Why I Write

Why I Write June 10, 2014

writers-blockI 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.

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  • Tim Wolf

    I hope you will continue to write, Neil, because I truly enjoy reading your blog. Having lived in the south myself and been immersed in Southern Baptist culture; I am also put out by the “so what you’re an atheist” comments both online and in person. I’ve noticed the online “so what” comments generally come from somebody living in a liberal state. I also get comments from friends who are not practicing their religion. But there is a big difference between being a non-practicing Catholic and being an atheist. You have addressed what people think when they hear you are an atheist. You don’t get the same reaction if you are a non-practicing Christian because the US is full of those.

    I often think of you and your situation and how difficult it must be. Before I started to come out, I had already become separated from many of the believers in my life through divorce, relocation, etc. But still I’m not totally out of the closet. I think it’s a process that has to be handled purposefully. Because after all, atheists DO care deeply about other people, believers or not.

  • Wonderfully written! Thank you for this post! It’s quite nice to run across others who share similar views on the best way to address the differences in our belief systems. All too often, both sides of the issue devolve into vitriol and bitterness. It’s often difficult to maintain mutual respect, but that should definitely be our goal!

  • Jackie

    Neil, the things you write are therapeutic for me to read, so I deeply appreciate the thought and work you put into it. I’m coming out slowly as it must be for me. I strongly disagree with David Silverman, who seems to think everyone should be out, to hell with what anyone thinks. While I admire much of what he does, he’s flat wrong about that. I live in North Carolina; ’nuff said!

    By the way, I think you kind of look like Derren Brown without the balbo. Same nose, head shape, hairline. Same charming eye-crinkle when you smile. Not exactly, just a little. :-)

    http://youtu.be/51B8MzcxOX0

  • Your writing, compassion for the position of believers and all, is the best I’ve found on the important topic of deconversion, I live in a very liberal and secular state (Quebec), but my own family relationships and friendships since high school are rooted in the Church of Christ, and tearing free and beginning a new life has been an excruciating process. One of the biggest sources of help and encouragement for me has been The ManKind Project (www.mkp.org) a non-religious men’s movement with the goal of helping men lead lives of integrity, accountability, and connection to their feelings. I would love to check out the Sunday Meeting and other such atheist creations as well, because I agree with you: the psychological mechanisms behind religion and much of religion itself are baked into us, and the need for fellowship, transcendence and a purpose beyond ourselves outlives religious belief and practice. Keep writing—I am still looking forward to your book!—and be careful of your new friend Bacardi: don’t spend too much time with him ;-)

  • Well said, Neil. Like my Native American ancestors might say, “Walk a mile in my moccasins”. Your take on the “eternal punishment” promise of religion seems to be the way a majority of these faiths keep their flocks in line and coming back for more. Prisoners will obey their captors because they fear the pain of torture or “promised” torture. There also is a “religious bigotry” here in the south. You don’t believe, you don’t belong! Humans are social animals and we long for a connection to other humans. Those of us who don’t “believe” also need a connection to other like-minded humans. I just hope we don’t wind up creating our own “secular bigotry” in the process. Without the dark how would we appreciate the light?

  • Well said, Neil. Like my Native American ancestors might say, “Walk a mile in my moccasins”. Your take on the “eternal punishment” promise of religion seems to be the way a majority of these faiths keep their flocks in line and coming back for more. Prisoners will obey their captors because they fear the pain of torture or “promised” torture. There also is a “religious bigotry” here in the south. You don’t believe, you don’t belong! Humans are social animals and we long for a connection to other humans. Those of us who don’t “believe” also need a connection to other like-minded humans. I just hope we don’t wind up creating our own “secular bigotry” in the process. Without the dark how would we appreciate the light?

  • Nice piece of work. I agree with you that not everone can come out, also often its not necessary as in the same way some theists do not talk about their belief all the time why should atheists do the same. Also Muslims can get killed for becoming an atheist, so to say just come out is a bit stupid really.

  • Wise words. This secular bigotry is something many atheist fear.

