If the Shoe Fits

If the Shoe Fits June 14, 2013

FFAnneFrancisWanna hear something funny?  Well, it’s funny to me, anyway…

Last month when I was doing the Interview an Atheist at Church thing, at one point in the interview I said, “There are people out there who believe the stuff you do that’s good for the world is wasted unless it’s done in the right belief system.”  At that moment I was thinking about how many evangelical Christians criticize Humanists for trying to “do good” in the world because true goodness, according to Evangelicalism, only comes from a life of faith (in particular their faith, and no one else’s).  If you didn’t grow up in that tradition, you might not be familiar with that perspective.  I wrote more about this just the other day, in fact.

What’s funny is that after the interview got posted on a popular national atheist organization’s Facebook page, one of the commenters fumed, “…he mischaracterized anti-theists by defining them partly as people who believe that the good things religious people do in the world is wasted because it’s done as a matter of faith. What a shallow way of thinking.”  See what happened there?  I was talking about fundamentalism in general, and I was thinking of evangelical Christianity in particular (I’ve explained before that I consider the latter a child of the former because they actually believe the same things, even though they express them differently), but he thought I was talking about him.  Now, in his defense, just before that statement during the interview I had mentioned that “not all atheists are anti-theists” and evidently he deduced that the strain of fundamentalism I was critiquing was fundamentalist atheism (Is there such a thing?  More on that in a second).  I suppose I should have been more specific, but then again the beauty of a generalized statement is that it often cuts in two directions simultaneously.  That can be a good thing.

A.C. Grayling wrote a thought-provoking article about whether or not there is such a thing as “fundamentalist atheism,” and in it he asks:

What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?

Grayling asks some good questions, and he is correct that when most people say they’re not “fundamentalist atheists” they mean that they don’t feel the personal need to combat religious belief in their neighbors.  At its bottom, all kinds of fundamentalism are about insisting that only one specific form of an ideology is valid and all others must be opposed, usually with sound and fury.  “If you don’t believe X,” they say, “then you’re not a true (fill-in-the-blank).” But it seems that, for Grayling, the fact that older forms of Christianity were violently oppressive is sufficient to merit an openly combative posture towards all of it, even our current forms.  He says this in spite of his insightfully witty recognition that:

Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breathtaking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the gullible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen’s Sleeper, would not be able to recognise the faith that bears the same name as his own.

Even after recognizing the discontinuity, he and others like him feel we must openly combat all forms of Christianity—including the progressive ones—presumably because of the sins of their forebears.  I repeat that I do not personally identify with that stance even though I still feel that certain expressions of the Christian faith are harmful to those who hold them and to everyone else.  Many anti-theists have told me they felt thrown under the bus by my comments during the interview, and I’ve apologized if I misrepresented their view.  Like the aforementioned commenter who misunderstood which fundamentalism I was critiquing, many of them chafed at how I framed the whole concept.  For what it’s worth, I was painting with a fairly broad brush during that interview because I was addressing an audience who had likely never even heard someone allowed to speak openly about atheism (welcome to the Bible Belt).

But if the shoe fits, wear it, ya know?  There are a number of ways you can interact with people who do not share your own worldview, but some people seem convinced that open and direct opposition is the only valid way.  I know this because I’ve lost count of how many have written me to tell me I should not be so friendly with evangelical Christians.  They have chastised me for showing up at a church and neglecting to tell them all that their beliefs are ancient myths which should be discarded post haste.  Some (but not all) even feel that we should hold nothing back, so that even face-to-face mockery and personal insults are fair game.  Many are convinced—and have told me as much—that a “true atheist” makes no room for conversations like this because they feel it enables the religious to continue in their fallacies.  My approach is invalid, they argue, because it’s not sufficiently combative of the Christian faith.  My response continues to be:  Which version of the Christian faith?  There are dozens in my own country alone, and my response to one will not be identical to my response to the others.

I posted a status update on my Facebook page yesterday that received more “likes” than anything else I’ve said in the last three or four years.  The post said the following:


Yes, I know that finding fault with someone’s religion—even openly expressing disdain for said religion—does NOT equal personal insults or disrespect for the person himself or herself.  Trust me, I have had this conversation numerous times with my Christian friends.  When I disagree with one of your religious assumptions, I am not disrespecting you personally.  People deserve respect, but ideas must earn it.  And just as a Christian can “hate the sin and love the sinner,” so an atheist can “hate the belief but love the believer.”  More than that, wherever a particular religion exerts oppressive control over people, mockery becomes an indispensable tool for social change.  Like a good American, I believe the only appropriate responses to an abusive, controlling system of thought are ridicule and defiance.  But that doesn’t mean that all forms of a religion are the same, nor does it mean that you should be unable to hold a charitable, friendly conversation with someone who adheres to a worldview different from your own.

