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Atheism, Christianity

Going Home

Where to start…

I’ve got a lot more to say about the National Conference on Apologetics.  Most of it is critical.  But I made a lot of new friends, and I hope that some of them will become regular readers and even contributors.

For many months now, I’ve been contemplating the “on the ground” realities of living as an atheist in a society dominated by theism.  I wrote this back in March:

…this is the huge difference between me now and me twenty years ago.  Theism is a belief system — one that’s horribly flawed and often harmful.  But the people who believe it are no different from me. I was very lucky.  I grew up when the spread of global information was just beginning, and I was lucky enough to live in a country where internet access was unrestricted, where atheists were allowed to talk to me without fear of legal penalties, and where every library has books on philosophy, logic, and (gasp!) atheism.  I had the resources available to me, and enough innate curiosity to use them.

I believe that people can only believe what their senses tell them.   Theists believe what they do because it makes the most sense to them.  Maybe that’s because of indoctrination, or lack of resources, or a simple lack of critical thinking skills, or maybe it’s because it’s just too scary to think of the universe without an invisible protector.    But none of those things are their fault.  I don’t blame theists for being theists.   They’re just people — like me — doing the best they can at life.

And I have compassion for them.  I want the world to be a better place for everybody, and I believe that science education and good critical thinking skills are two of the most effective ways to make the world a better place.  So I blog about it.  I sharply criticize beliefs I feel are wrong.  I present evidence supporting my views.  I actively try to acquire new readers and spread my message of natural humanity to as many people as will listen.  And I don’t apologize for that.

And you know what else?  I don’t blame theists for doing the same thing.  I vehemently disagree with the message preached in churches, but I will stand with theists and demand their right to preach it.  I believe in evidence and critical thinking, and there’s no way to promote critical thinking while simultaneously stifling dissent.  Only when there is open dialog can there be a real search for truth.

This weekend, I practiced what I preached and jumped in with both feet.  I spent a lot of time listening to theists and reading their material.  I had dinner with them and hugged them and laughed with them.  And it was all genuine.  I don’t expect to change many (if any) minds.  Most of the people at this conference are in deep.  They are True Believers.  They hear and see their god in the smallest flutter of a falling leaf as well as the movements of civilizations.  They live in a world of magic and omens.  It’s a very different world than the one I live in, but I hope I’ve given a few people on both sides of the aisle some hope that we can move towards accepting each other’s humanity even if we can’t convince each other of the rightness of our worldview.

Last night, I was able to speak candidly with a table full of Christians about my atheism.  There were some moments that would feel frustrating and cliché to a lot of atheists.  Many of them wanted to know how I was hurt by religion.  They wanted to find a traumatic moment that “hardened” me against religion.  I don’t think most of them believed me when I said there wasn’t such a moment.  I saw open disbelief when I told them that most of the atheists I know aren’t “damaged goods.”  In fact, this was a common theme all weekend.  They simply can’t believe that I’m just a regular dude who doesn’t believe in their god, and that’s all there is to it.

I’ll write more on this in another post, but we need to find language to put this canard behind us.  We’re all human.  We’ve all been hurt in some way by someone.  Seventy percent of people in America are religious to some degree or another.  There’s a very good chance that someone who’s hurt us was religious.  That goes for everybody, both theists and non-theists.  If someone wants to dig deep enough into my life, they can find somewhere that I felt hurt by religion.  I’ve written candidly about it on this blog.  Let’s just learn to accept the fact that some people turn to religion when they feel hurt.  Others turn to their own inner strength, or friends and family.  Some people — like me — try to prevent other people from being hurt.  (For those of you looking for something to ease your conscience and call me a wounded pup, just read the whole article I took the quoted paragraphs from.)

I sincerely thank everyone who apologized to me on behalf of other Christians.  (I got that a lot.)  Many people were shocked to learn that we atheists are regularly and routinely harassed, maligned, and discriminated against by Christians.  It was difficult for me to accept these reactions as genuine, but I think it’s important to do so.  People who live the kinds of insular lives encouraged by evangelical Christianity often don’t recognize the effects their beliefs cause.  (Be in the world without being of the world.) Many of them have never sat at a table as equals with an open atheist and talked about atheism.

And that’s why I think it’s important.  I understand that it’s easier for us atheists to keep to ourselves.  It was hard enough leaving religion, and harder still to admit it to our friends and families.  But if it’s ever going to get easier for anyone else, this needs to be a culture where we can sit at the same table.  We’re not going to do anyone any favors by becoming as insular in our atheist world as they have become in their Christian world.  We certainly don’t have to pretend to be anything we’re not.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be the first one to extend a hand of friendship.  If the offer is declined, it is a loss for both sides.  It’s very hard to hate a friend.  It’s difficult to tolerate discrimination when it happens to someone we care about.

There was one really promising moment.  After chatting for a while at the conference, I went to a restaurant with a dozen Christians.  The pastor who assumed the role of host and I were chatting away when he noticed that everyone had their food.  He looked at me and genuinely asked me if I minded if they said a prayer before they ate.  I said, “Please, go ahead.”  They prayed, and I didn’t.  And then we kept talking and started eating.  And it was comfortable.  In retrospect, it’s shocking to me how… shocking … it was that it was comfortable.  I’ve certainly had my share of uncomfortable moments at very similar tables.  But we’d accepted each other as persons.  It would be nice if there was more of that sort of thing.

