I don’t think Christians really think through a lot of the stuff they say to non-believers. One of the more dramatic examples of this idea is in how so many of them are completely positive, despite our frequent protestations to the contrary, that any person expressing disbelief in their religious claims is simply lying about it.
As we leave Christianity (and forever afterward, it seems), we’re going to run into a great many Christians who arrogantly assume they know better than we do exactly what we feel and think. And one of the things they are very, very certain about is that all non-believers actually totally believe in Jesus, but are denying it either consciously or subconsciously out of some recalcitrant childishness, pride, or stubbornness. In large part, such Christians believe that their role in evangelizing is to break down atheists’ emotional resistance to admitting the truth they secretly believe but cannot accept for whatever selfish, petulant reason the atheist has for denying this obvious truth.
Obviously, Christians do not take well to being accused of holding similar secret beliefs in other religions’ gods or of being presuppositional atheists; this belief only applies to Christianity and only to non-believers in Christianity who express disbelief in the religion’s claims.
When I get accused of lying about disbelief, a few things come into my head immediately. (Not a single one of those things is “Oh my gosh, they’re right! I do believe!–But how do I keep from admitting it to myself so I can keep having all this unapproved sex?!?”)
1. This Christian lives in a reality-repelling bubble.
The reason Christians hold this bizarre belief even in the face of frequent refutations and denials from non-Christians is because of several Biblical “clobber verses” about non-believers. Psalms 19:1 is one such verse, as is Romans 1 and Romans 2:14-15. When a Christian idolizes the Bible so much that any contradictory fact must be denied, then don’t expect that Christian to accept one profession in the face of an entire faith system. There’s a lot built into and nested within this belief about everybody secretly believing. Most of all, it’s a permission slip. It lets Christians act arrogant and condescending toward outsiders, to feel superior and wise for having figured out some vast and glorious truth that poor ole atheists are denying, and to feel correct. Best of all, it lets them bludgeon non-believers for their supposedly sinful lifestyles and rebelliousness.
It’s a peculiarly self-reinforcing belief, especially because Christians don’t actually feel the need to listen to the people they claim to love so much. This belief bounces around inside their bubbles and never breaks through it; nothing outside, either, can penetrate that bubble’s walls.
As Lee Strobel writes, demonstrating that nobody will ever accuse apologists of having too much self-awareness,
I had read just enough philosophy and history to find support for my skepticism–a fact here, a scientific theory there, a pithy quote, a clever argument. Sure, I could see some gaps and inconsistencies, but I had a strong motivation to ignore them: a self-serving and immoral lifestyle that I would be compelled to abandon if I were ever to change my views and become a follower of Jesus.
Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. xiv
On the same note, I was reading yet another tedious post by a Christian preacher about how to convert atheists. (Admit it: you’re already cringing.) As many of these religious folks do, he demonstrates exactly why his brand of Christianity is failing, as well doing a lot of damage to its own reputation:
[Christians should] Assume that, deep down, [atheists] do believe in God. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who genuinely rejects the existence of God. Sure, I’ve met many who have claimed God’s existence to be a lie but I’m convinced that, down deep inside, they really do believe there’s a God.
Greg Stier, “How to Share the Gospel with an Atheist,” accessed 5/20/2015; emphasis his
Well, that’s one more thing than actual atheists know. What’s remarkable to me is that this self-professed “fanatic” doesn’t even see what the problem is. He’s convinced himself that atheists believe, and no atheist is going to change his mind with anything as mundane as facts. His beliefs don’t depend upon reality, so they cannot be gauged–or changed–by reality. If either happened, he’d have a lot of other beliefs thrown into question. Notice, also, that he considers non-believers’ rejection of his claims to be them calling his beliefs “a lie.” Something can be wrong without being “a lie.” (We’ll discuss in a moment the likely reason why he leaped straight to this conclusion.)
2. This person is arrogant, has no sense of boundaries, and will probably not gracefully accept correction.
When I was Christian, I also believed that non-believers were lying about disbelief. It takes a special kind of arrogance to be that convinced that we know better than someone else what that person believes and thinks, but that’s what a great many Christians do. After deconversion, I had to really work hard to gain a sense of perspective about how others saw me and how they related to me in turn, and even nowadays I sometimes say and do ridiculously thoughtless things.
Compounding the problem, I don’t think most Christians have the faintest idea of what is and isn’t offensive, hurtful, infuriating, or frustrating to non-believers. Now that they’ve spent the last twenty or thirty years dwelling in a culture that believes wholeheartedly that we non-believers have no idea what’s good for us or of what we really think or feel, they’ve removed from themselves not only every single possible tool of self-discovery but every corrective mechanism that might have set them aright. Even when they vaguely comprehend that something they do or say is offensive, they’re more likely to think that Jesus is blessing their endeavor or that the non-believer is wrong or lying than they are that they themselves did anything wrong.
