In the middle of reading Chapter 3 of Before You Lose Your Faith, I started laughing and laughing. I’d already been smiling over its title, which accuses those who deconvert of just wanting to follow a countercultural trend. Yes, seriously. He thinks that being a hardliner fundagelical is the real countercultural move. But then he flat-out titles a subsection with the phrase that pays: ‘Have you given true Christianity a try?’ I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. So here we are again to offer the Brett McCrackens of this world the help they desperately need (yet would never accept) to understand why people really deconvert.
This book has been unparalleled entertainment for me ever since I started it. But this chapter in particular felt like revisiting a great 80s comedy film. I don’t want to duplicate what I wrote last year about this chapter, but I do want to add a few things that have occurred to me in the time between then and now.
(Previous posts about ‘Before You Lose Your Faith’: Setting the terms for deconstruction; How a deconstruction goes wrong in Before You Lose Your Faith.)
(This post appeared on Patreon on 11/8/2022. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron! <3)
TRUE CHRISTIANITY™: A quick review
With thousands and thousands of variants, Christianity nowadays cannot ever be considered monolithic. For every single belief that some Christian somewhere holds and considers of primal importance, there’s another considering that belief untrue—and others still holding a completely contradictory belief in its place. And many others will consider that belief purely secondary and not worth quibbling about.
Here’s the only definition of Christianity that I’ve ever seen that encompasses all its wild and wacky variants:
- There might be a god out there
- Jesus is kind of important somehow
But almost all Christians bristle at such a succinct definition of their faith. Some Christians bristle even more. Instead, these judgiest of judgy Christians utilize a purely subjective definition. Using themselves as their model, they assess all other Christians using a simple three-part test.
A TRUE CHRISTIAN™…
- Believes the same basic package of nonsense that the judgy Christian believes.
- Hasn’t been caught doing anything that the judgy Christian thinks is completely off-limits.
- And dies in the traces with both previous conditions being true, as the judgy Christian fully expects to do. (Note: This third part only comes into play with Christians who have left the tribe.)
It’s important to note that a great many Christians allow for a lot of leeway in their fellow Christians. This test belongs to toxic Christians: dysfunctional authoritarians who seek to gatekeep the faith, especially to deny fellowship with Christians who embarrass them or contradict their claims. To qualify as a toxic Christian, all three parts must be in play (as applicable). After all, nice Christians often try to deny the label of “Christian” to Christians caught committing terrible crimes, but usually they’ll extend it even to those who don’t believe exactly the same things.
You can spot these judges by their mating calls: “True Christians do this! Real Christians believe this! Genuine Christians would never do that!” Compare their chirping to the three-part definition above, and you’ll learn a lot about what kind of people they really are underneath all that Jesus-themed window dressing.
We’ve seen this chapter before Before You Lose Your Faith
This chapter comes to us courtesy of Brett McCracken. He’s the senior editor and director of communications at The Gospel Coalition (TGC). TGC largely organized this book, and most of its contributors work with or for TGC in some capacity.
And we have seen this chapter before. Back in March 2021, we examined a post he wrote for TGC. It’s this chapter. It’s even titled the same: “Deconversion Is Not as Countercultural as You Think.” I wrote a post about it at the time. (And another. And, er, another.) Indeed, at the very end of his post at TGC, we find an editor’s note informing us that the chapter came first, and then the post was adapted from it. I truly don’t remember if I caught that at the time, but we know now.
At the end of that post, I offered an explanation for why McCracken was sneering so hard at deconversion: his intended audience wasn’t people who have actually deconverted and thus know that he’s spewing nonstop bullshit. Rather, he was talking to those people in his tribe of fundagelical hardliners who were just starting to entertain off-limits doubts about their faith.
And like the other contributors we’ve seen so far in Before You Lose Your Faith, he’s also trying his damndest to set the rules of engagement for those with doubts. He’s telling them how the tribe will see them if they don’t get with the program again and stop thinking about all that stuff that contradicts Christian claims.
Even by fundagelical standards, McCracken gets deconversion so drastically wrong that it boggles my mind. But that’s just part of the charm of this chapter. He also offers a vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ that should repel anybody reading it.
