Thursday, June 30, 2011

Building (and stoning) the Straw Atheist

I've been doing some reading over at Stone The Preacher, and despite my earlier comments I rather like the place. For one thing, the fellow who runs it ("Pastor Steve") has a working sense of humor and the ability to listen - though naturally he doesn't always agree with what his commenters tell him. He also tries to be aware of how his attempts at evangelism are received by others, and moderate his behavior accordingly. This is unusual, to say the least, for anyone who makes a habit of standing around in public places and handing out Bible tracts.

So while I obviously don't agree with everything he's doing, I don't feel any real need to criticize him, either...

...Except when he starts talking about atheists. Which, unfortunately, he apparently does every Tuesday. And when he starts generalizing, the atheists he talks about bear no resemblance to myself or any other unbeliever I've ever met. I'm not the first to point this out - a respectable number of people have commented, rebutted, corrected, and disputed in the comments on the site. Pastor Steve does allow such dissent, but so far his ideas about what atheists are like completely trump any and all testimony to the contrary.

They're some pretty odd ideas[1], too. Some examples:
  • Atheists live "meaningless, purposeless lives." (source) Generally, we don't - not in any greater percentages than believers do.
  • "The atheist’s great hope is that God is not real, Jesus is still dead in the grave and that the resurrection never happened." (source) I don't know any atheists who would describe that as a "hope." Maybe a "conclusion," but not a "hope."
  • "[Faith] is a problem for the atheist. They want proof that God exists first." (source) Well, yes, but as a general rule unbelievers don't consider that a "problem." Most of us consider that "common sense."
These misrepresentations would actually make a (dishonest) sort of sense if Pastor Steve's goal were explicitly to reassure Christians that atheists live drab, wretched, miserable lives. And that may be partly the case, but he also seems to intend these Atheist Tuesday posts as a sort of evangelism to atheists, an attempt to "convict"[2] us of the Truth of God's Word. That being the case, I'm forced to assume that he really thinks atheists are like that.

This persistent mischaracterization makes the Atheist Tuesday posts very odd things to read. No, more than odd - it's weirdly disorienting. Imagine listening to someone tell a story in which the main character has your name... only that character's experiences are not your experiences, and the character behaves nothing like you do. So you're listening to this person talk, and he seems to be talking about you, only the you he's talking about is nothing like the real you. Reading these posts has that same surreal quality.

I've heard this explained as projection - that, basically, the people who do this simply fail to realize that atheists don't think like they do, so they project their own motivations and behaviors onto atheists. A commenter called Nohm described it as "failed mind-reading", which certainly captures the feel of it - an attempt at empathy that just can't make the jump to accurately imagine how atheism looks from the inside. Mainly, though, I think it's a consequence of relying on the map to the exclusion of looking at the terrain (a subject I've mentioned before).

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying: for a certain sort of Christian, the very existence of atheists - of people who have heard the Gospel but do not believe it - presents a theological problem. That problem can be summed up as a question: if the Bible is the Word of God, how can anyone not believe it? So, having encountered a theological problem, where do these believers look for an explanation? The Bible, obviously.

The Bible does indeed offer some explanations for why people don't believe the Gospel. These are, basically, that unbelievers hate God; that because they don't have faith, or aren't part of the flock, they can't understand God's truth; that they want to avoid God's judgement; that they are fools.[3]

Unbelievers also offer explanations for why they don't believe. These tend to focus on things like lack of evidence; the varied and contradictory beliefs of the many Christian sects and denominations; and the dubious morality displayed by the Almighty, particularly in the Old Testament.

You'll note that there isn't a lot of common ground between the explanations offered in the Bible, and the explanations offered by unbelievers. This is where the map-versus-terrain issue comes in.

Basically, for the sort of Christian who assumes that the Bible has all the answers, the explanations offered by nonbelievers cannot be true. The Bible says that unbelievers are in rebellion against God, therefore unbelievers must be in rebellion against God. Actual, legitimate disbelief (or even doubt) is simply impossible. Atheists are therefore either lying or mistaken when they talk about their motivations, experiences, and conclusions. Q.E.D.

It's an answer every bit as simple and elegant as it is wrong.[4] Not surprisingly, it's also wholly unconvincing to atheists, as it completely fails to match our experiences, motivations, and conclusions. But I think that's where a lot of this failed mind-reading comes from: people who believe that atheists must be a certain way because they believe that the Bible says atheists must be a certain way. Trying to follow the map without stopping to observe the terrain.

Obviously, if you don't assume that the Bible has all the answers, this is much less of a problem. Most of the statements about unbelievers were written at a time when Christians were a tiny minority living in a predominantly polytheistic culture, and the rest were written in a relatively small nation of monotheists at a time when most (or all? I'm not sure) of the surrounding nations were polytheistic. So it's entirely possible that the modern form of atheism (with its disbelief in any gods and generally in anything supernatural as well) simply isn't addressed in the Bible - after all, it wouldn't have made any sense to the people who were writing it all down.

Those are my theories, anyway. What do you think?

