As if the tension between people with different belief systems weren't bad enough, that tension is often increased by fundamental misunderstandings or misinterpretations of what the other person's belief system really consists of.
Atheists are very well acquainted with the experience of being misunderstood. I give you the much-quoted words of the evangelist Ray Comfort: "Atheists don't hate fairies, leprechauns, or unicorns because they don't exist. It is impossible to hate something that doesn't exist. Atheists -- like the painting experts hated the painter -- hate God because He does exist."
Comfort, I am pretty sure, believes he has accomplished a major coup here: he thinks that, by the power of his impeccable logic, he has proven that atheists really believe God exists.
The logical triumph, however, rests on a flaw: it starts from the premise that atheists hate God. Who told Comfort that atheists hate God? Speaking for myself, but also for many, many other atheists, I can state categorically that I don't "hate" God. Atheism consists simply of believing that no supernatural, ever-present, all-knowing, all-powerful being exists. The idea that atheists hate God is just a misunderstanding on Comfort's part, an easily corrected confusion about what "atheism" is. Comfort's own words explain what's wrong with his perception of atheists: it's impossible to hate something that doesn't exist.
Comfort, of course, is not at all alone in that misunderstanding. Here is part of a Facebook posting by Danielle, a 40-year-old atheist from New Jersey:
I was seeing a (what I thought was a secular, unaffiliated) therapist for awhile and she asked if maybe attending some religious services of my choice and praying would help with my anxiety! I told her with a chuckle that scenario would exacerbate it! She had a dead-serious expression and seemed confused. So I said I was an atheist, and she seemed like this was a massive breakthrough and said, "Oh!!! This is huge!" Then she smiled and seemed smug and very pleased with herself. "Your hatred of God could be stemming from something, causing lots of anxiety and depression due to your lack of direction in life."
I never returned.
Now, I understand where this may have come from, this widespread notion that atheists hate God. Many people have undergone an emotional trauma -- the death of a child or spouse, say -- and come out of it profoundly angry at God, who they believe either caused the event or else sat idly by and allowed it to happen. And, in their pain, they say they no longer believe in God. But by any definition of atheism, they are not really atheists as long as they hold onto that anger directed at the Supreme Being. In saying that, I am using Comfort's own reasoning: if they hate God, that implies that they still believe he is out there and is responsible for their pain.
I have never had any such traumatic experience, and I don't have any of that deep anger roiling around inside me. I just don't feel a need to think there is a God or see a reason to believe there is one. Through my teen years I did make an effort to hold onto the faith my parents had instilled in me (actually they never really tried that hard), but eventually I couldn't do it and came to wonder why I was trying. I saw the way followers of every religion dismiss the beliefs of all other religions as myths and delusions, and wondered why none of them ever put their own faith in those same categories. I saw that every religious person is positive that his or her own beliefs are correct and everyone else's are wrong, and couldn't see any difference among any of those beliefs. And I never saw any evidence that there was any truth to any of them.
While I'm not in any sense angry at God, just as I am not angry at leprechauns, I do get angry and frustrated, and often frightened, by the things people say and do in the name of God. Those people do exist, of course. Ray Comfort exists. Franklin Graham exists. And that is a large part of the reason I am maintaining this blog.
My own experience in becoming an atheist is probably not identical, but I'm sure is at least similar, to that of the majority of the most prominent atheists (far more famous than me) who give lectures and write books on the subject. And I suspect that the credibility of all of us is hampered by this misunderstanding of atheism, this perception that we're all just "angry at God and hate God."
As a closing comment, here is something a little off the subject, but I can't let that quote from Ray Comfort go by without pointing out another flaw in his argument.
The quote about atheists "hating God" isn't an off-the-cuff comment Comfort made during a lecture or interview. He wrote it in a book, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics. So he had plenty of time to think it over, do a little research, make corrections.
And yet he starts off by offering "unicorns" as an example of something that doesn't exist, and therefore can't be hated. Has Comfort actually read that Bible he keeps going on about? Let me quote from the King James Version of the Bible, Job 39:9-10 -- "Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee?" This wasn't a metaphorical reference to an imaginary creature. As Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell points out in The New Answers, Book 3, chapter 32, "Some people claim the Bible is a book of fairy tales because it mentions unicorns. However, the biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary creature. The Bible refers to the unicorn in the context of familiar animals, such as peacocks, lambs, lions, bullocks, goats, donkeys, horses, dogs, eagles, and calves (Job 39:9-12). In Job 38-41, God reminded Job of the characteristics of a variety of impressive animals He had created, showing Job that God was far above man in power and strength." Mitchell goes on to summarize her point about unicorns: "To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God's Word, which is true in every detail."
It appears Ray Comfort either doesn't know the Bible well enough to know unicorns are in it, or else he doesn't have a problem with "demeaning God's Word." I wonder what he and Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell would say if they got together and he threw that "Atheists don't hate... unicorns because they don't exist" quote at her.