Last month marked the three year anniversary of this blog. What started as a platform for “coming out” as a progressive Christian to my largely Evangelical friends and acquaintances, soon became the logbook of my journey out of religion. It was never my intention to lose my religion, in fact I actively fought against it, but the desire to have my beliefs line up with reality eventually won out in the end.
It’s interesting to look back at my early posts and see the gradual transition from faith to reason. I started off being an outspoken advocate for the teachings and life of Jesus, social justice, and progressive Christian values. My frustrations with organized religion and self-reflection can be seen in my post where I lament, “It’s a long, messy road when you start picking through your faith, when you start dissecting everything you’ve been taught and believed.” This frustration soon lead to my break from the Church. Not long after, I came out publicly as a non-believer, denounced Christianity and its teachings. I dabbled briefly in mysticism, but science and reason eventually prevailed.
Since that first year, my blog has focused mostly on science, critical thinking skills, counter-apologetics, and calling out bullshit when I see it. As an atheist living in the Midwest, I feel a certain responsibility to speak out for other non-believers, letting them see that it’s OK to be an open and outspoken secularist.
One of the blogs that made an impact on me when I was de-converting was Neil Carter’s “Godless in Dixie“. As a former pastor-turned-atheist living in the Bible Belt, he wrote from a place that I could relate to. He was also kind enough to answer my emails and provide encouragement. My hope is that Second Journeys can provide that for someone else.
Now in my third year of writing, I’ve been once again doing some self-reflection. Perhaps it’s time to make some changes in the focus of my writing and my overall mindset in general?
The catalyst for this thinking came from reading James A. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong About God. The book is a “call to action to address people’s psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God.” A good summary of the book would be, “The debate about God has long been settled, atheism has won out, so now what?” Lindsay’s book challenged my thinking on a number of points and made me reconsider my approach to talking about religion. I want to hash through some of these points here.
Lindsay argues that apologists have been unable to provide any evidence for the existence of God, therefore theism is dead. As such, atheism should also go away, as it has no purpose of meaning anymore: “By dwelling on atheism, we dwell on the debate, and by dwelling on the debate, we perpetuate its counterpoint, theism, as something debate-worthy instead of something that already lost. […] It’s time to move on, and the path we should follow is to stop pretending that theism deserves serious consideration.”
When Bill Nye debated Ken Ham a couple of years ago, many atheists and scientists were upset at Nye for giving Ham a platform to promote his pseudoscience. They felt that it only helped validate his position and did little in the way of changing opinions. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and to the idea of debating theists in general. By engaging in debates over topics where there is no longer a debate to be had, are we really accomplishing anything other then giving credence to their views?
Lindsay points out that debating can have the opposite effect of what is desired – people often becoming even more entrenched in their views when faced with contradicting information. Unfortunately, facts and evidence don’t carry the weight that they should with many people. In religion, devout believers have mastered a myriad of tricks and techniques to avoid critical thinking and make their beliefs impossible to falsify.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of apologetics, the so-called “defense of the Christian faith”. I’ve talked about apologetics failures before, but Lindsay boils the typical apologetic arguments down to this simple observation, “All these people are saying is that they lack an explanation for these admittedly complex and mysterious phenomena and don’t like the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort enough to pretend they have one in a myth called ‘God'”.
Lindsay observes that at this point in history, apologetics has become a very redundant and foolish endeavor. Using Sam Harris’s metaphor of religion providing comfort to people the same way that believing there is a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s back yard might provide comfort, “Taking this metaphor at face value, if religion is believing that there’s a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s yard, theology is arguing over the brand of the refrigerator.”
So what does this mean for atheists and those like myself? For one, it means being very selective about who we choose to have debates (discussions) with regarding theism (or creationism, climate change, etc.). While some people may be in a place where they are open to hearing new information and are genuinely curious, most have no intentions of changing their pre-determined stance. This can be tricky to do, especially if you’re someone like me, who enjoys a good debate. Lindsay points out that, “Because nonbelievers are branded with this unfortunate word (atheist), they are suddenly expected to defend a lack of belief, a burden that isn’t there’s and yet they routinely accept for themselves. […] Part of the nature of this trap is that it enables religious people to misunderstand atheism as a thing like a religion, which they reliably do.”
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make efforts to correct false information and dispel myths when we encounter them. It simply means not getting drawn into the futile debates, or “lose ourselves in the weeds” as Lindsay says. Don’t give validity to empirically false ideas by engaging in debates with people unable to handle critique or process contradicting information; i.e. people who suffer from cognitive dissonance. Be honest. Be direct. Be unapologetic. State the facts, sight your sources, and move on. If someone counters, demand evidence and be open and willing to listen if they provide any. This is not an attempt to shut down discussions in any sort of forceful way, but rather to “facilitate productive conversations that move us forward.”
Equally important, however, is being able to also admit when you don’t have a solid answer. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” and it’s certainly preferable to false certainty. As Lindsay states, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go”.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge and understand that peoples’ beliefs in God come from somewhere. “‘God’ means something when people say it, and that something is related to their attempts to meet psychological and social needs. These needs manifest primarily in three ways: attributional, for a sense of control, and regarding sociality. When people talk about their ‘God’, they are talking about how they make sense of ideas that allow them to meet or ignore these needs, and they are telling is that they do not really know how to meet them.” People of faith are not stupid, delusional, or mentally ill – they simply have wrong information about the world we live in. Wrong information can be corrected. With this in mind, it is important to not simply tear down false ideas, but to also build up correct ones.
Above, Lindsay points out three main needs that religion provides for people, and we need to be prepared to help meet those needs post-theism. If we are going to debunk supernatural claims about the world, we need to be providing natural explanations (attributional). We need to help people understand that the world can be a scary place, but you are ultimately in charge of your life (control). Alternatives when it comes to the social benefits that church once offered also need to be met (sociality). There’s no denying that churches often do community really well. Non-believers are lacking in this department and we need to be better at providing social interactions for people looking to get out of religion.
So what does all this mean for myself and for Second Journeys? Honestly, I’m not quite sure! Just as my personal journey out of faith (and this blog) evolved over time, I’m sure it will continue to evolve over time, just in a different direction.
It will likely mean spending less time on counter-apologetics, both on this blog, on social media, and in person. Theists aren’t coming up with new arguments for the existence of God, just repackaging and rehashing the same old ones anyways. I plan on continuing my “Mythbusters” series and calling out false information and stereotypes. I will also continue to promote critical thinking skills and provide tools and resources. A helpful addition may be giving people a glimpse of life on the other side of religion, providing resources, and maybe working on some sort of on-line community for people. This will be as much for my benefit as anyone else.
I think Lindsay is right that it is time for us to move forward into a “post-theist” society, similar to what Scandinavian countries have done. “The next rational step is to stop treating the idea of ‘theism’ seriously at all. The war of ideas is over. The goal is not to create an atheist society so much as to create one that has left the idea of ‘God’ behind in its superstitious past.” It’s time to move past the atheism/theism debate and start constructing new, healthier, evidence-based world views and trying to solve real world problems. This doesn’t mean shying away from using the term “atheist”, but simply acknowledging that you don’t believe in a god and moving on to more important matters.
Thanks for reading.