Deconversion vs deconstruction: The authors of Before You Lose Your Faith make a subtle language shift here
What’s really funny is that, like the rest of the contributors we’ve seen so far, the book is officially aimed at those undergoing deconstruction, yet it uses deconversion language.
Deconstruction means examining one’s beliefs and pitching out what isn’t working. Deconversion means examining one’s beliefs, finding them based ultimately on false claims, and pitching out all of it by rejecting Christianity as a whole.
At a rough guess, the vast majority of people who deconstruct don’t ever fully deconvert. They remain Christian to some extent. The few who completely deconvert usually call themselves ex-Christians. (In fact, that’s the one religious label I’m comfortable using.)
I reckon the focus moved from deconversion to deconstruction about five years ago. That move definitely made examining one’s beliefs more accessible to doubting Christians. Knowing that the process doesn’t necessarily have to end with complete rejection of Christianity likely did make it feel safer. In my opinion, this shift was a good thing overall.
I’d rather Christians doggedly seek the ultimate truth of Christianity—that literally none of it is true. But if that’s a bridge too far, then at least I want them to be safe. If nothing else, they can consider the rest at their leisure.
But you would never guess that the folks at TGC understand the difference between the two processes.
So Before You Lose Your Faith officially aims at deconstruction, but so far we’ve seen contributors talking mostly about deconversion.
I find that shift in language very interesting.
Maybe Before You Lose Your Faith thinks both processes are deconversion..?
The fundagelicals involved with Before You Lose Your Faith seem to seriously think that deconstruction and deconversion are the same process. Everything Brett McCracken writes about in his chapter is directed toward people who still think that Christianity contains any true claims at all.
When he leans hard on Bible verses, he aims at people who think Bible verses carry authoritative weight. When he stokes fears of “go[ing] it alone” without his god’s help, he addresses people who still think that any gods meddle in anyone’s life.
The people McCracken addresses even harbor hopes of finding churches that accept and embrace them. Many times, he sneers at deconversion as a “bourgeois choice” that “makes you lonely” and the like. This rhetoric speaks only to Christians who are indoctrinated to believe that they will only find real friends in church, and moreover that think they need religion in some way to get through life.
People who’ve already figured out that none of this stuff is true won’t respond to this hamfisted emotional manipulation. But then, that is the name of the book, right? It tells potential readers: Before losing faith, you should check this book out!
The Law of Conservation of Worship strikes again
And it won’t take deconstructing Christians long to realize that his strawmen are just that. Speaking from my own experience, I know of no deconstructed Christians whose lives look anything like the picture that Brett McCracken paints:
This “mix and match” religion might include a few parts of traditional religion (Shabbat, Christmas carols, Catholic prayer candles), a smattering of “wellness” practices (yoga, meditation, SoulCycle), a dash of New Age magic (burning sage, Tarot cards, astrology), and a deeply moral zealotry for social justice or LGBT+ rights.
Yes, because that’s not at all like his own flavor of fundagelicalism:
- A few parts of traditional religion in the form of literalism and inerrancy, idolizing Original Christianity and a weird interpretation of the Bible
- A smattering of “wellness” practices, like prayer, church attendance, and tithing (“tithe your gross paycheck for gross blessings, net paycheck for net blessings,” as I’ve heard fundagelical pastors say)
- Some magical thinking like prosperity gospel, magic healing, supernatural help for problems, and miracle claims
- And a deeply moral zealotry for bigotry, systemic sexism and racism, and striving for theocracy in American government
If there’s one universal truth among fundagelicals, it’s their narcissism. Here, it manifests as certainty that ex-Christians totally do all the things that his flavor of Christianity does, just with different manifestations. The Law of Conservation of Worship is on full display in this chapter. By making ex-Christians’ supposed practices sound ludicrous and disjointed, disorganized and making no sense at all, he hopes to make his flavor’s identical practices sound sensible, streamlined, and traditional.
To sell his product, which is active membership in his flavor of Christianity, he will lean on the usual thing that his fellow hucksters use: emotional manipulation.
Why should anyone buy what Before You Lose Your Faith is selling?
And that’s really all he can offer: emotional manipulation. This chapter, like the post we examined last year, contains not one single compelling reason to purchase his product.
Here is a partial list of why Brett McCracken thinks deconversion is ickie:
- It’s trend-chasing, unlike his quirky flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ that has overtaken fundagelicalism since the 1980s.
