Mental Slavery and Creeping Atheism

Evangelical pastor Ray Stedman knows the root cause of everything that’s wrong with the world:

It is not nationalism, it is not racism… it is the human heart. It is the pride of man that fancies he can get along without God.

But not to worry, because he advises us how we can conquer this obstacle. To achieve that, we must

…take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ. This is extremely important.

…It is absolutely necessary to do this if you want to have permanent victory. Allow these unChristian thoughts to remain unconquered, and you will soon have to take the fortress all over again. They will creep out of their hiding places and take over and you will find that that which God has delivered you from has taken control once again.

Granted, the job of “taking every thought captive” can be difficult, even for a believing Christian. Stedman observes that:

…the intellectual life is often the last part of a Christian to be yielded to the right of Jesus Christ to rule. Somehow we love to retain some area of our intellect, of our thought-life, reserved from the control of Jesus Christ. For instance, we reserve the right to judge Scripture, as to what we will or will not agree with, what we will or will not accept. I find many Christians struggling in this area.

One of our women told us, a few years ago, of a struggle in this respect in her life. She said she would read through the New Testament and sometimes write in the margin opposite a verse, “I don’t agree!” Well, she was honest enough to put it down in writing. There are many of us who do not agree but we do not write it down, or even admit it to ourselves. It was honest of her to do that, but it represents a struggle with the Lordship of Christ; his right to rule over every area of life, his right to control the thought-life, every thought taken captive to obey him.

…Dr. Francis Schaeffer has put it very accurately beautifully in these words:

I am false or confused if I sing about Christ’s Lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous. This is true if it is my sexual life that is autonomous, but it is at least equally true if it is my intellectual life that is autonomous, or even my intellectual life in a highly selective area. Any autonomy is wrong.

Similar to C.S. Lewis saying that obedience is an “intrinsically good” habit to get into, or the Pope saying that a Catholic’s only role is to obey the Vatican with sheeplike docility, both Stedman and Schaeffer agree that “any autonomy is wrong” and that we must never question, disagree with, or doubt the teachings of the Bible, lest we lose faith and be overcome by atheism. We atheists often say that religion “hardens hearts and enslaves minds”, but it’s interesting to see theists who openly agree with us and admit that this is exactly what they are trying to achieve.

What I find most revealing about all this is the sentiment that if you allow un-Christian thoughts to “remain unconquered”, they will soon gain strength and overcome you; that the only way to maintain your faith is to crush all doubts and skepticism and force “every thought” into the Christian mold. It’s bizarre that so many preachers say this is necessary. In what other areas of life do people do this? Do scientists tell each other that they must take captive every thought to the reigning theory, that even a seed of doubt may grow out of control? Do doctors constantly struggle to persuade themselves that they can heal sick people? Do chemists grapple with belief in the periodic table?

A New Yorker book review, Prisoner of Narnia, makes a similar point about C.S. Lewis’ writing:

A startling thing in Lewis’s letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes — the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.

It seems that many believers wrestle with doubt; and since they haven’t been able to get rid of it, they’ve elevated it into a virtue, saying that by its nature faith is hard to hold onto. In fact, this sentiment is so common that they don’t realize how strange it is, or what it implies: that their reason is not entirely dormant, that it rejects the absurdities of faith, creating mental tension and doubt when it comes into contact with the will to believe. I’ve noted a similar phenomenon in those theists who feel flickers of conscience that cause them to agonize over their faith’s cruel teachings of punishment and damnation. Neither the moral nor the rational sense, it seems, are easily quieted, and that is a heartening thought.

I’m aware this is anecdotal, but what strikes me is that I’ve never seen a comparable phenomenon among atheists. What atheist books or websites speak of atheism as something that’s a constant struggle to keep up, or warn that if we read the Bible or consider arguments for the existence of God, religious thoughts may “creep out” and overpower us? I grant that many theists who claim to be ex-atheists assert that this can happen, but evidence for the phenomenon among actual atheists, in the same way Stedman discusses seeing among Christians, is conspicuously lacking.

And this leads to a simple, stunning realization: our apologist opponents are afraid of us. They boast of how their church is founded on the solid bedrock of the word of God, how their faith is strong and impregnable to contrary argument. But look past the surface, and in many cases, you’ll find them constantly advising each other how best to stifle doubts, warning each other that our arguments must not be considered, our case not given heed. You’ll find sermons sternly warning about the dangers of autonomy, of independent thought, and of using one’s own best judgment. Why would they write so extensively about the necessity of taking your own mind captive – unless they fear what it would uncover if it was free?

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About Adam Lee

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


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