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Getting off Mount Atheism

Leah Libresco (of “Unequally Yoked”) suggested the idea of a local maximum as a helpful way of looking at competing worldviews. This is a great analogy, and I’d like to share my interpretation of it.

Imagine an undulating surface with mountain peaks of various sizes, like this surface (left). This space is Rationality, and the higher you are on the surface, the better that spot explains reality.

I hope the analogy remains clear as we explore this fantasy world. I realize it’s imperfect, but I think it gives both insights and a new vocabulary for discussing worldview changes. Here goes …

If you’re on a slope in Rationality space, you realize that you can do better, so you climb higher (by study or discussion, for example). When you get to the top of your mountain, movement in any direction takes you to a place that does a poorer job of explaining reality. You’ve now reached a local maximum. Let’s add a little ambiguity by imagining that it’s foggy, so you connect with other people who share your mountain. With time, study, and discussion, you might be discover that your mountain goes higher still, and you become even more pleased with your position.

Things look pretty good … but what if you’d climbed a different mountain? Maybe that mountain would be higher and provide a more complete explanation of reality.

Another mountain is hard to get to. From your current location, a step in any direction takes you to a worse spot, and because you’d move down into the saddle between two peaks, it would get a lot worse before it got better. This mountain change (that is: worldview change) isn’t to be taken lightly.

The open-minded Catholic (say) at the top of one mountain might wonder how things look from other mountains (the atheist or Buddhist or New Age mountains, for example), so she asks the atheist. The atheist assures her that his mountain is far higher than hers—but of course that’s what he would say. If he didn’t think that his perch was the best, he’d be at the top of a different mountain. It would be a rare person—someone who was dissatisfied with an old view and was slogging through Rationality space searching for something better—who would not recommend their current position.

People sometimes spend years in the investigation required to trek from one spot to another, moving from Fundamentalist Christianity to Buddhism to New Age to atheism, for example. That’s not to say that the journey was a waste. It can be a educational and even enjoyable process, but it can also be a long one.

I’d like to map onto this analogy my hypothesis that well-informed atheists never convert (through rational arguments) to Christianity. Those wandering listlessly around the base of Mount Atheism could call themselves atheists, though they have put little time into finding more about Rationality space or climbing higher. Not knowing the various options, they could be convinced to follow Christians to one of their mountains. This is the Type 2 atheist converting to Christianity.

Others take a different path. Not only do they climb Mount Atheism, but they also explore the various Christian peaks well enough to speak with confidence about how they compare. Or perhaps the order is the reverse: they start from a thorough knowledge of a Christian peak (and an initial confidence in the rightness of that position) and then go far afield to understand the terrain around the atheist peak.

My hypothesis is that those who understand that terrain and conclude that Mount Atheism is the place to remain, the Type 3 atheists, are stuck there with no path to anything higher.

Let’s consider again Richard Morgan’s remarkable story. He was at the top of Mount Atheism but was transported in an instant to the Christian peak. He was familiar with the landscape—Christianity wasn’t a strange place to him—but he teleported there and has remained there for four years now.

A Type 3 atheist—the well-informed kind like Richard Morgan—can teleport to a Christian peak that he already knows well, but this doesn’t give the rest of us a trail. Denied the option of teleportation, atheists look for a new route.

Translated, these atheists are looking for intellectual arguments that show that the Christian worldview explains reality better. And they are still waiting.

Reality is a cold and heartless bitch,
and I love her for it.
— someone on The Nonprophets podcast

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker