It’s hard to generalize much about Christianity, which is only to be expected for a religion with tens of thousands of denominations and countless individual interpretations of its source material. That said, there is one thing that seems to happen damned near constantly when Christians come face-to-face with non-Christians and especially ex-Christians, and it involves Bad Christians. At some point in the conversation, Christians will state with total certainty that Bad Christians cause people to deconvert, or at least they prevent people from converting in the first place.
If there were a bingo card for deconversion, then this accusation would surely fight “You Just Wanted to Sin” for that coveted middle square position!
(Originally published in Ex-Communications on September 29, 2015. Since Patheos has seen fit to remove all nonreligious blogs from their site (except for the one that got them the most hits, Friendly Atheist), I thought it’d be fun to park these blog posts here for posterity. Here’s another one about knowledge!)
Attack of the Bad Christians
Neil Carter wrote this a while ago. It got my attention in a major way:
Christians behaving badly annoys atheists, yes. But that’s not the reason why we don’t buy their story. Please stop saying that it is.
Many Christians seem downright obsessed with the idea of Bad Christians driving people away from their faith. However, that idea is dead wrong.
► 2022 update:
Nothing has really changed except this: evangelicals have gotten way more bitter. It’s hilarious to see how they’ve responded to their utter inability to stop people from pointing out all the hypocrites in their midst.
I got a particular kick out of Roger Olson. Recently, this incredibly authoritarian evangelical declared that Bad Christians are no excuse for rejecting his sales pitch. Everyone still must convert to this religion that we know, we absolutely know, doesn’t actually make adherents into better people! And we must all put ourselves into harm’s way so that King Roger is satisfied with us! How dare we reject his sales pitch for a reason that he, the salesperson, finds inadequate? How dare we?!?
Another evangelical tries to gatekeep Bad Christians out of Christianity by declaring that they are totally fake Christians. I don’t disagree with his core point about racism, just pointing out this very common way to eliminate the problem. Too bad none of these gatekeepers can actually bar anyone from using the label, eh?
And still another evangelical complains that Americans enjoy stories about Bad Christians cuz “Non-Christians like to see that [Christians] really are fakes.” Um, we already knew that. Stories about Bad Christians are really just warnings — and confirmations that the warnings are valid.
–back to the 2015 post–
Bad Christians! Baaaad Christians! Bad!
A Bad Christian is a Christian hypocrite whose behavior is so awful that it makes other people think twice about complying with Christians’ demands and threats. They are a stain on the religion, a hit to its credibility. They’re hypocrites, yes, but they’re particularly outrageous.
These hypocrites are not TRUE CHRISTIANS™ by definition. But they identify themselves with the label. They hang around with the real sheep. The exact behavior they’re exhibiting varies, but it can be markedly similar to the behavior of TRUE CHRISTIANs™. Every Bad Christian is another person’s TRUE CHRISTIAN™, it seems. Many certainly consider themselves so.
Amusingly, the Christians issuing this accusation rarely stop to consider whether their own behavior would qualify for the label. If the behavior in question is fully acceptable to the judge, then the accusation shifts subtly:
You just wanted to sin. You were in rebellion. Or you couldn’t handle the shocking truth of real-deal TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
So when you hear about Bad Christians, know that the accuser is seeing or imagining behavior that he or she doesn’t personally approve.
Hypocrisy as a feature, not a bug, and Bad Christians as endemic, not an aberration
This isn’t a ridiculous accusation on the face of it. Hypocrisy is not only endemic to the religion but so woven through it that I am forced to conclude that it is a feature rather than a bug of the system.
As a result, every single ex-Christian out there has at least one story of a Christian who hurt, cheated, or mortally offended them. Even Christians themselves have been victimized by at least one believer, and often a great many. They know their peers don’t treat people very well and that mistreatment happens far more often than one would guess among the devoted, fervent adherents of a religion based on the ideals of love and peace.
Considering how often Christians claim to have a stranglehold on morality and the truth, it’s strange that their solution to the problem of Bad Christians is to lash out at outsiders for noticing them and not wanting to be around them. It’s even stranger that they don’t realize that people don’t actually deconvert over mistreatment.
I sure didn’t.
How most Christians handle the problem of Bad Christians
I was very badly mistreated by a great many Christians both before and after my deconversion. And even so, I can honestly say that treatment did not actually figure in to my deconversion at all. It’s certainly not to blame for why I’m not ever re-converting to the religion.
When I was Christian, I thought to myself that it was very sad that these so many Christians had not better internalized Jesus’ love and message. However, their grave mistake sure wasn’t going to make me miss out on Heaven and get set on fire forever after I died!
Ultimately, I left because Christianity’s claims aren’t true at all. That’s also ultimately why I’d never return to the religion. Everything I’ve ever seen to criticize about Christianity flows from that one fact.
