Why I Am Not An Anti-Theist

Atheism, Communities of Unbelief, Deconversion, Humanism, Secular Grace

The original title for this post was “Why I Am Not a New Atheist,” but I found there is so much confusion about that term and what it means that this was more misleading than helpful. I settled on “Why I Am Not An Anti-Theist,” as this gets to the point more directly without the confusion.

No more sacred cows

In fact, I am starting this post defending new atheism. By new atheism, I mean the kind of outspoken atheism represented by the “Four Horsemen”: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. These four have written books which were notable for their unabashed critiques of religion. There are many others who are what I would call professional atheists making a living writing, speaking and podcasting. For their unvarnished candor they have been vilified by the religious and ironically deified by atheists.

The problem is for some time it has been considered impolite to critique religious beliefs. In many Western societies, religious views are considered private and unassailable. The old adage “never bring up politics or religion in polite company,” exists for a reason. People hear critiques about their religious beliefs as attacks against them as a person. Suddenly in the mid 2000s here were atheists who did not keep their irreligious thoughts to themselves. They had the audacity to publicly call out the flaws in religious beliefs and point out their detrimental effect on society. How dare they!

Atheists present a challenge to the faithful. The reason there are so many false stereotypes taught about atheists is that our existence is a threat. The existence of people who have in fact heard the gospel, understood it and still reject it cuts at a core understanding of the world for the believer. This is one of the reasons believers often quote their sacred text to atheists, because they cannot fathom someone could understand it and yet not believe it. It must be a lack of knowledge. “If only they understood the real gospel.

So, the reaction to new atheism was predictable. The apologists came out in droves to disprove their arguments. And by ad hominem attacks assure the faithful these angry apostates could be safely ignored. The term new atheist was originally derogatory (even from other atheists). Even though there is nothing particularly new about doubt, atheism or the critique of religion. What was new was the lack of deference to religion and a certain level of audacity.

Atheists have long been telling us that we can be good without God.
The new atheism says that we can be better without God.
— Victor Stenger

For being outspoken and giving cover for doubters everywhere to come out of the closet these new atheists are to be commended. The sacred cow of religious ideas being beyond reproach is dead.

Anti-theism

But (you knew there would be a but), if we are being honest sometimes they can be assholes. Sometimes they can attack the believer and not the belief and engage in their own ad hominem attacks. Sometimes they can come across as … well … religious in their fervor. In fact, these are the most often cited critiques against new atheism. Much ink has been spilt defending new atheists against these critiques and yet the critiques persist because of a kernel of truth in them.

 

Worse still, is the wave of followers who came after. To be clear, I consider myself one of these. Social media amplifies the most vocal obnoxious and angry voices amongst us. It is very easy to be hostile on social media and some have made a career of this. Negativity gets rewarded with shares, likes and retweets. I have certainly been guilty of this myself.

This is what I would term anti-theism, which implies an active attempt to convince believers to abandon their faith. There is a tendency on social media for anti-theism to come to prominence which can start to look like trollling the trolls. It can start to look like an anti-evangelism.

Who is trolling whom?

Let me be very clear, as the position I am trying to convey is nuanced. I whole heartedly believe in secularism. Secularism protects the freedom of religion and freedom from religion. I also believe that religion has had many detrimental effects on society particularly when it gains political power. Religion should rightly be criticized.

However, believers themselves do not deserve our scorn. Most believers were born into it. It takes a tremendous amount of self reflection and honesty to overturn ones deeply held beliefs. If you feel like taking on the professional apologists, go for it. But leave the believers who have not asked for a fight alone.

If the goal is a more secular society

Are there times when believers troll atheists? Of course. I am not suggesting we not defend ourselves. I am arguing that ridiculing believers and calling them stupid is not the most effective way of convincing them.

Even when we use very cool rational logic and reason the backfire effect can stop the believer from hearing the evidence. Let me give you an example. I read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith in 2007 years before my deconversion. My motivated reasoning at the time went something like this:

He sounds angry.
Atheists must all be angry.
But I have peace.

It wasn’t until years later, I read Greta Christina’s blog about why atheists have a right to be angry, and realized I agreed with most of what she was saying. I just happened to be open to rational argument at the time.

If you add to the backfire effect, defensiveness from being insulted, the task for the believer to overcome their indoctrination is insurmountable. If we atheists, either out of exasperation or contempt, come across as mocking we are defeating our own purposes.

