In Defense of the Honestly Atheistic Approach to Conservative Christians

Recently I wrote about how when I deconverted I essentially leapt straight from devout biblical literalist to atheist with no stop overs modifying my interpretation of my faith according to the influence of liberal theologians. While I was an evangelical Christian I examined secular philosophers of an array of skeptical bents very seriously, but I read liberal theologians, even Christian ones, with a flat assumption they could offer me nothing of theological value. Then when I had effectively become an atheist, I gave them a shot, as a last resort for giving faith one last chance. And I found them worthless on the philosophical issues that had caused me to abandon the faith. And, so, I was still completely uninterested in their specifically theological creativity, whatever their other value might have been.

Then, in that same post, I characterized the strategy of some liberals to hang on to the word “God” while emptying it of most of its traditional content and the literalistic, fantastic content believed by a majority of lay believers:

So, you don’t fight the word God, you redefine it to mean much less objectionable things [in hopes that] you [can] persuade many people who would never abandon the word God to think much less objectionable things in the process.

In reply, Dylan Walker of the blog Skeptimus Prime (and one of my former online students), added the following crucial point in the comments:

I think this is largely right when it comes to the goals of at least some liberal theologians. Though one of my biggest problems with their way of thinking here is that it seems to involve a belief that fundamentalists are stupid, or at least easily fooled.

When I was a fundamentalist I was majoring in religious studies under a lot of liberal theologians I very much recognized that they were defining god in ways that made the term unrecognizable in terms of more conservative theology. Yet I often felt like they believed because they spoke the same “language” as me they would be able to converse with me on religion in a way that unbelievers could not, and thus could bend my beliefs in more positive directions than my fundamentalist beliefs would have of me.

I felt then, and still feel like they thought this would work even though what they were doing was perfectly transparent to me, and I found it irrelevant because by my standards they were not “true” Christians anyway and thus I had no reason to listen to them. In fact as a fundamentalist I was more troubled by liberal Christians than atheists because they presented people with a “false” gospel.

I was basically the same way. I just didn’t see liberal Christians as real Christians. It was usually as simple as that. The idea that they could just change the meanings of words and I would fall for it was a joke. I wasn’t interested in anything they had to say theologically. It was extremely easy for them to trip off my defenses and make me tune them out.

By contrast, I would listen to atheists because atheists had to be defended against. I was obsessed with apologetics from the time I was 14. Philosophical doubts were real things to be treated seriously. Non-believers deserved (or at least desperately needed) a rational accounting and defense of the Christian faith. This was axiomatic to me. Skeptical objections to my faith were something I always took seriously and needed to refute whereas liberal theology didn’t even need to be refuted. Within the foundations and core of my very faith itself, it was obviously unbiblical, false, wishy-washy, compromised, arbitrary, and self-serving.

Now, of course not everyone is like Dylan and me. Some conservative Christians can be swayed by liberals into becoming more liberal. Especially low information believers may be coaxed into thinking you can just say “God” really means “that people love each other” or some other bit of nonsensical semantic bait and switch and, if you use an authoritative enough of a tone and it matches with their other values and needs, they’ll make the switch from what they were otherwise taught. So long as they get to keep the word “God” in the process they’ll never worry about it or smell anything fishy going on.

And maybe some more conservative believers wind up over time incapable of upholding the absurdities of evangelical morality or science, the more that they come to realize how stubbornly out of synch these things are with modern understandings of the world, and will slowly liberalize out of basic intellectual, social, and moral pressure. Sometimes simple education in the origins of the Bible or the profound problems involved with making coherent sense of it, or of squaring it with modern values, all lead to organic evolutions towards theological liberalism.

But I think there is a significant chunk of conservatives out there who are like I was and who will actually listen more to atheists than to liberal believers, who will study what we say in an effort to refute us, and who will understand exactly the seriousness of what we’re doing when we attack the truth of the Bible or the propositions of their theology. They won’t just get all slippery and start denying their faith is about propositional truths at all, and thereby think the issue is settled, or use similar evasive liberal tactics.

Conservative Christians can often appreciate us forthright anti-theists who don’t soft-pedal our critiques or make any disingenuous gestures of sharing an interest in their faith thriving. They may think that we’re the enemy but we speak a language that actually respects their fundamental concerns and attacks them on that level. They believe in a literal Bible? Well, that’s what we take to task. They believe their faith is a source of true propositions? Well we analyze their truth. They’re not “stupid”. Most know that objections to their faith exist. Many put some serious effort into apologetics, as I did. While of course others will resolutely squirm away or outright hide from anything they fear will threaten their faith there is a segment that will come looking for us atheists to refute us.

So I have very little sympathy with those who advise atheists in general not to launch uncompromising attacks on religious faith but instead tell us to try to gently coax all believers to more politically and culturally palatable versions of their faiths and not worry about the rest that “do no harm”. Many believers with the worst beliefs will seek out and think over the most vigorous arguments against their beliefs. Why not make their apologetic task as hard as possible?

If we don’t do our damnedest to make their doubts as severe as possible, why will they feel any pressure that they need to liberalize in order to save their faith?

