The Day an Atheist Got Interviewed at a Church in Mississippi

interviewcap1Last year I got the opportunity to be interviewed in a Church of Christ in Jackson, Mississippi for the aptly named Interview an Atheist at Church Day.  The talk went really well and the church was very warm and welcoming.  Most churches in my area would not be amenable (heh) to something like this, but this church received me with open arms.  The pastor interviewed me and allowed me the chance to explain the ways in which I feel atheists are misunderstood in our region of the country.  I really enjoyed a chance to lay those things out to a group of Christians who listened intently and told me afterwards that they appreciated what I shared.

Since that time, the two videos which came out of that talk have made the rounds on the web and the feedback has been mixed.  Many Christians were horrified that an atheist would be allowed to speak to a church.  Others praised the event and said it was wonderful to watch a pastor and an atheist sit down to have a calm, congenial conversation for the benefit of everyone present.  If nothing else, this event shows that it’s entirely possible to discuss religion without getting worked up about it and without feeling the need to shout the other person down. The most flak I got was from atheists who felt I should have been more polemical in my talk.  I was too nice for many of them, and they got particularly upset about the last point in the segment called “What atheists wish Christians knew about them.”  At the end of that talk, I intimated that I don’t identify with anti-theism because mere faith in God doesn’t really bother me.  What bothers me most is Fundamentalism, and I have come to be openly critical of that strain of religion as well as the related strains which incorporate aspects of it into their own subcultures.  In retrospect, I might restate that last point differently today simply because I’ve been learning the importance of speaking more openly against those forms of religion which are harmful.  Some things really need to be said out loud, and if my last point in that segment discourages that, I take it back.

Many who have seen the shorter excerpt (which is 15 minutes long) never saw the longer interview (which is 49 minutes long).  For the benefit of those who didn’t see the full interview, I’ll post that here.

Many won’t have time to watch the full interview. For those folks, I’ll put the shorter talk about how Christians misunderstand atheists at the end of this article.

Those who watched the shorter segment asked why I didn’t go into more detail about each of the points, and why didn’t I build more of a case for each of the things I said?  The answer is that the pastor and I both wanted to make this talk as non-confrontational as possible, and we wanted to avoid getting entangled in debates about any of the points I was giving.  Personally, I’ve come to see that there’s more value in that than I once assigned.  I think hashing through why we think what we think is important, but I don’t think it fits every circumstance and situation.  This interview was not the right time or place to get into those kinds of discussions.  But some have still asked for a written elaboration of the points I made during the shorter excerpt.  So here you go.

What Atheists Wish Christians Knew About Them

1. We have morals, too!

Most of the atheists I know are very principled, passionate people. We think long and hard about how we should live and relate to one another and to our environment, and we work to live consistently with our principles without fear of supernatural retribution. But many theists give us an undeserved hard time because they believe it must not be possible to live a moral life without a belief in some kind of supreme supernatural being. They believe this, not because they have observed us behaving badly (or at least not any worse than they themselves behave) but because of a prior commitment to believe that it must be the case.

But reality doesn’t match their belief about us. Internationally, those countries which are the most secular and which report the highest percentage of atheists/agnostics also have the lowest crime rates, the lowest incidence of mental illness, and they rate themselves the highest on all measures of happiness and well-being. In the US, those states which score the lowest on religiosity illustrate the same trend, while those states with the highest crime rates, poverty rates, and rates of mental illness score the highest on measures of religiosity (with  my state topping that list every year).

What gets me (besides the unmerited disapproval itself) is how some will begin by telling me I cannot have morals without faith in a supreme being only to turn around and give credit to that same being (who I believe is fictitious) when I do in fact demonstrate morals. But which is it? Either say that I am a moral being because I am created in the image of (your particular) god or else say that I do not have morals because I do not believe in (your particular) god. But you can’t have it both ways.

I could go on about this but I’ve already written some about the American tradition of distrusting atheists as a group. So I’ll move on.

2. You don’t know us better than we know ourselves.

Really the next four points grow out of this one. While all of us have our blind spots which close friends and family can see, this goes way beyond that. Any non-believer who tries to converse much with Christians will discover that they can be full of pronouncements about what’s going on inside of our own heads and hearts without our own knowledge. But what would possess them to be so bold, so presumptuous?

Having a holy book does that to you. When you outsource your thought processes to a holy book, you feel empowered and authorized to make pronouncements about everything from world events to the personal motivations of others. They call it “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (see 2 Cor. 10:5). This lies at the root of fundamentalism and it is the fountainhead of just about everything that I take issue with in evangelical Christianity. I know they mean well, and in their defense they are only doing what they were taught to do. They were taught to believe that their particular holy book is uniquely capable of dissecting the metaphysical innards of every man, woman, and child (see Hebrews 4:12-13). But they do not see how they disrespect us when they dismiss what we say about ourselves simply because an ancient book told them that we really aren’t qualified to say what’s going on inside ourselves.