That takes a lot of work, though, doesn’t it?  Yes, I know it does.  It takes work on both sides.  When you hold a civil conversation with people who have opinions opposite your own, it means you are all holding your tongues and editing yourselves.  You’re not the only one doing it.  But I think the end result is well worth the effort.  I find that, if I listen a little longer and let them speak their mind, I get just a little closer to understanding why they think the way they do (even though I was certain I understood before we even began the conversation, just like they were).  That’s progress, because the next time I have a similar conversation, I can save myself a lot of time and effort by communicating more precisely and therefore more efficiently, saving all of us the headache of making the same mistakes we made in the last conversation.  I’m not saying the next person’s not gonna whip out the exact same stale arguments for X, Y, or Z as everyone before him, but I’ll be able to pick my battles a little more wisely because I chose to have a conversation instead of dueling monologues.

Maybe you disagree with me on that.  Maybe you feel there’s nothing to learn from such a conversation.  Then you should do it your way, and I’ll do it mine.  Each of our approaches probably best fits a different context, and will accomplish different (but mutually beneficial) goals in the end.  Just don’t say that your approach is the only one that’s valid.  That, to me, is the core feature of fundamentalism.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m very happy that you have taken this as your “ministry” ;) There are limitless ways to be of witness. I was attracted to Quakerism in the sixties before anybody had heard about the Vietnam war because of 2 little old Quaker ladies who stood together silently at the entrance of the biggest mall in Palo Alto from 11 – 12 every Saturday. When I asked them what they were doing, they said they were in silent protest of Vietnam. I asked them what was Vietnam… Many months later they were still there, but now they had been joined by a couple of hundred people.

    Having left Christianity many years ago, but only recently “converted” to Atheism/Humanism, I don’t care to go toe to toe with Super Christers. I provide doses of Ingersoll (and you) on my blog, giving ammo to the argumentative atheists, comfort to our fellow heretics, and pause to those who still cling to their belief systems… hoping those who are questioning as I once was, have some vital info to mull over.

  • brmckay

    We’re all navigating through this life in a hall of mirrors.

    Thanks for helping to sort it out.

    Much better than running through it with a hammer in hand.

    Thats bound to make it worse.

  • Well said! I personally prefer your approach. I feel that I learn a lot less when I become stubborn about my own beliefs and stop listening to other points of view.

    By the way I watched your entire interview at the church and thought it was perfect. I hope more people with your kind of approach are brave enough to kindly communicate with believers why we have a difficult time believing.

  • Me, too. Where I live, the confrontational approach just won’t do any good.

  • RBH

    Neil, you wrote

    Even after recognizing the discontinuity, [Grayling] and others like him feel we must openly combat all forms of Christianity—including the progressive ones—presumably because of the sins of their forebears.

    I think that’s a misrepresentation. Grayling and others like him (including me) see the current sins of (a non-trivial proportion) of religious beliefs as they are applied in the current world. Those sins range from the playing out of religious beliefs in the particulars of local situations to national and global issues. Dealing with the application of fundamentalist religious beliefs cost my local school district approximately $1m over the last three years, out of a $33m budget (see here for way more than you want to know about that situation). On a national level, we have at least one U.S. Senator who claims that

    Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,’ my point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

    I too can have civil and sometimes enlightening discussions with individual evangelicals–next week I’m meeting the pastor of the Baptist church where I was interviewed a few weeks ago for coffee and talk. I sympathize with his efforts to lead his congregation in a more science-friendly direction. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t firmly oppose the invocation of sectarian religious beliefs as grounds for deciding what should be taught in science classrooms in public schools or how we determine policies to avoid (or at least mitigate) the human-made climate change your children are facing.

  • Yes, but…my very point is that we are being too imprecise when we judge the whole of a religion by the actions of a part. See if you can follow this conversation:

    Me: Some modern forms of Christianity are not fundamentalist, therefore I do not feel driven to oppose the entirety of that religion.

    Other: But look at what the fundamentalists do to our public life and education!

    Me: Yes, but I’m not talking about those people. Some Christians do not oppose science or technology or social progress, therefore I do not openly oppose all of it.

    Other: Well, some are fundamentalist, therefore we should oppose all of Christianity.

    Me: We’re not communicating here.

