Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Disgruntled Apologist

Over on Triablogue Steve Hays titles a recent post with the words Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I’ll have to take his word for it that this is true, but pardon my skepticism. In fact, reading through his post, it seems his assertion is borne on some pent-up resentment for people who don’t believe in his deity.

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.
I figured that some may find my humor funny, but I didn’t know that I was funny by virtue of my… “…breed…”? Like stallions and appaloosas? Or Jews, gentiles and Aryans? I’m confused by this statement coming from a Christian: aren’t we all human beings, whether or not we believe in a deity? Or, is there some motivation here to dehumanize non-believers for some reason? Does dehumanizing non- believers make it easier for Hays to target them as the focus of his spite? Is Hays a pure breed and I’m just a half-breed?

Hays continues:
So many people who deconvert from Christianity have the same zeal as converts to Christianity,
I don’t think this should surprise anyone. People get excited about all kinds of things, and a person who gets excited about one thing may very well exhibit excitement for other things. For many years I’ve known a man who gets really into something, such as watercolor painting, for upwards of eight months or so, and then gets bored with it, loses interest and suddenly comes to life again with another pastime, such as short-story writing, having sold his easel and paintbrushes. Would it not stand to reason that someone who falls under the initial spells of mysticism (a la courtesy of what Cohen calls “the benign, attractive persona of the Bible”) with ecstatic delight also react with great enthusiasm when he finds himself liberated from mysticism’s lies by facts, evidence and reason? I suspect that anyone who is zealous when joining a clique or religious cult might very well be zealous when abandoning it and joining some other group, or perhaps when achieving a sense of liberation from the group-think that he experienced while immersed in the cult. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should expect that someone who experiences an unexpected sense of intellectual liberty would find that depressing. Maybe there are some who would react this way, but I am not one of them. I love freedom too much. As a co-worker once told me years ago, “You’re a free spirit.” My reaction was essentially, “I know that, but how do you know that?” I guess it really does show.

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.
Here we have a blanket generalization without any argument, right on schedule. And it does not even stand up to what Hays himself has stated elsewhere about the essential nature of atheism. Hays himself has admitted that “technically, atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn’t believe rather than what he does believe” (see comments of this blog entry). The fact that an atheist has no god-belief does not constitute license to insert what he does believe or what value he can bring to a conversation. Why not let the dreaded atheist speak for himself? Moreover, as though it needs to be stated, atheism is not a worldview, nor is it a philosophical system. So to characterize atheism as Hays does not only perpetuates fundamental misunderstandings about atheism, it also tells us that Hays is failing to isolate what motivates his resentment. Maybe ignorance of this motivation is what gives him bliss?

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.

Hays writes:
Yet they are spoiling for a fight.
Either Hays has cocooned himself among some very militant apostates (why would he do that?), or he’s projecting motivations onto an anonymous collective. I didn’t know he was a mind reader of the masses.

Hays confesses:
They start picking fights with Christian relatives.
Ah, so that’s it! Perhaps Hays has a brother, cousin, uncle or niece, someone in his familial circle, who challenges his religious beliefs, and he doesn’t like that. Maybe he prefers that everyone in his presence simply nod in uncritical agreement with his every pronouncement. But Hays wants his readers to think of him as some kind of formidable, undefeatable intellectual. For someone of such penetrating brilliance, wouldn’t that kind of fawning get boring? Wouldn’t it also make him intellectually lazy, a trait he sneers at elsewhere?

Hays writes:
They surf the net to pick fights with Christian bloggers.
Again, who’s the “they” here? And is the goal here really to “pick fights”? Is reaching out to have a conversation the same thing as “picking a fight”? Apologists often criticize non-believers for insufficiently interacting with apologetic sources, but when they do they just want to “pick fights.” Again, is Hays accurately assessing people’s motivations (indeed, the motivations of people whom he does not come out and identify specifically), or is he perhaps projecting, even whining here? Indeed, why run a blog with 21.7 posts per day and not be up for an occasional challenge? Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I’ve grown somewhat bored with blogging – where are my challengers? They’ve all gone hiding in the tall bush!

Hays insists:
Yet all they have to offer up is the maggoty corpse of atheism.
Does Hays have an argument to present here, or just an empty allegation intended to smear an entire group of persons? If “atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn’t believe rather than what he does believe,” as Hays has conceded, he must suppose that such a statement amounts to what he graphically calls a “maggoty corpse.” Maybe Hays thinks a person should believe everything he’s told. If there were a better endorsement of sheer indiscriminate gullibility, I suppose readers will have to bring it to my attention.

