Last time we met up, we were talking about the difference between faith-for-no-good-reason and faith sparked by strong supporting evidence.1 It’s an important distinction! But Christians muddy it all the time through the use of equivocation. Today I’m going to muddy things up even more. See, faith-for-no-good-reason doesn’t really exist. People who believe things that aren’t true actually have reasons for believing. They’re just not really compelling reasons to people who don’t share the same worldview. I’ll show you what I mean today–and why it’s important to sift through to those real reasons, even if it’s just about our own beliefs.
Maybe especially then.
Diving Past the Flotsam.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in writing his Sherlock Holmes stories, had his hero say something profound in the novel The Sign of the Four:
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
We must do the same thing when we are presented with a Christian’s attempt to use real-world evidence to demonstrate their claims’ validity.
We know for 100% sure that no divine sky daddies are out there dispensing $20 bills, miracle cures, or even senses of transcendent wonder. And we know that none of the pseudoscientific twaddle peddled by Christians can possibly be true either. It normally doesn’t even take long to dispense with these sorts of claims.
Once we eliminate all of those claims, then we can start working out the real answers for why people believe in something that lacks credible, objective, measurable, tangible reasons to recommend itself.
At that point, we find ourselves gazing deeply into that believer’s faith pool.
The Faith Pool, Revisited.
Think of your ability to believe a given idea as a pool of the sort that people swim in.
The reasons to believe that thing become the water that fills the pool.
The deeper the water in the pool, the firmer your belief in that thing. If you gain more reasons to believe the thing, the pool’s water level rises; if you lose a reason to believe, the water level lowers. The bigger the reason itself was, the more it affects the water level. Once the water reaches a certain level, belief flowers into full existence; until that level, you might be somewhat dubious of the claim but haven’t completely rejected it. It’s just something odd that makes you wonder a little.2
If you entirely lack reasons to believe the thing, then the pool is simply empty. No harm, no foul.
So an atheist’s faith pool regarding religious claims is simply empty. That person has never heard a reason that would compel belief–which would pour at least a little water into the faith pool. They don’t really wonder. They could no more force themselves to believe in any gods than Christians over the age of ten could force themselves to believe in Santa Claus again. It ain’t going to happen.
What’s weird is that Christians don’t ever connect the dots here. (But don’t worry. We’re going to–right here and right now. The ride is already in motion, y’all!)
What Really Fills the Pool.
I’d reckon that most Christians think they have that kind of evidence-based belief. Evangelism-minded Christians often offer us, unasked, what they think are credible, objective, measurable, tangible reasons to buy into their beliefs with them.
And then we reject those reasons, usually with explanations and links aplenty. I’ve seen rejections that looked more like eviscerations.
Despite consistently-solid rejections, however, the Christian on the receiving end tends to come away from the encounter with faith unscathed (at least for the moment). Sometimes they even drill down harder on their debunked talking points, as anti-vaxxers and Creationists do all the time.
But something funny happens on the way to the antiprocess shield activation button.
Very often, once that person realizes that their truth claims weren’t persuasive, they will accidentally reveal why they’re really part of the religion. It’s subtle, but once you know what you’re looking for you can spot the true form of the water that fills that person’s faith pool.
It’s those reasons that keep that person believing. The truth claims they made that were rejected weren’t actually why they themselves believe. They learned those talking points after their faith pool was already full enough to provoke faith. The talking points might confirm belief, but the necessary water was already there when they splashed into the pool.
The Water That Was There.
These reasons aren’t based upon observable facts–well, not quite in the same way, anyway. But they are very pressing all the same for those who buy into beliefs that aren’t tethered to reality.
The threat of Hell, for example, provokes belief very effectively. That is exactly why this fear got rolling so early in the religion’s life. It’s also why Christians–including Stan Gudmundson–try to stoke it so often in their evangelism attempts. Fear works considerably better than love, to people who have been trained to be fearful.
Simple loneliness has sparked many a miraculous conversion–and the occasional reconversion. I’ve run into a few ex-Christians who buckled under the pressure of “Christian love.” For that matter, I strongly suspect that my own loneliness as a teenager brought me to a headspace where Baptist evangelism could affect me. Christian marketers sell the religion as an instant second family for believers. Like their other claims, this one proves false. (Christian non-solutions to this problem will not surprise anyone who hangs out on this blog.)
A crushing need for structure and order draws many people to extremist religions of all kinds. Others resonate with the black-and-white, allowed/not-allowed morality structure and social rules of the religion. Still others yearn for the personal power and self-importance automatically afforded them through group affiliation. And way more people than we want to think about join up because they see affiliation as a permission slip they can use to control and offend others. (I’d ascribe my then-husband Biff’s conversion to most of this paragraph’s reasons.)
