In the movie God’s Not Dead the evangelical Christian filmmakers used atheist characters like puppets who would act out evangelical Christian stereotypes about atheists. Evangelical Christians frequently assume, unsympathetically, that were they atheists they would see no reason to be moral. So they have the atheist characters act unapologetically immorally over and over again. Evangelical Christians assume atheists would be more selfish and materialistic, so that’s how the atheists in the movie act. They like to characterize atheists as basically rebellious children ignoring their loving Father who they deep down know exists but that were they to get in serious trouble they’d come running back home. So, one atheist hostile to Christians gets cancer, gets dumped by her callous and hedonistic atheist boyfriend who has no time for cancer, and winds up at the feet of Jesus. See? Atheism’s just a rebellious phase arrogant people go through when times are tough but once they’re reminded of their vulnerability they can be made to come crawling to the cross. Just be ready to catch them at their weakest, Christians!
And the central atheist puppetry in the movie is with the main plot and the character of Professor Radisson. The filmmakers “know” that atheism is not really a sincere conclusion of the head but an excuse for something going on in the heart. Not even someone who has a PhD and a professorship in philosophy is actually motivated intellectually to disbelieve in God. In fact, even this person whose job involves being an expert in arguments related to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, etc. is only lying when he says he disbelieves in God at all! Because the Christian filmmakers “know” that atheists all know there is a God and are in denial, it turns out that Professor Radisson is lying to himself when saying he’s an atheist and in fact he does believe in God and is simply angry at God for his mother’s death from cancer when he was 12.
In the post that follows, I want to help evangelical Christians understand what’s so wrong with Christians refusing to acknowledge the actual existence of atheism. More particularly I want to zero in on one subset of atheists that evangelical Christians are the most prone to deny really exist: atheistic ex-evangelicals like me. I am going to write about how we in particular take it when the reality of our atheism (or our former love of God) is dismissed by Christians. And I want to detail in some depth the nuances of how this dismissal takes form and what is so particularly insidious about it.
First I ask evangelical Christians to engage with me in an exercise in empathy.
As a committed Christian, how would you respond if every time you talked to non-Christians all the things we said to you were premised on the idea that you were lying about being a Christian? Imagine we rushed right past your declarations of faith in Jesus Christ and talked to you like we knew you were really pretending to believe in him. Imagine we gave you orders to just stop the charade already and stop attending church already. Would that frustrate you? Would you find it insulting? Disrespectful? And how would you respond? Would you take us seriously when we claimed to know your own mind better than you did? Would you be eager to listen to our advice for how you can stop lying about what you believe? You probably wouldn’t. You would probably tune us out as ignorant, presumptuous, and possibly even bigoted.
We former Christians have to deal with the equivalent kind of treatment all the time. We say “I don’t believe in God anymore” and are told by Christians what is supposedly really the case about our own minds. We are told by other people than ourselves that we “hate God” or are “angry at God” or are “turning our backs on God”. We are told this by total strangers who simply assume that they know all about atheists better than atheists do. It is sheer prejudice, sheer tribalistic othering of people who don’t belong to your in-group, to assume that all “those people” think and act alike in some (presumed) immoral way. When you think of any group of people as a simple monolith you’re engaging in stereotyping.
It is especially cutting and galling when we are told that we are not really atheists but “angry at God” and “turning our backs on God” precisely by those people who know us so well that they have no excuse for forgetting, trivializing, or dismissing the reality of how much we formerly believed in and loved God. We sought, just like you, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. When the people who know intimately how deep our devotion was accuse us of ulterior and hateful motives in leaving the faith, we experience a kind of blind prejudice that trumps love and knowledge, from people we knew (or thought?) loved and understood us. Rather than remembering the facts about our spiritual commitments and listening to us and painstakingly trying to understand our perspective, these friends and family members are so palpably threatened by the prospect of entertaining our actual point of view that they would rather assume that we are liars in our claims to having been intellectually dissuaded and that we are immoral people who simply want to sin. Rather than allow themselves humbly and empathetically to countenance the idea that someone they love and respect—even someone whose faith or intellect or morality they once admired—could come to disbelieve out of a sincere change of mind, or could come to conscientiously change their values in response to new experiences and information, such believers would rather believe of their friends or family that they are liars consumed with an unjustified bitterness or new passions for sinfulness for its own sake. They would rather apply stereotypes that don’t fit at all with the evidence they have of the smart and moral and formerly god-loving character of the person they love than to simply accept that someone could go from believing in and loving God to simply not believing in God and, maybe, even to deciding that there are good moral reasons not even to like the idea of the Christian God that they’re promulgating.
So we say one thing “I don’t believe in God” and we are told by other people that we really mean another thing. Sometimes this is done through explicit confrontation. A believer might say, “I don’t think you are really an atheist, I think you’re just mad at God.” Now, that’s kind of forward, presumptuous, and rude. But it could be said in an honest spirit and it’s at least a hypothesis that we can discuss. If you’re willing to have the conversation and learn about whether I am really an atheist or actually a misotheist who merely thinks he’s an atheist but is just mad at God, I guess that’s acceptable in the right context. But at least have the humility and tact to phrase it as a question, like, “how are you sure you actually don’t believe in God and that you’re not just angry at God” and then listen to the reasons I give, rather than simply presuming to tell me what’s really going on in my own mind. I could be wrong about my own mind but it is arrogant to think I cannot even be trusted to have a better first guess about my own true mental states. If through listening carefully you can find evidence that can convince me that I have misunderstood something about myself, well then, more power to you. But you have to start some other way than invalidating my own statements about myself based on your stereotypes about atheists.
