This is going to be an extension of a previous post I wrote addressing some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes people have about those who leave religion. The first post was more personal in nature, but this one is going to be a bit more universal and is going to address some of the common reactions one gets from Christians when they de-convert.
This post came about because a good friend of mine “came out” as an atheist on Facebook. Some people were supportive, but like most people here in the Midwest, a good percentage his friends and acquaintances are Christian. Their reactions to his decision were as predictable and infuriating as one can expect, and that is what we will be discussing here
Before we get into it, I want to talk about a common theme one sees with Christians* when faced with an alternate view point. It’s what is known as the false-consensus effect: a cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do). This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist; a “false consensus”.
Captain Cassidy gets even more specific with this bias and how it relates to Christianity and their beliefs regarding atheists. She likes to call it “The Law of Conservation of Worship” – for every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets must also have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief. Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.
We’ll see this theme of false-consensus popping up throughout these common myths, so I thought we’d get it out of way before we got started. So let’s get into some of the common things one hears when they come out as an atheist:
“This is just a phase /you’ll be back”
I’ve heard parents use this same phrase when their kids come out to them as gay. It’s a knee-jerk reaction caused by cognitive dissonance sent into overload. It’s simple denial – some people just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that other people can leave the religion they hold in such high regard. Regardless of what denomination you belong to, when you go to church you are lead to believe that Christianity is the “One True Religion” and God/Jesus are supposed to be your #1 priority. To see someone not only walk away from that, but denounce it as false comes as a big blow to some. Rather then accept it, they would rather just hope that it isn’t really true.
Let’s clear things up a bit. No one becomes an atheist overnight. It is not a decision one takes lightly and is typically the cumulative result of months, if not years, of careful and deliberate research and thought. It is not “just a phase” and I’ve never met anyone who has gone through the de-conversion process only to go back to religion. Once you find out that religion is demonstrably false, there is little chance you are going to decide one day that it is “true” and go back to it. Those of us who have broken rank from Christianity know too much about its history and where it came from, how fallible the Bible really is, and how useless and counter-productive Christianity’s culture and practices are. Why would we go back to that?
“It’s religion you have a problem with, not God”
This one plays out in a number of ways. People either assume that you have been personally hurt by the Church or have become fed up with the negative and harmful behavior of some Christians.
While Christianity’s homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, willful ignorance, and constant struggle for political power is certainly what drives many down the path towards reason, it is not what makes someone an atheist. Similar to a point I’ve brought up before, it’s not that an atheist has a problem with God – it’s that they don’t believe in God. Period.
This is a good example of false consensus – Christians naturally assume that everyone believes in God in some way, so if someone claims to be an atheist, then organized religion must be what they really don’t believe in because they couldn’t possibly not believe in God. Right? Wrong.
It is possible to not believe in any god/deity/higher power and tens of millions all over the world do just that. In the same way that children grow out of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, millions of people have grown out of believing in god(s). I know that comparing God to the Tooth Fairy may be offensive to some, but you need to understand that atheists don’t see any difference – to them, they are both mythological beings that exist only in peoples’ minds.
“Satan is trying to deceive you”
It’s still surprising to me how often I see this one come up. People who use this line of reasoning fail to understand that atheists don’t believe in any supernatural deities. This includes God, Satan, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Thor, etc. Arguing that one mythological being is trying to sway us from believing in another mythological being is illogical and ineffective to say the least.
I can already hear people saying, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled…” Stop. Just stop. We’ve all seen The Usual Suspects. It doesn’t help your case. Quoting a fictional movie to make a case for you fictional deities isn’t a good tactic.
“The Bible says…”
For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate authority and their first, if not only, source of “truth”. When faced with conflict it seems all to natural for them to turn to it for help. When faced with the cognitive dissonance of one leaving their ranks, it’s natural for them to start quoting Bible verses as if they have some magical powers.
I saw a meme once that said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles read cover to cover”. An appropriate statement. For most atheists, the road out of religion starts with a thorough reading of the Bible, and what we discover is that it is an entirely man-made book, filled with all the prejudices, biases, and ignorance one would expect from a text written by an ancient people. If someone has come to the conclusion that there is no god, it’s a safe bet that belief in the accuracy and authority of the Bible went away a long time again. Therefore, quoting scripture is of no significance to us. You might as well be quoting the Koran or Lord of the Rings; it really makes no difference.
