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Christian evangelicals and their religious high horse February 20, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore, Unbelief.
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4 comments

As a kid, I never enjoyed telling religious people I that was a “freethinker”. It wasn’t because I had any desire to be religious, and I sure as hell wasn’t ashamed of my freethinking. No, it was because my declaration as a freethinker almost always immediately brought about a look that was a mixture of condescension and pity, and – as if they were doing me a huge favour – was often accompanied by an offer: would you like to come to church with me some day?

For some reason, the word “freethinker” gave most people the idea that I was not (yet) exposed to religion, that I was brought up in a nonreligious environment and had not had my eyes “opened”, that my entire sense of morality, spirituality and philosophy had yet to be examined.

But by the time I was a Primary 3 schoolgirl (in a catholic school, no less), this was certainly not the case. I knew all the hymns, prayers, rituals and Bible stories. I even had friendly debates with my Christian friends about the existence of god during recess and we always came to the same stalemate: they were convinced, and I simply wasn’t. My status as a freethinker was not due to a lack of a religious influence, but a result of it. Believe me, if there was any 9 year old that could argue against the existence of a benevolent omnipotent being, it was me. I got so sick of the assumption that the only reason why I was a freethinker was because I had not yet been “awoken” by the Bible that by the time I reached secondary school, I felt it necessary to add a qualifier to my answer. Are you a Christian? No, but I went to Christian schools for the past 9 years, just to ward off the umpteenth attempt to invite me to church.

Perhaps this kind of assumption was a product of the religious demographics of Singapore. Many, if not most of the Christians here are the result of conversions and are “born again”. Or perhaps this was a byproduct of the religion itself; if Christianity is the one true religion, maybe believers cannot fathom why anyone would be an unbeliever unless they had not yet been exposed to the “wonders” of the bible. Either way, both mindsets probably play a part in believers looking at nonbelievers with condescension, as people who are not yet enlightened, as people to be “saved” from the abyss of unbelief.

In my teenage years, though I was comfortable with my unbelief, I was acutely self conscious of being openly atheist and subject to judgement by these so-called “enlightened” born again evangelicals. Even in a secular secondary school, it was almost as if going to church was “cool”, a sign that one was a member of the upper echelons of society. Being a Christian was synonymous with being English educated and intelligent enough to reject the pagan gods of one’s parents. Needless to say, things did not get much better in my Methodist junior college, where freethinkers, Buddhists, Hindus and Taoists alike were “fair game” for conversion; a goal with a motive and enthusiasm behind it not unlike that of the missionaries that sought to convert the primitive idol worshipping natives of the new world.

But what Christian evangelicals often fail to realize is that this desire to evangelize is presumptuous, disrespectful, and sometimes downright insulting. Who are evangelists to assume that just because I do not subscribe to a particular religion, it means that I have not given each religion a considerable amount of thought and based on my own reasoning, rejected them all? Who are evangelists to judge Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, ancestor worship (or other more mystical beliefs of their parents) as beneath Christianity; beliefs that should be outgrown? Who are evangelists to assume that my life as a “heathen” is any less fulfilling or meaningful than that of a believer such that I would need a belief in a deity to fill some kind of purported emptiness in my life?  Whether or not they realize it, believers who keep trying to convert the rest of us are making these condescending and patronizing assumptions. They are sitting on their religious high horses, with the belief that their worldview is superior, that one cannot possibly be spiritual, moral, or contented unless one subscribes to their philosophy.

Today, I’m perfectly happy to describe myself as a freethinker because I now see the word for what it really means – I think freely; free from doctrine, free from conformity to a status quo,  free from an authority telling me what to think or do. But this doesn’t mean that I sit on an atheistic high horse either. Granted, I may never agree with the beliefs of Christianity and some of them may even seem nonsensical to me. But one thing I’ll acknowledge is that its believers, through a combination of personality, personal experiences and brain chemistry, hold those beliefs to be true. All I am asking is for believers to give me that same respect to acknowledge that the tools I use to seek the truth – science, reason, rationalism – have meaning to me, make sense to me, are true to me, and that my atheistic worldview is at least as valid as their theistic worldview. To assume that they have the monopoly on truth and morality is mere arrogance. It is unfortunate that many sects of Christianity emphasize the importance of evangelism, but in such cases it really is up to the individual to choose: is it more important to be a good Christian, or to be a tolerant, respectful and empathetic human being?

Footnote: I was inspired to write this post when I was looking through old comments and found this “gem” here: “The only mandate we Christians have is to lead godly lives and share the gospel with the unsaved. I thank God that He sent someone do that for me because 25 years ago, I was just like you and your readers.” Maybe the author was purposefully making a passive aggressive insult. Or maybe he was simply oblivious to how patronizing he sounded. It always reminds me of how evangelists make me feel when they talk down to me as a “lowly” unbeliever.

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