Years ago in the 2000s and 2010s, evangelicals tangled with atheists all the time. This squabbling formed part of what we now call internet blood sports. Nowadays, though, the landscape of the Christ-o-sphere looks very different. Out-and-out squabbling and entanglement aren’t as popular as they once were. Gen Z and Millennials, the targets of so much media nowadays, are becoming blithely secular in outlook, but they’re not thrilled with actually talking about (or reading about, or watching) media that dismantles religious beliefs.
But that doesn’t mean that evangelical leaders have moved on. To the contrary, they’re still obsessed. Evangelicalism is like a Gen Xer’s first apartment: Whatever’s there on Day One stays there. Forever. It is part of that apartment’s natural ecosystem. Similarly, evangelical leaders still consider atheists to be one of their biggest and most difficult tribal enemies. Unfortunately, they still have no clue how to teach their flocks to engage with these enemies. And there’s a reason why they can’t get a clue correction.
(This post first went live on Patreon on 9/5/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too!)
Atheism, according to evangelicals
It’s not hard to find evangelicals who claim to have once been atheists. That’s not new. Whoever the current Evangelical Enemy #1 might be currently, the very coolest testimony-crafters will claim a past in it. Thus, a claimed past as a totes-for-realsies aaaaaatheissssssst is the modern equivalent of claiming to have been a Wiccan-slash-Satanist during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s.
Evangelical audiences eat such claims up with a spoon and never, ever ask for any evidence to support any of them. It titillates them to imagine their former enemies being tamed and brought to heel, so they don’t want anything to wreck their gloating.
When one of these testimony bearers tells evangelicals about atheism, the flocks listen and believe.
Over time, then, and with the endorsement of these ex-atheist claimants, evangelicals have evolved a very specific view of atheism. It looks nothing like actual atheism, and actual atheists would likely be quite puzzled to encounter someone claiming to be an atheist who expresses such a view. It’s a strawman atheist: One that looks nothing like atheists themselves, but which is much easier for evangelicals to defeat and tame.
Straw atheists somehow stumble through life in a dim shadow of the rich divine love evangelicals claim to enjoy. These strawman atheists feel hopeless and empty, but they also experience intense anger at the Christian god for not doing something they asked him to do. Their anger bleeds through everything they do and say.
Though the strawman atheist tries hard to drown their anger and hopelessness in vices, once the buzz wears off they’re left wondering, Is that it? Is that all life’s about?
Strawman atheists experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance. They try hard not to think about having no evidence for atheism. At the same time, TRUE CHRISTIAN’™ apologetics worry them enormously. They just have no idea how to respond to all that mega-truth.
The strawman atheist has likely never been properly evangelized by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Once that happens, though, the strawman atheist will likely embrace that flavor of Christianity in a heartbeat and never look back.
Strawman atheism frets about not having PROOF YES PROOF of the nonexistence of Yahweh
Here is an example of what I mean about straw atheism (as always, emphases are in the original):
As a former atheist, I understand a little how some atheists think. Like most atheists I’ve met, I remained staunchly convinced of my atheism even though I could not produce convincing reasons for it. Christians witnessing to me at that time surely were tempted to give up! [Ashley Allen for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2021]
Nobody needs to “produce convincing reasons” for atheism, because atheism is the null position. Before people adopt any religious beliefs, atheism describes their starting point. Atheism is the state of nonbelief in any gods. Nor do real atheists feel “staunchly convinced” of atheism. They can’t, because atheism is the state of unconvinced-ness. Atheism makes no claims and involves no apologetics—nor should it.
Rather, the burden of proof falls upon Christians to demonstrate that their claims are true. And they haven’t ever produced any convincing reasons for adopting their religion.
No wonder this totes-for-realsies atheist fell for evangelical come-ons. She had no idea how to assess claims in the first place. Nor did she understand what atheism even is. Thus, she certainly fits neatly within the straw atheism model.
She even thinks “most atheists [she’s] met” are like she claims to have been. I’d like to gently suggest that she hasn’t met a whole lot of atheists, in that case. Personally, I’ve never met any atheist who fits her descriptions. And I bet I’ve met a whole lot more atheists than she has.
