I deconverted nearly five years ago now but still not everyone in my life knows that I’ve left the Christian faith. Whenever someone new finds out, it seldom goes well. As a side note: I have a few choice words I’d like to share with the people who insist that everyone should “come out” about their skepticism because what are you afraid of, right? Surely everyone will understand and won’t hold it against you, right? Clearly you know nothing of my context. People lose jobs, families, and all their friends over this where I live. So stop being so smug. Some of us have really good reasons to keep this to ourselves.
This past weekend I had “the talk” (not that one, the other one) with two more family members and once again I was threatened with nebulous warnings about how bad things are going to happen to me because of my unbelief. It was strongly implied that I now suddenly have no moral compass (despite getting only positive evaluations from them all the way up until this moment) and that my speaking up publicly about my atheism was offensive, hurtful, and wrong. “I listened to your manifesto,” one of them said, and I could scarcely believe my ears because as I recall, the thrust of the talks he heard was positive and constructive, urging my listeners to connect and support one another, promoting things like scientific progress, education, and charitable causes. What I had to say about being an atheist in those talks was mainly about how atheists are misunderstood and misrepresented.
But that’s never how this revelation strikes people close to me. No matter how nice, gentle, non-confrontational or constructive my talk is, it hits them in the gut every time, like I just slapped my grandmother and then urinated on a crucifix. So it occurs to me that I should clarify once again why I write and speak in front of groups at all. I have three main goals: one therapeutic, one diplomatic, and one admittedly polemical but focused on a particular subset of belief.
My Three Motivations
1) Therapeutic. First and foremost, I write because consciously uncoupling yourself from the ideology of your youth can be a harrowing experience. If you’re like me, you need help processing the bevy of thoughts, emotions, and social ramifications that come out of this experience. Critically analyzing your own frame of reference—questioning the basic assumptions underlying everything you think—takes a lot out of you. It can be an emotionally exhausting experience, even without the inevitable intrusion of social pressure to continue conforming to the groupthink from which you are beginning to emerge. But once you add in the social element, you’ve got a recipe for stress, conflict, fear, intimidation, separation, and ostracism. People can be ruthless, especially in the service of God.
I’ve seen first-hand how separating from the Christian faith can put you at odds with your fellow man. I’ve also felt the disorientation of questioning all my most basic beliefs, and I could have used some help going through that. The few people I shared my struggle with couldn’t fully identify with me at the time, so most everyone I turned to tried to nudge me back into their religion. I tried finding writers who could identify with my struggle but it seemed like everyone I looked into could only address my religious doubts as outsiders who were inexperienced at working through the kinds of challenges a person in my position would face. Over time I’ve accumulated friends and literature (mostly online, on both counts) which speak to these things, but it took a while and they weren’t always easy to find. They say if you can’t find the kind of writing that you need, you should just write it yourself. I guess that’s one of my main reasons for writing. It helps me think through my own issues, too, which is an added bonus. Writing is as therapeutic for me as it is for anyone else who reads what I write.
2) Diplomatic. One of my chief burdens when I write is that I’m painfully aware of how badly people like me are misunderstood by people of faith. The integrity of a group depends largely on its ability to maintain identity markers, and to distinguish between who is “in” and who is “out.” As a consequence, groups often draw strength and unity through villainizing those who are on the outside, mocking them and criticizing them in order to forge a cohesive bond within the group around a common enemy. It just comes with the territory. But it leads to unfair caricatures and mischaracterization. For what it’s worth, I acknowledge that all groups do this, including groups of atheists. I’ve written before about a couple of ways I think atheists mischaracterize Christians and their beliefs. But in my own personal life, the opposite phenomenon has been responsible for a great deal of pain and loss.
People of faith think atheists are evil. They often characterize us as cold, empty, soulless shells without purpose or meaning, bent on the destruction of all goodness, happiness, love, and joy in the world. Honestly, they make us sound like two-dimensional cartoon villains, and they need to have the silliness of it all pointed out to them or else it will never occur to them how unfair these images are. Soon I will subject myself to a viewing of God’s Not Dead and I’m sure you will hear from me about it when it’s over. But I already know enough to know that few films have marshalled so many unfair caricatures of non-believers in one single script as that one. I cannot promise I will be able to endure it without the help of my new friend, Bacardi.
