Atheism Evangelized

It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good,
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side,
I’m right from mine.
We’re both just one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind.

Bob Dylan, “One Too Many Mornings.”

At Tangled Up in Blue Guy, I introduced the Symbolic Interactionist (SI) perspective of social psychology in response to a question posed at The Friendly Atheist. I examined the ways in which people respond to logical propositions based on their own personal social and psychological background and experiences. The SI perspective is not settled science among sociologists, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on it. I passed one course with an A, twenty-seven years ago. It did, however, make an impression on me.

One of the interesting concepts of SI is the “looking-glass self.” There are three main components:

    1. We imagine how we must appear to others.
    2. We imagine the judgment of that appearance.
    3. We develop our self through the judgments of others.

Mentally and socially, we begin our lives as tabula rasa, empty vessels waiting to be filled and develop our sense of selves based on the totality of interactions we have while developing.  This then affects the way that we approach questions.  As people we decide what to accept and what to discount based on how the information we receive incorporates into our accumulated experiences and understandings and the sorts of feedback that we have gotten on the way that we process information.

Hemant asked the question I started this post with: “Who is better at converting Christians to atheism?“ So called accommodationists or so called New Atheists.  I question the question: I am not settled that it is or should be a goal to convert Christians to atheism.  However, if we accept that this is fact a goal of atheists, I can proceed with the rest
of the post.  I will then, under protest, stipulate that this is a goal.

Is there a singular approach that would be useful to have the maximum effect of converting swathes of Christians to atheism?

The variability in Christian beliefs is the first factor to consider when asking such a question.  Without listing all of the different denominations, it is obvious that there are a great many forms of Christianity.  There are evangelical, fundamentalist, liturgical, esoteric, exoteric, lukewarm, on fire, etc.  People within these variations  also diverge further on how they interpret the relationship of their religious beliefs with skepticism.

The looking-glass self is helpful in this regard, because it is a reminder that with all of these variations on the approach to religion, there are going to be different types of reactions to attempts to “convert them.”  One approach regularly offered is to explain how logic and reason and science work, then induce them to apply reason to their own religion.  Eventually, according to this plan, they will shed their religion and become freethinkers.

That may work for some, but as has often been pointed out, there are countless examples of scientists who do solid work in their fields and yet remain religious.  There is no simple explanation for why this is, and it bears repeating that their perspective on the issue is not the same as yours.   For the atheist, an insistence that we are the only state of belief/non-belief based on reason is faulty.  It ain’t so, because when we approach logic in any situation, we carry a broad base of preconceptions which bear on how we actually process the data sets.

I see a hazard and a way that this can backfire.  If you have a friend or acquaintance that you have targeted for conversion, consider that your friend has a conflicting goal.  Their beliefs compel them to share their experience and their salvation with you in hopes of saving your soul for Jesus.  Consider that you may have just engaged in a game of strategy and competition.  For them, they have found a way to “get to you.”

If logic and skepticism are going to be your approach, your friend has now embarked on a strategy to use those tools to convince you that their beliefs are entirely rational and will mesh finely with your own looking-glass self, but in a way that you may not have anticipated.  Don’t assume that because they have this belief in a supernatural being, that all of their intellectual background is based on fantasy.

Classical Definitions

Classical Definitions

Christianity has a long philosophical history, and the writings of enlightenment era philosophy were not strictly atheistic.  Further, philosophy and logic include difficult concepts such as “epistemology,” which is the question of how we “know” that we know what we know.

Logic and reason are presuppositional.  Whatever you perceive to be “base knowledge” is built upon your own looking glass self, and it is very difficult to find a common base in a logical argument with someone who has their own looking glass self.  Rene Descartes’ famous statement, “Cogito ergo sum,” was the final conclusion that the only base certainty that he could find is that we exist because we think.  All else he had tried in approaching epistemology engendered doubt that he was being deceived.

Pinning your friend down to a common set of stipulations for building a logical case that there is no reason to believe in God gets tricky even for the seasoned student of philosophy, and your friend could indeed be well-trained in logic and epistemology.  Further, since your friend has all ready reconciled logic with faith in their own way to come to a religious conclusion, they are going to bring such reconciliation to the discussion.  Part of what they are using is rationalization, but it is also rationalization that seems “obvious” to them and it should also be “obvious” to you.

Atheists and theists have been debating each other for years to try to convince each other of the fallacies of their logic. It is, for many, a game to play with words and concepts.  You will likely be surprised when approaching a Christian that he or she is all ready familiar with your arguments and prepared to turn them back on you.

It is a mistake to think that only a reasoned approach is going to work, if you intend to reach Christians with the “Message of Atheism.”  If reason is what did the trick for you, that’s all fine and dandy, but it’s not the only game in town.  If you want to “convert” anyone, be prepared.

As for myself, I am not all that concerned with evangelizing atheism for new converts.   I am more concerned with making sure that atheists who think they are on their own know that we are here.

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29 Responses to “Atheism Evangelized”

  1. July 20th, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I suppose it is good that I do not attempt to go forth and convert anyone. I love debating the actual religion itself, and why people believe what they believe, but I am by no means versed in the epistemological arguments of which you speak. Right now I stick to the low-rent, god-bot creationists that attack our hubs of learning and reason, and maybe one day I’ll work my way up to being a seasoned debater. (I’m sticking to the newbie areas to gain experience so I can get better weapons for the later areas?)

  2. July 20th, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Yes, Padawan, you must venture carefully lest you be taken by the Dark Side

  3. July 20th, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    The explanation for why reason won’t work to convert Christians to Atheism is called “faith”. It is held up as the ultimate test of your quality as a believer, and also used to explain why you just can’t explain things. You can’t be a Christian without faith, and you gotta have faith that God, being so high above the understanding of us mere mortals, has his reasons for…death, war, poverty, suffering, evil, injustice, whatever. Pick one. Pick all. If faith has not yet been achieved, it must still be one’s ultimate goal. Thus, reason is merely a temptation to abandon one’s faith and must be resisted. Faith – the “right kind” of faith – is held as the ultimate good (John 3:16) even above the good works that presumably a true Christian would practice.

    Thomas thought differently, which is why his gospel was tossed out by those who met circa 300AD with the goal of consolidating the power of the Church. (What? You thought it was to unify the theology?) If you can control thought, you have power. It’s been working pretty well for about 1700 years since.

  4. July 20th, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Alden says:

    Nicely done, Mike. One of the best treatments of the issues from an atheist perspective that I’ve read. For an atheist, you can occasionally be quite reasonable! ;-)

    Your reference to Descartes made me think that you’d probably really like the book “Descartes Bones.” I’m considering rereading it, and blogging through it.

  5. July 20th, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Alden says:

    The explanation for why reason won’t work to convert Christians to Atheism is called “faith”

    Sorry, @a daughter’s mother, but the real reason it won’t work is called “reason.” (You should read up on that epistemology thing Mike mentioned.) And, a full copy of the Gospel of Thomas was not found until about 340 AD, after the Council of Nicea (325AD). It fails many to meet any standard of authenticity, and is not a “gospel” by any definition. I don’t think it has been dated any earlier than 200AD, as opposed to the 4 canonical Gospels.

  6. July 20th, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Alden, I was considering a thread on the subject of whether or not an atheist truly experiences “love” if we don’t believe in God. A Christian named zDenny has been pestering Jodi,Jason, DuWayne and some others about it. I am sure he is being completely, honestly, logical from his own perspective, but he has shown himself to be completely unable to reflect that others have a different perspective. It seems to baffle him, and he has been an insufferably patronizing jerk by not hearing what people are telling him. Stephanie gave some great examples here of people she knows who are clearly experiencing love, and not just as some “chemical,” but if someone like zDennny can only see it as something of an extension of agape, then he will not accept any contrary examples.

    I have not read Descartes’ Bones, although I have read good reviews. My understanding of DesCartes was shaped by a professor at Moorhead State, who explained that Meditations on First Philosophy was modified at the “request” of the Church, to add “therefore I was created.”

    I think it would be itneresting to read some of the non-Canonical gospels such as Mary, Thomas, Judas, sometime in light of Constantine’s desire to purge the undesirable works.

  7. July 20th, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    @ a daughter’s mother – Alden just gave you a dose of what I was trying to get at. They’re tricky, aren’t they? :)

  8. July 21st, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Alden says:

    Actually, Mike, I think you can use the Bible to support the proposition that all humans, including atheists, can indeed love.

