February 17, 2012

Rejection, Existential Anxiety, and Christian Reactions to Atheists

I ExistHave you ever felt thoroughly rejected by someone else? Maybe you were shot down when you asked out that person with whom you were infatuated. Maybe someone you thought of as a friend turned on you. I suspect we can all relate to the sting of rejection.

Individuals differ in how sensitive they are to real or imagined rejection. For some, the sting is brief and can be shaken off rather quickly. For others, rejection may trigger a crisis of identity. But while individuals differ on their sensitivity to rejection, I suspect that the context matters a great deal as well. Imagine revealing your atheism to the person you consider your closest friend and having them never speak to you again. I submit that this would shake most of us to the core.

In an existential sense, we know we are all fundamentally alone. However, this is not something most of us confront regularly. Being rejected in a substantial enough way tends to trigger these existential fears, forcing us to confront them. The prospect of letting down one's guard, revealing one's real self, and then being rejected because of it is terrifying for most of us.

What if this is part of why many Christians are so hostile to atheists? That is, what if it is less about their conflation of religious belief with morality and more about rejection and the existential anxiety it triggers?

Even fleeting reminders about the existence of atheists make it harder for Christians to maintain the belief that they are just like everyone else. Encountering an atheist message is a powerful reminder that not everyone believes as they do.

When a Christian encounters a Jew or a Muslim, he or she may be able to say, "Well, they're just a bit misguided. We believe in the same god; they are just wrong about some of the details." But when a Christian encounters an atheist, he or she is more likely to experience the sense that his or her entire worldview is being rejected by the atheist. Such a Christian may now have to confront the possibility that he or she is wrong about everything (i.e., an invalidation of the self).

I present this possibility not because I think it is the explanation we've been missing or that it should replace other theories. I present it merely to suggest that the emotional reactions many Christians seem to have on encountering atheists or atheist messages might be influenced by multiple factors. Claiming that any one variable causes them is probably too simplistic.

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