I’m thrilled to draw your attention to a new group blog at Patheos Atheism organized around a much needed theme: writings from former believers back to the members of the faith they left explaining their point of view and what matters to them about how they should relate to each other going forward. Sarah Morehead, Neil Carter, Cassidy McGillicuddy , Nathan Phelps, Kiran Opal, Justin Vollmar, and my very own Philosophy for Atheists student from summer 2013 Teresa MacBain are all going to be contributors to the new Ex-Communications blog and I know (and am a fan of) most of them and so am extremely excited to see they’ll be blogging all in one place. And there will be guest contributions.
There are many posts they’ve already republished straight off on the blog so you can scan through and familiarize yourself with their work (or go to the links I gave you for their personal blogs in some cases or stuff I thought worth highlighting in others).
I love the new blog’s concept. Apostates being heard by their former communities is an immensely important issue to me. Camels With Hammers’ definitive blog post expresses my passion for apostates’ religious experiences being recognized and treated with respect in discourses about religion:
Faithful religious people do not, in my experience, seem to understand that some of us apostates are not like other atheists. We are not total outsiders. Our critique is partly an internal critique of religion, out of religiousness. We are attacking the idols and falsehoods that are promulgated as Truth.
In practice, if no longer in belief, there is a continuity of our religiosity back to the days when it took a faith-based, God-fearing form rather than a faithless, godless one. In terms of spirit, some of us apostates, are still closer in temperament in numerous ways to our former brethren than to some of our fellow atheists. In some ways we arestill inescapably their brethren and, despite our explicit, rationally rigorous, and wholehearted rejection of the contents of their beliefs and some of their worse moral values, our rejection is what we see as the rightful conclusion of the values theythemselves have.
In other words, in some ways, we apostates want to be heard as saying that if our former brethren would themselves be true to the values we share, they would leave the faith right along with us. We sometimes want to be heard on these grounds.
Of course, we get it that we are disowned. And we want to be–because we think the rot of false beliefs, regressive morals, and cultish practices pervert and ruin what is still intense and passionately alive about the religiosity we have from back in our faith-based days (regardless of whether we conceptualize it as “religiosity” any more now that we lack gods to worship). But we do not want our former brethren to deny that we were really among them and we really want them to get that we left not out of a failure of moral and religious seriousness but out of an abundance of it.
And maybe I speak only for me but it galls me when I see liberally minded people who were never at all religious bash apostates for attacking the religious beliefs that we ourselves once held. If such liberals are really so respectful of religion, then it would be nice if they respected the kind of religious experience that leads to apostasy. Apostates often have too few friends and sympathizers when they are going through one of the most alienating experiences of their lives.
If all religions that are not violent or hateful are valid, then appreciate that apostasy can be just as much a sincere expression of religiosity as faithful adherence to dogma is—and maybe even a purer and more admirable form. And the liberal-minded shouldn’t always assume that an atheist is attacking something he does not care to understand or appreciate in all its manifold colors. For many of us it was something deep in our bones that we now wrestle against—not because there is any temptation left to believe its nonsense, but because it was so deep and enduring a part of our personal formation.
For many of us, this is, in “spiritual” terms, a conflict with our former brethren. It’s a family feud and as outsiders to it, the never-religious really should not take sides and tell us atheists to leave the religious alone, if they are sincere about respecting people’s religious experience. Some of our atheisms represent the culmination and the final truth and interpretation of our religious experiences. And some of our religious natures are expressed atheistically. Some of our pieties are to truth and the objective good, at the expense of faith and even at the expense of our very families when they are wrongheaded. It’s personal to us. Our experiences are valid and they count. Institutional religion does not want to acknowledge our experiences because they call them into question. Don’t attempt to exclude our voice from the discussion. Don’t silence our sides of the religious story.
It’s not truthful. It’s not fair. It’s not even religiously tolerant.
And I took up a similar theme as part of my litany of reasons “why atheists care so much about what we don’t believe in”:
it is downright infuriating when we former believers are mocked for caring about these issues. When people are like, “Well for an atheist, you sure carea lot about religion!” That’s a way of trying to do what, exactly? Paint us as irrational for caring about this? Imply we are still in religion’s thrall as a way to chip away at our sense of identity and make us feel dependent after all on what we are trying to reject? Make us shut up about religion out of fear of committing this supposedly terrible inconsistency you are trying to accuse us of?
I have news for you. Recent deconverts are often enough emotionally in a fucked up place with respect to their former religions. Those religions do still have some pull. And it’s not a fucking joke. It’s not something you should cavalierly exploit to bully and belittle atheists.
I can understand why manipulative religions, which will do anything to keep people from being free of them, engage in these rhetorical tactics against us. When they tell us we shouldn’t worry about their beliefs if we don’t believe in them they’re simply trying to shut us up. They’re not happy with what we’re saying and they’re trying to find a clever way to embarrass us and make us feel dumb for caring. That’s the manipulative and abusive way they roll. This emotional, rhetorical, obfuscating strategy is way more convenient for them than actually attempting the difficult work of trying to actually refute us. They want all the intensity for their religions that they loaded us up with to magically evaporate now that it’s turned against them. But it’s too late for that. They’re not going to get off that easy.
While I fully support people’s legal rights to theistic religious expression, I also have equal legal rights to express my anti-theistic objections to their expression. I reserve my moral, social, and legal rights to speak my mind too. When I am told to just “live and let live” and not make an issue of other people’s religious beliefs, my response is that the Christian leaders I grew up exposed to had no interest in letting me “live and let live”. They demanded that every fucking aspect of my heart, mind, soul, and body be devoted to Christianity’s God and their ideas about my self and how I should live. Having been lied to, manipulated, and quite literally brainwashed, I’m not just letting the church go on with its life as though it doesn’t affect me and as though it doesn’t invasively and unjustly try to run the lives of others. There is more to life than politics. There are matters of truth and ethics. I’m not shutting up about Christianity. If Christians don’t want my attention they shouldn’t have fucked with me in the first place.
I am not going to be gaslighted and accused of having a crazy preoccupation when I write against their beliefs and values.
Now I sure understand why Christians and other theists want us apostates and other atheists to be quiet. They want only faith’s boosters, and not its critics, to ever be heard. But for ignorant fellow atheists who know nothing of what deconverts are going through to chide us for caring about religion? You should practice thinking from others’ perspectives. You should learn a little empathy. Especially those among you who prattle on so much about tolerance.
Many deconverts are essentially having the experience of escaping a cult. Their former religion may be huge in numbers and influential and mainstream and all, but that only makes it worse in many ways because it’s all that much harder for escapees to get away from it in their families and their cultures. They’re coping with rejecting a totalizing worldview that dominated any number of aspects of their very selves (in some cases–like mine–almost everything about themselves). Their love relationships, their sexuality, their family, their emotional life, their sense of purpose and meaning, their morality, their “spirituality”, their politics, their intellectual life, their goals, their self-image, their career vocation, etc., were all to be submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Or to Allah. Or to whoever their god or gods happened to be.
The very reason that religion is so taboo to attack in the first place is related to how fundamentally dominant that it can be in people’s psyches. But once you deconvert? Those same people who preached respecting you because religion meant so much to you now start trivializing the seriousness of the effects religion had on you and try to exploit it against you to silence you. The inconsistency is purely a function of reflexive prejudice towards religion. This is religious privilege at work, even among atheists.
Goading apostates by saying, “ha ha, see! you can’t really escape!” becomes like mocking someone coming out of a relationship of lies or abuse for still thinking about their ex or for campaigning against domestic abuse. “Ha ha, see! you can’t really escape!”
Apostates don’t have to answer to you. If they still have some emotional reason to be focused on picking through the pieces of their former world, if they have grievances with the institutions and practices that harmed them and they see continuing to harm others, if they are deeply motivated to articulate in detail the logic of the reasons they left the faith that they might explain it to those closest to them in their lives who are rejecting them as a sinner and a traitor for following their conscience, if they are surrounded on all sides socially by their former faith no matter what they do, then the last fucking thing they need is to be shamed by you or told that their interests make no sense except “ironically”. There is nothing bizarre or irrational or even ironic about them taking some time–however much time they find valuable–to both process what they went through in deconverting and to actively push back against lies and other harms that they resent having been subjected to and no longer want to see others fall prey to.
And I’ve written the following exhortation to apostates to stand up for themselves and be proud of their spiritual and moral strength:
I don’t want you to wind up a forever wannabe Christian hanger-on, or an ashamed, despairing atheist. I don’t want you to wind up the kind of beaten apostate who apologizes profusely for her disbelief and endlessly assures the believers that she wishes with all her heart she could be one of them but her mind just won’t let her.
You deserve so much better. Be proud of your mind’s ruthless honesty that defiantly says a conscientious no to your heart and to the community of people you love when they’re just wrong. You have been culturally conditioned using every exploitative and manipulative technique your religion could think of and get away with in modern times into thinking that your religion is the arbiter of good and evil in the world and that being a good person means gaining approval from its members. Even if you do not fully acknowledge this intellectually anymore, and even if you outright reject it when thinking abstractly, you have to weed this lie out of your heart.
You are a magnificently strong and self-sacrificing camel. You are a revering, obedient, beast of spiritual burden who has put yourself through incredible mental and emotional rigors for the sake of your faith, your God, the good, and, now finally, for the sake of honesty. You have made your “yes” and “no” matters of conscience and risked losing your identity and your community and your entire sense of the world by doing so. You have more intellectual integrity than the vast majority of cradle to grave believers and non-believers will ever know. And don’t for a second doubt that this is a matter of impressive moral integrity too.
You are not a traitor. You are not the betrayer. You are the one true to the true and the good. You are the increasingly honest and courageous and strong one. You are not confused. You are not weak. You are not in need of more faith. You do not doubt too much. You do not need to keep hoping you’re the one who’s wrong. And you certainly do not need to keep idealizing the value of the falsehoods that you racked yourself for years over, trying to believe in and to be true to.
You are standing athwart everything your heart has always thought to be True and Good because in your scrupulously conscientious pursuit of them you have learnedhow to be truer to the good and discovered that precisely this means toppling your religions’ false idols, repudiating its false teachers, and unshackling yourself from its misconceived, regressive, and outdated false moral constraints.
My fellow apostates and conscientiously deconverting agnostics, if you are anything like me you are a doubter for all the best of reasons and your disbelief is due to your greatest virtues.
Your burgeoning atheism is the fruit of your most profound acts of self-liberation and self-definition against enormous intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual pressure to conform and self-deceive. So stop trying to deny it. Stop trying to “hope” it away. Stop groveling to believers that you really wish you could be one of them. Stop carrying the weight of existence for your former faith. It’s time to stop being the camel and start being a proud and defiant lion. Get off your knees. Unburden yourself. Own your virtues and reassess your alleged vices. Take your hammer and strike the idols, listen to the sounds they make. What kind of resonance do they have? Do they still have a good ring or are they hollow? Smash the hollow ones. And use that same hammer to build new things to replace them.
Start asserting your right to live intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spirituallyfree of what has bound you unjustifiably. Start reclaiming your right to believe in yourself and affirm yourself as fundamentally good and increasingly perfectible despite your flaws. Stop judging yourself and choosing your actions according to bogus Christian standards. Start truly claiming the right to think for yourself far beyond the bounds the church insists on. Be proud of yourself and your atheism, goddammit.
You’ve earned the right to be a proud atheist.
And even now, before you are willing to own this and willing to identify with me, as an atheist, I’m proud of you. I love you. I feel a special kinship with you that I only feel with those who know what it’s like to tear themselves away from their faith as a matter of principle and to learn, to their astonishment, that faithlessness can be a virtue. I look forward to being fully reunited as your spiritual brother again when this dark night of your soul is over and you’re ready for the new dawn, the high noon, and the whole rest of the new day ahead.
So, in short, standing up for apostates and having us be heard is a big deal to me. I have written a ton of posts in the vein of addressing Christians specifically as an apostate and written a number of things in solidarity with apostates. Five more favorites of my own to go alongside your readings at Ex-Communications:
And basically my entire series on my time as a Christian, my deconversion, and life post deconversion may as well be addressed to Christians.
I also recommend that apostates interested in working out their post-faith views on philosophy consider taking my online Philosophy for Atheists class designed with them in mind or scheduling one on one consultations with me about issues (either philosophical or personal) where they could use some philosophical advice with their post-deconversion transition. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.