A few days ago, I was watching a Christopher Hitchens video in which he was asked by a Christian why he spoke out like he did against Christianity’s overreach, and I realized that people who are markedly vocal non-believers get asked that a lot. I get asked it myself sometimes. So today I want to talk about why I speak out like I do.
To start, let’s get this out of the way: the question itself is a silencing tactic. It’s meant to cow the person doing the speaking. It’s meant to cast aspersions upon the speaker and to make them doubt their own right to speak out against something they see as morally wrong. Non-believers often make reference to the old story of “the Emperor’s New Clothes,” and it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t matter one little bit to the truth that it’s a young child who finally speaks the truth about the naked emperor; the emperor is actually naked, and someone needs to say it.
When a Christian squints at a dissenter and asks, “Why do you have to talk about this great moral wrong you perceive?” what they are doing is showing that they care more about the fact that the moral wrong is being discussed than they do about the moral wrong itself. And I don’t think anybody else but them misses that distinction. One great moral wrong in Christianity is this tendency of Christians to circle the wagons and shoot the messenger whenever something’s brought up that makes them feel uncomfortable. I doubt they would ever ask this question of one of their own preachers talking about things they actually want to hear. I have never once heard a Christian ask one of their big leaders, “Dang, man, why do you have to keep talking about the inerrancy of the Bible? Why do you have to keep talking about Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life?” No, this question only gets asked of dissenters, and only about subjects the privileged person doesn’t want to hear discussed aloud, and only issued to someone who is challenging the privileged group’s dominance. It’s an attempt by someone in a privileged group to maintain dominance and privilege by shutting up any critics, and nothing more.
So I reject, utterly, the implication that it is a question that I should give any power over me. Far from shutting me up, it reminds me of why I speak out and of the necessity for doing so.
I think it’s important to cover what are not the reasons for why I do what I do.
I don’t set out to deconvert anybody from Christianity itself or any other religion, or to proselytize for my own way of thinking. I think that both of these acts are disrespectful, and ultimately I think that the religious label one slaps across one’s ideology is not any kind of predictor of how that person will behave toward others. How we treat other people is way more important than whether we call ourselves Christians, atheists, pagans, Jedi, or anything else. If you told me you were a Christian, that wouldn’t tell me a single thing about what you are like as a person or whether I’d want to take a weekend vacation with you. Telling me you were a Southern Baptist might tell me a bit more, but it still wouldn’t be definitive; one error that non-believers often make is in treating Christianity like a monolith when it simply isn’t. Even within the fundiest of all fundie churches, one can find people of all persuasions. By contrast, if you told me that you were a secularist, or pro-choice, or an MRA, that would tell me a great deal about where you stand regarding other people’s rights and how to treat other people–but it wouldn’t tell me much about what religion (or non-religion) you follow, because those aren’t religious labels.
And I’ve got no desire at all for Christians to stop pursuing their religion all they want in their own private lives. As Mr. Hitchens himself said in that video (to paraphrase; I can’t find it right now), he had no desire to take away people’s toys and indeed it seemed to him that there would always be a certain subset of people who would always value those toys. I really and genuinely don’t care what religion people follow. We can’t just believe or not believe at the drop of a hat or flick of a switch. Belief is caused and brought about for a great many reasons, and usually it dies only when the believer’s support system for that belief falls apart, which takes a lot of time sometimes. Religious belief itself ties into our deepest, darkest fears about death, our most intense desires for justice, and our fondest hopes for mercy and love. And frequently religious leaders employ the most shockingly manipulative bits of emotional strong-arming to convince their “flocks” of the most shockingly stupid guff. So even the most intelligent and loving people can get caught up in the most bigoted, hateful, most science-denying, most intensely unjust religions. But ultimately, I think that the right to believe what you think best and the right to worship as you see fit trumps whatever I think about how good or moral that belief or worship is. If you’re an adult, you have the right to spend your time and money however you want, and it’s not my right to tell you otherwise.
Nor am I being a shit for the sake of being a shit. Like most other dissenters, I speak because I genuinely see a need for someone to say the Emperor is naked. Just as it’s a Christian’s right to pray or worship as he or she sees fit, it is my right to speak about what I perceive in that model of belief. I don’t normally invade Christians’ forums or groups to showboat my disbelief or rile people up unnecessarily; I don’t normally care what they say in their own little groups. I wouldn’t go to a church service just to point and laugh like that character from the Simpsons. I try to be respectful of other people’s faiths when I’m a guest in their “houses,” be those houses real homes or churches or temples or whatever. I do participate in some Christians’ blogs, but I always remember that those blogs are their “home” online in a very real sense and I try to conduct myself according to their rules–and I recognize that they have the right, ultimately, to boot me if they don’t like how I act. But I trust them to separate out “how I act” from the simple fact that I don’t believe in their god. In the same way, I have some very sharply critical things to say about Christianity, but I try to carefully separate out just what kind of Christian I’m talking about and not to take potshots at the people who I know are trying to rescue the religion from where it’s heading.
