Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Trust Me, I'm a Christian

The South has this interesting phenomenon that a couple of my friends have brought up lately, so let's talk about it here.

Down South, if you're driving around the local town, chances are you will see at least one business with a sign on it referencing something about Christianity. It may be a simple cross; it may have "Jesus is Lord" on it; it may be the Ten Commandments or John 3:16 or some other well-known piece of text. The business can be completely secular, like a fast food joint or a furniture store, and it still has a good chance of doing this. Sometimes there are even symbols on the local water tower, essentially "claiming" the city for a certain faith. At least one of my friends has said that this intimidates her away from said business, because it says to her that they are overbearing, un-accepting, or at the very least are open enough to make her uncomfortable. The merits or drawbacks of openness aside (that's another post with a lot more fire to it), I figured I'd say a few words on why this happens.

First off, it's not an effort to chase away non-Christians. As much as some Christians are squicked out by anyone who isn't of their faith, no one wants to ruin good business. Everyone knows, whether or not they viscerally believe it, that bashing someone over the head with your opinion/faith/anything else is going to just make them go "ow" and rub their head, not believe what you want them to believe. Sure, in some places no one will want the atheist next door to come to their Christmas party, but everyone will want him to buy their product no matter what his beliefs. It doesn't matter how country or traditional or what have you that you are; business is business, and profit is profit.

People do this to draw business to them. In a town where most people are Christian, even if just to shut their neighbors up, people see these really overt signs as a big neon sign that says, "I'm like you! I abide by the morals you respect! You should trust me!"

Think about it this way. How do you become popular with the other kids at school? You wear the trendy clothes, say the right slang, and endorse their values. If they say that pink is totally out this year, it doesn't matter if you like pink, you're not going to wear it. In a more adult setting, people like other people who identify with them, and with whom they can identify. If you walk into a building full of smartly dressed types while wearing only fishnets and a bra, you're going to scare the hell out of everyone else, even if they should respect you and treat you like anyone else. Even if there is no rule or occasion saying that you shouldn't wear only fishnets and a bra, people are going to see you as a social threat. You're foreign and therefore untrustworthy.

It's all about human tribalism, and really, you can't blame us. We're evolutionarily programmed to think that Different People are scary. On the million-year-ago African plain, if some weird stranger comes up to you, they might very well be from a rival tribe trying to shank all of you for your food and women. You should distrust them until they prove themselves reasonable people; after all, life is hard and rough, and you can't afford to screw up here.

Evolution is slow. Today, our monkeyspheres (go look it up, I'm waiting, okay, done) are huge. We encounter far more people than we can reasonable empathize with or know well, and thus our instincts drive us to look for signs that these people are in our tribe.

In a mostly Christian town, having a Christian label on your business says that you don't have a strange and foreign set of morals. You value God in just the same way as your neighbor does, and you say your prayers at night just like they do. You are familiar, and you are confirmed to be friendly because you endorse the same code of ethics that everyone else does. You are an ally.

Will people consciously decide to go to one business over another because of this? Yes. If I had a nickel for every time someone has said around me something like, "Oh, they're good Christian people. See the sign on their door? You should go buy from them," I would have a pretty nice sum of money. This is very conscious; people will stand in front of two doors and explicitly state that they want the Christian one.

People do this in conversation also. If you're down South, you'll notice how often, "I see him in church each week," is used as a statement of trust. If someone is Christian, he gets a lot of brownie points in random strangers' books, so when he finally walks into your office, you know he's a good guy. It's just how things work there. If someone goes crazy and shoots up his workplace, but he was the kind of guy with a cross around his neck, everyone will throw their hands up and say that there is no way at all they could ever have guessed he would do such a thing -- mostly because their assumptions about his morals or mental state were set in stone by his overt displays of religion. It's an instant badge of trust. Of course, that trust can be ruined, but it starts you out ahead of the game.