C.S. Lewis destroys evangelicals’ straw atheism
Here’s another totes-for-realsies ex-atheist telling readers all about atheism:
My scepticism and hostility towards Christianity, which developed in my teens under the influence of thinkers like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell, grew even stronger while I was at Oxford. Then, at the age of 24, I met my future wife, who turned out to be a Christian. [. . .] I determined to find out whether there was any good evidence for the existence of God and the truthfulness of Christianity, making it quite clear from the outset, however, that I was not prepared to become a believer just to cement our relationship! [. . ., and suuuure, dude]
I started to read C.S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia I had enjoyed as a child. [. . .] If [Lewis] could have made the journey from atheism to Christianity, perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that you had to bury your brain in order to believe in God. [Philip Vander Elst for Be Thinking.org]
Elst then tells us that why yes, Lewis’ writing offered him “intelligent and convincing answers.” In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed that a lot of evangelicals have adopted Lewis as some kind of prophet/spiritual mentor. (The folks responsible for Before You Lose Your Faith all seem to have a major hardon for him.)
However, Lewis’ writing is terrible. He uses a lot of hand-waving and logical fallacies to explain away Christianity’s worst dealbreakers, but he never succeeds. Someone converting over his writing is like someone converting over that horrific, morally-repulsive Chick tract “Somebody Loves Me.”
Lewis’ god is a monster along the same lines, but Lewis drapes him in so much flowery writing that evangelicals have a lot of trouble perceiving what’s going on behind the scenes. I can easily understand why British critics decades ago criticized him for his “anachronistic, simplistic, and misleading” apologetics. They weren’t wrong at all. But today’s simplistic, alternative-facts-loving, backward-focused evangelicals love exactly that kind of apologetics. Their mistake is thinking Lewis could persuade anyone whose critical-thinking thrusters are at full power.
On that note, a fantastic YouTube series by Steve Shives dives into several of Lewis’ books to expose their illogical, morally-repugnant ideas and arguments:
Evangelicals struggle to define atheism for a reason
Over at some evangelical seminary site, Jarl Waggoner explains why evangelicals have so much trouble dealing with atheists and atheism. It’s because they can’t technically accept the existence of either!
[Apologetics] largely overlooks, dismisses, or misunderstands the true nature of atheism itself. A biblical understanding of the nature of atheism should drive and reform our strategies to respond to it and protect our flocks from its influence. In other words, we need to understand what the Bible says about the nature of atheism in order to properly and effectively respond to it.
And here is their galaxy-brained definition of atheism:
The word atheism, which combines the Greek prefix α-, meaning “no” or “non” and the word for God (θεος theos), essentially defines itself. An atheist is “one who believes that there exists positive evidence that there is no God. … An atheist is convinced that all religious belief, evidence, and faith are false.” While this article will argue that, biblically speaking, there are no true atheists, for purposes of the discussion, we can adopt this fairly typical definition of atheism and say that an atheist is one who denies the existence of God and argues for this assertion.
With no way to accurately define atheism, naturally evangelicals’ response to atheists is going to be hilariously inept. But this guy just piles errors atop errors:
The presence of this general revelation of God in His creation explains why there is no reasoned, philosophical refutation of atheism in Scripture. The evidence is such that unbelief is inexcusable. Indeed, only a fool would reject this evidence. [. . .]
Every person is a created being who lives in a divinely created world, and that creation—both physical and in terms of the imago dei—makes it abundantly clear that a Creator exists. To reject the existence of God is to suppress the truth that is inherently known by every person as created in God’s image.
Evangelicals talk like this for a reason. The only way they can defeat atheism at all, at least from a remove and for the benefit of their own followers, is to redefine atheism in a way that can be defeated using the only tools evangelicals have:
- Apologetics, meaning logical fallacies, emotional manipulation, and outright dishonesty
- Ad hominem attacks against atheists to show the flocks what’ll happen if they ever deconvert
- Pseudoscience and pseudohistory (including pseudoarcheology) to try to PROVE YES PROVE this or that myth from the Bible; big favorites here are the Creation myth and the Great Flood
Wrong definitions lead to failure
You can find evangelicals’ erroneous definition of atheism all over the evangelical Christ-o-sphere. The one from Answers in Genesis is especially hilariously bad. Similarly, Got Questions smears atheists as somehow having deliberately chosen atheism to hide from Yahweh somehow—while, yes, lying about their deep-down belief. Some guy at Desiring God goes much the same route. And so does someone at the hard-right evangelical Calvinist site Ligonier.
Catholics, at least, seem to understand what atheism actually is. At least, some Catholics do. Others sound exactly like their fundagelical brethren—and make exactly the same mistakes.
It must annoy all of these folks mightily to encounter atheists who just laugh at their willfully-ignorant, incorrect definitions and surreal declarations. Atheists don’t need to suppress anything. Nor are atheists lying.
