Apologizing to Atheists: What’s the Big Idea?

I don’t really like to write about stuff I’ve written. It’s like explaining a joke: it sucks the life right out of the universe.

And would you want to be responsible for killing whatever life there might be on Mars? Neither would I. So you see my point.

Then again, maybe I should do follow-ups to all my posts. Screw life on Mars. What have they ever done for us?

Pfft. Flying saucers. I’ve seen one. I’m fifty-three. You do the math.

I’ve got a cup of tea steeping seeping cooking becoming tea. I’ve got “The King Is Dead” by The Decemberists playing, which is a CD I bought on a whim at Starbucks the other day and have since had reason to celebrate because how often do you actually end up really loving a CD you buy on a whim because you like its cover?

I’m just in an expansively explanatory mood, is all.

So here’s what I was thinking with my last post: I’m sure there are a lot of nice, friendly atheists out there. I mean, of course there are. Duh. But as far as I know, I don’t really hear too often from members of that happy camp. I instead regularly hear from the legions of denizens of Camp We Loathe Christians—as I would, since I’m a Christian who writes about Christianity on Huffington Post. Which is like strapping on half a cow and diving into a shark tank. Waves and great thrashings will necessarily ensue.

I wrote a book, I’m OK – You’re Not, which is all about all the ways and reasons Christians sort of naturally have strained relationships with non-Christians (and what Christians need to do about that). So I’m kind of always thinking about how and why Christians and non-Christians do or don’t get along together. It’s probably just because I don’t have cable. But I don’t. So there we have it.

So before I wrote A Letter Evangelicals Might Use to Apologize to Christians, my thinking went along these lines:

Non-Christians think that Christians don’t respect them. And it makes sense they would think that, since that’s basically the message (“Become like us [cue Stewie voice]—or perish!”) generally communicated to them by evangelical Christians. And atheists think all Christians are evangelicals.

So we have this rift.

Evangelicals should apologize for that rift.

How cool would that be?

I should write that imaginary apology letter!

But picking on evangelicals for too aggressively proselytizing is like shooting sharks in a barrel. Too easy. I think I can do better than that. I think I can write an apology letter from evangelicals to atheists that at once acknowledges where evangelicals have and always are going wrong with atheists, and, at the same time, shows full respect for the evangelical’s loving imperative.

Except that’s impossible. No way, John! You can’t do it! No bridge reaches that far. You can’t write the letter as an evangelical really would write it, and at the same time not abandon or betray too much the evangelical holds so dear. Nobody can write a real apology for doing something that they really and truly believe was the right thing to do.

I don’t care, man. I’m doing it. I’m gonna try. I’ve got to try!

So I did.

And that’s what I was doing/trying/thinking with my last post. (And then into the letter I mixed another level of communication, whereby here and there I meant to signal to the reader my personal real feelings on the entire matter.)

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  • Rebecca

    um… wow… put away the tea, John… pretty sure you don’t need more caffeine today.

  • Yeah, Ric.

  • mm

    All humans have the need to be right. It doesn’t mean that werecapable of being tolerant, or educated at times, but at the end of the day, we all yearn to have our ideas/beliefs accepted as the truth of life. Everyone wants to be the king of the mountain. Even if you “respect” someone else’s point of view, or beliefs that differ from your own, you still at the end of the day think it’s a bunch of baloney .

    So that’s why eventually all of the discourse boils down to the level it does.

    The Nazi’s had, in their mind, a moral crusade to fulfill . The southern secessionists of the 19th century US felt they were being American and that it was the government that was impeding on their liberty. The Khmer rogue thought they were helping the people. THEY WERE DEAD WRONG! But they still thought they were “right”.

    Hard to look past your own experience. Hard to have that all seeing eye of the world. That’s what makes “god” great at the end of the day. He’s the only one who can really see the world for what it is. But that’s why as an atheist, i can’t believe in a god.

    And don’t worry, I’m one of those atheists who knows that what i believe is just that, a belief, and that for all I know God is real and frankly, I’m fine living in a world were most of the population can at least agree that I’m the one whose wrong, no matter what god they pray to. The worst kind of atheist is the proselytizing kind.

