On Christian Culture: A Look Inside the Church Bubble for the Unwashed Heathen
A while back, I wrote about being poor. I think it’s an interesting thing to talk about, so I can’t pretend that I didn’t think it would do well. What I didn’t know is how well it would do; it’s by far my most popular article. It got so popular it actively changed my life in a bunch of ways I’m going to talk about in an update post sometime soon.
I think there’s a lot of reasons it did well. Some of those reasons have to do with plain, old-fashioned sympathy; certainly a lot of people popped out of the woodwork looking to help. But for a lot of people it was a look into a world they could only hear about by proxy, and I think an offer of a snapshot from within a particular part of a bubble they didn’t belong to was interesting. The existence of things like this blog by a hotel concierge (as opposed to the Google-search-confounding Hotel Concierge, mind you) and the perpetual popularity of AMAs seem to back this up: people like hearing about how other people live.
I want to do something like that here with Christianity. I don’t think this one will involve sympathy so much. Unlike poverty, most people in the faith seem to enjoy it. Also unlike poverty, very few people are actively hostile towards the idea of being poor - if my unsubscribes on the last Christian-centric piece I did are any indication, that’s not as true here. That’s fine - you can be hostile towards Christianity, I don’t mind - but know I’m not spoiling for a fight particularly; I just want to give an account for those that want it.
With all that said, you’ve probably already realized one of the first big problems here: Christianity is a pretty big and diverse population. I’m going to claim I’m a pretty typical Christian throughout the article, but by that I mean I’m pretty typical from my perspective. That’s a pretty big qualifier, so some disclaimers and explanation are in order.
I’m a Protestant who attends what’s called a Bible Church. If you just mentally asked something like “wait, aren’t they all Bible churches?” that’s understandable, but it really does refer to a specific thing - a Protestant church that believes in a fairly literal read of the Bible that isn’t quite as strict on the rules as Baptists. If that’s all French to you, feel free to read it as “not Catholic, not Mormon” for now - I’ll cover the some of the details later.
I also live in Phoenix - a major metropolis in a fairly conservative state. This does affect things - what you’d expect from a church like mine is a little different than the same description in, say, a rural town in Arkansas or a much more left-leaning city like Portland. I’d like to say the same is true of non-US based Christians, but I really don’t know that much about what it’s like to be, say, a Protestant in Portugal. Feel free to fly me out to any foreign country, cool international Christians; I will gladly absorb your local religious culture.
A final unrelated disclaimer: I’m going to do my best to describe things as accurately as I can, but I’ve found that no matter how I go about doing that some people are going to read this as me trying to convert them. To be fair, I’m always at least sort of trying to do this, but I’m not especially trying to do so here. My last article about religion resulted in record levels of unsubscribes despite having a disclaimer just like this one, so I want to be really clear here: after a kind of crazy May I should be back to regular updates from here on out. If religious stuff bothers you, feel very free to skip this one; I’ll have a nice secular topic up next weekend.
The Weird Semi-Culture of The Saved
Picture the normal-est guy you know. He wants to put a lift kit on his Toyota Tacoma. He has a favorite brand of polos. His kid is named Braydon. He really, really liked Inception. His wife’s name is Brittney. Their kids are encouraged to participate in a sport and stick with it. Their wives are more likely to stay home and take care of the kids - this isn’t universal, but it’s much less rare than in non-Christian families.
I’m not saying this is how every Christian dude you meet in church is, but it’s a surprising amount of them. Everybody has like the middle-classiest job possible, usually with a blue-collar tint; it’s a lot of management positions at landscaping companies, accountants and HVAC small business owners. They don’t typically listen to normal secular(read: non-Christian) music, but if they did it would be whatever the 2021 equivalent of Puddle of Mudd is. Remember the band Creed, and how it was never entirely clear who was listening to them? It’s these guys.
I’ve thought a lot about how to explain this to other people, and the best way I’ve figured out to do that is this: Every Christian person you meet is one or two steps more rural in terms of personal culture than you’d expect given everything else you know about him. He’s camping just that much more often; he’s that much closer to owning a quad. That doesn’t mean they are rednecks; they are just a tiny bit closer to that on a sliding scale ranging from Editor of the Atlantic to local dairy farmer.