    1) All men were created in God’s image and share some of the aspects of God (even “total depravity” – which I don’t buy in the Calvinist sense – doesn’t wipe out that fact). The ability to love, appreciate beauty, etc. are “human” qualities that reflect the image of God.

    2) It is, of course, true Biblically that all love originates from God. However, the Prophet Joel, quoted by Peter at Pentecost, said that God would pour out his Spirit on ALL flesh. (and the creeds testify that the Spirit is truly God.)

    3) Man’s nature, being “fallen” (a Platonic concept, by the way), has lost the pure ability to love. Even Christians can’t love on their own (1 John 4).

    4) So, while even Christians lack God’s ability to love perfectly, there is still a “spark” of God’s image in humanity, which includes a form of love.

    5) Which, by the way, is sometimes shown more by non-Christians than by Christians (again, back to John’s point in 1 John 4). And, as the Bible teaches, “you shall know them by their fruit.”

    So, while an atheist probably doesn’t like taking the position that his love originates from God, too, in the context of Christianity, it is sound.

    Now, it is interesting that for an atheist to “prove” that he or she can experience real love, they are (aside from quoting the Bible, which they don’t believe in), forced to argue from their own personal experience, as it is neither verifiable or falsifiable. Somewhat ironic, isn’t it?

  9. July 21st, 2009 at 6:34 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    If I may quote Russell Blackford: “Perhaps no precise analogy is intended, and the argument is merely one from radical epistemological scepticism. If so, fine. I can’t prove I’m not a brain in a vat. I can’t prove there is no malevolent demon constantly deceiving me. Of course there’s a far-fetched sense in which I can’t prove anything at all. In that sense, I can prove neither the existence nor the non-existence of God … but nor can I prove that I live in Melbourne or that this coming Tuesday is Melbourne Cup Day. Everything is reduced to the same level of radical doubt.”

    We’d have to a agree on a few stipulations to accept your proof, one being the veracity of The Bible being as factual as say, the works of Shakespeare or the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley.

    And your point is ironic, considering the theme of the post. Of course, by your logic no one can ever “prove” any emotion exists; even though the expression of emotion is highly representational. I think it would be hard to argue that other emotions aren’t provable either, such as depression, sadness, anger, joy, etc. I could, by your standards, never “prove” that I am hungry, thirsty, that I see blue the same way that you do. Yet, you are willing to establish a hodgepodge of doctrinal inscripturations canonized and variously translated over the centuries with reliability that is dubious at best, as a solid enough stipulation to form a logical proof.

    Your certainty in the Bible is comforting for you, I am sure, but it is not universally shared.

  10. July 21st, 2009 at 7:30 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Careful, Mike, if you start reading the non-canonical “gospels”, you might start believing in the Davinci Code’s basic premise too! (oooooohhhh, scary!) Then again, it might just support the idea that Jesus, if real, was capable of love of an individual woman, not “just” the collective masses. Interesting how a specific and normal concept of love is such a threat to the church. But then, I still believe that the church is more about power than love.

    And I don’t care who thinks I can’t love if I don’t have the “right” religious starting point. What I feel that I call love meets all the standard definitions as I understand them – caring, nurturing, selflessness, joy, peace, protectiveness, etc. – and if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, who gives a shit about the narrow little restrictions some religious zealot tries to impose on who I am or how I feel? For my nickel, it’s just another version of I’m-saved-but-you’-re-not which seems to help some folks feel justified and righteous, however skewed a direction their version of religion takes their thinking and actions.

    What? Marion Zimmer Bradley’s writings weren’t real? OMG! WTF?

  11. July 21st, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Aaron Golas says:

    If you want to read an alternative gospel, I recommend “Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend.”

  12. July 21st, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Leo says:

    I can only speak for myself, but I just don’t care if anybody “converts” to atheism or not. First of all, there’s nothing to convert to since atheism is a mere lack of belief in gods. Because of my personal lack of belief in gods I’ve come to believe in certain things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise such as metaphysical naturalism and eliminative materialism which are precluded by belief in any supernatural phenomena. However, if a Christian loses their faith and decides that they no longer believe in gods, it doesn’t mean that they’ll come to the same beliefs as me. In fact, there are many beliefs that I find objectionable that some atheists believe in such as the paranormal or Libertarianism. So from a pragmatic perspective, why should I work to “convert” people from one set of objectionable beliefs when there’s a good chance that they’ll come to believe in something just as objectionable or even more so?

