Liberal Christian’s Guide to Atheism

by Brian on November 13, 2012

If you’re a Liberal Christian, you face a conundrum. You generally consider science to be good and true, you agree with evolution, and you view the bible as more of a book of stories to help you live a good life than historical fact. You may have even gone so far as to condone gay marriage and stop seeing Jesus as a divine being, and instead consider him as more of an idealized role model.

You might be starting to consider yourself more agnostic than purely Christian. You might even occasionally have crises of faith from time to time, but are afraid of being an atheist and what that would mean and what your friends and family would think of you.

But even though you’ve rejected the fundamentals of Christianity as absolute truths, you still feel tied to the church for some reason.

I’ve been an atheist for over 25 years and had a great deal of time to think about why people are attached to God, Jesus, Christianity, and other faiths. (Note: I don’t consider myself an atheist, as I generally consider others to be “theist,” but I will use that word for want of a better one.)

If you’ve wondered what things are really like inside the atheist camp, are undergoing a crisis of faith, or simply want to have more meaningful conversations about faith with your theist friends then this post is for you.

Secondary Payoffs

When I heard the local atheist group was doing a critical bible study meet up, my first thought was, “What the hell for?”

After I thought about it for a while curiosity started to grow on me and I wanted to know why atheists would want to do such a thing and what they hoped to get out of it. I had to go see what this was all about.

The question discussed at the meeting was how to have a conversation about religion with liberal Christians when they freely reject all of the fundamentals of Christianity. The leader of the study, a former pastor, went to work describing what liberal Christians believe–the Bible is not historical fact, God is pure love, evolution is true, etc. And we began to look into the flaws in some of these approaches to Christianity.

Then it hit me. If you’re a relatively open-minded person and a Liberal Christian you’ve found ways of integrating science, history, and religion to minimize the conflicts between your faith and what your eyes see in the world. In fact your faith may have nothing at all to do with the bible, belief in God, or “proof” that Christianity is true.

In psychology there is a concept called “secondary payoffs” where you continue to do something even though you might not necessarily agree with it because you are still getting an emotional payoff from it (usually this is something unconscious that you can’t easily see).

For example, you might have taken up drinking beer to be social even though you really don’t care for it. You don’t particularly like drinking and feeling like death warmed over the morning after, but your friends like to drink and drinking gives you the secondary payoff of having fun with your friends.

Digging these secondary payoffs out of your subconscious mind and taking a clear look at them can give you insight into what keeps you tied to Christianity and what lies on the other side.

It gives me strength to know that someone is looking after me and protecting me

This is probably the big one. There is an enormous amount of comfort in believing that not only does someone have your back, but an all-knowing, all-powerful God has your back.

It might even be the number one reason atheists go back to Christianity when they face hardships in their own lives. As they say in the military, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

I personally have vivid memories from elementary school and middle school of some crisis happening, probably something that seemed really important at the time like finding out that a girl I had a crush on had a boyfriend, then thinking well maybe there really is a God and I’ll pray to him for the strength to get through it.

Even though no one knew about my secret angst and prayers, afterwards I always felt embarrassed.

Psychologist Nathaniel Branden, famous for pioneering a lot of the work in self-esteem, says that the road to healing begins when you realize that “no one is coming to save you.”

It sounds harsh and lonely. But what if it were true?

My answer to that question is that you would have to have unerring confidence in yourself to handle the challenges of life. You do not have absolute power over all of the things that happen to you in life, but you do have absolute power over how you respond to them. And if you get it wrong, you have the power to dust yourself off and try something different next time.

The reason why I always felt embarrassed after praying is that I realized I had knowingly and consciously cut myself off from my own source of power. I had abdicated responsibility for my life and my mind to another being, one that I didn’t even think existed.

How would your life be different if you had complete confidence in your ability to act no matter what life threw at you?

I like the sense of community and supporting one another

Second, if not equally as big a benefit you might be getting from Christianity is the community you get at your church.

