Here Come the Straw Atheists!

I recently came upon a website run by Campus Crusade for Christ. The website is designed as an outreach to students; Campus Crusade for Christ states that 900 new professions of faith are made every day due to their website (about which I have questions). The website directs questioning students to an article by Marilyn Anderson titled Does God Exist? The article starts with the typical claims—the complexity of the universe, the beginning of the universe, the laws of nature, and DNA—before completely switching gears.

5. Does God exist? We know God exists because he pursues us. He is constantly initiating and seeking for us to come to him.

Look, I grew up in an evangelical home. Today, I’m an atheist. As an evangelical, I was all-in. I was a dedicated, passionate believer deeply in love with Jesus. Then, several years after reaching adulthood, I started having questions. Even so I did not want to leave Christianity. I wanted to believe. I tried to believe. And for a while, I did believe. But as the questions multiplied, it was like God just disappeared. I’d had a personal relationship with Jesus, and that, too, vanished even though I did not want it to.

I didn’t feel pursued; I felt abandoned. It was as though God had vanished. I remember hearing Anderson’s claim in church growing up, though—that God always pursues us and seeks us. I think that’s why I reacted the way I did when I got to Anderson’s fifth point—because I remember hearing this too, but I hadn’t thought about it in years, and in those years I’ve never once felt pursued by a supernatural entity.

Anyway, Anderson goes on:

I was an atheist at one time. And like many atheists, the issue of people believing in God bothered me greatly. What is it about atheists that we would spend so much time, attention, and energy refuting something that we don’t believe even exists?! What causes us to do that? When I was an atheist, I attributed my intentions as caring for those poor, delusional people…to help them realize their hope was completely ill-founded. To be honest, I also had another motive. As I challenged those who believed in God, I was deeply curious to see if they could convince me otherwise. Part of my quest was to become free from the question of God. If I could conclusively prove to believers that they were wrong, then the issue is off the table, and I would be free to go about my life.

Anderson is free to tell her story the way she experienced it, but I worry that she engages in some serious generalizing here, suggesting that her experience is normative. Most atheists don’t spend any time at all being bothered by other people’s belief in God. In fact, most atheists never visit an atheist blog or read an atheist book—they just live their lives. In fact, most people who don’t believe in God don’t use the term “atheist.” The whole matter is irrelevant to their day-to-day lives.

Internet atheists, who do spend time refuting religious claims, tend to be motivated by concerns that religion is actively creating problems in our world, or by simple intellectual curiosity and interest in debate. Anderson states that during her years as an atheist she was engaged in a “quest” to become “free from the question of God.” That does not describe any internet atheists (or in-real-life atheists) I know.

I am not denying Anderson’s experiences; I am simply taking issue with her quickness to assume that other atheists have the same experience. I certainly don’t! Not surprisingly, Anderson’s narrative of her past fits into evangelicals’ narratives about atheists—that they’re obsessed with the question of God because they subconsciously know they’re wrong.

I didn’t realize that the reason the topic of God weighed so heavily on my mind, was because God was pressing the issue. I have come to find out that God wants to be known. He created us with the intention that we would know him. He has surrounded us with evidence of himself and he keeps the question of his existence squarely before us. It was as if I couldn’t escape thinking about the possibility of God. In fact, the day I chose to acknowledge God’s existence, my prayer began with, “Ok, you win…” It might be that the underlying reason atheists are bothered by people believing in God is because God is actively pursuing them.

What kind of straw atheist feels like they’re in a battle with God over his existence? What kind of former atheist isn’t aware that internet atheists are bothered primarily by harm caused by religion (see: children dying due to faith healing, LGBT teens being ostracized, belief in wifely submission keeping women in abusive relationships)?

And let me come back to what I said earlier—if there is a God who is trying to keep “the question of his existence” squarely before me, he’s failing miserably. The question of God’s existence does not bother me—at all. It’s not something I think of daily, or even monthly. I see zero evidence that the God of the Bible (or any God) exists, but even that isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about—or any time at all, really. It isn’t relevant to my day-to-day life.

I am not an anti-theist. I do not have a problem with other people believing in a god or gods. I understand that people create rituals and stories that are meaningful to them—and I’m fine with that. I do oppose and argue against specific beliefs and practices I believe are actively harmful, but I do this whether they are rooted in religion or something else.

I wish Anderson would use her experience as a former atheist to correct misperceptions evangelicals have about atheists, but instead she’s using her experience to confirm their misperceptions. At least in theory, evangelicals should have a self-serving interest in understanding what makes atheists tick—after all, such understanding would aid evangelicals in coming up with better ways to evangelize atheists. Perhaps, though, an accurate view of atheists might undermine evangelicals’ own story making—after all, it would suggest that people can be happy and fulfilled without Jesus.

And so we’re left with straw atheists. And let me be clear—evangelicals’ embrace of straw atheists can shred family relationships and sink friendships. Straw atheists are not benign. After all, it is hard to connect with a family member, or a friend, who can’t see you, the real you, because of the straw-covered lenses through which they are viewing you.

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