CONVERSATION
The Manosphere and the Church

Jordan Peterson, guru to wayward young men, sold over three million copies of his book 12 Rules for Life.  Joe Rogan, whose podcast is listened to by hordes of young men, just signed a $100 million deal to take his show to Spotify.  These are but two of the tallest peaks in a veritable mountain range of modern day men’s gurus whose advice or lifestyle is eagerly devoured by young men.

I was asked to write here about the attraction of the collection of online men’s blogs known as the “manosphere” and its successors, but that needs to first be put in context of the church’s lack of attractiveness to men.

It’s long been noted that Christian practice in America skews female, particularly among singles. “Where have all the good men gone?” is a familiar refrain in churches.  Economist Lyman Stone at the Institute for Family Studies looked at various surveys and found that indeed there are fewer single men than women in most American denominations. This imbalance is particularly acute in black and mainline churches, but also affects evangelical congregations. (Data from Barna suggests this gap may be closing, but only because more women are now abandoning the faith).

Why are young men so often turning away from the church and to these largely secular men’s gurus?

It can be tempting to blame the church for this state of affairs. Yet remember John 3:19: This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.  The real thing that needs to be explained is not why people reject Christ but why anyone accepts Him. The answer being that only through the grace of God can anyone come to faith in Christ at all.

Because salvation is by God’s grace, I don’t blame the church for people who reject Christ. But I do hold the church accountable for its own faults. So let’s look at the church’s lack of appeal to men on that basis.

Various books have been written on this topic including David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church and Leon Podles’ The Church Impotent.  But British academic Callum Brown puts forth the most compelling view in his book The Death of Christian Britain. In it Brown notes a shift in public perception of piety around 1800 from a male register to a female register. He points out, for example, how angels shifted from being portrayed as primarily male to being portrayed mostly as female around that time.

Brown surveyed the evangelical literature of that era, finding that men and masculinity came to be seen as acute threats to holiness and the home, while women and femininity became associated with godliness. He writes:

After 1800, the religiosity of women was paramount to the evangelical scheme for moral revolution. They were regarded as having special qualities which placed them at the fulcrum of family sanctity.

Though the female evangelical narrative structure might vary in these ways, there were uniform characteristics. First, women’s conversions were usually taken for granted; the issue was their ability to choose a godly husband or reform an ungodly one. Second, women’s spiritual destiny was virtually never portrayed as a battle with temptation or real sin; fallen women did not appear as central characters, and none of the usual temptations like drink or gambling ever seemed to be an issue with them. The problem is the man, sometimes the father, but more commonly the boyfriend, fiancé, or husband, who is a drinker, a gambler, keeps the ‘bad company’ of ‘rough lads’ and is commonly a womanizer. The man is the agency of the virtuous woman’s downfall; he does not make her bad, but does make her suffer and poor. She is not always portrayed as having undergone a major conversion experience, but to have emerged from childhood into a disciplined and natural ‘goodness.’

The British Weekly series reflected the view that at the heart of urban society, the problems of social order, crime, immorality, and irreligion were interconnected products of male weakness.  This weakness was intrinsically rooted in maleness, a heathen ‘other’ located at sites of temptation.

A large proportion of evangelical stories of men centered on the destruction of families by male evils.

In evangelical stories about piety, women appeared throughout as good but not always converted; men, by contrast, almost always appeared as in a perilous sinful state until near the end. Men were the problem, given manifold temptations: drink (nearly always), gambling (increasingly after 1890), and ‘rough’ in overall cultural terms. They lived dissipated lives which caused suffering and ruination to mothers, wives, and children. Nowhere did evangelical literature have such a powerful influence in the public domain, including in ‘secular’ fiction, as in its demonization of men. [emphasis added]

In other words, the church became almost explicitly anti-male in its view of sin and society. It came to see women as naturally good and men as naturally evil and the source of most problems in the world.  Again, I stress that these observations from Brown are based on an extensive examination of evangelical literature itself – not from secular or anti-Christian sources. (I will also note that Charles Taylor favorably cited Brown’s discussion of this in A Secular Age).

Brown’s findings are compelling for two reasons. First, the major socio-economic disruption caused by industrialization with its associated urbanization helps explain why this transition occurred, then how it spread to America.  Secondly, it’s very easy to see similar themes at play in the modern American church today. For example, the 2016 article “Men and Women Are Not Equal” in First Things by Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family is illustrative. Stanton writes:

Women create, shape, and maintain human culture. Manners exist because women exist. Worthy men adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room. They become better creatures. Civilization arises and endures because women have expectations of themselves and of those around them…. Anthropologists have long recognized that the most fundamental social problem every community must solve is the unattached male. If his sexual, physical, and emotional energies are not governed and directed in a pro-social, domesticated manner, he will become the village’s most malignant cancer. Wives and children, in that order, are the only successful remedy ever found…. This is why Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a tale not so much about the dark nature of humanity as about the isolation of the masculine from the feminine. Had there been just a few confident girls amongst those boys, its conclusion might have been more Swiss Family Robinson… Man and woman are not equal. He owes what he is to her. That is hardly her only power, but it is among her most formidable. Christianity has always known this.