I’m going home today.  Home to my science journals and my wine with dinner and my openly gay friends.  Tomorrow, the world will be governed by unthinking cause and effect, and I will be in charge of my own destiny (for good or ill) and I’ll still be living life without a net.  I remembered something valuable this weekend.  We can all make the conscious decision to be human first, and a theist or an atheist second.  I’m hopeful that some of my new friends will be able to know me in all my open atheism and stay friends.



16 thoughts on “Going Home

  1. What a great post Hamby, thank you for sharing.

    Posted by Tom Verenna | October 17, 2010, 12:14 pm
  2. I wonder what Christians would make of me these days… atheist but pro-marriage and family values. Under Christian theory I should be cheating and whoring.

    I think Atheists have a far better understanding of religious people than the religous do of us.

    Perhaps we should focus on that insidious word “non-Christian” that lumps us and the devil together as bedfellows…

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 17, 2010, 12:16 pm
  3. “It’s difficult to tolerate discrimination when it happens to someone we care about.” Well said.

    I would be thrilled to be able to have that kind of interaction with Christians. I’m going to look for ways to take you up on your challenge by taking the initiative to reach out.

    Posted by Joel Justiss | October 17, 2010, 1:11 pm
  4. Hamby,

    This is your best post ever.

    Posted by PG | October 17, 2010, 1:55 pm
  5. I would like to shed a little light on why my friends acted with ‘disbelief’ when you said you hadn’t been hurt by the church. (For those tuning in, I was one of those at the dinner with Hamby. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though it wasn’t nearly long enough.) It’s simply a reaction, a learned one. We just see people hurt by the church *that much.* We desire to make things right. I’ll vouch for the well-meaning of my friends; they meant no harm in their reaction.

    However, when you write in another blog “Fundamentalism can skew our perception of reality to the point of severe dysfunction — which is precisely what it did to me,” I tend to think that the reaction of my friends may just not be too far from the mark. Perhaps their reservations may be justified after all?

    Nevertheless, I am glad that you felt comfortable. I would have it no other way. 🙂

    Posted by David | October 17, 2010, 11:09 pm
  6. Thanks, David. I intend to address this subject in much greater detail soon. Unfortunately, I haven’t been careful in choosing precise words to explain my theist experience, as you saw when I used the word “hurt” poorly in describing ex-believers. I’ll make a careful first effort soon.

    Thanks again for your hospitality. I hope to see more of you in my little corner of the world.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 17, 2010, 11:20 pm
  7. “We just see people hurt by the church *that much.*”

    Isn’t that a terrible admission?

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 17, 2010, 11:28 pm
  8. I am also looking forward to Hamby’s future blog post about the subject as I always thought that Hamby was hurt by the church and I also noticed how he phrased his experiences [particularly with the belief in Hell]. From what I can see his experiences are similar to mine.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 18, 2010, 1:10 am
  9. I think there’s “hurt” and there’s “HURT”. Personally I spent a good decade getting over my anger over my church involvement.

    At the end of the day it’s all clearly nonsense and while I have no problem with freedom of religion, I personally would have prefered to have not have my head filled with untestable mumbo jumbo when I was too young to determine fact from fiction.

    Go find a local Amway distrubutor and ask to go to a team building meeting. You’ll find the exact same format to the meeting as an evanglical church service minus the comummion. It’s all about social control to keep you coming back to the magic spigot to get a drink.

    The reason Christians see people “hurt” by the church “all the time” is simply because the church and religion is a destructive force in the lives of many. If you mamage to sit atop the spiritual/social/finanical ponzi scheme then yes indeed life is lovely. But fall off it and it’s a long way down to reality.

    From the sociological perspective, the only major difference between a cult and a religion is the size of the group of believers. From that all else follows. Christianity is just a very large cult.

    That being said I wasn’t sodomized by a priest. Though I do know a few people that started immediately rethinking their faith while they were being forcibly held down for demonic possession removal.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 18, 2010, 8:07 am
  10. Hamby, I really enjoyed this post. I am particularly struck both by your generosity in listening without judging, and your companions’ generosity in doing the same. The pastor who checked in with you about saying grace was particularly gracious, I think.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | October 18, 2010, 12:27 pm
  11. Calling a group a “cult” is just a socially acceptable way of belittling someone’s religious beliefs, most often by people who have their own share of religious beliefs.

    Great post, hamby,

    Posted by nicolec | October 18, 2010, 5:57 pm
  12. “Isn’t that a terrible admission?”

    It is. I’m sorry to say it. But I do hear it a lot. People aren’t perfect, and not all hurt is equal. I disagree that it’s all “clearly nonsense,” but is it really that surprising that I, as a Christian, admit that people get hurt in church?

    And Hamby, I figured that you didn’t mean it to sound like it did. I did not take offense, though I did want to offer my thought on it.

    Posted by David | October 18, 2010, 8:10 pm
  13. It’s very surprising David. Usually what happens is that those that struggle in church are told they have a lack of faith, belief or practice as the cause of their troubles.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | October 18, 2010, 8:17 pm
  14. It occurred to me earlier this evening that generally speaking, people who aren’t hurt by the church but choose to leave aren’t very likely to come back and let anybody know. It makes sense that theists would only hear from folks who wanted an apology.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 18, 2010, 8:41 pm
  15. I think the best way to encourage dialogue is to “wipe the slate clean” we all have our biases and anecdotes.

    It doesn’t help Christians if they think every atheist is a butt hurt angsttheist and it doesn’t help atheists if they think every Christian is a butt hurter.

    My experiences with religion and the church and mine alone. I wouldn’t think that all atheists or the majority of atheists had the same experience of mine, nor do I think all Christians are to blame for the bad experiences that I had with religion or the church.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 18, 2010, 9:16 pm

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