One Year as an Atheist


It was last March that I became an “out” atheist, and the past year has been an interesting one. I’m a sucker for anniversaries, so indulge me in a few observations.

The biggest surprise of my experience as an atheist has been the response of my close Christian friends. I’m not entirely sure what I expected, and I wasn’t coming “out” to examine the reactions, but I’ve been surprised at the ecumenical, nonconfrontational interaction I’ve had with them. On the surface, this seems like a good thing–and I’ll admit that it’s been comforting to have the tacit support of people I love and respect.

After a bit of consideration, however, I have to highlight a subject that makes their acceptance legitimately uncomfortable: Hell. (To be fair, I’m also friends with a number of Universalists; and while I have no clue why they’d voluntarily make that choice, I’ll take up my quarrel with them another time.) The majority of my Christian friends, however, openly admit to believing in hell as a Real Place of Real Punishment–forever. To every one of you who believes in hell and hasn’t breathed a word to me about religion since finding out I’m an atheist: fuck you.

Too harsh? I don’t think so, and here’s why: I don’t even have to consider someone my friend to warn her about a potential, minor disaster that could occur in her future. And you can bet your ass that if I believed with all my heart that someone was going to be tortured forever, I wouldn’t care if he was my worst enemy–I would at least give him a warning based on the evidence I had to suspect (or know!) that he was going to receive what no moral judge would ever decree: infinite torture for finite transgression.

If you think that, as an atheist, hell is in my future, and you haven’t bothered to say a thing to me about it, you are either A) not a real friend, or B) not a real believer. If you think that you wouldn’t be able to convince me (despite the fact that my mind was open enough to be changed at least once), then why are you convinced? And if you are indeed convinced that so much is at stake, isn’t it at least worth a shot? I can’t recall a single instance where I’ve revealed my atheism to a believer and not accompanied it with the acknowledgment that I’m willing (and eager, in fact) to hear anyone and everyone out at least once.

In the past two days, I’ve received two unrelated e-mails from Christian friends that included the words “I love you.” It’s very nice, and those are sentiments that I would return in a heartbeat. But I can’t help seeing those words, taking a look at the religious quotes in the facebook profiles of the two people I’m referring to, and then wondering what the hell they actually believe–about me, and about their religion.

Perhaps this analogy will illustrate why I can’t get comfortable with the disparity between those beliefs and actions in the lives of my friends. If you knew right now (via revelation from God) that in one year, the holocaust was going to be repeated and millions of people were going to lose their lives in gruesome, awful ways, and that you had even a 1 percent chance of saving people you knew by talking to them and telling them, would you do it? Of course. Any reasonable person would.

As an unbeliever who thinks that hell is fiction and that I’m not going there, why do I care about this issue? I care because you do. Say there was a hand grenade lying on the sidewalk that I knew was not armed, but you thought it was; someone else runs up, also thinking the grenade is armed, looks at you, and then lobs it into a crowd. If your reaction is nonchalant and you make no move to stop the man who you thought was picking up a live grenade with malicious intent, then I think I’m justified in calling you an asshole. It doesn’t matter that the grenade was not armed.

I’m not writing this to invoke proselytization. I don’t necessarily want to talk about religion (although I’m always up for discussion). I just want to know why you don’t want to talk to me about it. I want to know why you feel okay believing in something that should make you very, very uncomfortable. When pressed, I suspect that many wouldn’t claim that I’m going to hell. How else could they be so casual? But it’s my sincere hope that everyone I know (including myself) will grow to care more and more deeply about living the examined life.

Ask yourself why you believe what you do. If you can’t come up with reasons that are convincing or worth sharing with others, why are you believing it? If you do have reasons, share them with people you care about. Tell them why. Who knows? Christianity (or Islam, etc.) could have it right, and perhaps I’ve missed something. God knows I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past. Take the time to examine your beliefs. If they don’t hold up, you’ve saved yourself from believing a lie. If they do hold up, you have what is arguably the most important thing in the world to tell the unbelievers you love.

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21 Responses to One Year as an Atheist

  1. mikhailovich says:

    You’re right, it is purposefully a false dichotomy. I’m gathering from the comments that this was entirely unclear in the post, but I set forth those two options (both of which are untrue for almost everyone I know) to drive people into the category where I think all my believing friends reside: the area where they hold a false belief that cannot be backed up and are therefore forced into silence on an issue that would otherwise demand immediate attention from a friend.