I am acutely aware that anti-theist arguments would not have worked on me when I was a believer. I am even more acutely aware that my many family members who are still believers would not respond to this style of argumentation. It takes investment in time, patience and, in all likelihood, the relationship, to provide a safe and comfortable space for the believers in our lives to express their doubts.

Why I Am Not an Asshole

Do I really need to expound on this? People deserve respect regardless of their beliefs. People are more important than belief or non-belief.

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If you really want to change the world and change peoples’ minds, love people.  I think I heard that from somewhere.

This post is a part of the series Communities of Unbelief. I’ll be writing more about communities of unbelief, some I choose not to be a member of, some I identify with and others I have yet to explore.

Why I Am Not a Liberal Christian

Communities of Unbelief, Deconversion

I have a confession. I am still a fundamentalist.

I am still a fundamentalist on one issue: the resurrection. The resurrection was my last tenuous grasp on faith. I guarded it against attack as if it were … well, a pearl of great price.

I had long since let go of a literal interpretation of the bible. Genesis? Obviously allegorical. Most of the old testament? Historically unlikely at best. The gospels I thought might contain some of Jesus’ teaching and therefore had value. But Mathew’s description of the events during and after the crucifixion, the dead walking the streets? Nope, no zombies for me.

But somehow, I held on to the resurrection. If nothing else were true, but this one thing it would all be worth it.

You know what would be good evidence for god’s existence?
Resurrection.

I took a fundamentalist, literal, take the guy at his word interpretation of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:15-19:

16 So if the dead won’t be raised to life, Christ wasn’t raised to life. 17 Unless Christ was raised to life, your faith is useless, and you are still living in your sins. 18 And those people who died after putting their faith in him are completely lost. 19 If our hope in Christ is good only for this life, we are worse off than anyone else.

I am still a fundamentalist about Paul’s statement. If there is one thing that must be true about Christianity for any of it to be true it is the resurrection as succinctly stated by Paul. If that is not literally true, then the whole of Christianity is not only untrue but a waste of time. Not my opinion, it is Paul’s.

But now I have succumbed to the crushing lack of evidence for the resurrection. I can no longer believe that it occurred. The very moment when I realized that I no longer believed in the resurrection I knew my faith in god was over. There was no going back.

Why I am not a liberal Christian

Here is the thing, there a lots of people who reject fundamentalism and its literal interpretation of the bible but keep some form of faith. The trappings of faith: tradition, ceremony, community and spirituality are useful and meaningful for these people. I just happen to not be one of those people.

Over the years leading up to my deconversion I flirted with various forms of liberal Christianity. I read Sojourners. My politics aligned well and I believed the gospel needed to be a practical love on the streets. I read Rob Bell and Donald Miller. I bandied about the term “emergent church” unironically. I read Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Was I a mystic? Once in a great while I would visit a church with more of an ecumenical bent and less of an evangelical one. But I never found these things satisfying. There was no power in them. There was no Truth with a capital T.

So when my moment of realization came, I no longer believed the resurrection happened, I knew I was an atheist. There was very little equivocation. It never occurred to me to become a liberal theologian and carry on with the trappings of faith. I walked away clean. Well, that is not entirely true, my family members are all still believers so I am sometimes the atheist in church but that is not by choice and may be the topic of a different post.

These days the new hotness is called deconstruction. That is breaking the connection between fundamentalism and faith, letting go of dogma but crucially keeping some parts of faith. But heavily implied  is that reconstruction follows the deconstruction process. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

A very famous example of this is Science Mike, Mike McHargue, who in his book Finding God in the Waves, talks about having faith, losing it and getting it back. Specifically, he comes to understand “God” as the forces of nature that created the universe. Here are his 10 Axioms About Faith.

I am not here to take pot shots at McHargue, I actually have a lot of respect for Mike, but his example is illustrative. I am here to say:

I don’t get it

In the days after my deconversion I was saying to myself, “why bother with a liberal theology?” To be clear I do not believe any gods exist in any way, but for the sake of argument:

  • If god is just the ground of being, should that be worshiped?
  • If god is just the deist clock maker, should that be loved?
  • If god is just the personification of human love and kindness, how is that useful?
  • If god is just the natural forces personified why is “God” necessary when nature is enough on its own?
  • If we all get to define god in our own image (and that is really the story of all of human history), then what benefit is that to humanity?

In short, if god is just these things, then god is not necessary. God is not necessary for meaning, goodness, love, joy, compassion, awe or mystery. We derive these things from each other and the cosmos.

