On Thursday I wrote a post with ten tips for Christian evangelism from my atheistic perspective. Atop the post, I warned readers that although I was going to give sincere advice to Christians, I am myself anti-Christianity. In response to the post, I have received a gratifyingly enthusiasm in all the Christians whose responses I have seen. I appreciate the openness with which they read what I had to say.
ctcss wrote this reply in the comments section that raises interesting issues I would like to reply to now:
Dan, are you anti-all-forms-of-Christianity? (I get the feeling that your ire is more directed at those you came from. And that would make sense since you have the most familiarity with them and more likely have felt most wounded by them.) For instance, are you also anti-Quaker? How about anti-Unitarian? Or Methodist? And what about Christians who are not evangelical?
Also, could you give a very briefly stated, short list of the problems (starting with the worst) in Christianity? I get the feeling that what you might have a gripe about might not even appear in all forms of Christianity. (In other words, I have a feeling your gripe is with the most egregious examples, not all examples.)
That said, this is an excellent post. In fact, it seems to be about why being compassionate towards others, not judging, and leading by example, are far better ways of meeting people’s needs (and possibly attracting them) then the hard core stuff you may have engaged in during your early days as a Christian. Which makes me think that you may have more in common with someone like Martin Luther. (He had issues with the way his religion was being run.) In essence, you are telling your former people that they need to reform and also giving them the means to accomplish it. (I have often wondered whether Martin Luther would have started the Lutheran church if he had been a priest in the modern Catholic Church.)
And if you succeed in helping reshape your former people into something more in keeping with Jesus’ ministry, don’t you think that transformation might help the church transform in other ways as well? In essence, this list sounds very Christian to me (as in, something that Jesus might approve of). In fact, other than your constant protests about being an atheist, a lot of your posts sound very much like someone who wants to accomplish what the church has historically been tasked with accomplishing. Which, once again, makes you sound like a religious reformer. Any thoughts?
(I just read your response to 3lemenope and think it is interesting as well. But you seem to think that Christianity must give way to atheism. I simply think that less-than-helpful approaches to Christianity should give way to more helpful approaches to Christianity. In essence, I would much rather have more Christ-like Christians around than more people like Bertrand Russell. Mind you, I don’t have anything against Russell as a person, but more people who healed like Jesus would be more welcome IMO.)
Why reject Christianity? Why not just reform it? I am going to answer with a series of explanations that lead up to my ultimate conclusions.
I am an atheist.
First off, I actually think I know there is no God. To be more precise, while I am technically agnostic on whether there is some metaphysical “ground of all being”, I know there are no personal deities who intervene in history or in our lives to explain anything that happens. Neither do any such beings exist to give us life after death. If that sounds startlingly definitive or arrogant to you, please read this post about what knowledge is and what saying “I know there is no God” means to me.
Saying that I know there is no triune God of the Bible (no Yahweh/Jehovah, no risen Christ, no Holy Spirit) is no more radical to me than saying there is no Thor. I’m pretty certain that, whoever you are, you don’t waste a second’s thought wondering if Thor really exists. Well, there is absolutely no more evidence for Yahweh/Jehovah than there is for Thor. The only reason Yahweh/Jehovah seems more compelling a candidate for reality to people in our culture is that claims of his real existence is drummed into our heads in our culture from the time we’re little. Absolutely nothing more recommends belief in him than that. People’s god beliefs have always uncoincidentally aligned with the local deities of their tribes. It’s sheer absurdity to believe that in the one case of one’s own culture the deity you were taught is a real one.
Now, I know many Christians think they’re on good intellectual ground in believing in God because they think God explains why the universe is ordered or exists at all. But even were I to grant that there is some metaphysical principle of being or causation that somehow undergirds the being of the world and call that “God”, rationally I see no reason whatsoever to leap from thinking that the universe must have a “first cause” or “a ground of all being” to thinking that such a being is personal. Metaphysical principles like that are not personal. A metaphysical principle that explains the nature of existence could not give supernatural guidance to the ancient Jews and the Christians since Jesus. Even were I to posit a ground of all being outside the universe as plausible, the idea that it would be anything like the God in the Bible–a wholly anthropomorphic projection of an ancient tribalistic people is a joke. The ideas of (a) an incarnated God and (b) a God that is multiple persons but one substance are both sheer contradictions in terms that have never ever made a bit of sense.
So there are no reasons to believe in them even if the universe needed a first cause or a “ground of all being” principle to explain it. It’s preposterous and can be rejected out of hand. And that there is a supreme moral being who is revealed through a text riddled with barbarically violent and immoral values (divinely commanded genocides, divinely instituted slavery, divinely instituted death penalties for childhood disobedience, divinely instituted patriarchy, etc.) is an offense. For explanation of why I don’t share the average Christian’s reflexive intuitions that God is an eminently likely explanation of the universe, see my recent explanations of how the universe could exist without God and how evolution undermines the whole argument that the life is the result of a divine plan. For numerous explanations of what’s incoherent and implausible about the very concept of God see my in-depth post examining some divine attributes.
My Christian formation is in some ways indelible, I can’t deny that.
Now while there are some believers who hold the idea that no true believer can ever leave the faith so dogmatically that even after reading my story in-depth they would claim that I simply could not have really been a Christian, there are occasionally other people, believers and non-believers, who suggest I am still a Christian. One believer called me the most Christian atheist he knew. Above in the comment above ctcss is suggesting possibly I am just a Christian of a reformer’s mentality rather than a non-Christian.
As I’ve explained before, I usually don’t mind such remarks when they’re meant as a compliment, when they signal Christian receptivity to me, or when they take the form of a realization that we have some common ground. And I have played into this narrative at least a little bit by arguing that my apostasizing was a religious act. I was a Christian when I deconverted and my thought process therefore took Christian forms. It was based on values ingrained in me by my Christian faith (even though others might clearly get the same values from other places) and it was the result of a literally religious scrupulousness that I came to believe that my faith was false and must be overcome.
And having been a devout evangelical Christian through so many formative years–from 5 through 21 years old–Christianity was a chief formative influence on me in at least some ways that are indelible. Again, even though any number of my values might have been (or were) acquired another way, as a matter of my psychosocial history, I had some key values initially shaped through specifically Christian forms, practices, habits, ideas, language, and enculturation. I learned too many habits of mind, too many behaviors, and too many priorities in a contemporary evangelical Christian way to simply be able to undo everything.
I am an “evangelical” atheist.
This is why, for example, I’m unusually frank among outspoken atheists in being comfortable with the label “evangelical atheist”. While I am not out to spread “Good News” anymore or to do anything that’s properly called “evangelism”, and while I repudiate many terrible tactics of evangelicals, I still retain the strong perspective that beliefs about religious and philosophical and ethical matters are worth getting right and worth having some challenging conversations about in the culture. I acquired that sometimes confrontational attitude and that set of fundamental life and vocational priorities from my evangelical upbringing and have carried it into my atheism. It’s one of the main continuous threads of my life. But I also take seriously the reasons that people are threatened by evangelical zealots (theistic, atheistic, or otherwise). I take seriously all the ways that those out to change others’ minds can be abusive.
So, I am a reforming evangelical who advocates a self-critical conscientiousness about how we go about changing others’ minds, whether in favor of Christianity, against it, or in favor or or against anything else.
I oppose the willful irrationalism of the traditional supernaturalistic religions
But for all this continuity of evangelicalism in my personality, I am now an “evangelical” atheist rather than an evangelical Christian. This is because my primary concern is that people be rationalistic and empirical in all things. And while religious beliefs are not the source of human irrationality, it is supernaturalistic religions that exploit and reinforce irrationality the most deliberately, systematically, and explicitly of any human institutions.
