Near the end of May 2020, Jonathan Steingard, the frontman for the Christian rock/punk band Hawk Nelson, posted a lengthy Instagram statement in which he confirmed that he no longer believed in God. Just a few days later, as early as the 27th of May, media outlets like CNN, Variety and others picked up on the breaking story.
When I saw that a friend on Facebook had posted the CNN article that same day, I commented on her post that it wouldn’t be long before we start to see the typical responses from evangelical leaders weighing in on yet another high-profile Christian publicly defecting. Sure enough, by the 22nd pastor Gabe Hughes of The Midwestern Baptist site posted an “open letter response,” and by the 28th Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis wrote a lengthy Twitter thread voicing his point of view.
What’s striking about both Ham and Hughes’s responses is that both men emphatically stated that, in both their understanding of the Bible and interpretation of his statement, it was clear: Steingard had never been a Christian at all. Once that “truth” was established, then they could safely dismiss him as a crank. These two have drawn upon the playbook so many other evangelical leaders have used in the cases of other recent high-profile defectors from the faith.
(As a theological aside, I do wonder, though: how does this argument work in the Calvinist scheme? Maybe Steingard wasn’t one of the elect…).
Anyway, as I will develop more below, I believe that these responses are clear examples of what psychologist Dr Robert Jay Lifton refers to as “the dispensing of existence.” These evangelical leaders interpreted Steingard’s entire ministry life as if he had been masquerading as “a sheep in wolf’s clothing” for over 20 years as a prominent Christian. As they saw it, he was little more than a fraud and a phony whose lack of faith needed to be publicly called out and exposed. Following that, his existence could safely be dispensed with.
Although Hughes admitted that he had never met Steingard, in his open letter he stated that he would (out of Christian charity, apparently) respond as a “stern older brother” to his shocking Instagram announcement. It’s interesting to note that Hughes can offer such a thoroughgoing critique on the question of a man’s salvation — someone he had never even met. Thus, right off the bat, in Hughes’s entire approach, there’s an air of patronizing condescension, as well as minimizing of Steingard’s experiences. There’s also the total failure to take even the slightest responsibility for propping up a system that Steingard is rejecting.
Because they’re so vile, I won’t put too many of Hughes’s statements up, but there are a couple that particularly stand out. Hughes maintained of Steingard’s public ministry: “You stood in front of audiences in Christian attire, but your faith was only on the surface. Underneath was a young man who didn’t truly believe in God. You may have thought you did, but it will become more evident as we continue through your comments that you never knew Him. I hope you and your audience see that, and that you come to true repentance and faith.”
So right off the bat, we can see Hughes’s condescending argument shaping up: Steingard was never a true believer at all, but there’s hope to be found: repent and return to the fold! What’s interesting to me theologically: there’s a strong Christian tradition that maintains that if you were once a true believer, it is impossible to return to the faith if you’ve rejected it. But if Steingard was never a true believer, then maybe he could now repent and get saved…? Anyway, I digress.
Hughes goes on to state that Steingard “should be terrified,” not because of his fear of the unknown future as an atheist, but because — in his view — it is a terrible thing to face God’s judgement and threat of an eternity in Hell. Hughes calls Steingard “a hypocrite” who needs to repent and stop “putting on airs” like other prominent hypocritical Christians do, apparently. He goes on to accuse Steingard: “You believe you are being transparent. But you are merely rolling back the stone and revealing that you’ve been full of deadness the entire time. You are still dead in your sins, and you have never been saved.” And on it goes.
Ken Ham echoed Hughes’s sentiment in a long Twitter thread, which began as follows:
Insiders vs. Outsiders
What I believe we are witnessing here, as mentioned earlier, is a display of what Lifton refers to as “the dispensing of existence.” (This, by the way, is the final category of eight markers of cults/totalist groups that Lifton identifies in his 1961 work Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism). We have seen these sorts of reactions by evangelicals before in recent cases of other high-profile Christians who have publicly announced they are forsaking their faith or beliefs in God. These include such names as Josh Harris, Hillsongs’ Marty Sampson, and pastor Ryan Bell. As with the above responses to Steingard, a common thread in evangelical responses to these defections is the charge that “they were never Christians in the first place.”
