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?

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://www.theinfinityprogram.com Kevin Malone

    Mr. Lee, your talk about believers’ efforts to stymie doubts, and your talk about how C.S. Lewis was a contributor to the effort, reminds me of a quotation attributed to C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read it, but it went something like this: “The atheist must be careful in his choice of reading.” At the time, I found it humorous that he could say that when Christians are the one with an entire industry devoted to assuring fellow Christians that their beliefs are awesome and those who say otherwise are poopy-heads. They’re the ones with countless apologetics books and numerous Christian stores (there’s one less than five miles from my house).

  • http://blog.motheyes.com Moth Eyes

    Besides, most atheists would probably be prepared to accept religion were we to be overwhelmed by evidence or argument for it.

  • Anne Cognito

    I wonder all the time what the world would be like if there really was a god or gods. In some ways it would be so much easier to know that someone had a plan for me, so all I had to do was look for the signposts. I’m not afraid of my actual beliefs changing, though, because I arrived at them after years of careful consideration of reality and trying on many different belief systems to find which one suited me most. I have a lot more respect for people who are christians who have gone through the same process, because they’ve at least given their mental faculties a chance to discern the truth.

  • velkyn

    Excellent as always. The only “flicker” of religous thought that I have had is “wow, it would be really nice if some omniscient/omnipotent being loved me and would take care of me”, then I dissolve into laughter on how ridiculous that thought is. I may as well be wanting to believe in Glinda the Good Witch.

    C.S. Lewis seems the most obvious in the attempts at keeping faith alive in the face of any odds. I remember your essay on “Mere Christianity” where you bring up that one lovely line from Lewis, that all schisms in Christianity should be kept from a prospective beleiver. If that isn’t one of the most revelatory sentences about Christianity and theism in general, I don’t know what is. For something that is supposedly the “Truth”, it relies totally on lies told to the self and others as well as supposed divine injunction of blind obediance. Voltaire knew what he was talking about “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.

  • mikespeir

    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.

    Yes, indeed. I remember those days! However, I wouldn’t have admitted I was struggling.

  • Grimalkin

    I am reminded of the hostility with which the very presence of atheism is met (even when its message is as innocuous as “there probably is no god”). I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post. It’s cognitive dissonance, plain and simple. I think that many believers realize that their religion is bunk, but they think that belief is good, the only way to be good, and they identify themselves as believers. It’s only normal that they react to anything that reminds them of their own internal doubts with extreme hostility.

    It’s hard to keep your mind “captive” when there are things around you to remind it of what freedom would be like.

  • Jim H

    Great post. I am reminded of my own “deconversion”:

    Growing up Catholic in the post Vietnam-war period (I was in high school from 1976-80), my parents stressed that authority was not always right. I’m sure they didn’t really want me to question ALL authority (they still believe, still follow the Vatican); but what I hope was self-honesty led me to just that.

  • Adam Howard

    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?

    I’m not sure that this represents a fear of atheists or atheism, but rather church leaders’ fear of losing control of their followers. After all, churches depend on followers to fund them and to carry out their agendas in the world. I think autonomy and independent thought are perceived as more of a threat to the church-goer’s belief in the church, rather than his belief in the deity.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com/ pendens proditor

    As cliché as it might be to point it out, this all sounds ridiculously Orwellian. Perhaps the evangelicals should develop a form of Newspeak to render these troublesome thoughts cognitively impossible. Then they can all finally learn to love Big Brother.

  • Brock

    I identify strongly with the woman Stedman describes. I wanted very much to believe, and was constantly finding verses in the Bible that challenged my reason in a way that I found uncomfortable. I needed some radically life changing experiences to break me out of this mold. Interestingly, I am still fascinated by religion today, and spend a lot of my free time learning about it. Very rarely, I find myself wondering whether all this stuff is actually true after all. The difference now is that as a freethinker, I am welcome to pursue that thought to its conclusion, rather than stifling my doubts automatically. I think one of the things that keeps that from happening very often is that I have also chosen to learn about other religions, including Islam, and I find that familiarity with Islam, none of whose claims I ever find appealing, puts my thoughts on Christianity in a new perspective. The result is that study of Christianity confirms and strengthens my rejection of theism.

