The Challenge of an Atheist Outlier

The Challenge of an Atheist Outlier July 26, 2013

OutlierScatterplotI’ve always had a knack for feeling out of place wherever I am.  I don’t know why this keeps happening to me, but I can’t seem to escape it.  It has always been true of my professional life and it usually holds true in my personal life as well.  I’ve taught on many a faculty and I’ve never had a significant friendship with any of my coworkers.  I am too dissimilar to everyone with whom I work.  I suppose another major factor is that along the way I helped produce four children.  It’s difficult to do a good job of raising that many short people and still have a social life.  The differences are even more pronounced in my part-time jobs (I’ve gone through more of those than I care to count) where I’m often working with people half my age.  Even if I didn’t have any kids, I still wouldn’t easily identify with these kids, since pretty soon they’ll be the same age as my kids.

But even in my personal life, more often than not I feel somehow out of place.  It’s hard to explain.  Something about the mix of traits that has made me who I am always makes me feel different from everyone else around me.  For example, I’m probably the most sensitive straight guy I know, and I love playing sports but I have no interest in watching it or talking much about it.  I workout at a gym regularly but rarely ever enjoy a conversation with anyone there.  Most guys where I live seem to have a very short list of enjoyable topics:  sports, hunting, fishing, and “that commie Muslim from Kenya.”  I grew up with money and most of my classmates seem to have chosen careers that keep them in that world, whereas I chose a career that has kept me far away from that socioeconomic rung.  On top of all that, my intellectual life has brought me through two or three very distinctive iterations of the Christian faith and ultimately into atheism only to find that most people in this subculture have never exactly been through my kind of experience. They usually think they have, but in most cases they haven’t, and there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that.

People from good church backgrounds are less likely to become atheists.  Think about it.  Why would you leave if it was working for you just fine?   Of course, I know several ways that can happen because that’s how it happened with me.  Sometimes you just think about things enough to realize they don’t add up.  Sometimes a person who is succeeding at doing “spiritual things” still comes to realize one day that his whole life is predicated on a very powerful and heavily reinforced placebo effect.  Other times, if they press on into leadership positions, they may have what I call a Wizard of Oz moment.  It does happen.  But even then it happens more in places where the flaws of religion (even “moderate” religion) are close enough to the surface to be more readily noticed by each person who finally opens his eyes to see them.  It makes sense that churches and theological subcultures which maintain the healthiest lifestyles would lose fewer people to skepticism.  Consequently, if you ask most atheists to describe the religious culture from whence they’ve come, you will hear a laundry list of faults and shortcomings, some of which are grotesque and even comical.  It also stands to reason that of those atheists who were once Christians, the greater number will have come from traditions whose flaws were the most glaring and deleterious.

That’s not how it was with me.  For me, the flaws of my religious upbringing were much more subtle, almost ingeniously buried beneath a sophisticated scaffolding of spin, slant, and clever reframing.  To some degree, this describes evangelicalism as a whole.  As I’ve said too much lately, evangelicalism is fundamentalism with a more sophisticated vocabulary.  In terms of theological beliefs, they maintain the same tenets; but while fundamentalists just quote the Bible to make their point (as if that settles it for people who hold no special regard for ancient religious texts), evangelicals will cite university studies and media statistics in order to say the exact same things.  At their ideological core, they are two different expressions of the same faith in the Bible as the final arbiter of truth in all matters of life.  But in their outward expression, I must admit that they can be very different.  Fundamentalism tends to run roughshod over the rest of the world with a kind of unreflective oblivion, while evangelical culture always keeps one ear open to the surrounding culture, ready at a moment’s notice to shapeshift into whatever form it needs to assume next in order to keep relevant in the world.  That’s a big part of why they do a better job of keeping people engaged in their mission, losing fewer folks like me to non-belief.  To put it differently, they screw up less than their quirky cousins, and when they do, their transgressions are often smaller, and less damaging.  And in the process, they often do some things very well, benefiting their most loyal members in ways which I think most atheists overlook.  I want to take a minute to highlight those things because even those of us who should know better can sometimes forget.