In terms of culture they absorb, the first thing to remember is that explicit content matters. An awful lot of Christians won’t watch anything with nudity or significant amounts of foul language; this isn’t just a “when the kids are around” thing, but instead something they often enforce for themselves at all times.
This next example was more common during the 90’s, but a lot of Christians got the willies with anything having to do with the occult. If you remember this effect you probably remember it in terms of parents banning their kids from D&D or Magic The Gathering, but sometimes it was/is more intense than that. I knew a lot of kids who couldn’t watch Disney movies because they had magic. I’m dead serious here. The inherent satanism of Cinderella (or whatever) was a step too far for their parents. To this day I’m not sure what the expected failure mode of this was supposed to be - nobody ever knew a kid who ran out into the woods and summoned eight eyed demon crows because he watched Aladdin, but it was treated like a clear and present danger nonetheless.
I should stress that not every Christian is like this - some would watch anything a non-Christian would, and a lot of the people that censor their own watching habits are only trimming off the most extreme stuff - if censoring sexuality, just not watching things with a lot of nudity, or if censoring the occult just not over-the-top dark things like Hellraiser or Ernest: Scared Stupid.
Once you are past the moral implications, the “these guys are very normal” rule comes back into play. If, say, you find only one out of every ten adult men you know watches anime, you’d expect maybe only one out of 20 or 30 Christian men would. The flip side of this is they tend to get way, way more into conventional blockbusters that don’t stretch the limits of their personal restrictions than you’d expect. It’s hard to find an office-job type adult Christian man who didn’t have an unhealthy obsession with the Lord of The Rings movies, for instance. It’s a funneling effect - there’s less to be into because of moral restrictions, so you are more into the stuff you can watch. Watching sports is so universal for all the reasons above that I’m actually at somewhat of a disadvantage socially sometimes because I don’t watch sports - it’s one of the major ways a lot of Christian men connect culturally.
You end up with this weird thing where everyone you know is watching the same 2-3 shows on Netflix, to the extent they are watching anything at all. If you are into anything outside the norm (I mean anything at all that isn’t as popular and non-offensive as, say, the Mandalorian) then you are potentially out of luck having anyone to talk to about it with within your religious bubble. One of my good friends is a theater director and into more diverse media as a result - I hang on to him for dear life.
Note: I’ve intentionally ignored explicitly Christian media here, because barely anybody watches it and it sucks. Outside of one particular Seattle-based music label in the 90’s and latter-day Johnny Cash, the music sucks when judged purely artistically as well.
The Variety of the Elect: There’s a lot of different kinds of Christians
As stated in the intro, there’s a lot of different kinds of Christians. When I say “different kinds”, you should think about big differences like “Do they think Jesus was God?”, but also consider a bunch of really small differences that wouldn’t matter to people on the outside, like what instruments you might use in a praise band. The implications of these range as well - some groups are so different they might not think of people in the other groups as Christian at all.
Examples are helpful here. Say you ran into a guy who says people speak in tongues (read: that God lets them speak in other languages they don’t know, including that of heaven) in Church, or that their pastor prays out sickness during service. You’ve probably run into a charismatic Christian, someone who believes that New Testament-style miracles are still going on. This is as opposed to a non-charismatic, who thinks they have calmed down a great deal to the point of mostly not happening anymore. Believe it or not, the Bible actually allows for both views and these groups get along fairly well.
You might run into someone who thinks that the Bible isn’t supposed to be read literally, but is instead a mass of nice philosophy one might apply to their life. Thomas Jefferson was in that group - he thought all the spiritual stuff was getting in the way of a really good book of non-religious philosophy. His Bible was specifically edited to reflect this desire for Jesus-as-Socrates. On the far side from that are people who believe the Bible is to be read literally and is literally true. These groups don’t get along like the Charismatics and Non-Charismatics do - your average Literal-read Christian is going to think the Jefferson-style Christian is not only not saved but actively attacking the faith.
