We’ve been talking lately about how, when Christians write about non-Christians, they often end up with a picture that doesn’t look terribly familiar to us–but which looks remarkably like the image of us that Christian culture paints. Today I want to dissect that picture.
Atheists Are Just Like Bags of Sand.
Neil Carter wrote a while ago about how Christians tend to misrepresent atheism and atheists in the same standard ways. He compared their misunderstanding to how a virginal guy in a certain movie described a particular part of a woman’s body in a way that made it painfully obvious that he had never actually encountered a naked woman. Neil concludes of the many Christians claiming to have once been atheists:
The perspectives they’re portraying [of atheism] sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard an atheist say. On the other hand, the stuff they say sounds a lot like what preachers and evangelists say about atheists. . .
In the same way, when Christians portray non-Christian people, the image they end up with doesn’t look very familiar to us. Thom Rainer claims to be presenting his tribe with a list of assertions he’s heard from non-Christians over the years.
As we shall see, however, his ideas about non-Christians don’t bear much resemblance to what we’re like. They do, however, however, look exactly like what his tribe says we’re like.
Thom Rainer originally published this list of assertions in 2012. If you take a peek at the original post, you’ll even see a very familiar name in his comments! We’ve mentioned this list off and on over the years in various discussions because it’s just so egregiously bad, but despite the pushback he got even back then, he hasn’t backed down one inch (any more than any other apologist would). He recently republished the list on another site he blogs on and Hemant Mehta picked it up from there.
The new post doesn’t bear a date, but since all of the comments are from mid-June or so, I’m guessing this was very recently done. We’re not exactly off to a good start here. I hope this new site wasn’t paying Mr. Rainer to produce new content!
Mr. Rainer asserts that he and his researchers “have interviewed thousands of unchurched non-Christians” who have “shared with me their perspectives of Christians.”
He does not note what methods he used to find his respondents, or what the purpose of the interviews was, or what questions he asked.
He doesn’t define terms like “unchurched,” either. It’s possible he simply means “people who are not currently an active part of any church,” but since he doesn’t say so, one cannot take this term for granted. He follows it with “non-Christians,” but as Neil’s noted, that term could literally mean absolutely anything to a fundagelical.
And that vagueness might well be deliberate.
His tribe doesn’t question or care about where he found these supposed non-Christians, going by their comments, but this omission is a glaring oversight that non-believers picked up on very quickly in both postings. I think it’s interesting that his tribe doesn’t care for the exact same reason that we do: because Mr. Rainer is basing his suggestions for future behavior based on these erroneous ideas.
So let’s look at his list.
Thom Rainer organizes his list by the frequency of the comments he says he’s most often heard from “unchurched non-Christians.” He also claims that each quote he gives after each numbered item (which I’ve blockquoted for your convenience) was actually word-for-word something that one of these respondents actually said. Now, granted, it’s as impossible to generalize all non-Christians as it is to generalize all Christians. But he’s presenting this list’s ideas as ones he’s heard repeatedly and frequently from thousands of people, enough that he is offering them as proof to his tribe that their evangelism is needed and appreciated, so I feel qualified to respond to that list as someone who’s known many, many non-Christians from a large number of faiths, philosophies, and traditions.
He paints a portrait of non-believers with this list. Shall we see how much it looks like us?
“1. Christians are against more things than they are for.”
“It just seems to me that Christians are mad at the world and mad at each other. They are so negative that they seem unhappy. I have no desire to be like them and stay upset all the time.”
I’d agree with this, but only in part. I know that most people who’ve discussed this list just sign off on this first item without comment, saying that yes, they totally think that Christians are, in general, deeply negative and unhappy people and yes, that they can be most visibly and easily defined by their opposition to social progress on a number of fronts, and I agree with both opinions. But there’s an important second component here that I haven’t seen many people talk about: that bit about having “no desire to be like them.”
It’s not clear what he means by that phrase. It’s possible he means “like them in attitude,” but it’s equally possible that he means “like them in belief.” Given the nature of this entire post, the latter interpretation makes more sense for his purposes. Read that way, he’s issuing a subtle rebuke to Bad Christians, who TRUE CHRISTIANS™ imagine are driving curious non-Christians away from the loving arms of Jesus. “Be more positive,” he seems to be telling them, “so you can evangelize better!”
