I’ve always had a knack for feeling out of place wherever I am. I don’t know why this keeps happening to me, but I can’t seem to escape it. It has always been true of my professional life and it usually holds true in my personal life as well. I’ve taught on many a faculty and I’ve never had a significant friendship with any of my coworkers. I am too dissimilar to everyone with whom I work. I suppose another major factor is that along the way I helped produce four children. It’s difficult to do a good job of raising that many short people and still have a social life. The differences are even more pronounced in my part-time jobs (I’ve gone through more of those than I care to count) where I’m often working with people half my age. Even if I didn’t have any kids, I still wouldn’t easily identify with these kids, since pretty soon they’ll be the same age as my kids.
But even in my personal life, more often than not I feel somehow out of place. It’s hard to explain. Something about the mix of traits that has made me who I am always makes me feel different from everyone else around me. For example, I’m probably the most sensitive straight guy I know, and I love playing sports but I have no interest in watching it or talking much about it. I workout at a gym regularly but rarely ever enjoy a conversation with anyone there. Most guys where I live seem to have a very short list of enjoyable topics: sports, hunting, fishing, and “that commie Muslim from Kenya.” I grew up with money and most of my classmates seem to have chosen careers that keep them in that world, whereas I chose a career that has kept me far away from that socioeconomic rung. On top of all that, my intellectual life has brought me through two or three very distinctive iterations of the Christian faith and ultimately into atheism only to find that most people in this subculture have never exactly been through my kind of experience. They usually think they have, but in most cases they haven’t, and there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that.
People from good church backgrounds are less likely to become atheists. Think about it. Why would you leave if it was working for you just fine? Of course, I know several ways that can happen because that’s how it happened with me. Sometimes you just think about things enough to realize they don’t add up. Sometimes a person who is succeeding at doing “spiritual things” still comes to realize one day that his whole life is predicated on a very powerful and heavily reinforced placebo effect. Other times, if they press on into leadership positions, they may have what I call a Wizard of Oz moment. It does happen. But even then it happens more in places where the flaws of religion (even “moderate” religion) are close enough to the surface to be more readily noticed by each person who finally opens his eyes to see them. It makes sense that churches and theological subcultures which maintain the healthiest lifestyles would lose fewer people to skepticism. Consequently, if you ask most atheists to describe the religious culture from whence they’ve come, you will hear a laundry list of faults and shortcomings, some of which are grotesque and even comical. It also stands to reason that of those atheists who were once Christians, the greater number will have come from traditions whose flaws were the most glaring and deleterious.
That’s not how it was with me. For me, the flaws of my religious upbringing were much more subtle, almost ingeniously buried beneath a sophisticated scaffolding of spin, slant, and clever reframing. To some degree, this describes evangelicalism as a whole. As I’ve said too much lately, evangelicalism is fundamentalism with a more sophisticated vocabulary. In terms of theological beliefs, they maintain the same tenets; but while fundamentalists just quote the Bible to make their point (as if that settles it for people who hold no special regard for ancient religious texts), evangelicals will cite university studies and media statistics in order to say the exact same things. At their ideological core, they are two different expressions of the same faith in the Bible as the final arbiter of truth in all matters of life. But in their outward expression, I must admit that they can be very different. Fundamentalism tends to run roughshod over the rest of the world with a kind of unreflective oblivion, while evangelical culture always keeps one ear open to the surrounding culture, ready at a moment’s notice to shapeshift into whatever form it needs to assume next in order to keep relevant in the world. That’s a big part of why they do a better job of keeping people engaged in their mission, losing fewer folks like me to non-belief. To put it differently, they screw up less than their quirky cousins, and when they do, their transgressions are often smaller, and less damaging. And in the process, they often do some things very well, benefiting their most loyal members in ways which I think most atheists overlook. I want to take a minute to highlight those things because even those of us who should know better can sometimes forget.
