Why I’m Not an Angry Evangelical Atheist, Part II

Why I’m Not an Angry Evangelical Atheist, Part II February 14, 2019

Editor’s Note: I’m not at all surprised that Part I of this series riled up some strong atheist sentiment. I think many atheists are where a lot of religious people were a few years ago: eager to take on the wrong-believers.  Perhaps the religious apologists settled down because they’ve found that it’s an unfair battle: atheists have better ammunition. Could “freethinkers” have an even better way – ending the battle? Read on./ Linda LaScola, Editor


By Chris Highland

I receive regular emails from The White House. Today’s West Wing “Real News” (!) had this headline: “Walls Work,” followed by an apparent quote from The National Review:

“Of all the Democrats’ arguments against a southern border wall, the shadiest is that it would not work … Love them or hate them, [a wall’s] effectiveness is indisputable.”

We might actually dispute that, but they have a point. Walls can be very effective— they can really work.

The question is what kind of “work” are they for and are they realistic or necessary? As East Germans once said after the Berlin Wall came down, there is still a “wall in the head.” There effectively remained a wall in people’s minds.

When I was involved with an evangelical movement as a youth, we desperately prayed for people to be saved and go to heaven. Sometimes we were so concerned for our friends, family and strangers to “have a relationship with the Lord” that we cried. It was quite emotional.

No doubt many atheists will scoff and sneer at this, but I think we were genuine in our anxious concern that everyone know “the love of God.” We weren’t angry with people; we weren’t really interested in arguing people to Jesus; we didn’t waste our time debating finer points of theology or the Bible (well, sometimes). We felt that we loved others so much we wanted them to “see the light”—to love the One we loved and who loved us. The most important way to do that was to “be the only Bible some may ever read.” In other words, to walk the talk, live the life of love, which was the best way to bring anyone to faith.

Could the atheist evangelist learn from that? Is the motivation to show care, concern, and compassion for others? Is there a personal, one-to-one, dimension to the “points” we have to make or is it an all-out war?

Let me be clear. I certainly see the need for rigorous dialogue and a firm call to Reason. I’m not interested in sugarcoating anything. I regularly challenge what I perceive as nonsense or religious privilege. My blogs, books and columns often have a cutting edge of critique and question. But what intrigues me is the potential for forming respectful relationships where people are actually communicating rather than “whittling their sticks” (into sharp spears) for battle.

If a person chooses to march onto battlefields as a Crusader for Christ or a Soldier for Secularism (even in the safety of an online forum), and that’s how they intend to spend their time, march on. But they shouldn’t expect to change many minds or be surprised when a phalanx of freethinkers doesn’t fall in line for the futile stick fight.

I don’t think I’ll ever think of myself or identify myself as an atheist, mostly for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but also because it’s a negative based on negatives with too many negative representatives. In my view, Freethought is a more positive, constructive, relational model that invites and includes non-believers as well as believers. Freethought welcomes agnostics like Robert Ingersoll (who counted believers among his friends), who can stand beside atheists like Ernestine Rose (an early defender of women’s rights)

and progressive people of faith like Lucretia Mott (a radical Quaker preacher and heretic), Gandhi or MLK.

The more I interact with freethinking humanists, believers, agnostics and atheists the greater the opportunities I see for building connections rather than breaking them down. The dismantling of walls, physical or psychological, can take time, but I’d much rather be involved in that cooperative effort than defending tired, old moss-covered walls that needlessly divide.

The aforementioned pastor, who doesn’t experience me as an evangelical atheist, has gotten to know me through my clergy wife, my columns, A Freethinker’s Gospel and speaking twice in his church. He’s aware that a number of his parishioners aren’t very “orthodox” when it comes to creeds and theology, and he knows that many of them also read what I write and appreciate my views.

Doesn’t this suggest a sensible way forward, at least for any but the most militant? Why build walls to throw mud at them? Make a path, not a fence. Win a friend, not an argument.

When discussing Christianity, naturalist John Burroughs offered this humanistic observation:

There must be “integrity of character and fealty to truth…. Our final reliance is always upon the [person] and not upon his creed. We care little what he believes or disbelieves, so that he believe in sobriety, justice, charity … so that he speak the truth and shame the devil….”

He goes on:

“Atheism itself, if sincere and honest, is more in keeping with the order of the world than a cowardly and lukewarm deism.”

In balance, he concludes:

“When the true patriot speaks, everybody is patriotic; when the real Christian appears, everybody loves Christianity…. [We must show a person] that religion is not some far- away thing that he must get, but a vital truth which he lives whenever he does a worthy thing.”

I would like to be judged by my character and the worthy things I do. Most of us want that, I think. So let’s have less evangelism and more evangel, a revival of goodness and graciousness. Let’s have less argument and more conversation; less ridicule and disrespect and more sincere listening. And let’s try to open more doors, even in our own minds, to be invitational, welcoming and hospitable.

To borrow some ancient but apropos words: for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the road ahead may not be comfortable or clear, but if the alternative is more dead ends and closed minds, why not choose an open path that’s truly progressive?

We might even have enough wits to whittle something much better than pointed weapons.


Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area.  Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press.  Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see www.chighland.com.

>>>>>Photo Credits: By Jakub Hałun – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6909783 : By Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1, 1848-1861 (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881), opp. p. 97., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6088577

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  • Die Anyway

    I grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Atheist was a harsh pejorative at least as bad as the nastiest racial epithets and maybe worse. So as I sat in church as a teenager and noted how the BS being spouted by the minister did not match the real world I began to have doubts about the existence of this God that was being touted. But I didn’t want to be one of those depraved atheists. For a while I tried to convince myself that I believed but my rational mind knew better. I didn’t believe in God. Nor in the gods of other religions. Well, shit. Nothing to it but to admit to myself that I was an atheist. Having made that admission, the word suddenly did not hold the same connotation in my mind. Certainly I had to be careful because everyone else still felt the old way but I quickly came to embrace the word. I may also be a freethinker and/or a Humanist but those definitions are broad and imprecise. I don’t paint it down the side of my car or hang a banner from the eaves of my house but if someone asks about my religion I proudly tell them that I’m an Atheist.

