Feeling A Burden (for Atheists).

Feeling A Burden (for Atheists). July 21, 2013

A bit of housekeeping: Richard Carrier is coming out with a book that deals with the historicity of Jesus Christ. I’m planning to get it at some point once it’s released and I’ll let y’all know what I thought. It should be interesting to see how my amateur analysis holds up.

Also, I’m on Day Way Too Many without proper coffee, so bear with me. The supply train is supposed to get in to the depot soon, ending my own personal Long Winter, and I should sound and feel worlds more coherent afterward, which is why I’m putting off the post I originally wanted to write in favor of something a bit more lighthearted.

Before I graduated from college and we moved to Japan, Biff thought he had a burden for atheists. I’m not kidding. And in terms of burdens, his backfired in a major, major way.

In fundie-speak, a “burden” is a special calling a fundagelical feels for a particular group, cause, or event. A Christian with a burden for children will volunteer or work with a children’s ministry or donate to causes that help children. A Christian with a burden for teen mommies might get into the forced-birth movement or start volunteering at a home for unwed mothers. Biff’s twin burdens were pregnant women who might choose an abortion, and atheists.

To that latter end, he hung out with atheists on our college campus, invited them to our home, had them over for dinner and holidays, and had a radio talk show on an AM station that was meant to convert them.

Apparently AM stations will hand just about anybody a show. I’m not sure how he even got the idea to do it or how he got the show in hand. He just did. He came home all excited that he’d gotten his very own talk show. I knew he’d been listening to Rush Limbaugh (this is before that bloated walrus got out of hand; I even liked him back then and thought he had some good things to say) and was fascinated with Bob Larson (also before that alleged scam artist got out of hand, though I didn’t like him or his weirdly manipulative and clearly staged show). Biff had this idea that he’d make it big by imitating the both of them. He’d have a call-in show, he explained to me, where atheists could call in about topics. He’d have guests on the show to demolish their atheism on the air, and it would be awesome and he’d convert everybody. Our god had, in a mood for irrepressible mayhem, told him to do this.

I remember I was washing dishes as he bounced into the kitchen and told me the exciting news and I looked up at him with this “you have got to be kidding” expression. But my indoctrination won out and I tried to be supportive. “Well, I hope it works out,” I said. “Is this going to cost us anything?” (As the Designated Adult in our marriage, I had to ask these questions–he sure wasn’t going to do it.)

With the firm (and as it turned out, for a change factual) assurance that our church had already volunteered to foot the minimal costs involved, I gave his venture my blessing, though I doubt he’d wanted or needed it. Thus began my association with atheists.

I’m not sure that Biff really meant for his new ministry to have the effect on me that it did. His show ran once a week on an AM station. He’d go down there with whatever guest he’d managed to glean from our friends and they’d shoot the breeze and argue. I don’t like confrontational radio shows so I only listened to it like once and never visited the studio, but I did play hostess many times to various young atheists he brought by the apartment and even became friends with some of them.

Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of mar...
Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of marsdencartoons.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He used the time-tested Larson/Limbaugh formula with a few tweaks. He and his guest would talk about something religious; the guests told me usually the discussion would begin with a question about why they had chosen not to believe in the Christian god. Then Biff would argue with them or try to pick holes in their argument against religion because he labored under the rather tragically mistaken idea that once he’d done that his victim had to succumb to his superior Romulan wisdom, and after a while he’d open the phone lines up to let callers phone him. Then he’d argue with them. The show lasted two or three hours, I think. Then he and his guest would come over to the apartment and we’d all eat and hang out.

I largely regarded Biff’s radio show as a chance to get the apartment to myself to play games on my Mac LC or study or write or just read. He never invited me to be the guest or to visit or sit and watch him working his magic that I remember, but again, I just wasn’t a fan of his shockingly brazen witnessing style.

I just realized I should probably say that he never once converted any atheists with the show, which sort of defeated the entire purpose of having the show, but you probably already figured that part out on your own.

One side effect Biff might not have anticipated, though, was that by hanging out with all of these atheists, I got a real look at how a life of non-belief looked and worked. Sometimes I felt very sorry for the people who had rejected my god. One of them, an ardent second-wave feminist, clearly felt just as sorry for me, and of all of the atheists I met, she was the most antagonistic toward me; she took my forced-birth leanings very personally and challenged those views constantly by telling me about the women she’d known who had gotten abortions (and one who had even died because out of shame and poverty she’d gotten a back-alley abortion that was way cheaper and more private than tangling with clinics and protesters–shades of Kermit Gosnell there). We wrangled about statistics about abortions and talked about the Crisis Pregnancy Center’s complete duplicity toward and manipulation of women (“WHAT? No! They don’t lie!” — Of all the innocent illusions I lost, that’s not one I regret losing.)

Overall, the atheists I met were respectful, intelligent, polite, and not even a little Satanic. They seemed quite moral and kind to me as well. I know a lot of fundagelical churches preach that non-believers are evil to the bone or lack morality, but I never got too far into that idea because before the indoctrination could happen I’d already met dozens of people who were totally normal and good. I went from not knowing anybody who wasn’t Christian to knowing an amazing number of people who weren’t. And that proved to be a problem for me.

