Here’s a problem I have. In various contexts—online, with family, during public events—I keep hearing from believers who take great pains to convince me they don’t hate gay people. Jesus never said anything about it, they tell me, and scripture has been misinterpreted, and the real sinners are homophobes, so for heaven’s sake let that be the end of it. I find that conversation hard, mainly because it never feels like it’s meant to be a conversation. I get the sense I’m expected to nod and sympathise, that my role in the discussion is to validate their feelings, not say what I actually think. It’s as if only part of me gets invited to speak: I’m allowed to oppose religious homophobia as a queer person, but not to critique religion in other forms as a queer atheist. I’m not being asked to participate in a dialogue—just to tell Christians what they want to hear.
There are a lot of atheists who don’t like me. To them I represent ‘politically correct atheism’, a movement that includes minorities and cares about more than just feeling smug. But political correctness was never meant to be a byword for progressive goals. Being politically correct is about saying the permissible thing—the delicate, diplomatic, convenient, feasible, strategic, sayable thing—when provocation isn’t an option. Before it was an alt-right dogwhistle, it meant being insincere to avoid starting fights: meant politicians saying ‘There are differences between us’ instead of ‘We are enemies’ and ‘economical with the truth’ instead of ‘lying’; meant telling people what they wanted but not what they needed to hear. When Christians explain their pro-gay theology to me, I sense that what they want isn’t an answer but a string of platitudes. (Not all Christians are the Westboro Baptist Church. There are good and bad people of all religions and none. Yes, I hate Richard Dawkins too.) If anything feels PC, that does.
Every now and again, someone in my vicinity—often at Patheos, but not just there—publishes a long piece about why they’re not an antitheist. Most recently that’s been Martin Hughes in a post at barrierbreaker; in the past it’s been Neil Carter of Godless in Dixie, and further back it’s been a range of other folk. Those posts spur complicated thoughts in me, and I’ve often felt the urge to response but not had world enough or time, so I want to share some of my misgivings here. (Stephanie Zvan has already done the same at Almost Diamonds.) Carter and Hughes are both bloggers I like, and this post isn’t about them specifically—please don’t read it as a straight reply to either of theirs. What I want to discuss are the patterns I see in these conversations, how they make me feel, and why this branch of the secular community is one I can’t join. I wish my atheism were PC: it’s not.
I don’t market myself as an antitheist, but I feel strongly that I’m not not one. Explaining why is difficult without a certain amount of meta. When I read posts in the non-antitheism genre, it often strikes me that most of the wordcount is about other issues. I see other writers assert that the death of religion won’t solve all the world’s problems, and that in a world without it, people who currently hurt others in the name of God would just find other excuses. I hear them say deconverting believers isn’t their priority, and that they no longer feel an urge to pick fights with them. I listen to people say they care more about social justice than bashing religion, and that there are some awful atheists, and that they have more in common with plenty of progressive believers, and that they’d rather work with them. I see them point out that being an atheist doesn’t make them more intelligent than believers are, and that religious people don’t deserve to be hated.
None of these statements are to do with whether religion is a good thing. I do see people talking about that—in particular, by saying their problem is with fundamentalism, not with religion itself, and by asking what the harm is if people who aren’t out to take over the world believe whatever comforts them—but those discussions are peripheral. In the process of declaring they aren’t antitheists, some authors make concessions that sound nothing but. (Mass belief in a moralising god ‘does more harm than good’, argues Hughes. ‘Would I like to see the human race leave all religion behind…? Absolutely, yes’ adds Carter.) When people say in these posts that they aren’t antitheists, I get the sense what they mean is that they aren’t jerks.
I have a lot of sympathy with that. Like most people whose discarded beliefs shaped their whole lives, I spent years in atheist puberty, a ball of anger, resentment, self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. It took a long time to direct that anger properly—first by acknowledging my childhood in the church was abusive, then by locating it in a broader history of abuse—and I understand not wanting to be that kind of atheist. I don’t view religion in general with the contempt I used to, and I have plenty of reasons to remain on good terms with believers. I come from a religious family, some of whom I’m closer to than ever, and still connect with the aesthetics of my former faith; I speak on panels where it’s my job to get on with religious people, and I spent several years as part of an interfaith group; there’s also a small, dedicated group of churchgoers who like my work. A part of me still wants to be, be like or be liked by religious believers, and I could do well as a faitheist, rehearsing the platitudes from paragraph four—just as I could tell Christians what they want to hear on queer issues.
I’m more interested in saying what I think.
