‘Atheist Overreach’ Asks the Wrong Questions About Atheism

‘Atheist Overreach’ Asks the Wrong Questions About Atheism August 13, 2020

Lately, we’ve been talking about the 2019 book Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver by Christian Smith. In this book, Smith sets up several questions that he seeks to answer. Today, I’ll show you those questions, and then we’ll tackle his demands of scientists and other reality-embracers.

atheist overreach tries to save its dying dominance
(Maksim Shutov.) The park’s disintegrating, dude. The guests will not ever be returning.

(Previous ‘Atheist Overreach’ posts: Conservation of the Law of Worship; Blaming the Wrong People.)

The Big Questions in Atheist Overreach.

Christian Smith sees the struggle going on right now between religious theocrats and less-theocratic people (including Christians) as revolving around three central questions. All three sound ridiculous.

1. What kind of moral standards are genuinely secular people justified in upholding?

He further explains that this question really asks what’ll happen if people abandon Christianity in great numbers. He writes (p. 2), “will that have moral consequences that most people today would consider harmful?” That’s an appeal to consequences, another logical fallacy. He focuses on what’ll happen if X turns out to be untrue, rather than demonstrating that X is true.

2. How much can we rely on the findings of science to know whether or not God exists?

This question, too, represents another appeal to consequences. It also turns out to be a shirking of burden of proof. He explains regarding this question, “Can science deliver certainty about atheists’ claims? Or are the possibilities of human knowledge about God or gods or other possible superhuman forces [TEE-HEE] not subject to scientific answers?”

3. Are human beings somehow “naturally” religious?

As it’s asked in this book, this one functions as another appeal to consequences. Gosh, he seems to ask, what on earth will humans do if they abandon Christianity but still feel that innate need to be religious, but Christianity’s gone by then?

Today, let’s zero in on that second question. It’s actually the single most important question on this list, and as poorly-worded and loaded as it is, it’s the one he should have started with in his book.

Zeroing In.

In the introduction of Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith imagines what might happen “if science really can prove atheism” (p. 2) and then frets (p. 3) about what happens “if the findings of science actually do not or cannot endorse atheism.”

And this is not a terrible question in and of itself. Used improperly, though, it emotionally manipulates readers. Unfortunately, I feel like that’s how it’s used in this book.

Very soon, we’ll talk about burden of proof and how the Scientific Method works and all that jazz. Trust me. We’ll get there.

For now, though, let’s talk about how Christians like this guy make demands of those criticizing their religion.

The Turf of Atheist Overreach.

In Chapter 3, Smith discusses the concept of turf. You probably recognize it immediately as valid on its face, just as I did. We’ve probably all run into fundagelical randos trying to make assertions about their god through poorly-understood scientific ideas. Well, that’s sort of like trespassing to Atheist Overreach.

However, it sounds like Smith’s just upset that people draw inferences about his religion based on what science tells them.

On p. 88-89, he talks about reading science books. In them, he sometimes runs into authors who slip from discussing science ideas into making assertions about his religion. That bothers him a lot.

As an example, Smith draws upon the 2015 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. In this book, Smith rocked and rolled along happily until page 28. There, he writes (emphases his):

I suddenly found myself reading these words: “there are no gods in the universe . . . outside of the common imagination of human beings.” “No . . . things [like gods] exist outside of the stories that people invent and tell one another.” “Religious myths” are “imagined,” “fictions” produced from “collective imagination,” not “objective reality.” I found these claims really jarring. I had just been reading Harari’s story about the human Cognitive Revolution, which good empirical evidence demonstrates occurred many tens of thousands of years ago. Next thing I know and without warning, I’m reading theological metaphysics: “There are no gods in the universe.” Really?

Really. In his view, Harari trespasses on turf that belongs to Smith and his peers in High Christianity. How dare he! Hmph!

As we’ll see, this is the worst book possible that he could have used as his example.

An Unfair Charge in Atheist Overreach.

I went and read the Amazon preview of that book. You can too. Page 28 doesn’t appear there for me, but the lead-up certainly does. Harari makes no potshots at religion, no side snarky jabs to get his jollies by annoying TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Instead, Harari carefully leads up to a hypothesis: that religion allowed our early ancestors to cooperate in great numbers, and did so effectively. It’s a perfectly serviceable hypothesis, one I’ve recently shown you in fact.

Harari makes no bones about putting religion on the same exact shelf as all other beliefs in fictional ideas. All through the preview of the book, he discusses belief in fictional entities as a part of humans’ evolution into what we are today. On p. 20 we find this bit near the beginning of his chapter “The Tree of Knowledge:”

[Early Homo Sapiens] looked like us, but their cognitive abilities — learning, remembering, communicating — were far more limited. Teaching such an ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have been hopeless undertakings.

And the reason for that difficulty involves the early Sapiens’ probable inability to conceptualize things that couldn’t be perceived directly with their senses. Monkeys share the same problem.

But we can imagine things that don’t exist. From religion to automobile companies, from systems of law to propaganda on Facebook, our ability to cluster in groups devoted to fictional concepts marks us apart from our other forebears. That ability can keep groups functioning for centuries.

So really, I’d have expected this mighty HARUMPH from Atheist Overreach long before Smith reached page 28 of Harari’s book.

The Claim That Isn’t Really a Claim.

Harari doesn’t formally make a claim that Christianity is based on fictional beliefs. Instead, he simply treats that truth as a foregone conclusion. And it is, to everyone except Christians. Harari also discusses unicorns and fairies in the same exact way (see p. 25 of Sapiens). Perhaps if Harari substituted “unicorns” instead of “gods” in that oh-so-offensive text on page 28, Smith might understand what’s going on here.