Supernaturalistic religions teach people to trust tradition over empiricism, to rationalize endlessly rather than to ever reject refuted religious beliefs, to interpret everything through a confirmation bias that vindicates their faith, to doubt only as a means to greater faith rather than to correct one’s false beliefs, to intertwine their identities with their beliefs so that changing their mind becomes harder, to volitionally commit to beliefs more than evidence warrants by “faith”, to believe in wildly fantastic claims as a condition of salvation and community acceptance, etc., etc. (My extensive “disambiguating faith” series catalogued countless irrationalities conflated with rationality by religious believers when they defend “faith”. See a summation of that series and links to its posts here.
Why atheism matters so much to me
The list of irrationalities and habits of reasoning antithetical to truth discovery that are routinelyand actively promoted by religions, some of them even by liberalized religions, is extensive. I am opposed to supernaturalism, superstitiousness, authoritarianism, and irrationalism in all their forms. Atheism is the most symbolic cause to take in this fight.
And emotionally, atheism is the most identity marker for me, given that my journey out of supernaturalistic thinking was a journey to atheism. Becoming an atheist was the most transformative manifestation of my rejection of supernaturalism. As much of a formative influence as Christianity had on me growing up, the shift to becoming an atheist was fundamentally reorienting to me. Even though many of my values were initially inculcated in Christian ways, they have all been reconceived in substantive ways in light of my atheism. They are deeply shaped by mostly non-Christian influences (like Aristotle, the Stoics, Nietzsche–just to name the most prominent) or the rationalistic, rather than Christian, works of people like Kant.
My extensive non-Christian influences and philosophizing
I have worked out my distinctive moral philosophy not through the Christian faith but distinctly in the context of self-consciously rejecting that tradition and trying to start as much from scratch in terms of theoretics and many applications as possible. My eighteen years of exposure to secular philosophy and my conscientious attempts to build my own ethical theory in such a way as to avoid all that I find problematic or outright repulsive about Christianity have made it so I fundamentally don’t operate from a Christian perspective anymore—despite the indelible influence of my youthful faith. In substance, the central values of my ethical system may be reconcilable with Christianity if someone were to choose to reinterpret the faith that way (and, I have been gratified to encounter Christians enthusiastic about my articulations of ethics and claim my writings have profoundly influenced their own understanding of Christianity), but I did not get them from Christianity. One of the problems here is that Christians often want to claim their values that overlap with other moral traditions are somehow distinctly Christian.
In my post of tips for how Christians can evangelize more humanely, ethically, and effectively, I translated my values and views into Christian language, theology, and stories so that Christians would be receptive. But that does not mean those values are all either distinctively or primarily Christian or that I agreed with the theological frameworks I was appealing to.
I find it ironic that ctcss expressed such disdain for Bertrand Russell when it was his simple advice that “love is wise, hate is foolish” that struck me very deeply a couple years ago as part of my transition into advocating compassion and centralizing civility in online arguments. But even if you don’t like Russell for some reason, he’s not important. Atheism is not about replacing Jesus with some other over-estimated thinker. It’s about freethinking that embraces the richness of the whole panoply of insightful human perspectives, rather than idolizing and deifying any one man the way Christians deify Jesus and slavishly want to run everything by him.
The advice I gave in my post of tips for Christian evangelism was drawn from the Stoics. My advice was drawn from contemporary views of toleration that were secular innovations after centuries and centuries of Christian intolerance over doctrinal disagreements were culminating in endless bloodshed as political powers exploited the exclusivism and dogmatism of the Christian faith to intensify people’s willingness to get bloody.
I didn’t come by my advice for Christians much through Christian sources
My advice was drawn from the influence of modern social justice movements that have evangelical Christians among their chief opponents. It was drawn from my understanding of, and lifelong experience of personally employing and being treated with, effective modern counseling techniques (with some wonderful input from the sage Richard Wade, of Friendly Atheist in theorizing them). My advice was drawn from my extensive professional experience as a philosophy professor. And most of decisively of all my advice was drawn from my distinctively humanistic values that prioritize empowering humans over saving them and by empowering them specifically through being empirical and rational about understanding each person’s needs, respecting their autonomy, focusing on the magnificence of human potential, and being humanistically compassionate.