This isn't just a religious phenomenon. Bumper stickers do a similar thing. They're an easy way to tell others that you are like them, or tell others you are against them. You're making yourself easy to read, condensing your tome of morals and opinions down to a kid's book, so that other people can process it with a glance and immediately trust you. Look at the "evolution fish" tag. It's an obvious mockery of the Jesus fish -- an alpha-shaped fish with two little legs -- and it's a big declaration to the evolution-accepting community that you are one of them, while declaring to the religious anti-evolution camp that you aren't just disagreeing with them -- you're hostile. You're willing to ridicule them in public and disparage their symbols. It sums up your opinion and mannerisms in one little symbol, so that others can already know whether or not you're worth their time. Flags outside your house are yet another way of doing this -- "I am the vocally patriotic type." You get the idea.

Is this bad? No. No, it isn't. Yes, it scares away some people (usually those who had a bad experience with extreme Christians), but in the end, when in Rome, you have to appeal to the Romans. As a religious person, I wince at the idea of lying about your faith just to suck up to someone, but what I don't mind is a religious person advertising their already present beliefs to get others to feel closer to them. It will push away a few, but think about it this way -- business is business, and if showing off your beliefs will endear you to more people than it rejects, why not do it?

Just as we can consciously decide to choose the door with the cross on it, so can we choose to ignore the signs. For people out there who are turned away by a John 3:16...you don't have to pay attention to it. By demanding that a business bend knee and remove their religious references, you're slighting the owner and saying he should keep his religion out of sight. You have no right to do this, and I'd be tempted to say you don't have a right to call offensive the act of someone else being open about his beliefs. (See the SMBC Comic about "It's offensive" vs. "I'm offended." You're offended, but it isn't offensive.) I would absolutely not mind walking into a store with someone else's religious symbol on it, just like I don't really care if someone is wearing the little Jewish hat or a head scarf or what have you*. It's all about who you are advertising to.

Now, in Boston, for example, it's probably unwise to put up your sign, mostly because there are enough members of other faiths that you want a more generalized advertising campaign, and the number of people you turn away by such an overt description starts getting large. But in Small Town, The South, this is basically putting a huge halo on.

There you go.

*I apologize for not knowing the technical term for these pieces of clothing.


DWR said...

I certainly agree that private businesses have a right to display crosses or Bible quotes or pentagrams or anti-Christian slogans if they wish. I maintain that towns shouldn't do so on public property like water towers (I guess the water towers might be privately owned in some cases?).

But even if the town governments follow the First Amendment and stay neutral, that doesn't really change the culture of the place.

It does seem kind of strange to me that one needs to label "Look at us, we're good Christians!" on your stores as much in the South, if you're assuming everyone else is, since all the other stores probably are run by good Christians too. Whereas up here, it seems like that kind of labeling would actually mean something to people. But certainly it's a reasonable thing to do if they want to.

At the same time, though, I feel I have to point out that the same reason these people feel motivated to do this--to tell the world that "We follow your morals! We're not scary foreign people like those non-Christians!"-- are the exact same reasons that people like me are scared of even visiting the South, little say ever living there.

Because, as you've explained it, this is a place where the majority of people see people like me as foreigners with no morals, as scary people they'd rather not do business with. Is it any wonder that I am terrified of them, and see them as a foreign culture I want to stay as far away from as I can? They have a right to do it, but they shouldn't expect me to want to give them business, if their intended message is "We're good, trustworthy people because we're not like you."

(I see the meaning you've explained this as having as a lot scarier and more likely to make me want to stay away than if it was a more purely religious motive of "God wants us to publicly express our faith." or something.)

Piper said...

... I had never actually considered this before. It seems obvious in retrospect - thanks for talking about this.

Alcor said...

DWR: Whether or not people assume you're Christian, the symbolism and the feel-goodery of seeing someone else agree with you triggers a rush of satisfaction, happiness, what have you at the sight of it. People feel conscious reassurance seeing these signs, and so it encourages them to do business at a location. It's not the difference between "bad" and "good" -- it's "neutral" vs. "good." Either way, the buyer is still going to the "good" store.

DWR said...

The way you phrased it, at least, it certainly sounds like there's a negative implication to not appearing Christian (or worse, appearing obviously not Christian) in the South: "having a Christian label on your business says that you don't have a strange and foreign set of morals". "Strange and foreign set of morals" sounds more like a negative than a neutral judgment to me.

