Evangelical Christianity had a powerful grip on my mind from the time I was 5 years old until well after my deconversion at 22. My Christian faith profoundly shaped my views, practices, and very identity in such incalculable ways that even years after leaving the faith and reconstructing my identity in a thoroughly irreligious way, my former faith still has lingering effects on my life. The choices I made and beliefs I held as a teenager and a college student, while deeply beholden to Evangelical Christian teachings, affected the kinds of situations I found myself in throughout my twenties, which further affected the way my life is today in my thirties. There is no way to ignore the Christian indoctrination and socialization that I underwent and still understand the course of my intellectual, emotional, social, or sexual development.
Today, I have largely moved on from much of my formerly Christian life. I have tried to maintain whatever virtues that particular crucible forged into me, and I have tried to overcome the intellectual and emotional vices it also created. Taking recourse to the best philosophical minds available to me, I have rather vigorously explored for myself the questions that Christianity wanted to answer for me. And I have both intellectually and personally experimented with different value judgments and practices in order to learn their worth for myself.
But even as I eschewed Christianity, I inevitably developed intellectually and emotionally in a distinctively post-Christian way. My personal and intellectual growth was frequently in dialectical tension with my Christian past. For years, learning to say “yes” to things Christianity had taught me to say “no” to meant emotionally not only saying “yes” to them but also, simultaneously, saying “no” to Christianity all over again.
So, with this reality in mind, you may be able to understand a bit of why it irritates me so much when blithe and ignorant Christians learn of my atheism and treat me like (a) I just haven’t heard the “Gospel” before, (b) I just don’t know what Christianity really is, or, (most maddening of all) (c) I am just closed-minded and being unfairly unwilling to hear out “the other side”, or that I refuse to consider the best interpretation of Christianity rather than a caricature, etc.
One of my first months in graduate school, less than a year after I deconverted from Christianity, I remember this happening to me during a seminar. It made me feel utterly exasperated. After spending my entire high school and college years endlessly trying to defend Christianity, and after spending the first eight months of my post-Christian life reading even more arguments for Christianity, I was in a class on moral philosophy, vigorously arguing a Nietzschean critique against Christianity and it was suggested that maybe I was just being closed-minded against the Christian side. And I was flabbergasted.
Just how much was I supposed to listen to the Christian side before I had a right to say it’s just wrong and to advance the anti-Christian side for myself? Just when would it be time for Christians to listen to the other side for once? Just how much listening to the Christian side would I have to do before my criticisms would be taken seriously and not just dismissed as closed-mindedness. I didn’t earn this respect after 17 years of Christian indoctrination and socialization? My 7 years spent trying to develop a workable Christian apologetics throughout high school and college was not enough time trying to give the Christian side a fair shot? All those theology and philosophy courses I took with evangelical Christian professors at one of the nation’s ten most religiously conservative high quality colleges wasn’t enough?
No. It was enough. I had heard enough and I have since heard more than enough in addition from Christians. They are entitled to disagree and to make their case to me anew if they think that maybe they have some new argument or better presentation of old arguments that I have not yet adequately considered. But when they arrogantly and ignorantly pooh pooh my disbelief as some sort of matter of prejudice, unfamiliarity, or miseducation about their religion, I see them as oblivious, obnoxious, condescending, and wholly dismissible. And my first emotional reaction toward them is a somewhat bitter contempt, truth be told.
I am sure a lot of atheists who are apostates like me can identify with this visceral response. Even atheists who were never religious but nonetheless grew up in cultures or families saturated with religious people and influences, and who were subjected to numerous religious proselytizers over the course of their lives, can sure I identify with how I feel. In fact, this experience is probably so widespread among my readership that it’s probably superfluous to bring it up at all. Unless, that is, I want to use this source of anger that the average angry atheist shares in order to make a point about experiences that not all angry atheists share.
And here is that point: sometimes you are going to hear a feminist or some gay person or some transgendered person or some member of an ethnic or racial minority say some things that sound simply crazy or confused or reactionary. They might sound like things someone would only say if they did not grasp the exceedingly obvious or maybe suffered some sort of pathological anger that made them closed-minded to “the other side”.
