A prominent talking point in atheist circles is that religion is required “for the masses.” Not everyone can handle the truth. We should just accept that there will always be religious people clinging desperately to flawed worldviews because they have no other choice. Whether limited by emotional baggage, brainwashing, feeble-mindedness, or fear, they are simply unable to let go of their delusions.
This is a ridiculous theory, and frankly very insulting to religious people everywhere. Yes, this is going to be a post defending the religious from the assertion that they are somehow mentally or emotionally lesser than their secular counterparts.
Caveat: Because the claim I am refuting deals in generalities, so will this post. I do not mean to suggest that “all” atheists are a certain way, nor “all” Christians. There are exceptions to every rule, outliers that buck any trend. These are personal observations based on my own experience in both religious and secular circles and should be taken as such.
The Atheist “High Ground” Is Not That High
Atheists hold the high ground in religious debate, because we have the facts on our side. We also are not (usually) making positive claims that require falsifiable evidence, so the burden of proof rarely rests on our shoulders. Theists are stuck fighting an uphill battle with insufficient evidence for their extraordinary claims. But how did we atheists get to this high ground? Was it through our unique intellectual stamina, stoic bravery, or moral superiority?
Nope. We got here by chance and by logic.
Let me explain. Some of us were born into an atheistic household and never had to deal with religion on a personal basis (chance), while some were led naturally out of our religion by engaging in critical thinking that destroyed previous convictions (logic). Many of us had a combination of both happen: increased skepticism based on an unforeseeable event or coincidence. That’s how I became an atheist: I happened to go to the right school, take the right classes, ask the right questions, and have the right conversations, which then led me to critically evaluate my belief system and eventually shed it.
Chance and logic are two things that are available to everyone. There is nothing special about interacting with them, or allowing them to affect your life. In fact, there is a good argument that neither of them allow us an option: coming face to face with a chance occurence or an unassailable blast of logic leaves us little room for negotiation. Our reaction to these things — the atheism we profess — is commendable, preferable, and correct (as far as we know), but not particularly special. In other words, we occupy the high ground because we found ourselves there.
Atheists Are Not Smarter Than Christians
I think those of us who have a religious past understand this better than those who have always been atheist. To the outsider, faith seems shockingly stupid and utterly unreasonable. But to quote Matt Dillahunty: “My IQ didn’t go up once I stopped believing.” In fact, the assumption that becoming an atheist somehow grants you increased intellect is as magical a thought as believing that saying the Sinner’s Prayer invites Jesus into your heart to change you.
No, religion itself is not smart (except street smart, perhaps, in that it will fight and adapt to survive). The beliefs that indoctrination cultivates in controlled environments are not logical or conducive to critical thinking. But there is a difference between what people are capable of, and what people are allowed. To look at a brilliant seminary student forced to quell their own intelligence in compliance with the rules of the evangelical system that values unquestioning submission to doctrine above all else, and declare that they are simply too unintelligent to comprehend reality is misguided and demeaning. If anything, it’s a testament to the prevailing logic and intelligence of all humankind that religion’s best survival tactic is discouraging critical thought.
Now, there is some science to back up the idea that there is a correlation between atheism and higher intelligence (although it has sparked a lot of debate). The main takeaway from the meta-study is that a predeliction for religion is an instinct, one that we all have, and the evolution of human intelligence has a way of allowing us to rise above instincts. This is within almost everyone’s power to do, it just might be easier for some.
To call on a perhaps rather simplistic analogy, it’s easier for some people than others to get over a fear of the dark. For some reason, that primal fear is stronger. No one would say that someone is inherently stupid for being afraid of the dark: it’s just that some people had the opportunity to learn to rise above that instinctual fear. Likewise with atheism — intelligence is at work, but it is an intelligence latent in everyone given the opportunity to explore it, not conjured at the mere adoption of a label.
