A Conversation with a Christian

Do atheists hate religious claims?

I recently had this exchange with a Christian friend. I know him from back when I used to be Christian myself:

Jared, a Christian who attends graduate school at a Bible college in British Columbia:

I could not stop laughing at the irony of this [article about “atheist church” aka Sunday Assembly]

Dave Muscato, American Atheists Public Relations Director:

Just because atheists don’t believe in a supernatural god doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy each other’s company, music, hearing interesting speakers talk about interesting topics, and so on. We’re human, you know. I’ve been to some of these and they’re fun. You listen to a rock band, you hear a lecture from a famous scientist or activist or author or whatever, and get to meet them afterward if you want. Then everybody goes to lunch. Religions don’t have a monopoly on human social interaction… I don’t see anything ironic about the idea of atheists congregating. Congregating is something humans do.

Jared:

“Just because atheists don’t believe in a supernatural god doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy each other’s company, music, hearing interesting speakers talk about interesting topics, and so on. We’re human, you know.”

This is not what I find ironic. You seem to be mistaking a social byproduct (and one very particular to religious expression in the West) of religious assemblies for their actual function and purpose. “Enjoying each other’s company, music, hearing interesting speakers, etc” is not a function or purpose of religious assemblies. This is at best only a symptom or byproduct of them, and arguably so only in Western and other developed or capitalistic regions. Outside these regions, you could hardly find any of the sort going on in Christian assemblies. 

The fact that this is the perception you have of churches is yet another sign that you never were a Christian, despite your continuing profession to the contrary. I know that you love to pull that card as it supposedly adds weight and legitimacy to your “flight from faith”, but it really is not winning you any hands. But by all means, go enjoy your “social club” and whatever else that entails.

Muscato:

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for religious people, church is more then that. Church is where transcendence happens. The thing is, since I realized that I was the source of those feelings, and not some external entity, I can have those same feelings pretty much anytime and anywhere I want to. I feel the same awe, the same sense on insignificance and humility, the same connection to something greater than myself – a connection to everything that is.

The difference is simply that I understand that my connection to all life on this planet is biological, not because every living thing was created by some agent. I feel a connection to this Earth in a deeply meaningful way, knowing that every bit of my body is made up of chemicals from all around me, and in this state of continuous flux, I return chemicals to the Earth where they are recycled into other things. I feel a profound connection with the sun, which provides not only light and warmth but the mass that keeps us in a stable orbit and the energy to power plants through photosynthesis, in addition to providing things like vitamin D. I feel a profound connection with trees, which supply us with breathable air, and a profound connection with the billions of billions of microorganisms living inside me, more numerous then my own cells, that make it impossible to say where what is “them” and what is “me.” I am connected to the rest of the universe atomically. When I look at the night sky, and I think about the fact that the light I see has been traveling for millions and millions of years, and finally ends its achingly long journey on my retinas when so many other things could have come in the way first, it amazes me.

I could go on, but the point is that these feelings of awe and wonder and oneness and connection are available to anyone who wants them. They are created by and in our minds, not zapped into us magically. When you experience your god in church, you’re really experiencing something your own mind is doing to itself. The music, the lights, the repetitive driving and droning rhythms, singing along, certain familiar words and phrases all play a role in getting you into this mental state, but it is a mental state. I know it’s tempting to give credit for these experiences to an outside agent, but that is the difference between a theist and an atheist. 

Religion is always taking credit for human accomplishment. In this case it’s quite easy to demonstrate that those transcendent feelings don’t come from a god because atheists can feel it, too.

Jared:

“Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for religious people, church is more then that. Church is where transcendence happens”

Well now, aren’t we so privileged to have you (an atheist) inform all of Christianity why we really gather as the body of Christ. I guess we should all immediately stop our incessant living out and manifesting the kingdom of God and start afresh with having “feelings of transcendence” and “oneness with everything”. Seriously, Dave, where do you get this stuff? Feelings of “transcendence” and “insignificance” do not heal the sick, or cause blind eyes to see, or crooked limbs to become straight. Feelings of transcendence do not cause one person to approach a complete stranger and tell him specific details of his past that only the stranger would know. Feelings of transcendence do not restore in an instant a woman’s awareness of her own dignity and loveliness after years of emotional/verbal/physical abuses of the worst kinds imaginable. None of this is made possible by “feelings of transcendence”. They are the natural outflow of relational knowledge of and encounter with the Son of God who is alive forevermore. 

“When you experience your god in church, you’re really experiencing something your own mind is doing to itself. The music, the lights, the repetitive driving and droning rhythms, singing along, certain familiar words and phrases all play a role in getting you into this mental state, but it is a mental state”

Again, “mental states” do not accomplish all the aforementioned works. The more you claim to know about this matter, the more ignorance of it you show. You do not know what you are attacking. You stab wildly at the air in defense of a worldview you have pieced together from the one that crumbled some years ago. Why did it crumble? Because all along you thought it was about “feelings of transcendence” and “oneness” and “connection” and who knows what.

[I’m skipping some other comments that were tangential]

Jared:

Is there any validity in the notion that an atheist like Dave, one who intellectually hates and is repulsed by any claim whatsoever of a “divine source”, somehow in the end finds himself living in alignment with that source? This is only conceivable if your teleology with regard to the ultimate purpose of the Christian life is “to live a descent life”. I see nothing in the Christian faith or the scriptures that allow for such a teleology so I am forced to call this notion invalid.

When Dave describes his moments of “feeling transcendence” and “oneness”, he readily admits that these are illusions – tricks that his mind plays on him when he is put in certain mental states by environmental stimuli. He further recognizes the tendency he may have to feel connection with something outside himself. Again, however, he has convinced himself that this is just an illusion, though nice to enjoy while it lasts. Perhaps, he thinks, because this gives his life a sense of meaning. Intellectually, however, if Dave really stuck to his own convictions and principles, these illusions are no more able to confer meaning for someone than the moment you appear to see stars flying around you when you receive a good blow to the head. Both are illusions played upon the senses by the mind. What warrant can Dave have in saying the one has meaning when the other does not? They are both illusions. There is no sense, [third person in the conversation], in trying to identify with what Dave has been describing as “feelings of transcendence”. What you are talking about is something Dave has not experienced and chooses not to experience. 

Besides, experiencing God and His kingdom is not really a matter of “good feelings” or “good words” repeated over and over again is it. As Paul says, it is a matter of power – power to raise the dead, power to heal the sick, power to set captives free. What do “feelings of transcendence” have to do with this?

Muscato:

I don’t want to argue about the purpose of church… I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that, as far as magic healing and so on. I do need to point out, though, that your belief that I was never really a Christian isn’t justified. I believed that Jesus was the son of God, that humans were sinful and deserving of Hell, but that because Jesus died on the cross, if we accepted his gift of salvation, we could be spared that. That’s the definition of Christianity in my book. If you disagree, I’d be interested in hearing more about why. I think that the reason it’s important to you to believe that I was never really a Christian is because it’s hard for you to accept that someone could, having felt and experienced a real connection with Jesus, at some later point fail to recognize that. Of course, I don’t see it as a failure to recognize it; I see it as a recognition of what it really was all along, but we don’t have to get into that. I am sometimes tempted to feel the same way about former atheists I meet – it’s hard for me to accept that they were ever really atheists, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t.

The other thing I need to say is that I don’t “intellectually hate” nor am I “repulsed” by any claim whatsoever of a divine source. I hate and am disgusted by many of the behaviors humans engage in when their brains are infected with the virus that is religious fundamentalism, but that’s not the same thing. The claim of a divine source in itself doesn’t make me angry or disgusted. Anger is the emotion you feel when you perceive injustice. Repulsion or disgust is the emotion you feel when you perceive a risk of contamination. I feel neither of these. What I feel is pity and sadness. It may appear to be anger but there is an important distinction if you pay careful attention to what I write and say and so on. I am angry at people who try to use religion to bully others, or use religion to make other people suffer, or use religion to defraud people, or use religion to stifle scientific progress, or use religion to subjugate women, or use religion to justify bigotry, or use religion to justify war, or use religion to steal credit for human accomplishments. I get frustrated when I see people misunderstanding certain aspects of logic and statistics and so on, but it doesn’t anger me; it’s more just that I think it’s unfortunate that they are ignorant about cause and effect and magical thinking and so on. And the pity comes when I think about the people who do not understand that they are being taken advantage of or that they do not have to imprison themselves in rules that aren’t really there. I feel sadness because so many people are living out their one and only lives in a fantasy-land. That is what I really feel, not hatred or anger.

