Hello, Christians in my life. Especially those of you from my old church camp or Bob Jones University. I’m really glad you’ve stopped by here today, because I’d really like to have an open, honest discussion with you. But before we get started, I want to explain something about how and why I use specific examples to dovetail into broader discussions. This is something I’ve striven to do as long as I’ve been writing this blog, as evidenced in posts like my critique of privileged progressivism, the realization I had that purity culture was bogus, and my assertion that Christianity has a consent problem.
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
~Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
It’s not unusual for you to tell me and my friends that we shouldn’t talk about situations unless we directly link to or otherwise include all parties originally involved. (That is, when you’re not telling us to just keep it all to ourselves quietly.) I’m not sure if this is some weird carry-over from Matthew 18 or what, but it happens with surprising frequency. Clearly, I disagree — largely because I’m almost always more interested in addressing a broader system of which a specific situation may be merely symptomatic.
Honestly, I see no reason to publicly name or shame anyone when the point I’m trying to make is bigger than the anecdote I’m using to illustrate it. And so I do tell my stories, even when they include your sometimes damning actions or words. I’m careful to not name names because I’m not out to attack you at all. I really don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to you as an individual. Instead, I want to redirect attention to the larger point at hand. With that in mind…
Let’s talk about the problem many Christians have with showing basic empathy and respect.
I’ve always been a writer and an artist. As long as I can remember, I’ve used the written word and my art, lettering, and design to express my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. When I was a Christian, many of you really loved my dedication to sharing my faith like that — you often pointed to it as proof of the solidness of my character. You commended me so often for the depth of my personality, the clarity I had in expressing my beliefs, and the love and kindness I showed to all. I can’t even tell you how often y’all have told me and others that I’m so sweet and have such a tender heart.
To perhaps no one else’s surprise, when my beliefs began to change and I used the very same media to continue to express my now-evolving-and-no-longer-approved beliefs, your support evaporated almost instantaneously. That kind of leads me to believe you never supported me so much as what we agreed about. All the comments about how tender-hearted and sweet and pleasing to the Lord I was were replaced overnight by public and private demands for silence or repentance. It’s like you think lack of religious belief means lack of moral character, and I’ve often been left reeling at the about-face of your respect and regard for me.
What do I mean exactly? When I talk about Christianity, atheism, or even humanism in spheres where you can easily see, it’s inevitable that one of you will pop in with some sort of “gotcha!” commentary that I can only guess is supposed to make me stop in my tracks and be convicted by the Spirit. You rarely engage the points I’m actually making, and instead make claims about me or my beliefs that are often demonstrably false or else recite the Bible at me like I’ll suddenly realize that these are the droids I’m looking for, after all.
I do want to take a moment here to clarify that some of you haven’t done these things. Some of you have told me that you love me no matter what, and our relationship is more important to you than us agreeing about our beliefs. I can’t express in words how much this means to me, as I’m often left feeling alternately attacked or abandoned by people who once claimed to love me.
But some of you?
Some of you try to evangelize at me, singling me out in private messages, emails, or posts. These inevitably feel like you’re trying to bait me into a heated discussion, and no matter my response or non-response, you’ll never change your mind (because character?) but I’ll be demonized for the same. I can’t even defend myself in these situations, because you’re so convinced any response I give is justifying my sin, proving I’m convicted, or just more proof that atheists are somehow unreasonable.
You’ve accused me of being unapproachable, untrustworthy, or deliberately offensive — despite my largely public efforts to validate the beliefs of all so long as they are respectful of others. In fact, on Facebook (where much of these sorts of confrontations seem to happen), I have an entire system in place so that I’m always careful with which audience I’m sharing my views. No matter how respectful, courteous, or understanding I am, it seems that my mere existence as a Former Christian Now Atheist is an offense most of you just can’t overcome.
Some of you tell me in no uncertain terms that morality and justice can’t exist without the Christian God. Are you aware that you’re implying I can’t possibly live a moral life and must live a nihilist existence? (There’s always the argument for common grace, but if I remember correctly, since I once believed and now don’t, y’all tend to see me as an apostate rather than a prodigal and probably think common grace doesn’t apply to me anymore.) I mean, do you really think you or God have a monopoly on morality or justice?
Strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike pointedly say that if I’d ever been a True Christian™, then I could never have left the faith. This particular claim effectively invalidates the first 24 years of my life, not to mention 6 years of intense soul searching and upending my entire world in my search for a belief system both true and non-toxic to me. It’s especially offensive and hurtful.
Some try to silence me, telling me that speaking openly about my life, experiences, and beliefs is disrespectful to those who disagree with me or a slap in the face to spiritual mentors in my previously Christian life. (To which I say, please see the quote at the beginning of this post.)
Others reminisce about the hopelessness of your lives as atheists before you found Christianity. I’m guessing this is an attempt to make me see my own life as hopeless without God. (Which…really? You want me to be miserable? “Hurt ’em to save ’em” is neither an effective witnessing tool nor a loving, healthy thing to do to anyone).
And some of you just quietly unfriend me, drop out of my life, and avoid me when I do happen to be in your real-life spaces, acting as if I’m a disease you may catch if exposed for too long.
In most of the situations I related above, the people trying to get me to see the error of my ways are those who were once mentors of some kind in my spiritual life, or else men (who, as you know, are considered spiritual authorities that I, someone considered a weaker vessel, am expected to submit to). Honestly, it feels like a massive parenting effort where I’m considered a stray child that must be set straight. As Captain Cassidy pointed out, Christianity as a whole often sees itself as The Designated Adult — and that’s not respectful at all.
It just seems like so many of you are so caught up in the fact that we don’t play for the same team, as it were, that you’ve completely lost the ability to empathize with me (or with anyone who believes differently than you). And talking to people who lack basic empathy for others is kinda scary, and certainly not an endorsement of your beliefs. A system of belief that severs community and dehumanizes the very people it says it wants to reach is not a system that can really claim to love or accept anyone, especially not unconditionally.
But honestly? I don’t really care about whether you’re living up to the higher ideals of your faith or not. What I care about is how you treat me and anyone else you disagree so strongly with, because a lot of you seem to lack the know-how of showing basic empathy or respect for people who are really different from you.
I really hope you can hear me out about what I am saying and what I’m not saying here, because I absolutely don’t expect any of you to stop talking about your faith in general. It’s such a huge part of your lives, and it’d be really unfair of me to expect you to keep such an important part of your life to yourself and never speak of it. That’s cruel and disrespectful, and would mean that I don’t really care about you in the first place. To borrow the spirit of the words of a friend, “It’s part of your life — and I like your life.”
This is where it could do you some good to learn a little empathy, learn to put yourself in my shoes for a little bit, so maybe you can learn what treating me with respect actually looks like.
Because just like Christianity is an integral part of your identity and it would be wrong for me to expect you to keep quiet about it, my secular humanism is integral to my identity…and it’s just as wrong of you to try to guilt, shame, silence, or change me for it.
When you share Bible verses, what you did in church last week, a Christian article that inspires you, I generally understand that it’s not an attack on my personhood or beliefs (unless you single me out by tagging me in a bald attempt to evangelize or shame me — for the love of all that is decent, don’t do that). So the corollary there is the same: when I share articles or artwork that reflects my beliefs, it’s not an attack on you or your beliefs, and I’d appreciate it if you could stop treating it as such.
As I’ve said before, I fully support people not wanting to be friends with me if that’s the best thing for their mental or emotional health. I actually wrote a whole thing about how to be courteous both in person and online in uncomfortable situations, and I’m not going to be the person who doesn’t take the hint and continues to push herself or her views on people who would rather be left alone. In the exact same way, I expect you to respect my autonomy and beliefs by not forcing yourself into my spaces when I’ve set a boundary and by not trying to reconvert me to your faith.
I do my utmost to not assume things about you that I have no basis to assume. It can be really hard sometimes, since I remember very clearly thinking, saying, and doing the same things that you’re doing now. Whereas I was once a sincere, dedicated Christian who believed most of the same things you do now, most of you have never been atheists (which honestly, you really keep using that word wrong). Ahem. Anyway. I am not you. I don’t know your story. It would be pretty disrespectful of me to claim that you believe things you don’t or that your experiences aren’t real. So please do me the same courtesy of not speculating that I was never really saved in the first place, or that I never really gave Christianity a chance. That’s patently wrong, disrespects me as a person, and doesn’t allow for any sort of actual conversation since you’re creating a straw-man version of me to dismember rather than addressing what I actually say about myself and my life. Not to mention that it kind of flies in the face of that whole “God looks on the heart” thing.
You know what I would love? I would love it if we could actually have a real back-and-forth conversation about what we have in common rather than each having a monologue at each other detailing how wrong the other is. Or I even wish that you could just listen to me and my other formerly-Christian friends when we tell you how certain expressions and practices of your faith has been damaging to so many. I’m still invested in Christianity, at least insofar as I am invested in making the world a safer, more healthy place. And I’d really love to work with you to create that safer, healthier world.
If you’re reading this and you’re someone who mentored me in some way while I was a Christian: I really want you to know that I love you. I always have. You shaped me during my most formative years, and that’s awesome. Some of the lessons you all have taught me will be with me for life, and I’m grateful for the love and care you showed me. But I’m an adult now. I’m not a child or a teenager or even a college-aged kid. I’ve done my research, I’ve searched my own metaphorical soul, and I’ve developed my own beliefs, my own life. We certainly disagree on many things, but I think you’d be surprised to see how much we still agree on. But more than all that, I’m a person.
And I really hope that you realize that what I’m asking for is basic human respect.
There’s quite a few articles I think you could benefit from reading, in addition to the articles I’ve linked throughout the piece. Please take the time to hear what we have to say for ourselves, to respect us enough to allow us to speak for ourselves, and to maybe even display enough humility to listen to our input on what you could do better to make your section of the world a better place.
If you’ve noticed, I’ve linked pretty heavily to Neil Carter throughout this post. A big reason for that is that Neil and I have similar personalities and ways of observing and experiencing the world, so much of what he says resonates deeply with me. Other blogger friends I’ve found to be particularly adept at expressing problems with Christianity relating to atheists are included here as well, namely Dan Fincke and Captain Cassidy, along with the Ex-Communications blog from the organization Recovering from Religion.
But even on my blog and Twitter, I’m not obligated to let someone talk at me until they run out of breath or things to say. These are still my spaces. They aren’t courts of public opinion. I’m not obligated to allow others free speech. My social media isn’t a democracy. I have the final say in what I allow, and no one else can change that.
Think of it as my house. You don’t get to come into my house and say whatever you want and expect me to put up with it. You don’t get to do that in my online spaces, either. Even if we’re meeting somewhere in public, neither of us are obligated to make our discussions open to the public, or put up with any ignorant thing we might spout at each other. It’s the same online.
You might not like that. But guess what? You can totally do the same on your social media profiles and in your life. You get to decide what you post, who is allowed to comment, what kind of conversations you want to have, whether you’ll delete comments or not. The possibilities are endless, so if you have something you just really need to say, go to your spaces to say it, just as I’ll keep using my spaces to say what I need to say.
…ex-Christians have to be really careful navigating the trap of the Designated Adult. Usually in our case it’s the Christian who is trying to “parent” us. Most of us have relatives or friends going that route so they can get us back under control and into the fold again; sometimes this control is subtle, like passive-aggressive tricks: “hey, can you read this apologetics book and tell me why it’s wrong?” Sometimes it’s quite overt: “if you don’t start going to church again I’m taking away your college fund.” They do these things for our own good, they say. They’re damned proud of assuming the role of Designated Adult over us–implicitly declaring that we in turn are children in need of their sublime guidance. They seem confused, angry, or hurt-sounding when we reject their attempts to parent and fix us. They’re “just trying to help.”
This behavior is abusive, and we are right to call it for what it is and to refuse to play along with it.
Do not assume you are either morally better, spiritually more attuned, or happier than we are simply because you belong to your faith.
