I always assumed that atheists were assholes. Whenever Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens would show up on my computer screen, I would internally snarl at them: so angry, I thought. So prone to bitterness and self-righteousness.
Now that I’ve undergone my own deconstruction of faith I have to say that, while not excusing their more egregious behavior, I get why atheists can be assholes. It can feel like the whole world is against you, putting words in your mouth, or making assumptions about your character. Ever since coming out as a nontheist, I’ve gotten a steady torrent of unpleasantness from theists. I’ve gotten unsolicited challenges to debate, condescending private messages, and annoying assumptions about my personal integrity hurled at me.
Before I get to these hurtful things that have been said to me, I want to make a few clarifications at the top:
First, I get it. Back when I wrote exclusively about faith and homosexuality, I came to call the topic of homosexuality a hallucinogen: it caused people to read things that weren’t there, hear things that weren’t said. Homosexuality was such a panic-inducing subject for Christians that I found myself having to do a great deal of clarifying, because people often didn’t hear what they think they heard me say.
It’s the same with God and disbelief, only more so. I remember my own panic when confronted with disbelieving people I loved, and so I empathize.
Second, If you believe in God I don’t hate you, think you are stupid, or infested with a parasitic meme. Most importantly, I’m not out to change your mind or compel you to think any differently about the world. I think that religious belief — even crazy belief — is a feature, and not a bug, of humanity. I think religion and spiritual belief are here to stay, and I’m more interested in enjoying conversation with friends. I’m also infinitely more concerned with right and just behavior over “right belief.” As long as you behave justly and walk humbly, I’m not terribly concerned about your belief in wood elves. I’m only concerned with false belief when they compel us to behave in destructive ways towards others and the world (which, sadly, seems to be more often than not.) I’m only concerned about wood elves when they tell you to not vaccinate your children, for example.
I still consider myself a deeply religious person, and I still value what we often call mystical experience. I pride myself in being an ecumenical slut, cozying up to all manner of belief and disbelief, from the Satanic Temple to the Episcopal Church. Generally speaking I want more friends in life, not fewer, and I don’t want to demean, disrespect, or push away anyone simply because they have a different view of the world. I’m a nontheist because that is what makes the most sense to me, and I assume the same of other people and their worldviews. I do, however, expect the same respect from theists, and I regret to say that such treatment has been scarce. I was not prepared for how fatiguing coming out as nontheist would really be.
So now, allow me to divulge the most annoying things Christians have said to me about my unbelief:
I really hate your worldview.
I appreciate the honesty, and can respect that you truly feel this way. However, that is a bit of a conversation killer, isn’t it? Especially at the beginning of the conversation?
The conversation in question had to do with my materialism: my view that there is probably nothing but the material world, and that all the phenomenology of consciousness, emotion, and mind emerge from physical processes that are so complex that we may never understand them. I’m not, however, closed to the possibility of more: I’m not closed to the existence of God or the supernatural; I just want sufficient evidence for it. Till then, I have to assume that the physical is all we have to work with.
I’ve discovered that a lot of people really, really fucking dislike materialism. Some people downright loathe it, and blame it for some of the worst human atrocities of the 20th century. They also say that it is an act of philosophical incoherence (see David Bentley Hart’s never-ending tirades against materialism) and a huge leap of faith – more huge, in fact, than believing in the Christian God.
Far be it from me to tell you what to think – that’s your business. But I will say that a little more warmth and open handedness might take you further. For those of you who tell me that you “hate my worldview”, you have told me that you value ideological security over friendship, and that saddens me.
Disbelief in God often comes from rebellion.
This is fucking infuriating, in part because there is no winning with this one. It’s one of those unfalsifiable claims, thereby making it immune from any sort of rebuttal. Depending on your specific religious belief, rebellion could be just about anything: is it because I work on Saturdays? Because I decided not to convert to Catholicism the week of my confirmation? Because I’m Episcopalian? Because I’m gay? Because my priest is a woman? Because my mother is pastor? Because I had too much gay sex in my 20’s and now I’m irreparably tarnished? Because I don’t believe the Bible is infallible? Which is it?
I don’t believe in the God you disbelieve in.
This one is less annoying, but still worthy of clarification. I get the sense that people tell me this assuming that I’m rejecting the God of the fundamentalists: terrible, homophobic, vengeful, and petty. The reality is that I’m rejecting that God and all other gods, too. I’m refusing to believe in any deity that I believe fails to meet the burden of proof, and that includes the terrible as well as the benevolent and motherly deities. My disbelief has less to do with distaste for a particular God’s character, and more to do with what I perceive as the problems of supernaturalist belief altogether. I must reject the claims of a conscious higher power, because I see no evidence for such a being.
