Back in December, I wrote an article entitled “Please Stop Saying These Things To Atheists.” Over the last five months (and especially after jump-starting Author Of Confusion), I had some really great conversations with Christians and watched some really awesome apologist debates. Because I constantly position myself at the collision point between these two worldviews, I’ve found a few more things to add to the list. So here are three more things to please stop saying to atheists.
1. “You Were Never A True Christian To Begin With”
This is not something all atheists have to deal with. But as someone who was once a Christian and has since left the faith, it’s a sentence I hear a lot. And honestly, it’s the one I find most hurtful. It’s the verbal equivalent of shunning. As Neil Carter says in his article You Were Never One Of Us, “Misguided or not, those years were sincere and passionate and a very important part of my life.” Invalidating that because it’s easier for you to justify to yourself is wrong.
I identified as a Christian until I was 22. I went to a Messiah College, a private multi-denominational Christian school, where I attended chapel or worship services at least three times a week. I took classes in theology, Biblical history and canonization, and Koine Greek so I could translate Scripture myself. On Spring Break 2015, I went to Northern Ireland as part of a week-long missions trip. Here’s a picture to prove it:
I attended churches of every denomination in every city and country I visited, from St. Maarten to London to Philadelphia. For fun, I’d have theological debates with Christian friends long into the night. I’d post statuses like this on Facebook (these are just from today’s “On This Day”):
When I discuss Christianity, I know what I’m talking about. I researched it, studied it, ate and drank it, breathed it, lived it. It absolutely saturated my world. In fact, it was ultimately my unbridled interest and the wish to deepen my faith that led me to my atheism. (But that’s another story.)
Now, most of the people who tell me I was never a true Christian don’t know any of this. They have no way of knowing, so why do they say this? Because it can be scary to think that Christians who “truly believe” could fall away. It is so much more comfortable to imagine that those who deconverted never were “real” Christians to begin with. You are a “true” Christian, so you are safe from ever having losing the religion you love. I get it, I really do.
But not only does this argument not stand up to logic (the “No True Scotsman” fallacy makes many appearances in Christian apologetics, but this might be its most insidious form). It also goes against what Jesus himself said about identifying whether or not someone is false in their claims of belief: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). This is an incredibly smart thing to say, really, because how else can a person truly know what’s going on in the heart of another? You can’t presume to know another person’s innermost thoughts, emotions, and core beliefs. You’re stuck with what they tell you, and what you can see. And during the 22 years that I was a Christian, my fruits were just as fresh and juicy and nourishing as anyone else’s.
2. “Atheism Is Also A Religion”
For people whose entire lives have been spent in a society constructed from the building blocks of religion, it is really difficult to imagine a world without it. When atheists have the gall to suggest that they are not beholden to this comfortably ingrained structural framework, it rattles some people’s cages. What would such a world even look like?
This is difficult for many people to grasp, religious and non-religious folk alike. That’s how ingrained the concept of religion has become in our society, even those who don’t ascribe to a religion cannot fathom a world without it.
Now, we could just take atheists at their word when they say: “Atheism is not a belief system nor is it a religion.” But where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s start at the beginning and break it down into excruciating detail, because it’s a Thursday night and I’m not tired yet. *cracks knuckles*
If you type “religion” into Google, this is what you’re going to get:
This seems about right, especially as it relates to classical theism. Creation Ministries International (CMI) has a problem with the definition of religion dealing with supernatural terminology, stating that it doesn’t cover things like “Jainism, which holds that every living thing is sacred because it is alive, or the Mayans who worshiped the sun as a deity in and of itself rather than a deity associated with the sun.”
For the sake of argument, let’s agree to CMI’s critique of the definition of “religion” nix the concept of a supernatural or superhuman realm. The definition still involves two things: belief and worship. So right off the bat, we have a problem with applying the term “religion” to atheism, since atheism doesn’t have either.
Now, lots of people claim that atheism is defined as “proposing positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief,” making atheism a faith claim and qualifying it as a religion. The only problem is, 90% of atheists will disagree with you on that definition. Even Dawkins, whom they call a “rabid” atheist, doesn’t claim to assert there is absolutely no God (see his Scale of Theistic Probability from The God Delusion).
Take a look at this video by former President of the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA) and Atheist Experience TV-show host, Matt Dillahunty, if you’re curious about why positive atheism is not the standard for the majority of atheists:
What people who argue this point are trying to do is say: “Your unfalsifiable statement that there is no God is just as faith-based as my unfalsifiable statement that there IS a God. So we’re both religions and have equal claim to the concept of intellectual honesty.” Which is simply untrue. Atheism is not — at the most fundamental level— the statement that there is no God. It’s the statement that we don’t personally believe in a God because we haven’t seen the necessary evidence. There might be, there might not be, but we don’t really care to say one way or the other. We just don’t engage. In other words, “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.”
Note: I was intrigued by CMI’s use of the seven dimensions of religionproposed by writer Ninian Smart — narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material — to argue that atheism falls within the “religion” category. I was going to discuss those, but it grew into it’s own fun little post, which you can read here.
3. “But Hitler Was An Atheist And We See How That Went”
While we can never truly know what is in another person’s heart — *cough* see my first point*cough* — it is pretty safe to say that Hitler was not an atheist. Most people assume he was an atheist because of the argument that Nazism is based on social Darwinism, which is a problem on a few fronts:
- In Mein Kampf, Hitler writes: “ “I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews. I am doing the Lord’s work.” Not necessarily indicative of a particular religion, but certainly not something an atheist would say.
- Darwin’s books were actually on the Nazi’s banned books list. An exhibit by the University of Arizona library has a list of banned books in Nazi Germany circa 1935. It lists “writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Hackel).”
- Even if Darwin were lauded as the inspiration for the Third Reich, accepting evolution as fact does not equal atheism. This is a common misconception that many Christians have, but it leaves out the numerous evolutionists who are also religious.
- Even atheists who accept evolution generally reject social Darwinism because they understand the rules of evolution are descriptive, not prescriptive, and should be applied as such.
Now, I’m not necessarily saying Hitler was a Christian, either. Sure, he said a lot of pro-Christian things, but that could easily have been typical politician speak, ingratiating himself to his constituents. He also had a treaty with the Vatican, but again that could have been a political move. His veneration of Martin Luther and the fact that the Nazi motto was “Gott Mit Uns” (“God With Us”) don’t necessarily speak to his personal faith.
A new book, Hitler’s Religion by historian Richard Weikart, suggests that he had, in fact, a very twisted view of Christianity, disliking the religion but admiring Jesus Christ as a person. (This sounds uncomfortably like the “Follower of Christ but not a Christian” movement in certain modern day Christian circles.)
But ultimately, regardless of what Hitler believed, it doesn’t matter. There are rotten people in every worldview, from Christian to atheist and everything in between. The most terrifying thing is that Hitler was able to exert his evil agenda by specifically appealing to a Christian constituency, incorporating Christian rhetoric into his movement, relying on Church forefathers as inspiration, and joining forces with the Church to increase his power. Even if Hitler had been an atheist, the Holocaust would still be most damning of the German Christians who made it possible.
So What *Can* I Say To An Atheist?
What are some good conversation starters about atheism that you can use to engage someone? That’s a great question! Ask why they are an atheist and then really listen to the story they tell you. Ask where they stand on issues like moral absolutism or cosmology or the existence of a soul. Or maybe just ask them if they want to grab a beer and watch the game. Not every conversation has to be a confrontation, and sometimes the best way to see another person’s humanity is to just fucking chill.