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.
This is like saying that it's thoughtless to suppose that thoughtfulness is better than thoughtlessness. It’s like a shovel digging its own pit for no purpose whatsoever. Such an evaluation implies condemnation of thought as such and thus tells us a thing or two about the individual making this condemnation.

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.
This is a rather pessimistic view, one that might afflict some in the circumstances Hays describes, but not necessarily. In fact, I’d say that the inevitability Hays assumes in the face of such a dilemma isn’t the fore-ordained eventuality he apparently expects it to be. Much of the way one lives his life depends in part to his attitudes about himself, his loved ones, his abilities and achievements, and the opportunities he has in the here and now. None of us can be totally certain that we’ll wake up tomorrow, but given the future-orientedness that Hays concedes we all generally have, we don’t act as if there is no tomorrow, regardless of what some doctor might have told us in some sterile clinical setting. There are many, many anecdotes of persons receiving just this kind of gloomy prognosis who only go on to live full lives and achieve amazing feats, sometimes owing to the very fact that the prognosis brought home the fact them that we all are “ticking time bombs” regardless of any specific genetic defect, not just some of us as Hays apparently believes.

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.
Contrary to the point that Hays is apparently trying to make, I would argue that our awareness of our own mortality only secures our capacity to value life to begin with and consequently to identify those measures we need to take to protect and enjoy it. In fact, I’d go even farther to argue that belief that there’s an afterlife awaiting each of us, that there’s something “better” in store for us in the grave, can only undermine that capacity. Examples such as the mass suicides of the Jonestown cult and the Heaven’s Gate sect, while extreme, do come to mind here as they demonstrate how actively such beliefs can be turned against living as such. By deliberately checking out, these people were simply taking belief in an eternal life in paradise to its logical conclusion. Hays’ hesitancy to be so consistent with his own professed doctrines is something he should try to understand and explain.

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.
Suppose someone comes to you and tells you he’s been struggling with a gambling habit but also confides that he’s losing confidence in the fantasy that he’s going to hit the mother of all jackpots if he keeps trying. Would you urge him to just continue going back to the casinos, the racetracks, the poker sites and keep trying his luck? Would you suggest that he fill his circle of friends with fellow gamblers and study more literature on gambling techniques, because the hope of hitting the jackpot is the only hope he has?

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


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks again for another great entry!


Jason mc said...

Very interesting to read that Hays would openly recommend for an apostate to hypocritically stay in church. He'd be an unbeliever, but not a troublemaker.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Ydemoc and Jason,

Thanks for your comments!

I'm supposing that Hays is inclined to hold out hope that a churchgoer who is wavering in the faith, even to the point of almost losing it completely, is still in a position to be recovered so long as he stays among the herd, imbibing the propaganda and submitting to positive reinforcement of the mental devices that Christianity has polished to a very fine edge. Stay here and chew the cud, is likely his desire. The thinking here is probably not that they are necessarily being hypocrites if they stay onboard so long as they're making an effort to resolve and overcome their doubts (which, I'd think, vies against Hays' own Calvinist leanings... - isn't all up to God?).

Of course, the assumption here is that the person in question who's wavering in faith is not in a teaching position and actively pushing questions that believers simply can't tolerate. In that case, I suspect Hays is envisioning someone who passively occupies his place in the pews and simply needs to get it through his thick skull that his purpose in life is to obey, conform and give up the ghost, to "die and give your life to him," as evangelist Paul Washer puts it. So yes, certainly not a troublemaker, either real or perceived.

Then again, that's a lot of assumptions to grant, and maybe that's not far off - for when one is seething in resentment, he's prone to losing sight of many things he takes for granted.

Thanks again for the feedback!


Jason mc said...

Thanks for the reply. And the original post, of course!

I wrote another reply but it was lost... I'll try to recreate it now.

I get that the Christian with severe doubts isn't considered to have crossed the line into 'apostasy' or 'unbelief' until he leaves and defects. But if he leaves, predestinationists will consider him to have been an unsaved fake Christian from the start, all along. It seems that even having the free-will choice to be able to leave would disqualify someone from being 'elect'. So a thoughtful Christian may see his salvation, if legitimate, as logically correlated with a conviction that quitting is not an option. So they may, understandably, seek and promote apologetic assurances that rival worldviews can offer no refuge.

Hail Xenu!


Joe said...

Great post. Your final paragraph summed it up quite nicely. Thanks.