Our spring break is almost over. I hope none of our students wasted their time fishing for souls for Jesus. Follow that link; it’s a story on Salon.com of a young man who goes undercover at Liberty University and goes on a Spring Break proselytizing trip to Florida. It’s depressing — mindless zealots on fire for the Lord wander the streets, asking people if they’ve found Jesus, and almost always getting turned down. Even the few who say “Hallelujah!” are unlikely to join the church. This is truly desperate angling.
The issue of post-salvation behavior is an interesting one. I thought, when Scott was teaching us to evangelize, that we’d be told to do some sort of follow-up with successful converts, if we had any — guide them to a local church, maybe, or at least take their contact information. But there’s no such procedure. If Jason had decided to get saved (he didn’t), Martina would have led him through the Sinner’s Prayer (“Jesus, I am a sinner, come into my heart and be my Lord and Savior” or some variant thereof), she would have let him know he was saved, perhaps given him some Bible verses to read, and they never would have seen each other again. Cold-turkey evangelism provides the shortest, most non-committal conversion offer of any Western religion — which, I suspect, is part of the appeal.
If the new believer backslides, though, like Jason was suggesting he might, Christians are likely to believe that he wasn’t really saved. False conversions are a glaring wart on the face of Christian evangelism. In the book that accompanies our Way of the Master program, I found several sobering statistics about the percentage of apparent converts who stay involved with the church in the long term, including one from Peter Wagner, a seminary professor in California who estimated that only 3 to 16 percent of the converts at Christian crusades stay involved.
Coincidentally, I received an account of a similar attempt at hooking a Pharyngula reader, EH. It didn’t work.
So here I am walking on campus during finals week. I hadn’t slept much and was crashing off my study drugs, yet I had about an half an hour to spare before my next final. A girl approached me asking if I wanted to take a survey, which was not an uncommon occurrence on campus, as many students collect data for class studies this way. I asked her what it was about, so that I could refuse if it was something commercial. She said it was about beliefs, so I assumed it was for a sociological or psychological class project. I told her sure, but when she turned her clipboard to take down my answers as she asked them to me rather than let me answer them in private, I realized I had been tricked!
First question: “Are you going to heaven when you die?” Possible answers: “yes” “no” “I hope so”
I responded with a bewildered stare. I was so taken aback by the situation, but immediately responded “I don’t believe in heaven.”
She turned the clipboard away and marked “no” (which was hardly my answer!)
Then she asked me what did I believe (not from script). I said “I don’t believe in anything.” She looked a little bewildered herself, but more as a sort of incredulity at my brash straightforwardness than an “I’m gonna win a soul for Jesus!” way.
I called her out on her disgusting deception: “I thought this was a survey.” She said that it was, but that if I answer “no” to the first question (or any question presumably), then “we stop there” and discuss. She continued, off script, to ask me what I thought would happened to me when I died, especially if I died tomorrow, not understanding my statement that “I don’t believe in anything.”
I laughed and said, “uh…my body will stop functioning and then some people will come and take away my remains and put them in the ground and have a funeral, I suppose.”
In her airy high-pitched saccharine voice, she said, “Oh…okay, and how do you feel about that?”
I looked around, trying to grasp onto some sanity. I said “I feel okay.”
This poor miseducated girl could absolutely not understand my answers. How could I feel okay when she knew that I was going to burn in hell if I rejected her specific box o’ creed? She pushed further, “Really? So you don’t have a problem with that or anything?”
My eyes went as wide as an antebellum minstrel actor in blackface (is that racist to say? I just took a class on black film…), but all the while I remained composed. I responded, “No, do you?” (which apparently she did.) Her glaring eyes became wider than mine and her voice became twice as saccharine and half an octave higher. “Okay…” she circumvented my remark with “so do you want me to help you get to heaven?”
After I picked myself up off the ground and dusted off from being smacked with a gigantic paddle of stupid, I calmly and deliberately explained, “No. I do not need help getting to heaven, because there. is. no. heaven. to. go. to.”
