I used to think the Christian faith equipped individuals with superior tools for self-analysis and critical introspection. Boy, was I wrong on that one. I started out my journey away from faith fully expecting to find that non-Christians are far less self-aware than Christians, allowing vices within themselves which the high standards of the Christian worldview would never countenance.
To be sure, skeptical circles abound in unreflective numbskulls. We’ve got them in spades. But I no longer think my former faith did such a good job of substantially restraining those deleterious traits which make people harmful to themselves and to others. I now think that the church simply did a better job of dressing up the flaws inherent in all of us—sublimating them, if you will, into more socially acceptable directions.
Put differently, the church makes people hyper-aware of things which are ultimately inconsequential, like how aroused you get by the sight of a member of the opposite sex (or worse still, the same sex!). It obsesses over the use of swear words or how much time you spend in prayer but then encourages exclusionary behavior, reinforcing a whole host of cultural biases which its members will never even perceive as a matter of culture at all. Christians don’t think they even have their own culture. They remain as unaware of it as are fish of the water in which they swim.
That is why a minister like David Robertson, who I surmise from his published titles takes a special interest in confronting atheism, can level three criticisms of atheism which sound to me as if he is really describing the church instead. His most recent writing was featured on John Piper‘s site here, then got shared into my own newsfeed by a friend who must have found its logic as convoluted as I did. It is a classic example of projection, which I’m becoming convinced comes as naturally for Christian apologists as does breathing air.
Robertson accuses atheists of habitually preying on people’s fear, prejudices, and ignorance. He purports to have concluded this from his study of four high-profile atheist writers (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Grayling) although in this article he couldn’t even be bothered to spell two of the four names correctly. Perhaps he was dictating. At any rate, I was immediately struck by how blatantly each of those three charges stand out as weaknesses of modern evangelicalism. I’ll show you what I mean as I go through each one.
Preying on People’s Fears
The first thing Robertson says atheist writers prey on is fear:
People are afraid of religion. After all, as is pointed out ad nauseum by all the atheist writers, atheists don’t fly planes into buildings. Granted, but then neither do they build hospitals or establish schools because of their atheism. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the others love to warn us that the religious are going to bomb us, take us back to the Dark Ages, and abuse our children.
On the contrary, I don’t think the average person is afraid of religion, per se. They’re just afraid of other people’s religions. Xenophobia runs deep in the human psyche, to be sure. But we naturally reserve our greater fears for those ideologies which are more prone to violence and conquest, and Islamic extremism certainly falls into that category. So I guess I’m not sure what his point is here. Is there something incorrect about concluding that religious belief emboldened those who attacked the World Trade Centers a decade and a half ago (wow, has it been that long)? And at this point isn’t child abuse a well-documented mark on the reputation of the largest sect of Christianity, the Catholic Church?
But more importantly, does a minister of the Free Church of Scotland have any room at all to complain that an ideology capitalizes on people’s greatest fears? Because the last time I checked, his theological tradition still champions the idea that if you don’t live right and believe right, you’ll be tortured forever and ever:
God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world…the wicked who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. (Westminster Confession, XXXIII)
Talk about using fear. Which is a worse thing to fear, a terrorist attack or “eternal torment?” And which one has been empirically observed as a thing that can actually happen in real life? Unless Robertson has renounced his church’s doctrine of everlasting punishment, it seems to me he doesn’t get to accuse somebody else of using fear tactics to motivate people to do or believe anything, especially if the thing other people fear is demonstrably real.
(Now About That Side Swipe)
Incidentally, I can’t resist responding to the little jab he slipped in there about there not being any atheist hospitals or schools. This accusation gets thrown around a lot, and there are several things wrong with it. First of all, because atheism isn’t an organized religion, it will rarely get recognition for charitable work. Who knows how many great things throughout history have been done by atheists, since historically they have so often had to mask their skepticism in vague theological language? They haven’t walked around naming things after atheist dignitaries or announcing that they’re doing what they’re doing “in the name of atheism.”
But then atheism isn’t even a comprehensive ideology in the same way that, say, Christianity is, so this would really be an impossible thing to track. It’s comparing apples to oranges, or maybe to the seed of another fruit. Atheism is merely an answer to one single question: Do you believe there are any gods? It doesn’t really tell us anything else about what you do believe, only what you don’t. So it doesn’t make sense to ask if people do good things “because of their atheism.”
And of course, since there isn’t an organized church of atheism which extracts a consistent portion of people’s incomes from their monthly earnings, it’s less likely that you’re going to find examples in history in which a large sum of money was used to establish a major building program or an “atheist university.”
