The Tempter Returns

I awoke from my sleep with a start.

It had been a long and wearisome day. I had turned in early, as the late autumn light waned from the sky, and it was now dark and deep outside my window. But now something had roused me, and I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone.

I went from room to room, searching for intruders. At first glance, my home seemed silent and empty. The Observatory was silent, its holographic displays a pale flickering in the darkness. The screens in the Rotunda were banked to a dim blue glow. The Library was wrapped in shadow, its shelves of books motionless and still, and through its high windows, the Garden slumbered in the depths of fall, yellow and black, with only a few tiny jack-o-lanterns glimmering in the moonless night. I checked the empty Foyer, where the fireplace had died to a few feeble embers, and was about to put it down to a stray dream and return to bed – when something caught my eye. Up above in the Loft, a light was on.

I climbed the stairs and emerged into the room. In the far corner, at my writing desk, a reading lamp cast a pool of yellow light from its green shade. Someone was sitting at the desk, his back to me.

I was not taken entirely by surprise. I had almost been expecting it, given the date. But this time, I was going to take the lead. Anger rising, I crossed the room… and then the person in the chair turned around, and it was not who I had expected.

My opening accusation died into surprise. “You— Who are you?”

My unexpected visitor smiled. “Not who you expected, perhaps?”

Then, although his countenance did not change, I looked more deeply at him – saw him suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted away, and I knew who he was after all.

“You look different this time,” I observed.

The Tempter smiled a slow, lazy smile. “Of course.”

I tried to hide my astonishment. The Tempter was here. He had not accosted me while I was traveling, or in the wild; he had come here, to my home, to confront me. It was either a bold show of confidence or a risky gamble, and I wasn’t sure which. I knew he was going to challenge me, but I had to get in a question before he did. “Last year, in the wilderness on the way home from the desert, I met a stranger. He looked – and sounded – a lot like you. Was he?”

He shrugged. “One of my shadows, perhaps. But that’s not why I’m here. I trust you’ve had much to think about since last we met. I’ve brought some new ideas for you to consider.”

Once the Tempter has found you, there’s no way to get him to leave without hearing him out. “Fine. I’m ready.”

“Are you now.” He grinned that patient, amused smile again. “We’ll see. I hear there’s an election coming up soon. Hopeful, are you?”

“The polls say—” I began, but he waved me to silence. “I’m not interested in polls. It’s not specific candidates I care about, but a more general conclusion I want to establish.”

“And that is?”

“The pundits and the media say this is a ‘change’ election. And it does look good for your side, I have to admit. But have you ever considered how much ever changes because of an election, really?”

“Of course things change because of elections. Are you really denying that?”

“Yes, I am.” His teeth glinted as he grinned. “The excitement that always comes with elections may have temporarily overpowered your good sense, but the day after the votes are cast, you’ll come back to earth. The truth is that politics is a series of disappointments, and it always will be. The nature of the system practically guarantees it – it ensures that the only candidates who get into office are the ones who are most willing to do the bidding of the establishment and exploit popular prejudices. It rewards politicians who appeal to the worst in all of us – and it works, you know. Nothing unites people like a common enemy, and as far as most of them are concerned, you’re that enemy. Those ads you ridiculed are more effective than you think they’ll be. And the allegedly progressive ones aren’t much better. Most of them are apathetic, bought and paid for; you know as well as I do how much of a disappointment they’ve been. And when it comes to religion, they pander to delusion just as much as their opponents. They’d never welcome you to their side. In fact, they’re probably embarrassed by your support and would gladly shut you up if they could.”

“It wasn’t like that with Robert Ingersoll.”

“Those were different times, and he was a rare exception. Every era has its flukes.”

“Be that as it may. Even granting that much of what you say is true, I think you’ve misconstrued my position. I’m not saying that atheists are welcomed in the halls of power now. I know we’re not. Religious prejudice is still much too common. I see our mission differently: effecting change not from the top down, but from the bottom up. With time and patience, we can win enough support and sympathy that politicians will have to acknowledge us. That’s the same template that successful social reform movements have followed in the past. Surely not even you can deny that we’ve made progress. What about women’s suffrage? Ending segregation?”

“That we have made progress, I don’t deny,” the Tempter said. “But I doubt whether we can so easily extrapolate this, as you do, to the conclusion that progress will continue. Just because past reform movements have been successful, it doesn’t follow that all future ones will be successful. And I think you’re going up against an opponent that’s far more powerful and well-entrenched than those past movements were.”

“I don’t doubt that the atheist revolution will be quieter than previous revolutions, and that it may take longer,” I said softly. “But it’s no less real in spite of that.”

“Ahh,” the Tempter said, a thoughtful hiss. “And that leads into an excellent point. I want to correct a misconception in your thinking – one that skews your opinion without your being aware of it.”

“And that is?” I said cautiously.

“You wrote recently of what you call ‘the bubble‘ – the way religious groups surround themselves with the like-minded. I think that essay hit closer to home than you realized. We’re all far more sensitive to flaws in others than those same flaws in ourselves, and this is a perfect example. Don’t you have a bubble too? You seek out rational, skeptical people; you read their writings daily, you immerse yourself in their thinking, you surround yourself with them. Understandably so – but that colors your thinking. You look out and see so many people who think like you, and it makes you think the whole world works like that. In reality, you and your allies are a vanishing minority in a sea of obstinate, ignorant faith.”

I didn’t have a ready answer for that. “I have to admit, there’s some justice to what you say. But I don’t think I’ve been unduly optimistic. I’m well aware that atheists’ progress still has to be weighed against the existence of a believing majority. Didn’t I just say as much?”

