It never fails.
Whenever I write a post or say something on social media being critical of Christianity, there is a barrage of people coming to their religions defense with claims that “Not all Christians are like that!” and that I’m generalizing. The purpose of these statements is simple: since the views that I expressed don’t necessarily represent the views or actions of each and every Christian out there, I should refrain from saying anything negative at all.
I get this often enough that it was high-time I address it and put something down on paper (in a manner of speaking). I’ve covered this topic somewhat before in my post about Christians being unable to police their own, and therefore being complicit when one of them goes “rogue”. I’m going to try to be more specific on this one and hopefully in the end you will better understand why I think NALT is a poor response to criticism.
First, I want to address the accusation some have made made that in my criticism of religion, I am guilty of using straw-man fallacies (an straw man argument involves using misrepresentations of a position in order for it to appear weaker then it is. Often one will use caricatures or go after “low-hanging fruit” when arguing there position). This is not what I do. I go to great lengths to research my topics and provide numerous examples and links to sources in my posts. It can be very easy for people who live in their own bubble to be unaware of what is going on in the rest of the world, and in my experience, your average church-goer is completely oblivious to all the harm that their religion is causing to others outside of their fold. More on this later.
Now, I acknowledge that in principle the NALT argument holds some water. There are a millions of Christians, and I have yet to find two people who have the same theology, let alone two congregations, let alone two denominations. It’s impossible to cover everyone. However, it is possible to cover prominent views and trends. It is possible to discuss topics that the majority of Christians to agree upon or support in some way. This is why I try to focus on Christianity as an institution rather than on the individuals who are a part of it.
I realize this can be hard for some to distinguish. For most people who take their faith seriously, they’ve been taught that who they are is entirely wrapped up in their belief system. They cannot differentiate between where they, the human being begins, and where their faith/beliefs/religion ends. This can make it difficult for people not to take it personally when someone like myself is critical of their religion. It’s not that I have a problem so much with Christians as people – it’s the religion that they subscribe to that I take issue with. In the same way Christians speak of loving the sinner and hating the sin, I can hate the belief, but not the believer.
I understand that believers can have a close, personal attachment to their church or the Church and any criticism leveled at it can seem like a personal attack, but I honestly don’t care. If you can’t separate yourself from the institution, I am not going to walk on eggshells to appease insecurities. Moving on… Years ago when I was still going to church I told one of the elders that I resented the fact that I couldn’t invite my LGBT friends to church because I knew they wouldn’t be fully welcomed. He was a little taken aback by this but didn’t deny the validity of my worries either. His response was that I could be assured that while the majority of people in the church wouldn’t be accepting of a gay person in their church, there would be some of “us” who would accept them with open arms. This perfectly exemplifies my other big problem with the NALT fallacy – when people make the claim that “not all Christians are like that”, they fail to understand that they belong to an institution which by and large is like that.
I regularly have Christians trying to assure me that their particular group, church, or denomination is different, that they are the opposite of everything I dislike about Christianity, that if I was to just come some Sunday and see for myself, I would realize that not all churches are like that.
I highly doubt it.
Are there small pockets of Christians who are going against the grain and making efforts to be radically different? Yes, there are (The UCC Church comes to mind). But they are a small minority in this country, and I’m pretty sure your church is not one of them. There’s a couple of reasons for my skepticism.
Have you ever gone on vacation and when you come back home the first thing you notice is how your house smells? That’s because when you are living in a space you become accustomed to the smells to the point where you don’t notice them. This is why hoarders can live for years in houses full of cat excrement and not notice. This same principle applies to those who go to church – you can be so immersed in you own culture that you fail to see what it really looks like from the outside. You fail to see things going on which might be a problem.
Scientist, psychologists and political theorists have studied the phenomenon of “Group Think Theory” or “Institutional Group Think Theory”, which is a phenomenon that occurs with a group of people or an institution in which the desire for a harmonious well-functioning group actually leads to irrational, dysfunctional and corrupt policies and procedures.
There is also something to be said about humans when given power or authority over their fellow humans, whether explicitly or implicit, that our personalities begin to change. When you take an institution that puts a specific emphasis on authority, obedience, and submission it becomes a fertile breeding grounds for abuses. Benjamin Franklin said “A fish rots from the top down”. If the head of an institution is corrupt then the institution itself is corrupt and any member of that institution, no matter how well intentioned in the beginning, becomes corrupt as well. Out of fear of reprisal, peer pressure, wanting to fit in or simply due to the fact that we are given authority, our personalities do change. I’m sure that there were many people at Enron who were decent, hard working people just trying to make a living – but that didn’t change the fact that Enron as a company was corrupt.