Yes, there are awful atheists; yes, plenty of believers are lovely: I’m intimately acquainted with both those facts, and I don’t spend my life fighting with them over beliefs. Being religious isn’t wicked on its own, and secular people aren’t necessarily better. Ditching faith wouldn’t solve all our problems—I doubt that ditching any one thing would, and there would be better candidates if I had to choose. But I don’t think any of this conflicts with the idea that overall, religious movements do more harm than good. If antitheism is the word we’re using for that, the only question that matters is this: if everyone on earth woke up an atheist, would the world be a better or worse place? For me the answer is better, and it doesn’t take me long to reach it. I don’t know how to say that in a palatable way—I don’t say it to be cruel or unkind—but there it is. It’s what seems true to me.
And I want to talk about things we say because they feel palatable.
I’m not okay with people believing whatever comforts them—not whose beliefs have consequences for other people, at any rate. (I don’t mean anyone on their deathbed.) I grew up with a single mum who’d careened through abusive marriages, who was homeless and penniless as soon as she got away from my dad. My mum became someone who sensed demons in her front room because when she had a breakdown, her only source of comfort was the church—and because every church has one or two people someone like that shouldn’t befriend. Even after her charismatic phase, she was emotionally unstable, and I spent most of my life hostage to her moods. The same was true of her theology: in twenty-three years, I never saw any system to what Mum believed—only that she believed things that felt good, whatever impact they had on my life. Give me a hardened literalist over a Christian like that any day. A fundamentalist’s ideas are always logical on some level, and anything with an inner logic can be controlled; believers whose faith changes shape depending how they feel are the most dangerous, and often the ones looking for comfort.
I’m also not just opposed to fundamentalism. For one thing, that word meant something before it was made synonymous with extremism. (There are Muslims whose beliefs mirror one version of protestantism. That’s not what IS are.) For another, any religion with enough followers is going to have extremists: those people are a feature, not a bug. And extremist styles of religion aren’t the only ones that hurt people. I was suicidal ten years ago, when my faith was an inoffensive, mainstream, traditional one—not because I thought queers went to hell, but because I thought letting people spit on me what was Jesus would do, and because I thought prayer was a good treatment for mental illness. Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth. Only critiquing fundamentalists might make for smoother relations with believers. It’s still a cop out, and an insult to people who went through what I did.
Having grown up inside the church, in a town with a dozen denominations and a family of many, I am in fact aware Christians differ, and that not all of them are Westboro. (Like most LGBT people who leave, I knew perfectly well that there were ‘affirming’ churches.) Here’s what believers don’t want to hear: the Westboro Baptist Church is one of the least pleasant Christian sects, but not one of the more dangerous ones. I’m willing to bet fewer queer youth killed themselves because of Fred Phelps than still do in strait-laced and respectable churches—churches like Leelah Alcorn’s, like Lizzie Lowe’s and like mine. We don’t die when cartoonish people hate on us: we die when churches say they welcome and love us, get us to entrust our wellbeing to them, then tell us to choose Jesus over sin, or that God loves trans people too much to let them be trans. Wie die in churches where queer topics are taboo—not out of vitriol, but out of uptight middle class anxiety. I’d love to critique evangelicals who kill us without being an antitheist, but if I believed in their god, I’d think the same as them.
And I’d love to agree that without religion, people who do harm in its name would act the same with other rationales. It’s just that it’s bullshit. Not everything believers do could be done in any other context—in a world without God, what does a child exorcism look like? We can’t travel to that world to run tests, so nobody who makes this claim has a receipt for it, but even then, this isn’t just counterfactual: it runs against the information we do have. We know that even when other factors are controlled for, religious change across generations prompts social change; we know new religious movements cause historical changes on their own; we know that in electorates worldwide, religion is a strong predictor of how people vote; we know religious conversions change people’s lives, and that when people leave religion, their lifestyles change dramatically. For people who claim it does the world good, religion’s whole value is predicated on its power to change behaviour. Why wouldn’t it be to blame for harmful changes?
When I hear people saying why they’re not antitheists—when I read tweets and Facebook statuses and blog posts and op-eds—these are the statements I’m used to hearing. None of them are useful statements. All of them are either irrelevant or wrong. I don’t think anyone who says these things is being insincere, but it wouldn’t surprise if they became things atheists said because they’re things believers like to hear, or feel like they might be. They’re delicate, diplomatic, sayable and politically correct. They’re not things I’m interested in saying. I understand—and, nowadays, share—desire for dialogue, but when believers decide they like me it’s because I don’t bullshit them. There are better ways to build bridges than dishonest arguments.