Why are people nontheist? No, it’s not bad Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 October

Nontheists are people who live their lives with zero concern for God. They don’t believe he even exists, or doubt his existence enough to act as if he’s not. They won’t always call themselves atheists or agnostics, ’cause those guys tend to be antichrists and jerks: They’re not anti-religious. They’re simply not religious.

Why are people nontheist? Simple: It’s how they were raised. They had nontheist parents. Like my dad: My grandparents never outright said they didn’t believe in God, but nothing they did ever indicated any belief, and that’s what they passed along to their kids. My aunts and uncle went other routes, but Dad decided upon atheism.

Now what about people who weren’t raised nontheist? Well, Brennan Manning, a former Franciscan priest who became a popular author and public speaker, had a theory that’s become very widely accepted among Evangelical Christians.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Kevin Max reads the quote before the song “What If I Stumble?” off DC Talk’s bestselling 1995 album Jesus Freak. A lot of Evangelicals listened to that album, heard the idea, thought it brilliant, and spread it far and wide. We still claim it’s true: People become nontheist because Christians suck. So stop sucking! Quit being such jerks and love your neighbor! Be compassionate, be loving, be kind, and win people to Jesus by actually being like Jesus!

And yeah, I’ve known various ex-Christians who quit Christianity because their fellow Christians were awful to them. Like gay kids whose parents drove them away (and called it “tough love”—like they’re gonna shun the gayness out of them). Like kids who dared question their legalistic parents, and the parents decided it made ’em apostate, and the kids actually became apostate. Such ex-Christians aren’t necessarily nontheist: Many do believe in God, but they no longer identify as Christian, so they’re pagan. But they might not be pagan had they experienced God’s love through God’s supposed people.

So yeah, maybe the greatest single cause of paganism today, is Christians who don’t properly demonstrate Jesus’s love. Like all humans, pagans are looking for love and acceptance, and if they don’t get it from Christians, they’ll seek and find it elsewhere.

But nontheists?—people who don’t believe in God altogether?—meh.

I’d recommend we stop swallowing Manning and DC Talk’s idea whole, and actually talk to some nontheists. You’ll find out really quickly their objection actually isn’t Christians behaving badly. (Though it certainly doesn’t help!) They don’t believe in God because they don’t find the God-idea reasonable.

The “angry at God” hypothesis.

Problem is, Christians don’t talk to nontheists. Or don’t listen when they do talk. But we’ll surely listen when Christian apologists talk, and believe them. And apologists tend to perpetuate the myth that people turn nontheist because they’re angry at God.

To be fair, sometimes it’s true. Sometimes. A little girl prays for a pony for her birthday, and doesn’t get it, and throws a tantrum and tells God, “Well I don’t believe in you anymore!”—and over time this evolves into real atheism. Or a worried dad prays for his son to recover from COVID-19, but the boy doesn’t and dies, and the grieving parents destroy their marriage because they don’t know how to comfort one another, and the dad blames all of this on God, whom he figures couldn’t answer prayers anyway because he’s not there, or doesn’t care, or whatever excuse allows him to mute his rage. And conscience.

Or, as I mentioned before, Christians quit Christianity because they were raised by bad Christians. Or were taught God is harsh, dispassionate, unfeeling, uncaring, secretly evil, or one of many messed-up ideas I’ve heard from various preachers. Understandably they don’t believe in that God. Nor should they.

So that’s the hypothesis we find in a lot of condescending Christian apologists. Heck, that’s how a lot of ’em became apologists! They got angry at God. They decided they didn’t believe in him anymore. But another apologist brought ’em back around, by appealing to their logic instead of their emotions. And now they try to bring people around by appealing to logic instead of emotion: “Don’t just reject God because you don’t wanna believe in him. Consider the facts, people.”

There’s this ridiculous movie called God’s Not Dead. You don’t have to watch it if you’d rather not. The title comes from a Passion song which was later covered by Newsboys. (Whose lead singer is Michael Tait, formerly of DC Talk, so there’s a fun little connection there.) The movie and its sequels are popular among Evangelicals, ’cause it pokes us right in our most paranoid fears of persecution. In it, Kevin Sorbo plays an angry-atheist philosophy professor named Radisson who tries to force his students to declare God is dead. Putting aside the fact Radisson would easily face disciplinary action for violating his students’ First Amendment freedom of religion (not to mention the illogical phrase “God is dead” implies he used to be alive), it turns out Radisson is atheist only ’cause he’s angry at God because his mother died. Not a shocker.

Evangelicals love to say to such atheists, “How can you be so angry at someone when you don’t believe he’s real?” (Yep, the line comes up in God’s Not Dead as well.) It’s not that great of a zinger. It’s really easy to hate imaginary beings. You do it—every time you hate a bad guy in a movie or book. Plenty of antichrists are angry at God in the same way cult watchers get angry at cults: They’re figure people are being deceived, misled, manipulated, and robbed. They want it to stop! I get that; I feel the very same way about certain religions.