Or look at how popular conservative pastors sometimes brutalize men from their pulpits.  For example, consider Matt Chandler, the A-list Southern Baptist pastor of Dallas area megachurch the Village Church and head of the Acts 29 network. In one sermon Chandler prays this almost imprecatory prayer:

Father, for men in this room who prey on insecure women with wounded hearts, Father, I just pray over these men a type of weight on their souls that would be crushing. Father, I thank you that you do not take lightly wolves hunting down your daughters and that there would be a day that these men, hollow-chested boys in grown up bodies will cry out as you come for mountains to fall and that the mountains will flee before your coming. I thank you that you are a just judge who will not handle lightly boys who can shave who take advantage of your daughters. I pray that there might be repentance for these men for the salvation of their own soul.

Contrast this with how Chandler treats women’s sexual sins. In his famous “Jesus wants the rose” clip Chandler describes how he is personally babysitting for a single mother who is actively having an affair with a married man, and how he becomes indignant when another pastor calls out sexual sin in this woman’s presence – not her specific sin, mind you, but sexual sin in general.

Chandler’s approach is typical: unconditional, even brutal at times, condemnation of sins committed by men combined with a deep reticence to hold women accountable for anything.

We see this same pattern on display in the way Minneapolis-based Baptist pastor John Piper talks about women being allowed in military combat roles. He opposed this, but it’s interesting to see how he framed his opposition. He said it was an expression of male cowardice. Here’s what he wrote in 2007:

If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea… What cowardly men do we thank for this collapse of chivalry? Browne suggests, “There are a lot of military people who think women in combat is a horrible idea, but it’s career suicide to say it.” In other words, let the women die.

He later followed up by saying, “The exhortation is a good one that we not minimize the sacrifice of the American women who have died in combat, even if we think their presence on the front lines is a powerful commentary on the cowardice of our male military and political leaders.”  And in 2014 he wrote, “Here we go again — more fallout from the male cowardice that won’t stand up to the politically correct shamers, but instead countenances arming our women for frontline combat.”

I think it’s fair to say that men played a significant role in women coming to serve in military combat roles. They were the Presidents. They were the Secretaries of Defense. They were the heads of the services. Many men did in fact help drive this through. Even back in 2013, an overwhelming 73% of men nationally supported integration of women into combat roles, and it’s surely even higher today.

But if you read those pieces, you’ll see that Piper assigns zero responsibility to women. (He says sin “tells women to be coquettes or controllers” but you’ll notice he never actually says women do become those things). In fact, he goes out of his way to talk about how brave they are, how capable they are (e.g., black belts in karate), etc. He treats women in combat strictly as a result of cowardly men not wanting to fight and thus pushing women into their place.

Is this a remotely accurate characterization of reality? No.

Also, if one believes as Piper does that the Bible prohibits women in military combat then wouldn’t women who enlist themselves in those roles be sinning? He doesn’t address that point at all.

I’m not cherry picking here. I’ve read everything I could find by him on women in the military and have never seen him assign any responsibility to women in this. It’s an example of how pastors will issue utterly vicious public condemnations of men as a gender while doing contortions in order to avoid assigning any accountability to women for anything. And keep in mind Piper is one of the most conservative evangelical leaders out there, not a feminist.

These are just anecdotes, but I have a trove of examples like these. I’ve also done more systematic analysis of various teachings and books on gender and marriage. They do sometimes give examples of female sin or misbehavior, but the ratio of male to female examples is very out of line. And female illustrations tend to be individual examples, whereas those about men are more likely to be portrayed as applying to their gender as a whole. (Try it for yourself the next time you read one of these books. Total up the number of examples and generalizations of each sex, and note the way the genders are characterized).

Consider this example: it’s well known that women initiate the bulk of divorces – around 70% of them depending on the source. Have you ever heard or read this in any Christian marriage book or sermon series?  I haven’t.

British academic Valerie Hobbs published a recent study “The discourse of divorce in conservative Christian sermons” in which she undertook a linguistic analysis of 31 of the most popular sermons on divorce posted at Sermon Audio, primarily from Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian ministers. She found that they discuss divorce within a male-initiated framework:

In summary, despite the fact that femaleness was, as mentioned earlier, a significant semantic concept in the divorce corpus, women are framed primarily as receivers of divorce rather than initiators. Although in most cases of divorce in the United States, women initiate divorce, pastors in the corpus in this way represented divorce as a largely male action.

Hobbs is a feminist scholar, but recognizes the divergence between what male pastors speak and reality.

Listening to how the church talks about and treats men, especially relative to women, is it any wonder that men with even a modicum of self-respect often choose not to subject themselves to this kind of mistreatment by coming to church?

Secular men’s figures, by contrast, often sympathize with men. While they can be tough and challenging at times in their own right, they usually appear to desire to build men up and provide practical tips for self-improvement, not beat downs. That’s a huge difference right there.

Pastors hiding critical facts about gender relations, such as the data on who files for divorce, points to another reason why men have turned to secular men’s gurus. That is, those secular figures are more likely to tell men the often unpopular truth they need to know in critically important areas rather than leave them in the dark or even lie to them. 

Self-improvement pitchmen have been with us for a long time. Some of them like Norman Vincent Peale and Harry Emerson Fosdick were even preachers. But the current phenomenon of the online men’s guru is a product of the social media era, and came to the fore around 2013-2015 with the popularity of what was then called the “manosphere.”