Having said that, I think a strong argument could be made that, whatever the social and religious circumstances surrounding the initial founding of the world’s best universities, many of the modern advances in human learning have required a willingness to step out from under the authoritarian dogma of religion. Whatever their religious affiliation at the outset, their growth and progress clearly required a movement away from such entanglements, and the human knowledge base has been all the better for it.
Appealing to People’s Prejudices
Next Robertson charges that atheist writers are appealing to people’s prejudices in order to bolster their case:
Another reason for the popularity of these works is that they appeal to the prejudices of their readers. Prejudices such as the idea that all religions are essentially the same and that therefore what can be said about one must apply to the others.
Now, I’ll be among the first to acknowledge that some of the highest profile authors and atheist celebrities tend to paint with a broader brush than I would like. I personally contend that those who have never deeply inhabited a religious tradition of their own lack the nuance and precision of those who spent decades internalizing and applying the principles of a faith community.
But it seems to me that Robertson here is bothered that his religion isn’t somehow counted as special, above the rest and unique among all other religions. In fact my particular tradition (American evangelicalism) loves asserting that Christianity isn’t a religion at all—it’s a relationship, you see, with the divine. And somehow all others aren’t such a relationship, because reasons.
[Related: “It’s a Religion Too, Not Just a Relationship“]
I doubt his brand is prone to such sentimentality, but he most certainly does privilege his own religion above all others, and I gather it irks him that the rest of us don’t afford it the same luxury. To us, stories of parting seas, floating ax heads, and men walking on water sound just as incredible as buried golden plates and winged horses carrying prophets up into the sky. Which means that in fact his tribe is the prejudiced one, and the rest of us are merely not going along with it.
I have also studied history far too much not to notice that religions work as well as anything at preserving and sustaining prejudices that aren’t even endemic to their own internal logic. In my country, it has been the churches who have presented the strongest opposition to social and scientific progress at every turn, letting old hang-ups about race, gender, sexual preference, and sexual mores persevere long past their expiration date. Once you’ve convinced people that a bias is rooted in the mind of God, it becomes useless trying to reason with them. Only the force of law can change their behavior at that point.
Capitalizing on Ignorance
Finally, Robertson claims that atheist writers are leveraging ignorance among their target audiences in order to make their case against theism:
In addition, whilst making some clear and reasonable criticisms of religion, criticisms which religious people have to face up to and indeed have been doing so for centuries, the New Atheist authors are able to get away with their sweeping generalizations, ad hominem arguments, and simplistic philosophy because they are largely appealing to people’s ignorance.
For example, it does little good to learn that the problem of evil, also known as theodicy, has been debated within the church for nearly two thousand years. There’s a good reason the debate still rages on: No one has really solved the dilemma. There really is a philosophical problem inherent in the idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent deity created and maintains a cosmos in which there is so much chaos, suffering, and death. You can try to dismiss the conundrum by arguing that humans have free will, but that only opens up another box of puzzles which no theologian to date has really solved. I’ve read (and used) the most common rationalizations in many forms, and while they satisfy people who are highly emotionally invested in validating their faith, for practically anyone else it just leaves them cold.
Robertson also accuses writers like Dawkins of misrepresenting historical developments like the abolition of slavery, predictably wanting to give all the credit to his theological tradition just as Tim Keller did in chapter four of The Reason for God (you can read my response to that chapter here). I have already addressed that before, so the only point I will make here is that if the Bible itself were the source of social progress in the realm of either slavery or women’s equality, those developments would have come many centuries sooner than they did.
Most of all, however, I find it ironic that Robertson accuses atheists of appealing to ignorance when from my point of view, that’s exactly the foundation upon which theism is predicated. I contend that at bottom of everyone’s belief in supernatural beings is an overwhelming sense that we do not understand all the mechanics behind the operations of the cosmos. How did everything come to be? Where did everything come from? Why do we even ask questions like these? So many questions we have, and in the absence of empirically verifiable explanations, humans have historically preferred to believe that invisible beings must have made it all happen.
But this isn’t really as good an explanation as it first appears, and in the end it is an argument from ignorance: We don’t understand how (fill in the blank) happens, therefore there must be an invisible person behind it all. That may be a satisfying answer to someone with enough social and psychological motivation to embrace the quickest and easiest solution available, but in the end they are very poor answers indeed.
