Last time we talked, we covered a “satirical” straw man essay written by a Baptist pastor, Bo Wagner, about a fictional atheist. A pity he doesn’t actually know what satire is, any more than he knows what atheism is. Today we’re going to talk more about what he–and by extension a lot of his peers–think about atheists, as revealed in this piece.
We need to remember, first off, that Mr. Wagner couldn’t actually find a real atheist to say the sorts of things we’re going to cover here in his “satire,” which is called “An Atheist Deserts the Flock.” His atheist, “Farhis O’Hare,” is very clearly a riff on Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist who Christians still revile and demonize years after her death, though I’m not sure what he was going for with “Farhis” and nobody else I’ve heard talking about this article seems to know either; maybe it just sounds vaguely Middle Eastern to someone from a town boasting a population of 314 people. Given that despite its small size Mooresboro has three different churches close by, two of them Baptist, it seems like that this area is not only heavily Christian but also pretty homogenous in worldview. Certainly the town was named as a winner in a forum discussion of the most redneck area in the state. Moreover, all of Mr. Wagner’s education seems to have occurred within North Carolina, and online I can’t even find ratings for his workplace, Carolina Bible College, which isn’t surprising given that despite its grand name it boasts 88 students and perhaps 9 staff (upon whose website we also discover that according to them at least, 81% of people in the state “believe in God with absolute certainty”). I’m telling you all of this so you know that Bo Wagner probably doesn’t get a lot of exposure to people who don’t believe just like he does.
But don’t imagine that his lack of experience and awareness are going to stop this fellow from blathering about shit he has no idea about, any more than his peers in the religion let that stop them.
We’re going to talk more next time about the actual humor value in this awful article. Today I just want to focus on the myths this writer accidentally reveals that he believes about atheists.
1. Atheism is a religion.
Mr. Wagner starts off with this gem:
Religion is a very powerful thing, so much so that, when people have been involved in it even for a while, it is very difficult to leave. It is even more difficult when an individual has been in it for most of his or her life and has given a full heart of devotion to it. So the news world experienced some shock waves yesterday when one of the most religious men in the world renounced his faith: Farhis O’Hare, world-renowned atheist, has left the faith.
Here we discover that Mr. Wagner thinks that atheists belong to a religion. That’s not true. Atheism is a religion, as we mentioned last time, like baldness is a hair color.* When an atheist stops being an atheist, then that atheist enters a religion, but does not leave one. There’s no religion to leave or to “renounce.” Atheism is the null position, not a position in and of itself. Atheists say, “I see no reason to believe or accept this idea.”
2. Atheism is conflated with an understanding of science–and that understanding is falsely equated to religious belief.
Faith in the absence of God always brought great comfort to my heart. Faith in the theory of evolution did too.
Not only do atheists not have “faith” in the absence of “God,” but nobody actually needs “faith” to know that the ideas involved in the Theory of Evolution are long-proven facts. In truth, atheists–and non-believers of all stripes, since another of Mr. Wagner’s errors is conflation of atheists with non-believers in general–simply haven’t seen any support for the presence of Mr. Wagner’s concept of deity. If we had such evidence, then we would believe. It would be unavoidable to believe.
Notably, instead of bringing such evidence to the table, Christians like him only rail about the “faith” of skeptics.
3. Atheists must try hard to hold on to their “religion” in the face of scientific discoveries.
I still remember thinking as a Christian that the changing nature of our understanding of science was a bug, not a feature, of our progress as a species. My conceptualization of “God,” though, was unchanging–which meant that he was perfect. Change obviously meant a move either toward or away from greater perfection, and it was deeply suspicious to me and my peers that our understanding of science seemed to change all the time (which is why some folks still have trouble accepting advances in our understanding of nutrition–as the joke went when we discovered margarine was crazy-unhealthy in the 1980s, “What’s next? Is broccoli going to be bad?”). But “Farhis,” in Mr. Wagner’s hands, whines,
“I wanted to keep believing, I really did. But faith just became so hard for me. Every time I turned around the ‘science’ was changing. First the universe was 20 million years old, then a billion, then 4 billion, then 16 billion, and now 20 billion. It finally dawned on me that people just threw figures around without any evidence.
