I kept my deconversion a secret for nearly four years, but after being “outed” against my will I decided to go ahead and own it. Soon after, I began thinking about starting a blog to unpack my thoughts about faith and skepticism out loud for the benefit of others, and that’s when I read on the Friendly Atheist that people were organizing an Interview an Atheist at Church Day. I wanted in.
To be honest, when I volunteered to be the atheist for whichever local pastor would be foolish enough to do something like this, I had very low expectations. No pastor in his right mind would invite an atheist to share the stage with him in front of the whole church, not in Mississippi. But I was wrong. A local Church of Christ minister stepped forward and accepted the challenge, and after meeting for lunch a couple of times to discuss what each of us wanted out of the experience, we set it up.
It went remarkably well. The minister was exceptionally welcoming and nonjudgmental for someone in the Church of Christ. I later learned that not only was he a transplant from up North, but he was also planning to relocate to another state within a matter of weeks. That explains his willingness to endure the strong opposition he got from others in leadership at his church.
What follows is an elaboration of the points I laid out during the interview explaining what are the most common things atheists like me wish Christians understood about us. It’s been several years now since I first scribbled these out, but I feel like the list still rings true. I’ll post a video of that portion of the longer conversation at the end of this article.
Eleven Things Atheists Wish Christians Understood
1.) We have morals, too!
Most of the atheists I know are very principled, passionate people. We think long and hard about how we should live and relate to one another and to our environment, and we work to live consistently with our principles without fear of supernatural retribution. Theists give us a hard time about this because they believe it must not be possible to live a moral life without a belief in some kind of supreme supernatural being. They believe this, not because they have observed us behaving badly (or at least not any worse than they themselves behave) but because of a prior commitment to believe that it must be the case.
Read: “Where Do Morals Come From?“
But reality doesn’t match their belief about us. Internationally, those countries which are the most secular and which report the highest percentage of atheists/agnostics also have the lowest crime rates, the lowest incidence of mental illness, and they rate themselves the highest on all measures of happiness and well-being. In the United States, those states which score the lowest on religiosity illustrate the same trend, while those states with the highest crime rates, poverty rates, and rates of mental illness score the highest on measures of religiosity (with my state topping that list every year).
Too many confuse having a different set of values with having none at all. For example, white evangelicals will judge people in same-sex relationships over “straight” people who blatantly exhibit racial discrimination, and they do so because they don’t even see the racism—it’s not one of their moral priorities. In fact, I would argue their theology is so rooted in racial prejudice that they wouldn’t even know what to do with Jesus’s teaching about accepting foreigners, the poor, and the outcast.
Related: “How the Church Became What Jesus Hated“
2.) You don’t know us better than we know ourselves.
Really the next four points grow out of this one. To be sure, each of us have our blind spots that close friends and family can see; but this goes way beyond that. Any non-believer who tries to talk much with Christians will soon learn they are full of pronouncements about what’s going on inside of our heads and hearts without our own knowledge. But what would possess them to be so presumptuous?
Having a holy book does that to you. When you outsource your thought processes to a holy book, you feel empowered and authorized to make pronouncements about everything from world events to the personal motivations of others.
They call it “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (see 2 Cor. 10:5). This lies at the root of fundamentalism and it is the fountainhead of just about everything that I take issue with in evangelical Christianity. They are only doing what they were taught to do, of course. They were taught to believe that their particular holy book is uniquely capable of dissecting the metaphysical innards of every man, woman, and child (see Hebrews 4:12-13). But they do not see how they disrespect us when they dismiss what we say about ourselves simply because an ancient book told them that we really aren’t qualified to say what’s going on inside ourselves.
Related: “Christianity Has a Major Boundary Problem“
3.) We really don’t believe in your god. We’re not just pretending.
I cannot count how many people have insisted that I really believe in their god…not just any god, but theirs alone. Never mind the fact that there are thousands to choose from. It’s quite egocentric to assert that anyone who disbelieves in gods must be in denial about secretly believing in (guess which one?) their particular god.
Again, this isn’t entirely their fault. They were taught to think this way by the biblical writers. Paul in particular presumed to declare (see Romans 1:18ff) that even the primitive polytheists of his surrounding culture were closet monotheists, secretly holding on to a belief in the god of Abraham (even though they might have never heard of the guy). What’s so frustrating about this is that our own voices get tuned out and our words are completely disregarded because people believe they have been authorized to tell us things about ourselves that even we do not know. But this is terribly disrespectful, and it does not nurture any kind of fruitful relationship. No one wants to talk with someone who tunes them out.