Most of the Christians I know from my upbringing are really good people. When I was a kid, and later a young adult, I never ran across those people who greet you by telling you you’re going to Hell because of this that or the other thing. Granted, I wasn’t an atheist then, and the internet didn’t exist so people hadn’t yet learned to be so callous and inconsiderate in their interactions with people. But still, the Christian folks I grew up with are way nicer than those people. I also don’t think the people I grew up with were nearly as gullible when it came to swallowing the condescending assertions of people in powerful religious or political positions. Maybe some of this is due to the rise of partisan media (one of the worst things that ever happened to American democracy, second only to the repealing of bipartisan campaign finance reform). The truth is, I think this particular problem has at least partially plugged up that previously listening ear so that they’re not as good as they used to be at listening to people tell their own stories. That needs some work. But even despite all this, many people today are having just as good a time growing up in healthy churches as I once did, and they are going to make it all the way through their childhood without any traumatic or hurtful experiences at the hand of their spiritual leaders.
Churches are often great sources of community strength. Where else outside of publicly funded education will you find such a well-established network of adults investing their time and energy in nurturing children that aren’t even their own? Children get weekly reinforcement from mentors and peers for social skills, character development, and sometimes self-esteem (although I do often have bone to pick with evangelicalism about this, but that’s a discussion for another time…sometimes they’re not so bad). For all the things I’d like to see done differently, they’re still doing an awful lot to provide a supportive context for people when they need it most. Churches often do a great job of supporting people when a baby is born, or when a young couple gets married (assuming they are heterosexuals), or when someone is sick or dying. Of course, all of these are functions of a community which don’t necessarily require religion for them to exist. As I’ve written before, I would very much like to see more intentional connections of atheists in real-life communities. All I’m saying here is that not everything churches do is bad. Lots of it is good and helpful.
I think we atheists lose sight of these things because we have a lot of resentment toward Christianity due to the things that they don’t get right. To be clear: Even moderate religion can be quite harmful. But that doesn’t mean that everybody in it is crooked. Sometimes I hear my atheist friends making blanket statements about preachers, teachers, and other Christian leaders that just don’t ring true from my experience. I know why that is: Their experience was way worse than mine. When people spew venom about something, it’s often because they’ve been truly harmed by whatever it is they’re condemning. I don’t want to take away from their experience, because the harm was probably real and the baggage and emotional scars will be with them for many years to come. But their experience wasn’t the same as mine, and sometimes it colors the way they look at the whole of religion. Sometimes they make sweeping generalizations that don’t hold true for all versions of Christianity.
I first noticed this when I was a recent deconvert looking for reading material to help me unpack my own changing thoughts about faith. Most of the best-known writers had never really been Christians themselves at all, so their writing rang with a certain callousness that indicated no sympathies toward people raised to believe in the unseen. On occasion, I would find a writer who had been a Christian—maybe even a minister—but even then I found that the tradition he came from was sufficiently different from mine as to make his approach seem misguided to me. In time I’ve come to see why they write what they write (have you been on the internet lately?). There are a lot of crazy things out there that pass for respectable religion, and their mockery of those things is frankly understandable. But very few atheist writers out there seem to have come from the kind of world in which I grew up. Like I said, it makes sense that the healthier churches would produce fewer atheists so that the majority of deconverts out there will have more negative things to say.
I figure it’s worth noting this difference because I think it pays to be aware of your own influences. Frans de Waal theorized that “the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces…my thesis [is] that activist atheism reflects trauma.” Even though I would qualify it to say that sometimes your most traumatic experiences with religion happen only after you leave it, I think his observation is pretty correct. As I pointed out in a recent post, even those of us who like to use the term “freethinker” aren’t completely free from our backgrounds. The kind of religion we grow up in plays a major role in how we view religion as adults, and it often determines our posture towards religion after we leave it. Again, this makes sense. Only those most hurt by the dark side of religion will understand and be sufficiently motivated to actively work toward curtailing its influence on society. I have had a bit of a taste of that myself now that I’ve left it. But none of this negates the reality that most Christian folks (just like most folks in general) are good people. Sometimes that needs to be said.