For that matter, "If you're down South, you'll notice how often, 'I see him in church each week,' is used as a statement of trust." certainly seems to indicate that someone who doesn't go to church (or doesn't go to the same church as everyone else) is less trustworthy. Maybe people don't think this means they're a child-molester, but it means that if something bad happens, they're the one who's already singled out as less honest.

Basically, I don't see how it's possible for people to think that a certain label means certain people are more trustworthy or acceptably-moralled without an implication that other people can't be trusted so much, or have inferior morals. Saying second-class people are "neutral" and not "negative" doesn't make them not second-class, and a place where I'm seen as second-class compared to almost everyone else is not somewhere I'm going to be comfortable or want to live if there are alternatives.

Alcor said...

DWR -- no one is asking you to live in the South, nor should you (as someone who knows you, I think I can say this).

People without the label are scary, because unknowns are scary. Unknowns mean that you might endorse something that the people of the town find repugnant or immoral -- whatever it may be doesn't really matter. You're mysterious and vaguely suspicious.

Yes, people who don't go to church are seen as not as moral. It's something people value there. They are not moral relativists, nor do they accept everyone. It's just a thing. I certainly am nowhere near as relativist as lots of people -- I just shift around what I think the absolutes are. I still love hard lines in the sand, because they're clear and simple. And yes, I do think these hard lines can and do exist.

Labels are fairly necessary for instant opinions -- which are in themselves very important. You don't have time to get to know every single person you meet, so you have a set of templates that you match to. These templates can certainly change over time, and what they are depends on a huge list of factors, but they're necessary and I'd say impossible to get rid of.

tl;dr some people should live in some places, others live in others, and people who use templates aren't bad.

You should go read "The Boogeymen" post, earlier in the blog. It explains everything.

DWR said...

*nod* I see your point. I was mostly trying to reply to something you said on Zephyr a while back about not understanding why people at MIT thought the rural South sounded so horrible or thinking that we were misunderstanding and being unfair to it. All I was trying to say was essentially what you said in your first sentence: I, and a lot of other MIT people, should not try to live in the South, because for us it is a horrible place, even if it's a completely comfortable place for many people who live there.

And I do agree that templates are unavoidable and somewhat useful. For example, I tend to correlate "being a sports fan" and "drinking a lot of alcohol" with "people I'm likely to find annoying and uninteresting. I'm coming to get over the latter because essentially all the interesting people at MIT seem to drink a lot (compared to Caltech, where most people I knew well were teetotalers), but I still suspect the former is a decent model.

Ariel said...

Well, let's see if the comments will work for me this time. (Hah, I wish.)

So: The businesses bug me, but the water towers terrify me. Because-- unless they really are *private* water towers, and some of them have a town name on them-- they say that *this entire town* is explicitly Christian. The local government has endorsed a religion. I didn't like that even when I was Christian and it was mine! That's exclusionary, very much so.

Now, the business question is more interesting. I don't think they're bad people for doing it, and I quite appreciate your insight-- but it *is* uncomfortable. Not because the people there are religious, but because they are stating that they run a Christian *business*. I wouldn't feel comfortable shopping in a furniture store with John 3:16 on their sign any more than I'd feel comfortable banking with the Lutheran credit union. It says it's a business for Christians. Whereas if every single person in the business wore a cross? Totally not a problem. If they had religious signs in their cubicles or personal space? Again, different matter-- it would weird me out a little, but it's not exclusionary, just a different way of approaching religion.

Does that make sense? I come from a world where religion is a personal matter, not a public (in the sense of the general public, not in the sense of visible) or business matter.* So by saying "My business advertises my religion even though that religion has nothing to do with what I'm selling", or worse yet, "My town advertises my religion", they're also saying "religion here is not a personal matter, it's a public one". Thus: scary.

* The obvious exception is religious businesses, which I have zero problems with, regardless of religion. Obviously, that's relevant! And I do actually patronize, e.g., halal butchers or Catholic seminary bookstores; they're providing a religious service that others are welcome to use, and that's totally routine.

Ariel said...

Now *this* seems interesting and relevant: http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2011/12/01/do-christians-believe-in-atheists-ubc-study-finds-believers-distrust-atheists-as-much-as-rapists/