  • Wise words. This secular bigotry is something many atheist fear.

  • Your posts are always provocative and informative. Fortunately, I do not live in the deep south, so I am not faced with the same degree of negativity you have to deal with. Most of the people who are important to me know that I’m an atheist and don’t condemn me (at least not to my face) about that. At the same time, I never, ever discuss my atheism with people at work and certainly not with clients. It’s none of their business; just as what their religious beliefs are none of mine. But I know that many people react to those who “come out” just as you have described: atheists are evil, immoral people who deserve eternal damnation. So while I don’t hide my atheism from family and friends (or on my anonymous blog), I also don’t openly advertise it. I don’t wear any atheist jewelry around my neck like so many Christians where crosses around theirs.

  • Your posts are always provocative and informative. Fortunately, I do not live in the deep south, so I am not faced with the same degree of negativity you have to deal with. Most of the people who are important to me know that I’m an atheist and don’t condemn me (at least not to my face) about that. At the same time, I never, ever discuss my atheism with people at work and certainly not with clients. It’s none of their business; just as what their religious beliefs are none of mine. But I know that many people react to those who “come out” just as you have described: atheists are evil, immoral people who deserve eternal damnation. So while I don’t hide my atheism from family and friends (or on my anonymous blog), I also don’t openly advertise it. I don’t wear any atheist jewelry around my neck like so many Christians where crosses around theirs.

  • Define “too much time.”

    /jk

    Fear not, Darrell. I have too many people counting on me to ever let that be a problem. Besides, it would get in the way of the elusive six pack I’m trying to achieve (and I don’t mean the kind you drink).

  • Define “too much time.”

    /jk

    Fear not, Darrell. I have too many people counting on me to ever let that be a problem. Besides, it would get in the way of the elusive six pack I’m trying to achieve (and I don’t mean the kind you drink).

  • Neil, I loved your post. I can relate to much of what you have said but not for the same reasons many would think. My husband deconverted almost two years ago. When he first came out as an atheist, he was aggressive. He has mellowed considerably. Because I was blindsided by his seemingly overnight deconvertion, it was a shock, to say the least. We were both raised Baptists, (his dad is a IFB pastor) and raised our four kids (aged 19-9) in that faith. My husband was on two church committees (as chairman) and was teaching Sunday school at the time of his deconversion. My immediate (brainwashed) horrified, angry, hurt, response to his change of worldview, and his antagonistic attitude at the time did not mix well and almost destroyed our marriage. There were some really ugly moments that first year. Fast forward to the present and life is much healthier. We support each other, in our belief / unbelief. We found a church that we could attend together with our four children that does not support the harmful doctrines we grew up with. In the Emergent church we found, doctrines like Hell, Satan, Bible inerrancy, the need to “save” people by evangelising, etc. are considered myths. What the church believes in is humanism at it’s best but with a belief of God mixed in. It works for my family, and the church accepts my husband as he is: an atheist. This is rare, I am sure, and probably impossible in the south. My husband still has not told his parents that he is an atheist and probably never will. Sometimes, it does make more since to keep those things private as you suggest. It is not worth the pain, the long explainations, and the misunderstandings. You tell the wrong “believer” you no longer belief in God, and they are stepping away as fast as they can all the while throwing insults and Bible verses at them. The devil becomes very real to people like that because the deconverted person is now a “tool of the devil” and should be feared. Many folks in our old Baptist church do not know he is an atheist, but the people that do know, were not gracious, kind, or loving about it. They did however hide his atheism, because “what would people think if a good Christian like (my husband) could leave the faith? What would happen to other people in the church that were struggling with their faith?” These church leaders were the biggest example of bigotry, judgement, and lack of “Christ’s love” I have ever witnessed. I have found that people have to WANT to understand WHY people leave and that a persons deconversion is usually a long, reasoned, and difficult thought process. However, in my experience, most (fundamentalist) Christians haven’t evolved enough to be able to understand that kind of reasoning. Thanks for the blog!

  • Neil, I loved your post. I can relate to much of what you have said but not for the same reasons many would think. My husband deconverted almost two years ago. When he first came out as an atheist, he was aggressive. He has mellowed considerably. Because I was blindsided by his seemingly overnight deconvertion, it was a shock, to say the least. We were both raised Baptists, (his dad is a IFB pastor) and raised our four kids (aged 19-9) in that faith. My husband was on two church committees (as chairman) and was teaching Sunday school at the time of his deconversion. My immediate (brainwashed) horrified, angry, hurt, response to his change of worldview, and his antagonistic attitude at the time did not mix well and almost destroyed our marriage. There were some really ugly moments that first year. Fast forward to the present and life is much healthier. We support each other, in our belief / unbelief. We found a church that we could attend together with our four children that does not support the harmful doctrines we grew up with. In the Emergent church we found, doctrines like Hell, Satan, Bible inerrancy, the need to “save” people by evangelising, etc. are considered myths. What the church believes in is humanism at it’s best but with a belief of God mixed in. It works for my family, and the church accepts my husband as he is: an atheist. This is rare, I am sure, and probably impossible in the south. My husband still has not told his parents that he is an atheist and probably never will. Sometimes, it does make more since to keep those things private as you suggest. It is not worth the pain, the long explainations, and the misunderstandings. You tell the wrong “believer” you no longer belief in God, and they are stepping away as fast as they can all the while throwing insults and Bible verses at them. The devil becomes very real to people like that because the deconverted person is now a “tool of the devil” and should be feared. Many folks in our old Baptist church do not know he is an atheist, but the people that do know, were not gracious, kind, or loving about it. They did however hide his atheism, because “what would people think if a good Christian like (my husband) could leave the faith? What would happen to other people in the church that were struggling with their faith?” These church leaders were the biggest example of bigotry, judgement, and lack of “Christ’s love” I have ever witnessed. I have found that people have to WANT to understand WHY people leave and that a persons deconversion is usually a long, reasoned, and difficult thought process. However, in my experience, most (fundamentalist) Christians haven’t evolved enough to be able to understand that kind of reasoning. Thanks for the blog!

  • Thanks for sharing. Coming out of an IFB background would have to be one of the hardest rows to hoe, and it would only be made more difficult if one spouse weren’t on the same page. I can identify with that up to a point, although my background was Southern Baptist which is only slightly more mainstream. They essentially believe the same things but work out the particulars a bit differently. SBC’s believe almost all the same things that IFB’s believe, they just don’t like to talk about it publicly :)

    And I agree, the emergent ethos is largely humanistic, which makes them much easier to get along with!

  • Thanks for sharing. Coming out of an IFB background would have to be one of the hardest rows to hoe, and it would only be made more difficult if one spouse weren’t on the same page. I can identify with that up to a point, although my background was Southern Baptist which is only slightly more mainstream. They essentially believe the same things but work out the particulars a bit differently. SBC’s believe almost all the same things that IFB’s believe, they just don’t like to talk about it publicly :)

    And I agree, the emergent ethos is largely humanistic, which makes them much easier to get along with!

  • EX-IFB with baggage

    I am lucky that I finally figured out that trying to reconvert him or allow anyone else to try, is not respectful to the path he traveled. He did not set out to become an atheist, but it was an honest search that led him there. Respect is not always easy but it is easier when belief / unbelief is not held up as being right or wrong. We still have our moments where old hurts rise up (mostly from me, if I am honest) but compromise is a beautiful thing. I really hope that your blog and letters to your girls, will help them and others see that underneath the religion or beliefs or lack thereof, that we are still people that want to be understood, and loved. Belief in a god does not make a person good or bad. People choose to act in good or bad ways.

  • EX-IFB with baggage

    I am lucky that I finally figured out that trying to reconvert him or allow anyone else to try, is not respectful to the path he traveled. He did not set out to become an atheist, but it was an honest search that led him there. Respect is not always easy but it is easier when belief / unbelief is not held up as being right or wrong. We still have our moments where old hurts rise up (mostly from me, if I am honest) but compromise is a beautiful thing. I really hope that your blog and letters to your girls, will help them and others see that underneath the religion or beliefs or lack thereof, that we are still people that want to be understood, and loved. Belief in a god does not make a person good or bad. People choose to act in good or bad ways.

