Today I was on the Jesse Lee Peterson Show with right wing Christian radio host, Jesse Lee Peterson. On the show said he thought I still sounded very Christian in the article on hypocrisy that he recently read. A lot of Christians have said similar things to me, in an affirmative way, about my philosophical views, my empowerment ethics, my language choices, my defenses of a compassionate form of civility, etc. One person who discovered me through my blog has called me the most Christian atheist he knows. A couple Christians have said they think my empowerment ethics expresses Christian ideals very well. Even a lifelong non-Christian friend once told me that my conversations were more loaded with biblical language than anyone he knew. Another atheist philosophy friend has needled me at length on occasion that I’m “still a Christian”.
Some atheists might bristle at all of this. They might see it as Christians attempting to co-opt everything they like as “really Christian”. Or they might might make the point that some of what I say and do is explicitly a rejection of Christianity as it’s been and so Christians shouldn’t try to say that’s what their religion really is or try to steal credit. Or they might think of this stuff as a way to try to reclaim me from atheism and take credit for everything good in me instead of just allowing me my atheist identity while praising the thing they like about me, etc. It can be a way of saying “nothing good can come from, or be associated with, atheism so when we see anything good by atheists we’ll claim it as really Christian”.
These are all generally valid concerns. Christianity has a long long annoying history of what Christians themselves call “plundering from the Egyptians”. In the Exodus story, when the Israelites made their escape from Egypt God made it so they could take provisions from the Egyptians for themselves. For centuries, Christians have been stealing traditions and philosophical ideas from religions, politics, and secular philosophers and then claiming to be the be all and end all source of all goodness. It’s to the point where Christians routinely try to take credit for morality itself, marriage itself, democracy itself–basically anything they think is good.
And then they try to convince people they need to be Christians to have that good thing. “Oh, what’s that? You like Christmas? Well, I guess you’re going to have to submit to Jesus as your Lord and Savior!” “You can’t just run around being moral without being a Christian. No, ‘that’s illogical’. Either become a Christian or eat your children like a logical person, Mr. Science!” “You can’t marry a woman if you’re a woman. Our God made up marriage so it can’t ever be other than what we imagine (against tons of historical evidence) it’s always been like!” “What’s that? You like America’s democracy and freedom and tradition of material innovation and progress? Then you have to abide by our theocratic, regressive, authoritarian anti-science fundamentalist interpretation of our religious beliefs or it will all go away!”
When appropriating humanity’s collective achievements, Christians are ahistorical and unscientific and culturally chauvinistic in a way that reaches the heights of megalomania and narcissism as they try to claim all morality and truth and good politics comes from exclusively and inseparably from their tradition and the entire rest of humanity is bereft of it or will become bereft of it if they ever deviate from Christianity. This can be really oppressive and politically motivated.
Nonetheless, except for when someone tells me (quite falsely) that I never managed critical distance from Christianity or that my values haven’t evolved from their Christian forms (which requires a serious lack of nuance in reading me), I usually like it a lot, for several reasons, when Christians identify with me and my stuff.
The reasons are several. For one thing, I am extremely explicit about my atheism and my criticisms of Christianity. So if under those conditions someone a Christian can still identify with me it tells me several things. It tells me that I was able to be uncompromisingly honest in my challenges to Christianity that didn’t alienate Christians from me as a person. They can still identify with my common humanity and my common values and they’re not Othering me just for being different from them philosophically. Divisive and destructive tribalism is not separating us on a human level. And that’s a huge emotional relief and potential sign of better days for all of us. And translating what they’re saying, since to them being a good Christian is the highest ethical ideal, it can be meant as a particularly high compliment, one specially being granted to me despite my outsider status and despite flaws with the whole paradigm, the intention often expresses a sincere desire to express strong admiration and in category busting ways within their own terms. It’s hard not to be appreciative, on a human level.
