Hey, y’all! We’ve been talking this week about newly-published author Shane Hayes’ new apologetics masterpiece, The End of Unbelief, wherein he outlines what his book cover calls “a new approach to the question of God.” Last time, we talked about his bizarre conceptualization of atheism versus Christianity, and today we’ll talk about his dishonest treatment of disbelief in general. I’ve linked you to the Amazon preview of the book so feel free to follow along if you like. We’re on the first chapter.
The reason I’m taking so much time on this book and its author’s associated bullshit is because a lot of Christians think exactly the way he does. He’s somehow gathered every single tired-out, shopworn false trope in one place despite thinking he’s some kind of precious unique cross-shaped snowflake. I think it’s important to discuss these errors in thinking. He has very foolishly chosen to directly engage his stated target community in various ways that display his irrational thinking, disingenuous ideas, and outright fallacies more plainly than most of his peers would dare. It’s not that they don’t think the same things and talk the same way, it’s that they normally cloak those things in layers of spaghetti code, dogwhistles, and euphemisms. Shane Hayes is still new enough at this apologetics game that he hasn’t yet learned to do that (and yes, I do realize that he’s been trying to say that what he’s doing isn’t apologetics, but I’m under no obligation to accept his redefinition of the word).
Normally someone like him would be restricted to posting comments on blogs and writing puff pieces for apologetics sites, but he’s actually had a book published that showcases his ideas. That means that some publisher or other thinks there’s an audience for this stuff. In fairness, I’d agree. As ignorance increases among evangelical-ish Christian believers, as their need to demonize dissenters gets more marked, as their desperation increases to find some angle that works on us, we’re going to see more stuff like this as Christian thought leaders pander to those believers. A book telling them to quit doing this stuff wouldn’t sell nearly as well, now would it? But one telling them that they are right and correct–well, that helps them with that obese-wallet problem they were having. Christian publishers, for all their pious, sanctimonious posturing, don’t care if the information in their books is true or false, helpful or toxic, evil or good, or nasty or kind: they care if the books sell. If the books sell, then they will publish more and more of them until they stop selling. It really is that easy.
I think that the rest of us need to speak out against this trend and push back against this marketing gimmick, so that actually-decent Christians will know not to buy these books and parrot their pernicious lies at the rest of us. That’s really what this series is about. I’m not only picking on Shane Hayes, though I definitely am specifically speaking about his writing right now. I see him as one example of a much bigger, broader trend happening in the religion; what I’m saying about his writing could easily be applied to a great many other apologists’ work. He is a product of his religion and is really just a convenient, willing tool used by its leaders–just like any internet troll on YouTube spewing Creationist lies and threatening people with eternal demonic rape in Hell if they don’t shut up. A publisher is giving him a soapbox because it will make that publisher money, not because of some deep spiritual correctness.
With that clarified, let’s dive in to our continuing examination of Chapter 1: “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.” Here, the author puts his cards on the table after making a comparison between atheism (Antarctica) and Christianity (the Isle of Capri):
Is atheism where you want to go? Or stay?
Er, what? He’s talking like a faith system is a weekend holiday destination or something that people can just come and go from as they please. Even more concerning than his narcissistic insistence that his beliefs should make him happy is the author’s assertion that atheism is a destination and that people choose it–or don’t. He seriously asks us to consider atheism as a barren, icy Antarctica and Christianity as “a lush Capri of the soul.” No, seriously, that’s the explicit comparison he makes. (If you can’t tell, that phrase irks me.)
It’s a little weird that a person who bills himself as having been a “militant atheist” doesn’t even realize what atheism actually is. I realize that this stuff can be a little complicated and that atheists vary wildly in their temperaments and opinions, but I seriously thought this idea was the primary marker of an atheist. So let me help out a little.
To borrow the idea from Bill Maher, atheism is a place just like abstinence is a sexual position. It’s actually the absence of a destination. If beliefs were real places, atheism still would not be a place you could visit, much less an icy wasteland of a place. It is the zero to the other numbers–a necessary empty placeholder of an idea, not an idea in itself. It is the reaction to a claim, not a claim. It is the state before an idea is accepted or rejected. It is the folded arms and the “Show me what evidence you have for this idea.”
