some voices are easier to hear than others
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Cory Doctorow, CC-SA.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Of late, we’ve been focusing on Lee Strobel’s 1993 book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary. Decades after its publication, it remains completely au courant. Evangelicals still use the strategies in this book, and they still believe the many, many lies that its author tells about atheists. But there’s more to the story of its enduring popularity than that. Today, let’s look at how Lee Strobel blows sunshine up the skirts of his readers by talking to the voices in their heads.

some voices are easier to hear than others
(Cory Doctorow, CC-SA.)

(Previous Lee Strobel posts: My Sticking PointsSticking Points; The Mystery AtheistSemi-SalesLee Strobel’s Best Friends; The Coin He Offers; Lee Strobel’s Friendship EvangelismFriendship EvangelismThis Action Plan Doesn’t WorkTickling Evangelical EarsRevealing EndorsementsSo Many Lies About Unchurched Harry and MaryA Non-Portrait of the Captain (1-4)Indoctrinating Evangelicals More (5-8)Seeker-Sensitive Churches (9-12)Martyrbation Ahoy (13-15)The Original Listicle. Page numbers come from the 1993 paperback edition of the book.)

The Voices in their Heads.

Many Christian soulwinners try to cold-read their marks, yes. It’s extremely common among evangelicals in particular. But sometimes you run into one who is so far off-base, so completely in the weeds with their attempt, that you have to wonder just what prompted those particular guesses.

Being on the other side of these guesses can feel a lot like stepping briefly into Bizarro World. It’s like catching wind of some wild rumor about yourself that you know you never did and would never do.

Chances are good that such cold readers are talking to the voices in their own heads, not to you. Their guesses aren’t about you. Rather, they’re addressing some part of themselves — and confirming their own affiliation with their group.

When these sorts of Christians take it upon themselves to decide What You Obviously Did Totally Wrong As A Christian, in reality they’re tut-tutting among themselves:

WE’D never do that thing.

Our own affiliation and beliefs are thus safe.

Whew! It’s just as easy as not sticking beans up our noses, isn’t it?

Gosh, how could someone be so downright daft as to make such a silly mistake?

They’re really talking to themselves here — in essence, negating all those disturbing voices that speak words that bother and disturb them.

What Helen Bishop Did Wrong.

In so many ways, evangelicals who act like this remind me of 1950s/1960s housewives getting together to gossip about one of their number who’s announced a divorce. (Betty Draper and her crowd behave similarly around divorcee Helen Bishop in Mad Men, though Helen of course is already divorced when she’s introduced to them.)

They pick apart and probe that woman and her marriage.

What had she done wrong? How had her marriage failed?

They come up with these absolutely wackadoodle reasons, too. Their reasons center around blaming the woman involved for marriage-ing wrong somehow. She took a job, or didn’t pay her husband enough attention, etc.

The other housewives feel soothed after this kind of gossip.

Okay, so obviously this gal did something terribly wrong — maybe a lot of stuff wrong. Whew! Well, we don’t do any of that. So we’re okay! Our marriages are safe!

But the voices in their heads still whisper the truth to them.

Deconversion-Proofing One’s Beliefs.

Except even back then, men divorced women who seemed on the surface to be decent wives. Such a divorce figures centrally in the 1977 feminist novel The Women’s Room. In truth, nothing protected a woman back then from divorce, any more than anything does today. Sometimes, you can do everything “right” and the other person still decides to check out of the relationship.

Women’s internal voices have always whispered this truth to them. But that’s really scary. So instead, such women seek out endless articles promising to help them “divorce-proof” their marriages (examples: One, Two, and most especially Three). The implications are always there: if there’s a way to divorce-proof a marriage, then not doing that stuff will doom a marriage to divorce. So if a woman finds herself divorced, obviously she didn’t properly divorce-proof her marriage.

Deconversion run along very similar lines.

Every time someone deconverts, especially if it’s a big-name Christian, the other Christians huddle together to diagnose what that person did wrong. It makes them feel superior to that person — but more importantly, this mean-spirited activity makes them feel safer in their own faith.