  • ScottNotSteve

    Of course, this “apology” letter would suit equally well for apologizing to Jewish folks, most of whom do not believe in Jesus Christ. It would be nice if the letter also apologized to non-evangelical Christians for undertaking to use the “rational thought” which is supposedly a paramount value of evangelicals (at which point I say, “Whuh?). But of course, that would actually presume that rational thought is valued by evangelicals. Was that passage a dig at them, or do you really think this is a “hidden” trait that just does not come to the forefront — I’ve seen little if any evidence that this is a core value for them. Also, the mention of all athiests thinking that all Christians are evangelicals — if that is what you were thinking, I respectfully suggest that you rethink your thinking. I don’t think that’s close to the truth. It is the same phenomenon as some Christians who suck all the air out of the room on issues like gay rights, abortion rights, etc. and leaving little room for other Christians to express a contrary view. That does not mean all Christians think that way, only that a subset of them do and are (far) more vocal, which is a problem you are taking on — kudos to you on that score.

  • Don Rappe

    “The worst kind of atheist is the proselytizing kind.” Well said!

  • Don Rappe

    Generalizing about atheists is as unlikely to be accurate as with any other group. And possibly more so.

  • Don Rappe

    Nice try John. I think it serves a certain purpose.

  • I was assuming it was understood that this is the kind of short-cut thinking that goes on inside one’s head.

  • Here is the mistake that so many people make: Most people value rational thought, that is, all people who are not riddled with severe brain-tissue eating disease or are so insane as to be the Joker. Okay, so not all people value *rationalist philosophy* but rational thought? Like it or not, we’ve all got it, honey, even evangelicals.

    I am recalling all of the very conservative religious people I’ve known in my life – yes, even the Young Earth Creationists. What did they do if they got sick or had problems with their car? Did they just “pray about it” in hopes that prayer alone would work magic and heal them instantly or make their car work? No. They did the same thing that atheists, liberal believers, and the majority of people do: They’d go to the doctor for their bodies and to the mechanic for their car.

    And do you want to know why? Sure, people think those that pray live in goofy wacky magic-land, but we don’t, and even the really conservative ones – they don’t. We live in everyday mundaneville just like you. Even the goofiest Evangelicals I’ve known – believed that God gave people brains, talents and the capacity for skills – and duties to do in life – fixing bodies as doctors, fixing cars, or whatever of many things that take cause and effect. If “miracles” were common, we wouldn’t call them miracles, right? Yes, even the sililest of believers also believes in basic, rational, critical thinking things such as cause-and-effect.

    Even animals are capable of a degree of rational thinking. There have been studies. Like it or not, rationality isn’t the sole domain of people with a certain set of beliefs or non-beliefs.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    “Even if you ‘respect’ someone else’s point of view, or beliefs that differ from your own, you still at the end of the day think it’s a bunch of baloney.”

    I’m certainly not perfect, but actually, I try to understand why they see things the way they do: I look to where they have picked up their beliefs and try to find the underlying truths those beliefs embody, if any, as relate to the world that I know, beyond which I cannot form any definite judgment, and I do not wish to prejudice myself, ultimately to the depreciation of my own self (not to mention a whole host of trouble), except where the rubber meets the road and certain understandings correspond to certain attitudes meaningfully connected with certain actions subjectively significant and objectively able to be qualified as right or wrong.

  • That “for all I know, God might be real” line makes me say that… technically, you’re agnostic, but… that’s a technicality.

    In thinking about it, I really think people can just get ardently obessed about anything. I’ve heard people decry those that make athiesm a religion because some atheists share some of the traits of the religious (such as prosletyzing) – but I’m not sure “religion” is the right word for it (not just because most find it horribly offensive), more like “philosophy” – “central philosophy for life.” Things don’t have to be a religion to look suspiciously “religious’ in the level of devotion and obession. If you’re a meat-eater whose met an ardent vegitarian, you’ll see overreaching secular philosophy in action, or perhaps, an ardent teetoler (not everyone who will give you a dirty look for ordering a beer is a Baptist)!