[1] If you're watching the dates on those articles, you'll notice that I'm cherry-picking a bit. I'm picking out the things he claims explicitly, rather than taking the time to break down some of the more subtle (but equally misguided) implications in other posts.

[2] "Convict" is a particularly strange bit of Evangelical-speak, and I'm still not entirely sure that I understand how they mean it. It certainly isn't used in the "to prove guilty, especially after a legal trial" sense, though about half the time it seems to be used in the sense of "to impress with a sense of guilt." The other half of the time, it seems get used as a cool (though incorrect) way to say "convince."

[3] There are probably others that I'm missing, but these are the ones I've run into. Also, I'm entirely too lazy to look up the references that are the source of these explanations.

[4] Though if you're the sort of person who believes that, then I'm never going to convince you - because clearly I'm either lying or deluded. And in that case, there's really no point in evangelizing to me, is there? Or talking to me at all, really.


  1. The "convict" thing goes back to the idea of the "conviction by the Holy Spirit." The idea is that the Holy Spirit is supposed to impress upon your very soul that you are sinful and need Jesus in your life.

    I suspect that those who use "convict" for "convince" are trying to invoke this idea that it's the Holy Spirit that's supposed to do the convincing, not them. They just say what they need to say and the Holy Spirit comes along and magically "convicts" you at the same time.

    In some ways, one might argue that it's a justification for sloppy arguments. "My arguments don't need to be better because the Holy Spirit will convict you!"

  2. Yeah... if that's supposed to be the case, then the Holy Spirit seems to be lying down on the job. Which I suppose is where we get into the concept of the Elect and related notions that I don't have time to explore right now.

  3. Michael,

    About a year ago or so, Steve and I got into a conversation about Romans 1, which he brings up a lot. Basically that atheists all know God exists, but that they love their sin so much that they refuse to acknowledge him.

    So, I told him that I actually do not know that God exists, and the conversation continued on for a while... at one point he claimed that I knew that God existed, and I was aware that I knew this, but that I didn't believe that God existed.

    As you can imagine, this didn't make any sense to me.

    In the end, I finally just asked him, "do you think I'm lying when I say I don't believe or know that God exists?"

    His answer was yes.

    So, to be clear, Steve thinks that all atheists are lying when they say that they are not believers.

    It's an interesting thing.

  4. Michael,

    Forgot to mention, Steve is a calvinist, so you're right about the "Elect" and all that.

    Living Waters and its sycophants, though, are not eager to discuss the calvinism thing, because they are well-aware just how divisive it is among other Christians.

  5. Yeah, I've almost that same conversation with another hard-core Calvinist who showed up Dr. Ken Pulliam's site to tell us the good news that we were completely wrong and he could set us straight. It... didn't end well.

    I'm toying with a new follow-up for anyone who claims that atheists know perfectly well that God exists but refuse to acknowledge him: "Really? Is that how it was for you before you converted?" I haven't tried it yet; I don't know whether it might help any of them step outside the prepared script or not.

  6. Hi Michael,

    I encourage you to look up Steve's testimony. Not only did it create a bunch of interesting comments (because he later admitted that he twisted the truth to make his story more exciting), but in it he explains that he never was an atheist; he always believed in God and Jesus and so on.

    Also, it wasn't until I just read it a second time that I realized that you did a "shout out" to me regarding my use of the "failed mind-reading" phrase. If there's one main thing that fascinates me about people like Steve (and it isn't just fundamental Christians who do this) is how they'll tell me what I think, what my opinions are, and so on. I just don't get why they do it, but it's an absolute fascination of mine.

  7. Also, further regarding the "failed mind-reading":

    My guess is that it's a combination of the two issues you listed: projection and map-vs-terrain.

    Granted, I don't think that their projection is completely accurate; I don't think that they'd all really be horrible people if they suddenly lost their faith. In fact, my experiences with observing total jerk fundamentalists deconverting to non-belief tells me otherwise; if anything, they formulate a better moral system than the one that they were following as believers.

    As you mentioned, I think that it's also an issue of "well, the Bible has an answer for how they are, and that answer allows me to be right and them to be wrong, so that works for me."

    But I just don't understand how they can rationalize that we're ALL lying about our motivations and our conclusions. That's the part I really don't get.

    Michael, were you ever a fundamentalist?

  8. I was never a fundamentalist. In fact, a lot of my (puzzled, bemused, and occasionally outraged) fascination comes precisely from the fact that it is not at all the Christianity I remember.

    I compared notes on religious backgrounds with a bunch of different people here, and I talked a bit about how my "deconversion" story seems somewhat atypical (and not exactly a deconversion story) here.

    As far as the "how can they believe that" question, I think it's a heavy dose of compartmentalization, combined with the fact that it's relatively easy to believe all sorts of things about people in the abstract. It's only when you get to know people that those beliefs become much harder. So it's probably closer to scapegoating than projection, at least most of the time.

    But yeah, I'll definitely go look up Pastor Steve's conversion story. That ought to be interesting...


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