Some people think the rules in the Bible (specifically the New Testament, for complex reasons) should be followed; others don’t, or only think it conditionally. If you go to a Baptist and successfully convince him the text of the Bible is telling him he shouldn’t wear wingtips, he will then think of wearing wingtips as a sin and either won’t wear them or will feel he is sinning by doing so. If you do the same thing with an Episcopalian, he’s often going to tell you the Bible needs to be interpreted through a modern lens, ignore the part he doesn’t like, and skip merrily down the road in whatever footwear he damn well pleases. Note: To be fair, I want to point out that Episcopalians will swear up and down this isn’t what they are doing. They are lying, but they will swear up and down anyway. (Edited to add: I think lying is, in retrospect, a really harsh word to use here. I don’t find their representations of what is happening there to be true, but I don’t think they are intentionally deceptive about it in all cases, if that makes sense)
This doesn’t even scratch the surface on the differences. I could bore you all day with how the awesomely named Primitive Baptists don’t believe children should have their own Sunday school classes or how some denominations don’t believe you can have a guitar in the praise band because the Bible doesn’t explicitly allow them. The takeaway here is just that it’s complex. The Bible is long, but allows for a lot of grey area; where it doesn’t allow for it, some people make their own anyway.
How much each of these differences matters usually comes down to a near-checklist of how much they affect what people generally think of as the core of the faith. If a person believes in God, believes that Jesus is his son, believes in the trinity(which makes Jesus God as well, in a literal “they are the same guy” sense), believes that Jesus’ death on the cross allows for the forgiveness of sins and that accessing this forgiveness gets you to heaven, they are generally going to at least be considered Christian. Catholics pass this test, so most Protestants consider them to be Christians they just disagree with on a lot of issues. Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses believe a lot of that checklist, but don’t believe Jesus was God, so they fail the test and aren’t generally considered to be in the same religion.
Note: An LDS person will say they believe that Jesus is god (note the small G) if asked; if pressed, they will admit they don’t think he was one with God-The-Father in the Trinitarian sense. I have never been able to get a straight answer from a Mormon missionary about why they try to be tricky about this instead of openly acknowledging the difference that they clearly know about; I’d be interested to talk about this in the comments if anyone wants to.
Every once in a while you get disagreements between whether or not, say, a Baptist should be considered a “real” Christian by an Episcopal or vice versa, for different reasons - the Episcopalians might think the Baptists are unloving of certain groups (read: LGBT) while the Baptists might think Episcopalians don’t actually believe in anything the Bible says that’s inconvenient to them at the time. But this happens rarely; for the most part everyone considers everyone else to be working for the same guy and gets along; the differences are something we often don’t think matters that much for the moment, and we very literally think God will sort out for us in the long run.
The Eternal Frustration of Everyone Identifying As Christian
About 205 million people in the US - 62% of everybody - will tell you they are Christians when asked. Of those, about 50% will tell you they go to church more often than “seldom”. Only about 20% of them will self-report that they go to church weekly. Those attendance numbers are drawn from all religious groups, not just Christians, but when you look at articles like this that drill down on those numbers the pattern stays about the same.
While it’s entirely possible to be a Christian with a strong faith without ever setting foot in a place of worship, church attendance is still about as basic as Christian commitment-signaling gets. But when you check to see if people who claim the mantle of Christian do this very basic thing, you immediately shrink from ~200 million people to ~40 million - and that’s with self reporting polls; the real numbers are almost certainly lower. Why does this matter? Because everything you think you know about Christians - basically every stat you’ve ever seen about them - is drawn from that larger 200 million group.
It’s basically equivalent to looking at exercise bike ownership in relation to obesity, finding it doesn’t make much difference, and then concluding that cycling isn’t very good exercise. Asking people if they actually use the bikes is a good first step, although not perfect, as people might tell you they exercise more than they really do for obvious reasons. But not asking the right questions means you are examining the wrong relationship and your inquiries are doomed from the start.
