In the consumer internet’s early years, evangelical Creationists started a war against, um, reality itself—but they insisted that no, they were actually at war with atheists. In the ensuing 10-20 years, they haven’t changed much. They still think their #1 enemies are atheists. And they’re still pumping out the same failed talking points about those enemies. There’s a reason, why, of course. And we’ll explore that reason today.
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 5/2/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and both should be available by the time you see this!)
A claim about atheists gets new legs amid Christianity’s decline
Back in the mid-1980s, I joined Pentecostalism—a fundamentalist subset of evangelicalism. Back then, though, we considered ourselves an entirely different species from evangelicals. Evangelicals shared almost none of our core beliefs. For instance, we claimed that the Bible was both literal and inerrant, and also that it was ultimately authoritative as written. Evangelicals thought we were quite childish that way. Worse, they rejected almost all of our weird core rules and customs.
Whereas fundamentalists tended to be quite separated from secular culture, entering it only to evangelize, evangelicals strode into the smack of that culture and set up camp. From there, they evangelized by inviting prospective recruits into their camp, rather than retreating with their hard-won converts back to home base like fundamentalists did.
Over time, the two tribes fused by adopting each other’s worst traits. Evangelicals adopted literalism, inerrancy, and authoritativeness. Fundamentalists got way more lax about avoiding secular culture.
But neither tribe has ever let go of its false claims about atheists. If anything, they’re just drilling down all the harder these days. I can see why. Christianity’s decline has occurred alongside sharp rises in the number of religiously-unaffiliated people and atheists alike. It behooves evangelical leaders, then, to both poison their flocks’ wells about atheists and spur them toward attempting to recruit atheists.
In the wild: Atheists don’t really exist!
It’s just comical to notice how often this false claim gets pushed in the Christ-o-sphere. So let’s dive into our usual fun in the wild segment to see how evangelicals do their thang. (I’ll be noting dates where I can, so be looking out for how this claim has changed over the years.)
- Evangelical apologetics site Got Questions can’t even imagine just why anybody’d even “want” to be an atheist. But atheists aren’t really atheists. No, literal demons make them think they disbelieve. Also, atheists totes hate accountability. (Probably 2009)
- Sales-minded evangelical Michelle Lesley claims atheists don’t really exist. They’re just rebellious people in denial. Her husband quips that “everyone is either a member of the ‘Believers club’ or the ‘future believers club.'” (2009)
- Bible publisher Crossway presents ultraconservative Southern Baptist preacher Voddie Baucham’s claims about the nonexistence of atheists. People claiming to be atheists are “wrong on at least three counts.” (2015)
- Sales-minded evangelical Brian Smith concludes that atheists can’t possibly exist because it’s beyond obvious that Christian claims are true. Anyone claiming to be an atheist “is 1) lying, and 2) a fool” and is “like a person who says he doesn’t believe in gravity.” (2015)
- Paternalistic Calvinist Sam Storms concedes that sure, lots of people might say they’re atheists. But they really aren’t. They’re just “living and speaking in denial of what they know to be true.”
- Sales-minded evangelical Jim Morgan claims: “Constructing the illusion that there is no God takes a tremendous amount of hard work. It’s not easy to convince yourself that you hold a belief that, in the core of your being, you actually don’t.” Then, he offers logical fallacies galore. (2021)
- Billy Graham’s site gave a non-answer to someone asking about atheists’ beliefs. Site quotes Graham’s unattributed claim that “a distinguished anthropologist” had “reluctantly” admitted that “belief in a divine power was universal.” Then Graham threatens dissenters with Hell. (2022)
Amazingly, we had one outlier in the list.
Greg Stier actually offers a decent description of atheism! I really wasn’t expecting that! But then, he wrecks himself by offering a list of just asking questions questions and instructs erstwhile evangelists to make absolutely sure before making sales pitches that atheists are really and truly and for sure “willing to go where the evidence leads.” You know, like TRUE CHRISTIANS™ totally are. And yes, he erroneously believes that he has objective evidence backing up all of his religious claims. (Undated)
Answers in Genesis loves sneering at atheists
The Creationist conspiracy theorists over at Answers in Genesis (AiG) have taken a number of potshots at atheists over the years. It’s really incredible to see how many false talking points they can spew in just one post. Here’s a selection:
- In 2015, Terry Mortenson wonders, “How Should We Talk to Atheists?” Among other things, he claims atheists are “aggressive” and use “caustic vulgar language” to poor widdle TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like himself. But darn it, Jesus still wants him to talk to those barbarian heathens!
- Earlier that year, Ken Ham disingenuously wondered, “Why Do Atheists Care?” Because gosh, they sure do get riled up at TRUE CHRISTIANS™, don’t they? Obviously, their “attacks confirm God’s word.” They’re just rebellious! They just hate knowing Jesus will hold them accountable!
- In 2016, Ken Ham proclaimed, “There Is Hope for Atheists!” Yes, he piously tells us, even if they’re totally mean to him on social media and in comments. We’re so indescribably lucky to have him as our Designated Adult, aren’t we?
About a year ago, AiG issued yet another diatribe against atheists. The banner picture shows a young-ish guy in a beanie and loose long-sleeved t-shirt holding his hand over his eyes. Oh yeah, that bodes well, doesn’t it?
This one, written by Liz Abrams, tells us that not only do atheists not really exist, but they accidentally betray their god-beliefs in three different ways! In fact, she tells us that atheists “can’t really escape the knowledge of God.”
How atheists totally betray their god-belief, according to the looniest god-botherers ever
Abrams offers us a three-point listicle. Each one encompasses a bunch of logical fallacies and other antiprocess errors common to evangelicals.
First, she claims that “The Atheist Bears the Image of God.”
By that, she means that humans are born pre-wired to be Christians. In addition, Yahweh put a moral code into them that everyone concedes is perfect, and is totally going to make humans immortal in either Heaven or Hell. Abrams also claims that atheists particularly fear death and seek secular methods of living forever. That totally proves that atheists totally want immortality. And that proves that they’re hardwired to embrace Christian cosmology and are just in denial about it.
Yikes. Unfortunately for her, the truth is quite the reverse, according to medical and end-of-life care providers. A while ago, a bunch of them talked about it in comments on a post I wrote.
Worse, though, even if her claim were true, it doesn’t support her specific religious claims. She might as well claim that atheists bear the image of Arnie the Magical Invisible Pink Unicorn, which proves that Unicornism is the only true religion on Earth. Likewise, she’s offered no evidence that immortality is even in the cards for humans, that Heaven and Hell actually even exist, or for that matter that Yahweh himself exists.
I can see why evangelicals fear death so much, by the way. With nothing whatsoever to support their claims, they must get very antsy indeed when their numbers get called.
Yay, the moral argument again
Second, Abrams tells us, “The Atheist Borrows God’s Moral Standards and Logic.” That means atheists want to see justice done. That PROVES YES PROVES that her particular god placed a moral framework in every human on Earth.
To support her argument, she argues from consequences:
For Christians, the image of God gives every human being intrinsic value. But atheists have nothing that gives humans inherent value. If life is just nature’s way of keeping food fresh, universal morality makes no sense. The only moral law is to do whatever helps your genes make the jump to the next generation. [. . .] It doesn’t take that much contemplation to see that a purely evolutionary ethic would be horrific. A consistent evolutionist in this area belongs in a mental institution or prison!
Unfortunately, an appeal to consequences doesn’t actually rise to the level of support for her own claims. Nobody’s ever demonstrated the existence of Yahweh’s “moral standards and logic.” This is the same god that issued thousands of ridiculous little rules for the Israelites, as well as making thoughtcrime and completely victimless acts the same thing as real criminal action. Yahweh’s also the same god who set up a great many rules around how to treat women as property and how to properly acquire slaves and beat them.
One might as well say that Christians demonstrate, through their skewed mis-definition of justice, the existence of Arnie the Magical Invisible Pink Unicorn. After all, he’s the highest expression of justice in the universe. Christians might claim they don’t believe in Arnie, but their insistence on a universal moral code just proves that they really do know he exists. They just don’t like being really accountable, so they set up a fake religion that pushes fake accountability at members.
The moral argument is a tired logical fallacy, but I understand why Abrams uses it. It and fallacies like it are really all she’s got.
Hilariously, she also tries to claim here that real scientists don’t really know if the universe and its laws have always been consistent. TRUE CHRISTIANS™, who know the world is only a few thousand years old, can rely on their god being completely consistent (except when he absolutely isn’t). She clearly hasn’t ever asked any of them how they know they can trust measurements of stuff that happened potentially eons ago or lightyears away.
Last, the Argument from How Can You Hate What You Don’t Believe In? (YOU DO BELIEVE, DONCHA? ADMIT IT! ADMIT IT!)
