Do Christians have more to lose?

In a recent blog post, Randal Rauser wonders about the prospects that atheists (or anyone, really) are “simply after the truth”. He begins by noting that many Christians (such as the popular Christian apologist Lee Strobel), assume that atheists reject God in order to give license to their poor behavior. He’s not sold on this view, but he’s also skeptical of the alternative position that atheists are on a dispassionate quest for truth.

He points to academia (well, a subset – philosphers and scientists) in order to illustrate his point. To quote: “As an academic, you stake a claim that a certain set of propositions is true, or more likely true, than another set (even if that set is the skeptic’s set which advocates withholding belief in other sets).

He continues to say that the more time you spend defending these claims, the more attached you become to them. Your intellectual commitments seem to bleed into your personal commitments, and an attack on those ideas might seem vaguely personal. As he says, “Just as we identify emotionally with nations and persons, so we identify with truth claims, theories and ideologies.” This all seems right to me so far.

He concludes by arguing that “we all begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know”. While I agree with Rauser about academics being far from impersonal automatons after the pursuit of truth, it is foolish to think that all commitments to beliefs (or all persons professing commitments to beliefs) are on equal ground. As a quick example, here are two beliefs that I think are true and I defend: (1) Eating animals as a source of food is morally wrong if you have an alternative means of having a healthy diet and (2) Philosophical intuitions are not reliable sources of evidence.

Either of these beliefs are susceptible to revision given further evidence. It seems that (1) clearly has higher social costs, higher practical costs, and higher levels of emotional commitment than (2). I’ve invested significant personal resources in maintaining a vegetarian diet (so has my wife, for that matter!), part of my social identity is wrapped up in being a vegetarian, and I have a strong emotional attachment to this dietary decision. The same sorts of things cannot be said for (2), even though I do believe it’s true and do advocate for it.

Being a Christian seems to pack even more of a “sociological punch” than being a vegetarian. In fact, it packs even more of a punch in Rauser’s particular case. Rauser is employed by a Baptist-leaning seminary college, who endorses a very long Statement of Faith which provides the basis for doctrinal teaching. The major body of his (impressive) list of publications is either defending Christian theism, or discussing a particular theological view. If Rauser were to discover that he is wrong about Christianity, I imagine that admitting this in his professional life would require a not insignificant amount of courage (not to mention the courage he would need to tell John Loftus, his recent co-author, that he is right).  Many professors at Christian universities have been fired after failing to properly instruct according to the university’s theological beliefs.

However, for most other philosophical and scientific positions, there are no such repercussions. Frank Jackson was not fired from his academic post after his rejection of epiphenomenalism, a position which he advocated based on the strength of the Knowledge Argument. If anything, philosophers were impressed at the intellectual humility it took to reverse positions on a view that he had previously championed. If Flew had had academic employment at the time of his alleged conversion to deism, it would not have impacted his appointment.

Further than just professional prospects, there are many sociological and psychological impacts from leaving the faith. An excellent book on this topic is Marlene Winell’s “Leaving the Fold”, which discusses the difficulties that accompany leaving the faith. She notes that many people will inevitably lose the support of friends and family upon leaving the faith. There is no shortage of tragic stories online in which people are all but abandoned because of their religious deconversion.

There are not only sociological difficulties, but psychological ones as well. People wrestle with guilt, fear, and alienation after losing their faith. They might begin to seriously grapple with their mortality for the first time, as I did. Without the Bible to help guide their path, they might struggle with indecision – failing to intuit a pre-ordained, supernatural plan for their lives. The list goes on and on.

The conversation about the earnest search for truth is an important one, and the psychological and sociological underpinnings of belief often go unnoticed. We should welcome a discussion on these issues, but we shouldn’t pretend that all beliefs will be equally emotionally valenced, and that all parties engaged in debate have the same amount to lose by renouncing their position. It is unreasonable to compare the endorsement of (relatively) impersonal philosophical positions to the utterly personal nature of religious beliefs.

About Matt DeStefano

Matt is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Arizona.

  • Eric Sotnak

    So I wonder what we should make of this argument?:
    1. People who convert from atheism to Christianity generally receive more positive social validation for their new beliefs than do people who convert from Christianity to atheism.
    2. People who convert from Christianity to atheism generally receive more social invalidation for their new beliefs than do people who convert from atheism to Christianity.
    3. Social validation and invalidation of beliefs are factors that can promote cognitive biases.
    4. A belief is less likely to be held rationally if is influenced by cognitive biases than if it is not.
    5. Therefore, people who convert from Christianity to atheism are more likely to hold their new beliefs rationally than are people who convert from atheism to Christianity.

