It’s been really intense these past few days so I thought it’d be nice to pull back a little and talk about something positive.
There are few things more certain on the internet than religious squabbles. In blog posts, in comment boxes, in forums, any time one group gathers, someone from the other side will inevitably eventually wander in to offer dissenting opinions.
And fewer things still are more certain than discussions between Christians–and non-Christians–about the value of engagement with the other side. One blog post that was going around for a while was this one by a Christian about why he “can’t be bothered” to engage with atheists online much, and I’ve seen some interesting responses to it from atheists about why they, in turn, don’t feel like engaging with Christians online.
Today I’m not going to say that anybody is required to engage with anybody else. I’d never say that. Nor am I going to tell atheists how to atheist or Christians how to Christian, because it’s up to them how they do their thang. I can only say how I personally look at things and am affected by those things.
Instead, I want to share a story from way way back when about why I personally think that this engagement has value, so if any non-Christians reading this post are inclined in that direction they can feel encouraged.
Set your Wayback Machines for the late 1980s. I was a freshman in college and seriously dating Biff, a bombastic “turn or burn”-style lay-preacher, self-styled evangelist, and rising golden child in our Pentecostal denomination. We attended a state university together (like the girlfriend in God’s Not Dead, I’d passed on some considerably-better colleges to stay near my One True Love, and like her, had rather quickly come to regret that decision).
I was as true-blue as it gets. I had by then spoken in tongues; I attended church several times a week even with a full-time course load; I volunteered in various capacities in choir, childcare, church camps, and the like; I prayed and read the Bible every day; I tried my best to live like Jesus had commanded; I tithed whenever I was working; I witnessed to the lost whenever I thought they were even vaguely receptive.*
While I secretly did not approve much of Biff’s style of witnessing, since it didn’t care about receptivity in the least and had mostly directness to recommend itself, I had to admit he had a real gift for charming people and making friends with the most unlikely candidates. Even people whose worldviews were diametrically opposed to his got drawn into his orbit almost against their will and seemed to genuinely like him and the floppy-footed, affable, straightforward, goofy persona he projected. He was like a super-religious Parks & Rec-era Chris Pratt–he even looked and dressed similarly, now that I think about it.
Biff was especially friendly toward the people he felt most needed Christianity: atheists.
In Christianese, he “felt a burden for” atheists. That means that he thought his mission and purpose in life, given to him directly by Jesus, was to evangelize atheists. I’m not exaggerating, either; he really thought that our god had personally hand-picked him to do this job and that nobody else was better-suited for it right there and right then.
He took his mission very seriously. I had never even met an atheist (that I knew of!**) until going to college, but I quickly got used to having atheists in my house, to hanging out with atheists, and to talking to them. We invited them to secular-ish events with us, socialized at events around campus, fed them if they were hungry, and generally tried to be good witnesses.
Biff eventually got our church to sponsor an AM radio talk show he wanted to host. He absolutely idolized Bob Larson so he wanted it to be like a mini-me of that evangelist’s show, with the intention of having arguments with atheist callers and hopefully convert them on-air. (No, he didn’t know that Bob Larson staged a lot of that stuff, edited it creatively, and generally wasn’t at all honest in his representations.) So we were even further up to our elbows in atheists, many of them quite eloquent and strident in their opinions but again, all just regular folks from all walks of life.
Slowly, very slowly, we all made friends on our own outside of Biff’s circle. I got to know them, and they got to know me. Our arguments were good-natured but damned near constant.
Here is how the atheists I knew helped me escape from religion:
1. They were visible signs of dissent from Christianity.
I can’t overstate the importance of this point. I grew up in a deeply Christian culture, surrounded by deeply Christian imagery and fervent believers. I’d never even met atheists before going to college, remember. And I was 100% convinced that the talking points I was learning were true ones and trustworthy. When atheists argued about these points, I might have seemed maddeningly dogged in clinging to the party line, but I was learning that they weren’t as persuasive or as settled as I’d thought they were.