  • mikespeir

    Keep writing. I’ll read.

  • mikespeir

    Keep writing. I’ll read.

  • MIchael E

    You are inspirational and you should know that your situation is not unique to the South. I live in the Midwest and would risk losing my job if people thought that I was no longer a Christian. Very subtly of course, but I would be viewed suspiciously and no longer trusted the same way.

    I agree very strong about your first point. The whole notion of our inherent evil is disgusting to me. Our pastor explains that DNA passes down biology, but there is an evil juice that is passed down from generation to generation that makes us evil at the point of birth

    I wold add one more point that I find offensive. Christians always talk about how Christians should be kind and all that other good stuff. And the rest of us should not be? Maybe it is just because we already are like that.

    My oldest daughter has become a missionary and moved away to Europe. We will only see her once a year because her love of God called her to leave our country where we will never be able to see her get a family and grow old. Every day starts and ends with the love of God that surpasses my understanding. Makes me sad.

  • MIchael E

    You are inspirational and you should know that your situation is not unique to the South. I live in the Midwest and would risk losing my job if people thought that I was no longer a Christian. Very subtly of course, but I would be viewed suspiciously and no longer trusted the same way.

    I agree very strong about your first point. The whole notion of our inherent evil is disgusting to me. Our pastor explains that DNA passes down biology, but there is an evil juice that is passed down from generation to generation that makes us evil at the point of birth

    I wold add one more point that I find offensive. Christians always talk about how Christians should be kind and all that other good stuff. And the rest of us should not be? Maybe it is just because we already are like that.

    My oldest daughter has become a missionary and moved away to Europe. We will only see her once a year because her love of God called her to leave our country where we will never be able to see her get a family and grow old. Every day starts and ends with the love of God that surpasses my understanding. Makes me sad.

  • In seminary I recall a professor wondering aloud if original sin was passed down via the Y Chromosome, which would explain why Jesus had to be born without a father.

  • In seminary I recall a professor wondering aloud if original sin was passed down via the Y Chromosome, which would explain why Jesus had to be born without a father.

  • MIchael E

    What is funny is how religious people meld their twisted beliefs with science. They believe in the flod because the Bible says it happened and then they use science to reinforce their insecure beliefs.

  • MIchael E

    What is funny is how religious people meld their twisted beliefs with science. They believe in the flod because the Bible says it happened and then they use science to reinforce their insecure beliefs.

  • This is a very good post. As a recent de-convert living next door in Alabama, your writing has been instrumental in helping me begin to recognize some of the issues I have had to face and am going to face in the process of leaving my faith behind. So far I have not found anyone else with your refreshing and uplifting understanding of what it means to leave a faith one has been invested in.

    With regards to your four beliefs mentioned above, I look forward to reading more on your thoughts about them. As a recovering Lutheran (LCMS, to be even more precise), item number two always bothered me. I’m unsure as to how your former faith handled the “born into sin” issue, but with me it was explained that God was somewhat merciless on that front. So, for example, if an infant died before being baptized, Hell received a new occupant. This result wasn’t discussed much, but it did come up in my confirmation class as part of an explanation on why Lutherans baptize A.S.A.P.

    Keep up the great prose, and I shall endeavor to read it.

  • This is a very good post. As a recent de-convert living next door in Alabama, your writing has been instrumental in helping me begin to recognize some of the issues I have had to face and am going to face in the process of leaving my faith behind. So far I have not found anyone else with your refreshing and uplifting understanding of what it means to leave a faith one has been invested in.

    With regards to your four beliefs mentioned above, I look forward to reading more on your thoughts about them. As a recovering Lutheran (LCMS, to be even more precise), item number two always bothered me. I’m unsure as to how your former faith handled the “born into sin” issue, but with me it was explained that God was somewhat merciless on that front. So, for example, if an infant died before being baptized, Hell received a new occupant. This result wasn’t discussed much, but it did come up in my confirmation class as part of an explanation on why Lutherans baptize A.S.A.P.

