Welcome back. We’re discussing Shane Hayes, who wrote the new apologetics book The End of Unbelief. He has an argument that boils down to “I feel happier believing in Christianity than I did being what I erroneously thought was an atheist, and all things being equal, it makes much more sense to believe in this non-credible thing instead of that non-credible thing because this non-credible thing confers many more benefits upon its believers.” Today we’re going to talk about why his argument falls flat: namely, because all things are not actually equal.
This author has said repeatedly that he thinks that atheists have a belief that is every bit as dogmatic and religious as the belief Christians have. This is a very common misconception Christians have of atheists. Even I know that atheism isn’t a belief, but rather a non-belief. I don’t know many atheists who would characterize their opinions in the way that Shane Hayes dearly wishes they would. If they did it’d really be ever so helpful to his argument that everybody believes something non-credible so why not what he’s pushing, but sorry, building an effective argument doesn’t work that way over here in reality-land.
When atheists tell him that they simply don’t find “I like it better this way” to be a compelling reason to believe in his conceptualization of a god, this is his response:
Ahh, but you do (believe), I reply. You don’t believe in God, but you believe in No God. You believe in the hypothesis that there is no God. I believe in the hypothesis that there is a God. Mine is a religious belief; yours an unreligious belief. But we both believe.
No shit, that tired lump of wizened Ray Comfort-style horseshit again–from a guy who, remember, claims he used to be a “militant” atheist for a short while. (And PS: holy cow–does that quote make him sound like an asshole, or what?)
Since this argument forms the bulk of his rationale for accepting Christianity and pushing it at others, let’s talk about this hypothesis he thinks he has.
It’s probably a good rule of thumb for Christians to avoid using big words they don’t understand, like “hypothesis.” A fellow who doesn’t understand the scientific method might not realize that a hypothesis actually gets formed after someone makes testable, credible observations and forms an idea that can be tested about why those observations are happening. Christianity has never had testable, credible observations for any of its concepts, so Mr. Hayes can’t really make a hypothesis about them, much less test them. What he actually has is a wild guess pulled out of his nether regions based on sheer wishful thinking, not a hypothesis. If he ever had enough credible observations to form a hypothesis, that’d be earth-shattering news in and of itself! I realize that in common-language usage, “hypothesis” has assumed a far different definition among English speakers than it has among scientists, much like the word “theory” has (to the chagrin of professional scientists and science wonks alike, and astronomer-friend, I am looking right at you and offering you a consolation microbrew in commiseration). He is mixing and matching the scientific and colloquial uses of the word in a way that suggests he’s doing it intentionally, not accidentally.
And disbelief is not actually a hypothesis in either sense of the word; atheists are not advancing an idea or making an assertion but rather asking for proof for the assertions that religious people make. I often hear Christians say that non-believers are making a positive assertion and try to push their own burden of proof onto non-believers by demanding we “prove” that prayer doesn’t work or that Creationism isn’t true, but that’s not actually what is happening when someone asks a Christian for proof.
Shane Hayes is not only wrong about what a hypothesis is, then, he’s also wrong about whether atheists even need a hypothesis to reject his claims. As many people have pointed out, it is beyond irresponsible of someone claiming an atheist phase in his past to suggest that atheists “believe in No God.” Maybe that’s what he did–because as we’ve established repeatedly here on this blog, he didn’t actually become an atheist but rather a rebellious Christian. He may well have gone through a phase himself where he believed in No God. I see no reason to disbelieve that variant of the claim. But that’s not generally what atheism means, and I can easily see why he got toppled off that shoddy pseudo-belief and back into Christianity. His mistake is in assuming that his shoddy pseudo-belief is what other atheists believe.
When he smugly continues, “Some atheists would rather die than admit (that they believe what Shane Hayes erroneously thinks they believe),” he displays an absolutely spellbinding lack of self-awareness about just why that might be. I’m serious, it’s like watching videos of snakes for me. I just about can’t take my eyes off this spectacle–a grown adult who actually thinks something this bees-headed and is willing to admit it in his out-loud voice. It makes me wonder just what his second guess might be for why atheists don’t seem to be agreeing with his wild-ass guess.
