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Re: Atheism, a post from the Internet Monk

August 30, 2009

The Friendly Atheist recently had a post responding to a post from the Internet Monk, both very good posts, so GO READ THEM. I’ll comment on the post from Internet Monk, because I think it’s a progressive post for iMonk (who is an [post]evangelical Christian), but perhaps he and some of his commenters are just a hair off the mark (however, there are particularly commendable comments, like this one or this one).

I agree wth iMonk that so far, Christians have coasted on the poor image of atheists and atheism (and of course, they’ve had a cultural advantage — this is a God-fearing nation, right?)…and iMonk’s examples, of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Frank Zinnser are apt — either someone intensely bitter (which, ironically, people see Christianity like this today) or someone bumbling, intellectually scatterbrained and irrelevant.And to be honest, William Lane Craig is a pretty slick debater. So after most of these debates, one can “grade” them (as Andrew at Evaluating Christianity writes, WLC is a pro debater…so much like regular debates are “graded” and “judged,” so WLC plays to win) and then come with the security that theism is safe, Christianity has been logically proven to be superior and correct if we all believe WLC, and all is safe in the world of belief.

But the problem is this isn’t working. Even as Dawkins and others make very charged arguments (some of which have been described as theologically immature), the reason why atheism, agnosticism, and people leaving churches are increasing and growing isn’t because of these professional debate arguments. It’s because of the more persuasive argument: how life is lived.

I think the internet Monk walks a tightrope though…I understand he’s trying to be candid, because he wants his Christian brothers and sisters to know how the situation really is so that they can address this. But at the same time, he may not give atheism full credit…he writes:

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?

While, this is a partially true statement (the hoops that religion wants you to go through, particularly to believe in a deity who doesn’t seem to mesh with personal experience [unless you are one of the select who has spiritual encounters with the divine] and whose actions don’t seem to mesh with a weird world, are too much trouble)…iMonk also seems to imply, whether purposefully or not, that atheism is the lazy way out. I counter: if atheism is easier, that’s not its main attraction…rather…it’s that it makes more sense to hang up on someone trying to sell you something sight unseen. And that the Christian arguments still don’t produce the product for testing.

So I have a love/hate relationship with his piece. Sometimes, he implies atheism is for lazy teens who just want to live life easier and have a few drinks with some of the guys (who are probably atheists, because Christianity has so many restrictions)…but at the same time, he makes some salient points. A point that I like:

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.”

You can send an army against an army. What do you send against a group saying “None of this has any point. Give it up and go have a coke.”

This is the deal. Evangelical Christianity, and Mormonism too (..ugh, ESPECIALLY Mormonism), are offering a bill of goods that they can’t provide. A worldview that simply doesn’t make sense, and has to be propped with complex arguments. Arguments that don’t even have a point UNLESS you take the theistic conundrum for granted (that we need to be saved from something).

I don’t think that people are becoming atheist because they are too lazy to engage in the argument. Rather, we’ve seen the argument and know experientially that for us, it is not persuasive. It doesn’t even bring us peace and joy.

I am conflicted by the comments, then. The goals of the commenters seem problematic. For example, one commenter notes that “an honest Christianity has no good arguments, only great invitations.” I understand his intention and agree with it: you can’t bludgeon someone with Christian rhetoric and argument…rather, you have to live and show them the way, and then hope they want that for themselves. However, this commenter makes it clear that he does believe in a Jesus that will show himself to people (like how even doubting Thomas saw). So, instead of being good for goodness’s sake and then hoping that people are good for goodness’s sake as a result…his goal is that people will go to Jesus (and be “saved”, whether in this life or the next).

Other commenters comment in the same vein. Be a good example, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest. But what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t? It seems like these people would be disappointed if in the end, someone adopted nearly everything (the good actions, the good attitudes, humility, meekness) and yet rejected the mystical and supernatural aspects (e.g., Jesus, Holy Ghost, God.) This is where I feel Christianity still has a misstep. For example, one commenter notes (emphasis added):

Don’t be afraid of the suffering and hardship. Also, yes, you can be a ‘good person’ and not religious. But the natural (pagan) virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude – do not save. The theological ones – faith, hope, charity – do. Sorry, that’s it. Yes, God is mean. Religion is not about being a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person.That’s one of the unpalatable bits that may make them stop in their tracks and think about it. ‘Hey, waddya mean it’s not enough not to be a bank robber or murderer? That God doesn’t care how many cookies I baked for the church bazaar?’ (Though God does care about justice and mercy). That the purpose of Christian charity is not to make human life more comfortable but to save the souls of the poor. On the other hand, almsgivng is *not* works righteousness, and we’ll be held to account for what we did to “the least of these”.

