October 06, 2015

Dear Christians: Can We Agree That Caricaturing Each Other Sucks Big Time?

Today, I was up early and flipping through my Facebook when I ran across a Patheos post that had this description:

In today's culture, the vast majority of Christians are perceived as angry, judgmental people who don't seem to derive any joy from life whatsoever.

It was in a blurb about a book by Randy Alcorn, intended for a Christians audience. You can check that out here.

We could spend all day going back and forth on the supposed differences between joy and happiness and what Christians are really supposed to look like, but that would be pretty pointless, because the truth is, I think Mr. Alcorn is wrong.

 Not about the culture, if you intend culture to mean the world of TV, music, movies, books, and other media. Oftentimes, Christians are portrayed as unhappy, judgmental, and without joy. That I can completely agree with. What I don't agree with is the idea that Christians necessarily need to fix that, because I think it's a caricature.

I know something about caricatures, as an atheist. I haven't seen a single representation of an atheist that I identify with in pop culture, not one that looks like any of my friends. Usually, The Atheist Character™ is crotchety, angry, grumpy, overly obsessed with being right. My spouse would say they get the "overly obsessed with being right" part correct, but not much else, for me.

The truth is, my atheist, humanist, agnostic, and other nonbelieving friends aren't suffering from that lack of belief. Most of them are happy, "normal" people, and you wouldn't know from looking at them in our overwhelmingly Christian population, that they are not Christians, unless they told you so. They're caring, giving of their time and money to help others. But that's not the lens that culture (and I use that term loosely) views us through.

And I can say that, too, about my many, many Christian friends and relatives. I can think of a few that are miserable people (I've encountered nonbelievers that are too, usually online) but the vast majority are happy, "normal" people, who are caring and generous. Even my most conservative Christian encounters are truly caring, even when they are engaging in behavior that I consider judgmental. I don't appreciate the behavior, but I appreciate the spirit behind it. But again--that's not the lens that culture chooses to view them through.

It's frustrating, no?

I grew up with caricatures of atheism in every pulpit I sat in front of. I've discussed some of them in this very column before. Whether you agree with the idea of atheism or not, caricatures are a cheap trick, a way of tilting at windmills.

I can say similar about Christian caricatures that I see now in the atheist communities I participate in. It's hard to keep the discussions to arguments, to doctrines, and not make broad strokes about people. Some of the smartest, most wonderful people I know are Christians. I don't doubt their intelligence--indeed, recently I had a discussion with a Christian friend. It was a great discussion, but the friend said, "I bet you think I'm really dumb for believing this," and I had to All Caps the shishcabob out of that: YOU ARE NOT DUMB STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. I don't agree with the thinking. I think it's faulty. That doesn't mean the person behind the thinking is dumb.

It's more crucial than ever that people come to a point where they can talk, together, about faith and the lack thereof without these caricatures. I started out a very angry atheist. I wasn't angry at God--that's one of those caricatures, guys--but I was angry at the amount of time I felt had been wasted in my faith. As I've grown into my nonbelieving slacks a little more, I have left that anger behind and I am becoming ever more convinced that the way forward is through dialogue. It's through understanding each other's positions and sometimes, it's about agreeing to disagree.

There will always be subjects that we'll have to disagree on. There will always be subjects that will bring the most fundamentally religious into conflict with those of us that are secular.

Let's not let caricatures of each other be one of them.

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