3. We don’t deep down believe in your god.

I cannot count how many people have insisted that I really believe in their god…not just any god, but theirs alone. Never mind the fact that there are thousands to choose from. It’s quite egocentric to assume that anyone who disbelieves in gods must be in denial about secretly believing in (guess which one?) their particular god. But again, this isn’t their fault. They were taught to think this way by the biblical writers. Paul in particular presumed to declare (see Romans 1:18ff) that even the primitive polytheists of his surrounding culture were closet monotheists, secretly holding on to a belief in the god of Abraham (even though they might have never heard of the guy). What’s so frustrating about this is that our own voice gets tuned out and our words are completely disregarded because, once again, people believe they have been authorized to tell us things about ourselves that even we do not know. But this is terribly disrespectful, and it does not nurture any kind of fruitful relationship. No one wants to talk with someone who tunes them out.

The more philosophically inclined Christian apologist will argue that if I subscribe to any kind of moral code then I must have predicated that moral code on the existence of an invisible spirit (guess which one?). But this opinion comes from ignorance. I’m sorry, I don’t know any gentler way to put it. That belief is deeply ingrained in certain expressions of the Abrahamic religions, but moral and ethical standards don’t have to be rooted in something supernatural in order to be useful. They can just as well be rooted in a biologically reinforced solidarity with one’s own species, or better yet with all other living things. I know that answer disappoints anyone who was taught the supernatural view, but it’s a valid view nonetheless.

4. We don’t hate (your particular) god.

Once again I have lost count of how many people have asked me why I am angry at (their particular) deity. This can only be an outgrowth of number three (see above) because nothing else would make sense. How could someone be angry at something that they do not believe exists? After you found out the truth about Santa Claus, did you get angry at Santa for not existing? I’m guessing not, because that wouldn’t even make sense.

Ah, but atheists seem angry a lot of the time, don’t we? You are correct. But isn’t it possible that we are angry at something else? If you were consistently misunderstood, dismissed, distrusted, and excluded because of what you believe (or don’t believe) wouldn’t you get upset about that yourself? What if someone told you that you are so very bad that you deserve to be tortured forever and ever? Is it possible that you might be angry at the treatment of people who should know better? Remember how I said we all have our blind spots? Well, this is one of the blind spots of many evangelicals/fundamentalists. They say truly offensive things about us and then when we get upset they say, “See? Your strong emotional response only proves that you are angry at (my particular) god!” No, in reality it means you’ve just treated us disrespectfully and you don’t even see it. That’s very frustrating. Don’t confuse our anger towards you with anger towards your object of worship.

5. We don’t all disbelieve because something bad happened to us.

The majority of atheists I know disbelieve because they asked questions and thought through things and concluded that theism just didn’t make sense, or at least didn’t match up with the world they see around them. A handful of them had bad experiences as children (divorce, abuse, illness or death) but that’s not even a distinguishing factor…everyone I know has had at least some of that. That’s just called life. If you ask these atheists to explain how they came to their conclusions, you will find that most of them followed a trail of logic which led them to where they are now. And some folks (like myself) were fortunate enough to have never suffered any horrific or underprivileged childhood. We simply thought through things and eventually realized that we don’t believe anymore.

But more importantly, this assumption displays a rather insulting presupposition: It indicates that we are flawed, broken, warped, or not right in the head. Asking me what bad thing happened to me to make me an atheist implies that I am damaged goods somehow. This presumptuous and condescending question betrays an undeserved judgmentalism of which the enquirer hardly seems aware. Next time, before you ask an atheist this question, take a moment to pause and consider that you are jumping to conclusions, and that perhaps you should take a little time to hear one of us explain who we are instead.

6. Belief isn’t a choice.

Belief is an involuntary response to something learned or experienced. Just as you didn’t choose to believe in your particular god (you were likely taught from your youngest days to believe that there is such a thing), so those of us whose minds changed about this matter didn’t choose to disbelieve. It just sorta happened. It was a spontaneous consequence of having thought through some things in a certain way. The most respectful thing would be to allow us to speak for ourselves when we say this wasn’t a deliberate choice. It was merely a logical consequence of a series of thought processes.

But this would pose a problem, wouldn’t it? What if you were taught that unbelief is a sin? What if your religion says that unbelief is a punishable offense? Now you’re stuck with a dilemma. If belief isn’t a choice, then it wouldn’t be fair to cast atheism as a moral shortcoming, would it? No, it really wouldn’t. But to most Christians it’s simply unacceptable that the Bible (or at least their tradition’s reading of it) would lead them astray. So they conclude instead that unbelief toward their religion’s claims must be a willful act of disobedience rather than simply an intellectual disconnect. This totally changes the way you relate to us, doesn’t it? Something to consider.