  • paradoctor

    It seems to me that what we’re dealing with here isn’t faith; it’s pride. It’s in-group positivity; parochial altruism. The point is not belief but belonging.

    Therefore I think it’s a misnomer to speak of the religious ‘faiths’; better, I think, to call them the religious ‘prides’. As in pride of lions, or the pride that goeth before a fall.

    You point out a curious vulnerability about the prides; they cannot abide doubt, even self-doubt, even in others.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    I love this entry. I read many of C.S. Lewis’s works when I was a theist. I haven’t read any of his writing since. I know a lot of people who struggle with doubt and with cognitive dissonance. I remember when I was talking to one of my church “elders” when I was first really struggling with my beliefs, and her advice was “everybody doubts, but you can’t stay in doubt, you have to depend on God to guide you”. Some people are ashamed of doubt and some people celebrate it. I think it should be encouraged and put out in the open. I wish that people weren’t so constrained by belief and that they knew there were alternatives and support for their struggles from those who have gone before. I am still trying to figure out how open I can be with my lack of belief in religion, and what I can do for other people. I usually don’t comment, but I love your writing and your essays really helped me when it seemed like everything was breaking down for me.

    If people ask me why I am opposed to religion, I am definitely bringing up these attitudes of non-autonomy and the repression of self-examination.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This basically cuts to the core of it. For the conservative believers, the standard for good is not so much how we treat each other as it is about servitude to the creator that they believe in. That is why they claim that we atheists will go to hell when we die no matter how many good deeds we do, because we did not submit to the God King.

    I have a worn and crumbling family Catholic bible. There is one section that tells the reader how to read the Bible, not critically but with reverence. We are not to question but to obey.

    Note the monarchical terms that believers ascribe to God and Christ, referring to God’s “kingdom”, gospel songs proclaiming that He “reigns”, that Jesus is “Lord”. Their model for god is that of an absolute monarch who demands unconditional obedience while at the same time reserving the right to screw with us at will, just because he can.

  • David D.G.

    Brilliant post! Eloquent and insightful.

    ~David D.G.

  • velkyn

    what a good post, paradoctor. I think you’ve hit it on the head.

  • Archimedez

    Ray Stedman as quoted:

    “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.”

    The distinction between nationalism and racism on the one hand, and the human “heart” on the other, seems to me to be dubious, probably an instance of unexamined but good-sounding rhetoric. The “human heart,” or human psychology, does contribute to nationalism and racism. Nationalism and racism also influence individual and social psychology.

    The idea that people’s lack of belief in God is due to pride is one of the funnier claims that some religious believers make. Religious believers can’t seem to accept the obvious, i.e., that non-believers judge the religions to be lacking in supportive evidence for their supernatural/occult claims and that they (often) contain morally reprehensible policies (e.g., explicit commands and threats to kill, plunder, and rape non-believers, and that non-believers should be roasted in fire and tortured for all eternity, as laid out in the Old Testament and in the Koran). The fact that the Bible and Koran contain some good passages here and there does not negate the fact that the atrocious and evil policies remain, nor does it excuse the mainstream believers from failing to simply expunge those atrocious and evil policies.

    Stedman’s instructions for internal regulation of memes suggests to me that, if the memeplex in question is so high maintenance that its users–grown adults no less–must engage in the kind of inner thought control he is advocating, the memes in question must be of dubious value. In this case I get the impression that the memeplex is “using” the host, and that the host is not benefiting but is instead incurring a cost for carrying around this seemingly finicky, weak, high-maintenance memeplex.

    I am skeptical as to whether one can simply desire or will to believe something on the order of a religious memeplex. Belief of that sort is not simply a choice. Of course, if we are doing logic exercises or imagining someone else’s side of an argument, etc., we choose to believe something, at least momentarily. Also, as George Miller said, understanding what someone else says involves imagining that it is true and imagining what it could be true of. That may be an overstatement, but to understand someone else’s claim you have to do something like imagine what it is that they are talking about, essentially “entertaining” the idea at least momentarily, though I think this is not quite belief. It may be more like an informal hypothesis, approximation, etc.

