When a person leaves the Christian faith one of the standard responses some evangelicals can make is the following: They were never a Christian to begin with. Doubt is complex, hard and its my contention that every Christian who is reading this at some point, some day will experience a faith crisis or something that will rock their theological system. Recently at Neil Carter’s Godless in Dixie a post about this very topic was discussed. These are my thoughts and pushback on that claim about people who leave the faith were never Christians to begin with. Part of this will be a rant.
“Life loves to reveal herself to the raw, courageous doubters; to those who are willing to live inside the question.”
“I do understand what love is, and that is one of the reasons I can never again be a Christian. Love is not self denial. Love is not blood and suffering. Love is not murdering your son to appease your own vanity. Love is not hatred or wrath, consigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your ego or disobeyed your rules. Love is not obedience, conformity, or submission. It is a counterfeit love that is contingent upon authority, punishment, or reward. True love is respect and admiration, compassion and kindness, freely given by a healthy, unafraid human being.”
Dan Barker “Losing Faith in Faith”
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.”
Matthew 7:7 NLT
When I was in California for Christmas I spent some time reading a number of atheist blogs just to see what is new, and what is out there. I love Neil Carter and find myself spending as much time there as I do The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God. There is a lot of great material to read, and I honestly like Neil Carter. I wish we could hang out, chill and grab a brew. Around the time this article came out on Godless in Dixie I had breakfast with a guy in Fresno who I met in Campus Crusade at Fresno State. He loves to do marathons and has a very unique perspective on faith as he went through a trying time as well years ago. During that time I was telling him and we discussed atheism briefly. It’s my contention that many atheists are misunderstood. It’s my belief that some atheists actually are seekers. Now I also want to be clear that some people I think will come to the Christian faith, and I don’t believe others will. So I am not saying all atheists are seekers. And this will tick off some people but let me say this as well….I think some people are getting so hurt, so spiritually hammered and harmed that its healthy and natural for them to leave the Christian faith. I think that is how some will heal. I look at websites like ex-Christian.net through that lens. But I believe that parts of the evangelical Christian culture can be toxic in the scope of the big picture. This blog looks at the forest, not the tree. In the end many of these problems and issues are tied together. And I don’t think many evangelicals honestly realize what is at their door step, neighborhood, work environment, sport league, etc… because they are focused on the tree. Its with that in mind that I would like to tackle this post at Godless in Dixie. There are aspects in this post that I agree and I would like to explore, however there are a few parts of this that I disagree. But there are points in this post that I appreciate which need to be said. I hope you will offer feedback or criticism of my analysis in the post below. From here on out I will write in red.
Christian media outlets are fond of telling the latest story about a “former atheist” becoming a Christian. These stories sell well, and I remember making much of them myself back in the day. Now that I’m on the other side of this issue, I hear this declaration with different ears. Now when I hear these stories I’m not so sure they’re entirely accurate. Listening to these converts talk about their former lives, I can’t help entirely accurate. Listening to these converts talk about their former lives, I can’t help thinking something isn’t quite right. Something leads me to think that if they’re telling the truth, they’re at least “telling it slant.”
Some of this will be blunt, and some of this will be a rant. Christian “media” telling stories of atheists becoming Christian are what I like to call “Christian Porn.” They are emotional and often sensationalized. I would suggest some are like pornography in that they can also be fantasy. They appear in sources that lack significant journalistic significance. Is it fair to compare organizations like The Christian Post to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune? No….I’ll grant you that…however why does the church have lower standards than the world? (Expect to see a blog post on that someday soon….) Stories about “former atheists” are prolific, cheesy and sensational. They often strike a chord in a movement which subscribes to a persecution mentality (Again…expect another post…are Christians in the United States being persecuted?) Many of these stories only seem to stir the fires of the atheist movement and in effect are like pouring gasoline onto fire. Now I am not saying there are not atheists who convert to Christianity. But some of the stuff promoted by the Evangelical Industrial Complex needs to dial it back a notch. So do I believe many of these stories are accurate? Not really….this Christian strongly agrees with the atheist author on this paragraph.
No True Atheist?
On the surface it will sound like I’m using a “No True Atheist” argument. It sounds like I’m saying that no real atheist would ever quit being one to become a Christian (I’m not). Surely by now you’ve heard writers on Patheos Atheist disparage the No True Christian argument, and we have good reason for doing that. When we talk about our former lives as believers, we are routinely dismissed by people asserting we were never really one of them because according to them no true Christian would ever stop being one. Their theology won’t allow it. We must have just done it wrong, or else we were never sincere about it. This irritates the stew out of us because for some of us it invalidates decades of investment in our former tradition. It also denies us our rightful place at the discussion table on matters about which we have earned the right to speak.