  • Betty Miliano

    I followed a similar path..

  • mason lane


    Using the term “evangelical atheist” is not only an insulting oxymoron to all atheists but a gross misuse of the word evangelical which means … “of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion.
    synonyms: scriptural, biblical, Bible-believing, fundamentalist, orthodox, evangelical Christianity”.

    Your criticisms of Dawkins & Hitchens, calling them arrogant while all you site is you see a smirk. What specific complaints do you have against them? I don’t think either of them ever displayed an exaggerated sense of importance or abilities. Their importance against the cultural virus of theism is as significant as Louis Pasteur was against microbes. As for caustic and contentious, theism deserves all that and more for the hoax it persists in perpetrating against human intelligence.

    You mention Ingersol had believer friends, most atheists do. Ingersol was also scathing, harsh, and angry with his words about the church and theism. Like you, all the atheists I know also have believer friends.

    (Berlin & China were walls … this is a fence 🙂 )

    …”we were genuine in our anxious concern that everyone know “the love of God.” … genuine and anxious concern also fueled the Inquisition, the Third Reich, and Mao followers, So genuine & concern don’t ameliorate the wrongness of a cause or movement.

    In the American culture war between atheist/secular vs theistic believers, it is happening within the context of hundreds of years of history of abuse, persecution, defamation, and bigotry by believers against atheists. Asking atheists to not be aggressive, angry, is like pleading with blacks and gays to take it easy on bigots and abusers.


  • mason lane
  • See Noevo

    Using the term “evangelical atheist” is not only an insulting oxymoron to all atheists… Asking
    atheists to not be aggressive, angry, is like pleading with blacks and gays to
    take it easy on bigots and abusers.

    “Militant Atheist” would be more apropos for you, as well as for most atheists at Patheos.

    “Militant” is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, as a
    Catholic on earth I’m part of the Church Militant.

  • Tawreos

    I’m sorry but I don’t see how this would work. The type of christians you describe may be nice and willing to have a conversation and may not deserve to have an “angry atheist” in their face. I’ll even admit that they make up a majority of christians out there. The problem is that they are the ones that prop up those with the platform that try to silence us. They donate to those that want to deny us our rights. They vote for the politicians that try to legislate us into belief. And, for the most part, they rarely push back against those who would abuse us. And these are the people you want to bring together with us under the banner of Freethought? How could people that have their thoughts fettered by belief ever really be a part of Freethought? How will you let them know their beliefs are myths without sugarcoating anything and expect them to stay. I am all for dialogue and meeting people in the middle, but this doesn’t feel like the middle.

  • “I don’t think I’ll ever think of myself or identify myself as an atheist…”

    Okay, so which god do you believe in?

    Honestly, you sound as if you just don’t want to admit that you don’t believe in a god. If that’s the case, why on Earth did you join the Clergy Project?

    You either believe in a god or you don’t. It’s a binary issue. If you don’t believe in a god, you’re an atheist, whether you like it or not.

    Also, you seem desperate to characterize atheists as “scoffing”, “sneering”, “evangelicals” “Marching to battle” and intent on building walls between people. This is an ad hominem attack. You accuse us of building walls between people, but that’s JUST WHAT YOU’RE DOING!

  • Raging Bee

    Do tell…what “militant” things does that group do?

  • Tawreos

    I can actually understand the reluctance to call oneself something. I took forever to come out as gay because I didn’t want to be known as gay. I grew up in a small town heavily involved in the church and all I knew of gay people was from that setting. You can guess that in that setting gays were heavily demonized. It took 15 years for me to own the title. Atheist isn’t much different, it has been demonized through the years and carries a lot of unearned baggage. It can take time to shed that baggage and be comfortable with the title.

  • Raging Bee

    …a gross misuse of the word evangelical…

    Not really. The word has come to mean pretty much anyone on a gung-ho mission to preach and spread the word of whatever knowledge, belief, ideology, etc., he/she’s pushing (though it’s most often applied to religious preachers). If there can be “LSD evangelists,” there can be atheist evangelists.

  • Raging Bee

    “Militant” implies military or paramilitary action. What has mason said to indicate any such desire or intent? Or do you just call everyone “militant” who calls you out to your face when you spout your stupid childish hatred?

  • You seem to be missing a main part of my essay. I’m responding to the angry people (who shout in caps sometimes), those who react to those of us who have been in ministry and left but still retain some of the “pastoral” or, in my case, the chaplain’s interest in relationships, teaching, counseling, social cooperation, etc. As I’ve said, if another non-believer chooses to angrily attack faith and people of faith at every chance, fine, I guess. I simply choose another way and prefer to call myself a freethinker. Does that make me a “bad atheist”?

    Btw, questioning my atheism sounds like what I hear from some believers: “Oh, you were never really a Christian.” That, my friend, is ad hominem.