    In the end it’s much more important to me that atheists are accepted and not viewed as inherently immoral or lacking in some fundamental way. It’s also important that we live in a secular society where religious beliefs and government are kept as separate as possible. And last, but by no means least important, I want to see increased acceptance and understanding of science. I don’t care if metaphysical naturalism gains ground in the marketplace of ideas as long as methodological naturalism is viewed as the best explanatory model for the natural world. And of course, that religious believers keep their hands off science curricula.

  13. July 21st, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Nathan Myers says:

    The traditional method of conversion, favored by Christians although practiced for millennia “BC” was to kill the conversion candidates en masse and expand your already converted population into their former territory. The second favorite has been to make your preference The Law (by extortion, bribery, or co-optation of the local monarch) and sharply penalize laggard candidates. This worked throughout Europe. By the numbers, individual persuasion has almost always been a last-ditch affair.

    Despite this overall plan, we may say that Christianity took over easily in Hawaii because it was better, overwhelmingly and obviously, idiocies and all, than what the old priesthood there had evolved. Even at that, it was only the king converting and disbanding the old priesthood that made it possible. Killing the majority of the population with imported diseases helped some.

    All the traditional methods might be brought to bear, again, against atheists if christianists begin to feel threatened.

  14. July 21st, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    José says:

    @Mike Haubrich
    Alden just gave you a dose of what I was trying to get at.

    I don’t know about that. ADM made argument was based on a pop culture myth, not logic or reason.

    @a daughter’s mother
    Then again, it might just support the idea that Jesus, if real, was capable of love of an individual woman, not “just” the collective masses.

    When I read the Gospel of Thomas I always come away thinking he’s a raving, insane fortune cookie writer who hates women. It’s nuts. And you shouldn’t even be talking about it. It says right there at the beginning that it’s a secret.

    I don’t think it would be a good idea for normal Christians to begin incorporating the non-canonical gospels into their views on Jesus. If you cherry-pick and interpret things in generous ways, you can get a more human, feminist, Jesus, but I think if you honestly take the texts as a whole, you end up with something much more unpleasant.

  15. July 21st, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Nathan Myers says:

    There’s an officially recognized (“cultic”) heresy asserting that you get a completely different Jesus if you just read just his quotes, as abetted by “red-letter editions” (starting in 1899) that make them easy to spot. I haven’t succeeded yet in finding out the Catholic name of the heresy. Any Jesuit ought to know it, but Jesuits often don’t like to talk about heresies to outsiders (i.e., non-Jesuits, never mind snarky atheists). They don’t even like to use the word, preferring “error”.

  16. July 21st, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Wow, they had fortune cookies way back then in the Middle East?

  17. July 21st, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Jose:
    But seriously, if something is written down, it’s not secret. I don’t care what it says, in writing, about its being secret. And nobody can claim something is secret, tell me about it, and then try to “should” me into not talking about it.

    What is a “normal” Christian? It is like Paul, the noted misogynist and early leader of the church who never met Jesus but went around telling everyone what to think?

    And in a book as complex and self-contradicting as the Bible, EVERYONE cherry picks what they believe or don’t. Personally, I think it’s time to go cherry pick some Songs of Solomon. It’s getting late, and …. Ohhhh, God, oooohhhhhh, God…..

  18. July 22nd, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Whenever a Christian refers to a “Normal Christian,” it is of course themself to whom they refer…

    You know, a True Scot.

  19. July 22nd, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    José says:

    @a daughter’s mother
    But seriously, if something is written down, it’s not secret. I don’t care what it says, in writing, about its being secret.

    That part was just a joke.

    What is a “normal” Christian?

    1.Conforming with, adhering to, or constituting a norm, standard, pattern, level, or type; typical:

    As in, someone who uses the traditional Bible as there main holy text.

    It is like Paul, the noted misogynist and early leader of the church who never met Jesus but went around telling everyone what to think?

    Yes, Paul was a dick.

    And in a book as complex and self-contradicting as the Bible, EVERYONE cherry picks what they believe or don’t. Personally, I think it’s time to go cherry pick some Songs of Solomon.

    I’m not defending cherry picking. And I don’t think you fight cherry picking with more cherry picking.

