The Threat that Can’t be Beat


In my “Pugilist in Good Faith” post, I explained why I didn’t see a contradiction between aggressively going after other people’s ideas and remaining open to revising my own opinions.  After reading it, commenter dbp had a question about whether this balance is possible when you’re doing it in public, and his question deserves a longer response.  He wrote:

The point isn’t so much that you’re out to persuade people of a position you’re also (on this blog) publicly subjecting to interrogation. That seems fine to me, which is why I find your answers on those points reasonable. However, there’s another area in which I think you’re doing yourself a disservice, if a completely (OK, maximally) unencumbered re-examination of your atheism is your goal.

Specifically, you’re setting yourself up as a champion or model for the atheist side. (NB, this is my interpretation of the effect of what you’re doing, not my assumption of your explicit goal– I’m not trying to accuse you of being in it for your own glory or anything.) You (admirably) try to establish guidelines for debate and ways to establish tactical advantages in ‘deconversion,’ you remonstrate against atheists whom you are disappointed in, and in general you’re gaining a reputation as a public ‘evangelist’ (if you will) for atheism. That’s why you are asked to guest blog on sites like Daylight Atheism, and why you accept.

All of that’s fine, just as it is for someone on the Christian side to do the same for Christianity. But isn’t it inimical to the goal of honestly and openly examining the foundations of your belief? That project is really, really hard to do well in any case, and gaining a ‘standing’ among others who hold the belief in question risks, it seems to me, encumbering the investigation you have set out to make. In the admiration, camaraderie, and attention you get in such a role, you start to have more at stake than simply the intellectual tenets you hold, and that can work subtly on the mind. Which is to say, I fear you may be shooting yourself in the foot.

Let’s put it this way: I think the marginal danger to my intellectual honesty caused by having this blog is pretty small.  I like the internet, and it’s certainly exciting when I see the combox explode with thoughtful comments or when I notice the Google Analytics trendlines make a jump (hi, everyone who came over from the Volohk Conspiracy yesterday!), but the offline pressures on my thinking are a lot stronger than anything you guys can muster.

I was brought up by atheists.  My mom is from a long line of secular Jews (who managed to get kicked out of half of the countries in Europe for printing banned books just ahead of the general Jewish purges) and my dad likes to call himself an “alumnus of Catholicism.”  And if I decided I was going to convert, I’d break their hearts, along with the hearts of almost every good friend I have who is an atheist (a pretty large percentage).

Unless I became a miraculously good evangelist/apologist, I wouldn’t be able to make a good enough case to all these people that I wasn’t just being stupid.  And if there’s any vice I embody, it’s pride.  It’d be very hard for me to know I looked gullible or just plain weak.  I’ve enjoyed a reputation as someone who keeps her head in a crisis, who manages to put aside emotion concerns and think logically.  If I were a convert, I don’t see how they could trust me as a thinker.

So it’s not that your opinions don’t influence the way I think and write — I was really frustrated during my guestblogging experience at Daylight Atheism, since I obviously wasn’t expressing my thoughts about rhetoric persuasively — but it’s easier for me to take a bad response online as a spur to do better or a reminder to reexamine my premises.  If I turn out to be wholly wrong about atheism, this blog and my online popularity will be the last thing I worry about.

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  • Patrick

    Answering questions isn't inimical to asking them. It is the point.

  • Looking stupid, gullible, and weak is good. After all, what the heck else could a human look like? Our brains weigh three pounds and the universe is significantly heavier than that. The universe is 13 billion years old and we have 80 years to figure it out. Anybody who thinks they are other than stupid, gullible, and weak is seriously deluded. Learn to love it!

  • Heartbreak, really? When I was an atheist I was never sad that some of my friends were Christians, and it's not as though my relationships with them were worse or that their Christianity limited them. If a Christian I knew deconverted, I would obviously be sad, but I feel like there's more at stake here for the Christians, it's not just "you have the wrong facts!" Especially since you're on board with a lot of Christian morality anyway, your lifestyle wouldn't even change much (especially in ways perceivable to friends).Regarding your second to last paragraph: I feel like a big part of conversion is accepting how much you don't know. It was really bad for me trying to explain myself to my friends constantly, feeling like I had to have an answer to every question, etc. If they actually want to learn about theology and whatnot, there are way better resources than people just beginning the journey. Sometimes it inspired me to do more focused reading; most of the time it just made me very frustrated. Not every convert has to be a scholar, a theologian, a historian, an apologist… maybe my friends respect me or trust me less now, since I finally started letting myself say "I don't know," or, more often, "I don't know how better to explain this to you, let's move on," but humility is a good thing.