    I’m a geek, into fandom. Hoo, boy. I like anime… back in the day, the “sub vs. dub wars” were epic. Shipping! Ooh, shipping! (The fights between people who want these two fictional characters to do the horizontal mambo as opposed to the one character with another… the fights, the put-downs, the considering-the-disagreer-as-not-even-being-human whinings are EPIC).

    Gee, I feel like going to TV Tropes and linking their whole SERIOUS BUSINESS section.

    I’ve become a bit of a tea-snob. I could fight get a big honkin’ superiority complex over TEA if I really wanted to, but I don’t.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    It’s interesting that people interpret things such as “atheists” do this and “Christians” are like that, as if they somehow defaulted to mean “all atheists” and “all Christians”, while it would be silly to think “people are sleeping” means all people are asleep, or that “Americans pay federal income taxes” means all Americans have federally taxable incomes; or to think “people interpret things such as…” means that everybody subscribes to such an interpretation.

  • Mindy

    MM, I don’t agree with your theory that all humans need to be right. I would say that all humans need to be ‘not wrong.’ I am perfectly fine, at the end of the day, acknowledging that different styles of parenting, for instance, can raise up great kids. That even though I’m not a supporter of organized religion, I understand its value and appreciate the beauty of tradition and ritual, the sense of community. I am a liberal, but I understand the value of some conservative views. I can look at a liberal commentator and understand that she might just be employing hyperbole, and in the end, be glad that we have two polar opposite ways of thinking because we balance and hold each other in check. If only we could get rid of the corruption . . .

    And I just don’t believe for a moment that I am the only one who feels this way. I certainly don’t like to be wrong, but I just don’t believe that in most cases (except, like, math) that only one right answer exists.

  • mm

    Mindy: nor do I. But i do think that there is a subconscious drive to be right, that shapes everyones psyche, and is the root cause of just about everything in human history that wasn’t completely and utterly caused by nature. War is us vs. them, which is ultimately right vs wrong. Innovation is also a battle between right and wrong. All things can boil down to right and wrong. And i think this is something that gets overlooked when people analyze why we as human’s do what we do, or think what we think, or feel what we feel. And it greatly ties into emotional response.

  • mm

    Shadsie: there’s nothing wrong with saying “While i believe their is no god, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one.” An atheist who says there is just nothing, that universe just is, is really more of a Buddhist then anything. At the same time, i think john already wrote in the past about pick which side of the fence your on. But I just can’t, really. It’s not something i have enough ego about.

  • I’m kind of on a journey out of Inerrantist Conservative Evangelical Fundamentalist Literalist Christianity and into, well, I’m not sure. I’m just not sure what I believe anymore. Now that I’ve chased after that rabbit with no success, I just wanted to say thank you to John. The fact is most atheists aren’t atheists because they just don’t want to follow the rules or because they’d rather not be accountable. The atheists I’ve encountered just don’t find sufficient evidence for a god or the God of Christianity. I’d say I’m more agnostic at the moment. But having been “one of those Christians” and now being “one of these agnostics” I can say that a lot of Christians, including myself, have a lot to apologize for.

  • Achilz

    I am new to this blog and I am so happy that I found it. What a great discussion. And it hasn’t been poisoned by extremist lunatics! I could actually see myself returning.

    I am certainly in the atheist camp. I didn’t get her by mystical journey, or hard-nosed analysis of facts, or as a reaction to overbearing parents. For me, it is a matter of belief. I got here because one day in college I was reading a book. Not a book about religion or belief or philosophy. Just a book on education. For some reason, the feeling stuck me. You know what, I said to myself, I don’t believe in God. I just thought about it a bit to test the feeling, and I confirmed that that is how I felt. Some people choose to believe. Others do not. I believe that when you die, you go back to the place you were before you were born. Nobody ever seems too upset that they didn’t exist before they were born. So why isn’t it possible that you go back to that place of nonexistence after you die? Where do animals go? Where do bugs go? So, I thought about those things, and I simply decided that I had no answers, nobody had answers and so I am just going to believe what I believe. That’s it.

