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Sep 01 2009

Why is Deconversion to Atheism so Hard for Christians to Understand?

The title of this post is somewhat misleading, as it describes the post of a pastor who does understand it, to a certain degree. I recently read an article entitled “Re: Atheism” by Christian blogger and author Michael Spencer. Though I’m not a fan of his subject matter in general, Michael is a good writer. (He’s much better than I am. He’s got talent.) The article itself, and the comments made there, give an interesting picture of atheism and atheists through the eyes of Christians. Unfortunately, I honestly don’t think that many Christians have a very accurate picture of atheists or atheism. To be fair, Michael’s post isn’t about atheists, per se, but about those who are in the process of leaving religion and are perhaps “leaning toward” atheism.

Michael, like the majority of people in this country, grew up as part of a religious family. Religion has apparently always been a part of his life. As a pastor, it must be a very large part of his life. I certainly can’t say the same for myself. My family was (ostensibly) Catholic. My maternal grandparents were most definitely Catholic, as were (and are) most of their children. I don’t have many memories of attending church services, but I do remember attending CCD classes on Saturday mornings, albeit for a brief time. I didn’t like it at all, and was allowed to quit. To a great extent, I quit religion at that point.

There is something about this that makes atheism very different for me than it seems to be for a great many people. When I “dropped out” of religion, it didn’t matter to me. I’m not stressing that religion didn’t matter to me (though it really didn’t) but that leaving religion didn’t matter to me (other than returning my Saturday mornings to me). It didn’t matter because I never had what the religious refer to as faith. I don’t really understand religious faith because I’ve never experienced it, nor am I likely to. This separates me from most atheists who have either been members of the faithful in the past, or have always been members of the secular, never experiencing religion at all. This also means that I’m not the best person to judge what might be going through the minds of someone who has been recently “deconverted”.

In Michael’s article he describes what, for him, were the “faces” of atheism over the years. From Madalyn Murray O’Hair;

…an angry, ranting, God-hating, bitter old woman who wanted to force her bitterness on the rest of the country. … It was safe to say that few people wanted to be like Mrs. O’Hair, no matter what their case against God and religion happened to be.

to Frank Zinnser;

Zinnser is awkward and amateurish, raising freshman level objections to the Bible that have nothing to do with the case for atheism. … The message for evangelicals: atheists are clowns. We can defeat them in any arena. We need not fear them because our team can eat their lunch.

But now, for Michael, things seem to have changed:

One way the game has changed is that when you proclaim yourself an atheist today, you aren’t signing up with O’Hair and Zinnser and the atheist luncheon in the Chihuahua Room at the Peoria Super 8. Now you are identifying with respected scientists and journalists. Whether you agree with the new atheists rantings about the threat of religion to the world or not, it’s a lot easier to be an atheist. When John Lennox debated Richard Dawkins in the Birmingham Civic Center, Dawkins was cheered like a rock star by a very young crowd.

The “face of atheism” has changed for Michael over the years, and now he’s presented with people that he and many others call the “new atheists”. I think that the problem he and others are having with their identification of atheists and atheism is their restricted viewpoint. The face of atheism is not Madalyn Murray O’Hair. It is not Frank Zinnser. It is not Richard Dawkins. It is not Sam Harris. It is not Christopher Hitchens. It is not PZ Myers.

The face of atheism is the girl who rang up your latte this morning. The face of atheism is the grandmother you saw shopping with her granddaughters at the mall. The face of atheism is the guy who just fixed your air conditioner. The face of atheism is the woman who delivered your mail today. The face of atheism is the police officer who directed you past an accident on the side of the road yesterday. The face of atheism is the pharmacist who filled your prescription. The face of atheism is all of these people.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no face of atheism. We aren’t card-carrying members of a secret society. We don’t have a flashing neon sign over our heads warning others that we haven’t accepted Jesus as our personal savior. Most of us don’t wear our lack of belief on our sleeves. Some of us do proudly wear a scarlet letter, but it’s certainly not universal. If Christians are seeing a particular group, or particular “type” as today’s “face” of atheism, then I think they’ve got blinders on.

