While browsing Usenet some time ago, I came across this post on the newsgroup alt.religion.christian. It appears to be an excerpt from the book Drawing Near, a collection of 365 “daily readings for a deeper faith” by Christian pastor John MacArthur, whose ministry Grace to You claims a worldwide radio program, eleven million audiocassettes sold, and dozens of best-selling books written in its thirty-year history.
The excerpt is worth reading, if only to marvel at the arrogance it displays. It states that every born-again Christian, regardless of their level of education, has wisdom that “far surpasses” that of even the most educated atheist or other non-Christian. (Yes, that’s right, readers – it doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics and taught at Harvard and Cornell, if you were one of the most influential founders of the most powerful, prosperous and democratic nation in the history of human civilization, or if you were a surgeon performing operations on every part of the body and saving lives for five decades – any high-school student with a King James Bible knows more than you do!) We are also treated to the tidbit that believers “understand the most sublime truths of all”, one of which is that humanity’s purpose for existence is to serve as a sort of canned applause, telling God endlessly how great he is for having created us.
And what about the people who disagree with you on these matters? Is it just a matter of differing opinions? Or are they on alternative roads to the truth? Of course not! People who do not accept the tenets of Christianity, this article informs us, do so because they are ignorant and evil. “Such wisdom and insight,” we are told, “escapes unbelievers because they tend to view the things of God with disdain.”
In all seriousness, this excerpt is worth reading for another, more important reason: it offers a revealing glimpse into the world of fundamentalist Christian thought, and the tactics that the viral meme-complex of theism uses to keep a hold on its adherents’ minds. As “Thoughts in Captivity” argues, organized religion, especially in its more virulent strains, is in effect a system of mind control, designed to command the beliefs and behaviors of its adherents. MacArthur’s sermon is an excellent example of one of the more pernicious tactics it uses to accomplish this. It encourages believers to think, not just that they have the truth, but that they have a “higher” truth which is inherently superior to anything any non-Christian possesses, and this in turn encourages believers to disregard any criticism of their beliefs from outside.
One of this meme’s more common forms is the tendency of believers to tell outsiders criticizing their religion that they just “don’t understand”, that they haven’t studied it enough and that if they had they would agree with the orthodox view. This argument recurs in every religion, from Muslims who claim that no one who does not speak Arabic has the right to comment on the Qur’an to evangelical Christians who perpetually claim that outsiders would be converted if only they had read one more apologist’s book. Even if the nonbeliever has studied the believer’s religion in depth, even if they are more knowledgeable about it than the believer themself, they are accused of not having done it with a sufficiently devotional attitude, of bringing a closed mind to their studies. The fact that the nonbeliever has not converted to that religion is taken as proof of their closed-mindedness. (The advantage of this argument is that it can be deployed without any factual support whatsoever. I cannot count how many times I have been pityingly informed by believers that I “just don’t understand”, despite the fact that they could not point to a single actual error in any of my arguments.)
Of course, this tolerance is invariably a one-way street. Believers almost never hold their criticisms of other religions, or of atheism, to a similarly stringent standard. I have likewise lost count of the times I have been preached to by believers who think they completely understand atheism despite never having read a single book or essay by an actual atheist. Often these are the same people who inform me that I am completely unqualified to criticize their religion because I do not understand it.
In reality, the “qualification” to criticize a believer’s religion is a mirage, endlessly retreating into the distance. What it really means is that the believer feels that no one is qualified to criticize their beliefs, and we should point that out whenever this argument is brought up. (Of course, a double standard is invariably applied; no one needs this impossible level of expertise to be considered qualified to join a religion.)
Another, even more insidious belief is that all outsiders are deceived and blinded by Satan, and that their criticisms should therefore be ignored regardless of their content. Like the other argument, this one can be deployed regardless of the content of the nonbeliever’s criticism. Like the other argument, it is similarly constructed to be impervious to the facts: the only people who are not blinded by Satan and who are worth listening to are fellow members of the speaker’s religion.
What is the best way to overcome these arguments? On the level of purely rational argument, there is no way. But at another, more personal level, it can be done. Believers who see nonbelievers living happy, fulfilled and most of all outspoken lives, who are forced to realize that the behavior of outsiders is not what one would expect from lost souls blinded by Satan, may eventually be compelled by conscience to abandon these hopeless anti-intellectual defenses. This is part of why I encourage all atheists and nonbelievers to come out of the closet and to state their position openly. Prejudice thrives in the shadow of ignorance, but in the daylight, it tends to wither on the vine.