Recently, Hemant Mehta shared a post on Friendly Atheist about a retired Christian pastor, Eric Strachan, who just doesn’t understand atheists at all–but instead of asking atheists about their experience, chose instead to Christiansplain at atheists about why they are atheists. The results were predictably pathetic and laughable and we all had a good chuckle (or a good mad, whichever floats one’s boat) about it, but this former pastor’s opinion piece reminded me of the many Christians who are very eager to overwrite and dictate non-believers’ experiences to us. And I had an insight about it that I want to share today.
I don’t think that’s very loving behavior, but not much about that flavor of Christianity is loving anymore–if it ever was.
That said, I know how long it takes to write a thoughtful, well-composed blog post. It’s not something I can just toss off. I don’t think this post this former pastor wrote was something he just tossed off either. Instead of taking all that time to profess his total mystification about atheists and to make erroneous guesses about why someone might be an atheist, why did he not actually, oh I don’t know, go ask some atheists why they’re atheists?
Oh, but it gets worse. Now that I’m out of the religion this many years, I can tell when a Christian’s “theory” (scare quotes used for obvious reasons–this guy’s idea does not rise anywhere close to the level of a theory and is more of a guess he’s pulling straight out of the cat’s ass) has become a cherished delusion for that Christian.
This pastor’s post has the scent of something he’s said many, many times–probably over many, many years. It has the mark of being long-polished and slobbered over. He’s likely said this to his friends over potluck Jello salads and preached it from the pulpit, all while wearing a look of utter and complete wide-eyed bafflement as he trotted it out and proudly showed it from all angles to his audience. And his audience nodded and clucked approvingly and professed similar total bafflement and similar utter mystification over those poor dumb ole atheists who just don’t get what they, the truly evolved and superior (but absolutely humble and pious!) Christians understand.
An outsider’s mistake would be in imagining that Eric Strachan is writing to or even about atheists.
He is actually enforcing a group identity here by pandering to an audience who doesn’t know any more about atheism than he does, and this ain’t the first time he’s mentioned this idea to someone in that exact tone of bafflement and innocent confusion.
There is a reason he doesn’t educate himself. It’s the same reason why Christians make all the other wrong guesses they do about ex-Christians, women, LGBTQ people, or those who belong to other religions. They’re not expressing genuine curiosity. They’re “Just Asking Questions.” What they’re doing is dishonestly slamming people they don’t like and reinforcing their own sense of superiority under the pretense of curiosity.
I’m going to pretend along with Eric Strachan that he’s really actually wondering about why people might be atheists and offer him the education he sorely needs.
1. He makes the same mistake about definitions that most Christians make about atheism.
He says: “A ‘theist’ is one who believes in God, but put an ‘a’ in front of that six-lettered word and you come up with what the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as ‘one who denies the existence of God’.” Actually, an atheist is someone who sees no reason to believe that any gods exist. Atheists don’t deny the existence of his own god. They don’t buy into the existence of any gods. You can’t deny what you don’t even think exists. Big huge difference. He makes atheists come off as petulant, strident, and recalcitrant, when nothing could be further from the truth. Most people I know who are atheists didn’t actually initially desire to be so; that was just the only conclusion they could reach based on what they discovered to be the truth about the universe.
What’s funny is that he, like most Christians, would almost certainly disbelieve the existence of other religions’ gods in the same way that people disbelieve the existence of his own god.
2. He’s terribly upset about the separation of church and state.
He paints those who fight against his brand of religious overreach as petulant, angry little children “bemoaning” the Separation Clause. Well, pardon us for refusing to let Christians like him turn our country into a hellhole theocracy. He can gripe and whine all he likes about our Constitution and Bill of Rights; those laws protect him as well as the rest of us. And the hilarious part is that his political whining has nothing to do with why people are atheists. People are atheists because they see no reason to believe in any gods, remember?
But when someone in a privileged position starts losing some of that privilege, this is the kind of out-of-focus complaining you’ll see.
