Should Atheists Disabuse Christians of Their Beliefs?

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Everywhere one looks, Christians can be found. All sorts of Christians — Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Progressive, Liberal — with countless shades and nuances. The majority of Americans profess to believe in the Christian God. Most Americans believe that the Bible is in one way or another the word of God. Most Americans believe that Jesus is the son of God and that he died on the cross for human sin and resurrected from the dead three days later. Most Americans believe that the Christian God created the universe. It is safe to say that the United States is a Christian nation; not in the sense that people such as David Barton use the phrase “Christian nation,” but in the sense that Christianity permeates every aspect of American life. That some Christians are now saying that they are persecuted is laughable.

Expressions of Christianity can be found everywhere one looks. Christian churches are found in every American community. Christian churches and pastors are subsidized by taxpayer money. Christian churches are exempt from paying real estate and sales tax, and their ministers’ housing is tax-exempt. Ministers are even permitted to opt out of paying Social Security tax. Donations to churches are tax exempt. No matter how opulent church facilities might be or how rich ministers might become, every dollar of church income is tax-exempt. Not only are financial and in-kind gifts tax-exempt, but donors receive a tax deduction for church donations. Government agencies steer a wide berth around religion, rarely sticking their nose in its business. The Internal Revenue Service is so scared of intruding upon churches that it goes out of its way to NOT investigate clear and egregious violations of the separation of church and state.

In recent years, atheism, agnosticism, secularism, and religious indifference have increased in numbers as young Americans in particular look at the religious scene and say no thanks. Christian sects are hemorrhaging members, as church leaders scramble to plug the increasingly larger hole in the membership dike. They rightly understand that if they are unable to keep young adults in the church, they are but a generation or two away from extinction. This is particularly true for smaller churches who have lost millions of members to megachurches and larger churches. Unable to compete, smaller churches are slowly dying, the result of the corporate, entertainment mindset that now dominates the Christian landscape. That and an unwillingness to adapt to cultural change.  Those of us who are not Christians observe this decline from the outside, cheering on those who cannibalize their own. Surely we would all be better off without Christianity, atheists say. While it can certainly be debated whether we would actually be better off without Christianity, it is certainly clear that religious belief has caused untold damage.

I spent 50 years of my life in the Evangelical church. I spent 25 years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. I have come in contact with thousands of people who self-identified as Christians. I have intimately known countless people who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that it is a guidebook for living life. These Christians believe that the Bible tells us all we need to know about life — both now and after death. How should atheists respond to Christians who believe their particular flavor of Christianity is the truth? How should atheists respond to those who believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God? What is our duty — if any — to those who are committed followers of Jesus? Should atheists, when presented with an opportunity to do so, disabuse Christians of their beliefs? Does it really matter what people believe?

The atheist community is certainly not of one mind on these issues. Some atheists think that religious belief should be challenged at every opportunity. Some atheists think that religious belief deserves mockery and ridicule.  Other atheists take a live-and-let-live attitude. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you, these atheists say.

The question raised in this post, should atheists disabuse Christians of their beliefs? comes from an atheist who recently engaged in a discussion with a Christian minister about religious faith and atheism. She wondered if atheists should bother trying to engage people who are resolutely committed to Christianity, its God, and its religious text – the Bible. What follows is my answer.

I tend to take an incremental approach to engaging people of faith. This has led some atheists to label me as an accommodationist. I have often been accused of being too soft or nice to Christians, which is ironic, because many Christians think I am hostile towards Christianity. I suppose that atheists and Christians alike are right. I can be hostile towards any form of Christianity that psychologically and physically harms people. I am certainly hostile towards any religious system that impedes progress and the betterment of the human race. That said, when dealing with people I think have doubts and questions about Christianity, I tend to be patient and long-suffering, hoping that I can, through reason and kindness, help them move away from the suffocating constraints of Christianity — particularly Evangelicalism. I play the game, realizing — as it did for me — that it might take years for someone to come to the conclusion that what they have believed for years is a lie. Assaulting such people with every possible atheistic weapon rarely results in deconversion.  Unlike Evangelicals with their born-again experiences, the path to atheism is often a long and winding road, with many starts and stops along the way.