Similarly to how William Gibson wrote long ago of cyberspace, in atheism there’s no there, there. This conceptualization of religions-as-places reminds me of that anime Hetalia, where countries are personified as human boys and have adventures and stuff. In a similar anime about religion, atheism wouldn’t be one of the countries at all. I feel like I’m Garth Algar on Wayne’s World making up rapid-fire puns–or Holly on Red Dwarf trying to explain to Lister the fate of the ship’s crew–to say that atheism is a non-thing, the opposite of a thing, an anti-thing, a thing-before-the-thing, the state that happens when the thing isn’t there at all. This is an ex-parrot, I want to shout in an English accent, holding atheism up by its rigor-mortised claws.
Mr. Hayes’ error reminds me of this old joke:
“What did you watch on TV last night?”
“Nothing, I didn’t watch TV.”
“Did you watch the game?”
“No, I didn’t watch anything.”
“Well what about that new reality show?”
“No, I had the TV off last night.”
“You must have seen the news.”
“No, I didn’t; the TV was off and I didn’t watch anything.”
“Hm… did you see the late show? It was–”
“NO, I didn’t watch TV!”
And the blank look: “… But then whatever did you watch?”
That’s what many Christians can be like around atheists. It feels like no matter how often someone tries to tell them what atheism is like, their entire worldview is constructed around the idea of everybody having to believe something. They literally can’t wrap their heads around the idea of someone just not believing in any religious claims like they do. I know some Christians get it (and I see you, don’t worry). Definitely the loudest ones don’t though.
And instead of giving atheists a good reason to believe something, the toxic Christian will bash his or her brains out trying to ferret out what atheists do secretly believe in their heart of hearts and then leap on whatever they think they’ve found with a triumphant “AHA! SEE, YOU DO BELIEVE IN SOMETHING! SO WHY NOT BELIEVE IN MY RELIGION INSTEAD?”
As tactics go, this one is more than a little counterproductive and in addition downright weird. I’ve personally seen Nice Guys™ do the same exact thing to women and it’s incredibly creepy and off-putting; that’s how I actually noticed Christians doing it. People aren’t allowed to just state their positions and that be enough; controllers and toxic Christians have to try to dictate our experiences and then try to gaslight us into thinking that this dictated experience is not only the truth but also inferior to whatever the controller is offering up. Someone with well-developed critical thinking skills and boundary-setting skills won’t be fooled, but Christianity doesn’t tend to encourage its adherents to develop either–so the people trying this stunt don’t realize that what works on them won’t necessarily work everywhere else. At no point is any good reason introduced for believing in or accepting whatever the controller wants. This is a diversionary tactic used in lieu of having evidence for a claim. And Shane Hayes does it constantly.
Even if atheism were like a real place, it’s pretty clear that he’s wording the question in this very manipulative, loaded way because he expects you to hear his harrowing description of his own time in (what he thinks was) atheism and react like “oh no, I certainly won’t want to choose that kind of fate for myself, oh no, not that, I couldn’t possibly!”
It doesn’t work that way. Christians will gasp and clutch their pearls in response, so yes, that question will pander very well to them, but I haven’t seen any actual atheists respond in any way but to question in turn the strange assertion that anybody chooses sincerely-held beliefs.
Why does he assume that anybody “wants” to go or stay in anything spiritual? I sure didn’t choose to discard Christianity; my loss of belief was a painful process that I fought tooth and nail until the very end. I could no more choose to believe in Christianity again–knowing the facts that I know now about it–than I could choose to believe in unicorns and the Tooth Fairy. I don’t regard my spiritual beliefs as something I chose. They almost feel like something that I recognized in myself, not something deliberate that I did or didn’t do. My beliefs have always been a reaction to information I’ve learned. They come after the information, not before it. I try not to build a belief until I have information to base it off of. To do otherwise is to risk building a false belief. I don’t want to do that because having beliefs based on the truth matters to me.