4.) We don’t hate God because you can’t hate something you don’t even believe exists.
Once again I have lost count of how many people have asked me why I am angry at God. This can only be an outgrowth of number three (see above) because nothing else would make sense. How could someone be angry at something that they do not believe exists? After you found out the truth about Santa Claus, did you get angry at Santa for not existing? That wouldn’t even make sense.
Ah, but atheists seem angry a lot of the time, don’t we? You are correct. But isn’t it possible that we are angry at something else? If you were consistently misunderstood, dismissed, distrusted, and excluded because of what you believe (or don’t believe) wouldn’t you get upset about that too? What if someone told you that you are so very bad that you deserve to be tortured forever and ever? Is it possible that you might be angry at the treatment of people who should know better?
Remember how I said we all have our blind spots? Well, this is one of the blind spots of many evangelicals. They say truly offensive things about us and then when we get upset they say, “See? Your strong emotional response only proves that you are angry at God!” No, in reality it means you’re just being a jerk. Don’t confuse our anger towards you with anger towards your object of worship. Unless they’re actually the same person in reality.
5.) We don’t all disbelieve because something bad happened to us.
The majority of atheists I know disbelieve because they asked questions and thought through things and concluded that theism just didn’t make sense, or at least didn’t match up with the world they see around them. A handful of them did have bad experiences as children (divorce, abuse, illness or death) but that’s not even a distinguishing factor—everyone I know has had at least some of that. That’s just called life.
If you ask these atheists to explain how they came to their conclusions, you will learn that most of them followed a series of thought processes which led them to where they are now. Some people (like me) were fortunate enough never to have suffered anything terribly difficult. We simply thought through things and eventually realized that we don’t believe anymore.
Related: “We Never Expected God to Make Us Happy“
Asking me what bad thing happened to me to make me an atheist implies that I am damaged goods somehow. This presumptuous question betrays a judgmentalism of which the inquirer hardly seems aware. Next time, before you ask an atheist this question, take a moment to pause and consider what you are saying.
6.) Belief isn’t a choice (not for us, at least).
This one’s more complicated than I once realized. The way I see it, belief is an involuntary response to something learned or experienced. Just as you didn’t choose to believe in your particular god (you were likely taught from your youngest days to believe that there is such a thing), so those of us whose minds changed about this matter didn’t choose to disbelieve. It just sort of happened. It was a spontaneous consequence of having thought through some things in a certain way. The most respectful thing would be for you to let us speak for ourselves when we say this wasn’t a deliberate choice. It was a logical consequence of a series of thought processes with which many of us wrestled for years.
But this poses a problem, doesn’t it? What if you were taught that unbelief is a sin? What if your religion says that unbelief is itself a punishable offense? Now you’re stuck with a dilemma. If belief isn’t a choice, then it wouldn’t be fair to cast atheism as a moral shortcoming, would it? No, it really wouldn’t.
But to evangelicals it’s simply unacceptable to suggest that the Bible (or at least their tradition’s reading of it) would lead them astray. So they conclude instead that unbelief toward their religion’s claims must be a willful act of disobedience rather than simply an intellectual disconnect. This totally changes the way you relate to us, doesn’t it? Something to consider.
Related: “Maybe Belief Is a Matter of Choice for Some“
7.) Many of us were Christians once, too.
This point is directed more towards Americans. Being raised in the United States greatly increases your chances of growing up Christian, and growing up in the Bible Belt almost guarantees it. But people forget this and they assume that our atheism simply must be the result of insufficient exposure to the Christian message. They then proceed to tell us all the things which mean so much to them, reciting Bible verses and sharing stories, watching to see if this stuff affects us the same way that it affects them. But for so many of us, we’ve really heard it all. Many of us have even been responsible for teaching it to others, sometimes even to whole churches. The problem isn’t a lack of exposure.
We really don’t need just one more great Bible verse quoted to us, nor do we need to visit one more church (Yes, I know yours is wonderful). We do not need one of your favorite theological points explained one more time (“But it’s by grace!! Isn’t that great!? It’s a relationship, not a religion!“). The truth is, some of us actually understand the Christian faith (and the Bible) better than the majority of Christians do. And we didn’t study it as outsiders–we were insiders. We initially heard the message through believing ears, and we spent many years living that way.
