‘Atheist Overreach’ and the Law of Conservation of Worship

‘Atheist Overreach’ and the Law of Conservation of Worship August 8, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Recently, I got a little book with a title I’d consider clickbait in a blog post: Atheist Overreach. Its author, Christian Smith, says he wrote it to help normies achieve ‘greater insight and perhaps, dare I say, enlightenment.’ Oof. I wanted to show it to you because it’s a relatively new book that rehashes a lot of the same old bad arguments we see in apologetics — most especially the Law of Conservation of Worship. Today, let’s review this law and see how Christian Smith falls afoul of it.

atheist overreach these bumper cars don't work
“The greenest amusement park in the world” — in Pripyat. (Yasemin Atalay.) Those cars ain’t moving ever again.

(Interestingly, this book doesn’t seem to push Christianity as a divinely-fueled supernatural-driven faith system. It seems to deal more with coercive religion as a means of social control of a community’s citizens — and about how he thinks that’s a good thing.)

Everyone, Meet Christian Smith.

Christian Smith wrote Atheist Overreach. According to his Amazon biography, he teaches sociology at Notre Dame. According to this link from the school, he’s the former director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society.

Interestingly, Smith is one of the co-authors of Divided by Faith, a book that we actually like around here.

I suspect he’s a fervent Catholic, because he’s also written books arguing against biblical literalism and offering instructions for how evangelicals can convert to Catholicism. There’s this report about “former young Catholics,” too, which he co-authored.

I also don’t think he likes atheists or atheism itself all that much. (Source.)

Atheist Overreach came out just last year (2019). Thus, Smith wrote this book well after Christianity’s decline had begun and well after the vast majority of Christian leaders had recognized and accepted the fact that they were, in fact, in decline. That understanding of decline permeates the book’s pages like the scent of cigarette smoke. You can really perceive a difference between it and, say, that silly Lee Strobel puffery we reviewed just a bit ago. The difference starts looking even more dramatic when we compare Overreach to that soulwinning book from 1959.

So that’s the author of the book.

The Law of Conservation of Worship.

We first discussed this idea back in 2016. Clint came up with it. A while ago, he smacked down a Christian over on Godless in Dixie with it, and it immediately got stuck in my head forever.

Here is the Law of Conservation of Worship in full form:

For every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief. Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

And here is how it works:

Christians often assume that people of other faiths do and believe all the exact same things they do and believe, practice the same devotions, talk the same ways, and suffer the same dysfunctions in their relationships and groups. Those non-Christians just utilize different jargon for their stuff.

Since this book deals with atheism, here’s how that’d look for atheists:

Obviously, atheists don’t go to church; they go to science lectures. Atheists don’t have priests and popes; instead, they answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Atheists don’t evangelize for Jesus; they evangelize for science. Atheists don’t revere the Bible as a holy book; they revere Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. Atheists don’t use apologetics to PROVE YES PROVE that Jesus really exists; they use science to PROVE YES PROVE that he totally doesn’t (COUGH: except they fail all the time, poor little dears, unlike Christians using apologetics). They don’t trust in the teachings of their faith, but rather in the Scientific Method.

Most of all: atheists don’t worship Jesus; they worship themselves.

How the Law of Conservation of Worship Leads to Projection.

The projection this Law inspires just goes on and on and on.

As the saying goes, every accusation they make is really a confession.

In this re-imagining, atheists seek to enshrine the persecution of Christians into the public sphere and from there, punish their enemies (Christians). Atheists seek to indoctrinate children in atheism instead of Christianity. They accept without even questioning all the things their scientists tell them. And oh, one fine day atheists hope to dance over the corpse of Christianity with delight and then make atheism America’s new official religion.

See what I mean? No wonder so many Christians imagine atheists as toddlers angry about not getting candy for dinner. Their entire conceptualization of atheism is just wrong in every single direction. They seriously see it as a sort of childish warping of their own religion!

And if atheism actually worked like they think, well, they wouldn’t be wrong.

It doesn’t. However, a huge number of Christian leaders are deeply invested in making the flocks think that’s what it looks like. And it seems like Christian Smith is one of them.

Beginning With Page, Um, Zero Actually.

Now then. With all that in mind, let’s examine the cover of Atheist Overreach. Seriously. That’s how far I got before head-desking.

You see, we immediately encounter a false accusation and the Law of Conservation of Worship on the cover. Here’s the book’s full title:

Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver

And anybody who actually is an atheist — or knows what it actually involves — immediately knows that this book is not going to be helpful to anybody seeking real answers.

First of all, atheists do not commit overreach.

Instead, atheist activists fight Christian overreach. But they’re not the only ones fighting against that tyranny. Christians, too, fight the overreach of their more power-lusting peers.

And Smith oughta know this! Remember, he helped write Divided by Faith.

Disproving the First Claim.

