Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been looking at the 2019 book Atheist Overreach by Christian Smith. It examines the question of religion’s necessity to modern societies. Shockingly, a Christian writer lands on religion being super-duper necessary OMG y’all. One thing I’ve been noticing as I read this book is that it illustrates perfectly the Problem of Wingnuts: how one false belief inevitably opens the door to many more false beliefs. Christian Smith doesn’t understand how that works at all or why it happens to Christians like himself. In this way, Atheist Overreach intersected lately with an excellent post from Religion Dispatches about wingnuts. Today, let me show you that post — and how it illustrates a central problem in Christian Smith’s own work.
(Previous Atheist Overreach posts: Conservation of the Law of Worship; Blaming the Wrong People; The Wrong Questions to Ask About Atheism; Avoiding the Burden of Proof. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. All emphases exist in the original sources unless noted. All “x” notations come from original sources (ie, not scare quotes) unless noted. As always, the Christians I discuss here belong to the more authoritarian flavors of the religion.)
Evangelicals Just Can’t Rein in Their Wingnuts, Y’all.
Chrissy Stroop’s been hitting it out of the park lately with her writing about evangelicals. At the end of July, she wrote one for Religion Dispatches called “Why ‘Respectable’ Evangelicals Can’t Rein in Evangelical Conspiracy Theorists.” It functions as a criticism of David French, a conservative Christian, who thinks he’s figured out how to totally fix evangelicalism’s wingnut problem. Yes! Evangelicals just need to “build up a reasonably robust theology” for politics that matches their religious lives!
But that won’t work. Chrissy Stroop explains exactly why:
How can a man who bears false witness against people like me, which has very real consequences in terms of LGBTQ youth homelessness and suicide, insist with any credibility to his less “genteel” coreligionists that they must stop bearing false witness?
Here, she describes the Problem of Wingnuts in a nutshell. The only gentle correction I’d offer to her excellent analysis is that she doesn’t go nearly far enough to find the source of the outrageous lies evangelicals believe.
She attributes their problem to what I’ve described as the culture-war model of evangelicalism. And yes, it definitely exacerbated the existing problem.
But me, I’d go much further back to find its source.
The moment evangelicals set evangelical Christianity in their shopping carts in that great religious marketplace, they begin their journey into wingnuttery. Their ultra-authoritarian flavor of Christianity has always employed that exact combination of factors that produces wingnuts:
- unquestioning obedience to unsettlingly-authoritarian demands
- unthinking acceptance of preposterous claims that are both obviously false and easily debunked
The Problem of Wingnuts.
Once people accept one obviously-false, easily-debunked belief, the door opens to them accepting and embracing many other false beliefs.
In accepting that one utterly-false belief, they throw away both the ability and the desire to adequately weigh and assess claims in that one area. They won’t be able to challenge subsequent false beliefs without challenging that first one they value so much.
All it takes to turn someone like that into a wingnut is the right sales pitch.
The wingnut screw turns only in one direction: into greater and greater wingnuttery. It can slow down and pause, but it can’t reverse without very significant effort.
Without great vigilance, then, those who discard their critical thinking skills in one area will lose them in other areas as well, and in this way become wingnuts.
This is why we should avoid all groups whose ideology is not based always and completely in reality. We need caution more than ever now, when “alternative facts” get deployed so ruthlessly to score partisan points.
Not all Christian groups demand the lockstep in beliefs that evangelicals do, no, but we should be very careful all the same when purchasing any religion’s product. The age of a false claim doesn’t grant it any kind of exemption from the Problem of Wingnuts. Add false claims to authoritarianism and you get problems, every time.
Atheist Overreach Really Doesn’t Understand Wingnuts.
In his book, Christian Smith claims some really strange things about his own tribemates (p. 96):
- He asserts that if a faith healer claims to cure cancer but a medical test shows the cancer’s still there, that’ll completely invalidate the faith healer’s claim to have cured it.
(The reality: No. I mean yes, it will. But Christians won’t care. They will still adore that faith healer, give them money, and swear by their preaching. Even very public exposes rarely harm the careers of these conjobs. See Peter Popoff as just one example.)
- He thinks that if “science” went back in time to observe Jesus’ followers stealing his body off the cross so they could claim he’d resurrected himself, “that would put an end to all but the most demythologized liberal Christianity.”
(The reality: Wrong. We’ve debunked countless Gospel claims. In response, Christians have only exponentially increased the amount of apologetics hand-waving they do around those claims. Despite the proliferation of debunks on the topic, I’d reckon that the vast majority of Christians still erroneously believe that the Gospels are historical.)
- He’s sure that if someone could demonstrate “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Joseph Smith’s golden plates story was nothing but a hoax, “that would sink Mormonism.”
(The reality: Wrong. It’s been done. In fact, we even know of Joseph Smith getting taken in by another con artist’s golden plates. Somehow, Mormons still exist. Heck, go further: Creationists, Great Flood wonks, and flat-earthers still exist. And those are just the very obviously false claims in a religion full of ’em.)
As my parentheticals indicate, Smith’s beliefs about Christians simply do not find support from reality. One begins to wonder if he even knows any Christians, because I know very few who’d act like he asserts they would.
Why Reality Doesn’t Convince Wingnuts.
I guess Smith wants to say that Christians totally care lots about reality. Thus, they absolutely and totally would embrace a study invalidating some major belief of theirs. Afterward, they would gladly renovate their beliefs to fit the new truth revealed. And thus, we may all feel perfectly safe in giving them absolute ownership of all Christian reality-based claims.
