The world is vastly different today from when I was young. For one thing, selling pious frauds has changed dramatically. In some ways, it’s a lot harder to sell these lies-for-Jesus to the gullible. But in many others, it’s gotten even easier. Today, let me show you some popular pious frauds from my youth, how they faded away without fanfare, and how they were only replaced by bigger and more complex pious frauds.

A long history of pious frauds

For a religion based entirely in historical facts and real live capital-T Truth, Christianity’s history is full of pious frauds.

A pious fraud is a lie that is told for the good of Christianity. The person telling such a lie thinks it’s for a good cause. It’s getting people to Heaven, saving them from Hell, making them better people, or whatever else the liar considers far more important than always telling the truth.

Almost from the very beginning of Christianity, Christians have sold pious frauds to those around them. For example, we have no extra-biblical evidence, and often no biblical evidence for that matter, that tells us of the fates of Jesus’ 12 apostles. What we have instead is folklore about their grisly martyrdoms. Every time an unbiased historian reviews that folklore, it finds no support whatsoever in the historical record. Still, for generations, Christians have looked upon the example of these earliest so-called martyrs with awe.

Other pious frauds have involved inventing Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace and Nazareth as his hometown, inventing several burial sites for his brief time as a corpse, and spreading so many disgusting, mummified “holy relics” around that one would be forgiven for thinking that early Christians had fifty fingers and at least two heads each.

Christians generally like these sorts of lies. They rarely inquire too far as to the authenticity of anything told to them by a fellow Christian. They’re just happy to feel like their faith is a long, unbroken chain of history from Jesus to their own time–and that they themselves are the hapless underdog heroes of their own movie.

Pious frauds in the 1970s and 1980s

In the modern age, the form of pious frauds changed, but they remain popular with Christians.

When I was a teen, my then-boyfriend Biff began doing the research. Naturally, he ran headlong into all the various urban-legend-style claims about TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And y’all, he just had no way to critically evaluate them. They sandblasted the soup cracker of his mind.

At the time, I’d been Pentecostal briefly but had left that church after an Endtimes prediction failed to materialize. I still considered myself Christian, but wasn’t involved with any churches anymore. When I had been, I hadn’t really messed with those urban legends much. So, Biff was about the first exposure I had to them.

And what an exposure!

OMG, y’all. Did you know that NASA scientists discovered a whole lost day that totally corresponds to “Joshua’s Lost Day?” Or how about this thing about archaeologists finding Egyptian chariot wheels in the Red Sea, thus proving that the Exodus happened? Y’all, it’s ALL TRUE!

However, these claims sounded ludicrous to me. I didn’t know why or how they were fake. But I knew that they were.

Debunking Christian lies in the 1980s

Back then, in the mid-to-late 1980s, debunking false religious claims was really hard.

We had no real internet back then. I mean we didn’t even have Usenet or the forerunner to America OnLine, or AOL. We had Bulletin Board Systems, which were a bit like Discord. They did not tend to be repositories of knowledge.

So, if anyone wanted to investigate a claim, they really had to visit a library.

At the library, they had to search stacks of carefully-arranged physical cards for the locations of books that might pertain to what they wanted to know. Then, they had to find the book, check it out, and read it.

Intrepid investigators might also consult a teacher or other professional in that field. In the case of the so-called “lost day,” they might contact a NASA representative for confirmation. And sometimes, people did that. I remember hearing back then that the Smithsonian supposedly had a form letter they sent to people asking about Mormons’ claims about North American pre-colonial history. The form letter firmly debunked and denied all of their claims.

(Apparently the form letter exists, but the contents slightly differ from what I’d heard about it.)

So a lot of weird claims sprouted and took root and grew simply because debunking them would have been really hard work. Besides, why would a fellow Christian ever lie? Gosh, that couldn’t possibly be!

