sure, r/thathappened
Reading Time: 10 minutes Michelangelo's Conversion of Saint Paul, c. 1542-1545. (Wikipedia.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you churchless believers — my term for firmly-believing Christians who don’t belong to any churches. According to a recent Gallup poll, their numbers are growing swiftly. And as we saw yesterday, Christian leaders have always been alarmed by churchless believers. They should be. Like almost nothing else could, this number tells us exactly why Christianity is in decline. More importantly, they tell us that Christians will not ever be regaining their former dominance (at least not through virtuous means). Today, let me tell you the story of Christianity’s lost powers of coercion — as told by churchless believers.

sure, r/thathappened
Michelangelo’s Conversion of Saint Paul, c. 1542-1545. (Wikipedia.)

(When I talk about Christian evangelism as a sales process, the product being sold is not Jesus. It’s actually active membership in the salesperson’s own group. Evangelists usually push really hard on persuading their marks into believing a particular package of nonsense, but it’s only presented that way as a prerequisite for recruitment. A given evangelist’s package of nonsense introduces artificial needs in recruits that can only be fulfilled by joining that evangelist’s particular group as an active member.)

The Myth of Early Christianity’s Rapid Growth.

Christians just love to imagine that their religion grew super-quickly because of how amaaaaaaaazingly unique it was.

Alas, this cherished bit of mythology is just as false as literally every other thing Christians believe. In truth, it was neither unique nor fast-growing.

Even in the New Testament, we can see that Christian leaders and groups struggled very hard to attract adherents. Perhaps that’s because of the exact sort of religion they were starting. It was a typical fusion mystery religion. It borrowed elements from all sorts of places, and it featured a god-man savior figurehead at its top that ancient people would have found quite familiar.

However, one of its fusion elements involved Judaism. Of course, Jews rejected the new religion out of hand, which eventually forced early Christians to look to pagans for their numbers. Nowadays, Christianity is dominated by gentiles. But at one time, the earliest Christians thought of themselves as Jews. When it became clear that gentiles and not Jews would be Christianity’s future, that caused some big tension in the early sect. We can see the squabbles going on about it even in the Epistles! This about-face in recruitment focus seems to have cost those earliest Christians a lot of ground in their earliest years.

So yes, we can see Christians struggling to find followers in the Epistles and in Acts. But it was even harder for those early Christians to keep their followers.

But then, Christians discovered the magical fairy-dust that provokes absolutely explosive growth and then keeps their customers around.

That magic fairy-dust wasn’t Jesus Power. It was simply gaining legal powers of coercion.

Coercion: The Real Story of Christianity’s Rise.

When Christians gained the power to force people to convert and stick around, and then to punish people brutally if they didn’t comply with Christians’ demands, that’s when Christianity really began to take off. 

So yes: every single Christian alive today owes their entire belief system to the brutal oppression of millions of people over many centuries. If those early Christians hadn’t gained the power to apply fire and the sword to their potential customers, their religion would almost certainly have died out just like a bunch of other similarly-optional fusion mystery religions of its time.

(I’ve heard a few Christians try to make peace with this fact. Usually, their conclusions run along the lines of it being in everyone’s best interests anyway, which makes them sound even worse than the Christians of their past.)

The moment Christians gained powers of coercion, they began to use ’em. And they did not stop using ’em until secular governments gained the power to make them stop. Even now, even as you read these words, the most toxic of Christians are doing their best to get that power back.

See, those Christians know something deep in their bones about their faith. Maybe they don’t even want to admit they know it. But the knowledge throbs there anyway, like an infection that nothing can cure:

Weirdly, strangely, mysteriously, Christianity just doesn’t sell very well in a free religious marketplace.

Christianity: The Hard Sell Gets Easier with Coercion.

The truth of the matter is this: Christianity doesn’t really sell well on its own merits. The earliest Christians figured that out very quickly. None of its claims turn out to be true, and it doesn’t really add anything to its adherents’ lives that they couldn’t get for far less elsewhere. So when given a choice about following or rejecting Christianity, people overwhelmingly reject it.

It takes coercive powers to sell Christianity to a lot of people very quickly. Without coercion of some kind, Christians just can’t make a lot of sales.

And for many centuries, they didn’t need to exert themselves overmuch to make sales. Sales were guaranteed to churches; active membership was, after all, absolutely mandatory. Nobody had a choice about compliance. Entire countries converted at the whim of their ruler. Citizens had to play along with whoever ended up in power. Christianity just happened to end up in power, that’s all.

