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Christian Translator

By: Mike Gashler
(About the author)

The author has spent much of his life working to communicate with people on both sides of religion. He was a devout Christian for 35 years. Among other teaching positions, he served for two years as a proselyting minister for his denomination in a predominantly atheist country. Later, he studied science at a religious university, where he deconverted to become an atheist himself. Then for seven years, he taught as an assistant professor at a secular tier-1 research university in the Bible Belt.

You are having a conversation with a Christian friend. Suddenly he says something that makes no sense. You are sure your friend is intelligent. You really want to know what he means. But you just cannot make sense of it.

This is a job for the Christian Translator! Just find your friend's statement below and click on it. You will find a detailed explanation of what the Christian means in language that atheists can understand.

(If you'd like to suggest another confusing Christian phrase for me to attempt to translate, maybe leave it in the comments below.)

"You have faith in atheism."

When you hear the word "faith", you think "believe without evidence", and And when you hear the word "atheism", you think "does not believe in God". And the reason you don't believe in God is because you have no evidence. So how can you possibly believe without evidence if you don't even believe? And you are certainly not ignoring the lack of evidence, as people with faith do. The lack of evidence is the very reason you don't believe! But you are sure your Christian friend isn't stupid. So what is he really trying to say?

Unfortunately, the term "faith" has many contradicting definitions, and subtle context cues tell Christians which definition to use. In this context, your Christian friend means "trust". (That's it. Nothing more complicated. Just trust.) Also, your Christian friend probably has a very narrow concept of what an atheist is. He probably thinks of an atheist as someone who was convinced by a secular education to believe in evolution instead of creationism. So a translation of the intended meaning is, "You trust the things you were taught in school more than the things we believers teach."

It would be very confusing to the Christian if you were to respond by adamantly denying that you put trust in science. And it would be even worse if you were to try to tell him what "faith" really means. After all, you are the atheist. Between the two of you, he is the only one who gets to claim to know what faith really means. A response that reflects you understood his intended meaning would be to acknowledge that you sometimes do indeed put trust in people (particularly when they are willing to share how they know stuff). And don't say "faith". That is his word. You should use the word "trust". If you feel inclined to ask your friend why he would choose to trust religious claims that cannot be empirically validated over scientific claims that other scientists potentially could validate, that conversation will go much better after you acknowledge that temporary trust plays an important role in learning and development.

"Beliefs are a choice."

Obviously modifying your beliefs does not change what is real. That's like trying to make a car go faster by cracking open the dash board and modifying the speedometer, or trying to make the room hotter by adding more mercury to a thermometer. The very notion of changing your beliefs is ridiculous! You are sure your Christian friend is too intelligent to say anything so utterly stupid. So what is your Christian friend really trying to say?

To understand this one, let's consider a diagram of how people think.

Both atheists and Christians agree that beliefs are personal opinions stored somewhere in the mind. But they view them at different places in the thinking process. To atheists, "beliefs" are about what they think is real. Beliefs are among the first things they update in their minds after their senses collect new information. To atheists, willfully modifying your beliefs is a form of lying to yourself. For example, suppose you saw a bear in front of you. It would be very difficult (as well as well as counter-productive) to make yourself believe there was no bear.

To Christians, "beliefs" are about what they think is important. To Christians, beliefs occur much later in the thinking process, and are among the last things they consider before determining their actions. For example, suppose someone believed in spanking his children. Suppose after resorting to excessive force, his children started exhibiting signs of trauma, and Child Protective Services came to take them away. It would be pathetic for him to say, "Sorry, I just believe in spanking my children, and there's nothing I can do about that." To Christians, choosing your beliefs is how you live deliberately, instead of just letting your life abuse you. So a translation of the intended meaning is, "You have the power to choose what you value."

It would be confusing to your Christian friend if you were to respond by asserting that no one has power to control what they believe. He would likely interpret that as some sort of claim that you are merely a passive observer in your own life. A response that shows you understand his intended meaning would contain an acknowledgment that you do indeed have the ability to prioritize your values. Don't just launch into a lecture about how intellectual humility or honesty are among the values you prioritize. Don't just start telling your friend it is important to perceive reality as it really is. Those discussions will go much more smoothly after your Christian friend formally recognizes that perceptions of reality and the values we use to make decisions are completely separate concepts. He may have never even before considered that there is a difference between understanding of reality and selecting the things we value. That's an important and difficult concept to digest, so try not to sabotage your friend's ability to think about it by triggering his amygdala. When you make someone feel like they are wrong, it becomes very difficult for them to seriously consider any further points you make.