But then he gets into the true meat of the claim he’s making. From Chapter 1, again:
We don’t know whether there’s an all-powerful God who cares deeply about his creatures, or not. There is reason to think there is not. There is reason to think there is. Either hypothesis seems far-fetched in light of certain observable facts. From six-day creation, to creation over eons with evolution, to cosmic inflation, to the Big Bang theory, there is no explanation of the universe that is not from some point of view wildly improbable. So we must have either no explanation or an unlikely one. . . Since the keenest powers of human reasoning leave us without proof on this crucial issue, uncertainty is our fate. We can’t know. We can only believe.
I hardly even know where to begin with the irrationality in this paragraph, but let’s dig in.
Studies have shown that religious people often have trouble with uncertainty, ambiguity, grey areas, and open-ended questions. The idea is detailed in this very neat paper by Brandt and Reyna from 2010 (link will download it, sorry, but it’s about prejudice and the need for closure and it’s really good so I hope you’ll read it) but really you could find support for this assertion very easily with a basic search. That, and the idea meshes very well with what most of us have experienced in both our own once-Christian lives and in what we see going on around us in society: the more fundagelical someone leans, the less tolerant that person will be toward uncertainty. Shane Hayes falls into that trap here, by clearly preferring a false certainty to a true uncertainty. He is correct in saying that we cannot know if there is a god out there or not with our current state of knowledge. But he is not correct in saying that in response to that uncertainty that “we can only believe.”
This fallacy is what people in The Biz (whatever that is) call a false dilemma. It gives us two options and hopes we don’t realize that those aren’t our only two options. No, actually, belief is not our only other option. We can also disbelieve until better evidence comes along. We can withhold belief until there’s some good reason to believe.
So I now unveil the Unicorn Test for Apologetics: If some line of reasoning could just as easily be applied to the existence of unicorns as to the existence of a god, then it is not a valid proof for that idea. Let’s test it by rewording Shane Hayes’ argument:
We cannot know that unicorns do not exist. We can only believe that they do.
Huh, yeah, that argument does sound kind of ridiculous put that way.
I also don’t think he’s correct in saying that there’s no proof on this crucial issue.
There most certainly is.
It’s just not proof that supports his ideas.
Instead, what proof humanity has supports the notion that no supernatural agency is required to make a single bit of our universe run.
See, Christianity makes quite a few claims that we can test and have tested. We’ve looked at claims like whether prayer works, or whether a given miracle really happened, or whether someone really can communicate with another world. We’ve examined a host of archaeological claims like whether Jericho actually fell the way the Bible depicts it as doing, or whether the Jews really did wander the desert for 40 years after a long enslavement in Egypt. Every single time, without fail, that we get a truth claim we can actually test, it turns out to be wrong.
Moreover, it doesn’t seem like anything he’s asserting about his god–who, again, is 100% the Christian god and nobody else–can be empirically tested to differentiate that god from any of the other many thousands of gods who’ve been worshiped over the years. I don’t think he realizes that his “all things being equal” idea does apply very well to religions themselves. There’s just as much evidence supporting Christianity as supports Hinduism; just as much proof for Christian claims as for Wiccan ones. For him to leap from atheism to Christianity (sorry, but “Pure Theism” is Christianity, let me reiterate) is ludicrous, and one can’t escape the thought that he leaped there because Christianity was what he was used to believing.
Nobody may know for sure if there are any gods or not, and I’m really not willing to go balls-out on that question, but we can certainly look at the list of attributes for the Christian god and say with utter certainty that there’s no way for any being to exist who fits that list of characteristics–being that those characteristics are either long-refuted or self-contradictory (best exemplified in the Problem of Evil).
The only real way someone could get out of confronting the truth about Christianity’s total lack of credibility is by refusing to look squarely at it. I know how difficult it is to maintain the cognitive dissonance needed to believe it’s credible anyway. Some folks get out of that difficulty by making their conceptualization of divinity very difficult to test (similar to what Shane Hayes did with his “Pure Theism” nonsense), but at that point it’s such a purely metaphorical religion that nobody needs to worry about any of its various threats.