There were bits of Christianity that I was able to interpret in light of these values coming from other sources and there are a few values I incorporated that are centrally Christian. But the fundamentally humanist dimensions, that go well beyond just compassion, have not been the primary point or emphasis or priority of Christianity historically. Too much of it is so antithetical to these approaches and value priorities (from its anti-autonomous streaks running all throughout the Bible to its decidedly non-empirical and supernaturalistic solutions to problems, to Jesus’s nastily divisive us vs. them language, to the original sin doctrine’s hatred of human nature, to the exclusivistic message of the Bible with its “chosen people” and its numerous discussions of how not everyone’s going to go to heaven, to centuries of church political aspirations, to the Bible’s numerous conceptions of children as their parents’ properties to be sacrificed by their parents–a theme prominent everywhere from Abraham to the cross) that I felt like I had an uphill climb as I wrote trying to convince Bible-believing Christians to treat non-Christians with respect and not let their “unsaved” status color everything about them and the relationship to have with them.
I tried to appeal to the parts of the Christian story that anomalously work against what I see as the main themes of Christianity and to appeal to the shared overlap between contemporary Christians and other contemporary secular people. But by no means do I think the advice I gave comes straight from the Bible, is exclusive to the Bible, or is even especially well represented in the Bible at all in most cases! Far from it! Only Jesus’s example of hanging out with the sinners was especially biblical. My post was a translation into biblical idioms of value priorities I learned and developed by leaving the faith. Christianity was overwhelmingly an obstacle to developing those values for me. Only because the faith speaks so much of love and of self-sacrifice could I pitch those values in those terms. But left to its internal resources, Christianity has spent centuries with interpretations of love and self-sacrifice that I find deeply flawed and terrible.
I refuse to let my atheism be erased and made invisible
So, no, I’m not just still a Christian. Becoming an atheist was the hardest won victory for my own liberation I have ever accomplished. I resent the very idea of trying to erase or minimize that. I resent that I am asked to ignore the difference between me and Christians so that I can be reabsorbed by Christianity. I resent the whole idea that Christianity should take credit for what I actually learned by becoming an atheist and struggling for a decade to build up my own theory of values and ethical practice from scratch.
When I deconverted, thanks to Christian cultural hegemony, I had no contemporary atheistic or humanistic resources that I knew about or could turn to for help making sense of the world and of values. Christianity was clearly false. I had no use for liberal Christian equivocators who were pathetically trying to salvage participation in the delusions, rituals, and institutions of the Lie. And yet because so many people who are effectively non-believers refuse to simply leave the Christian faith, seemingly because of what I speculate is a “spiritual Stockholm Syndrome”, and provide a fresh start for themselves and others–or even just contribute to the revitalization of the magnificent cultural tradition of humanism–when someone really does become an atheist one is left in many ways alone and abandoned in spiritual matters. Or, at least one was left like that before the internet and atheist/humanist groups and bestselling books and Secular Student Alliance campus groups, etc., ramped up in the 21st Century to make finding other atheists as easy as googling.
In 1999, I had to do the hard work of figuring out my whole view of the world and ethics from what felt like scratch. It was hard. It was lonely. It was a rigorous and personal process. And the Christian church uses all its power to make it this hard on those conscientious enough to want to leave it. I have no interest in propping up that church. I have no interest in becoming invisible, hidden within the body of Christ. I have no interest in making it so that newly minted atheists or long alienated atheists still struggle to find people who share their values and views because so many other doubters are still trying to salvage the church rather than support their fellow non-believers.
