Why I Decided to Become Openly Secular

Why I Decided to Become Openly Secular April 19, 2015

I didn’t sign up for the culture war. I didn’t ask to be a part of this fight, but it showed up on my doorstep anyway. So now I’m in it.

I heard about this concept, the culture wars, years ago while I was still in college, and then again in seminary.  They said that the foundations of society which they had come to count on were crumbling beneath their feet, and they were issuing a call to arms, metaphorically speaking, enjoining conscientious Christians to reclaim the receding borders of the Kingdom of God.  The gates of Hell were not supposed to prevail against the Church, but by the looks of things, God’s people seemed to be losing the fight.

So the battle lines were drawn, and at times it seems to me their locations made little sense.  Why gay marriage?  Why evolution? Why women staying at home? Why throw your lot in so completely with one political party, and why the party of the rich when your founder so clearly identified with the poor? And why the nearly pathological obsession with controlling every aspect of sex?

None of these were reasons why I left, although I suppose for some people they may be.  I know many people leave because they can’t stand watching an institution so full of big dreams and sublime promises bickering about petty, tangential issues while the core mission of the Church goes unfulfilled. Or maybe they’re put off by the fact that nobody can even agree on what that core mission is.  Are they to rescue people from a doomed and dying world, hoping themselves to depart as soon as possible to a better place?  Or are they to stick around and inhabit this place, laboring to make it the best one they can?

I know which one I was taught to be about, and I know which mission the people around me feel called to fulfill. The one I learned was the one which required that Christians take the reins of the whole world, not as one tradition among equals, but as the dominant culture to rule them all. I later learned that while the majority of the framers of American government believed in religious pluralism, there were others who wanted their tradition to command all the rest. Those people are still with us today, evidently, and they’ve been slowly mounting an offensive for decades backed by the much deeper pockets of some very strange bedfellows—captains of industry who couldn’t care less about Jesus but who sure do love saying his name as long as it gives them a reliable voting base.

So what’s this got to do with me? And why am I now “Godless in Dixie?”

Well, I changed sides, apparently.  Only I didn’t mean to—it just sorta happened.  For most of my life I believed all the things I was taught to believe.  And I wasn’t just a “cultural Christian” either, superficially adhering to the talking points of some social club to which I belonged. No, I internalized those beliefs and made them my own for many years—twenty years, in fact.  But ultimately in my mid-thirties I came to realize that all the reasons that were so convincing to me as a younger man just weren’t as impressive to me now in the light of mid-life.  I just didn’t buy it anymore.  So I left my faith. Or perhaps more accurately my faith left me.

In the end it doesn’t matter how I say it, though. People around me will still hold me responsible for it because when you stop believing in supernatural things, they see it as a character flaw.  It’s not an intellectual matter to them, it’s a moral failing, and they believe I will one day be punished for it.  Might as well start punishing me for it now, right?  Might do me some good. They believe that how one thinks about this narrow panel of topics determines the destinies of countries and the eternal states of our very souls.  Jeez, no wonder they’re so worked up about it!  With a narrative that grandiose, how can a guy expect to change his mind without provoking retaliation?

When It’s Time to Push Back

People don’t always mean to hurt each other the way they do. I know that.  But when the balance of power is tipped entirely over to one side, it becomes necessary for the ones on the bottom of the pile to push back.  You can only take so much marginalization before it becomes an ethical failure not to speak up about it.  I have reached that point, and a representative of a demographic of people long distrusted by the general American public (without good reason, I might add), it’s become a responsibility of mine to speak out about the unequal treatment of non-believers, particularly among the devout.  I realize less religious places don’t deal with this as much, but where I live, it’s a major problem for people in my position.

That’s why I’ve chosen to become “openly secular.”  In reality, it didn’t even start with a choice of my own.  I neither chose to disbelieve in the religion of my youth nor did I initially tell other people about my difference of opinion.  I was “outed” by other people, and then people started treating me differently. So now I’ve chosen to push back.  Where I live, it’s not socially acceptable to admit out loud that you don’t buy into religion, so even doing that makes you a menace.  It shouldn’t be that way, though, not in a pluralistic society. The only right thing to do under the circumstances is to step out and be counted among the non-religious and to assure people that we’re neither better nor worse than anyone else. Evidently that needs to be said out loud, because clearly the people around me don’t know that it’s true.

I’ve noticed that religious people will fill the air with lofty talk of mutual respect and religious freedom but they do not readily see how asymmetrically they are applying such beautiful ideals.  People are experts at crying out when they feel their own freedoms are being infringed upon, but they can be astoundingly blind to the ways they are infringing upon the freedoms of others.  And in the end if you feel that these are matters of eternal life and death, what does civility and fairness really matter anyway?  Everlasting souls are at stake!

This is why we put laws into place—to keep ideologues from telling everyone else how to live their lives. That’s not freedom, and that’s not acceptable.  As long as people are pressuring the government to privilege their beliefs above all others, it behooves people like me to push back.  I didn’t start this battle, and like I said, I didn’t ask to be a part of it. But now I’m in it, and I refuse to lie down and pretend like things are just fine the way they are.  They’re not.