"God will not trample on your free will."

So you would sincerely like to know God, if he is real. And you just exercised your "free will" by asking for evidence of God's existence. Wouldn't it be overriding your free will even more if God were to deny you the evidence you explicitly requested? And now your friend is implicitly calling you insincere and using God's stubbornness as some kind of lame excuse to hide the rather obvious fact that he has nothing convincing to offer! But you know he is too intelligent to mean anything so utterly stupid. What is your Christian friend really trying to say?

Let's be frank: The reason you asked your friend for evidence was not because you actually expected him to provide some good evidence. The real reason you asked for evidence was because you wanted to help your friend recognize that he didn't have any. You are aware that there is no reliable evidence for God, and you want him to acknowledge that. Now with that in mind, what do you suppose would cause a Christian to try to explain why God will not allow you to have any reliable evidence? Because he is also aware that there is no reliable evidence for God. A translation of the intended meaning is, "I recognize there is no reliable evidence for God, but I'm sure this is deliberate ...somehow."

It would be confusing to the Christian if you were to respond by disagreeing. He might internally interpret that as a rejection of his admission that there is no reliable evidence for God. A response that shows you understand his intended meaning would include some sort of gratitude for his honest admission, and perhaps some sort of acknowledgment that you both see the Universe similarly. If you feel inclined to question how your friend knows anything at all about how God operates if he has no reliable evidence, or why it would even make sense for God to expect very particular responses to ambiguous evidence, or whether "free will" is even a thing at all, those discussions will go much more smoothly after you connect with your friend by mutually agreeing that there is a component of reality you both perceive the same way.

"Atheism is a religion."

Of course you know that religions are organizations of believers. But atheists are people who don't believe. So, this is rather like saying bald is a hair style, or not collecting stamps is a hobby! But you are sure your Christian friend isn't stupid. What could he really be trying to say?

It's pretty clear that your friend does not really understand what atheism is. But let's acknowledge some reasons why this statement makes sense in your friend's mind:

  • Religions often have leaders. There are atheist celebrities. (We don't recognize any of them as our leaders. We don't recognize them as having any authority. But your friend may not understand those things.)
  • Religions often read a holy book. Atheists read books too. (We don't agree on the teachings of any one book, but your friend may not realize that.)
  • Religions meet regularly. Sometimes atheists gather with friends. (It's less about ritual and more about social or intellectual stimulation, but that's just a detail.)
  • Religious people have beliefs. Atheists can have beliefs too. (We can even talk about them. That's almost like evangelizing.)
  • Religions often display symbols and erect monuments. Sometimes they have pot-lucks. Sometimes someone speaks in a microphone. Sometimes they dress nicely. And they breath air. Some atheists do all of these things too! (Will the similarities never cease!?)
  • Religious people get dogmatic. So do many atheists. (They shouldn't. It's dumb. But they do. We're all human.)

So a translation of the intended meaning is, "Atheists have several things in common with religious people." It would be confusing to the Christian if you were to respond by adamantly asserting that atheism is not a religion. It wasn't the kind of denigration that it felt like to you. You see, Christians think of religion as a good thing. He was just trying to point out that you and he share certain common practices. A response that reflects your understanding would be to acknowledge that it is okay for atheists to meet with friends, read books, sing songs, listen to others, attend pot-lucks, and have beliefs. If he insists that you accept his categorization, just shrug and point out that there are no "true" definitions. Words are not some kind of natural phenomena. They are just synthetic human-made constructs for communicating. Never waste effort fighting about definitions or trying to dig holes in water, for the same reason.

"You don't really want to know God."

So here you are asking for evidence of God. Even though you don't believe, you are still trying to be open to unlikely possibilities. And even though you have never found even a shred of credible evidence, you are still trying to exercise the intellectual humility to challenge your own beliefs. And instead of giving you bread when you have clearly asked for bread, your friend insults your sincerity! He's not usually so brazenly tactless! What is your Christian friend really trying to say?

It is a breach of basic communication etiquette to tell the other person what they think. If you are feeling upset after being treated in such a manner, that is absolutely normal. But if you can suppress your amygdala long enough to consider what was probably intended, you might discover that your Christian friend's words were probably actually the product of negligent carelessness rather than malicious rudeness.

