Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we checked out the 2019 book Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver by Christian Smith. Amazingly, we didn’t even get past the title of the book. Today, we dive into the book’s introduction — where we discover that yes, indeed, we can judge a book by its cover. Let me show you how this book completely mischaracterizes Christianity’s decline and then blames the wrong people for it.
Mischaracterizing Christianity’s Decline.
Immediately at its start, Atheist Overreach utterly mischaracterizes Christianity’s decline. I’m not exaggerating. Here is the very first sentence of his Introduction (p. 1; you can follow along with a lot of this on Amazon’s preview):
People the world over today are engaged in big struggles over the viability and importance of religion in personal and private life.
Annnnnnd let me stop us right there.
See, that is not the problem. That’s not why the struggle exists.
What the struggle actually involves is exactly how much power Christian leaders will be allowed to wield over the lives of people who do not want to comply with their demands.
More and more of us don’t want Christian dominance enshrined into law and government, nor to subsidize its social clubs when we’ll never enjoy a single benefit (even indirectly) from their operations. We fight to stop its culture wars gaining the teeth to rend human rights, and most of all its fists gaining iron gloves to batter others into obedience.
This ain’t about viability and importance. Rather, it’s about coercive power over others.
By the same token, non-Christians don’t care about Christianity’s value in adherents’ personal and private lives. Instead, we despise toxic Christians‘ ongoing efforts to force us to play along with their happy pretendy fun time game.
I’m guessing that a Christian won’t want to talk about their tribe’s own role in ending their dominance, though.
Religions throughout human history have been an important feature of most cultures and have been practiced by billions of people.
… So? He’s trying to make religion sound like a wondrous thing that people practiced for millennia, and his implication is not lost on me: those mean ole atheist meaniepies are out there trying to destroy this venerable human practice.
But it’s easy to demolish this argument.
- Slavery was also a popular, near-universal practice once — and is probably older than religion, as well as more widespread. That doesn’t make it okay today.
- To put it another way, the 5.25″ floppy drive was a very important feature of early PCs and were used by millions of computer owners. That fact doesn’t make disks of those size relevant now.
An appeal to antiquity in the second sentences of his book?
That’s not a good look for an academic.
Ohh, Those Evil New Atheists!
Smith introduces his villains early on at least. Here’s the rest of his first paragraph:
But the modern world has set in motion powerful forces of secularization and, as part of that, recurrent waves of activist atheism have confronted and criticized religion. Most recently in the West, the so-called New Atheism has pressed hard to discredit belief in God and undermine religious influences in society.
Annnnnd he’s wrong again.
Yes, the modern world trends increasingly toward secularization. That trend began centuries ago and has only accelerated despite the Catholic Church’s kicking and screaming. It’s not even complete yet, largely because of that kicking and screaming.
Catholics (and their pals in fundagelicalism) are not kicking and screaming against secularization because they’re just so saaaaad about their
imaginary friend religion being discredited or their influence being undermined.
Rather, these leaders are visibly panicky and furious over losing their coercive power over nonconsenting people. What Smith complains about ultimately reflects that loss of power. Nobody’d be doing that stuff if Christianity still held all the power it did once.
And Christians like Christian Smith want that power back.
The New Who, Now?
He doesn’t assign 100% of the blame for Christianity’s decline on atheists or even New Atheists, just to keep the air clear. He appears to view atheists as “one aspect of secularization” (p. 131), not the entirety of it. However, atheists are in fact the only group he specifically names as driving secularization. He names no others, at least in this introduction. Though he also seems to understand that not all atheists hold the same views about morality, he presents them overwhelmingly as a mostly-unified group of smug cranks who just hate Christians for their, um, I dunno, their epistemic justification I guess?
I don’t even know what “New Atheism” even means to Christian Smith in Atheist Overreach. The phrase itself lost relevance years ago. Smith names some of the big names from years ago but doesn’t specifically explain what New Atheism might involve. Maybe he’ll do that later.
However, whoever Smith thinks is involved with Christianity’s decline, they’ve had next to nothing to do with the matter.
Atheists didn’t do this.
Nor even Nones.
This one’s all on his fervent tribemates.
Why Christianity Is Declining: Real Talk.
Christians — and in particular Catholics — are losing their power because they have a solid history of abusing it. From the very first day they gained the kind of coercive power I describe, they began using it — and they have always used it to its fullest extent.
Nothing any non-Christians could say could ever compare to the hundreds of skeletons Catholics hid in Tuam. Or to the brutality they inflicted with the Magdalene Laundries. Or to the Crusades and the Inquisition, or to their long-standing habit of stealing babies from poor women to adopt out to nice Christian families. And the mind boggles at exactly how far and how deep the entire child-rape scandal really goes.
No. “New Atheists,” whoever they are, had almost nothing to do with the exposure of any of these scandals — or the deep financial scandals Catholic leaders appear to be doing their best to conceal even now.
However, Christian Smith wants to point at those darn dirty ATHEISTS as the cause of all this trouble!
Blame atheists! Not toxic Christians! Not the people actually doing the scandalous stuff!
