Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet

I recently read a Christian book that’s more interesting than the usual anti-atheist apologetics: Not the Religious Type, by Dave Schmelzer. Its author is a theologian and self-proclaimed former atheist who now pastors an evangelical church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, in the Boston area.

This book is in large part about the New Atheist movement, and unlike most Christian authors, who have nothing but anger and scorn for outspoken atheists, Schmelzer actually shows our viewpoint a measure of sympathy and understanding:

So in this world where the conversation between secularism and faith is such an important one (read, for instance, the first chapter of The End of Faith – Harris says what, at that point at least, no one had said so directly, and good for him), I say three cheers for thoughtful atheism, which did such a service during the Louis XIV era in moving us past theocratic bigotry, warfare, and suppression of thought… and brought us such profoundly helpful things as modern scientific advancement and made a few key contributions to, say, the U.S. Constitution. I like those things! (Whatever the downsides of modern atheism.) [p.153]

Although Schmelzer has to throw in that sop to his Christian audience, his willingness to acknowledge freethinkers’ contributions in moving humanity past the era of theocracy and ushering in the Enlightenment is unique, as far as I know, and certainly praiseworthy. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a prominent Christian writer who had anything good to say about atheism, much less “three cheers” for it. So I say, kudos to him for that! It’s rare to find a religious person with such a commendably open-minded attitude towards atheists, which makes it all the more welcome when it appears.

I’ll say some more about this book in future posts, but for now I want to focus on a different aspect of it, which is Schmelzer’s own account of how he, in his words, became a “turncoat atheist”. There are some lessons worth taking away from his story about what most commonly makes people turn religious.

To hear Schmelzer tell it, he was an atheist up until college; in fact, he “was tagged as the dorm atheist” [p.13] after getting in an argument with three Christian students his first week. What provoked him to change his mind was this:

A professor mocked me in class for something I thought I’d done especially well. Another teacher moved up a deadline on a paper and suddenly I saw with new clarity how close I was to failing the class. And those two things were enough to make me question the whole basis of my life… [p.14]

As he explains it, his entire goal in life was to get good grades, get a good job, and become wealthy and successful, and the possibility of doing badly in school put all of that at risk and left him feeling frightened, depressed and rudderless. In his distress, he says, he prayed that if God was real, he would reveal himself. That night, while he was out driving, he got lost and veered off the road while trying to drive and read a map, bumping into a post – which turned out to be a giant cross set up by a local church. Still trying to find directions, he pulled off the road into a lit parking lot, which turned out to be the parking lot of another church, with another giant, floodlit cross. At this point, he says, he had a strong impression that God was speaking to him, saying: “I’m here to tell you that there is a God, and I care about you” [p.32]

Leave aside the silliness of what actually precipitated his conversion. (He lives in 85% Christian America. What other religious symbols did he expect to see while randomly driving around town? If he had come across two mosques in a row, that would have been a far more unlikely coincidence.) Schmelzer himself admits, “Looking back, my reasons seem superficial” [p.13]. Like Francis Collins, he converted as the result of a sudden emotional experience, not because an accumulation of evidence finally persuaded him.

But focus, instead, on what precipitated Schmelzer’s initial crisis: He was worried about getting bad grades in school. This upset him because, up till then, he had only envisioned the good life in terms of material success: landing a high-paying job, being wealthy, being a famous author. The prospect of losing all that threw him into turmoil.

In effect, Schmelzer fell for two illusions, one right after the other. First, he bought into our capitalist, consumer-driven society’s message that happiness is achieved through acquiring money and possessions. He found out for himself that this was a false ethic, but then fell right into a second trap, the religious message that happiness is achieved only through worshipping God. Atheist though he was, what he was lacking was a real philosophy of his own. Without a solid ethic under his feet to ground him, he fell prey to one false creed after another, like a leaf being blown around by the wind.

This story shows why we, atheists and freethinkers, should promote a positive ethic of our own: one which counsels that happiness is found in the simple pleasures of life, in the company of others, and in experiencing the world and all it has to offer. We need to broadcast this philosophy far and wide, emphasize its good aspects, and encourage others to adopt it. A person who’s rooted in this philosophy, who knows how to find happiness for themselves, will not be so easily diverted by fluctuating winds of dogma as Dave Schmelzer was.

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.

  • Pither

    Another Christian blogger I really enjoy is Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology. No atheist bad-mouthing that I’ve seen, and some very thought-provoking insights into the psychological functioning of the religious mind.

  • Valhar2000

    Can’t help but wonder what Mr. Schmelzer will think of this post if he happens to read it. I am one of those people who maintain that those who are easy to offend deserve to be offended, but it strikes me right now that Mr. Schmelzer shouldn’t be, and yet he might.

    Well, anyway, I do agree with you, Ebon. The reasons he gives for having converted to Christianity and singularly unconvincing, and I also agree that it is of the utmost importance to create an environment in which people do not see this kind of conversion as a reasonable course of action.

  • Danikajaye

    In effect, Schmelzer fell for two illusions, one right after the other. First, he bought into our capitalist, consumer-driven society’s message that happiness is achieved through acquiring money and possessions. He found out for himself that this was a false ethic, but then fell right into a second trap, the religious message that happiness is achieved only through worshipping God. Atheist though he was, what he was lacking was a real philosophy of his own. Without a solid ethic under his feet to ground him, he fell prey to one false creed after another, like a leaf being blown around by the wind.

    It seems to be all too common that when people break away from one “flock” they soon get taken in by another. One of the things I enjoy about the atheist community is it seems to be full of people who are willing to go their own way. Although I think it is important to have a “positive ethic of our own” I hope it always remains that atheist are first and foremost logical and freethinking and are never encouraged to “tow the line”. Atheist should always be encouraged to stand up and scream “BALONEY!” when ever they feel someone is trying to feed them nonsense- even if it is coming from within an atheist circle. There should always be healthy debate amongst atheists (like we so often see on this site) because the moment we stop disagreeing with each other then we have stopped thinking for ourselves and we have become just another flock.

  • Ritchie

    This story shows why we, atheists and freethinkers, should promote a positive ethic of our own: one which counsels that happiness is found in the simple pleasures of life, in the company of others, and in experiencing the world and all it has to offer.

    Surely atheism cannot go this far? By definition, the only thing that unites atheists is a particular thing in which we do NOT believe (and the repercussions of that non-belief). Surely we don’t have an ethic of our own, positive or otherwise, beyond a commitment to resist the seduction of religion’s easy answers? I realise that many people here value the scientific method and humanitarian morals, but this in no way DEFINES an atheist.

  • Adele

    @ Ritchie: I think Ebon was arguing that while we don’t as yet have a coherent ethic of our own, it would be to our benefit (and to the benefit of many others) if we were to FORM one. The reason religious authorities feel safe accusing atheism of failing to provide any moral grounding is because we do not have a coherent message of morality and ethics – a sort of atheistic 10 commandments – to promote.

    I don’t think I made myself entirely clear, but I’m not sure how to put it otherwise. Here’s hoping you actually get something out of that :)

  • Ritchie

    Adele – No that was perfectly clear, I’m sure I follow. But whatever positive ethic is formed, you will always get people who disagree with it, and the dissenters would be no less atheists, necessarily. The similie that ‘getting atheists to agree is like herding cats’ may be a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason.

    (Or is it, ‘trying to lead atheists’…?)

  • The Bible is Useless

    @Ebon I was just thinking yesterday about how for the first time in my life I am finally able to start to articulate my own philosophy, the things I believe opposed to merely what I do not believe, and how important I think that is. It’s nice when our thoughts and understandings are reinforced by proximate experiences (like reading an article that articulates things already on my mind, or stumbling across multiple ostentatious churches in America while thinking about god), but too often we mistake these proximate coincidences for “signs”.

    @Ritchie I don’t think necessarily he was trying to direct atheists to come up with some sort of concrete “these are our ten commandments” kind or unified philosophy, but rather saying that individual freethinkers need to nail down, for their own sake, what it is they actually believe in, how do they form their own moral philosophy, what makes them a “good” person and how are those decisions made. Obviously there is going to be a lot of diversity in what atheists believe, and that’s ok. That doesn’t mean we can’t all be better at understanding why and how we make the judgments and choices we do.