Remember, I was a fundamentalist. That meant my god would condemn people like them to eternal physical torture and torment but at the same time, that same god was going to let lying, cheating, violent Christians into heaven. I knew that the Bible said that a lot of Christians who think they’re safe will find to their shock that they’re actually going to hell when they die and get to their judgement, but it just seemed so overwhelming to imagine good people being sent to hell for no other reason than rejecting the “free gift” my savior had promised every person in the world. Why was it called a “gift” when rejecting it had such huge consequences? Why was it called “free” when it clearly took plenty from those who accepted it? When I’d sort-of believed that non-Christians deserved eternal torture, it hadn’t been so bad for me to contemplate judgement, but now that I knew so many who did not deserve that torment, the idea of eternal Hell–or even the Catholic weasel-out of purgatory–seemed so much less tenable or possible.

There just wasn’t any way I could see for a really good and just deity to punish anybody for using their head and their divinely-granted rational thinking skills. The more I looked at it, the more I had to think that the entire idea of Hell was less about someone knowing a theological assumption for sure and more about someone wanting to scare people into doing stuff.

As you can see, I was already beginning to question my own faith due to issues I’ve described before with historicity, and these people Biff brought home didn’t help much. Or they helped a lot, depending on which end of the pool you’re floating in.

By the way, I didn’t really have a burden. I prayed for one, but never got one. I mentioned this lack to a preacher (my second pastor), who told me that my burden should be to be a good wife and mother. It’s not that he was an evil misogynist and I’m not mad at him for saying it; he just thought that these roles were the default for women, so if nothing special had turned out to come my way, then the default was where I should dedicate myself. He thought women were lucky to have a default burden; he didn’t think men did.

If there is a divine sentience, then perhaps it did give Biff a burden, just not the one he expected or thought he had. Though he never converted any actual atheists, certainly his burden worked marvelously at exposing me to people who were completely outside my area of experience and way outside my comfort zone, which helped me leave the religion when I finally had had enough.

I know that many Christians have this idea that non-Christians and especially atheists are evil, immoral bastards who eat babies and are just one soft click away from murdering entire families. I’ve lost track of how many atheist men I’ve known online who told their wives they no longer believed and immediately got accused or suspected of cheating or committing other crimes on no basis whatsoever other than that they don’t believe anymore. A lot of these mistaken assumptions happen because these Christians just don’t know a lot of non-believers and atheists. And I know, too, that some ex-Christians have talked about how their mistaken assumptions about non-believers kept them from leaving the religion much earlier because they didn’t want to be evil, lying, cheating baby-eaters.

Even worse, I know how I felt about those who doubted or struggled in the religion when I was a Christian, and I can definitely understand an apostate not wanting to face those accusations of not doing it right, not believing hard enough, not praying or fasting enough, not understanding the Bible correctly, or a host of other ridiculous and false assumptions. They can get away with making those accusations because they don’t know many ex-Christians; I wonder how they even get those ideas, because I sure don’t know any ex-Christians who were anything but sincere, knowledgeable, and dedicated when they were members.

That’s why it’s important for those who no longer believe to be vocal about it if they’re able. Not everybody can risk the social penalties of openly saying he or she is a non-believer or has left the religion. We all have a certain level of risk. Some of us would risk everything (job, family, home, even our physical safety) by coming out of the religion closet. Others of us have far less risk. As more and more of us walk out of that closet, the penalties and risks for the rest of the apostates will drop as more people share it. If you’re wondering why the sharp rise in “Nones” is happening, my suspicions is that this process is already underway. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people sitting in pews every Sunday wish they could be anywhere else in the world and don’t believe a word of the tosh they’re hearing, but fear those risks and fear becoming one of those “evil” atheists or ex-Christians they’ve heard about.

When I finally realized my religion was false, I didn’t have to agonize about becoming one of those “evil” ex-Christians. I was already on great terms with so many non-believers that there wasn’t any way I could buy into what I only realized later was a considerable amount of propaganda about them, all thanks to Biff and his “burden” for them!

My point is this: if you’re a non-Christian wondering if it does any good to be “out” and to be vocal about your lack of belief, please know that yes, it does, it very much does. Your debate online might not de-convert anybody on the spot, but all those little discussions and arguments I had back then all filtered into my brain and ended up in my “deal with it later” pile, and sooner or later that pile got so big I couldn’t ignore it any longer and had to, well, deal with it. Not only are your actual words and arguments important, your mere existence as an ex-Christian or non-Christian is important. Those who are still trapped need to see you. You are a living raised middle finger to all the propaganda they’ve heard about those who reject their religion.

Next time, we’ll get back on track and talk some more about how to evaluate evidence and extraordinary claims.

PS: Biff’s “burden” for pregnant women also backfired by leading me right out of the forced-birth movement.

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