“We Are What We Eat”: Atheist Belief & Surroundings

“We Are What We Eat”: Atheist Belief & Surroundings April 7, 2019

I recently made this broad point in two different papers about atheism, so I thought I would make a paper of it, to be able to use for future reference; then I had an interaction today about it with an atheist, “ButILikeCaves” (his words in blue below).

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I do not blame nor scorn [Christians]: it is how they were raised. If your mother attended services while you were in utero, you were born attuned to sounds, motions, voices, and schedule of that faith’s corporate worship.

And being Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, or whatever really has no intrinsic basis: it is all a matter of to whom, where, and when you were born. For the most part, life’s circumstances pick your religion for you.

1. I rejected the nominal Methodism and practical atheism of my youth and became an evangelical Protestant in 1977. Then I expanded my Christianity and became a Catholic in 1990. In both cases, my environment would have suggested exactly the opposite course of action; it had zero effect on my actions. None of my friends were evangelicals in 1977 and none of my larger family were Catholics in 1990 (I had exactly two Catholic friends at the time, out of many dozens of friends).

2. I’ve addressed the issues you raise, by taking on John Loftus’ “outsider test of faith” argument.

3. Such considerations also apply just as much to atheists, as I recently observed:

I would go on to turn the tables, though, and note that the same exact state of affairs occurs within atheist rationales and polemics. Very few Christians read or care about those (most Christians who venture onto atheist venues are roundly insulted and made fun of), and they are written mostly to and for the atheist community: to make everyone feel like they have comrades who have experienced the same thing they have (empathy).

This makes them feel less isolated in the surrounding (still barely, nominally Christian) culture. It provides moral support. One atheist can read another’s deconversion story, find common ground, and think, “see! I’m not the only one who thought that! I’m not an oddball after all.”

Pretty much, adoption of worldviews are social phenomena (see Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi), and we are what we eat. If we hang around mostly Christians, chances are we will think and be like them. If we hang around atheists and start exclusively reading that material, we will (surprise!) start to think in that fashion.

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And so this is the oft-heard story. Christians go to college, get confronted with skeptical or atheist professors, in a very lopsided scenario, and lose their faith, if they are insufficiently equipped (i.e., lacking in apologetics knowledge: my field) to take on skeptical challenges to it. Again, “we are what we eat.” If she sat there and took in all this rotgut from the professor, and never read a Christian refutation of it, then why should anyone be surprised that she goes the route of the professor? One must read the best proponents of both sides of major disputes: not one side only or the best proponents of one side vs. the worst on the other (which is the usual atheist game: they love to wrangle with ignorant, uninformed Christians).

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The problem with making it an exclusively anti-Christianity argument, however, is that atheists act in largely the same way. That’s why kids lose their Christian faith in college. They’re surrounded by liberal, skeptical or atheist professors who undermine their faith and don’t give both sides of the story (i.e., they are immersed in a different “culture”, and so — unsurprisingly — adopt it). The “smart people” seem to be against Christianity in that environment, and the few informed Christians are too scared to speak out (and today are even shut up and shouted down). No one wants to be seen as the oddball or outsider, so they lose their faith: not usually because of objective intellectual inquiry and reading the best of both worldviews, but because of sheer peer pressure and being subjected to one view (propaganda) over and over. They become politically liberal for the same reason.

Atheists like to think that they arrive at their view solely through reason, while Christians soak in theirs from their mother’s milk. But atheists are just as subject to peer pressure and environmental influence as anyone else. Most worldviews (whether Christian or atheist) are arrived at far more for social (and emotional) reasons than intellectual. I can’t emphasize it enough: “we are what we eat.” Human beings are a lot like chameleons. We like to blend in with our surroundings.

Please: Walk into your church of friends and announce you are an atheist and everyone else there is full of it. That will go well.

I’ll cut to the chase, bypassing the obvious point that you merely bounced around inside the small to medium Christian bubble you were likely born into.

I don’t deny that there is lots of hostile opposition, in and from both camps (sadly, that is human nature and the usual tribalist tendency). But I deny that atheists are fundamentally different in this respect.

You deconvert when you are surrounded by atheists and other deconverts, and then you seek out “friendly places” all the more, so you can all confirm each other’s atheism and mock and insult and make fun of Christians, in order to “justify” your own move.

Likewise, far too many Christians isolate themselves from atheists and “the world”; hence, are ineffective in reaching that world with their gospel message. It’s sociologically very much the same.

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(originally 7-18-17)

Photo credit: Kupos (7-17-08): Yemen Chameleon / Veiled Chameleon in the Berlin Zoo [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

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