The trope that without God people are miserable and lost but with God they are happy and live lives of purpose is propaganda. Religious people have highs and lows and so do irreligious people. That’s called normal human psychology. If an atheist has a sour personality, it is quite likely no more or less because of her atheism than a sour religious person’s disposition is Jesus’s fault. People’s personalities are much deeper than their beliefs on the question of divine beings. And atheists’ troubles are not just signs we need Jesus. We will not appreciate it if you trivialize our complicated problems by treating them like they can be magically cured with the panacea of Christ.
Do not assume that the only way to be spiritually serious and feel emotionally secure is to be within the faith. You may not believe that it is possible outside the faith, but many of us are living proof it is. Especially if you thought we were spiritually deep before we left the faith, don’t condescend to us by treating us as though we must have suddenly turned shallow, confused, or anguished the moment we left the fold. We didn’t. Expand your mind to appreciate how people outside the faith can and do find meaning too, even if you think our views are somehow mistaken.
It’s a lot easier to make up stuff about someone and attack that stuff rather than learn about that person and deal honestly and truly with them. Sometimes you’ll hear that referred to as a straw man tactic–the person who is using it intentionally and deliberately creates a “straw man” of the opinions s/he would rather fight against, and fights that creation instead of the opponent’s actual stated opinions. Sometimes a straw man in action is both cringeworthy and hilarious–like one debate described by Neil at Godless in Dixie wherein a noted Calvinist Christian literally debated sound bites of his atheist opponent’s past speeches rather than engage that same atheist opponent in reality, an atheist who was moreover physically sitting right there next to him for the actual purposes of debating him that evening. “Surreal” doesn’t even begin to cover how that looked!
In the same way, a Christian who decides unilaterally that an ex-Christian simply never was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ can decide all sorts of things about that ex-Christian’s past and argue on those bases rather than just ask the ex-Christian about it and have a real dialogue. They’re not talking to the actual ex-Christian in question but to the ex-Christian who exists only in their own heads, but since their words are meant more to enshrine their own correctness into law than to actually talk to anybody, that’s not really much of a problem–except for the Christian who happens to be under a direct commandment from Jesus himself (apparently) to love his or her neighbor.
My observation is that Christians can do a pretty decent job of identifying with their own kind, at least up to a point. Honestly, that’s true of just about every group, right? Tribalism is woven deeply into the fabric of our collective mentalities, and it’s only natural that we would do a better job of taking care of our own than we do of identifying with people who are very different from us. But there’s a narrowness to Christian tribalism which often marginalizes even their own kind whenever someone varies from the norm on matters of doctrine or practice. Just pick the wrong side of a theological division or walk into the wrong church with tattoos on your arms and you’ll see how well they have learned to accept people who are different from them. Walk into a Baptist church as an unwed mother or a “practicing” homosexual (hey, practice makes perfect, right?) and see how they look at you. Don’t take it too personally though, because they do the same thing even to members of their own church when they fail to conform to group expectations, which often are myriad and incredibly specific.
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Far from being a tangential question, this love-in-action is supposed to characterize Christians above all other traits, and it’s supposed to lie at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And as we’ve seen here already, love isn’t just something you feel, it’s something you do.
If that’s true, then your love for others must be judged by the actions you take toward them, not by the speeches you weave around your actions nor by the feelings you feel when you act. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. So that must be how we determine if you are indeed loving your “loved ones.” It won’t do simply to say it. Your actions must actually benefit the ones you say you love or else they do not really demonstrate love.
By and large, Christianity as a system in the Western world teaches people to run rough-shod over the boundaries of those within and without their camps under the guise of love. The consent of its members and non-members alike isn’t required, as clearly demonstrated by the past almost 28 years of my existence. And that’s amassive problem, enabling (and at times commanding) the manipulation, mistreatment, and abuse of countless people.
In fact, I’d say one of the defining characteristics of Christianity today is that it has a consent problem.
