Dialogues between Christians and atheists rarely go well. In fact, they’re usually more like dueling monologues in which both parties talk past each other. Sometimes it escalates into online shouting matches and name calling, which can be cathartic but never accomplishes anything productive. I find this happens most often when one or both parties either a) are just smart enough to engage in a debate but not smart enough to do it well, or b) have never themselves been “on the other side” and therefore cannot possibly understand where the other person is coming from. This happens less with people who have lived as both devoted Christians and as convinced atheists. Whenever someone says he’s been both but then proceeds to belittle the other person or misrepresent the other person’s viewpoint, I begin to question either the authenticity of his story or else the level of his intelligence. Because I’ve been on both sides of the fence myself, I have already enumerated some of the key ways that I see Christians misunderstanding atheists; but I have also noticed a couple of things which atheist interlocutors rarely “get” about how Christians think. Phil Vischer’s recent response to Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists does a pretty decent job of pointing some of those things out while maintaining the charitable tone that I’ve come to expect and appreciate from Vischer (even if I do disagree with several things he said). If you don’t recognize Vischer’s name, you may perhaps be more familiar with the Veggie Tales franchise which he helped create.
Once upon a time I was a connoisseur of Veggie Tales videos. When they first came out, I was in college and a friend of mine who worked at a local Christian bookstore brought the first one “home” to the dorm. We cracked up at the quirky humor and got the catchy tunes stuck in our heads permanently. We watched each of the new videos as they were released and once I began having children I made sure our video library was full of them. My kids memorized those things, and so did I. We watched them so often that to this day I find myself wanting to respond to various life moments with a Veggie Tales line or song. In retrospect, those earlier episodes were highly moralistic as even Vischer himself has since acknowledged, but they still were quite clever. It was clear to me that the creators of this series were an inventive and intelligent bunch of folks. I haven’t followed the world of Veggie Tales for several years now, and the guys who originally created the franchise are no longer at the helm. But recently Vischer’s face popped up in my newsfeed because he wants to interact with Boghossian about his new book, and about the way that he defines the word “faith.”
I’ll have to preface this by admitting that I haven’t had time to read Boghossian’s book (cut me some slack, I’m shirking duties to even have time to write this post), but I promise I plan to read it soon. In the meantime, I noticed the issues Vischer raises match some regular complaints from Christians which I think need to be taken into consideration if anybody’s goal is to actually communicate instead of just “preaching at each other.” Vischer says plenty that I’d like to respond to, and I’ll leave it to Boghossian to address those places where he feels his work has been misunderstood. But two things stood out to me which I think have to be recognized before any real conversation can take place. I’ll touch on the first in this post and save the second for the next one.
1) Many Christians are way smarter than atheists give them credit for.
If you came from where I come from, you know that many Christians—even evangelical and fundamentalist ones—are highly intelligent and well-educated. The kinds of people I used to run with are deep, thoughtful people who are passionate about understanding the world around them even if their theological commitments have somewhat limited which sources of information they are willing to entertain. These people don’t like “pat answers” for complex questions, and they sympathize with the skeptic’s hunger for knowledge that is as free as possible from personal bias. But these aren’t the kind of people you see most easily in comment threads on Facebook, on popular blogs, or on YouTube. The kind of Christians most visible in places like that are the ones who say stupid stuff, thoughtlessly parroting clichés and memorized phrases which they’ve clearly never analyzed in any critical way. These people stick with you because they make you the maddest (you remember most that which stirs your emotions), and because they never know when to quit. They just keep beating their drum, regurgitating robotic replies until you are ready to jump out a window. These are the people responsible for cementing the popular atheist perception that the Christian faith makes you dumber. They exist. They are real. And they annoy thoughtful Christians as much as they annoy atheists. From the outside looking in, they seem to outnumber the thoughtful, intelligent kind by a large margin. I don’t know if that’s an accurate perception or not, but Vischer seems to feel that it is, and yet he makes an interesting point:
Atheists often criticize Christians for being incurious. And there is definite truth to this accusation. But rather than saying most Christians are incurious, I would zoom out to say most PEOPLE are incurious.
