Citizenship Confusion: Atheists Are Idiots, Really?

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

Have you heard the one about the Atheist University Professor who was famous at his school for mocking Christianity and a belief in God? You know, the one where a brave Christian student finally stands up to the teacher and calmly and articulately reveals the irrational basis of the “professor’s” atheism and thereby causes the professor to flee the room in shame, at which time the student shares the Gospel with his whole class?

Image Credit Chick Tract

Maybe it wasn’t “Atheism” per-say.

Maybe it was Evolution.

Maybe that student was “Einstein.”

Maybe it was a Physics or Philosophy class.

Maybe there was a piece of chalk involved.

The story is always the same: an arrogant, frothing-at-the-mouth atheist faces a Christian student who exposes him as a fraud. Evil is shamed, Good is proclaimed.

Only, this never happened, at least, not that anyone can credibly verify. Snopes has two enlightening articles on this narrative: “Dropped Chalk” and “Malice of Absence.”  And, of course, there is a fantastic Chick Tract.
These stories belong to what I think of as a broad category of Christian narratives and rhetoric about atheists: fiction, deception, and misrepresentation for the purpose of belittling and mocking atheists.

This narrative is a subset of the larger American (human?) theme of the underdog. It’s David and Goliath (as one Snopes article points out). Only, this narrative creates several problems for Christians.

These stories often lie, even if they claim to be fiction. It is quite possible to “lie” in a fictional story, which is what we see in the Chick Tract: The professor is both ignorant and arrogant while the Christian is brilliant and patient.

From my experience, it’s far more likely that your atheist professor is an intelligent person, and often Christian students are only “equipped” to respond to an antiquated straw-man of Evolution or atheism. And sometimes, the professor is incredibly gracious and sincerely concerned for you.

Stories like this can give many believers a false sense of security and superiority. If we are honest and humble, we ought to recognize that there are many difficult, troubling, and complex aspects of our faith.

If we truly want to minister to and protect our children when they go off to college, we need to stop preparing them to make a fools out of their professors, and start preparing them to prayerfully and faithfully look for answers to any significant questions they encounter. Let their prayer be, “I believe, Lord; Help my unbelief,” rather than, “I believe, Lord; Help me mock his unbelief.”

Although there may be times where it is appropriate to be blunt to unbelievers, indiscriminately sharing and wearing slogans which mock atheism as idiocy or blatant stupidity or even foolishness is unloving and unhelpful. While Proverbs may describe unbelievers as “Fools,” it was not the practice of Christ or the apostles to go around sharing the Good News with a sign that read, “April 1st, National Atheist Day! Cause you’re fools! Get it?”

Let them know us by our love, not our arrogance.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    It’s always a professor or someone considered very intelligent/well-educated (the two do not always go hand in hand), isn’t it? Like you say, it’s a David and Goliath scenario, and Christians love to cast themselves as David defeating the giant. But it also has the unfortunate consequence of warning Christians away from all but the “right” intellectual pursuits. I’ve had family who are doctors – not just general practice, either, but highly specialized doctors – tell me that higher education has “addled my brain” because I’m not willing to come down on the side of Evangelicalism on things like evolution.

    Whenever I hear stories like the ones you cite, I almost always ask the person telling me, “Do you even know any atheists?” And I don’t mean that in a sense of “yeah, the mail clerk at work is one,” but rather, do you know any atheists with whom you would run to for support, you would consider close enough to invite to your wedding? If you don’t, you have no business talking about how “stupid” atheists are.

    Several of my closest friends are atheists, and when they hear about getting maligned like this in Christian culture, it just makes them laugh. I mean, they get a little sad that people judge them based on their non-belief, but when the stories get stupid and ridiculous like this, the only good it does is reinforce the preconception that Christians are to be pitied. Like you say, it makes no in-roads to actually changing belief.