It sure looks to me like Harari treats religious claims as fictional because religious people have never actually credibly supported their own claims with objective evidence. He feels as comfortable saying that religion is based on fiction as he does saying that fairies don’t exist. In fact, he asserts both in the book’s Amazon preview, and in exactly the same language.

In doing so, Harari utilizes a sort of shorthand, one that displeases Christian Smith. I don’t have to preface every single assertion of fictionality — to bend over backwards to ensure I word everything precisely correctly — when it comes to fictional stuff that he and I both agree is fictional: unicorns, fairies, the State of Wyoming, forest guardian spirits (also dissed on page 25 of Sapiens). Of course they don’t exist.

But when it comes to the fictional stuff that Christians happen to think is real, then oh my gosh, I’d better be very careful in how I word my conclusions there.

When we’re dealing with authoritarians facing a loss of dominance, we need to be careful about how much control we cede to them, and why, and when. Harari doesn’t bend any knee to Smith’s religion or grant it special status or exemptions. That lack of deference really seems to lay at the bottom of Smith’s displeasure with his book.

“Undercutting” Christianity.

In Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith asserts the reason for all these meaniepie comments from mean ole atheists (p. 88):

They are clearly meant to undercut religious claims, authority, and plausibility.

I cringed reading that.

Imagine being that paranoid over one’s own impending irrelevance.

No. Harari wasn’t being mean to Christians just to “undercut” their dominance. He very clearly drew upon Christianity as a way to discuss the power of communal belief in fictional ideas. And he did so because a lot of humans currently believe in the fictional ideas that Christianity’s unnamed originators created.

For that matter, Christian leaders still exert a great deal of dominance in our world. They wield that power even though their claims have never once been supported in any kind of objective way (both their supernatural and earthly claims).

So ultimately, Christians’ claims are without merit. Their leaders profoundly do not deserve their authority. Christianity’s claims are not plausible.

Nobody outside of Christianity needs to “undercut” Christians. Christians have done that for centuries all by themselves. It’s just that nowadays, they lack the dominance to force us all to ignore their hypocrisy.

A Breathtaking Double Standard.

Then Smith moves on to complain that it’s really unfair that society demands that religious people consider religion private, but scientists feel free to make religion a public matter to criticize. How unfair! He writes (p. 97-98):

  1. On the one hand the religion of religious believers is a personal matter that must as subjective opinion be kept closeted in private life, and certainly not be allowed to say anything about science or education.
  2. On the other hand in the hands of scientists, religion is a public matter subject to reductionistic dismissals on the authority of supposedly objective science.

That bit took my breath away with how preposterous it is. But he tops himself by claiming right after it:

In other words, viewed as turf struggles between science and religion, the science gang has gained nearly complete control of the religion turf.

It has? In what reality, pray tell? 

He just sounds upset that fewer people are granting Christians the exemptions they need to make truth claims about reality without pushback. Their truth claims now get the same examination that anybody else’s would. And those claims are increasingly turning out to be false and unsupported.

Also, literally nobody would care what Christians believe if they weren’t trying to control other people’s lives. They themselves started this fight. Now that they’re losing it, they want to act like the victims here, not the people they’ve hurt through those control-grabs.

There’s a word for that behavior: crybullying.

The Demand Made By Atheist Overreach.

A bit later, Smith asserts (p. 100) that “science is itself grounded on a set of presuppositions that are ultimately taken on faith or not.” He does not name any of these supposed presuppositions.

And when he immediately afterward describes many scientists as holding “deeply personal, prescientific commitments to human values like wonder, beauty, and truth,” he equates these with “personal belief commitments of various kinds.” In fact, he tries very hard to equivocate atheists’ sentiments to be identical to his religious beliefs.

I’m starting to seriously wonder exactly what form Smith’s contributions to Divided by Faith took.

Ultimately, he ends this chapter with a demand for reality-based people to refrain from ever making any assertions about his religion unless they fit a very strict set of parameters he’s set (p. 103):

Let’s have good, rigorous arguments about science and religion. But let’s have ones that are well-informed, fruitfully constructive when possible, and fair and honest when they must be critically destructive.

You betcha. This is totally reasonable, yes yes, it sure is. I’ll just make super-sure to wear my nicest pintucked cotton-lawn frock and braid my hair just like Daddy likes when I finally dare to meekly offer him my gentlest possible criticisms of his tribe’s massive, entrenched system of abuse and overreach.

Dissent However You Want.

Haha, as if. I don’t think I even own a pintucked dress.

Real talk though:

We are not obligated to defer to Christian leaders, nor to Christian sensibilities. When we must dissent, we do not need to worry about the fee-fees of those who would oppress us, nor word our outrage and pushback in ways that King Them will find pleasing.

I mean, it’s nice if we can be civil, sure. I’d never want to be gratuitously cruel or nasty, nor tar the wrong people with any brushes I wield. One catches more flies with honey, and all that.

It’s just that ultimately, the masters of broken systems do not want to give up their power and privilege. If we’re not kneeling before them and capitulating utterly to their demands, they will manage to find fault with how we present our dissent and pushback no matter how we do it. As we’ve seen, there are always going to be Christians who shriek and clutch their pearls over billboards that talk about atheism in the mildest terms imaginable.

At some point, the words must be said; the pushback must be made. As much as I’d like to end the dominance of Christianity in a way that dominance-loving Christians will like and feel comfortable with, I don’t think anybody’s ever discovered the magical way to make that happen.

I get that Christian Smith doesn’t like hearing his tribe criticized, especially by its chosen enemies. And I get that he’s starting to feel that criticism cut a little closer to home than it used to.

But he doesn’t set the rules of engagement anymore. His truth claims get the same scrutiny as any other truth claim does, whether he likes that new reality or not.

NEXT UP: How Christian Smith mangles science to avoid the burden of proof in Atheist Overreach.

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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.
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