Catching liars in the act–or not

Even back in the 1980s, of course, we could catch liars trying to sell pious frauds to us. The problem at that point became dealing with the lie. Obviously, we all wanted to be honest and true and good. But evangelical culture as a whole also accepted that dishonesty and cruelty were sometimes required in the name of saving souls from Hell.

If someone gave a wild conversion testimony that a listener knew hadn’t happened that way, as happened to me with Biff, that put the listener in a really rough spot. Or if a missionary told a story that turned out to be an urban legend, which happened to me as well, it could be difficult to know what to do with that realization.

Usually, though, this realization came right as the lie was being told. Christians had to just know already that the information given wasn’t true. As I said, it was really hard to do the legwork to debunk anything. If they didn’t investigate it for themselves, they generally embraced that lie and ran with it forever. They fit the new false belief into their existing framework of beliefs.

So, the lie never gets debunked. It just morphs into part of an overall wingnut conspiracy theory.

I think that’s what happened with the Satanic Panic. It began with old-school evangelicals upset with hippies, free love, and rock music. But it soon morphed and grew into an overall worldwide conspiracy theory of demon-controlled elites out to seduce and destroy the youth of America. And its ideas persisted long after normies realized none of it was actually true.

Old pious frauds never die; they must morph into new ones

About five years after my deconversion, around 2000, I used to hang out on a forum devoted to a certain advice columnist. She was kinda out of touch, so it was fun to snark her and offer our own advice to the letter writers–even though we knew very well that none of those people would ever read anything we wrote.

One letter involved a family of evangelicals upset about trick-or-treating. Their new neighborhood liked to go all-out, but they didn’t want their kids involved. However, the kids were upset at being kept from what looked like a really fun night with their neighborhood friends. If I remember correctly, the columnist told the parents to kindly chill out. It was surprisingly good advice for once!

But to my shock, a bunch of women on that forum began bellowing about demons and protecting kids’ souls from takeover. Y’all, they were very big mad about all of it. One went on and on about baby sacrifices and black cats being evil and all of that. It was like I was reading a Chick tract unfold on a forum!

Having been Pentecostal through the very height of the Satanic Panic, I had heard all of this stuff many times already, so I knew it was all false. I tried to set them straight. I even asked them to review the now-classic (and highly recommended reading) Pulling Report by noted author Michael A. Stackpole.

Nope! They wanted none of it. In fact, they turned on me next. I ended up just bidding them all farewell.

Since then, I’ve seen countless evangelicals express dread and terror around Halloween.

The beliefs never go away. They just morph.

In this case, the Satanic Panic morphed into QAnon’s conspiracy theories about worldwide pedophile liberal elites wanting to kidnap and abuse children for Satan. It wouldn’t even half shock me to hear that some of those women from that forum 22 years ago are now busily posting QAnon hashtags in Gab.

Debunking pious frauds now

I laugh to remember hearing about a pastor who complained that every kid in his congregation now had a powerful computer in their pocket. He meant smartphones, of course. As a result, his flock could instantly fact-check any claim he made. That meant, in turn, that they could find the truth of his claim before his sermon was even finished. He felt that this new normal had introduced some equally new stresses to his life.

And it probably had.

In so many ways, the modern age should have put Christians’ false claims to rest. As a classic xkcd strip points out, so many smartphones in so many hands have “conclusively settled the questions of flying saucers, lake monsters, ghosts, and Bigfoot.” In fact, they’ve also settled the questions of magic, miracles, and all kinds of other things.

But a funny thing happened on the way to turning off all the taps in the faith pool. The people who wanted to sell pious frauds to Christians began using that exact power to spread their ideas in very dangerous new ways.

Finding new believers in lies

As the world got more and more scientifically literate, any Christians holding to a literalist interpretation of the Bible got increasingly left behind in the march of progress. I’m not just talking about evangelicals here, of course. As weird as this may seem, hardline Catholics can also turn out to be Creationist wingnuts who can’t stop talking about QAnon ideas and are positive that the Anunnaki are really angels who sexed up human women. Still, it was mostly evangelicals who fell into that thinking.

