I have often heard the aphorism to the effect that “it’s hard to be angry when you’re thankful.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to this. Moreover, many religious people in my experience have touted the virtues of gratefulness and thanksgiving, and many have demonstrated remarkable patience and humbleness along with their thankfulness. It’s quite therapeutic in fact, but I’ve never supposed that such virtues were reserved only for the believer. Nor have I ever been effectively persuaded that belief in invisible magic beings is a necessary precondition for the positive orientation to life to which many religious people I’ve known have paid ample lip service.
When I read apologetic screeds like Hays’ blog entry, dripping – as many I’ve read – with spite and venom, I don’t find a man who is thankful or grateful, humble or patient; rather, I see someone who has allowed himself to build up a rage for people he’s never even met, for people that are simply a figment of his own fantasies, people who ironically he likely wishes never existed in the first place. It’s quite easy to make imaginary people the scapegoat of our ire, but when you have a scapegoat, you have no mirror. And maybe that’s the whole point to Hays’ numerous posts excoriating non-believers. A proud Darth Vader might say, “the displeasure is strong with this one.”
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I have it all backwards. Maybe I as an atheist am the real villain in this screenplay. Maybe I’m the one who has made a scapegoat of Hays and other apologists in spite of their displays of scorn for non-believers and, even worse, individuals who were devoted Christians at one point in their lives, but then departed from the fold and found a new direction in life. I don’t think this is the case, but if it’s true that I am in the wrong here, I want to know and I want to correct my ways. So in the interest of discovering whether or not I’m wrong in either measure, let’s explore Hays’ post and find what we can learn.
Hays begins his post with the following announcement:
Apostates are a funny breed.
So many people who deconvert from Christianity have the same zeal as converts to Christianity,
Speaking for myself, ever since I was very young, I remember always getting so excited about discovering something about the world, about people generally, about myself specifically. Discovery as such has always provided a unique source of joy for me, for by discovering some fact or another, whether it’s a general fact or a specific fact, I know that I have grown in some very important way, a way that I find valuable and significant. So I’ve had a lifelong habit of not taking facts or the act of learning them for granted. If there were such a thing as a lottery of life and I were born instead as a goldfish instead of a human being, I would not ever experience this kind of deep personal joy called discovery. Even in my 50s, I’m like a kid, so says my wife (who knows me more intimately than any reader of my pages on the internet), frolicking in an unseen sunlight that washes over me when I discover even things that other adults toss aside as belonging to the bucket, “Who cares?” Here in itself I know, contrary to what Hays would have his readers believe, that I am no nihilist, and this alone is proof positive for that. Indeed, given a deep love for discovery, how could a state of ignorance equate to bliss?
Hays goes on:
even though apostates have nothing to offer up but the maggoty corpse of atheism.
This can only make me wonder whom specifically Hays has in mind. Is it someone he has erected in his imagination, like his Jesus, or is there an individual “apostate” he knows who’s gotten under his skin? Indeed, suppose the individual left religion and has come back with a message of reason, authenticity, values, individual responsibility, a message advocating allegiance to facts over feelings, evidence over faith, rationality over hysteria? Are these the substance of this “maggoty corpse” Hays envisions? Or, has he just closed his ears off to anyone who doesn’t repeat what he wants to hear, like the overgrown children who occasionally assemble themselves in our city streets to light cars on fire, kick in business storefronts and knock over newspaper stands while shouting empty slogans about “social justice,” all the while blind to their own acts of injustice? I’m sure we can do better than this.
Yet they are spoiling for a fight.
They start picking fights with Christian relatives.
They surf the net to pick fights with Christian bloggers.
Yet all they have to offer up is the maggoty corpse of atheism.
Hays continues his clairvoyant analysis:
Apostates think they've discovered the truth, and they act as if enlightenment is necessarily better than ignorance. But that’s a thoughtless perspective.
Maybe this is what puzzles Hays, and it stands to reason: when someone discovers a truth – especially if it’s one that people he trusted actively sought to hide from him, he often comes quickly to value the truth over ignorance of the truth he’s discovered. That’s one of the wonderful things about discovery, a joy Hays’ omniscient god will never know (for, since it is said to already know everything, it can’t learn anything). Maybe it’s been a long time since Hays has discovered a truth and has forgotten the deep-rooted joy that it can bring to an inquisitive mind.
But Hays believes – or at least wants his audience to believe – that one cannot discover and value any truths unless he’s a devoted Christian. But value is a human quality given the conceptual nature of his consciousness and the fact that he faces a fundamental alternative between life and death. If there were a god, it would have nothing to do with these qualities for it wouldn’t have them to begin with: an immortal, indestructible being would have no basis for valuing anything, and an omniscient mind would have no use for concepts (as I’ve argued here). So if it is conceded that a person can discover truths and value them without assuming the alleged truth of the Christian worldview (and millions of people do this every day), then all the steam starts to leak out of Hays’ windbag.
Hays offers the following imaginative scenario to make some point or another for preferring ignorance to knowledge of the truth:
Consider the ethical dilemma of predictive genetic testing. Some people are ticking time bombs. They suffer from a genetic defect that will eventuate in a catastrophic, incurable illness. The dilemma is that they may have many good years ahead of them before the disease begins to manifest itself. They may be healthy and asymptotic for many years. But if they receive the diagnosis ahead of time, that ruins the good years. Unlike animals, humans are future-oriented. If they receive that dire diagnosis and prognosis, then that casts a shadow of dread over the healthy years.
I’m reminded here of a sobering scene in the film Unforgiven in which the Schofield Kid reacts to his own taking of a life for the first time, something he was so eager to do and be famous for earlier in the film. The dialogue between the Schofield Kid and Eastwood’s William Munny goes as follows:
The Schofield Kid: It don't seem real... how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever... how he's dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.
Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.
Hays ends with a plea to double down on faith:
If a professing Christian loses his faith, the intelligent response isn't to leave church, argue with Christian friends, bone up on atheism. The intelligent response is to stay in church, continue to pray, have others pray for you, continue to read the Bible, devotional material, and Christian apologists–because that's the only hope you've got.
I trow not.
Hays of course would expectedly argue that devotion to the Christian religion is not relevantly analogous to a self-destructive gambling habit. But this would be overlooking the similarity that both Christianity and gambling addiction incentivize by dangling an unachievable hope before the believer on the one hand, and the addict on the other. Indeed, Hays even makes this point by appealing to hoping as the capstone of his unargued statement here.
Now, there may be reasons for someone to maintain membership in a church even though he’s lost faith. Perhaps he’s a joiner by nature and wants to belong to a crowd, or he’s got friends and family in the church and he doesn’t want them abandon him. These are considerations of course, but if the friends and family are genuine in their love for him, why would he suppose that leaving the church would amount to them abandoning him? If they’re open to his concerns and convictions, they should give him a fair listening. If they aren’t open to his concerns and convictions, maybe they’re not worth the investment. These are all factors that someone who has lost faith in Christianity would need to wrestle with.
Speaking from my own experience, when I lost faith I had to move on completely. My fellow church-goers were very exclusive – you’re either with us, or you’re against us. They were ready to be “family” only so long as I conformed to the teachings of the church, and if I had my own mind about anything, I represented a kind of threat that they couldn’t handle. I came to see their statements of love and fellowship as to one degree or another not very authentic – not one reached out to me after I departed the faith – and seemed to be expressed primarily in the interest of impressing one another with shows of community spirit. None ever expressed any interest in my aspirations, for example; in fact, quite the opposite: they actively sought to discourage my aspirations, not because they were vicious (I was putting myself through college, learning a new language and also working to improve my composing skills), but because they could only “get in God’s way” in my life. I looked around at the older “saints” and could tell they had all the vibrancy of life long sucked out of them as they became stale, boring pewsitters who’d show up to service and mouth the prayers and hymns, and teeter on the cusp of sleepwalking. The only blip they showed on the heart monitor was the occasional “Amen!” they’d should during a sermon. They were indeed broken in spirit – in fact, they simply appeared not to have any spirit whatsoever. There was at that time nothing in the cultish aspects of Christianity that could have terrified me more than this – as this zombie-like state was what I was to “hope” for if I were to stick it out.
Also, I think there’s something fundamental that Hays is overlooking in his recommendation to Christians who have lost their faith, namely the reasons why they’ve come to doubt or reject Christianity’s teachings. Naturally, I would suppose that Hays would claim that there are no legitimate reasons for losing faith or rejecting Christianity, but of course that would beg the question; the gambling addict could just as easily attempt to rationalize his habit by telling himself that there are no good reasons to give up hoping in an eventual big jackpot. Christians, especially apologists, will claim that the only reasons why a believer will doubt or reject the faith is because of sin – a person doesn’t want to give up something proscribed by Christianity, or because of negative emotional experiences, such as disliking the pastor or “hating God,” or something along these lines. True, negative emotional experiences will drive a person away from something, since negative emotions can be very painful.
Again drawing on my own experience, I departed from the faith after acknowledging to myself that I was lying to myself the entire time I was involved as a Christian. I realized that I had been trying for nearly 18 torturous months to pretend to myself that I believed what I read in the bible, when in fact I didn’t believe it. How could I believe the things I read in it? I wasn’t there, so I had no firsthand evidence of the things it speaks about, nor was there any other evidence to support its teachings. It was purely an act of faith, and, being as conscientious as I am, I could no longer continue to con myself. Yes, people around me professed to believe it, but they couldn’t know that it was true, just as I couldn’t. They could only believe, and the New Testament’s own emphasis on believing apart from evidence always rang alarms in my mind, but I was encouraged to suppress those alarms in self-delusion and conformity to the congregation’s ways and expectations. Given my love for discovering facts (rather than languishing in a zombie-like daze mouthing “amen!”), for knowing truths (as opposed to merely believing something I was supposed to accept uncritically), and for being honest to myself (as opposed to investing myself in a pretense), I finally summoned up the courage to admit that I was merely imagining all along when I claimed to be “walking with the Lord.” There is no “Lord” to walk with, but that doesn’t stop a person from imagining that there is one. Once I took the daring stand to be wholly honest to myself, the whole carcass of Christianity came sloughing off pretty much instantaneously.
Lastly, and most importantly, I think the intellectual thing to do is learn some basic rational philosophy. This involves recognizing the need for an objective starting point as much as it involves understanding that the very principle of objectivity itself has a metaphysical basis, namely in the primacy of existence. Once this is grasped at its proper level in the knowledge hierarchy, certain corollaries become impossible to deny, such as the fact that existence is not a creation of conscious activity (there goes the religious notion of creation by a supernatural mind), the fact that imagining doesn’t make it real (there goes the whole pantheon of supernatural beings that religions offer the human mind to distract itself from reality), that wishing doesn’t make it so (there goes faith, prayer, miracles, etc.), and so on. The intellectual thing is certainly not to double down on faith and immerse oneself deeper into the marinade of religious delusion. But what should we expect defenders of the faith to propose if not that?
by Dawson Bethrick