From humanity and nature comes all of the things we hold most dear

So to me, hanging on to a more liberal interpretation of god is not only not necessary it is a detriment. For me, like Paul, it is pitiable. More than just god it is religion that is the baggage. Religion necessarily entails archaic morality, dogmatism and a destructive dualism. Those who are deconstructing I know have a sincere desire to redeem their traditions. I believe it is holding them back. They are unnecessarily starting in the hole. I believe we must let go of the past to move forward.

I recently re-read famously liberal theologian turned atheist, Bart Erhman’s Why Even Bother Being A Liberal Christian. He expresses both the reason it is difficult to let go and ultimately that it is necessary:

Yes, I could have left. But this is the key point: if I left I would have to go SOMEWHERE ELSE. And that somewhere else, in my view, was no better than the place I was leaving. You can’t go from something to nothing. You go from one thing to another thing. And why do that? Only because you can no longer stay where you are.
And so it made better sense to me to try to reinterpret the tradition I was standing within than to adopt an entirely new tradition. That’s why I never was (very) tempted to become Jewish. And not at all tempted to become Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or anything else.
But why be *anything*? The reality is that deciding to become *nothing* doesn’t work. We are all something or other. Someone may think that she or he is bold and brazen and a real pioneer to become an atheist. Really? That is bold, brazen, and pioneering??? As if no one else has done that? As if being an atheist doesn’t involve assumptions about the world, beliefs about where we came from, ideas about what it means to lead a good and fulfilling life? Really?

Until I could not do so any more. I eventually had to stop because the very basis of the entire tradition – the existence of a loving God – itself came under threat for me.

When Bart talks about having no where else to go, I get it. As I have mentioned in my discussion of Secular Grace, we in the communities of unbelief have a long way to go to catch up to the kind of community religion facilitates. “You can’t go from something to nothing.” But eventually, Bart felt compelled to let go.

I had a conversation on Facebook , where the question was asked if the term “liberal Christian” was confusing. To which I responded, “yes!” To me it is confusing to continue to use the term “god” when that has ceased to have objective meaning. Even for those naturalists who are liberal Christians they must deal with the implied supernaturalism.

There is more that needs to be removed from Christianity than needs to be retained. If one takes on the task that Thomas Jefferson took, to remove the supernatural parts of the bible, one is left with a very skinny book. If one removes the archaic morality, one is left with a leaflet that basically says: Be good to each other.

You can be good without god

Let go of that which is holding you back.

This post is a part of the series Communities of Unbelief. I’ll be writing more about communities of unbelief, some I choose not to be a member of, some I identify with and others I have yet to explore.

Communities of Unbelief

Atheism, Communities of Unbelief, Deconversion, Humanism

Since my deconversion I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about why I no longer believe. Most of this expression has occurred online as this is the place where freedom of expression has few limits. A part of this process has been the search for a community to belong to. I have written before about the need to have secular replacements for community.

This search has turned out to be more difficult than I expected. The community of non-believers is a many splintered thing. In fact, the term community does not really apply and the word factions leaps to mind. There are many factions often competing and often hostile to one another:

  • Those who never believed
    • I know quite a few atheists and non-believers in real life but their experience is more like water to a fish. Belief and unbelief is not something they are interested in.
  • Those who are aggressively anti-theist and anti-religion
    • Think “new” atheists (fairly or unfairly). More so than the famous authors are the everyday twitter warriors that take it as their personal responsibility to disabuse believers of their faith.
  • Those who are focused on legal maters pertaining to secularism
    • These are the groups like CFI, FFRF, Secular Coalition that are doing work I agree with but have little to do with community building.
  • Those who reject the fundamentalism but not the faith
    • This is the new hotness, deconstruction, not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I have met many many new friends in this category.

I find I don’t quite fit into any of those categories. My experience and particular brand of unbelief will forever be informed by my former faith. I have no desire to convince believers to abandon their faith. I have mentioned I am still a bit angry at apologists but I am not interested in taking down the average theist. I believe in a secular society and I support those causes but they do not inspire me. I find no joy in them. And finally, though I have met new friends who are in the deconstructing crowd, if I am being honest, I don’t get it. When I let go of faith I felt no desire to hold onto the trappings of faith. In fact, it was freeing to abandon them.

I am starting a new series about communities of unbelief.  I’ll be tackling the following ideas:

I believe as humans we need community. It is a basic need. Those of us who have walked away from our faith have often also lost community we relied on. Hopefully, the series can help answer: What now?