    Or maybe I am just reading that into it, layering on my own biases, and missing the mark entirely. Fortunately, my personal ethos does not preclude admitting when I’m wrong!

  • Adele

    Ritchie – Certainly, agreement on more politically-charged issues such as torture would be hard to come by (Christopher Hitchens for one supports the use of waterboarding – a viewpoint with which, I think, the great majority of people at this site disagree). However, I believe that there are certain points most atheists agree on: the importance of reason and the scientific method, for example, or the uselessness of “faith”. I think we should, instead of arguing over our differences, attempt to emphasize the points on which we all concur. I believe that is what Ebon meant when he referred to promoting a positive ethic of our own.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Christopher Hitchens for one supports the use of waterboarding…

    Are you sure about that?

    One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

  • Adele

    I had thought so – at least before he volunteered to be waterboarded (whatever ended up coming of that? I never quite found out how that whole affair ended). If I’m wrong, then I apologize – but I think the general idea still stands, that atheists have difficulties agreeing over more politically charged viewpoints.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    I had thought so – at least before he volunteered to be waterboarded…

    I don’t know if that is true or not, but he doesn’t seem to support it now.

    …(whatever ended up coming of that? I never quite found out how that whole affair ended).

    Read the article I linked in my blockquote to find out (the link is the “…” – sorry, I thought it would be more apparent than it turned out to be).

  • Adele

    Thanks, OMGF, for clarifying that. The article is fascinating.

  • DamienSansBlog

    If Mr. Schmelzer — or should that be “Pastor Schmelzer”? — admits that his reasons were superficial on page 13, what does he do for the remaining 200-some pages? I’m curious about how the author copes with this…if at all.

  • sam

    I really must object to the pejorative use of ‘capitalist’. As an individualist, i eschew all collectivist ideals-whether in the name of God, Society, the Fatherland, or Dialectic Materialism. I would have hoped to find people proud of independent, rational thought are also capitalists, because they seem to be variations on the same freethinking, individualistic, self-determining theme.

    However no doubt he had pathetic excuses for forming supposedly the most important relationship in his life (if that story is even true!). Thank you for shooting it to pieces.

  • jo

    This is so true. And I just wanted to say, right when I was at that point “like a leaf being blown in the wind” I found your website & it’s been a big help to me. Thanks!
    especially this one which should be under must-read posts

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    While I agree with Ebon that it would be a good idea for atheists (and freethinkers) to have “a positive ethic of our own”, I also agree with Ritchie that such an ethic is unlikely to be universally shared among atheists, due to the limiting definition of atheism (lack of belief in a god or gods). While atheism is a good starting point for developing a worldview, it places no restrictions on that development, not even that such a worldview will be based in naturalism or materialism. While many atheists do subscribe to a naturalistic worldview (and derive their ethical standpoints from such a worldview), it’s by no means inevitable or compulsory.

    Many atheists subscribe to humanism, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all atheists are humanists. (Possibly I’m muddying the waters by quibbling over definitions – no wonder we get so irate when people of faith misrepresent what atheists “believe”.)

  • CybrgnX

    I have not read the book but based on the test included here the impression I got is a person unsure of himself getting critized by Xtian professors and in an incoherant confused state allowed his reason and thinking powers to resede at the 1st opportunity, and get persuaded by a figment. Of course knowing that the Xtian instructors whould be impressed with his conversion would have no effect on his grades.
    Of course what I just said cold be completely bogus (I’m using that word so I can sue myself for slander, crap wont work I’m not in England). But it is the impression I get.

  • Scotlyn

    Were his teachers Christian? I didn’t get that from this post – only that some of his fellow students were. Will you save us having to buy the book, Ebon, and let us know?

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

    There was nothing in the book which said that his teachers were Christian. His parents and his sister were, however.

  • Leum

    I really must object to the pejorative use of ‘capitalist’. As an individualist, I eschew all collectivist ideals-whether in the name of God, Society, the Fatherland, or Dialectic Materialism. I would have hoped to find people proud of independent, rational thought are also capitalists, because they seem to be variations on the same freethinking, individualistic, self-determining theme.