I really don’t know why Shane Hayes thinks it’s some kind of admirable accomplishment of his, that he builds beliefs on shit he has no idea about and doesn’t even know is true or false, and is willing to mouth platitudes in lieu of having actual sincerity, and then chooses to ignore all criticism and hand-wave it away when it’s offered (as it has been–twice–over at Friendly Atheist). And he does so because he thinks it’s better to be happy and deluded than unhappy and walking in the truth.
The important thing to remember here is that the truth doesn’t care how someone feels about it. It is what it is, and we accept it or not, and make peace with it as best we can or else we rail against it and try to change it.
At least, we do that when we are honest with ourselves.
That’s why his smarmy insistence on how wunnerful Christianity feels for him grates on me the way it does. Of course Christianity offers “a lush Capri of the soul” for him. Like any abusive person must, it has to have some charms or nobody would ever put up with its shit. The manufactured needs that are fulfilled and the illusory joys that are offered by this religion do indeed satisfy a great many people and stop them from seriously engaging with the lack of credible claims (and debunked claims) in it. The threats that it makes, however, are even more inescapable for many folks. Somehow Mr. Hayes doesn’t mention those walking along the coastline of his pretty island.
By contrast, atheism can seem downright bleak in some ways to a Christian–it has no friendly Boyfriend!Jesus hovering around it, ready to embrace believers and be everything they ever needed in a father, spouse, and friend. It has no promise of eternal joy in some magical Never-Never Land whose existence has never been verified. It offers no cosmic justice to be meted out, no satisfying closure to the question of our mortality, and no external force exerting control on believers’ lives.
It really sounds here like Mr. Hayes is talking about the conceptualization of nihilism that Christians imagine atheists hold. In their strawman conceptualization, such Christians think that because atheists don’t have that external force giving their lives meaning and value, their lives can’t have meaning and value at all. Because they don’t have Christian joy, they can’t have joy at all. Because they don’t have Jesus in their hearts calming them down, they cannot feel peace. When Mr. Hayes talks about icy wastelands versus lush islands, he’s just parroting bullshit I heard 20+ years ago in my own church. We all thought non-Christians were miserable, even if they acted happy and said they were happy. We were all convinced we knew their emotional states better than they did. Nobody could be happy without Jesus–right? Right? Getting to know atheists who seemed very happy was a real problem for me in college, consequently. They certainly weren’t dwelling in icy misery. It’s not that I didn’t know atheists who didn’t seem perfectly happy–some were happy, some weren’t. But of the ones who weren’t, I couldn’t put it down to their atheism at all no matter how hard I tried. And they certainly had plenty of meaning in their lives–more than I did, since I was straining and struggling to hear a god’s whisper in my heart about what I should do with my life, while they just trusted themselves to go in the right direction–the damnable heathens!
I develop that idea about cosmic purpose more here, for the newer folks to the blog, but for now let’s just say that just a few minutes’ conversation with atheists and non-Christians would have fixed this misconception Shane Hayes has of atheism being some bleak, windswept, barren realm of ice and awfulness. His own understanding of atheism might have been like that, largely because he never took the time to learn much about it and because his time away from Christianity wasn’t more than a petulant temper-tantrum before he got himself sorted out and returned to the religion again. But you’d have to look a long time to find many atheists who think that way in the real world about atheism. In fact I’d say that one can really only find atheists like that in the ex-atheist-converted-to-Christianity crowd–not all of them, but enough that it’s clear that this is a Cult of Before Stories situation wherein those converts realize that claiming to have been atheists before their conversions gets them a lot of attention and possibly financial gain than not claiming such a past.
It’s more than a little irresponsible of people to claim they were atheists in such a context. The Christians who are his target audience will likely come away from this book thinking yes, this is what atheists are like, the poor dears, and it will take even longer to sort them out than it otherwise would.
I really wanted to develop this setting-of-the-scene a little before we talk about the actual argument he thinks is soooooo new and sooooo compelling. He’s been making a lot of butthurt noise over at Friendly Atheist of late over the less-than-enthusiastic reception of his book there, and I think this topic is an important one. The mistaken concept of atheists “believing in there being no god” may well have finally hit its shark-jumping moment, the same way that #yesallwomen finally brought street harassment and male entitlement to the forefront. I sense a sea change in how atheists react to this ignorant charge. So don’t worry–we’re getting there. I just really wanted to take apart this guy’s claims and devote some time to examining some stuff that I’ve seen Christians saying a lot these past years.
And I want to say this:
One of the reasons I find the human condition so beautiful is that we can recognize ourselves as adrift on a cosmic sea of dust and plasma fire, can see ourselves as the tiniest of all tiny motes in that universe, and still find great beauty and joy in our lives. We can see how miniscule we are and yet find meaning. We can forge ahead through a cosmos that would just as soon kill us as nurture us and learn amazing and astounding things, valuable things, that let us progress further and further to heights we can’t even guess at now.
We can stare mortality in the face and find love.
We can struggle free of comforting delusion and find truth.
But to him, all of that beauty and potential is just barren wasteland because in that view there’s no invisible man in the sky who created everything, an invisible man who is orchestrating everything behind the scenes in ways that are absolutely indistinguishable from there not being an invisible man in the sky doing anything at all.
To each one’s own, I reckon. But it’s noteworthy that Shane Hayes isn’t even correct about how barren and joyless Antarctica is. My dad was a sailor and went there a couple times and came back with a lot of stories about it–it’s actually a pretty neat place! It’s actually shockingly filled with life–not just penguins, but also all kinds of other life just teems there (a seagull Dad and his mates called Ziggy and half-tamed stole his camera right out of his hands once–the greedy, opportunistic little git!). And this commenter over at Friendly Atheist put it so beautifully:
(Shane Hayes) is only looking at the surface, so he sees Antarctica as barren and devoid of life, but if you look deeper you will find that life is thriving there, penguins and other sea birds nest there, fish, seals and whales live in the waters off its coast, dig into the ice and you will find microbes and algae. Antarctica is one of the harshest environments on this earth, yet life finds a way. To me Antarctica is an argument against the existence of God, because it seems so barren, but by looking deeper you see that it is full of life. This is what I think of the rest of his arguments, he has not looked deep enough.
To this I must say: rAmen. It’s very indicative to me that Shane Hayes picked an environment filled with life, just not human-friendly life, to express how he felt about atheism. Of course only human-friendly life is the only life that really counts or matters, right? I find his entire worldview to be quite shallow and narcissistic, even downright egocentric in the sense that he thinks the world revolves around him and his desires and delights, and nowhere do we notice just how egocentric it is than when we think about how he considers Antarctica to be sterile purely because he’d have trouble living there. Other forms of life do pretty well there, but because he couldn’t without a lot of help, obviously it’s a barren, icy hellhole of a wasteland.
But let’s not allow trifles like facts to get in the way of a good metaphor, hmm?
So no. Atheism is not a place but a non-place, and an honest person doesn’t “choose” to go there or anywhere else spirituality-related. A belief forms, changes, and dies as a result of information, rather than being chosen coldly from among a cafeteria-style list of options. Shane Hayes has the luxury of believing he chose his beliefs, but because he doesn’t seem to have ever really lost his belief in Christianity, he hasn’t got the faintest idea what it feels like to suddenly feel that belief drop away, never to return–or to know what it feels like to try to recapture that belief and be unable to do so because the knowledge underlying that belief have changed so dramatically that it just isn’t possible to choose to go that route.
Please join me next time! Soon I’ll tell you more about Antarctica, I promise, because my dad brought back oodles of stories about it, but we still have more to talk about regarding what Shane Hayes is arrogant enough to call Shane’s Wager–and which he is still ignorant enough to think is actually something new or different in the world of Christian apologetics.