Third, Abrams tells us, atheists prove they really believe in Yahweh because they’re overtly hostile to him:
The fact that an atheist’s disbelief in God sometimes becomes their entire identity shows that there is more to it than casual disbelief. Almost no one today believes Thor exists, but there aren’t any anti-Thor movements. The fact that this vitriolic attitude is reserved only for the God of the Bible is revealing.
Yes, it’s quite revealing indeed, isn’t it? Almost as if no Thor worshipers are trying to take over the American government and turn it into a theocracy, isn’t it? It’s almost like Thor worshipers don’t try to sneak their indoctrination into public science classes, retaliate viciously against critics, dictate who’s allowed to get married, or tell women how to handle their own family planning. Gosh, it’s like Christians are doing all of that and more and worse.
Oh gosh, maybe that’s why there’s so much pushback against them and their false claims! It’s not atheists being mad that Jesus didn’t give them ponies, as she alludes in that section. It’s that evangelicals like Liz Abrams are actively trying to trample everyone else’s rights and liberties, and using their religious claims as the rationalization for doing it all!
Nope. It’s not that at all.
No, atheists just totally secretly believe in Yahweh and are in denial about it!
Sidebar: Abrams can keep her toxic fake love away from me, thanks
Incidentally, Abrams ends her smear of atheists by advising her readers to “love” their tribal enemies. See, they’re not really enemies, though they totally are too. There’s always hope that Jesus will magically remove their concern for believing only in things that are objectively real and true.
To help Jesus along in that quest, Abrams recommends befriending atheists for some good ol’ fashioned friendship evangelism:
We can open our homes and build relationships with them in the hope that God will reach them through us. We should openly talk about our faith and attempt to win them. And when an atheist starts trying to convert others, we should be ready to oppose and refute them.
Friendship evangelism is just fake friendship that evangelicals extend to ickie heathens as a pretext for getting them to sit still for a sales pitch. Once the fake evangelical friend pops their hard-sales cherry and makes a pitch, the target usually rejects it out of hand. And once the target rejects the pitch, the fake evangelical friend reveals the truth of the fake friendship by vanishing forever.
She’s making the fake nature of the friendship all too obvious here by advising constant preaching and insertion of sales-related talking points. Thankfully, most heathens are well aware by now of this cowardly, cruel strategy.
As you saw from the quote, she also projects her own shortcomings onto her enemies by claiming atheists are always looking to “convert others.” She makes it sound sinister, which of course friendship evangelism actually is.
Being fake friends with atheists will alert TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to their evil evangelism attempts. Then they can stymie those attempts with their own totally not-evil evangelism attempts!
And yet, it moves: Atheists have always been around
Wherever false claims get made, you can bet that someone, somewhere has rejected those claims. Even if that rejection would put them at risk of tribalistic retaliation, someone’s going to consider that risk worth the taking to live their truth.
That applies to religious claims as well as to any other kind.
In 2016, a professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, Tim Whitmarsh, published a book about how common atheism was in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome. Back then, he says, atheists were common. And they “flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since.” His book tackles two Christian claims: First, that atheism is a modern thing, and second, that humans are somehow “‘wired’ to believe in gods.”
To support his claims, Whitmarsh reaches for a wealth of atheistic writing from those periods—including from Plato himself, who notes that the atheists of his day were far from the first of their kind.
Once Christians gained temporal power over life and death, declaring disbelief became extremely risky. It wasn’t until they began to lose some of that power that people felt safer about rejecting their claims. To me, it seems very easy to believe that everyone secretly believes in Yahweh and that atheism is a modern aberration when for centuries, it was literally dangerous for anyone to say anything else.
Nowadays, there are far more nonreligious, religiously-unaffiliated people in America than there are formal atheists. So when evangelicals insist that atheists don’t exist, their mischaracterizations may well apply just as well to that broader population.
The false claim about atheists that became a stumbling block for me
Even back when I was Pentecostal, my church leaders taught that atheists didn’t exist. In other words, they didn’t really not believe in our god. No, see, they totally did believe! They were just deluding themselves into thinking they didn’t because they were rebellious or just wanted to have guilt-free sex or didn’t know any better or or or or…
Thankfully, I’d already met a number of atheists in college by the time I bumped up against that false claim. When I innocently asked some of those atheists about it (“why do you think you’re an atheist?”), they explained their disbelief slowly and carefully. Without even knowing they were doing it and without even trying, they shredded my church leaders’ claims about them. It was impossible to listen to these atheists without noticing that fact. They had some downright unsettlingly good reasons for their disbelief.