    The objection many of us have to capitalism isn’t capitalism itself, but a the orientation of our culture around capitalism. Capitalism describes and recommends a form of economics in which there is no central controller of production, supply, or demand. It does not describe a culture in which material possessions are considered the only valid form of success, where being poor is a moral failing, where consumption is a moral imperative. However, we have become so obsessed with capitalism that we have elevated it from an economic system to the central underpinning of our culture. This is the main objection.

    I should point out, however, that many here do believe that the government should take a more active role in providing for the general welfare than laissez-faire economists want it to. But I don’t think there’s any nationalists or Marxists who comment here regularly.

  • StaceyJW

    The best part about not having a defined ethic/philosophy is that we are free to make one up! There is no reason not to do it- so what if there are only a few ideals that most atheists agree on, this never stopped other philiosophies from putting their ideas out there. How many xtians really agree, and how many varieties of each religion exist? Its a countless #, even when they claim to follow the same book.

    I am pointing this out because as logical and often intellectual people, atheists want to be correct and precise to the point that nothing gets done.We are told that we are just as “religious” as any church because we want some similar things (ebons last post dealt w this)Then, we argue whether or not the idea of an atheist ethic is even valid!

    We don’t have to consider every single opinion, and we don’t need to speak for all atheists. It would be enough for someone/group to create and “name” an atheist philosophy (example:”Contemporary Atheist Thought”) and just get it out there! This is the necessary first step towards making the concept of atheist philosophy valid (amongst ourselves and the community in general). As other atheists offer up their own ideas (“named” or not) others will join in- argue, write their own papers, etc- and this is how philosophical progress is made.

    The underlying issue seems to be that many people just don’t think that atheism ought to have an ethic/philosophy at all. Some think its not a valid topic. Others feel that atheism can/should only be a word, strictly defined as “one who does not believe in a diety”- claiming nothing more.

    However, Atheism CAN be more than a simple term, and this is what we are seeing evolve. From a basic definition to a modern concept representing many like minded people- atheism has expanded and grown out of its original limits.Now there are people working to build a community, protect our rights and support science and rationality.Having an ethic/philosophy is a foundation for this type of growth, and is necessary if we want to show the world that we can offer a positive alternative.

    “Xtian” is both a basic definition, and a word that references many ehics/beliefs/philosophies.Why should “atheist” be any different?

    Staceyjw

  • Lynet

    You know, my mother told me, upon giving me a copy, that in New Zealand the best-selling book of all time isn’t the Bible, it’s Edmonds Cookery Book, so while doing the dishes today after dinner I was amusing myself thinking about what it would mean to base your life around that book instead. You can actually make a decent secular philosophy out of Edmonds Cookery Book and the ideas I associate with it: do some simple, practical work which makes something you can share with others, and which will enrich your life and theirs and help to keep you alive.

    More seriously — yes, secular philosophy is vital to survival as an atheist. I think it’s worth noting, too, that the philosophy offered by religion, while often lumbered with absurd mythical baggage, does sometimes have the advantage that it is particularly likely to have a pre-prepared set of tried-and-tested ideas for dealing with practical, subjective human concerns: justice, grief, motivation in life. By contrast, academic philosophy is often dealing with a different set of questions, and can be too detached at times. Growing up as an atheist, and being familiar with academic philosophy from a young age, I find I’ve been able to slowly bridge the gap, but it isn’t always easy to know where to look. I’ve taken inspiration from academic philosophy, and from books and poetry by both religious and nonreligious authors, from friends and family who I admire, and indeed from this website.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Ebon is right – atheists need to show that morality, goodness, and happiness are possible without God. This is part and parcel of rejecting the monolithic social rule of religion. It is not enough to show that religion is false – it is also required to show that a good life without religion is possible. No matter what else an atheist believes in, he has to believe in this, because he’s a human being and humans don’t do well unless they believe they can have a good life.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    Yes, strictly defined, “atheists” share only in their disbelief in gods. But there are consequent conclusions that can be drawn from that absence of gods. One of those is that, somehow, humanity advanced from the caves to modern civilization on its own, without divine help. This strongly implies that even more progress can be made in the future. By some non-miracle, we bettered ourselves. We wish to continue to better ourselves (can we all agree on that, at least?) How can we do it? Look to the past. See when humanity made its greatest advances, and what conditions we created for ourselves just prior to those advances. Try to re-create those conditions, and see if it creates more progress. For instance, the institution of democracy seems to have created the freedoms that led to the flowering of human creativity and ingenuity that led in large part to the industrial revolution and entrepreneurship. It further led to the recognition of human rights as a universal value. So democracy, and its close cousins justice, compassion, and liberty, would seem to be shared values that can be arrived at without the benefit of holy books. The start of an ethos borne of atheist thought! See? Not so hard!

