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Dear Atheist Talk Show Hosts: Please Learn About Christianity Before Critiquing It

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I listen to several atheist call-in shows and podcasts, particularly late at night. I take three medications at night to help with insomnia and pain, yet it still takes two to three hours for me to fall asleep. Typically, I watch TV shows/movies on my iPad Pro or listen to YouTube videos. Instead of saying bedtime prayers to the ceiling God, I fall asleep listening to videos/podcasts produced by the Atheist Community of Austin, Jimmy Snow, Matt Dillahunty, Rationality Rules, the Godless Engineer, and other atheist content producers.

Of late, I have become increasingly troubled by several atheist talk show hosts and podcasters who show a lack of understanding about Christianity and the Bible. If you are going to critique Evangelicalism and the Bible, then you should, at the very least, have a working knowledge and understanding of that which you are criticizing.

One call-in show host said that Jesus, during his lifetime, had LOTS of followers. This is patently false. According to Dr. Bart Ehrman’s book, The Triumph of Christianity, it is likely Jesus had around 20 followers in 30 CE. That group “exploded” to a few hundred people by 60 CE. In Acts 1:13-26, after the death of Jesus, 120 people gathered in the upper room for prayer, to listen to a sermon by Peter, and choose a replacement (Matthias) for Judas. One thing is certain: a relatively unknown, obscure itinerant Jewish preacher did NOT have lots of followers.

Another call-in show host said that Jesus started a new religion. He most certainly did not. Jesus was a Jew; his followers during his lifetime were observant Jews who worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Acts 11:25-26:

Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus didn’t start First Baptist Church in Jerusalem. If we take Acts 11 as accurate history, the first time the followers of Jesus were called Christians happened 40 years after the life and death of Jesus.

And finally, another call-in talk show host, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, objected when a caller said Christianity was a cult. The host vehemently disagreed, saying that her former religion was a cult, but garden variety Christian sects were NOT cults. This host, for some reason, thought it important that the word cult be reserved for just “bad” religions — her former religion. The host showed a real lack of awareness about other Christian sects, particularly Evangelical denominations. Fortunately, the show’s co-host gently corrected his fellow host’s incorrect assertions.

I have noticed that some atheist call-in talk show hosts have a hard time saying “I don’t know” or admitting that they lack understanding about a particular subject. Wanting to be viewed as authoritative, these hosts (at times) speak beyond that which they know. I am in no way suggesting that these hosts are deliberately saying untrue things. I suspect that the problem is a lack of knowledge. It’s important to know what we don’t know. I don’t pontificate on this blog about science or non-Christian religions. While I am not ignorant of some aspects of these things, I am not an authority. Want to talk about Evangelicalism or the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement? I’m your man. I know what I’m talking about. I try to stay in my lane, focusing my work on subjects for which I have expertise.

To these show hosts and podcasters, I say, do better, my fellow atheists, do better. Christians deserve to have their religion, in all its flavors, accurately represented. Atheists don’t like it when their beliefs are straw-manned, and neither do Christians. If you are going to critique Christianity in general and Evangelicalism in particular, please put in the work necessary to know what the hell you are talking about. If you are unwilling to do your homework, please turn off the microphone.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    William

    It’s one of the reasons I enjoy your blog, you are an atheist with a good understanding of Christianity. Some mainline Christians don’t even know/understand the bible well, much less many atheists.

    It’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan of Dawkins and such and to me silly things like comparing God to the ‘flying spaghetti monster’. Yes Christianity would appear to be another made up religion, but the bible contains imo some great characters, stories and so forth. As a former Christian it brought me to tears, very clever people have devoted their lives in its scholarshp. Sure it may in some ways be a more elaborate religion, but to compare the hours of study one can dedicate to it to an upturned plate of spaghetti (for instance), isn’t really convincing anyone as a reasonable argument.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I attended this church as a teenager in the 70s. First Baptist is a typical uber-white middle class church. When I attended this church years ago, my family (mom and siblings, who didn’t attend the church) was the poorest family in the church. (Not one time did the pastor, deacons, or church members offer help. Not once.) There were several other poor families in the church, but they were the exception not the rule. First Baptist has never had meaningful ministries to the poor or marginalized. Their agenda is simple: get people saved and help fat sheep get fatter. There’s nothing unusual about First Baptist — typical IFB church.