Against atheistic (and very liberal) forms of Christianity
I have no interest in being an atheistic Christian. That is submitting to the hegemony as far as I am concerned. While I can try to reinterpret my independently formed beliefs and values in a Christian idiom, and will occasionally do so in order to reach out to Christians, I am repulsed by the thought of spending my life begging the Bible for permission to believe what I clearly see as true. I love the freedom of thought that comes with being an atheist simply too much. It’s intoxicating. It leads to so many leaps and bounds in personal growth and understanding. It means living with a conscience that obeys nothing but my most earnestly derived conception of the true and the good. I don’t want to have to find a way to pretend everything I think is really already totally in the Bible or the Christian faith if you just look closely enough. I hate that the Christian faith has such an authoritarian grip on people’s minds that it simply doesn’t deserve, such that people feel the need to pretend everything they think is really Christian when it’s not always.
I admit to having some pangs of nostalgia over evangelical culture, even the really cheesy stuff, because it’s so bound up with my youth, and I often welcome the presence of evangelical Christians at my blog as emissaries from the homeland I am long estranged from. I can enjoy them speaking to me in my native language and sometimes remember fondly the positive emotions I used to feel when I lived among them. But my primary loyalty is not to Christians but to those disabused of the illusions of Christianity and hurt by its lies, its recklessness, its hegemony, and its willful obtuseness.
I love most those conscientious defectors who wrenched themselves free from the falsehoods they loved just as I did and braved the slings and arrows of so many informal excommunications in the process. I admire them, they resonate with me, and we have such joy when we share in this bond. The apostates are my people now. I care much more about them and about joining with them and other atheistic humanists in building new rival institutions that lack all the Christian baggage and don’t have to constantly make tedious attempts to retrofit the dilapidated old faith to accommodate new ideas. The humanistic, rationalistic tradition of Western culture is a rich one that speaks to me profoundly whereas the history of the church is one of a precisely antithetical ethos, one that honestly disgusts me–as evidenced by the disgust face I find myself making as I try to figure out the words to articulate how viscerally off-putting I find the whole orientation towards the world and God one reads in Christian theologians and mystics and pietists and zealots for centuries and centuries.
I recoiled when ctcss compared me to Martin Luther. I admit to a former kinship with him over his experience of a conscience tortured by Christianity–and I often characterize my deconversion and other stands of conscience with the words “here I stand, I can do no other”–but “salvation by faith alone” was not the solution. The whole rotten anti-human Christian edifice needs to come down.
My Anti-Christianity Stance Doesn’t Mean I’m Anti-Religion
I should hasten to add at this point, that in principle I am not actually against all religion. (And I’m certainly not against all the religiousness of religious individuals.) I appreciate how rituals can help people learn and internalize truths. Like any contemporary geek in love with fantasy and sci-fi and fiction in general, I love the possibilities of myth and literature and symbol for enriching life and informing the human experience. I appreciate the value that community around shared values and views can create. Finding a robust community of atheists and humanists online ended my deconversion-induced period of “spiritual” isolation. I see the value in “spiritual” practices that are in actuality physical practices or ethical practices and completely capable of secularization. I understand the power of religion to integrate ideas, values, and behaviors for people, and transmit vital understandings about how best to live to the next generation and to communicate abstract ideas to people who can only think concretely. I get all of this and more about the potential of religion.
In fact, ironically, I think I appreciate the enormous potential value of religion better than those Christians who insist (falsely) that “Christianity is a relationship and not a religion”. I have a healthy appreciation for the functional role that religion has played in ordering people’s lives. I can see numerous plausible explanations of its staying power and see its usefulness. I get that there has been some real good that religions large and small, including Christianity, have served, in their own way. So, I’m not really anti-religious.
I’m against Abrahamic Monotheism
But what I think is necessary is that the tools of religion be separated from the dangerous authoritarian tendencies of exclusivistic monotheism. And exclusivistic monotheism gets its most powerful historical expression in the Abrahamic faiths. And in Islam and Christianity this intolerant exclusivism is combined with a universalistic impulse to convert all others. The irony is bound up in the word “catholic”. Catholic means universal, which sounds inclusive until you realize that it was adopted to mean “we, the ones who fit this definition of Christianity are the whole, universal church and everyone outside us is damned”. I find this dangerous (and replicated in Protestantisms and in Islam). I don’t want to contribute to Christianity’s hegemony. I don’t want to prop up the meme of “God” by talking about the universe as “God” to appease the overwhelmingly theistic majority and give them the false impression, through my equivocations, that everyone shares their belief in God.
