Some Frequently Asked Questions

questionsI get a handful of questions pretty regularly, and I’d like to start selecting a few of the usual suspects to give a sample of how I usually answer those questions. My answers depend a great deal on the individual circumstances and backgrounds of the people inquiring, but there do seem to be some recurring patterns. What follows are several questions I’ve received in the last few days alone. I’ll start with this one:

It would appear to me that being an atheist requires just as much faith as believing in….any religion. While I certainly do not follow any incarnation of the Judeo-Christian gods, I never felt comfortable adhering myself to the other side of the spectrum either. The closest label I could adequately give my self is an anti-fundamentalist of any religion. But I can no more prove there is a god than I can prove there isn’t one. In short the question therefore is: Doesn’t it take as much faith to be an atheist as it does a christian?

Very good questions! I see two main questions in there, so I’ll address them each in turn. The first isn’t so much a question, but it’s still something I’d like to address.

I can no more prove there is a god than I can prove there isn’t one.

Nor can I, although people rarely establish which god we’re supposed to be considering. It’s always assumed that, of the thousands of possibilities available, the god of one’s own upbringing is the only one worth considering. But why is that? Why is one deity automatically privileged above all the others? I would argue that some gods are more easily dismissed than others, and the ease with which they should be dismissed is in direct proportion to how easily testable are their claims. A belief in a deity which never does anything and never interferes with the world—never interacting with it in any way at all—would be very difficult to disprove. But then again, what would be the point in that? On the other hand, a belief in a deity who is supposed to be constantly intervening but doesn’t? Well, that’s a different story, especially if that deity is supposed to be showing up all the time and yet no one can provide good evidence that he/she/it shows up at all. At that point the absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence.

To put it differently, I cannot disprove the god of Deism. But then again, why bother? What would be the use? I don’t even feel the need, nor would it be possible since it makes no testable claims whatsoever. So with regards to Deism I am pretty much in the same boat with you. But what about a god which is supposed to be healing the sick, and blessing people according to clear and unambiguous promises? That’s a different story. Now we’ve got something testable. And I’d encourage you to test those out for yourself. No need to take my word for it.

It may be technically true that we cannot disprove any and all gods (some I frankly don’t care to consider, anyway), but when outrageous claims are made and that religion fails to deliver, the only rational response is to disregard those claims. They are not supported by the evidence.

Doesn’t it take as much faith to be an atheist as it does a christian?

Nah. But I would ask what you mean by the words “faith” and “atheist.” Let me first tell you how I define those words.

First of all, an atheist is simply someone who lacks belief in gods. There are no extraordinary claims in that statement. That definition technically doesn’t ever assert that there cannot be any gods. I consider myself an atheist, but like I said before I think the god of Deism could exist (shrug). No way to know. I’m not too concerned about it, frankly. But some insist that the word “atheist” must necessarily be defined as one who asserts positively that there are no gods of any kind. If that’s what being an atheist means, then count me out. I’m not in a place to claim such knowledge. In fact, most of the people I know who call themselves atheists would say “agnosticism” indicates a lack of certain knowledge while “atheism” connotes a lack of a certain belief. Does that make sense? In other words, I do not believe in any gods in particular (thus atheist), but I cannot say that I know there are no gods of any kind (therefore also agnostic). I just haven’t come across any convincing ones yet, including the one I was raised to believe in.

As for the word “faith,” well, again I need to know how you define that word. The Bible uses that word to indicate an acceptance of ideas which may or may not have any empirical evidence. In fact, according to the Bible’s use of the word, the less evidence for something there is, the more “faith” one is said to have. But is that what atheists have? Not if you define it the way I define it. I do not identify with the confidence that says I can know for certain that no gods exist (how would you even go about proving that?). I cannot make such a claim. What I do believe is that so far the most reliable means of arriving at knowledge are empirical observation and the scientific method. The things we have discovered through science have drastically improved our lives in so many ways (I say as I type on a little box, talking to someone who could be anywhere on the planet right now…what sorcery is this?). Science produces real results. Testable results. Does it get things wrong sometimes? Yes. But then it improves upon itself and comes up with better theories and better tests and better results. It keeps moving forward, keeps improving.

Faith doesn’t do that. It can’t change what it believes no matter what it sees because it has to trust authoritative pronouncements from…whomever (depends on which tradition you were taught to trust). It holds onto the same beliefs for thousands of years without substantive change. Meanwhile empiricism is learning every single day. It’s hard to even keep up! Which is why I trust it more. Science is capable of learning, and faith is not.