  • mason lane

    Yes, militant would indeed be more apropos than having the ugly despicable word “Evangelical next to that beautiful word Atheist” … we agree on this resident troll 🙂 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/46992190bf74d7f665e452660bed33ef09f3db3f3439e6f16fd56965f527e38f.jpg

  • mason lane

    MIlitant implys these synonyms: aggressive, assertive, pushy, vigorous, forceful, active, ultra-active, fierce, combative, pugnacious, which many do apply …

  • You raise good questions. As I responded to another commenter, context matters. . .and our personal experience. Many on this forum have obviously had awful experiences with believers. I get that. I’ve had some pretty bad encounters myself. I think I agree though that a majority of Christians (and maybe a majority of atheists) are willing to have decent conversations, and most on either “side” don’t deserve the angry judgments.

    As for Freethought, it’s a large subject. As Susan Jacoby defines its historical roots, Freethought covers a spectrum from the anti-religious to “those who adhere to an unconventional faith.” According to Jacoby, American freethinkers have included deists (like Thomas Paine and Jefferson) as well as agnostics and atheists. This is why I teach students to engage people like Paine and Ingersoll as well as Walt Whitman, Stanton, Mott and other thinkers and reformers.

    I think you’re correct that people who are “fettered by belief” are not truly practicing freethinking, yet in my view atheists can fall into that as well, for instance when wildly generalizing about people of faith. What do the “aa”s do with believers like MLK? Dismiss him? Argue? Or join believers like him who are doing something good in the world? This doesn’t at all preclude hard discussions about the myths we have. Those may be important, when not active in ethical work.

    Yes, how much are we interested in meeting in the middle? A question that reverberates for me quite a bit.

  • Insulting to all atheists? Well, except for me, I guess. Humanistic non-believers who still value relationships with others including believers (and even some angry atheists), have a seat at the freethinking table, as I see it. btw, Nowhere do I suggest we “take it easy” on injustice and not speak up. It’s a matter of manner and degree. Respectful engagement if at all possible.

  • Yes, I get that, and support that. It also sounds like you can be “out and proud” as an atheist without “hanging a banner” or attacking others. I find that admirable.

  • mason lane

    “As I’ve said, if another non-believer chooses to angrily attack faith and people of faith at every chance, fine, I guess.” There’s plenty, in fact a real growing surge of atheists pushing back against and attacking/calling out/questioning/challenging theistic dogma & beliefs, but where are the angry attacks on people of faith happening? I have 1700 Facebook friends, most atheist/agnostic, and I don’t see personal attacks on people happening Chris.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I’m taking the liberty here of reposting “Andy’s” response to Chris’s part I of “Why I’m not an Angry Atheist.” Andy is a member of the Clergy Project and participated in the study that I conducted with Dan Dennett. I asked Andy to comment on Chris’s posts because he is pastor of a liberal Cristian church. He is an hidden atheist and chooses to remain as pastor because of all the good social justice work he can do within the church..
    From Andy: I’m inclined to agree with others here that Chris reflects his pastoral position, and the need to be viewed as more ‘gregarious’. It reminds me of the Anglican cleric, and great New Testament scholar, Michael Goulder, who, upon becoming atheist, wanted to be known as a ‘non-aggressive atheist’ (as recorded in one of Bishop Shelby Spong’s books, Why Christianity Must Change or Die) I must admit that I have the same tendency in my work as an atheist pastor. I certainly don’t want my church to suffer because I turn people off, which translates into fiscal insolvency, which in turn translates into the loss of all the work of social justice my congregation does. That is why I don’t profess atheism. There’s plenty of other things to talk about–especially violence and injustice against others, as well as the capitalist rape of our environment. Those are the kinds of topics I pursue.

    On the other hand, I become quite edgy in the pulpit when I denounce Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. I want to be an ‘agitational’ force against those who wish to make our country a theocracy. (Alas, even my liberal colleagues like to quote chapter and verse as a way of supporting legislation, even though religious texts, in my view, are totally irrelevant to our common, civil life.) In that sense, I justify what seems like ‘venom’ coming from aggressive atheists. We’re not on equal footing here, as if to say, ‘let’s all get in a circle, and share our viewpoints objectively.’ Everybody’s viewpoint is valid and welcome. Most Christians that I have known are unwilling to be teachable. Positions are entrenched; the final word has been spoken in the Bible, which must be legislated by elected officials. In other words, so many theists are not neutral and objective. Their views are DANGEROUS in the hands of legislators, presidents and justices who gleefully endorse and codify Christian prejudices. Accordingly, we need aggressive folk to be the resistance–regardless if they succeed in ‘converting’ anyone else. That doesn’t matter. (Think here of the resistance to Hitler within the Wehrmacht, and especially Valkyrie).

  • Linda_LaScola

    It’s also pretty common. In fact it’s probably more common for atheists to not “hang a banner” or attack others than it is for Christians, some of whom believe that it is their duty to convert the heathen.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I don’t consider myself among the smartest or the bravest — but I am possibly among the most curious, since I did a study on non-believing clergy!

    I gave up on the idea of eternal damnation while still a believer. It just didn’t make any sense to me.

    I think a lot of people do that sort of thing – discard what that don’t like (hell) and hold on to what they like (heaven!) Heaven didn’t make any sense ether, but it was a pleasant thought.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Some ballpark language for how I self identify now: post-supernaturalist; non-theist; secular/cultural Christian; student of the historical Jesus; feminist;
    faitheist; pluralist; Christian humanist; ethical humanist; Etc…
    To call myself an atheist would be too simplistic..simply against theism. Not very heuristic by way of starting a dialogue moving beyond super-naturalism.

  • Priya Lynn

    “Unless we have a dramatic “game of thrones”-type clash of worldviews with combatants in a contest for superiority and domination, what purpose does any non-fictional evangelistic agenda serve?”

