Outspoken atheists are occasionally accused of “jamming atheism down other people’s throats”. The sheer fact that we aren’t cowering in the shadows, afraid to stand up to the all the righteous religious folk running around out there, just sticks in some people’s craw. We stand accused of “intellectual snobbery”, “dogmatic naturalism”, and, of course, all kinds of throat-jamming. There’s a certain irony to all this that isn’t lost on us, but it quickly becomes tiresome and the specific accusations need to be addressed.
A commenter recently left a rather long post elsewhere on this blog regarding the “Out Campaign” logo in my sidebar. The Out Campaign is a campaign being run by Richard Dawkins to help atheists find the courage to publicly acknowledge their rejection of religion. Would that there had been such a campaign when I was in high school, to give me a bit of moral support in the face of the jeers of my classmates. (I caught a lot of flak in school for being an atheist. I won’t pretend that it was from everyone, or even from a majority of people, but there was a large handful of folks who took every opportunity to give me a hard time about it.)
To quote the Out Campaign site, it’s all about
“[allowing] individuals to let others know they are not alone. It can also be a nice way of opening a conversation and help to demolish the negative stereotypes of atheists. Let the world know that we are not about to go away and that we are not going to allow those that would condemn us to push us into the shadows.”
Naturally this is considered throat-jamming of the highest order. There’s some beautiful irony to this as our dear commenter is Garret from over on Ray’s blog. Ray, as you’ll recall, is all about street preaching, evangelizing, and blindsiding random folks with threats of hell if they don’t pray to his fearsome God Yahweh. I know of no atheist equivalent to this. I have never, nor has, to my knowledge, anyone else, set upon a believer on the street, harshly admonishing him that his religion isn’t real and that no he won’t go to hell when he dies ("There'll be no hellfire for you, and you'd better learn to accept that, damn it!") . That being said, I’m more than willing to do such things, with what I hope is a bit more nuance, on internet discussion boards – after all, if people didn’t want to discuss things they wouldn’t be there.
There are a number of fearsome stereotypes about atheists. We’re called amoral monsters, depraved sex fiends, and minions of the devil. The current president has even gone so far as to say that atheists should be considered neither citizens nor patriots. And most of all, whenever we contest these claims, whenever we talk about our atheism without apologizing for it, we’re accused of jamming atheism down everyone’s throats.
One thing that is of particular concern to me is that a lot of Christians who feel threatened by organized atheism seem to confuse the two concepts of secularism and atheism. I don’t know that this is the case with Garret, but it crops up enough that I’ll address it here anyway. When atheists such as myself talk about things like removing “in God we trust” from our currency (added 1865 for coins, 1957 for bills), deleting the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance (added 1954), or teaching empirically based rather than religiously based science in public schools, we aren’t talking about an atheist state, we’re talking about a secular state.
A secular government exists to, among other things, secure the freedom of conscience of all of its constituents. Specific endorsements of Christianity (in the
In any event, Garret’s two main concerns are not really so much about the Out Campaign itself but assumptions that he feels it unfairly makes. I will quote him in full and address each in turn:
“The claim to intellectual superiority because of rejection of supernatural claims such as miracles. This is an entirely metaphysical, philosophical construct, a BELIEF that is based on a "lack of evidence", and is a representation of what exactly constitutes knowledge, and how we come to know things.
This is not the only possible legitimate metaphysical reality, though it is presented as such. As an educated person, I realize that I COULD be deluded - that in fact (atheists) might have it right. This should always be an option on the table, for civility to remain. The claim to all logic, reason and knowledge fall within multiple worldviews and philosophies, and is a debatable reality. To not acknowledge this is intellectual snobbery, and intellectual suicide. One can claim that they are right, but to add that they are intellectually superior is another thing altogether.”
As usual, there’s an extent of course to which Garret is right. As the old canard goes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Arguments from silence are never definitive. However, when it comes to the issue of the supernatural, this argument from silence becomes somewhat stronger because the silence is just deafening! Ghosts, miracles, the afterlife – to accept these things leads to assumptions about the world that can be empirically tested. Are there ghosts? Then we should be able to measure, interact with, or detect them. Is there an afterlife? Then NDE reports shouldn’t correspond so neatly with the physiological reactions of the brain to oxygen deprivation with occasional details of the individual’s religion training (regardless of what religion it is) shoe-horned in. Miracles? Should there not be miracles in modern times, measurable by modern means and flying in the face of understood natural mechanisms? What of “miracles” experienced by members of other religions (recall that Garret is speaking for Evangelical Christianity, not just general theism)?
It is not that people are not looking for evidence of these things – they are. Some people dedicate their entire professional lives to the search for ghosts or the verification of miracles. Yet always they fail. There is specific evidence that we would expect to find if such supernatural claims are true, but we do not. That is a powerful argument from silence. Sure, at some point in the future some supernatural phenomenon may be verified – something that so defies the current understanding of science that it forces a radical restructuring of our view of the world. When and if that day comes, I will be forced to seriously reevaluate my position on a lot of things.
That being said, those of us who prefer an experience-based worldview simply don’t have the evidence in front of us to decide in the way that our friend Garret has decided for himself. He, I can only imagine, would not buy into the contention that there is a magical purple unicorn flying invisibly around the solar system just outside of Pluto’s orbit. It's a patently ludicrous statement, but it cannot be disproved. Someone making that assertion would cause him, at the most, the slightest moment of pause. Why then, should we be compelled by his purple unicorn?
As for claims of “intellectual superiority”, I would note that it is a methodologically materialist worldview that yields useful results. As many of you know, I live in
No one, to my knowledge, makes the claim that atheists are smarter than theists simply because we are atheists. (There is statistical correlation between level of education and non-belief in deities, but both of these things primarily correspond to socioeconomic class. That is to say that they often occur together because they both share an underlying factor, but they do not necessarily flow from one another.) Indeed, some theists, such as Dr. Collins, are eminent members of their fields. To pretend that religiosity is tantamount to stupidity is, in itself, asinine. We sometimes speak, however, of the irrationality of religious belief. Though he would disagree with that choice of terms, I suspect Garret would agree in spirit to what that means.
He believes, he has faith, in his deity despite the lack of concrete evidence. His god either lurks behind the natural laws that run the universe or dwells entirely outside them, never to be quantified by empirical methods. Nonetheless, he believes, not through evidence, but through faith. It sounds almost noble in some strange way, and it is something that most religions ask of their followers. Yet when we aren’t talking about religion, when we’re talking about purple unicorns and Sasquatch and faeries (or even science-ish things like orgone energy, n-rays, and Velikovskian cosmologyl), such claims of “faith” are quickly seen as irrational. Faith is inherently irrational. There’s an extent to which that’s the point.
His second concern is this:
“The claim that Christianity is illogical. It is perfectly logical IF the claims of supernatural in it are true, then Christianity logically follows from it! It is logical within itself and its own metaphysic, as it were. Even if one were to disagree- if you understand it properly and are able to understand the metaphysical concept that undergirds it, then you can see its logic.”
I understand what he’s saying here: Christianity makes perfect sense if the supernatural claims upon which it is based turn out to be true. Well…yeah. He’s 100% right on that one. He was, however, quite right in capitalizing his “if”. It’s an enormous if. There’s also an issue here that he doesn’t confront. I assume that it’s obvious to him and he simply left it out for the sake of brevity, but I’ll go ahead and state it here: ANY religion is logical if the supernatural claims under-girding it are true. That goes for Christianity. It goes for Judaism. It goes for Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, the Cult of Cthulhu, and Dungeons and Dragons. He’s right to say that “if it’s right, it’s right”, but there’s a limit to how far that logic can take us in a discussion.
On the other hand (and I run the risk of becoming snarky here), it must be admitted that there are doctrines of Christianity that, on their face, are quite paradoxical. The Triune Godhead, for instance. God is Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and all of these are simultaneously parts of a whole and yet also distinct. (Like Voltron.) This is a strange act of mental gymnastics – preserving monotheism while still claiming full divinity for Jesus and making reference to an autonomous “Holy Spirit” that acts in hearts of the people. Clearly it is understandable that proto-orthodox Christians endured long periods of controversy over just how many gods there were and do what extent Jesus was divine. Likewise the very idea of the Passion of Christ as redemption for humanity’s sins makes little sense on its face, given the Triune Godhead. Jesus is simultaneously both God and God’s son, ergo God sent Himself to earth to suffer horribly in order to redeem humanity in His own eyes and move Himself to mercifully stay His own hand…? I could go on – theodicy, free will, and numerous other issues have confounded theologians since antiquity. The internal logic of Christianity is therefore obviously not self-evident even to people who spend their entire lives discoursing on it.
Again, Garret is right that if it’s all true, Christianity makes sense, but that “if” is enormous.
Well, I think I've said I need all I have to say at the moment. I suspect my friend will have numerous objections to the issues I've addressed here. Notably I anticipate that he will claim that he does indeed have solid evidence for the veracity of Christian doctrine, though I would be quick to remind him that the approx. 3.9 billion non-Christians on the planet, the vast majority of them belonging to some other religion, also feel that their faith is fully justified, and he needs to address their contentions as well as my own.
* See this excellent book by the late Dr. Paul J. Weber, one of my mentors. We didn't agree theologically - he was a believer and former Jesuit - but his Constitutional analysis of church-state separation is tight.