    A reasonable response to this is to acknowledge the influence of cognitive biases, but to suggest that such influence can be tempered by subjecting the beliefs in question to error-checking methods that have a strong objective track record. But then the question is whether substantive religious claims can, in fact, be error-checked in this way. Because of burden-of-proof issues, it seems theistic and atheistic beliefs are not on equal footing here.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      This is an interesting argument. Premises (1) and (2) are very pivotal, and I wonder how one might substantiate them empirically. My anecdotal experience tells me that de-conversion stories tend to be mired in negative language, and this seems to be corroborated by books like “Leaving the Fold” and others which aim to give support to those going through the process.

      On the other hand, it seems as though religious conversions are often periods of great joy for the convert. They get an entirely new social community through their beliefs (a recent example is Leah Libresco’s conversion to Catholicism – the Catholics gave an outpouring of support when she announced), they are entering an exciting and novel world in which they find purpose, dedication, and a ‘higher calling’.

      Again, this is just my anecdotal experience, but I think it’s indicative of a larger trend. The question is how to substantiate that trend empirically.

  • TheAtheistMissionary

    “Many professors at Christian universities have been fired after failing to properly instruct according to the university’s theological beliefs.” This is precisely why Prof. Rauser’s views are of limited use. He blogs and writes his books as if he has an open mind but the sad truth is that there are areas where he just can’t/won’t go (i.e. anything which conflicts with his employer’s Statement of Faith). I have raised this objection with him in the past and he responds by analogizing his position to an employee of the Centre for Inquiry who could face difficulties with their employment if they began professing belief in God. I don’t find this tu quoque response satisfactory.

  • PDH

    Excellent article.

    Even a person holding beliefs for emotional reasons may still be right
    and may still make good points that ought to be addressed.

    So, all else being equal, the best general solution to this sort of problem would be for people on all sides to spend more time addressing the arguments that have been made and less time trying to psycho-analyse, discredit and insult the people making them.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      Thanks for the comment, PDH. I agree with your suggestion, but I do think that understanding the causal influence of outside factors such as social pressures, professional reputation, etc. have on our belief-forming processes is very important.

  • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser
  • David Marshall

    One could find a thousand a priori reasons why either theists or atheists would be more pig-headed in holding to their respective positions.

    But people are best understood not a priori, but empirically — by watching the creatures.

    Observe John Loftus, for one. Is he really more open-minded that Randal Rauser? Yet Loftus claims there are NO facts that tell against his atheism. Not one. Rauser admits there are some difficulties with his position. (As do I, as a Christian scholar who does NOT have much of a financial stake in my position — I sometimes fanaticize about all the books I might sell by turning into Dan Barker.)

    Nor is Loftus in that respect exceptional: he’s more reasonable than some of his colleagues. This is what some crowds of Gnus sound like, when they’re “reasoning” together:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2012/11/pz-myers-guru-of-hate-and-timidity.html

    I’ve been talking with atheists on an almost daily basis for maybe 15 years, now, and reading their books much longer. The vast majority are deeply committed, heart and soul, to their rejection of Christianity: of that I am certain.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Matt DeStefano

      Hi David. This is where confirmation bias often rears its ugly head. I could respond by pointing out Christian scholars who are as equally pig-headed as you think Loftus, Myers, or any others you categorize as “Gnus” are. This isn’t going to be helpful, it just moves the discussion into a “he said, she said” contest.

      Instead, I tried to point to concrete reasons (social, psychological, and particular academic ones) why we would expect Christianity to be unlike other propositions. Debating over the merit of these reasons will be far more productive.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      I notice that you don’t mention their rejection of Hinduism, Islam or Judaism. Or any other religion for that matter? Why do you think it’s just about their rejection of Christianity other than when discussing religion with you that’s the only one that comes up? Personally, I reject all supernatural claims, not just religion. In fact I mentioned on facebook this afternoon that I lose a little respect for anyone who posts on their wall about Mercury being in retrograde, especially when they use that as an excuse for a lost letter or computer glitch. It’s not just religion that I reject. it’s all superstition and unproven claims.

  • Steve W

    atheists reject God in order to give license to their poor behavior – does this mean the only reason christians don’t rape, murder and commit buggary is because the ‘lord’ tells them not to. Morals are not eclusive to religion, in fact, in my experience the more ‘righteous’ a person the lower their moralliity……


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