Thought stoppers are super-meaningful-sounding statements that don’t actually say anything substantive–and can’t really even be defined at all. The further into wackadoodlery a flavor of Christianity is, the more thought stoppers we’ll find there, and for good reason. When believers aren’t really very clear on a concept (like when it’s not real or true in the first place), phrases like this jump out very quickly and easily at them, and believers seize at them like they’re lucky black feathers.

Unfortunately, they must suffice for those who believe in that-what-ain’t-real: in their belief systems, there is no there, there. So you can use the presence and number thought stoppers as a gauge when you assess the claims a group makes about themselves and their beliefs.

(This post first appeared in Ex-Communications on April 20, 2015. Since Patheos has seen fit to remove all of my work from their site, and the post appears nowhere else, I thought it’d be fun to park some of them here. I hope you enjoy this blast from the past! I’ve greatly tidied it up and clarified some stuff for easier reading.)

Defining thought stoppers

Thought stoppers are sayings that seems very deep and meaningful at first, but when you look at them more closely you realize they’re beyond idiotic. It may even say something awful that the person uttering it doesn’t even recognize. They’re just meant to turn off a listener’s critical thinking faculties.

In this way, they are very similar to deepities.

The term deepity was coined by the teenaged daughter of a friend of big-name atheist Daniel Dennett. As RationalWiki puts it:

Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings: one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true. To the extent that it’s true, it doesn’t have to matter. To the extent that it has to matter, it isn’t true (if it actually means anything).

Dennett even gave us a classic example: “Love is just a word.”

Obviously, love is actually a word with letters, a correct spelling, and dictionary definitions. But it’s a lot more than that, which is why this deepity sounds impressive. But it is actually not only wrong but could also be considered a bit mean-spirited.

A thought stopper might not even be that extensive, though. It may only be a very mystical-sounding phrase thrown around to quiet dissent and curb disobedience.

Where to find thought stoppers in the wild

Though religions–especially the more wackadoodle varieties–are shot thick with deepities, they don’t only appear in religion. Not by a longshot!

I still remember a call-center job I had once where a supervisor yelled at my team about how she didn’t think we showed enough “concern for the customer.” “Show more concern! Be more concerned! Customers need to know you’re concerned!” 

None of this was news to us. All of us wanted to do a good job. We were already aware of how much importance our company put upon this idea of concern. We even got graded by managers on “concern.”

As she yelled, we all shifted more and more uncomfortably. Finally, I asked, “How do you managers know when you’re seeing concern?” And everything just stopped cold as she turned to stare at me. “Well, be concerned,” she finally said.

And she expected that thought stopper to be the end of that discussion.

Pushing back against thought stoppers

It was not. Not for me.

“Yes,” I said, “Yes. But how do we do that, if we’re not already doing it? Clearly we’d all love to do that–‘concern’ actually ranks on our ratings and service scores and it’s just the right thing to do anyway. But what if we’re not already doing it, or we think we are but it simply isn’t registering to you or to our customers as concern? How do we go about showing concern in a way that customers will definitely detect as concern, and that you will definitely hear as concern when you grade our calls later?”

She blinked. Finally she burst out, after a flustered silence:

“You show concern by showing that you are concerned!”

Aha! A thought stopper in the wild!

Those who use deepities tend not to react well to challenges about them

We went around and around in circles as this manager found ever-more-inventive ways to restate exactly the same thing without adding information to it. Finally, she got mad and changed the subject. But we’d all understood clearly what was going on here. This manager very clearly had no idea what concern really was.

It’s worth noting that she was also one of the most gung-ho Christians at that place. She was some sort of youth-ministry volunteer at a local fundagelical church, I think. Thus, she was probably not used to being asked this kind of question, but also well used to believing nebulous and difficult-to-understand ideas with no real basis in the real world.

Unfortunately for her, her audience was not a bunch of religious zealots. We would not nod along like parrots and scurry off with that pearl of wisdom. Our performance hinged on this concept. It might impact our paychecks or even our continued employment at this company. We needed better answers than that.

By the way, we did eventually figure out how to objectively express concern–thanks to a new manager who was actually interested in consistent results. That manager figured out concrete and reliable ways to express to customers that we really cared about the reasons they called us. (And usually, we actually did. It was a good call center.)

Once we got tangible answers, our customer service scores soared, and our escalations dwindled. We became one of the highest-performing teams in the building, and I went from the bottom of the performance rankings to literal #1 within a quarter.

Hucksters just love lobbing thought stoppers around

We see these thought stoppers in religion all the time. You can tell they’re supposed to mean something, but they actually don’t. Believers are not even supposed to think too hard about them.