For example, let’s check out the website of Americans United (AU). There, we see a tab called “Our Issues.” These are the issues they actively fight:

  • Schools
  • Discrimination in the Name of Religion (ie, denial of service)
  • LGBTQ Rights (ie, fighting against Christians’ culture wars)
  • Reproductive Rights (see above)
  • Religious Freedom (the real thing, not the warped version Christians push)
  • Government Support of Religion (ie, funding churches, official prayer days, displays)
  • Churches & Elections (in particular, enforcing the Johnson Amendment)

In every single one of the listed items, we discover that the problem being fought is Christian overreach in that area.

Under “Schools,” as just one example, we discover that AU’s concern centers around Christians trying to get taxpayer dollars to cover religious education at religious schools, a system which tends to be really substandard if not harmful to children.

If Christians weren’t constantly trying to insert their beliefs into the public sphere and force their cruel and impossible religious rules on everybody else, this organization would not even be a thing. I could say much the same thing regarding any other atheist group out there. Atheists organize to stop Christians from turning America into a theocracy.

Conservation of Worship Promises Believers a Rose Garden.

Secondly, Smith’s subtitle tells us that atheism doesn’t “deliver.”

I saw that and thought, Of course it doesn’t. What a ridiculous thing to say.

Atheism never promises to “deliver” anything to anybody in the first place. It’s non-belief, not belief; the absence of a package of claims, not a package of claims.

But that’s the Law of Conservation of Worship for ya.

Christians expect Christianity to deliver all kinds of results to them. Of course, it delivers precisely none of them outside of purely earthly stuff sometimes, like social interaction. If any Christians yowl too loudly about not getting oft-promised results, they get yelled at and gaslit into silence. If they deconvert when they realize nothing in the religion is what it says it is, they get insulted by Christians cuz they “wanted a pony” and didn’t get it.

(Indeed, when Christians of all stripes talk about praying for stuff, many of them invoke this exact phrase to illustrate how silly it is to be upset over not getting what they pray for. Usually, they describe their own small children praying for the ponies in question. The metaphor of a silly little child praying for a pony has become very popular among Christians as a means of insulting ex-Christians for taking Christian marketing — and indeed the Bible itself — at their word.)

So Christians often assume that other religions and philosophies and ideologies and mindsets also make similar promises to their adherents. Since Christianity promises all kinds of stuff, obviously atheism must promise all the same stuff!

I really don’t know what these Christians think atheism actually promises. I could find not one example of even one of these supposed promises. Maybe the book will tell us. But whatever atheism promises to atheists, Christian Smith’s subtitle asserts, it does not “deliver.” 

Unlike Christianity. Which always delivers. Unless it doesn’t. Which totally still counts as a delivery. Because shut up, that’s why. 

Breaking the Law (of Conservation of Worship).

Gosh, it’d really just super-suck for Christian Smith if the entire operating premise for his book turned out to be based on a really flawed misunderstanding of exactly what atheism is and what it really promises (or rather, doesn’t promise at all, ever, to anybody).

But that seems to be exactly what’s going on here.

Starting with the initial claim that atheists commit any kind of “overreach” and then continuing with a subtitled claim that atheism somehow doesn’t “deliver” something it promises to atheists, he’s already set himself up for absolute failure.

I know why he’s set up this unnecessary showdown, of course.

He needs to make atheism look really unappealing. And he does so by warping atheism into a strawman that will be familiar to Christian readers.

That is the entire purpose of the Law of Conservation of Worship. Christians invoke it when they want to make other religions and mindsets look like pale imitations of their own religion, which will then be offered up as the only real deal in the world.

But It Won’t Help Him Either.

As we saw above in his biography, Christian Smith feels deeply concerned about how quickly his religion is bleeding young adults. Catholicism in particular faces an even more rapid decline than other flavors of Christianity do. A 2015 Pew survey found that about half of young Catholics end up leaving the church, with only about 11% returning to church at some later date. Its 2018 survey gave Catholic leaders no reason for optimism either.

Absolutely, positively nothing Catholic leaders are doing is changing anything there, either. Consequently, I imagine their ongoing panic attack over retention is entering its fourteenth-ish straight year at this point. They can demonize atheism all they want: it’s still growing, while Catholicism is shrinking. Even just “Nones” (adults who are unaffiliated with any religion) are growing rapidly.

In addition to making atheism look unappealing, then, Smith needs to make his own religion look like the Last Ideology Standing. He wants Christianity to look like the literal only option on the shelf if someone wants to lead a good, moral, decent life.

So from the very beginning, Atheist Overreach makes two assertions that I know already are flat-out incorrect. That’s unfortunately completely expected from Christian authors, but it’s especially disappointing from this one.

And that’s our review of the cover of Atheist Overreach, y’all!

NEXT UP: The introduction of Atheist Overreach proves that your fourth-grade teacher and Carl Sagan were both wrong about dumb questions. Get your desks nicely-padded for this one. See you soon!


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(Don’t worry. It’s a really short book. This won’t be a This Present Darkness situation type deal. I just got frosted over the title of the book and had some things to say.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
"If the dog is well-behaved, that's not a problem. Until it is, of course."

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