  • Carol

    Also….all it does is makes Christians seem weak in their faith that we must have all these props for ourselves. These deceptive stories, these culture war “victories” to cherish and treasure. Is our faith so little and so weak that it can’t stand some push-back or even harsh questioning? Isn’t that what Jesus told us would happen when we profess the faith? That we WOULD absolutely suffer for it, whether it’s inconvenience, ridicule or worse? Why do so many of us go around being perpetually offended at all and sundry?

    I’d love an atheist friend. Imagine our conversations! It’d certainly push me to understand my faith better – so as to be have an answer for why I believe. Not just some random email mass-forward story. I hate those by the way.

  • Kyle

    What about that one time when the crazy atheist kept cutting off part of the ham before he/she (LGBT atheist… degenerate!) put it in the stove to bake. Finally, he/she went to a psychiatrist (pfft… “science”) because he/she thought he/she had obsessive-compulsive disorder and wanted drugs (a likely reason, hippie) to make them stop cutting off part of the ham. Then after months of sessions paid for by the tax dollars of people with jobs, the surely-atheist psychiatrist was all,

    “Well, that’s how you’re mother did it and her mother and so on back to the PRIMORDIAL OOZE FROM WHICH WE ALL CRAWLED!!”

    And then he/she was like, “Oh. Oh, okay. Yeah, that makes sense. SCIENCE!”

    Ha! Stupid atheists!

  • Alan Noble

    Dianna,

    Right! It’s actually fairly embarrassing for Christians when other Christians tell these stories, because they are so laughably contrived! Re: your relative, at least he used the word “addled.” That’s pretty cool.

    Carol,

    Amen! I have had several atheist friends and they have all been intelligent, thoughtful, kind people who were happy to have discussions about my beliefs and their beliefs. I have also encountered a few (maybe two?) professors who were slightly vocal about their atheism, but they were never rude or haughty.

    Although, I did know one instructor at a community college once who told me that when students bring up creationism (in my composition class?) that I need to set them straight right away. He was militantly anti-anti-evolution. But, he was rude and offensive all around, so that was nothing special. Oh, and he said he was a Christian! So that’s not even a case of an arrogant atheist!

  • Kyle

    On a (hopefully) relevant note:

    I think the core problem is that people have no idea how to deal with criticism. We, as a culture and as individuals, are, for whatever reason, so insecure that we either can’t or won’t allow ourselves to understand that people can disagree with us– even vehemently– but that doesn’t have to detract from our perception of ourselves.

    I think it’s symptomatic of our existence that this be the case. Whatever the causality, we are, as people, given an extreme benefit of the doubt in creation. Yes, dogs are better people than us and cats are more clean by far, but neither of them can talk or actively create. Monkeys make better actors, but it takes a whole room of them to (theoretically) produce what one Shakespeare/Bacon/Marlowe/de Vere could do. In whatever context, the core of creation is thoroughly intertwined with us. To put it in Christian terms, we share God’s DNA. And that inherently leads to our arrogance and, from that, our belief in our own selves as the high, holy authority. But at the same time we can’t help but know that we aren’t as powerful in the world as we are in our minds. Not everyone agrees with us. Not everyone cares what we think. Not everyone is still reading this Dennis Miller-style lecture I’ve somehow found myself waist deep in. And not everyone has to.

    K. I’m gonna go watch a movie now. Don’t you judge my tastes while I’m gone.

  • Rich Guy

    I think you aren’t yet engaging with the actual purpose of this myth making. I don’t buy that Evangelicals (Fundamentalists?) tell these stories for the “purpose of belittling and mocking atheists”. Yes, that is *an* effect of the story, and an important one, but it is not the primary reason for this stuff. Essentially these stories are told in order to provide reasons to dismiss “science” in the absence of the ability of a particular kind of Christianity to engage in any meaningful way with “science”. (Imma keep the scare quotes around “science” beacuse I like ‘em.)

    It is not just that “stories like this can give many believers a false sense of security and superiority” these stories are *designed* to do exactly that. The intended effect is to prevent (or innoculate against) real engagmement with (in this particular case) one of the “many difficult, troubling, and complex aspects of our faith” beacuse to many Christians it is plainly apparent that the worldview in which they exist is entirely unequipped to do so.

