On the important difference between hating bad ideas and hating people.
As a former Evangelical Christian, I write critically—even harshly—about biblical Christianity, the kind that treats the Bible as if it were the literally-perfect word of God. I also write harshly about the Catholic hierarchy—the authoritarian institution that compiled the Bible 1500 years ago and still today seeks to impose derivative beliefs and rules on society at large. In response, I often receive comments and messages from Christians who say I must hate them, which isn’t true.
Other nontheists and anti-theists get similarly accused. Recently, two well-known critics of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, had their names put on a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” Ali is a former Muslim and Nawaz a moderate believer, and their appearance on the list was particularly frightening because such lists, not infrequently, get folks like them killed.
Bad Ideas ≠ Bad People
Deploring bad ideas or institutions and hating people are two very different things and, in the quest for a better world, whether a person is a critic of religion or a critic of the critics—it is important not to confuse one with the other. So, in hope of putting to rest the notion that outspoken anti-theism must be driven by hatred of Christian people (or Muslim people or Jewish people—or any other group of people for that matter), let me draw an analogy. It is sure to offend, but it’s the best I’ve found.
My sister Kathy is mentally ill, which has caused decades of hardship for her and her children and, by extension, everyone around her. I hate her bipolar illness. I hate how it makes her think and what it drives her to do. I hate the harm she inflicts on herself and her children when it takes over her brain. But I don’t hate my sister at all.
I wish Kathy were healthy and happy, that she could be the kind of parent she wants to be and her small family could flourish. It is precisely because I want these things for Kat that thinking about her illness drives me to anger and anguish. Her many good qualities—her kindness, compassion, creativity, and work ethic, for example—make her condition even more frustrating. Mostly these days I feel a sense of pained resignation, and sometimes—selfishly—I just wish I didn’t have to deal with the complexities her illness causes us all. But there have been times in my life that I would have cut off my arm if it would make her whole.
Just as I don’t hate Kathy, I don’t hate Christians, even though my feelings about Christianity as a social institution or a set of dogmas can span a similar range of intensity. As a former born-again Bible-believer, I’m keenly aware that even within the most fundamentalist sects, Christians have many good qualities and aspirations and that Church communities create space for people to come together around some of humanity’s most cherished values and experiences. Examples include generosity, compassion and gratitude; or the quest to live well and die well, to embrace joy and wonder, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. My sense that most Christians, again including fundamentalists, are genuinely decent people is part of why I react so strongly against the more toxic dimensions of Bible belief and institutionalized religion.
Ideas Worth Deploring
But no matter how firmly I express this, the perception that hate is part of the mix keeps coming up, perhaps with good reason. There are dimensions of Christianity that I loathe, and maybe the best way to distinguish between deploring these bad ideas and hating on people is to spell them out. Here, then, is what I hate:
- I hate the fact that institutional Christianity carries forward some of the worst notions from humanity’s infancy, concepts like chosen people, holy war, blood atonement, and eternal torture. Every religion preserves the worldview of some subset of our ancestors. For Christianity, that worldview comes from the quarrelsome Iron Age clans of the Ancient Near East, a harsh desert region as tribal and blood-bathed then as it is now. Christianity fiercely defends and promotes an understanding of the world that, to paraphrase Sam Harris, predates the wheelbarrow.
- I hate it that the Christian God, however imaginary, is such a terrible role model: alternately kind and cruel, blending love and abuse, jealous, irritable, controlling, demanding, petulant, and destructive. The Bible-god loves hierarchy and demands adoration and is not above using violence to enforce both. When he gets offended, divine wrath rains down like poorly-targeted cluster bombs, with collateral damage a matter of indifference. God kills children for the sins of their fathers and drowns or burns animals when angry at humans; he rains down fire and plagues on whole villages or cultures.
- I hate the fact that Christianity gives God’s endorsement (under the “right” circumstances, of course) to all manner of violence: scorched earth warfare, capital punishment for over 30 offenses, sexual slavery, and child beating. If the Bible’s stories and commandments can be trusted, not only does God approve these behaviors in men he favors like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he also explicitly commands his Chosen People to engage in each of these atrocities.
- I hate the fact that, in addition to violence, Christianity sanctifies some of our most base tendencies: tribalism, racism, sexism, certitude, closed-mindedness, willful ignorance, passivity (let go and let God), and entitled exploitation of other sentient beings.
- I hate the way that Christianity divides us into insiders and infidels, teaching that outsiders have no moral core or basis for goodness while insiders are “the light of the world.”