Notice that Michael says, “…when you proclaim yourself an atheist today…you are identifying with respected scientists and journalists.” This is where I think he’s making an assumption that probably isn’t true. Most of us who describe ourselves as atheists aren’t identifying with anyone. We’re simply stating that we don’t believe in a god. It’s really nothing more than that. That is the common thread between us. When we declared that we were atheists in the 1960s and 1970s, we weren’t identifying with Madalyn Murray O’Hair en masse. We did not label ourselves as angry, ranting, God-hating, or bitter. Others did that to us. I don’t think that a young person leaving religion is specifically identifying with anyone either, but I could be wrong.

Michael continues:

But I’m convinced the game is not primarily about arguments any more. As grateful as I am for Tim Keller’s great book The Reason For God and his two hour presentations on You Tube, and as happy as I am that David Bentley Hart and others have convincingly demonstrated the fallacies of the new atheist arguments, the truth is that the contemporary atheist doesn’t plan to play a game of 21 with our NBA All Stars.

First off, I must say that if David Bentley Hart or any of the “others” to whom Michael refers actually have “convincingly demonstrated the fallacies of the new atheist arguments“, then why are the numbers of atheists growing instead of shrinking? If the logic of those religious arguments is so irrefutable, why are the majority of scientists not loudly proclaiming their belief in God™ from every rooftop? I think the answer is quite simple: Michael’s “NBA All Stars” simply haven’t demonstrated such fallacies (at least not to the satisfaction of those of us who lack religious faith).

Secondly, what exactly are the arguments of the so-called “new atheists”; the arguments that the faithful must refute? Why must I have an argument to back up this simple statement: “I do not believe in a god or gods.”? As an atheist, I make no claim but a lack of belief. I have nothing to argue for. Those who make claims of their god’s interference in the material world are the ones who have arguments to make. They are the ones who must present evidence to support their extraordinary claims. Young people understand this. They aren’t stupid, and they most often aren’t as gullible as you might think.

Michael’s experts and their arguments do nothing to convince skeptics and rationalists of the existence of God™. They’re doing nothing more than preaching to the choir, just as theologians have always done. Perhaps Michael is worried that some members of “the choir” have become more critical in their listening.

Why, then, does Michael think that people raised in religious homes and communities are leaving the faith?

Atheism is just….easier. Occam’s Razor. Theism is too much trouble. It starts to sound like someone is trying to sell you something sight unseen. Isn’t your best move just to hang up the phone and ignore the call?

I certainly can’t speak for a young man in the process of leaving his religion, but this doesn’t seem like a proper interpretation to me. Michael seems to be implying that a person would be led to atheism because they’re lazy. (I won’t argue that I’m not lazy, but that’s not the reason I’m an atheist.) Occam’s Razor isn’t being used to indicate that atheism is easier — that theism is too hard. It’s being used to arrive at the conclusion that atheism makes more sense than theism. It may not make more sense to most of those who have spent their entire lives immersed in faith, but it makes more sense to some. These are the young people leaving the flock.

Why does atheism make more sense to many of us? I suppose that the answer to that question is different for each of us. For myself, atheism makes more sense because it is supported by my own experiences. What I see and study does not require a supernatural entity for its explanation. Anything that I cannot yet find a natural explanation for must simply wait for better evidence, or new methods of interpretation and analysis in order to make sense to me. Supernatural explanations have never led to a greater understanding of the universe that I experience.

Michael has his own theories, from an evangelical viewpoint, about why people are leaving the faith:

We addressed atheism with the wrong arguments. We didn’t ask ourselves how it looks to a young atheist. We never stopped to notice that if you are a 17 year old with serious questions about evil, miracles, prayer and the Bible you’ve got small chances of getting any help from most of evangelicalism. We’re having too much fun squalling at the President and feeling good about ourselves. By the time you find that book, talk, ministry, etc. that might help, you’re already beginning to suspect that this is the emergency room where doubters are taken for emergency injections of how powerful anti-atheism drugs and then sent back to the “Bless Us Real Good” Game.

