We’ve gotten obsessed with labels in this culture.
Everywhere we look, we see attempts to shoehorn us, define and redefine us, box us up, fence us in, and label us. And I’m here today to challenge this idea that labels are really that necessary.
Often these attempts to label us are done by abusive people who want to blame us for something, or who wish to rob us of our honest truths by negating us, or to psychologically manipulate us into doing what they want us to do. One Christian site, for example, declared that “real women” don’t (not shouldn’t–they just don’t) respond to men’s dating requests made by text message–because the apparently-fake women who do text men back “fuel the Man-Boy problem,” which is some manufactured and likely largely-imaginary crisis in Christians’ minds involving men who aren’t behaving like Real Men either.* The many Christians who accuse each other of not being TRUE CHRISTIANS™–or accusing ex-Christians of never having been one at all–are generally trying to find some way to totally invalidate what their victims have to say so they no longer have to listen to them or take their existence into account.
But we ourselves tend to buy into a labeling culture, in effect handing our selves and our self-worth, our identities, and our validation to people who have no inclination whatsoever to cherish or honor what we routinely hand them.
I’ve lost track of all the ex-Christians I’ve talked to who, having left their religion, now feel bereft without knowing what to call themselves. It can feel overwhelming. We used to belong to a tribe, and now we don’t. We are tribal animals still, so we want a new tribe. Adopting a label is one of the fastest ways to get that affiliation back again. Robbing another person of their label amounts to removing that person’s very right to be part of the tribe–it’s downright cruel, hateful, and nasty, which of course is why toxic Christians do it; it’s a blunt-force bludgeoning tool meant to shame people and reinforce these Christians’ own tribal affiliation. More than converting people to Christianity or retaining the members they do have, these sorts of Christians need to maintain their own identity and feelings of superiority and correctness in a sea of shifting allegiances and social change. Rejecting those who don’t fit their mental image of Christians–their personal narrative of how Christianity ought to work–is the easiest and simplest way to do that.
For a religion that preaches that followers should never judge lest they be judged in turn, Christianity sure produces a lot of people who seem to love judging others. And for a religion that constantly admonishes followers not to spread false accusations and bear false witness, there sure a lot of its adherents who do that so much you’d think it was the 11th Commandment. Oh wait, isn’t not bearing false witness one of the other ones? (Oh, like Christians would even know.)
Words Mean Things.
I’m not talking about people misusing big words they don’t understand. Many Christians (such as Kirk Cameron, clearly desperate to regain a little relevance) have found that claiming a past as an “atheist” gets them a lot of attention from their peers, who have no idea that they’re being duped because they have next to no understanding of what atheism actually means or what atheists think. Unfortunately, these “ex-atheists'” version of atheism generally sounds nothing like the atheism that actual current atheists profess, so these answers don’t actually help Christians much in terms of understanding atheists and learning to treat them compassionately and civilly or at least becoming less afraid of them and their worldview.
But since that’s not usually the goal anyway, that’s not a big problem.
By claiming such a past, these trendy Christians give their peers a safe space in which to explore questions and get answers that won’t threaten their worldview overmuch and which will reinforce their own apologetics training and opinions. Claiming to have once been one of the tribe’s worst enemies–but to have wised up and left because the current tribe is so much better and cooler and superior and correct–reinforces the current tribe’s low opinion of their enemies (and high opinion of themselves!).
No, I’m talking more about stressing out over having lost a label and stressing out even more about wondering what the next label ought to be.
Christianity creates a lot of purely manufactured needs in its adherents, and one of those needs–I think–is this idea that it is all-important to know what we are. It can make us downright narcissistic, but how else could it possibly work? After all, in this religion we thought eternity rode on our decision to become or stay Christian; often our immortal souls hung in the balance over this or that personal decision like who to marry or where to attend church.