So which one is more trustworthy? I’ll go with science. I’ll go with empirical observation. I’ll go with testable theories and falsifiable things.

Now that you consider yourself an atheist, how do you cope with unjustified suffering, like the reality that children die every day from disease?

Another good question. Everybody copes with pain and loss and stress in their own ways. I’ll not deny that religion gives a sense of comfort (even if it’s based on a falsehood). When injustice happens in the world, it soothes our anger to believe that something is going to “right all the wrongs” in the end. But this is based on a wish of our own which doesn’t get satisfied in real life. And the loss of that belief can make for a difficult adjustment. But there are ways of coping.

One way is to think deeply about what the causes of suffering are (things like inequality, class warfare, racism, jingoism, etc) and to find ways to combat those things globally (or at least locally). There are little ways you can contribute to the good of people’s lives around you, and I find that this helps. It may not save the world, but it can make you, in some small way, a part of a solution. Another way is to seek out and get involved with other “freethinkers” who are interested in organizing and making a difference at a local level. Sometimes finding something to do that helps in a small way can help deal with the angst of larger world issues.

As for dealing philosophically with the absence of an overarching “goodness fairy,” since that was based on wishful thinking anyway, I say good riddance. The sky fairies never did really come through and do anything anyway. It’s a step forward to stop looking for them and expecting them (or “him”) to show up. The world isn’t really designed intelligently, so mutations and diseases and unequal distribution of resources are a part of life. We just have to do our best to alleviate the suffering of others and to try and improve the quality of living for as many as possible. The more we invest in science and technology, the more we can help find cures and even gene therapy to eliminate many of the world’s diseases and birth defects. These are the kinds of ways we can fight these things that make a real difference.

Help! I am recently deconverted and I’m trying to decide if I should “come out” to my parents/family/friends. Religion is very big in their lives and I’m afraid of what they will think of me when I tell them I don’t believe anymore. What should I do? Should I tell them?

No.

But my family is so very sweet! They love everybody and I just know that they…

No.

Really, though. You would have to know my parents. They…

No. Don’t do it. Not if they are very religious, and you are a new deconvert. I’ll try to explain why.

If your family is of the evangelical/fundamentalist type, no matter how sweet and loving they are, they have been taught that people who don’t believe the right things will be punished for their unbelief for all eternity. And even those who try to avoid thinking about the doctrine of Hell will still believe that you are “throwing your life away” if you don’t believe in Jesus because they have been taught that “following him” is the source of all happiness and true success in this life. If you were raised in this ideology, then you know what I’m talking about. They believe that only bad things can happen to you by leaving the faith, and they will feel compelled to warn you about these things for your own good. It might start out subtle, and they might even begin with denial (“She will come back to Jesus. She’ll see”). But in time most of them will feel compelled to pressure you to come back into the fold. You will be amazed at the sudden appearance of the coercive side of your loved ones. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. It gets particularly ugly if you are financially dependent on them in any way. I have seen so many friends cut off from their family’s good graces because they turned away from the faith. I have even witnessed ministers and counselors advising people to make life harder for their lost loved ones in order to scare them back to Jesus. People get really nasty when their faith is threatened.

I also think the timing makes this a more difficult moment to try and have these conversations with them. It can be particularly frustrating and difficult to keep a lid on your own emotions if you are still new at thinking through everything from a non-theistic perspective. I feel like my conversations with my friends (most of whom were in some kind of ministry or another) shortly after I deconverted were wasted moments because I had not had the time to really think through a number of things. When you become a Christian you are heavily indoctrinated into the faith with instructive literature, introductory classes, and all kinds of other “helps” to arm you with answers to all the questions you could possibly have. When you deconvert you get no such help (somebody should write a book for new deconverts!), and most people are, like you, the only atheist they know at first. In time you will be able to process the world from your new perspective and future conversations will be easier to have, and (at least slightly) less prone to detour into unproductive quibbling over argumentative debates. Debates will happen, I assure you. But you’ll know better in the future how to keep the whole thing from derailing into a personal interrogation and/or assault on your own character. That’s often where those conversations lead, I’m afraid.

What about my husband/wife? Should I keep this from him/her?