For someone who proudly asserts that he teaches at a college (even if it’s just a “Bible college”), Mr. Wagner is woefully unaware that our understanding has actually not changed a whole lot in recent years. As the blog Friendly Atheist has pointed out, the age is actually 14 billion years–and it’s been centuries since anybody thought it was just “millions” of years old. But Creationists’ concept of science does seem pretty outdated.
Moreover, also as FA points out, why is it a bad thing that we’re getting closer and closer to the answers we seek? Mr. Wagner–and his purely fictional atheist–fall into a common fallacy, the argument from tradition (or nostalgia), it seems, wherein he is convinced that something old is good while something newer is suspicious or wrong. Even in his own supposedly-unchanging religion, it’s not hard to think of numerous ways in which his own style of Christianity has changed dramatically even in recent years (such as its comparatively recent opposition to abortion access, its changing position on the question of slavery, and its new obtuse and erroneous understanding of the Separation Clause). But for some reason, changes to his own religious ideas don’t make him doubt his religion’s veracity. Not that such changes could or should imply a move toward greater perfection; because religious ideas can’t actually be tested or falsified, there isn’t much of a way to ensure that any position it holds is better or worse than any other position it might move toward, which is completely not like how we know in science that we’re getting closer to the real truth.
Naturally, Mr. Wagner does not demonstrate why it is a bad thing that science changes. He just takes it for granted that it is bad, falsely implying that nothing changes about his own religion, as well as falsely implying that in scientific questions we have no idea if new information is true or false–which means he is judging science by his own religion’s shortcomings, I’m afraid.
4. Atheists think of scientists as “gods.”
This is laughably puerile. No, atheists do not think of scientists as gods. Not only that, but they don’t really think of even other atheists–even atheists with big-name recognition–as gods. “Farhis” writes,
I really did have lots of faith in my favorite scientists, my ‘gods,’ I guess you would call them.”
But the only people who think atheists think that are toxic Christians. I can see why–again, they are judging atheists by their own shortcomings. I did see a great many Christians who were treated as untouchable and near-divine when I was Christian. When Pope Francis speaks, even Protestants tend to listen (as long as he’s saying stuff they kinda agree with, anyway; even Rick Santorum, a famous Catholic, disavows some of the Pope’s comments that seem too nice to gay people).
It’s funny, though, that Mr. Wagner automatically reaches for scientists when he thinks about who an atheist might consider a spiritual guru. You’d think it’d be economists or sex therapists or something, considering how his lot usually thinks of non-believers, wouldn’t you? But because he mistakenly thinks that Creationism–which I’d bet you anything you want he believes (and likely preaches about regularly)–is a fight between atheism and Christianity rather than a fight between extreme, overzealous, childishly-misinterpreted doctrines and stone-cold reality, he has to conceive of atheism as a science-based religion.
Moreover, if a scientist discovers something that reverses or modifies a previous finding, nobody–including atheists–gets mad or upset at them. Usually the reaction is excitement, not dismay. The results are what matter. When a scientist is actually generally mocked or ostracized, usually it’s a religious wingnut or conspiracy theorist whose methods are generally shoddy and untrustworthy (such as Creationists or anti-vaxxers). Mr. Wagner is probably thinking here of how Christians treat their leaders and making another erroneous extrapolation.
5. Atheists do all the stuff Christians do, just in atheist fashion.
“Farhis” describes his life as an atheist:
“I worshiped very hard. I suppose I was really just trying to convince myself,” he said. “I always attended lectures on atheism, even when I would rather have been on the lake fishing. I gave my offerings (donations to liberal causes) regularly. I even prayed. . . To me.”
