We’re now on the penultimate chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith. Last time we met up, I said Chapter 13 might be the worst chapter of this book. But I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong. And I should know better, really. It’s my own fault. Every time I’ve ever said I’ve seen the worst thing evangelicals have ever done, one of them has turned up in short order with a backhoe and asked me to hold their Bible. So of course it’d happen with a book they’ve written! Of course!
Today, we’ll see just how wrong I could be about this book as we examine the writing of a guy who apparently teaches pastors for a living, and yet has no clue in the world why sometimes, despite evangelicals’ best efforts, people sometimes just don’t believe that evangelicals’ claims are true.
(Author’s note: When I talk about evangelism as a sales process, the product being sold is active membership in the evangelist’s own group. Generally speaking, evangelists only push hard to get their marks’ buy-in on their religious claims because that makes their actual product a lot easier to sell.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 1/5/2023. You can find an audio cast of the post there too. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron 💕)
Everyone, meet Jared Wilson, writer of Chapter 14 of Before You Lose Your Faith
According to his bio blurb in Before You Lose Your Faith, Jared Wilson is the assistant professor of pastoral ministry at Spurgeon College. The school is named after Charles Spurgeon, who was a very gung-ho Calvinist in the 19th century. It’s the undergraduate division of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which affiliates with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Wilson is also an author-in-residence for the seminary proper.
In addition to all of that, Wilson’s bio says he is “the director of the pastoral training center” at Liberty Baptist Church. When we mosey over to the church’s statement of beliefs and doctrines, we discover that it, too, is way lots Calvinist. However, his staff bio at the church makes clear that this lofty position isn’t nearly as glamorous as the book’s blurb made out. It sounds pretty informal to me. The church doesn’t have a “pastoral training center” as such. It’s not a big church. Instead, the church site tells us that he’s just a lay pastor. His role involves “discipling young men” who want to go into pastoring when they grow up. Sometimes, when Wilson’s been a very good boy, he gets to preach and teach classes, too!
(If anyone’s wondering, this is pretty much what my Evil Ex Biff did as a lay preacher. He ached to become a real pastor, but he never quite got there. Sounds like Wilson’s in the same boat.)
Wilson runs a personal site as well. There, we learn that nobody should be taking any advice from this guy about anything related to evangelism or pastoring. He’s never successfully started and run his own church. Given the many personal flaws he’s willing to reveal in public, one wonders what else is going on behind the scenes that’s so bad that it kept him from boarding the evangelical gravy train and joining their crony network.
It seems that this guy’s one real skill is tickling evangelicals’ itching ears by telling them exactly what they want to hear.
We’re not starting this chapter off very well, are we? But as we’ll see, it showcases his one real talent very well.
Predatory evangelism in Before You Lose Your Faith
Years ago, I wrote about evangelicals who prey upon elderly people in nursing homes. I still remember how hoppin’ mad, spittin’ furious those chirpy lil fundie sales-bots made me. Ten years later, just the name of that post instantly summons forth the sharp memory of that anger.
Yeah, I get to feeling certain ways when it comes to elder abuse. And I very much regard the kind of evangelism Wilson describes in his chapter as elder abuse. It is predatory and evil to creep for evangelicals to shill their shitty product loaded with astronomical costs and purely manipulative hard-sales tactics to vulnerable people.
But I didn’t quite understand the dynamics of belief and disbelief back then. I understand a lot more now. So when Jared Wilson writes with obvious pride about evangelizing an elderly couple, I know what he does not. I know why one person bought his product, while the other did not.
Because I am feeling overwhelmingly helpful today, I’m going to explain this great mystery in a way that hopefully he will understand if he ever runs across this post. If nothing else, maybe it’ll make sense to someone else who will doubtless make better use of the information than he ever could.
The premise of this chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith
Basically, Chapter 14 of Before You Lose Your Faith is all about the sheer mystery of belief and disbelief. Gosh, Wilson tells us, nobody really knows at all why some people buy into evangelicalism while others never do. Nor does anybody really understand why someone could be a lifelong Christian who believes all the right doctrines and talking points, and yet still walks away from it all later on in life.