A classic example of this is divorce rates. In the early 2010’s there were a bunch of stories about Christian divorce rates being similar to or higher than those in marriages between people not affiliated to a particular religion. But that effect reverses when you take a look at Christians who claim to actually attend church regularly:
Partnering with George Barna, Feldhahn reexamined the data pertaining to the divorce rate among Christians and found that the numbers were based on survey-takers who identified as “Christian” rather than some other religion. Under that broad classification, respondents were as likely as anyone else to have been divorced. The “Christian” category included people who profess a belief system but do not live a committed lifestyle. However, for those who were active in their church, the divorce rate was 27 to 50 percent lower than for non-churchgoers. Nominal Christians—those who simply call themselves “Christians” but do not actively engage with the faith—are actually 20 percent more likely than the general population to get divorced.
Dr. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, states that “‘active conservative Protestants who attend church regularly are actually 35% less likely to divorce than those who have no religious preferences” (quoted by Stetzer, Ed. “The Exchange.” Christianity Today. “Marriage, Divorce, and the Church: What do the stats say, and can marriage be happy?” Feb. 14, 2014. WEB. Oct. 26, 2015).
I’m going to break a usually unspoken rule here: it’s a bit of a cultural no-no for Christians to tell other people who claim to be Christians that they have a fake faith. It’s not considered nice, and ideally you are supposed to be spending a lot more time on introspection than policing everyone else in the first place. But with that said, the experience of meeting someone who claims to be Christian who otherwise in all practices indistinguishable from a garden-variety agnostic is in my experience not only not rare, but instead the norm. It’s culturally normal to claim to be Christian in the US whether that has any effect on what you believe or do or not.
Again, this shouldn’t matter! I shouldn’t care! But I do, because everything you think about me - every Pew poll you’ve ever read that reports back on what “Evangelicals” believe about some political topic - is hopelessly broken from the outset. And it’s impossible to explain this to people without them immediately dismissing it as a “no true Scotsman” argument - it seems for all the world like I’m making excuses. And there’s no way at all for me to fix this - outside of that divorce example I provided, deep-dives into the actual beliefs and practices of those who nominally claim Christianity just don’t exist.
Enforceable Norms and Friendships
This might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but I know from experience it will shock some not-insignificant amount of my audience: if I needed to, right at 11:00 PM at night, I could call any of about 20-30 people and have them watch my kids if I needed to take my wife to the hospital. Within a day several of those people would bring by food they made to make sure we didn’t have to cook as they recovered. If my car broke down, they’d come help me get home; if we lost our home, there would be several families who would take us in.
That’s a beautiful thing. I’ve written about being poor; there were a lot of times I wasn’t sure if we’d have the ability to maintain our lives if something went wrong. Knowing we had back-up in the form of real, substantial help from people who genuinely cared about me was huge for us in terms of being able to handle feeling like we were always on the edge of disaster.
In the last paragraph, I said those people genuinely care for us. While that’s true, it’s going to seem like it’s in conflict with this next bit: At least initially, the reason they would have been willing to help us was in large part because they think there would be genuine and substantial consequences for them if they didn’t. Some of those consequences they expect would come from God; they believe there’s an actual God who actually told them to take care of people and specifically told them to take care of other members of his church who would be pretty pissed if they didn’t actually follow through on doing so. Some of the consequences are expected from other people in the church - remember, everyone believes in the same God who has those same expectations, so being a member in good standing of the community involves actually walking the walk to some extent.
The coerced nature of this might tempt you to discount what I’ve said about the caring and love I get from these people being genuine as opposed to just seeming that way, but don’t let it. The practical experience is a lot different. Think about the last time someone helped you - I mean when someone really went out of their way to help you. You might have had doubts about their motivation for doing so, but you probably couldn’t escape having feelings of both thankfulness(because they did, after all, help you regardless of motivation) and of indebtedness(because you’d be pretty crappy if you weren’t prepared to pay them back). Maybe down the line they asked you for similar help loading a truck for a move or helping them lift some furniture they bought and you helped out right back.
You can see where I’m going with this - it’s a cycle. Eventually you know that your friend will help you if you need it, and he knows the same thing about you. Whatever the motivations were at the onset, there’s a level of trust and reliance that builds over time and becomes its own self-sustained, absurdly wonderful thing. All that’s needed to get it going is some initial sense of obligation to kickstart the pattern, and suddenly you’ve got this group of people who are all deeply involved in improving each other’s lives. If the obligation bit is still a tough pill for you to swallow, consider this: the obligation itself was voluntary, something people know about getting into the faith in the first place.
