A couple friends on Facebook today mentioned an article on wikiHow entitled “How To Persuade a Christian To Become Atheist.” It’s a step by step guide to getting friends to question their theism without frightening them away. Apart from some errors in grammar and syntax, the article is pretty basic and logical, and emphasizes the importance of deepening one’s understanding of both sides of the issue. I’m familiar with some Christian patterns of evangelizing that utilize some of the same broad principles. Any thoughts on evangelizing atheists? Surprising? Unsurprising?
Tag Archives: Atheism
The outcome may surprise you, though. The book she wrote is called In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. Here’s the blurb on an interview with her on Patheos.com:
Gina Welch grew up in an atheistic, anti-religious household in Berkeley, California. After she moved to Virginia for graduate school, she found herself surrounded by evangelicals, at the very time that evangelicals were credited (and often blamed) for the re-election of George Bush. To investigate what makes evangelicals tick, and to confront her own personal prejudices, Gina resolved to go “undercover” and fake a conversion at the fundamentalist Thomas Road Baptist Church, where the pastor was a certain Jerry Falwell. . . .
as Welch attended the church for two years, something entirely unexpected happened: she began to fall in love not only with the people she met, but even with the rhythms of the life of the church. Even what seemed most foreign, the drive to evangelize, was eventually understood to be an act of profound compassion and social responsibility. Yet after a mission trip to Alaska, Welch was increasingly haunted by the seriousness of her deception. She left Thomas Road without explanation, but so longed to return to the church that her friends and family worried she had lost her way and gave her books on escaping the grip of cults. When at last she returned to Thomas Road to explain what she had done, she received forgiveness and grace from those she had deceived.
Although her basic beliefs regarding God and the afterlife have not changed, Welch admits that “there were times that I felt moved in ways hard for me to account for.” Welch’s attitude toward evangelicals certainly changed. Now, as in this recent post at On Faith, Welch serves as an interpreter of evangelicals to secular progressives.
CNN has a video posted in which Sam Harris, one of the founders of Project Reason and author of “Letter to a Christian Nation,” explains why religion needs to go. It seems he’s arguing that religion is a distraction from, and an insufficient response to, the real problems of the world. The video formulates a caricature from the most fundamentalist and extremist manifestations of religion, and it is this caricature which Harris rather deftly confronts. That caricature, however, is only a caricature. That Islam and Christianity are theologically irreconcilable is not really a valid indictment of theism in general. I also take issue with his assertion that much war is waged because of religion, even when nationalism and political motivations may seem to be the proximate cause (his statement is that “it’s political because it’s religious”). This is a reductive and uninformed assessment of the causes of the wars to which he alludes.
UPDATE: Harris replies to common criticisms of his argument here.
I just received an email from Project Reason about the winners of their video contest. This was the invitation:
The primary goal of Project Reason is to spread scientific thinking and secular values. We invite you to help us further our work by submitting a short video that conveys the message of the foundation.
This was the winning video. I think it’s a good video, although I think the guy’s voice isn’t quite right for its tone. The issue I take with it is that it promotes equal social footing for all without belittling any segment of the population. This isn’t a bad position, but it is at total odds with the values of Project Reason, which seems committed to ridiculing all aspects of faith and religion.
I’ve been browsing a number of different message boards recently (with my six week Christmas break) and came across what I think is an interesting idea. A person insisted that every human being is born an atheist. I responded that this appeals to an incredibly broad definition for the word “atheist,” and that the most common understanding of “atheist” is “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of a deity” (see OED). “Non-theist” would be a more precise word for someone who, out of ignorance of the concept, has no belief one way or the other concerning deity.
That rhetoric then intentionally equivocates. The purpose is clearly to infer that atheism is the natural order, and that theism represents a departure from human nature. In order to make this inference, however, the individual has to manipulate ambiguities and appropriate for atheism a demographic that can never self-identify as atheistic—a demographic that is without exception separate from the one making the inference. I don’t believe they have that right, and I don’t believe there is a pragmatic justification for casting the net so wide.
Jim West points to an NPR article discussing an inside critique of the New Atheist movement. The article mostly features an interview with Stuart Jordan, a volunteer advisor with the Center for Inquiry. Their mission is “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” Jordan is speaking out about what he sees as a misguided facet of the New Atheism, catalyzed by an atheist art exhibit he feels is unnecessarily belittling towards religion. The accompanying photo shows one of the pieces. Jordan says, “I wouldn’t want this on my wall” (as an artist I’m offended by how much the painting just plain old sucks).
The article goes on to discuss this New Atheist movement, and what the journalist sees as some of the challenges that may be facing it, including a potential schism, represented by Mr. Jordan. According to the head of the Center, which ran the exhibit, “What we wanted were thoughtful, incisive and concise critiques of religion. We were not trying to insult believers.” Jordan sees it differently. The painting on the left is only one of the three things the Center’s head mentioned, and that’s concise. Beyond that it’s just taking something people find spiritually important and mocking it. If the head of the Center had anything to do with which art was accepted to this exhibit, he failed in his expressed goals.
The article then discusses prominent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins.
Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book God Is Not Great, told a capacity crowd at the University of Toronto, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.” His words were greeted with hoots of approval.
Religion is “sinister, dangerous and ridiculous,” Hitchens tells NPR.
Hitchens doesn’t appear to know much about war, geopolitics, or history. His opinion is a rather naive and reductive one that is common among college freshmen and those who fail to transcend that mentality. The maintenance of power and the ideologies that prop that power up are responsible for the danger so often attributed to religion. Blaming “religion” in and of itself is simply juvenile.
The founder of the Center for Inquiry, Paul Kurtz, agrees with Jordan. He was evidently ousted last year from his position, and the article has this to say:
[Kurtz] worries the new atheists will set the movement back.
“I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they’re very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”
He hopes this new approach will fizzle.
“Merely to critically attack religious beliefs is not sufficient. It leaves a vacuum. What are you for? We know what you’re against, but what do you want to defend?”
The new head of the Center, Ronald Lindsay (quoted above) also had the following to say about being belittling:
“We take the high road, the low road, country roads, interstates, highways, byways, — whatever it takes to reach people.”
Perhaps he was not being totally sincere in the other quote. Either way, it’s an interesting dynamic, and what I find interesting is that the New Atheists who are trying to shock and awe more than connect on a respectful level certainly are reaching more people, but are polarizing people more than they’re changing minds. I have to side with Jordan and Kurtz that this New Atheism is going to do more damage than good to their long term goals. I’m als oglad to see someone else using a term I adopted a long time ago (atheist fundamentalists).
What are your thoughts?
I ran across an interesting article today about an atheist group that has purchased a month’s worth of advertising in New York’s subways. The ad consists of a blue sky background with the words “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?”
I find it a little hard to believe that the campaign is “in no way anti-religious,” as the director claims, and if they took the number (one million) simply from another groups survey, how can they be sure they’re all “good”? Is that undue critical thinking for a simple ad campaign?
Jim Linville has a post up by his big brother, Allen, that is a comment from his recent Carnival of the Godless. His brother takes issue with some of the assertions from an entry from the Primate Diaries by Eric Michael Johnson. Here is the gist of his brother’s concern:
I am not a religious person, not even a slightly spiritual person, unless it involces good beer or single malt scotch. But I will not ridicule or demean someone’s contribution to the knowledge of how some portion of the universe works just because they believe that a supernatural being or beings was/were the cause of the universe.
A respectable position irrespective of one’s ideological leanings. Allen also mentions a few different believing scientists who made significant contributions to our understanding of the world. I want to share some of the comments from Johnson’s article that I find interesting:
Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn’t mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don’t probe too deeply into the foundations of a person’s faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases.
He’s referring, I believe, to a species of compartmentalization whereby the believing individual reserves his critical thinking only for topics which do not impinge upon the foundations of his faith. I believe this is not an inaccurate observation, but is not necessarily a universal truth. Jim’s brother responds,
There are hundreds of examples of real, important, long lasting scientific work done by devout people of all religions in geology, astronomy and physics. These sciences, along with biology, are now under attack by a variety of unreasoning, closed minded people. But in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the discoveries were not ignored but fully researched and probed to the fullest allowed by the technology and theories in place at the time.
Somehow they managed to either separate the science from their faith or accept that the new discoveries were a part of the workings of whatever version of God he or she believed in. A person’s religious views generally does not demean any scientific endeavour that person engages in, no more so that the person’s race, gender, age or sexual orientation.
Back to Johnson:
But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close . . . well, that’s when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I’m sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They’ll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.
Perhaps many do, the ones that fit into that category I encounter most often are the ones with very little or any formal science education. Real, practicing scientists I have studied do not suffer permanent lower back pain because of their beliefs. Yes, religious people can be good scientists.
While I have no real problem with evolution, I disagree with Johnson’s earlier comment that a simple appeal to “natural mechanisms” ameliorates all the complexities and unknowns. Assuming that those unknowns operate under the same mechanical principles (and then averring that they do) just because that makes the theory easily manageable is not an entirely scientific conclusion.
On the other hand, I believe there are plenty of believing scientists (and scholars) that have no problem thinking critically about issues that land right in their theological wheelhouse. We had courses on evolution available at BYU (taught by very competent scientists), and the vast majority of the Latter-day Saint student body took no issue with it. They also kept on believing in God and in some manner of divine creation.
To quote Hamlet, “Aye, there’s the rub.” Do we have to abandon one when a perceived conflict arises in the other? Perhaps when one has very strict and comprehensive boundaries. Johnson begins his article referencing his own Lutheran upbringing. He cites some standard religious problems and atheist responses:
I remember vividly Pastor Carl’s frustration when he couldn’t answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry.
“We can’t always understand God’s will.”But wait, I thought, you claim to understand God’s will in all of these other areas.
I believe he’s here throwing the baby out with the bathwater, though. The problem may not be with religion, but with Pastor Carl’s confidence in his explanation of it. I tend to be far less sure in my ability to pigeonhole God’s exact nature and will. After all, that seems to be the point of eternal life (John 17:3), not necessarily our temporal existence.
There are plenty of religious folks who believe scientific inquiry can inform our search for God. Not all religious traditions are diametrically opposed to scientific principles that conflict with traditional and fundamental interpretations of the scriptures. Most of those interpretations, after all, predate the modern scientific method. Those traditions, at the same time, usually hold to a limited number foundational articles of faith that may or may not align with current scientific paradigms. The more dependent these axioms are upon tradition, the more likely they are to conflict, in my totally uninformed opinion, with science. These scientists and scholars may be less likely to be convicted adherents to the most conservative and fundamental religious traditions, but may be firm adherents to their theologies.
Other scientists and scholars operate under a brand of compartmentalization slightly different from the type described above. They entirely separate all their religious beliefs from the assumptions that guide all their scholarship or science. Some find this intellectually dishonest, but others will argue that science is far from establishing a comprehensive picture of absolute truth (or even its existence), and so one can hardly be faulted for suspending religious judgment based solely on the scientific paradigm. What is popular this century may be flippantly dismissed next century or overruled by new discoveries, and I’ve heard people say they don’t want their soul sacrificed on the altar of science if the axioms upon which that altar is built are that rickety and transitory. Evolution may not fit properly into this paradigm, but evolution does not threaten all theists. Scholars and scientists who fall into this overgeneralized category may be perfectly happy to critically and objectively engage research and theories that totally conflict with their religious beliefs.
I think there are a number of different believing approaches to practicing science and scholarship, and readers will probably find my categories woefully inadequate. Johnson brings up important points to consider, but I believe he’s responding only to the worldviews to which he’s had exposure, which are limited in number. His exposure is also most likely limited in profundity. As is the case with many atheists who reject their faiths as youths/young adults, I believe Johnson is engaging a religiosity not far removed from the kind he experienced as a high school and college student. His view of science has progressed considerably since then, no doubt, but I have a hard time believing his view of religion has done the same.
There are a number of other roads down which one could take this discussion, but this is the road I’ve chosen. If you have questions, comments, suggestions, or corrections, I’d love to hear them. The biblioblogging topic of the week comes and goes, but this is a topic I believe will be with us in some capacity for quite some time, and I’m interested in others’ thoughts and what avenues I can explore for a richer understanding of how this applies to science and the academy.