- It sells a false vision of radicalism, unlike his quirky flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ which is the real “radical choice” here.
- Deconversion means joining “the ranks of frat boys obsessed with Joe Rogan” and Oprah Winfrey’s “vast tribe of suburban moms.”
- Anyone deconverting has clearly not tried his quirky flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, which immediately and automatically marks their deconversion as suspiciously shallow and poorly-considered.
- In addition, people who deconvert obviously want a religion where “everything is explainable and all tensions must be resolved,” which is obviously “an attempt to domesticate God and shoehorn him into our comfortable paradigms.” How grody!
- It’s a mark of ickie privilege to “meander on their intuitional paths with little concern for the possible dangers of a ‘go it alone’ spirituality.” Poor people, by contrast, “recognize the necessity—not just for survival, but for flourishing—of embeddedness within social fabrics, institutions, and traditions. . . You have to live a pretty comfortable life to be a religious ‘none.'”
- Leaving TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ leads to “me-driven spirituality” that “eventually becomes claustrophobic and lonely.”
- Of course, deconversion results in “a bourgeois iteration of mainstream consumerism,” which is why “capitalism loves it.” (Don’t think about all the religious books and cheap, kitschy tat that Christians buy all the time. TGC itself could not exist without capitalism and fundagelicals’ consumerism.)
Notice any trends here? In every single case, he’s just trying to knock down a strawman of deconversion.
Destroying strawmen, even extensively, does not rise to even one compelling reason to purchase his own product. It’s painfully obvious that McCracken has no positive reasons to offer.
And if those strawmen aren’t even reflections of reality, that makes his product doubly repulsive.
What Before You Lose Your Faith lacks: Beliefs that fit with reality
In this book’s third chapter, Brett McCracken tries very hard to make the evidence provided by reality look ickie and substandard compared to the certainty he feels about his beliefs. Check out what he says about reality:
This Christianity [meaning his flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™] invites—rather than shuns—the intellectual wrestling that naturally comes when we try to wrap our minds around an infinite, triune God whose existence and work in the world will always be a bit mysterious.
That’s a funny way to say “will always look exactly identical to no gods existing or working in the world.” His utter lack of evidence supporting his claims is not mysterious, either. He’s made a patently untrue claim, and he has announced with this statement that he has no intention of supporting it. If anyone wants support, then he’ll punt to mystery.
It’s mysterious, you see! See, see, nobody can expect the real world to reflect our beliefs, because that’d rip away the mystery! Yahweh likes to be coy and mysterious, making all his work in the world look exactly like we’d expect no work at all in the world to look!
… and then he slams anyone who even wants evidence to support their claims
Brett McCracken continues:
Many who deconstruct their faith believe Christianity is a religion for intellectual simpletons, in which everything is explainable and all tensions must be resolved (out of fear that they’ll discredit the whole thing). If that’s your experience of Christianity, I’m sorry. I understand why you’d want to leave it behind. But that’s not true Christianity; it’s simply another mutation of the faith—an attempt to domesticate God and shoehorn him into our comfortable paradigms. . .
One of its costs is intellectual—the taxing burden of lingering questions, knotty paradoxes, and “mirror dimly” faith (I Cor 13:12) without empirical proof.
McCracken really wants to have it both ways here:
A real live god who does real live things in the real live world…
…While also leaving behind absolutely no empirical proof of his existence or actions. But he’s totally real—he just looks completely like he’s not.
And if anybody makes snippy mouth-noises about how real live beings doing real live things always leave behind signs of both their existence and activity, he just chalks that up to an “intellectual cost.” Oh well! It’s just how Yahweh is! That’s So Yahweh!
However, it’s not just a “taxing burden” to hold two completely contradictory ideas in one’s mind. It produces cognitive dissonance, which leads to all kinds of other psychological problems and maladaptive behaviors. It also leads to Christians losing (or never gaining) the ability to assess claims. Once they’ve accepted those two drastically opposed ideas as truth, they open the door to accepting many, many more claims that are false.
Before You Lose Your Faith attacks trust in reality for a reason
It’s not unreasonable to expect our beliefs about reality to be reflected in reality and supported by reality. But Brett McCracken needs his audience to believe that it is very unreasonable. He needs his readers to accept that it’s the height of hubris and an offense against his god even to dare to ask for even one shred of supporting evidence for the claims that he himself makes in this very chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith.