Of the kinder, more loving Christians I know, their reason for belief often boils down to their tying of a religious label to their sense of overarching hope, their love for humankind, and their desire to feel transcendent wonder. As long as they accept that people can gain those things elsewhere, I don’t mind. People give those needs a lot of different labels–even that of Christianity.
And yes, a few people encounter apologetics arguments that sound very objectively compelling to them. Often these talking points snooker children, who find out the truth years later.
How These Reasons Work.
Most of us don’t really identify why we believed until after we get out. The sheer pressure to maintain belief is so strong, and the constant drumbeat of PROOF YES PROOF is so overpowering, that we barely have room to think till we escape the whole broken system.
Looking back at my own example, I can see that there were definitely signs that I was at least marginally aware of the real reasons why I believed. In college, I knew a lot of Christians from a great many other denominations and churches. Almost none of them believed the same things I believed. They thought I was quite the little extremist, too. (By today’s standards, though, I was barely a blip on the extremism radar. Back then, some of my friends worried about me.)
During our endless doctrinal squabbles–er, sorry, discussions–I often thought that someone had made a really good point. Or I’d think that someone’s doctrinal position sounded a lot better than my own. But I never felt tempted to move further toward that position. I could like the other person’s position as much as I liked, but the truth was what mattered.
But I wasn’t afraid of being wrong for its own sake. See, if I was wrong, I was going to Hell.
I simply couldn’t take that risk! Indeed, all through my young life, I suffered for my inability to take risks. This risk was just too big. The very idea overwhelmed me.The fear of Hell had long ago filled my faith pool.
I had a lot of other reasons along that same line that burbled all through my faith pool, but fear was the main one.
But Fear Doesn’t Sell to Those Who Lack the Same Conditioning.
I learned quickly in college that fear didn’t make a good selling point in evangelism to anyone who wasn’t already conditioned to be afraid of unverifiable threats and What if…? and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).
Many people are indoctrinated very, very young to respond to threats–any threats, no matter how ludicrous or lacking in verification–with instant dread and fear. That’s an essential faultline that runs all through a person’s emotional makeup. It’s incredibly hard to shake that tendency to respond to threats like that, too. Sure, you can fix the problem. It’s just hard.
This is the kind of fear that keeps people in pews years past the time when they’d ordinarily be sliding out through the church’s back door, as Thom Rainer so charmingly put it years ago. And Christians just have NO FREAKIN’ IDEA how to deal with someone who isn’t afraid of the things they’re afraid of.
Threats of Hell figure among the biggest evangelism tools Christians have, but those threats sound laughable to people who don’t believe that a loving god would ever allow people to be harmed, or that such a place could ever exist. Pagans in particular really confused and frightened me, back then. They seemed so serenely unruffled by my attempts to make them fear Hell. Whatever it is that made people afraid of preposterous threats, they simply lacked it.
And unless I could get them onto the same page I was on, fear-wise, the threat that so terrified me had no effect at all on them.
So Go The Rest.
So go the other deeper reasons for belief. They feel so very compelling and real to Christians, many of whom assume–thanks to religious narcissism–that everyone will have the same fears, needs, desires, and hangups they do.
Often, one hears these reasons dismissed as “emotional reasons.” The term means that these reasons are intellectually vacuous and not credible to others, but subjectively very important to the individual who believes for those reasons. As Dan Fincke has pointed out, Christians like to accuse atheists of rejecting Christianity for emotional reasons, but almost always, it turns out that they themselves accept Christianity exclusively for those reasons.
Emotional reasons aren’t always necessarily false, however. Often believers are afraid that if they deconvert, they will face the retaliatory wrath of every single person they know–or at least lose a lot of friends. They might be afraid of losing their current source of joy. Or they might find the idea daunting of building a whole new worldview. Sometimes they just give the label “Jesus” to their feelings of happiness, hope, and joy.
Evangelism-minded believers know that these reasons don’t sound compelling in sales pitches to anyone who values evidence-based reasons to believe. They communicate those reasons carefully, seeking the few among the many who perceive and respond to such overtures.
How This Looks In The Wild.
Now that we’re armed with understanding, let’s troop on back to Stan Gudmundson’s letter to the editor (LTTE).
He focused primarily on insulting atheists. In the doing, he offered what he felt was solid and compelling evidence for his beliefs, reasons which he felt atheists either didn’t know or were ignoring. We demolished those reasons already. Today I want to read between the lines to find out why Stan Gudmundson believes.
Referring to atheists, our TRUE CHRISTIAN™ du jour tells us:
Theirs is a faith without hope. So what is the motive in pushing it?
