Let’s Thank the Extremists

What turned you into an atheist?

A trusted friend who steered you in the right direction?

Actually reading the Bible for once?

Or was it the fact that you just got turned off by the “extremists” in your faith? Not necessarily the murderers or the suicide bombers, but the people who just give the faith a bad name? People like Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Bill Donahue, and the crazy guy preaching on your campus?

David Byars doesn’t think we give that last group enough credit and he wants to thank them:

How many of us were given pause after someone said that God’s plan is for women to be subordinate to men?

Or when someone objected to someone else’s sex life because we were made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve?

And how much better off are we without god-belief? We should be thanking those nutty evangelistic crackpots! They are performing a public service, even if it isn’t the one they believe they are.

Makes sense. Those religious nuts do our work for us. They make it a *lot* easier for people to distance themselves from their religions. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of them.

God bless ‘em.

David wants to go one step further:

So this is what I propose:
November 14th should be “Thank an Extremist Day”

If you were startled out of complacency because of something stupid or infuriating that a religious celebrity said, send them a letter, an email, a tweet or comment on their blog thanking them for getting your feet off the road to religion and starting you running the other way.

I’m sure Ray Comfort will appreciate all the attention :)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Trace

    For me it was common sense.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4VYQXMYJ3MGO74VD6Q7VZIYOQA Bonnie

    It’s not only what religious people say, it’s what they do, too. My husband gave up on Catholicism after many years of questioning it, because when his brother “accidentally” shot and killed himself, his family was required to spend nine days praying for his soul.

    He says, “It was hard enough to deal with what had happened to Danny, and on top of it, they made us lose sleep for a week and half just to pray. That is cruel and nonsensical.”

    He is 100% atheist now.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Sounds like a fun idea to get some people to think about their religion.

  • Spencer

    I think it was a general vague sense of doubt that I had had, that compounded when I gained access to the Internet and started looking up atheism.

  • Rieux

    Yeah, that’s me. After a liberal-leaning Protestant upbringing, it was my first confrontations with no-holds-barred conservative Christianity that forced me to actually think the stuff through. Voila: atheism.

    I think it’s also worth noting that the Internet makes confrontations like that one much more frequent. Not only is religious extremism responsible for lots of apostasy, online communication brings that extremism to millions more viewers than were exposed to it in pre-Net days. (And the same goes for the skeptical antidote.)

    There are various theories for the current burgeoning numbers of nonbelievers in the U.S; I think the Internet is one of the main causes.

    • dorothy30

      yup, me too. we should compare notes on our “liberal-leaning protestant upbringing”. I never really believed, so in a way I’ve always been an atheist, but continued to attend church for social and cultural reasons. It was my first confrontations with “no-holds barred conservative christianity that forced me to actually think the stuff through” and become an atheist ACTIVIST.

  • GregFromCos

    For me it was the 9/11 hijackers that finally made me question faith. So its rather odd that it took extremists in another religion to show me just how unconscionable faith was.  

  • Steve

    I’ve been an atheist since primary (elementary) school, was forced to go to Sunday school…………..once, never went the second time, knew it was all a lie even at an early age. Still unconvinced over 40 years later!!!

  • Sue Blue

    For me it was the blatant misogyny in both the bible and my old church.  Women’s only function was to serve – but not in high church office.  Menstruation and painful childbirth were god’s punishment on all women for Eve’s sin.  Women are weak and inherently evil and need a man to be head of the household. And so on and so forth, ad nauseum.  My questions about biblical inaccuracies and contradictions were ignored or shouted down.  As a young single mother, I was automatically a Jezebel who was barely tolerated in the church social hierarchy, but when backs were turned, married church elders were always coming on to me.  I was groped at a church swim and campout, and worse (won’t go into detail).  One of the most eye-opening realizations for me was that the people most loudly proclaiming their moral superiority (evangelicals!) were the ones most likely to be screwing around on their wives, raping little kids, and ripping people off.  And their “flock” – who make sheep look smart – defended them! This crap, plus the whole far-fetched creationism bullshit and the “Jesus is coming any minute….since 1840″ bullshit of the SDA church, turned me toward atheism.  An excellent college education, a curiosity about science, and lots of reading and studying, confirmed for me that atheism is the only rational stance.   