But then something funny happened on the way to total global dominance.

Fading Coercion: When Christians Began to Struggle.

I would not open windows into men’s souls.

Attrib. Queen Elizabeth I

When societies began to awaken to concepts like inalienable human rights and freedoms, the right to one’s own religious beliefs began to swim to our consciousness. Oh sure, this new conceptualization of human rights jostled alongside Inquisitions as the ruling Christians began to sense their dominance fading (their instincts in this area being just as sharp as those of a ship-dwelling rat for the soundness of its home).

Even as Queen Elizabeth evinced no real interest in torturing heretics, her sister became known as “Bloody Mary” for her zeal in that exact area. But slowly, slowly Enlightenment values began to win out over stone-cold overreach and coercion.

The United States itself may well represent a grand experiment in secular governance. Our Constitution very solidly avoids all religious language — it doesn’t even invoke any gods. Its sole reference to religion is a clause prohibiting religious tests for office.

Alas, the grand idealism of the Constitution would take a couple more centuries to come close to fruition. But when it did, it did with a vengeance.

Starting perhaps after World War II, Americans began to realize they could opt out of religion. They could just not belong to any churches. Most did not; the 1950s were a time of brutally-enforced lockstep. But very slowly, we see cracks in the wall of Christianity. There’s a damn fine reason why the phrase “under God” got added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954: Christian leaders were starting to fret about their fading power.

And they had good reason to fret. Perhaps they only sensed it at this early stage, but the glowing-gold words were slowly appearing, letter by letter, on their religion’s wall.

The Long Slow Slide of Dominance Begins.

Even so, through the 1950s and 1960s, Christian leaders didn’t seem that worried about selling their product (active membership in their various respective groups) to potential customers. We reviewed an absolutely hilarious soulwinning guide a while back, Soul-Winning Made Easy, that makes that point crystal-clear. These guides existed in plenty back then, and all of them existed more or less to reinforce the faith of the flocks buying them, not for making actual sales to outsiders.

(And they still are. Apologetics is not for us heathens. It is for the Christians spending money to buy it. That’s why it all seems so surreal to us. We’re not the real audience for these materials, that’s all.)

But the real decline didn’t start happening until the early 2000s or so, I suspect. In 2006, the documentary Jesus Camp came out. And it came out when evangelicalism was at its absolute peak of power. Evangelical leaders met with and counseled sitting Presidents and other important politicians; from that vantage point, they helped shape national policy that would in turn shape the lives of many millions of American citizens.

Jesus Camp may have helped Americans see how truly dangerous this kind of authoritarian Christianity was. However, Christianity’s numbers were already falling and had been for years. The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC’s) current president, J.D. Greear, recently let slip a huge failure for his denomination: the decline of their ratio of baptisms to current members. That ratio has been solidly declining for fifty years now. In the early 1950s, the SBC baptized 1 new member per 19-20 existing ones. As of their 2020 Annual Report, their ratio now sits at 1:62.

Even as the SBC’s total numbers swelled all through the 1980s and 1990s, that ratio foretold a very serious incoming disaster that has had SBC leaders in a dither for decades. By the 2000s/early 2010s, that ratio began to spill out into overall decline. By 2008, the SBC’s total numbers began a slide that they have not recovered from yet, and likely won’t.

Fading Coercion Reveals the Truth.

What happened around that time that caused such a decline?

The 9/11 attacks on September 11, 2001 shook a whole bunch of Christians’ faith. There just didn’t seem like any way for Christian leaders to address this terrorist attack in any meaningfully-useful way. Christian leaders’ reaction to the attacks only made Christianity look worse (and may have given rise to white evangelicals’ weird, racist Christian nationalism).

The Catholic Church’s child-rape scandal got exposed around 2002, and it only seemed to get worse with every new headline. Catholic leaders’ attempts to quiet the scandal (and sneak around the fines and judgments imposed on them) only earned them more scorn.

Right around the early 2000s, governments at the state and local levels began slapping Christians’ grabby little hands away from other people’s lives and rights. The famous Dover trial occurred in 2005, revealing a great deal of dishonesty and hypocrisy on the part of the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ seeking to indoctrinate public schoolchildren. Christians’ constant and tiresome attempts to sneak around that ruling only made them look worse to outsiders — and made no few insiders reconsider their affiliation.

Jesus Camp, as mentioned, came out in 2006. It seems to have startled a lot of folks into examining Christian overreach more critically.