They are also, in this way, doing the opposite of something I loathe. They are not invalidating and denying the reality of my former faith. Some Christians out of an evidence-impervious dogmatic belief that no true Christian can ever stop being one refuse to admit I was ever a true believer. They insult my integrity and try to erase or treat as a lie the intense passion, sincerity, and life-encompassing commitment to Christianity of my youth. They also wind up, in the process, minimizing and denigrating the sincerity and agony and excruciating conscientiousness of my deconversion. Those who say I never really was a believer try to rob me of the most principled thing I ever did, abandon my false beliefs though my heart clung to them desperately, by saying my beliefs and commitments were never real. Those who say, I can see how you were a Christian, and still are in this or that way–they affirm the reality of my full life story and see me as I really am and have been.
And when Christians see the continuity of some of my values, it allows me to show them other things. It gives me credibility when I say that I didn’t leave the faith “so I could sin”. Because look! I still am embodying the Christian values you care about in a number of ways! Immorality was neither a motive nor a consequence of my deconverting!
It also lends credibility when I say that I left the faith not in spite of but because of my commitment to what I saw as my Christian values themselves. I was being true to the priorities and principles Christians praise. To the extent they still see those priorities and principles in me, they might believe that and wonder if I am right about where they lead. Or at least recognize that that’s a possibility for a sincere believer and a good person.
I also like Christians interpreting my philosophy as Christian because that means that they are interpreting their faith in a way that I think is consistent with the truth about reality. Even if I think that main threads of Christian institutions, Scriptures, traditions, and history are being challenged by some of my philosophy and might want to press that point as a warning against becoming Christian, I’m not going to stand in the way of people who want Christianity to be in line with my values! By all means, if you can make Christianity’s future emphasis one of empowering people in all their excellences and encouraging themselves to be as fulfilled in their abilities as they can rather than emphasize self-sacrifice and pity and cutting out whole body parts lest they cause us to sin, etc., then by all means, start reinterpreting Christianity as being life affirming, humanistic, pro-body, pro-desire, and empowerment obsessed.
And while I love being an atheist and think I have grown immensely from the liberation to think freely and experiment more widely upon abandoning the narrowmindedness of faith that hindered and arrested my development in a number of ways, I do think that there were some virtues that were distinctly forged by my religious upbringing that I might not have developed otherwise. While some people might get certain virtues through irreligious means, I got them through the formative religious dimension of my youth. While like everyone I still lack many virtues one might ideally have, I like the eclectic set I have. I am proud of the mixture of specific virtues that were bequeathed to me in significant parts by both my youthful religious formation and devotion and by my later apostasy and subsequent need for self-creation. I simply cannot imagine who I would be without both these formative influences in my life. I might have still wound up someone I would like. But it would probably be someone very different than I am.
So part of loving myself and owning my life and my virtues and my personality means not severing myself completely from my formative youth or its values and virtues. When people say they see the continuity to my Christianity, I hear that my younger self is not entirely lost. I hear that the fullness of my life story and its resultant personality is in tact. That my self has a consistency and integrity that transcends so many changes in thought, experience, and circumstance. I feel understood and known in a deeper way when someone can see the threads of my character that run all the way back to my childhood.
So long as people don’t ignore and dismiss the numerous ways that I have thought for myself outside of Christianity and underestimate the amount of scrupulous care I put into rationally testing and redeveloping all my ideas after I left faith-based believing, and so long as they don’t take the evidence of the continuity of my self with my Christian past as some self-serving way of telling themselves “this is just a faze and I’ll come back to the faith where I belong eventually”, and so long as they don’t falsely try to claim that no one could have my virtues or ideas without Christianity as their philosophical progenitor and practical guarantor, I am delighted when my honest and uncensored self-expression resonates with Christians and is praised by them.
Related to this, I have talked about how my former evangelicalism informs my passion as an atheist for arguing about the truth and goodness of religious beliefs and practices enough that I am okay with being called an “evangelical atheist”. Whenever Evangelical Christians get frustrated that I won’t just shut up and go away and stop challenging their faith so vigorously I feel like quoting the Joker from Tim Burton’s Batman and taunting them by saying, You made me!
I also recommend my post on the “evangelical” way that I became an atheist, replete with a pair of deconversion moments that, in their own inverted way, strikingly fit the script of conversion narratives that I grew up with.
For much more on who I was before I deconverted, my process of deconverting, and how I got from there to who I am today, read all the posts in my deconversion series.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion: