There are five presumptions that many Christians make regarding non-believers that are destructive and simply not true. As a person who has wavered back and forth between belief and unbelief, I have had to confront these myths frequently. They offend me, insult me, and hurt me every time I am exposed to them, and plainly put, they are a result of an ignorance of the lives of non-believers and experiences outside the Christian community.
1) YOU CAN’T REALLY BE HAPPY OR HAVE MEANING WITHOUT CHRIST AS THE CENTER OF YOUR LIFE. Nine years ago, when I was a single mom and not a believer in Christ or God at all, I was happy, extremely happy. I felt as if I was living out my purpose. I loved my job, I loved my kids, I loved my life. In fact, I have had far greater unhappiness and confusion about the meaning of life as a Christian than with any other belief system. And at times when I embraced no belief whatsoever, I was very much at peace, free from the confusion and ambivalence of believing some, but not all, of the bible. I don’t necessarily think happiness is the purpose of life, and it has nothing to do with my unbelief; however, I get really tired of hearing things about myself that I know are simply not true. For example, I heard a well-known pastor say on a Christian talk radio show the other day, this ridiculous statement: “Have you ever met someone who was not a Christian that was totally, enthusiastically happy? Of course not. Me neither.” Uh, yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve known numerous enthusiastically happy atheists and people who practice other religions as well.
2) YOU CAN’T HAVE A REALLY GOOD MARRIAGE UNLESS YOU PUT CHRIST FIRST IN YOUR MARRIAGE. I have an extremely happy marriage, and Christ is definitely not at the center of it and probably never has been. Although my husband is a man of strong faith and professes true belief and commitment to Christ, I have only been an actively believing Christian for about two and half of the years we’ve been married, and even during these periods, we always put each other first, and still do. We treat each other unselfishly, with kindness, we don’t ever name-call or even shout at each other in a disagreement because we respect each other, admire each other, esteem each other better than ourselves. There is no adherence to traditional roles, no mandate to submissiveness, no ridiculous idea that he, as a man, needs respect more than love, or I, as a woman, need love more than respect. We both need love and respect equally. I believe we would be just as happy with each other and treat each other as well if either one of us were atheists, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhists, or a number of other religions.
3)YOU CAN’T GENUINELY LOVE PEOPLE OR PUT OTHERS BEFORE YOURSELF WITHOUT THE SUPERNATURAL HELP OF GOD. I never had a problem having a soft heart towards a vast number of people. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I believe strongly in mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. I cannot hold a grudge even if I want to. I find it easy to love my students, my family, my friends, and even those I dislike at first, I can easily come to care about if I see the vulnerable side of them. When Christians say this, it makes me believe that they are the ones who have difficulty loving others if they truly believe it takes a supernatural effort to do it. I, personally, don’t find it that difficult.
This is the myth that actually inspired this blog. Because I am pretty open about my inability to believe the bible, I occasionally receive mail or comments from well-meaning people concerned for my soul. I can live with that. There are worse things than knowing that someone out there cares enough about me to pray for me and to worry about where I will spend eternity. So recently, I was open to having a conversation with a Christian woman who said she wished to discuss my unbelief and faith struggles. I should have seen the warning signs that were always there, but I didn’t. I try to assume the best about people, so I brushed them aside, and told myself that I was merely being defensive. I wasn’t.
This particular woman had previously made comments about how she was praying for me to be able to “deal” with my students (I’m a high school teacher). She mentioned a few times how I needed God’s strength to do this. At the time I thought it was strange. I don’t find it difficult to interact with my students. In fact, my students are the best part of my job. They are fun, entertaining, at times sweet, very lovable, intellectually fascinating, and I see them as my “other kids.” I love talking to them, teaching them, I hurt for them when they struggle, I laugh with them about all kinds of things, I listen to their problems, learn from their insights and experiences, and I cry and celebrate when I see them graduate. So, I brushed aside the feeling that she was somehow concerned that I was unable to show kindness to them or care about them merely because I was unable to have faith that God is good or believe the bible. After all, a lot of people who don’t work with teenagers seem to think that that would be the difficult part of the job. It’s not. Almost all high school teachers enjoy their students and consider their time with them the best thing about teaching.