“Yes, but I think you consider that acknowledgement just a footnote,” the Tempter said pointedly, “a side consideration to an otherwise well-positioned and successful movement. In fact, it’s the major obstacle facing you, and one that can very easily block whatever change you might seek. Think about it: there are churches on every street. They’re woven into the fabric of society, from major cities to tiny towns. They all have congregations that meet every Sunday to receive their orders. What can atheists possibly offer to match that?”

“Organization makes people more visible and makes them appear more numerous,” I persisted. “And you can’t just imply that everyone in the pews is a brainwashed fundamentalist. The larger a group becomes, the more diverse its membership gets, and the more impossible it becomes to enforce one belief or ideology on every member. I know there’s a hardened core of fundamentalists, but I think a large portion – maybe the majority – are there just because it’s the default choice. We can sway them – and that’s the value of that bubble you referred to. I prefer to call it speaking with one voice, myself. The more we speak out, the more we can peel these people off. Our efforts absolutely do have the potential to have a far greater impact than our numbers would suggest – not that those numbers are so bad, anyway.”

“Deftly spoken,” the Tempter said, grinning. He stood from the desk, rising so his shadow streamed out against the light behind him. “There’s that optimism I mentioned. You’ve done a marvelous job convincing yourself, I don’t doubt. But, again, you’re underestimating how easy this mission will be. Even if there isn’t ideological unanimity, most of those people in the pews have been religious so long it’s sunk into their bones. It’s part of their identity. Tell them to abandon it? You might as well try to persuade them to get a sex change! They like where they are, and except for a few outcasts, most of them will never budge.”

“Change in society’s opinion doesn’t come about by mass conversions among the old guard. It comes from new generations who’ve grown up with new ideas and are comfortable with them. That’s just a fact of human nature, but it’s one we can work with.”

“I think you aspire to more than generational change,” the Tempter said accusingly. “Don’t try to change your position now. But even if I were inclined to grant your point, that’s where that bubble you spoke of works against you. The vast majority of believers live in isolated, insular worlds. They’ll never hear of your message, or if they will, it will only be as a background annoyance, a boogeyman tossed off from the pew. You still underestimate – by far – just how durable received opinion is. Sure, you may chip off a few flakes. But that’s not what you dream of. You dream of an avalanche of change, a new wave of enlightenment. That’s a foolish, self-deluding dream, and it’s not going to happen, not in your lifetime or any other. Those little scratches you’re making aren’t even enough to hurt. If anything, you’re doing the religious cause a favor by giving them a visible enemy, and as I said, nothing unites people like that.” He moved forward, looming over me. His grin grew wider. “Face it: you’re not making a difference.”

I bowed my head. “What did you say?” I asked quietly.

“You’re not making a difference,” the Tempter said emphatically.

I looked up, meeting his eyes. “Say that again.”

The Tempter seemed to hesitate. “I meant what I said. You’re not making a difference.”

I took a step forward, into the pool of light from the lamp. “No difference? Really?”

“Well—”

“I acknowledge your point only as far as this,” I said, advancing. “If we only talk to each other, we may underestimate the difficulty of what we’ve set out to accomplish. We have to be careful of that. But atheists, unlike believers, don’t have a bubble. How could we? We don’t have a single leader or authoritative text. We disagree with each other, often emphatically. And we don’t isolate ourselves. On the contrary, we set out to engage with the world, to confront different perspectives. We welcome the debate. And when we take that light into dark places, it does make a difference. And do you want to know how I know that?”

The Tempter stared at me, but I didn’t wait for his reply. “I know it because they tell us so. I hear from them when they realize they’re not alone. I hear from them when they find the courage to stand up for themselves. I hear from them when they leave darkness behind and make the journey to reason. Look past the uniformity of the crowd; they’re out there, and there are more of them than you think.”

The Tempter took a step back. I advanced further, pressing my attack. “Have I entertained thoughts of leading a revolution? Of course. Who doesn’t daydream? But I know those are fantasies. The most important work is always done at the individual level, one person to another. I’ve always said I’ll consider my work well served if I could affect even one other person’s life, and I have. But there’s more to be done. How many more people do you think are out there like the ones I’ve spoken to? How many more are waiting for us to bring that message to them? They’re ready, if only we can reach them. And that’s why I write, that’s what I’m fighting for. It’s not to shake the foundations of society, not to make the mighty tremble – it’s for the sake of compassion. That’s something you’ll never understand.”

I stepped forward to deliver the coup de grace, but it wasn’t necessary. The Tempter, a look of mingled astonishment and defiance on his face, froze and then faded into shadow. I was alone in my study, standing in the little golden pool of light on the edge of darkness.

For a moment I stood there, and then something new came to my senses. There was a faint light creeping in around the edges of the world, softening shadows, turning the black to pale gray. I shut off the lamp, then went to the window and pulled the shutters open. The world still lay in silent dreams, but along the horizon, the first glimmers of gold were rising. The dawn was coming, and light was returning to the world.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    For some reason I’m more moved by this story of the Tempter than I have been by previous ones. Perhaps it’s because I, too, have felt despondent of late, what with the continued escalation of Elizabeth Dole’s attacks on Kay Hagan via atheists, and the somewhat dispiriting response of both Hagan and the media. It’s abundantly clear that we are very far indeed from general acknowledgment that slurs on the integrity of atheists are unjustified.

    Then I remember that we atheists are only just learning how to speak up for ourselves. We might look at the media and see only occasional change, but the change in ourselves is dramatic! I guess it will simply take a while for that to filter through.