    That is exactly the sort of contest evangelical christians are waging against LGBT people. They are using the First Amendment as a weapon to entrench in law their legal superiority to people not like them. The research on Right Wing Authoritarianism (which refers to followers, not leaders)


    shows that these people can’t be reasoned with, they have double standards and enjoy feeling superior by having an out-group to denigrate and punish. Countering such people for the mind of the reasonable person is not something that can always be respectful. Indeed, in some cases, as you can see in the three comment threads below, sometimes respect for religious beliefs is a problem itself. For example, when people are given a pass for saying “Gayness is a sin, but don’t worry, I’m a sinner too.”. That’s a belief that deserves no respect and should be treated as such to avoid providing or accepting false justification for treating lgbt people as second class citizens.




    To access the #200 and higher comments, go to the bottom of the blue page and click on th red “Post a comment” icon. When the white comment window page comes up, click on the “Newer” icon.

    ““Do unto others” seems a reasonable guideline for atheists too. ”

    I couldn’t agree more. Problem is, 25-40% of the population, mostly conservative christians, doesn’t buy that fairness idea as is shown in the research I linked to above. The same can be seen in the three comment threads above as I attempt to appeal to Wyatt and Regina Hardiman’s sense of fairplay – these people just aren’t open to logic, reasoning, and facts.

    “I can appreciate some of what Hitchens or Dawkins toss out, though often with smirks on their faces. Yet, that’s how it seems to me: tossing stones at others while smirking with an air of superiority.”

    Again, see the three comment threads above. They’re typical of how evangelical christians show disdain for people who won’t follow their religious beliefs. The research shows these people are deeply self-righteous while they treat others unfairly, perhaps because they can ask their god for forgiveness for any wrongdoing, wipe the guilt from their minds and continue on behaving just as they did before.

    “We felt that we loved others so much we wanted them to “see the light”—to love the One we loved and who loved us. The most important way to do that was to “be the only Bible some may ever read.” In other words, to walk the talk, live the life of love, which was the best way to bring anyone to faith. Could the atheist evangelist learn from that? Is the [sic] motivation to show care, concern, and compassion for others? Is there a personal, one-to-one, dimension to the “points” we have to make or is it an all-out war?”

    This approach is all well and fine for reasonable people, but 25-40% of the population can’t be reached that way. They will lie and misrepresent and suppress democracy to force their will on people not living like they want them to. If there isn’t some effort to fight this war with aggressive debate these people will create a false portrayal of the world they’ll use to get other, reasonable people to go along with their attempts to cement in law their legal superiority to atheists, lgbt people, and non-christians – that’s what all these deviously named “religious freedom” laws are all about.

    “what intrigues me is the potential for forming respectful relationships where people are actually communicating rather than “whittling their sticks” (into sharp spears) for battle. ”

    We need people like you, and people like me. Multiple approaches are needed for different audiences. The world faces existential threats from nuclear holocaust to Human Caused Global Climate Warming. If history has taught us one thing, it is that religion never has, and never will unite the world – it can’t be considered the highest value of society if we are to unite and address the serious issues that face the planet, including overpopulation.

    We need a united humanity to address these threats and will only have it if all religious willingly subordinate themselves to the highest moral imperative of society – “To have the best society we can, society’s highest priority has to be maximizing the happiness for all in an equal and fair way.”. There’s no reason why any religious person shouldn’t be able to agree with that and place the unity of humanity above religion.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Atheism is not against theism, it’s simply without theism. It’s a-theism, like asymptomatic is without symptoms and asexual is without sexuality. I’m an atheist because I am non-religious. I do not believe in a supernatural god.

    There no need to identify with a word that you don’t like, but I think it is important to understand the meaning of words you are using or rejecting.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I wonder if there is such a thing as an evangelical freethinker? Can you think of any?

  • Mark Rutledge

    fair enough. I will modify my statement

  • mason lane

    atheist does not mean against theism, only non-belief in any deity … beyond that is beyond the word’s meaning … it seems common in our culture for people to add all types of additional meaning to the word

  • ElizabetB.

    Well… thinking of “evangelical” as meaning “good news,” I see Chris as a freethinker bringing good news… and if one thinks of ‘evangelical’ in the sense of being interested in inviting others to be freethinkers, that sense might fit too….

  • mason lane

    What really terrifies and causes believers, especially/primarily Evangelical to feel they are under attack is that they are, by information and they see so many of their own going over to the other side, especially the younger generations. Their real fear is that they may be the next deserter of the irrational “faith”.

  • mason lane

    What group?

  • ElizabetB.

    PS Many progressives lament that the word “Evangelical” has been hijacked by the destructive forms of religion — I’m remembering how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] deliberately added “Evangelical” to its denominational name in order to reclaim it to mean ‘good,’ not bad, news.

  • mason lane

    Most atheists are still in the closet, or even in the pulpit, or seminary, or priesthood. It’s only a small tip of the huge atheist mountain that currently dares to make itself visible above the dark clouds of religiosity. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/21936a2e204b329f59311301d178f31c9554c523babec1c1c8f229bfd025733c.jpg

  • ElizabetB.

    What is a “faitheist”?! new one

  • ElizabetB.

    I like “freethinker” because it seems to avoid slippery definitions. I’m not very happy with “humanist” because to me, “-ist” indicates you privilege this over other things. Humans are not being very helpful for the universe, this planet, right now — I feel like earth is sort of trying to shake or shrug us off, with storms, volcano eruptions, earthquakes. I’m thinking of myself as a pan-compassionist freethinker : )

  • ElizabetB.

    The Right Wing Authoritarian research you link to is awesome. But it describes too precisely where the USA is today politically. Eerily prescient!!!!! Great descriptions of psychological experiments… I’m 1/5 way through and looking forward to finishing. Many thanks

  • Linda_LaScola

    Thanks — and since you’re in a position of influence among liberal Christians, I’d be grateful if you made that distinction to them whenever you have the opportunity.

  • Linda_LaScola

    Sounds like the meaning of “evangelical” has been hijacked the way the meaning of “atheist” has.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I’m fine with people calling themselves a word that they feel comfortable with. In terms of understanding your beliefs, my question to you would be “Do you believe in a supernatural god?”

  • Linda_LaScola

    And like many homosexuals years ago, many atheists today haven’t yet examined their religious beliefs.

  • Geoff Benson

    I could probably say this as a reply to several comments, but I’ll do it as standalone.

    An atheist is one who has not taken the positive step of acknowledging any form of god. Nothing more. If I don’t tell them that there’s a hypothesis that a god created everything (assuming they’ve lived all their life on a desert island), then they are still an atheist, just without knowing it. Of course, having reached ‘first badge’ status many then choose to become more active atheists, whether it be positive atheism (that’s me, I consider the evidence is heavily in favour of there being no god), or anti-theist, or even ‘evangelical’ atheist.

    Once you’ve realised that you are an atheist then I think that’s where agnosticism comes in, as you are then actually weighing the evidence, searching for knowledge. This is why most atheists call themselves atheist agnostics, though I’m aware that some philosophers would tear into me for saying this.

    As for the pejorative use of the term ‘atheist’, I think that it’s a considered tactic by apologists, and it’s worked! It is difficult in the US (I’ll not even mention Islamic countries!) even to admit to being an atheist (though in most of Europe it’s the norm), largely because the religious have succeeded in turning it into a form of insult. Where they are confronted by clearly capable, and highly intelligent, people who aren’t intimidated by them, they change tack, and accuse them of being evangelical. Then even the non-believers start playing the game, trying to re-label themselves, distancing themselves from ‘fervent’ or ‘brash’ atheists, for fear of alienating believers. The term ‘new’ atheist has come to be a form of insult; it’s an attempt to distinguish the more modern atheist, whom they fear, from old style atheists, who were seen fondly as ‘every village has one’ and ‘they aren’t really right in the head’. They fear new atheists, and I don’t fear use of this name if people wish to use it.

  • Priya Lynn

    I’m glad you found it that way. I found the research to be the most important thing I’ve ever read and as you found, I tound it to be shocking how well it described the political situation in the States despite talking about the Bush administration. I couldn’t stop reading and now I’m reading it for a second time.

  • I get your issues here. What I’m addressing is the “re-labeling” you mention. My concern for self-identifying as a freethinker rather than an atheist is not due to a “fear of alienating believers” or a fear of others who wish to use the label–new or otherwise. I’m interested in being clear that there is no “orthodox atheism” where some of the more strident anti-religious can evangelize in the name of all non-theists, defining non-belief in only one way, and presenting their “war on religion” as what “real atheists” do. (Note how some in the comments question my allegiance).

    I’ll say it again, if some wish to insult and intimidate others, using that as their mode of “communication,” they’re welcome to it. I’m simply choosing another path that builds rather than burns bridges.

  • I don’t in any way support or “give a pass” to those who seek to deny rights to anyone else. We don’t have to respect disrespectful beliefs. As I see it, there are more constructive and creative ways to address the disrespect and, as you say, teach the facts. Some of us are evidence that evangelicals can change their minds in the face of reason and respect.

  • Seems reasonable, Mark, that we keep searching for ways of identifying that truly communicate in a variety of contexts. I find the discussions fascinating, particularly around the label I prefer, freethinker. Some here may have doubts, but I always make it clear in discussion that I am a non-supernaturalist. That seems to cover it, for the most part! Yet, the conversations can be done respectfully while engaging the hard questions.

  • And yet. . .one issue in my essay is that the “evangelists” make it all about being “against” theism. The anti in anti-religious is quite evident. Maybe not you or many other outspoken atheists, but the ones I’m specifically addressing.

  • Yes, I think so. Ingersoll was one. Francis Wright and Lucretia Mott. Sagan and deGrasse Tyson perhaps. Being an “evangelist” for Reason? Ok, sure. Angry and aggressive? Maybe not so much. Ever known an evangelist of any shade who was willing to have a reasonable discussion. I have. We can “push a message” without needing to win battles.

  • Good point. Evangelical is not a dirty word in my book, especially since I have friends and families who are such.

  • Inviting others to be freethinkers. . .I can own that, thanks.

  • I truly get what you’re after here, but all I can say in response is that I, personally, do not have relationships with percentages or stats. I can’t get into “aggressive debates” with people I actually know or care about as members of my community or my family. Online I suppose.

    I completely agree we must “address these threats” with a “united humanity.” I assure you there are many, many religious people who would indeed agree with uniting for a better world. In fact, large numbers are leading the way and I see no reason why non-religious can’t join them (or vice versa) without animosity “beyond beliefs.”

  • I’m glad you’re out in both these significant ways. The honesty is a powerful message in itself. Thank you for that. And no one–no one–should be demonized for who they are.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I was with you until your last phrase “…another path that builds rather than burns bridges.” This is an assumption and perhaps speaks to your own experience, but I do not want to burn bridges by calling myself an atheist and don’t think I have. I’m describing myself in terms of my religious beliefs. I also describe myself as short, female, of Italian descent, etc.

  • Linda_LaScola

    I’d say that an evangelist of any type (as you describe it) is extremist and that the term is no different when applied to some atheists.

    Are there evangelist panentheists? lapsed catholics? agnostics? Maybe it only applies to people who are very firm in what they think.

  • Priya Lynn

    I agree with everything you say here, you need to be who you are, and I need to be who I am. I think your approach is appropriate sometimes and my approach is appropriate other times. Good luck 🙂

  • Priya Lynn

    Fair enough. But, if I were to be arguing with a Right Wing Authoritarian about the morality of gayness and they said “Gayness is a sin like any other, but don’t worry, I’m a sinner too.” and I said “Good people don’t go around saying that.”, would you agree with me openly, or would you remain silent, or say something like “everyone is entitled to their moral beliefs.”?

    And would you agree that its best for humanity if everyone agrees their religious beliefs come secondary to society treating everyone fairly?

  • I’m not assuming anything here, Linda. You, and many other non-theists (for the most part non-aggressive), are not necessarily burning those bridges as I see it. Perhaps that’s one reason a heretic among heretics like me can be on these pages.

  • Thanks! Same for you.

  • I don’t think anyone should stay silent in the face of bigotry. I know people who have changed their views after getting to know gay people or immigrants or people of color, etc, etc. I’m guessing most of us have changed our views about some group/belief over time.

    As for the exchange, it all depends on whether we want the conversation to proceed or end. I might respond to the “stone-thrower” stuck on sin without implying they are not a “good person,” but rather they hold a harmful and hurtful belief and they might read their Bible more closely (judge not; love; etc). If it turns into a bible-battle I’m not much interested. But I wouldn’t deny the other person’s right to that belief. They just need to hear another’s thoughts and feelings. Hearing each other may be difficult but the alternative is no chance for education and change.

    And, what if one’s religious beliefs are centered in fairness, justice, compassion, love? This is fundamental for a whole lot of people who would agree with you (and me) that beliefs should never get in the way of humanistic community.

  • Linda_LaScola

    But it seems like you’re making an assumption that #1 you are a heretic among heretics (I don’t think so) and #2 that people like you might not be welcome here because they don’t call themselves atheists. These seem like preconceived notions about “atheists.”

  • Geoff Benson

    Yes indeed, I agree with what you say. All roads may lead to Rome but they follow different routes.

  • mason lane

    old atheists … trembling in closet new atheists … jettisoned out of closet, kicking ass and ridiculing the absurdity of theism

  • mason lane

    Chris, a heretic among heretics 🙂

  • mason lane

    Telling another person I’m an atheist is quite often, these days, a bridge to excellent discussion and has frequently led to the person revealing they are an atheist, or over time them becoming an atheist. But if a person has not lived as an atheist I imagine it would be almost impossible for them to imagine how it really is, especially these days. The times they are a changin’. Today millions of Americans are open about being atheist, and often proud of the intellectual/emotion journey they took to become post-theist.

  • mason lane

    Chris, do you think the blacks or gays have been too aggressive. American atheists haven’t been as aggressive as the Black Panthers. And almost all atheist aggression is best describe IMHO as assertive and directed at the theistic beliefs not individuals.

  • Mark Rutledge

    it’s an identifier for the campus chaplain at Harvard several years ago. He has written a book with that title. if you google it, this will probably come up: https://www.amazon.com/Faitheist-Atheist-Common-Ground-Religious/dp/1531807046

  • ElizabetB.

    It truly has…. I wonder how it happened that the current toxic meaning of “Evangelical” has taken hold so deafeningly?!! — “Toxic” in terms of the evils Dr. King warned against — racism, militarism, extreme materialism — plus xenophobia, condemnation of same-gender love, theocracy, etc. Why has that become so loud that groups like Sojourners, who think of themselves as Evangelicals, began a campaign last Lent “Reclaiming Jesus” [the ‘good Jesus’ : ) ]? How did it happen that people now rarely think of Sojourners-like groups when they hear “Evangelical”? Seems pretty remarkable.

  • ElizabetB.

    I have to admit that my knee-jerk reaction to “Evangelical” is very negative. Later I may come to value that particular person, or learn how they differ from my stereotype : )

  • ElizabetB.

    Looks like a captivating book! Thank you very much!!! The reviews sound like Chris’ advocacy here for inter-faith/secular cooperation and respect whenever possible. But the Urban Dictionary doesn’t seem to have read Faitheist yet — unless the spelling difference is key

    “A theist who’s [sic] religious persuasion relies solely on faith, regardless of evidence or reason”.

    “Someone who says they are an atheist even thought they really do believe in God.
    ‘Dude, Ron is such a faithiest. I saw him a [sic] church yesterday’ ”

    “Someone who must live in a religious community, pretending to be one of them, while not believing in God, or at least not believing what the rest of his/her community believes”

    “Alternate definition: Someone who has a strong conviction that we cannot know whether God exists”

  • ElizabetB.

    I dunno, Chris… I have had a very hard time with seeming friendly with someone whose statements and stance [on lgbtq issues, for example] include those that have driven good people to suicide. I can be polite, but not really family-type warm. I feel bad about it, but haven’t found a way around it. We’ve discussed, but neither budges! : )

  • ElizabetB.

    Picture of the learning process — when I improved my spelling — “faitheist” rather than “faithiest” — google found this discussion of the term —

    Many thanks for the education!

  • ElizabetB.

    Exactly why I like “freethinker”! — I make our president look positively rock-solidly dependable in his opinions and actions in comparison with the state of my ideas! They seem fluid, in progress — but I don’t know progress to what yet. I know plenty they’re NOT — they do not include a heavenly being directing events on our planet, for example. But the tricky thing about definitions is that if I DID think that, I would not call that “supernatural” — If that were real, then I would call that “natural,” part of reality. The things I am firm about are 1) compassion, to the extent I can muster; and 2) correspondance to reality, and I look to science and the wisdom traditions for clues. So hurray for the fuzzy and liberating term “freethinker”!!