The manosphere was a collection of male-oriented blogs and discussion forums spanning several subcultures linked by a shared framework of intersexual dynamics known by the shorthand of the “red pill,” taken from the film The Matrix. In that film, the protagonist Neo is unplugged from a computer generated virtual reality used to enslave him after swallowing a red pill. Thus “taking the red pill” is supposed to liberate one from the lies society has told men so that he can see the truth, however bitter that might be.

The largest and most foundational subgroup in the manosphere was the pickup artist community, who pioneered the movement. Around them were others like Men’s Rights Activists (MRA’s, the subject of a documentary film by Cassie Jaye called The Red Pill), the MGTOW movement (pronounced “mig-tao” and standing for “men going their own way,” a group of men who advocate avoiding marriage, romantic relationships, or other involvements with women), and even a group of pseudonymous Christian blogs headlined by someone writing under the name Dalrock. (A good summation of some of the positive thought of the Christian manosphere can be found in Stephen Casper’s book The Biblical Masculinity Blueprint).

The red pill promulgated by the manosphere consists of two basic things:

  1. A model of intersexual dynamics based on evolutionary psychology.
  2. A library of applied techniques for picking up or otherwise interacting with women known as “Game” that is tied back to that model.

The red pill model was developed from a variety of sources, including various legacy pickup guides, Neil Strauss’ book The Game about the pickup artist community, the novels of Michel Houellebecq, books like Sexual Utopia in Power by F. Roger Devlin, findings from psychology research, field experimentation, and more.  The red pill is fundamentally materialist in that it utilizes evolution as its explanatory force. For example, why are men treated as expendable while women are fiercely protected? Because sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive.

Thanks to the presence of MRAs, manosphere readers got a deep education in statistical reality about the prevalence of female initiated divorce and the stacked deck in family court. This quickly disabused them of such popular but untrue notions as the claim that the principal cause of family breakdown is men is abandoning their wives and children. (This also helped propel the development of the MGTOW movement.)

But the factual truths embedded in the red pill framework went far beyond divorce statistics. That’s not to say that the red pill framework is totally true – it’s not – but it does contain a number of true or directionally true elements. For example, contrast what the church teaches men about attraction with what the red pill movement teaches.

The conservative evangelical church teaches that women are attracted to men who are “servant leaders,” which is to say men that provide for, affirm, serve, emotionally support, listen to, and validate the high worth of their women.  This is supposed to attract women, and even in some takes make them want to have more sex with their husbands. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once put it like this:

When I say that a husband must regularly “earn” privileged access to the marital bed, I mean that a husband owes his wife the confidence, affection, and emotional support that would lead her to freely give herself to her husband in the act of sex…. Put most bluntly, I believe that God means for a man to be civilized, directed, and stimulated toward marital faithfulness by the fact that his wife will freely give herself to him sexually only when he presents himself as worthy of her attention and desire. 

By contrast, the red pill world teaches that women are attracted to a completely different set of characteristics. The Christian manosphere writer Donal Graeme (a pseudonym) developed the acrostic PSALM as a mnemonic for them: Power, Status, Athleticism, Looks, and Money. In these characteristics, women also desire to “marry up,” something known as hypergamy. That is, a woman wants to marry (or have sex with) a man who is overall more attractive than she is, all attraction factors considered. Or at a minimum she certainly doesn’t want to marry down.

While “assortative mating,” or marrying someone of roughly equal status, gets much of the press today, women do still tend to marry men who are older, taller, make more money, etc.  In cases where the situation is reversed, such as when when the wife makes more money than the husband, unhappiness and marital dysfunction often result. This isn’t just a form of surface attraction either, but appears to operate at a more primal level. For example, researchers have found that there’s a positive correlation between a man’s wealth and the number of orgasms his sexual partner experiences.

Common sense also bears the PSALM model of attraction out.  Rich guys, ballers, musicians, good-looking guys, etc. attract more female attention than pudgy video gamers hanging out in their mom’s basement. The church music leader or youth pastor get more female attention than the church janitor or parking lot attendant.

What the church has done here is conflate characteristics that make a man godly or good marriage material with those that make him attractive. While there may be some overlap here, these are mostly distinct sets. A man needs to work on both sets. (Paul’s warning to Christians not to marry unbelievers implicitly acknowledges those unbelievers can be appealing).

Matt Chandler says, “I keep saying it: Godliness is sexy to godly people.”  Jordan Peterson, not a red pill writer himself but someone who works the same territory, says women are attracted to “boys who win status competitions with other boys.” Who is more accurate? (In fairness to Chandler, he elsewhere said that, “Attraction is a strange, ambiguous force,” and affirms physical attraction, which is an improvement).

In addition to its model of intersexual dynamics (which includes much more than just the attraction framework described above), the red pill also includes a library of techniques for interacting with women called “Game.” As with attraction, every man has a theory about what techniques he thinks will make a woman want to go on a date with him (or, for the non-Christian, have sex with him) and continue dating him.  That’s why men buy women a dozen red roses, open car doors, buy expensive dinners, buy Hamilton tickets, write heartfelt notes, tell her how beautiful she is, etc. These are all a form of manipulative “game” of which the church would approve. They just aren’t very effective. (Women may be happy to enjoy free stuff at a man’s expense, but that doesn’t mean they are really attracted to him).