I have a growing number of friends who write me and tell me what their lives are like, and their stories will break your heart. They feel trapped in their lives because they are surrounded by people who think differently from them and the deck is stacked against them. If they “come out” and tell everyone they don’t buy the stories, they may be ostracized. They will almost certainly be judged as moral failures for ceasing to believe, and they may even lose a number of their most cherished relationships. For the sake of those people who don’t want to be seen as second-class citizens, people like me will make a stink about this until things are better.  You may not approve of what we’re doing, but earning your approval is not among the list of things I have left to do before I finish this life.  Life is too short to sweat how many people disagree with you (says the chronic people pleaser).

Take a Tour of Godless in Dixie

If you’d like to know more about what I’m up to, and what I’m about, I hope you’ll take some time to click through a sampling of articles I’ve written over the last few months.  You can also visit an earlier TOPICAL INDEX that I put together as an introduction to the first few months of articles I wrote when I began this blog.

Over the last few months, these are some of the articles that seem to have resonated with the most folks, most of them relating to gaining a better understanding of atheists:

What I Learned about Atheists from God’s Not Dead.  My review of the movie on the day of its DVD release went viral.  I contend that this movie so despicably misrepresents atheists as hollow two-dimensional villains that any Christian should be ashamed of it.  More Christians than you might think agreed withe me.

What Leaving My Religion Did for Me.  After reflecting a bit on life after becoming an atheist, I list eleven benefits which I see I’ve received.  This one got picked up by TIME and republished on their site.

Ten Things Christians Accidentally Tell Me About Themselves. When I interact with religious friends and family, I’ve often felt they are projecting their own issues onto me when they talk about my apostasy. I list ten common examples that I get all. the. time.

What Christians Mean When They Use the Word “Atheist.” Writing for another blog on Patheos, I explain a way in which many Christians misuse the word “atheist” to mean something entirely different from what actual atheists mean when they use the word.

The “Nones” vs. the “Dones.” If you’ve heard of “the rise of the nones,” those religiously unaffiliated Americans who now make up nearly a quarter of the population, allow me to introduce you to a subset of that group, the “dones.”  We aren’t just unchurched, we’re done-churched.

Why Even Nice Atheists Are Offensive to the Faithful. While I personally favor diplomacy over firebrand atheism, I explain why the mere act of openly admitting your non-belief angers people.  In that sense it doesn’t really matter how nice you are, they’re upset that you said anything at all.

How to Love an Atheist (If You’re Very Religious). In response to a Christian friend’s lament that I’ve written so much about how not to talk to atheists, I offer ten tips for how to treat atheists with love and respect for their own personal boundaries.

Why I Reject Hell and Why You Should, Too. I spell out seven reasons why the notion of Hell needs to go away, plus I throw in an explanation for why Pascal’s wager sucks.

When Your Child Is Terrified You’re Going to Hell. Another post on the sister blog on Patheos, I recount my response to two of my own children expressing fear that I am bound for Hell.

Your Love is Toxic. In this piece I discuss four ways of loving which aren’t really loving at all: shunning, withholding, crusading, and giving gifts with strings attached.  Those of us who have disappointed friends and family by leaving our faith have endured these forms of “love” far too many times.

We Are not Broken. My challenge to my progressive Christian friends, who are trying so very hard to make their message a positive one, but who cannot seem to let go of a persistently low view on human nature.

Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing.  I explain how self-deprecation lies at the root of the Christian faith, and how baggage from that is still with me today. This article hones in on one of the central concerns I have as a post-Christian writer.

What’s Wrong with Telling an Atheist You’ll Pray for Her?  This one touched a nerve as well. When Christians tell atheists they’re praying for them, it can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. I explain why even when the intentions are good, there’s a glaring problem.

How Toy Story Illustrates When I Lost My Faith. Few things illustrate what it’s like to leave your faith as well as the movie Toy Story.  Buzz Lightyear learns that he’s not an elite intergalactic space ranger but a kid’s toy, and he must learn to see himself and what he’s about in a new light.

Why I Broke Up with Jesus. A bit of a tongue-in-cheek explanation for why I quit believing.  When you’re in a relationship with an invisible person who only speaks via mediators who aren’t even addressing you, well, you’re not really in a relationship with anybody then, are you?

The Day an Atheist Got Interviewed at a Church in Mississippi. This summarizes the interview I did at a local church in which I tried to dispel some of the most common myths Christians seem to believe about atheists.  An excerpt from that talk can be seen here, and a link to the full interview can by found by following the link to this article.

And finally, if you’d like to see me continuing to do what I do, please consider helping me do that by becoming a patron of Godless in Dixie through Patreon.  Writing and traveling and addressing groups is a lot of work, and I can’t do it without the help of supporters who are willing to donate a few dollars a month to help me cover what my teaching job leaves uncovered.  If you’d like to do that, please click on the image below and type in whatever amount you feel you could give to help me keep up the writing.  Every little bit helps.

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Additionally, if you’d rather not commit to a regular sponsorship, you could also give a non-recurring gift through Paypal.  Travel can be expensive, and I can’t do it without help from readers like you.

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And one last note:  If you happen to be someone who is struggling with adverse conditions due to leaving your faith, or even if you’re just someone who needs a non-judgmental ear to listen to what you’re going through, you should call Recovering from Religion‘s Hotline Project.  The Hotline Project uses volunteers to answer phone calls from people needing someone to listen as they work through their issues.  It’s a peer counseling hotline that runs 24/7 on weekends and from 6pm to midnight during the week.  The number for that hotline is 1-84-I-Doubt-It.  Cute, right?  Give them a call.

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