  • Rowan

    I like it!

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    a candle in the dark :)

  • mikespeir

    You write well. Your dialog–the artistry of it–is convincing. Frankly, though, I’m not so optimistic as you are. Yes, the Tempter is wrong. We are making a difference. Still, his arguments are not to be handled so dismissively. I’ve been a religious conservative. I can tell you for a fact that the overwhelming majority of them are absolutely immune to our evidence and our reasoning. They don’t give it the consideration it deserves because they don’t have to–and we are principled such that even we don’t believe they should have to.

    It might be that we will win in the end; but, if so, it will be over many long years–maybe centuries. And even that is assuming the world continues to progress as it has for the last two or three hundred years. Should there be a catastrophic downturn or one kind or another in the meantime, people will tend to sink back into superstition, grasping once more at fantasies for succor. Then we’ll spend still more centuries digging ourselves out of that hole. Personally, I suspect humankind would have to become fundamentally different for atheism to take hold on a large scale.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    Great post, I really enjoyed this one. I particularly liked the way you started out flustered and on the back foot as is so common when presented with an unexpected face to face challenge.

    Ironically, the Tempter’s visit itself shows that you’re not stuck in a bubble but are aware of the arguments from outside. Insular behaviour is something we must all guard ourselves against. It’s all too easy for us as humans to surround ourselves with people and literature that agrees with us, so we never have to step out of our comfort zone. Granted it’s not possible for an atheist in a religious community to live in a non-religious bubble. However, the Internet presents that possibility to some extent – as we each choose which content to view. The flip side however, for bloggers and commenters, is that the views they express online are public and subject to scrutiny. That can only be a good thing, in my opinion.

  • D

    Excellent writing, as always! One of my favorite things about reading your work is the way you use language typically associated with religious purposes, but clearly re-purposed. It gives your style a defiant grandeur, I think.

    I, too, have my concerns about the election and the coming years (as I’m sure we all do). Specifically, what we see as light at the end of a tunnel, many of our opponents see instead as an oncoming train, and so they may work against a set of changes they might otherwise support one-by-one out of fear that things may go “too far.” In other words, the recent momentum gathered may ironically work against us. Like climbing a mountain, we may need to make incremental, slow advances in order to keep our hold and make it to the top.

  • John

    Well done Ebonmuse. It would be interesting to have a gifted Christian writer write a story on similar lines, only have Jesus appear instead of the “tempter.” Again, well done.

    Mikespeir,
    “immune to our evidence and our reasoning”

    What “evidence?” Your “reasoning,” well, is your “reasoning.” No matter how extravagently worded, reasoning is nothing more than opinion – everybody has an opinion.

  • Tom

    You have a strange definition of reason, John.

  • Jeremy

    John says,

    “Reasoning is nothing more than opinion…”

    Should I take this to mean that you believe all opinions to be on equal footing? If this is what you mean, then I hope you will take the time to stand behind your assertion.

    It is certainly easy to speak one’s mind regardless of accuracy or connection to reality–I’ll give you that–but I reject the notion that all opinions are equally valid.

  • Tommy

    I can guarantee that you are making a difference.

  • John

    Jeremy, as far as this atheist/theist debate, all opinions are equally valid. this is because God is not in our provable realm, at least not yet. Basically, at least to me, it seems a philosophical debate. Your opinion that The Bible is false is based on your understanding of the Bible; and may I assume you have a literal understanding of The Bible. So, yes, all is opinion, mine, yours, and Ebon’s.

    By the way, I found Ebon’s last article on bacteria interesting. I think Ebon must have written that as a response to my abiogenesis remarks. I did a little reading and found several theories on where life started, one of which is clay.

    http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/science/10/25/clay.life.reut/index.html

    Job33:6 _______ I also am formed out of clay.

  • Polly

    it ensures that the only candidates who get into office are the ones who are most willing to do the bidding of the establishment and exploit popular prejudices.

    From democracy to despotism, this is true.

    Funny how this election got you thinking along these lines. But, then again you were personally caught in the net of ignorance and retrenchment from the “conservative” side.
    For me, the tempter has basically moved in; porn mags, knick-knacks and all. I’m thoroughly disgusted. All I see is a mass of ignorant stooopid people chanting “USA” or hurling the accusation “terrorist”, “anti-American” or “socialist”(as if any candidate is proposing to abolish taxes completely). The other side? Contraindicated messianic expectations. People equate Obama with peace – but he’s in favor of EXPANDING the war on different fronts and he still wants to leave troops in Iraq. Aren’t people listening?!? Redeploy =/= Bring home.

    These sheeple deserve what they get.
    sheered then slaughtered

    My only sympathies lay with those who didn’t choose the path we’re taking(regardless of who gets elected), those under the American steamroller, especially in the rest of the world, but here at home, too.

    The democratic process is a sham because far too many people are too simple-mindedly Manichaean in their thinking to live up to their responsibility to hold their leaders accountable. Instead, they debate endlessly about flagpins, who’s really “patriotic” (i.e. nationalistic), and, as I’ve come to expect from my mercenary countrymen, what’s going to happen to my taxes and the cost of gas. That’s where the moral calculus ends and they can’t even rationally evaluate that much.
    A nation of economic and jingoistic savages.

  • MS (Quixote)

    Top Shelf, EM.