How should atheists respond when Christian zealots make a deliberate attempt to evangelize them or deliver them from what Christians believe are satanic, immoral beliefs? How should atheists respond when Christians make a concerted effort to challenge their beliefs — or lack thereof? Social media is often a prime hunting ground for Christians looking to assert their beliefs and sense of rightness. I’m sure most atheists at one time or another have had to interact with preachy, evangelizing Christian friends and family members on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. While most of my Facebook friends are atheists or non-Christians, I am friends with several Evangelicals. I post very little atheism-related material on my Facebook wall. I usually post these kind of things on my page. I tell my Facebook friends that they want to read my writing about religion that they should check out my page. On my personal Facebook account, I tend to post cat videos, cartoons, and things that reflect my liberal, socialistic political beliefs. The same cannot be said for my Christian Facebook friends. Virtually every day they post Christian related stories and memes, and one friend — an out-of-work preacher — has taken to posting what I call paragraph sermons. These sermonettes are often directed towards those who are not Christian, which is strange, because the overwhelming majority of his Facebook friends are Evangelical Christians. I think I can safely say that this man’s preaching is directed towards me and my family and other people he has deemed unsaved. This Baptist preacher’s wife tends to post similar material.

One day this preacher’s wife posted something that mentioned atheism. After reading it, I pondered whether I should bother to respond. I did, resulting in a family squabble of sorts. By the next day, her post was removed. I have no idea why. It certainly couldn’t had been due to anything I had written. I was polite, but forceful. This couple, while certainly Fundamentalist, likes to think that they are somehow “different” from hard-core Fundamentalists. I attempted to show that they weren’t, using a tactic I use whenever someone tries to paint themselves as a kinder, gentler, more accepting Christian. I asked if they believed non-Christians would go to hell when they die. Their answer was emphatically YES!. I told them that the rest of their beliefs really didn’t matter. Anyone who believes that their God will not only fit unbelievers with a fireproof body but also torture them night and day is every bit as hateful and judgmental as the worst of Fundamentalists. These kind, nice, smiling Fundamentalists want to believe that they are different from their Fundamentalist forefathers, but their abhorrent belief in hell and the eternal torture of unbelievers makes them every bit as bad.

Why did I bother to engage these Fundamentalists? Surely I knew that nothing would be gained by writing a dissenting comment on the wife’s post. The only reason I did so is because she directly mentioned atheism. I thought, this is my opportunity to put in a word for atheism. While I had hoped my comment might spark honest, thoughtful discussion about Christianity, atheism, and how the family in general has treated non-Christians, I also knew that it could turn out like it did. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It up to individual atheists to determine when and where they engage the beliefs of Christians. Sometimes, there is no value in attempting to challenge those whose heads are in a bucket of cement. They are deaf and blind, unable to see and hear any other belief but their own. When dealing with such people I take the advice of the Bible — don’t cast your pearls before swine. Atheists can waste tremendous amounts of time talking to people who really have no interest in what they have the say. When I first started blogging nine years ago I thought that if I just explained myself to people that they would appreciate and understand where I am coming from. I know, quite naïve. A few years back, this issue came up in counseling. I told my counselor that it bothered me that many Christian critics have no interest in hearing my story or allowing me to explain myself. He chuckled and then told me, Bruce, you wrongly think these people give a shit about you. They don’t. And all these years later, I know my counselor is right. Most Christians who engage me are not interested in me as a person. Their goal is to put in a good word for Jesus or to bolster their apologetical skills. Perhaps, deep down they have doubts about their beliefs, and attacking an Evangelical-pastor-turned-atheist helps shout down their doubts and fears.

I think atheists should weigh carefully what might happen if they engage Christians in some sort of dialogue. Sometimes, such engagement can have catastrophic consequences. (Please See Count the Cost Before You Say I am an Atheist.) Atheism is still considered by many to be satanic and immoral. When someone declares their allegiance to atheism, this can and does cause conflict. I have corresponded with atheists who have lost jobs and their marriages over their atheistic beliefs. Try as atheists might to explain that atheism is not a belief system, Christians often already have their minds made up. No amount of discussion about humanism — the moral and ethical framework for most atheists — will suffice. For these Christians, atheists are bad people. I generally don’t bother with such people, again saving my pearls for those who can appreciate them.