  • Mr Shine

    To be honest, I wasn’t driven away by my extremists (in particular), Its been a few weeks after my bar mitsva, reformic but still, I’ve thought, “hey, why do I just assume my religion is the only right one, and I don’t believe in nothing else? Automatically my brain said, “Because mine is the right one and the rest are a little miss-leaded”, that thought bothered me, how do i know for sure which one is the real one? I’ve had enough brains to not look for evidence, especially not at preachers or people who begin with some sort of a bad feeling toward a specific religion, so I tried pretending I wasn’t told the bible was the good stuff, tried to re-read it in my mind without deciding before reading who were the good guys, 5 seconds later I was an atheist

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    I’m sure Harold Camping will love the praise.

  • mike

    So, what’s the Pope’s address?  I’ll send him a free condom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1034366850 Erin Jones

    It’s how I left religion, I saw the extremists and then took the time to really think about their beliefs vs mine, and how it was just a few steps to that level of crazy and bigotry. I’m glad i left, and that the extremists opened the door for me!

  • Gabriel

    It was a long process for me. My parents didn’t start in on religion until I was 10 years old. I can remember the old creationist argument of “How can we be here if someone didn’t create us?” My question to myself was “How can god be there is someone didn’t create him?” As a child I went to the Church of Christ and was taught the the unforgivable sin was to curse god. That if I ever did that I would die. So I did it and didn’t die.  I tried to stick with it for 8 years. But I was full of doubts. Then I read the first two volumes of Isaac Asimov’s auto-biography. When I finished I stopped pretending and admitted to myself that I was an atheist. It took longer to come out to my friends and family. So I’ve been a self admitted athesit for the last 21 years.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    If you want to know why people are atheists, just check out PZ Myers’s site. Every day he is posting one of his reader’s e-mails giving their reasons. I don’t think he wants anymore, because he has hundreds, but send him yours anyway if you want to share.

    Here’s today’s: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/10/27/why-i-am-an-atheist-peter-wagenaar/

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    And speaking of Ray Comfort: http://twitpic.com/75s8v7

  • Mrs. B.

    I think when I was in my early teens I realized that the Christian god was petty. Who in their right mind would worship any deity that would create such flawed beings, allow such pain and suffering, punish anyone who didn’t worship him with eternal damnation and torture, and yet forgive all the hideous cruelties inflicted on others by those who believe in him and ask for his mercy? I wouldn’t take that kind of abuse from any human, why would I worship it in a god?

    And don’t even get me started on intelligent design. I can give you examples just of female anatomy that prove if a god created us, at best he sure as hell wasn’t very intelligent, at worst he was an outright, nasty idiot. 

    • Sue Blue

      Some fine examples of “intelligent” design features of god’s supposed masterpiece of creation:  The appendix, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, the retina, the spine, men’s vulnerable hanging fruits, and, as you pointed out – the fact that we squeeze our babies out between piss and shit.  Great for bringing god’s little miracles into the world – and often fatal!  

      Of course, the fundies all claim that these imperfections are the result of “sin”.  Blame Satan, not god!  

      • TiltedHorizon

        If sin results in these imperfections you have to wonder what sin rabbits have committed requiring them to eat their own droppings to live. 

  • Anonymous

    I like this idea!  I’m going to do it.  It would help if there were a list of all the radical faith-heads in one place, so I could look up the ones that did the most for my secular conversion.
    I was raised a Southern Baptist and later converted to Episcopalian (long story), but in my late 20′s, I went through a “faith crisis” during which I had questions about my beliefs.  To make a long story short, every attempt to discuss my flagging faith with “spiritual leaders” was unsuccessful.  Apparently, if you don’t come with tithe-in-hand, they’re not inclined to bother with your questions.  But the secular community was not only welcoming, they came with answers to all the questions that theists couldn’t answer.  I went with the side that had answers.  I made the right choice

  • Anonymous

    I agree. It was the legalistic, sanctimonious bullshit my brother and I endured in private Christian school and the cult-like ministry my parents had emerged from after I was born. The greatest injustices done to myself and my family had been from pious, self-important, fundamentalist Christians. When I encountered the harsh attitudes they had towards their fellow Christians and then considered the even worse treatment they felt was deserved of non-Christians, I realized I didn’t want to be a part of that mentality. I felt true empathy and affection for human beings that was not contingent on them sharing my beliefs or ideologies. For many years, I continued to believe in Jesus, while refusing to call myself a Christian, since I did not identify with those people. That slowly opened the gates of my mind and allowed me to consider the existence (or non-existence) of gods which I had not been allowed to question before for fear of angering God.

