On Messy Language and Satisfactory Distinctions: A Response to Eli Bosnick

On Messy Language and Satisfactory Distinctions: A Response to Eli Bosnick August 3, 2017

Sorry, Eli, but unfortunately the truth is fuzzier here than you might like. (image via PxHere)

Fair warning: These are not the kind of posts that I prefer to write. I like the ones where I’m getting all introspective and a bit confessional. I feel like I’ve moved past some of the argumentative attitude that I’ve long been plagued with. But I also didn’t feel inclined to let this point go.

So here we go. But first, some background.

About a week and a half ago, my friend and Real Atheology podcaster Justin Schieber posted a meme on Facebook that had gotten passed around on Twitter (created by David Madison):

The quote in the meme is a line from David Silverman’s book Fighting God (and yes, it’s legit):

We need to shout from the rooftops that which we know is true: religion is a lie (yes, all of it), gods are myths (yes, all of them), and most people already know it (yes, they do).

Justin posted it because this claim — specifically the final clause — is completely outrageous, and Counter Apologist does a stand-up job breaking down why (I made a similar point a few years ago, although in response to a different argument).

A number of people in that Facebook discussion came out to declare what Silverman was actually saying — which basically amounted to “He’s just saying that religious people have a high capacity for self-delusion” or “He’s saying that most religious people do know that religion is bunk, but they exclude their own religion from that.” I think this is actually a bit insulting to Silverman, who has made his reputation as a firebrand about being outspoken and bold and straightforward (indeed, that kind of stance is precisely what this quote purports to promote!). And it is certainly not the most obvious reading of the quotation.

One of the people who jumped in to defend the quote with a slightly different tack was Eli Bosnick (of God Awful Movies and Scathing Atheist podcast infamy), and after a short back-and-forth between the two of us that ended in no resolution, Eli brought those same ideas to a post entitled You’re All a Bunch of Atheists.

A quick aside: I may end up getting a little snarky about this post because it drives me up the wall for a bunch of reasons, but Eli, even while he uses a certain characteristic flippantness at times, has been very cordial and even complimentary in our disagreement. He even invited me at one point to discuss it in podcast form, and I may take him up on the offer in the future if it stands after I publish this post.

The main thesis of this piece is fairly straightforward: Scratch a theist hard enough, and you’ll find a functional atheist. (Eli never uses this term, but that appears to be his meaning.)

For instance:

I have never met a religious person who believes the tenants of their religion under the slightest bit of intense scrutiny…you’re all a bunch of atheists.


[M]y bold claim is that pretty much anybody else, the moment you start talking about what words actually mean…is gonna start lying.

The “what words actually mean” part of this claim is the linchpin, and Eli continues to develop the point as such:

Imagine how absurd it would be if not just astrologers themselves but critics of astrology responded by telling me that, in fact, Astrology has nothing to do with the stars, and if you’re going to define an astrologer as someone who cares about stars you’re no better than them there Christians who say that atheists are just mad at God –but mention that salvation and the bible are necessary to be a Christian and well…it’s a different story

Despite the fact that no honest person would accept the homeopath disinterested in tinctures or the bacon eating vegetarian, dozens of smart thoughtful atheists will tell you a sentient God, the bible, and resurrection don’t have any effect on being a “believing Christian” and I…have no idea WHAT they’re talking about.

So the first question I have for these people is….well then what the fuck DO christians believe?

There is a lot to all of this, but I guess I’ve got to start somewhere.

So let’s start with this: I don’t know what kind of experience Eli has had with Christians (including whether or not he has ever been one), but this has not been my experience with Christians at all. This notion of pushing back on Christians’ beliefs until they essentially retreat into some kind of vague metaphysics and morality does not describe many Christians I have known in my life.

My dad is a Baptist minister (although he’s basically retired from formal pastoral work these days). If you put him “under the slightest bit of intense scrutiny,” he would undoubtedly tell you that yes, he certainly does believe that the Bible is the Word of God, salvation only comes through faith in Jesus and His resurrection, and basically all of the core orthodox beliefs that you would expect an evangelical Christian to espouse.

But Eli would certainly take him to be a “professional” Christian (despite the fact that he has never in his life been supported wholly by pastoral work), so maybe we should set him aside. The thing is…he’s not really different than other committed Christians I’ve known over the course of my life. He might be a little more prepared to answer difficult questions, but really, what difference is there between a Christian who can’t come up with a satisfactory (and non-heretical) way to reconcile the three-and-one nature of the Trinitarian Godhead and an atheist who can’t explain the flaws in the Kalam cosmological argument? You’re certainly going to find individuals who are not ready to robustly defend their beliefs among the ranks of each.

Still, this all presumes one important thing: That Eli is accurately describing not just what the core beliefs of Christianity are but what the necessary beliefs of Christianity are. And I frankly don’t think he is.

