Atheism, Kindness, and Hospitality

Teacup

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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4 thoughts on “Atheism, Kindness, and Hospitality

  1. “ I might be hearing frustration, accusation, and blame where there is none.”

    Yep, you are. It’s not uncommon for a human being try to assign these ideas to an atheist so they may ignore what the atheist says. I am, of course, that commenter. It’s curious that you claim that what I said was a “rant”: “a bombastic (marked by or given to speech or writing that is given exaggerated importance by artificial or empty means) extravagant speech. How is this so, or is this an attempt to poison the well?

    You are correct, atheists are often deemed untrustworthy, immoral and theists lie about us quite frequently. It does get tedious. You return to claiming I’m angry when I am not, and that again is common for humans to claim in order to ignore points that they do not want to hear.

    “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, quite so. Many Christians are terrified of the punishment they were told that everyone else deserves. With the idea that religion somehow tells you what meaning you should have or where do you fit in the universe, it is a matter of security. Religion, especially Christianity, needs terror on the part of the believer.

    To point out that there is no evidence for any gods and that one should not depend on them for assistance is addressing Christian claims honestly and maturely. Lying to them and patting them on the head like children isn’t kindness. It just kicks the can down the road a little. In any case, their fear makes them lash out to any facts like this, no matter how nicely put. It’s a nice hope that they might act differently but they do not, not in my long experience.

    I had my own experience of theistic grief, terror and alienation. And I got over them. To go back to playing pretend isn’t an option. I’m a geologist. No matter how much I might like there to be a god (I do like playing clerics in D&D) my want won’t change that, and thinking my want is true gets people hurt.

    Faith isn’t something we choose, we get that from trusting people who earned that trust in some way and then we misplace that trust. But willful ignorance, ignoring the realities of the universe is something we can choose and many theists do. Christians go through their bible and their religion picking and choosing what reflects their values, not the other way around. So we have humane Christians and inhumane ones. And if you have to intentionally try to rationalize why you believe in a god that kills children for other people’s actions, then you know there is a problem, you just don’t want to give up thinking some magical being agrees with you. As a former Christian, I know it is very intoxicating and very false.

    I’m sorry you didn’t get a good welcome as an atheist. I’m not cold but I can be blunt. I would have told you to take your time and it is perfectly normal to wonder and question. Wallace isn’t doing that and spouts the same poor arguments for a religion that does do harm.

    I don’t see that your fear of atheism came from atheists. If it is as was in my case, that was there long before thanks to religion.

    As for “character assassination”? Really? My comment is accurate, if blunt. You seem indeed to be saying exactly this “I’m not saying that confrontational atheism doesn’t work.” What cognitive dissonance do you want to claim I have?

    Your black kitty looks exactly like my Tezcatlipoca. I have 8 cats myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there — due to COVID, your comment dropped right when I was in the middle of managing chaos as an essential worker, and I didn’t even see it until now. Incidentally, I am shutting off comments site-wide soon (not at all related to this exchange, but rather to better direct the sort of experience I want users to have on my site.) I appreciate you reaching out and giving a few clarifications. If you are interested in my feedback or continuing the discussion, please feel free to email me via my contact page.

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  2. Okay. Let’s share from another’s perspective. Adding to the conversation. Encouraging people to think for themselves. It’s in discussion that people seeking find answers. The more the merrier.
    I will keep this shorter than what I’ve shared before. At seven, I suddenly became very aware of my own existence, then with that, the question where I came from and why someone else wasn’t in this body. How did I come to be? Who made me? For with time, I realized relying on statistics, that two people from very different lives had to come together to make me, didn’t answer the question. Atoms and pure chance didn’t make me, for then an entire universe and planet was necessary before I could become, as we all exist. With time, I researched. Remember, I did not grow up in the church. In my youth, I knew nothing about our Savior. So, my searching was over a long period of time, distracted by life and friends, also school and sports, much of the time. But I pondered.
    Here are just a few things that told me: 1) The amazing beauty of the universe, the amazing order (everything going around in circles), and our amazing planet. Someone says, it’s the big bang. I ask, where did the material for the bang come from, and what caused the explosion. And most scientists know explosions never create order, 2) No such thing as evolution by happenstance, for we don’t see it, no half-necked giraffes and otherwise. No alligators talking, though they’ve been around longer than people. No talking monkeys, and certainly none driving cars. 3) Cells, the simplest of lives, never could have self-evolved. Did the research. Far too complex. All parts necessary to live, so either it exists completely, or not at all. 4) I can go into more, but that’s for people to seek.
    Here’s something else. I’ve learned to realize people believe what they want to believe. Does no good (outside family and friends) to attempt convincing, other than to share, and if someone asks, to share. As in the bible, the apostles went from town to town. If the people appreciated, they stayed. If the people didn’t, they kicked the soil off their sandals and went to the next town. If people choose not to accept what is before them, that’s their choice. As we live in a free country. Freedom of beliefs. And that’s so everyone can decide for themselves, seeking on their own. So this is just a share.
    But let’s look at believing in nothing save this existence. Once your 85 years are up, according to what has been shared, there is nothing. Black. Endless nothing. For all eternity. You will never ever think again, be aware of anything, can’t look back and appreciate the life you’ve had, for you will have ceased to exist, never to exist again. Atoms dispersed. That’s the hope of atheism.
    So, one time with friends, the topic came up as why some people are okay with existence for 85 years, and never again. That’s an interesting thought, I answered. I can only imagine some people are not comfortable with believing that there is One that knows everything and is the source of their lives. Some people are not comfortable with believing another knows everything and they never will know everything, always relying on their Creator. I think this is a part. I think there’s something else. The things that people do, the thoughts they have, and the practices they take part in, as in Pinnochio, brings them to a place and time where the no longer can or will choose what is obvious to the rest of us. They forget, perhaps from not reading, that God can forgive all things, but one has to put their trust and faith in Him.
    .

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