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There’s one phrase that is all but guaranteed to make me snerk involuntarily. It’s the one that Christians like to use to describe their information-gathering efforts at the time of their conversions: “I did the research.” It’s quite a popular phrase encapsulating quite a popular trope in Christian testimonies, and it’s one I heard for the first time back in my teens. Today I’ll show you why it’s popular and what it really means–and thus why I simply can’t take it seriously.

Seriously, the worst idea in the world is to "wait for a swashbuckler." (Sharon Terry, CC-ND.)
Seriously, the worst idea in the world is to “wait for a swashbuckler.” (Sharon Terry, CC-ND.)

is it can haz Biff story time nao?

yes! yes, it can haz Biff story time nao!

Why “Doing the Research” Matters.

“Doing the research” is a Christian testimony trope that is supposed to imply that the Christian carefully evaluated evidence both supporting and contradicting the claims of Christianity and then very rationally decided that it was best to choose to believe in the religion’s claims–and join up. (It also paints belief as a choice, which means that Christians can look down on people who don’t choose to believe–like they think they did.)

Roll to Disbelieve: Examining the Evidence.
Roll to Disbelieve: Examining the Evidence.

Christians desperately need to feel like they’re not involved with the religion for silly or purely emotional reasons. They want to feel like they converted (or committed, in the case of folks who grew up in the religion) for coldly rational and evidence-based reasons. That’s why there’s a thriving cottage industry of pseudoscience charlatans and apologetics-wielding hacks churning out material every single day to reassure these people that they’re not idiots.

As well, testimonies that feature these calculated shows of investigation are (mistakenly) thought to very much impress those hearing the testimonies–whatever their religious status.

Sure, Christians will love hearing this guff because they all love hearing that their religion is based on factual reality–whether that claim is true or not, it’s a tribal show of force that never gets old. But one cannot say that for non-Christians. Non-Christians keep harping on and on about evidence and facts and talking about how we’d change our mind if we were given reason to do so, so a testimony featuring a quest for truth is supposed to be persuasive. If Christians’ research actually contained any truth, we probably would, too. As an added bonus, when we fail to be swayed by that kind of testimony, then the Christians around us can tut-tut over how hard-hearted we are that we simply won’t be swayed by any evidence.

(This facet of the fundagelical mind is why apologists so frequently claim that we unwashed heathens could see a god magically poof into existence in front of us and do various big, unmistakable miracles, and yet we still wouldn’t convert. Christians literally believe that their pseudoscience trash and convoluted arguments fall into that kind of undeniability.)

Why They Didn’t Really Do Any Research.

A while ago I scoffed at testimonies that featured a miraculous conversion from hard-bitten atheism. Testimonies that feature doing the research suffer the same shortcomings.

When we look into their accounts, we discover that these hard-bitten atheists don’t look much like any atheists we’ve ever known (though they do look remarkably like what Christian folklore says atheists are like), that they weren’t really doing open-ended research, and that they never really examined any information that was critical of Christianity. It’s not research in any conventional meaning of the term because there was never a situation in which they’d discover anything that would dissuade them from joining up or recommitting to the religion. Literally all these Christians are doing is confirming their own biases.

Worse, we discover that the Christians who seem the most gung-ho about the idea of having researched their decision to become Christian seem to be simultaneously the least aware of how to critically examine any ideas. They are the least capable of discerning facts from fake news, the least able to change their minds based on factual information, and the least interested in learning anything that contradicts their conclusions.

Simply put: the second a Christian tells us that they’ve totally done the research, we can very safely ignore anything else they have to say on the topic. They converted for purely emotional reasons just like every other Christian ever has–they’re just less honest about it. They’re well aware that most folks think it’s unwise to make huge life changes for purely emotional reasons–and certainly they know that most folks know that what makes emotional sense to one person won’t make a lot of emotional sense to other people. So they fib–to themselves or to us–to try to make their decisions sound as logical and as well-reasoned as the legwork that sensible people go through when deciding to buy a particular house.

In a lot of ways, Christians who say they’ve done the research about religion ought to remind us of anti-vaxxers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists who say the exact same thing. Their idea of “research” amounts to reading blog posts written by nutbars who already think the same exact things that they do and have the same exact shoddy framework for evaluating the world as they do.

Bigots-for-Jesus say much the same thing as well, incidentally–remember Preston Sprinkle claiming exactly this at the beginning of his bigotry-for-Jesus book? The guy went to astonishing lengths to try to convince his skittish fundagelical readers that he’d totally decided to do the research to make sure he was right about this whole bigotry-for-Jesus thing. Then, when he arrived at the fundagelical party line about bigotry-for-Jesus, he was all but astonished that it’d worked out that way, and acted like gawrsh, gee Shaggy, guess he just had to be a bigot now! He’d done the research, you see!

As with almost every other testimony trope out there, doing the research simply doesn’t do what Christians want it to do. But they’ve got literally nothing else. They’ve already demonstrated that they know that faith alone isn’t a good enough reason to buy into Christianity.

