After publishing my last piece on the subject of atheism, I was surprised to see how many people responded to it. I got to have some really interesting arguments about the intersection of religion and morality, and am grateful to everyone who interacted with the piece or reached out to me.
In addition to being entertaining, enlightening, and educational, these conversations helped me to realize something: people say some pretty infantalizing things about atheists. This would be fine if they were not also baseless assumptions without nuance. Saying these things to an atheist will automatically wreck any connection you might have had with them otherwise, and all your better points will be sacrificed to your immediately damaged credibility. So, in the spirit of open and honest debate, here are three things to please stop saying to atheists.
1. “You Just Don’t Understand Christianity”
In the responses of my last article, I got into a debate with a Christian apologist I’d never met, who told me that obviously I completely misunderstood the whole religion and my ignorance was keeping me in the dark. He went on to suggest a 2011 book called “Introduction to Christian Theology” to help enlighten me as to the basics of the faith.
Now, I had to laugh at that. I didn’t bother protesting that I had been a Christian for the first 20-odd years of my life, attended one of the top Christian colleges in the United States (during which time I went to chapel three times a week, took theology and Bible classes, learned Koine Greek, and translated Scripture), worshiped in churches of every denomination on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and have since devoted countless hours to studying as many aspects of Christianity as possible. I do not claim to be a definitive expert on the subject, but I know more than enough to hold a debate about it.
I am not alone in this: atheists of all stripes are accused of ignorance, despite the fact that many of the most prominent atheists today (Richard Dawkins, Seth Andrews, Matt Dillahunty, etc.) were Christians (even leaders in their communities) before becoming apostates. But anecdotal evidence is not enough, obviously. There are also compelling statistics suggesting that atheists are among the most learned regarding religion, while Christians fall behind, if the Pew U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey (2010) and an American Bible Society survey (2013) are to tell us anything.
Pew reports that Christians on average answered only half (6.2/12) of the questions about the Bible and Christianity correctly. They scored less well on questions about world religions, lower than any other religious or nonreligious group.
According to the report, “About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity.” Overall, it was discovered that “atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions…. even after controlling for differing levels of education.”
Meanwhile, the American Bible Society reports that only 26% of the Christians surveyed read their Bible on a regular basis. “A majority (57%) of those ages 18–28 read their Bibles less than three times a year, if at all,” reports the Religion News Service.
This is not to shame Christians for not being more devout or more aware of their own own or other religions. This is just a gentle reminder that the ignorance of Christianity is statistically more of a Christian problem than an atheist one. Remove the log before the speck, so to speak.
2. “You Are Being Disrespectful To Me”
Personally speaking, I have the utmost respect for individuals, regardless of faith or lack thereof. I admire people who have wrestled with their faith, given it a sufficient amount of thought, and still decided to pursue God. That takes a kind of bravery, a kind of conviction, that is admirable. I think that you will find many atheists who share this individual respect for people. As Richard Dawkins says: “I respect you too much to respect your beliefs.”
I don’t respect the institution of Christianity (or any other religion) more than I respect the National Button Society or the Association of Skateboard Enthusiasts or the multitudinous Tumblr fandoms. And I am willing to call out instances where religion gets preferential or unfairly weighted treatment simply by virtue of being a religion. And this, to an institution like Christianity that has basically conquered and ruled the majority of the world since 380 C.E., is certainly tantamount to galling disrespect.
Do I understand where Christians are coming from on this? Of course. After centuries of people being unable to criticize Christianity (often on pain of death), the dais has been scaled. We are encroaching, demanding answers, and posing critiques that genuinely threaten their social standing, political influence, and overall worldview. It’s no wonder that Americans feel more chilly towards atheists than almost any other religion (note this was from a 2014 survey when anti-Muslim sentiments were at an all-time high in the U.S.):
But here’s the thing. This argument — “Your criticism is a disrespect to me” — has all the earmarks of a well-known emotional abuse technique called gaslighting. As someone who witnessed and experienced emotional abuse in my life, I am keenly aware of the gaslighting technique that frames debate, critique, or disagreement as disrespect or antagonism. It is a brilliant, subtle mind game that, employed correctly, can be devastating to healthy debate.