By 2014, the Supreme Court specifically allowed local governing groups to pray before meetings — which got publicized mightily and much discussed to Christians’ detriment. By now, Christianity’s decline was in full swing, but almost no Christians accepted their new normal as a real thing.

Schools that still forced religion onto students, like Airline High in Louisiana, got slapped down hard.

As a result of all of these events and trials and scandals, Christianity became more optional to religious-marketplace consumers than it has ever been since its very earliest days.

A Coercion-Free Christianity is a Declining Christianity.

By now, it is safer to opt out of Christianity than it has ever been in our entire government’s existence.

The moment they sense that it is safe to opt out, that’s exactly what people begin to do. They opt out. I’ll reproduce Gallup’s graph here of churchless believers. Look at it and compare its points to the above timeline I described.

gallup graph showing less membership among believers

What’s just so comical about this whole situation is that even in 2015, when Christians slowly began to accept that yes, they were indeed in full decline, they still couldn’t — and can’t even now — accept why it was happening. And they definitely can’t come close to addressing their decline in meaningful ways.

They desperately need new blood, yes, and they have no clue in the whole world how to sell their religion on its own merits. That’s true. They won’t find that way, either, because their salespeople deeply and bitterly resent their actual status in that sales transaction.

But it’d help Christian leaders a lot more if they could just get the blood they already have to circulate in their churches. Making an initial sale doesn’t help them at all if those recruits don’t actively participate.

Because Christian church membership is now suddenly more optional than it has ever been for almost the entire run of its existence, Christian leaders completely lack any way to bring that existing blood into circulation. They must appeal to members to show up and participate on their own merits, and accept whatever the heck resources those members choose to give them. Coercion just isn’t a tool for them anymore.

What we see now in Christianity’s declining numbers is what a purely-optional, coercion-free Christianity looks like. And y’all, it looks like a little minority religion that is largely irrelevant and meaningless even to its own believers.

Churchless Believers Tell Us About Christianity’s Future.

Once upon a time, everyone had to belong to some kind of church. Even if church leaders lost the ability to throw dissenters into prison, dispossess them and their families, and even execute them, they could still ostracize and shun dissenters. In rural and suburban communities, this power became quite a potent one.

Now, we can live in a world where most Americans don’t belong to any kind of church, and they get along fine. And growing numbers of Christians don’t either, and they get along fine too. Christian church leaders have largely lost their power to retaliate against those who opt out of their groups.

As the above graph shows us, fewer than half of religious Millennials report membership in any churches. Only about 2/3 of Gen X and Boomers report such membership. And only about 3/4 of religious “Traditionalists” (the generation that fought WWII) do. The percentage of opting-out Christians grows not only over time but with generational cohorts, gradually becoming bigger and bigger slices of the shrinking Christianity pie.

Churchless believers’ slices of the pie will only grow with Gen Z, which is set to be the least religious generation in American history — and likely its Christians will be the least likely to report church membership as well.

And Christian leaders have not one single clue in the world how to deal with this trend. Not one. Even less of a one than they have about how to start growing in numbers again. Yes, even less than that. They don’t know how to gain new members, how to retain the recruits they win, or how to draw those members into active, engaged participation in their groups.

Uncharted Territory Without Coercion.

This is all completely uncharted territory for Christian leaders. It’s not territory they enjoy traveling, that’s quite clear! I’m sure they dream of the days when they still held the power to force people into their churches and keep them there out of fear. (You know, for our own good.)

But regardless, that’s what it would take to recover Christians’ lost dominance. They will not win it back through persuasion. Christianity — as demonstrated — completely lacks selling power in its own right. That’s why Christianity did not achieve power and dominance through persuasion, but through force of law.

Their current pushes to regain their lost powers of legal coercion worry me greatly. I don’t think it’s happening by accident. I think these leaders know perfectly well that a coercion-free Christianity is a dying Christianity, and they didn’t gain all that power and jockey up their ladders of power just to see it all dissolve in their hands.

So please, be very vigilant about Christian overreach. If a normie like me could put all this together, you can bet Christian leaders are well aware of all of it. 

NEXT UP: Remember LuLaRoe? With all the other stuff going on lately, I missed something important that happened with them. Tomorrow, let’s enjoy a light, refreshing story against them and other multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs). See you then!

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(Sometime soon, we’ll look at the hilariously inept ways that Christian leaders propose to draw churchless believers back to their ranks, but I’m in a mood for a nice MLM smackdown to cleanse the palate.)



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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,...