And your first reaction might be to explain to them the source of their confusion. For some odd reason, they haven’t gotten the memo about “how men and women are” or about “what straight people mean when they use language in this way or that” or about “what transgendered people need to do to accommodate straight people better” or about “what individuals can do to proactively overcome racial, financial, or socioeconomic barriers”, etc. For some reason they are just obtuse to the obvious or blinded by emotions. And you’re going to be inclined to help them out and explain to them what they have apparently never heard before.
And quite likely you are going to piss them off.
And this is not because they are either brainwashed or intemperate, but rather because they know what you think already and are sick of it. They too were systematically enculturated to internalize the same values, beliefs, practices, and assumptions that you were. What you are about to say to them was drilled into their heads, quite often to their own detriment, with both words and consequences. And sometimes those words and consequences were extremely harsh in order that the point you want to make to them might sink deep into their little, obtuse heads. Whatever you are going to say, they have heard it already from their parents, their lovers, their religious leaders, their friends, their coaches, their colleagues, their teachers, and/or their employers. The assumptions you want to make explicitly clear to them, in order that they finally “get it”, have already determined the course of their lives in ways you can hardly imagine.
They have met you before. They have thought your way before, they have felt your way before, and they have valued things your way before. They have lived in your world their whole lives. They walk around with you already in their head.
They have struggled through hard experiences, wrestled with challenging educators, and engaged in a whole lot of personal reflection in order to learn how to think differently, in order that they might successfully think and feel at cross-currents with not only explicit sociopolitical pressures but implicit ones embedded in language, social norms, religious practices, and, even, what are taken to be moral assumptions.
People who come from your own culture and yet think so wildly differently from what you think you know to be common sense do not just wind up that way because they are stupid or emotional or have mysteriously not been presented with basic information or arguments yet. They have, in all likelihood, had some bad experiences and been exposed to challenging ideas that you have not seriously had to contend with yet. They have, in all likelihood, thought through the issues at hand in intricately complex ways that you have not even begun to take seriously.
Of course this does not mean that they have necessarily come to correct conclusions in all, or even in most, matters. Their radical reeducation may be mistaken. They may have drawn the wrong conclusions from their experiences in any number of areas or in any number of ways. They may have something to learn from a dialogue or a debate with you.
But neither you nor they will learn anything if you just dismiss them as someone who needs you to explain to them the obvious that they might overcome their apparent obtuseness. Nothing is going to be learned if you condescend to them by telling them they haven’t heard out the “other side” and that they are just some sort of extremist who does not get basic facts about the world. Nothing is going to be learned if you strawman what is strange and unfamiliar in what they are saying so that you never give it the slightest chance to prove itself to you and to expand your horizons. You are not going to grow if you look for their most obvious mistakes, interpret their views to have the worst possible implications, or try to attack their personal failings as a convenient excuse to shut them down without listening to them.
Most of the time when you tell them they just don’t get something obvious, you’re going to sound to them the way theists sound to atheists when they say, “Of course there’s a God—I mean, just look at the world”. Or you will be like those Christians who assume that the first 9,567,213 explanations of the Gospel that you have heard, and, not to mention, the first several thousand Christians you have met, have simply failed to get true Christianity across to you.
People with unconventional ideas have heard you out already. They have felt enormous pressures to agree with you from all sides. People to whom they have felt intimately attached and people who have had extraordinary psychological, social, and economic power over them have tried to make them feel and think like you. And yet, they don’t. And they are attacked for their non-conformism all the time. And yet they resist that pressure. They speak out with increased defiance and push back with anger.
Perhaps if you want to change their mind, you should first make a sincere and openminded attempt to understand and to feel what they have taught themselves to think and to feel. Because, having shared your socialization, they already know intimately and intricately what you have been taught to think and to feel. You will need to get on at least an equal footing with them in this regard if you are going to have any hope of truly correcting any errors they may have in their thought, and if you are to have any hope of learning anything new yourself.
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