Well, they’d never do any of that! So their beliefs are safe!

Lee Strobel Talks to the Voices in Their Heads.

We’ve been focused on Chapter 7 lately, so let’s just look at that chapter for now.

Here, we learn that a “skeptic” is only truly a skeptic if actively seeking “the truth about God.” Otherwise, skeptics are really just immoral unapproved-sex-hungry fakers covering up their emotional unwillingness to buy Strobel’s product (active membership in his church) with pretensions of intellectualism.

In particular, Strobel characterizes atheists as silly, closed-minded people who aren’t interested in “seeking the truth” — unless they end up as mini-mes of himself, of course. He also takes for 100% granted that anybody who “seeks the truth” will find it — in his flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.

In his constant stream of mischaracterizations about one of his tribe’s biggest enemies, I can all but hear Lee Strobel addressing those secret fear-filled voices of anxiety in evangelicals themselves. He’s all but telling them out loud:

Gosh, aren’t heathens silly and arrogant and stupid?

YOU’D never be like that. YOU’D never make those mistakes.

YOU’RE open-minded and discerning and superior and humble [UM-bull] and obedient, not like those ickie atheists. Don’t be like them!

In a very real way, Lee Strobel helps them negate the voices in their own heads that tell them the opposite.

It’s So Mystifying, Y’all.

With that interpretation in mind, let’s look again at Strobel’s lunch date with Mystery Atheist (M.A.) (p. 103):

[M.A.] was at a spiritual sticking point. As I’ve talked to people through the years about their spiritual journeys, often I’ve found they’ve reached an impasse that’s blocking their path. In this man’s case, it was his stubborn refusal, for whatever reason, to even consider the evidence for Christianity.

I’ve already pointed out that Strobel’s analysis goes way past anything he actually describes happening. But now, I want to focus on that last sentence where he lays down his official diagnosis.

“His stubborn refusal” — when all M.A. actually did was refuse to play along with a slimy huckster making an unwanted sales pitch.

“For whatever reason” — as if King Lee can’t even imagine in all the world why oh why someone might ever reject his attempt to sell his product.

“To even consider” — as if it’s somehow totally unfair that M.A. shut him down completely without hearing out his whole spiel.

“The evidence for Christianity” — as if it’s some foregone conclusion that the apologetics and pseudoscience Lee Strobel peddles is actual evidence for his claims, and anybody who’d say otherwise is being silly and unreasonable.

No, here Strobel isn’t really offering a strategy for engagement. He’s reaching out to the voices in his readers’ heads.

In a real way, he’s doing nothing less than teaching his evangelical followers how to think about themselves, not just their enemies.

It’s Too Bad Atheists Aren’t Smart Like Us.

Strobel constantly does this, too. Every single time he discusses atheists (or really, anybody refusing his product — he muddles atheists and the wrong kind of Christians constantly), he makes them sound like foolish, unreasonable toddlers.

  • Referring to marks’ unwillingness to buy his product as “the blockage” (p. 104) stalling “their progress toward a spiritual breakthrough” — which makes TRUE CHRISTIANS™ psychologically-healthy people who are headed right for that happy ending.
  • Referring to a couple claiming a past in agnosticism, “they let their curiosity propel them toward the truth, and they found that the Christian faith stands up even under rigorous examination by thinking people” (p. 106) — which makes Christians healthily-curious people as well as belonging to a group of thinkers rather than reflexive followers.
  • Those entire weird asides about daddy issues (p. 109) and fears of intimacy (p. 110) — making those rejecting his product look irrational, while his followers come out looking like well-adjusted people who certainly wouldn’t let irrational concerns stop them from DA TROOF and who enjoy happy, intimate relationships unlike those heathens.

Once I began seeing it, I couldn’t un-see it. This guy constantly speaks to his followers’ doubts, concerns, and self-image by subtly insulting their enemies.