    I don’t disagree that these stories are counter-productive. But the problem is not the stories, they are only signposts to deeper issues that lurk beneath the surface.

  • Steve S.

    I think what bothers me most about these stories–aside from the arrogant tone–is the way it encourages a defensive and combative relationship between students and teachers. Oh, I know that there are a number of tenured profs who like to make religious students squirm, but frankly, they’re the exception rather than the rule. When real students walk into a real college classroom assuming that their real professors are all out to get them, it makes real learning virtually impossible.

    If serious Christian students want to impress their atheist/agnostic professors, I have some advice for them:

    (1) Take the course seriously. Study hard. Master the material. Do a lot of research and proofread your papers. Ace the exams. In other words, if you want your ideological opponents to take you seriously, then you need to take them seriously. Another term for this is “the Golden Rule.” Most professors I know don’t mind it when GOOD students argue with them. When slackers try to argue, it’s just pathetic.

    (2) Ask questions instead of arguing. It can be during class discussions or outside of class, but if you want to try to understand your professor’s point of view well enough to refute it (if only to yourself), then you need ask lots of questions. An honest question from a student will do more to persuade a professor than any apologetic speech ever will.

    (3) Choose your battles. You are not a coward if you don’t try to publicly refute your professor. Find creative ways to approach course material that challenges your faith. If you are asked to write a paper on a topic that bothers you, treat it as an academic exercise, or even as a piece of creative writing. There are times when you should take a stand, but then you need to submit to the consequences, whatever they are.

    (4) Remember that your professor is a real person. Professors have a license to be eccentric, but seldom will a professor reveal everything about his or her personal beliefs. Professors often play devil’s advocate, and they may not actually have strong opinions on every topic they introduce. You may not be able to tell the difference between statements made for the sake of argument and statements of intense, personal belief. Remember, your professor is likely to react to your attacks on her personal beliefs about as well as you are likely to react to her attacks on your personal beliefs. See point #1.

  • Alan Noble

    Rich Guy,

    Thanks, that is another layer to these stories that I didn’t bring up. Here are a couple thoughts:

    1. While it is valid and important to note that arrogance often comes from feelings of inadequacy, my primary concern in this post was with trying to help other believers acknowledge their lack of charity. Yes, it’s the surface-level concern, but it’s still important. So, I guess what I’m saying is that that is part of the reason I didn’t address the deeper issues.

    2. I’m not entirely convinced that these “deeper issues” are as ubiquitous as you make them sound.

    Someone could share a story about an arrogant and idiotic atheist out of a deep need to validate him or herself by belittling the other.

    But it also seems to me that someone might adopt that combative rhetoric (since, I think, it is the dominant form of public discourse) without the deeper baggage. Maybe I have no insecurities about my faith, but I just enjoy being a jerk.

    In other words, I see this story phenomenon and I feel confident enough to judge it as uncharitable. But I don’t feel informed enough to be able to speak to the causes of the phenomenon.

    3. “Science.”

  • Rich Guy

    Alan-

    Regarding your 2). I don’t think these stories serve an individual role as much as a group role, their power is in being shared. It is a corporate method of reassurance. What response does the storyteller expect? What effect does the storyteller expect to have in the listener? Is it possible that the storyteller actually regards himself as *being* charitable while telling the story, but his charity is directed to the listener?

    My experience (and I have to acknowledge having in the distant past excitedly shared this stuff, but I was like in junior high, OK?) is that the intent is an encouragement and a building up of the listener, and the encouragment is something along the lines of “Don’t really engage and get addled by all this confusing science stuff pilgrim. Listen — here’s a story that you cling to when you get confused and start having doubts. Now, you aren’t actually going to engage and resolve those doubts, you’re going to ward them off with this story as a magic elixir against the evils of “science”.”

    The “deeper issues” I darkly hint at above are my own personal conclusions regarding the nature of “scientific” and Biblical truths and what I see as a really widespread misunderstanding about the relationship between the two. Depending on how you view “science” you may or may not see these issues as widespread within evangelical circles. I certainly see them as essentially ubiquitous.