One of the biggest mistakes the evangelical Christian faith does today is the following. They state and assume that people who leave the Christian faith were never Christians to begin with, or they had a shallow faith. Their falling away is an example of lack of fruit in their lives. Those who advocate such a belief I would passionately argue are fools for saying this. They are complete fools! I say and write this irritated because I thought like this before my faith crisis. It took my ass being kicked by the problem of evil and other doubts to crush my faith and realize how wrong I was. I was very sincere in my Christian life at the time and did what I was told to do. That included a missions trip through McLean Bible, devotions, accountability both in faith and sexual purity, Bible study and fellowship with other conservative Christians. Some of you are reading this and saying I lost it. Nope…I am just being honest, and blunt. I hate to break it to you….but I also have to say this. Your time in a faith crisis is coming. It’s looming…its a few feet or 6 months away from occurring. Something is going to happen which will trigger it, and then you will be in the position I once was. You will cry, weep in your bed, and be able to write a post like this one. Your doubts will snuff out the candle of faith in a dark room. I don’t say that with joy and if it happens and you live in the D.C. area I will be happy to get together with you or sit in a dark room and give you company. But the way some evangelicals talk about this topic irritates and pisses me off. (Pardon my language) I didn’t want a faith crisis anymore than I wanted a false accusation. I write all this to beg and plead for the conservative evangelical church (of which I consider myself) to stop and hang up this line of thinking. Let’s erase it from our vocabulary and never say that an atheist who was once a Christian never really believed properly to begin with.
I don’t think I’m doing that right now because I’m genuinely listening to the things these “former atheists” are saying and I honestly haven’t ever heard an atheist say the things they’re saying. It reminds me of that scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin when the guys are sitting around discussing the feel and texture of women’s breasts and Andy reports that they feel like bags of sand. The other guys freeze and turn to stare at him like he has an extra appendage growing out of his forehead. Clearly the man had no idea what he was talking about, and anybody with any real life experience would know better.
That’s kind of what it feels like when I’m listening to these stories. The perspectives they’re portraying sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard an atheist say. On the other hand, the stuff they say sounds a lot like what preachers and evangelists say about atheists: that we’ve really always believed the Christian message but we’re just angry at God because of (fill in the blank), that we hate God, that we want to take away Christians’ freedom of speech, and that we really only disbelieved in the first place because we didn’t want anybody to be our boss but ourselves. Basically it follows the well-worn outlines of every sermon you’ve ever heard about why people don’t commit themselves to the Christian faith.
Many Christians are talking from a bubble and insular perspective. Truth be told many Christians fear, and don’t understand atheists. They are afraid of them and nervous. Heck I was like that…atheists want to be combative because they enjoy the pleasure of fighting. Atheists long for conflict and just want to fight. That is how some evangelicals looked at people like the late Christopher Hitchens and myself when I was in my faith crisis. I’m going to say something which may cause many Christians to say I am nuts, and also perhaps irritate some atheists as well. Christopher Hitchens was a seeker. Who knows what could have happened in a few years had he not died? Who knows what conversations could have taken place? Evangelical culture forces people to classify and label people . In the end its a disservice both to evangelical Christians and to those on the outside. The well worn outlines stated above are quite true as many evangelicals pan, and spin some perceptions as truth. All evangelicals are doing in the end is closing the door to conversations and abandoning those on the outside.
I know why this matters so much to them. I know it serves to validate their tribe whenever someone leaves another to be in theirs. Having a former member of one team join another implicitly makes the second one look superior. It adds weight to anything they say about why their team is better than the other. That’s probably why, when a certain person very close to me learned of my apostasy, he told me I was now “a dangerous person.” His sudden shift in judgment about me had nothing to do with any change in my behavior. He simply knows that a former devotee to his faith can do a lot more damage to its credibility than someone who has never inhabited that mental world
This is true for anyone who leaves one faith system and converts to another. Why do you think the Mormon church fears former Mormons? Why are Mormons taught to shun and cut off people who leave? They fear them. This also happened to me. Some of my friends today may feel I am doing the same thing…in reality I would say this. I write all this because I have wrestled with it. I banged my head against the door until it was a bloody pulp and I looked at things like the problem of evil or doubt from differing perspectives. That is why I can embrace and talk about stuff like this. I will go places that many evangelicals are afraid to tread. I am not trying to put them down…its a byproduct of my faith crisis. But like the author said…I was a “a dangerous person” when I pushed back from Christianity, and I have a gut feeling some may feel like I am “a dangerous person” today. In the end I think differently and write this way based off my experiences. The evangelical church needs to hang its dirty laundry and scandals out to the world. That is the only way changes happens. Change does not happen when you kick things under the bed or hide them. Expect that as a post in the future also by the way.