 

I do want to be clear that I think religion is the most vile, puerile, barbaric, and damaging invention humans have ever come up with. It is incalculably dangerous and has caused more suffering than anything else throughout history or in the world today. If I could rid the world of religion in an instant, I would without hesitating. But like science, religion can be used for good or for evil. What this really tells us is that morals are independent of and separate from both. Science allows us to accomplish certain things, and those things can decrease suffering (surgery, air conditioning, etc) or increase suffering (torture devices, nuclear bombs, etc). Religion can decrease suffering (cause people to decide to commit their lives to being charitable, although it is my opinion that absent religion, these same people would likely have made that choice anyway, e.g. working for a non-profit) or increase suffering (open any newspaper and take your pick). I do hate what religion causes people to do, but since people are also the source of religion, it’s really people who do this to each other—via indoctrination, via forced conversions, via state churches, etc—and people who do this to themselves.

Part of the reason I became an activist is that I want people to know that they can free themselves from the personal turmoil of being religious. The world is not some cosmic battleground between good and evil. It’s just chemistry doing what chemistry does under the conditions of observed patterns (we call them laws) of physics. Given enough time and the right conditions, chemicals can form life, and eventually you get conscious entities like us. That’s it. Existing chemicals on this planet and energy from our star come together to make up our bodies, we live for awhile, and then we die. Life is so short and it breaks my heart to see people wasting away their time, money, energy, and passion on something so damaging and so childish and so ridiculous as religion. There are so many better and more meaningful ways to experience life, ways that don’t hurt other people, ways that don’t put your brain in this self-imposed prison of fear. I want my fellow humans to enjoy the same freedoms that I enjoy. I want people to be able to express themselves through fashion instead of wearing what ancient bigots allegedly said people have to wear. I want people to be able to express themselves through dancing and art and music and tattoos regardless of what ancient bigots allegedly said is off-limits. I want people to be able to enjoy sex with whomever they want, given that we’re talking about consenting adults, regardless of what ancient bigots allegedly said. Life is just too short to  live by other people’s rules, especially when there is absolutely no authority behind them.

If you want to know what it’s like to be free, the most amazing thing about being an atheist is that there is no such thing as a thought-crime. There is no one to punish you for being curious or for wanting to try a certain food or dress a certain way or be attracted to someone you can’t help but be attracted to (regardless of the sex of either of you) and so many other “forbidden” things. If you want to say “God damn it,” you can. If you want to sleep in on a Sunday, you can. If you want to genuinely help hungry people without forcing them to sit through a sermon first, you can. If you want to mock Muhammad, you can do that, too. I’m not saying there are no rules—we still do live in society and we do still all have to get along with each other—but people don’t have to be afraid of something that isn’t there. There is no cosmic judge. We humans are responsible for ourselves; we’re responsible for our own planet, for our own governance, for our own justice, for our own ethics, for our own mistakes and joys and meaning in life. Being an atheist to me, above all, is about being free. There’s no feeling like it.

– Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director
(908) 276-7300 x7
[email protected]

  • SpaceAtheist

    God damn it – you are awesome Dave!! I especially agree with your statement about religion taking credit for human accomplishment. The religious nuts love to say God healed them, after they have visited the doctor and taken the medicine that SCIENCE made available!! They don’t even want to give doctors credit for years of study, but would rather say god gave them their abilities. They actually have no shame and the damage done by religion is incomparable.

  • Glenn S.

    What a fantastic read. Dave is the man.

  • keyser

    We don’t hate religious claims. We laugh at them.

  • Scott

    If there is no God and no meaning or purpose in life and we are alll just a result of evolving monkeys than why is it wrong to Kill somebody or where do we get our morals. You do believe in those don’t you. If you don’t, don’t be surprised when some one shoots a bunch of peoples because he was helping survival of the fittest.