Most of the Christians I know from my upbringing are really good people.  When I was a kid, and later a young adult, I never ran across those people who greet you by telling you you’re going to Hell because of this that or the other thing.  Granted, I wasn’t an atheist then, and the internet didn’t exist so people hadn’t yet learned to be so callous and inconsiderate in their interactions with people.  But still, the Christian folks I grew up with are way nicer than those people.  I also don’t think the people I grew up with were nearly as gullible when it came to swallowing the condescending assertions of people in powerful religious or political positions.  Maybe some of this is due to the rise of partisan media (one of the worst things that ever happened to American democracy, second only to the repealing of bipartisan campaign finance reform).  The truth is, I think this particular problem has at least partially plugged up that previously listening ear so that they’re not as good as they used to be at listening to people tell their own stories.  That needs some work.  But even despite all this, many people today are having just as good a time growing up in healthy churches as I once did, and they are going to make it all the way through their childhood without any traumatic or hurtful experiences at the hand of their spiritual leaders.

Most preachers are not money-grubbing charlatans.  Yes, I know they are out there, and when they get caught doing their thing, the spectacle is always…well…spectacular.  You’ll also hear horror stories about whippings or sexual abuse because those things happen wherever there are people, particularly in places where leaders have little to no accountability.  But most preachers, priests, elders, deacons, and Sunday School teachers are not child abusers or sexual predators.  It’s not fair or accurate to let the headlines convince you that they are all that way.  Most of them are not.  In my experience, most of the church leaders and mentors are well-adjusted, nurturing, responsible adults who want what’s best for the people in their care.  I have plenty of criticisms for the thought processes that inevitably accompany many of their religious beliefs, but on a personal level I have found almost all of them to be good people.

Churches are often great sources of community strength.  Where else outside of publicly funded education will you find such a well-established network of adults investing their time and energy in nurturing children that aren’t even their own?  Children get weekly reinforcement from mentors and peers for social skills, character development, and sometimes self-esteem (although I do often have bone to pick with evangelicalism about this, but that’s a discussion for another time…sometimes they’re not so bad).  For all the things I’d like to see done differently, they’re still doing an awful lot to provide a supportive context for people when they need it most.  Churches often do a great job of supporting people when a baby is born, or when a young couple gets married (assuming they are heterosexuals), or when someone is sick or dying.  Of course, all of these are functions of a community which don’t necessarily require religion for them to exist.  As I’ve written before, I would very much like to see more intentional connections of atheists in real-life communities.  All I’m saying here is that not everything churches do is bad.  Lots of it is good and helpful.

I think we atheists lose sight of these things because we have a lot of resentment toward Christianity due to the things that they don’t get right.  To be clear:  Even moderate religion can be quite harmful.  But that doesn’t mean that everybody in it is crooked.  Sometimes I hear my atheist friends making blanket statements about preachers, teachers, and other Christian leaders that just don’t ring true from my experience.  I know why that is:  Their experience was way worse than mine.  When people spew venom about something, it’s often because they’ve been truly harmed by whatever it is they’re condemning.  I don’t want to take away from their experience, because the harm was probably real and the baggage and emotional scars will be with them for many years to come. But their experience wasn’t the same as mine, and sometimes it colors the way they look at the whole of religion. Sometimes they make sweeping generalizations that don’t hold true for all versions of Christianity.

I first noticed this when I was a recent deconvert looking for reading material to help me unpack my own changing thoughts about faith. Most of the best-known writers had never really been Christians themselves at all, so their writing rang with a certain callousness that indicated no sympathies toward people raised to believe in the unseen. On occasion, I would find a writer who had been a Christian—maybe even a minister—but even then I found that the tradition he came from was sufficiently different from mine as to make his approach seem misguided to me. In time I’ve come to see why they write what they write (have you been on the internet lately?). There are a lot of crazy things out there that pass for respectable religion, and their mockery of those things is frankly understandable. But very few atheist writers out there seem to have come from the kind of world in which I grew up. Like I said, it makes sense that the healthier churches would produce fewer atheists so that the majority of deconverts out there will have more negative things to say.

I figure it’s worth noting this difference because I think it pays to be aware of your own influences.  Frans de Waal theorized that “the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces…my thesis [is] that activist atheism reflects trauma.” Even though I would qualify it to say that sometimes your most traumatic experiences with religion happen only after you leave it, I think his observation is pretty correct.  As I pointed out in a recent post, even those of us who like to use the term “freethinker” aren’t completely free from our backgrounds. The kind of religion we grow up in plays a major role in how we view religion as adults, and it often determines our posture towards religion after we leave it.  Again, this makes sense.  Only those most hurt by the dark side of religion will understand and be sufficiently motivated to actively work toward curtailing its influence on society.  I have had a bit of a taste of that myself now that I’ve left it.  But none of this negates the reality that most Christian folks (just like most folks in general) are good people.  Sometimes that needs to be said.

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  • Jen G.