    One can expend effort in defending a belief, and in transmitting a belief, and so on, but under most normal circumstances the substance of what one believes is not simply due to willing it or desiring it. Belief is determined by evidence, logic, social and other influences, morality, and various subjective biases. People may choose to enter situations where they happen to acquire beliefs, or to avoid threats to a belief, but I don’t think anyone sets out, as a goal, to believe X. (More usually, I think they if they believe X they try to get other people to believe it too). They may set out to find out if X is true or not, and they may try to make a judgment about X based on what they find out. They may have tendencies to avoid conflict and reduce stress and negative feelings by choosing situations where their ideas are not threatened, or where their ideas are reinforced. But I suspect such choices or tendencies are more about reducing stress and increasing positive feelings than they are about maintaining beliefs per se. Much the same could be said for the internal realm of thought, which, being based in the brain, is also subject to principles of learning and motivation, aversion/punishment and reward/reinforcement.

  • Richie

    Another excellent post.

    It strikes me as rather similar to another story I think I read on here months ago (but am too lazy to go and find) about a man who overheard two young Christians talking in a diner. One was about to go off to college, and the other was warning him not to listen to what other people had to say about religion, because a lot of others in their parish had shrugged off their Christian faith when they got to college.

    How does it not strike such people as suspicious that their beliefs cannot withstand intelligent criticism? The only ideas that need insulating from the outside world are false ones.

    As a side note, I wouldn’t say that as an atheist I never experience moments of doubt. Maybe it’s a hang-up from a semi-religious up-bringing, but I still get moments of ‘What if I’m wrong?’. However, these moments are comparable to being alone in the dark and wondering if something’s just about to get you – you know you are trying to talk yourself away from an irrational (if keenly felt) fear. And in the cold hard light of day, they just seem silly and superstitious again.

  • paradoctor

    Thank you, velkyn. Please note that prides infest not only religion, but also politics and business.

    As for the prides’ curious vulnerability to self-doubt; that is part of what humor is good for. A horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.

  • AnonaMiss

    I totally get moments of doubt or struggling. (You do too, unless I’m mixing my bloggers up, every time you hear a new non-naturalistic idea.) I was raised in a tradition where not believing was considered wrong; I used to judge other Christians based on their adherence to scripture; and I even spent a little while as a half-Christian, trying to hold on to as much of my religion as I could as I slowly broke down the idea of god and realized that parts of it made no sense at all (i.e. the Trinity, omnipotence, etc.) It’s easy for me to fall back into those habits – especially when judging Christians for their non-adherence to scripture. It’s incredibly easy to do that: I start by negatively judging their behavior, with no reference to scripture; and it seamlessly flows into judging their hypocrisy in light of such-and-such a part of scripture, and from there into judging them for the noncompliance itself. Once I’m at that point I start wondering again about what god wants me to do about it, and I have to remind myself again that god doesn’t really exist, and why I know that.

    The reason you don’t see many atheists talking about doubt is the same reason theists don’t talk about it (much): admission of doubt is like admission of defeat. Other religions or lacks thereof will pounce upon doubts and try to widen them, often ridiculously claiming – as you imply here, though with caveats such that I don’t necessarily disagree with you – that the presence of doubt indicates that there’s something wrong with the belief itself. Atheists handle doubt in themselves a little better than subscribers to other religious positions, mostly because of skepticism’s strong ties to the scientific method; but we’re just as bad about pouncing on moments of doubt in theists and trying to twist them to our position.

  • KShep

    Great post. Something that came to mind while reading it:

    Listening to these religious leaders counsel their followers to avoid doubt is very much like listening to anti-homosexual bigots talk about how the ‘scourge of homosexuality’ will take you over if you’re not careful. You just know, after hearing it so many times, that the one doing all the talking knows of what he speaks. Ted Haggard comes to mind.

    It stands to reason that the anti-doubt preachers are themselves having a tough time with it, doesn’t it?

  • mikespeir

    All this talk about atheists “doubting.” I don’t know. Honestly, it all seems so foreign to me. I really do not struggle with that. I mean, what is atheism but doubting? How does one dig a hole in a hole?