Another aspect feeding into the cycle is norms that don’t actually have to do with helping people out at all. This isn’t my original thought, but there’s an idea that seeing someone be willing to give something up - for instance, sleeping with people before marriage, or watching movies with profanity, etc. - is a pretty good way to absorb the message that they are willing to make sacrifices for the church body, a body that you yourself are part of.
We obviously believe there’s spiritual, God-driven components of this that help our behaviors improve beyond the mere mechanics of norms, but you should note that if all this seems sketchy to you it’s not necessary that you be religious to believe it. See here from the statistically-likely-to-be-almost-entirely-atheist APA:
“Religion is one of the big ways that human societies have hit on as a solution to induce unrelated individuals to be nice to each other,” says Norenzayan.
In particular, religion encourages people to be more charitable by promoting belief in a supernatural agent, according to his research. In a 2007 study published in Psychological Science (Vol. 18, No. 9), Norenzayan and Azim Shariff primed participants with thoughts of God by having them unscramble sentences containing words such as “divine,” “spirit” and “God.” They asked another group of participants to unscramble religiously neutral words. The participants then decided how much of $10 to keep and how much to give to a stranger. The researchers found that the participants who were primed with religious thoughts gave an average of $2.38 more than the other participants.
University of British Columbia researcher Joseph Henrich, PhD, found cross-cultural support for this finding in a study published in March in Science (Vol. 327, No. 5972). He showed that, across 15 diverse societies, people who participated in a world religion were more fair toward strangers when playing economic games than people who were not religious.
“Religion, in a sense, outsources social monitoring to a supernatural agent,” says Norenzayan. “If you believe in a monitoring God, even if no one is watching you, you still have to be pro-social because God is watching you.”
Edited to add: Someone has pointed out that priming studies tend to not replicate. That should cast some doubt on this
To paraphrase: your friends might not know you aren’t actually super busy with important things on the day they needed your help moving, but if you really truly believe in God you also really, truly believe he’s aware; he can see you on the couch, and he knows you lied. And surrounding yourself with people who believe the same thing means they are automatically more reliable than they otherwise would have been; not necessarily better than everyone else, but better than a version of themselves that doesn’t believe. Often that translates into community of a sort that’s getting harder and harder to find in the world at large; to the extent it does, it’s probably the biggest earthly reward for being part of the faith.
What We Think of The Morality of The Unsaved
I want to preface this section by saying this is the part of the article where I predict I’m most likely to be contradicted by other Christians; I’m necessarily relying a lot on my own thoughts and opinions here. I’m doing my best here, but it’s not necessarily going to map on everyone’s experience with every Christian - try to cut me some slack, if you can.
Edit: Someone pointed out that the last paragraph seems to contradict with claims I make below, that I say “this is just me” and then follow up by making broad claims of the “what Christians think” variety. What I was trying to get at is these beliefs are fairly common within my particular bubble - I think they are pretty common with most Christians(and more importantly I think they are supported by the Bible) but I don’t know every Christian, and the Christians I know best tend to be fairly similar to me theologically.
I have a friend; call him Tom. Tom is in a dozen ways better than me; he’s a better friend to me than I am to him. He’d sacrifice more for me than I’d sacrifice for him. He’s nicer than me. He’s more honest than me. There’s a very good chance that if you knew both of us you’d like him better than you like me, and that’s justified. He’s a great, great guy and I love him and consider him a brother. Considering this, it may seem weird to find out that I don’t think that any of the positive things he does “count” in an eternal sense; in the Christian moral system, he doesn’t get credit for any of it.
The reason for this is that Christian morality starts and stops with God; God-as-motivation for good works is an intrinsic and inseparable part of doing good. So we could both do something good - stop and give help and sympathy to a widow, or something - and both at that point have exactly half of what Christian morality demands to make it matter. Because only one of us has “glorify God” as a motive (at best - I’ve often done good things for bad reasons), only one of us has actually done good within the definition of the Christian system.