One of the worst offenders comes to us from a famous preacher, Joyce Meyer. She shares more in common with New Age pseudoscience quacks than she should find comfortable. Consider this deepity from her: “When we fill our thoughts with right things, the wrong ones have no room to enter.” The graphic for it is particularly disturbing in this 2013 tweet:

If someone had said something like that to me as a Christian, I’d have bobbed my head in happy agreement.

Now, though, I’m completely puzzled.

And angered.

These nonsense demands collapse at the slightest bit of examination

How do you “fill your thoughts with right things”? How does Meyer know that if someone manages to do this that “the wrong ones have no room to enter”?

Does she mean that someone should keep herself too busy to get into mischief? (And yes, “herself.” Meyer generally directs her remarks to young-to-middle-aged, fairly-affluent white Christian married women who don’t possess critical thinking skills or won’t apply the ones they do have to what their leaders say.)

How do her marks even know what the “right things” are? What if “the right things” aren’t what she thinks they are? And what if “the wrong ones” are actually the truthful, valuable ones that really should be there?

What if someone tries her best to spend morning-to-night cluttering her mind up with “the right things” and still can’t get “the wrong ones” out of her head, since that is not how human minds actually work? And by what mechanism does she recommend someone accomplish that herculean task? What processes ought women to use? Mindless, droning repetitions, like Jesus himself specifically forbids?

The questions never really end, and we never can seem to banish the white bears from our minds.

(Related question for the ages: Why do Christians keep taking psychology advice from someone with absolutely no formal education or training in anything related to psychology? Oh, well, that one we do know: because they don’t vet their chosen “experts” very well.)

Not even Christian leaders know exactly what their own thought stoppers mean

I once saw a fascinating comment thread about “dying to self” on LinkedIn involving a dozen evangelical ministers. Most pastored at decently large churches, all with 10+ years experience in ministry. At least a few with publishing credentials. All of them had formal educations and seminary degrees.

And someone had unaccountably called attention to this favorite little deepity, dying to self. Like all deepities, it is nonsensical on the face of it. At the same time, it also contains some very disturbing implications.

The originator of the discussion was clearly worried about how to teach his flocks “the reality” of this concept. But those joining in didn’t have the faintest idea how to engage him. One guy loftily proclaimed how important this concept is and how awful it is that KIDS TODAY™ weren’t learning how to do it and get offa his lawn and isn’t he just the bestest ever. The others took mostly similar tacks.

The thought stoppers flowed freely that day!

But our intrepid OP was not backing down

Our worried questioner refused to back down. He asked (and I’m paraphrasing from memory), “Yes, yes, I know: dying to self is important. I’m not denying it’s important. I am totally on board with its importance. But how do I tell my church members to do it? What do I tell them to do? What signs are present when they die to themselves or when they don’t?”

And nobody could answer. Half the group treated him like he was making the shocking, unthinkable suggestion that they stop telling people to die to themselves. Several of ’em slapped down Bible verses about the topic like Magic: The Gathering cards. Our brave dissenter called these folks out immediately. (The discussion’s been made group-only since the day I first ran across it, but I think this is the link. If you can see it, you’ll likely quickly get a taste of the nonsensical blather going on in the whole thread. Also, get me screenshots, please!)

I was seriously cheering for this guy. But I could also tell that he was intensely annoying everybody there.

By the thread’s ending, someone–the questioner, probably–shared how hugely concerning it was to him that the most important concept in Christianity was one that not a single one of them could even objectively tell was present or absent, much less teach others to cultivate.

They never did come to an understanding, and their discussion has always stuck with me. When push comes to shove, not even the people spouting these thought stoppers really know what they’re saying, and when these bits of rah-rah intrude too closely on the real world, everybody gets really uncomfortable. (By the way, I wrote about the idea of “dying to self” in more detail here.)

These sayings get popular because they are just confusing enough to be soothing.

Thought stoppers are an authority grab

When people face an impossible task–like believing utter nonsense with no evidence for itself in the real world–they develop a litany of calming mantras to help them deal with the dissonance erupting constantly around themselves. These mantras stop thought and halt inquiry. They stop people from realizing that they’re saying and doing ridiculous things. Thought stoppers are meant to shut us up and make us more likely to obey.

When we don’t understand these phrases, we tend to assume the whoever issued them knows what they mean. Ask a person who’s been in tech support for a long time about it. You’ll quickly hear about at least the idea of (if not the exact phrase) “duh mode,” where a caller/end user becomes an obedient servant when super-technical language gets used.