  • Sarah

    Yeah, I agree with Tristyn (and Dylan on Facebook). There are indeed some atheists who feel really tribal about it, and would hate to lose someone. There are also probably some atheists for whom not having God is the central tenet of their belief system, and who therefore can't respect anyone who doesn't share it. But honestly, I think these camps are a small minority. Most of us go through life disagreeing with all of the people we're close to about all kinds of things, including really important ones. Maybe religion is in the no-compromise category, but I don't personally see why it needs to be unless the religion in question entails a lot of other things I can't compromise on.There are many, many things you might start believing that would be more disturbing to me than Catholicism. In fact, although I don't really understand Catholicism well enough to say, it's perfectly plausible that your believing in it would make us agree more about the big moral and world-truth questions than we do now–given that we have fairly different approaches to these things at the moment. Of course, maybe we would disagree more, but the point is that the way friendship and worldview discord work out is complicated, hard to predict, and I think not much like the automatic heartbreak and disrespect you assume.

  • dbp

    Leah,I understand and respect your answer. I'll just note that my concern probably came across a bit differently than I intended it: while the idea of increased confirmation bias based on the status and reputation you have gained (and are continuing to gain, I believe) as a proponent and/or model for atheism is definitely a part of what I wanted to mentioned, there was one other part, which is (strictly speaking) a separate issue.Specifically, the modes of thought used in apology are different from the modes of thought used in cross-examination. There's nothing to say that the same mind can't engage in both kinds, but there's no question that there's the danger that one mode might get "baked in" to enough of a degree that it handicaps the mind's ability to effectively pursue the other (NB re: handicaps: I mean, not that it is impossible, but that it requires more effort, care, and attention to do well).Part of what makes me think you might be in danger of this is because the reciprocal objection also seems to hold. In your case, I suspect some atheists would accuse you of being overly sympathetic to the Christian worldview and overly critical of some aspects or approaches to atheism, even in your 'pro-atheist' writings. I suspect that the cross-examination side of things may bleed into the apologetics side, too.I should emphatically add that this actually speaks well of your intellectual honesty. It seems to me proof that you're sincere about what you're trying to do, on both sides. I just wonder, for your sake, whether the two actions are, simultaneously, compatible. (And I hope they are, for my sake, because I do enjoy this blog the way it is!)

  • dbp

    Sorry, one last note:The threat I mentioned just above doesn't come from doing your intellectual cross-examination in public. It's the tension between the cross-examination and the work you're also doing explicitly to bolster and support the atheist cause (inasmuch as there is one…) that poses this problem, and it would be a problem whether either or neither process was public.Or so it seems to me; all this very much in my own humble opinion.

  • I ditto Patrick's comment. In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, even with 2,000+ years of teachings and billions of pages of apologetics, we're still producing documents, books, blogs, speeches, etc. to evangelize. Conversion starts by asking the question: is there any possibility God exists?I can see heartbreak and understand pride, but that's emotion– conversion is absolutely a thinking exercise. Having faith does not mean one's brain falls out of one's head and thinking is replaced by praying (or so Joy Behar has said). It's about developing a relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and seeing how the Three in One move and shake the world, and how their love engulfs, influences and shapes every single person's life without taking away their free will.To believe in God is only the beginning of the journey, and it is an exciting intellectual venture. Logic is not out gone, it is invigorated. You have said on this blog that there are smart people on both sides of the fence. Intellect isn't what will be lost in the process of conversion. Rather, conversion usually comes about when people humbly seek Truth. Also, I think you'd enjoy reading up on St. Edith Stein — born a Jew, became an Atheist by her teenage years, was utterly brilliant (doctorate in philosophy), converted to Catholicism in 1922, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She was heavily influenced and convinced of the truth of Christ and his Church after reading St. Teresa of Avila (theologian, mystic)'s autobiography.Breaking down other people's arguments and revising your own is necessary, I think, to develop a breadth of mind. I have a good friend who told me to consider atheism. So I did, and then I was done with that idea. Because to be a Christian is damn hard. It isn't just about following Christ and following the rules. It isn't about jumping through hoops. It isn't about denying evolution and Bible thumpin' to all the non-believers (SHUN THE NON-BELIEVERS!!). It's about truth. It's about realizing that your mind is just one drop of water in God's ocean. Your drop can still make waves, but it is not THE cause. Great post Leah! Thanks for starting the dialogue.