    I gather from your comments and from your willingness to have conversation with a Baptist pastor that this conversation doesn’t reflect your viewpoint. But I am trying to tease out how I see things differently from many anti-theists in order to avoid having that^ conversation over and over again.

  • RBH

    We’re not that far apart, I think. I appreciate (some of) the nuances, and try to make appropriate discriminations. But it’s still the case that a fair range of sectarian religious beliefs are pernicious, and it’s not only those of fundamentalist Protestants. Those beliefs must be opposed, in my view.

    And I should add that the Baptist church in question is American Baptist, not Southern. and might well be labeled “progressive.” Makes it easier to talk. :)

  • I was going to wager money that it wasn’t an SBC pastor. I recently tried to launch a local discussion/debate group on Facebook but I wanted to get some Southern Baptists in on the fun first since that denomination is king around Mississippi. One day while attending my family’s church to witness a nephew’s “baby dedication” I approached the Executive Director of the whole state Baptist convention and asked him if he could think of anyone…ANYONE…among Mississippi Baptists who dabbles in debate or apologetics. He could think of no one. Southern Baptists don’t believe in apologetics. The anti-intellectual streak just runs too deep.

  • Donald Butts

    Don’t you think theist/atheist dialog is a bit one-sided? Atheists have more to gain by attempting to have dialog with Christians than Christians have to gain by having dialog with atheists. Atheism is held in contempt by most Christians and Muslims alike. What would they have to gain by conversing with atheists? I’m sure there are a few progressive Christians who are truly interested in “loving their enemies,” atheists in this case, but that seems to fly in the face of one of their most ancient beliefs — that only a fool in his heart would say there is no God. Most truly believe we are immoral and doomed to hell, and their solemn and sacred goal is to save us from that.

  • Lee

    I see the exact opposite. To me, the atheist has already discounted the christian beliefs and has no further interest in argument/dialogue absent defending his/her position of non-theism. The humanist in me has empathy for the believers simply because I believe they are wasting time and money, but we do that on much more than religion. On the other hand, Christians (especially the fundamentalist/evangelical flavor) are tasked with communication (witnessing) to folks in need of salvation. In fact, the majority of their daily conversation saps with the sticky ooze of scripture and prayer. Their solemn and sacred goal as you aptly described it, begs them to convert us sinners and backsliders. I’ve heard on several occasions (maybe on this blog) that the atheist can only hope to plant a seed of skepticism in a devout believer such that the individual will begin a journey of self-reflection and start asking themselves what they “truly” believe. I saw an interview with Richard Dawkins recently wherein he relays this tact very clearly. Essentially, he said that the non-theist has been successful in such a dialogue if the believer leaves the conversation with even a “sliver” of additional doubt about their current beliefs. Over and over I’ve read personal accounts of folks like Neil and myself who arrived at a secular worldview through a series or self-realizations, over a long period of time, and after much research. To me, this is the right way to approach or develop a philosophical worldview and often comes in handy when discussing how believers arrived at their worldview. This is one reason I enjoy reading Richard Carrier’s works. I do tend toward the agnostic side only in that I believe there are natural laws of the universe yet to be discovered and that any of these undiscovered laws “could” suppose what we’ve termed the supernatural, albeit highly unlikely. As human’s insatiable thirst for knowledge continues, the faith based systems will have to adjust (as Grayling observed) and we can only hope that the evolution of these belief systems will result in exposure of their fallacies. Non-theists can be the catalyst, but ultimately I believe the “deconversion” must start from within.

  • brmckay

    “Lee – I do tend toward the agnostic side only in that I believe there are natural laws of the universe yet to be discovered and that any of these undiscovered laws “could” suppose what we’ve termed the supernatural, albeit highly unlikely.”

    I appreciate this “sliver of doubt”. Though it is not a discovery of supernatural qualities to the universe (this is impossible), but rather sentience, that should tip the balance.

    What are your speculations on the relationship of Self Awareness within the scope of universal law?

  • I find it fascinating when a theist asserts what you seem to have just asserted, namely that “a discovery of supernatural qualities to the universe…is impossible…”

    If I understand this assertion correctly, you are categorically dismissing any chance that we could find supernatural evidences for a deity because, presumably, such a supernatural being would by definition be outside the reach of empirical measurement. Am I right about that? Is that what you are suggesting?

  • Lee

    “I appreciate this “sliver of doubt”. Though it is not a discovery of supernatural qualities to the universe (this is impossible), but rather sentience, that should tip the balance.”

