‘Atheist Overreach’ and the Appeal to Consequences

‘Atheist Overreach’ and the Appeal to Consequences August 29, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. In it, he poses three questions he thinks are super-important. And he asks these three particular questions for a reason. See, he thinks that if humans abandon religion forever, then we’ll bring much suffering upon ourselves. Today, let’s check out this attempt at an appeal to consequences that Christian Smith makes repeatedly in his book, and see how valid it is.

the consequences not mentioned here
(Kirsten Drew.) Whitby Abbey.

(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 alone, and Catholicism in particular. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. Please check out the “Atheist Overreach” tag for lots more posts about it!)

The Appeal to Consequences.

When someone can’t support a claim with objective evidence, sometimes they try to sell that claim with manipulation. They make threats about what’ll totally happen if the mark doesn’t accept the claim.

We call this form of manipulation an appeal to consequences.

And Christian Smith uses it constantly in his book.

He doesn’t offer real-world evidence to support his numerous claims. Instead, Smith makes dire predictions about what’ll happen if people continue to reject his religion.

For a sociologist to do this — and so frequently, and so very hamfistedly — disappoints me enormously. It’s not hard to imagine why he goes there, though. His target audience certainly won’t catch him doing it. They’re used to this style of apologetics.

But a skeptic can spot these manipulation attempts from a mile away.

The Consequences of Rejecting Catholic– er, Religious Behavior Rules.

On page 2, Smith outlines the consequences he foresees in the case of growing secularization:

Do secularists have good reasons to be “good without God?” Or, if belief in God fades, will that have moral consequences that most people today would consider harmful?

In the morality-based chapters to come, we find him constantly fretting about the abandonment of Catholic– er, religious behavior rules. He thinks this trend leads inevitably to the abandonment of human rights and benevolence of all kinds. He writes (p. 49):

Does the moral belief in universal benevolence and human rights fit well with and flow reasonably from the facts of a naturalistic universe? [. . .] No; if we are intellectually honest, we will see that a belief in universal benevolence and human rights as moral fact and obligation does not fit well with, or naturally flow from, the realities of a naturalistic universe. [. . .] At bottom, [secularists/atheists/naturalists] do not occupy higher moral grounds for making compelling and binding claims on others on behalf of universal benevolence and human rights.

I’ll skip his blahblah about how Christianity totally was at the vanguard of human rights because of adherents’ belief in “a transcendent personal God who is the source, governor, and judge of moral order and action” (p. 53). It’s painfully obvious that this belief has never stopped Christians from committing acts of breathtaking cruelty. Nor has it ever put them on the right side of history on any social-justice issues.

This assertion comes from a fervent Catholic who fully supports a religion that institutionalized slavery and teaches that women do not have any rights over their own bodies (a right which secular human rights groups embrace). So his hand-wringing over what oh what will become of us if we continue down the road of secularization? That’s darkly hilarious.

Sidebar: The Very Disturbing Fantasies of Christian Smith.

Smith tops himself, though, by offering up a Rogues’ Gallery of fantasies about how awful it’d be if society rejects Catholicism–er, religion. It’s like he sat down to paint a horrific dystopian portrait of a world gone mad, painting by the numbers of Catholics’ culture wars. He writes (p. 71):

Another approach is to ask what exactly, in a naturalistic universe, would be morally wrong with actions and practices that would violate most ordinary contemporary people’s sense of benevolence and rights.

And then he offers up a series of fantasies about what that secular world might look like. It reminds me of that gaffe from Rush Limbaugh about how awful liberals were for caring about consent in sex. I’ll paraphrase his list:

  • Forced euthanization of substance abusers and homeless people because they’re “unproductive, destructive, and hopeless and have forfeited their ‘right’ to life and liberty.”
  • Abortion on demand, particularly in cases where a fetus develops a very incapacitating birth defect. Parents of unwanted fetuses “should also be allowed to let them die. Better to have societies populated by wanted and well-cared-for-children.” [<— did you catch how he slipped this whole abortion thing into the list like we’d just nod along?]
  • Forced euthanization of incapacitated elderly people, as well as long-term patients in both physical and mental hospitals.
  • Forced sterilization of serious criminals. More death penalties and harsher punishments too.

As I read this guy’s list, I just started laughing. He seriously thinks any of this would happen in a world without Catholicism–er, religion. Smith tries so painfully obviously to make readers fear for their own safety (and that of their loved ones) in a secular society. Christians do this constantly. But we’ve much more to fear from a Christian-dominated world. We learned that fact very well when they actually did dominate so much of it.