He tells them nothing whatsoever that’s really true or even useful, but he makes them feel good as he tramples their internal voices.

Elevating Himself Past Salesman Status.

There’s another side to Strobel’s blathering on and on about how superior his tribe is to those silly heathens they keep trying to fix.

Power dynamics.

Strobel teaches his readers to literally psychoanalyze their marks. He shows them how to totally diagnose their “blockages” and “stoppages.” Once that’s done, he sets his readers to the grueling work of fixing those marks’ problems so they can be happy shiny TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like their new therapists always have been.

What he suggests here goes way way way way past anything an ethical salesperson would or should do to score a sale. It amounts to intense psychological manipulation at best, and outright predation and exploitation of vulnerabilities at worse.

And riding along with those suggestions is an implicit reordering of power dynamics. After all, people don’t generally try to fix people they think are their equals — or their superiors.

Instead of being salespeople with a lackluster, overpriced, possibly-dangerous product to sell, he and his tribemates are actually therapists out there repairing heathens’ hangups so they can improve themselves by ranking up to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ — and of course leave their ickie former lives as subhumans behind.

Just in general, apologists are extremely narcissistic and arrogant sumbitches who possess at best only a passing familiarity with reality, ethicality, and honesty. But I see now that Lee Strobel has crowned himself their lizard king.

And His Implicit Warning.

All those sotto voce compliments come with a warning, too.

Christian leaders dread and hate doubt. They fight it with all their might. After all, they of all people know where doubt ultimately leads. So if they can’t eliminate the desire to truly seek the truth, they defang it as far as they can. They terrify their flocks with visions of hellfire for pursuing doubt too far or for coming to the wrong conclusions in their quests.

In Unchurched, Lee Strobel distinctly takes that tack. It’s completely okay in his world to pursue the truth, but if the truth doesn’t look like his product then obviously it’s not the truth at all. And if a mark refuses to play along with King Lee’s demands and engage in performative truth-seeking to his satisfaction, then that mark obviously doesn’t really want the truth at all.

He’s all but grooming his readers to seek the truth only in the ways he approves, and to avoid getting too close to anything he doesn’t like. In this book, in how he engages with atheists in particular, he models for his followers how to behave and think — and how not to, lest their faith fail.

If Faith Fails.

If Christians’ faith fails, after all, they instantly morph into subhumans who don’t know how to think, who don’t care about morality, and who childishly push away the truth (and ignore all those oncoming buses that only Christians can perceive) so they can have guilt-free sex.

Whenever Strobel speaks of someone converting to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, he stresses the night-and-day changes that instantly happen in that person. We saw much the same treatment of conversion in This Present Darkness when Bobby Corsi got exorcised and converted. Evangelicals in particular take that “new creation” stuff way more seriously than its reality actually deserves.

But if someone becomes a “new creation” upon conversion, then they become one as well upon deconversion. And that version of “creation” runs in opposite directions: the person loses morality, loses curiosity, loses critical-thinking skills, loses the ability to tell truth from lies, loses the ability to love… loses all the stuff that makes us human.

(Indeed, I remember struggling with these exact fears as I deconverted.)

But that’ll never happen to us, Lee Strobel croons to those scary voices in evangelicals’ heads. We won’t make those same mistakes our enemies do. We’re safe from their fate.

Except they’re not. Lee Strobel’s reassurances are as empty as his actual arguments-in-lieu-of-evidence. Dehumanizing the enemy isn’t at all the same as truly countering those enemies’ objections and criticisms. But for Lee Strobel and his fans, what he offers is exactly what they want to hear.

NEXT UP: For now, friends, we put Unchurched to rest. Adieu, Unchurched, adieu — for now. Let’s look next to what exactly the SBC is doing to resolve its huge sex-abuse scandal.

The answers will probably not surprise anybody. And yet somehow, their leaders’ blatantly obvious attempt to redirect the flocks’ attention surpassed even my lowest expectations. I’ll show you what I mean next time. See you then!

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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,...

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