Common Misconceptions about the Religious and Nonreligious

By Joshua Everett, January 20, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

As a former Christian minister, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of religious and nonreligious people. One thing I have found is most people are the same, regardless of their religious or nonreligious views. Both groups have their moderates and their hardliners, and both are guilty of misrepresenting those with whom they disagree because we can more easily dismiss their views through hyperbole and misrepresentation.

In particular, misconceptions about clergy abound on both sides. Nonreligious people can be quick to see all clergy as financially motivated charlatans, opportunistic manipulators, power-hungry pseudo-tyrants, or insincere con artists. We can all think of examples of the stereotypical televangelist in support of such views, but I’ve known many clergy and the average clergy person is the opposite of these descriptions. You might dislike their methods and beliefs, but most clergy really are sincere in their desire to help people and improve the world.

I have also heard it said most Christians, clergy included, have never read their Bibles and usually become atheists once they do so. I think most clergy would agree with the sentiment that too few of the Christian laity read their Bibles enough; however, I find it ludicrous to say that clergy have not read the very book they have chosen to devote their lives to studying, following, and implementing. They might be reading it and interpreting it in a different way than nonreligious people, but they have read it many times.

Conversely, many religious people can idolize their religious leaders and follow them unquestioningly. Your religious leaders do not become superhuman upon ordination, so you would be well advised to do some research on your own, verify their statements, and question their opinions on everything (most clergy would agree with that sentiment).

As a former clergyman who rejected Christianity for intellectual reasons, I find my very existence is offensive to many Christians. Many Christians, particularly those whose doctrine includes the “security of the believer” (once saved, always saved), find conflict between their beliefs and the existence of sincere clergy who reject their former religious beliefs. Many religious people have called me a great many horrible things and jumped to unfair and offensive conclusions about me.

Rest assured, I was sincere in my religious beliefs and truly thought they were necessary for improving the world and living a good life. While research into religion led me to change my views, that does not mean my good intentions or highly ethical character have changed. Malign me if you must in order to rationalize your beliefs, but please recognize if you are going to participate in this sort of divisive, unfounded stereotyping then you should not complain when others do the same to you.

Nonbelievers can frequently fall into the trap of representing all Christians based on the most despicable representations of their religion. We must realize for every Christian who advocates discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, many other Christians have risen up in support of equal rights for all.

Similarly, I have frequently heard many horrible characterizations of atheists. Atheists are frequently maligned as lacking purpose, but this is a mischaracterization. We share in the same purposes most religious people have: family, friends, loved ones, a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to help our fellow human beings. Many religious people think atheists consider existence, charity, love, and social justice to be meaningless. However, atheists appreciate this one life much more due to its ephemeral nature. Charity, love, and social justice become much more important if we want everyone to have a meaningful life and don’t trust our problems to all be sorted out after death.

We can all throw around references to pseudo-atheist Stalinism or pseudo-Christian Nazism all we like, but we are accomplishing nothing other than to degrade any attempts at dialogue on important issues. We need to remember the vast majority of religious and nonreligious people are motivated by the highest of intentions. Attacking well-intentioned people is unproductive and only serves to increase tensions and hostility.

We must be careful to respect people while recognizing that analysis and critiques of our ideas and beliefs are justified. Without debates over issues, we can never progress. Criticism leveled at ideas and beliefs are not personal attacks, even if those ideas and beliefs are of great personal value to some. We cannot progress if we cannot challenge ideas, but we must remember malevolent, reactionary attacks on the proponents of ideas are forms of intellectual laziness that destroy productive public discourse. Such stereotypes, exaggerations, and misrepresentations are unnecessarily divisive and all too common in a world where we frequently lack understanding and empathy to a shameful degree.

Joshua Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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