  2. T Tennent says:

    Despite all the postings, I remain profoundly unconvinced that the silence of your friends is attributed to either that they A) don’t believe the gospel or B) they are not your true friend. (see original posting). If you think about it, there are actually several other possibilities which might explain the silence of some of your friends which is internally consistent with their beliefs and with their friendship. Silence as well as speech both serve as the handmaidens of love.

    T. Tennent

  3. mikhailovich says:

    Well, when you put it that way, it does seem rather calloused. Within the past year, I’ve discussed all these things quite candidly with most of the people I went to church with and am still in contact with. I don’t think there’s anything here that I haven’t expressed in person, but the post’s point was rhetorical, and all too often it is difficult to communicate the proper spoken tone in writing. I’m not sure who you are, but I urge you to email me if you have any interest in a conversation. I’d love that.

    This post was an attempt to get believers thinking about the consequences of what they profess. Similar challenges were what set me on the course of examining my religious beliefs, in accordance with the mandate of 1 Peter 3:15, and of course, I realized that I could no longer hold them. I wish someone had challenged me much, much earlier. Naturally, I don’t dislike any of my Christian friends, but I want them to think. I apologize for the repetition if you read through the comments above, but the fact that you don’t think it will make much difference to talk with me about hell is exactly the problem I’m trying to highlight.

    Consider: why do you think it wouldn’t do much good to discuss those matters? The only reason I can imagine (though I’m not trying to put words in your mouth) is that you are unable to support what you believe by providing evidence and reasons. And if that’s the case, why do you believe it? especially on such an important matter that proclaims such dire consequences? Believing in a place like hell, and agreeing with the Christian god that non-believers deserve to go there, is a serious accusation. Holding things like this to be true (or good!) is a belief that demands serious attention, not blissful ambivalence or fearful silence. Abandon the belief or back it up — that’s my challenge.

    If you’re a Christian and you’re not able to provide any reasons or justification for why you think there is a hell, but you still think it exists and that non-believers deserve it, then you are the boy who cried “wolf.” When people show up and ask you where the wolf is, your response seems to be, “It’s here and it’s dangerous. I won’t bother trying to tell you about it, however, because it’s invisible, and you can’t see it. But believe me, it’s here. And when it attacks you, you’ll deserve it.” My question is: what can you see that I can’t? If I made up a different story right now with a different kind of hell, would we be able to distinguish between the two? You’d have a story and I’d have a story, and we’d have no basis for saying which one was real other than that we each believed in our own. And that’s the importance of having evidence and reasons to back up your beliefs.

    I’m more than willing to change my mind! (If you have been a Christian for your entire life, than of the two of us, I’m the only one who has yet demonstrated that I am willing to do so.) But when I change my mind again on anything, I’ll change it because of logical discussion, reason, and evidence, not because of the fear of any religion’s imaginary torture cell.

    On an individual note, if you can’t provide any evidence or reasons for why you believe what you do, then all your theology boils down to a personal opinion that you hold. It’s not communicable. In this case, that personal opinion is that non-believers deserve hell, and that it is just and good for them to end up there–and that includes me. This doesn’t bother me, but it does make me wonder why you would ever call yourself a friend. If I think you’re a horrible person who deserves the greatest imaginable (infinite) punishment, I should be damn well prepared to back up that accusation with something better than, “I just think it’s true, but I can’t give you any reason for that.” Such a claim is indistinguishable from me making something up, right here, right now. But I would probably make up something a lot more pleasant.

    The point of this post is to get you to wake up to the reality of what you believe, not offend you or make you think that I don’t like you. In fact, I’m sure I do. What’s more, I’m sure you like me, too. If so, you probably don’t want a place like hell to exist for your friends. If that’s the case, congratulations–you are automatically more moral than the Christian god. Moving past emotion, the next step is to realize that only justified beliefs are worth holding if you value truth. Again, if there is no way to distinguish a belief from random fantasy, let it go. If you can distinguish it, you have a moral responsibility to tell me (and everyone else!) about it–especially people you love.