I figured out pretty quickly in that line of work that if you confuse people enough, then they’re likely to do whatever you tell them to do. Jargon is to a techie what a white lab coat is to someone conducting a sociology experiment: it establishes authority.

Examples of thought stoppers in Christianity

Other examples of these mantras include phrases like:

  • live for Jesus
  • love the sinner, hate the sin
  • walk in faith
  • be in submission

Your guess is as good as mine regarding what they look like in ideal practice. They and many others like them work for a little while for some folks and for a long time for others. But they don’t work forever for everybody.

There’s even a known cognitive bias about how people think rhyming sayings are more truthful, and I bet any rhythmic, emotionally-manipulative, assonance-laden phrase (like the ones that abound in Christianity) would work about as well on listeners, especially phrasing that’s been around for many years.

At this point, if a Christian has trouble figuring out what a saying like “dying to self” even means in the real world, then the fault is immediately laid at the feet of the person having trouble.

Christian leaders are playing with a loaded deck here

So when I hear Christians chirping at each other stuff like “just trust in Jesus!” I have to ask: how does one do that? How far does that trust extend? Do Christians have to literally sit in their pajamas on the couch and wait for the doorbell to ring with a person standing there with a check for a billion dollars?

If Christians take any action at all, are they really trusting Jesus?

What if they take an action thinking that’s an expression of trust, but it’s the wrong action? How would they even know the difference?

What if someone “trusts in Jesus” by not taking an action or taking the wrong action and something terrible happens? Is the Christian to blame, considering there’s no objective way to tell either way? How can the Christian know what to do and when and how?

Because any ex-Christian could tell these chirpy Christians that as often as we turned out right in our own guesses while we were Christian, we were often wrong as well. The thought stoppers don’t work then: “you just know” and “you feel the still small voice in your heart” and all the rest that Christians spout at any opportunity. They are just blather. They cover up Christians’ total inability to tell exactly and objectively why one guess turns out well when another doesn’t.

Maybe I just took Christianity too seriously

I’m sure a boatload of Christians would be happy to tell me I’m just overthinking things. But this was stuff I had trouble with when I was a Christian, too. I got frustrated with these vague sayings that seemed to satisfy my peers but which seemed so maddeningly unattainable and unworkable to me.

There is a lot of this sort of purely-metaphorical blather in the religion. And of course, when these sayings eventually failed to comfort and inspire me, I was blamed as the problem here, rather than the sayings, and certainly rather than the soapy, antiseptic, flippy-dippy fake world that so many Christians inhabit.

The best indication there is that Christianity is not meant for taking too seriously is that so much of it cannot be translated into real-world behaviors and observations. In fact, getting too attached to making it fit the real world leads to some seriously disturbed beliefs and behaviors, like going overboard with Rapture scares or becoming a conspiracy theorist.

We never need to fear reality

We should not fear asking what something looks like in the real world and how we know when it’s present or absent. As Aron-Ra has said, if you can’t show it then you don’t know it.

If something’s objectively true or real, we should be able to see or otherwise detect it in the objective real world. If something exists, then we will detect evidence of its existence even if we don’t know its exact mechanism quite yet.

And if someone can’t explain a concept in fairly simple terms, then we need to stop giving that person more street cred than he or she deserves. More than that, we need to question whether or not that person actually understands this concept or is just cloaking their ignorance in bibble-babble that sounds impressive and hoping to fool us.

When we ask questions, we are not the problem. Nor are we in the wrong for refusing to accept the deepities that Christians have been trained to accept and spout on cue for decades if not centuries.

Questions are the natural enemy of thought stoppers

  • Can you summarize what you’re saying in a few sentences?
  • Can you describe your idea without resorting to jargon?
  • What real-world observations support your idea?
  • What real-world phenomena will be absent if your idea is wrong?
  • Can you state your idea in an “if/then” format?
  • What does that even mean?

Sure, you might run into a physics professor or philosophy major who just doesn’t inhabit the same planet the rest of us do.

But chances are good that if you talk to anybody who can’t clearly and succinctly explain a concept that he or she claims expertise in, but must instead haul out the thought stoppers and meaningless jargon like “immutable” (that word itself seems like the mating call of the toxic Christian; I’ve yet to run into a Christian who was fond of “immutable” who wasn’t also a complete chucklenut) or resort to metaphysical language to support real-world claims, then you’re probably dealing with someone who isn’t actually very clear on their own concept. And they are probably hoping like blazes that you don’t notice it or (worse by far) call them out on their attempt to stun you with an argument from gibberish.

This kind of language is a good indicator that you need to be careful around the folks using it–they’re very likely trying to sell you something untrue or something they don’t understand themselves.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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