  • Joffan

    John – being formed out of clay is empahtically not the same as a distant past in which the chemistry and environment of clays played a part in catalysing the origins of life. One of the hallmarks of prophetic fulfillment appears to be the willingness to ignore the original words, and extrapolate a marginally-related meaning that fits real knowledge. It is an extreme case of cognitive bias, in which the proponent does not ask whether the evidence is adequate for his cause, but only whether there is some interpretation, however unlikely, which will allow some sliver of rationale for his cause.

  • mikespeir

    John,

    You remind me a lot of myself not so very long ago. I don’t say that trying to make the point that I’ve now attained to an elevated state of enlightenment or any such thing. It’s just that I’ve been there and I know that nothing I’ve ever read on this site could have swayed me–as it hasn’t swayed you. Nothing I might write in this small space could either. But it isn’t right for you to ask me, What evidence and reason? It isn’t because a wealth of evidence and reason has been presented here which I, frankly, don’t believe you’ve faced quite head-on. At very best, Christianity hasn’t the evidence or reason itself to insist I buy into it. If it doesn’t, why should I? If nothing else, your inability to present convincing evidence and reason for Christianity is reason enough to not believe.

  • Tom

    John, surely you’ll concede than an argument, or opinion, that is not rationally consistent is not as valid as one that is. Believing such a thing as a god, or any supernatural entity not bound by the known laws of physics, could exist is entirely inconsistent with the axioms of naturalism or empirical rationalism, which are the basis upon which all sane people lead their lives, even unconsciously. Every moment you expect the world to respond to your stimulus in a way that is consistent with your prior experience, even simply throwing a light switch and expecting the light to come on, is an unconscious affirmation of faith in naturalism, and an implicit rejection of the idea that a creature could exist who, by mere whim, could, for example, cause the lamp not to give off light even though it was under exactly the correct physical conditions that should cause it to do so.

  • John

    “there is some interpretation, however unlikely, which will allow some sliver of rationale for his cause.”

    I don’t need a “sliver of rationale” for my cause. It could be that later scientists find geothermal vents as the beginning of life – who cares. I just found the CNN article interesting. I don’t have a cause, because in the end, I absolutley know where I am going after this life, and believe it or not, you will be there also.
    As Ebon’s little article above says, atheists are bucking the winds, vainly hoping their opinions will win the day.

  • http://liquidthinker.wordpress.com LiquidThinker (formerly TimJ)

    A wonderfully entertaining and insightful story and the first Tempter story I’ve read, still being a relatively new reader. I will say that the influence of your writing was a partial factor in my decision to start up a little blog myself, for whatever that’s worth. But as you reflect here, I do fear the “bubble effect”. I, as an atheist, along with having read the Bible, also read the Strobel’s “Case for X” books and other apologetic material. When I ask Christian relatives if they’ve read any skeptical material at all, print or web, the answer is invariably no because they already know the Bible is right. How can you argue with rock solid reasoning like that?

    But like you, I do hope that in the long run, rationality and critical thinking will win out. There is one thing that will help us. Speaking out and education. Two. Two things will help us, speaking out, education, and fanatical devotion to Darwin! Three… Nobody expects the Spanish Enlightenment! In seriousness, I have no doubts that this is a long term endeavor. As I mention elsewhere, I really hope that within 500 to 1000 years religion will be thought of only as an interesting subtopic within historical research. Am I being too optimistic?

  • Brad

    Pretty good story. I’ll add my own footnote to it:

    But atheists, unlike believers, don’t have a bubble. How could we? We don’t have a single leader or authoritative text. We disagree with each other, often emphatically. And we don’t isolate ourselves.

    To be sure, we all have bubbles, atheists too. The stress here needs to be put on the fact we don’t have a bubble – we don’t have overarching bubble(s) prescribed for us by superstitious tradition like most believers do. The essence of freethought, of which atheists have generally taken to endorsing (as would be expected), is to find and pop these irrational bubbles, most especially the one called religion.

    This factors in to a more general thought I have on the culture wars. Atheists often confuse believers by apparently speaking as a single group in one instance, and as distinct individuals in another. I imagine that, to a believer, we sound like we’re trying to have it both ways; trying to seem united when we look intelligent and then brush away difficulties among members. We’ve all heard the falsehood “Atheism is a religion.” We need to be clear when we’re talking about ourselves as a whole and when we’re talking about the enlightenment concept of free-thinking in general, and then subsequently, and most importantly, connect those two thoughts in a legitimate and powerful way.

    No matter how extravagently worded, reasoning is nothing more than opinion – everybody has an opinion.

    It seems you are a Tempter in your own right, John. Trying to get us to abandon reason?

    In that case I’ll simply give up reading any and all theists’ arguments, because it’s “nothing more than opinion.”

  • Jeremy

    John says,

    “…as far as this atheist/theist debate, all opinions are equally valid. this is because God is not in our provable realm…”

    If a god or gods do not exist within the world in which we inhabit, that is, our only example of reality, then on what grounds do you assume the existence of a god?

    Is the fact that you are able to imagine a being you call ‘god’ sufficient to merit your belief in it?

    What is the difference between an entity that is beyond “our provable realm” and one that simply does not exist?

    How can a being such as the one you describe be of any relevance to humanity?

  • Brad

    Namely, what’s the observable difference between non-interaction and non-existence.

  • Joffan

    John:

    I don’t need a “sliver of rationale” for my cause.

    Indeed, you speak truth, all unknowing. But I was referring not to you alone, nor to your whole world-view, but to the general approach towards seeking prophecy-fullfillment in religious people attempting to validate their holy books. The same mindset is also implicated in extracting, by extreme intrepretation, justification for otherwise morally unsupportable actions from those “sacred” books.

  • Leum

    Nice job. Of course, even if our struggle is futile, does that mean it isn’t worth it? Doing nothing while the world slides into insanity is much worse than attempting, however hopelessly, to stop the slide. But, ultimately, it isn’t hopeless. The Tempter fails to realize that the worse things are, the easier it is to improve them.

  • Kaltrosomos

    Brad said:
    “To be sure, we all have bubbles, atheists too. The stress here needs to be put on the fact we don’t have a bubble – we don’t have overarching bubble(s) prescribed for us by superstitious tradition like most believers do. The essence of freethought, of which atheists have generally taken to endorsing (as would be expected), is to find and pop these irrational bubbles, most especially the one called religion.”

    Atheists have a tradition too. There are certain doctrines you must hold to qualify as an atheist. The desire to banish all supernatural things, the emphasis on earthly life, and the quest for a sort of secular Paradise where all the old dogmatic shackles are broken… I think most atheists, in the back of their mind, imagine a sort of Heaven on Earth. Part of that Heaven is, obviously, the destruction of religion.

    You could almost say that, for atheists, belief in the supernatural was the original sin. We say to ourselves that Paradise will follow if we can just wash away the sin of supernatural belief.

    What is common to all atheists? What doctrines must you hold to be an atheist?

    1. Denying the existence of the supernatural and of all gods.

    2. Preferring empiricism and reason to idealism and religious faith.

    Christians have the saying, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” Muslims have “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

    What do atheists have? “There is no God, but all things become clear in the light of Reason.”

  • mikespeir

    What is common to all atheists? What doctrines must you hold to be an atheist?

    1. Denying the existence of the supernatural and of all gods.

    2. Preferring empiricism and reason to idealism and religious faith.

    Even if true, that’s only two. But surely the believer can’t fault us for holding to some principles as sure. The important issue is how reliable and veridical those principles are.

    But, in fact, it’s really not true. Most atheists don’t explicitly deny the possibility of deity. We simply clear the slate (as best we can) of presuppositions and say, “Given the hard evidence before us, what would lead us to believe?” And then because no convincing evidence is forthcoming we provisionally conclude that there’s no reason to believe. Even #2 isn’t true for all. Although most of us turn up our noses at it, there are atheists out there who are heavily into what’s colloquially referred to as “woo.” (Granted, not all “woo” is necessarily attributed to the supernatural.)

  • Leum

    Also, there are atheistic traditions in some religions (Buddhism is usually the one mentioned, but I believe there are others). The quest for a secular paradise is certainly not universal (nor do I believe that atheism* is a prerequisite for a paradise) and I doubt any of us think that all human error can be ascribed to belief in the supernatural.

    The repeated attempt to paint atheism as a religion is both irritating and misguided. Atheism is nothing more or less than a lack of belief in any gods or deities. We atheists here are, by and large, far more united by our progressive politics and desire to break others free of supernatural beliefs than by our disbelief in God.

    *Secularism, yes, but secular simply means the Separation of Church and State, which I hope you are not opposed to.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Interesting comment, Kaltrosomos; I thank you for making it even though I have to disagree with it somewhat.

    Most of us, religious or nonreligious, have a surprisingly large set of core propositions under which we operate, and which we would find it difficult to shift. Even among religious people, not all those core propositions are part of their religion, and we aren’t always aware of them. Atheists have parts of their belief/knowledge structure that would be difficult to shift, too, and if we’re lazy and unmindful of the fact that such propositions undoubtedly exist for us then we, too, will find ourselves clinging to them when we shouldn’t simply because shifting them would be awkward for us. That said, not all atheists have the same core propositions, and I’m not sure that the ones that Kaltrosomos has outlined are really representative of all of us.

    This part is the least true:

    Atheists have a tradition too. There are certain doctrines you must hold to qualify as an atheist. The desire to banish all supernatural things, the emphasis on earthly life, and the quest for a sort of secular Paradise where all the old dogmatic shackles are broken… I think most atheists, in the back of their mind, imagine a sort of Heaven on Earth. Part of that Heaven is, obviously, the destruction of religion.

    You really don’t have to hold those ideas to qualify as an atheist. A lot of us don’t have a utopian vision of the kind that you describe (Ebonmuse does, but not all of us). And not all atheists want to banish all supernatural things — in fact, I suspect a majority actually respect the comfort that religious beliefs can give people, it’s just that atheist activists are less likely to think that comfort is worth it in the long run, and the activist atheists are more visible. Even so, there are certainly atheist activists who merely want to secure acceptance for their own beliefs and aren’t nearly so bothered about converting other people to them.

    Personally, while I’d rather people left the supernatural behind, I’m actually not that fussed about religion as it’s practiced in my home country of New Zealand, where the equivalent of the ‘religious right’ comprises maybe one percent of the population. There are some specific beliefs that bother me, but in general I’m content to let people be people howsoever they choose. My parents, who are atheists but don’t spend time on atheist blogs, would be similarly accepting of liberal to moderate religion and as far as I know have no visions of atheist utopia whatsoever.

    The moral of the story is, be careful how you generalize!

  • StaceyJW

    Whenever I feel pessimistic, I think of just how much has changed in the last 100 years- or even in my lifetime. Imagining a rational, free thinking, future, without the dominance of religion, would have been considered ridiculous insanity just 50 years ago. Beliefs and Ideas may seem so sturdy, but they are often altered or dismantled faster than expected. We need critical mass.