7. Many of us were Christians once, too.

This point is directed more towards Americans. Being raised in the United States greatly increases your chances of growing up Christian, and growing up in the Bible Belt almost guarantees it. But people forget this and they assume that our atheism simply must be the result of insufficient exposure to the Christian message. They then proceed to tell us all the things which mean so much to them, reciting Bible verses and sharing stories, watching to see if this stuff affects us the same way that it affects them. But for so many of us, we’ve really heard it all. Many of us have even been responsible for teaching it to others, sometimes even to whole churches. The problem is not a lack of exposure.

So allow me to save you the time and energy by telling you before you start: We really don’t need just one more great Bible verse quoted to us, nor do we need to visit one more church (Yes, I know yours is wonderful). We do not need one of your favorite theological points explained one more time (“But it’s by grace!! Isn’t that great!?”). The truth is, some of us actually understand the Christian faith (and the Bible) better than the majority of Christians do. And we didn’t study it as outsiders–we were insiders. We initially heard the message through believing ears, and we may have spent many years living that way. I know for many people it completely nullifies even decades of sincere devotion if you later find you no longer believe. Many simply will not accept that our experience and our education were authentic or up to standard. To do so would throw them into intolerable cognitive dissonance. So instead they conclude that our devotion was never sincere, and they can dismiss however many years we spent as Christians and address us as brand new to the Christian faith. I suppose you’re free to do as you please. But do not expect people like me to feel understood, and do not expect us to stay engaged in a conversation that ignores what we say about ourselves.

8. Quoting the Bible doesn’t work like a Jedi mind trick.

Atheists do not revere the Bible the same way that evangelical Christians do, and apparently this has never occurred to many of them. I know that when talking among fellow believers it is customary to quote Bible verses as a way of illustrating a point, or settling a disagreement, or suggesting a course of action. I also know that you have been taught that the Bible itself has a certain kind of power to it. Isaiah 55:11 (among many other places) says so. But for us this is rather circular, and it just doesn’t carry the weight for us that it does for you. So it strikes us as mildly entertaining when you quote Bible verses “at” us, expecting something to happen. Perhaps it works on you. It does not work on us.

9. We don’t worship the devil.

Come on, now, really? Why do we have to clarify this at all? For some reason it’s harder for some people to accept that we don’t believe in the devil than it is for them to accept that we don’t believe in any gods. It’s really all in the same category, though. But when I was in youth group we always heard Satanists and atheists lumped together into the same category, so it’s no surprise people get them confused.

The character of Satan is completely unbelievable, though, and frankly insulting to everyone’s intelligence. It’s just not a convincing character. He’s so two-dimensional, bent solely on destruction and malice, like one of those cheesy villains on straight-to-DVD kids movies. You know the ones I mean…the ones with talking dogs and cats and such? Who writes this stuff, anyway, and how old are they, exactly? At least movies for grown-ups give complexity to the villains so they’re believable human beings. This devil character is just not convincing.

10. Hell doesn’t scare us; we find it absurd.

I’ve already written about this in another post, but I’ll sum up here, too. Because we don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or life after death, neither Heaven nor Hell are believable things for us. So it’s no use trying to use Hell to frighten us into…something…I don’t know what. I don’t see how you can be scared into believing. I don’t even see how that remains popular among sects of a religion which champions grace, mercy, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. Yes, I’ve read the same verses about wrath and justice and all that but there are several problems with this whole concept:

a. Eternal punishment for temporal actions. Infinite payment for finite deeds? That doesn’t make sense.

b. There’s nothing to learn in Hell because you never get out.

c. There’s considerable confusion about the physicality of such a place. Are we talking bodies burning here? Do they keep regenerating so they can keep burning?

d. Jesus paid it all, they say. Except some of us will have to pay, too. And while it will take all eternity for us to pay for our 70 years of sin, Jesus paid for the sins of billions of lifetimes over a twelve hour period one Friday.

e. Don’t even get me started on Pascal’s wager.

11. Not all of us are anti-theists.

This one got me in a lot of hot water with other atheists.  I still stand by my self-description, which is that I am not an anti-theist.  I’m an anti-fundamentalist.  I’ll write a bit more about that soon, but I should add here that since the time that I did this interview, my feelings toward speaking out against religion have somewhat changed.  Because so many of my close personal relationships are with Evangelical Christians, I still care a great deal about trying to strike a balance between honesty and respect for our differences of belief.   But some beliefs are harmful, and I am learning the value of speaking up about those.  So if I had this talk to do over again, I would have addressed the last point a bit differently, and perhaps would have made it sound less like I don’t think there’s value in what the public critics of religion are about.

With that in mind, here’s the shorter excerpt:

About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.