One of the worst forms of this is when a Christian will not even directly challenge our claim to disbelief but go on talking to us using implicit premises which assume we actually still believe in God and that we are are just “in open rebellion” against him. When you just casually draw inferences about our motives that assume as a premise that we believe in God, it shows that you have no respect for what we are saying to you. You’re talking right past it and insisting on only talking about how things are in such a way that implies we have beliefs and attitudes that we don’t. When you dismiss our rational criticisms of your beliefs without anything like sufficient counter-arguments and decide that we must just believe in God and hate him, you essentially treat us like liars. And not only like liars but like liars who are beneath direct refutation. It’s as though our claims to not believe in God are such transparent lies that you can pretend we didn’t even make such claims and talk about reality as it really is, i.e., as you see it. You treat us like we’re clearly wearing a hat but denying we’re wearing a hat and you’re brushing right past our obvious silliness as not even worth arguing with. You’re acting like the “serious” one who doesn’t patronize our silliness and rather says, “just take off the hat” or “you’re wearing that hat to spite me”. You treat us like the way you perceive the world (i.e., as having a God) is the only way to perceive the world. Your point of view is to be taken as normative with no allowance in your utterances for the fact that we actually see it differently.
You apparently cannot express in your utterance any conception of the world where there isn’t a God even if it’s only in allowing that that conception is the atheist position. You will draw inferences from premises you know we don’t share without having the common courtesy to acknowledge that what you’re taking as obvious implications won’t be shared by us. You’re refusing to say, “from my perspective” or “if I’m right”, etc. and jumping to inferences that just assume not only that your premises are right but that we know about their rightness and will agree with your conclusion. It is not enough to make clear that you believe in God you must talk only as though you live in a world where everyone believes in God if they’re being serious and adults. It’s as though the only way to seriously see the world is as one with a God at work in it and every other utterance is insincere nonsense not even to be indulged or be treated with the dignity of a proposition for any serious entertainment. But to not acknowledge that others don’t share your premises and to act like your conclusions are obvious without defending your premises that are in contention or at least acknowledging that your premises are different is just to treat others’ different views as utterly irrelevant and automatically trumped.
This behavior, so astoundingly common among Christians is incredibly self-centered. It bespeaks a truly amazing lack of imaginative and empathetic capacity to entertain the world from an alternative perspective. It betrays an arrogance willing to presume that you know other people’s minds better than they know their own. It involves a fundamentally disrespectful hypocrisy. So many Christians feel entitled to treat ex-Christians as they would be appalled to be treated themselves. And when it makes us atheists just as angry as it would make Christians if we did it to them, they often have the gall to act vindicated because they “got under our skin” and what they effectively say to us is, “See! When we ignored what you said about being an atheist and you blew up at us for our disrespectful presumptuousness and our unwillingness to treat you like anything else but liars, you got angry! That proves you really are angry with God! Checkmate, atheists!”
No, when you “get under our skin” and make us angry by condescendingly treating us like silly insolent children who are telling lies that are beneath refutation and which must be ignored in order that we may be disciplined, that’s not proof we truly believe in God. It’s not even proof we’re just hot tempered and terrible people. It’s us expressing an appropriate resentment towards our mistreatment at your hands.
When we talk, if you and I do not treat each other with the presumption of good faith and assume, at least for charity’s sake, that each other is expressing honest feelings, opinions, beliefs, and values, then we can make no further progress. By all means should one of us think we spot an inconsistency in the other’s claims about the world or their own mind, we should feel entitled to challenge that. But we cannot come at each other talking in ways that say, “I refuse to acknowledge that you even have a different point of view than me, so I am going to draw conclusions that assume my premises that you don’t accept and treat them like they should be obvious to you” or “I refuse to believe that any different values or beliefs you have could have been derived through a sincere exercise of your intellectual and moral conscience.” When your statements to us drip with these implicit assumptions you come off rude to an infuriating degree.
Some of us genuinely do not believe in God. Accept this fact. You do not need to share our disbelief to simply acknowledge its existence.
Some of us conclude there is no God and reject distinctive conservative Christian values as matters of our own sincere moral and intellectual consciences. Accept this fact. Talk to us in such a way that treats it as a bedrock premise about what is going on in our minds.
That doesn’t mean you need to agree with our consciences. But it does mean you have to stop smugly acting like we are inherently more frivolous intellectually and reckless morally than you are. You reek of bigoted contempt for us when you act as though we don’t come to our beliefs or values conscientiously and talk like it’s some kind of obvious fact that our opinions come out of selfishness, thoughtlessness, childish rebelliousness, or moral laziness. It’s a huge turn off.
