I deconverted from Protestant Christianity over 5 years ago, right after I began my freshman year in college. It was, I suppose, a fairly typical and drama-free deconversion: I progressed out of the fundamentalism of my childhood, becoming more and more concerned with the verity of my worldview all throughout high school, only to then be exposed to a diversity of new ideas and information in college. I participated in a fairly moderate, non-denominational Christian congregation for the beginning of my freshman year, until eventually coming to the conclusion at my dorm one night, under the stars, that I was, indeed, an atheist.
The first 3 years of being “religion-free” went by for me with a certain level of ambivalence for all things spiritual. However, in more recent years, I have noticed a less tolerant trend in my attitudes and approach to religion. For a while, whenever I encountered religion or a religious person, I would become frustrated and discouraged, and my mood would be immediately dampened. “Religion in all its forms is backwards, outdated, and just plain wrong,” I would silently say to myself. “Why is it that a majority of people in my culture believe in an anthropomorphized, invisible deity in the sky, when there is so much real beauty, majesty, and wonder in the universe surrounding us?”
This article is not going to attempt to answer that question. Instead, it will focus not just on denouncing the religiosity around us, but on what we freethinking, godless, and sometimes angry atheists can do to better represent ourselves and our worldview, while being empathetic and diplomatic towards believers. I am confident, given global trends towards secularism, plus the truth value of atheism, plus time, that religion will continue to diminish as a cultural force, until it no longer holds the level of normative sway that it currently enjoys in most parts of the world. Below is a list of things to remember that might help atheists and secularists be less angry at religion until then, while also being able to communicate with those who are still very much invested in religious worldviews.
1. Religion doesn’t directly threaten me or mine.
It is easy to bemoan religion as a stumbling block to progress and a harbinger of antiquated ideologies. Religion doesn’t have the best track record in terms of free thought and supporting paradigm-shifting innovation, and it is natural to feel threatened (perhaps rightly so) when fundamentalists impose their bias on the classroom, the marriage certificate, or any number of other familiar spaces. However, be sure to step back on occasion and consider whether the religion in your culture directly threatens you in a tangible way. What effects does your culture’s dominant religion actually have on you as a nonbeliever? How is your life actually negatively impacted by the religiosity of others?
For me, when I have considered these and other questions, I have realized very quickly that the answer is that there are very few direct effects that religion has on my daily life (even if it can cause broader problems in my government and culture). The only effect that it has had on me is that I let it anger, annoy, or threaten me. Instead, whenever I feel threatened by religion in my daily life, I pause and consider what the roots of these threatened feelings are. It is frequently the case that my threatened feelings reflect more on my own frustrations about the kind of secular world that we could live in, and the disconnect between this possible world and the religiously normative world of today, rather than religion necessarily being a direct and immediate threat in my life.
That said, I must make a privilege disclaimer: I am writing this as a white, straight, cis, American person. In many ways, but especially in terms of religious freedom, I am extremely privileged. I realize that, for those belonging to certain sexual or racial minorities, religion might be more of a daily threat. I also realize that, as an American, I do not face any blowback for freely expressing non-normative, atheistic thoughts. I realize that there are certain countries where someone like me could be severely punished for writing a blog like this. While this point might be helpful for others who are similarly privileged, please do not take my words as attempting to discount the number of people all over the world who are directly harmed everyday by religion. However, if you do not live in those portions of the world, and if religion isn’t a major threat to your everyday life, consider stepping back, taking a breath, and learning not to become so frustrated or discouraged by it.
2. Religion is, for the most part, a minor annoyance in my daily life.
These days, after moving to a very progressive region (SoCal) and travelling in slightly more secular social circles, I encounter religion about once or twice a day. Usually it is passive: a sign along the road on my morning commute, a religiously-normative or assumptive statement from a colleague, a flyer from a church or preacher on my car window, or a news story on the radio. Sometimes it is active: I am confronted by an evangelist on the street, or by a believing friend or family member about why I don’t go to church any more.
Regardless of whether it is an active or passive encounter, such interactions can leave me feeling down because they remind me that, in terms of religious belief, I and other freethinkers are still the odd ones out. However, as in the point above, it becomes important for me to step back and to remember that, of all the annoyances I encounter on a daily basis, those stemming from religion are actually a very small, very insignificant percentage (LA traffic is a much larger annoyance and inconvenience in my daily life, for example). It is up to me as a secularist to brush off these encounters and to not let them get under my skin.
3. Individual religiosity is already becoming less normative.
It is no secret that religion, on the whole, is becoming a less and less important part of people’s lives than ever before. Polls from around the world — for example, this one about trends in North America, this one about trends in South America, and this one about trends globally — show that religious affiliation is actively decreasing, while apathy towards religion and sympathy towards atheism or agnosticism is actively increasing. Religious leaders decry the rise of these non-affiliated ‘nones’, and, noting this trend especially among the young, try to find ways to increase church membership and participation.