  • I won’t die on the hill of being a heretic among heretics, but I’m choosing another path (definition of heresy) of expression of my non-belief (freethought) rather than angry aggressive combat, so maybe that qualifies? And, I was referring to the tone of some of the comments questioning the “orthodoxy” (my word) of my atheism. I don’t see you doing that.

  • Yes, I know, Elizabeth, and most of this depends on our personal experiences. There are potentials for standing our ground on reason and “common sense” and IF we are speaking with someone who can genuinely listen, who is sincerely open to learning, then maybe there can be progress. A big IF.

  • My essay is addressing “angry” evangelism. There are myriad ways that evangelists “spread the news” and it’s not always aggressive, negative, etc. As you say, firm in their convictions (theist or not).

  • Mark Rutledge

    I like freethinker as well. I’ll have to add that to my roster of identifiers

  • Priya Lynn

    “As for the exchange, it all depends on whether we want the conversation to proceed or end”

    Whether or not its worthwhile proceeding with the conversation depends on the person one is debating, perhaps you are far better at ascertaining this than me. I have a pretty short temper with falsely claiming gayness is a sin/wrongdoing, so for me, if someone expresses that belief, I’m already intensely disliking them. I think if one engages in further conversation or not, its vitally important you make it clear when it ends, you think that belief is immoral and harmful. Don’t leave any doubt in the person’s mind that you think its 100% morally unacceptable for them to hold this belief. And for some, ridicule and mocking is the best approach. 25-40% of the population are not open to changing their anti-gay beliefs regardless of any reasoning, facts, or logic. They are driven to push the anti-gay agenda as far as fast as they can and we need to keep in mind the serious threat these people are and have a plan on how to “debate” them in the public square – they are far more vocal than people who are open to reconsidering their anti-gay beliefs.

    ” But I wouldn’t deny the other person’s right to that belief. “.

    That’s a rather general statement that could mean many things in many situations. Would you tell a person who thinks gayness is a sin, that holding that belief is just as immoral as holding the belief that black people are inferior to white people?

    “And, what if one’s religious beliefs are centered in fairness, justice, compassion, love?”

    I think that’s great, but I question if christianity is very important to a person how much prominence beliefs in fairness, justice, compassion,and love will have in their minds. It seems to me that for most christians, their highest priority is always some concept of doing “what god wants for me”. I see potential confilict there when it comes to what’s fair and what their concept of the bible recommends as “moral”.

    I’m hoping you’ll advocate as I do that if we want the best possible society everyone must agree religious beliefs come secondary to society treating everyone fairly. Do you agree with that?

  • Priya Lynn

    Yes, this is where I think its important for all people of good conscience to be upfront about the fact that moral people don’t accuse those who are harming no one (lgbt people) of sin/wrongdoing. I think far too much deference is paid to this bigotry because its a “religious” belief. Religious beliefs don’t deserve any respect or preference over non-religious beliefs, and this legal preference to religious belief over non-religious belief is already entrenched in law, evangelical christians are looking to further entrench anti-gay christianity’s superiority in law and all fair minded people need to be much more open and vocal about the social unacceptability of the belief that gayness or gender changes are a sin/wrongdoing.

  • ElizabetB.

    Chris, if you have time, I’m curious what you think about the “fatheist” Harvard assistant humanist chaplain’s stance in the book Mark cited — “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious,” Mark Stedman — and in this RNS interview in the WaPo …. Are you familiar with him? He sort of sounds like a kindred spirit : )

    “Q: What does the term ‘faitheist’ mean? Is it a positive label or a derisive one?

    “A: It’s one of several words used by some atheists to describe other atheists who are seen as too accommodating of religion. But to me, being a faitheist means that I prioritize the pursuit of common ground, and that I’m willing to put ‘faith’ in the idea that religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice.”

  • Thanks, Eliz, yes, I read Chris Stedman’s book when it came out. I am partial, no surprise, to chaplains–esp. of the humanist variety. I get what he means by “faitheist” but I wouldn’t personally find that helpful, though it opens doors to question and discussion (as with “freethinker”). . .provided people are indeed open to it.

    His “pursuit of common ground” is what I’ve done, not just talked about, for many years, through collaborative chaplaincy, nonprofit work, teaching and writing.

    I hope readers haven’t overlooked the Muir story I tell in Part One. the kindly skeptic, the “good-natured growler” onboard the ship. Muir was amused that the old captain had no use for nonsense, yet the captain thought Muir’s understanding of glaciers was nonsense, so Muir tried to “reform” him, to teach–and joke about it. This openness to converse, for mutual learning, is central to effective chaplaincy, and I would say, to effective communication of non-belief.

    Here’s my question: why not be a “good-natured skeptic” even with a bit of growling?

  • You’re right, I think, that any productive conversation depends on the one we’re talking to (unless it’s mere debate). But I would add it also depends on us, if we’re interested in something productive coming from the exchange or just winning.

    I’m with you about the frustration with bigotry. I’ve addressed it many times but I’m no expert. Sometimes it’s fairly clear a real “discussion” is impossible. Disliking what we’re hearing invites an honest response. I agree, let them know what we think and feel. I still think ridicule and mocking serves no purpose except we can walk away knowing we “got ’em.”

    I know plenty of believers (not only Obama) who have changed their minds about gay marriage and gayness over time. It’s hard to have patience with that process, until I remember my own process in this and other human rights issues.

    We all have a right to our beliefs, and a right to challenge other’s beliefs as they can question ours. This never means we simply accept whatever we hear.

    I’ve responded to your question about making beliefs secondary. If people with faith or without are focused on a better, healthier human community, I think we’re on the right track. So much more could be done if people across the spectrum could be inclusive. And yes, to me this means we join with believers who “get it” and move on without insisting they let go of their faith before we can work with them. That eliminates a lot of potential collaboration. I’ve been there and done that.