The atheist woman who asked the question that has been the subject of this post recently had a lengthy email discussion with her former Evangelical pastor. This man of God found that she was quite willing and capable to defend atheism and her lack of belief in the Christian God. She told me in an email that she wondered if anyone had ever challenged this pastor concerning his beliefs. Likely not, since most pastors are insulated from any outside challenges to their beliefs. Safe within the confines of their church and study, pastors rarely have to defend what they believe. And when they do, they often turn to books that purport to answer EVERY question posed by unbelievers. As most atheists who have spent significant time engaging Christians know, these books are filled with worn-out clichés, shallow defenses of Christianity, and poor arguments against atheism, secularism, and humanism — arguments that are often easily defeated. When pushed into the corner, pastors will always hold on to three things: personal experience, faith, and the Bible. Of course, such metaphysical claims rest beyond rational investigation. Once faith is invoked, discussion ceases.

Over the past nine years I have corresponded with countless pastors. Currently, I am corresponding with a handful of pastors whose have serious doubts about their faith. I do my best to thoughtfully and honestly engage them. If they sincerely want my help or just want somebody to talk to, I am more than happy to oblige. When I began walking down the path of unbelief, I was glad I had someone to talk to, someone who was willing to patiently listen and gently challenge my beliefs. The goal in such discussions is not conversion as much as it is to help people move beyond where they are. All atheists agree that religious Fundamentalism is harmful, and that helping people see this is vitally important. While it’s great if people embrace unbelief, many won’t. Many times, all atheists can do is become facilitators of sorts, helping people see that there are better ways to live their lives (even if that means they hang on to some sort of religious belief). I am content to leave discussions unfinished, knowing that some people will return a few years later, now ready to finish the discussions begun years before.

In some instances, there is no value in challenging religious beliefs. My wife’s parents are in their 80s. They have been fundamentalist Christians their entire lives. They currently attend a hard-core Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. They have been members of this church for almost 40 years. My wife’s father is a retired Baptist preacher. While it would be easy for me to challenge their beliefs, I refrain from doing so. What would I gain from challenging their lifelong beliefs about God, Jesus, sin, salvation, and life after death? There’s nothing I could say that could ever cause them to not believe. Ten years ago their youngest daughter was killed in a tragic automobile accident. If anything could challenge their faith it would have been this. Recently, my wife’s father had his hip replaced, resulting in what can be best described as a medical clusterfuck. Six months later, he is still in the nursing home, can hardly walk, and it is possible that he may never return home. Countless prayers have been uttered on their behalf, yet God — at least from my perspective — has stood by and done nothing. Despite great pain, suffering, debility, and economic loss, my wife’s parents hang on to their faith. Again, I can’t think of anything that would cause them to lose their faith. Because I know this, I have resigned myself to the fact that nothing I say to them about their beliefs will make a difference. As long as they don’t try to evangelize me or interject their Fundamentalist beliefs and practices into my life, I am content to let them believe whatever they want.

How do you interact with Christians? Do you aggressively challenge Christian belief on social media or in family gatherings? Are you an evangelist of sorts for atheism? Or do you take the live-and-let-live approach, ignoring the religious beliefs of others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. I am sure there are many and varied ways that atheists interact with Christians, so I hope you will share your approach in the comments. As I have made clear in the past, I don’t want anyone to follow after me. Each of us must chart his or her own course. As unbelievers, we must determine how best to engage a culture that is overwhelmingly controlled and dominated by Christianity.

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12 Comments

  1. DJ

    Enjoyed your article! For many years now I’ve searched for rebuttals / comebacks for Xian remarks. Pealing off the layers that rest on untrue premises has been a long process. They seem to need bumper sticker phrases, trite expressions, catch phrases, cherry picked verses , etc.
    To me the sermonettes you talked about could keep the faithful feeling in unity w/the pastor (I’m in the pastor’s favor! Pat-pat-pat on the back).
    As for Xians holding on to 3 things… I look at it this way:
    1) Personal experience = S.A.P.E. Self-authenticated private evidence or S.E.E. Subjective Emotional Experience.
    2) Faith = Faith is not a virtue, it’s the glorification of voluntary ignorance.
    3) Bible = Is only text…it lies.
    It has been C.T.I.ed:
    Copied, recopied, mis-copied,
    Translated, retranslated, mistranslated,
    Interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted for hundreds upon hundreds of years, currently practiced in over 41,000+ denominations of Xianity, expressed in over 50+ English versions. Quoting the Bible is NOT valid research. Having Jesus in your heart is NOT valid data.