2. They were living proof that my religion wasn’t right about at least one thing.
I’d grown up thinking atheists were weird and strident, though I wasn’t as immersed in hatred or distrust of atheists as my church was. By the time I realized just how much hate and distrust my church had for them, I’d already learned that atheists were just folks like me–and that none of the Christian wisdom about them that I’d absorbed was true. They seemed perfectly happy and seemed to have plenty of meaning in their lives. So if my religion was wrong about atheists, what else might they be wrong about?***
3. They offered a counterpoint to my talking points and kept me honest.
In an age before widespread internet use, you can imagine I didn’t have access to a lot of materials or people refuting what I was learning in church about science, history, or even how to talk to others. By demanding proof of my assertions, they reminded me–constantly–that I had none. By critically assessing my apologetics arguments, they showed me that these arguments were ridiculous. By debunking my claims, they made me feel ashamed for not having done that in the first place. All of these assertions, arguments, and claims were ones that my religion made constantly and without even thinking about it–and thought non-believers were pretty silly for not agreeing with these extremely rational and cogent points. But my friends showed me that they weren’t valid.
4. They demonstrated that life was possible and perfectly satisfactory outside the bubble.
I’d never encountered people who didn’t make Christianity the focus of their lives to at least some extent or another. I wasn’t even sure how that worked or what it might look like. Well, they showed me exactly what it looked like. They weren’t experiencing horrible luck or excruciating sadness as a group. No bolts from the blue smote them; few if any niggling doubts plagued their minds. If it weren’t for Christians like Biff getting in their faces all the time, they wouldn’t have thought much about Christianity at all.
5. They put a human reaction to my religion’s inhuman doctrines.
Before meeting atheists, I’d never even thought about some of the more egregious atrocities contained in the Bible’s pages or in its apologetics contortions. I was as chirpy as a baby bird and I’d never met a talking point I didn’t like. By reacting with true human horror to these atrocities and showing me exactly why those contortions made my god look even worse without my realizing it, they made me see my god–and my whole religion–through very different eyes. It wasn’t even just apologetics and rationalizations, either, that they foiled. It was also those “modesty” doctrines and my religion’s weird and obsessive demands for control over my sex life. I’d thought those demands and doctrines were for my own good, but the atheists I knew made me deeply uncomfortable with a stirring, dawning awareness that how they were anything but. They voiced the doubts I was too cowardly to face.
I can’t say they were 100% responsible for my deconversion–a lot of stuff happened to cause that!–but they were a big part of it. Looking back, I can say with full honesty that I had no reason whatsoever to doubt until they pushed back against my programming and rebuffed my earnest attempts to share my faith with them. I lived in a true echo chamber where I never heard any dissenting opinions or had any reason to investigate any claims I heard. The funny thing is that as far as they’re all concerned, we parted ways with me still at least outwardly Christian; though I was roiling with doubts by the time I graduated from college, I never showed it out of pride and shame and fear. I wonder sometimes what they’d say if they knew I did eventually come to my senses.
Now we’re a worldwide culture, with atheists and Christians mingling everywhere online. I don’t think anybody should engage anywhere if they don’t want to do so, but if someone’s vaguely inclined in that direction, I can tell you that it does some good. Maybe it won’t impact the Christian on the other side of that forum board or chat window, but you can bet others are watching and listening.
They just don’t say they’re listening and they don’t always say when something hits home.
There are still a lot of very sheltered, overly-trusting Christians like I was long ago, and if they don’t ever see anybody dissenting from their indoctrination and showing them what the possibilities (and debunks!) are, they might never have any reason to question their programming.
So go forth with confidence, if that’s what you feel drawn to doing.
* In other words, like most ex-Christians were, I was ten times more of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ than the Christians lobbing Scotsmen at me. And they’re not even real Scotsmen, which would be kind of okay with me–albeit probably problematic for the Scotsmen in question.
** This is a vitally important distinction. I guarantee that every Christian out there reading my words knows at least one atheist who is too afraid of the tribe to announce him- or herself. Maybe it’s even the person behind the pulpit at church. Ain’t that just amazing to think about? I think it is.
*** Spoiler alert: everything.