If Christians’ claims were true, and even if they weren’t but believers really believed they were true, then we wouldn’t see nearly so many Bad Christians running around.
These hypocrites are simply an outgrowth of the religion’s lack of objective truth. They exist because the Christian god isn’t real and Heaven and Hell aren’t real. Worse, both bad and good Christians know both of these truths deep down no matter how loudly they say the opposite. Bad Christians just don’t see the point of pretending, is all.
My real objections to Christianity go way, way past their serious hypocrisy problem
Now that I’m out of the religion, I still think hypocrites are sad. I mean, they’re missing out on what I still think is the very heart of the religion, when done compassionately. They’re wasting their lives on blahblah that even they don’t think is true. But my objections to Christianity go way, way past the repercussions that Bad Christians bring on their own lives and those of the people around them.
That said, that’s what this accusation truly is, isn’t it?
It’s an attempt to reframe the whole conversation in a way that completely negates our stated objections to Christianity. The Christians flinging this accusation are trying hard to reduce what is usually a very well-considered and thoroughly-thought-out conclusion to a childish-seeming, emotionally-driven temper tantrum.
Christians are very good at not having ears to hear when it comes to understanding dealbreakers in their own faith. I’ve no doubt they’ve noticed how often hypocritical Christians show up in ex-Christians’ stories and how often non-Christians talk about the topic. But they haven’t really figured out why Bad Christians are a problem.
So they don’t realize that their peers don’t drive people out of the religion all by themselves. What actually happens is that Christians get startled out of complacency by the realization that Jesus isn’t magically making anybody a better person and that this ideology is not producing the type of people it absolutely should be. And we start wondering what else our religion got wrong.
When the message must be perfect, but Bad Christians destroy the message
Bad Christians are simply another brick in the wall of faith: Pull out enough bricks and the wall falls down. They’re a pretty integral brick for some folks, but they’re not the whole wall. What Christians should be doing is trying their damndest to keep as few bricks as possible from being pulled out of the wall. But there are a lot of reasons why they don’t do that.
Unfortunately, the majority of Christians don’t realize that the wall is even made of bricks. They are taught that there simply aren’t any reasons that Christians should find acceptable for leaving their religion. They are taught, falsely, that all objections to their religion have a good answer that resolves that objection in favor of their religion–and that these answers are robust and perfectly satisfactory to any and all examiners. And they believe with all of their hearts that their religion is not only universally flawless but also perfect for every single human being on the planet.[See endnote]
So if someone leaves Christianity or refuses to accept its claims, user error is the only explanation for what went wrong. The ideology is perfect, so by definition it can’t possibly fail. The element that failed must be, by definition, something else–in this case, the person who left.
Either the person who leaves doesn’t understand the perfectly satisfactory response to his or her objection, or else doesn’t want to accept that response for whatever invalid reason might be offered up. When reality conflicts with their dogmatic beliefs, dogma unfortunately wins.
Christian culture itself protects its hypocrites
The situation gets worse, though, when we consider how Christian culture protects its worst hypocrites. Christians live in a culture that condemns them for speaking out too much against fellow Christians. So when an ex-Christian even brings up the problem or tries to talk about the damage Christians do and have done, most Christian listeners’ response is usually to lash out at those who left the religion. Or worse, they try to coax, shame, or manipulate ex-Christians into returning.
What they do not try to do is fix the problem that touched off these departures in the first place. And if a pew-warming Christian tries to talk about it, well, that’s why their god made people so vulnerable to gaslighting and silencing tactics, right?
This song and dance keeps the focus off the system itself. It stops Christians from examining their culture and beliefs too closely.
And hopefully nobody will notice the big, glaring problem with the mindset behind the accusation itself.
Christians are using this accusation as an excuse
Christians do not actually care about the endemic proliferation of Bad Christians in their ranks. They don’t ultimately care that these Christians are, according to their own evaluation, destroying people’s faith, driving them away from the church body itself, and ultimately damning them to Hell.
So yes, Christians might know on some level that Bad Christians infest their religion. But they’re not really interested in doing more about it than using them as an accusation against others. Here’s how you can tell:
They aren’t doing a damned thing about the problem they themselves have defined as serious enough to cause brothers and sisters to stumble, which even the Bible condemns in the most serious terms.
The only time Christians seem concerned about these awful Christians is when they need to accuse someone of being unduly influenced by them.
Christians are totally fine with having loads of Bad Christians around
As a group and across all levels of Christian leadership, Christians do not look for, bring into line, or drive out the people they think are hypocrites. Christians fail to act even after people complain about hypocrites or their hypocrites are exposed in some glaring, unmistakable, and dramatic fashion.
As an example, Ed Stetzer of the Southern Baptist Convention was quite content to have all kinds of false Christians in his churches for years. He only got fussy about them because he was convinced that the Christians leaving his churches were all Christians-in-name-only (CINO) and hypocrites.
