Utility vs. Truthfulness in ‘Atheist Overreach’

Utility vs. Truthfulness in ‘Atheist Overreach’ August 27, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Christian Smith’s 2019 book, Atheist OverreachIn it, he seeks to make a case for Christian dominance as a force for good in the world. But he does it in such a strange way. He doesn’t argue that we should follow Christianity’s rules because a real live god gave them and thus obligates us somehow. Instead, he argues that Christianity’s rules themselves are so incredibly superior to all other rulesets that we should follow this one. Christian Smith wants to sell us on the utility of Christian rules. And that’s where he might just fail the hardest in his book.

when the ruleset loses utility
You can’t stop the signal. (Javardh.)

(Notes: In the book, Smith specifically tries to make it look like he’s talking about all religions generally, not just Christianity. However, the way he talks about “religion” makes it clear that he really means Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. Please check out the “Atheist Overreach” tag for more posts on this topic!)

Utility vs. Truthfulness.

As I’ve mentioned, in the science section of the book Christian Smith gets really frosty with Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. And I can absolutely see why, too.

In Harari’s book, religion’s usefulness to early communities shines through loud and clear. But it accomplishes none of that through being essentially based on reality. Instead, religion can be really useful to group leaders for psychological reasons: it allows a very few elites to gain a vast amount of control over very large groups.

Little wonder that Christianity rose to prominence as it did! It makes a virtue of placid acceptance of one’s lot in life, demands that believers look to the next life for their rewards and rest from the troubles of this one, and stresses obedience over thinking too hard about what one has been told.

But to the flocks, religion itself doesn’t hold much value for them in their everyday lives. We can tell that because more and more people drift away from religious devotion and affiliation when participation in religious devotions becomes optional. Adherence levels and obedience have always been a major problem for Christian leaders. Even when they could literally force entire countries to convert, they could never achieve complete compliance with their demands.

When religion becomes optional, people opt out. When religious leaders’ punishment for noncompliance lessens or gets spotty, people opt out. Christianity lacks enough utility to believers in the here and now to maintain compliance on their own.

To keep people engaged, Christian leaders have always needed to make compliance mandatory.

The Big Problem Here.

While Christian Smith doesn’t engage in any direct apologetics in his book, he does lean hard on atheists’ lack of belief in magical invisible friends. He blames this lack of belief on their supposedly inferior morality ruleset. As he writes (p. 26):

Recall our atheistic situation. There is no objective, external source of moral order, such as God or a natural law. [<— there’s that Catholicism peeking out that tells us this isn’t a book about the superior utility of “religion” in general, but rather of “Catholicism” specifically and uniquely] Humans invent morality through learning and social contract to make society function better — to benefit themselves. People are motivated to follow their culture’s moral norms because breaking them will lead to punishment in the short run and unhappiness and reduced well-being in the longer run. This kind of enlightened self-interest should produce societies of people who are morally good without God.

As I typed that out, I imagined hundreds of heads bonking down on their desks in frustration.

Mine was one of ’em.

This guy seriously thinks that without a magical invisible wizard to disapprove at them, and most particularly without the fear of displeasing this being (or I suppose, the desire to please this being), that people just won’t behave themselves.

So the supposed utility of Catholicism religion rests, ultimately, in this overarching agent of lawgiving. This being totally exists. And he totally demands compliance and obedience from humans. And humans totally and consistently think about this being when it comes to their decision-making processes.

That’s why Catholic religious societies functioned so well. Right? All religious societies. All of them. From the thousands of mass murders committed by the Mayans as part of their rituals to the cruelty inflicted upon the Dalit of India, from the Inquisition of the Catholics to the child-rape by Catholic priests committed through the centuries and the cover-ups around that, religious societies absolutely reflect “natural law,” don’t they?

Nothing works better! Nope, nothing! And nothing ever has!

you see what I did there
SWIDT?

The Supposed Non-Utility of Secular Humanism.

In Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith sounds very fretful about just what kind of utility secular humanism might offer humans who lack god-belief. Much of the “morality” section of his book deals with knocking down this boogeyman to make Catholicism’s “natural law” nonsense sound more plausible. He writes (p. 18):

A careful reading of our [atheist/secular] moralists reveals good reasons why atheists should be motivated to be good to a limited set of people who matter to them. But they do not provide good reasons to be good to everyone.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether this assertion is true or false. I don’t think it’s true. But let’s ignore that for the moment. For now, let’s just ask one very simple question:

How good are Christians, overall, to everyone? How well do they put into motion their own supposedly-superior moral system?

It doesn’t matter how pie-in-the-sky wonderful a system sounds. It matters how well it actually works when put into practice in Reality-Land.

In Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great, he talks about being on a radio panel when he’s asked a question:

In this vein, Hitchens addresses a hypothetical question that he was asked while on a panel with radio host Dennis Prager: if he were alone in an unfamiliar city at night, and a group of strangers began to approach him, would he feel safer, or less safe, knowing that these men had just come from a prayer meeting? Hitchens answers,

Just to stay within the letter ‘B’, I have actually had that experience in BelfastBeirutBombayBelgradeBethlehem and Baghdad. In each case … I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.[6]

I can 100% affirm this sentiment. When I was Christian, I quickly learned that almost none of my tribemates actually lived out “the Good News.” Like everyone else in the world, I’ve suffered enormously from the dishonesty and unkindness of Christians. 

Atheism, As Perceived by Toxic Christians.

Christian Smith presents atheism in the same way that standard-issue toxic Christians do.

In the science section, he offers a snide, backhanded compliment to atheists who conceded that they didn’t like the character of his imaginary friend (esp. on page 101, when he calls one such atheist “more transparent than others” for stating this dislike, which would make everyone else a deceiver seeking to hide it).

He seems to have completely missed, even in quotes he himself offers, that these atheist authors did not concede belief in this friend, nor were they ashamed of saying that what they disliked was a fictional character used by believers to harm others. Instead, he focuses on their stated dislike of his imaginary friend. He insinuates very boldly that this dislike motivates atheists’ rejection of Christianity — not the fact that no Christian has ever supported the existence of this god with objective evidence.

Thus, he conceptualizes atheism as some kind of petulant rebellion against DA TROOF. In his view, Christianity works great, but atheists just don’t wike the god involved. So they reject it and him.

And accordingly, atheists always fall back on his ruleset — just worded in different ways. They must, because it’s the only thing that works in the whole entire world.

Where’d That Catholicism Go?

Indeed, Smith sniffs at “these atheist moralists” he imagines as seeking to replicate — poorly — his superior ruleset (p. 29):

Furthermore, these atheist moralists have not eliminated from their moral systems the judging and punishing God they so loathe and wish to eradicate; they have simply substituted for a religious God the punishing god of “society.”

He views “society” as a very poor source of sanctions compared to his imaginary friend. Here’s how he insults secular sanctions (p. 30):

Every moral system under consideration, atheist and otherwise, recognizes that the monitoring, judgments, rewards, and punishments of some kind of superindividual power are necessary to enforce compliance. Getting rid of God does not change that; it just shifts the burden of behavior regulation to the informal and formal social-control functions of human society: surveillance, gossip, snitching, state regulations, police forces, courts, prisons, and so on.

As usual, though, Smith completely ignores his own religion’s dark and bloody history. Christianity itself has never and will never be a real source of sanctions for poor behavior. Even Catholics knew from the start that god-belief — whether forced or voluntarily adopted — doesn’t even bring about adherents’ compliance with religious rules, let alone general ones.

Instead, Catholics instituted a purely authoritarian legal system to do the talking for their imaginary friend. They forcefully governed adherents in both the religious and temporal worlds. They ran this system for centuries. The Vatican itself not only still runs its very own police force, but they just uncovered a(nother) corruption scandal in the Church itself. 

