a new way of viewing oneself as oh-so-much-more-spiritual than all those other Christians, but it was about the right time for a new reinvention of the idea. Scratch down into what he was saying, and one discovered quickly that he wasn’t much different from any other Calvinist-leaning fundagelical. But oh, he promised to fill the hole at last–so Christians responded to him with open arms!

Christian memories aren’t that long, I’ve noticed.

Three years later, we’ve got a new official spin on it: Christians who love Jesus, but not the church.

New and Improved!

A few months ago, Barna Group released a survey about Christians who “love Jesus, but not the Church.” By this they meant Christians who had detached themselves from formal church membership, but still considered themselves very fervent Christians. They still think affectionately of Jesus and try to obey what they perceive as his commandments, but they’re no longer part of church culture.

When young people withdraw from church association and affiliation, often they disengage from the religion itself–meaning that they also stop doing all that Christian stuff like prayer and Bible study–and more importantly to Christian leaders, tithing. They might call themselves Christian still, and they might kinda believe some of the religion’s teachings at least in the abstract, but they’re functionally not Christian anymore.

The people falling into this new kind of detachment, however, still thought of themselves as very strong Christians. They’d just stopped affiliating with churches and church culture–and had largely signed out of the culture wars. They were also usually older folks–between 33 and 70–with very few Millennials represented. They still believe most of the stuff that Christian leaders think everybody should believe, leading Barna to call them “orthodox” (that’s a Christianese term for a Christian who believes pretty much what a fundagelical thinks they should believe; it has nothing to do with any formal Orthodox denominations).

They express their spirituality in other ways–through private prayer, spending time in nature, meditating or journaling, doing yoga, and the like. They don’t attend church or go on religious retreats and are far less likely than practicing Christians to talk to their friends about spiritual things or read books about the topic.

Barna’s been tracking people who use this phrase to describe themselves, and they’ve found that the number of people using it has grown in the last few years–and all indications are that this subgroup of Christians will only continue to grow.

As you can imagine, the whole notion of loving Jesus but not the Church makes fundagelicals hopping mad. Nobody’s allowed to do Christianity except the way they like it–or else those people just don’t love Jesus at all! Not like they do as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ for sure!

Who’s In, Who’s Out.

What interested me about this report, however, were the demographics of people that Barna discovered belonged to this new flavor of Christianity. There’s a distinct trend I see in who ends up in this subcategory and who simply exits the religion altogether. And I #hate #donthate to tell Barna this, but that trend doesn’t say many good things about their religion or its future, especially if the percentage of Christians heading that way is growing.

Barna discovered that most of the people in the love Jesus but not the church category were women, middle-aged to elderly, and located in the Midwest and Southern United States. Most of them are white, and a very respectable percentage of them identify as Democrats politically. They also tend to be more inclusive of other religions and denominations than practicing Christians are.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing here?

These are people who rillyrillyrilly want to be Christian, but they don’t want to tangle with the broken system of American Christianity as a whole. They don’t want to be a formal part of it, but they also can’t bring themselves to simply leave.

Are we really that surprised to hear that the most Christian-dominated demographic groups and areas are the ones seeing the most of these newfangled Christians? Is it really surprising that the groups that are least served by churches as a community focus are the ones most likely to check out of the culture? Or that Christians who are very likely attacked for their political views might want to distance themselves from their “loving” church families?

House of Cards.

The immediate response from Christians tends to be that Bad Christians hurt these poor little lambs and made them flee man-made religion. I saw plenty of that on that one John Pavlovitz post I linked y’all to last time. But Barna, as evangelical-leaning as they are, acknowledges that that probably isn’t the most accurate way to read their data. Instead, their editor-in-chief tells us that past studies have shown Barna’s researchers that

Christians who do not attend church say it’s primarily not out of wounding, but because they can find God elsewhere or that church is not personally relevant to them. The critical message that churches need to offer this group is a reason for churches to exist at all.

That kinda is the problem, isn’t it, though? She goes on to insist that “there is a unique way you can find God only in church. And that faith does not survive or thrive in solitude.” To which I reply:

citation needed glitter

That whole notion is pure wishful thinking on her part, and it’s based on the false teaching of the god-shaped hole. Christians like her imagine that yes, there’s this awesome and incredible thing that people can only get if they join up and buy the product and keep buying it, but millions upon millions of people are inching their way out of the tribe and discovering that no, actually, that’s totally not true.

As the so-called Internet Monk discovered five years ago, there just isn’t a god-shaped hole in people these days. People who aren’t indoctrinated into Christianity tend to think it’s completely irrelevant; they don’t care about religion, don’t think any of it sounds relevant, and have no interest at all in joining a religion that they increasingly view as hostile to human progress and individual freedoms.

But at the end of that post, which otherwise was excellent, even the Internet Monk plunged into CITATION NEEDED territory because as clearly as he saw the problem, even he couldn’t deal with the idea of his religion being that completely unnecessary and irrelevant. (I seriously thought that the last few paragraphs were literally pasted in by Al Mohler or something, they were so out of left field! But the guy behind that blog sounds like he was actually a solid Calvinist-leaning fundagelical so it’s not that surprising. Huh, howzabout that, so was that “Jesus > religion” dude….)

Yes, that Christian blogger insisted, people these days don’t feel that they have any real need for his religion. They don’t feel that god-shaped hole. But but but but it’s toooooootally there anyway! They just don’t realize it’s there because SIN!

And he thought he was one of the Christians who totally gets it, too. Sheesh.

As the Internet Monk’s example shows us, as Barna’s editor-in-chief accidentally reveals, no matter how much a Christian gets it, no matter how clearly they might see the problem, no matter how understanding they might be, if they buy into this erroneous teaching of the god-shaped hole then they absolutely will end up in the weeds with their conclusions.

Christians like that think that no matter how it might seem otherwise, their religion is totally necessary and totally required, and that it provides people something that they simply can never get anywhere else. That teaching has no basis in reality, for either Christians or non-Christians. None. If Christians are to offer people anything to induce them to purchase their product, then they will need to offer something based in reality, something tangible, something real, something people can’t more easily get elsewhere.

The fact that they never do speaks volumes to me.

The fact that generally speaking their go-to response is to shame and blame people for even having such an expectation (of a religion headed by a real live god who totally meddles in reality all the time in totally tangible ways–just not where anybody can see, hear, or measure it!) speaks even more loudly to me.

I hope that these new Christians who love Jesus but not the Church realize at some point that they don’t need the name or the trappings of the religion. I’m sure that they will as our culture further secularizes. The lower the penalty gets for rejecting this religion, the more people will reject it entirely.

It’ll be interesting to see if Christian leaders manage to come up with a reality-based tangible reason for people to join their religion or to stay in it. I don’t think they can.

See you next time! I think we’re about ready for a review post, don’t you? See you then! I’ll announce the flick and the booze selection on the next LSP… <3

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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,...