      • Avatar
        William

        Ii believe I know the type, sort of if you are poor it’s your own fault not my problem. Yet, Jesus was a friend of the poor, the outcast, the marginalised, and the bible says the poor are marginalised, indeed, Jesus was an outcast himself. Such is the way with IFB especially in my experience.

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      Raised Catholic here, and my understanding of the Bible is necessarily different than yours, because of the focus of the different traditions. Yes, I’ve read the thing. Yes, that’s kind of unusual among Catholics. I did spend a couple of years attending an Evangelical church, wanting a more “authentic” Christianity. It deepened my depression. The Catholicism of my youth (liberal, West Coast US, 1960s-1970s) was a religion of hope, of understanding human frailty, of the interconnectedness of people and the importance of supporting one another. The Evangelical Christianity I briefly dabbled in was a religion of despair, of horror, of fear. I bailed when I realized those people actually believed that the Old Testament was historically true; they were science deniers. Such bullshit.

      The thing is, clever people can devote their lives to scholarship, they can work hard to interpret the Bible, they can do their best, and their best can be breathtakingly good. But they’re operating on base assumptions for which there’s no real evidence. During my two decades as a hardware and software engineer, lead engineer, and manager, I saw some breathtakingly beautiful designs that didn’t work because the designer misunderstood the problem. About half the time, he or she wasn’t given enough information, and didn’t realize it.

      Effort only gets rewarded by the opportunity to fix whatever you got wrong. The universe gives no A grades for effort.

      The Flying Spaghetti Monster is silly, but it makes the point that person A’s beautiful religion is person B’s silly or even destructive enterprise. I don’t need to understand Evangelical thinking in depth, or modern Catholic thinking, to see that these things destroy some people. Whenever the news brings up some horrific religion-related destruction of people, and those people aren’t Christians, my Evangelical relatives say, oh, if they were Christians it wouldn’t have happened. If the people involved in the horror are Christians, then the relatives declare that they aren’t True Christians. I never heard of anyone raping or molesting children, staying in nightmare marriages, choosing a religion-approved career path they hate, or accepting that they must be second-class citizens due to their gender, in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  2. Avatar
    Barbara L. Jackson

    I agree with you. Even atheism can be used as a “tribe” if someone wants to do it. Obviously Stalin and his friends did. Ask them please do not mess up atheism by making it a “tribe” instead of a way of looking at human societies and the physical world.

    I think people have a right to their own religion as long as they are not shoving it down the throats of others (evangelicalism) or trying to get laws passed which allow only their view to be the right view (anti-abortion) so women cannot control their own bodies.

    The problem is living together in a society where people disagree with each other.

  3. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I’ve watched some of the YouTubers you mention, and it’s clear to me that if you’re going to do a call-in show on anything, you need to be able to say “I don’t know”. Some of them do a reasonable job of that. Some of them have a good sense of why they might not know something, and why they trust the people (usually scientists) who do know, at least provisionally. Also, they have assumptions and biases like the rest of us, and it’s a human thing to think you know more than you do.

  4. Avatar
    Davie from Glasgow

    A really fine point well made by Bruce. The whole world view we’re espousing here is one where we accept when we don’t know the answers to everything but don’t rush to plug the leaks in our awareness with the ‘God of the Gaps’. Even more important still is the advice that you really do need to know of what you speak if you’re going to critique. You really don’t want to be falling into the traps that your accusing your opponents of falling into – with their own regular refusals to understand atheism before having a go at it.

  5. Avatar
    Emersonian

    When I was in college in the early 90’s I took a class that had a book on the reading list called “Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus” by Richard Horsley. It clarified for me just how ordinary Jesus must have seemed at the time–there were lots of guys in the Jewish community during the Roman occupation who proclaimed themselves to be in some way special and the saviors of the Jewish people, in one way or another. Jesus was one of many, and as Ehrman re-affirms, he wasn’t even one of the most popular “messiahs” until well after his death. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking new scholarship! Anyone who wants to do the least bit of digging can find plenty of analysis of early Christian history and the reasons for its eventual success over other messianic movements of the time. If you’re going to have a podcast about this topic, step up your game a bit.

  6. Avatar
    Obstaclechick

    I don’t think people who are lifelong atheists understand those of us who used to be religious before we became atheists. And they shouldn’t try to pretend that they do, nor should they pretend that they have more than a cursory knowledge of religions.

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Bruce Gerencser