Nope, it’s all a total mystery that will never be understood. Sometimes, Wilson repeats often in his chapter, people don’t believe. It’s not the fault of their teachers, parents, pastors, or anyone else. Sometimes, Jesus just doesn’t make with the pixie dust, the jamba juice, the banana rama, the… sorry, I’m getting carried away. The point is the same: If Jesus doesn’t want someone to believe, then they won’t, and that’s just the end of the matter.
(It’s amazing how all of this book’s Calvinist writers dance all around their predestination and election blahblah without using the words. You’d only notice it if you were looking for it and knew the coded language that Calvinists use when they’re trying not to be obvious.)
To illustrate his point, Wilson opens with a story of evangelizing an elderly married couple.
A last-ditch sales call request from a busybody relative
One day, Wilson writes, he got a phone call from someone in his church in a “rural Vermont town.” I’m assuming this is the failed church plant mentioned on his personal site. This congregant was related to an elderly couple. The wife was in a nursing home, while her husband had landed in the hospital. Neither believed the same nonsense their relative did, and this concerned the relative. After all, if someone dies without buying the product that evangelicals sell, then Jesus will torture their ghost forever! Oh noes! So this relative wanted Wilson to go hard-sell them.
Wilson toddled right out. Dude probably rubbed his hands together in glee all the way there.
The wife accepted his sales pitch. Her husband did not.
And this completely confuzzled and flustrated Jared Wilson. As he writes (p. 122):
It was startling to me then, as it still is to me now. This spiritual contrast has haunted me in the years since. I didn’t offer them different messages. My wording might have been slightly different, but the basic information was the same. The good news is the good news. And I would’ve thought that if any moment would be ripe for a “what have I got to lose?” Pascal’s wager, it would be on one’s deathbed. But she believed. And he didn’t.
Poor guy. Haunted, he was. Haunted, I tells you!
He devotes the rest of his chapter to exploring why one person might believe while another simply doesn’t. Or rather, why one person continues to believe while another deconstructs or deconverts.
(He does get a little muddled between the one and the other. In my opinion, the dynamics of first-belief vs. continued-belief are quite different.)
Why the wife bought the product, but the husband didn’t
Consider the pair as he describes them:
Elderly, with at least one hardline evangelical relative in the family connection. The wife resides in a nursing home, which implies she’s going to be there for a while yet. But her husband is in the hospital, which implies an acute situation that’s coming to a head. Wilson doesn’t tell us what their health situation is, only that they were each “on the verge of death.”
But I do know that if the wife were seriously about to die, she’d likely be in the hospital as well. She might have been declining rapidly, but she was not at an acute stage of ill-health yet. Her husband almost certainly was.
She was staring down the long, cold, double barrel of widowhood. I cannot even imagine the heartrending pain she had to be in right then, knowing that soon she’d be alone. In the middle of that impending loss-of-all-losses, here comes her fundie relative’s pastor to chirp at her about acceptingJesusasherpersonallordandsaviorthankyouamen.
If she rejected this sales pitch, she might anger her relative. Sales-minded evangelicals are absolutely famous—for good reason—for how they behave toward those who reject their demands. Potentially, that rift could deepen wide and quickly. How many family members could she afford to alienate right then?
I don’t know if she “believed,” as Wilson puts it. But she did apparently at least humor this total stranger demanding her attention at such a horrific time. (Interestingly, Wilson doesn’t tell us that she became a faithful Christian, nor that she died in the traces. If she had done either of these things, I’ve no doubt he’d gleefully tell us so. So she didn’t. But at least she bought herself a little time.)
By contrast, her husband knew he was going soon. It would make no difference at all to anybody if he bought the product or not. Without any coercive force to push him into a sale, he rejected the “good news” that Wilson offered.