You have family friends you’ve known for years, possibly your entire life that you connect with through church. If you live by yourself or tend to be a loner, church might be one of your few regular social outlets that you rely on.

I know people who openly do not believe in God, Jesus, the Bible or any of the trappings of Christianity, but continue to attend church solely for the friendships and support they receive.

If you stopped going to church you might have to make new friends, worse your old friends might hate you or think that you were now condemned to hell.

As social animals, we have a real need for community that can’t be overlooked.

Fortunately, church is not the only way to experience community. You undoubtedly have other interests. Particularly if you’re on the fence about your faith, you might find that regularly participating in your local philosophy group, Paleo Diet club, or basketball team allows you to connect with community on a much deeper level around something that you are truly passionate about.

It makes me feel special to think that God is speaking directly to me

We all crave feeling special. And what could be more special than the almighty, supreme God singling you out and choosing to speak to you, of all people?

It’s intoxicating. Former ministers speak of the ecstasy of feeling that the Word of God flowed directly through them to the congregation.

However, in the back of your mind at some point in time or another this has felt false. As much as you wanted to believe God was really speaking to you, something didn’t feel quite right about it. You may have flip-flopped between feeling like a fraud and insisting that it really happened.

In day-to-day life you might feel like people treat you small, unimportant, or ignored. But you know that you are special because God chose to speak to you.

Atheists who stay atheists–and happy ones–learn to pat their own back. Instead of looking for someone else to think they are special to prove that they are in fact special, first they look to themselves. Give yourself permission to be who you are. Take pride in your accomplishments, no matter how small–even if it’s just tying the perfect knot on your shoelaces.

I don’t think I can face never seeing my loved ones again after they die

Losing a loved one is painful.

My grandfather died a number of years ago. I didn’t know him very well, but I am the spitting image of him. It’s upsetting to think that I’ll never get to talk to him again, and of all the family history that died with him. But that’s life.

I also know that one day my own parents will die and it will be heartbreaking. As an only child, I will be truly alone.

But I find no comfort in thinking that I’ll be able to see them again in the afterlife. Instead I look to the now and to fill the time I spend with my parents meaningfully.

When they eventually die, I just hope that they rest peacefully and that their last thoughts on life are, “well, I had a good run, thanks for the ride.”

If there’s no heaven and no afterlife, what happens to me when I die?

Our own death is even more frightening. The idea that not only do we get to live forever in the afterlife, but there is an ultimate reward waiting for us in heaven is appealing.

The bottom line is that no one really knows what happens when we die. If you’re an atheist, however, most likely that’s it. The end. And a few minutes later after oxygen deprivation causes the synapses in your brain to explode the possibility of being revived on Earth is also eliminated.

How would you live differently knowing that when you died, that was really the end?

Would you pursue your own passions more vigorously? Would you take less crap from other people? Would you appreciate the quality time with your loved ones all the more? Would you celebrate your own achievements even harder?

Many of us suffer in life. Sometimes intentionally. How would you change your life if the rewards in heaven for martyrdom were off the table?

As an atheist, you boldly face your own death. A happy atheist knows they have no power over when and how they die, but they are prepared at any moment to think, “There were ups and downs, but I had a good run.”

Without Christianity, I would have no moral compass

Or in other words, “what’s to stop you god-less atheist bastards from murdering, raping, and stealing?”

There is a lot of exciting work being done in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology right now.

Studies with chimpanzees and other primates have found that they are keenly aware of ideas of fairness, reciprocity, and justice.

Studies with young children have also found that helping behavior comes natural to kids who are too young to have any concept of God.

Evolution has made us pack animals. Not only have we learned intellectually that hunting together and working as a team helps us to collectively survive better, but we actually feel good when we do good. You don’t need to look any further than your own experience to validate this. At some time or another you have helped a friend move, given someone a present for the sheer delight of seeing how happy it would make them, or given street directions to a total stranger unasked.

On the flip side, you may have accidentally stepped on someone’s foot, unknowingly insulted someone, or broken a friend’s golf club. Odds are you didn’t go, “okay, Bible… such and such verse, yup whoops, fucked up. Therefore I feel bad.” You felt bad instantly, and you felt bad just because you did.

The roots of our morality aren’t spiritual, they are biological. Our sense of right and wrong is hardwired, not taught. We implicitly know what is good for us and what is bad for us, and therefore what is good for someone else and what is bad for someone else.

We react emotionally to how our behavior affects other people. Our actions are not subject to the judgment of God, but to the judgment of our own hearts.

God is love

We like the idea of pure, unconditional love. We don’t particularly care for fire, brimstone, and the wrath of God. Liberal Christianity says let’s keep the good and toss the bad. We think the world would be a better place if we all loved one another–indeed it probably would. And if God is pure love that gives us an example to follow and to emulate.

In holding onto pure love we subtly sabotage our minds in what psychologists call “repression.” We have within us the capacity to hate. You’ve undoubtedly experienced hate. Someone cut you off in traffic, got the promotion you wanted, or ate your cheesecake out of the fridge and you were enraged. You might still love a particular relative, but resent them bitterly for something they did.

You might have even chastised yourself for your fit of hateful rage afterwards and failing to embody God’s love.

The potential for hate, anger, and “negative” emotions exists within us all. Trying to eliminate them doesn’t get rid of them, it just represses them. Feeling these emotions doesn’t make you a bad person. What matters is how you act on them.

How free would you feel if you could be completely, non-judgmentally honest with yourself about what you feel?

Sometimes we like the idea that God is love so much because we don’t feel particularly good about ourselves, and if God can love us unconditionally then at least someone does.

Give yourself permission to be nice to yourself. A happy atheist thinks, “I love myself, and I value my own opinion very highly.” The world is tough enough as it is. Learn to be your own best friend.

I just like the idea of something comfortable and traditional

If you’ve read this far and nothing has clicked, you might think, “well, that’s nice and all but none of this really applies to me, I just like the idea of something comfortable and traditional.”

You’re already an atheist, you just don’t know it yet.

I love a good Christmas tree, always have. So did the Pagans before Christians borrowed the tradition. Presents under the tree and family gatherings are a fun thing to do.

We like rites, rituals, and traditions. In my opinion it would be nice if we had even more of them.

An atheist doesn’t view these as being necessarily connected to religion though. Birthday parties and Thanksgiving are good examples of traditions completely unrelated to religion.

You can make your own traditions too. A weekly family dinner that everyone makes a commitment to attending can also be a tradition.

What secondary payoffs are you getting from Christianity?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Julia November 14, 2012 at 12:08 am

Nice summary, Brian, and helpful thoughts.
I have a sense that people who feel no conflict over making Christianity into whatever they want it to be/think it should be are usually people who also lack compulsion to make strong decisions regarding any of this or to change anything in their lives based on the kind of analysis you’ve given here of the consistency or sense any of it makes. Sometimes I envy that; had I been able to go the liberal route, I wouldn’t have had to make any difficult changes or really confront my faulty thinking. But in the end, I would rather have as much truth as I can manage.
I can’t seem to get over my desire, however, to possess a key to opening liberal believers’ eyes to the fact that by narrowing their faith to a smaller set of supernatural ideas they have not made it more rational, intelligent, or admirable. And in fact, I think that they are more culpable than more conservative Christians for the future survival of ideas they claim to loathe.

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Brian November 14, 2012 at 2:07 am

The way I look at things is that you’re never going to reach the people on the far extremes who are committed to their position and will rationalize it any way they need to and get angry that you are messing with their rationalization. They have an emotional block on logic and literally cannot hear what you are saying. Your efforts are better served reaching the “swing voters” who are on the fence and thinking about their position.

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