The "Real Christian" Phenomenon

Christian IV's Brewhouse at Christians Brygge ...
Christian IV's Brewhouse at Christians Brygge in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have written about the "real Christian" phenomenon here more times than I can count (here's a particularly sarcastic example). I think that must be because I find it to be one of the more infuriating examples of how many Christians distort reality to maintain their faith. But as crazy as it may drive us when we see it, I can't help finding it fascinating at the same time.

What is the "real Christian" phenomenon? It is the habit many Christians have of denying that a Christian who does or says something they don't like is "a real Christian" or "a true Christian." Here's how it works:
  1. Christian A and Christian B both identify as Christian.
  2. Christian A does or says something that Christian B finds difficult to reconcile with his or her own view of Christianity.
  3. Christian B decides that Christian A is not a "real Christian" because "real Christians" would not depart so significantly from Christian B's personal preferences.
  4. This allows Christian B to ignore Christian A's behavior without having to confront any difficult questions about the inherent goodness of Christians.
The key thing to understand here is that Christian B has no unique claim to Christianity and no more right to call himself or herself a Christian than anybody else. The only "crime" committed by Christian A was that he or she departed a bit too much from Christian B's view of Christianity. It is an extremely primitive way of distorting reality to protect one's personal faith.

Why do so many Christians do this? I've already suggested that it is about preserving their faith and permitting them to continue to equate their beliefs with morality. Many Christians assume that their faith is what makes a person moral and that true goodness is impossible without it. By refusing to acknowledge that many Christians do horrible things (by simply denying that they are "real Christians"), the Christian bypasses the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise be provoked by a Christian committing a bad act. They don't have to wrestle with the meaning of a prominent Christian doing something awful if they just deny the person's Christianity.

Beyond the preservation of one's faith and avoidance of cognitive dissonance, I suspect that there is also an element of social control here. When Christians talk about others as "not being a good Christian," for example, they are signaling that someone has deviated from their expectations and is running the risk of being labeled as not a "real Christian." For minor deviations, such reminders may help reign people in and promote conformity.

Other Religions

The question of whether adherents of other religions do this too and, if so, whether they do it in the same way that so many Christians do is one I will have to leave to those who are more familiar with other religions. I have heard Muslims and Jews utilize some of the social control tactics (e.g., saying that such-and-such is "not a good Muslim" or "not a good Jew"); I haven't heard many of the more blatant denials that someone is a "real Muslim" or a "real Jew," but I'd be surprised if this did not happen. I don't imagine this sort of thing is really unique to Christians.

Yes, I realize that Muslims are notorious for doing something that seems a great deal like this when it comes to trying to distance themselves from acts of violence they attribute to extremists. I have heard them refer to "perversions of Islam" and the like. What I haven't heard are the simple, matter-of-fact sort of denials that are so popular among Christians (e.g., "Oh, then I guess he was never really a true Christian"). Again, I'm not saying Muslims don't do this; I'm just saying that I haven't encountered much of it. Instead, I see impassioned attempts to defend various aspects of Islam and to highlight gaps between moderates and extremists. But again, someone with more experience with Islam and more exposure to Muslims will be much better equipped to address this.

What About Atheists?

Do we atheists have a version of this, "real atheist" phenomenon. Yes and no. When it comes to atheism itself, I don't think so. Since atheism has no doctrine and means nothing more than the lack of god belief, it really wouldn't make any sense for one atheist to accuse another of not being "a real atheist" unless the accused started to act like he or she believed in gods of some sort. That's not to say that one couldn't find someone doing this on Twitter if one were to look hard enough, but it certainly wouldn't make much sense.

On the other hand, as soon as we step outside of atheism and into secular activism, skepticism, humanism, or freethought, it is possible to find unfortunate examples where it appears that some non-believers have a version of this. The closest example to what Christians do that I can think of would involve humanism and would assert something like "Anyone who does not accept my particular form of feminism and/or liberal political orientation is not a true humanist."

I see this as closer to what many Christians do than what we sometimes see in the skeptical community. It makes more sense to say that someone who claims to be a skeptic probably should be skeptical than it does to say that someone who claims to be a humanist must accept a particular socio-political ideology that is arguably part of humanism. I am aware that some people have tried to do this in the context of skepticism, but I believe they've gained less traction there.