Disconnect! The entire problem is that people are realizing that they don’t see the point of “saving.” On the other hand, they know from experience that being good and nice improves our lives. But saving…salvation…it seems to be a solution to a problem that Christians have invented. So as loing as everyone doesn’t have a spiritual confirmation of the purpose of salvation (I dunno…maybe the holy spirit is taking a bathroom break), Christians will continue to alienate by focusing on these untouchable things.

Another commenter who misses the mark says Christianity still has a monopoly on unconditional love. Disregarding how “unconditional” the Christian love actually is (the commenter after addresses that), the problem is unconditional love is not something that can be monopolized. There is no patent on charity and love or capital barriers to entering the industry…so what happens when atheists make “generic” alternatives to Christian charity? The Christian charity, much like a name brand pill, will have a pretty package and a great price, but the generic pill of nontheistic charity will be cheaper, less ornate, but still have the same chemistry.

I’ll stop here to let everyone ponder about that. What is it that Christianity offers that cannot be “exported” to a generic product? The idea about salvation is one of them, for sure…but this idea is still volatile, for many, it hasn’t been shown to be more effective than a placebo in trial runs. This isn’t to say placebos don’t work — oh, to the contrary, people can be VERY improved by a placebo. But people can find their own sugar pills and pay a fraction of the cost if that’s the case. EDIT: See Brian’s latest comment with a link on placebo effectiveness and price. What are the ethical ramifications of this?

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  1. I followed your comment from Alden Swan’s Blog. Alden and I are great, old friends.

    That Is the thing. I really appreciate the results when Christians do good things, whether in the name of their religion or if it is something that they do naturally. I appreciate the results, but those don’t prove God. I tried and tried for several years to believe, but finally accepted that I just can’t. I didn’t lose the moral lessons that I got from my parents, nor my good friends. I just found that I didn’t need Jesus to keep them.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Mike.

    I agree exactly, of course. That’s why I had originally thought that iMonk understood it (because there are SOME lines which sound really great), but overall, he seemed to miss the mark. As I commented at Alden Swan’s blog, I also got the impression — but I couldn’t quite explain it — that iMonk may feel that theism is deep within every person, so if someone is atheist, it’s because of “Occam’s Razor” and because they don’t want to put in the time to find the right sermon or the right scripture that will explain everything.

    But I dunno…I guess what he misses out on is that plenty of atheists have spent plenty of time searching. They have TRIED to believe — as you point out — but it’s not something you can just will. You either believe or you don’t, and to get from one thing to another, you need to radical experience. Unfortunately, we haven’t found any reliable, repeatable experiences that can establish belief or take it away.

    Fortunately, we don’t need this belief to be good, moral people.

  3. It is interesting to see the connection between being “a good example” and “converting” people to your point of view. In reality, people want to be happy, and if they see their neighbors, who appear (at least on the surface) to be happy, and they discover that what enables them to do it is through a religion, or secular humanist philosophy, they’ll be intrigued to know more about it, and it may even convince them to take that way of thinking seriously.

    Rhetoric doesn’t really seem to work all that well with converts, ironically these seem to apply to “atheist converts” ones as well.

  4. Exactly, Hypatia. This has actually been one of the classical forms of argumentation…I mean, everyone knows about logos (e.g., how logically sound your arguments are) and pathos (what kind of emotional appeal you use), but sometimes, people forget about ethos (your character, your moral competence…)

    In my life though, I have found that people who don’t maintain ethos usually bomb, BAD. For example, even if you are ABSOLUTELY correct (perfect logos), *or* someone feels your argument is right (perfect pathos), if you’re a mean, annoying, stuck-up, or overly proud person, then I instantly feel repelled. But I’ve found in life that “killing with kindness” is a very true principle. Might not make me want to join whatever group the other person is in, but I’ll instantly be more endeared to their message if I know someone with moral character in that group.