    I haven’t commented before, but so much of this rings true to me. I’m an agnostic who grew up evangelical, became a liberal Christian, went to a fairly moderate but rigorous seminary and realized I didn’t actually believe it all. Some of my closest friends are still the people I went to seminary with, meaning my best friends are pastors. Some of the stuff I hear in my Bible Belt town can be frustrating, but my friends, who are among the best people I know, remind me that what you believe isn’t as important as how you live.

  • ColinL

    Well done, again, Neil. Although my experience living here for 20 years -is that most of the atheists I have met here in MS, DO come from religious backgrounds. Many seem to be reactionary in their characterization of religion here. I have always been atheist and since my father was also at least agnostic I was never in Sunday school and never went to church. So in a different but parallel way I also have felt like outlier even among many of the atheists I have met here.

  • Solidarity, brother, on so many levels. Another great post.

  • Margaret

    Kenneth Daniels has written a great book about his deconversion experience as a missionary. Highly recommend it.

  • mikespeir
  • carmen

    I hear what you are saying, Neil and I agree. There are many good things that happen in church, even if I do not agree with all the things most of the people believe. In my case, the sense of community and outreach/Missions keeps me attending, even though I stopped believing some time ago.

    To address the first part of your essay, do you think that the reason you may not fit too well is because you are an introvert? It’s obvious to me that you definitely have a rich “inner” life! Introverts have much to offer, as evidenced by this Blog. . .keep up the inspirational writing!

  • Preston Jackson Jr.

    Well said Neil. I was fifty years old before my doubts led to my de-conversion (I’m sixty one now.) After eleven or so years, I’m still left with a lingering anger over how I could have allowed myself to be duped for the first half century of my life. I suppose I’ll always carry some anger at myself with me to my grave. The flip side of the coin is that once my de-conversion was complete the world makes perfect sense to me now, and I realized that the world didn’t make any sense when I tried to factor in an all loving God into the mix. This realization alone makes the price of leaving religion/God behind me well worth it (in spite of my anger.)

  • Kerry

    Excellent post Neil. I track with so much of what you have written. My father was a fighting fundamentalist pastor who believed in secondary separation. Theses means that we could not have fellowship with christians outside of our group. Having said that, within the group, there was all the love and support any one could ask for. The cocoon mentality is wonderfully supporting as long as you stay inside those walls.

    I began to drift based on CCM which fed my soul but was not allowed in my community. I attended a strict fundamental christian university and belonged to fundamental independent churches most of my life until I finally stepped out cautiously into the evangelical world. It was a breath of fresh air, with a dose of freedom. Finally permitted to read and understand scripture on my own, the answers to the questions I had harbored that I was able to pursue came as something of a shock. The more I studied and researched, the more I came to believe that, like Preston mentioned, I had wasted the better part of 50 years.

    I do miss the community provided by the community of faith, but I do not regret the journey that has led me to the evidence I have found and the relief from condemnation and fear that has accompanied those choices. I have maintained a few friendships through the de-conversion in which we engage in spirited conversations, but never in derogatory tones. I enjoy the place I have found and am confident , without arrogance, that I have followed my heart and mind to a healthier life.

  • As someone raised with very haphazard exposure to Christianity by an agnostic, maybe atheist, mother. I went searching for God at 21 having never having really thought about it. Awakened by Yoga philosophy, Zen practice, Mysticism etc. I arrived at a monistic understanding of God which continues to ripen. I am now 60.

    I am always puzzled when I hear the testimony of people who “grew out of” their religion, but instead of setting out on their own; to improve on their highly conditioned but insufficient, “working model” of the Great Paradox, they become atheists.

    I think that I probably owe more to my mothers lack of faith than I realize. I am a freethinker as a result but this “free thinking” is inspired by the possibility of enlightenment.

  • I guess we just can’t all be as enlightened as you. :-p

  • Donald Butts

    Another great post, Neil. I think most of us introverted atheists feel outside the comforting envelope of this society we were born into. Liberal atheists especially are definitely outliers in this religiously conservative part of the country we live in. However, I applaud your efforts to build bridges of understanding between the religious and the nonreligious. Sometimes it seems that crossing over into atheism is tantamount to burning a bridge, so your attempt to rebuild or repair them is a good thing.

  • I undertand your post and about not painting people with one brush. Howevere, if their is no evidence for the faith then it should get pointed out. Also by pointing out a few examples of paedophilia in churches is important as for the catholic church in particular the whole church is guilty as they have hidden these predators for long enough.

  • Ouch!?

    Just doing doing my best, much like you. We all have our little piece of the puzzle.

    If this is choir practice, just say so and I’ll keep this kind of thing to myself.

