Conversing with atheists and former christians

To follow up on a previous guest post I have had (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/how-does-the-online-ex-christian-community-affect-those-who-have-questions-of-faith-or-doubt/) I asked unkleE of http://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog/ to answer a similar question from a Christian perspective and to touch on what its like to converse with ex-Christians. UnkleE has impressed me on other blogs with his calm and considered responses to questions where others have become defensive and aggressive.

The below is his post for me on the subject of conversing with atheists and former Christians.


 

Human beings are tribal

Most people seem to like to be part of a group and to take sides against other groups. Football fans cheer, argue and sometimes even fight on behalf of their teams.

It seems that atheists and Christians are often tribal too. Each group has its own heroes and gurus, its own predictable arguments, and, too often, a penchant for scorning those they disagree with.

 

Justifying nastiness

Both sides can find ways to justify nasty behaviour towards their opponents. Some Christians argue that atheists are dishonest and rebellious, and need to be forcibly reminded of their perilous position. Some atheists, finding their arguments bouncing off, conclude that Christians are delusional, and since rational argument isn’t working, ridicule just might.

It rarely works of course, but who needs truth to justify tribal behaviour?

 

The web is a different ballgame to real life

Often we use pseudonyms. It is easy to feel anonymous or separated from others, and easy to press the ‘Post Comment’ button too quickly.

When I first ventured onto the web about 7 years back, I found myself in an argumentative and polarising environment. At first I argued back, but I now feel there is a better way.

 

The world doesn’t need any more aggro

I don’t think many of us think the world needs more aggro. Yet somehow, we can convince ourselves that our little nasty comment is OK.

But as a Christian, I believe humans are made by God to have worth, gifts, feelings and logical minds. We are made for relationship and we need some affirmation. People should be treated with sensitivity and respect, something the New Testament emphasises.

So I try very hard now, without always succeeding, to respect each person, and only make comments that add to the discussion, not attack them. I try to ignore barbs that come my way and not respond in kind, even if it means I miss an opportunity to ram a point home.

 

Responses

I find many atheists I talk with appreciate this. But unfortunately many atheists on the web still seem to follow the inhumane model of ridicule a lot of the time. To my chagrin, a fair number of christians are just the same.

Consequently, I avoid some forums and blogs, and I avoid or ignore some who comment. It’s just not worth the aggro. Fortunately, there are plenty of atheists and agnostics who are happy to play by rules of common courtesy, and I gravitate towards them.

 

Talking with ex-Christians

Talking with ex-Christians is a special challenge. I naturally feel sad that they have given up what I believe is the truth. But often they have been hurt by the church, sometimes leading to their change of mind, sometimes as they went through the process of leaving. I think they need special sensitivity and patience from Christians – fierce argument is likely to be specially harmful here.

It is easy to feel they have betrayed the team, and to wonder whether they were ever personally convinced or their ‘faith’ was just cultural. But I cannot know what has happened in their lives, so I should respect what they tell me.

Perhaps the hardest thing is when I feel they have rejected a form of Christianity I would reject too. I want to explain this to them, but sometimes they are not ready for anything except friendship, the wounds are still tender. Sometimes I think they are better off out of there – as long as they come around eventually to a more thoughtful form!

Ex-Christians often assume they have made a permanent and final change in their worldview, but statistics show that people who change once are quite likely to change again. So patience and courtesy are needed.

 

Ways forward

We all need to learn not to take offence easily, to have limited expectations of changing people’s minds and not to take it personally when others don’t agree with our arguments. We should enjoy getting to know and understand people who are different to us, and be willing to be in conversations for the long haul.

At the very least, we may help remove some misunderstandings, and who knows, we may even be part of a process of someone changing their mind. I still hope and pray for the people I talk with, for I do indeed want what is best for them.

Suddenly I realised that Atheism was the Only Choice

The side effect of my increased understanding of the scientific method and the impossibility of a literal creation was that more and more of what I had accepted in The Bible was rejected as false.

I can’t remember exactly when it was but over a short period of time I realised that rejection of formerly held Biblical truths could only result on one thing, total rejection of The Bible. I did consider for a while if I could hold my acceptance of Evolution along with the belief in a personal God. The problem that caused me was that it didn’t fix the fact that key events in the Old Testament didn’t happen and if certain key events in the Old Testament didn’t happen, then the New Testament was equally in doubt and therefore Christianity as a whole had little to defend it.