It bothered me a lot to realize that this claim was false. In the end, it became what my tribe called a stumbling block, or an impediment to faith. If I couldn’t trust my church leaders to give me accurate information about the people they wanted me to evangelize, then all their other advice became suspect and untrustworthy. As my trust in my Dear Leaders dissolved, that tap feeding into my faith pool turned off forever.
But those same leaders haven’t let up on making false claims about atheists. As disastrous as false advice can be, something about it has reliably and consistently rewarded them for decades.
Why so many evangelical leaders push this false claim
All of the claims about atheism’s existence that we’ve examined today have had a few things in common.
Almost all of them rely on overly-broad interpretations of Romans 1 (and often Romans 2 for good measure) and Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”) AiG reached for some different sources, but came to much the same conclusion: If the Bible says nobody really disbelieves in Yahweh, then nobody really does, no matter how much they may say they don’t believe.
All but one of these sources spoke over atheists and presumed to define them in ways that atheists themselves wouldn’t recognize.
They did this for two very important reasons. Both relate to evangelicals’ brand of dysfunctional authoritarianism:
- It invalidates atheism as a valid worldview. That invalidation creates a sense of soaring disdain and condescension toward atheist beliefs and atheists themselves. Evangelical leaders hope very much that curious sheep won’t investigate further.
- It makes evangelical flocks feel more optimistic about their chances of recruiting atheists by offering them a surefire strategy to convert atheists. When it backfires and annoys the atheists who are its target, evangelical leaders can smear atheists as hostile, aggressive meaniepies in denial about their secret faith in Jesus.
When evangelicals fear meaniepie atheists and think of them as idiots who refuse to acknowledge a major truth about themselves, that creates even more friction and distance between them and atheists.
As I can tell you from my college years, nothing good (from evangelical leaders’ point of view) happens when evangelicals get too chummy with atheists. Inevitably, I accepted that atheists had reasons for disbelief that I absolutely couldn’t address. And tap after tap turned off above my faith pool.
And now I myself disbelieve Christian claims
When I deconverted from Christianity, I really believed for years that I was the only person who’d been a properly TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and held all of the most correct beliefs, only to realize it was all based on false claims. I thought I was the only person who had ever deconverted over completely valid reasons, too, not because I was angry at God or upset that Jesus hadn’t given me a pony. Nobody had stolen my salvation or my joy.
It just wasn’t true, that’s all. Once I recognized that fact, I couldn’t remain in such a vile religion with such awful people doing such terrible things. Leaving Christianity immediately cleared my head. The universe, the world, and the people within it made sense at last. Everything made sense. The chaotic, shifting sands under my feet stabilized into solid rock.
I’ve never regretted my deconversion for a second, nor found any reason to second-guess my conclusions. Instead, I’ve only ever found more and more reasons to reject Christian claims.
Cue the TRUE CHRISTIAN™cold readers
Imagine my surprise years later when TRUE CHRISTIANS™ began to try to cold read me.
Yes, they arrogantly tried to tell me why I’d really deconverted. I mean, I was there. I think I’d know why I deconverted. But nope, these people who didn’t even know me at the time were all very sure they knew exactly why. And the reasons they plastered across my life didn’t even come close to ringing true.
More than once, I’ve looked one of these cold readers dead in the eyes. I’ve quietly, calmly told them that I can search my heart-of-hearts and find no belief there at all for anything they claim. That faith pool has gone dry for so long that it’s now being used as a skate park by my more impish daydreams.
Atheists did the same thing for me long ago, and it rattled me to the core. I can only hope that it similarly shakes up some chirpy little evangelical like I was decades ago to learn the truth.
And the truth set me free
The Bible says a lot of things that aren’t true about a lot of subjects.
Belief, disbelief, and deconversion are all topics that the Bible’s writers, as well as evangelical leaders, have a lot of vested interest in muddying up. They all need to make their product look like the best one. All others must be made to look inferior. Rejection must always be portrayed as idiotic. Accordingly, the flocks must be taught that they’re the wisest, most discerning, and noblest of all humans. Conversely, those rejecting Christianity must get painted as irrational, evil, craven, self-destructive, and short-sighted.
This strategy ensures that the flocks never get close to any unwashed heathen masses. We non-believers might as well be Morlocks to their Eloi. It also ensures that the flocks will never learn exactly why their tribal enemies really reject their product. The flocks will think everyone rejecting it is dumb and doing it for dumb reasons.
Even reality can’t usually break through that strong an antiprocess field. But maybe it can turn off a few taps here and there in a few faith pools. And maybe that’ll help someone else break free like I did.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!