The power of coercion, not the Holy Spirit, in Before You Lose Your Faith
Without coercion, Christianity itself is doomed. But evangelicals are doubly doomed, because everything they do relies upon the power they can bring to bear upon their targets and victims.
In this case, Wilson was counting on the power of coercion to score a sale with this elderly couple. He even tells us so when he references Pascal’s Wager. That’s why he was so confused when the husband rejected his sales pitch.
Pascal’s Wager is a pernicious emotional manipulation tool that is greatly treasured by evangelicals. It’s basically an appeal to consequences. Here’s how it’s usually phrased:
- If everything evangelicals claim about their religion is true, then non-believers take a dreadful risk in rejecting their sales pitches. They risk everything. But if they buy the product, then they get an impossibly-rich reward: eternity in Heaven and, more importantly, an escape from Hell.
- If evangelicals’ claims are false, then non-believers risk nothing. Of course, if they buy the product anyway, then they don’t get anything either, but they’ll be dead then and won’t care either way.
- Therefore, it makes sense to accept the sales pitch.
Many evangelicals see nothing wrong at all with the deliberate deployment of Pascal’s Wager in evangelism. That fact is everything we need to know about the validity of their claims and the value of their product.
But Pascal’s wager didn’t figure in to this sales success
There are a kabillion things wrong with the Wager, of course, starting with its assumption that the only two options on the table are the Christian god or atheism, continuing on toward the god described in it being an idiot who is happy to accept false worship and professions of faith from non-believers acting purely from self-preservation, and galumphing right into the home stretch with the simple fact that evangelicals have never provided any real evidence to support their claims, instead relying on the threat of Hell to sell their product.
I’ve heard that even Pascal himself thought his thought experiment wasn’t a persuasive reason to buy into Christian claims. I hope he didn’t, because it isn’t.
Either way, it wasn’t Pascal’s Wager that won Wilson a sale, however temporary it was. It was simple relationship coercion. And he deliberately used it against an elderly woman living alone in a nursing home and who was about to be widowed.
This man, the relative who sent him, and his entire community are pure scum.
I hope this couple’s kids found out what he did and sued his ass off for inflicting distress on this couple. I hope the rest of that rural Vermont town found out what he did and shunned him forever. Most of all, I hope with all my heart that this incident is what caused his church plant to fail.
A gal can dream.
The “weight of belief” in Before You Lose Your Faith
For the rest of the chapter, Wilson discusses “the weight of belief.” He explores the immense pressure placed on evangelists to, as he puts it, “seal the deal” with their marks. The implication, of course, was that if someone rejected their sales pitch, then it was clearly their fault. For what? Well, for not presenting the pitch correctly, I suppose. That puts “the weight of belief” on the evangelist.
But Wilson thinks that evangelists shouldn’t shoulder that entire burden. Nor, he asserts, should evangelicals rush to perform a “spiritual autopsy” every time a famous evangelical announces they’re leaving the fold. Because sometimes, he says, people just don’t believe. Therefore, there’s nothing anyone can do about disbelief sometimes. It just happens.
He might as well blame deconstruction and deconversion on demons.
Punting to a purely external locus of control is a very easy way to abdicate responsibility. For all their seeming obsession with accountability, evangelicals are very good at doing exactly that.
It’s good to know exactly what we can control and what we can’t—what’s ours and what’s theirs. That’s part of learning how to grow beyond our mistakes. Heck, it’s part of learning how to accept responsibility for those mistakes, and how to hold others accountable for their own.
If someone can’t figure out what’s theirs and what isn’t, then they may go through their whole life refusing to apologize or make amends. Or they may go through life accepting blame endlessly for things that aren’t their fault at all. There’s a balance to be struck here, and it’s vital for us to learn how to do it.
In this case, evangelicals do bear a very hefty responsibility for the many deconversions and deconstructions occurring in their flock. They’re making some huge and costly mistakes here, and those mistakes are finally coming home to roost.
