Counfounding stereotypes

Last Sunday I went to a friend’s Evangelical church. I know what you’re saying, “Eshu, what were you thinking?”. No, I didn’t go just so I’d have something to write about. I’m genuinely interested, although more in the people and why they believe what they do than the beliefs themselves. Perhaps weirdly, I don’t think I would’ve gone had I not spent the last year or two reading atheist blogs and articles; I would’ve felt unprepared. I probably would’ve just ended up disagreeing but not really being able to say why. Which would’ve been frustrating.

I was trying to step outside my comfort zone and I certainly felt pretty uncomfortable. Not that anyone made me feel that way. I get the impression most of them knew I was new there and not a Christian. However, everyone was friendly and welcoming, as I guess people tend to be when they’re trying to build a church community. It’s just that two hours of listening to people sing and pray and hold their hands in the air gets a bit tedious. So I stood there uncomfortably and observed.

It was mostly progressive, modern style religion. Forgiveness, love, healing – all that nice-sounding stuff. Praying handsSome people came up to the front to be prayed for. Periodically members of the band were passed the microphone to guess what ailments others in the church might be quietly suffering from before the audience was told, “If that’s you, please come forward and be healed”.  The guesses ranged from “A hollow feeling inside your chest” to “Stomach pain”. People came forward, but it wasn’t clear if the guesses were right or how much they were helped.

Feeling a little awkward after the service I offered to help tidy up and this gave me an opportunity to chat with people individually. They were all appreciative of my helping even though I’d never been there before. Apparently some church regulars had managed to shirk the clearing up rota for several years!

Notably, one woman whom I started helping asked if I’d enjoyed it and seemed concerned that I might have been bored or put off.

“I wouldn’t want you to leave here hating Christians or hating God!”

I replied, “No, everyone’s been very friendly and I could hardly hate something I don’t believe in – you don’t hate Zeus do you?”

(Laughing) “No, I suppose not!”

Not hating GodI continued to chat with her as I helped carry various bits of furniture back to the church’s garage. She was in her late thirties, friendly and apparently unconcerned with the details of her religion. She certainly didn’t come across as bigoted nor even suspicious and resentful, not that I expected her to be. I guess maybe I am lucky in finding the nicer Christians.

However, I was shocked that her opening greeting contained such a egregious misrepresentation of atheists – that we hate God and/or Christians. I doubt this was an opinion she came to through her own experience, so I guess it was suggested by others in the church group.

It seemed that she was genuinely surprised I was a thoughtful, decent non-believer who actually knew a few things about the Bible. I was a curiosity. Maybe I’m getting carried away with my optimistic speculation, but I thought that realisation – that I wasn’t actually evil – put some doubts or questions in her mind. Questions like, “Why is this guy nothing like the atheists I’ve heard about?”.

I suspect in the majority of cases, believers are more likely to have their minds changed by meeting decent honest atheists than the best of highbrow arguments. This seems to be supported by Kieran Bennett’s post on de-conversion based on a huge quantity of Christian de-conversion stories. In the list of reasons why Christians deconvert tied for first place was:

The realisation that religious dogma contradicted observable reality was the second most an equally common reason for de-conversion cited within the sample (also at 14.89%).

The illogical stereotype of atheists as misanthropic god-haters is so common it might be considered a religious dogma, at least one supported from the pulpit if not by scripture. Confounding this stereotype is important for many reasons. To establish dialogue, stand up for ourselves and especially to call into question the authority of those who spread these lies.

7 thoughts on “Counfounding stereotypes

  1. I was asked by a minister why an atheist like me would go to church. I said, “Because I was invited.”

    I think your experience is typical. Usually when I go to church, nobody has any idea that I’m an atheist. Probably because I am an ex-christian and am very familiar with the rituals. People are usually shocked to discover that I am an atheist. Seems that I don’t fit the stereotype. I doubt that there are many atheists that do.

  2. I think the reason that so many Christians think we hate them is that their religion is so entwined with their sense of self that any attack on it is viewed as a personal assault. I have (had) one friend who, sadly, decided that because I was no longer a Christian she could no longer be friends with me – in her words, “Every time I look at you it’s like you’ve slapped me in the face” (I hasten to add that no actual slapping was involved…). The reason? By being – just by being an atheist – I was subtly saying her religion was worthless, and by extension, that she was worthless. No amount of explanation availed.

    The inexorable grasp that religion has on people’s minds makes them believe it is a part of their own psyche. Thus, any animosity towards religion is by their definition, ad hominem.

  3. yunshui,

    That’s heartbreaking to hear. I bet you really tried to reason with her too.

    I can see why some brands of religion try to encourage this sort of thinking (the JWs do it to extremes). Cutting people off from people outside the religion encourages the one-view mindset and no doubt scares the bejebus out of anyone considering leaving, if their only friends are within the religion. It’s frightening and cult-like.

  4. two hours of listening to people sing and pray and hold their hands in the air gets a bit tedious

    There are plenty of Christians who would agree with you. Unless they are planned and executed well, services that go beyond 60-75 minutes get tedious for even the most fervent believers.

  5. Chaplain:

    Ugh, don’t remind me. Far too many many hours of my life were lost to droning sermons of such unutterable tedium that space-time appeared to distort and a single hour lasted for about two weeks. 60 minutes of atheist ranting, however, goes by much too quickly – but at least I can do the ironing at the same time.

  6. Great post!

    I think by being thoughtful and considerate, an atheist can do lots of good to fight against the negative stereotypes.

    If you are the only atheist a believer ever encounters and you are insulting and rude, you will only serve to strengthen the stereotype.

  7. Thanks amiable. Indeed at the very least we can try not to conform to the stereotype. Small steps, I guess.