Let me know what communities or factions I have missed, where I am being unfair and most importantly which communities you are a member of.

Check back often to read my explanations for these important questions.

Apologetics, epistemology and moving on

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Naturalism

I am done

I am done with apologetics. I am done listening to debates between naturalists and theists. I am done giving apologetics the benefit of the doubt as a valid point of debate. Over the past few years, right before and since my deconversion, I have spent a significant amount of time listening to debates, reading articles and generally trying to understand the theists’ arguments for the existence of god. This includes attempting to remember what used to convince me. But now I am done.

What disappoints me about apologists is not that they are making arguments for Christianity.
 
I expect and encourage that.
 
What disappoints me is that the arguments are weak.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, one story describes some characters using a fictional algorithm that filters diplomatic speak and reduces it to concrete information. It removes the flowery double speak and outputs the actual useful content, information that can be acted upon. In the story one ambassador’s lengthy comments reduced to no content whatsoever, many many words but no information. We might say something similar about a certain American politician today.

While reading this fictional story it dawned on me that this is what has been bothering me about apologetics for years. Apologetics reduce to nothingness. It is a shell game. There is no actual content, it is all assertions.

Here I have to acknowledge something. Let’s call it a confession. Even today when I read a new article or hear a new argument there is some part of me that hopes the argument will make sense, that it will be valid and that my metaphysics will be, if not overturned, at least challenged. My emotional reaction is one of deep disappointment. I do not mean to say that I want to be wrong, but maybe there is some lingering shame at having been gullible enough to believe the apologists in the past. If their arguments were at least sound, then I might have an excuse for having stayed as long as I did.

Me reading a new apologist:
Interesting …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Maybe …
Nope same old argument.

Apologetics no matter how sophisticated tend to reduce to a few well understood fallacies:

1) Begging the question

This is when the conclusion is baked into the question. My favorite(?) world class example of this is William Lane Craig’s Kalam cosmological argument. From my post What if I grant you that:

 1. The universe has a cause;

2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful;

3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

… do you recognize that premise 2 is the definition of begging the question. That means the the desired outcome or conclusion is baked into the premise of the question. How did we get from a cause for the universe to “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful?” I need you to feel the vastness of this logical leap.

If I tell you to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and unassisted hop over to the other side, that starts to… No that is not enough. Stand at the East coast of the US and hop over the Atlantic Ocean … No that is not enough. Hop from the Earth to the moon? No, how about from the Earth to Alpha Centari? I am only beginning to express the vast void one needs to traverse between premise 1 and premise 2.

2) Semantic games:

The simplest example of this is the deliberate misrepresentation of terms. Such as abusing the term theory; suggesting that the theory of evolution is “just a theory.” I need you to see how post-modern this is. The post-modern relativism the Church has decried for decades is the bastion of the apologist. I acknowledge here that this simplistic version tends to be deployed by the less sophisticated average theist.

However, a more sophisticated version is deployed when apologists are challenged on logical inconsistencies. For example the problem of evil as expressed by Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Here the sophisticated apologist will assert God’s intentions:

God wants us to be free
God wants us to experience the consequences of our actions
God’s ways are above our ways

Or on divine on hidenness:

God loves us enough to withhold his power
God will not force us to believe
Miracles ended in the first century because the bible

How do you know what God intends if his ways are above yours? Rather than acknowledging the obvious inconsistencies semantic games are played to warp the common sense meaning and obfuscate the truth: there is no substance to the apologist’s arguments.

Assertion of my own:
All “known” attributes of god are themselves assertions.
Including, but not limited to, existence.

3) God of the gaps:

This is the beginning and the end for the apologist. Anything we do not yet understand is attributed to god.  This is the big bucket into which most of apologetics falls into.

In the beginning:

There was a time when humanity did not understand lightning. There was a time when we did not understand disease. There was a time when we did not understand evolution. During those times humanity credited these things to the gods.

Where we are now:

The god of the gaps argument is the rapidly shrinking space where science has yet to find answers. Don’t get me wrong, there are vast areas where we do not yet know. Some of them are hugely significant.

An incomplete list of things we do not know:

  • What happened “before” the big bang
  • The origin of life
  • How consciousnesses arises

But there are many many areas of knowledge that have been revealed by science. Areas that were once all assigned to god whether of the theist or of the deist kind. But now there is no reason to believe that our ignorance in a particular area will last forever.

The apologist uses our ignorance to insert a god to fill the gap. Those gaps have gotten smaller and smaller over time at an accelerated pace. At what point do they admit, there is no need of god?