In Lifton’s explanation of the dispensing of existence, this behavior is indicative of totalist environments. In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised at these latest responses. The dispensing of existence serves as a way for groups to distinguish between insiders and outsiders. When a person defects, that distinction must be clarified. And in order to draw this sharp distinction, there must be equally public statements by evangelicals “proving” that these apostates were frauds and phonies all along, and never really part of the “in group.”
Once that move is made, then the defector can be dismissed, shunned, called an apostate or a suppressive person, or whatever label that particular group assigns to those who have left. There’s also an added benefit for those who stay inside: the remaining members of the group can continue to feel secure and safe, “knowing” that the person who left was never a true believer. In fact, the potential intellectual contagion that the apostate posed has now been safely excised from the group. However, among those still on the inside, a nagging and persistent fear remains: if it happened to them, it could happen to me. That fear must be suppressed at all costs.
In this connection, Lifton comments that it is essential for groups to maintain their ingroup/outgroup orientation. He states that “The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right” (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, 433; hereafter TR). In Lifton’s understanding, the totalist world is divided into two classes: those inside and those outside, those classified as “people” and “non-people.” This sharp division, of course, arises from the cult-like totalist “us-vs-them,” ingroup/outgroup orientation. Those “outsiders” are in effect “non-people,” and in extreme cases (Nazism, Communism), some have literally been put to death for “crimes against the state,” if they dare to question the leader’s activities, or take a stand against the status quo.
Conversion: Become an Insider
Critically, however, there is a way for the outsider to become an insider, and change one’s status from a non-person to a person, according to Lifton: “But the thought reform [conversion] process is one means by which non-people are permitted, through a change in attitude and personal character, to make themselves over into people” (TR 433). In evangelicalism parlance, a “lost sinner” (outsider) becomes “saved” through the conversion process, and is then accepted into the church community — thereby becoming an insider.
What happens at the point of conversion (or thought reform) is this: one has entered into a system that has at its core the belief that “there is just one path to true existence, just one valid mode of being, and that all others are perforce invalid or false. Totalists thus feel themselves compelled to destroy all possibilities of false existence as a means of furthering the great plan of true existence to which they are committed” (TR 434).
In evangelical and fundamentalist terminology, Christianity is the only true religion and path to salvation, God and ultimately heaven in the afterlife. This is the path on which true believers are now travelling, and are experiencing “true existence.” “False existence” means a) rejecting the group’s message of salvation, and thereby remaining an outsider, or b) forsaking the path of “true existence” as one of the insiders. Should one leave the group, they are in danger of becoming an outsider and experiencing the dispensing of existence.
Oftentimes, people are drawn into the conversion experience because they see it as “the only means of attaining a path of existence for the future” (TR 434). For the Christian, on the one hand, the hope of eternal bliss in heaven is the preferred path forward. On the other hand, the possibility that if one rejects the message of Christianity, this means that they face the prospect of spending an eternity of conscious torment in the flames of Hell. It is presented as a black-and-white binary choice: heaven or hell. As a prospective convert, the sinner must either “turn or burn.”
Evangelicalism and fundamentalist Christianity, in the revivalist tradition, have long used the tactics of applying psychological pressure to coerce people into accepting Christ. The fear of Hell is a time-honored tactic used by preachers for decades. Therefore, as the potential convert faces this existential threat, the way to overcome the fear of annihilation or future torment is to accept the message of salvation, or escape, that is being presented. The convert enters into the group, becomes an insider, and is accepted by the community. All is now well.
Or is it?
Psychological Effects of Converting
For that individual who buckled under the psychological pressure applied and decided to convert, Lifton points out that there is a downside to the whole thing. The “good news of the gospel” may not be that at all. For the new convert, “Existence comes to depend on creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon submission (I obey, therefore I am), and beyond these, upon a sense of a total merger with the ideological movement” (TR 434–5). Thus, In order to merge with the group, one must suppress his or her own authentic identity and stuff any lingering doubts or feelings of cognitive dissonance. As long as the convert is able to do that, and conform to the norms of the group, he or she will find continued acceptance from the larger group.