Christian authors and teachers use that mindset to peddle wares to fleece their unwary, gullible sheep. Though these apologetics materials market themselves as the answers to every objection non-believers could make to the religion (sometimes explicitly positioning themselves that way, like The Magic Man in the Sky, masterfully debunked in that link by Steve Shives), they are in fact galactically and hilariously wrong about pretty much everything. Their audience certainly doesn’t know just how bad these materials are, however. Nothing in them contradicts what decades of Christian teachings say.
When these eager Christians trot out these works’ shoddy arguments at non-believers and get rebuffed, well, they’re trained in how to react to these rejections as well. They either get completely incensed with the non-believer for going off-script or else will doggedly and relentlessly continue to do exactly the stuff that backfired last time because obviously that hit a nerve, and anything that hits a nerve is obviously Jesus (non-consensually) touching that sinner’s heart. If they can only hit enough nerves, they’ll finally get the AHA! moment they were aiming for, where the believer tearfully admits–just like in a bad movie!–that he or she totally really does believe.
This post I mentioned about how to convert atheists went along those sorts of lines: a “fanatic” offers up a surefire plan consisting of a series of questions that have the look of dance-class footstep outlines on the floor. He does not offer any evidence for why his approach works better than other approaches. His groundbreaking suggestions: open the conversation by pretending to be friendly, ferret out personal details and whatever else you can use to build “a case for Christ,” try to figure out the real reason why the atheist in question is an atheist, and then resolve that petulant little emotional objection so the atheist–who isn’t really an atheist, remember, because nobody actually is–can get to happily worshiping Jesus for the rest of his or her life.
In a particularly elegant touch, he offers his advice as foolproof while conceding that it might not work immediately, as indeed it doesn’t for the atheist he talks to in his plane anecdote–but he insists, in total absence of any proof whatsoever and without any follow-up verification, that his target was deeply affected by the encounter and now a little more friendly to the idea of converting. His insistence hinges on the idea that the atheist in question here just needed some emotional nudging to get past his objections to the religion–and that he, the “fanatic,” gave this atheist that necessary nudge through careful emotional manipulation.
There’s pretty much nothing on the accompanying list of steps that Greg Stier wrote that isn’t offensive, but probably the cherry on his bullshit sundae was the suggestion that Christians should assume that anybody who expresses disbelief is simply lying about it, so a Christian who hears that should pry, psycho-analyze, and manipulate the other person until the real reason finally surfaces.
He’s completely positive that he’s never actually even met anybody who truly rejected the existence of his god, which means either that he’s never actually spoken with a non-believer (or actually listened to what was said to him, which is probably much closer to the truth), or that he routinely assumes that all non-believers are lying to him about their disbelief. That means that he is specifically accusing his seatmate on the plane of lying.
That is possibly the most offensive, hateful, condescending, patronizing, paternalistic, delusional thing I’ve seen out of a Christian in the last few days. Is it the worst? No; someone keeps letting Pat Robertson talk. But it’s bad. And he writes it in this totally chirpy, happy, soapy, artificially-giddy tone that belies that he is accusing, with no proof whatsoever, many hundreds of thousands of people of lying to Christians for the sheer joy of being hounded, harassed, shunned, and sometimes even hurt by Christians. Oh, and to
sin have unapproved sex.
I get why Christians like him have to act this way. I was like that myself once. If they actually did believe someone who expressed total disbelief, then they would have to confront the fact that their clobber verses weren’t true–which would quite properly and understandably throw their entire literalist interpretation of the Bible into doubt. Compared to the loss of an entire paradigm, don’t be shocked that Christians choose to ignore or disbelieve evidence right in front of them. They’d rather call you a liar to your face than to suspect that the Bible isn’t literally true.
So I want to say this now and get it out of the way:
No, I really don’t believe in Jesus or that there exists a being fitting the description of any modern Christian conceptualizations of God, or even a being that looks even remotely like the god represented by the Judeo-Christian Bible. I completely, totally see no reason to think a single one of Christianity’s claims are factually, objectively true. I don’t actually think any religions make any true claims about the supernatural, but most especially I know, without a doubt, that the ones Christianity makes are not supported by objective evidence.
I really don’t know how much more strongly I can can put it. But the facts are, it wouldn’t matter how strongly we worded our opinion. They can’t hear us, not through the bubble.
3. I need to be careful because this person might be dishonest.
It must suck to go through life convinced that everybody around oneself is lying about such important things. But the really insidious part is that I strongly suspect that Christians who make such accusations–and oh, they do love making accusations, much like another popular Bible figure does!–do so because they themselves may have something to hide.