  4. A friend says:

    As one of your close christian friends, I just want to say that I haven’t brought up “hell” because you know exactly what I’m going to say. We grew up in the same church, we were taught the same things, you’ve read the scripture, I’ve read the scripture. I don’t see how me telling you these things that you already know will convince you. If you were told about the holocaust then you decided to just not believe it anymore, I don’t see how your friends telling you again is going to make a bit of difference. I think it’s a little weird to rant about that point. Of course I don’t want you to be separate from God forever, it will be a terrible thing, but I also know that you won’t be “frightened” back into loving God…. And by the way, I’m another friend that loves you and I don’t think that shaking you and telling you that you are going to hell will prove that. For now I’ll just listen and love you the best ways I know how.

    By the way, it’s very hard to read these after having personal conversations with you about these things. I know we’re all hypocrites in our own ways, but face to face conversations about these things have been loving and civil. The attitude in these writings are quite hostile and not the “Mikhailovich” I thought I knew. It’s hard for me to put the two personalities together. If this is the new you, I can accept that, but do you really want to be the time of person who anonymously swears at their “friends” behind their backs? If that is the real you, say these things to our faces and be who you really are. You claim that Christians are fake and hypocritical, why are you acting the same way? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  5. Brandon says:

    When I was in college, I had a Catholic roommate who told me I was going to hell every time I took a long shower, stocked up on Kleenex or received the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in the mail… Man, that guy really cared about where my soul spent its eternity.

  6. mikhailovich says:

    Derek,

    Thanks for your comment. The question of the historical Jesus is not an easy one, but it should be approached in the same way that we examine the evidence for other figures in history. Would you agree that it is inconsistent to ignore the testimonies of miracles performed by Mohammad or Joseph Smith while *not* ignoring the miracles of Jesus? Everyone has different standards for what they will accept as “evidence.” Some people will believe almost anything you tell them. Others are more skeptical and require more evidence before they will believe a claim. Where do you draw the line? How do you know what to believe and what not to believe?

    A good starting point is this quote from Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’ll provide an example to illustrate the importance of this statement. Let’s say that I tell you right now I have a candy bar sitting on my desk. You’d probably just take me at my word. It’s not a very extravagant claim. You have no reason to doubt it, and you’ll probably immediately accept it as true. If, on the other hand, I told you that right now I have the corpse of a *real* dragon sitting in the trunk of my car, you almost certainly would *not* believe it. Why? because it’s a much, much more extraordinary claim. It’s not usual at all. You probably would demand a DNA test and some extensive research to be done before you’d believe me. Am I right?

    So let me apply this to the story of Jesus and his death. What we have is a VERY extraordinary claim (somebody rising from the dead), and the *only* evidence we have of it is writings by believers, two thousand years ago, written with an agenda, written decades after the events (the earliest gospel, Mark, is dated around the time of the Temple destruction, ~70 CE, and the earliest [original] manuscripts of this gospel don’t even include the last 12 verses of chapter 16 we currently have about the risen Jesus–look for a note explaining this in your NIV study Bible; the latest canonical gospel, John, is dated near the turn of the century, ~95 CE), none of it written by eyewitnesses, composed as part of an oral tradition, and with *zero* external corroborating accounts of *anything* about Jesus’ life whatsoever. The earliest reference to Jesus that we have from the world outside the Christian community is from Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom were writing in the second century and merely referred to the existence of Christians. That’s it. (If you bring up Josephus, I’ll take the time to explain why most historians acknowledge his reference to be a 4th century interpolation.) Detailed, observant Roman historians who were quite willing to discuss minute astrological phenomena mention nothing about a very unusual, sudden darkness at the time of Christ’s death. They mention nothing about Herod killing all the babies in the area surrounding Bethlehem. They mention nothing about all the dead zombies walking out of their tombs when Jesus died and talking to people (see Matthew 27:52-53). In fact, nobody mentions anything about Jesus *at all* until the presence of Christians is discussed in the late second century.