So having covered the non-reasons for speaking out, what are the actual reasons for doing so?
First, because for the last thirty or forty years, Christianity ran roughshod over society and grabbed quite a bit of political and cultural power over the rest of us. And we let them do it, largely because most of us still subscribed to Christianity, and because many of us still thought that Christianity was a moral system that was ultimately trying to do good in society. But that wasn’t the case. As Christianity’s more extremist elements continue to wreak havoc, it’s becoming more and more clear that no, actually, Christians are not a moral powerhouse and do not have some kind of stranglehold on morality that non-Christians simply don’t have. I’ve watched them turn America from a land of opportunity and freedom into a dysfunctional, dystopian near-Taliban, and the only thing that has stopped them–the only force that seems even vaguely capable of halting their breakneck destruction of liberty and revision of history itself–is vocal dissent and peaceful opposition to the limit of the law’s allowance.
Second, I speak out because Christians themselves are not speaking out (or doing so effectively anyway) against the extremists and abusers in their culture, and even the well-meaning ones among them are certainly not stopping those extremists and abusers from exercising control over the conversation. As Hemant Mehta says frequently over at Friendly Atheist, we simply cannot trust Christians to do the right thing without compelling them to do so. They will lie, break the law, cheat, steal, vandalize, threaten, coerce, and even murder to get their way, and nobody within their tribe seems able or willing to stop them. So it falls to dissenters to do what Christians themselves either cannot or will not do.
Third, I speak out because Christians, as a group, are trying their hardest to enshrine their privilege and dominance into law. If they were just keeping to themselves and not bothering anybody, nobody would care about them. When’s the last time you worried about what Hellenic reconstructionist pagans were doing? Probably never, if you even knew such a group existed at all before I mentioned them just now; they don’t try to strangle government or force anybody to live any particular way. But we have to be concerned with speaking out against Christians because Christians dominate government at every level and genuinely believe that they know better than the rest of us how we are to live and what we are to do with our lives. Our dissent focuses not on Christians’ private lives but on how they are trying to force others to live, which is why it is almost always skeptics who debunk the various urban legends Christians spread about students stopped from praying (which didn’t happen, but that sure didn’t stop Faux Noise from making a HUGE stink about it) or supposedly kept from holding prayer meetings at a private home (haha no, that wasn’t at all the case; it was for seriously violating safety codes by building a church on a residential property). Without dissenters there to tell the truth about these persecution fantasies, Christians would feel a lot better about forcing their religion on the rest of us. But they sure aren’t the ones debunking their urban legends–and if those legends don’t get debunked by dissenters, they won’t be debunked at all, and that’s how religious mythology gets rolling.
Fourth, because Christians may not even realize what the arguments are against their faith system. I’ve often talked about Christians as living in a bubble–a very thick one that keeps them from fully seeing, hearing, or engaging with the outside world. They generally consider it a point of pride that they are totally cut off from that outside world; it is seen as a threat and a danger to one’s Christian walk. Just learning about the Theory of Evolution is regarded as dangerous to many of ’em. And in decades past, when effective arguments against Christianity were difficult to find and when disbelief was so stigmatized, it was a lot easier for them to believe–as I did, indeed–that there just aren’t any arguments against Christianity. Do you know why I hang out on some Christian blogs? Because I think it is very important to me to mix up with people who don’t believe the same way that I do. I think it’s hugely important to listen and learn, and you can’t learn if all you’re hearing is echoes of your own thinking. I truly think that this attitude is why I don’t think of Christianity as a monolith; I interact with a great number of Christians who are markedly different from each other and from that toxic sort you hear about in the news most often. And when a Christian is aware of and understands the arguments against Christianity’s various claims, that person is much less likely to fall into extremism. But they have to know those arguments exist first, and that is where dissension becomes important.