This might be confirmation bias, but I can’t remember a single zealot I have ever known who was actually 100% honest. Every single one of them distorted facts to make more compelling miracle claims and rearranged or fabricated elements of their testimonies to sound amazing. The more desperate someone is to convert another person, the more likely that dishonesty in some form will be tolerated as a necessary evil.
I’m also thinking back to the many people I talked to in the line of work I used to do, tech support, who immediately leaped to accusations of intentional dishonesty when something didn’t turn out the way they wanted. Without exception, all of those people, as well, were themselves dishonest. The angrier the accusations they made and the less evidence they had to make those accusations, the more likely they themselves were lying to me about something. And by the same token, people who are trusting to the point of being constantly victimized tend, themselves, to be scrupulously honest.
Anybody who’s been in a relationship with an insanely jealous partner who was, him- or herself, cheating will understand what I’m saying here. It’s not that strange that we’d judge people by our own standards and think that everybody has the same weaknesses and foibles that we do. Mature people can struggle past that egocentrism to a more nuanced understanding of individual differences. This understanding protects us in a lot of ways–like in the case of someone honest who has to learn that liars will lie for no reason at all–but it can also prevent us from making serious mistakes in judgment, as in the case of Christians who assume non-believers are all lying when they say they don’t believe.
Now, sometimes people are just wrong or mistaken about something they claim or assert. And sometimes someone honest has to accuse another person of lying. It happens. What I’m talking about is the habit of making these accusations and assumptions with little evidence, the kneejerk assumption of dishonesty. A mature person would not need to hear many atheists say “I don’t believe this stuff at all” before assuming that maybe at least some of them are being perfectly honest and truthful. But a fanatical Christian moves through a world where every single tiny coincidence must be carefully massaged and presented in order to seem miraculous and divine, where every single healing is simply a distorted view of reality, and where every other person making those claims is doing the exact same song and dance. It’s an inherently dishonest worldview.
Many of these true believers who treat other people like I’m describing here later deconvert. And when they do, they can often feel embarrassed that they made such problems of themselves for their friends and family. I was sure no exception. And that’s okay. We have to be gentle with ourselves and give ourselves permission and space in which to learn from our own mistakes. It’s a journey worth making.
It’s such a relief not to waste my time second-guessing folks–and to know that when someone accuses me of dishonesty without even getting to know me, that person isn’t talking to me particularly but to his or her own preconceptions and delusions.
Here’s what’s really going on: Christians argue about a non-believer’s supposed emotional state to distract from the real issue, which is the lack of support for their claims about religion.
There’s a reason why Christians focus so hard on non-believers’ motivations for disbelief. If they can keep the focus there, they don’t have to engage with our stated objections. Whatever our objections are, they’re not going to be anything the Christian can overcome with standard-issue pseudoscience, revised history, and junk archaeology. I’ve actually heard Christian leaders echo Greg Stier in advising precisely that: they often suggest that Christians avoid getting into those specific factual objections and instead try super-hard to figure out what the non-believer’s emotional damage is. Fix that damage, figure out the magical words to say to soothe those ruffled feathers, and you’ll win a soul with ease.
There’s a certain internal logic to the suggestion. Since nobody actually really truly disbelieves, in their ideology, those factual objections will only be window-dressing, the labels that defensive people put on what was purely a reactionary, rebellious impulse. The factual objections didn’t make that person disbelieve, because the person doesn’t actually disbelieve. So why bother focusing on those objections?
That’s why it can often feel like we’re all talking past each other when we discuss religion. We’re telling these Christians that no, really, truly, we don’t believe, and those Christians are telling us back that we totally do and asking us what’s got us so mad at their god. We’re having two separate and different conversations!
The important thing for us to do in these cases, if we choose to engage at all, is to demand that Christians honor our boundaries and argue in good faith with us, and also to call out hurtful or delusional behavior when we see it. We may have to state our boundaries multiple times before withdrawing from the conversation, but if they can’t accept that we simply don’t believe in their god, and that to get us to believe again they’d have to pony up some real evidence for their claims rather than psychoanalyzing us, if they’re stuck on arguing whether or not we’re going to be allowed to disbelieve at all in their exalted opinion, then there might not be much chance for true communication anyway. In that case we lose nothing by withdrawing.
It’s not very loving to dictate another person’s reality like that and to accuse someone of lying without proof of it, but there’s not much about that kind of religion that’s very loving anyway.
I’m just glad I’m out of it. I’ve got no more time or patience for dishonesty.
See you Friday, when we’ll be taking up with a social media list I’ve seen going around about stuff Christians should stop saying around non-believers. My list looks quite different–but what else were you expecting?