If this seems like a big conflict, I agree. I have a lot of non-Christian friends who by my personal non-spiritual standards are spectacular people. They’ve taken good care of me and I appreciate them a lot. So to go to them and say “but none of that matters, really, without Jesus” seems like an insanely shitty thing to do. It’s not a thing I bring up a lot because that risk of seeming like I don’t appreciate them or their help is real; I don’t want to seem like an ingrate or ungrateful. But that doesn’t negate how the mechanics of “good” work in the Christian faith; you just can’t have it without God being in the mix somewhere.
This actually might help explain something else you’ve probably seen: most Christians tend to think of the morality of non-believers as inferior, even when you can point to an atheist who is abstractly superior in terms of behavior. Sometimes this viewpoint is as simple as believing that the unwashed have an arbitrary moral system that can’t be relied on to stay consistent. A lot of Christians come to that conclusion because of the contrast between their own belief in right and wrong as absolute, abstract and real concepts flowing from a deity with absolute authority; it’s uncharitable, but it makes sense from that viewpoint. But more accurately it’s because we think the credit and glory for good deeds ultimately belong to God; good deeds done for any reason besides God are definitionally not good in the system any more than money spent at Walmart can be said to be for charity.
The absolute nature of Christian morality makes a lot of conversations harder, as well. I was talking to someone about abstinence-until-marriage as a lifestyle choice, particularly as it relates to what I teach my kids. And we went over a lot of pros and cons related to teaching my kids to try to shoot for abstinence as opposed to other things we could try. We talked about utilitarian concerns and statistics. But in the end it was mostly with the understanding that it would be particularly hard for us to come to common ground on the subject in any real sense because I believe that an actual deity with absolute authority over the universe told me to behave in a certain way and that by telling me to do so he indicated that behaving that way was right in an absolute sense that overrides any apparent contradictions; that tends to muddy the waters of an otherwise good-faith discussion.
If all this seems very elitist, the only defense I can give is that while Christians might think they are the only people who can do good an eternally significant sense they aren’t actually supposed to take any of the credit for this. The basic belief is that all people are inherently garbage, failing to live up to celestial standards by a margin so wide that the individual differences between me, my friend as mentioned above and an idealized version of Mother Theresa are all a very minute rounding error. If you run across a Christian who seems to be taking a lot of personal pride in the good they’ve done, it’s pretty safe to say that there’s something wrong in his or her theology; God-as-motivation may enable all good in our system, but it also demands 100% of the credit.
I hope I’ve covered enough bases to teach you at least one interesting thing you didn’t know here, but if there’s something you’ve wondered about that I missed, please let me know in the comments - I’m going to be talking about my faith here and there so it’s always helpful to have more fodder in the article-ideas sack.
One last word: To the extent I can get you to believe me on this, I want to let non-Christian readers of this piece that I don’t feel anything like superior to them. One of the tenets of the faith is that we all come from a sinful place and need deity-grade rescuing just to begin the process of improving. I’m no exception to this - there’s an awful lot of ways I’m subpar as a person. If I think I’m in a better position than you to do “good” in the way Christians think about it, it’s not because of anything I’ve done; neither I nor you should be giving me much in the way of credit for it. To the extent I think my lifestyle sometimes produces better outcomes, I care because I want those outcomes for you as well; if I could provide them for you I would, no matter what your beliefs.
I think anybody who says they really, truly care for people they don’t know is probably lying a little, whether they know it or not. It’s hard to care for a hypothetical you’ve never met; even God acknowledges that it’s easier to love somebody on Earth you know than him, since he’s far away in a lot of ways. But to the extent I can muster up real feelings I want you to know I do try to care for you-in-the-abstract as much as I can. I’ve had a pretty good year in a lot of ways, mostly because people who didn’t know me decided they cared enough about me to reach out and offer help. To that end, I do want to offer what little I can to anyone who needs it - I’m not yet resource-rich in a lot of ways, but if any of you ever needs an ear to talk at let me know and I’ll try to set aside some time. This isn’t a religious offer despite being in some ways motivated by my religion - I won’t try to convert you. But let me know if you need someone to talk to - I’ll try my hardest to be available for it.