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.