    Focusing our effort and time on other adults helps, but spending that effort on our young will generate change much faster. In many social movements, the first generation saw little actual change- the big differences started to show when the children brought up with these ideas became adults. How many centuries did people think slavery was OK, and that blacks were less than human? How many people really believe these things now????

    The MOST important thing we can do is promote rational thinking, and an understanding of science, in education- starting in preschool. The religious folks know how important children are to the future of their beliefs, and they spare no expense to make sure that they are indoctrinated. The religious know that ideas are dangerous- why do you think they home school?

    When we can do better in this regard, the tempter will have less to say. It may take longer than wanted, but with effort, change will come.

  • Mathew Wilder

    It should be noted that one need not deny all super- or oara-normal phenomena to be an atheist. One could still believe in certain brings or forces with are non-theistic, while denying or disbelieving in the existence of gods.

    Now, I and most people on this site would find this irrational, but we should be precise in our definitions. Atheism is merely a lack of belief in a god. It is not anywhere close to constituting a philosophy or “world-view.”

  • Mathew Wilder

    Grrr…typos. “Para-normal” not “Oara-normal” and “beings” not “brings.”

  • Kaltrosomos

    “The religious know that ideas are dangerous- why do you think they home school?”

    Stacey, this makes me think of an episode on SNL or some other night-time comedy show.

    The episode involved a family gameshow, with one family of homeschoolers and another of people educated in public school. One of the questions was something like, “Where do babies come from?”

    The homeschoolers answered, “Straight from the hands of God.”

    “No, no! Wrong! Public school kids, tell them how it really is,” says the announcer.

    “Well, isn’t it something with birds holding blankets, that fly down your chimney all ninja-like, and leave you babies as a nasty surprise?”

    “No…. God, no, you idiots!” yells the announcer. “You’re both down fifty points!”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    FYI, if you’re a new reader of Daylight Atheism, you can read about my first encounter with the Tempter, two years ago. Last year’s post series, “The Desert“, is also relevant.

    I’ve been a religious conservative. I can tell you for a fact that the overwhelming majority of them are absolutely immune to our evidence and our reasoning. They don’t give it the consideration it deserves because they don’t have to…

    But you’re here, aren’t you, Mike? I think that says something important. People’s opinions are resistant to change, but not immutable. In fact, as Greta Christina found in an impromptu survey of reasons for deconversion, rational argument played a role surprisingly often. It can be slow, but it happens. As I wrote in a prior post, we should think of ourselves not as the flood that sweeps away barricades, but as the patient dripping of water on stone.

    Of course, I’m not saying we can reach everyone. It’s very possible that the prospective deconvert has to already have that seed of doubt or freethought inside them, something that gives us a way in. But by the same token, we don’t know how common that seed is. We’ll never know how many people we can reach until we try; the number may be greater than we expect. Personally, I see no reason to believe our successes can’t increase in proportion as we scale up our efforts.

    In other words, the recent momentum gathered may ironically work against us. Like climbing a mountain, we may need to make incremental, slow advances in order to keep our hold and make it to the top.

    Much depends on the situation, D. I agree that most real change has to be slow and incremental. (Markos Moulitsas’ recent book Taking on the System had some worthwhile thoughts about this.) But on the other hand, it’s usually easier to hold ground already taken than it is to advance. My position is that, if we have the opportunity to achieve major change in one swoop – say, a court ruling legalizing gay marriage, or the publication of a controversial but popular atheist blockbuster – we should leap at it; let’s not let timidity hold us back. Fear of the unknown is a potent weapon used by the forces of ignorance, but when the unknown becomes more familiar, people’s fear fades and it becomes more difficult to exploit it.

    The democratic process is a sham because far too many people are too simple-mindedly Manichaean in their thinking to live up to their responsibility to hold their leaders accountable.

    Even if you’re correct, Polly, I wouldn’t say that that makes democracy a sham. On the contrary, one could argue that your reasoning implies that democracy is working, and that if people make poor choices, they’ll get exactly what they deserve.

    I concede there’s much truth in what you say. (See, the Tempter creeping in again!) That’s his strongest line of attack, and it’s one whose force I can’t rightfully deny: people are most strongly motivated by their worst emotions. Hate, anger, xenophobia and fear incite people to action in ways that abstract ideals of equality and justice hardly ever do. That’s a lamentable truth about human psychology.

    And yet, for all that, we are making progress. Look at the historical evidence, if nothing else. It’s not just advances in gender or racial equality, but progress in countless other ways as well. It pays sometimes to step back from the politics of the moment and take a longer-term view. In the long run, the Tempter and those like him are losing out.

  • mikespeir

    But you’re here, aren’t you, Mike?

    Of course, I anticipated that somebody would make this response, and it’s certainly not without weight. But what it really does is underscore my point. I’m an exception, but one who proves the rule: I’m “newsworthy” because I’m such a rare bird. The overwhelming majority of evangelical believers really are immune to our evidence and reasoning. And that’s why our success is likely to be slow and will probably never be complete.

    But, then, that’s pretty close to what you’re trying to say, anyway, isn’t it? Perhaps I’m more skeptical about an ultimate, overwhelming victory.

  • Sam

    First of all, you wrote this beautifully and showed a perfectly common objection to why someone would write almost daily about Atheism. I’ve been reading your entries for a little less than a year now, and they’ve further shown me how utterly sad is the situation we’re in. It’s amazing, yet at the same time perfectly believable, that we’re discriminated against based on our disbelief in God. Every day I see or hear something else that further sickens me, and when I see sad news such as Dole’s political schemes and politicians telling Atheists to “just shut up,” it really strikes a nerve in me.

