Monday, March 21, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Good Without God

So, in keeping with the rough outline (or, well, To Do list) that I put up last week, our next topic is being good without God. This phrase gets used in two very different senses, and we're going to look at both of them. Grace notes:
But, in all honesty, though, on most of the deconversion blogs what I've personally encountered has been more, "Free at last," or "I'm a better person without God." "Life is now good."

Let's talk about these responses.

I can be a good person without God.
In the comments on an earlier post, Grace asked:
When people share that they are now better people, more loving, and less judgmental since they have left the Christian faith, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this. I think to myself, "Are we actually speaking of the same faith, the same Lord, here?"

How can people know Jesus Christ, and not be increasing in their love for their neighbor, their care for the earth, their desire to promote peace, etc., at the same time? How can they not over time be becoming more open, and less judgmental, when Jesus says "Judge not that you be not judged.." I mean I could go on, and on here.

From where I sit, I think something in their previous belief system had gone seriously spiritually haywire if they now are more accepting and loving after leaving the faith, than before.

This is... well, in a lot of ways, I completely agree with this assessment. Christianity - at least, the Christianity I was raised in - is supposed to bring hope and comfort, not guilt and stress. It does not expect perfection, but rather our best efforts and the faith that God loves us enough to accept us with (or despite) our inevitable flaws. I read (or, more rarely, hear) people talking about their experiences with Christianity as nitpicky, controlling, rules-oriented; and I think: that's not how it's supposed to be.

But, as we've already discussed: by the time someone gets to the point of outright unbelief, it no longer matters whether the Christianity they left was the gentle, mostly-liberal Christianity of my youth, or given over to the worst excesses of patriarchy, repression, and all the legalism the Gospels ascribe to the Pharisees.[1] By this point, even the basics of Christian doctrine no longer seem applicable to the world the unbeliever perceives.

This leaves us staring at a common point of confusion for believers: how can someone be - or even feel that they are - a better person without God in their life? By extension (as Grace asked), how could the fellow-Christians of these unbelievers have been so cruel, thoughtless, hurtful, and unsupportive if they truly knew Jesus Christ?

And now we have reached the point where, I think, Grace's experience is simply different from that of unbelievers. For Grace (and I hope I'm doing her justice with this description), Christianity is not just a matter of participating in the Episcopal Church; it's also a direct, personal sense of connection with Jesus. And in her experience, that connection has made her a better person.[2]

My experience, on the other hand, has been that being a Christian does not, as a rule, make people particularly better - or particularly worse, for that matter. I can't speak to whether having a direct relationship with Jesus makes a difference, because I don't see any way to determine who really has such a relationship. So, and again sticking entirely with my own experience and observation, Christians can be callous, cruel, or just clumsy with their former brethren because, well, they're people. I suppose you could argue that Christians should do better - because, y'know, they're Christians - but, as far as I can tell, that just isn't how it works.

Which leaves us the first point of confusion: how can someone be - or even think they are - a better person without God in their life? From a believer's perspective, I'd suggest that it's essentially a matter of free will: Jesus may call people to be better, but He doesn't make them better.

No, in my experience what makes someone a better person is nothing more or less than this: trying to be a better person. Christianity might provide a model for how to go about it[3], Jesus may offer a model for your life, but success still depends (in this as in anything) on practice and attention. Watching your actions, making an honest assessment of their effects, and adjusting your future actions accordingly; and then practicing until good choices become good habits. This isn't automatic. It requires alertness, rigorous honesty, and a willingness to question your assumptions. It's frequently a matter of trial and error. It takes work.

And, as we've already discussed, if you're coming out of the sort of rules-oriented Christianity that emphasizes getting every little detail of doctrine right (or just doing as God's Chosen Preacher says), even at the expense of more general principles like kindness, charity, mercy, and empathy... well, then yes: it's no wonder that many former believers feel like they're better people without God.

Life can be good without God in it.
This is the other half of what Grace is seeing expressed by former believers: "Life can be good without God. Life is so much better now. Leaving my former faith was such a relief."

This ties directly into our early discussion of the process of deconversion, and the idea that this process is very much like breaking up with someone (often someone that you thought was your One True Love). The earlier stages - grief, anger, regret - tend to be more private (though I'm sure that isn't always the case). By the time former believers start connecting with other former believers, and/or are ready to start writing about their experiences, they're generally starting to put their lives back together. One of the great discoveries in this stage of the process is that while life won't ever be the same, it can still be good - maybe even better than it was. This is... well, for a lot of people, this comes on with the force of revelation.

So that's part of the reason that you hear this sort of thing from unbelievers: on a personal level, it's a very important realization.

Again, bear in mind that a lot of former believers are coming out of very legalistic, controlling - even abusive - forms of Christianity. Getting away from that can be very freeing: it allows you to quit obsessing over petty, nit-picking, unimportant rules and focus on the stuff that matters. You know, loving your neighbor as yourself; figuring out how best to be kind and fair. Or it lets you stop feeling guilty every time you take care of yourself instead of other people. In some cases, it frees the former believer to trust their own assessments of people, situations, and social or political issues.

If the former believer is coming out of a "turn or burn"[4] version of Christianity, they've probably been told that this is Not Possible - everybody knows that atheists are angry and bitter, after all. There's no way that throwing away their beliefs[5] could have made them better people, or even nicer-but-still-immoral people. And, by the way, God is probably going to punish you for turning away from His Word.

So that's the other reason for the emphasis on how good life can be without God: there are a lot of people out there asserting, loudly and insistently, that this Just Can't Be. Former believers have found that that isn't true - or, at the very least, that it needn't be true - so there's a strong tendency to try to correct that misconception.

...Okay, that was a huge wall of text. Sorry. I'm going to take a few deep breaths and get some work done. If there's anything I overlooked (or didn't express well, or that you think I'm wrong about), feel free to mention it in the comments. Next up, I think, is our closing article: how best to interact with unbelievers if you're a Christian.

Next: Promoting Christianity to Unbelievers | Previous: The Process of Deconversion

[1] I'm told that the historical Pharisees are actually the foundation of modern Judaic thought, and that the presentation of them in the New Testament is... extremely one-sided, if not outright inaccurate. I'm not clear enough on the matter to offer details, but apparently there's an argument to be made that the views ascribed to the Pharisees actually belonged to another group, a century earlier, and that the names were simply updated to the group currently in power when the Gospels were written.

[2] I have no idea how many former believers would have made similar claims before their deconversions, and for our purposes here it does not matter. That's such a personal matter that there's no good way to measure or compare it. So, just to be clear: if you have some urge to debunk or confirm Grace's claims in the comments, don't bother. As D'Ma noted, if former believers still felt the love of Jesus, they wouldn't be former believers; and that's really all that needs to be said on the subject.

[3] And, as unbelievers are prone to note, there are other moral systems that can also serve that purpose.

[4] I love that phrase, and I'm totally keeping it for my own use.

[5] For this mindset, it's essentially inconceivable that unbelievers could have lost their faith. It's axiomatic that they have turned their backs on God. This axiom may be explicit, or it may be completely unconscious and unexamined. Either way, it's a huge stumbling block for believers trying to converse respectfully with unbelievers.


  1. I'm told that the historical Pharisees are actually the foundation of modern Judaic thought, and that the presentation of them in the New Testament is... extremely one-sided, if not outright inaccurate.

    This is my understanding of the issue. Jesus and the Pharisees were probably extremely similar in terms of beliefs. By the time of the writing of the Bible, though, either the Pharisees had become different, the teachings of Jesus were remembered differently, or the Pharisees acted as a stand in for a different group that was actually no longer around and not well remembered.

    In some cases, it frees the former believer to trust their own assessments of people, situations, and social or political issues.

    I knew a guy who was a real smarmy jerkass. But we'd been in the same circles since junior high and I knew his brothers (both of whom were actually very cool). Everyone else loved him because he played the game well (and the guitar). One of those random moments of relief I had was when I realized I didn't have to like him any more.

    I ran in to him at a coffee shop every once in a while. When I finally figured out I didn't have to talk to him but before I was really ready to go public with things I had a hard time dealing with him. All of the sudden there was pressure on me to, I don't even know, not be a bad example of unbelief or something.