    – Again, I meant agnostic in it’s most liberal sense…”albeit it {discovery of supernatural} highly unlikely”. I guess I tend to stop short of absolute when considering the supernatural, but only in so much as it is within the conceivable realm of possibility {not “impossible” as you suggest} and further, simply because there is so much we don’t know about the seemingly limitless physical nature and nuances within our universe.

    “What are your speculations on the relationship of Self Awareness within the scope of universal law?”

    – Interesting and broad question, one you may have to clarify after reading my response. I believe our ability to reason and deduce values from or within the strict context of universal natural law is quite possibly our greatest quality. I also believe we should follow these deductions to their natural and reasonable end as the foundation for our positive law systems. I’ve often pondered (and communicate to my kids) the statistical dichotomy of our existence. Said differently, it seems both statistically untenable and yet statistically sound that we should find ourselves alive and “mindful” of our existence. We are indeed a lucky race when you consider the odds! This realization becomes extremely powerful when put in context against the vastness of deep time, cosmic evolutionary theory, genetics, etc. and continues to be one of the main impetus’ to live a full and examined life. I guess my short answer, is that if our race can reach the ultimate in self-awareness which I believe to simply be omniscience of the natural laws of the universe, then there would be no need for positive law. :)

  • Interesting question…interesting answer.

    “Lee – I believe our ability to reason and deduce values from or within the strict context of universal natural law is quite possibly our greatest quality.”

    Very kinetic and dynamic. Much like the manifest, ever changing universe.

    Anthropocentric in nature. The nature of “our race”.

    But what about “Self Awareness”. The sense of “I”? That which reasons and also dreams, intuits, loves and hates? What laws govern this? Or, is it’s nature the source of the laws?

    Is it like light? Manifesting from a candle flame and a star alike. The same and different. Ruled by its laws but eternal and born from the infinite.

  • The above reply was meant for this spot. I’ll see if there is anything else to say.

    “Lee – I guess my short answer, is that if our race can reach the ultimate in self-awareness which I believe to simply be omniscience of the natural laws of the universe, then there would be no need for positive law.”

    That might almost be the goal of Yoga. Though I’m thinking, “omniscience” as you conceive it, is like the “candle” becoming the “sun”. There still remains a final step.

  • godlessindixie,

    But then I’m “differently theistic”.

    Nothing can be ‘supernatural’. The fixation on this, either by “theists” or “atheists”, is Flatlandian in origin.

    An honest definition of God, excludes the possibility “Super” anything.

  • My first time catching your blog. I read the entire thing. I can relate to your position, I am just north of Miss, hailing from Tn. While I do not quite have the time invested in religion that you have, I used to go to church too. It is difficult I think for x-ians to get that many of us used to do what they do, act like they act, and say what they say. But for me, and I suppose many others, there was always a nagging problem, an issue with logic, an issue with contradictions, or an issue with hypocrites, that was begging to be released. I don’t know how many times I wanted to stand up in church and exclaim that what the preacher was selling was B.S. That people don’t go inside whales for 3 days and survive. That it was somehow twisted in to a good thing when (Lot was it? Hey its been a while for me…) sent his daughters out to be raped, instead of the invaders coming in and possibly molesting Jesus. I was like, this would be a good time for some godly powers wouldn’t it? Instead Jesus was hiding under the damn bed. Or consider the supposed flood, and the tale of Noah, being too far fetched for anyone with with a passing grade in science to take seriously. Or consider all of the approved and commanded by god, murders and killings, to the point of genocide, or the dashing of children’s heads upon the rocks. It is one thing after another assaulting ones sense or reality and morality. You must set aside reality and believe in magic. and it all comes down to believe it, or be damned. At some point being damned becomes a far better proposition than the sacrificing of ones intellectual well being.

    So, yeah, I get it. I appreciate your story, and I applaud your efforts. I haven’t yet come out with my disbelief publicly, for the sole reason I still have kids in school here, and its a small town. The odds that my kids would be persecuted, or shunned because of my personal opinions, are just too high.

    In a few years time it wont matter anymore…sorry for the long post.

  • As someone who had Southern Baptist missionary grandparents, Independent Fundamentalists actually, and never grew up believing as they did, I am so happy to have stumbled across your blog. Thank you for writing it.

  • I was very glad to see Mr. Clark’s “Interview and atheist in Church” post on YouTube. I hope his message gets spread far and wide.

    Another southern chap who has a message of free thought to share is Sam Singleton, Atheists Evangelist. He applies humor to the whole thing and helps those who are willing to listen appreciate the ridiculousness of the whole thing.


  • No option to edit our typos? “an atheist” not “and atheist” above. Thx.