    This “Tempter” story (though I haven’t yet read the others) really sums up what I’ve been thinking in the past month. I’ve felt embarassed that I’ve been saying how unfortunate our position is, yet I’ve still done nothing about it. Reading the entries on your websites and seeing the immense discrimination against Atheists has inspired me to try to make a difference, no matter how small. We all have to start somewhere, but we can’t simply sit back and watch our nation become a theocracy (which it already seems like now). Of course you know by now that you have made a difference with the popularity of your site, and with the many people who thank you for helping them. I just wanted to say that you’ve made a difference in me, and for that I am grateful.

    I’ve started my own blog (http://the-now-life.livejournal.com) to try to make my difference as well. Maybe we can change something, even if we don’t see the change ourselves. Perhaps my children and their children’s generations of Atheists (should my children choose it) will be more welcomed than we are today. All I want is to have said that I tried, and so that’s what I’m doing.

    Thank you, ebonmuse. :)

    ~Sam

    http://the-now-life.livejournal.com

  • mikespeir

    Hey, Sam! I checked out your blog. Pretty good stuff!

  • Kaltrosomos

    “The overwhelming majority of evangelical believers really are immune to our evidence and reasoning. And that’s why our success is likely to be slow and will probably never be complete.”

    There’s also the issue of past de-conversion, Mike. I’ve run into a number of Catholics, Evangelicals, and so on, who at least claim to have once been atheists or agnostics. And probably they were. Because of that past acquaintance with unbelief, they now aren’t so easily taken in by arguments from atheists and agnostics. Doubt just becomes another aspect of their faith, a way for God to test them and make them stronger.

  • prase

    Hate, anger, xenophobia and fear incite people to action in ways that abstract ideals of equality and justice hardly ever do. That’s a lamentable truth about human psychology.

    They can serve good purposes, too. It were hate and anger what helped to defeat the Nazis, for example.

  • mikespeir

    Well, Kaltrosomos, there could be something to that, of course. I just know I deconverted for a while years before my final deconversion. In the interim I came back to the Faith and practiced it for some years. I’m still not sure whether I actually believed during that time. (I always say I believed I believed.) But I had seen too much. I could never quite recapture my earlier faith. Naturally, my own case is merely anecdotal and may not count for much.

    Now, it’s true that people deconvert for less than sound reasons (E.g., a pornographer finds his profession at odds with his religion, so he decides he’s an atheist. There! That fixes that!) If the reasons for leaving are emotional, then they’re still vulnerable to emotion. That person can easily be won back to the Faith should right conditions prevail.

    No, I haven’t exhausted the possibilities. I’m sure that occasionally an informed atheist becomes a believer. I imagine it’s exceedingly rare.

  • lpetrich

    Kaltrosomos, have you ever asked them what were their strongest arguments for atheism or agnosticism, and why they now think that those arguments are in error?

    A lot of fundies like to brag “I was once an atheist…” among their brags of other former depravities.

  • Sam

    Thanks for reading, mikespeir—I appreciate it!

    ~Sam

  • J Myers

    I stepped forward to deliver the coup de grace, but it wasn’t necessary.

    Well, it may not have been necessary, but what would it have been???

  • mikespeir

    Well, it may not have been necessary, but what would it have been???

    Yeah. I was wondering about that, too.

  • Kaltrosomos

    “Kaltrosomos, have you ever asked them what were their strongest arguments for atheism or agnosticism, and why they now think that those arguments are in error?”

    Well, Ipetrich, the usual arguments we use are the ones they tend to mention. arguments like the Problem of Evil, and the fact that the world appears to work just fine without God, and can be explained in purely natural terms.

    Depending on who you ask, these Christians changed their minds for a number of reasons. One blogger became a Catholic due to the long and to him venerable and shocking history of the Catholic Church. He couldn’t understand how such an institution could last so long, and seem so continuous since the time of Christ. He took the very existence and continuity of the Church as a sign of God’s existence. After that he padded his belief with the arguments of countless Catholics, like St. Aquinas and St. Augustine. I get the feeling he says to himself, “How could so many people, over so many years, be completely wrong? A lie can’t last 2000 years. Belief in God has lasted for at least 2000 years. Therefore belief in God must be right.”

    Another blogger also became Catholic due to a heart attack he got after praying to God to give him a sign if He really existed. Shortly after he had a number of religiously-themed visions. This second fellow, from the way he described it, had the same type of experience as Paul did on the road to Damascus, or Muhammad in the cave.

    Personally, I think the second guy was pretty shocked at coming close to death, and needed some sort of defense mechanism to stop himself going a little insane. From my own experience, it’s emotionally unsettling–even unnerving–to imagine that one might cease to exist. This, despite my intellectual awareness that I must someday cease to exist, and that non-existence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I am unaware, even in a way non-existent, when I am sleeping but not dreaming. For that matter, it doesn’t bother me that I wasn’t alive in the time of Caesar. Still, emotionally it can be troubling to imagine yourself non-existent. Probably because it’s much easier, and more comfortable, to be dead than to die.

  • Kaltrosomos

    “I’m sure that occasionally an informed atheist becomes a believer. I imagine it’s exceedingly rare.”

    Mikespeir, would Antony Flew’s turn to Deism count?

  • mikespeir

    Mikespeir, would Antony Flew’s turn to Deism count?

    Probably. (Although I think your original comment was about lapsed believers reconverting. Did Flew ever believe?) I know his mental competence has been questioned a lot. (I only know what I’ve read, and I haven’t read all that much.) If he’s not competent to make such decisions, his conversion is at best no more significant than that of an uninformed atheist.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Well, it may not have been necessary, but what would it have been???

