Our friendly neighborhood atheist, Hemant Mehta, discusses yet another Christian evangelist who attempts to fortify his evangelistic message by exaggerating his pre-conversion life.
In this case, the guy claims that he used to be a “militant atheist.” By that, apparently, he means he read a bunch of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris books when he was in high school.
This is a thing that a lot of evangelical Christians do and that we really need to stop doing. It’s an attempt to tell your story in a way that discounts and dismisses every other story. That’s always a bad look and it comes from a bad place. It’s the impulse that is unable to celebrate anything without simultaneously disparaging everything else that is not that thing. And it’s an attempt to bolster what you’re saying about what you do know by claiming to also be an expert about everything else.
It’s a bit like when you meet someone who tells you, “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I think my hometown is the greatest place on earth.” That’s a credible, trustworthy opinion despite the obvious illogic of its hyperbole. It tells you of this person’s genuine experience and you’re likely to accept that, based on that testimony and experience, this person genuinely loves their town and has good reasons for that love. Their claim that it is “the greatest place on earth” may be wholly unsupported and unsupportable — they’ve never lived anywhere else, so they’re not in a position to make any kind of informed comparison. But you will readily accept that such a syntactical objection would be beside the point. Despite the hyperbole, they’re not really making a claim about everyplace else on earth, but only about their hometown — the one place they know, intimately, and clearly love.
But your response would be very different if this same person did seem intent on making a literal and authoritative claim about everywhere else. If they said, “I’ve lived all over the world, and I can tell you that this place here is the greatest place on earth.” That claim — more literal, more sweeping, more intended to draw conclusions about places other than this one hometown — would likely prompt you to be more skeptical. You would begin to question everything you were being told — the breadth and depth of this person’s experience, the alleged demerits of every other place on earth, the purported virtues of this hometown itself.
“Well, I mean, you haven’t lived everywhere else. …”
“Yes, I have. I have literally lived in every other place in the world.”
“But the world is a big place, and you just wouldn’t have time to–“
“I have literally lived in every possible location, wholly immersing myself in their culture. My experience is vast and comprehensive and therefore my categorical pronouncements are not subject to debate.”
Now their attempts to bolster their opinion with claims of personal experience will have the opposite effect. Rather than increasing your trust in their sincerity, you will wind up doubting everything they say and finding them utterly ridiculous.
We discussed this a few years ago when a somewhat wacky white evangelical tea partier snuck off with the Republican primary for Joe Biden’s old U.S. Senate seat. Happily, you’ve probably mostly forgotten all about poor Christine O’Donnell, but given the O’Donnell-esque nature of the “ex-militant-atheist” claims of the evangelist in Hemant’s post, let’s revisit a bit of this 2006 entry, “Why evangelicals like Christine O’Donnell sometimes claim to have explored becoming a Hare Krishna even though they never did“:
Imagine you’re at your local Ford dealer shopping for a new car. You’ve expressed some interest, but you’re also looking at the Toyotas and the Hondas.
“Trust me,” the dealer says. “I’ve driven them all. I’ve dabbled in every make and model there is and I know all there is to know about all of them, so trust me when I tell you that only the Fords are any good.”
That is what this “Hare Krishna” business from O’Donnell is about. It’s a tactic for discounting and dismissing the competition. She doesn’t want to say that her evangelical faith is all she’s ever known because she worries that might leave her vulnerable to the accusation that she simply doesn’t know any different or any better. So she tries to head this off by making the implausible sweeping claim that she’s test-driven them all — that she’s experimented with every religion and found her own faith to be the best and only satisfactory alternative.
She hasn’t really done so, of course, as evidenced by her continuing lack of understanding of what those other faiths actually believe. Plus she simply hasn’t had time to carry out such a comprehensive spiritual journey. Her claim might be slightly more plausible coming from an older person — a late-in-life convert after decades of a Razor’s Edge-style quest. But this claim is patently ridiculous coming from O’Donnell, who has been a vocally earnest evangelical since high school.
This claim of supposedly comprehensive experience also doesn’t really carry the authoritative weight that those making it seem to think it does. What is intended to come across as experienced, expert and worldly wise instead just seems indicative of spiritual inconstancy, inconsistency and incontinence. Trusting such a person for religious advice would be like going to Larry King for marriage counseling. Who would you rather hear from for advice about quitting smoking: Someone who quit only once, 30 years ago? Or someone who had quit dozens of times in the past week?
Those who make this kind of argument imagine that they’re improving their own religious testimony — making it both more exciting and more authoritative. But the truth is that it diminishes whatever power their own story might have had. A false testimony lacks conviction and honesty — the very things that make anyone’s own story compelling. And it betrays a lack of confidence — a lack of faith — that one’s actual beliefs honestly conveyed can withstand testing.
The false claim of comprehensive knowledge of every alternative is unbelievable because it is inherently duplicitous. It’s like saying, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I thoroughly examined both of them so you must defer to me as an expert on all possible paths.” That’s obviously not true. Sorry, you could not travel both and be one traveler. To claim to have done so is to claim to have been more than one traveler — the very definition of duplicity.
Primarily, though, this line of disingenuous apologetics is not designed for external audiences. It can’t and doesn’t work for persuading others to choose the path you have chosen. But it does almost work — kind of, sort of, if you’re willing to play along without thinking too hard — for internal reassurance. This is true of much of what evangelicals like to call “apologetics” — it’s for retention, not recruitment. It’s not meant to bring others in the door, but to keep those already inside from heading to the exits.
“Test everything; hold on to the good,” is a confident statement of faith that the good can withstand testing. “You don’t need to test anything because I’ve already tested everything so just trust me,” lacks that confidence. It betrays, among other things, a deep-seated fear that the good cannot endure the test.