Even if rationality were just as “wildly improbable” as Christianity, the costs of associating with Christianity are way higher than he’s pretending they are. He’s presenting it as a win/win, but that’s not how it actually is. Like many lifelong Christians, Shane Hayes doesn’t see those costs–and may not even realize they are in fact costs.
So the equation he thinks he’s presenting runs like this: “totally non-credible idea that offers tons of upsides and no downsides” versus “totally non-credible idea that offers only downsides and no upsides,” with the suggestion that people pick and choose which they like as if they’re just shopping in a grocery store full of non-credible ideas. Take that box down off the shelf, examine it, gaze meaningfully off into the distance while tapping it with a forefinger as we calculate the benefits of buying what’s in that box, then deposit the box in the cart, and roll on toward Produce.
And none of that is actually the case. It’s more like this: “totally non-credible idea that offers some upsides to some privileged people but also a lot of downsides to a lot of non-privileged people, all of whom value feeling good and hearing false promises over believing in what is truthful or acting in their own best interests” versus “airtight, credible idea that has been demonstrated to be true over (sometimes) centuries that offers no intrinsic downsides and plenty of intrinsic upsides–to people who actually care if what they believe is based on the truth.”
I’m sorrynotsorry, but truthfulness matters to a lot of people, especially when it comes to a religion that bears as much potential to do harm to both its own adherents and to society at large. A Christian’s ignorance of reality and of his own religion’s downsides and debunks does not constitute any kind of imperative for anybody else to consider his views.
It’s just the weirdest thing ever that a fellow who claims he used to be an atheist would be this stunningly, glaringly ignorant of so many things about science, his own religion, and even atheism itself. We certainly expect Christians to totally not understand the concept of “burden of proof.” We expect Christians–who have been stuffed to the gills with apologetics materials that talk this way–to say ignorant things like “atheism is a belief just like Christianity is!” and expect to get applause and ass-pats from their fellow pew-warmers. We expect Christians to value certainty over uncertainty to such an extent they’re willing to entertain magical thinking to lessen the anxiety they feel when encountering ambiguity. Heck, Ray Comfort’s made a career out of pandering to such people. We expect to hear Christians evade their rightful burden by claiming that it is atheists who must prove there isn’t a god rather than shoulder that burden by ponying up already, and then we expect them to do all the contortions that they must do in order to ignore, avoid, and deny skeptics’ requests for evidence and the mountains of evidence suggesting that no god, anywhere, ever, in any religion has ever been necessary for this universe to look the way it does.
And it is shockingly common to run into Christians who ignorantly parrot those tired apologetics lines in lieu of actually proving a single thing they say. In refusing to demonstrate the validity of his claims, Shane Hayes’ argument really isn’t anything new or special. All he’s doing here is saying that since (in his ignorant, erroneous worldview) nothing can be proven, he’s perfectly justified in believing whatever he wants. And he is, of course. He’s a big boy and he can believe whatever he likes. I am just under no obligation to find it in the least compelling.
The funny thing is, I don’t seriously think that many atheists will ever read Shane Hayes’ book and convert. But a lot of Christians will see it and not understand how wrong it is on every level, and those Christians will rush right out to trot out its ideas on non-believers–and they will get demolished and not even understand why.
So no, this book is not a “new approach” except in the slight twist of the author conceding that he really can’t prove anything he says, which isn’t something one sees often from Christians. But I don’t see “oh I just like it better this way” to be a real selling point for the community he’s ostensibly hoping to reach, especially when quite a few people in that community already think Christianity is downright harmful and especially when the author displays such rampant ignorance of the science he so blithely dismisses as “wildly improbable.”
We’re going to talk next I think about what he sees as humanity’s inescapable questions, because that’s a laugh riot all by itself–and a common refrain among the sort of Christians who like apologetics books. I hope you’ll join me. And yeah, I know the Values Voters Summit and that latest hashtag evisceration of Republicans is all in the news and we’ll talk about that soon too, but I want to finish this first chapter up first.