I know for many people it nullifies decades of sincere devotion if you later change your mind and no longer believe. Many cannot accept that our experience was sincere. To do so would throw them into intolerable cognitive dissonance. So instead they conclude that our devotion was just for show, and suddenly they can dismiss however many years we spent as Christians and pretend we are brand new to the Christian faith.
Read: “You Were Never Really One of Us“
I suppose you’re free to do as you please. But do not expect people like me to feel understood, and don’t expect us to stay engaged in a conversation that ignores what we say about ourselves.
8.) Quoting the Bible doesn’t work like a Jedi mind trick.
Atheists do not revere the Bible the same way that evangelical Christians do, and apparently this has never occurred to many of them. I know that when talking among fellow believers it is customary to quote Bible verses as a way of illustrating a point, or settling a disagreement, or suggesting a course of action.
I also know that you have been taught that the Bible itself has a certain kind of power to it (see Isaiah 40:8, 55:10-11). But for us this is rather circular, and it just doesn’t carry the weight for us that it does for you. So it strikes us as mildly entertaining when you quote Bible verses “at” us, expecting something to happen. Perhaps it works on you. It does not work on us.
9.) We don’t worship the devil.
Why do we have to clarify this at all? For some reason it’s harder people to accept that we don’t believe in the devil than it is for them to accept that we don’t believe in any gods. Thinking back to my youth group days, I recall hearing Satanists and atheists being lumped together into the same category, so I guess it’s no surprise people get them confused. It’s really all in the same category, though—it all belongs to the Christian Universe.
The character of Satan is completely unbelievable to us; he’s just not a convincing character. He’s so two-dimensional, bent solely on destruction and malice, like one of those cheesy villains on straight-to-video kids movies. You know the ones I mean…the ones with talking dogs and cats or whatever? Who writes this stuff, anyway? And how old are they? At least movies for grown-ups give complexity to the villains so that they are believable.
Even members of the Church of Satan are mostly kidding. It’s a parody religion, a gimmick created to challenge those who are determined to force their own religion onto the rest of us through hastily approved legislation. Try to take them with a grain of salt.
10.) Hell doesn’t scare us because we find it absurd.
I’ve already written about this in another post, but I’ll sum it up here, as well. Because we don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or life-after-death, neither Heaven nor Hell are believable things for us. So it’s no use trying to use Hell to frighten us into…something…I don’t know what. I don’t see how you can be scared into believing. I’m amazed that idea remains popular in a religion that champions grace and mercy, and which insists it’s an invitation to a loving relationship.
And yes, I’ve read the same verses about the coming Day of Judgment but there are several problems with this whole concept:
a. Eternal punishment for temporal actions doesn’t make sense. The punishment doesn’t fit the “crimes.”
b. There’s nothing to learn in Hell because you never get out. It’s punishment without a purpose.
c. There’s considerable confusion about the physicality of such a place. Are we talking bodies burning here? Do they keep regenerating so they can keep burning? It seems the Bible can’t make up its mind.
d. Jesus paid it all, they say. Except some of us will have to pay, too. And while it will take all eternity for us to pay for our 70 years of sins, Jesus paid for the sins of billions of people over a twelve hour period one Friday.
e. Don’t even get me started on Pascal’s wager. Here’s a short summary of what’s wrong with it.
11.) Not all of us are anti-theists.
This one got me into some hot water with other atheists. I still stand by my self-description, which is that I am not an anti-theist, I’m more of an anti-fundamentalist. I will add, however, that since the time that I did this interview I’ve seen enough to change my posture toward evangelical Christianity, becoming more antagonistic than I once was.
Because so many of my personal relationships are with evangelicals, I still care a great deal about trying to strike a balance between honesty and respect for our differences of belief. But some beliefs are just harmful, and I am learning the value of speaking up about those. So if I had this talk to do over again, I would have addressed the last point a bit differently, and perhaps would have made it sound less like I don’t think there’s value in what the public critics of religion are about.
With that in mind, here’s the shorter excerpt of the longer interview:
And if you’d like to see the whole interview in its entirety, you can view it here.
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