Dear Christians: Let's Talk (A Letter From A Concerned Atheist)
One of the reasons I sympathize with you as a Christian is that I realize many Christians have gone through rough times in their lives, giving them a deep sense of lack. Indeed, from many experiential and ideological vantage points, this is a cruelly unforgiving, depressing world. So some of you may believe in God because you have an overwhelming conviction that if the world seems so bad and terrible, there MUST be some overarching good in it. You see God as this overarching good, and you see heaven as needing to exist because earth seems to be a kind of hell. As part of this story, you're not a person travelling through a depressing life -- you're a child of God and He cares for you even when nobody else really seems to (and sometimes, it seems that no one else really seems to). Because He's such a dependable friend, and because He promises you a Happy Ever After, away from life's drudgeries, God may seem like the greatest, most beautiful thing in your life.
Because God makes the "real world" so full of meaning, value, and hope for you, you're confused as to why anyone would want to reject it, perhaps (including yourself), unless they were being deceived by Satan, profoundly heartless and sinful, or don't really understand what a relationship with God can offer. This is the God who will say that the unrequited love you feel in your heart that has been trampled countless times by the cruelty in the world IS fulfilled, in God, and will be redeemed in a forever-after paradise. This is the God who hears you when you're on your knees and no one else will listen, the God who is your loving confidant, coach, loving father, and cheerleader when the stands are empty. This is the God who makes the bonds of family deep and spiritual, the God whose existence makes it possible for you to see your parents, brothers, sisters, and other family members who have passed away.
How cruel or hurt or angry, you wonder, would someone have to be to insult this God? It may seem hard to fathom for you. Or maybe you understand a bit, but still resent us for our attitudes.
Maybe it will help to say that I've been there, to an extent -- not that I know your experiences, or what brought you to this point, because I don't know YOUR story, and it's very likely that it's a lot more dramatic than mine. And, also, not that I'm saying that simply because I've been a Christian I'm somehow more "mature" than you, because, honestly, had I had different experiences and pursued knowledge differently, I might still be a Christian. But, just the same, I have lived my own story, and I have read and heard many others, so that their collective force has driven me to tears that I feel I share, in the limited way that secondhand empathy can, with those who tell them.
So that part of you that is a Christian seeking hope -- I want to tell that part of you that I hear your need for hope and peace, and that I'm not trying to get you to stop dreaming. I don't want you to give up on hope as a general concept, which is why I myself want to work hard to make life better for you here on earth. But that's just me. I'm just one guy. I can't cure all the ills of the world, and the honest truth is that I don't know -- and sincerely doubt -- that things will ever be perfect in life. So I understand why you might feel you need a bit more than I can provide, and seek God to satisfy that feeling.
Basically, I'm saying that I understand you might need a God (or, forgive my atheistspeak, a "god-concept") to make things more bearable than what may seem to you a more "bleak" atheistic view of life in which you have no hope, you may think, of making things better and no basis, to you, to feel remotely fulfilled with the way things are now. I honestly don't really want to get in the way of that and turn you into a depressed zombie void of any hope of the future. If that's why you believe in God, then please know that I'm not hell-bent on making the world a hell for you. I know it can be very easy to see me as a devil because I war against your God, but I really do care about you, and I understand that you feel you need God as a kind of assurance, even if I don't agree that He is necessary.
But there is more to it than just a desire for hope, right? I know that, for you, this God has some boundaries, some rules or guidelines. It's probably not as if they are overwhelmingly burdening to you all the time (although they might feel that way at times), because I realize that rules feel like security. They make God more of a powerful presence in your life and make it possible for you to clearly know how to follow Him and be His friend. Many of us atheists may seem to you to see rules as unnecessary burdens, but to you that may be the farthest thing from the truth. God's rules allow you to rely on the most powerful, true words in all of existence. They give you comfort and joy and confidence in everyday life, as they guide your healthy decisions and judgments. In other words, although God is enough of a policeman, perhaps, to make you feel safe, He is also a loving, well-experienced Father of the Universe, sincerely letting you know what's in you best interests. Rules intensify rather than diminish your love for God, the righteous judge who declares you yourself not only righteous before Him, but His own child. He is your protector, your Judge, and your father -- your source of security, morality, and valuable relationship. And He loves you so much He sent His son to die for you, when you didn't deserve it in the least. To put it mildly, this seems to be a beautiful story.
Even as I think I somewhat understand what you see as the benefits of God's guidelines, I should say that these guidelines are where I begin to have somewhat significant objections towards Christians. This is because it's hard for me, most of the time, to see WHY some of the rules are there, because they seem to limit and harm people more than they empower and help them. Although many Christian groups discuss the guidelines in the Bible with me, which seem EXTREMELY important to them, as an outsider I often have a hard time trying to figure out why many of them aren't arbitrary.