    Finally I just decided, "Eh, screw this. He's an ass and I don't like him." So I just made it a point to not talk to him if I ever saw him.

  2. I think that in the church if we just focused on "loving our neighbor as our self," there's almost really not a need for these various rules, and expectations.

    And, if the love and grace isn't there, all the external parameters in the world can't make it right.

    Good stuff, Michael.


  3. There's a saying in the church I attend:

    "Love God with all your soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself and everything else will fall into place."

    Unfortunately that's not what is practiced. Let me rephrase that. It is practiced. It's just that legalism is the means by which that thought is carried out. If you loved God with all your soul, mind and strength, you wouldn't desire to break any of the other so-called commandments. That's the general idea anyway. That if you really loved God you would somehow miraculously become perfect or at least strive to be. I don't disagree with that, but I also don't think it's up to my fellow Christians to enforce it either. There is something to be said for accountability, there is another to be said for judgemental attitudes. It's a fine line and some people can't distinguish it.

  4. I think as a Christian the process of sanctification, so to speak, is not something we can do by our own effort. It's really God's work in us. We need to relax into that, IMO..God knows our frame and understands our limitation .. No one is going to attain to the perfect love of Christ in this life.

    Also, I've been in many churches where people basically are into putting restrictions and judgements on people that I don't really see in the Scripture. I've actually been around folks who assume that if someone drinks alcohol they must be unsaved, or disagrees with the leadership's prevalent political views.

    And, D'MA, I totally agree with your last sentence, a lot of wisdom there.


  5. Becky,

    My understanding of sanctification is the same as yours. That is supposed to be the work of the Holy Spirit, not the brothers and sisters in Christ. However there are many who have decided that the Holy Spirit needs their help in sanctifying others because apparently He's not doing it right.

    The type of church I attend puts those additional restrictions on it's people. That is not the reason I'm having doubts, though. I have enough sense to read the scripture and figure out that those are not commands of God, but of man.

    A portion of the doubts I'm having have to do with the fact that I don't really see any difference between people who supposedly have the Holy Spirit and those who don't. That is not a judgemental attitude on my part. It's a mere observation. In fact, I have much more empathy with those who think they have the Spirit and still struggle with their humanness. They believe they have some extra power, some extra help, in overcoming and yet they don't.

  6. I hear what you're saying, D'Ma. Some of the most mean-spirited, and harsh people can sit in the churches, and there are folks who are extremely compassionate and caring who are completely secular.

    It does seem to me that we don't all start from the same place in our spiritual journey, though. There are people who come to faith out of very authoritarian, and abusive kinds of background. They may have innate temperments and insecurities, that are just, well difficult. Part of it could even be genetic.

    God is working in their lives, and in the end they will be glorious. But, it's a real process with plenty of twists, and turns in the road for all of us, really.

    On the other hand, another person could be totally secular, and yet may have had this wonderfully, stable, loving kind of upbringing. It's almost in the person's very nature to be kind, and non-judgemental.

    Of course, even the very best person falls far short of the perfect love of Christ.

    I remember this quote from a chaplain trying to help, and minister to sex offenders, that it may reflect more a work of God's spirit in someone's life who is a confirmed sex addicted pedophile to honestly seek help, and refrain from molesting one child than we can possibly comprehend, even in trying to follow the Lord.

    Also, I think the church does tend to attract more people with problems, D'Ma. We're this "hospital for sinners." I once heard one pastor joke "tongue in cheek," that this is the whole trouble, the Christian church has to take people in that simply would not be accepted anywhere else..

    I do think that if someone is "in Christ," and growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, they should certainly overtime be becoming a more loving, and compassionate person then they ever were before. If this isn't happening in any measure then like I said, it seems to me that something has gone seriously spiritually haywire.


    Realize my thought may seem a bit random. But, I'm just typing away as this all came to mind. Make any sense, D'Ma?

  7. Yes, Becky, it makes sense. Do I necessarily agree? Meh, the jury's still out on that one. I hope to have a post on my blog in the next couple of days which you are more than welcome to respond to. Michael is right, though, you've had a completely different experience than I and many others have. It may be a bit difficult to put yourself in our shoes, just as it is difficult for us to put ourselves in yours.


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