  • mason lane

    Faithist opposite of Atheist I assume … as for common ground, there’s a plethora of common ground and common interest between the two, just not when it comes to irrational belief in any deity … so I don’t understand Chris’ crusade for common ground when there is plenty already?????

  • ElizabetB.

    Sounds like “faitheist” is being used two ways — one as a negative way to describe an atheist who is too easy on religion; the other way is an atheist taking that originally negative word to describe themselves in order to advocate for more dialog and cooperation in social justice work. (Is this correct, Mark?)

    Googling is turning up articles mentioning interfaith groups that include atheists. I think that’s great! Maybe aa’s would say that any atheist attending would be ipso facto a faitheist : )

  • ElizabetB.

    This is funny, Chris… checking out the WaPo article’s comments, I see one by’ Nature Chaplain’ who surely looks familiar : )

  • I’m with that. “Fair-minded” may be a good alternative to “freethinker” too (certainly a fundamental part of freethinking). More vocal and organized is good. Appreciate how you don’t generalize to all Christians or all believers as some do. Strong coalitions are active, and necessary. Maybe you are in one?

  • Priya Lynn

    For me, I prefer “Fair-minded” as it puts up front what I believe to be society’s highest priority. I find nothing more wrong than the foundational ideas of christianity, but when I encounter fair-minded people, its not something I’m going to bring up.

    I’m not in any sort of coalition but I’m willing to work with any christian on the goal of fairness. I’m a homebody and I don’t really have anyone I seek out contact with in real life other than my husband. The people I interact with are his friends and family, all christians to my knowledge, and they’re all fully accepting of lgbt people like me so religion never comes up as a topic, at least not that I’m going to bring up.

    In the three comment threads I’m trying to spread around, I am dealing with a hard-core right wing authoritarian, so while I do mock and attack destructive christian beliefs, I also (in the third thread, I believe), invite all christian readers to take up the cause of fairness and to define their own christianity in terms of fairness, compassion, openminededness, etc. I even make my own appeals to “god” to touch the mind of the severely anti-gay couple I’m arguing with and soften their hearts.




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  • Sounds like you’re doing what you can where you are.

    Funny that I end up defending aspects of Christianity/Religion sometimes, but when you say “foundational ideas of christianity” I go back to what some scholars and “fair-minded” believers might say are fundamental teachings of Jesus: sermon on the mount, ethics, questioning oppressive teachings, challenging self-righteous religious teachers, etc. I’m not interested in arguing this (and no doubt some will pounce), but I don’t personally think he was as distracted by theological otherworldly things as the later church molded his icon to be. So I might say that if he was to show up today, he would confront destructive beliefs and the lack of fair-mindedness just as you and I do.

  • Priya Lynn

    Thank you for your time and consideration. 🙂

  • Bubblecar

    I don’t have any personal interest in “building bridges with believers”. To me as a humanist/transhumanist, religion is an aspect of human culture that needs to become extinct, and will probably eventually do so (long after I’m gone). Religion provides susceptible people with a cosmology derived from anthropomorphic fantasy, with an accompanying “ethics” that is mostly based on superstition and prejudice. A scientifically realistic and rational cosmology, and an ethics based on knowledge and reason is clearly preferable.

    I’m not actually “at war” with individual people. Some (but not many) of my friends are liberal religious believers. Most of my online commentary on these issues is centred on countering religious attacks on secular rights, and attacking unwarranted, state-sanctioned religious privilege, and the influence of religion in politics and education.

    The idea that an aggressive atheist-secularist approach “doesn’t change minds” is not borne out by the statistics, which show that religion is in rapid decline in the most advanced societies.

  • I’m with you on the humanism, and a broader view of Religion, which leads me to make another clarification related to my essay.

    Most of what I hear from the angry anti-religionists reveals a certain limited experience with Religion. Many seem to focus their “war” on one branch of the Christian tree (fundamentalist/evangelical) which not only neglects a huge part of that tree but ignores all the other trees in other forests.

    Here’s what I wrote in response to another response:

    “Most reactions to my essay make this all about Christians, when I’m drawing on nearly thirty years of interfaith work. Maybe it’s true that the angriest anti-religionists simply haven’t had much experience with religion other than narrow-minded, closed-hearted Christians. If we take most Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, huge numbers of Muslims, etc. . .who aren’t interested in special privileges, legislating their beliefs or fighting with atheists, I think there is a lot of common ground.”

    Now, I understand your perspective on “Religion” tinged with “superstition and prejudice.” Yet, again, this reflects only some branches of the forest of Religion. I get it when people say they’d like to see it all cut down, but that’s an unrealistic fantasy. In my opinion it’s better (and more in tune with Humanistic ethics) to engage the large numbers of reasonable believers of all faiths who aren’t hung up on the superstitious nonsense to distraction.

    I’m certainly with you regarding the countering of attacks on rights, etc, yet here again, large numbers of religious folks are right there with us on that (though I agree we have a lot of work to do in educating many through sensitizing them to secular issues–though that education won’t happen with angry diatribes and “atheist fundamentalism”). Non theists may actually have a few things to learn from “them.”

    I’d have to question your reference to “stats” on why people are leaving organized religion. Is it really due to aggression by “atheist evangelists” or a host of reasons including those friendships you mention and a natural attrition in a more secular time?

    Thanks for the comment.

  • al kimeea

    nice strawman, BeeryUSA merely pointed out that you’re an atheist, regardless of how you feel about the tone of the word, simply because you reject any deities

    faith is letting others do your thinking