Being a part of the in-group does intense psychological damage, however; one is not untainted, or unaffected, by the decision to conform. Lifton says that this merging process does great violence to human potential; it evokes destructive emotions; it produces intellectual and psychological constrictions; and finally, it results in personal closure, self-destructive tendencies and potential hostility toward outsiders. This last element is further reinforced by the groups’ reinforcement of an “us-vs-them” siege mentality. In American evangelicalism, for example, this can also be seen in the persistent narrative that Christianity has not only historically been under assault by the forces of secularism, it is currently being persecuted with the threat of the loss of “religious liberties.”
The Dispensing of Existence
As long as one conforms to the message of the group and its leader, things are “fine.” One need not fear being called out or ultimately shunned by the group. In evangelical parlance, this is sometimes seen as “church discipline” or being part of an accountability group to manage individual behavior. However, if one begins to rock the boat a little too much, dispensing of existence may be the final outcome. There are a multiplicity of possible ways in which this can be seen in groups. For example, if one’s authentic personality is allowed to rise to the fore a few too many times; if one should “stray too far from the righteous path” by questioning the dogma, leadership or one’s experiences in the group; or worst of all — if one decides to renounce and ultimately leave the group. Should these take place, then they are in danger of being booted out or ultimately shunned. Their existence has been dispensed with.
When a person experiences the dispensing of existence, a curious phenomenon tends to happen: the group must make the point clear that they are now a “non-person” who no longer deserves to exist, at least psychologically or relationally. This is what we are seeing, once again, in the two examples above related to Jonathan Steingard.
The dispensing of existence, according to Lifton, involves those still within the group coming up with a series of justifications. For example, they might argue that “Those who have not seen the light and embraced the truth are wedded to evil, tainted, and therefore in some sense, usually metaphorical, lack the right to exist. That is one reason why a cult member threatened with being cast into outer darkness may experience a fear of extinction or collapse” (from his 1981 article “Cult Formation”).
Cult expert Steven Hassan, in his book Combating Cult Mind Control, also points out that cults or groups with undue influence will often seek to “future-proof” members from leaving by implanting fears and phobias. Should they ever contemplate leaving the group or the religious beliefs, that person will certainly face some dire consequences that must be avoided at all costs — by staying in the group. These include instilling in the followers’ minds the fear of an eternity in hell; extinction; shunning by the community and/or family; disconnection (Scientology); being labelled an apostate (JWs); and finally, the danger of being forcibly pulled out of the group by friends/family and deprogrammed.
This tactic of filling members’ minds with fears of deprogrammers, for example, makes many a group member shelve their questions and doubts about the group or the leader. One’s very spiritual — and eternal — survival is at stake! Thus, the dispensing of existence is a very real threat to members who might otherwise contemplate leaving; being shunned equals the loss of one’s community, family, friends, financial livelihood or career; and facing the possibility of losing the relationship with one’s children or spouse.
What is the psychological effect on the individual who suppresses her cognitive dissonance and decides to stay in the group? Lifton comments that “the totalist environment stimulates a total fear of annihilation or of extinction in the follower; one can only overcome this fear and find “confirmation” only in “the fount of all existence, the totalist Organization” (TR 434). The message to followers is clear: stay safe, and stay in the group.
If you leave, you will be dispensed with, and in some extreme cases, seen as “dead to us.” Family members still in the religion, for example, may no longer continue to have a relationship with the apostate.
Thus, the message to those who might be contemplating leaving the fold, or even questioning their beliefs, is clear: we will dispense with your existence. You will be shamed, shunned, and labelled an apostate, a fraud, a phony and ultimately an outsider. You no longer have the right to exist.
Follow me on Twitter @MindShift2018
For a more in-depth study of Lifton’s work, check out this bonus episode I did a while ago on the psychology of conversion and deconversion: