You Were Never Really One of Us

You Were Never Really One of Us June 6, 2013

200108-omag-left-out-600x411-600x411The mind is an amazing thing.  With it, we are capable of solving such complex puzzles and real-world problems!  At the same time, we are capable of shutting out large chunks of data, selecting only those streams of information which fall in line with what we expected to find in the first place.  We call this “confirmation bias” and it can totally blind you to any information which contradicts your prior beliefs.  If used in a social situation, it can silence voices which upset you so that you don’t have to listen to them anymore.  If you can find the right reason to discredit a person from the outset, you can then tune them out so that what they have to say will not adversely affect your state of mind.

“Oh, you’re an atheist now?  Well then, you were never really one of us to begin with.”

And ZAP!  Just like that, the channel is turned off.  My voice has just become irrelevant and now you no longer have to listen to anything I have to say.  Or perhaps you will listen, but now that you’ve put on your dismissive earmuffs, only those portions which say what you want to hear will make it through.

Never mind the fact that I was raised in a “bible-believing” church.  Never mind that my preacher was one of the best (and yet most humble) in the country, or that my church was (and still is) a flagship church of the denomination I grew up in, sending hundreds of missionaries all over the world for as long as I can remember.  Never mind that I “got saved” at 16 and dove headfirst into ministry, studying the Bible, witnessing, praying fervently, and teaching Sunday School for the next decade.  Never mind those preaching stints during college.  Never mind the weeks on end staying up till 3am in my dorm studying and discussing biblical theology with other fellow Christians until we were too tired to speak coherent sentences.  Never mind the years of study at a conservative seminary to obtain a Master’s degree in Biblical Studies.  Never mind the decade of involvement as a leader in my church group or that I started getting invitations to speak to other groups in other states, even traveling overseas.  Never mind the book I wrote on Christian community and the gospel (all twelve people who read it loved it!).  Never mind the countless hours of my passion and time and resources that I poured into being a Christian over a 20 year period of time.

“You were never really one of us.”

Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?  Now you don’t have to listen to a thing I say, do you?  What a clever way to disenfranchise, to exclude, to tune out, to silence the voice of someone whose opinion differs from yours!

A friend once asked me why I should be bothered at all to hear someone tell me I was never really a true Christian in the first place.  “If you’re really an atheist, why would you care?”  I’ll tell you why this irks me.  Two main reasons:

1.  It’s a worn-out logical fallacy, often called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.  In a classic move to eliminate contrary data, this tactic says that anyone who doesn’t fit a particular narrow definition of “True Christian” (however your particular tradition defines that) can be eliminated from consideration and their opinion becomes moot.  Anyone who enjoys intellectual discussion will be bothered by this kind of thing, so cut me some slack.  Doesn’t it bother you to realize that something you were taught to say is actually a common logical fallacy?  Yes, I know there’s a Bible verse that says something like “they were never really one of us,” so maybe I’m wasting my energy here.  But would you be willing to concede that sometimes Bible verses get used in ways that are unhelpful, and that maybe this is one of those instances?

2.  Because misguided or not, those twenty years of my life were sincere and passionate and a very important part of my life.  How would you like it if someone took an eraser to two decades of your life, telling you they were illegitimate?  Through those years, I came to know both the Bible and the Christian message very well, and that earns me a place at the table of discussing religion in a public setting.  I am not approaching these matters as an outsider.  I come to this table as one who has earned the right to say something about modern American evangelicalism.  So of course it bothers me when someone pretends those years never even happened.  That discredits my contribution to the discussion.  It disenfranchises people like me so that our voice doesn’t have to be heard.  That’s not playing fair, and it limits what you can learn from people like me.  In other words, nobody benefits from this tactic, and you’ve just lost any chance you might have had of discovering something new and expanding your own ideological horizons.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling.  People like me who spent years devoted to the Christian faith don’t appreciate it when we are roundly dismissed with the wave of a hand.  It’s not a charitable way to have a discussion, and it’s disrespectful.  So knock it off, will ya?


Postscript:  I should add that the same theological assumption (“once saved, always saved” and/or “perseverance of the saints“) which leads some to say “You were never really one of us” also leads others to say, “You’re not really one of them.”

Because evangelical Christianity teaches that virtue is proprietary to (their particular) God, if I demonstrate one of the many virtues which is supposed to be present only in Christians, they will often say, “See?  You’re really still a Christian, you just don’t know it.”  I can’t tell you how many friends and family have assured me that I’m not really an atheist.  I only think I am, and it’s just a passing phase.  This assumption comes from the (rather Baptist) belief in “once saved, always saved.”  Incidentally, it’s pretty bigoted to assert that only Christians can possess virtues, even if technically you say they come from a divine source (yours, in particular).

Others will allow that atheists can possess virtues, but they’ll still give credit to (their particular) God and call that “common grace,” which simply means God helps even us rebellious people to be better than we would be without his mercy.  I suppose I’m not particularly concerned who gets credit so long as you’re willing to allow me to define myself and to refrain from telling me you know more about me than even I know about me.

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  • It makes me sad when people who preach “Love thy neighbour” shunt you off to the side the minute you disagree with them. And it doesn’t only happen if you abandon the Christian faith. Sometimes you only need to divert from the mainstream beliefs. You only need to start asking the questions people don’t like thinking about. You only need to start thinking instead of blindly accepting everything the pastor says from the pulpit.

  • Bravo! I find myself wavering from the atheist category back to the agnostic category on a somewhat daily basis. As someone who experienced only a little of what you have obviously devoted yourself to for a large chunk of your life, I get it 100%. Great post.

  • Yeah, sorry about that, we have a tendency to speak first and think later (if, indeed, at all). It’s a bit ironic that evangelism used to be called ‘apology’ because I increasingly suspect that we should, er, be doing quite a bit of apologising.

    The other thing we have an interesting habit of doing (and to be fair, so does everybody else) is to make assumptions that our current state of mind will remain the same forever. Whereas actually, people are complicated little creatures that change their minds throughout their lives. Perhaps we might all be able to chill a bit and think about God and faith more cleverly if dropped the in-group/out-group stuff and stopped making assumptions about what goes on in each other’s heads.

  • That would be a step forward, I agree :-)

  • Tony

    Vonnegut talked about this sort of thinking in “Mother Night” “Since there is no one else to praise me, I will praise myself — will say that I have never tampered with a single tooth in my thought machine, such as it is. There are teeth missing, God knows — some I was born without, teeth that will never grow. And other teeth have been stripped by the clutchless shifts of history — But never have I willfully destroyed a tooth on a gear of my thinking machine. Never have I said to myself, ‘This fact I can do without.”

  • Yeah, this is quite annoying when I hear it. They claim that I never took Christianity seriously and that’s why I’m an atheist now, it completely ignores the fact that it was a very long and painful journey.

  • ” Because misguided or not, those twenty years of my life were sincere and passionate and a very important part of my life. How would you like it if someone took an eraser to two decades of your life, telling you they were illegitimate? Through those years, I came to know both the Bible and the Christian message very well, and that earns me a place at the table of discussing religion in a public setting.”

    This. Exactly this. When we’re dismissed as having never really been “one of them” it completely discounts the knowledge that for whatever time we spent devoted to Christ, learning his disciplines, applying them to our lives, holding Jesus near to our hearts, we’re dismissed as fakes, frauds, pretenders. Never in all those years did I fake it or pretend to be one of them. I was one of them. It was real, sincere, faith. While I have since determined that it was misplaced, that doesn’t make it less so.

    Not only that, it completely discounts the Dark Night of the Soul I went through when I came to that realization. I grieved. I was physically ill. Had it just been a pretense it wouldn’t have been so painful to give it up.

  • So, so true.

  • Linda R

    Recently found your blog and I am enjoying it immensely, nice to have another intelligent atheist adding to my daily/weekly reading schedule!

    Silly question? Why do you use upper case “G” when referring to god? When I finally came out and accepted my atheist position, I quit doing that in my writings.

    Keep the good stuff coming……………………

  • I go back and forth on that one. I find it really ticks Christians off when I use the lower case “g” in reference to Yahweh, so sometimes I make it a “big G,” although even then I often preface it with (your particular). I’m inconsistent. Or rather, context-dependent :-)

  • This was such a great and interesting post. I’ve generally been okay with responding to that (really condescending) statement affirmatively, since I never really did feel like I was as into Christianity as my peers. For 19 years it was sort of a game of mimicry for me and I just got tired of faking it, plus I got a little education and realized how ridiculous it all was.

    Having said that, it was even hard for me when I realized I was an atheist, so I can’t imagine how difficult it was for someone as devoted to faith as you and some of the previous commenters. It’s really disrespectful for someone to disregard all of the reasons that you listed for considering yourself a former Christian, especially since I feel like most Christians aren’t nearly as familiar with Christendom as you are.

  • Any time I’m talking about the Christian God I use upper case, because it’s a proper name. If I’m talking about some abstract god out there, I use lower case, or if I’m referring to a particular god in some pantheon.

    The fact that God isn’t real doesn’t affect the capitalization of his name, fictional characters’ names are capitalized all the time, think about it, Harry Potter, James T. Kirk, Voldemort, Santa Claus, Kim Kardashian, all fictional, all capitalized.

  • I was raised Assembly of God. We were more Arminian in our theology. But I’ve noticed that since I’ve come out as an atheist my parents seem to be leaning toward the “once-saved, always-saved” thing. Strange how emotional attachments can change even what you “believe.”

  • When I “came out” to my mom that I wasn’t a Christian anymore, she said, “Well, yeah, I knew that.” (referring to my wearing of pants – in Fundamental Baptist Land, a true Christian female never wears pants) After I clarified, adding that I wasn’t a believer at all, she said, “Oh, well, then you’ve never believed.”

    Thank you for this post; it is very validating to see that someone has shared a similar experience as I. :)

  • kchristiankemp

    I love the fact that Christians use this excuse of “you were never really one of us” do freely. Yet they would say when you were a christian “You are the most faithful person” I know. I think that is some serious brain denial activity that allows this to happen. Cognitive Dissonance at its best.

  • I wish there was a like option for comments.

  • Thanks :-)

  • Jasper_Xa

    Reminds me of 2 parallel examples. A person who spent over 20 years in AA leaves it for church, then the church turns out to be a cult, so the person leaves and starts drinking. But contrary to AA wisdom, this person never gets into the same trouble as before. If that person were to go back to an AA meeting, they’d tell ‘im to sit down and listen.

    Then another person who has always had issues with faith finally surrenders and says, ‘Faith, never had it, never will.” How can one summon up more faith? One can’t.

  • Donald Butts

    I think it’s appropriate to use the capital-G God when referring to the one in the Christian Bible, since that’s the name used by most Christians, whereas little-g god or goddess is just the generic term for any supreme mythological being.

  • Donald Butts

    I was never really part of a “Christian community” as some of you describe. I went to Sunday school and church on occasion with my parents, but never hung around with a lot of Christians, at least not those who strongly identified with the name. When I left high school and joined the Navy, at some point, lying in my bunk at night, I decided I was an atheist, although I had never been exposed to atheists in my youth as a typical small-town Mississippian. So when I came back home, now a confirmed atheist, I don’t recall ever having any sense of rejection by my peers. It just never came up. I was eventually able to discover a network of atheists on the internet, the old ACLU Free Speech Zone on AOL, some of whom I’m still in contact with after 15 or so years. But about six years ago a local atheist was able to locate a few of us isolated ones and started what is now the Central MS Atheist Meetup group, which has now to over 200 members. It has been a major comfort to have this community of atheists as supporters and friends. And we’re indebted to Godless in Dixie and the many other atheist bloggers who have come forth and made life more bearable in the Bible Belt.

  • Reblogged this on teecuzy's Blog and commented:
    ” If the mind consciously remembers all the details of life, we’ll all go insane”- Anonymous

  • Justin

    I just discovered your blog, and I am absolutely amazed by the things you have to say and the parallels with my own life. Thanks for writing; keep writing and I’ll keep reading. That’s all.

  • Neil,

    First, your example is not a use of the “No True Scotsman.” You truly are NOT a Christian. You are an Atheist. You would have to be an Atheist and a Christian at the same time for the fallacy to be valid.

    I feel for you, but I do not understand.

    When I went through my years of Agnosticism and doubt, I never went around trying to convert others to my point of view, or trying to justify my point of view to others. I just lived. Sometimes happy, sometimes not happy. I never felt a need to attack what others believed, and I had once believed.

    So, while I can empathize with a lot of what you have gone through, I cannot understand what is motivating you in the manner you are being motivated to behave in.

    I would tell you to “just get over it.” But, I think what is driving you is like what is driving an old friend, who is now also an Atheist. I don’t think either of you will ever “just get over it.”

    So, what is it you want Christians to tell you? What would motivate your happiness?


  • “I cannot understand what is motivating you in the manner you are being motivated to behave in.”

    Yes. That is correct. I agree with that statement.

    If I’m asking for anything it’s for people to stop doing precisely what you’re doing in your comment. Stop assuming you know what motivates me immediately after saying you cannot, as you do in the following comment:

    “I would tell you to “just get over it.” But, I think what is driving you is like what is driving an old friend, who is now also an Atheist. I don’t think either of you will ever “just get over it.”

  • I have gotten this, mostly from my mother. I think a lot of times it is out of fear. If that person, who seemed so devout, could lose their faith, then maybe I can. They can’t deal with that reality, so they have to tell themselves that that person couldn’t have possibly been a real Christian like them. I remember the gymnastics my brain had to go through to keep believing in the Christian god.

  • I think you’re right, Tonya. It’s innately threatening to your own faith when someone who once walked alongside you in that faith then leaves it. You can’t help but ask yourself if you should be doing the same thing. It’s frightening, and it makes people so angry. I found that it didn’t matter if I never said a critical thing towards the faith…they still felt my leaving was an unspoken challenge to their religion.

  • Chris

    Wow, great reply. As someone who was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church, it really touches a nerve with me. My grandmother (who I adored) died thinking I’d return to the faith. I won’t.

  • Michael

    2 Billion Christians can be wrong.

  • Don

    Having grown up Baptist with the belief once saved always saved I was shocked when a Calvinist told me I never was a Christian if I no longer believed. I felt insulted that he could doubt what I had believed was a real conversion. Then he told me that praying the sinners prayer was not a conversion. I had to be one of the elect! Really enjoy your blog.

  • When I first abandoned Christianity and was told that I was never a believer, I felt the way many of you do, that the one dismissing my previous devotion was slighting me. My way of thinking about it changed over time (I’ve been free of religion for more than 30 years now). I focus now on the myth of the transformative power of belief.

    Christians tell us that their relationships with Jesus is so powerful that once they start believing in him, it changes their lives – forever. So the question for them is: If all that time I was in the Church, doing what all the other Christians were doing, saying the same prayers and singing the same songs… If all that time, I was never really a believer, what does that say about the so-called “transfromative power” of belief?

    To put it another way: If living every day as a Christian was not enough to make me one, what possibly could?

  • That’s the beauty of the “No true Christian” fallacy. With it, one can completely dismiss all those prayers and songs because “your heart wasn’t right.” Your testimony is now invalid and they can ignore it completely.

  • Which begs the question: If the prayers and songs don’t “make my heart right,” what does?


    Depending on what the rationalist wants to get from the conversation, the rationalist has the opportunity to keep digging or not. If you choose to keep digging, eventually you will reach the only question that matters: How does all this discussion prove that (your) god exists?

  • I think that’s a bit of a harsh generalisation. Denominations and religion fulfill a function as organisational structures. While not necessarily prescribed in the scriptures I wouldn’t go so far as to call them anti-scripture. They become that when the people belonging to them elevate the denomination, its rituals and its dogma above the scriptures. This is also true for other religions than Christianity and even for non-religious movements like political parties or charities that were founded on a noble ideal and lost that ideal along the way.

    What I will concede is that the evangelical denominations in the Bible-belt have a very bad track record where that’s concerned, as do the denomination I come from in South Africa. But I also know of denominational churches that practice their faith without compromising on the scriptures.

  • Gabby

    I like to come around here and read what you have to say. I like it because I feel like I’m not alone. I cannot understand what is motivating mr. ghost in the manner he is being motivated to behave in. Luckily it’s not for me to say.

    Thank you for sharing


  • Reblogged this on Humanist Fox and commented:
    I hear the “you were never a true Christian” assertion often. Neil Carter does an excellent job explaining how it feels to receive this comment.

  • brandon

    I read this page and understand where you are coming from. After studying this exact verse after people have shoved it in faces. I realised if a person said that in that way May have not been with that group “us” either….

    People go their whole lives going, doing what the bible says but never honestly came to Christ with a true believing heart. I know this because I was like that. One day I was looking at the bible for kicks and a bible verse jumped out at me and spoke to me. And the bible from then on was full of joy life and literally points to Christ. I opened my heart and gave it to him and felt a joy unexplainable ( just like the bible says)

    On behalf of Christians I apologize if anyone has judged you in any way. But if a person departs from the faith and never comes back wasn’t a true believer to begin with because they didn’t truly come to Christ. They followed the patterns of the church with its rules.

    A church could have a thousand people in it and no one in it a Christian.

    Hebrews 11:6

    Love you all

  • David W

    Interesting, I’m pretty sure that you didn’t read the post, or that you didn’t understand it. Better luck next time ;-)

  • I am at a point where I really don’t care about trying to have a conversation with religous types about my view on the world or theres. It really is a waste of time in my opinion, unless someone is actually asking for my opinion rather than a debate. I am so comfortable in my views that I don’t feel a need to defend my thoughts, I just understand where religous peoples beliefs are coming from, and I feel compassion for their burden of living a life of faith and lies.