    • Glenn S.

      There IS a purpose in this life. Experiencing life, loving, learning, all purposes in life. Everyone has their own path. Atheists know THIS is the only life we all have, and most of us treasure this life. We know there is no afterlife. Why is it wrong to kill people? Because it is wrong, period. It’s also wrong to steal, lie, hurt people, etc. etc. I love how religious folks speak of “Morals”, when the Bible is full of rape, murder, slavery, child-marriage, infanticide, stonings, be-headings, adultery, pestilence, smiting, lying, incest, misogyny, polygamy, the list of Bible atrocities goes on and on. When you engage on a path of open mindedness and learning, an in with a science education, you will realize that your “Religious” method of having the answer in your mind first before you proceed with the search for answers is demonstrably false.

      • Reji

        Hi Glenn,
        i dont know you and never get into the atheist arguments about God. But i really want you to know and study about “born again”. I know all you mentioned are in Bible (old Testament) but that’s why Jesus taught us the New Testament – The Love of God. to taste this love you have to believe it. Supernatural is only happen when you submit yourself to God completely. I luv you because Jesus loves us and made us one infront of God’s eyes. God Bless You.

        • SpaceAtheist

          Wow. The religious lies astound me. Now here we have a born again Christian claiming that atrocities are only found in the old testament. I truly believe that most religious people have absolutely no idea what is contained in their holy books. Some of my favorites from the new testament: children who curse their parents should be killed, servants who don’t heed their masters should be beaten with many blows, homosexuals deserve death and animals who set foot on mt. zion should be stoned to death. 2000 years of religious brainwashing. The gift that just keeps on giving.

        • Glenn S.

          Jesus never actually existed. You are worshiping the sun, just like all other religious fools. But keep telling yourself your little story.

          • Doodle

            True. Even if he did the fruits of his labours are destruction and pure evil.
            I think Buddhism will surpass Christianity eventually, because most of the teachings were already in Buddhism, and the followers of Jesus were few, and the latter apostles never even knew the earlier apostles. Paul apostle makes most of the Bible he born perhap 1-2 A.D. Born in Turkey, traveled to Jesruselem around 18-19 years old, schooled by the Jews greates Zealot Pharisee teacher Gamiel. 40 years later Paul became a zealot Christian, conspiracy by the pharisee’s? who knows. and yet Christian’s existed hundreds of years before Jesus to Serapis the god Christ.
            Point is. If something is importantant to God He should show it. If not. It’s not important.

          • Keith Goode

            I think we need to be careful when claiming Jesus never existed. If you are referring to the gospel Jesus of the New testament I’d agree with you because the only evidence for a Gospel Jesus is that found in the New Testament itself. Many Christians would dispute this claim but both Christians and non-Christians often fail to differentiate between the Gospel Jesus on the one hand and any other Jesus that may or may not have lived around the same time. Most of the resulting disagreement about Jesus thus arises because of this failure to define which Jesus is being talked about.

            The real question to ask is “was there ever any Jesus who was not the Gospel Jesus?” If there was a
            historical Jesus then we have to accept that we are not going to find much evidence for his existence. If he did exist, and on balance I think that he probably did, he was only one of thousands of ordinary Jews around at the time and you would not expect him to leave much of a “historical footprint”. If thisJesus was a Galilean Jew with fundamentalist’s leanings, as were many from rural Galilee, there is a slight chance that he would have attracted the attention of the Jewish establishment, particularly if he proved popular with
            fellow Jews. If his popularity eventually became a threat to the Jewish establishment this in turn would have increased his chances of being crucified to shut him up, but even if he was crucified, it’s doubtful that anybody bothered to record the event for posterity.

            The only contemporary of any such Jesus to leave written records is Paul who put a lot of effort into establishing fledgling churches based on a character
            called Jesus, but only after he had stopped persecuting the followers of a character called Jesus. This would suggests that a Jesus must have existed
            around that time, unless of course you want to reject Paul’s evidence as unsubstantiated, in which case you need to substantiate why you chose to do so. We also know that the Jews ultimately rejected a character called Jesus on the grounds he was not their long-awaited savior Messiah, unless of course you choose
            to reject this also. Couple these two aspects with the somewhat scant historical records that do exist [Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and the Younger Pliny],
            records by the way, that you would not expect to exist without some basis for so doing, and you can just about conclude that a historical figure called Jesus
            did in fact exist around the period of interest. However, none of this flimsy evidence remotely suggests that this historical Jesus was the Gospel Jesus cited in the New Testament. There is nothing other than this New Testament to indicate that this Gospel Jesus ever existed.

