I was five when I was first told I was going to Hell. A friend’s mom said it to me. A grown woman said that to my five year old self because my parents had recently explained atheism and that they were atheists to me. Let’s just say, I was completely unprepared for the vehemence and hatred with which people would respond when I answered their questions about my belief system.
I have a friend with a 3 year old, and every time I see that boy I can tell it’s just a matter of time before he gets an autism diagnosis. What baffles me is that despite pleadings from the 3 year old’s speech therapist and pediatrician to get him evaluated for autism, my friend insists that he is not autistic and that there is no need to have this done. Given that when Buddy was three I was jumping through hoops to get him screened just in case and I still feel bad and as though I didn’t do enough to get him in intensive services at an early age (Buddy was always right on that border where the diagnostician was worried about overdiagnosing him, until he turned 4 and the communication gap made it undeniable). My reasoning was it would be better to over treat him when he was younger than to delay and miss that golden time when the brain is most plastic and he would get the most benefit from therapy. Yet, it also really serves to show the difference between my worldview as an atheist and hers as an Evangelical Christian.
When I was 17 I was interviewed by the “Fort Worth Star Telegram” for an article on teenage atheists. In the article I made a plea for tolerance and acceptance. But rather than meeting like minded people or making new friends, I painted a target on myself for people on the prowl to convert me. The most persistent being a young woman I’ll refer to as Cedar Hill.
At the time I ran a newsletter for atheists, mail order. This was right before the internet helped atheists meet up locally though we did create some online sanctuaries. Cedar Hill initially posed as being interested in the newsletter, though she never subscribed. After she got my email from the person who headed the organization the newsletter was a part of she admitted she was a Christian and said she wanted to be my friend and would end her emails, obnoxiously, with notes such as “I like you!”
She would email incessantly, ten times per day. And about the most inane things. If I didn’t respond quickly enough, she would email me with something very “important” that she forgot to tell me, like people call her sister “white bread” and her “wheat bread.” I was really baffled by her.
Soon she moved from inane conversation to attempting to convert me. Nope, she wasn’t really interested in me. She was wanting to stoke my ego and get me to like her so I would be receptive to her message about Jesus. Let me take this moment to state how fake and offensive this felt. Does she really genuinely like me or is interested in me as a person, or is she lying to get closer to me so she can preach? Does this sound like someone you want to be friends with, talk to, or who has found a religions so fantastic that everyone will bow down in wonder of it?
She wanted to meet with me in person but I refused. She asked me to prove that God does not exist. I told her you can’t disprove a negative. She condescendingly emailed me back that I was doing such a good job of debating but I would have to prove to her that God does not exist.
I emailed her back asking her to prove that Allah, Zeus or the invisible pink unicorn in my backyard doesn’t exist. After that she asked what sort of evidence I would need.
A theme I’ll be hitting on again and again is that growing up as an atheist in the Bible Belt, you quickly learn every ridiculous argument people have for God’s existence and how to refute them. Take note Evangelicals, the argument that is so convincing to you I have rebutted so many times could do it in my sleep.
She talked about Lady Jane Grey and asked if I had seen the movie with Helena Bonham Carter about her. I replied that I had and was very disappointed over the historical inaccuracies. Er, my mom and I are big fans of Tudor biographies and by the time I was 17 I had read extensively on Elizabeth I, Catherine Parr and the Lady Jane Grey. Cedar Hill dropped this, but after a few more emails made it clear where she was going: Christian martyrs.
I emailed her back with several examples of non-Christian martyrs, including my own personal favorite, Hypatia of Alexandria. Yes, we should all be Pagans because Hypatia died rather than convert to Christianity!
Cedar Hill told me about her cousin who was ill and they prayed for her and she got better. I asked about all the families who had ill children who prayed and their kids died. She talked about seeing her grandfather’s ghost outside her house before she even knew he was dead. I told her I could explain it, but only if she gave me permission. That was a treasured memory for her and I did not want to do anything to destroy it. She never mentioned it again and I respected that.
She stopped emailing me for awhile. I did not miss her. Every few months she would email me so new argument she had concocted only to disappear again when I shot it down. Several years after she first contacted me she emailed me out of the blue saying she was having a crisis of faith for some piddling reason. She didn’t get into the university she wanted to even though she had prayed very hard. Let me make it clear that I have never met an atheist list such a stupid reason for being an atheist.
Her email distressed me. Unlike her, I have never been on a mission to convert people to atheism. Contrarily, I have been on a mission to get and give respect for differing opinions. If her faith was important I did not want to take it from her. I emailed her a list of links on different religions, told her to explore and find the path that was best for her and wished her luck. I didn’t hear back for awhile until she emailed me saying she was a Christian again, she had read something about some prophecy that had come true. I told her I was glad she was on a path she felt good about and hoped to never hear from her again.
She then sent me some over the top proselytizing email. I wrote her back saying I did not wish to receive emails like that. She was offended. She was a Christian, how dare I tell her not to proselytize!
Here’s the thing. I was clear with her that atheism was not about bitterness over the world or not getting what I wanted, merely that there’s no proof that a supernatural being exists. She never understood that. All that time she was emailing me, she never read what I was writing with the purpose of understanding. All she cared about was conversion.
I showed respect for her differing beliefs, such as not giving a rational explanation for seeing her grandfather’s ghost or not taking advantage of her during a so-called crisis of faith. Speaking of which, I felt she was fabricating that crisis of faith. Just liked she lied about wanting to subscribe to my newsletter. And then, when I wasn’t won over by her little ploy, she got mad at me for asking to not be preached to.
This is why I do not like dealing with people who want to convert me. This is also why I have a hard time believing that they really care about me.
- The lies and manipulation. I never know what is true or not true with people on a mission to convert.
- They don’t listen. If she had been listening to me, she would have known that the reasons for my atheism are not so frivolous as not getting what I want from life.
- They only contact you when they figure out a new scheme to convert you. Admittedly, Cedar Hill and I did not have much in common. Seeing as she would only email me when she had a new idea or scheme to try out, though, it’s hard to believe that she really cared about me as a person. You know that person who only calls when they need money? Yeah.
- They don’t show you the same respect you show them. I had several opportunities to really lay it down with Cedar Hill and did not. She did not show the same respect for my beliefs.
- When you aren’t swayed by their arguments, they get mad at you. So if I don’t argue then they think they’ve won because I don’t have good arguments, but if I do argue I’m a horrible person for pointing out the flaws in their logic.
Eventually someone pointed out a solution I should have used long ago but just did not occur to me: not email her back. Being a polite person is something I value and it seemed rude to not respond to an email. But the simple act of someone, a Christian at that, from an outside position telling me it would be proper to just ignore her gave me the freedom to do just that.
Ultimately, though, if people want to know why I feel so drained just by being an atheist in such a predominately Christian area, people like Cedar Hill are the reason. I’ve had some people argue that at least people like Cedar Hill are loving in their approach, thing is at least with people who are openly hostile I know where I stand and I don’t have to deal with the mind games and manipulation and wondering whether or not someone genuinely likes me. If someone doesn’t like me or is not going to respect my differing beliefs, then I want to know so I can put my energies to people who are going to be respectful.
As for Cedar Hill? I changed my email address sometime after I stopped emailing her. Don’t know what happened to her, don’t particularly care to.