    It doesn’t bother me that others believe differently. Does it bother me when others proseletize? Well, I guess it depends if they’re jerks or not. I don’t like the hard sell about cars or religion either. And I have the ultimate weapon–where were you before you existed? Haven’t met an evangelist yet who can answer that one.

    So, that’s it. I don’t need to be “right” because there is noting to be right about. I just need to believe what I believe in my heart and not be an whole about it.

  • Achilz

    Sorry, I meant “not be an a-hole”

  • What you believe or don’t believe is fine, but I just wanted to address that “You go back to the place you were before you were born” thing. I see it crop up a lot. It’s fine if that’s what you think happens, just fine, it’s just that I’m actually kind of sick of people trying to use it as a “persuader” for atheism or as a means of comfort, because the truth is: It doesn’t comfort me. At all.

    Here is why. I exist now. I like existing. I’d rather exist than not-exist. I don’t care if I didn’t exist before I was conceived, I dont’ want to go “back” there. I’m not sure it’s possible to go “back” there since I don’t think anything that exists can accurately contemplate non-existance. People may describe darkness, but when I think about that, my brain gets all squirrelled up because to me, even “darkness” is existance in some form.

    What I’m trying to say is that as much as the average athiest sees “Heaven” as pablum, I see “going back to the way it was before you were born” as pablum.

    I did once write a short story that contemplated the possiblity of both “sides” being right. http://sparrowmilk.blogspot.com/2011/04/last-dream.html It’s set in a fantasy-world and outlines what some of the people in my fantasy-cultures believe. One group has some common beliefs about an afterlife and escorts to various portions of it. From there, the story follows a young man who’s been killed. He’s from a culture that does not believe in an afterlife (his culture is not atheist, they do worship a goddess, she just doesn’t give her people an afterlife). He winds up talking with one of death’s-escorts. Part of the conversation has said spirit-being telling the young man that he might not actually exist, that what he is experiencing might be the throes of his dying brain and very last memory, and he’s stuck in it becuase existance is so exclusive to non-existance that whatever someone last thinks they’re experiencing becomes “their eternity.” _ Yes, I wrote it to be a mind-screw.

    I supposed I’d rather even have that than oblivion in the end.

  • Don Rappe

    Do you like Ti Quan Yin?

  • Don Rappe

    I’m pretty sure that’s one reason I love math. It’s possible to be mathematically right.

  • By the way, the above wasn’t an attack… just some thoughts born of my own contemplation of the issues, thoughts on death, afterlife possiblities, what to make of NDEs, etc. (I’ve never had one myself. The closest I’ve had is falling down a flight of stairs, remaining fully-concious, and being in horrible pain from a broken limb but still really, really glad I was alive. Oh, and going under anestitic for wisdom-tooth extraction. Neither of these constitute being anywhere near death, though).

    You had this feeling one day, out of the blue, that you didn’t believe in God, right? That’s kind of how I am, opposite direction. I’ll sit and think about things, like cause and effect, like the suffering in the world, (and though I’m not a scientist) what science says about psychology and whatnot, and I think, maybe the atheists are right. They do have a lot of good points about things. Maybe all the answered prayers in my life are just me doing pattern-recognition, who knows? Yet, no matter how hard I try to “think rationally” about the subject, I always come back to “I think there’s something out there. I believe there is a God.”

    The extremists on some websites have made me wonder “what is wrong with me?” because of it, like there’s something wrong, like I must have some sort of horrible genetic flaw that makes me a knuckle-dragger, doomed to have an “inferior mind” and possibly destroying the world by small increment just by existing.

    But in the end, I cannot get rid of this idea that “God exists” idea, conviction. It, and stories like yours convince me that belief is not a choice. A lot of people like to use that to justify their non-belief while, at the same time, condeming people who do believe – and that makes no sense.

    I wonder if there have been studies regarding genetics or something regarding this. Is there something in the human brain that wires for belief or against belief? If so, I hope people won’t propose a resurgance in eugenics.