But the truth is simply that, for a variety of reasons, religion is becoming less important to people now than ever before. While many readers will live in states and countries that are religiously normative and that have a dominant religion practiced by the majority of the population, what polls like those listed above show is that, for individuals (and especially for the “under 30” crowd) religion holds diminished influence on their lives. For me, these and similar statistics are very encouraging, and sometimes I imagine they mean that, by the time I am older, I will live on a more secular globe. Though religion still holds strong in a majority of communities, these polls show the diminishing normativity of religion over time. So don’t be mad… this is actually a pretty great time to be an atheist!
For more reasons on why I think atheism will eventually win out over religion, please check out my blog “5 Reasons Secular Humanism Is Winning.”
4. Ignoring religion will make my life easier.
Sometimes it is crucially important to challenge someone’s religiously-motivated assertion (consider this street preacher from my alma mater, who I think did deserve people serving back his rhetoric), just as sometimes it is important to challenge non-religious assertions that are hurtful or wrong. However, if you feel the need to challenge every “Jesus loves you” or “God bless,” you are probably working yourself up over nothing. Where it is reasonable, consider letting others have their say without needing to have the last word in regards to religion. Doing otherwise and trumping up your own atheism will only cost you time and may only serve to hurt the feelings of your religious counterpart. How is that helping anyone? I have found that a nod and a smile in response to minor expressions of religion is oftentimes the better “high road” to take — and it certainly makes my life easier to take it!
As a note, however, I do think that it is appropriate to be frank when believers say things like “I’ll pray for you.” Such statements are not always condescending or ill-intended. But they are self-serving to the religious believer, or are at least designed to reinforce their religious beliefs. For my own part, when I am confronted by a believer who says that he or she will pray for me, I remind them that prayer is something that, for variety of possible reasons, helps them. It does not help me and it is not relevant to my life. I think it is fair, when a religious believer actively says that they will pray to change your mind, that you should let them know that your mind is your own, regardless of what they pray for.
5. Religious people often don’t choose to be believers.
Until my deconversion, I was a fairly fundamentalist Protestant who put a lot of identity stock in the teachings of the church and the Bible. Until I was 18, I was that obnoxious Christian railing against gay rights, professing my confidence in the foolishness of evolution, reciting verses by heart, and literally watching the clouds waiting for the second coming of Jesus. But that was never the person I chose to be; it was the person I was raised to be by fairly fundamentalist Protestant parents.
One thing that is very important for atheists to remember when interacting with our religious counterparts is that many of them — perhaps the majority of them — didn’t choose to be religious. Rather, it is very likely that the religion they presently practice is the one that they were indoctrinated into as children, and that, for one reason or perhaps for many reasons, they have continued practicing in their adult lives. If you were raised in a normatively-religious culture, brought up by believing guardians and role models, and instructed in a school where the normative religion is given some privilege, then your chances of adhering to that religion into adulthood are fairly high. Many of those you meet who are strongly religious likely never chose their religion consciously but were raised in it as children (note that if you know people who consciously converted to a religious practice later in life, then this point obviously does not apply to them). For more on religious indocrination and how it involuntarily affects our lives, see Darrel Ray’s The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.
This story of being raised in religion until finally breaking from it later in life is my story, and, if your are an atheist or agnostic reader of this blog, it is likely your story as well. For me, choosing to accept the fact that I am an atheist was one of the scariest and most freeing things I have ever done. Maybe it was for you, too. If that is the case, I’d encourage you, whenever you feel angry about the levels of religiosity in your culture, to instead celebrate yourself and your own journey from religion to secularism. Celebrate the fact that you have had the opportunity, the freedom, and the courage to admit to yourself a truth about your worldview. Be proud of the fact that you have overcome one of the most common comformities of the human species.
And above all, never become angry with someone who is still religious. Maybe they are like my younger self, still religious but moments away from breaking free. Maybe they are religious for reasons that are deeply personal or familial. Most of them probably did not choose to be a part of their religion, but were rather brought up in it, and even for those who did choose, it is still best to be empathetic and diplomatic when explaining your disagreements. For each of these groups, anger is never the correct response; replace it with a compassion for your fellow human and a celebratory self-confidence in your own secularism. Perhaps instead of pushing them away with anger, they will remember you as a friendly ear and a reasonable person when having doubts of their own.
6. I know that the atheist view is more correct.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when, after hearing that I am an atheist, people say something along the lines of “Don’t you mean agnostic?” or “But how can you really know there is no God?”