  • andrew

    I am skeptical as to whether one can simply desire or will to believe something on the order of a religious memeplex. Belief of that sort is not simply a choice. Of course, if we are doing logic exercises or imagining someone else’s side of an argument, etc., we choose to believe something, at least momentarily. Also, as George Miller said, understanding what someone else says involves imagining that it is true and imagining what it could be true of. That may be an overstatement, but to understand someone else’s claim you have to do something like imagine what it is that they are talking about, essentially “entertaining” the idea at least momentarily, though I think this is not quite belief. It may be more like an informal hypothesis, approximation, etc.

    Theres also what is in the entertainment industry is known as ‘suspending disbelief.’ Basicly that means that if somebody sits down to enjoy a book/movie/video game/tv show/whatever, that person will tenetitive accept the premise(s) of the show for the sake of enjoying the story, even if they wouldnt normally believe it.

    For example, I dont believe the government is covering up the existance of aliens, but if I watch an episode of the X-files I can ‘suspend disbelief’ and, for the hour the show runs, accept that and enjoy the show without picking apart everything in the storyline I disagree with.

    So yea people can entertain an idea they dont believe, but to actually BELIEVE something, well we need to be convinced.

  • Polly

    I am skeptical as to whether one can simply desire or will to believe something on the order of a religious memeplex. Belief of that sort is not simply a choice.

    I think Chrsitians see it very differently precisely because it’s such a damn effort for them to keep believeing the bullshit that they do. They really do make a choice each and every day to continue believing.
    Not to sound like a broken record, but such was amply demonstrated in the last chapter of Lee Strobel’s “Case for Faith” (which I finally got through this weekend) wherein the interviewee explicitly blames non-believers for not WANTING to believe in Jesus and “backs up” that assertion with anecdotes abour strip club owners and party girls who just don’t want to give Jeebus lordship over their lives.

    The interviewee, Woodbridge I think his name was, literally says that all the intellectual questions mean nothing in the face of this resistance to having to change one’s lifestyle if they accept Jesus. Of course, he also alludes to the purported compelling evidence of Strobel’s books – funny, I find them (all 3 of them) underwhelming…but I guess that’s because I want to continue in my evil debauched lifestyle of watching TV, reading books, and having monagamous heterosexual sex with my spouse. Bwahahahahahaha!!

  • Grimalkin

    AnonaMiss – I have to disagree with you. While I certainly think that some atheists may legitimately have crises of faith similar to that experienced by believers, I don’t think it’s nearly the same for most of us.

    To give you an example, I doubt. I definitely doubt. It’s my propensity to doubt that lead to my atheism in the first place. But the doubt I experienced as a theist is nothing like the doubt I experience as an atheist.

    As a theist, doubt was something that could never be put to rest. I’ll give you a concrete example: Many many years ago, I saw a documentary about ebola. I remember very clearly, the sight of an infected child shook my faith to its very foundation. I thought “how could a merciful/just/good god not only create such a terrible diseases, but also allow a child to be infected?” I asked grown-ups and, as I grew older, read apologetic books trying to answer this question, but no answer was satisfactory. “The child must have sinned” or “it’s not God who creates evil, but rather the evil that is in the hearts of men” or “God works in mysterious ways” only left me with more questions than I had started with! I could repress the doubt caused by that documentary, but I could never get rid of it. It just kept nagging and nagging until the weight of it (and all the other little doubts I had collected over the years) finally brought my faith crashing down.

    When I experience doubt as an atheist, it’s short-lived. It’s that little “what if” moment when I experience something awe-inspiring or when I hear a particularly good theist argument for the first time. But then I think it through and find that the logic of my doubt crumbles fairly easily. Then that little instance of doubt is put to rest for good. The answers I find are satisfying, they fit with all the facts I know and with what I can observe around me.

    So when you say that atheists have the same doubts theists have, but that we don’t talk about them out of fear – I have to disagree with you. Yes, we do have doubts. That much is true. However, not only are they not even in the same category as the doubts experiences by theists (generally), I also don’t agree that we are silent about them. Every atheist blog I read has at least one post about doubt. Comments are filled with testimonies of doubt. Even Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion writes that he is not completely certain about the non-existence of the divine. I’d go so far as to say that many atheists wear their doubt as a badge of honour! To bring us full circle, it my doubt that led me to atheism, so why should I be afraid of it?