With this chapter, he’s also accidentally completely shat all over the entire apologetics industry. If it was simply a matter of shrugging about reality’s curious lack of validation for literally any Christian claims, nobody would ever need apologetics. One is left with the conviction that if reality ever did validate a single one of his claims, McCracken would never shut up about it. But it doesn’t, so he needs to attack reality itself to make his claims seem reasonable.
We should deeply distrust anyone who demands that we distrust reality. There’s always a reason for it. And it’s always bad news for us and good news for the person making the demand. If someone needs us to ignore reality to accept their claims, it means they stand to gain by us not exercising critical thinking around them. They’ll be making a lot of untrue claims, yes, but they’ll also be demanding things of us that we wouldn’t normally want to give them. If we’re not allowed to check their claims against reality in one place, rest assured that we will not be allowed to do so anywhere else, either.
Brett McCracken is selling something that isn’t in his audience’s best interest to buy. To score sales at their expense, he seeks to strip away their very ability to weigh his claims against reality.
The worst restaurant in the world, Before You Lose Your Faith style
One of McCracken’s more demonstrably false claims can be found throughout his chapter: that somehow, in some universe, his stodgy, repressive, regressive, oppressive, ultraconservative, hyper-politicized fundagelicalism represents some kind of wild countercultural statement. In fact, he insists that this supposed countercultural status makes his product much more desirable to counterculture-craving people.
We’ve seen this attempt to make similar flavors of Christianity look cool many times before. It’s simply an appeal to the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). In this case, he attempts (poorly) to foment FOMO over something that he claims is very cool and very countercultural.
He does all of it while not making any positive case for purchasing his product. Just trust me, bro.
We’ve already seen that he tries to make his own lack of evidence into a positive, and the very demand for confirming evidence into a condemned negative. Imagine if a restaurant did that! Just imagine a restaurant slamming critics and bad reviews for having poor taste and no discernment, then trying to make its customer base look like the coolest-of-the-cool who totally don’t care that everyone else is sure that the place serves terrible food and has poor service.
No no, those customers insist, this place serves the BEST food and has the BEST service! And you’re missing out if you don’t eat here every day! Anyone who stops eating here is just a bourgeois capitalist who doesn’t know what’s good!
How long would it take for people to notice that this restaurant fails to present any real reasons for eating there? Probably, they’d notice immediately. They’d see that the menu pictures and descriptions don’t look at all like the disgusting food being served. They’d notice the filthy floors and tables and not be fooled by claims of superior cleanliness. And let’s not get into what they’d think of behind-the-scenes pictures of the kitchen’s complete squalor, nor its repeated lawsuits as servers finally get sick of mistreatment.
That imaginary restaurant is what Brett McCracken is demanding people patronize.
You’ll be SOOOO COOL if you accept King Brett’s claims!
So if you want to be utterly cool and totally countercultural, you must embrace Brett McCracken’s product. That’s the only way to escape bourgeois capitalism, you see.
(Narrator: Actually, nobody cares about his religion’s cultural or countercultural status.)
Don’t misunderstand. He doesn’t push that product out of any personal benefits he might get from that purchase. No no, not at all! Not even a little! Gosh, he doesn’t get anything out of anyone deciding not to pursue their doubts! Not money, not fame, not even street cred from publishing books slamming deconversion and deconstruction!
(Narrator: Actually, he gets all of that and more from buy-in.)
He’s just very deeply concerned, you see, about readers accidentally chasing counterculture fizziness, only to be disappointed. So really, he’s just trying to show readers that all that desired fizziness can be found right at home in their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ fundagelicalism. They just aren’t looking at TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ the right way. Yet. He’ll show them exactly how to look at it and get all fizzy!
And if readers still refuse to buy, he’ll just slam them too.
No worries. He’s got more than enough slamming to go around! Just like in South Park!
Sure, his slams don’t look like either deconstruction or deconversion in reality. But he’s already demonstrated a deep hostility to the evidence provided by reality. One more contradiction from reality won’t even inconvenience him. Or anyone else at TGC.
And most especially not anyone involved in Before You Lose Your Faith.
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