But not every nontheist, not every atheist, not every antichrist, got that way because they’re angry at God. Some do. That’s not all.

So let’s hear out an atheist.

Hemant Mehta blogs at Friendly Atheist, ’cause he’s a friendly atheist: He doesn’t believe in God, but he isn’t a dick about it. (Well, most of the time. Sometimes he nudges into that territory. I’m gonna take his word for it he doesn’t intend to.) Mehta was raised Jain, but became atheist in high school.

Hemant Mehta, “We’re Not Atheists Because You’re Bad Christians.” YouTube

He doesn’t believe in God for pretty much the same reasons I don’t believe in Zeus. In the attached video he addresses the Brennan Manning quote directly, and I transcribed most of it for you.

There’s this idea in Christian circles that the reason a lot of us are atheists is because a lot of Christians aren’t “Christianing” right. They’re hypocrites. Or they’re not generous enough. Or they don’t talk about their faith as much as they should. They think that whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing makes sense. Like if they were actually nice to gay people, we would just forget that a lot of them actively oppose LGBT rights. Sure.

The late Christian author Brennan Manning famously said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, but walk out the door and deny him with their lifestyle.”

He could not have been more wrong. The problem isn’t the messenger. The problem is the message.

If Pat Robertson and Ted Haggard and all those other televangelists weren’t around, it might be a little harder to laugh at Christianity, but if they weren’t around it’s not like all of us would start praising Jesus all of a sudden. It’s easy to point out the hypocrisy; it shows that Christianity isn’t even good at the one thing it’s supposed to be good at doing, y’know: Making you a better person. Y’know, Christianity, you had one job, and you failed.

But we’re not atheists because a lot of Christians are unable to live up to some ridiculously high standard. To paraphrase my friend Neil Carter, no atheists have ever argued that we would believe in the divinity of Jesus if only Christians lived more biblically. We’re atheists because Christian doctrine just doesn’t make sense. And neither does the doctrine of any other religion, for that matter. We’re atheists because all the evidence points away from faith.

Because snakes don’t talk. Because humans aren’t inherently bad just because a woman had the nerve to acquire some knowledge. Because the world wasn’t created for our benefit—no, we’re lucky to be here. Because the world wasn’t created in six days, no matter how long you think those days actually were. Because living your life according to a single book is a horrible idea. Because if the stories from the bible happened today—if someone said they rose from the dead, or a virgin said she just gave birth—we would dismiss it in a heartbeat, or we would look for the loopholes. Just because something took place “a long time ago” doesn’t mean it actually happened.

Because no one else can die for your sins and take responsibility for your actions. That’s on you. Because prayer is a placebo and no one is listening. Because we have free will and God doesn’t know what our future holds. Because the Christian God’s “unconditional love” has a hell of a lot of conditions.

So stop with the lie that Christians who behave badly are giving the faith a bad name. No; it’s your beliefs that are giving your faith a bad name. You just aren’t helping. Sometimes the problem isn’t the users; the problem is the product. If you want us to take you more seriously, then just stop believing silly things. It’s as simple as that.

But you being nice isn’t gonna make us stop thinking critically.

That’s been my experience whenever I’ve talked with nontheists. Try it yourself sometime. You’ll find the first thing they object to isn’t how Christians misbehave. Oh it might, if some of our bad behavior made recent news. But usually what they go on about is some Christian belief they can’t accept. Like young-earth creationism. Like virgins giving birth. Like resurrection. Like the miracle stories in the bible. Or like the commands which strike them as ludicrous or way too harsh, or the straight-up genocide in Joshua and Judges.

Nontheists have had no God-experiences—or have, but simply haven’t found ’em convincing enough. So it stands to reason they have serious doubts about God’s activity.

Same as I have had no Zeus-experiences! I don’t believe in the Greek thunder god Zeus for the very same reasons nontheists don’t believe in Jehovah: I’ve had no interactions with that god, don’t think he exists, don’t believe the Iliad or the myths, and think his worshippers are nuts. You probably believe the very same way. Now, if any of us ever had a real live Zeus-experience, we’d probably rethink everything… although if we believe in Jesus strongly enough, we’d likely figure “Zeus” is some demon pretending to be a god. Nontheists don’t believe in demons either, so such an experience would upend their whole belief system, whereas ours would just require a little adjustment.

But there’s the core issue right there: People won’t believe when they simply don’t find it believable. Give ’em all the clever arguments you can muster, but they just won’t work.

It’s why I keep saying we’ve gotta quit with the arguments and introduce them to God himself. He’s gotta give ’em a God-experience. He’s gotta make them doubt their doubts. Till then, we need to quit misdiagnosing and mistreating the problem.