You’ve been really hurt by the church – this is obviously why you don’t believe in God.
There’s no doubt that I’ve lived on the margins of Christianity my whole life. Being a gay outsider, I saw the darker aspects of Christian life: the marginalization, the guilt, the codependence, the seedy behavior that flourished in shame and secrecy. Being an outsider within the church meant I had a front row seat to the darkness of American Christianity, and I can’t imagine that didn’t impact my faith journey.
However, I honestly feel like I was pretty much at peace with my place in the church before it all fell apart for me. I had found a way to reconcile my homosexuality to my faith, and I had found a Christian community that I loved.
Rather, my faith fell apart because I’ve always struggled with the nature of faith itself. For as long as I’ve been able to think about my faith, I’ve found it untenable and contrary to reason. I’ve found faith difficult, even in the face of transcendent mystical experience and an internally coherent theology of the world. It was my mind that was the problem, not my wounds.
If only you did psychedelics, then you would know God exists.
I’ve never done psychedelics, but I’ve had ample experience with altered states of consciousness. In my yoga practice I’ve had tactile hallucinations, sprawling visions, and ego-obliterating mystical unions with the cosmos. In prayer I’ve felt the Holy Spirit surge through my body like electricity, I’ve been slain in the spirit, spoken in tongues, and had prophetic dreams.
Does this convince me of the divine? No. It convinces me only that the human mind is a wonder to behold. I don’t think these experiences tell me anything about the nature of ultimate reality; they’re too subjective, too bound to culture and the narratives I’ve ingested about the world. They are wonderful and I still practice my materialistic mysticism – I still encounter “God” – but does that mean God exists outside of my own mind? I don’t know.
If God existed, would you even believe in him?
God very well may exist, I just want sufficient evidence for his existence. It really is this simple: do I have sufficient evidence for God? No. Then why believe in him? I just can’t get around that simple axiom. My faith falls apart in the face of those words. But does this rule out the existence of God? No, of course not. I’m not categorically closed, I am not dogmatically blind. I just want to believe with caution, because I know how fallible the human mind – my mind – really is.
A barrage of philosophical terminology that I don’t even begin to understand.
I like to call this one “blinding with theology” or “blinding with philosophy.” I’ve gotten some incomprehensible emails, attempting to out-theology or out-philosophy me. I’m not a philosopher, and I’m not terribly well read. I’m happy to engage with your criticisms, but please put them to me in a way I can understand. I’m also willing to accept that you are probably smarter than me, but that won’t do me any good if you don’t tell me what you think in words I can comprehend.
To conclude, I care about you. I care about friendship, and conversation. I’m not interested in being Richard Dawkins – I’m not interested in fighting you over God. I don’t have the energy for that. Instead, I want to work together to create a better world. Can we talk about that instead please?
Do you have thoughts on faith and disbelief? Why do you still believe? Why do you not believe? And if you are a nontheist like me, what terrible things have been said to you by Christians?
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16 thoughts on “Terrible Things Christians Say When You Stop Believing in God”
Very good article Stephen. I grew up in the church system and still believe that Jesus lived on earth to show us what God is really like. I believe in God. I do not like to call myself a christian because of all the negative views it brings up. I like to say I am a follower of Jesus, the one who loves people, accepts people and cares for people…all people. I think if we could throw away all the labels we put on people and just see human beings, we could accept and enjoy one another much better. Rather than have a preconceived view of others based on their label, if we could just get to know them as fellow human beings this world would be a better place. Obviously we will not all agree on things, but we should be able to care for, respect and love others in this world no matter what they believe or don’t believe and no matter what label is placed upon them. No matter who you are, male/female, gay/straight, black/white, republican/democrat we should be able to respect one another. We should be able to accept that we all see things differently and that is OK. We can get along together even in our differences if we would only choose to do so.
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I 100% agree. Glad to have you along for the journey.
Just finished reading your thoughts, I had to smile as I was considering my own willingness to come out as a non Christian and my thoughts on god just this morning. At any rate I admire your courage in your journey. It has taken many years for me to ask myself the same questions you have faced so early in your life and I do wonder if your early experiences coming out as a lgbtqa person helped to pave the way. I say this sincerely as I have spoken at length with my daughter who also had to cope with a fundamentalist church as she came to terms early in life with both her sexuality and her conclusion that god does not exist in her late teens early 20s. I acknowledge her sincere search for truth and the conclusion she and you came to. Her search and my own latent search have come to a similar place but I cannot help but admire that both you and my daughter for your reasoning and grace in your conclusions. I’m in my 50s and only now thinking for myself. Thanks so much for sharing your journey.