That’s a much harder call to make. Everybody’s marriage is different. My first inclination is to err on the side of transparency with your spouse. I say this because I failed to do that in my own marriage, and if I had that to do over again I would have been more open and honest about where I was in my own intellectual questioning. I felt at the time that I could not have those conversations with my wife, and the decision to keep those things to myself is among the most questionable things I did while working through my own thoughts about the faith. A marriage is based on trust, and when you have to develop a double life, one side of which doesn’t include your spouse, it can lead to major issues.

Having said that, I have also seen that some spouses cannot handle those discussions. There are some marriages which cannot survive a loss of faith, no matter how well each person handles his or her side of the relationship. It often depends a great deal on which version of Christianity you and/or your spouse learned (e.g. evangelical vs. liberal). Some people will have little choice but to work through their own questions on their own, without their spouse’s input. This is not the ideal situation to my mind. But I think there are circumstances under which this is the only way to keep from losing your mind. So my bottom line is this: If you can handle it, it would be better to find a way to talk to your spouse/significant other about your own skepticism. If he or she can handle it (and if you can do it without being a jerk about it), that is the best way to go. But you also may find that the discussion goes over like a lead balloon. If that happens, you may need to work on this stuff on your own.

Well, if I can’t talk to them about this then what can I do? I’m the only atheist I know. I don’t have anybody to talk to about this stuff!

If that’s the case, then you can do what a lot of people I know do: You can begin to make friends online, in Facebook groups, or maybe through local meetups you find on the web. Not too long ago a friend of mine put together a database of “freethinking” groups across the Southeastern portion of the U.S. It’s a little outdated in that many of the links are now dead, but if you spend some time clicking through them, you may find a group somewhere near your area so you can connect with them in some way (still waiting on someone to send me a link to a good national or international database). It really helps to have people to talk to about what you’re going through. I know my virtual friends have been a major source of encouragement for me. When you live in an area surrounded by devoted Christians, you can feel very alone and isolated. That goes double if you live far from any metropolitan area. Virtual friends may not always be able to come and give you a real hug when you need it, or cook you a casserole when you’re sick, but it sure does help to have a place to vent and ask questions and just seek camaraderie.

Privacy is an issue, of course, when it comes to Facebook and other social media. That annoying little ticker down the right-hand side of Facebook can sometimes announce your every thought to the whole world, and that can be a problem when you need a safe place to voice your thoughts, free from confrontation. Many groups of atheists have been made “secret” so that non-members cannot see who is in it and cannot see anything you post into the group. But they can often still see what you say on each other’s personal “walls.” You may have to do what many have done and create an alias for yourself for this very purpose. It’s a very cloak-and-dagger solution, I know, but you gotta do what you gotta do. For some people, maintaining an alias on social media is the only way to build relationships with friends online without intrusion from controlling and confrontational friends and family. These days it is far too easy to have drama erupt in your “real life” just because someone got upset at something you said (or your friend said!) online. When people are behind a computer, they become willing to discuss things and say things they wouldn’t have the nerve to say face-to-face. Consequently, things get said which upset relationships needlessly. It’s best to err on the side of precaution and find ways to protect those relationships which matter most to you.

Build for yourself a network of support, and do some reading on your own. Take your time to process what you’re going through and try not to make any major decisions too quickly. Your questions and concerns aren’t going anywhere. They will be there until you deal with them head-on, as I finally did. There’s no rush. Seek and find people who seem to be stable, conscientious people with whom you can talk about the things that are on your mind. Don’t entrust anything too personal to complete strangers, of course, and try to find groups that are managed by responsible people. They’re out there, and they will benefit from what you bring to their groups. And if you find a good one, shoot me a note, will ya? I love meeting great people like the ones I’ve met over the last couple of years.

______

Got any more you’d like to send me? I love getting email, and there’s plenty to write about. So if you’ve got something in particular that you’d like to read my thoughts on, please send it along. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

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14 Responses to Some Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Wendell Neal says:

    I always enjoy your assessments on the travails of non-believers. While I have been a non-believer for 50 years, I am still very much alive in a spiritual sense. I am uplifted by sunrises and sunsets, owls hooting in the woods, coyotes yapping at dusk, wood ducks squealing along the creek, the innocence and truth on a grandchild’s face, and a thousand other things in the world of realities one can actually validate and know. I do not know that I ever made a decision or even acknowledged that spiritual longing continues to be a part of who I am or that I unconsciously shifted it from the purview of the church to my own, only that I did. My question is do you often hear acknowledgement such as mine or do many non-believers feel they lost in some sense their spiritual nature when they departed organized religion?

