Once in a blue moon I find myself stumbling through the rabbit hole that is YouTube and watching a smattering of videos on a particular topic, all in a row, sometimes for hours at a clip – professional wrestling matches, music videos, and most recently, videos of atheists/humanists debunking creationist videos. Usually having fun at their expense, but still pointing out my favorite method of debate: “you are wrong, and here is why”. I don’t do it to affirm my own lack of belief – I’ve been open enough throughout the years about my never actually being a believer – but as a reminder that bad arguments exist everywhere, and deserve to be approached.
Those videos can be highly entertaining, but this last go-round they actually have made me a bit sad as well. Not empathetic so much for the attempts at converting me or other non-believers (that still feels “dirty” to me, trying to “save” a person from themselves when they can be perfectly happy and healthy as they are) but disappointed at some of the ways even my fellow atheists approach the aggressive proselytizing of the faithful with a nearly-equal fervor. And it’s made me really try to break down, both for myself and for anyone who might not understand, why so many atheists can come off either angry or frustrated in the face of the one trying to convert them.
It’s a pretty simple, straight-forward answer even.
Let me add some personal context to this to explain.
Back in the mid- to late-1990s, during the height of Internet provider America Online (hey kids, hear your parents groaning? HA!), I was starting to contemplate my own mortality and beliefs. Not long after my 11th birthday I attended by third funeral. At that young age I didn’t know what “god” or “religion” were. As far as I was concerned, a religion was just something you were, like being right-handed or where you were born. It was a family marker, in a way… you were Baptist just like you were German. I wasn’t raised in a household that regularly attended religious services, so this concept was not one I could easily wrap my head around.
I remember being about twelve, and actually asking my mother “what religion are we”, thinking it was a question like “where did our family come from”. To her credit, I remember he saying something like this:
“Well I was raised Lutheran, your father as far as I know is still Protestant, and you will need to find out for yourself what YOU believe.”
(She’s always been very big on “what do YOU think about that, which drove me nuts when I just wanted to jump on the couch and play-fight watching the Power Rangers. By the way, Mom? THEY ARE STILL COOL.)
When we did go to services, they were about an hour long, and then we went home and didn’t talk much about them. Christmas and Easter were the most common, since they were the “big ones” for pretty much all forms of Christianity. I was dragged there (sometimes kicking and screaming) and kind of zoned out until I could either sneak in a level or two on my Game Boy or we were leaving. Even when I tried to pay attention, rarely did anything stick… I suppose I heard it like a storytelling session more than a “devote your life to this-and-that” indoctrination.
The most important moment of my “religious” life came when I was about twelve, the same age as I asked my mom about religion, and we were visiting family in the rural midwest. I was taken to Sunday School, which at first baffled me since the one thing I “knew” was that even the BAD kids, the ones who got detention, didn’t have to go to school on Sundays. But I found myself sitting in a neat classroom, surrounded by maybe ten or twelve local kids and their drawings and colorings of religious stories, listening from a desk about the Lord. And they started me out with “Noah’s Ark“.
For a kid taught by the more full-time parent to ask questions and think for myself, I started to ask questions. The story is, on paper, rather ridiculous: God tells Noah to build a massive ship on which to collect two of every animal so that they might repopulate the world after God drowns everyone and everything else. That very basic premise led to every question I asked as an attempt to understand: “How did the animals get to Noah?” “Why didn’t God just save the animals Himself?” “Why did he need to just drown everybody instead of teaching them or showing mercy?”
I asked too many questions, and I was booted from the classroom. And when my family was let out from their service, I was given a talking-to by my cousin, who was the reason we were all there in the first place. She chewed me out something fierce. But then she backed away and let my mother up to bat, the one capable of rendering punishment. My mother asked me what exactly happened. I told her.
She offered me ice cream because I had taken the initiative to think for myself. And that was about the time I started consciously becoming a skeptic.
After that, when I learned what was trying to be instilled within me from that Sunday School teacher and those services, I started to get angry. And more than angry, I felt betrayed. I had been told the woman was a teacher; she only taught me to indoctrinate me into the church, to try and “teach” me the gospel. And I took that very, very personally. I lashed out online in chatrooms named things like “Christianity Is Stupid” and I laughed, in my early teenage years, at the aggressive nature of the faithful, about how they were wrong and we were right, sharing stories of telling off “fundies” (fundamentalists). I began to take their biblical “lessons” as a personal affront, both to me and my perceived inability to think for myself. To this day when I think of the Judeo-Christian faith I’m reminded of Proverbs 3:5 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Even the book itself was telling me NOT TO THINK.
And that, as far as I was (and still am) concerned, is the greatest, most “sinful” thing of them all: “Thinking is bad. Let God do the hard thinking for you, you either can’t handle it or you’ll simply do it wrong.”
This brings me, again, to why it might appear why the outspoken atheist may be frustrated or outright angry, especially if they were raised with any faith (particularly any overbearing faith). We can feel as though we’ve been lied to. Deceived. Told we were ignorant because a single book written thousands of years ago tells us to this very day that we shouldn’t think for ourselves, and that any conclusions we might derive from our own thoughts and logic and reason are not to be trusted. That’s a lot of being told “you don’t know” without any reasonable answer as to the why, or – even worse – “because you haven’t found/experienced/lived/walked with Jesus/God”. It’s an affront to reasonable, thoughtful people.
I can be thankful in that I wasn’t raised in an environment where thought wasn’t tolerated. I can discuss faith and logic and individual beliefs in front of most members of my own family, and nearly all of my friends, with the notion that both sides can be heard and nobody needs to “win”; just that both sides can present themselves without anything said being taken personally. And over time, though I’ve felt myself calming with age and coming to terms with my own conclusions, some of those feelings do still exist when someone knocks on my door and tries to tell me “the good news”. But even if I’m a bit more even-keeled than I once was, I can still completely understand and empathize with the louder voices of the anti-theists railing against biblical literalists on platforms like YouTube. I see that vitriol and I remember it well myself.
But in short, atheists – even those so actively engaging in the debates with the goal to break it all apart – are not actually “mad” as I can tell, though it can present itself that way. The word “frustrated” can be better suiting, or lashing out at that feeling of betrayal (which I think is especially true with more recent atheistic thought, as those feelings are still being worked through, fresh in the mind). I don’t have any thoughts as to how to counter that, or even how to deal with it – again I STILL deal with it to a degree, and took YEARS to calm down from the height of it – but I hope that might lead to a bit more understanding of where that emotional reaction comes from.
Above all, speaking entirely for myself, I believe in trying to understand before attacking. I believe in the power of context. And I believe people (the majority at least) are trying to come from a good place, even if I don’t believe in following or accepting the same dogma. I just don’t believe in a higher, all-knowing, all-powerful creative consciousness.
And after all of these years, I’m no longer nearly so angry about it.
Stand tall over hate and miscommunication, my friends.