Pay close attention to what Michael says: “By the time you find that book, talk, ministry, etc. that might help…”. This is another point that most Christians have difficulty comprehending. Michael is still of the opinion that his supernatural explanations are what will keep young people with questions about their faith from turning away from religion.

I’m sorry, but I think it’s already too late. They’ve seen through the smoke and mirrors. It’s like one of those “mindfuck” pictures (see “Shit Brix – Mindfuck Pictures, When You See It You’ll Shit Bricks“): once you’ve seen the man behind the curtain, you can’t “un-see” him. Once that 17-year-old (the one with questions about the nature of evil, questions about the validity of so-called “miracles”, questions about science compared to biblical literalism, and questions about whether or not prayer actually does anything besides give you “warm fuzzies”) decides that empirical evidence makes much more sense to him than the phrase “God™ did it”, you’ve already lost him. More injections of “God™ really did it!” simply aren’t going to have an effect.

But now we come to the point where Michael begins to get much closer to the facts of the matter:

You see, evangelicals have made such outrageous assumptions and promises about happiness, healing, everything working out, knowing God, answered prayer, loving one another and so on that proving us to be liars isn’t even a real job. It’s just a matter of tuning in to an increasing number of voices who say “It’s OK to not believe. Give yourself a break. Stop tormenting yourself trying to believe. Stop propping up your belief with more and more complex arguments. Just let go of God.”

I’m not sure about outrageous assumptions, but evangelical Christians seem to be very good at making outrageous claims. That is why proving them “to be liars isn’t even a real job.” Throughout centuries past, religious leaders have made claims that their god or gods are the agent of cause for one phenomenon or another. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As time wore on, it was shown that ordinary claims would suffice for the explanation of what had once been seen as supernatural phenomena. Science, the scientific method, and common sense allowed people to see that the supernatural was not needed in their lives.

Whatever disagreement I might have with some of the content of Michael’s article, I do think that he closes it with some of the most honest statements about religion that I’ve ever read:

Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious.

What we’ve said and written is fine. What we’ve lived in our homes, private lives, churches, workplaces and friendships has spoken louder.

We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation.

You can’t understand why some people just say atheism has about it the beauty of simplicity? You don’t see why Occam’s Razor is so powerful, even among students who have no idea what it means?

Pay closer attention. The game has changed.

I think he’s right. We could go back and forth about the reasons, but that’s not really my intention. Yes, I think the game (if you want to put it that way) has changed. But has the change been one of mere modifications, or is it a completely different game?

Today’s generation (I’m talking about my perceptions in the United States. Our world is vast, and conditions are varied more than most people would like to think.) is more technically-minded. You could probably say that about each new generation and be correct. The amount of information available to each of us from around the world, and the speed with which it reaches us, is astounding. What would have been considered “miraculous” a century ago is commonplace today. The mythology that is the basis for Christianity is much more difficult to pass off as reality in today’s world.

What can religious leaders, parents, mentors, etc. do to keep young people from straying from the path of the righteous? My suggestion would be to simply let it happen. Religion should be a personal issue, for each individual to make a decision about for themselves. There’s also the aspect of “that which has been seen cannot be unseen”, as I mentioned above. To paraphrase Joe Young & Sam M. Lewis from 1919, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? (After They’ve Seen Reality)”.

1 comment

  1. JefFlyingV

    Great response to Spencer’s article. For myself I was fortunate to have freethinkers as parents that waited until I was 10 before exposing me to religion on a weekly basis in a church.

    The biggest difference from the old atheists and the new atheists is a broader dissemination of facts to a wider audience. In general I haven’t seen much change in the arguments between atheists and theists. What has changed is the evidence that each side can provide for claims. The evidence is so overwhelming that the aig has to fake a museum to butress their claims for creationism.

    Short of the world regressing into a dark ages period, theism will keep on retreating in society. Once again Dan, a great article.

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