But these are not mistakes that they can ever acknowledge, much less fix with Before You Lose Your Faith. So it’s best to fling them them high into the sky and claim that ultimately, evangelicals go through the motions, but none of them have any idea what their god’s going to do at any given moment.
The mistakes evangelicals are making in Before You Lose Your Faith
In the case of evangelicals, their overall self-made problems are simple:
- every one of their claims are untrue
- uniformly awful and unsafe groups
- leaders who are often abusive and control-hungry—and utterly unaccountable
- demands that are ridiculously excessive for what these groups offer in return
I didn’t say they’d be easy to fix. Just that they’re simple.
However, evangelicals can neither accept those truths nor deal with them. So instead, they punt to mystery: Only Jesus can possibly know why some folks buy in for life, while others don’t! As Wilson puts it (p. 125):
When Christians witness someone rejecting the gospel of Jesus, they often think they didn’t give the right presentation, offer the best apologetic answers, and so on. And sometimes we do get in our own way. But the reality of the Holy Spirit resists such rationale. [. . .]
Christianity, for all of its historical claims and intellectual content, is above all supernatural [remember, supernatural just means “imaginary” — CC].
[T]he difference between belief and unbelief is not in the presentation but in the Spirit’s awakening presence. By grace God condescends to use human means (Rom. 10:14), but the power is his alone.
It’s amazing this guy’s brain doesn’t break into a million little shards from all the contortions he does with it. This is crazymaking stuff, and he just parrots it without a single glance sideways.
What’s worse, though, is that he’s already completely contradicted himself already.
But wait, apparently it is totally evangelicals’ fault that so many deconstruct/deconvert
Two pages earlier, Wilson spent considerable time exploring why he thinks evangelicals leave his flavor of Christianity. Naturally, it’s due to a lack of exactly the services he most wishes to provide: discipleship and doctrinal teaching (p. 123):
Now, there is definitely a severe deficiency in the state of evangelical discipleship. [. . .] The way Americans “do church” isn’t great at training converts to plant deep spiritual roots, center their lives on the gospel, commit to a Christian community, and affirm the sufficiency of God’s Word. We have by and large traded in robust spiritual formation according to the biblical gospel for superficial religious affirmation according to consumeristic moralism, so we shouldn’t be surprised that more people from this system are rejecting traditional Christianity for a message of being true to yourself.
It’s like he can’t decide what he wants to do here: blame fakey-fake fake Christians for not Jesus-ing right, or blame Jesus for not wanting to keep them in the traces.
And a few pages after his punt to mystery, Wilson then blames a high-profile ex-Christian for having Jesus-ed all wrong (p. 128):
In his public statement, [Jon] Steingard posited some weak intellectual objections common among those who think superficially about the truth claims of Christian theism. So maybe he wasn’t discipled well, after all. Or maybe he was, and he just doesn’t believe. Sometimes people just don’t believe.
For reference, the reason that Christians like Jared Wilson sneer about “weak intellectual objections” is that they think they’ve mastered the deceptive sleight-of-hand that their own teachers (erroneously) insisted completely negate those objections.
In truth, there is not a single argument in Christendom that rises to the level of credible evidence for Christian claims. In fact, all the arguments in Christendom taken together do not amount to evidence.
Arguments are not evidence.
They are what Christians use instead of evidence and because they lack evidence.
I really do not understand Calvinists, I guess
I’ve said before that I really don’t understand how Calvinists reconcile predestination and election with evangelism and books that desperately try to keep evangelicals in the fold.
You’d honestly think that Calvinism would mean they don’t need to do anything at all. Their god will move them however he wishes. They won’t be able to help doing his bidding. That’s what predestination and election are, at their heart: humans being utterly helpless to resist the machinations of Yahweh, who has already decided from before time was time what he wants to do with his human ant farm.
They shouldn’t need to go through the motions. If their claims were true, the motions would consistently and reliably move them.