First off, don’t ever let a religious person or an apologist (or even an agnostic who insists that true atheism is impossible) tell you what you believe. Many (not all) will try to shoehorn you with weaker representations of your views and false dilemmas that they have prepackaged slogans to refute (see, for example, the C.S. Lewis’ style of straw manning atheism). Instead, be firm and prepared to clearly articulate what you yourself actually believe.
For me personally, I keep a list of philosophical resources handy to introduce people to the strongest and best articulated philosophical defense of my atheism. I refer people to professional philosopher of religion Graham Oppy, for example, who has written a comprehensive case for strong atheism and the rejection of theism in The Best Argument Against God, and who has compiled a whole resource for countering nearly every theistic argument throughout history in Arguing About Gods. I also keep a resource handy that clearly defines what my atheism philosophically is, in particular Κέλσος article “Defining Theism, Atheism, Supernaturalism, and Naturalism,” Likewise, I point out that 70% of professional philosophers with a PhD are atheists; not agnostics, atheists. If atheism allegedly can’t be proven, or at least rendered highly probable, the majority of trained philosophers have not come to any such conclusion.
The idea that you shouldn’t call yourself an atheist since you cannot definitely “know” that there is no God is, frankly, malarkey. When people make these statements, it feels like they are attempting to undermine a foundational pillar of the atheist’s worldview, especially when this is a misrepresentation, since atheism can also simply mean the lack of belief in God, or that the existence of God is improbable enough to render a confident negative verdict. For me, this sort of generalized approach to atheists — that no one can really be an atheist because no one really, definitively knows that God doesn’t exist — allows those around me to feel they can safely disregard my worldview as incomplete or unfounded. Claiming that true atheism is impossible is often used as a way to illegitimize my worldview and to try to give me less of a leg to stand on in the marketplace of ideas. Which, in turn, can make me one angry atheist.
If you are an atheist, and it also angers you when people dismiss the possibility of atheism, then, instead of getting mad, try what has worked for me. Simply remember, when anyone challenges the legitimacy of your atheistic views, that you know at least that your atheism is more correct than any version of religious practice. Atheistic conclusions are supported by a litany of research in a variety of fields (the majority of philosophers and scientists, for example); religious conclusions are supported only by the religious system from whence they originated. As an atheist and a secularist, you can be confident that your stance that there is no God is at least more correct than the religious stance that there is one.
So don’t be angry when someone attempts to discount your atheism; instead, rest assured in the knowledge that you are living with the worldview that, for all intents and purposes, is aligned more closely to the truth of reality than any religious worldview ever has been.
7. It’s none of my business.
I know you all were waiting for this one. What is the absolute best way to not be an angry atheist? Remember that is is really none of your business whether an individual chooses to be religious or not (at least when they are not trying to legislate their beliefs upon you through the government).
This is a hard one for me. I base my system of morality in large part on the “harm principle”; essentially, that things causing harm to human beings are bad, and things that do not cause harm or that work to diminish harm are morally neutral or good, respectively. Per this morality, I view religion as a good thing in the short-term (religion can inspire great medical outreach, artwork, and compassion) but a bad thing in the long-term (religion can pull society away from reality, can limit individual freedoms, and ultimately must suppress free thought over time to perpetuate itself).
However, instead of getting mad about the long-term damage that I think religion is doing to my culture, I need to remember that it really isn’t my business if those around me choose to be religious. At the end of the day, what I really want for myself and my species is not freedom from religion, but freedom from bad systems that try to limit human thought or experience. If I put my nose too far into my neighbor’s business, I risk perpetuating the very systems (like religion) that I claim to be against.
The above list documents some of the ways I have found to reduce anger at religion in my atheistic worldview and to replace that with a celebration and appreciation for my secularism. This list is far from exhaustive; what are some items you would add to it?
To wrap things up, I’d like to touch briefly on something I learned as a young Protestant that has stuck with me all this time. There was a notion in my church that, as Christians, one should always be sure to “love the sinner, hate the sin” when interacting with non-believers or others who had fallen into transgression (for the record, this maxim is not found in the Bible, and was actually a teaching of Gandhi). That is, the idea was that you could honor, respect, and lend support to a non-believing person (i.e., “the sinner”) without honoring, respecting, or supporting their sinful, despicable behavior (i.e., “the sin”).
I’d like to encourage my fellow atheists, especially those who tend to bristle after brushes with religion, to adopt this mentality. If, as atheists, we can learn to be less annoyed by day-to-day encounters with religion, and can remember to view our religious counterparts more holistically — if we can learn to “love the believer, hate the beliefs” — not only will we begin to replace the stereotype of the angry atheist with that of the happy humanist, but we will also be able to reach out to people on the other side, and to help assist our world and communities in the transition from normative religiosity to secularism.
Onward and upward,