  5. “But people can find their own sugar pills and pay a fraction of the cost if that’s the case.”

    But more expensive placebos work better than cheaper ones!

    • Brian, you’re actually right! Even more interesting (and there’s a link from the bottom of yours) is that ritualized placebos are more effective than unritualized, so the cost in money can be replaced by cost in time, regardless of the specific ritual. This is a conundrum though…how ethical is it to charge more just to achieve a greater placebo effect? How ethical would it be to make treatment perceived as more demanding to achieve a greater placebo effect? Especially since these ideas play on people’s perception of quality (e.g., greater price = greater quality?)…doesn’t this suggest that our society could use a movement that recognizes that sometimes, quality isn’t dependent on price?

  6. JTJ permalink

    I note with continued disappointment the validation of your argument in last months ensign, wherein those who suffer personal apostasy do so because of some grievous transgression or offense taken. The result being an automatic conviction of any who leave the faith for any reason. It sucks when you have to be more moral and christlike than your peers to earn their respect after you leave.

  7. Sofal permalink

    “What is it that Christianity offers that cannot be “exported” to a generic product?”

    That’s an interesting question. It probably depends on what kind of person you are. Maybe the perspective that this life is just a step on the way to bigger and better things depending on how we live can replace existential angst with a deeply motivating purpose. Can that sort of thing be exported for everybody?

  8. Sofal, nice answer, but it’s pretty loaded. There are a few things in here: 1) this life as just a step on a way to bigger and better things, 2) replace existential angst, 3) deeply motivating purpose. And you probably have these three parts tied closely together…so for example, you probably suggest that a deeply motivating purpose might require that there is something “bigger and better” after this life. Or some other association.

    I would think that point 1 isn’t “needed” for everyone. People don’t need to feel as if this life is a stepping stone, so from here, one is selling a product that has little market. Rather, people really want to know how to deal with this life as it is now. (It seems to me that treating life as a stepping stone represents “giving up” on this life, saying HERE is hopeless and hoping that things will be better THERE, wherever THERE is. And I admit, many people *do* give up on this life, on people, on humanity, on the world, etc.,)

    Without mixing point 1 into point 2 and 3, then yes, I believe 2 and 3 can be exported. This is why people *do* find deeply motivating purposes to their lives ALL THE TIME without Christianity, and many times, they feel that the church stifles, rather than encouraging them.

    But I guess you kinda summed it up: it probably depends on what kind of person you are. My only fear is…doesn’t this pose problems for Christianity? Is Christianity the kind of thing that should work for some, “depending on the kind of person they are”? More often, I hear people say that Christianity is ideally for everyone, not just some, “depending on the kind of person they are.”

    • FireTag permalink

      It seems to me that the universe “works” pretty well however we describe it and whether or not our description is right or wrong or — almost always — somewhere where both ends of that R-W spectrum vanish over the horizon.

      If I’m going to be a Christian, even a wierd pantheistic one like I am, I hope I already understand enough and have learned enough about what I believe the manifestation of Christ on earth to be that I don’t assume that atheists and panentheists and anthrpomorphic theists and polytheists have to believe what I do about Jesus or the universe breaks.

      Whether I call it God or evolution, reality uses everything and wastes nothing in forming itself. That’s a tautology.

      • I actually agree here. This is why things are tricky — we don’t necessarily have any lights or sirens that blare if we have our descriptions and hypotheses wrong — because the universe will just keep on chuggin’ along.

        Yet…I can’t help but feel that in your latter-most part that you have an improper comparison. Why would you say, “Whether I call it God or evolution…” I don’t think that God ever becomes (even conceptually) comparable to evolution. You either think waaay too highly of evolution or waaay too poorly of God…maybe your point is over my head (which wouldn’t be the first time)

      • FireTag permalink

        Andrew: Sorry, I missed your reply somehow.

        I was actually using “evolution” as “best current atheistic model of reality” in my comment. However, you are certainly correct that I have a very high opinion of evolution. I don’t think it’s limited to biology, but I suspect it has analogues on a lot of templates that exhibit lifelike behavior. I think it’s a universal principle, and you know I believe in a very, very broad conception of the universe.