  • Comments are always welcome, even from people not in the choir :-p Just noting the patronizing tone of the following:

    “I am always puzzled when I hear the testimony of people who “grew out of” their religion, but instead of setting out on their own…they become atheists.”

    See, that’s a false dilemma. Either learn to think freely or become an atheist. As if monism isn’t backed by centuries of tradition. My point is simply that we all have our influences, so none of us can really boast that we are an intellectual island.

  • Actually, I think -most- atheists consider themselves to be outliers, ironic as that seems. Just note how difficult it is to get atheists together for fun times and frivolity.

    The scheduling of kid time is certainly a big factor in keeping us separated from other folks (why? one would think it would give us more time to interact with the other parents…) For me, personally, I have a job where I’m on call 24/7 and travel across 2 1/2 states (big states) at a moment’s notice, so when I’m home, I don’t really want to go out.

    Finally, in my own case, I’m an outlier from “mainstream” atheists because I don’t buy into the myth of atheist persecution. When is the last time atheists were arrested in the park for wanting to talk about free thought? But gays still get saddled with this crap:

  • As someone who’s been an atheist all his life. I welcome you aboard. I hope you inspire can others and offer a positive face for the cause for freethinkers.

  • [quote]godlessindixie – ” Just noting the patronizing tone of the following:

    [quote]brmckay – ‘I am always puzzled when I hear the testimony of people who ‘grew out of’ their religion, but instead of setting out on their own…they become atheists.”[/quote]

    See, that’s a false dilemma. Either learn to think freely or become an atheist. As if monism isn’t backed by centuries of tradition. My point is simply that we all have our influences, so none of us can really boast that we are an intellectual island.”[/quote]

    I apologize if I sounded patronizing, and hope that you heard it wrong.

    I do not doubt your sincerity, and the validity of your atheism. I was just trying to describe a contrasting experience. The lead-in seems to have been bungled.

    I do notice that a lot of Atheists that I meet or read, seem mostly motivated by an emotional reaction to the hypocrisies and irrationality of the religions that they are familiar with.

    It also sometimes seems that their ability to imagine the nature of God is still constrained by the religion they left. If they give up God, it is that god that they give up.

    As for me boasting about my “free thinking”, this doesn’t strike you as patronizing? ..or maybe defensive? I wasn’t saying that you, or atheists in general, weren’t also.

    What I was hoping to convey was that my process has been one of sifting through the testimony and teachings. Testing the ones that seem to point forward. Looking for inspiration. Looking for resonance within. Practicing. Evolving. Not-knowing the answers as much as possible. Trusting the process and my own intention and intuition.

    For me God has become a given, but I too have to protect my integrity around the “You’re going to HELL!” or the “Used Car Salesmen” type of Christians.

    Sorry about the long post.

  • brmckay wrote above:

    I do notice that a lot of Atheists that I meet or read, seem mostly motivated by an emotional reaction to the hypocrisies and irrationality of the religions that they are familiar with.

    True, and it depends entirely on which atheists you are communicating with. For those raised free of religion, they don’t reject any particular idea of god, because they never had one to begin with. Fro the rest of us, we who were raised in a religious tradition who later decided the whole thing was hoo-haw, we go through similar spiritual journeys to the one you have described for yourself. But very few ever start the journey unless there this something about their current religion that has started to rub them the wrong way.

    Most Christians in America, it has been noted, practice a benign form of feel-good Christianity that they only need to think about for an hour or two on Sunday, or a couple of hours on Easter and Christmas. Since their form of Christianity doesn’t really impact their lives, they have no reason to examine it very closely. None of the bad stuff ever comes up. When it does, most just switch to a different church were there are more people who think like they do. For example, if they decide that their old church is too anti-woman, they find another that de-emphasizes those problematic passages of the Bible and lets women be pastors. The staying power of Christianity is the West is entirely a product of its infinite malleability.

    Eventually, however, some of us get the wrong straw added to our load and it “breaks the camel’s back.” We have a visceral reaction to the BS of Christians near us and flee the church. Once on the outside, we start to examine the freethought literature, from Epicurus to Robert Green Ingersoll (the last original atheist thinker, IMO), and discover that there are many more reasons to reject gods and religion than whatever caused us to leave in the first place. Over time, we intellectualize our choice and rationalize our emotional reaction into one based on “reason.”

    Don’t believe me? Then I refer you to none other than Ben Franklin who wrote in his autobiography:

    So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for anything one has a mind to do.

  • Well said. Though I think Franklin may have had his tongue in his cheek.

