Chris Green remembers the terror he felt in 2018, when he saw the news that Alek Minassian had been charged with murdering 10 women on a busy street in Toronto. Minassian, who filmed his attack and uploaded it to Facebook, pledged his allegiance to the “incel rebellion,” referring to an online subculture consisting of tens of thousands of mostly straight men who are “involuntarily celibate.” Minassian also praised Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 murdered six people at the University of California, Santa Barbara, motivated by resentment toward women who denied him sex.
For Green, 25, who is studying to become a public school teacher, Minassian’s murders weren’t just a horrific act in his home city — they were also an attack on the concept of celibacy itself. Sexual abstinence is a core tenet of his Christian faith, an example of sacrifice and devotion to God, and reflective of a deep respect for marriage as a holy sacrament. In carrying out his violent spree, Green believes Minassian weaponized his faith, and used one of God’s most important teachings to justify murder.
It wasn’t just the violence that concerned Green either. It was also the way in which Minassian invoked online incel communities who share similar destructive beliefs about celibacy. For example, Facebook posts by Minassian contained references to r/incel, a subreddit comprised of “involuntarily celibate” men who believe that social liberalism has deprived them of sex. It accrued hundreds of thousands of subscribers before it was shut down in 2017 for promoting violence and hate speech. Users commonly referred to women as “femoids,” “sluts” and “prostitutes,” with some even asking for advice on how to rape them. The “incel rebellion” faction of the community went as far as to justify violence on the basis that it would overturn aspects of society that they felt deprived them of sex (e.g., feminism).
Green grew up in the Toronto suburbs, and was studying theology when the attack took place. An aspiring pastor, he volunteered at Sunday school at several Ontario churches, working mainly with teenagers, teaching them Bible passages and stories of Jesus. He also, though, wanted to make Sunday school relevant to the modern experiences of his students, something he felt was rare when he was growing up as a Christian teenager. “I had to figure out all the life stuff myself,” he says. “I’ve always loved my religion, but I hated going to church on Sundays. It was all very preachy, very much about the rules and following them to the letter. There were no discussions about sex, drugs and violence. In my church, those topics were off-limits, things you weren’t supposed to speak about in the house of God.”
In hopes of changing that dynamic, Green discusses premarital sex with his students, and by extension, how to have healthy romantic relationships within a Christian context. “It’s always a difficult task,” he says, laughing. “You know what teenagers are like, and when they’re going through puberty and having sexual feelings for the first time, it’s a sensitive state. They need people who will support them and look out for their best interests.” To Green, that doesn’t only involve preaching the virtues of celibacy, but also how to treat partners, respect their boundaries and ground relationships in God.
Admittedly, it’s an uphill battle. “My kids will only see me once a week, for an hour or two,” he explains. “The rest of the time they’re in environments where their friends will encourage them to pursue activities that are harmful. They will be exposed to a culture that doesn’t respect women — and to online communities that are reinforcing that kind of toxic thinking.”
Green isn’t the only Christian concerned with incels co-opting celibacy to pursue political aims. Some on r/Christianity have even gone so far as to suggest that Christians need to do more to offer incels a spiritual path to better channel their sexual frustration. In a post from 2018, redditor NothingandNobody writes (sic obviously), “[Incels] may hate and despise religion (except for a nutty, ultra-strict love of Sharia Law), but it’s exactly what they need. Imagine if they learned to make love of neighbour the highest good. Imagine if they learned to imitate Jesus. Imagine if they learned to abandon their fantasies of what they worry life is like, and began living God’s truth in the real world.”
Meanwhile, writing in the Christian online magazine Patheos, sociologist George Yancey argues that Christians should actively try to help incels given that one of God’s core commandments is to minimize human suffering, even if it makes one uncomfortable. “Nobody wants to be an involuntary celibate or involuntary anything,” he maintains. “Our desire to reduce human suffering should compel us to consider how we can help. There is a role for the church in all of this. We complain about the lack of men in our singles department. Well, we have to meet the real needs of those men if we want to reach them. I would love to see a church develop a program that can do that for the incels and address their real needs. We must address their real spiritual needs instead of simply misplaced desires for cheap sex.”
At the same time, some Christians are hesitant to reach out to incels — or anyone in the online “manosphere” for that matter — because in these male-dominated spaces, Christianity has often been invoked to spread toxic ideas under the guise of religious duty. In fact, all of the Christians I speak to — nearly all of whom didn’t want to be named out of fear of being harassed on social media by members of the alt right or socially conservative Christians with large followings — tell me that they’ve too often found their faith warped online to fit the purposes of darker beliefs.
“[A lot of] of the pro-Trump, pro-Brexit and pro-nationalists are people who use images of the Crusaders as their avatars,” says 20-year-old Adam, someone who enlists social media to keep up with news about the global Christian community. “[They] fashion themselves as born-again Christians who advocate for ‘traditional values,’ which includes ‘traditional marriage’ in the Church. At the same time, they’re also people who use far-right memes like ‘remove Kebab,’ referring to the forced expulsion of Muslims living in Europe.”
Twenty-two-year-old Emily has been a practicing Christian her entire life. She believes that Christianity has transformed online from a faith that underlined politics to an “ideology that anyone can use to justify whatever opinion they want. They can use Christianity to build up their social media following, without having to practice it in a community.” She cites Theodore Beale, who goes by the internet handle “Vox Day,” as an example. He’s one of the alt-right’s most prominent “Christian” voices, with more than 28,000 subscribers on YouTube. Beale has called for the removal of non-white people from the U.S. and preached that only a state-backed implementation of Christianity can save the Western world.
As for Green, he believes that Christians have little choice but to engage with incel groups if the faith has any chance of reclaiming the narrative around celibacy. To that end, he adds that the real challenge is for Christians to better understand the internet and prevent young, vulnerable men from being immersed in toxic groups. “Churches and Christian [organizations] need to become more digitally in tune,” he explains. “[We] need to find where this material is, and come up with counter-narratives before the young people in our congregations find them.”
Again, Green is trying his best to do his part. He tells me that in his Sunday school class, he regularly talks to his students about YouTubers, Instagram influencers and trending videos on new platforms like TikTok. “I want them to think about what they watch and read, and why they do it,” he says. “I want them to ask if it’s a good use of their time. What are they learning from it? What do they think about what their favorite celebrities are doing?”
“Telling them not to watch things isn’t going to work,” Green continues. “We need to have these conversations in the open, in places like the church. We need to show future [Christian] generations that we do understand and we are listening. Otherwise they’ll feel like they won’t have a choice but to listen to strangers online.”