  • andrew

    Of course, he also alludes to the purported compelling evidence of Strobel’s books – funny, I find them (all 3 of them) underwhelming

    On a minor note, Stroble has 4 ‘case for’ books out now, and he’s co-authored at least one I know of.

    But yea, I agree, his books, on the whole arnt that great. They make for a good introduction to apologetics issues/arguments, but when it comes for real material, well they arent that worthwhile.

  • http://schpatz.blogspot.com Peter

    Nice essay, but I’ve got to call you on one thing:

    I grant that many theists who claim to be ex-atheists assert that this can happen, but evidence for the phenomenon among actual atheists…

    You’re almost falling into a No True Scotsman problem there. If we go and gripe about evangelicals complaining about how an evangelical-turned-atheist wasn’t a real Christian, then we can’t really turn around and accuse the atheist-turned-Christians of the same.

  • Grimalkin

    Peter – While I would normally agree with you, the fact is that we are speaking a different language than most “born again” evangelicals are. It’s just part of their vocabulary. You are an atheist until you were born again because you weren’t really believing in God.

    I’m comfortable with making this sort of statement, but not of accusing individuals of having not been True Atheists(TM), unless they make it very clear with the admission of details that they did believe in God prior to their being born again.

  • mikespeir

    I don’t believe I’ve encountered the kind of Evangelical you’re talking about, Grimalkin. I grew up among them and was one of them until fairly late in life. Our opinion was that there are no atheists at all, at least not in the sense of really not believing in God. An atheist was one who mouthed, “I don’t believe in God,” while in his heart rebelling against the God he knew all too well was there.

    We were convinced that all people believe, in the sense of knowing God exists. They simply don’t have faith, in the sense of trusting Christ for salvation.

  • Kaltro

    “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?”

    Well, Ebon, I’ve experienced some atheist doubts in my time. Call it the Dark Night of The Mind.

    Also, I found the Christian author G.K. Chesterton to be very challenging and engaging. He’s much better fare than these dime-store theists that come up so often in your writing. In particular, his books Heretics and Orthodoxy tackle specifically religious territory. Don’t let the titles fool you. Both books are witty, funny, and utterly surprising. If all Christians wrote like Chesterton the world would be a lot more interesting.

    After reading Chesterton for a while I was nearly ready to become a Catholic. I was even crossing myself and praying the rosary. This after I’d been a thoroughly skeptical unbeliever for years. The man has a magic pen or something. He really challenged my own atheism, anyway. And now I’m not a hard atheist really, but an agnostic. If you can survive Chesterton, most other apologetics hold no terror. If you can’t survive Chesterton… I guess I can find you in Rome? : )

  • Archimedez

    Andrew,

    Good point. Our domain of vicarious experience in fictional movies and stories seems to involve some kind of suspension of disbelief. There is neither firm belief nor disbelief, but those judgments seem to be mostly suspended while a state of “entertaining” dominates during the act of watching or reading. Yet to believe that something is true in reality requires some kind of convincing that not merely is X conceivable but is believable as real.

    Examining the processes at work during the stage at which young children are first exposed to the religious ideas of their parents might give us some further insight into how the initial comprehension of information is developed and elaborated further to add a belief about that information. A child may hold something like an imaginative, suspension of belief judgment initially when being told about God, angels, etc., but a belief that those entities exist requires the child to take on something extra.

    If a parent holds an empty box and, with a straight face and serious tone, says there is a toy in this box, the child might actually believe that. Then the child’s belief is further reinforced when the other parent says that there is a toy in the box. Now suppose it is a heavy steel box that is sealed with welds and can’t be opened by the child, and also there is a sound-absorbing material in it that prevents the child from being able to shake the box and listen for clues based on sound. Practically the child has no way of testing the idea that there is a toy in the box. But the child believes there is a toy in there because his/her parent said so. (The child may of course wonder why the heck his parents have presented him with an empty box with a toy in it that he can’t access or detect. This is analogous to the example of religious faith in the existence of God–a claim is put forward about the existence of an entity, but there are various additional claims built in about why the alleged entity cannot be accessed, detected, or tested). Practically unable to test for the existence of the toy, and in the absence of claims that there is no toy in the box, the child may continue to believe for some time that there is a toy in the box. Perhaps only when the child gets older, and has access to a cutting torch or a hacksaw, would he or she be able to check to see if a toy is in there.

    Religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam appear to me to be rigged with various ambiguous statements that appear to be carefully designed to prevent any clear tests of their claims, including the most basic one, i.e., that their God exists. In addition, believers can exploit those ambiguities and endlessly postpone any direct tests of their belief. So the belief is protected from the usual challenges that would modify or falsify it. I think the reason science presents such a threat to religious belief is that science lays out a different kind of game. Science is a game in which one of the rules is that “the one who asserts must show.” Claims about the existence of God are thus immediately disqualified.

    In any case, there appears to be a transition stage (1) where one merely “entertains” or comprehends or imagines a religious claim, i.e., generates a representation of it, and (2) where one adopts a position, posture, or belief in regards to the status of that representation. Step 1 for proselytizers is to get a person to at least entertain their claims, and step 2 is to get the person to accept that their claims are true. I suspect there is quite a chasm between 1 and 2, but perhaps in young children there is less of a jump between 1 and 2.

  • Grimalkin

    mikespeir – That’s really my point, actually. These people weren’t atheists in our sense of the word, but rather experienced rebellion, or a lack of due submission, towards a god they still firmly believed existed.

    When most evangelicals say “I was an atheist before I was born again,” they aren’t referring to any kind of atheist we (as if there were any real “we” to be talked about!) would recognise.

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

    I want to address this comment by AnonaMiss, because I think there’s an important distinction here:

    I totally get moments of doubt or struggling. (You do too, unless I’m mixing my bloggers up, every time you hear a new non-naturalistic idea.)

    It’s quite true that I experience moments of doubt, usually when I’m faced with some new supernatural claim I haven’t heard before. But here’s the important distinction: it’s doubt, but it’s not creeping doubt. Much to the contrary, I find that in every case I’ve looked into, learning more of the facts suffices to dispel my doubt and show that there’s a perfectly good natural explanation.

    I’ll give a good example: when I first read The Case for Christ, back in college, one of the few claims that really threw me was Strobel’s assertion that Phlegon of Tralles provides extra-biblical attestation of the three-hour darkness that allegedly occurred at the time of Jesus’ death. I have to admit, I was seriously impressed at first. But when I looked into it further, I found out that Phlegon loved to collect supernatural stories of every origin, and clearly wasn’t too skeptical about any of them. He wrote a book called On Marvels which recounted tales of prophecies spoken by corpses, men giving birth, children with the heads of animals, and a living decapitated head. He also claimed to have personally seen a centaur. (This genre of ancient literature is fittingly, and rather charmingly, called “paradoxography”.)

    In that case, as in others, a little evidence thoroughly dissolved my doubt. In general, when we atheists see something we don’t understand, we don’t shy away from asking questions; we look into it and set the matter straight. Consider this to Stedman’s sermon, which encourages his listeners not to question or investigate, instead urging them to think only proper, Christian thoughts. Unlike him, we do not warn each other away from reading the Bible or studying differing views, nor do we fear that our doubts will overwhelm us if they are not completely excised from our minds. We are confident that atheism can withstand questioning, and that truth has nothing to fear from skeptical inquiry. Stedman doesn’t seem to give his parishioners that much credit.

  • Archimedez

    Polly,

    “I think Chrsitians see it very differently precisely because it’s such a damn effort for them to keep believeing the bullshit that they do. They really do make a choice each and every day to continue believing.”

    I think they are putting effort into it, but I think the effects on the target beliefs are indirect. I don’t think they are trying to believe; I think they are trying to inhibit doubts in an attempt to maintain what they already believe. The admonitions to have faith and not doubt, etc., come pretty close to a direct attempt to do something (mentally) about the belief, but this is framed from the outset according to existing beliefs in such a way that the belief is assumed to be true and the doubts are assumed to be false.

    I suspect that religious believers are wrong when they claim that atheists don’t “want” to believe. Their characterization fits with the idea that non-believers are somehow rebellious or defiant. And if belief is primarily a matter of will and choice, then it is easier to justify blaming and indeed punishing non-believers. After all, why would God punish them for disbelief if believing or disbelieving were merely a matter of choice or will, rather than the resulting state of having been compelled by evidence and other sources of information.