The manosphere promised its readers more effective approaches. Most Game techniques are methods for signaling that a man possesses the attractiveness characteristics to a high degree, or “Displaying High Value” in their lingo. Many of them are very counterintuitive. For example, one technique is called “Agree and Amplify.” As an example of applying this, if a woman asks, “Do I look fat in this dress?” instead of saying, “Of course not!” or reassuring her that she’s beautiful or something like that, a man using Game might instead grin, spread his arms as far apart as possible, and say, “Huuuuge, baby!”

Do these pickup style techniques work? While it’s unlikely that they work as well as their promoters claim, undoubtedly they are effective. New York magazine published a story about a pickup artist named Jared who owned a local coffee shop in Asheville. He maintained a pseudonymous blog describing his conquests, steadily increasing over time to as many as 22 per year – and this from a guy who said he didn’t want to do one-night stands but rather build a “harem.”  From this and other accounts we can readily deduce that the manosphere’s Game at some level works, if alas for evil ends in too many cases.

Obviously being a pickup artist is sinful and evil. If we define misogyny as hatred of or contempt for women, there was quite a bit of that in the manosphere as well. And despite its purported ethos of “self improvement” (get in better shape, have better style, make more money, become better at getting women to have sex with you, etc.) much of the manosphere embodied a nihilistic view of life and relationships (sadly, including some people on the Christian sites). All there is to do is to “enjoy the decline” of society, as one manosphere figure put it.

Sex is primal. When the manosphere writers showed men that their parents and society – and their pastors – had been telling them falsehoods about women their whole lives, and then told them how they could really get women to have sex or go out on dates with them, that provided the ultimate credential that opened the door to accepting a whole lot more, including ungodly hedonistic and nihilistic values, and other potentially negative and untrue follow-on beliefs. As Harvard professor Stephen Pinker once said:

A way in which I do agree with my fellow panelist that political correctness has done an enormous amount of harm in the sliver of the population whose affiliation might be up for grabs comes from the often highly literate, highly intelligent people that gravitate to the alt-right – internet savvy, media savvy – who often are radicalized in that way – who “swallow the red pill” as the saying goes from the Matrix – when they are exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in the New York Times or in respectable media. It’s almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity, and they are immediately infected with both an outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defense against taking them to what we might consider rather repellent conclusions.

The manosphere largely died out over the last few years. The only original major figure still active is Rollo Tomassi at his Rational Male site.  The main sizable group left is one that was very small back then but has grown much larger – and sometimes violent – today: the “incel,” or “involuntary celibate” community of low status young men extremely unhappy that they are unable to have sex with or go out on dates with women.

The manosphere dissipated for a number of reasons. In part, it was because they finished mining their territory and had little new to say. Also, people age out of pickup artistry, requiring a perpetual refreshing of the gurus teaching it. But most importantly, it’s because the manosphere fused with and morphed into political movements, particularly Trumpism and right-wing politics, where the red pill has been absorbed as just one of several tenets.  Red pill thinking has also made its way into most of the more mainstream men’s figures like Jordan Peterson. They are drawing on the manosphere whether they acknowledge it or not. Though the manosphere per se is mostly gone, the bulk of today’s popular internet men’s figures are using manosphere ideas which are now widely diffused in various forms.

Again, the blame for men choosing a life of pickup artistry over godliness lies with them alone.  We are all responsible for our own sin. Christ was mistreated by the religious authorities of His day, yet without sin.  The failures of the church no way justify our sin.

Nevertheless, the church has failed men, not just the ones who turned away from it, but in many cases even the ones who joined.  I have a great deal of respect for the ministries of many of these churches and pastors. Some like John Piper have made a positive impact on me personally. But we must be honest that they are badly off base and very uncharitable in this area.

The church has adopted a very skewed approach that improperly berates and belittles men, and has badly misled them with teachings that just aren’t true. Those might be strong statements, but not nearly as strong as the anti-male sermons that these pastors themselves preach. There’s been a lot written about the way the church has abused and harmed women, but the church has abused and harmed a lot of men too.

This situation must be fixed. I started the Masculinist on a mission to make that happen, to speak truth while holding firm to Christian teaching, to reach and build men up not just tear them down, and to reform the church’s deeply flawed approach to men. A number of others have also been speaking up in their own ways, which is very welcome. We as Christians have to start loving men, and have the courage to speak the truth in this area that the church has heretofore lacked.

There was certainly a lot in the manosphere, probably most of the manosphere, that was evil or wrong. That should be forthrightly rejected and condemned, and we shouldn’t be sad that it has largely died out in its previous incarnation.

But the church has some logs in its own eyes that it needs to take out. If it won’t remove them, it should expect to continue seeing plenty of ungodly people filling that void.

Postscript

The truth of the gospel is much more compelling than a life of sin, something even some of the manosphere people have now discovered. Roosh Valizadeh, a manosphere A-lister and once one of the most famous pickup artists in the world, converted to Christianity. His conversion seems genuine, and he unpublished his pickup artist books that had constituted his main source of income. Another manosphere figure who went by the name Victor Pride also appears to have become a Christian and shut down his former site Bold and Determined. Let us hope they stay faithful to the end and that many more follow after them.


Aaron Renn is an urban analyst, journalist, and the writer of the Masculinist.

