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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