When Mr. Wagner thinks of atheists, he casts their lives as a sort of ersatz Christianity. They go to church, just it’s “lectures on atheism.” They pray, just to themselves. They worship, but we’re not told what form this worship takes–do they bow down before Bunsen burners or put up statues of Charles Darwin, since clearly Mr. Wagner thinks atheists are all science fetishists? It reminds me of that old joke about two kids discussing their previous evening:
O: What’d you watch on TV last night?
T: I didn’t watch anything.
O: Oh. Did you watch the game?
T: No, I didn’t watch anything on TV.
O: Then what about that cop show? That was good.
T: No, I didn’t see that either. I didn’t watch anything.
O: Oh. Then did you see at least that new reality show? Weird stuff!
T: No, I didn’t see anything on TV at all–nothing, not a single show, nothing.
O: But what about the news?
T: I DIDN’T WATCH ANY TV LAST NIGHT.
O: … but… but… but… what did you watch then?
Mr. Wagner just can’t even conceive of any life that doesn’t involve all the stuff he’s used to doing. If someone is a non-believer, then obviously they’ll still do all the stuff he does, just with different names maybe. Meanwhile, I know people who head actual atheist groups, and they’re usually the first folks to say that most atheists just don’t get into organized atheism.
I’d even go so far as to say that most atheists I’ve ever known have never attended a single “lecture on atheism,” though I’m not sure what he even thinks such a lecture would look or sound like. Does he imagine that organized atheist groups open meetings with readings from The Portable Atheist and sing hymns to evolution or something? The mind just boggles at his sheer provincial arrogance.6. Atheists pray, too–to themselves, because they think they are gods and the “final authority” on everything.
In the same vein, “Farhis” expands a bit on just what his prayers to himself look like:
When queried about whom he would have to pray to, O’Hare got a bit sheepish. “To me,” he whispered, explaining that, since he had believed there was no God,that made him (and any other human) the final authority, and thus, a god himself. “I have to admit, it is a bit awkward at first, but after a while you just learn to refer to yourself in the second person as you pray. After a while, you can really get into it.”
I have to admit, this took me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. I’ve run into countless Christians who explicitly say that they think atheists consider themselves to be gods. Since they can’t imagine atheists having a belief in a god without also having the same devotional style that they have, naturally they’re going to think that atheists pray too–but without a specific god to direct those prayers toward, the only candidate left really is the atheists themselves. But it’s just strikingly, dumbfoundingly, face-palmingly idiotic as presented here. “Farhis” even knows that the idea of praying to himself sounds goofy beyond all logical recognition, which probably means that Mr. Wagner thinks so too (since “Farhis” is nothing more or less than his mouthpiece), but there’s no indication that this is some sort of joke or parody.
I’ve also heard scores of fundagelical Christians get incensed at the idea of people being their own authorities, but that’s not entirely true. Like Christians themselves, all people, no matter their religious orientation, answer to other people (our bosses, our parents, the police). And beyond even that, we answer to governments exercising power over us (by paying taxes and following laws)–and beyond even that, we all have to abide by the constraints of physics, biology, and other scientific truths. In the grand scheme of things, most atheists I’ve ever known would say, like I do, that humans aren’t that big a deal. It’s amazing and wonderful to be a human, and I wouldn’t trade that for being anything else, don’t get me wrong, but we’re pretty damned tiny compared to a supernova. I wonder why
“Farhis” Bo Wagner is so upset about the idea of a god not being humanity’s “final authority”?
And I wonder why he can’t summon a single bit of credible evidence in this piece for the existence of this “final authority,” considering how all-encompassing he thinks this “final authority” is in people’s lives?
7. “Bad Atheists” drive atheists out of atheism.