    Keep up the great prose, and I shall endeavor to read it.

  • ctcss

    Neil

    What I would like to know is why there isn’t a large scale, long term effort by the non-believing community to work on their PR. (I’m not talking about one-on-one discussions with believers, I mean articles in newspapers, magazines, possibly even PBS pieces, ala Bill Moyers or Charlie Rose.)

    Atheists usually come across as being intelligent and well educated. And for anyone who cares to notice, they seem like decent, honest, and trustworthy citizens who would make good neighbors and friends. So why is it that these intelligent, moral, well-behaved people have such a hard time getting their message across to the broader public? I have yet to see any PR effort done by atheists that seems to target public opinion in a useful way. (Chris Stedman seems to be the exception.)

    Unless you are saying that the South is a hell-hole where Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and blacks are at risk for being bombed, burned, and buried in shallow graves (and I don’t think you are), then what seems to be needed is a broad PR effort to introduce atheists as just another group among many.

    Either atheists need to abandon the label and be known as something else, or they need to take possession of it and own it. And no, I am not saying any currently closeted atheists need to come out. What I am saying is that currently known, and visibly public atheists need to be willing to start useful dialogs (not debates) in the public square showing how atheists are just as much good neighbors as anyone else. They just believe differently, which makes them no different, in effect, than all of the other different believers out there who are not part of the majority mainstream and yet are also good neighbors and trustworthy citizens.

    This should not be a hard task to accomplish with a little determination and a lot of good will, patience, and good humor by the visible atheists. In essence, atheists need popularizers who know how to meet, greet, and explain, and who can make friends out of the opposition. Successful businessmen and politicians of good will know how to accomplish efforts like this. So why can’t publicly known atheists of good will do the same?

  • ctcss

    Neil

    What I would like to know is why there isn’t a large scale, long term effort by the non-believing community to work on their PR. (I’m not talking about one-on-one discussions with believers, I mean articles in newspapers, magazines, possibly even PBS pieces, ala Bill Moyers or Charlie Rose.)

    Atheists usually come across as being intelligent and well educated. And for anyone who cares to notice, they seem like decent, honest, and trustworthy citizens who would make good neighbors and friends. So why is it that these intelligent, moral, well-behaved people have such a hard time getting their message across to the broader public? I have yet to see any PR effort done by atheists that seems to target public opinion in a useful way. (Chris Stedman seems to be the exception.)

    Unless you are saying that the South is a hell-hole where Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and blacks are at risk for being bombed, burned, and buried in shallow graves (and I don’t think you are), then what seems to be needed is a broad PR effort to introduce atheists as just another group among many.

    Either atheists need to abandon the label and be known as something else, or they need to take possession of it and own it. And no, I am not saying any currently closeted atheists need to come out. What I am saying is that currently known, and visibly public atheists need to be willing to start useful dialogs (not debates) in the public square showing how atheists are just as much good neighbors as anyone else. They just believe differently, which makes them no different, in effect, than all of the other different believers out there who are not part of the majority mainstream and yet are also good neighbors and trustworthy citizens.

    This should not be a hard task to accomplish with a little determination and a lot of good will, patience, and good humor by the visible atheists. In essence, atheists need popularizers who know how to meet, greet, and explain, and who can make friends out of the opposition. Successful businessmen and politicians of good will know how to accomplish efforts like this. So why can’t publicly known atheists of good will do the same?

  • Sam Daniels

    I grew up in a fundamentalist church in the North, then moved to the deep South 45 years ago. I had already left the church when I arrived here in 1972. Over the years, I have not felt in the least bit ostracized or oppressed by the Christian majority. The subject just rarely comes up. And family and friends who depended on me remaining a Christian have long-since died or ignored me. Maybe that’s why this particular angst has never hit me. I learned as a Christian not to give a shit what others thought of me.

    I never use the word “Atheist” to describe myself, since I have all the same philosophical and syntactical hangups with that word as I do with “Theist”. I realize people may define the word “atheist” differently than I, but as I can no more say there is no god than I can say there is, I prefer to call myself an Agnostic. I simply don’t have any information about life after death, or a Big Invisible Man in the sky, to say one way or another. Perhaps this is why I have not felt any animosity over the years from the majority here in my state.

    My biggest pet peeve here is people who use their religion to promote/advertise their (secular) businesses. Like Realtors and insurance agents, just as two examples. By experience I have learned that they are, as a group, particularly untrustworthy, and thus I avoid them whenever possible.

  • Sam Daniels

    I grew up in a fundamentalist church in the North, then moved to the deep South 45 years ago. I had already left the church when I arrived here in 1972. Over the years, I have not felt in the least bit ostracized or oppressed by the Christian majority. The subject just rarely comes up. And family and friends who depended on me remaining a Christian have long-since died or ignored me. Maybe that’s why this particular angst has never hit me. I learned as a Christian not to give a shit what others thought of me.

    I never use the word “Atheist” to describe myself, since I have all the same philosophical and syntactical hangups with that word as I do with “Theist”. I realize people may define the word “atheist” differently than I, but as I can no more say there is no god than I can say there is, I prefer to call myself an Agnostic. I simply don’t have any information about life after death, or a Big Invisible Man in the sky, to say one way or another. Perhaps this is why I have not felt any animosity over the years from the majority here in my state.

    My biggest pet peeve here is people who use their religion to promote/advertise their (secular) businesses. Like Realtors and insurance agents, just as two examples. By experience I have learned that they are, as a group, particularly untrustworthy, and thus I avoid them whenever possible.

  • Barney Frank said somewhat the same thing last week at the American Humanist Convention. He didn’t see any upside in insulting and ridiculing religion and Christianity if you ever expect to accomplish a change in the relationship between atheists and believers in God. Some people disagreed with this sentiment, and felt that continued confrontation with Christians is the best way to get the attention from society at large, so that change can come about. Others thought that the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and a few more of the superstars of atheism was necessarily angry in tone in order to help doubters resolve their confusion over the existence of a God. I think it all depends on where you stand. If you are a famous scientist living in Europe like Dawkins, you pay a public price for being outspoken about God and religion (just listen to some of the hate mail he reads on YouTube). But he doesn’t necessarily pay a price in terms of his personal life. Someone living in the southern U.S., however, has a tremendous amount to lose personally by going public, even among their friends. Neil sums up nicely just how costly it can be going public with your non-belief in God. Something as deeply personal as non-belief about God and religion should be up to the individual to handle. No one on the outside has a right to push anyone into being “honest” about religious belief, or lack thereof.

  • Barney Frank said somewhat the same thing last week at the American Humanist Convention. He didn’t see any upside in insulting and ridiculing religion and Christianity if you ever expect to accomplish a change in the relationship between atheists and believers in God. Some people disagreed with this sentiment, and felt that continued confrontation with Christians is the best way to get the attention from society at large, so that change can come about. Others thought that the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and a few more of the superstars of atheism was necessarily angry in tone in order to help doubters resolve their confusion over the existence of a God. I think it all depends on where you stand. If you are a famous scientist living in Europe like Dawkins, you pay a public price for being outspoken about God and religion (just listen to some of the hate mail he reads on YouTube). But he doesn’t necessarily pay a price in terms of his personal life. Someone living in the southern U.S., however, has a tremendous amount to lose personally by going public, even among their friends. Neil sums up nicely just how costly it can be going public with your non-belief in God. Something as deeply personal as non-belief about God and religion should be up to the individual to handle. No one on the outside has a right to push anyone into being “honest” about religious belief, or lack thereof.

  • Thinker1121

    Another great post Neil! (And as an aside, your post that followed up on my question regarding whether atheists should attend religious functions was much appreciated!)

