What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part one)

PhilandBobDialogues between Christians and atheists rarely go well.  In fact, they’re usually more like dueling monologues in which both parties talk past each other.  Sometimes it escalates into online shouting matches and name calling, which can be cathartic but never accomplishes anything productive.  I find this happens most often when one or both parties either a) are just smart enough to engage in a debate but not smart enough to do it well, or b) have never themselves been “on the other side” and therefore cannot possibly understand where the other person is coming from.  This happens less with people who have lived as both devoted Christians and as convinced atheists.  Whenever someone says he’s been both but then proceeds to belittle the other person or misrepresent the other person’s viewpoint, I begin to question either the authenticity of his story or else the level of his intelligence.  Because I’ve been on both sides of the fence myself, I have already enumerated some of the key ways that I see Christians misunderstanding atheists; but I have also noticed a couple of things which atheist interlocutors rarely “get” about how Christians think.  Phil Vischer’s recent response to Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists does a pretty decent job of pointing some of those things out while maintaining the charitable tone that I’ve come to expect and appreciate from Vischer (even if I do disagree with several things he said).  If you don’t recognize Vischer’s name, you may perhaps be more familiar with the Veggie Tales franchise which he helped create.

Once upon a time I was a connoisseur of Veggie Tales videos.  When they first came out, I was in college and a friend of mine who worked at a local Christian bookstore brought the first one “home” to the dorm.  We cracked up at the quirky humor and got the catchy tunes stuck in our heads permanently.  We watched each of the new videos as they were released and once I began having children I made sure our video library was full of them.  My kids memorized those things, and so did I.  We watched them so often that to this day I find myself wanting to respond to various life moments with a Veggie Tales line or song.  In retrospect, those earlier episodes were highly moralistic as even Vischer himself has since acknowledged, but they still were quite clever.  It was clear to me that the creators of this series were an inventive and intelligent bunch of folks.  I haven’t followed the world of Veggie Tales for several years now, and the guys who originally created the franchise are no longer at the helm.  But recently Vischer’s face popped up in my newsfeed because he wants to interact with Boghossian about his new book, and about the way that he defines the word “faith.”

I’ll have to preface this by admitting that I haven’t had time to read Boghossian’s book (cut me some slack, I’m shirking duties to even have time to write this post), but I promise I plan to read it soon.  In the meantime, I noticed the issues Vischer raises match some regular complaints from Christians which I think need to be taken into consideration if anybody’s goal is to actually communicate instead of just “preaching at each other.”  Vischer says plenty that I’d like to respond to, and I’ll leave it to Boghossian to address those places where he feels his work has been misunderstood.  But two things stood out to me which I think have to be recognized before any real conversation can take place.  I’ll touch on the first in this post and save the second for the next one.

1)  Many Christians are way smarter than atheists give them credit for.

If you came from where I come from, you know that many Christians—even evangelical and fundamentalist ones—are highly intelligent and well-educated.  The kinds of people I used to run with are deep, thoughtful people who are passionate about understanding the world around them even if their theological commitments have somewhat limited which sources of information they are willing to entertain.  These people don’t like “pat answers” for complex questions, and they sympathize with the skeptic’s hunger for knowledge that is as free as possible from personal bias.  But these aren’t the kind of people you see most easily in comment threads on Facebook, on popular blogs, or on YouTube.  The kind of Christians most visible in places like that are the ones who say stupid stuff, thoughtlessly parroting clichés and memorized phrases which they’ve clearly never analyzed in any critical way.  These people stick with you because they make you the maddest (you remember most that which stirs your emotions), and because they never know when to quit.  They just keep beating their drum, regurgitating robotic replies until you are ready to jump out a window.  These are the people responsible for cementing the popular atheist perception that the Christian faith makes you dumber.  They exist.  They are real.  And they annoy thoughtful Christians as much as they annoy atheists.  From the outside looking in, they seem to outnumber the thoughtful, intelligent kind by a large margin.  I don’t know if that’s an accurate perception or not, but Vischer seems to feel that it is, and yet he makes an interesting point:

Atheists often criticize Christians for being incurious.  And there is definite truth to this accusation.  But rather than saying most Christians are incurious, I would zoom out to say most PEOPLE are incurious.

It is probably true to say the average atheist is a more curious person than the average Christian, at least in America.  But this is true at least partly, I believe, because “Christian” is the default state most Americans are born into.  Basic Christian beliefs are inherited by most Americans, like exceptionalism or a taste for fatty foods.  In other words, it takes no curiosity at all to grow up Christian in much of America.  It’s like growing up capitalist.  It’s in the water.  Rejecting capitalism – or Christianity – takes more effort than not.  Truly rethinking Christianity in big parts of America is partly a result of possessing enough curiosity to examine the claims of the culture around you.  Of all the people who do that, some will remain Christian, and some will not.  The people lacking that curiosity will generally stay right where they were born, which, in big parts of America, means they will remain incuriously Christian for life.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head there.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to gently suggest something as a potentiality which I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he probably knows is already a reality for many people today:

One day, probably not too far out, areas of America will be so thoroughly atheist that we will start bumping into a new creature – the incurious atheist.  The “nominal” atheist.  The “cultural” atheist.  And that new creature can then be startled by unexpected questions for which they have no easy answers, and will either reconsider their non-beliefs, or fall back into a defensive posture and play the “faith” card.

“I just don’t believe, that’s all.  It’s the way I was raised.”

What an interesting day that will be.

I have already encountered plenty of this myself, and I’m guessing he has, too.  If you’re like me, you only arrived at non-theism after a long struggle with questions and introspection, against tremendous social pressure to “stay Christian.”  My skepticism was in many ways a hard-won position, requiring a strong passion for realism, and courage to pursue hard questions in the face of dire social consequences.  My struggle predisposed me to naively assume that all who arrive at atheism are equally committed to empiricism and critical thinking, but I’ve found that’s clearly not the case.  Many who don’t believe in ghosts, goblins, spirits, or deities were just never really taught to believe in them in the first place.  It’s not that they rejected them after years of questioning the beliefs of those who raised them; they were sort of non-theistic by default.  Among these people there are many who never really catch on to the usefulness of skepticism and empiricism as safeguards against delusional thinking and personal biases, and frankly some of them just aren’t that bright.  They are no more careful or thoughtful than their theistic counterparts who post stupid things on comment threads (even though I must confess that the culture of fundamentalism tolerates such intellectual superficiality far more readily than the skeptical community).  On top of that, since they lack the Christian’s cultural aversion to foul language, they often pepper their ill-conceived vitriol with four-letter words which shut down conversation before it can even begin.  More than likely, these people are not looking for “conversation” because that would require hearing what the other person has to say.  That’s the last thing either the incurious atheist or the incurious Christian wants to happen.  This is why it’s so refreshing to hear Vischer say:

Why are we doing this?  Because just the act of having a conversation with someone who strongly disagrees with you is a valuable exercise.  It’s worth the time and trouble.

I totally agree.  Too few people recognize the value of this.  Some fail to grasp this because they’re mentally lazy as Vischer says later in his article.  Some aren’t lazy, but they still fail to see it because the more they wade into the forum of public debate (in America at least) the more they find that the less thoughtful people hog the microphone, so to speak.  I, too, have found that the more “out there” I become, the more I encounter this thoughtless kind from both worlds (Christian and atheist), and it’s those extremes which stick with you the longest.  Because of this phenomenon (Is there a name for this?  There should be) it behooves the thoughtful person, be he theist or non-theist, to seek out and befriend those people from the other side of the fence who have their own hand outstretched, seeking the company of equally-curious friends of every stripe.  This is how we learn stuff.  This is how we make progress and move forward (pretty much the opposite of how the 113th U.S. Congress functioned).  Many will lack the motivation to do this.  “Why should I try to speak their language? They’re too stupid/deluded/lost to even comprehend what I’m saying!”  A moment from the movie Babe comes to mind:

Narrator: Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise.

Fly: Please, someone tell me… what happened this morning.

Narrator: The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise.

I suppose if you only talk to the “wing nuts” on either end of the spectrum, you’ll conclude that real, intelligent dialogue with the other side is either impossible or else not worth the effort.  But it doesn’t help anybody to shut off an entire demographic just because you’ve mainly encountered the worst of them so far.  I see benefit to seeking out those who know how to hold an intelligent conversation about things because maybe, just maybe, the experience will give you enough insight into the mind of people not like you to be able to speak to a wider range of people without miscommunicating, thereby wasting everybody’s time including your own.

In part two, I’d like to address the second thing which too many atheist don’t “get” about Christians:  Their definition and usage of the word “faith.”  That deserves a post of its own.

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20 Responses to What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part one)

  1. Doobster418 says:

    Thank you for this post. You are so right about what you said regarding those who post and comment on blogs. When I read the nonsense that some of those Christians write, I can’t help but comment back. And it’s a total waste of my time. My attempts to make thoughtful, rational, logical comments fall upon deaf ears. It IS maddening and I do have to remind myself that, just as militant atheists don’t represent that majority of those of us who are atheist, neither do these Christians who write stupid stuff in comments and threads represent the majority Christians. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  2. Gra*ma Banana says:

    I agree that there are boorish adherents on both sides of the God debate. But not everyone has the advantage of being educated (especially here in MS which is now ranked 51st in education – a drop from 50th place) to think, question, experiment, and keep an open mind. When indoctrinated by family, school, and peer groups, to ‘believe’ and have ‘faith’ in a God/Gods OR one might lose one’s place at the Thanksgiving table OR that one might be subject to an ‘intervention’, this tends to quell any investigating or entertaining any thoughts that no God/Gods exist. Angry debate is unproductive and only serves to verify to each side whichever position he/she believes to be true. It’s hard to keep an open mind in our culture where people don’t want to have to change or admit their POV might be wrong. I’m trying to ‘walk a mile’ in the shoes of the other side and it’s very difficult. Thanks Neil for another great thought provoking post. I’m looking forward to the other half.

  3. Donald Butts says:

    “Come, let us reason together….” Sounds good. But I don’t think the committed Christian and the equally committed atheist will ever “reason together.” Oil and water don’t mix. I don’t think that the committed Christian could ever accept that the atheist may have something interesting to add to the conversation, or vice versa. Most atheists in this country were born into the Christian tradition and rejected it after years of thought and study. I don’t see them listening to the Christian for insight into the Christian mind long after having rejected it.

  4. karenh1234567890 says:

    This is sort of off-topic, but to me the word “Christian” is much too vague. I always want to ask, “Which kind of Christian?” As a person who was raised Episcopalian, my experience of Christianity is very different from the experience of Baptists, for example. Whenever I am asked what my religion is, I call myself an Episcopalian, not a generic Christian. My grandparents always called themselves Methodists. It seems to me that lumping all of the different versions of Christianity into one bucket is pretty meaningless unless comparing its broad tenets to those of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

    • Megan Ratts says:

      I, too, was raised in the Episcopal church. I was extremely active throughout my childhood and young adult years. I seriously considered going to seminary. I loved the ritual of it, the beauty of it. I thought baptists and the other congregational churches were a bit nuts. I read the bible thoroughly on my own and thought they were nice stories but never took it literally. I feel like my steps to atheism were a lot easier than for someone raised in a more literalist/fundamentalist church.

      I understand your complaint about lumping all Christians into one basket. I think that there is a distinct divide between the hierarchical churches and the congregational churches that in some conversations is important to point out. I’ve never seen episcopals protest…anything. But in reality, I think only episcopalians or those formerly of that church would take exception to the lack of distinction because people are egocentric and tend to think in terms of their own experiences.

  5. I just finished “A Manual for Creating Atheists” and it is a valuable read for everyone regardless of whether they are an atheist, scientologist, Christian or new age crystal worshipper. Boghossian does attempt to separate the use of faith as an epistemology and faith in the sense of trust but that isn’t even the important part of the book even if it does seem to be the premise. The meat of it is, of course, epistemology. “How do you know that?” And this is invaluable for atheists as much as Christians. It stands for humility and honesty in discourse. If most Christians, even most people were like Vischer then we wouldn’t really have the problems we have in this country. The principals of this book stretch into everything including politics, healthcare, and interpersonal relationships. Even if Boghossian didn’t establish a “sophisticated” definition of faith, he does lay out a thought process that is frighteningly common and often called “faith”. Language is a method of communication between people within a population. Even if the dictionary does agree with the Bible, it doesn’t seem to agree with the people who use the language and while a person might change the way she uses language based on the dictionary, the dictionary changes based on how people use the language. Perhaps we should call this the “Dictionary Fallacy”, because a dictionary is more of a descriptive device than a proscriptive one and using it as an authority on language ignores how the language is used.

    Of course there are problems with the book, there was a particular reference to certain science fiction shows that were inaccurate, but the last time I checked Boghossian is only human. I look forward to how he handles himself in discussion with Vischer, and highly recommend his book. It’s a short read and Christians like Vischer should use it to set straight the incurious among the faithful as much as atheists should monitor our own flock. You can be right about a thing (like evolution) for all the wrong reasons and it’s important that people be comfortable with not knowing, and that is the core message of Boghossian’s book.

  6. Thinker1121 says:

    Amen to this post! Listening to the other side sympathetically is so important.

    Personal example…I don’t think that there is an afterlife, but I can certainly sympathize with my Christian friends and family who want to create a “world of karma” in which being a hard-working, honest, and compassionate person leads to ultimate success (i.e., heaven) and being a lazy, deceitful, mean-spirited person leads to ruin (i.e., hell). I agree with this vision for humanity and this version of karmic justice – I just think we have to create and enforce this vision ourselves and in this life because I don’t believe there is a God who is doing it in this life or the next.