It’d be funny to accuse Waggoner of suppressing his belief in Zeus, Cthulhu, and Isis, and tell him that his disbelief in them is shameful and wicked because the whole universe speaks to their reality. Or to simply assert in front of the others that nonetheless, here we non-believers are. If evangelicals can’t accept the reality of disbelief, that really is a them problem and not an us problem.
But the point remains regardless:
If evangelicals can’t even correctly define atheism, then they sure won’t be able to engage meaningfully with any atheists, much less recruit them. The best they’ll be able to do is persuade a few college kids who think they’re atheists because they refuse to go to Mommy and Daddy’s Southern Baptist church every Sunday.
Evangelical leaders attack atheism for a reason
But evangelical leaders might not actually be all that interested in recruiting atheists. They might be thinking a little closer to home here.
One of the most powerful things about atheism is that it reveals the weak, shaky foundations of Christianity. Atheists are very fond of saying that they’d change their minds about Yahweh in an instant if Christians could ever come up with credible evidence to support their claims about him. I certainly feel that way.
And the best that Christians can do in turn is demonize and vilify atheists, then completely mischaracterize them and their stance. What they cannot do is present any such evidence, because none exists or has ever existed. What Christians have instead are anecdotes, irrational fallacy-loaded arguments, and feelings.
For a long time, maybe that’s all Christians needed. After all, everybody was Christian for centuries in many regions of the world. I know that when I deconverted, I felt completely alone. For years, I thought I was the only person who’d ever believed “the full gospel” and then realized that Christianity was completely untrue. The more atheists I met, the more free I felt to critically examine my own beliefs. They were living, walking, talking contradictions to my beliefs.
In a very real sense, then, and for many reasons, atheists and atheism are a danger to evangelicals in particular. They make more untrue claims than any other flavor of the religion (and I’m counting Mormons here), and so they stand to lose the most the fastest when their followers start thinking overly hard about evidence.
No, evangelical leaders clearly believe that it’s better by far to push a false definition of atheism and a strawman caricature of atheists onto their flocks. The flocks must never start to wonder just what foundations support their beliefs. They must never think that atheists are real and exist, and they must never know that atheism itself is the opposite of a claim.
And yet, it moves
In the meantime, the rest of us can rest assured that no gods of love or mercy inhabit these evangelicals. After all, it’s not loving to put out definitions that one knows are false, much less to tell people to their faces that they aren’t exactly what they say they are.
And so I stand tall, look them in the eye, and tell them this:
I do not believe in your god or in any other gods. Just as you do not believe in Zeus, Isis, or Cthulhu, I do not believe in Yahweh or Jesus. All of those gods are simply mythological in nature. Years ago, I read the Bible meticulously and realized that it does not describe reality. But I also saw that Christians are not better people than heathens; in fact, they’re usually way worse. They also suffer just as many misfortunes as heathens do, if not more because the worst of them tend to live near coastlines prone to natural disasters. And all of the miracle claims Christians offer up look decidedly natural in nature—when they aren’t debunked as pious frauds and lies. For that matter, prayer itself accomplishes the same results as praying to milk bottles and ceilings.
Far from this world attesting to the totes for realsies truth of Christianity, it actually operates exactly as I’d expect if no gods or supernatural agents existed. So does the universe as a whole. Looking across its vast expanse makes me shiver, but it also makes me quirk a smile because the picayune, provincial, penny-ante godling of Christianity can’t compare to any of it.
In the end, I was left with no real reasons to believe. The taps filling my faith pool all turned off, one by one. And so my former faith in Christianity fell away from me like a burial shroud, like woolens in April. Since then, every time some bright-eyed Christian has bounced up to me to offer what they think is slam-dunk PROOF YES PROOF of their claims, it has turned out not to be supporting evidence at all.
I exist. My disbelief exists. It has nothing to do with rebellion or any craving for unapproved sex. I disbelieve in Christianity for the exact same reasons why Christian zealots disbelieve in unicorns, leprechauns, Isis, and Hogwarts Academy.
Without credible supporting evidence, I cannot buy into Christianity. Apologetics arguments are not evidence. Strong feelings are not evidence. Anecdotes are not evidence. Pseudohistory and pseudoscience aren’t either, and neither are threats. But that’s all Christians have.
Christianity’s biggest, worst dealbreaker isn’t its utter lack of evidence for its claims, though. Every religion on earth except the basically god-free ones shares that same lack.
No, its biggest dealbreaker is really how its most fervent, pious members deal with that utter lack of evidence.
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