  9. David permalink

    Hi Andrew, I tracked you here from your comments in the iMonk post and I like your blog!

    It sounds like your perspective was similar to mine… it was nice to hear that level of self-awareness in that context, but there were still some jarring notes, and I kept feeling like a lot of the commenters didn’t understand the real scope of the problem.

    The “virtuous atheists are Christians, they just don’t know it” idea feels condescending to me but I recognize its charitable intentions so I don’t begrudge them that. But so many were just repeating the idea that no one outside Christianity can *really* live a fulfilling life. Like the thread likening atheism to listening to low-quality mp3s — that was a double bonus of “kids these days are lazy and don’t want to do the work of obeying God” and “kids these days with their iPods only like that distorted music because they don’t know what the real thing sounds like… just like atheism!”

    I can respect people who find virtue and fulfillment in Christianity… but the way things are going, it’s only going to get harder to maintain the fiction that you can never find those things anywhere else, and I’m not sure iMonk conveyed that to most of his commenters (I’m not really sure he believes it himself…)

  10. Thanks for the comment, David.

    What’s interesting to me…and a bit disappointing, i think, is how Michael/iMonk is kinda backsliding from that message (that you summarized well). He closed the comments for a while (OK, if that was all, that wouldn’t get me; after all, there were a lot of comments)…but then he opened the comments back up and in a more recent comment, he wrote:

    iMonk says:
    August 31, 2009 at 10:28 pm


    I’ve really enjoyed the many kind notes, but there is one thing I keep hearing over and over that I’d suggest you take a second look at.

    I keep getting atheists carping at me for various things I am saying about THEM when I am describing a DECONVERTED EVANGELICAL TEEN….Not an atheist.

    You continually keep saying I’m wrong about x and y as it pertains to you as an atheist, but I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the evangelical kid going from belief to professing atheism.

    I would NEVER try to describe who you are and what you think. I have more respect for you than that. But I know evangelical teenagers.



    So, now, his article, “re:atheism” isn’t apparently about atheism or atheists. It’s about deconverted evangelical teenagers that he apparently “knows about,” so he “knows” that they are only “professing” atheism but aren’t really atheist.

    Never mind the many atheists who commented on his site who VERY WELL COULD HAVE BEEN “deconverted evangelical teenagers” at one point.

    I agree with your conclusion. iMonk’s doing a great thing in conveying *a lot* to his audience, but he still holds back from possibly the most painful conclusion. And I understand that in the end, he has to *advocate* for Christianity, so perhaps that explains why.

    • David permalink

      Yes — I understood locking things down for a bit considering how some of the threads were going, but I was also disappointed with how he resumed things. It seemed like he was making an artificial distinction between “really sincere” atheists and “deconverted teen” atheists, as though the reasons those teens deconverted is independent of their adult experience. I’m not a teen anymore, and I didn’t deconvert as a teen, but the seeds of where I am now were certainly planted in my evangelical youth… if I hadn’t been lied to so consistently about life outside the church, I might never have left in the first place. So his implication that he doesn’t know what I am now, but he knows exactly what I was some number of years ago, still seems presumptuous.

      I don’t mean that I’ve reached my current beliefs purely as a reaction against the church, of course. But I did get here by way of a radical reevaluation that might never have happened if it hadn’t been so obvious that the church’s answers were inadequate and dishonest. If they hadn’t been so insistent on the idea that everyone else was unhappy and immoral, I would never have had to face the dissonance of that claim with reality. But maybe you’re right that they don’t feel they can give that up because they need to maintain on some level that their beliefs are the best.

      I just don’t feel like that’s their only course, though. Even if it was acknowledged all along that other people could be happy and moral, you could still argue for good in Christianity. I guess I’m thinking from the existential absurdist perspective, which most Evangelicals aren’t happy with. But I think that cultural myths (as in mythic, not fiction) can have a great deal of power — they tell us who we are and what we value. I think there’s a reason the character of Jesus resonates with people across such a wide range of backgrounds, and the church would probably face a lot less backlash and resentment if it could play on that rather than focusing so much on exclusivity and partisan politics.