    Reply
  2. Brian

    I do not belong to Atheism and do not attend services to support those who do not believe in God (or at least choose to express their take on the matter by saying that as far as can be discerned there seems to be no God.) Pascal’s Wager is an insurance company I supported for a time while beginning to respect my humanity and allow myself to question: Why is God everything and anything to people and how can the Independent Baptists actually accept that they have the one door and only one? Why is it that when I do not know the biped speaking with me, their Christianity, their belief or lack of it, simply does not apply? Christians may be every bit as shit-headed as anybody else I run into on a city street and some, every bit as appealing.
    My father used to smile lovingly when cornered into the question about non-believers going to Hell if they do not accept Jesus into their hearts. He would nod assent and affirm the Bible’s teaching as he believed it. In the sixties, that nod went to all Roman Catholics and many people who actively saw themselves as Christians. Dad was a kind man in his life apart from his Baptist expression.
    Religion might save your soul but evangelical Christianity must by its very stance, condemn others to eternal suffering. You accept that, Christian, don’t you? You simply smile like my dad did in Christ’s deep sympathy and nod to the punishing Father in Heaven whose great love has freed you from the curse.
    I am not in your club. And I am not in some big non-believer club either. Like a man who has fought back against the bottle, I go day by day, reading and feeling and asking and telling and not unwilling to be human, to be confused and admit ignorance. I do not see the wisdom of a father willing to sacrifice his own son for ANYTHING. I do not see his great service: I see a man who has come out of the dark cave of history and brought his hallucinations with him. I see a man who is willing to harm others to guard his own corner of being, to protect his fears every bit as much as protect what makes him fully human.
    As a child, I was abandoned and harmed using the Bible, using Calvanistic direction and the shallow punishment paradigms of obedience to God.
    My stance is relative to the questions and answers I manage to attend today. I do believe that God is the same today as he was yesterday and will be tomorrow: Blank. There is no God. The gobbledegook about God being the basis for morals and ethics is the same Blank at work.
    For me, letting go of the lie of belief has been a clear advantage in becoming more fully human.
    My mother and father absented themselves by embracing the Blank and told me that the Blank was all that mattered. They put the Blank before me and said that was love, the ultimate love. To me, it felt like abandonment.
    After almost three decades, with human support, I finally said it out of my own mouth. God is a Blank. People are indeed in need but what they need is what that child needed. I needed a mom and dad who wanted to be my everything and all, who believed in their love that made me a part of their world. I have known parents who have bonded with their children and kept them first in their hearts and I have endeavored as a parent to do so with my two, who are now young adults.
    I come to this blog to express my heart and not to save Christians from the Blank. I have been where Christians are and know that I have no way to really meet with them. I used to sing the song about the door, you know….. the two sides…. I’m on the inside; on which side are you?
    I am sure that I am on the outside where I feel human and alive, where I have no Ticket to Ride and no guarantee of gold streets. I have today to be with my wife and children, to glory as I find myself able or not. I am grateful to be able to express freely, to be angry and sad, to be full of joy and peachy peaceful as the day allows.
    How do I interact with Christians? I treat them as I treat anyone who shares the space… I respect and do not seek to save them from what they have chosen. I believe that we have the right to diminish ourselves or to become more human, more fully human if we wish. Actually it is not a belief and more an observation subject to change over time. Christianity, as I see it now, diminishes humanity in direct proportion to its fervency. Like fundamentalist Islam, fundy Christianity hates humanity, is full of fear and suffering caused by others and the self. People choose the Blank Life because it is what they know, a default existence passed down through generations.

    Reply
  3. archaeopteryx

    I comment on a number of atheist blogs, and the occasional Christian blog as well. I have facts at my disposal, regarding the Bible, of which most Christians are unaware. I can honestly say without bragging that I have deconverted two Christians and have created significant doubts in another. But the success rate is so low, that that is not the reason that I comment, but rather because if Christian statements of belief are not countered by credible facts, they stand unchallenged, and thus, are presumed true.

    Further, for every one who comments on these blogs, Christian or Atheist, there is at least one or more ‘lurkers‘ out there who don’t comment, but just watch and listen, who may be undecided, riding the theological fence so to speak. By bringing forth biblical facts, backed by reputable biblical scholars, these go away with information that may well counter that with which they have been indoctrinated for most of their lives, and which, up to now, they haven’t dared question.

