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.