Naturalist: The sum total of scientific, rational and empirical evidence suggests the natural world is all there is.
Theist: Yes, but people really feel like there is a god.

Moving on

To sum up: I am disappointed, bored and I am done. I am not mad at a non-existent god, I am mad at the apologists.

I acknowledge, this is not very intellectual of me. I am, in effect, dismissing arguments, out of hand, without considering them first. But this is the point. Apologetics, at least all of it that I have consumed, reduces to a few already refuted points. Until apologists have new information or evidence to present, the existing arguments can be safely dismissed.

One other complaint that could be leveled at me is that I am creating straw man arguments to knock down. Again, this is the point, the much more qualified scientists, philosophers and ethicists have exhausted themselves since the Enlightenment “steel manning” theists’ arguments and yet still refuting them. What more do I have to add to the argument? The burden is upon the apologist to bring new evidence.

James Lindsay (note: this is not an endorsement of James Lindsay’s politics) calls this post-theism in “Everybody is wrong about God.” The idea is that theism has had its time to make its arguments. Those arguments have been shown lacking. Therefore, it is time to move on.

It is not that there is no evidence for theism. Read any serious philosophical article on the subject and you will find some evidence for theism. However, the evidence is not compelling. The evidence is not strong enough to convince the skeptic.  The evidence for theism is insufficient to sustain belief. At this point it is a waste of everyone’s, including the apologitst’s, time to continue to beat a dead horse.  It is time to move on.

Built upon the sand

One reason for this insufficiency is the epistemology of faith has no objective basis. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. What is our basis for what is true and what is false. Faith is based purely on tautological assertions.

The god theists assert, asserts that he exists in the asserted divinely inspired scriptures that assert god exists.

It is a bit like a time travel movie where our hero travels to the distant past with an invention she created in the recent past. Say a time machine. She uses the invention to change something in the past. When she returns to the present everything has been changed. The past in which she created the time machine no longer exits. So where did the knowledge for the time machine come from?

I have written about this before. If you ask 100 believers about some point of doctrine or another, you will likely get 100 different answers despite the fact that they read the same scriptures. This is an order of magnitude worse with believers of different faiths. There is no epistemic basis to decide between competing faith positions. There is no way to know which is true and which is false. Because it all is based on subjective experience.

Solid Ground

I don’t know how to explain to you that evidence is important

Much more compelling is the epistemology in science. Science acknowledges as step zero, that human beings are capable of fooling themselves. Therefore, the scientific method takes great pains to prove a hypothesis wrong, to falsify. Even a well established scientific theory which has withstood this onslaught can be overturned given new evidence. The scientific method actually encourages peer reviewers to be skeptical, to work at disproving a given hypothesis.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have.
— Carl Sagan

The difference between science and faith, is that rigorously obtained, peer reviewed and replicable data can change the mind of a skeptical scientist, but has no effect on the believer.

I am very open to being proven wrong. I am open to evidence. That would not be boring!

We are all scientists

Lest you think that only a few can be scientists, remember, that humans are natural Bayesians. Few of us understand orbital dynamics and Einstein’s General Relativity, and yet few of us doubt the sun will come up in the morning. We have seen it day after day for all of our lives. We have replicable evidence that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We can observe it just by looking up.

We don’t have to understand the warping of spacetime in order to know that objects fall to the ground. We have experienced it since childhood. Long before we could say the word gravity we had a visceral understanding of it.

This is Beysian thinking. We come up with an explanation for a phenomenon. We then we gather data. We experience. If the experiences reinforce the explanation we put more trust in it. If it contradicts it we throw it out. The trouble comes when things are inconsistent. Then we tend to fall prey to selection bias and motivated reasoning.

Take prayer as an example. We pray for something, usually something very likely to occur. When it happens, we attribute it to god. When it doesn’t we either forget the prayer all together or we come up with reasons why the answer was a “no.” That is motivated reasoning. When we think back about answers to prayer, we remember when we got what we asked for and forget when we didn’t. That is selection bias.

I want to make one last point clear. I am not saying that people’s experience of god are not real. There are perfectly good natural explanations for people’s religious experiences. The experience is real the cause is misidentified. I know this from personal experience.

people-all-along

Being rigorous about what we accept as true is critical. A rigorous epistemology is quite possibly the most important resource of our times. Fake News, anyone?

I am done with apologists and moving on. I’ll continue to seek knowledge and truth as rigorously as I can. Join me?