  20. July 22nd, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Mal Adapted says:

    There’s an officially recognized (”cultic”) heresy asserting that you get a completely different Jesus if you just read just his quotes, as abetted by “red-letter editions” (starting in 1899) that make them easy to spot.

    More recently, the Jesus Seminar concluded that only 18% of the statements in the five gospels attributed to Jesus were likely uttered by Jesus himself. One imagines the church authorities saying, as was purportedly said by the Bishop of Worcester’s wife on hearing of Darwin’s theory: “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.”

  21. July 22nd, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    José says:

    @Mike
    Whenever a Christian refers to a “Normal Christian,” it is of course themself to whom they refer…

    Nope. I just happen to be familiar with the text in question. I’m not a Christian, and I don’t defend Christianity. I think the Biblical God is an evil monster, which is the one thing the Gnostic Christians were dead on about. The Biblical Jesus seems like he was a pretty descent guy, but nothing more than that. The Gnostic Jesus was at times an egomaniacal, bat-shit crazy, jerk. I don’t like it when people try to represent that Jesus as something he wasn’t.

  22. July 22nd, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Okay, I misunderstood. But I am puzzled as to how we would know what Jesus wasn’t, when it isn’t even settled as to whether or not there was a historical Jesus in the first place. It is quite likely that the person we think of as “Jesus” is an amalgam of various mythical “Man/God” archetypes who preceded.

  23. July 22nd, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Jose: Your comment begs the question: how do you know which Jesus representation is the “real” one? Or even that there ever was a real Jesus?

    Sorry I missed your joke. Problem is, I know people who’d have been dead serious writing that.

    And Mike, sorry that this has all been so-o-o-o off your original point. Returning to that, evangelizing atheism just seems so pointless. Interesting to attempt, and fair play as a return to all those door-knockers trying to save your soul their way, but just pointless. I get the wanting respect bit, and the spreading information bit, but I’m convinced that there’s such a small number of people out there who can tolerate not being part of a flock, in either sense. It’s too much trouble to think. It’s too much trouble to change. It’s scary, leaving all that wonderful emotional support behind, and scarier still if there’s a remnant of belief in Hell.

    Plus it’s just such an oxymoron. Of course, that’s where my mischievous side wants to kick in again, and just riff. I think I’ll spare you that.

  24. July 22nd, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    José says:

    While I personally think it’s likely he was a historical figure, I’m really just assuming he was real for the sake of conversation. The Gnostic texts are very cool, and I’d recommend reading them, but the are clearly younger rewritings of older religious text and probably less likely to be more representative of any historical Jesus.

  25. July 22nd, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I agree, and my title was a bit facetious.

  26. July 22nd, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Theo Bromine says:

    It’s nice when people become atheists, but I think promoting critical thinking, rationalism and secularism is more important (and more useful) than convincing people of the non-existence of God. In some ways, I see dualism (ie the existence of the immortal soul) as more damaging than theism by itself.

  27. July 23rd, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    The difficult part is facing people who think they understand critical thinking very well, thank you very much, and yet they use methodological naturalism’s final inability to satisfactorily prove absolutes as a justification that “faith” is as satisfactorily a basis for logical syllogisms.

  28. January 27th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Mike Haubrich, FCD says:

    I must admit that I am baffled by this response. Could you please elaborate?

  29. February 26th, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Rich Hugunine says:

    I stumbled across this posting while doing some research on evangelical atheism, and even though it was posted and the last comment rendered over nearly 13 months ago, I feel I must respond to one point in particular:

    “Mentally and socially, we begin our lives as tabula rasa, empty vessels waiting to be filled and develop our sense of selves based on the totality of interactions we have while developing.”

    Poppycock. We begin our lives hard-wired mentally for things such as intelligence, aptitudes for different methods of learning, and right or left handedness. We are also born hard-wired for sociability: it’s called personality, or temperament if you prefer that term. Any mother of several children can tell you that each child emerges from the womb with a fully developed method of looking at and responding to the world around it. Any developmental psychologist will tell you the same thing.

    Aspects of the personality may be discouraged or, perhaps, nurtured as the child interacts with those around him / her, and the child may have to learn to adapt as the result of some very hard lessons in how to get along in social or familial circumstances, but the framework of the child’s response to environment and general outlook on the world is more or less immutable at birth.

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