Yesterday I chatted via email with a reader who wanted to know why I keep writing about religion if I’m an atheist. It’s a fair question, and one I get often. Sometimes people ask this in an accusatory way, as if they feel they’ve happened upon a “gotcha” moment exposing something about me that even I don’t know about myself. Unconvinced that anyone can think or function without subscribing to Abrahamic monotheism, they’re always sifting through what we say in search of some kind of evidence that deep down we really believe the same things they do but are simply living in moral rebellion.
I didn’t get that vibe from this guy, so I did my best to explain why I spend so much time on these topics, and I asked him if I could relay some of our conversation for the benefit of others. Here are the highlights:
Hi Mr. Carter,
I was recently introduced to your blog by a friend who, like you, is a former Christian. He was trying to help me understand this whole world of religion and referenced your site.
Can you help me to understand why you are so prolific in writing about Atheism and Christianity?
I understand that you started out in one group and have moved to the other. But is there some end-game that you hope to achieve with your blog? Will there ever be a point in your life when you will feel that you have reached a goal that will allow you to move on and do other things than talk about atheism and Christianity?
As an atheist who was never exposed to religion growing up, I know that I am in a minority and from all that I have heard and seen thus far I count myself very fortunate that my parents were not religious.
At any rate, I was just curious if you see your participation in the conversation as a never-ending battle or if you hope to achieve something, and if so, what. If I understood the goal, perhaps I might get a clearer understanding of the intent behind your writings.
A fair question, thanks for asking. I’m sure you’re not the only one who has been wondering this. I keep comparing and contrasting my old and new worlds for a number of reasons:
1) Because I’m still unpacking my own deconversion. When you’ve spent 35 years of your life investing in one world, you don’t just leave it. You take it with you, including all the baggage that comes with indoctrination from birth through mid-life. For example, I’m finding that much of the thinking I picked up from evangelical Christianity continues to impact the way I approach my most primary relationships–for better and for worse. It remains important to me to work through what I think about what my upbringing got right and what it got wrong.
2) Because so many people are going through the same process, and are at varying places along that journey, and so many of them write me regularly to tell me that blogs like this have helped them finish formulating their thoughts about what they’re going through. Most of them pretty much know what they themselves think about things, but having the vocabulary to communicate their thoughts to loved ones is an entirely different matter. I figure I specialize in translating skepticism into the language of evangelical faith, which is very useful to them.
3) Because where I live secularists are greatly outnumbered and they are not always treated well. Someone has to speak up for them, and I think writing what I write about can help break the ice a bit, hopefully contextualizing some of my fellow secularists’ concerns into language that evangelicals can understand. I see myself functioning as a kind of secular ambassador to the South, a resident of a foreign culture representing another country in their midst. Everywhere I walk I am surrounded by the symbols of fundamentalism because I live in Mississippi. I can’t stress enough to you that if it seems like I write about religion too much it’s because it’s still my entire world. Everywhere you go here is like being in church.
4) Because my own social world is still largely evangelical, so there’s a personal need here for my friends and family to understand why I think the way I think. They tell me they don’t often read my stuff because it’s upsetting to them. But in the event that they do, I’m trying to articulate my thought processes as clearly and as thoroughly as I can because people who are close to me are still reeling from the blow of seeing me walk away from the faith that still dominates their lives.
5) Because I need to get this stuff down while it’s still fresh in my mind. I suspect that ten years from now I will have forgotten how to think like an evangelical. In a way I’m looking forward to that day. There’s so much baggage, and I’ve even discovered that many religious symbols, phrases, and sights have become triggers for me. I look forward to a day when that’s no longer the case. But while it still is, I need to capitalize on the moment and get my thoughts down while I can still remember why these things were so bothersome to me.
All that to say, I’m sure this gets tiresome for people who aren’t from backgrounds like mine. “Enough already, move on, will ya?” I get that, really I do. It’s just not where I am. Do I want to stay here forever? No, absolutely not. But for now, it’s still where I am, and it’s where a ton of people whom I know still are, and they don’t get the opportunity to say what they’re thinking because they could lose everything they care about. Religion is that important to people where I live. These folks are so isolated and having people write regularly about these things from a perspective like mine can be a lifeline for them. I know this because they keep telling me. So I keep doing it.
I hope that helps.
Thank you for your response.
In your experience with a variety of people who have had similar experiences, do you find that your situation is representative of what’s normal for people?
It’s normal for anyone who has had a leadership role in an evangelical subculture of any kind. I probably have heard from a couple hundred people with similar stories over the last two years that I’ve been writing. Religion is the most central priority for evangelicals and anyone who demotes their faith—or even worse leaves it—becomes an unwitting enemy even if they’re family. Christian love dictates that they shouldn’t outright shun us, so they’re forced to struggle with two competing urges: One to jettison us from their lives as if a foreign object threatening their faith, and another to keep us around so that they can coerce us (in love of course) back into the faith. From that point on, almost everything they do and say toward us can become tinged with passive-aggressive proselytization.
Some don’t have it that bad. But those people tend to come from households for whom evangelical faith was never a priority.
How much of your evangelical upbringing do you think is responsible for this path that you are on? Do you ever worry that you might simply have replaced one evangelical outlet with another? I don’t mean to be rude or even sound accusatory. I am simply trying to understand the mindset.
That’s a legitimate question, and I’m willing to own that. Frans de Waal once observed:
“Possibly, the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces.”
I think he’s right. To some degree, my approach to atheism has been colored by the faith from which I’ve been making my way out. But that’s just going to remain a part of my story for the foreseeable future because that’s were I am. It’s still my current world in fact, as long as I live in Mississippi. As virtually everyone close to me is a devout evangelical, I’m going to be wrestling with the contact points between atheism and fundamentalism for the foreseeable future.
That helps a lot. I was finding it difficult to understand why my friend would cut off his own family members over religion but now it makes some kind of sense. It’s really too bad that it is over something so senseless.
Maintaining good relations with people who feel threatened by you is very hard. In some cases they have been instructed to keep you at arm’s length or worse. That makes for some strained relationships. Sometimes staying close to them only leads to a steady drip of irritating interactions that wear you down like Chinese water torture. I can understand why some end up finally distancing themselves from family. Those kinds of relationships can turn toxic because religious people are often taught to ignore personal boundaries. Sometimes you just have to fight for your own personal dignity by putting space between yourself and them.
I get questions like these a lot, and I can imagine it’s hard to understand why we don’t just “move on” after we’ve decided we don’t buy into the stories we were told. The short answer is that if you were steeped in these things from birth through young adulthood or even mid-life, it takes a while to work through all of the implications of this new way of seeing the world. That goes double if you’ve still got close family in that world. I hope this helps make some sense of why people like me spend so much time on these topics instead of just moving on. I trust that one day I’ll get to a place where I won’t have to devote as much space as I do to deconstructing my former faith. I’m just not there yet.