Indeed, you might have noticed, friends, that a lot of the things I talk about on this blog are things I wish I’d known as a young Christian. Often I find myself writing to 18-year-old me, telling her what I wish someone had told her, showing her the things I wish someone had shown her. Nobody showed her those things. She didn’t even know they existed. She believed what she was told, because she had no reason otherwise to disbelieve. She thought Christians were good people because she was told that they were and didn’t know that many are not. She believed Christianity made people better people and societies better societies not because they do, because they don’t, but because there was no voice saying that they don’t and she didn’t even know to consider otherwise. That doesn’t mean she didn’t eventually figure it out, but it took a lot longer and she had to invent the wheel from scratch herself, and claw her own pathway out of the pit. She didn’t even know that many others had already invented that wheel, or know the path used by those who had clawed their way out of that pit before she needed to do it.
Now things are a lot different. Thanks to the internet, you can find debunks to common Christian claims within moments; now the debunk of a preacher’s claims during a church service can be discovered before the altar call is made by any child with a smartphone. Before, ignorance was the default; now it is a choice, as the saying goes, and usually when we see some hugely-ignorant Christian making hugely-ignorant claims, it’s going to be a very young Christian who still lives in the bubble, like the Idaho teenagers eagerly creating that “The Thaw” video that made the rounds some months ago. And I wonder how many of the ignorant teenagers in that video still hold those views now that the internet’s gotten done with debunking their beloved project?
See, thanks to dissenters, the wheel is right there, the path lit by lanterns placed there by the legions of ex-Christians who’ve gone before today’s seekers. Now disbelief is less stigmatized; now Christian dominance is less assured and more questioned. The culture war that Christian leaders banked on to bring people back to the fold has backfired, causing their churches to hemorrhage people who once believed–or those skeptics who might at least have bought into the myth of the Happy Christian Society, as indeed many skeptics did long ago, if it weren’t so glaringly obvious that this myth is nothing but a self-serving fairy tale meant to terrorize people into not examining the religion’s increasingly deranged claims and increasingly obvious grabs for power.
And it all happened because dissenters spoke out and were willing to say loudly and publicly that the Emperor was naked. As Christopher Hitchens said in that video, his goal is not to take away toys, but to make Christians aware that not everybody wants to play with the same toys, and to stop them from trying to force him to play with their toys. He wants to stop them from enforcing their toys into law and teaching their playtime games to children in science classes.
Ultimately, I do what I do because I love humanity. I love it so much that I will not rest while people are hurting in it. And lies hurt people and cause serious and real and lasting harm and damage to people when they try to force themselves to conform to a rule of law and to a delusion of power that simply doesn’t fit a healthy, loving, moral person’s life. I know the painful truth, that questions like the ones posed to dissenters are exactly how Christians keep each other in line. I know that “sowing discord” is one of the harshest slams one Christian can make to another. I know, because I was Christian once. These accusations cover up lies and keep them moving, keep them alive, and ultimately give them power.
And those lies have serious repercussions on people who would probably never even question any of them if dissenters weren’t out there crying aloud in the wilderness and making people aware of the breathtaking scope of them all. The awesome part is that it’s not just atheists who are dissenting out of this love, but everybody including sane Christians themselves. Love takes all kinds of forms, and it comes from our hearts, not from our religious self-labels. It hurts me to see someone hurting, and unlike the Bible’s god, as a moral person, I try to help as best I can when I see someone hurting. And unlike way too many Christians, I actually know what “love” really is and what really constitutes “hurting.” For a long time I let that pain go on without comment and let people redefine abuse as love, and I see where that got me. I feel a keen responsibility now to do better than that.
There’s a serious constraint on a lot of ways I could make a material difference in this world; I’m not wealthy, and suffer a chronic health condition that makes movement difficult sometimes. But I can write a little, and I can speak, and I can try my best to bring truth and light to a world that desperately needs it.
And so I speak.
I speak because of that crazy little thing called love.
And I won’t stop, no matter what “just asking questions” Christians try to zing me with to shut me up and cow me into not speaking.
Housekeeping: I hate it when I’m right, especially when it comes to right-wing conservative fundagelicals trying to revise history about Biblical slavery. Also, I swear I didn’t see this piece about a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ slaver until after I’d already begun writing the last piece about slavery. Wow, talk about timely!
For next time, we’re going to take a look at the latest round of excuses Christian leaders are offering for why their religion is losing ground so hard. We’ve talked about this topic before, but this is one of the wildest, most self-serving, most blatantly dishonest dish of porridge I’ve seen in quite some time, and they were dumb enough to commit these excuses to (digital) paper–whoopsiedoodle! Join me next time for another round of Christian Leaders Sticking Their Heads in the Sand, and a thorough debunk of yet more lies.
The Emperor’s still naked, folks. And it’s our responsibility to say so.