But reality does not support this notion any more than it does his supernatural claims.
When wingnuts encounter contradictions to their beliefs, they drill down. They employ antiprocess to negate those facts. Their groups’ dynamics evolve and develop to deal with opposition — and they do it very easily by drawing upon wingnuts’ poor critical thinking skills and their willingness to believe anything as long as it fits in with their existing framework. Worse, their leaders actively teach them to destroy any tribemate who even tries to get them to change course or reconsider their beliefs and practices.
As a result, Christians come out of these engagements worse than before, usually — unless their Faith Pools are drained far enough that they’re ready to engage with actual reality again.
So no, Christians don’t convert to Christianity because of reality. So reality won’t get them out of wingnuttery — not easily at least. It takes a lot to empty the Faith Pool faster than it can refill again. Recognizing what evidence really looks like helps, as does learning to spot Christians’ favorite logical fallacies and manipulation techniques. Getting hit in the face hard enough with reality’s contradictions of Christian promises will do the trick too.
In this way, once someone recognizes how Christians wriggle away from their burden of proof, and just how much manipulation is involved in selling Christianity, that stuff just can’t be un-seen again.
The Designated Adult.
In comments yesterday, Jenn H noticed that Smith mentions “legitimate” and “authorized” criticism of Christian claims. Indeed, he sounds downright peeved! Read this paragraph and just try to tell me there’s not an unspoken HMPH! HOW DARE THEY! at the end of it (p. 88):
Who has the right, the competence, the legitimate authority to make claims that stick, claims that others should recognize as valid? The specific question here is: What kinds of issues and claims is science legitimately authorized to address and make? And what kinds is religion legitimately authorized to address and make?
And amazingly, our Christian author lands on the idea that only Christian leaders are legitimately authorized to address Christians’ reality-based claims. Anyone else examining those claims must follow the strict rules he has generously set for such occasions.
His wording sounds really authoritarian for a reason. He wants to make himself the Designated Adult in these engagements. If we allowed him this title, he’d gain the power to silence those who, in this paradigm, speak out of turn.
But darn it, those darn dirty scientists won’t stop talking about Christians’ reality-based claims!
How Atheist Overreach Overreaches.
I began with Christian Smith’s second question for a reason. Smith does not examine whether or not his religion’s own reality-based claims are true or false. But to me, this concern is of utmost importance.
Through this second claim, you see, Smith asserts authority over any examination of Christians’ reality-based claims by non-Christians. In other words, he wants us to leave Christians to their own “turf” and not push back against their many claims.
That exact attitude makes fertile soil for wingnuttery. It flourishes in the damp, murky darkness of the echo chamber. (See also: Christian AM talk radio.)
Christian Smith tries so, so, so hard to make Christianity sound like the only real option for a society to remain functional (meaning: meeting its own stated goals and delivering on its own stated promises). However, a functional group needs to be able to grow and change in response to the discovery of new facts. It needs a free and healthy tradition of dialogue to do that.
Authoritarian Christianity can’t allow any of that because their wingnut beliefs would collapse quickly thereafter. Smith’s revealed this exact weakness in this book. His fact-based claims are simply not based on reality, and can be easily debunked and refuted.
We Have the Power.
Instead, authoritarian Christians seek to stomp into silence those revealing those facts — and then to ignore them and/or negate them into irrelevance.
But his tribe’s losing the coercive power needed to continue using those tactics. This approach requires dominance, and they don’t have that like they used to!
So instead, all Smith can do now is try to shame or manipulate Christianity’s many critics into shutting up. But that isn’t working either these days. Fewer and fewer people recognize Christian leaders’ authority — or care how they feel about their false claims being exposed and debunked. More and more of us feel empowered to tackle Christians’ truth claims, and we absolutely should: Christians themselves cannot be trusted at all to handle them, nor to adjust their behavior after encountering debunks of their claims.
He just sounds so upset that he can’t actually stop this criticism, doesn’t he? He should. To borrow from Lisa Simpson:
Christians might still have the plant, but we have the power.
Revoking His Permission Slip.
Smith’s claim of authority over all fact-based claims Christians make becomes his permission slip. As we’ll see soon, he will draw upon this authority to push his other two ideas: that religion offers a unique and effective moral framework for groups of all sizes, and that all functional societies must base their operation on religious ideology.
Notably, these both also represent truth claims.
And y’all, that means they represent additional intrusions into Reality-Land’s sandbox. And that in turn means non-Christians may feel perfectly free to analyze, test, criticize, and ultimately debunk them — along with all the rest of Christianity’s reality-based claims.
If Christian Smith doesn’t like it, he needs to quit making those sorts of claims.
I know it’d super help him out if we’d follow his commands, but we know what happened last time his tribe gained coercive power over others. They used it to trample people for centuries. The wingnuts of today ache for that kind of power, and they are the direct emotional descendents of the Christians who once held it.
Only pressing close to reality keeps us safe from those wingnuts seeking control of us. Distrust and reject anyone who seeks to disentangle you from reality, and whatever group that person calls home as well.
NEXT UP: The Courtier’s Reply in Atheist Overreach. It’s been a while since we reviewed this form of Christian bullying, and since the book uses that tactic this seems like a good place to discuss it! Join me tomorrow 🙂
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