Although the title is in jest, as by no means am I qualified to identify mental illness, I have to point out my perplexity in the face of the toothpaste commercial smiles, literal or figurative, displayed by religious zealots I have debated. More often than not, the glibness masks a deep anxiety, which surfaces as soon as their claims are disputed.

It’s almost as if they had something to prove to themselves, not to the world at large, about the purity of their positivity and beliefs.

At first sight, they look down on the rest of us mortals from a mountain top, convinced they have mastered not only the art of flawless living, but also boundless love for mankind and the perfect, guru-like composure.

“God has filled me with love; like Him, I love even those who hate me; I know it’s not their time to understand the divine plan yet. I look upon them with compassion, extending my hand with a fragrant flower and the holy scriptures. I know they will someday find the right path and I have a duty to point them towards it. I smile at them and speak softly, and nothing can ever disturb my peace.”

Not only are their claims about the world, so gently expanded upon, often offensive and repulsive (when not simply delusional); when they are challenged, this love swiftly morphs into indignation, false pity and even disdain.

However, there are those non-believers who take the “niceness” seriously for the sake of civility (though claiming to be free thinkers) and thereby defend it, regarding the drivel-spewer as an elegant dove of peace, as long as their tone remains a soft one. The grotesque nature of what they are actually saying seems beside the point. Pretending that it doesn’t bother me or insult my intelligence would be a lie.

The invisible Stasi 

When speaking to a believer, one must remain aware that they are not only preoccupied with what their interlocutors think, but also with how they fare before the omnipresent, ever-recording God, who takes note of their every word and thought, to someday hold them accountable. Which is why a natural dialogue, unrestrained by such concerns, is hardly possible. It’s like having an invisible oppressor over your shoulder, speaking only what he/she would like to hear, in anticipation of a reward or punishment, if not now then later.

Imagine this train of thought inside a believer’s head, in a real time conversation with a detractor.

“I’m calm because You want me to be calm. OK, this one is a little standoffish. Inspire me to persuade him. Nope, that didn’t work. He’s really getting on my nerves now but I must be kind, because he will eventually see Your greatness. Should I call him out? You called people out so I guess it’s alright. I can’t lose my temper though because I will fail you and I can’t afford that. OK, this didn’t work either. Let’s up the game a bit. I know it’s hypocritical; I’m far from perfect; but you want me to teach him, right? I’m doing your work here. Unless I lose my humility and then I’ll be guilty of pride and sent to hell. But this guy just blasphemed; it’s unacceptable. Will you please forgive him? I must pray for him; it’s my duty. I must show love. Alright; that’s it. Warrior mode now. There’s a time and a place and this is it. Give me strength to put up with this idiot and set him straight. Oh, here goes the pride again… I’m sorry. But I must fight your war. That slightly compensates for my sins, which are numerous. Oh shit; I’m going to hell anyway, aren’t I?”

Of course these thoughts would occur at the speed of light, but that’s a glimpse into how it feels to live with the divine Stasi in your head. Everything is filtered through what he would or wouldn’t want from his loyal minion.

Which is why a conversation of this type cannot unfold naturally.

Satan in the bush

Not only is God following and recording the believer in real time; Satan lurks nearby as well. And as we know from Christian teachings, he seeks to exploit someone’s flimsiest weakness. He reads minds too – that’s how they have to watch their thoughts constantly, lest they be intercepted and used for temptation.

That is why the believer is, deep down, in a perpetual state of anxiety – and that’s why a relaxed and “loving” conversation can swiftly turn into the non-believer being warded off as a propagator of devilish lies. Have you ever noticed how quickly they switch their mode? It’s no secret that, as the “Satanic panic” proves, devout Christians see threats to their purity everywhere and are quick to avoid potential corruption. There are countless videos claiming to identify satanic influences in popular culture.

The very next step, for some, is to claim that non-believers (and especially anti-theists) are, wittingly or not, “working for the devil” (hey Satan, cough up the dough; I’m due a few years’ wages).

A believer therefore cannot yield an inch, for fear of leaving God or Satan with the impression of taking their faith less seriously. If a mere “maybe” slips past their lips or keyboard, it’s bad news.

God’s persecuted soldier

One might wonder how a person can seem Prozac-happy while thinking the world is evil, adverse to anything pure and a constant source of corruption.  The cult member/religious fanatic grin, accompanied by a glazed stare, is partly rooted in the thought of being special.

We are the chosen ones, who will emerge victorious; we rejoice anything the world throws at us.

This mentality leads them to see anyone attempting to reason with them as their persecutors, their enemies, who seek to transform the world into a satanic kingdom of debauchery and cold, murderous utilitarianism (atheists are associated with Nazism, communism etc).

Hence even a simple debate turns into the ancestral fight between good and evil; not only are they inflating their role but seeing you as a revolutionary for the destruction of the world (for, say, agreeing with gay marriage). Every anti-theist position you hold, even mildly, grants you that label automatically. They are at war, imagining you want to destroy them (yep, that actually happens and it’s quite something to witness).

The prodigal son fetish

I’ve seen believers describe (so candidly) their fantasies of the day those who reject God will turn around and glorify him, as if positioned atop a hill, watching the end of a long torment they suspect unbelief is (indulge in some popcorn while you’re at it). This phantasm fills their hearts with warmth and produces a delighted smile, based on… well, a shit sandwich. Based on nothing, basically.

Somehow they’re unable to comprehend how alienating that is and how it facilitates cutting contact with them altogether. It’s uncomfortable to relate to someone when in real time they are developing this parallel fantasy in their head where you’re concerned (one you’re aware will never manifest). The fact that they don’t accept you for who you are is reason enough to distance yourself (when feasible, of course). Whilst you might exercise tolerance with an elderly relative, everything considered, when it comes to friends matters are very different.

The saviour/ teacher fantasy

Isn’t it every believer’s dream to bring a poor lost soul into/  back into the fold? The condescension and tone of the wise lecturer are enough to make someone vomit.The appeal to emotion, the manipulation and all the cheap techniques they imagine they can use on you only produce embarrassed laughter, in the vein of this is so pathetic. 

Holding the absolute truth, a believer is convinced of being able to outsmart you and gently prod you into joining the ranks. The bouts of creativity in approaching you don’t demonstrate genuine wisdom or profound thought, but a mere sales pitch.

Don’t you know it’s their duty to love and correct you, to feel sad when you sin (although they do it constantly as well)? The righteous have a duty to “preach the truth”, even after in practice they fall short of following it.

Which is why you must be made to believe that they are genuinely better and happier than the general population.

Mutual reinforcement 

“Don’t worry; these people are on such a low level; they lack the proper understanding of our doctrine. They’ve got their own role as our challengers. But we’re safe in our world (wink wink).”

Community spirit can be so helpful and yet so damaging, depending on the circumstances. When troubled by logical questions posed by nonbelievers, believers often seek comfort in the safe bosom of their echo chamber. In conversations with multiple interlocutors, a dialogue of this type feels like observing a case of folie a deux. There is no need for reason or logical arguments, only exultation on both sides.

Tell them all you like that Noah couldn’t have gathered and “housed” all species of subterranean animals, not to mention all animals living halfway across the planet, which wouldn’t even have survived in his particular climate. That he was not a tamer of lions and pumas and crocodiles. That a boat that size, with the available materials and technology, wouldn’t even float.”God made it happen”, because “God can do anything”.

The glibness sometimes comes from the reassurance that no matter how far-fetched the things they claim are, there is someone in the vicinity to provide an echo. In fact, in a fair number of countries, the religious constitute the majority, which is why they can happily spill any bullshit without worrying about how it sounds.