Next Conversation
The Virtues of Dominion
Alastair Roberts

Jordan Peterson, guru to wayward young men, sold over three million copies of his book 12 Rules for Life.  Joe Rogan, whose podcast is listened to by hordes of young men, just signed a $100 million deal to take his show to Spotify.  These are but two of the tallest peaks in a veritable mountain range of modern day men’s gurus whose advice or lifestyle is eagerly devoured by young men.

I was asked to write here about the attraction of the collection of online men’s blogs known as the “manosphere” and its successors, but that needs to first be put in context of the church’s lack of attractiveness to men.

It’s long been noted that Christian practice in America skews female, particularly among singles. “Where have all the good men gone?” is a familiar refrain in churches.  Economist Lyman Stone at the Institute for Family Studies looked at various surveys and found that indeed there are fewer single men than women in most American denominations. This imbalance is particularly acute in black and mainline churches, but also affects evangelical congregations. (Data from Barna suggests this gap may be closing, but only because more women are now abandoning the faith).

Why are young men so often turning away from the church and to these largely secular men’s gurus?

It can be tempting to blame the church for this state of affairs. Yet remember John 3:19: This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.  The real thing that needs to be explained is not why people reject Christ but why anyone accepts Him. The answer being that only through the grace of God can anyone come to faith in Christ at all.

Because salvation is by God’s grace, I don’t blame the church for people who reject Christ. But I do hold the church accountable for its own faults. So let’s look at the church’s lack of appeal to men on that basis.

Various books have been written on this topic including David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church and Leon Podles’ The Church Impotent.  But British academic Callum Brown puts forth the most compelling view in his book The Death of Christian Britain. In it Brown notes a shift in public perception of piety around 1800 from a male register to a female register. He points out, for example, how angels shifted from being portrayed as primarily male to being portrayed mostly as female around that time.

Brown surveyed the evangelical literature of that era, finding that men and masculinity came to be seen as acute threats to holiness and the home, while women and femininity became associated with godliness. He writes:

After 1800, the religiosity of women was paramount to the evangelical scheme for moral revolution. They were regarded as having special qualities which placed them at the fulcrum of family sanctity.

Though the female evangelical narrative structure might vary in these ways, there were uniform characteristics. First, women’s conversions were usually taken for granted; the issue was their ability to choose a godly husband or reform an ungodly one. Second, women’s spiritual destiny was virtually never portrayed as a battle with temptation or real sin; fallen women did not appear as central characters, and none of the usual temptations like drink or gambling ever seemed to be an issue with them. The problem is the man, sometimes the father, but more commonly the boyfriend, fiancé, or husband, who is a drinker, a gambler, keeps the ‘bad company’ of ‘rough lads’ and is commonly a womanizer. The man is the agency of the virtuous woman’s downfall; he does not make her bad, but does make her suffer and poor. She is not always portrayed as having undergone a major conversion experience, but to have emerged from childhood into a disciplined and natural ‘goodness.’

The British Weekly series reflected the view that at the heart of urban society, the problems of social order, crime, immorality, and irreligion were interconnected products of male weakness.  This weakness was intrinsically rooted in maleness, a heathen ‘other’ located at sites of temptation.

A large proportion of evangelical stories of men centered on the destruction of families by male evils.

In evangelical stories about piety, women appeared throughout as good but not always converted; men, by contrast, almost always appeared as in a perilous sinful state until near the end. Men were the problem, given manifold temptations: drink (nearly always), gambling (increasingly after 1890), and ‘rough’ in overall cultural terms. They lived dissipated lives which caused suffering and ruination to mothers, wives, and children. Nowhere did evangelical literature have such a powerful influence in the public domain, including in ‘secular’ fiction, as in its demonization of men. [emphasis added]

In other words, the church became almost explicitly anti-male in its view of sin and society. It came to see women as naturally good and men as naturally evil and the source of most problems in the world.  Again, I stress that these observations from Brown are based on an extensive examination of evangelical literature itself – not from secular or anti-Christian sources. (I will also note that Charles Taylor favorably cited Brown’s discussion of this in A Secular Age).

Brown’s findings are compelling for two reasons. First, the major socio-economic disruption caused by industrialization with its associated urbanization helps explain why this transition occurred, then how it spread to America.  Secondly, it’s very easy to see similar themes at play in the modern American church today. For example, the 2016 article “Men and Women Are Not Equal” in First Things by Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family is illustrative. Stanton writes:

Women create, shape, and maintain human culture. Manners exist because women exist. Worthy men adjust their behavior when a woman enters the room. They become better creatures. Civilization arises and endures because women have expectations of themselves and of those around them…. Anthropologists have long recognized that the most fundamental social problem every community must solve is the unattached male. If his sexual, physical, and emotional energies are not governed and directed in a pro-social, domesticated manner, he will become the village’s most malignant cancer. Wives and children, in that order, are the only successful remedy ever found…. This is why Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a tale not so much about the dark nature of humanity as about the isolation of the masculine from the feminine. Had there been just a few confident girls amongst those boys, its conclusion might have been more Swiss Family Robinson… Man and woman are not equal. He owes what he is to her. That is hardly her only power, but it is among her most formidable. Christianity has always known this.

Or look at how popular conservative pastors sometimes brutalize men from their pulpits.  For example, consider Matt Chandler, the A-list Southern Baptist pastor of Dallas area megachurch the Village Church and head of the Acts 29 network. In one sermon Chandler prays this almost imprecatory prayer:

Father, for men in this room who prey on insecure women with wounded hearts, Father, I just pray over these men a type of weight on their souls that would be crushing. Father, I thank you that you do not take lightly wolves hunting down your daughters and that there would be a day that these men, hollow-chested boys in grown up bodies will cry out as you come for mountains to fall and that the mountains will flee before your coming. I thank you that you are a just judge who will not handle lightly boys who can shave who take advantage of your daughters. I pray that there might be repentance for these men for the salvation of their own soul.

Contrast this with how Chandler treats women’s sexual sins. In his famous “Jesus wants the rose” clip Chandler describes how he is personally babysitting for a single mother who is actively having an affair with a married man, and how he becomes indignant when another pastor calls out sexual sin in this woman’s presence - not her specific sin, mind you, but sexual sin in general.

Chandler’s approach is typical: unconditional, even brutal at times, condemnation of sins committed by men combined with a deep reticence to hold women accountable for anything.

We see this same pattern on display in the way Minneapolis-based Baptist pastor John Piper talks about women being allowed in military combat roles. He opposed this, but it’s interesting to see how he framed his opposition. He said it was an expression of male cowardice. Here’s what he wrote in 2007:

If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea… What cowardly men do we thank for this collapse of chivalry? Browne suggests, “There are a lot of military people who think women in combat is a horrible idea, but it’s career suicide to say it.” In other words, let the women die.

He later followed up by saying, “The exhortation is a good one that we not minimize the sacrifice of the American women who have died in combat, even if we think their presence on the front lines is a powerful commentary on the cowardice of our male military and political leaders.”  And in 2014 he wrote, “Here we go again — more fallout from the male cowardice that won’t stand up to the politically correct shamers, but instead countenances arming our women for frontline combat.”

I think it’s fair to say that men played a significant role in women coming to serve in military combat roles. They were the Presidents. They were the Secretaries of Defense. They were the heads of the services. Many men did in fact help drive this through. Even back in 2013, an overwhelming 73% of men nationally supported integration of women into combat roles, and it’s surely even higher today.

But if you read those pieces, you’ll see that Piper assigns zero responsibility to women. (He says sin "tells women to be coquettes or controllers" but you'll notice he never actually says women do become those things). In fact, he goes out of his way to talk about how brave they are, how capable they are (e.g., black belts in karate), etc. He treats women in combat strictly as a result of cowardly men not wanting to fight and thus pushing women into their place.

Is this a remotely accurate characterization of reality? No.

Also, if one believes as Piper does that the Bible prohibits women in military combat then wouldn’t women who enlist themselves in those roles be sinning? He doesn’t address that point at all.

I’m not cherry picking here. I’ve read everything I could find by him on women in the military and have never seen him assign any responsibility to women in this. It’s an example of how pastors will issue utterly vicious public condemnations of men as a gender while doing contortions in order to avoid assigning any accountability to women for anything. And keep in mind Piper is one of the most conservative evangelical leaders out there, not a feminist.

These are just anecdotes, but I have a trove of examples like these. I’ve also done more systematic analysis of various teachings and books on gender and marriage. They do sometimes give examples of female sin or misbehavior, but the ratio of male to female examples is very out of line. And female illustrations tend to be individual examples, whereas those about men are more likely to be portrayed as applying to their gender as a whole. (Try it for yourself the next time you read one of these books. Total up the number of examples and generalizations of each sex, and note the way the genders are characterized).

Consider this example: it’s well known that women initiate the bulk of divorces – around 70% of them depending on the source. Have you ever heard or read this in any Christian marriage book or sermon series?  I haven’t.

British academic Valerie Hobbs published a recent study “The discourse of divorce in conservative Christian sermons” in which she undertook a linguistic analysis of 31 of the most popular sermons on divorce posted at Sermon Audio, primarily from Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian ministers. She found that they discuss divorce within a male-initiated framework:

In summary, despite the fact that femaleness was, as mentioned earlier, a significant semantic concept in the divorce corpus, women are framed primarily as receivers of divorce rather than initiators. Although in most cases of divorce in the United States, women initiate divorce, pastors in the corpus in this way represented divorce as a largely male action.

Hobbs is a feminist scholar, but recognizes the divergence between what male pastors speak and reality.

Listening to how the church talks about and treats men, especially relative to women, is it any wonder that men with even a modicum of self-respect often choose not to subject themselves to this kind of mistreatment by coming to church?

Secular men’s figures, by contrast, often sympathize with men. While they can be tough and challenging at times in their own right, they usually appear to desire to build men up and provide practical tips for self-improvement, not beat downs. That’s a huge difference right there.

Pastors hiding critical facts about gender relations, such as the data on who files for divorce, points to another reason why men have turned to secular men’s gurus. That is, those secular figures are more likely to tell men the often unpopular truth they need to know in critically important areas rather than leave them in the dark or even lie to them. 

Self-improvement pitchmen have been with us for a long time. Some of them like Norman Vincent Peale and Harry Emerson Fosdick were even preachers. But the current phenomenon of the online men’s guru is a product of the social media era, and came to the fore around 2013-2015 with the popularity of what was then called the “manosphere.”