Even though you may think the rules are valuable in your personal life, my own experiences and those of many of my friends who have deconverted (as well as other atheists in general) indicate that you might derive some comfort from getting rid of the arbitrary rules. I have the "might" here because, honestly, for some the sense of security, moral structure, and valuable relationship that is reinforced by the rules might be a bit of a psychological "win" from time to time as long as you follow them yourself without imposing them on me.
But -- and hopefully this makes sense -- when you start applying these rules to ME as opposed to simply following them yourself...I think that's where I have a very strong, justifiable tendency to draw the line.
This may be difficult for you to understand, but the rules and lifestyle prescribed by your Bible that gives you comfort doesn't give me comfort. And it's not because there's anything wrong with me or, for that matter, anything wrong with you. It's the rules' fault, because most of them, in my view, are fairly arbitrary, and simply won't or don't "work" the way the arbitrary rulemaker promises they will.
Although I'm focusing on my own discomfort with these rules, I'll add that, in addition, because those rules won't necessarily "work," not only I but you yourself may have a hard time implementing them in your own life or, even if you do implement them in your own life, you may find (at times but not necessarily always) following the guidelines will give you the unexpected consequences you might expect from arbitrary rules. So, even taking myself out of the picture, there's an incentive for me to be bold about rejecting the rules for myself so that, if the time ever comes in which you need to do the same thing, my rejection will give you courage. Although that may sound patronizing -- and to some extent it may unavoidably be -- from my perspective, that's what many atheists did for me, and I am profoundly grateful for that now, so I do it for the sake of others. Even if you don't like this, at least you understand me a bit better when I rave against Christian morality fairly harshly in, for example, the topic of Gay Marriage.
How Bible Rules Look To Me As An Atheist
So, in short, I understand that God's rules may be a comfort to you -- but to me, without a rationale and without a belief in God, they seem irrational and arbitrary. As a result, I feel a real need to fight hard when you try to apply these rules to me or to others besides yourself. Because, quite simply, they don't work, just as surely as a structure built according to arbitrary "rules" is likely to crumble. When you apply them to yourself while trying to avoid applying them to me (often a fairly difficult task, I understand), part of my intent in talking to you is to provide a door out of the guidelines, a way for you to escape the rules if they become restricting or if they don't work as you wish them to.
Now, when I fight back against these guidelines, many Christians may say that the refusal (or "failure") to follow the rules or to be "saved" makes me a sinner (along with saying they are sinners, as well -- which really is no reassurance as long as I don't buy into their scheme of people being sinners), or distrustful of God, or misunderstanding of the concept of grace (incidentally one of the most common, often voiced in a patronizing "I'm so sorry you don't understand" tone), or blind to the justice of God, or in an adolescent rebellion against God, or any manner of similar things.
And this, for me, is the battle ground for me, where all hell begins to break loose.
I understand your need for hope to an extent, and I understand the comfort the rules may give you somewhat -- but the moment you start judging me in any way, shape, or form by what I see as arbitrary rules -- EVEN TO SAY I'M A SINNER, JUST LIKE YOU -- is the moment we're going to have to fight. I know this may seem hurtful, and at times it is -- but I simply don't think it's healthy to hold other people to arbitrary rules. I think this is extremely harmful, especially when doing so judges people for who they are, and sets up "inside" and "outside" lines based on arbitrary guidelines. It seems to be a tool of superiority based on arbitrary judgments at that point. So I reject it strongly, and you'll see that in my discussions.
So, to sum up, you'll see this difference in approach in my discussions: When discussing with Christians sentiments indicating that God is needed as a kind of hope, I usually am fairly calm and conversational, and try to be somewhat understanding. When the Christian applies what I see as arbitrary rules to theirself, I try to carefully ask them whether they think having the arbitrary rules will provide the results they expect. If they apply it to others, I get a bit more heated. And if they apply them to others out of a sense of unwarranted superiority or judgment based on arbitrary standards, and try to force that application even as it is rejected, I really begin to heat up, and the gloves come off. Because, in my view, too many people have been hurt for too long based on these arbitrary standards, which are usually clothed in Christianeze designed to psychologically obliterate opponents, and I have found that the most effective way to combat this tactic is to point out how ridiculous and cruel it is without pulling punches.
At the same time, even as I angrily fight, I'll be working for a better world for myself, you, and those we both care about, best as I know how.
We're still going to disagree, probably, and I'll probably be arguing against you for quite a while. But at least now you know a bit more where I'm coming from.
Thanks for reading.
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