ETA: It’s been noted (thanks, Eh’theist!) that this guy is actually Canadian, which makes his concern about America’s Separation Clause and clear adoration of Ronald Reagan all the more confusing. I thought that American fundagelicals’ bizarre brand of hypernationalism-fused-with-religiosity was weird enough, but learning that a Canadian’s bought into it is not improving my impression of the situation.
3. He’s blown away that atheists aren’t afraid of the Hell he clearly fears.
It’s very upsetting for him to see the “brash radical boldness” about today’s atheists. But if they were talking about Christianity, he wouldn’t be upset about it at all. He’d be lauding those folks for being so brave in the face of public disapproval. But when it’s atheists saying they don’t fear his Hell, then they’re brashly radical. Double standards and hypocrisy, thy name is religious zealotry.
Why shouldn’t I say I don’t fear Hell? He acts like such a proclamation is the most mind-blowing, provocative thing ever said, like he can’t even imagine someone saying that and meaning it. His conclusion is simple; he seems to think that whoever says that is simply lying.
And atheists’ lack of fear of Hell is not why they are atheists. He’s got it bass-ackwards. Some atheists, especially ex-Christian atheists, may cling to some fears about Hell, but generally speaking most atheists don’t fear it because they know that it cannot possibly exist. Nothing here answers his own question. He’s only implying that atheists are blustering falsely about their lack of terror about the religious threats that terrorize him.
4. He confuses statements of existence with “preaching.”
He sure isn’t the first Christian to get huffy over atheists simply declaring that they exist. Christians like him seem to want more than anything in the world for atheists to shut up and melt back into a quiet, dark background where he can ignore their existence and pretend they’re not there. Again, he’s got a double standard operating here. He clearly thinks it’s totally fine and awesome for Christians to proselytize. But he disapproves completely of atheists talking about atheism and discussing the reasons for their disbelief.
And, uh, this isn’t a reason why someone might become an atheist either. His fury and petulance at having to co-exist with openly disbelieving people, at having their voices competing with his in the public marketplace of ideas, is not anywhere close to being a reason why people are atheists. But it certainly reveals a lot of his own selfishness and self-centeredness. Again, this part is just him being upset with what atheism’s striking gain in numbers–and even more particularly what atheists’ way lower risks and fears about openly declaring themselves–implies about what’s inevitably going to happen to his own privilege.
5. He makes standard fallacious arguments thinking they are valid reasons to believe in his god.
I’m guessing he’s a Creationist because of statements like this: “You simply cannot look into the face of a newborn and declare ‘There is no God!'” Because actually, yes, I can quite easily. I can think newborn babies are fascinating and occasionally cute and still know they are the product of many millions of years of evolution. I don’t need a god to appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or the joy of being around my family.
His argument starts to fall apart when one considers the many babies born with genetic defects–and the many fetuses that will self-abort at some point in their gestation because of some serious genetic abnormality. The idea of a god being involved in any way conceivable in stuff like hydrocephalus is so grotesque that I reject it out of hand. If he thinks the cute ladybug-costumed babies are products of his god, then he needs to explain the mechanism by which that occurs and account for the babies who aren’t cute, adorable advertisements for parenthood.
But he won’t. Instead, he’ll hint that anybody who doesn’t believe in his particular god just doesn’t like babies or isn’t capable of appreciating pretty sights like TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are. Not to hammer at this, but: that’s the polar opposite of being loving toward one’s neighbors.
6. When he finally gets around to explaining why he thinks people become atheists, it’s mind-bogglingly cruel, ignorant, and hateful.
I’ll just let him speak for himself here:
I think there are many people who are atheists today because they’ve experienced human tragedy, painful traumatic events in their lives, wars, rapes, a dysfunctional childhood, abuse, the tragic loss of a loved one and they’ve simply not been able to come to a satisfactory answer to the perennial perplexing question, “If there is a loving, all-powerful God, then why would He allow this to happen to me?”
Yes, seriously. People become atheists because they’re just mad at his god. That’s it. That’s why. They’re upset that the Christian god allowed them to be raped, hurt, or otherwise abused. Or they got harmed by Bad Christians™ (defined as “Christians who get caught doing something naughty or who don’t believe or do the same things he does”), a boogeyman quite a few Christians imagine keep people from joining their religion. So either “God” or Bad Christians™ are the problem here, but TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like him don’t let that bother them. So really it’s non-believers’ problem for being weak.