First, I do want to concede one thing about this: The waters here are muddy, and Eli is justified in being frustrated by this. But as I have recently written, the truth resists simplicity, and religion is one of those areas that is especially resistant.

It is this complexity that makes analogies to vegetarianism or astrology so flawed. Identifying as a vegetarian is straightforwardly defined by praxis on one issue: one’s diet. Eating meat regularly is disqualifying to that label as we understand it. Yet even here there is some wiggle room, as lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who eat eggs and dairy but no meat) are still generally considered vegetarians, and a vegetarian who “backslides” (as we used to say in the Baptist circles I grew up in) and has a piece of bacon with much guilt and contrition wouldn’t automatically be excommunicated from vegetarianism, despite Eli’s supposition to the contrary.

Religion, though, is a combination of multiple different facets: praxis, belief, and cultural identity, among others. And Christianity in particular, because of how long it has existed, how widely it has been practiced, and how fragmented it has become in terms of organization and theology, contains a multitude of divergences such that there isn’t so much a core common to all Christian sects or adherents but (to use a Wittgensteinian term) a family resemblance between them. (Hat tip here to Randal Rauser, who mentioned this idea in his interview with me last year.)

Yes, it is true that this makes it very difficult to set out a simple definition of what Christianity entails or what defines a Christian. But there are plenty of concepts like this that resist simple definition. It doesn’t make language incomprehensible; it just requires us to hold in tension our preconceptions about that complexity.

Finally, I want to come down to the last point Eli makes (which could be read as a preemption of some of what I’ve argued above):

But I want to talk about one last atheist. After the linguists cry-bully their way out of the conversation (as they always do) with cries of “wow great straw man” and “nice to see atheists can be as closed minded as the Westboro Baptist Church” I myself alone with the last remaining atheist. The Atheist believer. And when you ask the atheist believer if there is a hell and if I’m was going there he’ll say yes. He’ll cover it in some flowery language. He’ll hit you with some deathbed conversion apologetics and some subversion of god’s law chicanery but push comes to shove he’ll have the decency to say yes.

And I want you to know. That parson..is lying too. Because they…are a dentist or an electrician. If they actually thought I was going to hell you know what he’d be? A preacher. And easy as it is to make fun of the screaming street preacher they’re doing the moral thing.

This is the argument that I addressed a few years when I admonished everyone to stop assuming that people don’t take their beliefs seriously. I won’t rehash it again in full, but I want to make a point here that I didn’t explicitly make then.

While it is tempting to adopt this line of reasoning because it allows us to point out inconsistencies between professed beliefs and actions, it ignores the capacity for people to set their own priorities and too often flattens the number of beliefs at play.

Take for instance an argument I have heard from some atheists: Anyone who believes that (P1) God does not damn fetuses or babies who are unable to make a conscious decision to accept salvation through faith and (P2) a fetus or baby permitted to be born and develop into a fully sentient human may possibly end up damned to eternal torture in hell should therefore (C) kill their fetus or baby so that they are guaranteed salvation, which is a greater good than damnation. But this reduces the moral calculus in this situation to harm reduction, and that is not the only moral precept that would guide the religious person’s decision. (For instance, is taking such a move in contravention of God’s will? What potential goods would be eliminated by taking such action? What kind of human society would result from such a universalized position?)

Again, things are frequently — if not always — more complicated than they are presumed to be, especially by someone outside the situation and/or someone with a vested interest in showing the depravity of a decision. (After all, isn’t that the core of every anti-atheist argument that we must all be entirely selfish hedonists since we believe we only have this life to live, and if we aren’t, we must secretly believe in God?)

Are Christians who do not devote their lives to evangelism actually lying about their belief? Quite simply, no. Or at least, we can’t make that kind of categorical statement about such a diverse group of people, whose particular beliefs and theologies are not unified and may have surprisingly little overlap in many ways.

It would be easy to say that only people who adhere to specific doctrines count as Christians, that there is a defined way of ascertaining the coherence of a belief or value based on those doctrines, because then you would no longer have a moving target to hit. But it also wouldn’t be true — and I think that Eli wants to believe what is true, just as I do.

In the meantime, there are demonstrably dangerous beliefs that need to be addressed and rooted out. We agree on that.

So here’s my modest proposal: Address the bad ideas themselves rather than being concerned with how they connect to labels and identities.

Does it matter if a Christian or an agnostic is anti-vaccine? Does it matter if a Muslim or an atheist believes that people can talk to the dead? Of course not! The beliefs are the issue.

And if you find someone who rocks your world and doesn’t hold a certain false belief despite self-identifying in a way that would make you presume they do…don’t waste your time trying to argue them out of beliefs they don’t hold.

It really is that simple.

Image via PxHere

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