    Reply
  4. J.D. Matthews

    I tend to post selected thoughts to my Facebook timeline. It’s my wall, so I figure it’s as good a place as any for me to post what I think are good points and things that are important to me. The discussion doesn’t always end well. I’m currently wasting my time with someone who thinks it’s a horrible thing for trans people to be in the same bathroom with them. But it does sometimes have a good ending. I’ve had a few people confide in me that they really do have questions about faith, and we’ve had nice discussions. Then again, there are times when I post something, take a note of how many friends I had before I posted it, and then come back to find that my friend list has decreased by 6 or 7 people. That’s actually not a particularly bad thing. My friend list has pruned and purged itself quite nicely in the past decade as people reach their limits of cognitive dissonance with me.

    Every once in a while, I will see somebody post something so absurd that I have to comment. But this almost always ends up with them accusing me of being mean and hateful for daring to disagree, and more often than not it’s a one-way trip to Unfriendsville with a stop by Blockington.

    So I generally just let people come to me. If they want to engage with something I say, that’s great.

    Reply
  5. Appalachian Agnostic

    I have lost my patience with Facebook evangelizers. I ignored them for a long time, but so much anger built up inside that I was ready to explode. So I made some nasty comments. Haven’t checked to see if anyone unfriended me, but it’s fine if they did. I feel like putting a notice on my wall that says, “I hate guns, I don’t give a fUK about UK basketball, I am the parent of a transgender daughter, and I am an atheist. This would probably alienate about 90% of the people I know, both online and off. It might be worth it.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      It’s one reason I try never to go anywhere near Facebook. I enjoy debating in forums, but I can’t be bothered leaving a permanent target.

      As for your opinions and your transgender daughter I can only say the old ‘Those who mind don’t matter, and those that matter don’t mind’.

      Reply
  6. grammar gramma

    I have a walking partner who is religious, rather conservative, probably Evangelical. She occasionally talks about finding the right church for her family, and about attending church, mainly in the context of her five children. But she never brings in the personal component – has never talked about Jesus, nor asked about my religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Four months ago, I was soliciting donations of used coats, jackets, etc. and she contributed a few things. She then asked me what group I was soliciting for, and I told her Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless. Her eyes widened a bit, and she asked if I was an atheist. I told her yes. After a moment, the conversation moved to other things. She has never returned to the subject, nor have I. We still walk together 2-3 times per week. She doesn’t try to evangelize me, and I don’t try to disabuse her of her beliefs.

    Reply
    1. Brian

      This is yet another proof of the healthy activity known as walking! My grammar aint what it odda be gramma but I’m with chew fellers…

      Reply
      1. Brian

        Ah jeez, I meant to say healthy outcomes or proofly healthies of walking! My back hurts today…. even walking!

        Reply
  7. archaeopteryx

    As it should be.

    Reply
  8. No Name

    My answer is yes. I’ve been listening and reading Sam Harris’s thoughts on how dangerous passiveness is when it comes to the subject of religion, especially in this day and age. I’m beginning to get more motivated to start questioning the religious BS when I hear it… if and when an opportunity arises. That being said, I’m also getting more and more intolerant of anything and everything that has to do with “religions”.

    Archaeopteryx stated in his reply, “if Christian statements of belief are not countered by credible facts, they stand unchallenged, and thus, are presumed true.” I would add that I feel the important part is to challenge with credible facts and not emotion. I try to be polite and understanding. I was once a believer. I understand exactly where they are at. I don’t expect de-conversions from what I write. I only hope to show another view, plant a few seeds, or provide some type of validation/support for those who may be reading and sitting on the fence. I believe it is important to educate whenever possible, encourage believers to research and learn about the history of their imaginary gods and religions, and to continue to call out bs .

    I just discovered Pat Condell’s You Tube videos. OH MY GYAWD! I love him! He’s sarcastic, funny, and articulates with a no-holds-barred delivery that excites me in this personal vacuum of non-belief that is my new reality. As I navigate my new reality, it has been so helpful to find so much information and support on the Internet. A big thanks to you and all those who continue to write and share their experiences, insights, and knowledge. Your voice is so much appreciated!

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      I so agree about Pat Condell. Occasionally he veers away from absolute common sense (in my opinion), such as supporting Trump, but his delivery is both well crafted and compelling.

      Reply

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