It’s a lot easier for Christians like him to overcome objections about terrible treatment than it is to confront the fact that there is no credible evidence whatsoever to support Christianity’s claims. And easier still to blame non-believers for whatever imaginary shortcoming in them keeps them from joining up.
A very common delusion among Christians like him is that people become atheists–or refuse to become Christian or to stay Christian–because they are angry or upset at the Christian god. Belief is assumed and completely implicit here. If an enterprising Christian works hard enough, the thinking goes, the non-believer’s secret real reason for disbelief will become apparent. Once this real reason for disbelief is exposed, then the non-believer’s objection to Christianity can be overcome. This exact thinking is presented almost everywhere in Christianity–such as this equally patronizing bit of dishonest bullshit advising Christians about how to convert atheists that actually flat-out advises Christians to assume that non-believers are lying about not believing because obviously everybody believes in the Christian god and either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t want to acknowledge it. An impish part of me wonders what he’d do if I treated him like that.
If he really wondered, all wide-eyed and befuddled, “how come some don’t believe,” it wouldn’t have been hard to find out. If he’d really wanted to know anything about atheists, he’d have asked long ago. As he himself notes, atheists aren’t quiet or hard to find nowadays! But not only did he not do that, but he doesn’t want to be corrected now: tellingly, his opinion piece doesn’t allow comments; I’m not surprised to see that. I’d have been far more surprised if he’d allowed comments–because inevitably a few atheists would have ruined his dinner-party sermonette. Indeed, you can see some of the pushback against one of his earlier posts about the global persecution of Christians. I’m guessing he didn’t care for the response much. Worse, it looks like he’d gotten nine comments when I look at the site’s main opinions page, but not a one shows up; did he delete them? Or turn comments off once he realized what the reaction was?
So there you have it: a Christian who really ought to know better believes wholeheartedly that atheists are just mad at his particular god. They’re in denial. They’re angry about poor treatment and possibly they are emotionally crippled or crazy. They hate babies and can’t appreciate beautiful, remarkable things (like Christians can). They’re strident and way too loud and pushy (unlike Christians). They stand in the way of proper Christian dominion and dominance over other Americans. They let bad treatment miff them enough to turn them away from eternal bliss and risk eternal torture at the hands of his “loving” god (which he’d never do, oh no, never!).
I notice that nowhere in all of his attempt to vilify and demonize atheists did he actually offer one single valid reason to believe in his god. Oh, he tried one fallacious argument from beauty, but it fell apart pretty quickly upon even my cursory examination; I think that was more of a potshot of his, not a serious attempt to persuade, more like a “hey y’all, lookit these ickie ole atheists who don’t even believe in god when they look at baaaaaaabies!”
Indeed, he wasn’t trying to persuade. He was screaming for atheists to get offa his lawn more than anything else. He’s ranting–albeit in mincing, disingenuous ways–about how the world is changing much more quickly than he can process, and about his own loss of prestige and cultural dominance in the wake of that change (indeed, Gallup’s noticing that pastors are plummeting fast in Americans’ esteem).
And he was directing his words at other Christians, not to anybody else, to try to garner sympathy and maybe stoke the flames of tribalism.
He’s certainly accomplished what he sought to accomplish: he’s doubtless made himself feel more smug and correct, and he’s certainly made a lot of other Christians feel the same way. He’s entrenched himself more firmly against the idea of sharing the cultural sandbox with others; he’s enforced his own identity and that of many other Christians (going by the number of shares the piece got) as a right-wing follower of Bubba Jesus.
But he has not actually answered his own question, and he has certainly not shown love to atheists by making these false accusations. He’s made himself look mean-spirited and dishonest, and by extension his form of Christianity as well. He’s offended countless non-believers and made them think even less highly of Christianity than they did before.
When Christians look back at these decades, it will be with sorrowful wonder over how they could possibly have messed things up so badly.
We’re going to look at another Christian behaving badly next time, and what it means for the dwindling of religious privilege. I hope you’ll join me.