    I too get “the talk” from time to time and can sympathize, but although I agree with your general sentiments on religion, I would like to challenge view #1 that you’re against: people are fundamentally bad/broken/flawed. I agree that views 2-4 that you are against do not logically follow from view 1 – but I would say that the reason people infer 2-4 from 1 is because of 1 itself. People are bad/flawed at reasoning and logic and can’t recognize the difference between an opinion (e.g., the Bible is the Word of God, people will go to Hell if they disagree with a particular view of morality) and a fact (2+2=4, the Earth is the third planet from the Sun). I find that in life if I assume that people are “bad” at things until they prove me wrong (e.g., don’t take someone’s word until you have evidence of their credibility, fact check yourself; always lock your doors, etc…), I usually get much better outcomes than if I assume that they are “good” until they prove me wrong.

    Intentions are another story though. If you’re saying that people generally have good intentions even though they often don’t know what they’re doing, I would agree. But intentions are different from actions.

  • Thinker1121

    Another great post Neil! (And as an aside, your post that followed up on my question regarding whether atheists should attend religious functions was much appreciated!)

    I too get “the talk” from time to time and can sympathize, but although I agree with your general sentiments on religion, I would like to challenge view #1 that you’re against: people are fundamentally bad/broken/flawed. I agree that views 2-4 that you are against do not logically follow from view 1 – but I would say that the reason people infer 2-4 from 1 is because of 1 itself. People are bad/flawed at reasoning and logic and can’t recognize the difference between an opinion (e.g., the Bible is the Word of God, people will go to Hell if they disagree with a particular view of morality) and a fact (2+2=4, the Earth is the third planet from the Sun). I find that in life if I assume that people are “bad” at things until they prove me wrong (e.g., don’t take someone’s word until you have evidence of their credibility, fact check yourself; always lock your doors, etc…), I usually get much better outcomes than if I assume that they are “good” until they prove me wrong.

    Intentions are another story though. If you’re saying that people generally have good intentions even though they often don’t know what they’re doing, I would agree. But intentions are different from actions.

  • You know, it’s funny, because I am an Orthodox Christian, and I am against all four of those beliefs too! ;-)

  • You know, it’s funny, because I am an Orthodox Christian, and I am against all four of those beliefs too! ;-)

  • I’m also against praying to pictures and singing Greek chants for worship, so we can get into that as well if you’d like :)

  • Good, two more things we agree on. I pray to Saints, not pictures, and while my church occasionally has Greek chanting, most of the time it is in English, which is my preference.

  • Good, two more things we agree on. I pray to Saints, not pictures, and while my church occasionally has Greek chanting, most of the time it is in English, which is my preference.

  • ctcss

    Garrett, if you’l notice, I wasn’t asking anyone to come out of the closet. I was specifically talking about atheists who were already publicly out. That’s why I asked for Neil’s opinion on whether an atheist who was good at working with others (think a personality like Bill Clinton’s) would be a help in getting both the message out (that atheists weren’t evil, and in fact are quite good), as well as making friends and allies out of former opponents. If someone like Clinton most likely could pull off something like that, why couldn’t a similarly configured atheist do something like that as well?

    That’s why I brought up Chris Stedman. He’s not perfect, but at least he is trying to build bridges. And as for Dawkins getting hate mail, why is this a surprise? He’s deliberately courting it. Chris, on the other hand, seems to get hate mail from other atheists because he isn’t acting tribal enough. Tribalism strikes me as never being a good idea because it promotes the us-vs-them mindset. Atheists and theists alike need to stop thinking that those outside the “tribe” are evil or dangerous. They also need to understand the need to build bridges with other groups. We all live together as neighbors. It’s time we started acting like it.

    IMO atheists really need to work on their PR. They often seem very clueless about this type of endeavor. Every other group out there works on defining and defending their image to the public. Atheists need to face up to this fact and do it properly. That would go a long way towards fixing the current problem.