What’s Really At Stake.
Now, let’s move on ahead to page 2. (Yes, we have finally made it to the second page, y’all! We’re blazing full steam ahead now! Red hot maximum overdrive, that’s us!) Smith writes:
At stake in this global struggle is the long-term character of human civilizations–whether religions will continue to have a significant place in human life or instead fade into implausibility and irrelevance.
And we’ll pause there. No, that is not what’s at stake — unless by “significant” he means “coercively dominant.”
I think he’s using very euphemistic language here. He sets up a false dilemma as well, because the truth of Christianity’s ultimate fate will likely be found between those extremes.
But yes, Christian leaders will lose their coercive power eventually. Not a single chance they won’t. If nothing else, they’ll lose that critical mass of butts-in-pews (BIPs) they must have to raise the funds ($$$) they need to keep their operations going.
Hey, let’s be fair, now. Buying politicians must cost a lot of money. Here’s more stuff that seems very spendy: endless church programs; potentially-illegal political meddling; fruitless evangelism campaigns; forced-abduction indoctrination/re-education camps; constant payouts to abuse victims; luxuries (like yachts) for their Dear Leaders; real-estate scams; and eyesore statues.
All of that stuff’s at stake too!
Gosh, y’all! Won’t anybody think of the yacht parties that are soon to be lost forever?
The New World that Atheist Overreach Fears.
The biggest thing at stake is Christian dominance itself, however. That’s the Big Kahuna Burger of this whole struggle.
Without dominance, Christians can’t reverse their decline.
Indeed, Christians have never been able to sell their religion without coercion. For most of their history, they haven’t had to sell it at all. They had force to do the talking for them. Thus, they never developed the skills necessary to persuade new people to join up. Nor do they want to develop those skills now — for a variety of awful reasons.
But things are changing quickly, whether Christians like it or not.
We are quickly entering a whole new world: one where almost everybody can freely reject or accept Christian demands without fear of retaliation or repercussions.
Christianity’s decreasing coercive power is a game-changer, y’all. That’s why they keep losing people and why fewer and fewer people care what they think about anything. That’s why their leaders’ scandals keep getting exposed and why all the shielding around their criminals and abusers seems to be disintegrating all at once.
The more we learn about how Christians use power, the firmer our resolve grows to never let them have it back.
Coming Soon To A Reality Near You.
In that new world, Christian leaders won’t be able to stop people from leaving their ranks. Nor will they be able to stop even their own flocks from freely choosing their desired level of engagement in devotions like tithing and church attendance, which directly translate to $$$ and BIPs.
Oh, but their losses will go even further than that into cultural declines in power.
Soon and very soon, almost everybody will feel perfectly free to criticize Christians/Christianity and be very vocal about rejecting their demands and overreach. Every Christian leader guilty of shocking hypocrisy and criminal deeds might even be caught and held accountable in that future world.
Best of all, almost nobody will fear “Christian love.”
What I describe is already the case for most of us.
But soon, oh soon! It’ll be the norm for almost everyone. You watch and see.
And well, Atheist Overreach sees this societal change as an awful, terrible, no-good disaster for literally everybody.
Wrong Premise, Wrong Conclusion.
So in Atheist Overreach, we have an author who doesn’t seem able to engage with exactly why his religion is declining. Consequently, he blames the wrong people and the wrong forces for that decline.
We’ve seen this problem many times in apologetics and Christian how-to roadmaps. If Christians can’t even correctly identify the causes of the problems they’ve identified — and if they can’t actually accurately identify the problems themselves in the first place — then they’re not bloody likely to come up with solutions that actually address even their misidentified problems.
Instead, they’re going to offer go-nowhere, do-nothing non-solutions that amount to busy-work while their damaged yacht sinks under the waves.
It won’t work. That’ll keep some of the flocks in place for a little while longer, but it won’t persuade normies outside the sheepfold to obey. Not while Christian leaders are still out there committing crimes, being shockingly hypocritical, and abusing people.
The Usual Scapegoats.
And what’s really offensive about this book so far is that it assigns atheists even a bit of the blame for Christianity’s decline. That’s nothing more than scapegoating, and really offensive scapegoating at that.
No, #sorrynotsorry, this one’s entirely Christians’ own fault. There’d be nothing to criticize if they had actually abided by their own moral code and wielded their power well and justly and wisely. Nobody’d be chipping away at that power and publicizing their scandals if Christians weren’t such hypocrites. That hypocrisy is what led to Christianity’s decline — not a very few atheists being meaniepies about Baby Jesus and Mother Theresa.
Christians were never worthy of the power they held. When they had it, they hurt and abused people. This pain and abuse went on for centuries and eventually touched almost every family under their thumb.
And that in a nutshell is why Christians are now losing dominance and will never get it back.
When Christian Smith points his finger at atheists, maybe he needs to notice the three fingers pointing back at himself.
NEXT UP: The actual product being sold in Atheist Overreach. (It’s not what we usually see from Christians!) I’ll show you what it is tomorrow. See you then!
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