    If you don’t believe that extreme rumors can grow up quickly in an oral community, just google miracle healers in first century Palestine. They’re a dime a dozen, *and* many any of them claimed to have come back from the dead. A modern example of this is the Sai Baba cult in Sri Lanka. This guy has thousands of followers who give testimonies and sworn statements saying that he has performed crazy miracles, including raising people from the dead. He’s still alive. There hasn’t been a whole lot of time for the rumors to grow and spread, and yet they’re already really tall tales. Nobody outside his community really takes his claims seriously, however, despite all the great stories and eyewitness accounts. Why? Because he’s making extravagant claims, and we know they’re exaggerated. In fact, one way that historians determine fact from fantasy is by *excluding* stories of supernatural events. How do we learn what really happened when researching stories about historical figures such as…Alexander the Great? The miracles and supernatural stories attributed to Alexander’s life (e.g., being conceived by a god) are automatically excluded from what we take to be the real facts about his life. This is because we have no good reason to think that anything outside the ordinary happened. No miracles took place. It is far, far more likely that stories about him developed.

    This is what you’re missing by accepting Lewis’ Trilemma. Someone proposed a while back (I forget who) that a fourth option be added: Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or *Legend*. I’d personally lean more toward lunatic, but the “legend” option is far more viable than “Lord.” The TinyFrog blog recently suggested, purely for the sake of argument, that the Romans moved Jesus’ body to prevent his tomb from being a rallying point for Jews against the Roman occupation. This was done in modern times when the communists killed the Russian royal family and told no one where they were buried to prevent the site from becoming a rallying point for anti-communists (see http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/11/25/europe/25czar.php). Or maybe the Romans just didn’t want to keep men stationed indefinitely at a tomb where Jesus’ followers kept showing up. As I mentioned before, the gospel of Mark just reports an empty tomb and scared disciples at the end; no resurrection story Matthew was written. I’m not remotely saying that I believe either of these two possibilities to be the truth; I don’t have evidence for them. All I’m saying is that there are *much* more likely explanations for what happened than just gullibly believing the whole story!

    Is your standard of evidence is so low that all it takes to convince you of the truth of an account is that some people who were not eyewitness and part of a notoriously unreliable oral culture made some extravagant claims, like almost every other cult and sect was making during that time? I hope not. My point is that there’s no good reason to believe that anything supernatural occurred during Jesus’ life, including a resurrection. If you do believe this, based on the available evidence, than you should probably be a member of nearly every cult in the world–from ancient Egyptian religion to modern Mormonism. You have just chosen one improbable belief system and dismissed others out of hand.

  7. Derek says:

    So we can’t be “sure” that Washington exists, but we make assumption based on a preponderance of evidence. Can’t the same be said of Christ? The only evidence we have suggests that thousands of people witnessed His teachings, His miracles, and saw Him walk the earth after crucifixion and that He fulfills myriad scriptural prophecies written long before His lifetime.

    Really, the evidence for Christ’s divinity is compelling. I am aware that it is false to assume that an “abnormal” man must be a God or of God, but let’s face it, C.S. Lewis’ argument (for all the logical flaws you would say it possesses) is compelling by any reasonable standard. A man that calls himself God can be said to be a maniac, a liar, or God. This one lives without flaw or vice, performs countless miracles, willingly faces death and is resurrected by his own prediction, and despite the followers he had, denies earthly power and ascends into the clouds (an event also witnessed by a multitude). Liar or maniac? I think not. Wise teacher who just told a lie a few times to get a crowd’s reaction? I think not.

    The evidence suggests Christ was God or of God, and therefore God must exist.

    It sounds to me like the issue isn’t skepticism for want of proof, it’s a question of the Bible’s legitimacy. If this is the case, it leaves us in a rather unfortunate place as far as the search for truth is concerned.

  8. mikhailovich says:

    For the moment, I’ll bypass your point that atheists who engage in dialogue are closet believers (wouldn’t that work both ways?). I think we’re both here because these questions are interesting, not because either of us secretly believes the other to be correct.

    Read back over what I said about proof in the comment above. The only difference between the Christian god and Tiamat is that today, one is more popular than the other. It used to be the other way around. Old gods are not disproved, they’re forgotten.

    Your Shakespeare example is a kind of conflation, or at least a false analogy. Beside the fact that there is rigorous scholarly debate about who Shakespeare actually was (perhaps even multiple authors), we approach the question of his identity in the same way that we approach any historical question — by examining the evidence. We can’t be “sure” that George Washington existed, for example, but we have very, very good reason to believe so (e.g., documents written in his own hand, thousands of contemporary eyewitness accounts, etc.).

    In the end, it doesn’t matter at all who Shakespeare was. What we value are the things he wrote, and they maintain their value apart from his identity. If we found out today that Shakespeare was actually a Viking immigrant to Stratford-upon-Avon, it woulnd’t change the importance of his writings a bit. Nothing of the sort can be said about religious claims. If Christians suddenly found out that the devil wrote the Bible in one, great, final act of massive deception, it would change everything for them. The irony is that the suggestion I just made has no more evidence for or against it than the suggestion that God wrote the Bible. And that’s the importance of holding justified beliefs.

    You also seem to be making Paley’s Watchmaker Argument with a touch of Pascal’s Wager, but I feel like those have been beaten to death on this blog already.

  9. T Tennent says:

    How does Shakespeare \manifest\ himself in his own play? The atheist argues that Shakespeare is \no where to be found\ – the play is about everything but Shakespeare and all evidence for his presence is lacking – his plays \no role\ in the play at all. The theist realizes that Shakespeare is the author of the very play itself and therefore the entire work is a \manifestation\ of Shakespeare. We can scream at the playbook or at the actors themselves all day, demanding that Shakespeare \show himself,\ and fail to realize that Shakespeare is in every line, in every actor..in every plot. Even the atheistic rant against God is yet another testimony of his existence, since I haven’t seen too many blogs devoted to dismissing the great serpent Tiamat. If there really is no difference between the \giant serpent Tiamat\ explanation and the \eternal, living, God\ then why would you devote a single moment of your precious few days of life (As an athiest you have to believe that the only life you have is right here, right now, so you’ve got, at best, 85 years or so… so every minute must count!) to posting blogs about athiesm or the enormous energy in keeping the \steel city skeptics\ going strong? Why is it so important to dispell our delusion? Could it be that there is a spark of eternity inside and, deep down, you and I both know that the decision to have faith in God or to reject faith in God is an enormously weighty decision with eternal consequences. You’re betting it all that He is nothing but a laughable myth to be discarded in the dustbin of history as you ascend the mountain of self-enlightenment. I think we all agree – that’s a big bet – not an inconsequential one. Betting against Tiamat is not a big bet – in fact, it’s inconsequential.

    T. Tennent

  10. mikhailovich says:

    There seems to be a bit of misunderstanding about “proof” and my desire for it, so I’m going to collect some of my previous comments on the subject, organize & expand on them, and reprint them here for your perusal. I also highly recommend this video:

    I dispensed with the idea of absolute certainty a while ago, and I don’t think very many things outside the realm of mathematics can be “proven.” What we must learn to live with and deal with in life is the reality of incredibly high probabilities and the preponderance of evidence, not certainty or proof. Choosing the most likely explanation for a given question, based on the available evidence, to reach a justified conclusion, is something we should all be more intentional about. Combine this with the necessary humility of always admitting that you might be wrong (always being open to new evidence), and that’s the best, most reliable path toward truth that I know of. Part of the process is never knowing with certainty, but this doesn’t mean you can’t know things with confidence and refer to them as true to the best of our knowledge (a good example of this would be the theory of universal gravitation).

    The reason I don’t see a justification for concluding that God exists is not that you can’t explain things through this lens, but that A) there is no positive evidence to support those conclusions or distinguish them from alternative made-up answers, and B) explanations of that sort can be sliced away from the list by an application of logic, reason, examination of evidence, and Occam’s razor. For example, the “problem of evil” can be explained by a demonic rebellion in heaven and subsequent temptation of humans on earth. It can also be explained in numerous other fictitious ways. But the most reasonable explanation, the one supported by the available evidence, is that humans have evolved with a mix of altruistic and incredibly selfish tenancies required for survival.

    For the person concerned with truth (no matter what the implications of truth might be), it is incredibly important to differentiate between true and false explanations for a given phenomenon, or of the nature of reality itself. It seems to me that the search for truth must begin with the desire to distinguish truth from its counterfeit. Only by so doing can we rightly be said to love or pursue truth. Developing this heuristic and fine-tuning it rigorously to distinguish as accurately and reliably as possible between fact and fantasy should be the goal of everyone who wants to know what is and admit to be false that which is not.

    If we are willing to say that truth can be defined by preference, a religious tradition, or anything that speaks to us personally in a way that we feel is superior to other beliefs, then we have given up the only meaningful aspect of the definition and have retreated into the worst form of postmodern relativism: the realm where a surgeon or historian has no more place in society than a maniac. Much of the time, truth will probably be uncomfortable. It’s that result you don’t want to get, or that conclusion you don’t want to come to, that the search for truth itself has demanded of you.

    We are not approaching this issue from two different but equal starting points. If we really wanted to break down our epistemological bases, we could move all the way back to Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum,” but I don’t think we need to back up that far to recognize that the three fundamental laws of logic (identity, non contradiction, and excluded middle) establish the nature of our shared reality and dictate a difference between things that exist and things that do not (A cannot be A and not A at the same time). The goal of anyone interested in truth and the nature of reality is to distinguish between things that are and are not.

    My starting point is simply that everything that exists (physical or metaphysical) has to make its case for existing. I.e., it has to manifest. If something does not manifest, in what way can it be said to exist? Pretend I tell you that I have two boxes: one is empty, and the other contains a transcendent, metaphysical spirit. Would you be able to tell which one is which? Outside of dumb luck, no. And the reason is that even if something metaphysical does exist, we have absolutely no way of knowing about it if it doesn’t interact with the physical, i.e., revelation.

    Revelation, too, has to make its case. It has to demonstrate that it is something other than a story like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Homer’s Iliad. And that’s what I meant by pointing out that Occam’s Razor demolishes the special status of books dubbed “revelation.” You are forced to take them on faith and incorporate their teaching into your existing experience, observation, education, and understanding of the world. Religion’s track record over the course of the past few centuries gives me very little reason to assume that their unsupported, faith-based claims are going to hold up when we do find out what’s going on. Slowly but surely, believers have been forced to take less and less of their “revelation” seriously (or literally) because it doesn’t square with what we know to be the nature of reality, forcing God into smaller and smaller gaps.

    To be taken seriously, ideas have to hold up to scrutiny. Things have to be shown to exist before we accept them as real (e.g., we don’t yet have evidence for unicorns, so I’m not going to believe in them, even though they are very nice). I’m not going to tack a dubious revelatory lens onto my perception of reality, because I care about truth. To the theist, I would like to ask the following question: Would you view it as equally justified for me to adopt a different religion’s understanding of reality? Why or why not? If yes, then A equals not A (mutually exclusive claims cannot both be true). If no, on what basis can you possibly distinguish between the claims of your religion and the claims of another? All such claims are in the realm of fantastic, made-up answers that are not testable, rendering them useless and indistinguishable from lunacy.

    My argument is based on what we know, not on what we don’t know. In other words, it’s not an argument from ignorance or incredulity. Many Christians simply say that they don’t understand how the world exists, and therefore, we automatically must have been put here by an incredibly complex super-being in the metaphysical realm. As comforting as it might seem to have that “answer,” I would content that ultimately, a made-up answer (like God, fairies, or a giant serpent like Tiamat) should not be satisfying at all. Perhaps we will someday find evidence of a supernatural realm, or a single reason to believe that the prayers of any religion have efficacy. But until that day, the search for truth demands justified beliefs.

  11. T Tennent says:

    Mikhailovich:
    Your argumentation is only cogent if it is built upon the premise that Christianity is accessible through rational argumentation alone, i.e. the belief that person A can convince person B that Christianity is true and all the other options are rubbish if they could only marshal sufficient material evidence to “prove” their case. One can “prove” that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, but faith in God is not in that category. In fact, many things we “believe” in are not in that category. You can no more “prove”God’s existence than you can “prove” that somoene loves you. There is a big difference between “proof” and “evidence.” The evidence for the truth of Christianity is quite compelling, but it cannot be proved.

    T. Tennent

  12. mikhailovich says:

    Derek,

    Thanks for your comment. I think the argument from personal experience is probably one of the strongest justifications for Christians who don’t believe in proselytizing — they have to wait for God to work first and reveal himself in some way to an earnest seeker before religious arguments will make any sense. (Strangely enough, many of these people still believe in missions work, etc., but I recognize that there are complex theological and personal reasons for that.)