    Of course, this makes me look like an angry Atheist. I am not an Atheist out of rebellion to the church or Christians who hurt me. It’s just that their actions showed me that they were fallible human beings and that it was okay to examine what I had been taught with a critical eye. Once I allowed myself to question their authority, I discovered the real reasons for non-belief. All of the doubts I had always struggled to keep suppressed were allowed to bubble to the surface and I found that non-belief was effortless. It was forcing myself to believe in the unbelievable that had put such a strain on my mind. The truth will set you free. It just happened to be the opposite of what I had been taught.

  • TiltedHorizon

    It started with my time in Catholic school, the general aversion to my questions, the inadequacy of the answers to those questions if they bothered answering them, but mostly there was a realization that I could not make piece with.

    As the oldest son, god’s wrath was reserved for me, no matter how good or ‘christ-like’ I tried to be, I could still be murdered by god as payback for the sins of my parents (as seen so often in the bible). I suffered with night terrors at 12 years old due to that thought. Eventually I concluded, if god could so indiscriminately punish me for sins not my own then this is not an entity worthy of worship. My faith, which was so certain up till that point crumbled & the nightmares stopped too.

    Every now & then, as an open minded person is supposed to do, I reevaluate my disbelief in god, I check the web, the news, and my neighborhood for examples, clues, something which can show me I was wrong to walk away from faith. Instead, all I find are reminders of why I left, a big THANK YOU to Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Bill Donahue and the like.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregm766 Gregory Marshall

    Well, for me the extremist sure were the start of the road to disbelief. They always came of as so arrogant and KNEW everything.

  • Deltabob

    I suffered greatly with depression as a child and young teen. One day I was on the phone with my best friend, and she said “I don’t understand how you can be so unhappy when you know that god loves you so much. I don’t understand why your faith isn’t enough, when it should be”

    That was my first step. It certainly didn’t lead where my friend hoped it would – into me being a better christian and having a miracle cure for my depression. Where it lead was me asking why I didn’t feel the same sense of safety and security, the same comfort as everyone else in church seemed to.

    For a few years, I thought the problem was mine – I wasn’t trying hard enough to be a good christian. So, I used the ‘fake it til you make it’ philosophy and practiced christianity, even though there was a slowing growing thought in my head that the reason I didn’t feel it was that I didn’t believe it.

    Then, when I was a senior in high school, a song opened my eyes to the concept that other people felt the same way (yes, I know, cheesy, but true). Operation Spirit, by Live made me realize that there were other ways to live and experience the world  than the christian one I had always assumed was the default.

    As for my depression – no miracles. I went to therapy for a few years and learned to deal with my past traumas and understand that I will periodically suffer from bouts of depression, but that they go away.

    I’ve thought about thanking my old friend, but she would be mortified that her ‘pep talk’ led me to atheism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001071231218 Andrew Pfaff

    For me it was my Grandmother telling me that every music I enjoyed was evil, including the sound of an electric guitar alone. What did she expect I would think of her telling me something I love is evil for so many years.

  • Christian von Kietzell

    I cannot remember ever being anything else than an atheist. My parents aren’t religious. Must be the East German upbringing (theirs and mine). That said, I do plan on reading the bible in the near future for the first time. Call it intellectual curiosity.

  • Gerry

    Sorry I don’t have a more traumatic story, but after 12 years of Catholic school, and reading a lot of science fiction in high school, I decided there was more to the universe than what the church taught. When I was 18 I had a talk with my parents and told them I was no longer going to  Mass. That was over 40 years ago and I’ve never felt any pressure to reconsider, but in truth I never felt a part of it even as a kid.

  • http://www.bblss.org Anonymous

    My disbelief has always been a persistent nagging over the years; a quiet feeling of dread, like when you suspect you failed an exam or you realize you’ve got to end a relationship with a lover.  A few random instances leading to my disbelief in god:
     –My parents tithed and we had no food or utilities on in the house.
    –I was told I was a sinner and I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.
    –In church the hypocrites blatantly manipulated the true believers, who were the most illiterate, undereducated of the congregation.  I still don’t know who annoys me more.
    –I read the entire Bible and was truly appalled.
    –My fondest instance:  in junior high I’d developed an interest in Norse mythology and found the only book our library had on the subject.  The book concluded that all the beliefs in the old gods died and the people began to believe in the one true god.  That’s the moment it occurred to me that the one “true” god was as made up as Odin.  Now, what’s funny is that this book only made it into my school’s library because of it’s reference to the one “true” god.  Apparently, the school board had banned other books on mythology that didn’t include a reference to the Christian god.  Thanks a bunch, you religious censoring dummies.  LOL. 

