Tuesday, April 14, 2009
How to Talk to an Evangelical
One of the things that fascinates me in my thankfully infrequent dealings with Christians of the evangelical bent these days is that they have a tendency to completely ignore history. I’m not talking about declarations of a Christian origin of the American nation, either. I’m talking about my history. Statements like, “I spent the first twenty-five years of my life as an evangelical,” seem to have absolutely no impact on their script for evangelism. Hell, I’ve run in to a couple people who I used to go to church with who apparently think I have absolutely no idea what this “Bible” and “Jesus” thing is all about. It’s both annoying and sad in equal measure. Now, I’ve been fortunate not to end up around the real jackasses. By which I mean the sort of people who would bring us this lovely message of god’s love: Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with these people? I do, however, get people who have decided I just don’t get it. There are those who tell me that it’s too bad I was unfortunate to run in to that tiny percentage of Christians who get it all wrong. There are those who think I just need to experience god’s love. And then there are those who want to know what traumatic experience I went through that made me turn in to an atheist. As I say now and I’ve said many times: I’ve spent the vast majority of my life among the fundagelicals. If I were writing my memoirs now the title would be Twenty-Five Years a Fundie. I was Outreach Coordinator for an InterVarsity chapter, wrote the book on how to do outreach for a different group, spent four and a half years doing junior high ministry, and was all about the Emerging Church movement right up until the point I stopped being all about church for the love of Pete. I don’t know how much more I could have done to “get it.” I think I was “it.” But this experience isn’t credited to me in conversation with the usual evangelist. It doesn’t matter that I could generally run circles around most people on the apologetics front, either. Actually, I’m thinking that one of these days if I run in to a particularly self-assured apologist I’ll simply game the poor guy. Go with his apologetics, make better arguments, then completely demolish them. Because, see, there’s something that a lot of people from my former world don’t understand. They see it all as a black and white and emotional decision. They think there’s a weird pride thing going on and that if everyone just hit the emotional state where they acknowledge a need for god and hear all the arguments for Jesus, they’d snap to and just get it. It also means that my current stance has to be based on emotions. In a moment of emotional weakness, then, someone or something (I guess Satan…?) grabbed a hold of me and gave me all of the right arguments. It’s silly. But now that I’ve spent a lot more time preferring to be in contact with religious outsiders, I see this argument over and over again and I see the flat incomprehension with which the non-religious respond to such concepts. So in my continued public service to a skeptical world, I keep thinking I should try to translate. Or, at least, explain. See, I was fairly moderate for a fundamentalist. I mean, I was aware of that whole going to Hell problem, but I tried not to think about it much. I mean, I knew the Bible said* that non-Christians were going to Hell and I wasn’t a fan. However, if god had decided to consult with me, I’d have been hard-pressed to send anyone down there. I knew plenty of people who didn’t live Biblical lives, but I knew very few bad people. And they seemed to be pretty evenly distributed among the church and non-church population. The world in which I was living, however, was necessarily limited by that whole Hell thing. Even if I didn’t like it, I was supposed to abide by it because god said so. I think this is where a lot of the people I used to know were, which is why I have a lot of sympathy towards evangelicals and harbor very little anger. It’s simply a crappy place to live. See, the Bible says god is going to damn everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus as his or her personal savior is going to hell. The Bible also says god is love. This is almost impossible to fully reconcile. The simple fact of the matter is that Epicurus came up with the only argument we need against the Christian god as advanced by the fundagelicals some three hundred years before Christ. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? The fact is, too, that the fundagelical viewpoint adds in an additional level of evil that rests squarely on god’s shoulders. You can stand on the argument from free will when countering the questions of theodicy. However, the wrath of a loving god who sends finite people to eternal torment for being deceived by Satan is an evil in and of itself. For the evangelist, then, the problem is attempting to ignore the single-point view of their world and attempt to convince the other person that not only is their viewpoint wrong, but that it’s actually hurting them. This is, shall we say, complicated. It’s also why every attempt at evangelism basically sounds the same. You can’t tailor all that much for an audience if you can’t allow yourself to think like that audience. This is why my 25 years amongst the fundies gets lumped in to the same category as those who have no idea what this “Bible” is. The evangelist can’t hear that I made the move of my own free will after weighing all of the evidence and deciding that Christianity sucks because my action invalidates his apologetics. Furthermore, not only can the evangelist not hear that, he can’t actually afford to hear anything I say. Getting derailed from the talking points invites doubt, after all. That’s the shit of it. I made it a point to not be one of those angry former believers. I came across my skepticism and discarded Christianity honestly and after a lot of soul searching. Not only that, but it would probably have been easier for me to stay in the faith. See, I was planning on going in to ministry and dropping religion also meant dropping my plans. There was also a girl who I loved, yet with whom I wasn’t having a particular happy relationship. And as bad as things were, I knew that going where I knew I was headed would be the end. Truth is, I held on the Christianity harder than I should have and longer than I wanted to. Part of the reason I’d be able to run circles around apologists stems from that time. I came up with arguments in favor of god and Christianity that I’d never thought of before. I came up with arguments with the fierceness of a drowning man desperately reaching for any chance at security. I wanted to stay in. It was for all the wrong reasons, but I wanted to nonetheless. But, see, my story derails their story. And to the evangelical, the only story that matters is their story. It’s why I must be reduced to one of three talking points. I didn’t actually get it. I was surrounded by abusive Christians who gave Christianity a bad name (which is always amusing coming from people I used to go to church with). I had some traumatic experience that soured me on Jesus. Those are my only choices. I get no other story. That, too, is why the fundies try to control the language and dialogue. It’s the root of why gay marriage and abortion will bring about the downfall of Western civilization. They’re so tied up an a right/wrong, black/white dichotomy and so sold out to this idea that the only way anyone can be happy is with Jesus that they have to believe the world will fall apart if anyone else is allowed to run it. Jesus or Hell is their personal story, so it has to be your story and my story. Anything else hurts their position. PZ Myers embedded a couple YouTube videos in a recent post. It’s the audio from a radio show where some idiot tried to ambush Christopher Hitchens in to admitting he needed Jesus. Listen. It’s priceless. The thing is, the fundagelicals can’t be allowed to tell their story without consequences any more. I have a story. And it sounds nothing like the one their putting in my mouth. Moreover, those Christians who let the fundagelical crowd tell that story as the important and only version should join in, too. It demeans them, too. ---------------------------------- *Any time I say “The Bible says” or “god says” in this post, understand that “the Bible” or “god” almost certainly says no such thing. There’s a lot that’s hand-waved with those phrases, however. I’m intentionally using the device.