Overstating the Case
For the remainder of his article, Robertson frankly whines about how atheism has become such a popular topic in the media, with books flying off the shelves at an ever-increasing rate. I can imagine that must be frustrating for a man who currently moderates a denomination boasting fewer members globally than does a single individual church a few blocks down from where my children go to school. If his church’s message is connecting with fewer and fewer people, surely it must be the fault of everyone else. It cannot be that the message itself is wrong. That would be unthinkable.
But that still doesn’t give him a right to misrepresent the nature of the movement he so despises to the extent that he does:
If anyone doubts the crypto–religious nature of the New Atheism, just pay a visit to the Dawkins website, complete with its testimonies and “converts corner.” Try challenging atheist doctrine and you will soon find yourself on the receiving end of abuse normally reserved for heretics by the most extremist religious cults. Attending a Dawkins book event is more like a Billy Graham revivalist meeting, than it is an educational event.
Really Dave? Come on, now. First of all, I’ve been to a Dawkins book event myself and it was nothing like a revivalist meeting. There was no emotional music played at the beginning, we didn’t stand and hold hands, repeating the same sappy words of devotion to him (or to atheism) over and over again until we were almost in a collective trance, and there were no emotionally manipulative stories or video segments tailored to make us cry. There was no high pressured invitation to make a commitment to anything, nor was there a throng of counselors waiting at the front of the auditorium to receive weeping converts to the dark side. It was mostly just a guy sitting in a chair, answering questions from the lady interviewing him about his latest book. He certainly has his fanboys, to be sure. But that just comes with the territory of celebrity, and it happens in every subculture that exists.
Second, the kinds of “abuse normally reserved for heretics” we find in the history of the Christian church include things like being stretched on a rack, being drawn and quartered, or being burned at the stake. That’s not exactly a fair comparison. Robertson is bothered that atheists call them names and say condescending things on the internet. Now, I’m certainly among the first to agree that atheists can be incredibly rude in confrontational debate, but even on their worst day I have yet to see anything approaching the kinds of treatment the Church has historically given the people who fail to accept their dogmatic assertions.
In all of this Robertson greatly exaggerates the grievances of his subjects because clearly he is frustrated by all of their success. Why else would he so badly misrepresent the way things actually are unless he feels threatened by their increasing marketshare of the public sphere?
Long on Complaints, Short on Solutions
At the end, Robertson turns his corrective gaze inward—sort of—charging that the church needs to do a better job of evangelizing the world. Or at least, he says, the American church should. He ultimately blames the American church for “napping,” which is a funny thing to hear considering the incomparably frenetic activity level of most evangelical churches I’ve been around. It’s also a bit funny because three of the four atheist authors at whom he takes aim are British, products of his own culture rather than America’s.
I see only two types of solutions offered in this piece, the second of which is almost disappointing. First, he says that church leaders should do a better job of substantively engaging nonbelievers in the kinds of debate and discussion that really tackle the issues that matter.
Of course occasional critical columns or comments are offered, but these are usually about style rather than substance. And to some extent the church in the U.S. is to blame for this — divided, defensive, and dumbed down, it has created a ghetto mentality and a Christian market…
No argument there. I totally agree. The kinds of apologetics discussion I’ve participated in are mind-numbingly repetitive and almost robotic. It’s rare that I encounter anyone who is trying to do what Robertson wants who doesn’t also regurgitate the same unpersuasive arguments we’ve heard so many times we can recite them in our sleep. I would love to see some more realistic and natural discussion happening between believers and unbelievers in public settings, but that would require finding articulate ministers whose professional credibility doesn’t hinge on exuding an unwavering confidence in their own dogmatic positions. Good luck finding many of those. I found one in my entire state once, but then he moved out of state two months later.
As Robertson moved on to his second list of solutions, I was hoping against hope that he would have some kind of fresh and insightful strategic suggestion which might move the public dialogue forward the way he was suggesting in the paragraph before, but in the end he argued that the need of the hour is for “repentance, and for a return to the basics of prayer, the Word of God, and personal holiness.” Yawn. Forgive me, but that’s terribly disappointing. Like almost every other time I’ve heard an evangelical minister take a shot at prescribing what his dying tradition needs in this hour, Robertson says in effect “If what we’ve been doing for centuries is no longer reaching people in our day, let’s just do all the same things as before, but harder, and with more zeal!”
Good luck with that, brother. In the meantime, if you’d like to have a face-to-face discussion (and can figure out how to make it happen), I’m all for it. But I’m going to stop you any time I catch you misrepresenting the way things actually are. And ultimately I figure you should be okay with that, since you believe the truth is on your side.
[Image Source: Shutterstock]
If you’d like to keep up with what I’m doing, you can “Like” the Godless in Dixie Facebook page: