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.