    To give examples: I cannot choose to believe that my house does not exist (I am in it) and I cannot choose to really believe in Santa Claus. I can entertain those thoughts, and I can consider any clear comprehensible claims that theists care to put to me, but it seems not possible for me to try to add the extra representations for really believing those claims.

  • Archimedez

    Another thought: The mirror neurons in the cerebral cortex may be particularly important during the transmission of religious beliefs from parents to children or between people in groups. These neurons contribute to our ability to mirror or emulate the other person’s emotional and cognitive states and perspective, empathize and projectively imagine the other person’s point of view. This may partly explain why people so readily take on the beliefs of those people around them in their social environment, perhaps more readily than if adopting a belief was merely a matter of a logical objective assessment of the evidence for or against the belief.

  • Archimedez

    My mistake: “After all, why would God punish them for disbelief if believing or disbelieving were merely a matter of choice or will, rather than the resulting state of having been compelled by evidence and other sources of information.”

    Should read “After all, why would God punish them for disbelief if believing or disbelieving were the state resulting from having been compelled by evidence and other sources of information.” In other words, if you are compelled to believe, then you would be less blameworthy (in God’s judgment) than if you could choose to believe.

  • Leum

    One thing I’ve found is that when I read articles on subjects like “Why religion really isn’t all that bad” or “Why apologetics don’t suck” and other defenses of defending religion is that I get more hostile to and doubtful of religion and theism. Actual apologetics and books on religious culture and practice*, on the other hand, tend to make me question my atheism and feel more tolerant of religion respectively.

    *With exceptions for the nastier sects.

  • bbk

    So much for a god shaped hole!

  • Andrew

    Another excellent post. Please keep it up.

  • ex machina

    Unlike him, we do not warn each other away from reading the Bible or studying differing views, nor do we fear that our doubts will overwhelm us if they are not completely excised from our minds. We are confident that atheism can withstand questioning, and that truth has nothing to fear from skeptical inquiry. Stedman doesn’t seem to give his parishioners that much credit.

    This is the big one for me. Of course I doubt, but when that happens, I consider it a healthy thing, another challenge on my path to the truth. Doubt for me just represents something I don’t yet understand.

    I wouldn’t say I’m “confident atheism can withstand questioning,” I would just say that reality can withstand questioning, and that I can count on myself to acknowledge reality, whatever it may be. Whether I discover that my doubt is founded or unfounded is of no consequence: I’ll benefit either way.

  • Andrew

    Also, I found the Christian author G.K. Chesterton to be very challenging and engaging. He’s much better fare than these dime-store theists that come up so often in your writing. In particular, his books Heretics and Orthodoxy tackle specifically religious territory. Don’t let the titles fool you. Both books are witty, funny, and utterly surprising. If all Christians wrote like Chesterton the world would be a lot more interesting.

    Chreterton is great. I’m fond of N. T. Wright and Craig Bloombert myself, but yea most of the ‘pop’ apologists(Strobel, McKinsey et al.) are not really worth reading, or at least not worth considering the ‘Gold standard’ of apologetics.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Embrace doubt; it marks the frontiers of one’s knowledge. That religionists cannot do this marks them as arrogant. It calls to mind the old saw about knowledge being the greatest impediment to learning. I’m also reminded of Frank Herbert’s more pungent phrasing: “Those who hear only what they wish are doomed to rot in the stink of their own perceptions.”

  • abusedbypenguins

    If people don’t believe than where are these church “authorities” going to get their tax-free 10 percent or more. They must have their Gulf Streams and limos. They must be worried they might be at risk of losing some of their perks so they are going on the offensive. We have to keep badgering them by pulling aside the curtain and showing what they really are; charlatans.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Thanks for another good post. Archimedez said, “I don’t think they are trying to believe; I think they are trying to inhibit doubts in an attempt to maintain what they already believe.”