I’m not saying that everyday Christians are actively aware they are engaging in gaslighting, or that their motives for expressing upset are nefarious. I think they genuinely feel disrespected. But they have to realize that Christianity as a whole has adopted this argument in order to protect the institution and dismiss concerns without confronting them head on. It’s an easy out, one supported by the gut instinct of individuals faced with a challenge to their viewpoint, and so it propagates. Your feeling is valid, but the logic behind it might not be.
3. “You Are Actually An Agnostic”
In 2013, Oprah sparked a small controversy when she accused Diana Nyad of not being an atheist (which she was) because she felt a sense of wonder and awe at the world:
DIANA NYAD: I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity, all the billions of people who lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. To me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.
OPRAH: Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.
Now, I’d first like to remind everyone that ““atheists are more likely than U.S. Christians to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% vs. 45%)” according to a Pew Research survey. If I were being particularly uppity, I’d also argue that because Oprah defines God as “awe and wonder and mystery” rather than an intelligent, intentional, and influencing divine presence, she is also technically an atheist. But I wouldn’t make such a presumption or tell her she is not what she thinks she is. So why did Oprah feel the need to invalidate Nyad’s identity on national television? Why do Christians try to re-brand self-professed atheists as agnostics?
Again, I understand where Christians are coming from on this. “Atheist” is a considered a dirty, disrespectful, antagonistic word, much like “feminist” or “socialist.” It’s scary and implacable. “Agnostic,” for some reason, is considered a softer word, more malleable, more genial. It’s easier to imagine reaching across the divide and converting an agnostic than an atheist. But here’s the thing: atheism and agnosticism are two different concepts, answers to different questions.
Atheism has to do with belief, while agnosticism has to do with knowledge. “Do you believe in God?” and “Do you know God does or doesn’t exist” are two different questions that require different answers. Alex J. O’Connor, creator of the Cosmic Skeptic YouTube channel, put it really well. Paraphrased, he laid everything out in four boxes in a genius bastardization of the problematic Pascal’s Wager. I’ve outlined this concept with a simple visual:
Most Christians I’ve come across fall into the “gnostic theist” category. I would classify myself as an “agnostic atheist,” along with atheists like O’Connor and Dawkins. Christian apologist Frank Turek could be classified as an “agnostic theist,” admitting that he doesn’t know for sure God exists but chooses to take it on faith. But the main point here is that “theist” and “atheist” are the primary descriptors, whereas “gnostic” and “agnostic” are modifiers. It’s not an either/or situation, and ascribing to one category does not necessarily dictate whether one ascribes to the other.
There is a very good reason I’ve chosen to call myself an atheist and not an agnostic. It’s the same reason I call myself a feminist and not a humanist, a liberal and not a progressive, a witch and not a Wiccan. And it’s not just to rustle feathers, it’s because, after careful consideration and comparison, I’ve come to the conclusion that these terms more accurately represent my worldview. By all means, disagree with it, argue against it! But don’t try to claim I am actually something else. This is dismissive of the work I’ve put into considering my own identity, and also reeks of the arrogance so readily attributed to atheists. Let’s take each other as we are, and go from there.
How To Have A Healthy Debate
The goal of these blog posts are to promote honest, healthy, well thought-out debate between worldviews. Part of that goal includes pointing out things that stymie that conversation, cause people to shut down, or rely on erroneous information or fallacies. Hopefully these three suggestions will help people understand where atheists are coming from, and also help atheists defend themselves when these things inevitably do arise.
Are there other things that you wish people would stop saying to or about atheists? Is there anything Christians wish atheists would stop saying to them? Leave a comment and we’ll have a discussion!
Originally published on Medium in December 2017.