(2022 note: It’s funny how poorly that accusation aged. Stetzer maintained for years that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ were the ones staying. He tacitly dropped that talking point a while ago. But I’m sure he still believes it in his heart of hearts. Old talking points don’t ever die, not even when completely refuted. They just get replaced by newer ones.)
One certainly doesn’t hear about pastors throwing out hypocrites on the regular or anything, either. I bet quite a few of the most toxic Christians in evangelicalism also happen to be the biggest donors to their churches. No way, no how would a pastor endanger his bottom line by calling them out!
That said, Christians have a demand for us here
But the situation gets even worse:
These accusers’ stated non-solution to the problem of Bad Christians is for heathens to excuse and overlook their existence. Worse, Christians want us to put ourselves (back) into harm’s way by exposing ourselves to people that our accusers themselves have implicitly agreed are problematic enough that any sane person should want to avoid their presence.
When Christians’ solution to a given problem is “shut up and let yourself get victimized (again),” that tells me where their priorities are. They want to stop being reminded of this serious, glaring inconsistency in their witness, and they want to stop hearing our objections to their religious claims. They want their Happy Christian Society illusion.
Above all, they want everything in their gauzy, fuzzy little bubble to stay cozy and bright.
And they don’t care if their comfort and smugness comes at the expense of all the victims of all of these Christians.
How to tell when Christians start taking Bad Christians seriously
If Christians really cared about Bad Christians, they wouldn’t be (erroneously) blaming non-believers for supposedly rejecting Christianity because of them. Instead, they would be fixing the problem! But as it stands, their hypocrites are just too excellent of a scapegoat. They represent far too wonderful and perfect of a way to reframe unpleasant truths in a way that these Christians can actually overcome.
All that said, even if someone did choose to leave Christianity entirely purely because of poor treatment, I wouldn’t blame that person. I wouldn’t even be all that surprised. We’re allowed to make our own decisions. Just because Christians don’t accept Bad Christians as a valid reason for leaving their religion doesn’t mean it’s an invalid reason in and of itself.
As consumers in the religious marketplace, we are the only ones who get to decide what a valid reason is for us to do anything related to religion. We don’t need to justify our decision to Christians — especially when dealing with someone whose entire worldview is primed to say that any reason we offer is invalid.
We are under no obligation to allow anyone to reframe our life experiences in ways that don’t sound valid to us. Nor are we under any obligation to prove anything to anybody, or to let someone else’s opinions override our own.
We’re allowed to take steps to protect ourselves
Jesus isn’t making Christians, as a whole, great people and filling churches with safe, dependable, reliable, trustworthy adherents. In fact, Christians are sometimes very predatory. They’re also bad at policing themselves.
Even if we weren’t already entitled to make our own decisions about Christianity, we’d be extra-entitled to avoid Christian groups once we noticed all that!
We’re fully in the right to decide that in the interests of protecting ourselves, we’ll absent ourselves from their company and will not even consider rejoining their ranks until they have fixed this terrible, endemic problem of theirs. Heck, maybe not even then.
We’re allowed to trust our own judgment and perceptions of reality. We’re allowed to refuse to allow Christians to decide anything for us.
They have, after all, repeatedly demonstrated that our safety, protection, and security are so far down the list of priorities for them that they might as well not appear on the list at all.
Ultimately, consumers control the marketplace
Christians do not set the tone of our conversations or make our lives’ rules. It’s okay for us to push back when they try to do it.
When Christians lob untrue accusations at us, we’re allowed to bring the focus back to our real objections to their religion or behavior. We’re allowed to set them straight about the truth if we so choose. At no time in history have Christians been as surrounded as they are now by people whose lives and experiences expose and put the lie to their erroneous thinking.
Just think: Every one of us who manages to push back is one more brick pulled out of other Christians’ walls.
I’m optimistic enough to think that if enough of us speak up, some of them will start listening eventually. All it takes to start that journey is one moment of being puzzled because reality never seems to line up with their beliefs. It just take one moment of wondering why the emPHAsis is so much on the wrong syLLAble with regard to the parroted party lines. That’s all it takes.
So yes: let Christians fling accusations all they want! But the response is going to be, less and less often, what they expect or want.
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I once read a Christian’s blog post that described how utterly indignant and outraged he was over being told by a non-believer, “I’m glad your religion works for you.” (I promise it wasn’t me!)
He didn’t like the idea that his faith “worked for him.” To him, that wording implied, first, that he was only an adherent of Christianity because he liked it. In truth, he seemed quite miserable as a Christian. Second and far worse in his eyes, it implied that his religion didn’t “work” for everybody in the world. He wasn’t even interested in examining these two erroneous assumptions of his. “Working for him” doesn’t have to mean he loves it. And why no, it doesn’t work for everybody, as billions of human beings alive today could tell him. Trust me, he was having none of that.