What Christians Mean by the Word “Atheist”
I finally figured out what’s going on here. Evangelical Christians are using a much fuzzier definition for the word “atheist.” For evangelicals, an atheist is anyone who lives as if there were no God. It’s not fundamentally about belief, for you see they’ve been taught that everyone believes in God (see Paul’s ad hoc assertion in Romans 1:19ff). What’s more, they’ve been taught that everyone worships something, which means that even people who think they don’t believe in anything are really worshiping either themselves or some nefarious deity unbeknownst to them. They’re being led astray by the devil, or by demons, or else by their own selfish desires. They’re unavoidably worshiping some kind of idol, some kind of rival god to the one they’re supposed to be worshiping. Therefore there can be no such thing as an atheist in the sense that everyone else uses that word, including atheists themselves
There are parts of this I agree and parts I disagree. I disagree that Christians are taught that atheists worship something. I would suggest that Christians don’t know how to deal with atheists. That they are afraid, frightened and find it awkward to deal with them. After all many evangelical Christians only want to surround themselves with likeminded individuals of their tribe. I would suggest that most Christians avoid atheists as they don’t know what to do, or how to engage. So I have to push back a little bit, and I agree that the idea of people worshipping some kind of idol is oversold. After all I touched on that in this post here. Let me also say this….here’s the deal we all have faith in something. You don’t have to be a Christian to worship or practice faith. Muslims and Jews practice faith. We all believe in something., even if its not God. The other day I bought dinner in the Dallas Fort Worth airport while I was traveling. I have faith in our currency, heck I have to if I want to buy something. I may not in 40 years with our growing debt, but that is another issue. The point is I believe in the currency and trust it. I trust and had faith in American Airlines to buy a plane ticket. I have faith in flying, and can be shaken up if there is a major accident. Actually I remember the first time I flied after September 11, 2001 and I was scared. My faith in flying was shook up. We all have faith in many things. You don’t have to have faith in God to have faith. One person may have faith in Honda and not Ford and that may be because of bad experiences that influence your shopping preference. Some people’s faith is shaken in Chipotle due to the health scare that has been happening recently. Here’s another thing to consider…in some countries people rally around sports as sports helps unite a country and give people faith. Look at what soccer can do in places like Brazil, Nigeria, Ethiopia, or Germany? After all in some parts of the world the reaction to soccer can almost be cult like. Did you know there actually was a war that begin over soccer? So I write this to say that there can be many differing forms of faith. I say all this to say while I think atheism involves some faith I totally reject the notion tat it takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian. That is garbage and it is to be dismissed.
I am not trying to be difficult. Nor am I trying to combative or hostile. I am also not trying to play into what the author is saying. I learned this in my faith crisis and I believe it today. That said, I am okay if we disagree. It’s fine and in the process I hope you’ll realize that I can respect, understand and we can still talk, engage and have fun. In this entire project I hope to be able to meet a lot of neat and different people. I’ll also put this out there as well, if I am mistaken or wrong call me out. You can do so publically or email me. Please understand that as I write I also push back against many forms of thought. In many ways I am my own man.
Now do you see why people who grew up in a Christian culture, perhaps even with Christian parents, can say they were formerly “atheists?” Provided that they had never given their full devotion to the Christian gospel, whenever they were not fully dedicating dedicating their lives to God they were living as if there were no God. They were, in effect, living as an atheist as far as they’re concerned. That’s why people who grew up always believing in God can now say they used to be “atheists.” It’s not that they worked through multiple worldviews and after a period of critical thinking eliminated all the other options except Christianity. It’s more that they spent their earlier years uninterested in (or averse to) the religion to which they were exposed as children only to return back to that same religion out of all the options when they grew older.
Again, I know this will sound at first like I’m saying no true atheist would change his mind. It sounds like I’m doing the very thing I’ve said we hate Christians doing to us, dismissing our previous experience because we somehow didn’t fit their definition of what a true Christian is. But that’s a false equivalency in this case because there are considerably more consistent ways to define what makes a person a Christian whereas this definition of atheist isn’t really used by anyone who calls himself an atheist. Only Christians use a definition like this.