    Other than the grassroots versions of atheism that I have encountered recently in blogs and forums, I have not read any serious work on it yet. My interest has been in the other direction.

    However, it has been a good exercise opening up to the lives and thoughts I find in places like this. There is a certain common ground, especially the more I “grok” the infinitude of what I refer to as God. Existence and non-existence are relative terms and not pertinent to the Entirety.

    One point of divergence may be in the role that the intuitive (right hemisphere) mind plays. I like to bring it into harmony with the rational (left hemisphere) for the most complete understanding. This may account for, or be the result of, my orientation. Who can say?

  • zsc

    I’m an ex-Eastern Orthodox, so I can relate. Many evangelicals are converting to EO, and it’s because of it’s relatively healthy approach to theology, beautiful liturgy and church culture. I’ve met some of the most humble priests/bishops/monks/nuns you ever could meet. Most of the (older) people also are loving and charitable towards each other. The whole thing seems pretty benign from the inside. By the time you learn about the shady sides of it, you’re already in love.

    I went to an Episcopalian church for a while during my deconversion, and I found much of the same thing.

    I was aware of the more fundamentalist Christians, but the only contact I had with them was when my eccentric uncle was in town. I could easily see why “his” Christianity was wrong, but I still saw “mine” as a-okay. And I still secretly hope that if my mother joins a church (she’s exploring), it’s at least Episcopalian/ELCA Lutheran, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

  • zsc

    I have “tried God” in every which way after leaving Christianity and for me, there’s just no escaping the reality that some Ultimate Reality isn’t there.

  • carmen

    zsc – I like how another atheist phrased it – “I didn’t have an imaginary friend when I was little and I don’t need one now. . . “

  • What is Reality other than Ultimate?

    Applying semantics to the infinite.

    What could you expect?

  • You wrote: “But very few ever start the journey unless there this something about their current religion that has started to rub them the wrong way.”

    I came to my atheism because… my church didn’t heavily indoctrinate me enough, nor my parents. In fact my father was an agnostic? or a lapsed Jew or whatever and it was just my mother and grandmother in charge of my religious upbringing. I was raised in a dying and boring Catholic church, and I lacked the community that I know so many religious people found there. But I believed that faith was a virtue and that everyone had faith and believed in some god or another. I basically thought atheists didn’t exist. But I never fully believed, because I didn’t feel like I understood. How could Jesus and God be the same, yet God be his father? The logic confused me. I didn’t understand how heaven could make sense if murderers couldn’t go there but the murderer’s mother loved the murderer and… how could it be heaven for her without him there? I couldn’t wrap my head around why my religion was “the right one” when I was exposed to the fact that my dad who was a great guy was raised Jewish and half of my extended family – my entire dad’s site – was not Catholic… when people I encountered at school were different brands of Christian like Lutheran… when my brother’s best friend had to SNEAK reading Harry Potter because his Jehovah’s Witness grandmother forbid it.

    When I was 12 my dad’s Jewish first cousins’ children started turning 13 and having Bat Mitzvahs and Bar Mitzvahs. I found myself immersed firsthand in the amazing community that Judaism provided. Later in my life, I’ve come to realize that Judaism is so complicated because of the ethnic/racial solidarity that they have… and that choosing to openly voice a lack of belief in that religion in which one was born into is like disrespecting all the Jews who died in the Holocaust/were persecuted for centuries. That’s why “Jewish Atheism” and “Cultural Jews” is more of a thing.

    But back to my 12-year-old self… I was jealous of the community and was even considering converting to Judaism, but ultimately dismissed the idea because of TRUTH. I didn’t actually want to claim I believed things that I was not actually convinced were true. That was the same reason I told my mother I did not want to get Confirmed in the Catholic church when I was 14.

    I ended up becoming close friends with a Mormon girl in high school, the youngest of 9 children, and I have seen first hand how happy her community of her religion makes her. Following all the special rules where she has to be careful to buy a prom dress that doesn’t expose her shoulders and whatnot makes you feel a sense of… pride or something, I don’t know.

    I didn’t have a particularly bad experience with my religion, although there were negatives – boringness is a negative, and a feeling of confusion about everything I was supposed to believe mildly tormented me for most of my first 20 years of my life. When I was 19 and realized it was okay to be an atheist, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

    I understand that so many people don’t have those negatives. I feel like I’ve come across a lot of Christians turned to atheists online who were much more immersed and enjoyed the community but… idk. I feel like this blog post is missing a huge segment of the Christian-to-atheist population and I feel like a lot of atheists are like you, and a lot of the rest of us do understand.