I don’t think Mr. Wagner’s thought this one through at all, though I’ve heard this exact
theory wild guess many times from worried Christians who know that the rampant hypocrisy in their ranks–especially from the fundagelical end of the religion–must be hugely damaging their credibility as a faith system. “Farhis” claims,
In addition to the billions of years simply spoken into existence as the need arose, O’Hare also stumbled in his faith because of the inconsistency of life among other believers. “They claimed not to believe in God, but when their children’s mother died, they told the kid she was ‘in a better place.’ They claim to believe the survival of the fittest, but then get angry when their kid gets bullied by a bigger kid. They say there is no absolute truth, but they blow up when someone lies to them. Do you want to know why I stopped believing? I left the faith because of the absolute hypocrisy of so-called believers.”
We’ll ignore the ignorant-as-fuck Creationism jab–it’s flat-out wrong, like every other thing “Farhis,” and by extention Mr. Wagner, thinks about real science. Instead, let’s focus on how “Farhis” got discouraged in his religion (atheism, remember) by the “inconsistency” of his fellow “believers,” atheists.
Through a series of ridiculously irrational reasoning, Mr. Wagner equates “survival of the fittest” with parents not trying to help their own bullied children (which seems like it’d be a perfect expression of the concept to me), claims that atheists–who do not believe in an afterlife–spew religious platitudes when someone dies (when in reality I’ve never once heard any atheist do this), and get angry at lies when they don’t believe in “absolute truth” (which is so wrong I don’t even know where to start with it; being told lies does not in any way whatsoever have anything to do with an atheist’s disbelief in absolute truth–itself an idea that is far from universal anyway).
Mr. Wagner is doing all this to try to show that “atheists are inconsistent and hypocritical too–so what’s wrong with Christians being so?” It’s a form of ad hominem, an attack called the tu quoque fallacy, or “nuh-uh, YOU!”
Mr. Wagner might not realize that he cannot excuse Christians’ own hypocrisy by pointing at someone else’s. Christians are still, as a group, hugely hypocritical. Moreover, I don’t think anybody’s presenting atheism as some kind of better alternative to how Christians treat others. Besides, most atheists–and non-Christians–know that no matter how good or bad a group member behaves, that has not a single thing to do with whether or not that group’s ideas are sound or true or not. It’s weird that Mr. Wagner would make such a startling claim.
Regardless of how atheists themselves behave, on the individual or group scale, the problem is that Mr. Wagner’s religion has not one single solid argument or fact with which to support its varied and startling claims. Whining about his erroneous perceptions about how atheists behave doesn’t change that simple truth. And considering that most Christians tend to immediately say the same exact thing when presented with hypocrisy in their ranks, you’d think he’d be able to extend the idea a little more than he can.
I’ll also just mention briefly that “Bad Christians” don’t actually drive people out of Christianity. Certainly such folks damage Christians’ credibility with outsiders and harden their resolve not to ever get involved with a religion that produces so many hypocrites, and I agree with this assessment–because if even Christians themselves can’t live up to their religion’s demands and at least pretend to believe its claims are true, then I don’t see why anybody else should. But if someone’s already in the tribe, there are tons of ways of rationalizing and hand-waving away the presence of hypocrites. At most, “Bad Christians” might startle their peers into examining their religion’s claims. But that’s not why they actually deconvert. I can state this with 100% certainty because I have never, ever met a single person or heard of one who deconverted over “Bad Christians.” They deconvert because they find out that the religion isn’t true, and they don’t want to be part of something that isn’t true. And in the same way, people don’t leave atheism for religion because of “Bad Atheists.” I’ve never heard of that either.
8. Atheists have reason to fear their tribemates when they convert to a religion.
This bit, at the end of Mr. Wagner’s shitty little “satire” post, is the most heartbreaking of all in what it reveals about Mr. Wagner’s own religion. “Farhis” whines,
O’Hare knows that he will likely receive little sympathy [for converting to a religion]. “Believers are really mean to those who leave the faith, I know that. The ‘tolerant’ are really very intolerant to any dissent. I fully expect to be blackballed and to have the leaders of my former religion command that other believers no longer talk to me. Shunning is such an ugly thing, but it is just part and parcel of the religion I spent my life in.”