The manosphere was a collection of male-oriented blogs and discussion forums spanning several subcultures linked by a shared framework of intersexual dynamics known by the shorthand of the “red pill,” taken from the film The Matrix. In that film, the protagonist Neo is unplugged from a computer generated virtual reality used to enslave him after swallowing a red pill. Thus “taking the red pill” is supposed to liberate one from the lies society has told men so that he can see the truth, however bitter that might be.

The largest and most foundational subgroup in the manosphere was the pickup artist community, who pioneered the movement. Around them were others like Men’s Rights Activists (MRA’s, the subject of a documentary film by Cassie Jaye called The Red Pill), the MGTOW movement (pronounced “mig-tao” and standing for “men going their own way,” a group of men who advocate avoiding marriage, romantic relationships, or other involvements with women), and even a group of pseudonymous Christian blogs headlined by someone writing under the name Dalrock. (A good summation of some of the positive thought of the Christian manosphere can be found in Stephen Casper’s book The Biblical Masculinity Blueprint).

The red pill promulgated by the manosphere consists of two basic things:

  1. A model of intersexual dynamics based on evolutionary psychology.
  2. A library of applied techniques for picking up or otherwise interacting with women known as “Game” that is tied back to that model.

The red pill model was developed from a variety of sources, including various legacy pickup guides, Neil Strauss’ book The Game about the pickup artist community, the novels of Michel Houellebecq, books like Sexual Utopia in Power by F. Roger Devlin, findings from psychology research, field experimentation, and more.  The red pill is fundamentally materialist in that it utilizes evolution as its explanatory force. For example, why are men treated as expendable while women are fiercely protected? Because sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive.

Thanks to the presence of MRAs, manosphere readers got a deep education in statistical reality about the prevalence of female initiated divorce and the stacked deck in family court. This quickly disabused them of such popular but untrue notions as the claim that the principal cause of family breakdown is men is abandoning their wives and children. (This also helped propel the development of the MGTOW movement.)

But the factual truths embedded in the red pill framework went far beyond divorce statistics. That’s not to say that the red pill framework is totally true – it’s not – but it does contain a number of true or directionally true elements. For example, contrast what the church teaches men about attraction with what the red pill movement teaches.

The conservative evangelical church teaches that women are attracted to men who are “servant leaders,” which is to say men that provide for, affirm, serve, emotionally support, listen to, and validate the high worth of their women.  This is supposed to attract women, and even in some takes make them want to have more sex with their husbands. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once put it like this:

When I say that a husband must regularly "earn" privileged access to the marital bed, I mean that a husband owes his wife the confidence, affection, and emotional support that would lead her to freely give herself to her husband in the act of sex…. Put most bluntly, I believe that God means for a man to be civilized, directed, and stimulated toward marital faithfulness by the fact that his wife will freely give herself to him sexually only when he presents himself as worthy of her attention and desire. 

By contrast, the red pill world teaches that women are attracted to a completely different set of characteristics. The Christian manosphere writer Donal Graeme (a pseudonym) developed the acrostic PSALM as a mnemonic for them: Power, Status, Athleticism, Looks, and Money. In these characteristics, women also desire to “marry up,” something known as hypergamy. That is, a woman wants to marry (or have sex with) a man who is overall more attractive than she is, all attraction factors considered. Or at a minimum she certainly doesn’t want to marry down.

While “assortative mating,” or marrying someone of roughly equal status, gets much of the press today, women do still tend to marry men who are older, taller, make more money, etc.  In cases where the situation is reversed, such as when when the wife makes more money than the husband, unhappiness and marital dysfunction often result. This isn’t just a form of surface attraction either, but appears to operate at a more primal level. For example, researchers have found that there’s a positive correlation between a man’s wealth and the number of orgasms his sexual partner experiences.

Common sense also bears the PSALM model of attraction out.  Rich guys, ballers, musicians, good-looking guys, etc. attract more female attention than pudgy video gamers hanging out in their mom’s basement. The church music leader or youth pastor get more female attention than the church janitor or parking lot attendant.

What the church has done here is conflate characteristics that make a man godly or good marriage material with those that make him attractive. While there may be some overlap here, these are mostly distinct sets. A man needs to work on both sets. (Paul’s warning to Christians not to marry unbelievers implicitly acknowledges those unbelievers can be appealing).

Matt Chandler says, “I keep saying it: Godliness is sexy to godly people.”  Jordan Peterson, not a red pill writer himself but someone who works the same territory, says women are attracted to “boys who win status competitions with other boys.” Who is more accurate? (In fairness to Chandler, he elsewhere said that, “Attraction is a strange, ambiguous force,” and affirms physical attraction, which is an improvement).

In addition to its model of intersexual dynamics (which includes much more than just the attraction framework described above), the red pill also includes a library of techniques for interacting with women called “Game.” As with attraction, every man has a theory about what techniques he thinks will make a woman want to go on a date with him (or, for the non-Christian, have sex with him) and continue dating him.  That’s why men buy women a dozen red roses, open car doors, buy expensive dinners, buy Hamilton tickets, write heartfelt notes, tell her how beautiful she is, etc. These are all a form of manipulative “game” of which the church would approve. They just aren’t very effective. (Women may be happy to enjoy free stuff at a man’s expense, but that doesn’t mean they are really attracted to him).