There is a principle many different religious denominations teach, that God will reveal himself to all who sincerely seek for him. This is what your friend was probably thinking about when he said that. And significantly, that principle isn't even wrong. Humans are extremely talented at finding reasons that support what they have decided to believe, and at dismissing evidence that conflicts with what they are determined to believe. This is called confirmation bias. And it works very well in all sorts of contradicting religions. So a translation of the intended meaning is, "I don't think you really want to believe in my religion, at least not so badly that you would be willing to dismiss your rational reasons for doubt, and dupe yourself into believing that I am right."

It would be confusing to the Christian if you started arguing that you genuinely did want to know God. Wanting to know what is real (whether or not that includes God) is very different from wanting to know God (whether or not he is real). Of course, you would only consider the former, but what your Christian friend is thinking is much more like the latter. Rather than misrepresent yourself in his eyes, it would probably be better to try to recognize the component of accuracy in your friend's statement. A response that shows you understood the intended meaning would probably admit that you are in fact disinterested in deceiving yourself. You might focus on whether it is good to do so. Or maybe try to discuss how confirmation bias can be separated from divine answers.

"Faith is knowledge."

Statements like this are extremely baffling to atheists. After all, isn't faith when you believe something without any evidence? If your Christian friend has absolutely no evidence for his beliefs, how on Earth can he claim to have "knowledge"?

When atheists say they "know" something, they are usually trying to emphasize the strength of their supporting reasoning or evidence. But that's not how Christians use the same word. When Christians say they "know" something, they are trying to emphasize how certain they are about it. A translation of the statement is, "I am extremely confident about my positions because I really trust the people who taught me."

Of course, you don't care how confident they are. You only care what reasons they have to support their beliefs. So you might think it is a good idea to inform your Christian friend that knowledge can only come from evidence. Counter-intuitively, that would actually be a very insulting and destructive thing for you to say. After all, he really is capable of becoming confident (his definition of "knowledge") without having any evidence. And what right do you have to tell him what he is or is not absolutely confident about?

A response that shows you understand his terminology would probably discuss the added value that comes from being able to share things that you deem important. Instead of telling him that he doesn't "know", you would probably communicate more effectively if you pointed out that knowledge has more value if it can be shared, and that requires it to somehow be demonstrable, verifiable, or communicable.

"Disbelief in God is rejection of God."

You certainly wouldn't reject a gift of mercy from a loving God. You just don't believe God exists. And you are trying to take responsibility for your own actions. Isn't that what God would want you to do, if he were real? So why is your Christian friend telling you that you are rejecting his God?

A translation of this statement is, "You are not putting faith in my religion, as my religion teaches you must do." Many baffling statements that Christians make contain valid points disguised behind confusing terminology. This is not one of them. This is a case where your Christian friend is repeating a doctrine that he does not understand himself. But you should not point that out. If you trigger his amygdala, he will not be capable of thinking about it for a long time. And you want him to see for himself that this cannot make sense. So take it slowly.

Obviously, gods wouldn't really need believers. But religions certainly do. A religion without believers is a dead religion. So the real motivation for this doctrine is not very hard to figure out.

If pressed, your Christian friend will undoubtedly decide that God's reason for requiring faith in his religion is somehow for your benefit. Of course, that could only make sense if his religion really did come from God, and was the only way for you to find purpose or to be good. But he is presupposing that his religion is true, and is expecting you to do likewise. You might feel inclined to point out that it would be unreasonable for God to expect people to presuppose that he is real. Don't say that! Your friend will not understand that you are really suggesting his religion misrepresents God. He will imagine that you are angry at God, a being you do not even believe exists. And from your (imagined) anger, he will derive that you probably disbelieve in order to justify secret sins. Even if you tell him otherwise, the explanation will seem too compelling for him to fully let go. He is trying to get across the is-ought gap. That is, he wants to get from a factual issue to a moral issue. He wants his beliefs to make him good and your disbelief to make you bad.

A response that shows you understand the intended meaning would probably acknowledge that his religion teaches that everyone must believe, but you still need a reason to believe his religion (including that particular teaching). If he wishes to go deeper into his own doctrines, he might explain how all humankind is fallen due to a transgression by Adam and Eve, and how Jesus atoned for their sin so that he could extend mercy to everyone who believes. But no matter what story he uses to try to justify the doctrine, he is still presupposing you already believe it. There is no need to be bothered by that because until he starts producing evidence, he still doesn't get to influence what you believe.

"God exists outside of the Universe."

To exist is to occupy a place in some space. And the Universe refers to all the space there is. So what is it even supposed to mean for something to exist outside of the Universe?

As much as you may want your Christian friend to be more precise with his terms, if you really want the conversation to move forward you are going to have to be the one to be more flexible with yours. To him, the "universe" refers only to the relatively small region of space where scientists take measurements. And existence is a relatively blurry concept in which things like algebra or love have as much existence as tacos or rocks. One approach is to agree that algebra and love have "conceptual existence" because they occupy a place in the minds of individuals. And you could even agree that God probably exists in the same manner! ...but that's not really what your friend meant by "exists".

A closer analogy might be to compare yourself with a character in a video game. The character occupies a position somewhere on his game map, but there is really no direction in the video game character can travel to arrive at your kitchen. And anyone capable of pressing the "pause" button would effectively have total control over the video game character's life. Your friend similarly views God as dwelling in some position that is effectively unreachable to us, but from which he has absolute and total control over our lives.

However, I don't usually recommend bringing up simulation theory. If your friend is not very comfortable with simulations, he may fear that it implies things he didn't intend if he agreed that life is a simulation. It is very important to Christians to only use words with positive connotations when describing God, so describing God with concepts they don't completely understand makes them very uncomfortable, lest they accidentally imply something negative about him. In general, I find that Christians tend to be more comfortable with suggestions involving multi-dimensional woo, where God can step in directions that cause him to blink in or out of our ability to perceptive him.

But whatever analogy you use to understand his beliefs, the crux of the matter always comes back to why your friend believes God to exist at all in some unreachable realm. And, of course, he doesn't know any details about how God really exists. So a translation of the intended meaning is, "There are theoretically possible physics concepts that could potentially be compatible with my beliefs about God." Your friend is not really trying to make any claims about the actual nature of God. He is just trying to show you that counter-intuitive phenomena can exist. Perhaps, the best response is simply to shrug and agree that it is a possibility. Such nonchalant responses are very effective at placing the burden back on him if he wants you to consider his position.

"A real testimony can only come from the Holy Ghost."

So you are trying to show respect for your friend's beliefs by giving him the chance to present supporting evidence, and his response is simply to tell you that you are doing it wrong. And you are trying to be open to considering a paranormal manifestation, but instead of helping you experience one, your friend just keeps telling you to believe first! This all sounds crazy! But your friend doesn't seem crazy. What is he really trying to say?

Christians are no strangers to faith-promoting anecdotes. They have all heard stories of near-death experiences, miraculous healings, fulfilled prophesies, and unlikely artifacts found in the remnants of ancient civilizations, that all seem to confirm the things they believe to be true. Why don't they just present their flimsy evidence for you to debunk? At some subconscious level, everyone (including your Christian friend) knows that the evidence for Christianity will fall apart if it is scrutinized thoroughly enough.

Fortunately (for Christians), they have a powerful defensive mechanism to protect their testimonies when all supporting evidence falls apart. The brain uses neurotransmitters (chemicals with an electrostatic charge pulled by the brain's own electrical signals along active pathways) to direct how neurons form connections. In other words, when these chemicals are present the brain has intense experiences and forms strong memories. The brain naturally releases neurotransmitters when it discovers evidence that confirms its existing beliefs. This is how the brain rewards itself for having a correct understanding of the world. (It's not a bad thing. It's how the brain is supposed to work.) But this also explains why people are strongly biased in favor of evidence that confirms what they have already chosen to believe. Certain drugs can cause the brain to release all of its neurotransmitter reserves, creating a false sense of meaning. Religions have also evolved mechanisms for organically teasing the brain into releasing its neurotransmitters. They refer to the resulting experiences as "The Holy Ghost".

So a translation of the intended meaning is, "I recognize that there is no real evidence that can support a lasting testimony of Christianity, but if you will sincerely work in particular ways to believe without evidence until you your mind is finally willing to accept it, you too can have a powerful experience that will leave you absolutely convinced that we are right." The hard thing for atheists to understand is that this is not a lie. You really can have a powerful experience that will confirm whatever you are predetermined to believe. It works in every religion. That's why there are people who are strongly convinced about all sorts of contradicting religious positions. But should you?

It really does feel nice. It really does seem deeply meaningful, almost inter-personal. It comes with a sense of peace and confidence. And it leaves a person very strongly convinced. But does it lead a person to factual knowledge? Here's the rub: Only anecdotally, but never in any way that can be empirically validated. A response that reflects understanding of the intended meaning will acknowledge that it is possible to become strongly convinced without evidence. But whether someone should become strongly convinced without evidence remains to be established.