Atheists Are Not More Emotionally Stable Than Christians
Sometimes the argument is made that Christians are too damaged or too emotionally vulnerable to exist in a world without God. Their faith is their coping mechanism, their necessary addiction. They self-medicate, staving off a mental break with a poison that inevitably consumes their lives. You hear similar sentiments about someone struggling with alcoholism during a time of crisis: “It’s just how they cope. No, it’s not healthy, but they’ll stop when they’re good and ready.”
This is a dangerous way of thinking for two reasons: first, likening religion to an addiction is all to apt, and encouraging or abandoning users to their habit is a cruel and callous thing to do; second, it gives no credit to the strength of the individual’s will to heal and to thrive.
I was a Christian who was damaged by religion, raised by a family who was damaged by religion. The way we applied Scripture to our lives, the doctrines we ascribed to, the harsh realities of abuse and illness we ignored, coagulated to form an environment so toxic and oppressive that it shattered our home to pieces. I developed an anxiety disorder — one that I struggle with to this day — thanks to the version of Christianity we practiced. I listen to stories from fellow deconverts who still struggle with paranoia, trauma, and fear thanks to ubiquitous Christian teachings about Hell, the Rapture, Armageddon, the Unpardonable Sin, etc.
Yet somehow I found my way out, as have countless others. Granted, I have gained more emotional stability and mental health as a result of my deconversion, as would anyone when released from that kind of metapysical burden. But I wholly reject the claim that baggage — religious or otherwise — is an inevitable stumbling block for those seeking the truth. And to simply shrug and say “Let the people have their opium,” when true healing is right around the corner is giving up too easily.
Atheists Are Not Braver Than Christians
We atheists face certain harsh truths about our universe in a way that should be applauded. We understand that we are alone, the result of the most magnificent gamble, products of pure chance, careening through space and destined for inevitable oblivion. And yet we find joy and purpose in life, in spite of or because of this understanding. This is bravery.
Christians live in a very different world, but anyone who thinks it is a coddled world has a limited view. While the surety of a happy ending is guaranteed for them, Christians do not live in a sheltered world. In fact, it’s incredibly perilous.
Many Christians believe they are the victims of quiet, persistent persecution on the worldly and otherworldly plane, survivors of an ancient spiritual war between a mysterious, unknowable Good and an encroaching, insidious Evil. The government conspires against them while demons stalk them. Satan, an antagonist to rival any dark fantasy super-villain, orchestrates their downfall daily. Meanwhile, their God may randomly decide to test their faith and commitment through disease, poverty, or the death of a loved one. Rebellion in the form of word, thought, or deed can jeopardize their eternal souls and damn them to everlasting torture. Everyone is their enemy, even themselves.
Yet, they still manage to pay their bills, go to work, and live their lives as (mostly) functioning members of society. Many even put an emphasis on expressing love and cheerfulness and compassion. That’s fucking brave. Brave in the face of imagined threat, brave like the child who goes stoically to sleep despite believing in the monster under the bed, but brave nonetheless.
There was nothing more liberating than the realization that I didn’t have to be afraid of these things anymore — not of the devil, of God, or of myself. The scariest part was, I didn’t even realize I had been so afraid until I was out. The real world isn’t without its perils, but it was a relief to be brave for the right reasons.
Everyone Deserves To Live In Reality
There will always be Christians who actively choose to remain in their old ways. There will be those who absolutely will not budge or whose transitions will be slow. Maybe they’re nervous. Maybe they’re not ready. Maybe the right argument just hasn’t come along yet. It could even be that they’ve weighed the options and decided to keep their eyes closed despite the cognitive dissonance. That is their choice. But to suggest they categorically cannot exist in the real world we so boldly inhabit is hubris. There is nothing special about them, and nothing special about us.
As I like to remind to my readers, it is not your job to debate religious people or help them deconvert. That is emotional labor that can’t be demanded of you, high ground or no. But if you are willing to reach out your hand, please do so with compassion and egalitarianism. We’re all on this godforsaken planet spiraling at a breakneck pace through the frigid depths of space together.