But highlight these things I must. Without drawing attention to these misconceptions, people will continue to misunderstand and misrepresent what drives people like me and they will continue to behave toward us in accordance with their skewed perception of us. I therefore see addressing this as a major facet of my work in writing and speaking to groups. I want to appeal to the more charitable side of people of faith whenever I can because I know they’ve got it in them to speak about us and treat us better than they currently do. It’s a steep hill to climb, to be sure, but I think it’s worth the effort. For this very reason last year I agreed to be interviewed by a pastor for Interview an Atheist at Church Day, and you can hear the gist of what I had to say at that event here (or if you’d rather read the expanded version of that talk, you can catch it here):
3) Polemic. People assume that all atheists aim to rid the planet of religion once and for all. I for one am unconvinced that such a thing is even possible. I personally suspect that there is something about human nature that has evolved to look for agency where there is none, meaning where none exists, and purpose amidst the virtual randomness of real-life events [Okay, so maybe randomness isn’t even the best word since intelligent beings are at work in the events of the world as are certain constants of the physical and natural world. Natural selection itself seems to lend an air of purposefulness and “design” to things which strictly speaking have none. But that only helps to explain why this notion won’t seem to go away]. Some seem to enjoy directly challenging the faithful to abandon their faith and at this point I’m interested in neither supporting nor resisting their efforts. But some just seem cut out for such things. For example, I thought Matt Dillahunty did an excellent job of that just last weekend in Memphis. But for me personally I would say I’m more of a lover than a fighter :) I’ll leave that job to other people whose minds work better than mine in that kind of setting. That’s not really a focus of mine in either my writing or my speaking.
Having said that, though, I have also confessed that I see fundamentalism as harmful both to individuals and to society as a whole. With each passing year, I’m seeing variations of religion which cause harm and I feel strongly that these must be addressed and critiqued precisely because they have a deleterious effect on the human race. I’ve enumerated before the four elements of Christian fundamentalism which I see as my enemy and which I will not shy away from disparaging because to fail to do so would be wrong from my perspective.
Four Beliefs I Am Against
1) The belief that people are fundamentally bad, broken, wicked, or wrong simply because they’re human. In my mind, “human” is not a synonym for “weak” or “broken.” Borrowing a term from Anthony Pinn, I like to call this anti-human theology. It lies at the heart of what I am against.
2) The belief that, because of #1, people deserve to be eternally tortured as a punishment. Experience is making crystal clear to me that a belief in Hell is behind a HUGE portion of the mistreatment which atheists and apostates like myself receive at the hands of the devout. If you could just remove that single piece of dogma, there’s no telling how much grief that single move would eliminate. Many just cannot do it, though. Whether they realize it or not, fear of Hell is too important to the Christian faith to ever let it go. Hell must remain, or else what you get is basically Humanism in a religious garb, and that just won’t do for the gatekeepers of the Christian identity.
3) The belief that, also because of #1, human reason cannot be trusted even when it’s at its best. Anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in fundamentalism, and is behind so much that is pulling down the culture of my own country. The men who write, execute, and interpret the laws of my region are largely science deniers who think the biblical writers knew more about science than even our most distinguished Nobel Prize winners today. I honestly have developed increasingly low expectations for where my once-revered country is headed, and it’s largely because of the sneaky influence of people wielding Bibles in the halls of power.
4) The belief that a book written a couple of thousand years ago (or any book for that matter) can be perfect, above reproach. If I’m not mistaken, this sacrosanct belief is the font from which spring all the others which I am set against. It all begins here, with the unquestioning submission of all thought to this one deeply flawed book. It is because of a belief in inerrancy that people today think people are fundamentally bad. It is also because of a belief in inerrancy that people still believe in eternal torture. I am convinced that the anti-intellectual flavor of my surrounding culture owes a great deal to this very anti-intellectual book. And I am also quite certain that it is only because this book immortalizes the social prejudices of one particular culture that people in my country today still fight against things like marriage equality for same-sex relationships and equal pay and work opportunity for women. It seems to me that when I am trying to appeal to a person’s reasoning powers about pretty much any religious issue we can discuss, the watershed issue is whether or not they think this book is above correction. Which way they fall on that issue determines whether or not we can have an intelligent conversation at all.
Those are the issues I will address because I see real-life ramifications which cause harm in people’s lives. Those beliefs hold us back as a species, and they lead people to do and say some terrible things (especially the belief in eternal torment), so I am against them. When those aren’t in view, I think you’ll find that the majority of what I have to say is simply about helping people process the questions they’ve already begun asking about their faith on their way “out,” as well as helping others learn to treat us as legitimate human beings, not belittling us or misrepresenting us simply because we don’t believe in all the things that they were taught to believe.