Imagine if they found themselves getting up off the couch in mid-nap and zombie-lurching out of the house to find the person driving a specific strawberry-red 2023 Miata stopped at the light at the nearest corner at 4:55pm. And imagine they blurted out to that astonished person that Jesus would be magically healing her teenage son’s cystic acne that night as a show of power.
(Also, oh gosh, just LOOK at this beautiful machine. LOOK.)
Sure, it would not be, in and of itself, evidence supporting the claim of Yahweh’s existence. It’d still be much more impressive than how these hucksters, vampires, and shills usually operate. And if they got stupendous results every time they did it, rather than the tiny fraction-of-a-fraction-of-a-fraction of successes they squeeze out of their unwilling marks now, it’d definitely be an interesting point for critics to consider.
But apparently their god just loves watching his little pet ants completely waste their time on hard-sales attempts that do little more than fail every time.
So it’s beyond hilarious to me that Calvinists act in ways that indicate that they’re perfectly aware that they must actively recruit new members for their religion, and that they must actively dissuade members from leaving. They can bellow all they want about their god being the one to either spark faith or leave his ants to burn forever in agony. Their own behavior tells us that they know that no gods are doing anything. They know it’s all just them.
(That’s one of their other self-made problems that are their own fault.)
It’s not evangelicalism without one last fired-off veiled threat about Hell
And yes, I actually laughed out loud when I saw Wilson’s last subtitle for his chapter: “What if I’m not elect?”
He goes on to reassure worried evangelicals that if they’re concerned about being part of Yahweh’s elect, meaning predestined for Heaven, then that means they still have a chance to escape Hell.
I mean, it would not be evangelicalism at all without threats of Hell. That’s their very biggest gun. And they know it. He writes (p. 129):
I have not known many unsaved persons to worry about salvation. The fact that you’d be concerned about whether you’re elect is a good sign that you are. It’s likely evidence of a softened heart, which is itself evidence of the Spirit’s work in you.
Without evidence that Yahweh actually exists and that Wilson’s overall claims about him are true, we must resort to Occam’s Razor. It’s far more likely that someone worried about Hell is actually simply emotionally vulnerable to threats of that nature. Some people respond more strongly to “what if it’s true?” kinds of threats. Whoever can threaten them the most luridly and ruthlessly will win their buy-in.
The truth about fearing Hell
I’ve known people who deconverted and had panic attacks for years about going to Hell. They knew Hell isn’t real. They knew it very well. But the fear had worked its way into their minds. It became an obsession, a compulsive and intrusive thought like one sees in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psych people call it scrupulosity, and recognize it as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
When a fear gets to that level, that doesn’t mean that the topic of the fear is real or that it’s actually even something that could reasonably happen. PTSD sufferers panic about all kinds of fears. When I was doing really bad with my PTSD, I had panic attacks over the idea of accidentally putting my beloved ladycat into the oven. Seriously. That fear scared me so much that I couldn’t even enter my kitchen for days sometimes.
Other people experience intrusive, compulsive thoughts about being gay, or abusing children, or saying racist things. (Actually, I experienced that last one myself as well, in those dark days. Not an ideal situation for a call center rep.) But they are straight, would never hurt a child, and would never say anything racist to anyone.
Fears that bad are less about the actual topic of the fear and more about the fear-er getting stuck in a mental rut and maybe needing some professional help to get out of it. They’re about us being under huge amounts of mental stress, so we’re releasing tons of stress chemicals into our bodies, and our busy, overworked brains try to figure out what’s got us so scared using the quickest, easiest means possible.
Our brains are very good at remembering what made us most scared last time.
Slate Star Codex calls that process “the Chamber of Guf.” Seriously, read that essay. It’s brilliant. But this is the money shot, for our purposes at least:
One day the angel randomly scoops up the thought “I am gay” and hands it to the patient’s consciousness. The patient notices the thought “I am gay”, and falsely interprets it as evidence that they’re actually gay, causing fear and disgust and self-doubt. The angel notices this thought produced a lot of emotion and occupied consciousness for a long time – a success! That was such a good choice of thought! It must have been so relevant! It decides to stick with this strategy of using the “I am gay” thought from now on.