If someone tries to pin a label on you that you’re not comfortable with, you are under no obligation to humor that person. If someone around you uses a label that seems totally counter to how the word is generally used (like Christians who call themselves ex-atheists), it’s okay to say that most atheists you know don’t use the word in that same way. Remember that often these misused labels are chosen by Christians because they think (quite mistakenly, as it happens) that wearing it bolsters their credibility with real atheists in lieu of having real evidence for their claims and (correctly) that it impresses the hell out of their peers. In their world, people can make all kinds of wild claims about their pre-conversion lives and nobody will ever challenge them about a bit of it. These claims bolster their credibility considerably with their peers and set them up as authorities on the Next Big Huge Crisis Facing Christendom. Their mistake is thinking that Reality-Land works the same way as things work inside their own little bubbles.
Nor am I talking about the No True Scotsman Fallacy. That’s a logical fallacy in which any group member who doesn’t fit someone else’s notion of what the group’s members are like is declared to be a non-member (“No True Scotsman would ever….”). It’s one of Christians’ favorite ways of invalidating problem children of all kinds, whether those problem children are Christians or ex-Christians.
When Christians rob us of our labels as having been Christian once, they’re moving a goalpost there and are hoping we don’t notice. Most people’s definitions of Christians involve believing in the Bible’s claims, “loving” Jesus or having a “relationship” with him, practicing observances like prayer, church attendance, and Bible study, and living according to certain religious guidelines like pretending to abstain from non-marital sex. But when an ex-Christian pipes up to say “I did all that,” suddenly one additional requirement pops up: TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never leave the faith. And it suddenly doesn’t matter how fervent we were, or how often we made religious observances, or how much we once thought we “loved” Jesus. Now all that matters is whether or not we left or stayed in the religion. Of course, as one Christian has noticed in one of the early links to this post, Christians are also quick to pull the label from their own tribemates for various crimes like dissent or exposed hypocrisy. Goodness, for all its promises of being an easy yoke and a light burden, Christianity sure is exclusionary and difficult to do “correctly!” And isn’t it just the wildest of all wild coincidences that the Christian passing judgment on others just so happens to know exactly how to do it right? I know, right? It’s so wild! (/s)
I don’t see what Christians are doing by claiming a past in atheism as working the same way at all. Ex-Christians use the exact same definition of Christianity that almost all Christians use in all contexts unless they need to yank out that last requirement to invalidate an ex-Christian, whereas when we talk about atheism, we’re using the same definition of atheism that atheists actually overwhelmingly use all the time, while Christians do not fit the description most atheists use of the mindset. We’re not changing the definition to exclude the kind of atheism these Christians are claiming they once professed because atheism simply doesn’t mean what they’re claiming they once professed; they however are changing their definition of Christianity on the fly to specifically exclude and invalidate people who don’t fit their narrative. There’s not some special definition of atheism reserved for people who used to be atheist but then converted to Christianity, but there does appear to be a special definition of Christianity reserved for people who used to be Christian but then deconverted.
There is another key difference between what’s happening here with Christians claiming pasts as atheists and ex-Christians claiming pasts as Christians: once Christians rip away our right to call ourselves ex-Christians, they then ignore anything else we’ve got to say, whereas once we realize they’re misusing their professed label we don’t necessarily discard everything else they have to say. We know that whatever they claim they were or weren’t once, this or that label doesn’t actually have any bearing at all on their actual arguments–or on how they live their lives and treat people, except insofar as their misuse of the atheist label might indicate an ignorant or dishonest person seeking to borrow authority or credibility they don’t have otherwise, and lead us therefore to be wary of such a person.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? And the amazing truth, all at the same time.
Our labels don’t actually have much to do with how we live our lives, or on the evidence and arguments that led us to our personal worldviews.
So why not go label-free for a bit if you’re stressing out about it?
I, too, once stayed up nights wondering what I could call myself now that I was no longer Christian. I went through a phase where I tried on different identities in the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that a teenager adopts different clothing and behavior styles, moving through a range of different spiritual beliefs in hopes of finding one that fit me. Some fit better than others; all were ultimately imperfect. I think I spent so long as a pagan because that seemed like it fit better than anything else–but even that was a poor fit. A friend of mine teased me once because my opinions don’t fit well on bumper-stickers–but why the hell should they?