I know there are many good people sitting in the pews. I’ve had conversations with them and they see the same problems that I see in the Church – yet they keep going, keep giving the church their time and money, and do little to speak out. They are appalled by the abuse, political involvement, desire for power, and ignorance that they see among their fellow “brothers in Christ”, yet fail to take any measurable action against it. Does this make them complicit when their church does harm to others? Captain Cassidy would say:
Worst of all, even though a lot of Christians would find themselves repulsed by the idea of hurting, insulting, or dehumanizing anyone, they can find it very difficult to speak out against their more extremist brethren. And their extremist brethren capitalize on this atmosphere of fear by viciously, brutally attacking anybody in their own “tribe” who dares to say anything about what they’re doing.
Even in the more liberal ends of the religion, Christians either don’t have a clue about what’s going on in the deeper end of the pool or else they know but don’t know what they can do about it. That is why I consider even these “nicer” flavors of the religion to be a failure–they can’t rein in their extremist brethren, and for the most part aren’t even trying to do so. They’re happy to tell us we just “got Christianity wrong,” but their stated solution appears to be for us to dive back into a pool filled with predators even though we have no assurance whatsoever of protection and safety.
Conservatives are fond of using phrases like “all lives matter” as a way of undermining and hijacking the conversation from those trying to shine a spotlight on the injustices faced by African-Americans in this country. In the same way, many Christians try to use NALT to undermine the terrible damage that is being done in this country and around the world in the name of their religion. They would very much like for us to ignore the fact that many of their own are wanting to force others into compliance with their particular system of beliefs. They don’t want to acknowledge the fact that many of their own have gone rogue and they have done little to stop them. They do nothing to stand up to the injustice carried out by their leaders and lay people. Yet they think those of us on the outside should sit idly by and say nothing because, heaven forbid, one of those Christians who isn’t “like that” gets their feelers bent by one of us mean, ol’ atheists.
One final point. When I get into conversations with people about this subject, they try to reassure me that not all Christians are bad, in fact most are good, and that I shouldn’t let a few “bad apples” spoil my opinion on Christianity. Let’s be clear; it’s not just the “Christian Gone Wild!” that I have a problem with – it’s also the doctrine taught in Churches that enforces their behavior that I have a problem with. Or as Neil Carter puts it – the problem isn’t just the messenger; it’s the message, too.
You see, many of the things that a secularist like myself would see as a problem may at best be tolerated, or worse, encouraged in a church environment. There is a very clear correlation between the message that is being taught and believed in Christianity, and the direct, negative outcome of that message. In a church culture where homosexuality is a considered a sin and an abomination, where gay people are treated as “broken” straight people who can be “cured” through prayer, and where million are spent attempting to keep LGBTs from having equal rights, is it really a huge shock when a gay student is bullied in school or a trans women is beaten up on the street??? I’m sure that is not the desired outcome of most faithful church goers, but can you honestly not see that these kinds of dehumanizing words can turn into harmful action?
I know that most Christians were shocked and appalled by the shooting in Orlando, yet they continue to teach that homosexuality is a sin.
I know that even the most fundamentalist Christians are against spousal abuse, yet they continue to teach that women should submit to their husbands.
I know that most Christians would strongly disagree with bombing abortion clinics, yet they continue to call abortion doctors “murders” and demonize women who have them.
Words lead to action. If you say negative, discriminatory, and dehumanizing things about a group of people, it’s only a matter of time before someone takes action. This isn’t a “bug” in the system, it’s a natural consequence of it. Christians don’t get to pull the NALT card while simultaneously holding to the foundational beliefs that all too often lead to these types of harmful actions. You don’t get a free pass because your message of bigotry and intolerance is a little “nicer” than the next guys. You don’t get to be excused from criticism simply because you only say hateful things, you don’t act on them. Do a quick Google search of Evangelical reactions to the Orlando shooting, and nearly all of them have some message to the effect of, “What happened was tragic and inexcusable, but we cannot lose focus of the fact that homosexuality is a sin against God, punishable by eternal damnation.”
Here’s what it comes down to – if you want those of us on the outside to believe that “Not All Christians Are Like That”, then we need to start seeing people actively and publicly taking a stand against the anti-gay, anti-feminism, anti-choice, anti-science, pro-gun, pro-war, pro-death penalty, pro-Republican ethos that currently dominates the Church. If you aren’t working towards real change in your church, if you are going to stand by in silence while hateful messages are taught about out-groups, then you are part of the problem. As Desmond Tutu famously said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I see way too many Christians making excuses for their fellow church members and continuing to coddle their bad behavior under the guise of “unity” and “brother love.”
I know there are those who remain in the Church trying to make changes from the inside, and while I admire their tenacity, I doubt the impact they are having. The best way to vote is with your feet. Get out of the system all together. Become part of the growing number of people who see how harmful religion can be and have left its ranks. Leave your church and let them know why you’re doing it. The ones at the top will likely not change their stance, but I can almost guarantee there are others in the pew who are in the same boat as you and will follow suit. In the meantime, please refrain from telling my that not all Christians are like that while continuing to stand alongside those who are like that.
Thanks for reading.