And those evangelicals began figuring out how to present their wingnut ideas in ways that looked really convincing to people with no scientific literacy and no objective way to assess truth claims.

These liars-for-Jesus convinced evangelicals that anecdotes and arguments represent valid, objective support for their claims. In reality, they don’t. Evangelical leaders created endless scientific-sounding reports that supported their ideas, like we see all the time out of Creationist sites like the Institute for Creation Research, or ICR.

Incidentally, ICR’s latest is an attack on an interesting April 2022 paper. Alas for ICR, they completely mischaracterize the paper to arrive at the bizarre conclusion that the insects described in the paper simply must be the exact same species as modern-day insects. ZOMG, CREATION IS REAL Y’ALL! They make many other childish and obviously-manipulative mistakes throughout their attack post, which ends by asserting the usual chestnut about “thousands of years” when the paper specifically states it studied 60-million-year-old fossils.

ICR’s wingnut pseudo-scientists may claim to be overwhelmingly curious about, say, the evolution of coconuts, which do indeed have a fascinating history. But they don’t seem at all inclined to investigate the matter.

When pious frauds are completely debunked

And thanks to decades of post-truth conditioning, neither are their followers. They’ve entirely lost the ability to assess claims, tell truth from lies, or change their minds with new information from reality. They’ve been reduced to wingnuttery. The truth surrounds them, but they’re constitutionally incapable of engaging meaningfully with any of it.

That brings us to the most frustrating thing about pious frauds. If Christians find out that someone completely debunked their favorite lie, that the claim was utterly destroyed, decimated, burned to the ground, they tend to get mad at the person linking them to that information–not the person who told them the lie in the first place.

When I heard Biff’s testimony and realized it was lies from top to bottom, I objected on the drive home. I told Biff I’d immediately reveal the truth if I ever heard him lie again. And he–along with our mutual church friends–got mad at me for expecting testimony-peddlers to be strictly honest. After all, Biff was a soulwinner, y’all. He had a big reputation for evangelizing everyone in sight. Though he made almost no actual sales, that he’d made any at all boosted him to superstar status in our community. If his prospects or new recruits found out he’d sold them our religion with a fake testimony, it might stumble them! They might lose faith! And if they did, they’d definitely go to Hell!

I didn’t want people to go to Hell, did I? Did I? Was I really that heartless and wicked? If a few fibs saved someone’s soul, how could I possibly morally justify forcing Biff to tell the truth?

(Something something Jews hidden in the attic in Nazi Germany, blah blah Bonhoeffer.)

I refused to budge, however. In the years after that experience, I heard countless other Christians treated the same way for their refusal to allow any known lies to pass unhindered. Liars get protected. Whistleblowers get reviled and vilified.

Maybe that’s why pious frauds survive so well in the modern day.

The mindset: If it’s not true, then it should be true

For many, many years, centuries really, Christians and their leaders alike seemed to proceed from a mindset of taking stuff they wished was true and deciding it was true even if it was not even close. If it should be true, then by golly it was true. And nobody could convince them otherwise!

Not much has changed in the modern day. The lies Christians embrace make them feel good. They make Christians look like the only truly good people on Earth, like they’re totally winning whatever fight they started this time, like their faith is the only reality-based religion on the planet.

It’s so strange to me that reality-based researchers keep zeroing in closer and closer to explanations for our universe. But Christians just splinter further and further apart. They seem less and less capable of examining claims, and less and less willing even to try.

So much for rightly dividing the word, testing everything, and holding onto only what is good.

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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.

1 Comment

Discernment: A deep dive into Christians' substitute for critical thinking · 06/18/2022 at 3:02 AM

[…] My first Pentecostal church thought that the pastor, that genial old fellow I’ve mentioned a few times, had this superpower. (Nowadays, I just think he was one big ole pious fraud.) […]

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