He has no idea what consent even is.


(Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty had some similarly creeptastic fantasies about atheists.)

The Consequences of Refuting Catholicism’s–er, Religion’s Numerous Truth Claims.

Similarly, Christian Smith gets really squiffy about how real scientists reject Christians’ attempts to argue themselves into a real live god. He talks quite a lot about the validity of other ways of knowing (and yes, he 100% goes there, though with different wording). But in the end, he pulls out a threat to sell his demands: OMG! If we abandon religion, we’ll lose all sense of meaning and purpose! He writes (p. 91):

So “Science” here is supposedly telling us what we must believe about the meaning and purpose and destiny of humanity and the universe: namely, there is none.

However, he’s well aware that without a real live god, he doesn’t have a “transcendent” being lobbing meanings and purposes at people. That’d be just awful. So scientists need to quit refuting Christians’ truth claims. They need to let Christians make as many unsupported truth claims as they like. Because if real scientists don’t shut up, then we’ll all become animals: rooting and rutting and fighting over dungheaps into eternity.

But as with Smith’s other appeals to consequences, this threat does not rise anywhere close to being a reason to accept religious dominance in our lives, nor to allow Christians’ unsupported truth claims to stand without pushback.

The Consequences of Rejecting Catholicism’s–er, Religion’s–Innateness.

Christian Smith’s third question involved just now innate and natural religiosity is for humans. He decided it’s totally innate and natural. (But I think I thoroughly refuted that claim yesterday.) So his threat here takes many pages to fully unfold, but it runs along the same lines as the other threats he’s made.

We get more of the existential-crisis variety of threats here, of course. He writes (p. 119):

We tend to seek truth, goodness, and beauty but find little of it in this world and often in ourselves. We are meaning-making and significance-seeking animals, yet our ability to spin satisfying meanings solely from within the horizons of the immanent world we occupy is limited. Historically, religion has been a primary way that humans have answered these questions, and I am confident that for many people it will continue to be.

Smith also hints at another threat here: that if people keep rejecting Catholicism–er, religion, they’ll lose an important tool for solving problems together. You know, like Catholicism has solved anything at all, like poverty or, I dunno, child-rape among their own clergy.

Hm. I wonder how much truth, goodness, and beauty the babies and prisoner-mothers at Tuam felt as they died under Catholic care? Or how much of these qualities the prisoners trapped in Magdalene laundries felt? Or the many victims of the Inquisition and Crusades? For that matter, what about the slaves that the Popes fully endorsed? Or the many natives in Central and South America murdered by Catholic forces? What about Catholicism’s child-rape victims now? How much truth, goodness, and beauty do you suppose they feel inhabits Catholicism?

This assertion Smith makes also puts me in mind of this very elderly priest my aunt-the-nun tends. Every day, he simply waits, sad and lonely and emotionless and quiet, for his own death. What awful consequences has he evaded through his life of service to Catholicism? What benefits on Smith’s list has this priest realized?

Going Big on Consequences for a Reason.

Christian Smith writes a lot in this book about the nature of Catholicism–er, religion. Much of it sounds like pie-in-the-sky wishful dreaming about an idealized form of Catholicism–er, religion–that only exists in adherents’ minds. He utterly ignores the vast evils that religious leaders have visited upon innocents, as well as how ineffectual and ineffective Catholicism’s ruleset really is on the ground — in the lives of both adherents and leaders.

He can’t sell us a religion based on objective facts, nor even one that is worth the money and time demanded of adherents. So instead, he pushes really hard on the threats of what might happen if Catholicism–er, religion–dies out and loses all of its cultural power.

What, is Catholicism–er, religion–like an abusive boyfriend? Smith makes his religion sound like one. We’ll dump him and say good riddance. But then.. oh then.. we’ll start thinking of how cute he was when he smiled. Maybe sometimes he brought us flowers. Then, one vulnerable night, we’ll drunk-dial him to ask how he’s doing. Next thing you know, we’ll be back in love again! The wedding’s on Saturday!

Haha, no.

Without coercion, religions die.

And that’s where we’re gonna end for now. Tomorrow, we cruise into the last official bit of this book to explore Smith’s intense dislike of the secularization thesis. But like it or lump it, the gods are not winning.

NEXT UP: Oh my gosh, the optimism of this guy. You’ll see. Tomorrow. You’ll see.

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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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