    However, if I had just focused instead on debating the reality of an afterlife, I would have missed the larger point of their argument. Once I learned that it was their desire for karmic justice that was really driving the importance they felt for believing in heaven and hell, the conversation went much more smoothly. I was able to agree with their overall moral concerns. After that, the importance of the reality of an afterlife went way down. I learned it was ultimately a proxy for the real, moral concerns that lay underneath that we both shared. They, of course, still think that the afterlife is real and that I’m wrong, but they nevertheless adopted a totally different attitude with me once they realized that my questioning the existence of an afterlife didn’t mean I was questioning their sense of justice.

  7. Arcus says:

    Along these lines, the principle of charity is something I wish more people endeavored to take more seriously. If you’re going to disagree with someone, formulate your objections against the strongest possible interpretation of what they said. It’s like the anti-strawman. Because if you’re just trying to win an argument rather than have a meaningful and mutually educational discussion, then you might as well be doing something more productive with your time. It goes a long way towards keeping people from just talking past each other.

  8. Another thoughtful post, Neil. I look forward to checking out Boghossian’s book. I have a cousin who is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. His knowledge of science and the cosmos, space flight, as well as computer programming and development of new platforms for companies such as Google is only exceeded by his interest in and devotion to his religious faith (he finally settled on Greek Orthodox.) It’s often hard for me to comprehend how one who is so intelligent can believe so fervently and argue with so much knowledge of the tenets of his chosen branch of Christianity. But he is one the few devout believers in my family who can speak to me with respect and patience and understanding of my agnosticism. There should be more like him and you in this world instead of the cookie-cutter version on both sides who are obnoxious and boorish.

  9. mikespeir says:

    I have to admit that it’s hard for me to put myself back into the mindset of a Christian. I hear so many things from believers that seem palpably absurd to me now. It’s easy to forget that at one time they didn’t.

    As to “cultural atheists.” This is something that hit me a few years ago. My parents attend a church that sponsors a missionary to Germany. Her ministry is with the atheists of the former East Germany and she boasts of having converted quite a few. It occurred to me that she’s likely dealing with people whose whole culture is atheistic and has been for some generations. She probably has converted many, because there is a simply a void within them where a good grounding of the issues would probably exist in atheists who once believed. They’re “ripe for the plucking,” so to speak.

  10. The_Physeter says:

    Thank you so much for this. So very true. I wish the truly smart, thoughtful, considerate Christians and atheists could team up and just kick the obnoxious idiots out.

  11. Pingback: What Too Many Atheists Don’t Get About Christians (part two) | godless in dixie

  12. humanistfox says:

    So much for the long-winded comment I intended to write here. Here’s Jerry Coyne’s response to the claim that “New Atheists attack only puerile, fundamentalist forms of religion”:


  13. leafstrewngirl says:

    Some of the comments here show that the commenters have researched extremely well, which I have not, but I can offer this: Extremists on either side are not helpful. Religion or lack of is a very personal thing. I would never question or be derisive about someone’s beliefs if he or she is atheist and I would like to be respected for my beliefs as a Christian. I think we run into trouble when we try to prove anything at all – why does there have to be proof either way? It is what it is, to each one of us. We cannot pick apart the reasons why believers believe just as I don’t think we should tear apart the reasons nonbelievers don’t. I think we should agree to disagree and be respectful. It’s far too personal a choice for each of us. As long as we are not stepping on the rights of others, our own beliefs should be left alone.

    • Esther O'Reilly says:

      Some people want to hear the evidence. Many Christians will deconvert based on a select handful of resources without ever fully understanding the case for their faith. But many, once they do “get it,” have been drawn back to that faith. Would you not agree, as a Christian, that this is a good thing?

    • Clay says:

      Best comment I’ve seen ! Live and let live. I dont have to “prove” the God I believe in, no more so than an Atheist has a burden to “prove” there is no God. The evidence I need is personal, because it is a personal relationship. This world has been, is, and will be composed of people of all sorts of ideoligies. The right thing for all of us to is treat each other with respect and common courtesy as we all share the planet.

  14. Sarah says:

    I came the other way; raised by an incurious atheist father and an insatiably curious and biblically literate mother of no particular formal religion. My father is now a mainline Christian, my sister some sort of post-Christian universalist, I am an agnostic Jew and my brother remains an atheist….but a curious small-a atheist, not a fundamentalist New Atheist. So, I’m flabbergasted that you are speaking in the future, of waiting for such things to happen, as if they are not already all around you.

    Jonathan Haidt’s “Righteous Minds” is a good place to start understanding the reasons atheists, particularly New Atheists and born Atheists have trouble understanding Christians (or any religious people). The real battle is between traditional cultures (which are home to many agnostics and small-a atheists) and the “WEIRD” culture of NW Europe (and so N. America) which has spawned the New Atheism. Once you understand where the real battle lines are, you’ll understand why small-a atheists who were raised in traditionally religious homes are generally less vitriolic than capital-A Atheists who were raised fundamentalist or secular.

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