    • Thinker1121 says:

      Wendell:

      I know exactly what you’re getting at, and I posted something similar to this in Neil’s previous blog entry. Growing up in church I “experienced God” regularly, but I don’t think I every really believed any of the claims made in the Bible. I think many Christians who experience a spiritual reality, or have a transcendent experience, mistakingly think it is the “love of God” rather than just a normal emotion that is part of human life. This makes God’s existence self-evident to them. My de-conversion was partly due to realizing that the feeling I had (the love of God) was real, but I had no basis for claiming that the source of that feeling was supernatural.

      I think that transcendent experiences are a normal part of being human, and research shows that people who have these experiences regularly with other people consistently self-report as being happier than those that do not. So these experiences are important.

      I wonder if people are more likely to de-convert if their faith consists solely of “believing” rather than “experiencing.” It’s easier to back away from a faith claim that you don’t know to be true than it is to back away from an experience that you know is real.

      • bonnie says:

        I agree with Thinker. A major stumbling block for my ‘faith’ was when I realized I could feel the ‘holy spirit’ while doubting the existence of God. I still feel ‘it’ regularly and much more intensely now than I ever did when religious.

      • Wendell Neal says:

        Thanks, Thinker. Very well said. And thank you for your comment.

  2. Brendan Reid says:

    FYI: Greta Christina’s upcoming book will be called “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.”

    Her site is

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta

    She has often posted on this subject

  3. Great advice!! I have been in the deconversion process for a little over a year now. I now consider myself an atheist and find “coming out” to be difficult. I am located in the “bible belt” and things of this nature don’t go over to well here. Some people may consider it cowardly to keep ones deconversion from family. It’s not. I truly love and care for my family and wish no pain upon them. Telling them that I no longer believe in their god would crush them. Who wants to do that? Maybe someday they will be able to handle it, but for now I just want to keep them happy.

    • Piobaireachd says:

      Yeah. It’s all a balancing act and everyone’s situation is different. I grew up in coastal Georgia and at 12 announced that I was done with religion… but I knew that would fly in my immediate family. In fact, my parents stopped attending once I told them, in no uncertain terms, that I was done. I couldn’t possibly have done that if I were my dad’s sister’s kid. Very different side of the family there. I appreciate the environment my parents created in our house. Intellectual honesty was something that was obviously important to them and I must have sensed that though it was never explicitly mentioned.

      The other reason to stay mum at first, IMO, is to give yourself time to research and be able to defend your positions. Many people, like Neil, get the 5th degree from relatives and friends once they learn of your apostasy, and having your ducks in a row will help you parry their thrusts, as it were. It will also serve you well in deconstructing arguments of all sorts. I’ve learnt a little about logical fallacies and formal argument in the past few years as I’ve gotten more intensely interested in seeking truth, across a wide spectrum of issues, particularly the science v religion debate.

  4. Gra'ma Banana says:

    Does this ‘coming out safely and cautiously or staying hidden for fear of retribution feel a little like we’re living in a “Brave New World” with Orwellian overtones? I feel like the world I am living in and the people I know have been infected by a zombie bacteria or maybe everyone who believes/worships is suffering from mass hysteria. I personally don’t feel safe in ‘coming out’ to anyone! I am so grateful for the many blogs and Atheist/Agnostic/Humanist sites that help keep me sane. Thanks Neil for your insights and bravery too.

  5. Garrett Glass says:

    It’s hard for someone in their teens or twenties to realize this, but as time goes by, your interactions with your siblings, and even your parents, become less frequent. This isn’t always the case – you can stay very close to your sister or Dad, for example – but generally the circle of life widens. When you get married or are in a significant relationship, suddenly you have in-laws competing for your holiday. When you have children, you start creating your own family traditions, so maybe you don’t visit your parents for Thanksgiving. Once your parents die, siblings often drift apart even more. It becomes easier, therefore, to keep your deconversion to yourself; your family, who are often in other cities, don’t need to know whether you go to church or not. The one thing to watch out for, as Neil pointed out, is social media. If you want to discuss your spiritual journey on social media, for example, but you don’t want to cause an uproar in your family or a permanent split with some family members, it is best to use an alias that cannot be traced back to you. This has worked for me. I have two siblings treated for cancer this past year. Both are religious, and in their email and phone updates, there are frequent references to being in God’s hands and seeking comfort in prayer. It would be massively disrespectful of me to get into any discussion with them about God or prayer. I don’t have to be hypocritical and tell them I will pray for them, but it doesn’t hurt to say they are in my thoughts (which of course they are) and give them any other help that I can. Basic human decency goes a long way when dealing with your religious relatives, and often keeping your religious non-beliefs to yourself is the only way to allow decency and kindness to serve as the foundation of your family relations.

  6. Matt B says:

    I’m a recent deconvert who has been married for 3.5 years with a 1 y/o, and possibly another one the way as I just found out this morning (!) I had been keeping my wife in the loop early on with my struggles with faith – how the church is run, how tithing doesn’t make sense, wondering why we should be listening to this guy that seems to be making stuff up etc. Through this early time in my deconversion we would have great, logical conversations about these things, and found out we were both extremely frustrated with the church. Over the summer however, the last person I feel like I really respected in our church sent out an email divinely supporting one of Ray Comfort’s videos on evolution. Since then I have seemingly been racing full tilt toward atheism and as such I really left my wife behind in my thinking. A couple weeks ago she was browsing Amazon and noticed my recommendations were atheistic in nature, she called me out on it and pretty much said “you can’t be an atheist”. We talked some and of course tears started flowing on her end which makes it really hard! I asked her if she would watch Neil’s “bring an atheist to church” video, which she agreed too. It really helped, I think she is scared of the stereotypes that atheism has – she keeps bringing up that she is worried I will think she is stupid. Seeing Neil in a calm, non confrontation way explaining how he is largely the same person really helped my wife “humanize” atheists I think. There is such an art to the whole process of dealing with a spouse I think – things can happen so quick sometimes – if you try and engage your spouse (or anybody close) early without being familiar with counter apologetics it might get ugly. I guess my strategy is to go slow but not to keep her out of the loop and not be pushy. I still go to church but only if she wants to. When we go to church, or when anybody talks scripture I try to have a conversation about it with her, and the problems I have with it and then asking her opinions on it. Planting seeds I guess. Would love to hear anybody else’s strategy especially if they were successful :)

    • Piobaireachd says:

      It sounds like you’re on the right tack to me. Learning how to identify and point out the many logical fallacies and then having an honest discussion about them will serve you and your wife well. One thing you might consider is ditching the “atheist” label in favour of a more meaningful term like “secular humanist”, if you subscribe to that world view. “atheist” doesn’t really tell you much. It’s sorta like saying that one of you hobbies is not collecting stamps.

    • bonnie says:

      My husband and I left together. He was the one who questioned first and most of our early conversations ended with me saying ‘well that’s why you have to have faith!’. Our ‘discussions’ weren’t always pretty as it put me in a really uncomfortable place. All the same I am so grateful he included me in what he was thinking. I would’ve been more insulted had he thought I was too stupid or brainwashed etc. to talk to me about his doubts. We left the ‘church’ together, about two years after these talks began.

      I think your approach of being open and honest with your wife is perfect. Just know that bringing up subjects that make her question her own faith may cause a lot of emotions to rise to the surface. I know it did for me.

  7. Gra*ma Banana says:

    I guess the biggest problem I have with religious zealots is that they are perfectly comfortable in dis-owning their children if they don’t ‘believe’. To abandon one’s own flesh and blood because of a theology is very strange to me. One of my sisters is an evangelical, one is an ‘occasional Lutheran’, I am agnostic. We all get along and love each other dearly by keeping our religious views toned down or out of sight when we get together. (I now know how hard that is for my evangelical sister thanks to Neil’s blog.) I would never think of dis-owning my son, who is an Atheist, if he became ‘religious’ just as I would never abandon my sisters for their beliefs. Now if the religious would adopt a “Live And Let Live” philosophy we could all ‘Just Get Along’.

  8. Chad Bunch says:

    Jingoism. I had to look that one up. Thanks for the learning opportunity. As far as websites/organizations that support non-believers, I frequently visit American Atheists and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Both have great websites with helpful links and resources. And for anyone looking for a great read, “The God Delusion” by Dawkins is great. I have also read “Non-Believer Nation” by David Niose, the president of the American Secularist Coalition. Another great book by a well-known atheist.

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