Not shown: Fundagelicals doing research. (Screencap from "MIT Gangnam Style").
Not shown: Fundagelicals, research. (Screencap from “MIT Gangnam Style”).

The Case for Christ. Except Not Really.

One of the most popular apologetics books out there to present this trope is Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. In it, Lee Strobel paints himself as a hard-bitten journalist who investigates Christianity when his wife joins the religion and starts making trouble in their marriage–as fundagelicals are so wont to do, though he paints the situation in the book very differently from how most ex-Christians experience it. He determines, after talking to a variety of Christian talking heads, that Christianity is for sure totally for realsies and that he should join. So he becomes a Christian and begins using his journalistic powers for the Christian cause–but only because he did all the research and coldly, calculatingly determined that this religion was for sure totally for realsies.

The book became a movie a couple of years ago and garnered mixed reviews. Christians thought it was astonishingly good and were sure it’d be really persuasive to non-Christians. Non-Christians and less overzealous Christians thought it was excruciating. Some folks thought it was a decent movie in terms of its production values and writing, just not terribly compelling–and this is more or less my own reaction.

The main problem with The Case for Christ is that it isn’t actually any more persuasive than any other Christian claim of having done the research. 

Critical reviews of the book can be found aplenty online. I like the thorough decimation of it found at Secular Web, as well as the video fisking of it that Steve Shives did. There are plenty of others though.

YouTube video

The whole series is definitely worth the watch.

Once again, it seems like only Christians are super-impressed with this farcical display of doing the research. Obviously, any time anybody else does the research and comes out with another conclusion, they get awfully soggy and hard to light.

But I didn’t need to know all that back in 1987 when my then-boyfriend Biff used that phrase on me for the first time.

Wayback Machine: 1987.

1987 was the year of pop classics like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” It was also the year that my fashion sense settled into frosted pink lipstick and purple mascara. The Mac Plus was a year old and already taking colleges by storm despite its relative high price and lack of any internal hard drive. Black Monday was coming fast, though we were still living the “Greed is Good” dream and flooding into newly-opened malls to turn ourselves into extras from Out of Africa and MTV videos.

It wasn’t all Orange Juliuses, though. Racism and sexism were endemic. AIDS had terrorized a lot of us into some extremely regressive ideas about sex. Gay people were demonized to an unholy degree–I’d already learned from my French teacher, Monsieur Bernard, that he personally had spearheaded the effort to get a teacher fired at my high school for Existing While Gay (and his smugness over that point had weirded me out for reasons I couldn’t have begun to describe then).

My identity as a Christian was both a product of that soupy mess and an expression of it.

I was Catholic for most of my childhood. When I was sixteen, I converted briefly to a local Southern Baptist church, and then drifted out after becoming dissatisfied with what I saw as hypocrisy and an unseemly focus on tithing. My friend Angela soon invited me to her United Pentecostal church, meanwhile, and I joined there for a few months over a Rapture scare they were going on and on about–but drifted out by the fall. (It was a very busy year for me, spiritually speaking.) As 1987 began, I’d lapsed into a None, though I still considered myself a firm and committed Christian generally. I just had this feeling like there was something more out there that I needed to find–somehow.

Right after I turned 17, my friend Steve (who had been my best friend in Mobile and a member of my gaming group there) told me he’d joined the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which is a historical re-enactment group. He recommended it heartily. So a friend and I gleefully sewed a pair of costumes from my mom’s copious fabric hoard (we both went with a t-tunic dress and a Viking-style paired apron, since these are both ridiculously easy to make) and attended our first event.

There, I met Biff.

The Swashiest of Swashbucklers.

To my dazzled eyes, Biff was everything I’d ever wanted in a boyfriend: handsome beyond all compare, funny, clever, charming, artistic, and friendly. He wore this incredibly bombastic (if entirely fantastical) outfit with a leather vest, wide-cut pants, and leather gloves, and a folded-brim leather hat with feathers pouring out the back. I’d literally never even seen a man like this in the flesh.

Biff was polite and friendly to me, but I could tell that I hadn’t pinged his radar at all. It probably didn’t help that when I first trotted over to meet him, I literally tripped on a wet patch of floor and fell flat on my pert little ass. While memorable, it wasn’t the very most glamorous of entrances, no. However, I persisted.

Eventually, I learned that he was into light fighting–which is to say, fencing SCA-style. The vest and gloves weren’t actually simply clothing, but rather the armor he’d made and bought for serious use. I immediately decided that I wanted to learn light fighting too, and Biff graciously said he’d be glad to help me learn. From there we quickly began dating. Of course my mother was alarmed at our age difference (he was midway through college at the time, while I was heading into my senior year of high school), but she held her tongue–for many of the same reasons that people held their tongues about Roy Moore.

Biff had my V-card before summer began.

A Most Portentous Conversation.

In the summer of my 17th year, Biff showed me this portrait he’d painted of himself in his SCA garb sitting and scowling self-importantly in a pentagram and doing magicky things with his hands. I said in some amusement that this image would have been seen as Satanic by this weird church I’d attended a year ago.