Religiously, Jesus is dead to me.
I am not at all averse to picking up insights here and there from Jesus (I rather like it actually!) but I find the whole project of putting him on a pedestal, exaggerating his importance, treating him as a special moral teacher (when the Gospels themselves show him to be a profoundly flawed and backward and even wicked guide in many cases) to be problematic. I have no problem with mixing Jesus in as just one of countless other thinkers I voraciously gobble up when doing moral philosophy. But I do have a problem with perpetuating the halo of holiness around him, one that even deferential secular people constantly contribute to. He was not wonderfully special in every way (assuming he existed). There are a handful of things I find unique or innovative in him and I appreciate those. Some other ideas one could get elsewhere find culturally classic expressions in his words or parables (or in their iconic King James translations, embedded so deeply in our cultural consciousness).
But too many people obscenely deify and worship him. So many neglect a wealth of equally good and better ideas for his sake. I have no interest in aligning myself with the cult of Christ. I don’t believe he was in any way, shape, or form a “messiah” (let alone The Messiah) or a “christ”, (let alone The Christ). And so I repudiate the whole concept of Christianity and will not at all identify as a Christian in beliefs or values or institution.
The only way I cop to still retaining some Christianity in me is as an estranged member of that community of people who call themselves Christians, who demands to be heard by that community after that community felt entitled to so utterly brainwash and control his mind, body, and soul with little humility. Why is what I don’t believe such a big deal to me, you ask? Because you made these issues the central concern of my mind. When you have been duped into doing something so unseemly and wrong as having worshipped a human being as a god, the only proper response to realizing your error is to take up your hammer and smash that idol. You don’t just move to a different section of his PR department.
But philosophically and ethically I am opposed to all special, undeserved, elevation of Jesus. He is not the “healer” ctcss calls him. He undermined the good work I exhorted Christians to emulate, which involved sticking up for the marginalized and hanging out with them, by preaching his own supremacy over all the heavens and the earth. There are countless cosmically hierarchical declarations by Jesus and about Jesus throughout the Bible and Church history. He is inextricable from concepts like “lordship” “divinity” and “exclusive-path-to-God”. Even the liberals fall into this trap. Even when they try to sell only the kinder, gentler Jesus, they capitulate to 2 millennia of Christian power by their obsequiousness before Jesus. They cannot just have the courage to say this is right and ethical because it is true. They compulsively say, this is right and ethical because it is what Jesus would really have wanted. I reject and repudiate the unworthy hegemony of Jesus. I am not a Christian. I am anti-Christianity.
While I grant that there are forms of Christianity that approximate my own rational understanding of the world and of ethics more closely than the evangelical Christianity I was raised in does, I am opposed to their perpetuation of the excessive cultural power of Jesus. If all of them were to deconvert and just become freethinking humanists, we could create a far greater countervailing force against evangelical Christianity. While I appreciate their desire to reinterpret their faith so that it is updated and more consonant with reality and ethics as we now have figured them out, far more good could be accomplished if they helped build something sturdy from the ground up instead of continuing to try to retrofit Christianity against so many limitations of its basic structure.
I am a humanist and a rationalist. I derive my values not by honoring the Christian tradition and not by giving it special place and authority, but rather by abstracting away from all traditions and analyzing the rational and historical foundations of ethics and deriving rigorous philosophical accounts of how it should be ideally conceived and implemented. I don’t need Jesus for this. I have not cribbed my ideas from Jesus. I am not his follower. I do not defer to him. I do not idealize him. I do not worship him. I renounce him. I am not a Christian. Religiously speaking, Jesus is dead to me.