    I would also recommend Ebon’s excellent “carrot-and-stick” essay – too lazy right now to look it up, but I’m sure someone here will indulge me. It’s a stab at a humanist ethic he calls “Universal Utilitarianism.”

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    To hear Schmelzer tell it, he was an atheist up until college; in fact, he “was tagged as the dorm atheist” [p.13]

    This may also have been a factor. When surrounded by people who don’t share your belief (or lack thereof), it’s hard to resist the explicit or implicit peer pressure. It takes a strong person (and one who’s really thought things through) to stick with what they know is right in the face of universal disagreement. We’re programmed to want to fit in… well most of us are, anyway.

  • Scotlyn

    Lynet You can actually make a decent secular philosophy out of Edmonds Cookery Book and the ideas I associate with it: do some simple, practical work which makes something you can share with others, and which will enrich your life and theirs and help to keep you alive.
    I love it! Thanks!

    My personal favourite secular philosophy book is a book about making country wines -so, “do some simple, practical work which makes something you can share with others, and which will enrich your life and theirs,” … and helps you to relax and be at peace with the world.

    Drink your Own Garden.

  • Scotlyn

    Sorry, lost my blockquote formattin at the start of the last…

  • Ken

    Thank you for taking time to point out the reason this person converted. Most beleivers or converts have come to god this way. I agree that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on the fact you can be happy and be an atheist. But dogma is hard to overcome and since Christianity is based on shame, coercion and fear, I don’t how it can be corrected.

  • Scotlyn

    Leum

    Capitalism describes and recommends a form of economics in which there is no central controller of production, supply, or demand. It does not describe a culture in which material possessions are considered the only valid form of success, where being poor is a moral failing, where consumption is a moral imperative. However, we have become so obsessed with capitalism that we have elevated it from an economic system to the central underpinning of our culture.

    Thank you for that, that was beautifully phrased. I would just add that another aspect of capitalism is more troubling in the context of climate change – capitalism depends on constant “growth.” Humming along nicely is just not good enough. When economies (as we know them) grow – they produce lots of CO2. Ironically, the recent recession/depression we’ve been experiencing may allow us to reach CO2 reduction goals that much more quickly.

    Furthermore, the need for constant “growth” depends on the constant creation of new markets, especially for things that people never knew they needed. Sometimes this depends on first creating “the need” (in the language of the evangelism schools), by inducing guilt and shame – prime example, women’s magazines, which are so successful at selling products to stop you feeling so ugly and inadequate. Secular guilt and shame is no prettier a picture than religious guilt and shame!

  • Polly

    It’s the classic false dilemma: Either god or emptiness. Chasing after success, or any other single-minded pursuit, is classified as emptiness once you become disillusioned by it.

    The thinking goes: X (Money, etc) isn’t the answer. Ergo —> GOD.

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

    Well said, Polly! That was a perfect summation of the error Schmelzer made.

  • http://effingtheineffable.wordpress.com Peter Magellan

    Ritchie: Surely atheism cannot go this far? By definition, the only thing that unites atheists is a particular thing in which we do NOT believe (and the repercussions of that non-belief). Surely we don’t have an ethic of our own, positive or otherwise, beyond a commitment to resist the seduction of religion’s easy answers? I realise that many people here value the scientific method and humanitarian morals, but this in no way DEFINES an atheist.

    Indeed – that’s why I prefer to define myself primarily as a rationalist. I also happen to be an atheist, but rationalism can give rise to a philosophical system, where atheism by definition cannot. Unless, as seems to be happening, colloquial usage gradually shifts the definition of the word “atheism”…

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yes. My atheism stems from my rationalism, and not the other way around.

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