And until Christianity as a whole takes a good look at its refusal to recognize or honor the boundaries of others and work to change their rampant tendency to control the lives of all they can in the name of God, consent be damned…Christianity is not a safe place for anyone. And more and more people like me will have to leave it to find any sort of freedom, respect, and dignity.
We are both unfairly disparaged as inherently disrespectful, intolerant, and authoritarian by the same kinds of secular people–whether they are atheists or just non-evangelical religious people. They are the ones who say, “I do not care at all what other people believe so long as those people never try to share their faith with others or try to challenge the faith of others.” They often make it a supreme moral principle that “Thou Shalt Not Try To Change Another Person’s Religious Beliefs”. Both evangelizing Christians, like you, and disputatious atheists, like me, are equally sinners to them. They are proud of their tolerance and inclusiveness and yet their idea of respecting your views and my views is to tell us to keep our beliefs to ourselves at all times and to indiscriminately label us as extremists when we don’t do so. With very little nuance the simple desire to persuade others to change their minds is conflated with a bullying desire to force others to believe as we do. I don’t think that’s fair to us argumentative atheists. I don’t think it’s fair to you evangelical Christians. Granted–I think members of both our groups are terrible about how they handle disagreements over religion. But I want to be constructive about how to do it better rather than give up on discussing such ideas altogether.
Being right is more important than loving your neighbor as yourself. And no self-respecting person is going to respond well to that.
When things like this happen, to me or to my friends, I really struggle with how to respond. Part of me says, “You’re not a Christian anymore, so just ignore it. It’s not like it affects you anymore anyway.” But that’s not really true. There are lots of things about Christianity that deeply affected me for over 20 years, and when Christianity also tends to play a role in U.S. politics, it sure as hell affects me.
And the thing is, when I stopped believing in God, I didn’t stop caring about people. I care about the world around me, about making it suck less, about helping make sure that people within my old faith don’t have to have the feelings and fears and experiences I did. I think there’s a lot of value to Christianity, if the toxic parts could be done away with.
And that’s why I’m still invested in Christianity, despite having rejected it for myself. It was my entire life for over 20 years, and if I can help my awesome Christian friends make their faith a positive force in the world, I’m going to do it.
…misguided or not, those twenty years of my life were sincere and passionate and a very important part of my life. How would you like it if someone took an eraser to two decades of your life, telling you they were illegitimate? Through those years, I came to know both the Bible and the Christian message very well, and that earns me a place at the table of discussing religion in a public setting. I am not approaching these matters as an outsider. I come to this table as one who has earned the right to say something about modern American evangelicalism. So of course it bothers me when someone pretends those years never even happened. That discredits my contribution to the discussion. It disenfranchises people like me so that our voice doesn’t have to be heard. That’s not playing fair, and it limits what you can learn from people like me. In other words, nobody benefits from this tactic, and you’ve just lost any chance you might have had of discovering something new and expanding your own ideological horizons.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling. People like me who spent years devoted to the Christian faith don’t appreciate it when we are roundly dismissed with the wave of a hand. It’s not a charitable way to have a discussion, and it’s disrespectful.
My disbelief is not a choice.
It is a conclusion.
I could not choose to believe in Christianity again because nobody actually chooses to believe anything. Belief springs forth; it cannot be compelled either way.
If I had a good reason to believe in any religion’s claims, then I’d believe.
But I don’t have a good reason to believe.
Instead of giving me a good reason to believe, way too many Christians denigrate my disbelief as some kind of petulant choice I made, like some recalcitrant toddler who didn’t want to wear anything but her Batman costume to daycare that morning.
In so doing, these Christians show their true colors and make me feel more certain of my conclusion.
Having been a devout believer for my whole life until recently, I’ve been privy to how people react to the “falling away” of a brother or sister in Christ. I’ve had many of these assumptions myself when friends and acquaintances left the faith. As I’ve gone through the deconversion process and observed others who have done the same, I’ve realized that most of the reasons Christians tend to assume someone leaves Christianity are either completely false or confusingly misplaced. So I’d like to cover reasons that most certainly aren’t why I deconverted, while also exploring with you what things did contribute to my change of belief system.