    The Tempter saved me the trouble of having to think of it. :)

  • Kaltrosomos

    “Did Flew ever believe?”

    He might have been Protestant or Anglican in his younger years. I don’t know that for sure though. But it seems likely that he was raised Anglican. He hasn’t returned to that yet, but you never know. A week is a lifetime these days, in politics and in everything else.

    To sort of tie in to the theme of the original post, I’m beginning to wonder if McCain might not pull out a victory. I’m starting to distrust the polls. In fact, if McCain does win, I’ll never trust a poll ever again. Because if McCain does win, all the polls have been worthless this entire election cycle. To add to the worry, McCain has a way of rising from the dead… There were lots of people that thought he was dead in the water during the primary season, and yet here he is.

    I’m starting to get the feeling that Nov. 4 will be a surprise for the Left. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just can’t shake the feeling.

  • mikespeir

    I’m starting to get the feeling that Nov. 4 will be a surprise for the Left. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just can’t shake the feeling.

    I don’t know. I’m pretty confident. I have to say I had been leaning toward McCain myself, although I can’t get too enthusiastic about either candidate. But when Palin joined the campaign, that changed everything. I think she’s somebody I wouldn’t mind knowing personally, but I don’t want her within a stone’s throw of the Presidency. I voted early, and I voted for Obama.

  • Christopher

    The excitement that always comes with elections may have temporarily overpowered your good sense, but the day after the votes are cast, you’ll come back to earth. The truth is that politics is a series of disappointments, and it always will be. The nature of the system practically guarantees it – it ensures that the only candidates who get into office are the ones who are most willing to do the bidding of the establishment and exploit popular prejudices.

    I’ll take the tempter’s side on this one – no matter who wins political office, he/she will merely be a front for the special interest groups: the goal of every politician is to win elections and they need support from them to rally the votes from the proper demographics to do do that. Since people are typically sheep it will be difficult for them to *not* cast their ballots in the manner their opinion leaders want them to.

    I don’t see anything shy of a complete failure of the existing social order (which just may happen in my lifetime – Wall Street is already starting to feel the strain of our society’s debts backed soley by imaginary wealth) bringing about any real change to our political reality – as it’s too infested with lobbyists and their puppets for conventional methods (like elections) to purge out.

  • Joffan

    mikespeir

    I don’t want her within a stone’s throw of the Presidency.

    It’s been a while since assassins used stones… but it certainly would give the crime an authentic biblical air (sadistic, messy, etc) – which, given the group most keen on Palin’s presidency, is scary.

  • mikespeir

    It’s been a while since assassins used stones… but it certainly would give the crime an authentic biblical air (sadistic, messy, etc) – which, given the group most keen on Palin’s presidency, is scary.

    You know, I’m really not paranoid, but I have this icky feeling somebody’s going to try to take out Obama before his inauguration. Go over to http://www.lucianne.com/ and read the comments. Thankfully, it’s a small minority, but some of those people are nuts! Their comments are truly disturbing. (For instance, read Reply 54 or Reply 60 here: http://lucianne.com/threads2.asp?artnum=433948 ) I hope the Secret Service knows its stuff.

  • Polly

    @Ebonmuse,

    Overall, I agree the world is making progress and the US has come unbelievably far in the space of a lifetime. I believe that the “democratization” of communication technology (hat-tip to that idiot, Thomas Friedman) will only help us to connect with one another more and possibly lead to greater understanding. Certainly more than the wave of ignorance we’ve seen in this campaign from both sides.

    But, it’s slow going with a lot of really ugly detours. At home, we’re heading toward a cliff and we have two bozos arguing about the best route to take there. I guess I’ll just have to wait it out.

    Until then…
    There are only two kinds of people in the world – those with power and those without it. Stand up and look at your ass. If there isn’t a congressman attached to it, you are the latter.

  • Kaltrosomos

    @Mikespeir:
    “I don’t know. I’m pretty confident.”

    Isn’t that what liberals were saying in 2004 about Kerry? I remember thinking something along the lines of, “How did THAT happen?” after Bush won. Perhaps this time, if McCain wins, the reaction will be people howling “WTF???” and falling into seizures.

    Seriously though, I think the media and the polls have been misleading us. The race, I believe, is much tighter than news reports would lead us to believe. It could even be favorable to McCain.

    You say that Palin concerns you greatly. Perhaps there is a similar distaste for Obama among a whole spectrum of conservatives of every stripe, thanks to Obama’s liberal views. Palin might increase liberal turnout in order to stop her ticket winning, but I bet Obama is having the same effect on the members of the Right.

    The liberal media is apparently trying to bluff Obama into the presidency, inflating his numbers among voters. But this has got to be the worst thing to do, since the voters will call the bluff on election day. What’s more, if conservatives think they’ve got their backs to the wall, they’re going to vote in even greater numbers.

    I think FDR said the best political tactic is to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Obama campaign is howling and charging, but maybe all they’ve got is a twig.

    Whatever the case, election day will clear the matter up. I’m going to be watching closely.

  • mikespeir

    I’m going to be watching closely.

    You and me both. I’m not given to superstition, but I’m willing to cross my fingers on this one.

  • Chet

    I had kind of a problem when I first read this post – I was thinking “great message, but why the supernatural imagery? Why does it have to read like something a theist wrote?” – but recently, I think I got it.

    I realized that this post actually does employ the supernatural in the one and only useful, valid way – as fictional characters, to tell us something true about ourselves.

    Commendable.