“A Saul turning into Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle. In our day, each proselytizing mass movement seems to regard the zealous adherents of its antagonist as its own potential converts. Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists: ‘The petit bourgeois Social-Democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.’”—Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)

Jerry Falwell actually said something smart once. When asked what the difference was between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist, Falwell said: “a Fundamentalist is just an Evangelical who is angry about something.” In terms of doctrine, there’s no real difference between your average Evangelical Christian and your average Fundamentalist Christian. Likewise, in substantive terms, the difference between “atheism” (i.e., “old atheism”) and “new atheism” is this: nothing. The difference is more a difference of style. New atheists (or, as they often prefer to be called, “evangelical anti-theists”) are angry about something. Old-school atheists are about as worked up about people who believe in God as they are about people who believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud maintained that giving up on God and embracing atheism was really all about shedding youthful illusions and growing up. Though deeply insulting and profoundly condescending (to religious people like me), I must confess that Freud’s characterization of atheism used to ring true to me. It ably describes the somber atheism of Nietzsche and Marx. Atheists used to sound like grown-ups, like those party-pooper grown-ups who come downstairs at midnight, turn on the lights, and tell everyone it’s time to turn off the music, clean up, go home, and get a good night’s sleep; these days, atheists sound like shrill teenagers, like those know-it-all preachy vegan teenagers who want the whole family to switch to soy. Be that as it may, they’ve got religion all wrong, and so far as I can tell, there are three main reasons for this: (1) like fundamentalists, the new atheists take religion far too literally; (2) they think they know what religion means to Joe Average, Regular Rhonda, and Typical Tanya; (3) they fail to see that religion shapes how you think and believe far more than what you think and believe.

Teaching on religion early on in my teaching career was profoundly eye-opening for me. I expected most of my students to know little or nothing about religion, and this was, alas, largely the case. What I didn’t expect to find was that many of my most religious students were equally clueless. Religious identity was clearly important to them, often very important, and yet their knowledge of their own religion was practically non-existent. It took me a few weeks to realize, for instance, that the guy in the corner who described himself as “born again” and got all fired up about Richard Dawkins, knew practically nothing about Christianity. Likewise, it took me a month to realize that the bright young woman in the hijab, who got all fired up whenever an unkind word was said about Islam, knew practically nothing about Islam. People like this used to frustrate me. But now they fascinate me. Because the success or failure of a social movement is largely dependent upon them. There’s always a gulf, a fascinating gulf, between an idea’s intellectual appeal and its emotional appeal, between what a movement is supposedly all about—according to its highly-articulate apologists, its slick PR-people, its intellectuals—and what it actually means to Joe Average, Regular Rhonda, and Typical Tanya. An old friend of ours from Baltimore is a case in point. Let’s call her Cindy.

Cindy was brought up in a hard-core Jehovah’s Witness household. Her family was among the most pious in their religious community. People looked up to them with a mixture of fear and awe. They were the gold standard: a family that never missed a meeting at the Kingdom Hall and spent thousands of hours spreading the faith each year. Cindy fell away from the faith in her late teens and got “disfellowshiped” (systematically shunned by her entire community). When we met her she was in her mid-20s. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in her family for years. She had dreads and tattoos, and a massive hate-on for religion. She’d rejected all of her parents values and beliefs, and she never had a kind word for the Witnesses. Yet it was obvious to us, charmingly obvious, that she was still a Jehovah’s Witness in so many ways.

“One certainty,” writes Aaron Haspel, “is often exchanged for another, doubt for certainty occasionally, certainty for doubt almost never.” Cindy’s real name is scrawled in red-ink next to this aphorism in my copy of Everything (2015). She was (and probably still is) a clear example of someone who goes through life exchanging one certainty for another, someone who’s extremely evangelical about whatever she happens to be into at the moment (e.g., veganism, smoking weed, going organic, skateboarding, new atheism, chemtrails, etc.). She would preach and proselytize incessantly, just as she probably preached and proselytized incessantly with her parents when she was a kid. Everyone just had to like whatever Cindy liked. What’s more, she was highly prone to demonization: people who didn’t share her enthusiasms weren’t just boring, they were evil. Alas, she’d transcended Protestant theology, but she hadn’t transcended Protestant psychology. I’ve witnessed the same pattern countless times in myself and others, and it’s led me to suspect that religion doesn’t have much to do with believing, or ceasing to believe, in a metaphysical proposition like God. Religion shapes how you think and believe far more than what you think and believe. Getting rid of the idea of Heaven doesn’t necessarily rid us of the longing for a painless paradise. Getting rid of the idea of Redemption doesn’t necessarily rid us of the longing for an escape from History and Consequence. And getting rid of The Savior doesn’t necessarily rid us of the longing for salvation.

—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)