  • Diana A.

    “Part of the conversation has said spirit-being telling the young man that he might not actually exist, that what he is experiencing might be the throes of his dying brain and very last memory, and he’s stuck in it becuase existance is so exclusive to non-existance that whatever someone last thinks they’re experiencing becomes “their eternity.” _ Yes, I wrote it to be a mind-screw. ”

    Oh! Ick! Thanks for sharing, Shadsie. Watch me have nightmares tonight!

    Oh well. Couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

    Cool idea though. I kind of like the way your brain works,

  • Diana A.

    “You know what, I said to myself, I don’t believe in God. I just thought about it a bit to test the feeling, and I confirmed that that is how I felt.”

    Yeah, I’ve known a couple of atheists like that. My late brother-in-law (whom I loved and love dearly and whom I still consider to be one of the best human beings I’ve ever known) wanted to believe but didn’t. One of his daughters I think takes after him. She too is a wonderful person but does not believe in God. Like him, she’s not angry or scornful, she just doesn’t believe.

    It’s always struck me as somewhat ironic that both her older brother and her younger sister are fundamentalist/evangelical Christians. And no, none of them were raised in the faith. Go figure!

  • Diana A.

    Yeah, I think you’re right.

  • Don Rappe

    It depends on the context, Mathew.

  • colon dash shift-zero. make that shift-d. yeah.

  • mark


  • mm

    never heard of it/them. Will check it out.

  • LVZ

    I was an atheist in my twenties. I’m no longer an atheist, but I understand where atheists are coming from.

    I can tell you exactly where many atheists are coming from with one tiny little adjustment to what John said. “I’m sure there are a lot of nice, friendly [Christians] out there. I mean, of course there are. Duh. But as far as I know, I don’t really hear too often from members of that happy camp. I instead regularly hear from the legions of denizens of Camp We Loathe [Atheists]…”

    Why do atheists think this? Fallwell and Robertson.

    “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen. ” – Jerry Fallwell to Pat Robertson, September 13, 2001

    “Well, I totally concur.” – Robertson’s reply

    The PFTAW — and I think the ACLU too — were founded by Jews and Christians who believe that the U.S. Constitution has empowered believers by guaranteeing everyone’s right to worship in the best way they know. Those organizations exist to make sure the government honors the Bill of Rights. Under the Constitution, the government is not allowed to favor one religion over another, or one denomination over another.

    Rev. Robertson’s a millionaire, as was the late Rev. Fallwell. They are public figures. They are visible, vocal, with millions of fans. They go far beyond trying to save non-Christians from hell. They think the government should force everyone to be Christians. They even want to force other denominations of Christians to join their denomination.

    If you want to drive people away from Christianity, that’s exactly how to do it. If people aren’t allowed to freely choose what religion to believe in, they aren’t free to choose Jesus, either.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I am not aware of any contextual rules determining correct interpretation. Obviously, in a given situation the correct understanding can be rather apparent, but this is due to the accuracy of assumptions we make—leaps of logic—and not by strict adherence to any deterministic rules. Just as you might clearly understand in a given situation whom I’m speaking of if I said “the mailman,” even if there was nothing in the context of what I was saying by which you could actually be entirely sure which one I had in mind.

    So it’s good to pay attention to such things, to recognize assumptions, and to qualify points of view with an admission of any significant assumptions, as ScottNotSteve did. It’s best to minimize assumptions such as by not adding anything (such as the concept “all”) to the strictest understanding of how others are saying things unless it’s situationally necessary to do so. (I say “how others are saying things,” instead of “what others are saying,” because I refer to grammatical rather than semantic interpretation; that is, I do not mean that we should as a default take metaphors for concrete realities, but we should understand the grammatical concepts used as if they *were* concrete realities yet bearing in mind that they might not be when it comes to the ultimate meaning intended).

  • Mindy

    Yes, yes and yes. Well said!

  • Don Rappe

    If you’re not aware of how context affects interpretation this could explain a lot!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    That wasn’t what I said.