I think Bo Wagner “accidentally a word” in here or something, because he’s actually describing the lived experiences of people who leave his own religion, especially ex-Christians who become atheists.
People who leave his specific type of Christianity are shunned. Ostracized. Threatened. Bullied. Teased. Disowned. Hassled. Fired. Dumped. Bad-mouthed. Divorced. Excluded. And in his neck of the woods, as our friend Neil’s finding every day over at Godless in Dixie, that maltreatment and abuse of atheists can get extreme and actually verge into hatefulness. Southern atheists have a really rough time–all at the hands of “loving” Christians trying to force them by threat of violence and loss of their families if need be to “choose” faith.
But in truth, when an atheist becomes Christian, there’s some sadness there, yes, and certainly if that atheist shares their reasoning that reasoning will be examined (sometimes at length), I’ve never once heard such an ex-atheist treated even a fraction as cruelly and barbarically as ex-Christians get treated by Mr. Wagner’s bunkmates.
This is simply that ultra-entitled, way-overused “Waaah, someone isn’t tolerating my intolerance!” bullshit that Fox News fans often spew, just retro-fitted with atheist terms.
So to sum up, this “satirical” opinion piece is 100% bullshit, vomited forth by a fellow who has not a single fucking clue about a single aspect of atheism, for an audience that won’t question or wonder about a single pathetic thing he wrote here.
And despite his attempt to hide behind the magic shield of humor, there is not one single indication that he knows nothing he wrote is true, nor any indication of exactly what this “satire” was meant to lampoon or bring attention to.
Indeed, instead of making readers uncomfortably aware of their own religious shortcomings and inconsistencies, which a decent satire would accomplish, Bo Wagner’s target audience is likely going to read it and experience only a reinforcement of their similarly-wrong opinions about atheists.
The worst part of all of this? It wouldn’t take much for Mr. Wagner to learn better. It’s not like it’s hard to find atheists, at least online. He probably even knows one or two in real life (though he likely doesn’t realize it!). But he’d rather write hit pieces about atheists than learn how wrong he is about them. It’s not hard to imagine why, nor why he’s spending this time demonizing marginalized groups and shoring up his eroding privilege rather than coming up with real evidence for his religion’s claims.
A pity his religion doesn’t stress the value of honesty and kindness to others. That’d be a pretty good religion, wouldn’t it?
We’re talking about this piece a little more than we normally would because I think it’s really important for us to think critically about this kind of writing. This is the ignorance we’re up against as a society. When we see Christians writing or talking about subjects like atheism, we need to be looking beyond the words to what they’re revealing about their own attitudes and beliefs. Because there’s no real information behind Bo Wagner’s conceptualization of atheism, for example, he fills in the blanks with what he knows from his particular flavor of Christianity–which he does know well. I don’t see love or grace anywhere in this piece–only judgement, condescension, arrogance, staggering and willful ignorance, and presumptuousness. For all his aggression against “bad atheists,” he is, himself, one of the Bad Christians his lot gripe about so often. We can start combatting all of his blather by offering–if we are so inclined–to show him what atheism is really about, though first we’ll have to ensure that he’s even open to hearing a perspective radically different from his own, given how many Christians hear an atheist out and then come away convinced that the atheist was either totally lying or else completely mistaken somehow about not believing in “God.”
And, once we’ve pointed out the errors in his work, we need to conclude with the one question he really doesn’t want anyone to ask under any circumstances: “Can you actually credibly prove anything about your religion’s claims?”
We’re going to look at the “humor” involved here next time, and then we’ll probably be off to other pastures. See you Saturday!
* With thanks to Bill Maher, who I think popularized the saying originally.