Don’t give atheists advice that would only make sense to give to a person who still believed in God. Saying “you really should turn back to God” is effectively saying, “you really should stop pretending you’re an atheist”. That kind of behavior is dogmatic, judgmental, insulting, invalidating, controlling, and, above all, frustrating. When people do that to me I never want to speak to them again.
When I and many others like me deconverted it was not in order to “sin”. And it had nothing to do with deliberately or maliciously hurting Christians who might take it personally. There was nothing personal against our friends or family about it. It had nothing to do with hating God. It had to do with simply no longer believing. And it was not something that we saw as the road to pleasure. Just as existentially terrified as many evangelicals are at the mere thought of becoming an atheist (so terrified, indeed, that they try to convince themselves no true atheists exist or that no true believers could possibly become convinced atheists against their preference to still believe), so were we. We were no more “sex fiends” than you are. We were no more selfish than you are. We were no more materialistic than you are.
Many of us loved being Christians, eagerly and passionately devoted our lives to Christ, participated in bubbles of Christianity like churches and camps where we could live, drink, eat, pray, work, and form our strongest bonds all with other Christians. We devoted ourselves to prayer and Bible study and worship, all in an effort to seek a relationship with Jesus just as earnestly as those most on-fire for Christ among you. We abstained, we repented, we pledged, we sacrificed, we studied, we evangelized, we ate, we drank, we slept, and we breathed all to the Glory of God. And when we stopped believing many of us realized going in that this would cause painful rifts in our friendships, our marriages, our relationships with our children, our therapists, our church families, our colleagues, our communities, our relationships with our siblings and parents and grandparents and assorted cousins and aunts and uncles, etc., etc. Becoming an atheist wasn’t a sexy chance to get our rocks off with no accountability. It involved the prospect of losing the most important people in our lives and losing the goals and direction and sense of meaning that had structured our lives up until that point. Most of all it meant being spiritually alone to try to figure out a new worldview for ourselves. And many of us kept ourselves so safely sealed off from the scary non-Christian world previously that we expected to have to do all this figuring out our new beliefs and values by ourselves, bereft of any community. Because, to our minds, so immersed in the prejudices of the Christian world, what community could atheism possibly bring?
For some of us our deconversion was not only motivated by metaphysical and scientific doubts about God’s existence but also had to do with developing a moral conviction that some of the distinctively theological and biblical aspects of Christian ethics were fundamentally wrong. Not the universally approvable and rationally justifiable good stuff about loving people and helping the poor, etc. We found that other, more rightly controversial Christian moral claims about what was harmful or beneficial turned out to be empirically wrong. Our conclusion was not that Christian morality was simply too hard and we’d rather be morally lazy. Please stop perpetuating that profoundly smug and self-congratulating bigoted meme about atheists, Christians. All it does is pat yourselves on the back unjustifiably and excuse yourself from ever having to take our numerous moral counter-arguments to your claims seriously.
The world simply didn’t work the way Christianity insisted it should. Sometimes Christian ethics made unfair and unjustified demands on us or other people and we drew the rational conclusion that it was manifestly bad. Sometimes we did things we were led to believe were evil only to find that they weren’t. They didn’t hurt anyone, they didn’t treat anyone unfairly, they didn’t disempower anyone. And to the contrary, they were empowering, ennobling, liberating, and sometimes recommendable things to do. And we started to think that it was actually evil to demonize these things that could actually be wonderful under the right circumstances. And instead we set out to think about our values in a judicious, non-absolutist way, that responded to experiences rather than dogmatically insisted on ancient ways (or merely imagined ancient ways) as unchangingly good.
We came to see that the most devoted and truest of believers (not the half-hearted Christians but the most hardcore) actively cultivated certain natural human tendencies towards bigotry, hatred, and closedmindedness. We found that the whole approach to ethics in the church was to not learn from experience, not figure out empirically how to truly empower people and avoid hurting them, not to figure out how to treat all people in the most dignified way possible but instead to fetishize some biblical rules and some others rules merely assumed to be biblical and to refuse any feedback from reality about whether they were actually the best for us in practice. And Christianity’s palpable moral failures were a refutation of its claim to be guided by a deity worthy of worship. The Bible’s own wicked celebration of genocides, slavery, the subjugation of women, the demonization of gays, and even the stoning of children became clearly seen by us for what they are: evidence that moral conscientiousness demands renouncing all claims that the book is the work of a morally perfect being. And since the only reason to believe in the distinctively Christian God is on the word of that morally disreputable book, there was no good reason to believe in that God. That doesn’t mean there was reason to be mad at that God—except maybe in the sense that one might be mad at a lie that takes hold of people’s minds and makes them live in darkness. But that’s not at all what you mean when you say those of us atheists who attack your idea of God are “mad at God” so please stop lying about what we do and do not believe or feel if you hope to have any kind of mutually respectful relationships with us.
Atheists exist. They’re not just rebellious, sinful, hateful, selfish, amoral god-haters in denial about how they really believe in Christianity.
If you don’t respect this basic fact and let your acknowledgment of our existence and our moral equality filter naturally into the things you say to us, don’t be surprised when you alienate us, make us angry, or even lose us from your lives.
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