  • Adam

    There are many kinds of Atheists, just like many kinds of Christians.

    There are Atheists who will gently sway you with reason and concern, and then there are the other types; who, I might say, are about as arrogant, caustic and hateful as they come.

    Atheism in general, holds “the intellect” as of the highest importance; which leads them to look down on people with “lower” intelligence (ie faith based world views). In short, “worship” their own ability to think for themselves. This is not all that disimilar to some Christians; who tend to believe that their decision to follow Christ and become “righteous” makes them morally superior. It’s poor teaching, doctrine and theology and it makes me sad.

    I’ve had healthy discussions with Athiests, and discussions where I am mocked and ridiculed…

    I love how you finished the article: “Let them know us by our love, not our arrogance.” – THAT is one battle definitely worth winning.

    Blessings

  • Ethan
  • Bismoney

    Is it now a christian accusing another christian trying to defend his faith. What about sports? Am I gonna ask questions whom I should support? What about my race if I find my proffessor profiling? The story, if it is true or not is to encourage christian students not to lose thier faith in college. The message is, whether it comes from your peers or your proffessor, you defend what you believe even if it looks absurb.

  • http://nailtothedoor.com Dan Martin

    I’ve known brilliant atheists, ignorant atheists, gentle atheists, and arrogant SOB atheists. Kinda like Christians.

  • http://stormman.blogspot.com Different Ethan

    Great post, and good discussion too. Terry Pratchett–a famous atheist–opened his novel “Lords and Ladies” by summarizing the current scientific understanding of the beginning of everything, “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.” Which is to say that I refuse to be chastised into NOT making fun of absurdities when and where I see them.

  • Ethan

    Does there really need to be a distinction? Aren’t we all humans, just the same?

  • dave

    great post!
    I have no idea how a day of pranks logically became a non prank “category” we put atheists into. These kind of posts really help us to be fair and increase our overall relationship with those we want to reach !

  • Daniel

    My own anecdotal experiences with “atheist vs. Christian” rhetoric challenges me on two levels, mostly (there are of course many other levels, but this is what I struggle with…or rather, I struggle mostly with the first, and get irritated at the second):

    (1) It’s not about trying to sound witty and make “zingers”. Admittedly, this is more of a problem in online, impersonal interactions where anonymity makes such things flow freer. But it can happen in person, too, or in non-anonymous forums (eg Facebook).

    But our culture–often specifically “Christian” culture–seems to place a premium on snarkiness, using it as a proxy for intelligence. That’s just sad.

    (2) Closely related to (1), it’s not about proving how “un-PC” you are. If snark is often viewed as a proxy for intellect, “un-PC” comments are–specifically in conservative Christian circles–a proxy for a strong faith and courage.

    I’m all for stating the truth unvarnished, and don’t care for minimizing truth to make it more palatable to unbelievers. Nevertheless, it often appears that Christians can deliberately try to make the gospel (or any aspect of Biblical belief) [i]as offensive as possible[/i] to “prove” how strong their faith is. Indeed, in a perverse Orwellian way, to be “un-PC” is the only acceptable method to talk about certain issues (in other words, to many Christians, it is Politically Correct to be Politically Incorrect, and if you use certain words or phrases–or just appear to be a little too respectful of the heathen–that is “Politically Incorrect” in Christianese and you’ll be judged as a wimpy believer.)

  • Adam

    Great post!

    It seems to me that a lot of the mocking/offensive christian internet slogans and signs are on some level a response to the mocking/offensive things atheists post about christians. There is legitimately a caricature in popular culture promoted by the secular community to paint christians as being a bunch of ignorant, ill-educated Bible-thumping hillbillies.

    However, it’s a little embarrassing to see that so many in the Church respond to that caricature by returning the blows with their own. It should be our calling and our mission to rise above the ways of the world and influence culture by our Christ-likeness. As you said, they should know us by our love, not our arrogance. Just because we feel that the atheist community mocks us, doesn’t mean that we should do the same to them. In fact, it means the opposite.


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