In this case, “hope” is a dogwhistle term to Christians. Primarily the word refers to their quaking terror of death and nonexistence. A few years ago, I took a Christian to task over marketing his religion using this fear. We’ve often noted that Christians are absolutely blithering terrified of the idea of dying generally, but especially they’re afraid of not existing. Culture-warrior Christians, in particular, paint atheism as a faith system that strips that hope of eternal life from people. Of course, atheism is not a faith system, and the hope is based upon false promises anyway.
So we can add “fear of death” to Stan Gudmundson’s list of reasons to believe. Without those false promises of an afterlife to cling to, he’d be teetering at the yawning edge of existential horror.
Shortly after that Just Asking Questions question, he continues:
It requires an incredible arrogance and hubris to constantly tell us that they don’t believe in God. And that we who do are veritable idiots.
Here we see his own “incredible arrogance and hubris” at work. He’s purely projecting here. It’s okay for him to write LTTEs constantly to extol his own beliefs and to call people names for not agreeing with him. It’s not okay at all for anyone to push back against him. And he gets particularly tetchy when someone insinuates that he’s not exactly a tip-top critical thinker.
So we can add “desire for dominance” and “tribal affiliation” to his reasons for belief. If he lost his belief, he’d be just like the people he has mocked, scorned, belittled, and abused his entire life–and he’d become prey for Christians who still believe.
Toward the end of the LTTE, he relates an anecdote he believes demonstrates the validity of his supernatural claims, ending thusly:
That incident was as real to both of us as the nose on your face. Now, Mr. Atheist, look at all the evil in this world and explain away this encounter to me.
Often we encounter Christians who think that their belief in Christianity saves them constantly from various dark fates. Stan Gudmundson is no exception. He looks around and sees a mind-bending amount of evil in the world. Staying on Team Jesus keeps him safe from at least a little of that evil. Without his magical invisible friend’s protection, he’d be defenseless against it. His anecdote illustrates a time when he thinks he benefited from that protection.
So we can add “fear of losing protection against forces he can’t combat on his own” to the list of reasons why Stan Gudmundson really believes.
This whole situation isn’t exactly making him look good, here.
Facts Matter, But Tangentially.
Unless someone is willing to tackle those real reasons for belief, all the pushback they offer in response to a believer’s offerings of evidence-based reasons to believe won’t matter. Those reasons aren’t what ensnared the believer, and those reasons aren’t keeping them there. And it takes a lot for someone to perceive those reasons. Usually as soon as pushback comes close to those reasons, the believer’s antiprocess shields slam down.
That said, this pushback can matter quite a lot–in the long run. As much as Christians talk about planting a seed, the process usually works in reverse far more often than it does in their own favor. I myself got pushback as a Christian from both Christians and atheists (as well as from people who belonged to other religions entirely). And it really bothered me that the facts that I thought supported my beliefs weren’t true at all. It bothered me when someone offered a solid rebuttal to a well-loved talking point of mine.
Most of all, it bothered me when I went looking for credible evidence for my beliefs’ validity and found nothing at all. That lack of evidence pointed to there being no real basis for the many fears that held me so firmly in the sheepfold. If the Bible was wrong about prayer being magical, the myths in its pages being true, or its behavioral rules being good for all time and all people, then I had no reason to trust anything else that it said.
Eventually all the reasons except for fear drained out of my faith pool. And I wrestled with that one for the longest–and most emotionally devastating–time of all. For a solid night, that last night that I was a Christian, I lay in bed weeping and tossing and turning as I considered the horrific fate before me. I couldn’t believe anymore, and I knew what losing belief meant.
Maybe I’d simply been too afraid for too long in my life. The terror gradually worked its way out of me, and by dawn I was free–for the first time in my life.
I tell you this so you know that it’s not useless to engage Christians like Stan Gudmundson. Even if he himself is too deeply mired in his fear, control-lust, and hatred to ever reconsider his beliefs, you never know who’s lurking around the conversation and soaking up every word you write or say. It all goes into the kitty, for people who sincerely want to believe only things based in reality. It all matters. Sure, it might take years for all of that pushback to come home. But it eventually does–for more and more people every day.
NEXT UP: Oh, I’ve got such an incredible and tasty treat for you next time. If today’s topic wasn’t such a continuation of the last post, we’d have done it today. But all good things come to those who wait. If you hang out on Twitter, you might already know what I’m talking about. I was already going to run Last Ideology Standing next time, but a fundagelical has pulled a wacky stunt on Twitter that plays into that theme so beautifully that I’m still laughing about it. It’s like the guy was reading my mind! Talk about TOWTTHO! (Laughing still hurts, if you’re wondering, but I do it anyway because this whole situation is THAT AWESOME.) See you next time!
1 If you’re wondering why I don’t use the term “blind faith,” it’s because I don’t like the pejorative vibe I get from the word “blind” in this context. Here’s a blog post that kinda fits in with how I feel about it and why, and a note from the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians on the topic. I’d like to encourage folks to think about it.
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