Several weeks ago, I interviewed pastor and astrophysicist Paul Wallace. On my website, there was one lone comment in response to our conversation, and it managed to encapsulate everything I struggle with in the atheist community:
Unsurprisingly, Wallace can’t let go of his fantasy about how important he is and that an omnipotent being agrees with him. It doesn’t take much, just making up his god and his religion in his own image and ignoring the inconvenient parts.
Alright atheists, let’s talk. It’s time for a huddle. If the following rant doesn’t apply to you, then congrats. But if this rant does apply to you, then I hope it inspires some reflection.
First, I have to clarify that I might be completely misreading this comment. I might be hearing frustration, accusation, and blame where there is none. This post is entirely about my perception, and I welcome correction.
I understand where the this commenter is coming from. As a minority, atheists are often deemed untrustworthy and immoral. The weight of living as an untrusted minority in a predominately theistic world is hard, and leads to justifiable feelings of anger. When people ask me why atheists are so angry, I ask them to consider how challenging it is to be deemed untrustworthy or immoral by the majority of the country. I never understood atheist anger myself until I became an atheist.
There’s also the cognitive dissonance someone like Wallace inspires. To a longtime atheist, Paul Wallace might seems like a confounding, annoying, and cowardly oxymoron. A Christian pastor astrophysicist initially just sounds like someone who loves science but is unwilling to let go of their childish view of the world for the sake of security. Yes, there are things that Paul Wallace has said in his books, on twitter, and in our conversation that annoy me, or that I struggle with. I struggle to understand where he comes from, and how he reconciles faith and science, even after reading his book on the subject.
Despite all that, I had Paul Wallace on my show because I think he speaks to a common experience: an abiding discomfort with science, the material world, and the vastness of the cosmos, which drives some people to painful and unavoidable feelings of emptiness, alienation, and displacement. Where does one’s faith or religion fit in such vastness? Where do I fit? These are not arbitrary feelings, and aren’t experiences that can be flippantly swept under the rug. These are powerful human emotions that need to be addressed honestly and maturely by nonbelievers. The sheer overwhelming terror and alienation experienced by religious people in the face of a godless universe is the real hurdle for people coming to atheism.
While I don’t agree with Wallace on everything, I thought he spoke powerfully to this particular experience. Rather than seeing him as cowardly, or “choosing to make god in his own image,” I found him delightfully honest and winsome about his struggle. Even as a scientist, he can’t get rid of God. He stated in our interview that, even if all the mysteries of cosmos and consciousness were solved, he would still feel a need for worship. He clarified that he doesn’t know what or where this need comes from, but that he’s given up fighting it.
His words resonate. While I no longer feel the need for a personal God, I do have a deep need for religion. I feel happier and more fulfilled with it in my life. Also, my gradual loss of faith, which took about a decade to complete, was painful, horrific, and terrifying for me. It was, at times, a bodily terror, clutching at my chest and squeezing mercilessly. I experienced depression and anxiety which disrupted my ability to function in daily life.
I feel like I have a pretty good barometer for suffering: I survived a shooting when I was 19 years old, and lived for years with crippling PTSD. I also survived ex-gay therapy as a teen. Of all the horrible shit that I’ve gone through, I think the loss of religious faith and community is up there as one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced.
Frankly, I have seen very little sympathy for these experiences of theistic grief, terror, and alienation in the atheist community. Instead I mostly see strident, angry people who don’t exhibit much hospitality. The commentor above just strikes me as cold, glossing over the very real struggles that Wallace articulates, and resorting to condemnation.
What I needed most from the atheist community during my deconversion was hospitality. Not tough love from Dawkins, Harris, or Hitch. Paul Wallace didn’t choose to be born a Christian, and he didn’t choose to have this struggle, but he is deemed a coward for confronting his questions regardless. I might be wildly off in my reading, but the commenter seems to frame Wallace’s faith as somehow willful, as unable to let go, as making god in his own image. and I think that is a grievous miscalculation. I don’t think faith is something we choose — it goes far deeper than the rational mind. I personally described my own faith for years as a superbug — something I had caught, and couldn’t be rid of, no matter how much I wanted to be rid of it. Too many atheists seem unable to broach their own discomfort to truly confront these difficult experiences in their fellow human beings, and instead resort to surface-level snobbery.
Such attitudes probably kept me out of atheism for a good, long while, and I am bitter about that. I could have shed my theism years ago, but I was frightened of expressing my struggles because I was afraid of being labeled a coward, or stupid. I desperately needed help in my deconversion process. I needed someone to tell me that it would be ok and that I could take my time figuring out what I believed. I needed someone to validate my suffering and tell me that I wasn’t a coward for desperately wanting to believe in God. I couldn’t find anyone like that, online or in person, for years. I was paralyzed by fear, and therefore frozen in my theism through most of my twenties.
Eventually, I did finally discover some media that helped me on this hard journey: Science Mike and his book Finding God in the Waves helped me become comfortable with religious nontheism, and the podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie introduced me to kind, winsome skepticism.
I’m a simple creature: I like kindness. I respond to it the way a stray cat responds to head scratches: I will follow you all the way home if you show me a bit of gentleness. And apparently a little kindness was all I needed to get unstuck, and confront my fear of atheism. I generally assume that other people are simple creatures, too, and I do my best to embody such kindness in all my interactions and my work.
I’m not saying that confrontational atheism doesn’t work. I’m not saying it doesn’t have it’s place, and I’m certainly not saying that atheist anger is unjustified. Instead, I’m saying that we need a multiplicity of options for meeting all sorts of people where they are. I respond to kindness and hospitality, others might respond to Dawkins being a condescending old man. However, no matter how kind or confrontational the method, inaccurate character assassination, as seen in the comment about Wallace, is never acceptable. In fact, it might indicate some cognitive dissonance of your own that needs to be resolved.
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