            So on balance I think we can say that there probably was a historical figure called Jesus who was just an old-fashioned Jew with old-fashion views on Judaism, and the fact that we have any records at all of this historical non-entity is testimony to his popularity with rank and file Jews. We can reasonably assume that this popularity eventually led to his crucifixion. Of
            the several historical mentions of this charismatic Jesus, only Josephus in his “Antiquities of the Jews” makes passing reference to his crucifixion. We can
            also say with some confidence that this historical figure was not the Gospel Jesus mentioned in the New Testament.

          • Pat Flannery

            The evidence is actually weaker than that, and the total absence of mention in the historical record more suspicious. Josephus is the only one of the writers you mention who actually mentions Jesus specifically, and much of what he did write (a whole two or three sentences out of a huge, multi-volume history of the Jews) is thought to be forged additions by later editors. The other three made reference to Christians, years after Jesus’ death, which is not the same as a contemporary reference to Jesus.

            All in all, the near-total absence of any reference to Jesus outside the Gospels is actually a big problem for Christians. Multiple, mutually reinforcing references exist for much less important people – merchants, tax collectors and the like. Miracles aside, Jesus was supposed to have created large disturbances when he entered Jerusalem and appeared at the temple. He supposedly attracted the attention of the top rabbis and the Roman governor of the area. Yet none of this was noted by the historians living and working in the area at the time.

            The only solution for defenders of the historical Jesus is to say he was much less famous in his life than the Gospels suggest and much of his legend was constructed by his followers later. Which is pretty much what atheists have been saying for years. And forget about him performing miracles that were witnessed by dozens or hundreds of people – such a thing certainly would have been noted by many contemporary writers.

            I think the question becomes, at what point does the “history” of a person’s life become so divorced from the actual person’s actual life and identity that it is no longer valid to say we are talking about the same person. I don’t care if there was some rabbi named Jesus in ancient Jerusalem. If nothing about his life matches the stories that are told about him today, then his existence is almost perfectly irrelevant – a tree falling in an empty forest. It only confuses the issue to say this Jesus existed and that one didn’t. No, the only Jesus that matters, at all, to anyone today, NEVER EXISTED.

          • Keith Goode

            Hi Pat, I agree that a potential “historic” Jesus would be a total historic non-entity and you make some excellent points about the lack of historical substance. I also agree that the relevant passage by Josephus was later subjected to extensive interpolation. However, it is generally accepted today that the reference to the crucifixion of a character called Jesus is genuine, although this character is obviously not the gospel Jesus. Your closing comment “It only confuses the issue to say this Jesus existed and that one didn’t. No, the only Jesus that matters, at all, to anyone today, NEVER EXISTED” is absolutely true but I have a vested interest in maintaining that an historical non-entity called Jesus did in fact exist. This vested interest will become apparent if you read my blog called “Could Christianity have evolved without God’s help?” which can be found at http://keebostick.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/could-christianity-have-evolved-without-gods-help-2/

          • Pat Flannery

            Thanks for the link, Keith. Your blog is a good read. I totally see where you are coming from. Postulating a mortal Jesus does help us construct a theory of Christianity that doesn’t require divine intervention. Other theories of where the Jesus myth might have come from remain, but yours certainly has the benefit of simplicity and plausibility. Nice work.

          • Keith Goode

            Hi Pat, glad you enjoyed the read and found my argument plausible. Trying to disseminate it as best I can but it’s an uphill struggle.

        • Doodle

          Slaves be subject unto your masters is New Testiment. Your love is like a sting from a hornet. And your filthy lies continue.

    • Pat Flannery

      So if having religion infuses morals that prevent people from shooting each other, we would expect the most religious society in the developed world (the U.S.A.) to have the lowest number of shootings.

      Try again, Scott.