Verdict: A mixed bag. I don’t see non-Christians expressing themselves in this way or saying that Christians’ attitudes are the main reason they don’t go to church and convert/reconvert. But I’ve heard lots of people talk about Christians’ opposition to social-justice causes and their general negativity and unhappiness.
“2. I would like to develop a friendship with a Christian.”
“I’m really interested in what they believe and how they carry out their beliefs. I wish I could find a Christian that would be willing to spend some time with me.”
Feel free to pick your jaw up off the floor.
I’m curious about why he thinks that non-Christians are this wistful and sad about not having Christian friends, or this mystified about “how they carry out their beliefs,” or this confused about where on earth to find any of them.
Though they are experiencing unprecedented losses in membership, Christianity is still the dominant religion in America. It’s rare for me to go an entire week without having a couple of them ringing my doorbell. Hell, I’ve got friends who can’t even go to a coffee-shop in their towns without encountering an earnest group of Christians loudly “doing fellowship.” It must be the rare poppet indeed who simply has no idea how to “find a Christian.”
Further, if the most frequent comment is about how angry and negative Christians are, why would the second-most-frequent comment be about how difficult it is to locate an eager-to-proselytize Christian? No, this sure sounds like a subtle dogwhistle to Christians to be louder about their beliefs and practices and to drill down harder on evangelism.
Verdict: Only fundagelicals imagine that they’re this alluring to non-Christians.
“3. I would like to learn about the Bible from a Christian.”
“The Bible really fascinates me, but I don’t want to go to a stuffy and legalistic church to learn about it. It would be nice if a Christian invited me to study the Bible in his home or at a place like Starbucks.”
And a bunch of people just asked: “What’s ‘legalism’?”
The main problem with this supposed quote is that I’ve literally never heard a non-Christian use words like “stuffy” and “legalistic” to describe a church. Both words are Christianese, and they are used by fundagelicals to describe a very particular sort of church–one that is more staid, rigid, negative in tone, rules-oriented, and judgmental than the speaker feels is appropriate. Thom Rainer knows that people think really strict Christian groups are weird–and he also knows that selling a product is easier in a less formal setting. That’s all that’s going on here.
I also should note that I don’t know any non-Christians who would ever say that the Bible “fascinates” them. The Bible has some pretty bits, but mostly it’s just another very old collection of myths and stories: some are pretty, some are barbaric and brutal, and many are confusing and boring. Only Christians think it’s magically delicious. Non-believers might have so little admiration for the Bible because we know it, and its history, considerably better than most Christians do. If we wanted to learn about it, the last people we’d ask would be fundagelicals.
Verdict: I don’t believe either the sentiment or the quote ever happened. It’s almost laughable that Christians would ever believe we’re like that. The opposite is closer to the truth.
“4. I don’t see much difference in the way Christians live compared to others.”
I really can’t tell what a Christian believes because he doesn’t seem much different than other people I know. The only exception would be Mormons. They really seem to take their beliefs seriously.
It is extremely rare for anybody outside of Christianity to speak so admiringly of ideal Christians. I know that Christian folklore-forwarders like to imagine that we all stand in awe of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and their blindingly-bright TRUE CHRISTIAN™ auras, but we really don’t. What they define as “taking their beliefs seriously,” we call just being a decent person. Unless you’re stupendous, you don’t get cookies for just being a decent person.*
It’d be nice if more Christians weren’t stone-cold hypocrites, yes. But we’re not mystified about what Christians think or believe just because so few of them measure up to their own expectations. Thom Rainer is making another dig at his tribe here because he knows that Christians’ hypocrisy undercuts a lot of their supernatural claims. Most non-believers know that someone’s religious label has nothing to do with how good they are as people, so when they do encounter someone stupendously good, they may already associate other lifestyles with that goodness (to hilarious effect!).
Verdict: The general sentiment is definitely true, but the flavor quote sounds really iffy–though I’ve heard some Christians speak admiringly of Mormons. My aunt (a nun) was really impressed with them once upon a time.
“5. I wish I could learn to be a better husband/wife/dad/mom, etc., from a Christian.”
“My wife is threatening to divorce me, and I think she means it this time. My neighbor is a Christian, and he seems to have it together. I am swallowing my pride and asking him to help me.”
I laughed out loud at this point. Yes, we’re all just so mystified about how Christians can possibly have such wonderful marriages and such great family lives that we’re all wondering what their secrets are.