    The thing I’m most uncomfortable with in this line of thinking is the role of God, not Christians themselves. The scenario where God has to touch your life in some way before you’ll be open to the Christian message is practically the same scenario put forth by Calvinists, where God is actively choosing some for salvation and others for damnation. I’ll argue against this because there’s no good reason to think it’s true, but I’ll also argue against it on the emotional level when conversing with Christians — because it just plain sucks. For over a year leading up to my deconversion, I struggled with faith and prayed sincerely to God on numerous occasions for him to reveal himself to me in some way, or to give me a sense that he was real. The God you’re talking about it the God who said “no” to that request. I ultimately came to the conclusion that God is imaginary, but I can’t help but think that most Christians who still believe in such a god must be morally uncomfortable — another factor that I hope will help them start asking the right questions about their belief system.

  13. Derek says:

    There is a lot of truth to what you say. Many ministers tell their congregations at every service to spread the word for the exact reason you’re proposing: a failure to do so results in a punishment too horrible to imagine.

    At this time in my life I would call myself a Christian. Allow me to suggest a reason your Christian friends are passively observing your descent into oblivion.

    The most “on fire” Christians I know are all “born again.” They were not raised in the church; they lived the lives most people live – lives with highs and many, many lows. It’s only after experiencing the joy of Christianity (that was revealed to them personally) that they are able to cast aside their logical misgivings and embrace true Faith.

    The Bible speaks a lot about fools. Among their many qualities is that wisdom seems like folly to the fool. In the same way, Faith seems as folly to a human mind that lacks the Holy Spirit to interpret it. Now I’m not suggesting that you’re a fool. You would obviously embrace wisdom if you discovered it. However, it is possible that your friends know that it was not words but an experience that cannot be articulated that brought them to God. And they may also know that it is only through divine wisdom they justify their beliefs.

    I guess it’s a little like asking a layman to do complex logarithmic transformations knowing he doesn’t have a calculator. Your friends probably underwent internal transformation that granted them the necessary lens to understand Christianity. And they know that because you lack the same perspective, they could not present for your analysis what is wisdom in their own minds because it would appear as folly to yours.

    So this leaves two questions:

    A) Does true belief in Christianity require some “I-almost-died-from-heroine-addiction” conversion to bring understanding?

    and…

    B) If all this is true, why didn’t your friends just say these exact words and emphasize that they were still concerned about the whole “your flesh crackling like a stale marshmallow on a campfire for eternity” thing?

    The short answer to A is: no, but it sure helps the most devoted skeptics. The answer to B is: I don’t know. Perhaps at the time they couldn’t find the words or were simply waiting for a better time. Whatever the cause, there is still a very reasonable middle ground where your friends are both devout Christians and simultaneously fear for your damned soul.

    Cheers and good luck with the search for truth.

  14. mikhailovich says:

    BillK,

    You make a good point, and I basically agree with you. And I certainly do value my Christian friends for the many, many qualities I like in them.

    I guess what I’d like people to realize is that ideas are serious because they inform our attitudes and actions, whether consciously or subconsciously. If someone is too uncomfortable to let go of beliefs he cannot back up with evidence, I won’t push him to abandon the set of beliefs that affect mainly himself (although I’d hope, for his own sake, that he eventually would). I will, however, pressure people to give up irrational beliefs that affect people other than themselves. The most salient example in America today might well be gay marriage; an even more prevalent example might be religious parents telling their children that they are naturally sinners, unworthy of anything but hell outside the undeserved sacrifice of Jesus. These beliefs affect other people negatively, and that’s why I want people to be faced with the difficult decision of either backing them up or abandoning them.

  15. BillK says:

    But that’s where the problem is, Mik. They know that by the standards of the natural world, they do not really have any proof. So arguing with you is a lost cause since you (or any other skeptic/freethinker/naturalist) are going to demand such real evidence and are unwilling to accept anything merely on faith without anything concrete to support it.

    And you counter that without evidence, they should not accept what they are professing to believe. And I agree with you, and probably so does their rational mind. But that would require discarding the whole basis of their world view while having nothing to replace it. That is a very scary proposition. Just maybe they will need time to develop the courage to make such a leap of (non)faith. Or maybe they never will because the prospect of doing so is just too uncomfortable or frightening. But that is and must be their choice.

    In the meantime, accept them for those qualities that you like and enjoy their company as much as you are able. And don’t be too angry with them for not allowing you the opportunity to definitively show them the error of their ways.

  16. mikhailovich says:

    Alexis,

    You’re right. I’m sure that’s a good portion of the reason: Christian friends might think that I won’t find their words/warning convincing. But if that’s the case, why do they find it convincing? If something can be shown to exist or be a real threat, I certainly won’t pretend like it doesn’t exist!

    If you believe, you should have good reason for believing. And then there’s no reason not to share.

  17. Alexis says:

    Since you have a deep background in xtianity, and your friends know that you have “all the data”, they may believe that you’ll come around again on your own, and that any argument on their part will just serve to polarize you and drive you further away. I’m sure they are praying for you. (For all the difference that makes.)

  18. mikhailovich says:

    BillK,

    I don’t know what it would take to keep me quiet if I really believed that people I loved were going to a place of eternal torture (seriously…think about that for a minute), but your comment brings a good balance to the conversation. I’m not so much offended or upset as I just secretly suspect that most of my Christian friends don’t really believe I’m going to hell — and the more forceful the argument, the more likely they’ll be to examine that belief.

    Those who are absolutely convinced of the justice of God (or love, perhaps) are the very ones who I most wish would attempt to reconcile their beliefs about God with their beliefs about hell. If they agree that a place like that exists at all, and that *some* people will end up there, it doesn’t really matter whether they’ve personified it with me or not. It’s the idea that anyone deserves infinite torture, and the idea that the dividing line would be belief (which basically translates into where you are born), that I wish more people would consider.

  19. BillK says:

    I think that you are being too harsh, Mik. There really are a number of reasons why they are not confronting you on this. Yes, the majority of these reasons are perhaps failings on their part, but I still think that you are judging them too harshly.

    First of all, as you pointed out, perhaps they have their own doubts about some of the hardline tenets of their faith. If they confront you, there is a distinct chance that you can inflame these internal doubts that they already have by presenting cogent arguments that they cannot resist. Anyone who really knows you knows how well you can frame arguments and how thoroughly you think through them. So if I were in their shoes, I would have serious reservations about taking you on. It has nothing to do with their lack of concern for your soul – it has to do with their fear of having their own internal doubts strengthened and being overwhelmed. And to someone who has been cosseted by the comfort of the “loving father” myth, walking away from that with nothing to replace it is a frightening prospect.

    And secondly, what about the possibility that they are so convinced of the justness of their god and the obviousness of the “truth” of their beliefs that they are deeply convinced, perhaps even in their subconscious, that you will eventually be “saved” from damnation anyway. And if that is the case, then it really isn’t necessary to risk the friction and possible unpleasantness of a confrontation. The relationship and friendship is there in the here and now, and even though they have their beliefs, they do not carry the immediacy of the existing friendship.

    I’m not saying that these are the reasons – just that they could be possibilities. Or not.

  20. mikhailovich says:

    Good point, Kim. The Anonymous Christian argument is gaining popularity with the ecumenical movement (which, along with basic civil rights, is another facet of Christianity’s crash course in modern morality), and I’m basically in favor of shifts that remove problematic bits from religion while allowing people to maintain the traditions and rituals they hold dear.

    My main two objections are: 1) those who espouse this view still haven’t thrown out the Bible, and are therefore tied to a fundamentally immoral set of teachings, despite what they claim to believe, and 2) how much orthodox, historical, bible-based Christian teaching can you ignore and or replace and still remain a Christian? (i.e., what percentage is required for the label to be meaningful?).

    Despite the fact that every generation reinvents Christianity for themselves, I agree with you that a sincere examination of orthodox doctrine and scripture destroys the Anonymous Christian argument and exposes it as an emotional loophole.

  21. Kim says:

    I’m a member of the central ohio skeptics and just recently ran across your blog. I really like it.
    I just wanted to say I couldn’t agree more. I actually asked a catholic friend and she said I was an “anonymous christian” and wasn’t going to hell.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_Christian
    I call it a loophole to make them feel better for all their loved ones that disagree with their religion.

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