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Thank you for such kind words. I think being lgbt did play a part in my deconstruction, at the very least because it gave me an outsiders perspective. I think you are incredibly brave as well for being willing to face these questions. Thanks so much for stopping by.
Man, I miss your blog when I go a few weeks without reading it. (I’ve pretty much left Twitter … not enough sanity, not enough time.) I’ve been meaning to stop by for a while now and tell you how affirming it was to read the words, in your recent exhortation to Christians to do their research about LGBT issues, “Let it fuck up your life”–because with those words, you were telling me I’ve been on the right track.
Regarding belief, I’ve got a long history of breakdown of faith, starting with terrible scrupulosity (this sometimes gets diagnosed as a form of OCD … I’ve never been in for diagnosis but I’d believe it), moving through about twenty years of just not having the experience of either religion or reality that I was taught, feeling like God either lied to me about a particularly important matter or didn’t exist at all or else was screwing with my head in kind of cruel ways, and then learning science, religious studies, anthropology, and psychology as I’ve been working my way through college later in life. Best as I can tell from where I stand right now, the evidence against the existence of God outweighs the evidence for. Makes it tough to keep going to church and trying to participate every Sunday. Hard to know what’s the best way forward because it’s so desperately important to my spouse that we be Catholic together and raise our child in the church. It’s hard all around, really. But there it is. And yeah, I’m terrified to be broadly open within my family and community about what I’m experiencing, because I know what they think of people like me, and it’s not flattering. Or bearable.
Thank you for blogging … it makes me feel a little less breathlessly alone in the world.
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Thank you so much for this. Living with doubt can be excruciating, and I’m so glad the blog provides some solace. Please feel free to email me via the contact page if ever you want to talk about it in private.
I relate to so much of this. I think the worst responses are the ones that cast doubt on character, “you just don’t want to believe”, “sin is blinding you to the truth”. If you’re interested, I wrote about the problem of “sincere disbelief” and why becoming close to non-Christians challenged my faith and ultimately turned me into an atheist. I think you’re doing a great thing by engaging with Christians on this and helping them see it from your perspective. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-29/god-and-the-problem-of-sincere-disbelief/8378108
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Thanks so much for commenting! I’ll check out your article as well. Thanks for sharing.
“I really hate your worldview.”
Do they even understand your worldview? Or are they making assumptions about what you believe (or don’t believe) based on what they’ve been told atheists believe?
On the “I don’t believe in that god either” one, I get where you’re coming from and agree. At the same time, as a non-Christian theist, I do feel like a lot of atheists tend to paint all theists with the same brush, which can get annoying.
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I think you are right about that …
I love your thoughtfulness and your heart coming through this article. I am a non-traditional, ex Catholic, Jesus follower and understand the pain of these typical stances towards atheism. I don’t agree with any of them but do admit, like Jarred Harris, that often atheists deny a type of God that I don’t believe in either. In our search to understand the nature of reality I think some old ideas contained a wisdom born of certain time and some old ideas need to be discarded as science brings new understanding of this physical reality we live in. Many atheists dismiss scripture outright, but even modern fiction contains a communication of truth for those willing to discern it. Science discerns a similar truth that must also be discerned. I trust that we can respect each person and the perspective they bring to the conversation and thank you for articulating the posturing that is unhelpful.
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Hello. I feel like you’re invoking my comment without really understanding what I meant by it, so I would like to clarify. I firmly expect Stephen and other atheists to disbelieve in my gods every bit as much they disbelieve in the evangelical Christian god, for example. In fact, I am perfectly okay with them disbelieving in my gods.
What I take issue with is the many atheists I meet who start making assumptions about what exactly I believe when they find out I’m a theist. For example, I’ve had atheists who have said something to the amount, “Oh, you’re a theist, so you must believe in a single (nope) all-powerful (nope) god who is control of everything (wrong again, and that’s three strikes, buh-bye).” Again, I don’t suddenly expect them to believe in my gods just because they’re multitudinous, have limits to their power, and need cooperation with humans to actually do anything. I just want them to quit making assumptions about me. Kinda like they want evangelical Christians and other theists to quit making assumptions about them.
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I think what I’m hearing here is that we all just want to be responded to *as we are*. I want people to respond to my actual beliefs and attitudes, not to some imagined hologram on Richard Dawkins. I hear the same sentiment in these comments.
Agreed, as much as it is intellectually engaging ,,, most crave understanding over instruction or debate. Openness to difference is rare, especially over belief ,,,
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The modern-day Christian as you know it is not even CLOSE to who a Christian is supposed to be. America is basically becoming Rome.