So, I decided to see what she had to say, if she had any insight that I hadn’t considered, but when she contacted me, she made it very clear that she was not concerned about me at all, but for my influence on my students. She implied—no strike that—she told me directly that without God’s supernatural ability to love, I could not show love to my students, and she was concerned and praying for me so that I would have God’s help in order to show my poor students kindness and love. Naturally, I was very hurt and extremely insulted. Not only did she not care about me at all, she assumed I did not care for or treat my students with love and kindness. Newsflash: All people are capable of love, at times unconditional love, at times self-sacrificing love. Christians are not any more capable of this than anyone else. In fact, those who hold dogmatic beliefs, often struggle with this concept more than others, but even they are capable.
4) YOU NEED FAITH IN GOD AND SUPERNATURAL STRENGTH TO BE A MORAL PERSON. Again, I don’t find this particularly difficult. I am not trying to say I am a perfect person, without sin, without a mean thought, or that I haven’t said something I regret that’s hurt someone. I have. But I am a moral person with high standards of ethics by which I actively try to live. I believe most people who have internalized a moral code, whether or not they are believers, tend to do good things and avoid evil things, and those who have low moral standards won’t be any different because they convert to a certain religion. There are a few exceptions to this, but this is my overall experience. In addition, some of the most kind, compassionate, and moral people I have ever met have been atheists. If you need supernatural strength to be moral, then you probably have not really internalized your moral beliefs.
5) IF AFTER BELIEVING IN THE TENETS OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH AND SINCERELY FOLLOWING CHRIST, YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND THROUGH RATIONAL THOUGHT AND INTENSE INVESTIGATION, YOU MUST NEVER HAVE REALLY BEEN SAVED. Well, the last one would only be true if there is no god or no salvation because if one sincerely believed and confessed with his mouth, then according to Christian belief, they were saved. Some Christians believe a person can lose salvation and others believe one can’t. Either way, it does not change the fact that according to Christian belief, they were, at one time, saved.
However, if there is no such thing, then it is true, they never were. Nevertheless, this does not diminish the fact that the belief and profession were once real. Christians should not presume that people are putting on a façade or that they did not truly believe and commit at one time. It is all too easy for Christians to explain away apostasy by assuming there was something wrong with the initial conversion of someone who reneges on a life of accepting what makes no sense without faith and acceptance in the “I’m not God, so I’ll never understand” mentality. It is the only way they can justify anyone abandoning Christianity.
But the truth is, numerous people who were sincere in their faith and commitment at the time of their conversions are leaving the faith daily. Still others are afraid to “come out” with their doubts and questions for fear of attacks from the Christian community as we recently saw in the case of Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay when he merely questioned mainstream religious views on gay marriage.
This is extremely common, but the fact is, people do have questions, and it’s okay to say that the bible does not make sense to them without being accused of being incapable of happiness, lacking purpose, or having a difficult marriage full of conflict. They should not be accused of being incapable of selfless love, powerless to act according to moral behavior, or be accused of “pretending” to be a Christian when they used to actually believe, but have later thoughtfully, carefully, and agonizingly come to the conclusion that they cannot maintain faith in these beliefs.
The perpetuation of these myths that some Christians hold toward non-believers is shallow and destructive to others, which I do not believe is a stated Christian value. Furthermore, it shows a lack of observation and understanding of the real world and the people in it, and serves no purpose apart from inflating the hubris of the pious by believing they have access to special abilities that no one else supposedly does. It would be much more helpful to realize that we are all humans with the same types of thoughts, feelings, fears, and often times, motivations. Christians don’t have a monopoly on happiness and ethics, and we all are capable of goodness, we are all flawed, and we are all human, regardless of beliefs.—Christina Knowles