It didn’t take much for me to realise that the end result of the road I was on was the abandonment of my Christian faith. I could not embrace my new scientific understanding and my enthusiasm for more and keep a Christian faith. It simply wasn’t going to happen for me, there were too many questions that resulted in The Bible being wrong or questionable.

So rather than spend years battling with my faith, I decided to shortcut the torment and make a conscious decision that Christianity was bunk and go from there.

While it was an easy logical conclusion to make, there were many things that I needed to consider. How do I tell those I love? Especially my Wife! How will this affect my morals? What do I do about going to Church? How will this affect my views on death? This last one was key as at this time my mother was very ill with Pancreatic Cancer (more on this in another post that will come).

Those first weeks Post Atheism were a bit weird.

It was a few years ago now so I don’t recall those weeks especially clearly, but there are a few things that still stand out for me.

The first one is that I questioned my morals and their source. I hadn’t realised it until then, but my mind-set wad been very heavily engrained with the idea that morals and goodness come from the Holy Spirit and I was good because I was a Christian. Abandoning that must then surely mean the abandonment of my morals. I found myself asking questions about what was now acceptable, could I lie more readily? Steal from work? Cheat on my wife? You know, the sort of things those horrid godless people do all the time!

Well, it turns out that I was still just as unhappy with the idea of any of those things as I was before. So there would be no sin binge, as it were.

Tell No One

At this time I resolved that my state of faith would be a secret until I could work out what to do with the news. My biggest fear was how my wife would react, I knew that if it had been the other way round I’d have likely been devastated and I didn’t want to do that to her. This meant that I also would not tall anyone else because I didn’t feel it would be right to tell anyone else when she didn’t know.

Later I would seriously consider confiding in a close friend first and there were a couple of occasions when that very nearly happened. It just never seemed to be the right place or the right time.

What I did start to do was expand my reading of blogs. I looked for and found several blogs of people who had also come out of Christianity. This gave me a form of release as I could read now read (and participate if required) about similar experiences and not feel alone and unable to express my concerns and frustrations.

Science Podcasts helped my understanding

Along my way to questioning the literal interpretation of the Old Testament stories, I got into listening to science podcasts.

The timing was quite fortunate really. Not long after the USA holiday which sparked my questioning (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/the-first-nagging-doubts/) I changed job and found myself working from home for prolonged periods. The result of this was I installed iTunes on my PC and started investigating podcasts. Some of the podcasts I found very difficult to listen to because in amongst the science there were many disparaging remarks about belief and faith. I found it extremely difficult to listen to those comments, but I continued because I found the science interesting and it was that that fed my mind.

I did also try out some creationist podcasts to try and balance my intake and challenge what I was hearing. To be perfectly honest, I found them deeply wanting. The scientific content of the creationist podcasts was weak and invariably the presenters would try and use biased logic to argue against evolutionary science. The result was that I very quickly abandoned the creationist podcasts and continue to consume as much science as I could.

By now it was clear to me that I was no longer a literal creationist.

 

The biggest side effect in embracing an old earth and the truth of evolution was the Old Testament sections that now came under the spotlight.

Old Earth, means no Genesis Flood (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/noah%E2%80%99s-ark-gilgamesh-or-just-a-story/) for starters. I also came to realise that other well-known Biblical stories were not quite as I had believed (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/poor-poor-joseph-what-you-gonna-do/).

The latter realisation had me questioning the Bible much more. Its one thing to accept the Bible as the word of God while also holding that Evolution is true; however, I seemed to be going further and was questioning the accuracy of key Old Testament accounts.

Following the scientific podcasts and learning about what was reliable and what was not was making me think more critically and sceptically about when I had previously believed.

What in the Old Testament Could I Trust?

 

This became a problem for me and was a question I asked myself a lot. The bottom line was; if I can’t trust the Old Testament, then the New Testament, which hinges on the Old Testament being reliable, can also not be relied upon to be the inspired Word of God either.

Greater scientific understanding had definitely left me with a problem…