- I hate Christianity’s consequent history of destruction: everything from burning repositories of ancient knowledge, to killing folk medicine practitioners, to inquisitions and crusades, to support for slavery, to systematic decimation of native cultures around the planet.
- I hate the fact that men find within Christianity so many justifications for why they should top every pecking order. In the Bible men are made in the image of God, appointed as the head of the family, given all other beasts to exploit, and assigned ownership of children and slaves.
- I hate how Christianity co-opts and exploits altruism to grow the religion itself and fill Church coffers. Some of the most compassionate and dedicated among us end up pouring their life energy into saving souls from an imaginary afterlife in hell rather than saving people from hellish conditions here on earth. In the same way, generosity gets diverted to fill offering plates rather than fill needs in the community at large.
- I hate the way that Christianity’s “Great Commission” can morph otherwise decent people into a zombie salesforce. At worst, members of this sales team are always on the make—seeking to infect others even if that means preying on children, faking friendship, exploiting tragedy, or taking advantage of the power differential between Westerners and people who are destitute and desperate.
- I hate the fact that Christianity’s obsession with controlling sex (which may have been adaptive in the Iron Age) has made the global transition to healthy sexuality and intentional parenthood all but impossible. Couple the spiritual glorification of virginityand unending pregnancy with the idea that God ordained that women must suffer for sex, and some Christians would rather ban abortions than prevent them. Many of the same people would force queer folk into lives of solitude and stigma rather than examine their own complicated yearnings, which cannot be explored because they are forbidden.
- I hate the fact that Christianity’s pro-natalism, born of the command to self-propagate and outcompete other viral ideologies, has denied billions of people the knowledge and means to manage their fertility, causing untold misery and now threatening our planetary life support system with collapse.
- I hate how Christianity teaches people to lie, not only to others but to themselves. We all are vulnerable to confirmatory thinking but Christianity embraces this bias as a virtue rather than one of humanity’s great failings. Christians are exhorted to start with handed-down dogmas and then to look for any pattern of evidence that might support these a priori beliefs rather than ask the questions that could show them wrong. As education and scientific knowledge advance, the mind-numbing demands of “right belief” make adherents ever more susceptible to snake oil preachers and politicians who teach that reality is whatever we want to believe.
- I hate the fact that Christianity gives people a way to feel good without being good—that when what matters above all to God is belief, people can be judgmental, abusive and greedy or can prey on the poor or sell arms to dictators—and still feel good about themselves because they go to church on Sunday, are saved by the blood of the lamb. After all, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
- I deplore the fact that Christianity takes some of humanity’s most sacred concepts and turns them inside out. When certitude is a virtue, a mother can beat her child because she loves him, a father can reject his gay son out of kindness, or compassion can mean offering a poor person a religious tract rather than a hand up. Christian Humility becomes a trademark cosmetic layered over the hubris necessary to believe one’s own thoughts are the Voice of God.
- I hate the way that Christianity diminishes the wonder of this one precious life and our overwhelmingly beautiful world, offering the crass materialism of a city paved with gold and the pleasures of eternal youth as an alternative to, say, the delicate intricacy of an alpine meadow or an ancient forest or a coral reef.
Would the world be worse or better off if Christianity had never evolved and taken root in the human mind and societies? We will never know. But here is a more important question: Today, in the light of what we know about ourselves and the world around us, are we finally ready to move on into the next phase of moral and spiritual evolution? I sure hope the answer is yes.
However adaptive traditional Christian beliefs may have once been, and however much modernist Christians have worked to reform toxic teachings from within the faith, it should be clear that today the harms from traditional beliefs and practices are enormous and the risks are growing. Humanity’s future involves global interdependence and reliance on a planetary life support system that is becoming more fragile by the year. If we are going to flourish together, we must move beyond mutually-exclusive truth claims that are rooted in the conflict and ignorance of the Iron Age. That will happen only if anti-theists like me and reform-minded religious insiders are free to criticize outdated ideas and the institutions that promote them. In fact, I believe that this is the only way we will ever move beyond hating and fearing each other because of religious differences.
In closing I’d like to circle back to the Christian and Muslim worry that religion’s critics must hate believers, because while false and frustrating, it may have a silver lining. If there is any benefit that might come from atheists and reformers being accused of hating believers, it is this: The accusations serve to remind us not to cross that line. Reformers must not make the mistake of thinking that those who deplore harmful ideas must then hate the people who carry them. It is our responsibility to ensure that the accusations are not true, because that’s the very kind of tribal thinking humanity needs to leave behind.