To quote Neil Carter from the article I linked above: “When talking with Christian friends online, I often find that they can’t help citing a Bible verse as their proof–text in order to reinforce a point they are making, as if that is supposed to mean something to me. For non-believers with backgrounds like mine, not only does the citation not prove anything but virtually any passage you select will be so familiar to us that we are weary of hearing it cited for the ten-thousandth time, probably arguing the exact same point, perhaps even in exactly the same way as every time before. It’s become like a bad joke among ex-Christians how slavishly it seems people are imitating one another without showing the slightest self-awareness of how badly they’re doing it.”
“You have faith too”
This one usually presents itself something like this, “You need faith to believe in science the same as you do God.” This is a very common argument among theists, more specifically theists who have no idea how science works. I addressed this argument once before, but it’s worth repeating here. Having “faith” in science is not the same as having faith in the religious sense. This is example of false equivocation. There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2. Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – they have evidence-based trust.
This is another example of a false consensus. Those who hold to their religious claims on faith naturally assume that everyone’s worldviews are shaped this way. But that is not the case with atheists and skeptics – our world view is shaped by empirically evidence, logic and reason, not simply believing in something because we want it to be true.
Another way that I see this argument worded is the accusation that everyone worships something, therefore atheists must also worship something. Again – false consensus. No, not everyone worships something. I know this is commonly taught in Christian culture, I heard it said more times then I could remember, but it’s simply not true. The definition of worship (as a verb) is: “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites.” You can’t show reverence and adoration for something you don’t believe in.
“Don’t you worry about the afterlife?”
No. No we don’t. Because there is no evidence that there is an afterlife. As far as we know, this life is the only one we get. Once we die, that’s it. I realize that the belief in an afterlife is common to all religions, and even with some people who aren’t religious, but that doesn’t make it any more true.
This one comes up both subtly-and not so subtly- in the form of threats of hell. It’s exactly why the myth of hell was invented – to keep people in line and keep them from straying from the pack. It’s inevitable that when someone leaves religion there’s going to be that one (or many) friend or relative that is going to let them know in no uncertain terms that they are headed for hell. Threatening someone with a mythological place for not believing in a mythological god is not only ineffective, but only affirms the fear-based and controlling nature of religion that were likely instrumental in our departure.
A more reasonable question that some propose is if it makes us sad to know that this life is all there is. Sure it does. We all want to spend as much time as we can enjoying this life and spending time with the ones we love. Which is exactly why we spend our time worrying about this life instead of worrying about the next. Ricky Gervais was presented with this same question in an interview and I thought his response was spot on:
“There’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for, it’s the opposite – we don’t have anything to die for. We have everything to live for.”
I would love to be wrong about this. I would love to die someday and wake up again in some other dimension or existence. That would be a pleasant surprise. But I’m going to hedge my bets on what we thus far know to be true about death, rather than what we wish to be true.
There’s a common myth that atheism is just another option in the game of “Choose Your Own Religion”, but it’s not – we’ve opted out of the game all together. We don’t play by the same rules as theists. Yet, many can’t seem to grasp this fact, desperately insisting that we really do believe in God/the supernatural/faith on some level. This is their way of trying to rationalize their own belief system to themselves. By claiming that we also have faith or believe in the afterlife, it makes it appear that atheists have simply made a lateral move from one belief system to another, when in reality we’ve jettisoned the whole construct. As Captain Cassidy puts it:
“What they’re really trying to do is make their own beliefs sound a little less wacky and foolish – and more believable and relatable. There are several reasons why they do it – sometimes they just want to make themselves feel less wacky and foolish despite believing some wacky and foolish things, or they want to signal and affirm their membership in their group…
When Christians misrepresent our lives, experiences, and worldview in order to make us sound more like themselves, that’s a desperate attempt to create a common ground where (they hope) Christianity’s claims might start sounding a little bit more plausible.
They think that tearing down our worldview will make us forget that they aren’t actually offering any evidence that their claims are true. They’re not giving us any good reason to believe in their god’s existence. They’re just trying to make us think that we’re already just as irrational and silly as they are, only in different ways, in the wild hopes that we will think it wouldn’t be quite so weird to consider their claims.”
That last paragraph really addresses why theists try to paint atheism the way they do. In lieu of actual evidence for their truth-claims they resort to Straw-Man arguments in an attempt to deem atheism no better then their own faith system. Hopefully I’ve pointed out the major differences between the stereotypes some Christians have regarding atheists and how to counter them. Thanks for reading.
*NOTE: While writing this, the lead singer of the Christian rock band, Order of Elijah, came out as an atheist. The response was much like what I’ve described here – while many were supportive, others had plenty to say about it. Captain Cassidy wrote a rebuttal to the criticisms that are going around that is well worth the read.
*I mention Christians here because of how it pertains to the discussed subject, but false consensus can be found among any large group of people that share a common identity, whether it’s religious, political, national, or otherwise.