Biff just seized on what I’d said. His eyes glittering, he asked me all about about that Pentecostal church. He was absolutely fascinated by it all. He’d been raised in a very wealthy neighborhood in a fancy suburb of Houston by sensible parents who were as far removed from extreme religion as it was possible to get. So my talk of Rapture scares and speaking in tongues simply grabbed him.

Eventually he announced that he was totally going to go to my old church that very night and cause a ruckus to show me that he was tougher than they were. I told him that was the craziest thing he’d ever said out of a whooooooole lot of competing entries, and that he really didn’t have to do that to impress me. Nope, he’d decided. I retorted that he could do as he pleased, as long as he dropped me off at home before he went.

I wrote about that night a while ago–he showed up on my doorstep late that night squeaky-clean from his baptism, claiming that he’d totally been exorcised (spoiler: nooooooope). In complete disgust, I told him to go home. He spent the next few months convincing me that this church was actually totally correct about, well, everything. His life goal was to win his girlfriend’s backslidden soul for Team Jesus.

He Did the Research, Y’all.

The summer became fall as Biff’s research continued. One of the men in his new church, Brother Porter, was a rotund and jolly fellow with a very large family to match. He took time out of his busy life to visit Biff at college–he was living in the dorms at the time–to help him do the research about Christianity. See, just because Biff had totally been exorcised (spoiler: HAHAHAHA NO), that didn’t mean that this particular church had the whole truth on their side. He had to make absolutely sure that he was getting involved with the correct flavor of the religion out of all the competing thousands of flavors of the religion. He had to do the research. And Brother Porter was there to help him.

The problem here was that I was still Christian–which meant that I already bought into certain ideas that Biff had come to embrace.

I already thought that the Bible was an authoritative document and that supernatural things can and did occur all the time. I already was sure that faith in Jesus could change someone for the better. And unfortunately, I didn’t possess much in the way of critical thinking skills. So when Biff blustered about miracles and exorcisms and diagrams and all that, I was already primed to buy into it.

One evening he invited me to come hang out in the library with him and Brother Porter. I guess it was around October 1987. I typically attended an on-campus fighter practice if I could scrounge a ride. That evening, I found the two men holed up in one of the study carrels–the university had many dozens of these tiny little closet-sized rooms with glass walls and doors where students could write papers and read sources in peace. The two of them had these copy-paper-sized boxes that I quickly realized had to contain thousands of diagrams and tracts.

I could only stare at the mess in shock. They had better not be expecting me to help clean this up, I thought. I smiled and introduced myself to Brother Porter (we both kinda remembered each other). I made a hasty retreat back to the fighter practice, knowing that later Biff would be regaling me with all the evidence he’d found that had confirmed his biases (spoiler: nohellno).

Eventually, he would succeed in convincing me that he’d done the research and confirmed that the religion was totally what it claimed to be.

Hooray Team Jesus!

This claim became part of his testimony forever.

not that it's super hard to find places to boff at most universities, just saying
Like these except with windows and glass doors, so nobody could go in and, I guess, do drugs or boff. (Tracie Hall, CC-SA.)

Why I Am Not Impressed.

So gang, I’ve already seen what doing the research means in Christian-Land. I already know it isn’t nearly the rigorous, fact-finding exercise that Christians claim it is. I already know that Christians don’t have much in the way of discernment, either, when it comes to facts that contradict their claims. Just as we discover when we examine their claims of having once been atheists, we find when we examine their claims about research that it’s nowhere near as rigorous as what we’d ideally apply to even the simplest personal decisions. The more extreme the Christian, the more this observation holds.

Christians might be happy to talk up a storm about faith being all they need to hold their beliefs and certainly it’s where they tend to retreat when we’ve finally gotten through to them that their fake evidence is not compelling, but their overriding need to have firm evidence for those beliefs in the first place speaks volumes about jussssssssst how much respect they have for the faith-for-no-good-reason model.

When I was younger, I ached to be part of a supernatural world that was real and to possess the absolute truth about it. People I trusted preyed upon those needs. But a lot’s changed since then. I’m a lot more comfortable with not knowing all the answers now–and a lot better at using critical thinking skills to arrive at the answers I have found. I’m no longer a viable mark for the sorts of Christians who prey upon that need in people. And today’s young people, 30 years after 1987, seem to grasp those skills in earliest childhood rather than struggling to learn it all in their mid-20s like I had to do. It seems like there are fewer and fewer people saddled with that aching need for certainty or that burning desire for this world to be more–and yet somehow less–than it actually is.

I came out of Christianity a broken, shattered amphora, but at least I’d gained a real respect for what real research was and an eagerness to catch up on lost time–and to learn all the stuff I hadn’t learned when I was younger that could perhaps have saved me. Broken stuff can be rebuilt–and I eventually managed it. At the time of my deconversion, I knew Christianity wasn’t the answer–I just didn’t entirely know why yet.

We’re going to talk about critical thinking skills soon, so I wanted to show you this story. Next time, we’ll be looking at yet another Christian lacking those skills who thinks he’s figured out how to fix the religion. 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,...