  • ctcss

    Garrett, if you’l notice, I wasn’t asking anyone to come out of the closet. I was specifically talking about atheists who were already publicly out. That’s why I asked for Neil’s opinion on whether an atheist who was good at working with others (think a personality like Bill Clinton’s) would be a help in getting both the message out (that atheists weren’t evil, and in fact are quite good), as well as making friends and allies out of former opponents. If someone like Clinton most likely could pull off something like that, why couldn’t a similarly configured atheist do something like that as well?

    That’s why I brought up Chris Stedman. He’s not perfect, but at least he is trying to build bridges. And as for Dawkins getting hate mail, why is this a surprise? He’s deliberately courting it. Chris, on the other hand, seems to get hate mail from other atheists because he isn’t acting tribal enough. Tribalism strikes me as never being a good idea because it promotes the us-vs-them mindset. Atheists and theists alike need to stop thinking that those outside the “tribe” are evil or dangerous. They also need to understand the need to build bridges with other groups. We all live together as neighbors. It’s time we started acting like it.

    IMO atheists really need to work on their PR. They often seem very clueless about this type of endeavor. Every other group out there works on defining and defending their image to the public. Atheists need to face up to this fact and do it properly. That would go a long way towards fixing the current problem.

  • Heather Mac

    I loved your talk on the video. There’s not much I can say that others haven’t, but I will say that I identified with that feeling of everyone around me thinking I am broken once I came out. In the words of Bon Jovi, “everybody’s broken.”

    I know we all follow our own path. For myself I could not remain in the closet. Growing up IFB, so much of who I was had to be hidden to maintain the image that the family required. I think because of this I crave authenticity now. When I made up my mind that I could no longer remain in the church I could not bear the feeling of hiding hm true self any more.

  • Heather Mac

    I loved your talk on the video. There’s not much I can say that others haven’t, but I will say that I identified with that feeling of everyone around me thinking I am broken once I came out. In the words of Bon Jovi, “everybody’s broken.”

    I know we all follow our own path. For myself I could not remain in the closet. Growing up IFB, so much of who I was had to be hidden to maintain the image that the family required. I think because of this I crave authenticity now. When I made up my mind that I could no longer remain in the church I could not bear the feeling of hiding hm true self any more.

  • Quinsha

    I was raised as Roman Catholic. In the bible belt south. The back hills of North Carolina to be precise. Because of this unusual circumstance, I ended up knowing the bible better than most of the Southern Baptist kids did, in sheer self-defense. Because of this upbringing I ended up knowing quite a bit about both of these denominations of Christianity. Some of my relatives were snake handlers. I remember, as a teen-ager telling them that if God wanted me to touch those snakes, he would have to come down and tell me himself. That did not go over too well, but on the other hand, I did not get asked to handle rattlesnakes again. Love your blog and l am looking forward to the next installation.

  • Quinsha

    I was raised as Roman Catholic. In the bible belt south. The back hills of North Carolina to be precise. Because of this unusual circumstance, I ended up knowing the bible better than most of the Southern Baptist kids did, in sheer self-defense. Because of this upbringing I ended up knowing quite a bit about both of these denominations of Christianity. Some of my relatives were snake handlers. I remember, as a teen-ager telling them that if God wanted me to touch those snakes, he would have to come down and tell me himself. That did not go over too well, but on the other hand, I did not get asked to handle rattlesnakes again. Love your blog and l am looking forward to the next installation.

  • Well, whatever your reasons, I’m glad you do write. I still have a lot of demons leftover from my religious years, and in a way I find reading your posts therapeutic (especially the “my life in movies” posts). You’re a very talented writer, have you ever thought about writing a book?

  • Well, whatever your reasons, I’m glad you do write. I still have a lot of demons leftover from my religious years, and in a way I find reading your posts therapeutic (especially the “my life in movies” posts). You’re a very talented writer, have you ever thought about writing a book?

  • Thank you :)

    And yes, I’m starting on a book tho summer, in fact. I’ll be sure to let everyone know if and when it gets done.

  • Thank you :)

    And yes, I’m starting on a book tho summer, in fact. I’ll be sure to let everyone know if and when it gets done.