  • NCBill

    Thirty-five years as a Funeral Director and then ten months spent as day to day director of the morgue for 9/11 finished off what little hold religion had on me. Nothing since then has changed my view!

  • Megand Robinson

    Extremists were definitely a start. I’d been brought up in a very liberal Christian household and while I reflected on the meaning of faith fairly regularly, it wasn’t until I was allowed on the Internet unsupervised that I learned, to my immense shock, that there were people who REALLY BELIEVED that huge swathes of the population were going to hell. The sheer amount of hatred involved propelled me to start examining just what this Bible stuff was all about.

  • Lurker111

    Actually, according to the Bible, we _are_ descended from Adam and Steve.

    See here:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2409#comic

  • Anonymous

    Nothing (fittingly) turned me into an atheist.  I was born this way. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2C6XFSMIUYAZUDZ4CWUWLV7CEY Josh Pearson

    There were a lot of moments in my life that led towards being an atheist. Many of the born-again Christians I’ve known (and had the displeasure of living with) painted an ugly picture of their religion. Especially when the devout Mr. Blair said we should, “turn the Middle East to glass”, I knew then that Christians aren’t nice, peaceful, loving, people.

    One of the biggest reasons I am atheist is from the bible, the story of Job. Any Christian that reads that and is still Christian is stupid. Seriously who wants to worship someone who is so petty that he bet he could torture a believer and he’d still believe. Talk about some serious inadequacies and self-esteem issues.

    Then people like Rev. Phelps and the like further showed me how inane, contradictory, and stupid Christianity is. If it’s a god’s word, then surely it isn’t up to interpretation or, “context.”

    Once I removed myself from Christianity, the other religions fell for the same reasons. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., are all inane. None offer any proof, intelligence, or adequate reasons for wasting time on the words of what is obviously mankind.

    The only religion that ever appealed to me was Buddhism, to which I was one for a few years. Eventually though Buddhism became pointless. It had the benefit of not being about a god, but all the odd rituals and rites that have been injected into over the years (like re-incarnation) turned me off. I still read, and enjoy, the words of Buddha; I just want nothing to do with the religious trappings that come with it.

  • ollie

    Me:  it was an evolution.  It was “well, I don’t believe THAT”…then “I don’t really believe THAT either.”  Eventually, I saw no reason to believe anything supernatural. 

    It started with my reading the Bible; I found it to be gory and offensive.  Then I found it to be ridiculous; impossible to take seriously.

  • Rabblerowser

    Actually, I would love for the Westboro Baptist Church to picket my funeral.  Then everyone would know I had the “correct” type of life.  Since I’m an evolutionary biologist teaching at a small liberal arts college I’m sure they’d agree my funeral is worth targeting.  The only problem with that plan is you can’t send a thank you letter after death.

  • Erik D Red

    I was never a believer, although I did believe that religion could be a harmless comfort, and a source of some ethics.

    What changed that opinoin wasn’t the extremists.  Those I could easily dismiss as cranks.  It was the mainline Catholic church.  If so many condom-condeming priests could bugger little boys (ok, only 4%, and most actually prefer adolescents) and the entire hierarchy could facilitate and cover it, and the entire laity could ignore it, then that religion at least was thoroughly corrupt and unworthy of any claim of rightousness.  My father told me of far more stories of complete hypocrisy, and that just reinforced that it was rampant. 

    What I’ve read here, over at PZ’s place, and on the fundy wingnut sites just reinforces all of that.

    I could rant on and on about that hypocrisy, and I may mosey over to the forums some day. 

  • Shannon Lane

    For me, it was the oddest, simplest thing:

    I looked up one day, after doing all of this reading and soul-searching and compartmentalizing and the rest, and realized that one of the fundamental differences between my nominal denomination (Episcopalian) and Catholicism was the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

    (For those that aren’t sure, the Episcopalians believe that the Eucharist is a symbol.  Catholic dogma teaches that the body and blood of christ /really is the body and blood of christ/ via a miracle that happens when the priest touches the bread and wine and recites a ceremony.)

    What hit me wasn’t that one was ridiculous and the other wasn’t, but that – at least from a dogmatic perspective, by pure weight of evidence – the doctrine was equally valid for both faiths.  That is, both Catholics and Episcopalians have scriptural basis for their beliefs of equal validity.