Here’s what I finally figured out:
There’s not some cosmic test hinging on exactly what term you use to describe your attitudes toward religion and spirituality.
When I realized I didn’t actually have to call myself anything at all, it was incredibly freeing. At first I thought this would just be some brief thing, but I’ve found I really like not having to answer to any particular label. I don’t eschew all labels–some I wear with great pride. But after that long period of drifting from pillar to post religion-wise, I’m finding it relaxing and calming not to have to worry about figuring it out.
You don’t have to figure out what your label is right away. You may have just left a religious system that is utterly intent on figuring out what someone’s label is, labeling others, removing others’ labels, and fixing people’s labels. That’s some stressful stuff–because I don’t know about you, but policing other people that closely is pretty stressful for me, and I’m sure it is for other people too! It’s okay to coast for a while–even for forever. Some labels you’ll hear and instantly they become part of you even if you don’t like the idea much. Other labels you may wrestle with for some time and never come fully to grips with. You might also feel that some labels transcend simple definitions and go on to describe a political movement or a cultural mindset that you’re not comfortable identifying with.
If you are comfortable with adopting a label, I gently suggest being open about it in appropriate contexts; don’t be ashamed of it or try to hide it if the question comes up.–or at least expressing where you stand in some way. Your openness may well become an encouragement to others who are struggling with their own feelings of doubt and uncertainty, and that openness lowers the overall risks and social costs of deconversion and dissent. But if you’re not comfortable with labels, then that’s okay too.
Don’t call yourself something that misuses words, but don’t feel like you have to adopt a label you’re not comfortable with, either. If anyone asks, it’s okay to say “I don’t know anymore.”
Some ways to describe yourself that work just fine:
* I’m not religious.
* I’m secular/a humanist/a skeptic.
* I’m a None/Done/ex-Christian.
* I’m still working on that.
And friends, if you still feel like you’re Christian, that’s okay. Really, it’s okay. Don’t let other people determine your label for you or define you against your will.
You’ll notice over time that the only time a set-in-stone definition becomes important is when one Christian wants to invalidate another’s use of the label.
The funny thing about Christianity is that it’s pretty versatile. We are after all talking about a religion with 40,000-ish denominations and countless personal quirky takes on the Bible. There really isn’t much that’s established as fact about the religion. For every single core doctrine some Christian somewhere thinks is set in stone and an inviolable requirement for believers, you can find a passionately dedicated group that says the dead opposite. So when someone comes up with some variant of Christianity–or some personal viewpoint of what Jesus is/was like–or some customized preference of doctrine–it might not look at all like my own preconceptions of what Christianity looks like or what I think the Bible means or says, but I can’t really tell such a person that they’re Christian-ing wrong, barring some poor sorry schmuck trying to make a case for, say, the Bible being an entirely accurate accounting of science or history. That would assume that there’s some “right” way to do Christianity. I’m not especially interested in policing people like that if they’re not being a problem for me. If they are, my objections will probably center around how their behavior blatantly contradicts the Bible’s demands–not in negating their entire label; a shitty or hypocritical Christian is still a Christian as far as I’m concerned, which in my opinion is way more loving and compassionate toward naughty Christians or hypocrites than most Christians themselves tend to be.
A particular Christian’s quirky version of Christianity doesn’t really matter to me. What matters–again–is how we treat people and what kind of neighbor we are. I want to be a loving person regardless of wherever it is I end up landing, if anywhere, and I want what I say to matter more than the fact that I wore a particular label while saying it.
Or, you know, we could totally spend all day talking about which Disney prince is our one true love. That’s fine too.
* If you’re wondering if there was an accompanying hand-wringing article about Man-Boys who request dates of women by text messaging them to inform them that they are not Real Men if they do that, you should know better, seriously.