#SKEPTIMERGENT: the atheist’s dilemma

#SKEPTIMERGENT: the atheist’s dilemma February 8, 2013

I would guess that most people who have grown up and stayed in churches do not know what it’s like for many to leave. Please, if you are a person who has been in the church for your entire life, please take some time to read the stories of people who have left. And read about how cults function. Try to put yourself in the place of someone who simply can’t go along. Someone who has a lot of doubts, questions, problems. Someone who is no longer able to let some things go. Most of us get depressed when we leave. We have no idea how to live. Some of us even kill ourselves. For some people, leaving the church is very similar to coming out as a gay person to a community that thinks homosexuality is a “sin.”

There are some interesting things being done to help people make the transition out of harmful religious environments. I hope more things like this continue to spring up. But, I don’t think it’s enough.

The person who makes the decision to leave only has a few options:

  1. Try to go at the post-religious thing alone.
  2. Join some kind of specifically humanist/atheist/skeptical community.

One problem with the first option is that taking the plunge is not recommended for anyone to do alone. That said, I assume that most people do have at least a few people in their lives who can be a supportive community for them. Sadly, some don’t. Many religious people live in such an insular world that if they leave, they literally have no one. Many people’s spouses leave them. Close friends shun them. It’s pretty scary.

I’ve written a lot about my hesitation with a blanket endorsement of the second option. Of course, these communities can be very positive. And, for some, they might even permanently be the right thing. But, I think that the reason a lot of de-churched people avoid those groups is because many of them tend to be reactionary and negative regarding not only religious ideas but religious believers – from disagreeing to demonizing. Maybe that is fun for awhile, but I don’t think it’s something that most people can make a long-term commitment to.

So, what I think is a much better third option is for us to find ways to exist within emergent spaces (through the internet, events, churches and other small groups). This, of course, will require emergent leaders to spend more time trying to understand us, and it will require us to have more patience for those with whom we’re probably going to disagree on a lot of things.

The reality is that most atheists are in some sense Christian atheists. In the least, we live in a Christ-haunted culture. But, I would guess that most of us also grew up in the church. One reaction is to chunk the whole thing – as I said above, not only religious ideas but religious people. To think that religion in general is not only ignorant or irrational but evil (which, of course, means that “we” are the good guys). This is unnecessary and, to me, just as unhelpful as the fundamentalists we all want to avoid.

People change. And, in my experience, most Christians don’t actually believe most of the things that they’re “supposed” to, anyway. I think that emergent Christians will continue to find that we atheists-who-don’t-think-religion-is-evil aren’t really that much different. We’ve got a hell of a lot in common. And, while I completely support the radical theology projects of thinkers like Pete Rollins, I just don’t think it’s going to be enough for the average de-churched skeptic.

Will this work? I’m hedging my bets. Will you join me?

*This is a repost from my blog.

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  • Monty Moore

    Well said Rob. I myself continue to participate in a local community of faith despite my unbelief. My take is simply to continue to build bridges (though fickle) with believers many of whom struggle with unbelief. I hang around to support those who don’t know how to express their anxiety while living in a believing culture. Though extremely lonely and isolated, I pursue a life of love and patience for those trapped by myth. I know the language of belief and can navigate with little stress. Atheism is more real in faith communities than most can imagine. The exodus is just beginning……

  • Martin

    Hey. I chose the first option. I am not willing to give up my devotion to God just because the churches are screwing about. I am really happy to have found your piece, which gives me hope that religious folk (Muslims, Christians etc) and coexist with Atheists without that hostility I’ve been finding a lot recently.

  • Katherine

    I chose the first option too. When I left my old church, I went immediately to a new one, but in retrospect that was mostly to help my mother through the transition. What she experienced as a problem with the old church, was to me a problem with organized religion in general. As soon as I got her settled into a new congregation, I stopped going. She’s happy where she is and I’m glad I could help her land. For me… I still believe and I can’t give up my faith. But being inside a church building makes my skin crawl.

  • Mac

    Thank you for posting this, Rob. I myself decided to go the unwritten option of “handling this thing by myself,” because I found that atheism is going toward a direction that will ultimately be its undoing- namely, a society of fundamentalists that are every bit as hateful as the religions they despise, under a mask of truth and freedom. Certainly the best people I have met are the ones who bring up their religion only when asked, and otherwise don’t care what mine is.

  • Serious question here. How much of the revulsion toward “religion” is toward particular doctrines and attitudes found in one type of religion? Objectively speaking, the closer to fundamentalist Christianity a person has been raised, the more that person has experienced only that being religious means a god of wrath and fear, which necessitates a rigid structure, tight borders (you’re in or you’re out), and condemnation of anyone who questions. That god, and those believers, think it is godly to be hostile toward gays, women, people in other religions and other branches of Christianity, and generally anyone who is “different.”
    I have been seeing a great many people moving away from that type of thinking who say they are now atheists. But they don’t *sound* like atheists; they sound like people who are maturing to a different level of religious understanding that is more open and not fear-based. If that is the case, there’s a whole world of Christianity out here which does not worship that vengeful, angry god and which believes Creation is a good work of a loving God for all God’s people.
    Can someone help me understand what you mean by “atheist”?

  • Lyle Taffs

    Hi Rob
    Just to inject a ‘hopeful’ note to the discussion, there are quite a variety of alternative expressions across the planet now that allow people to adopt a ‘radical’ position or an ‘a/theist’ position (for example) – that are alternatives to the two you posited – while still maintaining a relationship with Jesus. In America, Jim Palmer moves in this area, while in a more global way, Peter Rollins is providing a lead for genuinely alternate pathways which do not require one to either, deny their questions or to leave their faith in the waste skip. 🙂

  • Erica Billings

    Hi Rob. You said, “And, while I completely support the radical theology projects of thinkers like Pete Rollins, I just don’t think it’s going to be enough for the average de-churched skeptic.”

    I’ve been wondering what you think of Richard Rohr’s teachings of John Duns Scotus’s christology and finally decided to leave a comment! He basically says that nothing changed on calvary. That Jesus didn’t die to change God’s mind about humanity or to pay a price, but to change humanity’s mind about God and humanity. Perhaps you should look it up though to get a better picture than what I’m giving.

    Would you consider this radical theology? Are you familiar with it? Would you say it’s more, or less, radical than the radical theology of Pete Rollins?

    • Hey Erica, I don’t know anything about this, but it sounds pretty interesting. I’ll check it out!

      • Erica Billings

        email me if you have a response as i don’t get notifications from replys left here. erica dot billings at gmail dot com

  • Nick Gotts

    Will you join me?

    Short answer: no.
    Slightly longer answer: I suspect this is largely, although not entirely, an American problem. Churches play such a central role in American culture that a lot of American atheists, including those for whom atheism is fairly central to their self-image, feel the need to belong to one – usually the UUs. As a Brit, I found becoming an atheist (at age 12, and almost half a century ago) entirely painless, and have never felt the need for a church-substitute.

    • Right on. I actually think a “need” for some kind of relatively organized community is an unhealthy thing – it can be pretty toxic to the individual and the group. As Sartre said, “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” I spent the last few years being pretty anti-community. I think there can be benefits and flaws on all sides. So, I think, at least for some of us, community can be beneficial. For others, their circle of friends, family, co-workers, and so on is more than enough. And, that’s great.