What is there about the word "atheist" that makes normally sane people act crazy?

Help! I just got off the phone with my best friend. I started telling her about an event I attended recently. When I mentioned the group's name (which included the word "atheist") it was like I had rung a bell for Pavlov's dog! She immediately went on a rant about how she is "sick of atheists," and how "stupid" they are to be "angry at God."

This shook me up because normally she is a wonderful friend. She is a non-practicing Jew who was raised completely secular. I've been open with her about the full extent of my apostasy, and I've even identified myself as an atheist to her before. Perhaps she didn't believe me? What is there about that word?

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From Luara above: "So do you feel angry about it?  Was anger part of your meltdown?"

Maybe I had a little anger, but it was more like part of the grieving process. When I lost my faith, I think I reacted almost like someone who had lost a spouse. God was truly as real to me as my own husband. The stages of grief were very apparent, and I seemed to go through them for many different reasons. Plus I was so distraught that I showed all the signs of PTSD - tremors, numbness, feeling disassociated, nightmares, loss of concentration, and on and on. This went on for months. It was ridiculous, really. I'm doing much better now, and I really need to face the music with my Christian friends. But the fact that this has all been so distressing makes me more afraid of their anger - like a grieving widow who fears that everyone will accuse her of killing her husband.

"Sometimes with a religious friend, they are hoping to convert you and they go away once they give up.  So I guess you might have to brace for tons of chaos and disruption."

Yeah, I think the secular friend from my original question will be fine eventually, but I'm definitely bracing for the worst with my Christian friends. It complicates things because my husband is still a believer and our main social group are all evangelical Christians from our church. Also, his side of the family are all very serious believers: pastors, missionaries, children's directors for their church, etc.

I'll may be surprised at who can handle it well or not at all. They all know I'm "having issues with faith" and I haven't attended church for several months. But I'm still plotting as to how to really come all the way out as a totally settled non-supernaturalist. I've been attending local atheist get-togethers in my area, so I don't want to hide that from them.

Now I understand why some people write a general "coming out" letter and send it to everyone they know. It seems a little over-dramatic but I would love to avoid the endless discussions!

...pastors, missionaries, children's directors for their church, etc.

To the above add priests, nuns, etc.

I'm mighty glad I have none of the above in the family, immediate or extended. I'm free to regard such people as con artists, swindlers, etc.

So Tom, are you saying you've never known a religious leader or teacher who was sincere?

Kathleen, many deluded people express their views with sincerity.

Sincerity is not evidence.

An unidentified person gave us: He who carves the buddha does not worship him.

Hm-mm, I'll google that line.

I found "He who carves the Buddha never worships him."

The site doesn't identify an author.

In fact many con artists and swindlers are sincere.

I got interested in Jim Jones a couple years ago - the charismatic preacher who ended up murdering/ordering to suicide 900 people.  Especially in his early years, he was passionately idealistic.  People described him as the most loving man they'd ever met.  He got some heat for his anti-racism.  People compared him to Jesus.

Jim Jones' group also faked healings.  They would have planted people who claimed to be miraculously cured, etc. 

Jesus also did fake healings.  Many of them were probably magic tricks. 

Jesus seems to have been sincere.  So I asked myself, how does sincerity square with doing magic tricks?  I posted this question in a skeptical forum.  All I got was a disappointing "oh, they're all con artists". 

So I looked into the psychology of cults and cult leaders for myself.  It seems that cult members rationalize deception.  They are convinced that the cult leader really does have supernatural powers.  Many of Jim Jones' followers still believe he had magical powers, knew things he couldn't any other way.  So they rationalize fake healings and magic tricks as a way to convince people of something they "know" is true.  Only the inner circle is aware of the deception. 

The cult leader is probably doing a similar thing.

Over decades, the cult leaders become more overtly corrupt.  They can't entirely deny the ethical problems with deception.  They become disappointed in their project of surrounding themselves with love, unquestioning devotion and admiration.

Thinking of Jesus as a cult leader who was unfortunately crucified before he lost his youthful idealism, dethroned him in my mind.  If the Romans had let him survive, maybe he would have ended up murdering as many people.  Jesus had the same liability to corruption and deceit as anyone else. 

Alternative-medicine types have a similar psychology to cult leaders.  They are generally very nice and warm people.  Mostly, they are convinced their methods work.  Their sincerity helps sell their methods. 

So they rationalize fake healings and magic tricks as a way to convince people of something they "know" is true.  Only the inner circle is aware of the deception.

Luara this is a really good point. I've seen this is the secular world too. My sister was/is a strong feminist, and back in the late 1970s I noticed that some of the studies that feminists on TV referred to were either misrepresented or nonexistent. Now, please realize that I fully supported the issues they said they supported (equal treatment and opportunity, etc.), and I was rooting for them, but it bothered me to see that some were not being honest. I wondered why. 

So I did some research on my own to figure out what the leaders of the feminist movement were really all about at that time. I wisely looked for material in which they were writing to each other, rather than for public consumption. It was very eye-opening to find out that some of them felt perfectly justified in "presenting small lies to defend a bigger truth." I think those were the exact words. They felt it was fine to make up studies and stories as long as their ultimate goal was being served - one they believed in totally.

I saw this same kind of thinking with young earth creationists later. I did not grow up with young earth teaching, but I was interested in following the debate. I saw how often that young earth apologists were corrected in a debate, seeing them even concede the point. Then in the very next debate, the young earther would again bring up the original (disproved) argument as proof of their position. They probably felt justified, just like the feminists of the 70's, in presenting something fictitious because they thought they were supporting a "bigger truth."

I think most follower-type people don't have the time or urge to research details on their own. Followers can include smaller Christian leaders like pastors, missionaries, Sunday school teachers, etc. They tend to trust in the honesty of Christian writers and apologists. Then the follower/leaders pass on all the fictitious supporting "evidence" unknowingly.

I was always cynical by nature, but I still tended to trust those who shared my basic faith. I bought into a lot of the false evidence too, before I made the effort to actually look into myself.

Similarly with the Catholic church covering up for their pedophile priests.  They must have felt the church was doing so much good, they should protect it from the stain of child abuse. 

I fully supported the issues they said they supported (equal treatment and opportunity, etc.), and I was rooting for them, but it bothered me to see that some were not being honest.

I also find some of the feminist rhetoric quite dubious.  Such as "rape is about power, not sex".  That seems aimed to defend against the idea that rape is excusable because the woman didn't dress modestly enough or she was provocative.  But I doubt it.  I think rape is often about a man seeing the opportunity, feeling entitled to sex, having a disrespectful attitude towards women.  A mixture of sex and power-over.  I went to feminist gatherings in the 80's, and there was often a (sexist) expectation that women could be bullied into swallowing rhetoric whole. 

I do also value what feminists say, they speak truths that women often ignore and forget day-by-day, in order to get along. 

It is nice to see that someone else also refers to jesus as a cult leader, Damn these middle eastern cults. At least the european pagans were more open to new ideas.  Europe would have been better off rejecting christianity.

Your husband doesn't know about your naturalism?  That would be very difficult. 

I would love to avoid the endless discussions!

I've found that using Peter Boghossian's Socratic questioning method stops the conversion attempts.  The questioning asks religious people to examine questions they avoid.  I've been experimenting with Socratic questioning online, not just with religious people but with other unsupported statements too.  People go quiet after a bit.  Which is fine with me.  Maybe they're thinking while they're quiet, too. 

When I was in my 20's I had a very religious friend.  I didn't question his belief - allowed him to enjoy his illusions - but it would have been a way for me to be a friend to him. 

Your husband doesn't know about your naturalism?  That would be very difficult.

My husband does know. (Did I make it sound like he didn't?) He's been quite wonderful about the whole thing. But he continues to be a believer, and I'm guessing he might be hoping this is a phase. I try not to leave all my atheist books out at once, haha.

It's our friends from church who don't know my whole story yet. My husband is shy, and it takes years for him to get to know people well enough to relax and be himself. I worry that I will cause stress in the one group where he feels comfortable. I think he might prefer that I don't say anything, but he knows I can't do that.

I've found that using Peter Boghossian's Socratic questioning method stops the conversion attempts.

Yes, I've read Boghossian's book and have it on hand. I think it is going to be very helpful in the future when people want to talk more. But initially, I need to find a way to be fully honest about my own story with those closest to me. Those are the discussions I dread. I know a lot of people. Am I going to tell each one separately? That sounds exhausting.

I know there are some atheists who go for years not telling people about it, but I don't think I can do that. I admire my believing friends, and I've chosen them as friends for their character, not their beliefs. It feels wrong to hide myself. I just haven't figured out the right way to go about it.

But now, I guess I know not to use the dreaded A-word, at least right off.

I admire my believing friends, and I've chosen them as friends for their character, not their beliefs.

Kathleen, those words brought back a memory. Catholicism (12 years in Catholic schools and churches) caused me so much pain, that when I quit (while in college) I resolved to leave so completely that fear of uncertainty would not drive me back. This took a while and I wondered if I would find people I could trust.

Agnosticism met my needs and in time I learned to trust myself. This enabled me to reverse the damage Catholicism had done and I became able to evaluate whether I could trust the people I met. After 50-plus years of happy agnosticism, I came out as an atheist.

How do I deal with xians?

Research I've seen says a "tit-for-tat" exchange resolves conflict quickly. The assertiveness it requires leaves me feeling good.

Polite xians hear a polite response, usually "If I hadn't been in Catholic schools for 12 years I might still believe there's a god." They understand.

Impolite xians hear a usually polite "Religion is the world's biggest fraud!"




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