      • Believer in God Forever

        Pat , get your facts straight.

        • Pat Flannery

          Oh, they are.

    • Doodle

      With apes we share a proven biological ancestor. Scripture will have to explain. As far as killing, the Jewish God required killing, perhaps some to which was not completely objectionable, at least to me. Because he slewed nations, and I wouldn’t mind doing it today. Bing ape or no ape.

    • Cthulhu21

      I know this goes off tangent but I would still like to state this: We didn’t evolve from monkeys, we have a common ancestor with them and evolved separately.
      Just wanted to make that clear.

  • Dan

    You don’t need to have religion in order to have morals my friend, you just need to have basic human empathy. You can answer the question of “Is shooting someone wrong?” with a simple “Yes, yes it is wrong. Its wrong because I wouldn’t want to be shot, and I wouldn’t want someone I know and love to be shot.” Fear of a terrible afterlife should not be the only thing keeping you from harming other people. If it is, that is a deeper problem.

    • Jo

      Well Dan, the only problem with your argument is that by that logic there shouldn’t be any crimes at all. There shouldn’t be any shootings, and everyone should be all super nice. But as we all know this is no paradise on earth. Also “it’s wrong because i don’t want it to happen to me” is not a very good logic. We don’t want to get eaten do we? Yet we eat other animals all the time. Where’s the basic human empathy there?

      • Doodle

        Well jo you’re right about the animals being eaten. Jesus would beg for the suffering farmed animals suffer he never seen..Imagine being born in darkness, mutilated in darkness, murdered in darkness. No one to hear or see. Although I am a devout vegan unlike most atheist,, so with me dans rule applies, but he is a hypocrite though, as you’ve pointed out, and you are of a christian persuasion, which I despise.
        If it were up to me. You Christian’s would be shipped to Muslim countries for conversion or death. One of the two, so eventually you understand seperation of church and state, and atheist wouid be eating vegetable delights, because I like their freedom.

  • charlie Mcadams

    I wonder how people can think that an atheist could be angry at what they depict as fiction. If God does not exist, one cannot be angry at him/her. It would be like hating Santa Cause or the Easter Bunny.

    • Doodle

      I didn’t realise the Easter Bunny was attempting to regulate peoples lives.

  • Angela Griffith

    The person who wrote this article was never a Christian. To be a true christian is to know Christ, to receive Jesus as lord and savior,to have a relationship with him.ATrue christian can hear him speak ,so you know he’s real. So if you’ve never experienced that you never known Christ. So I don’t understand why some people who’ve never experienced meeting him ,can say without a doubt it’s not real,sad!

    • Mike Kessner

      Spoken in fluent christianese

    • Glenn S.

      Nothing says “Not Gay” by taking a swig of wine, getting on your knees, and accepting another mans body into your mouth. Why, again, are the religious so against homosexuals?

    • Doodle

      you know Angela Griffith sometimes i get horny and you might be attractive enough to ride my pony express

  • Kevin Perry

    I’ve never felt more alive now that Christ is in my life. I now have a purpose to live and something to look forward to in the future! Jesus didn’t come to take away our happiness. Quite the contrary, He came to give life meaning.

    • Doodle

      Boring, trivial, unusual melodrama seen throughtout human history towards dieties.

  • Believer in God Forever

    Why yes, anyone can do anything, no one would make the choice of harming another. If personal satisfaction is the goal , why not torture and kill if you can get away with it, if you want it. Chemicals having fun.

    • Doodle

      Originally Athiest Communist Russia made by a Jew, son of a thousand Rabbis and a former Christian himself Karl Marx and his father was Christian, yet you couldn’t do what you listed there, and nothing unauthorised by the state. They were atheist. You’ll find with Athiest no difference from you. I find with Athiest a closet Christian most of the time. I am more like old west American of the outlaw unbibled west. God doesn’t stand in my way or make me weak.

      • Doodle

        Plus unlike hypocrite you. I the animal rights vegan. Can live with not justifying myself with God for the weakness of eating meat. Or murdered animals that you consider pain free.

        • Doodle

          You Believer in God are an ass.

  • Doodle

    Good going Dave. Jarhead just don’t get it.

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