Invasion of the “Sensible Knaves.”

In Atheist Overreach, Smith talks a lot about what he calls “the problem of David Hume’s ‘sensible knave.'” A “sensible knave” breaks rules when it’s advantageous. Smith writes (p. 25):

The second problem in the arguments of these atheistic moralists is that none of them successfully explains why rational persons in an atheistic universe should uphold a culture’s moral norms all of the time. Why not be good when it serves one’s enlightened self-interest but strategically choose to break a moral norm at opportune moments, when violation has a nice payoff and there is little chance of being caught?

Gosh, y’all.

Why don’t we go ask some Christians about that?

We don’t need to reach as far as Jerry Falwell, Jr. or the many thousands of corrupt Catholic priests. Nor must we consider the Christians scamming people with multi-level marketing schemes, the Christian businesses stealing money from their customers, and the Christian politicians who constantly get caught violating their religion’s ruleset.

No, any Christian will do, really.

Almost none of them actually follow their own rules, nor refrain from breaking them.

The Problem of Preachers’ Kids.

Preachers’ kids (PKs) might best embody the concept of “sensible knaves.”

They know very well what utter unworkable nonsense their religion’s ruleset really is. However, out of every single layperson in their parents’ church, they face the worst sanctions for disobeying that ruleset.

As a result of this bind they’re in, they’re probably the very best deceivers in their churches. They’re aces at looking angelic while sneaking around to do the stuff they wanna do. The ones I personally knew were all decently good kids, but they definitely knew how to have illicit fun without their pastor-daddies finding out.

Now imagine their situation multiplied by millions of people in, say, the Middle Ages. During that period, Catholicism dominated Europe.

Imagine impossibly strict rules set by nearly-omnipresent masters. Consider the impossibly harsh punishments for even minor infractions.

And yet people still acted out constantly.

This combination of strictness, difficulty in finding opportunities, and harsh punishments didn’t stop anybody. Catholics lost most of that power eventually, but evangelical pastors still wield it — if they choose to do so — over their kids. And nothing changes either way with regard to compliance.

As loftily superior as Christian Smith imagines his religion’s ruleset to be, it does not ever result in consistently good people who do good to everyone around them, even when it’s difficult. Nor does the adoption or imposition of his ruleset result in adherents who consistently refuse to break their rules.

Insults vs. Utility.

If Christianity actually held any utility value to people, people would be practicing Christianity. But even Christians do not, as we’ve shown.

We see exactly how much utility it has to people when it becomes optional: people stop practicing it. Instead, a small number of fringe believers clutch their beliefs and practices (and fading dominance) more and more tightly. They do this even though it’s crystal-clear that it’s not actually objectively helpful for their lives and they don’t even really abide by their own rules. Often, their fervor even harms themselves.

We do not admire those folks. Rather, we regard them with sadness. We feel sorry for their kids.

Hilariously, those same fanatics insult us non-stop. They hate us for not wanting to waste our finite lifetimes on the same Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game they’re playing. Of course, they reserve the worst of their vitriol for other Christians who just don’t dive deeply enough into the game for their taste. Their only real goal in life is to force everyone to follow the rules that even they seek to circumnavigate.

But insults are a very poor salesmanship technique. They don’t work in areas where Christianity is almost completely optional.

The Proof in the (Yorkshire) Pudding.

Very few people possess the spare time or capital to waste on religion anymore. Now we need systems that actually work and risk management/addressing techniques that actually deliver. Christianity contains neither element.

And so it is fading from our toolboxes.

Instead of offering us a system that actually works, Christian Smith offers us instead snide insults and a strange insistence that his ruleset totally works, even though his religion’s entire history tells us the opposite.

NEXT UP: We examine Christian Smith’s third just-asking-questions question: are humans naturally religious, like hard-wired somehow (tee-hee, no idea how but SOMEHOW, tee-hee) for religion?


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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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