    That’s a good description of what I did for years. Of course, my beliefs continued evolving and devolving anyway, in spite of my efforts to retain them. As for atheist doubt, I occasionally have “what if” moments. But, as others in this thread have explained, the best way to deal with them is to get more information from whatever sources are best suited to deal with particular issues. Freethinkers atheists are free to find answers wherever they may be found; believers do not have this freedom – they are advised to restrict their sources to those which other religious people have found “reliable” (meaning, in line with what we already believe). They can only go in circles, whereas freethinkers can follow whatever paths their inquiries lead them to follow.

  • Polly

    If you already believe you have the absolute, final truth via revelation, then it makes sense to avoid anything that would muddy the waters. Human reason and knowledge are limited. One century, science may buttress religious dogma and the next may contradict it. If you’re afraid that people will believe erroneous theories that will be overturned in the future at the cost of their souls, why wouldn’t you discourage that?

    Of course there are 2 little things:
    What kind of prick would sentence you to Hell for all eternity because you chose to follow evidence?
    and,
    If you didn’t use logic or evidence to start off with, how do you know you picked the right revelation to adhere to? Without those ingredients your selection criteria are likely to be completely arbitrary (feelings, geography of birth, ethnicity, economic status) and you are taking a crap shoot with eternity.

  • melior

    …a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.

    I strongly agree with this, and I don’t think it stops there. I suspect the lines of thought very often include:

    - I want to believe.
    - I really, really want to believe.
    - I like to think of myself as someone who believes.
    - If I keep telling myself that I believe, I will overcome my doubts.
    - I have decided to believe, therefore I do believe.
    - I have expressed my belief proudly and publicly, and would have to explain myself if I stopped.
    - If I act like I believe, other people will believe that I believe, and this will earn me many of the same benefits as actually believing.
    - If I say I believe, no one can challenge me on it, since I am the only one who can really know.

  • mikespeir

    Yes, melior. Exactly.

  • heliobates

    If you can survive Chesterton, most other apologetics hold no terror. If you can’t survive Chesterton… I guess I can find you in Rome?

    Chesterton held no sway over me. If I granted him his presuppositions, then his argument could have persuaded me but I had far too many “oh come on!” moments for him to really set the hook. He’s a damn fine writer, no doubt, but a product of his time.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    It is the pride of man that fancies he can get along without God.

    As opposed to the humility of believing that the Creator of the universe cares about your personal welfare, and answers your prayers.

  • mikespeir

    As opposed to the humility of believing that the Creator of the universe cares about your personal welfare, and answers your prayers.

    Or the insuperable arrogance of assuming one knows just who this Creator is and what He/She/It (Them?) wants in the first place.

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

    If you can survive Chesterton, most other apologetics hold no terror.

    That sounds like a challenge to me. :) We’ll just have to see if I can find some copies of these books…

  • Mathew Wilder

    Chesterton is witty, I’ll give him that. I don’t think he’s really any more insightful or challenging than more recent apologists. He just writes better prose.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/27/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    For anyone who thinks Chesterton is witty or a good writer, I defy you to read “The Invisible Man” and still think that. It’s one of his Father Brown mysteries, and it suxors so bad that I can’t bring myself to entertain reading any of his other Father Brown stories.

  • Kaltro

    Mathew Wilder, which modern apologists would you compare with Chesterton? I’d like to compare them for myself.

    OMGF, Chesterton’s fiction is the weakest part of his output. I agree that he’s a terrible short-story writer. But he does much better with essays. Most of his famous non-fiction books are really collections of essays with a unifying theme.

  • anti-supernaturalist

    ** christianism is nihilism

    Before the gospels appeared — apostate hellenized jew Saul of Tarsus, aka Paul, had already created primitive xianity. Today’s fundies (and many RCs) carry on his fine traditional religious practices. These are vile doctrines appealing to antisocial losers — revenge filled, anti-intellectual, misogynistic.

    Paul’s self-deluded ego inflation runs rampant when writing to members of a secretive, underground sect in Corinth Greece about 50 CE:

    26-Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27-But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28-He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are . . . . 1Cor1:26-28 NIV

    Nietzsche saw in these few lines the great inversion of values which lies at the diseased core of western culture. His task became “the re-valuation of all values” — to overthrow religious institutions and moral “intuitions” perverted by xian valuations.

    anti-supernaturalist