If any Christians have made the signal mistake of buying this quote as something that anybody outside their tribe has ever once thought in the history of forever, please allow me to help by saying: No, pretty much everyone knows that Christian relationship teachings don’t work in the real world at all!
Verdict: The last thing we’d ever do is ask Christians for advice about anything relating to how to conduct a relationship of any kind. I’ve never once heard of someone doing this.
“6. Some Christians try to act like they have no problems.”
“Harriett works in my department. She is one of those Christians who seems to have a mask on. I would respect her more if she didn’t put on such an act. I know better.”
(Why would a survey respondent be sharing specific names with these researchers?)
There is a big temptation in Christianity to pretend to be doing better than is really the case. I felt the same pressure when I was Christian. People aren’t allowed to be depressed, or upset, or grieving, or angry. Negative emotions can be really scary and are hugely disapproved-of, so Christians learn very early on to hide those emotions or deny them any outlet. Thom Rainer is telling his tribe to quit doing that because it is hurting sales.
Verdict: Again, the general sentiment seems true, but the quote is hard to swallow as having happened. I’m not sure why this qualified as such a major concern for Thom Rainer; it’s not very high on the list of things I hear from non-Christians when we get onto the topic of Christianity.
“7. I wish a Christian would take me to his or her church.”
“I really would like to visit a church, but I’m not particularly comfortable going by myself. What is weird is that I am 32 years old, and I’ve never had a Christian invite me to church in my entire life.”
Literally nobody has ever once said this that I have ever heard in my life, even when I actually was a Christian and ached for someone to say this to me. It’s really hard to imagine that someone in their 30s has managed to make it this far without a single invitation to a single church (I, again, can’t get through a week without at least one invitation).
This is just another dig at his tribe to get them to evangelize more often. That’s it. Thom Rainer wants them to feel more confident by giving them the disastrously false impression that hordes of non-believers have their little faces pressed up against churches’ stained-glass windows as they hope and pray that one day maybe some kindhearted Christian will maybe take pity on them and ask them inside.
Nothing could be further from reality.
Nobody is mystified about how to get invited to a church. If we know a Christian, and we almost certainly do, then we can easily get all the invitations we could possibly desire. We do not seek those invitations, and there is a reason why we do not. It’s not because we have no idea who to ask.
Verdict: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no.
THE HARVEST IS WAAAAAITING!
So there you have it:
A Definitive List of Things That Thom Rainer Desperately Wishes Non-Christians Would Say.
His list complete, the author issues a brief sermon to the flock to tell them that now that he’s shown them just how eager the world is to receive their evangelism, they all need to get right out there–because we’re all waiting with open arms for their witnessing and invitations.
He closes with a subtle hint that if they don’t get on the stick and start evangelizing more, then they’ll be falling into the trap of Satan himself–which means they’ll be sinning. And you know what happens to people who sin, right? His audience will not fail to notice that threat–though outsiders might.
Not that it really matters one way or another what his intended audience does about that veiled threat. The chances of them changing the situation at this point are rather slim.
In the four years since Thom Rainer published this list, the “harvest” has only gotten worse. But you’d never know it from his writing. Despite his insistence that “only 5 percent of non-Christians are antagonistic toward Christians,”** and that “the Lord of the harvest has prepared the way,” his tribe certainly has not managed to make any serious changes to their decline. They haven’t even managed to accurately depict non-believers–and there are a lot more of us making noise now than there ever were four years ago!
But there’s a reason for their continued failure to accurately show what non-believers are like, just like there’s a reason for everything else we see in the broken system that is Christianity.
These Posts Aren’t Accidents.
These misrepresentations happen for a reason. They’re not accidents. We’re going to talk a little more next time about why they keep happening, because I think it’s an important part of why Christians keep mistreating us. Reparative therapy (possibly one of the worst examples of Christian mistreatment) is coming up, and I want to get misrepresentation on the table before we tackle that topic. So we’ll see you then!
* Mr. Captain is stupendous and so therefore he got homemade cookies in his lunchbox today. There’s definitely a correlation to be found there, at least around Casa Cas.
** No, he doesn’t explain this statistic in any way other than to say it’s from “one study” he did. I’m betting that even if he got it from somewhere reputable, it’s probably changed dramatically in the last few years.
Funniest Book Title I’ve Seen Lately: How To Tell If Your Boyfriend is the Antichrist.