Becoming more convinced that I was a minion of Satan, but giving it her last shot, she said “Oh okay…so have you always kinda felt that way?”
Me: “Yeah, pretty much.”
The encounter thoroughly disrupted my concentration for my subsequent final….I felt victimized and violated! How dare someone come up to me on a UC campus and pose as someone conducting class research, then after luring them in, interrogates them on a list of items until she strikes upon any point that the victim differs with her stubborn and restricted beliefs, and then tells them that their beliefs are not valid, that they need the spiritual guidance of some holier-than-thou douchebag stranger to “get to heaven”? Had I been in my right mind and not caught off guard, I would have explained to her that, if heaven was real place, why would I want to go there and be with a bunch of Christians assholes (or whatever it may be), holding hands and singing songs with Jesus, being forced to worship some petty, incompetent god? To me, that is unthinkable torture. I would definitely be rooting for Satan in the End Times. Speaking of End Times, The End, and thank you for listening to my story. (The nerve of some people!)
This is one of the virtues of the New Atheism, that loud and vigorous movement that says it is OK to laugh at religion. It makes it that much harder for evangelicals to set the hook — we are moving towards a culture that does not take it for granted that being “saved” or “born again” are good states to be in.
None of these stories get to the next stage, though — what happens once introductions are made and they’ve brought you into the vestibule of the church: the love bomb. They make you feel intensely welcome, shower you with praise and affection, and strain themselves silly to make you feel part of the group, to build those social bonds that make you a committed and appreciative member.
I’ve been there. It was also a spring break, 33 years ago. I was going to school at DePauw University in Indiana, and too poor to go anywhere exciting or to fly back home to Seattle, so I was resigned to spending a week in the quaint small town of Greencastle, when a group of evangelical Christians asked if I’d like to go on a trip with them. They were going to paint and clean up a church camp in the woods of southern Indiana, and it would mean a week of camping and hiking for the cost of a little manual labor. I jumped at the opportunity.
I was deeply loved (in a chaste and non-physical way, of course) for a whole week.
It was great! I enthusiastically slapped paint on that old remodeled barn, and I cheerfully helped make smores, and I happily joined in the cleanup afterwards. I was there for a week in the woods. And when they told me how much Jesus loved me, I shrugged and said I don’t believe in a Jesus. When they told me they loved me too and there was a great place in the church for such a helpful young man, I said thank you and explained that I wasn’t a church-goer at all. And when they sang hymns in the car, I just quietly read my book. I enjoyed myself, but the other members of the group seemed completely baffled by me — their evangelizing tactics just seemed to bounce off. If their goal was to win a soul for Jesus, they were robbed; if they wanted willing help to get their camp refurbished, they got it. But I can now say that a confident atheism can also make one resistant to even those tried-and-true brainwashing tactics of the evangelical church.
This is what religion is: they angle for fresh prey, and once they snag you, they swallow you up. You are embraced in the rugae and crypts of the gut of the church, all warm and pink and soft and wet and intimate, and each of the members is like a little villus — a multitude of villi brush adoringly against you, each telling you how wonderful and delicious you are, and each leeching away a little of yourself, your individuality, your independence. It feels good as you are slowly absorbed. Then at last, when your will is gone and your dependence is complete, you are digested by the body of Christ, and there you will be for all of your productive years. Eventually, when you are old and no longer active, you’ll take residence in the colon of the church, serviced by occasional visits from a priest or a volunteer, in hopes of one final ka-ching from your will…and then your empty husk will be shat out into the church graveyard, with the leavings of other past meals. The churches of your community all ought to be viewed as predatory animals, some lazy and sated, others restless and hungry, but all eyeing you as potential fodder to keep the beast alive.
Don’t fall for it. A robust atheism can make you immune to their lures, though, and it can even make you indigestible. It’s no wonder that the religious hate and fear us — we diminish their success at hunting, and of late, we’ve even begun to target them. The tables will be turned, and we will be pawing at the dismembered, empty carcasses of their churches soon enough.