Here’s the deal in regards to the above. I think many Christians are confused about what they believe and why. I think many evangelicals fight battles that are worthless and focus on a tree while missing the entire forest. I also think some of the Christian material out there from people who became “atheists” and went back to the Christian faith is pure crap. Today you can see that many of these people are trying to market and sell themselves and support the industry they are in. I also think some people went back to the shallow, hollow frame work they originated from. That said…that’s not always the case. In my situation I went back to the Christian faith after exploring atheism and pushing back from Christianity. It was the result of a faith crisis. In the process of going back I have found faith to be far more messier than many people want to have. I don’t fit in many churches easily because I think very differently. I ask questions, and I write about things here. Have I been silent or unassuming about issues? Well I wrote this open letter to my old Senior Pastor Rod Stafford and then I also outed a situation publically when they made a violent sex offender a Care Director at Fairfax Community Church. So I’ve had a rocky road in many ways. I still believe in God but its been hard. I had this talk with someone in Fresno who spoke with me about living in the grey area. I’ve had Christians doubt my faith. I have had Christians who think I just want to be antagonistic. And I have had some which dismiss my claims and refuse to consider these issues that I raise. Yet I still consider myself a Christian. The truth of the matter is that I love a lot of atheists. And I will bet my 401K that I am probably one of the only Christians who has headed to church from time to time listening to a podcast of The Thinking Atheist because I enjoy it. I enjoy the differing thinking and I love being challenged. I don’t listen to it to find fault or to find a reason to tear down Seth Andrews. I listen to it out of interest. So I don’t fit easily in the mold that the author writes above. But that’s me….even I don’t know how to classify myself.
WTF is a Secular Theocracy?
To see what I mean from a slightly different angle, consider what TV preacher James Robinson suggested not too long ago in an interview with Mike Huckabee. He said that we currently have a “secular theocracy” in the United States and Huckabee agreed. What does that even mean? Why on earth would you use the term theocracy to designate what you see as the encroachment of secular ideology on Christian freedoms? Atheists don’t have any gods…unless you’re an evangelical. Then you see this completely differently. From your perspective, even those of us who say we have no gods really do have gods, they’re just the wrong ones. We don’t know we’re worshiping anyone because the devil has pulled the wool over our eyes, you see. But worship we do, and we want everyone else to be forced to worship the same gods, all the while telling ourselves we worship no one and nothing.
Again while I believe we will all have faith in something, you will not hear me say the devil pulls over the wool in ones eyes. I’d like to suggest something..this is going to be very different, but its a proposal. What if God created atheism because he knew how fried and hurt some people would be by fundamentalism? What if he created atheism to allow me to push back from Christianity and take a “vacation” from it for half my thirties? What if God allows that to exist so that others can push back and figure themselves out. Is that possible in the end? To be fair..I’d also want to ask God why does he tolerate fundamentalism and questionable behavior in his church? But returning to the question I want to develop this thought into an essay in the future. But is it possible to conclude that atheism can be part of a person’s faith system? Is it possible to conclude that some people need to be there to have that experience, and that thinking, in order to find a way forward? Now in saying this I also want to state the following. I think some people will do that and find their way back to the Christian faith. And some will not…some will be so hurt and harmed that they will not go back. Or some cannot resolve whatever doubt or issue they are facing. I will say this…after my experiences with fundamentalism…if a person rejects the Christian faith due to some issue or problem I can understand. I can relate. Because I did the same thing with the problem of evil for years.
This blurring of lines between faith and disbelief explains a lot, doesn’t it? Evangelicals are fond of saying that atheists have faith, too (probably in science or reason or empirical observation). They believe that everyone worships something, and that those of us who say we don’t believe in God really do and we just don’t know it—we’re just living in rebellion against things we really know are true in our hearts. Under this framework there’s hardly even such a thing as “an atheist” according to the definitions used by us atheists ourselves, poor saps. Under the evangelical definition, anyone not fully living up to the ideals for which they stand is living atheistically, in a way. So I guess you could say simultaneously that everyone is at least a little bit atheist, yet somehow no one really is in the end.
Does it make a little more sense now? Now do you see how all these evangelical Christians raised in Christian countries, surrounded by a Christian culture, perhaps even raised by Christian parents were somehow once “atheists?”
Evangelicals misclassify atheist regularly. Its like evangelical. How do you define evangelical? Evangelical can include a lot of views from Matt Chandler, to Greg Boyd to Joel Olsten. And yet those three individuals are on completely differing sides of the evangelical spectrum. Atheism is also diverse as well…some atheists want to be public some want to be quiet and to themselves. One thing that I would take issue with is that I don’t want the United States to be a Christian country. It has a loud religious culture…but I’d also suggest in some ways some atheists also use extreme examples as well. My hope is that the Christian culture that does exist in some elements dies, and that it can be properly buried and have a funeral. When Christian culture has a funeral I will be first in line to watch it be buried into the ground. Some of the garbage that I see really angers me personally. There are a lot of thoughts I have on this issue. To be frank this angers me because Christians cause a lot of pain and pile up on someone when they do not need that at all. Expect a good number of posts exploring and writing about atheism and its culture in 2016. I also plan to put out a call on some atheist websites asking for people to tell their stories here. I world be honored to do that in this format. In closing I am going to throw up some Adele singing “Skyfall.” I was listening to this the other day and just wanted to close on this song. Its not relevant to the topic but there is a lot of good stuff out there that I intend to share. So with that I’ll see you guys in a couple of days. Please know I love and care for you.