Can Atheists and Christians Understand Each Other?

Is it possible for Christians to understand the way atheists look at Christianity? Or for atheists to understand the way Christians look at Christianity?

In a way, my life is an answer to that question. I used to be a fervent Christian, and now I’m a thoroughgoing atheist. So I do know what it’s like on both sides.

But then again…I’ve had to adjust. I’ve broken some friendships and made others. I’ve completely changed, in many respects, the way I view the world. I’ve been hurt by Christians in ways I was not hurt before, and I am friends with atheists and agnostics who tell me about their struggles within Christian contexts that, frankly, often makes me pretty angry with Christians.

Christianity has, over the last six years of my atheism, become a largely disturbing institution to me. Besides the money they take from their parishioners, they also paint me and several I care about as those going to hell, as sinners, as so invested in our intelligence that we have no empathy, or as so focused on human emotion that we are rebellious as teenagers, or as having mental defects due to poor fathers, or as having never read a bible many of us know from cover to cover, or as arrogantly ignorant, or as demonic mockers, or as too angry, or as profoundly insulting to humankind’s proper place of dignity in the world. That’s hardly scratching the surface — and they teach their children to see me the same way.

It’s bewildering. Especially when these stereotypes cost us families, jobs, and reputations.

And all these stereotypes are often unassailable, because no matter what you do, the Christian God supposedly really knows your heart. That’s the hardest part of it all. When Christians see you, they stop seeing you. They see you the way their God sees you.

It’s bewildering to know that, regardless of what your relationship before becoming an atheist may have been with Christians who are closest to you…you’re suddenly an atheist stereotype because you don’t believe the outrageous things in the Bible, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Here’s the thing, too: I love my family, and several of my old friends. And they care about me. But there’s this God, who is nonexistent in my view, that bars them from seeing who I am. And, more disturbingly, this separation hurts them, sometimes, almost as much as it hurts me. And what I see is multiplied millions of times over by people who have to undergo being viewed through a stereotype Christian family and friends often see them through.

It’s hard. And it does damage. It’s no joke…Christianity can look very disturbing and upsetting on the outside.

But can Christians understand that? Because I remember…

Christianity looked so different from the inside.

There were grand buildings that were designed to inspire awe. There was singing with four-part harmony, with hundreds joining together in a nearly euphoric and yet somber communion regarding the most sacred parts of our lives. There were the tears and divinely felt comfort coming from God when we had to endure trials alone that made us feel less alone. There was the tradition of family enshrine — no matter where we were, or what was going on in our lives — in the honor for a God that humbled us all before a profound place of belonging within us. There were talks about the promises of heaven, most felt among the sea of tears when a relative passed away. And then, in the moments when we smiled at their lives and felt on the verge of tears yet again, there was the confidence that maybe we’d see them again.

There was a woman I knew, my parents’ friend, who stayed by her dying husband’s bedside for two years, sustained and encouraged by the hope that maybe one day she would see him healthy again, and she believed it, and it was beautiful.

And I know that, as a Christian, this part of my life was my lifeline. It was beautiful, and it was from this connection to Christianity that I loved the world. And it was within Christianity that people helped me in my struggles, that people cared about, because there was a transcendent being in the midst of it all,

I remember the communion on Sundays, and how walking out of the chapel made me feel fresh and clean, ready to start another strong week.

I remember the old missionary school I visited for a week, and the intense, tear-streaming prayers that took place among dozens of men in an impromptu meeting held within the broken-down hallway in the dorm hall there, and how I felt the contagious euphoria of their meeting.

I remember celebrating Christmas and gathering around the child who supposedly gave us a second chance. I remember scripture memorization and clinging onto the Bible like it was my lifeblood, taking it to work and reading it on breaks, debating about it for hours with people because I was anxiously trying to know a God I though I loved, trying to get closer to Him…

I remember how much of a part of my life this all was, and how beautiful Christianity looked from the inside.

And you know what? I can still see Christianity that way. If I forget, for a few minutes, how Christianity has hurt me and so many I care about, how it is trapping many in unnecessary fear and depriving others of their own ability to make the decisions that are best for them, how it is often essentially controlling and manipulating the image Christians have of people in many disturbing ways…if I forget all that, I can feel, for a couple minutes, the memory start to wash over me, and remember what those moments in Christianity are like.

And then I see the world as the atheist I am, and I often become angry again.

I mean…the two ways of looking at the world are so thoroughly polarized that I wonder, sometimes, whether the gap can be bridged. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s really worth bridging, or if each side should go on to live their life as well as they can without excessive evangelizing from the other. But…the heart of me still wants to build a bridge, to travel together with humanity on a quest for truth, and my frustration is often coming from the fact that it is somewhat difficult to do that.

I said a while ago, in another blog, that I had to come to terms with the fact that Christianity is not my fault. It’s not my fault that it isn’t true; the only thing I did was find out.

But I think another step is understanding. Not acceptance, of course…but understanding. Maybe that’s part of moving on with some reconciliation. Some sense of peace, even in the midst of strong disagreement. Or, perhaps, especially then.

Here’s the thing: I could try to save the world with a my-way-or-the-highway attack…but I don’t know, these days, if I have enough knowledge to do that. I don’t know what everyone wants and why they want it. I want to empower people more than demean them, and empowering people means a sensitivity to their cultural trends, as well as personal backgrounds, desires, and wants.

Ultimately, I want to reveal the beauty within people’s experiences, wherever it’s found. I think that quest may encourage mutual empathy, and perhaps this sense of empathy will create, in my life, more mutually productive conversations that have the potential of further enriching the second half of my life expectancy as I seek to understand and, possibly, become understood.

What do you think?

PS: I want to thank all 32 of my patrons. Thanks for helping me continue writing here.

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