In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of people’s faiths that liberalize actually do so because becoming more liberal is a more palatable alternative than denying their faith altogether and going all the way to atheism.

Those who advise against uncompromising confrontational honesty with believers express fears that atheism will make them double down in a reactive way, as a defensive response to threat. The idea is that attacking their faith directly could backfire and radicalize them. But I submit that when the most unabashed criticisms are leveled, it makes it simply harder for the doubts to be tuned out without closing too many roads to philosophy, history, science, literature, etc.

Sure, some believers respond so extremely as to cut themselves off to one aspect of life and knowledge after another. They shun literature, art, philosophy, science, pop culture–anything that challenges them at all. But that’s unsustainable. They destroy their ability to stay relevant or keep their kids from rebelling when they do that. Many will not see closing off all cultural engagement as possible. So when they get harsh challenges from other good spheres of life that they take seriously, they will have to struggle. They will have to internalize and wrestle with what is compelling about what they’re taking in which is threatening to cut their beliefs and values to the core.

I know this because I was there. I became an atheist because I was challenged relentlessly by philosophical and cultural influences that I could not simply ignore. I was too invested in them. This made for competing sides of my own mind. My Christian dogmatism had rival frameworks within my own mind that finally supplanted it. Evangelicals who really do understand and know how to reason adequately in the fields of history or literature or art or science or psychology or philosophy, etc. will be forced to struggle if solid attacks on their faith get persistently launched from these directions. Even if they don’t deconvert or even become liberal, in a great many cases they will at least have to somehow moderate themselveseven if only in a compartmentalized way, rather than radicalize in their fundamentalism, .

While it is valuable to deal with each person as an individual, and treat even each distinct argument as a unique engagement, and while it is also wrong to be verbally abusive or otherwise domineering in one’s arguments, there is a crucial role for confronting fundamentalists head on, on the terms of their own beliefs, without mincing words. It is crucial to make clear the fullest extent of the objections to them. We have to show them the respect of being honest with them.

And when I write an article addressing those believers who do respond to my kinds of arguments I look askance on entreaties to not argue in that way but instead to argue in a way that is palatable for dissuading some other kind of a believer (or for placating some other kind of believer and keeping them mild in their belief, rather than feeling misunderstood or reactionary). I suspect you are not really so interested in me being persuasive as in me being silent. No single article addresses every kind of mind. I am free to address the kinds of people who will respond to my actual thoughts. While in a particular conversation with a particular person I might put an emphasis somewhere else, there is a place for writing that is not so individually tailored.

And even when individually tailoring my presentation and my emphases, I may look for common ground and the most persuasive word choices but fundamentally I am not going to be dishonest or manipulative. I am not in the business of deciding what truths other people can handle or not. And atheists who surrender don’t do anyone any favors by forfeiting even the possibility of advancing their own real views out of a strategic decision not to tempt fundamentalists to become even worse. They keep atheism and humanism from maturing further by making it harder for humanists to have the numbers and infrastructure and momentum necessary to create a sizable secular alternative to theistic religion.

And they abdicate the atheist’s potentially powerful role in forcing religious believers to moderate themselves precisely by not going easy on them and by letting them get away with simplistic answers. And they leave in the lurch the many doubting believers who would be better off outside their faiths if only some unapologetic atheists were out there showing them how to let go and letting them know it’s okay to let go. You don’t want to hurt religious people? That’s fine, me neither. You will help them more by challenging them than by coddling them.

It’s not your responsibility to manage someone else’s mind and try to decide what they can handle or not. It’s your responsibility to speak your own when important values and beliefs with real implications for people’s abilities to grapple with reality are at stake.

Were more people to do so across the religious spectrum, I predict more people’s faiths would liberalize drastically and there would be waves of deconversions. Why? Because conservatism thrives on fear. Reactionary movements are driven by fear. Conformism is driven by fear. If everyone let go of fear and were as honest as possible together, more doubters would realize just how much they’re not alone–even and especially among their fellow religious brethren. 

And the consequences of that realization could be devastating to many a doubter’s faith (or, at least, to their radicalism within it). If every closeted atheist came out and if every atheist who currently placates religious people started speaking up and if every liberal believer who is a de facto atheist started identifying as an atheist, the very center of the discussion would shift. The social pressure to affirm the goodness of theistic religion would weaken as a string of doubters had a domino effect on each other as each one came out forthrightly expressing her doubts. The meaning of the word “moderate” would shift and the right wing of religion would be even farther from the center than it already is.

So I say let’s all just be truthful and let the dominos fall.

June 1, the second International Day of Doubt is a great place to start expressing our doubt to people and making ourselves available to other doubters to come forward to us, if we haven’t already. Learn more here.

And if you are the kind of theist who embraces the challenges atheistic thinking, who understands how iron sharpens iron, or who believes that your faith requires our doubt to reinvigorate itself, I invite you to study seriously and honestly with me, in a mutual spirit of sincere inquiry, in my online philosophy classes. Write me at I would love for us to think together.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.