    If you look at every other major schism (and most of the minor ones) in the Christian faith, you end up with the same thing:  interpret a few words differently, or choose a different passage as important, and you get a brand new set of tenets that are wholly incompatible, yet equally valid, with some other sect’s tenets.

    This … was painful.  Logically painful.  It led me to look into the origins of scripture, the very basis of the faith… and in doing so, I discovered that I’d lost mine.  Nothing of what I discovered led to any sort of divine inspiration, just well-meaning men doing their best to try to make the world and the things they’d been taught as children make sense.

  • Themiddleme

    Christians, in a nutshell. The pastor of my church was a big catalyst, but Christians in general who don’t live as they say they believe. I’m not an atheist, though. I’m more agnostic right now. I didn’t jump off one bandwagon jonesing to jump on another without a lot (and that will take years) of thought, questioning and investigation. So far I am finding a lot of knee jerk atheists who can’t stand Christianity and that’s not who I am. It’s kind of pathetic that you go from one bunch of hypocrites to another. I’m trying to stay in the middle.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

       I hate to tell you this but when you are ready to join the atheist bandwagon you will find it doesn’t exist.     Actually you don’t even need to wait.  I’m telling you right now.

  • http://abagoffruit.wordpress.com Simon

    For me, it took the crazy preachers at my university to realize that people who believe in a god (rather than just having a cultural connection to religion) exist. Once that happened, I started identifying as an atheist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Macker/518709704 Brian Macker

    Well the extremist that got me turned off to Christianity was God.    It was his hatred of sharing of the tree of knowledge and vilification of Doubting Thomas that first got my notice.    The murder of all those innocents during the flood made me realize he just didn’t share my values.

  • PJB863

    The next time you pose this question here, Hemant, let’s name names.  By this, I mean the church, religious institution, or person (clergy or other) most responsible for the readers’ embrace of atheism.  I think it might be an eye-opener.

  • Rod Chlebek

    Was cleaning out the attic and found my “dog” tags from right after my 9-11 activation. I had “agnostic” stamped on there. I didn’t want “Christian” on there because it wasn’t being honest. A while later my curiosity led me to further investigate gnosticism and theism to find out that I was actually atheist all along. Further, I would probably still be somewhere in the middle if it were not for a handful of Christian extremist in-laws. Without them I probably would never have challenged the argument enough to learn anything new.

  • Giggles

    My mother is an incredibly lapsed Catholic (and by incredibly lapsed I mean she was brought up Catholic and is now an atheist) and I was brought up with very little idea of what ‘god’ actually was. It was a word in the hymns during assembly and it appeared in my Brownie Promise but the concept of ‘a god’ wasn’t something I was really introduced to.

    Then I began studying history and from there classical civilisations.

    It becomes rather hard to take the present religions seriously when I know for a fact that the last few religions who were certain THEY had the right gods were exterminated. I looked at them critically and couldn’t find any differences apart from the fact that Ancient Egyptians or Romans or Vikings aren’t around any more. Not to mention the fact that I much prefer The Iliad to The Bible (much better reading and probably less violent).

    Realising that I’m bisexual helped as well. And the fact that I went to a Christian youth group for a while.

    I ended up going to the youth group’s summer camp thing as a volunteer and we had our own services (which I mostly slept through). The one right at the beginning talked about Martha and Mary who invited Jesus for dinner and when he arrived Mary went out to greet him, leaving Martha to do the work. Martha leaves the kitchen after about ten minutes to find Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and tells her to come back into the kitchen. Jesus tells her off for not coming out herself and that Mary was doing the right thing. The speaker finished off by saying that we should try and be more like Mary.

    I remember sitting there, surrounded by people who were nodding, and going ‘Well praising Jesus is all well and good but who’s going to make the dinner?’. The idea that my immediate response to everything should be ‘turn to Jesus’ rather than ‘let’s figure this shit out’ rankled.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I’ve always been an atheist. I was probably the rare child growing up in America who didn’t realize that other people took the supernatural seriously. I was exposed to angels and devils via Disney cartoons, but I had no idea that anyone actually believed in them. When I got a little older and started seeing portrayals of gods and the afterlife, I just figured it was all made-up. Since it was depicted in obvious fantasy settings, nothing prompted me to think otherwise.

    I still have a hard time understanding how young children are able to sort out the “real” supernatural (gods, devils, angels, heaven, hell) from other supernatural entities like monsters, fairies, elves, unicorns, and mermaids. For me, they were always the exact same thing. I mean, fairies and angels are so similar. How is a kid supposed to figure out that one is real and the other isn’t?


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