Substitute Hell, do-si-do, circle left, then weave the ring. Our brains are so very good at finding fears to hand us in our most terrified states. But that does not ever mean that those extreme fears are based in reality. That’s where we must use our critical thinking skills to evaluate the fears, and if we can’t shake the fears even then, to find help if we need it. I did, and I’m very thankful I did.
The sad truth about belief and disbelief that Before You Lose Your Faith can’t accept or fix or change
Belief and disbelief aren’t divine engineering in action. Instead, they are reflections of an individual’s faith pool.
All of our beliefs about everything can be represented by pools of water. Taps feed water into a faith pool; these represent the reasons we think validate and confirm the belief in question. Drains, in turn, empty water from the pool; these represent contradictions to the belief.
Some beliefs are small and not part of our self-image; their pools are small and fed by only one or two taps. Others are huge and definite parts of our identity; these will be huge and fed by many taps.
Evangelicals make many claims about their god and how their flavor of Christianity works. None of these claims are true. No, not even one. But they’ve successfully indoctrinated their followers into thinking, erroneously, that a number of validations exist for those beliefs: apologetics, their feelings, historical revisionism, pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology, tribalistic beliefs in their group’s innate superiority over others, belief in Hell as a danger after death, fear of retaliation, etc.
However, just existing in the world creates a serious problem for evangelicals’ beliefs. Every day, evangelicals encounter countless contradictions to their claims. So water is always flowing out of their pool.
As long as the taps feeding into an evangelical’s faith pool supply more water than is leaving it, that evangelical will continue to believe.
But if that evangelical figures out that apologetics is actually total bullshit, then that tap turns off. If they realize that evangelicals are the worst hypocrites ever, then that tap turns off. Likewise, if they figure out that the Bible can’t possibly be literally true or inerrant, then that tap does as well. Meanwhile, all the usual contradictions are still steadily draining the pool.
So for the people who leave, a bunch of contradictions turns off a bunch of taps all at once, and the water drains much faster than the remaining taps can fill the pool. It’s that simple.
How evangelicals could stop their decline, but won’t
The very best thing that evangelicals could possibly do is present as few contradictions as possible to their claims. They could begin behaving like they at least sorta-kinda take their own claims semi-seriously. They could stop insisting that an ancient book of myths is literally true and categorically authoritative to 21st-century Christians, which most especially includes renouncing their obviously-engineered and manufactured threat of Hell. And they could reject apologetics as childish buffoonery meant to confuse the intellectually unwary and unprepared.
Heck, they could even rededicate themselves to a best-case kind of Christianity, one that actually focuses single-mindedly on all that boring charity stuff that Jesus commanded his followers to do. Evangelicals hate that stuff, and they’ve evolved a lot of inferior substitutions to avoid doing it.
Yeah, there are a lot of things evangelicals could do to present their flocks a coherent, consistent, meaningful faith that offers the fewest contradictions possible between reality and their claims.
But they can’t do anything like that. If they did, they wouldn’t be evangelicals anymore. In fact, they denounce any Christians who go that route as fakers.
For a while, when Christians first learned that they really were in a decline (around 2014-2016), these exact evangelicals were very fond of claiming that the Christians doing any of this were facing worse declines because they weren’t preaching the gospel, to use the Christianese. But it turns out that evangelicals’ decline was just delayed a bit, probably because of their authoritarian leaders’ control over their largely-authoritarian followers. Soon enough, evangelicals caught up with their nicer brethren.
And now it’s far too late for these very authoritarian Christians to change anything. Their leaders have successfully taught the flocks to trample and tear apart anyone in the pews who dares suggest such changes.
Their Dear Leaders have set up an impossible collision, a cruel dilemma, here between reality and their claims. Those leaders hope the fear of this collision will keep their followers in the fold.
More and more often, though, it doesn’t.
And neither will Before You Lose Your Faith.
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