      If the church suddenly fixed all its problems I still don’t think I’d go back, but I wish for the church to improve. I guess it’s like politics — I was raised Republican. I doubt I’ll ever consider myself Republican again, but I think monocultures are unhealthy, so I still wish for Republican leaders that I could respect and maybe even vote for occasionally — someone needs to keep the Democrats honest. I feel the same about religion… I don’t want everyone to just start agreeing with me, but I wish there could be a public discussion about our values that didn’t start with the assumption that atheism is incompatible with morality. One debate I heard had the atheist challenging the Christian on the apparent hypocrisy of the church and why so much evil is done in its name, and the Christian’s reply was basically “How do you have a right to even TALK about good and evil?! You’re an ATHEIST!” Comments like that make it very tempting to just give up on the discussion…

  11. Well, David, I’ve been kinda looking at it from a slightly different perspective (instead of Evangelical, I come from a Mormon background…but I think that on this kind of issue, there are some similarities).

    Namely, I’ve written a lot about people who believe in the church (LDS) on a more mythical, absurdist position…and while it works for them, I’m not convinced that it would work for everyone (or even would work for me, for example — even though I agree with existentialism and absurdism in much part to begin with). Namely, the problem is that many religions don’t function on mythic value. They function very much (or at least, they are advertised to function) on literalistic, historic value. After all, how can a myth tell us “who we are” and “what we value” if it doesn’t reference back to the way the world actually works? If it is counterfactual, even though myths aren’t about factuality or counterfactuality, then we still have a myth that is foreign to us. Or myth that doesn’t fully compel us.

    For example, if we turn Jesus into myth…then yes, he can still resonate. But he doesn’t resonate enough to send people to church. He doesn’t resonate enough to get people to pay tithes. He doesn’t resonate enough to send people on two year missions (OK, that’s mostly an LDS example). And we know that when people try to take a more metaphoric, mythical approach, whether in Mormonism or in protestant Christianity or in Catholic Christianity, the things that the institution cares about go down. Membership and retention go down (people are leaving liberal institutions in droves and going to the strict, literalistic churches).

    This sentiment is captured by YOU already. “If the church suddenly fixed all its problems, I still don’t think I’d go back.” So it makes no sense for the church from a statistical point of view, to try to bend to you, because you will probably not be a customer again. But there are plenty of people who are attracted by fire and brimstone, and the huge divide between the saved and the reprobate (even if this divide is artificial and led to many’s leave of the church).

    I agree that I wish there could still be dialog for the sake of dialog without the ridiculous presumptions that people make, but at this point, I don’t think that dialog quite works yet (for the reasons you say). Really, actions need to speak more with dialog, so that at some point, people will say, “Hmm…I once thought that atheists couldn’t be moral, but what I see with my eyes goes against what I thought…let me investigate.” That’s probably how to reach people.

    • David permalink

      Hmm… you might be right. That perspective is discouraging to me since it seems to imply that the problems in the church are intrinsic to its appeal. I feel like there are some ways in which this shouldn’t be the case — for example, as best I understand, conservative Christianity has not always shown such blatant ambition for political power. If it was different before, I’d hope it could be again. But maybe it’s the sort of transition that is harder to reverse once it’s already happened… certainly I don’t see the most influential churches moderating their views lately. (Which I think is why a lot of people seemed encouraged by iMonk’s post, despite its issues… it’s always nice to hear more moderate voices.)

      I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unrealistic. I’m still “in the closet” to my conservative Christian parents, but I’m gradually trying to be more open with them about my views — but based on what I know about them, I don’t think they’ll ever accept my current beliefs. I hope to avoid permanent estrangement, but I don’t expect any form of support or even respect for where I am now. And maybe that is representative of the core church as a whole, and the church will gradually shrink. I still hope not, in a way — maybe it’s just nostalgia, or regret over my own family issues, but I can’t help feeling like something valuable would be lost if the church were so polarized and rigid that it drove out its own children.

      On the other hand, every so often I’ll run into someone from my fundamentalist past and be surprised to find that they haven’t changed at all, and if anything have gotten more extreme. I don’t expect everyone to go through transitions as dramatic as mine have been, but to see them well into adult life, and yet still true believers in the fullest sense (including spreading stories about Obama’s forged birth certificate and the impending death panels), it makes me wonder if the decline of that mindset is as inevitable as it sometimes seems…

      In any case, thanks for your post and your thoughts, it’s been interesting 🙂

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