It is probably true to say the average atheist is a more curious person than the average Christian, at least in America. But this is true at least partly, I believe, because “Christian” is the default state most Americans are born into. Basic Christian beliefs are inherited by most Americans, like exceptionalism or a taste for fatty foods. In other words, it takes no curiosity at all to grow up Christian in much of America. It’s like growing up capitalist. It’s in the water. Rejecting capitalism – or Christianity – takes more effort than not. Truly rethinking Christianity in big parts of America is partly a result of possessing enough curiosity to examine the claims of the culture around you. Of all the people who do that, some will remain Christian, and some will not. The people lacking that curiosity will generally stay right where they were born, which, in big parts of America, means they will remain incuriously Christian for life.
I think he’s hit the nail on the head there. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to gently suggest something as a potentiality which I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he probably knows is already a reality for many people today:
One day, probably not too far out, areas of America will be so thoroughly atheist that we will start bumping into a new creature – the incurious atheist. The “nominal” atheist. The “cultural” atheist. And that new creature can then be startled by unexpected questions for which they have no easy answers, and will either reconsider their non-beliefs, or fall back into a defensive posture and play the “faith” card.
“I just don’t believe, that’s all. It’s the way I was raised.”
What an interesting day that will be.
I have already encountered plenty of this myself, and I’m guessing he has, too. If you’re like me, you only arrived at non-theism after a long struggle with questions and introspection, against tremendous social pressure to “stay Christian.” My skepticism was in many ways a hard-won position, requiring a strong passion for realism, and courage to pursue hard questions in the face of dire social consequences. My struggle predisposed me to naively assume that all who arrive at atheism are equally committed to empiricism and critical thinking, but I’ve found that’s clearly not the case. Many who don’t believe in ghosts, goblins, spirits, or deities were just never really taught to believe in them in the first place. It’s not that they rejected them after years of questioning the beliefs of those who raised them; they were sort of non-theistic by default. Among these people there are many who never really catch on to the usefulness of skepticism and empiricism as safeguards against delusional thinking and personal biases, and frankly some of them just aren’t that bright. They are no more careful or thoughtful than their theistic counterparts who post stupid things on comment threads (even though I must confess that the culture of fundamentalism tolerates such intellectual superficiality far more readily than the skeptical community). On top of that, since they lack the Christian’s cultural aversion to foul language, they often pepper their ill-conceived vitriol with four-letter words which shut down conversation before it can even begin. More than likely, these people are not looking for “conversation” because that would require hearing what the other person has to say. That’s the last thing either the incurious atheist or the incurious Christian wants to happen. This is why it’s so refreshing to hear Vischer say:
Why are we doing this? Because just the act of having a conversation with someone who strongly disagrees with you is a valuable exercise. It’s worth the time and trouble.
I totally agree. Too few people recognize the value of this. Some fail to grasp this because they’re mentally lazy as Vischer says later in his article. Some aren’t lazy, but they still fail to see it because the more they wade into the forum of public debate (in America at least) the more they find that the less thoughtful people hog the microphone, so to speak. I, too, have found that the more “out there” I become, the more I encounter this thoughtless kind from both worlds (Christian and atheist), and it’s those extremes which stick with you the longest. Because of this phenomenon (Is there a name for this? There should be) it behooves the thoughtful person, be he theist or non-theist, to seek out and befriend those people from the other side of the fence who have their own hand outstretched, seeking the company of equally-curious friends of every stripe. This is how we learn stuff. This is how we make progress and move forward (pretty much the opposite of how the 113th U.S. Congress functioned). Many will lack the motivation to do this. “Why should I try to speak their language? They’re too stupid/deluded/lost to even comprehend what I’m saying!” A moment from the movie Babe comes to mind:
Narrator: Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise.
Fly: Please, someone tell me… what happened this morning.
Narrator: The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise.
I suppose if you only talk to the “wing nuts” on either end of the spectrum, you’ll conclude that real, intelligent dialogue with the other side is either impossible or else not worth the effort. But it doesn’t help anybody to shut off an entire demographic just because you’ve mainly encountered the worst of them so far. I see benefit to seeking out those who know how to hold an intelligent conversation about things because maybe, just maybe, the experience will give you enough insight into the mind of people not like you to be able to speak to a wider range of people without miscommunicating, thereby wasting everybody’s time including your own.
In part two, I’d like to address the second thing which too many atheist don’t “get” about Christians: Their definition and usage of the word “faith.” That deserves a post of its own.