The manosphere promised its readers more effective approaches. Most Game techniques are methods for signaling that a man possesses the attractiveness characteristics to a high degree, or “Displaying High Value” in their lingo. Many of them are very counterintuitive. For example, one technique is called “Agree and Amplify.” As an example of applying this, if a woman asks, “Do I look fat in this dress?” instead of saying, “Of course not!” or reassuring her that she’s beautiful or something like that, a man using Game might instead grin, spread his arms as far apart as possible, and say, “Huuuuge, baby!”

Do these pickup style techniques work? While it’s unlikely that they work as well as their promoters claim, undoubtedly they are effective. New York magazine published a story about a pickup artist named Jared who owned a local coffee shop in Asheville. He maintained a pseudonymous blog describing his conquests, steadily increasing over time to as many as 22 per year – and this from a guy who said he didn’t want to do one-night stands but rather build a “harem.”  From this and other accounts we can readily deduce that the manosphere’s Game at some level works, if alas for evil ends in too many cases.

Obviously being a pickup artist is sinful and evil. If we define misogyny as hatred of or contempt for women, there was quite a bit of that in the manosphere as well. And despite its purported ethos of “self improvement” (get in better shape, have better style, make more money, become better at getting women to have sex with you, etc.) much of the manosphere embodied a nihilistic view of life and relationships (sadly, including some people on the Christian sites). All there is to do is to “enjoy the decline” of society, as one manosphere figure put it.

Sex is primal. When the manosphere writers showed men that their parents and society – and their pastors – had been telling them falsehoods about women their whole lives, and then told them how they could really get women to have sex or go out on dates with them, that provided the ultimate credential that opened the door to accepting a whole lot more, including ungodly hedonistic and nihilistic values, and other potentially negative and untrue follow-on beliefs. As Harvard professor Stephen Pinker once said:

A way in which I do agree with my fellow panelist that political correctness has done an enormous amount of harm in the sliver of the population whose affiliation might be up for grabs comes from the often highly literate, highly intelligent people that gravitate to the alt-right – internet savvy, media savvy – who often are radicalized in that way – who “swallow the red pill” as the saying goes from the Matrix – when they are exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in the New York Times or in respectable media. It’s almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity, and they are immediately infected with both an outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defense against taking them to what we might consider rather repellent conclusions.

The manosphere largely died out over the last few years. The only original major figure still active is Rollo Tomassi at his Rational Male site.  The main sizable group left is one that was very small back then but has grown much larger – and sometimes violent – today: the “incel,” or “involuntary celibate” community of low status young men extremely unhappy that they are unable to have sex with or go out on dates with women.

The manosphere dissipated for a number of reasons. In part, it was because they finished mining their territory and had little new to say. Also, people age out of pickup artistry, requiring a perpetual refreshing of the gurus teaching it. But most importantly, it’s because the manosphere fused with and morphed into political movements, particularly Trumpism and right-wing politics, where the red pill has been absorbed as just one of several tenets.  Red pill thinking has also made its way into most of the more mainstream men’s figures like Jordan Peterson. They are drawing on the manosphere whether they acknowledge it or not. Though the manosphere per se is mostly gone, the bulk of today’s popular internet men’s figures are using manosphere ideas which are now widely diffused in various forms.

Again, the blame for men choosing a life of pickup artistry over godliness lies with them alone.  We are all responsible for our own sin. Christ was mistreated by the religious authorities of His day, yet without sin.  The failures of the church no way justify our sin.

Nevertheless, the church has failed men, not just the ones who turned away from it, but in many cases even the ones who joined.  I have a great deal of respect for the ministries of many of these churches and pastors. Some like John Piper have made a positive impact on me personally. But we must be honest that they are badly off base and very uncharitable in this area.

The church has adopted a very skewed approach that improperly berates and belittles men, and has badly misled them with teachings that just aren’t true. Those might be strong statements, but not nearly as strong as the anti-male sermons that these pastors themselves preach. There’s been a lot written about the way the church has abused and harmed women, but the church has abused and harmed a lot of men too.

This situation must be fixed. I started the Masculinist on a mission to make that happen, to speak truth while holding firm to Christian teaching, to reach and build men up not just tear them down, and to reform the church’s deeply flawed approach to men. A number of others have also been speaking up in their own ways, which is very welcome. We as Christians have to start loving men, and have the courage to speak the truth in this area that the church has heretofore lacked.

There was certainly a lot in the manosphere, probably most of the manosphere, that was evil or wrong. That should be forthrightly rejected and condemned, and we shouldn’t be sad that it has largely died out in its previous incarnation.

But the church has some logs in its own eyes that it needs to take out. If it won’t remove them, it should expect to continue seeing plenty of ungodly people filling that void.

Postscript

The truth of the gospel is much more compelling than a life of sin, something even some of the manosphere people have now discovered. Roosh Valizadeh, a manosphere A-lister and once one of the most famous pickup artists in the world, converted to Christianity. His conversion seems genuine, and he unpublished his pickup artist books that had constituted his main source of income. Another manosphere figure who went by the name Victor Pride also appears to have become a Christian and shut down his former site Bold and Determined. Let us hope they stay faithful to the end and that many more follow after them.


Aaron Renn is an urban analyst, journalist, and the writer of the Masculinist.

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